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June 2021


A few months, wait, over six months back--see this post...I listened to an audio version of the Josephine Tey novel The Franchise Affair. It involves someone falsely accused of a crime, and early in the story there's an exchange between the accused and her lawyer which goes something like this:

What have you done?

I haven't done anything.

Well, what are you supposed to have done?

This use of "supposed," precisely in its strict sense, referring to something believed but with a degree of uncertainty, similar to "alleged" or "conjectured," caught my ear, because as often as not today we don't use that ordinary sense. And I would bet that its most frequent use is to convey something similar to "required" or "commanded," or at least "intended." "You're supposed to..." frequently means "you must."

Tey's sentence above, for instance, in isolation, would be most likely to refer to something meant to be done but not in fact done: "what should you have done?" or "what are you expected to have done?" But in common usage "You're not supposed to park here" means "you must not park here."

A couple of other words or phrases have taken on that imperative sense that they are not, well, supposed to have. It's a curious thing that I began to notice a long time ago. Frequently the imperative sense is a matter of word order in the sentence. Consider:

You have this form to fill out. 
You have to fill out this form.

It would be better for you to fill out this form.
You'd better fill out this form.

The second sentence of each of those pairs is essentially a command: "You must fill out this form."  "You'd better" is weaker, a command that's a little short of "must" but with an implied threat for non-compliance. I associate it first with children, especially girls: "You better give it to me," often followed by "or I'm going to tell Mama."

These things trouble me a little because they remind me that any particular language at any particular time is a sand castle. I spend a lot of time writing, and most of it now is poetry, in which every single word is to the best of my ability very precisely chosen and placed. Oh well, it isn't likely to be read very much, so it won't matter much when my words

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

--Eliot (T.S.)

Would Anyone Care to Test This?

Besides a useful search function, another thing that I've sometimes wished I had for this blog is a simple way for readers to be notified of new posts. Now that I've given in and set up Google search, the first point is taken care of, and I may have found a solution for the second in a service called (their capitalization). The form below is supposed to allow you to enter an email address, click "Subscribe," and thereafter get an email for new posts. I think it works but I would be interested in having others try it and let me know if it works and if there are any contra-indications. One thing I'm not sure about, for instance, is whether it requires you to register with I was already registered when I tested it. If it's useful, I'll tailor the colors etc. of the form so that it fits the rest of the blog and put it on the sidebar. 

One possible negative is that it seems to send an email for new comments as well, which could easily be annoying. That may be something I can restrict on this end, I don't know yet. 

Get notification of new posts by email:

Miss Austen Makes a Refusal

Marianne gave us a sample of Jane Austen writing more or less casually to her sister: see this comment on the Emma post. Here's a somewhat more formal letter, from The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, a book which I bought back in the '70s and which has given me in enjoyment at least 100 times the worth of the original cover price of $1.75. 

From 1811 to 1820 the son of George III ruled as Prince Regent. Jane Austen sent him a copy of Emma, and his secretary replied, on behalf of the prince, that he had very much enjoyed it, and added that Austen might wish to dedicate a future work to the prince, and moreover that "any historical romance, illustrative of the history of the august House of Coburg, would just now be very interesting." It isn't clear (to me anyway) whether that suggestion came from the prince or the secretary. 

Austen replied:

To James Stainier Clarke, 1 April 1816
My dear Sir,

I am honoured by the Prince's thanks and very much obliged to yourself for the kind manner in which you mention the work.... You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could not more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

I remain, my dear Sir,
Your very much obliged and sincere friend,

J. Austen

A minor aspect of the amusement in this, for me at least, is that I regard Austen, as far as I know her, as having provided the prototype for the modern "romance" genre, the word of course having had a very different sense in Austen's time. This is not a criticism of her, but rather evidence that the general outline of that plot (if my limited acquaintance with it can be  validly generalized) has an archetypal sort of appeal: man and woman who initially dislike each other but by a gradual opening of the eyes are drawn together by various desirable qualities in each other (noble in Austen, probably often less so in our day). The preferred end is a wedding. This broad outline is as simple as that of the murder mystery, and seems to be as enduringly popular. 

Jane Austen: Emma

There's a remark somewhere in Swift's writings to the effect that there is no quality that is a virtue in men that is not also a virtue in women. I seem to recall that he specifically mentions courage. And I think I recall, though this may be my own addition, that he says that the virtues may manifest themselves differently. Women, for instance, through most of history have not as often been called upon to show straightforward physical courage as men have. (Though Swift's Stella, the woman to whom he was peculiarly attached in a way that seems to have been not exactly not romantic, once fired a pistol at a would-be housebreaker.) I can't remember whether she hit him or not. But courage in one form or another has been required of them. To tell the truth, I've often been surprised that women are generally eager to marry, considering that sex most likely will lead to pregnancy and childbirth--pretty fearful prospects to me. I don't know whether this is courage or just the triumph of instinct over caution. 

Anyway, I thought of Swift's remark when reading Emma, because among other things it traces the growth of self-knowledge on the part of Emma, and that requires a kind of courage. She's pretty much a spoiled brat, as the opening may be taken to imply:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

She believes she has a gift for managing other people's love lives, and when the exercise of that gift results in harm to the people she intended to help, she is obliged either to confront what she has done, and therefore her own failure, or to deny it. She is not culpably malicious or self-deceptive, and so she does confront these errors. In that she is assisted, or perhaps rather directed, by the blunt and commanding Mr. Knightley, a friend of the family--who, confirming my expectation when he first enters the scene, is wealthy, unmarried, and not too old. Knightley cares enough about Emma to want to see her flaws corrected; Emma respects him enough to listen. The denouement is every bit as surprising as that of Pride and Prejudice.

It is a very small world that Austen writes about, and the plot consists of small actions. Yet the essential virtues, vices, and conflicts of human life are fully present. That said, though, while I did very much enjoy reading this novel, it's pretty clear that Austen is not going to be one of my favorite novelists. Her world is just a little too small, the drama too subtle, to grip me in the way that, for instance, The Mill on the Floss does. Many pages consist of elaborate conversations and the aftermath of conversations in which minute shifts in personal relationships transpire and assume great importance. The phrase "novel of manners" is really quite accurately applicable: elaborate manners are the means by which relationships progress, succeeding or failing. As I often did in reading George Eliot recently, I found myself wondering whether anyone ever really talked in such lengthy and carefully artificed sentences. 

Here's a passage I marked, not so much because it illustrates the importance of manners in the novel, though it does, but because the significance of it initially escaped me. I had to re-read it and consider for a minute before the realization came. If you've read the book, you'll remember that Mrs. Elton is the rich, tacky, and somewhat malicious wife of the vicar. Mrs. Elton is talking to a young woman named Jane Fairfax, observed and partly overheard by Emma and a young gentleman, Frank Churchill:

...the voices of the ladies were drowned for a while, till another suspension brought Mrs. Elton's tones again distinctly forward.—Mr. Elton had just joined them, and his wife was exclaiming,

“Oh! you have found us out at last, have you, in our seclusion?—I was this moment telling Jane, I thought you would begin to be impatient for tidings of us.”

“Jane!”—repeated Frank Churchill, with a look of surprize and displeasure.—“That is easy—but Miss Fairfax does not disapprove it, I suppose.”

“How do you like Mrs. Elton?” said Emma in a whisper.

“Not at all.”

You may have been quicker than I to realize that Mrs. Elton's offense here is that she has taken a very questionable liberty in  using "Jane" instead of "Miss Fairfax." 

"Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity..."

...and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

—T.S. Eliot

It dawned on me sometime fairly late in life that although the opening statement is obviously true, the rest of it is jive. It's Eliot justifying his own poetics as a universal principle. It's by no means necessarily false, but not necessarily true, either. One could just as well argue that the essential task of the poet in such a time is to penetrate the complexity and get at the unchanging truths which the complexity often muddles. "A time of complexity and confusion requires a poetry of directness and clarity...."

But I thought about Eliot's statement when I took a tour boat around Mobile's seaport a few weeks ago. Container shipping is apparently the way things are done now, and I think has been for some time. (Here's a recent piece in National Review with some more information about that.)

Each of those shoe-boxy containers is somewhere close to the size of the trailer of an eighteen-wheeler. What's in them? How do they (the vague "they" which we all--or at least I--see as somehow making the world work) keep track of it all, from source to destination? Those cranes are...I don't know, a couple of hundred feet tall maybe? There's a little cab that hangs underneath the horizontal part and has a driver, who runs it out over the ship and with some sort of dangling gripping apparatus picks up a container and puts it down somewhere behind the crane, where there are acres and acres of them. 


Whatever bad things one may have to say about the modern world, and I have plenty, it is an amazing accomplishment.

A year ago I probably wouldn't have specified that the Eliot in question is Thomas Stearns. But as of this past February it could in my mind as likely be George.

You must change your life.


I want to change my life.

            --Audrey Horne

I am really enjoying my re-viewing of Twin Peaks, though I'm pretty sure that I'm not going to be able to get all the way through it before it goes off Netflix at the end of this month. 

William Grant Still: "Out of the Silence"

I went to hear the Mobile Symphony Saturday night. It was a peculiar concert, and I'm not sure I would have gone if I'd realized how peculiar it would be. But they've had a very difficult year-plus, of course, and I wanted to support them. And although it was not the most exciting program conceivable, it included Dvorak's Serenade for Strings in E, which I like (and which I wrote about here), and which I knew I would enjoy hearing live. 

The peculiarity had to do with the fact that the concert was apparently planned before the pandemic restrictions had been mostly lifted. I think this picture, lifted from the orchestra's Facebook page, tells the story more effectively than I could.


When I walked in to take my seat in the otherwise empty center section of the balcony, and saw the sparsely populated stage, I just thought vaguely that most of the orchestra had not shown up yet. That would have been pretty strange, since it was only ten minutes or so before the concert was to start. Then it sank in on me that this it, this was all there was going to be. You might have to click on the picture to see that the musicians are masked. And "social distancing" was in force for the audience as well, though it didn't really matter because there were very few people in the audience. I'd guess a few hundred at most, scattered around a hall that seats almost 2,000.

As you can see, it's only the strings, and not quite all of them. Then I looked at the program and saw that it would only be a little under forty-five minutes long. Another thing that hadn't sunk in on me was that they are presenting it four times over the weekend, obviously in an effort to compensate for the extremely limited seating. 

But I enjoyed it anyway. The concert began with this little piece, which I regard as a real find. As far as I recall I'd never heard anything by William Grant Still before. If I'd heard it without knowing who the composer was I'd have guessed Delius. The strings were joined for it by a piano and a single flute.

In addition to the Dvorak, there was a Mendelssohn sinfonia for strings, a light and pretty early work which was enjoyable enough but which I'm not likely to seek out again.

Silly Things I Sometimes Wonder About

Do they starve the dogs and cats before filming them for pet food commercials? Or do they lace the food with essence of hamburger or something of that sort? 

Addendum: I'm always telling people that when you're discussing this country you have to start with the understanding that we're crazy. (That's one thing I like about Kevin Williamson's writing in National Review--he emphasizes that, and never forgets it.) Often that becomes clearer with a little distance in time.

P.S. This post was prompted by watching my cats sniff and turn away from one kind of food after another.

The Cross: Kristin Lavransdatter, Part 3

I had not gotten very far in this re-reading of Kristin before I was willing to pronounce it to be one of the world's great novels. Nothing that came after weakened that view, but rather strengthened it. This final volume of the trilogy brings Kristin's story to an end in a way that, for the sake of those who haven't read it, I'll leave undescribed, but which I found to be very powerful.

I had almost entirely forgotten the ending since my first reading thirty-plus years ago, so it was as if I was reading it for the first time. I mean, I wasn't just vague about the details, I had forgotten almost everything and retained only a vague impression. It will not be much of a spoiler if I say that the hard blows which have fallen throughout the novel, sometimes from fate and sometimes as a consequence of Kristin or Erlend's own behavior, continue here. I was surprised, almost shocked, by the intensity of it.  Nor will it surprise any reader that the end brings forth in Kristin the heroism that has always been an element even in her bad behavior.

A great novel should be a good story, and usually is, but it must be more than that to earn the "great." It must also have something profound to say, or to show, something that makes us feel that we are receiving an important truth about what it means to be human. It doesn't have to be explicit, much less abstract, as when Dostoevsky's characters philosophize--in fact as a rule it shouldn't be--but it has to be there,  

The important truth here has to do with our relationship to God, and so I was a little surprised to learn that Undset had not yet been received into the Catholic Church when she wrote Kristin. Obviously she had a very deep understanding of Christian faith--no, that's not the right way to put it: a deep understanding of the Christian way of viewing the world. And perhaps her biography would shed light on the timing of her conversion. I don't know much about her life other than what's given in various introductions to her work, but she had a presumably intense and undoubtedly difficult love affair and marriage which may have been an obstacle to her formally entering the Church--I mean a psychological and emotional as well as, perhaps, a canonical obstacle. Naturally one assumes that this relationship bears some similarities to that of Kristin and Erlend, and that therefore there is some significant amount of Undset in Kristin.

Is Kristin Lavransdatter a tragedy? It certainly follows the classical pattern in some fundamental ways: a noble character with some grave faults, especially those of pride and general self-will, leading to self-induced disaster. But it's too diffuse to have the single penetrating impact of true tragedy. And, more importantly, it contains too much hope. (Well, you could also say that it contains too much disaster; I guess a proper tragedy does not have a series of them.) It ends with too much hope, though a dull reader, a typical modern reader, may not see that. (From what I see a lot of typical modern readers don't see much beyond the very earthly love-and-marriage story.) And it's not the mere resolution that typical ends a tragedy, in which a sort of peace or at least equilibrium obtains when the principal characters are dead, because it points toward a greater restoration. 

We read--or at least I read--this novel thinking that we have some sense of what medieval life was like. Do we really? It's impossible to know, but the testimony of historians and archaeologists is that Undset was as accurate as it is possible to be in her facts.  But the book is modern in its technique, in its intimacy with the inner lives of the people involved, and of necessity Undset had to invent much if not all of that. Did people like these really think as Undset imagines them to have done? I'm sure she had ample grounds for thinking so, but I wonder.

I also wonder about the relationship between medieval and modern Scandinavia. For some reason "Norwegian" in the American context summons a stereotype of nice, quiet, rather bland and dull people. Political progressives point to Scandinavia as a place where reason and a nice secular liberal order prevail. How does one reconcile this image with the Vikings? Their age is a couple of centuries in the past at the time of Kristin, but violence is still part of the normal fabric of life. That was the case throughout Europe, of course, but the Norsemen had always been particularly ferocious. I wonder if the emergence of death metal music, originally in Norway, nakedly anti-Christian, anti-modern, and violent, is a sign of what might emerge in those lands once Christianity has been extinct for a few generations. 


But back to the book: I can't let go of the translation question. I agree that Archer's attempt at an antique effect is awkward at best, and not even historically appropriate.  But I'm not content with Nunnally's translation, either. According to the introduction to this volume, by Sherrill Harbison, a scholar of Scandinavian literature who surely knows what she's talking about, Undset

...struggled to find ways to give her text a tone of the past while still keeping the sound of natural speech. After much experimenting, she found the effect she wanted by limiting her vocabulary to words based on Old Norse roots, and by retaining Old Norse syntax--the order of subject and verb, arrangement of adjectives, and use of coordinating conjunctions.....[S]he creates a readable, natural-sounding prose with subtle reminiscences of Old Norse, more like a musical undertone than an imitation. 

The vigorousness of this style does not translate easily to English.... Translators must strike a balance between the falsely archaic and the falsely modern, while still trying to respect Undset's careful usage. Whereas it is easy to make the English sound too quaintly antique, it is also easy to "correct" Undset's evocative syntax, to flatten her rhythms and make language too modern and ungraceful.

I'm afraid that's exactly what happened. Not, I mean, that Nunnally intended to "correct" Undset, and of course I can't speak to the rhythms of Undset's prose--but Nunnally's reads like ordinary contemporary American English. The word "weight" keeps coming to mind: Harbison's description makes me think that Undset's prose has it, but Nunnally's does not. Maybe that's not Nunnally's fault, or only partly; maybe it's just the nature of the language of our time. But it's light, almost breezy in comparison to Archer. There's nothing much poetical, nothing much memorable, in it, and by that I don't mean that I think it should have some kind of ostentatious lyricism (which I don't like), but only that there should be something there which makes us re-read a sentence or a paragraph, not because we want to be sure we understood it fully or for any other, so to speak, practical reason, but because its language pleases and touches us.

I have an English translation of an earlier Undset novel, Gunnar's Daughter, in which the translator is not named. But unless the book has been translated more than once, it must be by Arthur Chater, whose name is on the currently available translation. The one I have has, as I recall, something like the qualities that Sherrill Harbison attributes to Undset's prose. It was Chater's translation of The Master of Hestviken that I read, and it has weight without the obtrusive archaisms of Archer. But, like Archer's, Chater's translation was made in the 1920s and '30s. 

Here's a comparison of a passage chosen at random. This is from the second volume, The Wife; Kristin is telling a story to a boy. Archer:

Kristin leaned back in her chair, grasping in her thin hands the carven beasts' heads at the arm-ends.

"That monk I named but now, he had been in England, too. And he used to tell that there is a place there where grow thornbushes that bloom with white blossoms each Christmas night. St. Joseph of Arimathea came to land in that country-side, when he fled before the heathen, and there he thrust his staff into the earth, and it took root and blossomed--he was the first that brought the Christian faith to Bretland. Glastonborg that place is called--I mind me now. Brother Edvin had seen those bushes himself.... 'Twas there in Glastonborg that he was buried, along with his Queen, that King Arthur that you will have heard tell of--he that was one of the Seven Champions of Christendom."


Kristin leaned back in her chair and wrapped her thin hands around the animal heads on the armrests.

"That monk I mentioned—he had also been to England. And he said there is a region where wild rosebushes grow that bloom with white blossoms on Christmas night. Saint Joseph of Arimathea put ashore in that area when he was fleeing from the heathens, and there he stuck his staff into the ground and it took root and flowered. He was the first to bring the Christian faith to Bretland. The name of the region is Glastonbury—now I remember. Brother Edvin had seen the bushes himself. King Arthur, whom you’ve no doubt heard stories of, was buried there in Glastonbury with his queen. He was one of the seven most noble defenders of Christendom."

And in the comments on my post on that volume Marianne also gave us a comparison, which you can read here. In both cases I prefer Archer. Still, I might recommend the Nunnally translation, depending partly on who was asking. It is easier to read, and more importantly it has those missing pages from Kristin's penitential visit to the shrine of St. Olav.

By the way, Nunnally's inclusion of passages said to be too sexually explicit for Archer, which of course arouses all sorts of tingles in the typical contemporary critic or reader, turns out to be a big nothing. The differences are pretty trivial, apparently consisting only of a few sentences. I would not have been able to identify the passages if I hadn't seen a review which quoted them side by side.

Also by the way: in a post on one of the earlier volumes (or was it in the comments?) I mentioned that I wondered about the significance of Fru Aashild, Erlend's worldly-wise aunt. I can't remember now where I read this, but one critic or reviewer suggests that she is the real-life or earthly counterpart, perhaps in a sense the embodiment, of the elf-maiden who appears to Kristin as a child, offering her the matrimonial crown. That makes a lot of sense. 

The Hollies: "Look Through Any Window"

Coming home tonight just before dark and seeing into the living rooms and kitchens of houses where the lights had just been turned on but the curtains were open, I started thinking about this song.

I never heard any of The Hollies' music apart from their hit singles, but those from the mid-'60s still sound fresh and first-rate to me. 

Kurosawa's Ran

I finished Kristin Lavransdatter last week and have a half-written post about it, but have had unexpected demands on my time this week and haven't been able to finish it. In the meantime, just a quick note about this film.

What a magnificent epic! I really didn't know what to expect. I only knew that it's  considered one of Kurosawa's most important works, and that its plot is based loosely on King Lear. According to Wikipedia, Kurosawa was already working on the story when he first encountered Lear, and that for him it originated with a Japanese story about a king who had three sons. In any case there are a lot of clear parallels with Lear, but it's not simply a retelling of the story in a medieval Japanese setting. 

I'll restrain myself from going further, and also from gushing, and just say that if you like Kurosawa's work at all and haven't seen this one, you must. Apparently he had a huge budget to work with, and obviously a great deal of money and time went into it, as it features several large and complex battle scenes. Among other things it's an enthralling visual spectacle, not only in the big scenes but in smaller and intimate ones as well. 

The title, by the way, puzzled me a bit, as it isn't the name of any character. Again according to Wikipedia:

The complex and variant etymology for the word Ran used as the title has been variously translated as "chaos", "rebellion", or "revolt"; or to mean "disturbed" or "confused".

Theater poster, from Wikimedia: Fair Use, Link