Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Brief Notes on Edith Hamilton's Mythology (1942)

A fine book, from which I derived much pleasure in the reading and looked forward to each daily section. It seems to be considered as an introductory book on the subject for high school students, something I ought to be beyond by this point of my life. However, while most of the figures and stories are familiar to me, I have still failed to commit some of the more important ones to memory, nor have I ever organized the material in my head as neatly as it is done here. I certainly don't think that I would have gotten very much out of this book as a teenager, without any meaningful prior exposure to classical literature. I also appreciated the simple presentations at the beginning of each section regarding the literary sources from which the myths have come down to us. I am weak on Euripides and have never read Ovid, who were major sources, and I was unfamiliar with Appollodorus as well, whom Edith Hamilton disparaged as a dull and inferior writer, though on numerous occasions she opted to base her account of a story on his versions rather than Ovid's, on the basis of their probably being more truthful to the way it was traditionally told.

The book is written in what I kind of think of as the 'conversational learned style' which lasted from the 20s really up to the early 50s. It is a style to which I have always been partial. The tone is not confrontational nor hyperbolic in promoting the breakthrough in human understanding that the author's researches and insights represent, and humorous observations are dropped in (gently) from time to time at some particularly ludicrous or otherwise illogical aspect of a myth. It organizes and conveys information of a high general interest in a concise, understandable way such as it is not usually presented, and that is also pleasant. Our author assumes a mainly northern European-descended audience for her work: in a brief section at the end on the Norse myths, she writes, as a reason for including these in her survey: "By race we are connected with the Norse; our culture goes back to the Greeks." This sense of the homogeneity of the audience probably accounts somewhat for the intimate tone of the book. In the very short forward when she referred to Shakespeare I thought I detected some affectation or self-puffery with regard to her understanding of the greatness of this author and the serious level she occupied in that game; but perhaps I am overly sensitive to any emphasis people make concerning any superiority they possess. I did not find anything off-putting in her writing about the ancients.

  
Looking at some of the online reviews, someone wrote that they had taken a mythology class in college and the first thing the professor said was "I hope you all haven't been reading junk like Edith Hamilton". This sort of thing is always very obnoxious because it is unnecessary, even in the unlikely event that someone teaching an undergraduate mythology course is really that far advanced compared to Edith Hamilton both in his understanding and his pedagogy. If the students really learn what you are teaching them, they will presumably come to a similar understanding to that of the teacher, and they are too stupid to do this, mocking such learning as they do have probably is no help to them. I know there is the problem that ignorant people who have read Edith Hamilton in high school think they know something and that they need to be knocked down a peg and the professor needs to establish that when you are in his class you are playing with the big boys and are dealing with a level of intellectual firepower that, especially if you are from a middle class background, you have probably never encountered before, but I don't think it is helpful in most instances to the students. I also believe that any professor doing this nowadays is probably a complete poser. When I was a student you still had some old Europeans to deal with who may well have spoken five languages by the age of thirteen and heard no other music than what was of the highest quality before they were thirty, but any baby boomer, let alone someone of my generation, who grew up in this country and tries to act like they were born with a deeper understanding of literature and mythology than Edith Hamilton attained in the whole of her earnest life is almost certainly full of it.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Virgil--Aeneid (29-19 B.C.)

Virgil--Aeneid (29-19 B.C.)

This was my fourth time reading the Aeneid (in English, obvs). I have used a different translation each time. Back in school I read the Rolfe Humphries, the Robert Fitzgerald a couple of years ,afterwards, the Fairclough (Loeb edition), and on this last occasion, the J.W. Mackail (Modern Library). These last two are prose translations. I own the Britannica Great Books edition of the poem, which has a verse translation by James Rhoades. Maybe I will find a reason to take that up in another ten years. There is also a Dryden translation which emits something of a classic aura, however accurate or poetically good it happens to be. The Robert Fagles seems to be considered the best of the modern efforts, and as in the art of translation consensus seems to be that there has been a steady progression over the centuries that continues into our own time, that would make it de facto the best in existence. As with most artistic or intellectual productions I have a hard time warming up to anything too contemporary, that might be alive in some way that has eluded me and therefore will be threatening to my self-esteem, I find I am not overeager to read it. I always even found Fitzgerald's translations, of Homer as well as Virgil, to be too informed by something I vaguely define as modern academic triumphalism, and he goes all the way back to the 60s. Atthe same time the prose translations, however old they are, are not wholly satisfying either. My favorite is still Rolfe Humphries's for the Scribner Library, originally published in 1951 and part of the Scribner Library. I know that the associations from the time that I read it, as well as the freshness of reading classic literature and the crazy but aesthetic attractive hopes that the undertaking represented, is coloring my memory, but after all it is precisely this sort of coloring in the midst of (in my instance blushingly tepid) youthful excitement that informs who most of are. That said, Humphries had something of that spare but forceful mid-century style that seems to suit the style and spirit of this poem--or at least what I want the style and spirit of this poem, and most classic literature--to be. Unfortunately I lost my copy of it some years ago or I would give a sample passage.



(According to Wikipedia, Rolfe Humphries was born in Philadelphia in 1894 and died in California in 1969. He was a graduate of Amherst College. Though he was a poet and published in Harper's and the New Yorker in addition to doing his Aeneid translation, he taught Latin in secondary schools until 1957. It is not uncommon in books published before 1960 to find authors or contributors whose titles are "English Department Chairman, Central High School" or the like (though I suspect Humphries probably taught at more exclusive private schools). W. H. Auden called his Aeneid 'a service for which no public award could be too great".)

As with Faulkner and,, I am beginning to sense, many of the Great Books, The Aeneid is more or less impossible to read when you are tired or at all distracted. This is a big problem for me, since I rarely have the opportunity to read when I am not tired, and never when I am not distracted. At night, which is when I do, or was planning to do, most of the reading for this program, I usually could not get through more than two pages before my head would begin lolling, I would completely forget where I was, sentences begun would get lost in the mush of my brain and run on into completely nonsensical strings of words, and the book would fall out of my hands (Such is the sad fate to which the failed scholar comes in the end; but I digress). So it took me much longer to read the poem than would seem reasonable. I was averaging 5-7 pages (or about a third of one Book of poetry) a day. When I could stay awake and concentrate long enough to build some momentum and become immersed in the act of reading the book, I felt some of the old enjoyment and happy associations that come even with reading accounts of ancient bloodbaths; thoughts of Italy and the Mediterranean World, of the saga of Western Civilization, now in our own lifetimes apparently dying, in its handsome boyhood, of the destinies of great nations and men, images of my own youth, of clouds slowly drifting across the blue sky of a sunny day when one had all the time and possibility in the world. Of course the primary content of the book if one pays any attention to it, especially in a prose translation, is war and death, in the service of a glorious cause, or several of them perhaps, but nonetheless life and dignity, where the ordinary individual is concerned, is less than cheap. In youth one always identifies with the writer, and the triumph of his vision and art and the strongest of the creations he has employed in the service of this. Greatness and achievement, we think, are often by necessity messy, but no man worthy of the name would suffer to endure life as a mediocre or inferior person anyway. In middle age however, especially in the state of semi-delirium that is the attempt to read late at night, such passages read like this:

"...Next the great meritocrat levelled his spear full on (Bourgeois Surrender) from far...(Surrender), clasping his knees, speaks thus beseechingly...'I entreat thee, save this life for a child and a parent...The victory of Big Money Enterprises does not turn on this, nor will a single life make so great a difference.' (Surrender) ended...The Global Champion grasps his helmet with his left hand, and bending back his neck, drives his sword up to the hilt in the suppliant..."

or

"...(Surrender), slipping down from the chariot, pitiably outstretched helpless hands: 'Ah, by the parents who gave thee birth, great Investor, spare this life and pity my prayer.' More he was pleading, but the Investor, who was also a cardiac surgeon, an attorney, a best selling author and a former Olympic medalist: 'Not such were the words thou wert uttering (before I was present) Die...' With that his sword's point pierces the breast where the life lies hid."



I had wanted to finish the book before my vacation in Florida in order to have something a little less stodgy (and more practical with children) to read on the beach. My slow pace prevented this from being realized however, as I could only get to the middle of Book Ten by the time of my arrival. This actually would not be a bad beach read if one were left unmolested even for a couple of hours a day. I think I only managed to get through about fourteen pages in a week as it was however, and I did not finally finish the book until I got back to New Hampshire.

I have not talked much about he actual book. It is emotional for me, as all of the undisputed canonical books and authors are, because I felt at point in my life to have some connection to this strain of life, that it was in reach for me. It wasn't, so there is a lot of sadness and feelings of pointlessness as trying to revisit them now, but at the same time it evokes images and thoughts from, if not a happier, at least a period of life when one felt the possibility of someday being alive and playing a serious role somewhere in the world.

The Bourgeois Surrender Challenge

The winner of the last challenge, Kobo Abe's Woman in the Dunes, I am reading now, and am about 2/3rds of the way through. I was hoping to read this at the beach if I had finished Virgil, but seeing as the book is a Kafka/Beckettesque story about a man who is unwittingly entrapped in a hole surrounded by fifty foot sand cliffs from which it is impossible to escape, maybe I am glad I did not. It is supposed to be one of the premier Japanese novels of the 20th century, according to my early 90s era Vintage Press paperback copy (they're on the level, right?) Perhaps the translation is inadequate--I remember reading some complaint recently that English translations of Japanese literature were notably weak--but I find the book to be rather thin. Maybe it has one of those remarkable endings that pulls all the seemingly minor incidents and specified objects of the book together. I suppose there is a sense of fineness and of seemingly small things being more significant than or the essential part of bigger things that I think of as characteristically Japanese. But at the moment, on page 156 of 241, I want more of something, not action necessarily, but personality, or demonstration of brain power. Maybe it is too subtle for me and everything I say I want is there, if you can find it (though if this is the case it is really subtle).

On page 136 Abe did get around to writing about sex. This part I think I am clear on:

"Food exists only in an abstract sense for anybody dying of hunger; there isn't any such thing as the taste of Kobe beef or Hiroshima oysters. But once one's body is full, then one begins to discern differences in taste and textures..."

This part lost me though, I have to admit:

"...sex couldn't be discussed in general; it depended on time and place...sometimes you needed a dose of vitamins...sometimes a bowl of eels and rice. It was a well thought out theory, but regrettably not a single girl friend had offered herself to him in support of it, with a readiness to experience sexual desire in general or even in particular. That was natural. No man or woman is wooed by theory alone. He knew this, but he naively observed the theory of the Mobius circle and kept repeatedly pushing the doorbell of an empty house, only because he did not want to commit spiritual rape."

The book is worth finishing, and I am curious to see where it is going after all. I would like to see the movie of it too. I can see where that might be interesting.



The Bourgeois Surrender Challenge

Many of the magic words used in this challenge were too blatantly Aeneid words, so our searches turned up an inordinate number of books with a classical theme about them somewhere. There were also an impressive number of titles by very celebrated authors (Oliver Wendell Holmes, E. B. Browning,Chesterton, Hazliit) with zero or one ranking.

1. Mythology--Edith Hamilton.............................................................267
2. A Grave Talent--Laurie R. King........................................................69
3. The Rise of Rome--Anthony Everitt....................................................59
4. The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes--Conan-Doyle...........................46
5. Age of Bronze (The Story of the Trojan War) Betrayal--Shanower...10
    Deadlock--James Reasoner................................................................10
7. Makers of Ancient Strategy--Victor Davis Hanson (ed.).....................9
8. Canadian Adventures of Sherlock Holmes--Stephen Gaspar...............6
    McGuffey's Primary Eclectic Primer...................................................6
10. Cassell's Dictionary of Classical Mythology--Jenny March..............5
      Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology--Mike Dixon-Kennedy...5
12. Greek and Roman Mythology A to Z--Kathleen N. Daly...................4
      History of Rome--Livy (V. Warrior trans)..........................................4
      Who's Who in Classical Mythology--Michael Grant & John Hobbs...4
15. The Best From Fantasy & Science Fiction (Ace Books 1955)...........2
      Cliff's Notes to Virgil's Aeneid.............................................................2
17. Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology--Jessie M. Tatlock...........1
      The History of Romulus--Jacob Abbott................................................1
      Justinian and His Age--P. N. Ure........................................................1
      Queen Cleopatra--Talbot Mundy.........................................................1
      The Spirit of the Age--William Hazlitt.................................................1

Those books that had received no reviews are The Holmes Reader--Oliver Wendell Holmes (Oceana), The Battle of Marathon: A Poem--Elizabeth Barrett (pre-Browning), Letters From Turkey--Mary Worley, Scenes From Virgil--Rev. A. J. Church, Beeton's Classical Dictionary, Companion to Roman Religion (J. Ruoke, ed.), Pompeii: Its Life and Art--August Mau, Chaucer--G. K. Chesterton, Schooplearning Guide to the Aeneid, Virgil's Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium--Philip Hardie, Heroes & Heroines of Greece and Rome (auth?), and Stories of the Old World, by the Rev A. J. Church, who makes a second appearance in this challenge, but suffers the indignity of the shutout on both occasions.

This is a solid winner. I already have a copy of the Edith Hamilton book, which is a bit of a classic of its kind, though I have never read it. I am always embarrassed by how little I know, or can remember,of the Greek myths. I have actually been picking up a little in the last year or so, since my wife has been teaching her Greek classes and has been introducing some of the art and mythology into those. It is the kind of thing that it cannot hurt me to review. I still like art and poetry, or want to like them, and a sizable chunk of the collective body of these pursuits in our civilization is based on these myths. You cannot get very far in understanding these areas without a halfway decent knowledge of them (the myths).  


The challenge produced one film contender:

1. Troy.............999



I'll put it at the bottom of my queue.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Author List Volume V

Voltaire (1694-1778) Candide (1759) Born: Paris, France. Buried: The Pantheon, Paris, France. Institut et Musee Voltaire, Les Delices 1203, Geneva, Switzerland. Chateau de Voltaire, Allee du Chateau, 01210 Ferney-Voltaire, Rhone-Alpes, France. Nude Voltaire (Pigalle), Louvre, Paris, France. Bust (Houdon), Louvre, Paris, France. Bust (Houdon), Deutsches Historiches Museum, Berlin, Germany. College: Lycee Louis-Le-Grand


Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400) The Canterbury Tales (ca. 1378) Born: Upper Thames Street, City, London, England*****(6-24-99)***** Buried: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England. Cathedral, Canterbury, Kent, England*****(6-28-99)*****


William Dunbar (ca. 1460-ca. 1520s) Born: (possibly) Biel, East Lothian, Scotland. College: St Andrew's. 

Karl Marx (1818-1883) Capital (1859) Born: Museum-Karl-Marx-Haus, Johanistrasse 28, Trier, Germany. Buried: Highgate Cemetery, Highgate, London, England. Karl-Marx-Allee, Berlin, Germany. College: Humboldt (Berlin), Bonn 


Fun on Karl-Marx-Allee

Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) Born: Wuppertal, Germany. Buried: Ashes scattered off Beachy Head, nr Eastbourne, Sussex, England. Engels-House, Engelstrasse 10, Wuppertal, Germany. College: Humboldt (Berlin).

Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) Born: Ulyanovsk, Ulyanovsk Obl, Russia.(Memorial Museum of V.I. Lenin. Buried: Red Square, Moscow, Russia. Lenin House-Museum, 3 Lenina Str, Pskov, Pskov Obl, Russia. V.I. Lenin House-Museum, Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia. House-Museum of V.I. Lenin, st. Dostoevsky 78, Ufa, Bashkortostan, Russia. Tampere Lenin Museum, Tampere, Finland. V.I. Lenin Museum, Gorki Leninskiye, Moscow obl, Russia. Memorial Museum of V.I. Lenin, Samara, Samara obl, Russia. Vladimir Lenin Statue, 3526 Fremont PI North, Seattle, Washington. College: St Petersburg (Russia).

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) Captains Courageous (1897) Born: Sir J.J. Institute of Applied Art, Bombay, India. Buried: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England. Bateman's, Bateman's Lane, Burwash, Sussex, England.

Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796) Born: Ducal Castle, Szczecin, Poland. Buried: Peter & Paul Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia. Catherine Palace, Tsarskoye Selo, St Petersburg, Russia.

Prosper Merimee (1803-1870) Carmen (1845) Born: Paris, France. Buried: Cimitiere du Grand Jas de Cannes, Cannes, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, France. Arles Amphitheatre, Arles, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, France.

Georges Bizet (1838-1875) Born: 26 Rue de la Tour d'Auvergne, Paris, France. Buired: Cimitiere du Pere Lachaise, Paris, France. College: Conservatoire de Paris


Jacques Casanova (1725-1798) The Memoirs of Casanova (1822) Born: 3082 or 3083 Calle Malipiero (plaque), Venice, Veneto, Italy. Buried: Duchcov Castle, Czech Republic (exact location unknown). College: Padua.

Arnold Zweig (1887-1968) The Case of Sergeant Grischa (1927) Born: Glogow, Poland. Buried: Dorotheen-Stadtisch Fredrichwerderscher Friedhof I, Berlin, Germany.

Eric Sutton: no information

James Thomson (1700-1748) The Castle of Indolence (1748) Born: Ednam (monument on Ferney Hill), Roxburghshire, Scotland. Buried: Richmond Parish Church, Richmond, London, England. College: Edinburgh.

James Thomson (weaver poet) (1763-1832) Born: Edinburgh, Scotland.

Horace Walpole (1717-1797) The Castle of Otranto (1764) Born: 22 Arlington Street, St James, London, England. Buried: St Martin Churchyard, Houghton, Norfolk, England. Strawberry Hill, 268 Waldegrave Road, Twickenham, England. Castle, Otranto, Puglia, Italy. College: King's (Cambridge)

Robert Walpole (1676-1745) Born: Houghton Hall, Houghton, Norfolk, England. Buried: St Martin Churchyard, Houghton, Norfolk, England. College: King's (Cambridge).

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902) Born: 5 Sandymount Avenue, Sandymount, Dublin, Ireland. Buried: Protestant Churchyard, Drumcliff, Sligo, Ireland. Kilalla, Mayo, Ireland. Abbey Theatre, 26 Abbey Street Lower, Dublin, Ireland. College: National College of Art & Design (Dublin).

Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932) Born: Roxborough, Galway, Ireland. Buried: New Cemetery, Bohermore, Galway, Ireland.Kiltartan Gregory Museum, Kiltartan Cross, Gort, Galway, Ireland. Woodville Gardens, Woodville, Kilchreest, Galway, Ireland. Coole Park & Gardens, Gort, Galway, Ireland. Lady Gregory Hotel, Ennis Road, Gort, Galway, Ireland.

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1559) Born: Florence, Tuscany, Italy. Buried: Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, Florence, Tuscany, Italy. Perseus with the Head of Medusa (statue), Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Tuscany, Italy. Cellini Salt Cellar, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Cecchino Cellini (1498?-1529) Buried: San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Rome, Lazio, Italy (?).


Stendhal (1783-1842) The Charterhouse of Parma (1839) Born: 14 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Grenoble, Rhone-Alpes, France. Buried: Cimitiere du Montmartre, Paris, France. Musee Stendhal, 20 Grande-Rue, Grenoble, Rhone-Alpes, France. Le Stendhal Hotel, 22 Rue Danielle Casanova, Paris, France. Hotel Stendhal Rome, Via del Tritone 113, Rome, Lazio, Italy. Mercure Parma Stendhal, Via Bodoni 3, Parma, Emilio-Romagna, Italy. Certosa di Parma, 20 Via Certosa, Parma, Emilio-Romagna, Italy.

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) The Cherry Orchard (1904) Born: Ulitsa Chekhova 69, Taganrog, Rostov, Russia. Buried: Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow, Russia. Literary & Memorial Museum-Reserve, Melikhovo, Moscow Obl., Russia. White Dacha, 112 Kirova St, Yalta, Ukraine. Chekhov Library & Museum, Ulitsa Petrovskaya 96, Taganrog, Rostov, Russia. House-Museum, 6 Sadovo-Kudrinskaya Str., Moscow, Russia. Dacha, Gursuf, Ukraine. College: Moscow State University.

Joshua Logan (1908-1988) Born: Texarkana, Texas. Buried: Unknown (?). College: Princeton.

Helen Hayes (1900-1993) Born: Washington, D.C. Buried: Oak Hill Cemetery, Nyack (Rockland), New York. Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W 44th Street, New York, New York.

Lord Byron (1788-1824) Childe Harold (1812-18) Born: 24 (or 16) Holles Street, Marylebone, London, England.  Buried: Church of St Mary Magdalene, Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, England *****(7-4-01)***** Heart in Cenotaph, Missolonghi, Greece. Hotel Lord Byron, Via Giuseppe de Notaris 5, Rome, Lazio, Italy. Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, England *****(7-3-01)***** Lord Byron Resort, 120 Jonson Street, Byron Bay, Australia. Bridge of Sighs, Venice, Veneto, Italy. College: Trinity (Cambridge).

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) Christabel (1797-1800) Born: Schoolhouse, Ottery St Mary, Devonshire, England. Buried: St Michael's Churchyard, Highgate, London, England. Coleridge Cottage, 45 Lime Street, Nether Stowey, Somerset, England. College: Jesus (Cambridge).

Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine (1853-1931) The Christian (1897) Born: Runcorn, Cheshire, England. Buried: Kirk Maughold Churchyard, Maughold, Isle of Man, England.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) Cicero's Orations against Catiline (63 B.C) Born: Arpino, Lazio, Italy. Statue, Capitoline Museum, Rome, Lazio, Italy. The Forum, Rome, Lazio, Italy.

Catiline (108-62 B.C.) Born: Rome, Lazio, Italy.

Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) The Cid (1636) Born: Maison Natale de Pierre Corneille, 4 Rue de la Pie, Rouen, Upper Normandy, France. Buried: Eglise St Roch, 284 Rue St Honore, Paris, France.

Robert Southey (1774-1843) Born: Wine Street (plaque where new buildings join Christ Church, Bristol, Gloucestershire, England. Buried: Parish Church, Crosthwaite (nr Kewsick), Cumbria, England. College: Balliol (Oxford).

Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar ("The Cid") (1043-1099) Born: Vivar del Cid, Spain. Buried: Burgos Cathedral, Burgos, Spain. Tizona (El Cid's sword), Museum, Burgos, Spain.


King Alfonso the Good (The Wise, The Learned) (1221-1284) Born: Toledo, Spain. Buried: Seville Cathedral, Seville, Spain.

The IWE states that "The legend (of El Cid) accumulated in Spanish ballads of the 12th century, and in the 13th King Alfonso the Good had them assembled into a unified epic". I am unable to find anyone identified as King Alfonso the Good who reigned in the 13th century in my cursory searches on the internet, nor any King Alfonso of the period who was notable for collating and unifying the Cid. This guy seems to be the most likely candidate.

A. J. Cronin (1896-1981) The Citadel (1937) Born: Rosebank Cottage, Cardross, Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Buried: La-Tour-de-Peilz, Montreux, Switzerland. College: Glasgow.

Thomas Dixon (1864-1946) The Clansman (1905) Born: McFee House, Shelby, North Carolina. Buried: Sunset Cemetery, Shelby, North Carolina. College: Wake Forest.

I'm not sure why this is included on the list, as the IWE states that "The novel as a novel is worth reading only for those who are interested in what kind of literature has occupied the reading attenion of the American people and extended itself notably into collateral media of public expression". It is also among the more notoriously racist books in American history that achieved the level of popularity than it did, and was the source material for the most notoriously racist movie in American history, "The Birth of a Nation". That acknowledged, it is on the list, and as the list and what it encapsulates on the whole that have possessed my imagination, I will probably read it when the time comes, assuming I stick to the list.



Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) Clarissa (1747-8) Born: Mackworth, Derbyshire, England. Buried: St Bride's Church, Fleet Street, City, London, England.    

Friday, January 31, 2014

J M Barrie--The Admirable Crichton (1902)

It didn't take me long to get through this one (it has now officially taken me more days to put up this post than it did to read the book--1/30). That is one of the beauties of generally intelligible plays. The Admirable Crichton was famous in its day, and for many decades afterwards, and the story, which concerns an aristocratic English household that is shipwrecked on a tropical island, during the duration of their confinement on which their butler establishes himself as the master of the party, remains something of a modern archetype, though much less so in the last twenty years, as the perception of the general competence of anyone stuck in the mass of the population has declined. In an earlier post I described this plot as sounding like 'Jeeves and Wooster meet Gilligan's Island', though on reading it, which I had not done before, it reminds more of the World War II prison camp novel King Rat. It doubtless has other spiritual offspring in 20th century literature and drama.   

I had anticipated was that it would be more of a comedy. It tries to be that some of the time, but only Lady Brocklehurst, who is a less light-hearted cousin of Aunt Agatha in The Importance of Being Earnest, is at all funny to me, and she does not appear until the final act. The character of Ernest, with his foppishness and fondness for insipid anagrams, seems to be something of a spoof of Oscar Wilde himself, though it falls mostly flat because Oscar Wilde actually was funny, and at a level that Ernest does not begin to approach. The character of Crichton himself was the biggest surprise when contrasted with my expectations. There is nothing comic about him at all, and if anything he is almost unsettlingly hard. Perhaps this is necessary to illustrate how nonsensical the family and society are, but it has the effect of making the main character unlikable character. The play is on the whole much darker and has a more bitter edge than the references I had seen to it in the past had led me to believe.



Is it worth reading? Well it was easy to get through (by which I really mean I had no difficulty motivating myself to read it), and I do not think it would be a chore to sit through a good production of it in a theater either. These are obviously marks in its favor. Because of the extra 100+ years of cultural conditioning that have formed me since the original appearance of the play, I anticipated it to unfold in a completely different way than it did, and for the particular emphases of the author to be different from what they were. So while I always looked forward to seeing what would happen next, what did happen next usually felt to me to be not the thing that offered the most interest or opportunity for effect. Often it simply was the case that the dialogue or the arc of the story failed to be memorable, to strike the imagination. The play at this point is not very alive for readers, I don't think, and I am guessing this is part of the reason why its fame has declined. Its sensibility is not in sync with ours.

The Challenge

The results of the last challenge (winner: Quiet, by Susan Cain) left me in a bit of a dilemma regarding whether I should really have moved on to the next IWE book or not, since by my own rules I should have tried to read the challenge book. I was able to resolve this by taking out the audiobook version from the library and listening to it in the car. My children don't like it that much, but it won't go on much longer, and I do not see myself making a habit of consuming books in this way. Quiet is exactly like dozens of other non-fiction books that have come out over the last fifteen years or so. First, its author is an extremely well-connected Ivy League graduate active at the highest levels of the Manhattan/D.C./Boston meritocracy. Second, the book centers around a single rather flimsy premise (in this case, that introverts are undervalued in the current ethos that prevails in our society's leading institutions), a greater attentiveness to which will ultimately reveal unsuspected sources of talent and potential economic productivity. Third, the author, in the name of research, makes a number of field trips to places where her thesis can be demonstrated in an extreme form--so far in this book we have been to Harvard Business School, a Tony Robbins event/revival, and Rick Warren's Saddleback Church (all of these places frown on taciturnity and reflection). Fourth, numerous important academics and scientists are interviewed and a waterfall of studies and researches are quoted from to support the author's premise (authors of this class swear by the findings of academic research). On the fourth disc the amygdala and the ways in which it responded (when possessed by an introvert) to various stimuli made its appearance. The amygdala and its activity is another staple of this genre of literature. It is an oracle of Science that people who read and write these kinds of books want to see consulted before they will buy into anything. For me it is an oracle telling me that it's time to abandon the book.

The tone of this is very much of that 'Anyone who doesn't live and work in my particular Manhattan/upper class milieu and did not go to an Ivy League school are not really identifiable to me as sentient beings' camp that has become increasing prevalent in the writing and analysis coming from this quarter of society. I actually don't think Susan Cain herself is mean-spirited, or a snob, or even intentionally condescending--it's just that people of this sort can't help themselves anymore. Any other kind of life is more or less unfathomable to them, and usually in an exaggeratedly horrible way (there was a profile of one woman who had languished too much in high school and missed out on going to an Ivy League college, which was presented as a kind of catastrophe that she had determined never to experience the equivalent of in her adult career).  This includes Tony Robbins and Rick Warren, even though both clear tens of millions a year and have provided life coaching to presidents and Nobel Prize winners. It is as if these things aren't really real, don't mean anything, if you haven't gone to the proper schools...But onto this week's results.

1. The Woman in the Dunes--Kobo Abe....................................83
2. Charles Dickens: A Life--Claire Tomalin................................46
3. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft--Claire Tomalin...3
4. Building For Life--Stephen R. Kellert.......................................2
5. Cricket Radio--John Himmelman..............................................1

Books in this challenge that received 0 reviews were The Mystery of Mary Stuart by Andrew Lang, The Encyclopedia of Literary Romanticism by Andrew Maunder, and Songs From the Past by He Waiata Onamata.     



A small field this week, and a winner with what I suspect will be an unusually low score in these competitions. Technically I do not have to read this book either, as my library does not have a copy and it is not available online for less than $1.00. However, as this is exactly the kind of book--it is a fairly modern (1962) Japanese novel of some literary value (of which a well-regarded film was made as well two years after it came out)--that the Challenge was designed to lead me to, I am going to bend my old rules and order a copy of it.

Till next time...


Even though I do not think her book was any good, and she is obviously much more market and media-savvy and comfortable in the company of the powerful and the great than she would like me to believe, and even though her worldview, as determined by her background and collegiate and post-collegiate experience, is so extreme that it is impossible she and I would be able to get along or talk about anything even I were to become a talented and successful person of some kind tomorrow, I admit I still have a tiny crush on Susan Cain. I guess as a reminder that I once perceived there to be chance that my life would lead into this segment of society (though only heaven knows why I ever imagined that).

Friday, January 24, 2014

George Eliot--Adam Bede (1859)

So it took a little less than two months to re-read this at my necessarily deliberate pace. I was aiming for six weeks, but I had the stomach flu for a while, there was the Christmas season, I had to go camping. There were doubtless other distractions as well. Anyway, I enjoyed the book about as well as I did on the earlier occasion when I read it, in 2000-2001, though I was a little more attentive to its deficiencies this time, and the gap in quality between it and the other two George Eliot books I have read (Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss) seemed larger than it did thirteen years ago. As I often note, even at age 30-31 I was still much more impressionable than I am now. I recognized on that reading many of the characteristic George Eliot qualities, particularly of detail of description and psychological investigation, that I admired in those other books, and that was good enough for me at the time. I rarely find anything as good now as I did when I was younger. I have also been beaten down over the years by my failure to maintain connections to and friendships with vital and capable people who have a strong literary education, as well as the constant overexposure to the general negativity towards literary study that is predominant in much of the remainder of society, or if not that, the negativity about the ability of people like me to get anything of value out of them, that is predominant among the people presiding over our dying humanities departments and literary magazines. But while my critical guard is perhaps more raised, I still derived no small pleasure from the exercise, except for one night just before Christmas when I was too depressed to read anything and determined to get rid of all of my books once for all. However, the next day I haltingly took up the book  one final time to confirm my determination to break myself of the habit and worked through a chapter. It did not restore my spirits entirely, but I had to confess that I at least felt a little like myself, or what I imagine myself to be (the sort of person who reads Victorian novels as if it were entirely natural and served a real purpose in life), and that there was perhaps value in that. Within a couple of days I was reading more or less in my normal way again, and held off on giving up the project for the time being, though I am still not ruling out taking this step in the future if I can convince myself that it would be beneficial to me to do so. I accept that it will probably never happen however.



The modern criticisms of Adam Bede are I think pretty consistent--the main characters are not compelling, and Adam Bede himself is especially wooden. There are several excellent minor characters whose appearances supply the best parts of the book--Bartle Massey, Mrs Poyser, Reverend Irwine. The young squire (Donnithorne) is about half well drawn--the parts where the laziness of his mind and the non-development of his will and character are depicted are good descriptions of what those states of mind are like in a young man who should have been more attentive to correcting these faults in the course of his education. But there is not much else to him, and he essentially disappears from the last half of the book.

Adam Bede's brother Seth seemed a decent enough fellow who deserved a little better treatment from his creator. I know women--even George Eliot, in some instances, betrays characteristics of the stereotypical feminine mind-- cannot help regarding any man who is not in the front rank of his particular society as pitiful and substantially without sex, but poor Seth not only has to endure his mother's blatant preference for his brother (accompanied with constant assertions of his own inferiority, which is more a matter of his brother's extreme forcefulness of personality rather than his own shortcomings, either moral or in general ability), but is reduced to having to joyfully endorse his brother's marriage to the woman who had previously rejected his own proposals and swore she could never consider marrying anyone, and even when the book wraps up with an update on what everyone is doing eight years later he is still living, presumably as a virgin, with his mother and happily playing the role of the fun-loving uncle to the children of his brother and the woman he was formerly infatuated with. George, you couldn't have managed to throw him a nice and dutiful, if somewhat boring girl from the village to warm his youthful bed and keep house for him? Brutal.


Apparently there is a TV Movie of Adam Bede.

The IWE's introductory box for Adam Bede notes that 'The novel is quite short and partly for that reason has long been a school favorite'. Huh? The edition I read (a modern Everyman's Library) was 613 pages. I have another copy, part of an incomplete set of the collected works of George Eliot from around 1900, that is 544 pages. I guess they really did use to read a lot more in school. Actually, I wonder if whoever it was that submitted this for consideration on the list and wrote the plot summary was not thinking of an abridged edition. I noticed that the plot summary given in the encyclopedia left out a considerable chunk of the middle to three-fourths part of the book, and the summaries of these books in this encyclopedia are usually pretty thorough. Two editions are noted in the introduction--the Pocket Library, which my researches tell me clocked in at 529 pages, and the Rinehart Edition (551). I think somebody was confusing this with Silas Marner, which I believe actually is short and is read (or used to be read) in school in part for that reason. Of course schools used to rather famously make kids read The Mill on the Floss, which is not short either. I have never met anyone who had to read it in school who doesn't consider it the most boring book of all time, thought I thought it was quite good, much to my surprise, I must say.

The Challenge

I've decided to tweak the challenge, since there was a flaw in the old system which favored books that had achieved a high rating based on a handful of reviews, or even one review. I decided to experiment with just choosing the book that had the most reviews total, which seemed more likely to produce the kind of winners I am looking for, popular books tending towards the more contemporary which I likely had some interest in reading anyway. If this results in a Jodi Picoult book winning, I do still have the option of declining the challenge. If a Jodi Picoult book wins more than 50% of the time, I will have to revamp the system again. Here is the Adam Bede list, with the number being the total of reviews the book has received on Amazon.com:

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking--Susan Cain.....1,916
2. Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance--Robert Pirsig.............................................893
3. The Lowland--Jumpha Lahiri..........................................................................................549
4. Plenty--Yotam Ottolenghi...............................................................................................365
5. Love Amid the Ashes--Mesu Andrews............................................................................151
6. Vegetable Literacy--Deborah Madison...........................................................................111
7. Hotel du Lac--Anita Brookner...........................................................................................83
8. Everyday Food Light--Martha Stewart Living Magazine....................................................54
9. The Geography of Love--Glenda Burgess.........................................................................21
10. Balaboosta--Einat Admony..............................................................................................18
      Salad For Dinner--Jeanne Kelley.....................................................................................18
12. The Common Reader--Virginia Woolf...............................................................................6
      Out of Their League--Dave Meggyesy..............................................................................6
14. World's Best Ciders--Pete Brown & Bill Bradshaw............................................................2



There were no books that received no reviews.

This was a slightly shocking result, as I had never heard of the Cain book, which is apparently quite popular. I had thought for sure that Zen, which I have never read, would be the winner, and I was planning to go ahead and accept. I was going to accept the Cain book as well. It is only 277 pages of text, and looks to me to be one of those pop psychology books you can wolf down in little more than an hour. My library has three copies of it, all of which, however, are currently checked out. I don't want to wait around for two weeks or whatever, so I will move on to the next encyclopedia selection & perhaps I will come back to Quiet at some time in the future. I have not looked too far ahead on the list, but the next six selections at least look to be short (300 pages or less): a play, a poem, a child's book, a political philosophy treatise, and a couple of short novels. So I should be able to made some headway on the list here.


Bestselling Author Susan Cain (1968--    ) Education: Princeton Class of '89, Harvard Law Class of'93. Worked as a Wall Street Lawyer & Negotiations Consultant before becoming a writer.

Since one of the keywords in one of the media generating exercises was "Dinah", there was an LP showdown between Dinah Shore and Dinah Washington. More surprising results:

1. Dinah Sings, Previn Plays--Dinah Shore...............................19
2. Everybody Loves Me--Dinah Shore.......................................10
    For Those in Love--Dinah Washington...................................10
    Unforgettable Dinah Washington.........................................10
5. Mad About the Boy--Dinah Washington...................................7
6. Dinah '62--Dinah Washington...................................................5
7. Dinah Washington Sings Fats Waller......................................1
    In Love--Dinah Washington.......................................................1
    Love Songs--Dinah Shore.........................................................1



Two albums got no reviews, both by Dinah Washington, The Queen, & Somebody Loves Me: The Very Best of Dinah Washington Volume 2. 

I don't know much about Dinah Washington, though I thought she was something of a legend. This status doesn't translate into a lot of commentaries about her records, apparently.

I don't really have a system as far as the records go. I'm curious to see what comes up, if it's anything I would like.




Wednesday, November 27, 2013

William Faulkner--Absalom, Absalom (1936)

It took me a while to get through it this time, considering it is only 303 pages. I had read it in 2005 with, as I remember, considerately less difficulty. This difficulty did not consist in following or comprehending the story so much as having the energy and stamina to plow through the long, long sentences and paragraphs for any considerable amount of time. I quickly found that it would be impossible for me to get through more than a page or two at night, my usual reading time, before I would fall asleep; and even at other times I would find my concentration waning during particularly convoluted sections and my mind to stop taking in the words on the page and following the flow of such words as it read off on other tangents and streams of thought of its own. I was able to get through a decent number of pages (say 20) at soccer practices and games, and, when that season ended, at swimming practice. But this was only a couple of times a week.

I am surprised by the apparent decline in energy for relatively difficult reading that has overtaken me between age 35 and 43. I am starting to expect this to be the case when I re-read books I read in my 20s, but by 35 I already had two children and it seemed to me at the time that my brain was already effectively turned to mush compared to what it had been formerly. I remember when I was younger some people (usually men of a certain age and grave bearing) would say that one should not attempt to read Henry James or Proust or some similar writer until one was very mature, knew something of life. This seems to me foolish advice anyway--I am pretty sure that the more of one's life one enjoys a familiarity with the Greats, the better--but I also do not see any evidence that one's capacity for understanding literature uniformly improves as one ages. Perhaps there are some things one has greater knowledge or experience of in more mature years, and this produces insights that were inaccessible to him at 22--but it seems to me that at least as many abilities are lost.



I am still certain by the way that this is a very great book. There were moments where I wondered if some of the exceptionally long strains of thought and exposition were extraneous; on the whole however these are what gives the book its character and weight and tremendous density. It is one of the many interesting things about Faulkner, that there is not a real consensus about what his best book is. The Sound and the Fury is probably the most famous, because so many people read it in school, or used to anyway, but I don't sense that it is widely considered the best by readers and critics who care about such things. The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom are the only two full Faulkner novels I have read, and Absalom seems to me the greater of the two by a significant amount, and some people think it is the best of all his works, but certainly not a majority or even I think a plurality. The story has an epic quality, and every element in it--characters, houses, fortunes, generation, wars, decay--is an extreme illumination of a world. I thought he was pretty forthright in how he took up the racial aspect of the story too, even to the point of trying to address it seriously at all (at least from some kind of white point of view), especially compared to other writers working at the time he was.

As I was taking my time getting through this book, I began to consider how many very long books there are going to be on this list, some of which I have read already, and began to think that maybe I really didn't need to read Clarissa a second time, or Forever Amber. I wouldn't mind passing on Euphues either, though as I remember nothing of it and completely missed the point the first time I suppose I would feel obligated to give it an honest try. In truth I am pretty rigid where it comes to following my lists, and I suspect that if such time comes that I come around to Clarissa again that I will not want to mess up the equilibrium I am getting from diligently going through the list by skipping it. But reading it all the way through again will take a long, long time.

The Challenge

The challenge produced many books this time, but its flaws are again revealed in the results:

1 (tie). Norman C McClelland, Encyclopedia of Reincarnation and Karma.......5.00
           The U.S. Government Survival Under Atomic Attack.............................5.00
           Various, Hermeneutics at the Crossroads...............................................5.00
4.         Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History..............................................4.75
5.        Maira Kalman, And the Pursuit of Happiness..........................................4.74
6.        Kathy Casey, D'Lish Deviled Eggs..........................................................4.69
7.        Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience..............4.64
8 (tie). William Faulkner, Light in August............................................................4.54
            Rebecca Skloot, Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks................................4.54
10.       Blythe Gifford, His Border Bride.............................................................4.50
11.       Danielle LaPorte, The Firestarter Sessions.............................................4.48
12.       Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge...........................................................4.33
13.       Daniel S. Burt, The Novel 100................................................................4.29
14.       Ann Carson, Nox....................................................................................4.27
15.       Lydia Davis (translation), Madame Bovary..............................................4.25
16.       Thomas Jefferson, Memoirs, Correspondence & Miscellanies................4.20
17.       Tara Conklin, The House Girl.................................................................4.18
18.       Terry Castle, The Professor & Other Writings.......................................4.10
19.       Bill Minutaglio & Steven L. Davis, Dallas 1963.......................................4.02
20.       Various, Anthology of Rap.....................................................................3.90
21.       Elif Batumen, The Possessed...................................................................3.83
22.       Peter Carey, Parrot & Olivier in America..............................................3.77
23.       Martin Amis, The Pregnant Widow.........................................................3.10
24.       Jonathan Franzen, Freedom.....................................................................3.01
25.       John W. Cousin, A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature2.00

There were many competitors this time that had garnered no ratings. These were: A Critical Companion to William Faulkner (various authors), Bloom's Modern Critical Reviews: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Female Warriors Vol. II (Ellen Clayton), Ethics (Roth, editor. 3,476 pages), The Story of Gabriel & Marie Maupin: Huguenot Refugees to Virginia in 1700 (Dorothy Maupin Shaffet), Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature (Mary Ellen Snodgrass), Journey's Within (Oscar Webb), The Chinese Medical Ministries of Kang Sheng & Shi Meiyu 1872-1937: On a Cross-Cultural Frontier of Gender, Race, and Nation (Connie A. Shemo), The Story of Charles Strange (Mrs. Henry Wood), and a book that looks like The Deadly Link by Peter Eyre, but my handwriting is poor and I now cannot find any evidence of this title's existence.

I can see now why Franzen doesn't like internet rating systems. On the other hand, his book had well over a thousand reviews; only the Henrietta Lacks book, which has become popular in schools (perhaps replacing The Sound & the Fury?) had a comparable number. Many of the other books, including the Martin Amis book, despite appearing on New York Magazine's top ten list for 2011, had fewer than a hundred reviews, and some were down in the twenties. All of the three winners were of course in very limited sample sizes. The reincarnation and karma book had five, so I guess it wins the tiebreaker. The other two had just a single review. I was wondering if perhaps I should adopt a requirement that books had to have at least ten ratings to be considered for the challenge, but I think I will leave it for now. If I have to take up a challenge after every list book, I will likely never get through the list itself, which is the main object. However, it does seem that a lot of books that are probably at a level that I would like are rated too low for it to be likely that they would ever win. So I suspect the system will require tweaking at some point. I am pretty good at devising games and systems for myself, and I think it will come to me what needs to be done. I am going to give it a run of 10-15 cycles first though.

Of course I am going to decline the challenge here. None of the purported winners are available in libraries or for less than $1 online, which are further qualifications for my reading them. So it will be on to the next classic on the list, Adam Bede, which I have also read previously (2000) and which is over 600 pages, but it is very good, a prototypical classic English novel, which is what I was brought up on, and I think I will not have many problems getting into it again.

The Challenge also turned up a few video options. Here were those results:

1. The Honeymooners: Classic 39 Episodes.............4.79
2. I Don't Want to Talk About It...............................4.71
3. True Blood: Season 2............................................4.43

I have never actually watched the Honeymooners--for some reason it was not on in syndication, at least at the times of day when I would have seen it, in Philadelphia when I was a youth--so I have decided to accept this challenge and add it to my queue. Perhaps I will have something to say about it next time.

The title of Absalom, Absalom of course comes from Second Samuel in the Old Testament, so I've been filling in this interval with re-reading that as well. It is one of the better books in the Bible, though I generally enjoy the whole thing. I am affected by it.   


       

 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Russia

1. Moscow...................................9
2. Leningrad.................................7
3. Pskov.......................................2
    Rostov......................................2
    Tula..........................................2
6. Novgorod.................................1
    Omsk........................................1
     Penza........................................1
     Smolensk..................................1
     Tver..........................................1