Monthly Archives: September 2017

My Pilgrimage from Dante to Catullus to Sappho

The fifth chapter of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage  describes Miriam attending a Dante lecture. As I was reading  Interim I remembered that I had bought a copy of Vita Nuova translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that was reissued by the NYRB poets series in 2011.  And from Dante I was led to Catullus and then to Sappho.  I am sure that entire dissertations have been written about this topic, but here are my scattered thoughts anyway.

When reading Dante’s Vita Nuova, a comparison between the Italian poet and Catullus immediately comes to mind.  Some of the similarities are so basic and superficial that they can be considered coincidences.  Both poets, for instance, humbly call their collections a “little book” (libello in Italian and libellus in Latin.)  The poetry of both men is deeply personal and autobiographical, although specific details such as dates for events are difficult to glean from their writings.   The Italian and the Roman, both of whom were upper class, wealthy citizens, each fall in love with a woman that is inaccessible and married to another man—Beatrice is for Dante what Clodia (Lesbia) is for Catullus.  And finally, both men are the novi poetae of their respective generations, breaking free from the traditional conventions of their craft (Catullus rejects epic in favor of short, personal poetry; Dante writes in Italian instead of Latin.)

Beginning from the age of nine, Dante writes about each of his encounters with his beloved Beatrice.  On one such occasion, a gathering to celebrate a wedding (some believe it is Beatrice’s own wedding), he sees her with a group of other young women and he is struck dumb by the sight of her.  The loss of all of his senses  is described in a sonnet that was written about this chance meeting with her:

Even as the others mock, thou mockest me;
Not dreaming, noble lady, whence it is
That I am taken with strange semblances,
Seeing thy face which is so fair to see:
For else, compassion would not suffer thee
To grieve my heart with such harsh scoffs as these.
Lo! Love, when thou art present, sits at ease,
And bears his mastership so mightily,
That all my troubled senses he thrusts out,
Sorely tormenting some, and slaying some,
Till none but he is left and has free range
To gaze on thee. This makes my face to change
Into another’s; while I stand all dumb,
And hear my senses clamour in their rout.

The last five lines are similar enough to Catullus Poem #51 to suspect a case of intertextuality. Many scholars have speculated that this poem captures Catullus’ first encounter with Clodia who is sitting with another man at a party while the poet looks on (translation is my own):

This situation steals away all of my senses,
I who am so wretched; For as soon as I looked at you, Lesbia,
nothing else exists for me. But my tongue swells up,
a thin flame simmers beneath my limbs,
my ears are ringing, and darkness covers
both of my eyes.

Catullus 51 is the Roman poet’s translation of Sappho #31 in which poem she is similarly frozen while beholding her lover. Some scholars have speculated that Sappho sees the object of her desire at a wedding, which is an interesting parallel with the setting of Dante’s sonnet (translation is my own):

When I look at you, even for a short time,
I am no longer able to speak.

But my tongue breaks,
and at once a small fire assails me under my skin
my eyes do not see and my ears are ringing.

I am contemplating another reread of Dante’s Divine Comedy and I have Dorothy Richardson to thank for rekindling my interest in the Italian poet and bringing me back to some of my favorite poems from Catullus and Sappho.

For the extra curious here are links to the original languages: Catullus, Sappho, Dante

And here is an abstract of an excellent article about Dante’s influence in Pilgrimage: https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/dantes-pilgrimage-in-dorothy-richardson(6bff1f93-85f3-4b23-99a1-05ddfef79ef4).html

Leave a comment

Filed under Classics, Italian Literature, New York Review of Books Poetry, Poetry

The School for Misfit Children: Such Fine Boys by Patrick Modiano

The Modiano titles that I’ve read so far, Little Jewel, Suspended Sentences, and this latest novel published by Yale University Press, all have a mysterious yet emotionally languid quality to them.  It is both odd and compelling to mix these tones in a narrative but the author does it, quite successfully, in all three of these books.

Such Fine Boys describes a French boarding school for boys in the mid-twentieth century.  Modiano’s description of The Valvert School in the first few pages of the book is strange and even a bit dark:

The Valvert School For Boys occupied the former property of a certain Valvert, who had been an intimate of the comte d’Artois and accompanied him into exile under the Revolution.  Later, as an officer in the Russian army, he fell at the Battle of Austerlitz, fighting against his own countrymen in the uniform of the Izmailovsky Regiment.  All that remained of him was his name and a pink marble colonnade, now half ruined, at the back of the park.  My schoolmates and I were raised under that man’s morose tutelage, and perhaps some of us, without realizing it, still bear the traces.

The fourteen chapters in Such Fine Boys each contain a different story about a boy who attended the school.  The young men that attend Valvert come from wealthy, aloof families who don’t have very much time to spend with their children and as a result they become melancholy, feckless adults.   Most of the stories are told from the first person point-of-view by a man who is a former student at the school named Patrick.  The author shares more than a name with his protagonist since Modiano also spent most of his young life in a French boarding school and saw very little of his parents.  Another oddity of the novel is that two of the stories are told by a different narrator, another former student named Edmond who becomes a minor actor in a traveling theater troupe.

The narrator’s interaction with each of the boys at Valvert is overshadowed by a mysterious set of circumstances.  A boy named Michel Karve, for example, is described as having a cold and formal relationship with his parents who don’t visit very often.  Even though Michel’s parents are wealthy, the boy wears badly fitting clothes and is fed simple meals while his parents dine out with friends.  Michel sends the narrator to his parent’s apartment to retrieve his few belongings and never wants to have anything to do with his parents again.  As is typical in all fourteen vignettes in the book, the narrative raises many questions about Michel’s circumstances that are never fully explained.

The chapter that best illustrates the languid tone of Modiano’s stories is the one which describes an old schoolmate named Alain Charell. When the narrator meets Alain by chance at the Gare du Nord he reminisces about the boy he knew at school: “What had become of his parents? His father, with his saffron-yellow hair and mustache, looked like a major in the Indian Colonial forces.  Had they disappeared, like their lawn and their Trianon?  I didn’t dare ask.”  Alain and his wife, Suzanne, have a bizarre open marriage and have sex with random strangers while the other spouse listens in the next room.  They both seem to take quite a few drugs and one night, in particular, Suzanne suffers from the affects of whatever substance they are ingesting as she must be held up and taken to the restroom by her husband.

One night while the narrator is sleeping he receives a startling phone call from Alain who insists that he and his wife must see him. Alain says on the phone, “Come right away.  It’s urgent.”   When the narrator arrives at a brassiere, no details about the importance of such a sudden meeting are given; they sit for a while in the crowded restaurant and they eventually take a walk around the deserted city.  The only word I could think of to describe these bizarre events and the tone with which they are conveyed is languid, unexpectedly languid:

After a while, Suzanne rested her head on my shoulder.  They surely didn’t want me to leave, and I suddenly thought we might spend the entire night on this bench.  On the other side of the empty street, from a tarpaulin-covered truck with its lights out, two men in black leather jackets were unloading sacks of coal with rapid, furtive movements, as if on the sly.

What was so urgent that the narrator was suddenly woken out of a sound sleep?  Why didn’t he ask his friends these questions immediately?  Perhaps, once again, it is something he didn’t dare ask.

Trevor at “The Mookse and the Gripes” has also reviewed this title as well as Modiano’s other latest release, Sundays in Augusthttp://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/30/patrick-modiano-such-fine-boys/

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under France, French Literature, Literature in Translation

When is the Right Time to Let Go?: Other Men’s Daughters by Richard Stern

The plot of Stern’s novel in which an older man who has a love affair with a younger woman and divorces his wife, could have easily turned into the typical, hackneyed plot that such a book often veers towards.  Stern’s intelligent writing delves into the nuances and complications of marriage, middle age, physical attraction and love.  The story astutely and sensitively makes us aware of the sacrifices and heartache that each party in this complicated, all-to-human situation suffer.  “Love,” Stern writes, “Famous, frozen word concealing how many thousand feelings, the origin of so much story and disorder.”

Dr. Robert Merriwether is a profession of biology and physiology at Harvard in the late 1960s.  He also practices medicine in his free time during the summer and that is when he meets Cynthia, a young college student who has made an appointment to get a prescription for birth control.  When Cynthia starts running into him around Cambridge and eventually admits her attraction to Robert, he realizes how badly he was in denial about the state of his lifeless marriage.  His wife had begun to withhold affections years ago, yet they remained married and functioned as a family for the sake of their four children.  I felt genuine sympathy for this man who, up until he meets Cynthia, has just been going through the motions in his daily routine and in his relationships.  After a weekend spent in the company of Cynthia he has a difficult time settling back into his normal life: “Sunday was difficult for Merriwether. Tomorrow he’d be back in his own rectangle: home-class-lab-club. The boxed life. Though not an empty box.”  Because of Cynthia he starts giving lectures in other cities in the northeast so that he can have getaways with her for the weekend.  He also spends a summer in France with her, another trip and experience that allows to have different adventures that he wouldn’t have previously considered: “They became easier and easier with each other. Her intelligence and wit delighted him.  So many years he had been uncomfortable, sometimes miserable at Sarah’s incomprehension.  Partly, it was that Sarah played the fool.”

As for Sarah, Robert’s wife, we also get her side of the story and the sacrifices which she has made for the marriage and for their family.  She has given up having a career of her own to stay home and take care of the four Merriweather children and to tend to the creaky, old New England house passed down through Robert’s family.:

And he blamed her.  As if her body could be purchased by three daily meals, and this leaky hutch which she alone kept up.  (He couldn’t hammer a nail.) As if he really cared to make love to her.  Frigid? No, no more than any woman with a husband who saw her as an interior broom. By no means frigid.

Contrary to Robert’s interests, Sarah had studied humanities and her Master’s thesis was on Courtly Love.  The impending divorce has caused her to take some classes towards a Master of Arts in Teaching.  She could support herself from the profit of the sale of their house and by teaching French and Spanish in local schools.  She learns of Robert’s affair in a very public way, which is a particular embarrassment in their conservative, New England community.  I especially felt sorry for Sarah because of the physical anguish this causes her.  But she understands that her marriage had been a source of angst for years and the best decision for her is to separate from Robert.  They live in their house together, in separate bedrooms, with their children for a year while the divorce is being finalized and the property is being sold.  During this time they become so bitter and angry towards one another that they can only communicate with terse notes.  The Merriwethers think that by staying together as long as possible that they are doing the best thing for their children, but the tension and fighting that their living situation causes seems to do more harm than good for the family.  Stern’s narrative forces us to contemplate some difficult questions to which there are no easy answers: Why do we stay in a relationship?  When is the right time to let go?

The final person in this triangle is Cynthia who is not the typical seductress that one would expect in such a story.  It is obvious when Stern introduces her into the plot that she has every intention of seducing Robert and these scenes are cringe worthy.  But as the story progresses we learn that Cynthia is a very intelligent young woman who is bored with men her own age; she works hard at her studies and also challenges Robert in ways that his wife never could.  They have interesting discussions, they read together and they encourage one another’s interests.  Cynthia’s relationship with Robert also causes her a great deal of stress and anxiety.  She eventually transfers from Swathmore and moves to Cambridge so that she can be closer to Robert and she spends many hours alone while she waits for Robert to visit when he has free time.  Stern’s makes his story stronger by showing that Cynthia and Robert’s relationship is not perfect, that no relationship is perfect.  Cynthia suffers from bouts of depression and anxiety because of the pressure she puts on herself to achieve academic success and she and Robert often argue over this topic and many others.  Stern surprisingly ends his novel on a positive note—Cynthia and Robert have enough love and kindness and respect for one another to stay together for a while.  But will they know when it will be the right time to let go?

Trevor has also written about this title and has an interesting view of the book:  http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/31/richard-stern-other-mens-daughters/

6 Comments

Filed under Classics, New York Review of Books

To Capture Someone’s Heart: North Station by Bae Suah

Korean author Bae Suah’s latest writing, although a collection of short stories, is equally as experimental, cutting-edge, and captivating as her novels. Each story in this volume, brilliantly translated by Deborah Smith, is laden with her poetic images and philosophical meditations. One theme that she returns to throughout the writing is that of reconnection after a long period of separation that involves both distance and time.  As in her previous novels her characters are consumed by wanderlust.

In the title story “North Station,” a man and a woman stand silently on a train platform in an unnamed city. As they wait for the train to arrive the gentleman has a strong desire to kiss this woman but the reason for their awkwardness is hinted at later in the narrative: “Young women of a certain type were both recurring characters in his life and predators who preyed on him, and even now he remembers them well.” As is typical with Suah’s writing, one must pay very careful attention to every detail on the page in order not to miss the most interesting parts and striking images of the story.  Daniel Green has written an insightful series of essays at The Reading Experience about innovative female authors and I would include Suah as one of the writers whom he describes as experimenting with the “Movement of Language.”  His description of the writings of Noy Holland as “using an alternative mode of composition through which ‘character’ and ‘story’ are not abandoned but emerge as the afterthought of the movement of language, the characters and plots subordinated to the autonomy of that movement” is also apt for characterizing the language of Suah’s stories in this collection and her novels.

While the narrator in “North Station” is waiting for the train, his lover’s presence causes a series of memories to invade his mind.  During his short time on the train platform, the man recalls a collection of writings by a suicidal, exiled author with whom he greatly identifies; he remembers a woman he met in a different city whose address is the only tangible thing he knows about her anymore; he reflects on the attic room he stayed at during his university days in which he reads passionate poetry.  One of my favorite passages is one in which he reflects on relationships and the metaphor of lover as hunter:

Who would have first used the expression “to capture someone’s heart?” A hunter, perhaps, who would know deeply how it feels to capture a beating heart, a living thing, how the one doing the capturing finds himself captivated, in thrall to the sense of his own omnipotence?  Like capturing a fawn or kit still warm from its mother’s heat.  Someone who, like the hunter, introduces himself into his victim’s eyes at such an early stage.  Who deploys his imagination to render in his mind’s eye that state of utter despair to which the lack of any exit, the terrible clarity of this fact, gives a paradoxical sweetness.  Who reproduces this state through what we call a verbal expression.  In such a way, the expression would have been born not through those who are captured, but through those who do the capturing.  Since the victim has no time for song.

Suah’s greatest strength as a writer lies in her ability to take what at first appears to be disjointed images and scenes and weave them together into a singularly beautiful story. The attic room, the poetry, the woman on the platform he longs to kiss are all connected in her character’s mind with a meditation on time and space: “When was it that he had last kissed a woman so ardently, his lips as passionate as when they pronounced poetry? In that city or this, at the house of his acquaintance or on the platform in the north station, while waiting for the train.”

The entire collection is as riveting and poetic as the title story: an author recalls several visits to her mentor, a young man is reconnected with a former lover while struggling with questions about his sexuality, a playwright experiments with how to portray time on the stage. These stories are a great place to start for those looking to get a taste of Suah’s innovative style of writing. For those of us already familiar with her previous novels, it is exciting to once again encounter more of the author’s intriguing and thought-provoking prose.

Photo credit:  Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Cupid, armed with a bow and arrow, flies in through the window to a room where two naked lovers lie asleep on a couch. Etching.

8 Comments

Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Short Stories

How Do You Write About Mediocre Books?

There are three books I read over the summer that didn’t inspire me to write complete reviews or posts.  If a book is really not resonating with me then I will abandon it, and I really don’t have the time or energy to waste on negative reviews.  These three titles kept my attention until the end but I would call them mediocre and could not muster enough enthusiasm or words for a full post.  I am very curious to see how other bloggers handle such middle-of-the-road books.

Adua, written by the Somali, Italian author Igiaba Scego and translated by Jamie Richards, moves among three different time periods and two different settings.  The main character, Adua, emigrates from Somalia to Italy and her own story is a mix of her current, unhappy life and flashbacks to her childhood in Somalia.  The third thread in the book deals with the protagonist’s father and his time spent as a servant for a rich Italian who is part of the Italian attempt at colonialism in East Africa just before World War II.  My issue with the book is that I wanted more details about Adua and her father but the plot was too brief to provide the depth of plot and characterization that I craved.  The author could have easily turned this story into three large volumes about Adua’s childhood, her father, and her adult life as an immigrant in Italy.  Adua did prompt me to research and learn more about Italian colonialism in the 20th century but other than that I didn’t have strong feelings about the title after I finished it.

Late Fame, written by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by Alexander Starritt, involves an episode in the life of an older man named Eduard Saxberger who is suddenly reminded of a collection of poetry entitled Wanderings that he had written thirty years earlier and has long forgotten.  A group of Viennese aspiring writers stumble upon Saxberger’s volume in a second hand bookshop and invite him to join their literary discussions at a local café.  Saxberger, although he never married or had a family,  considers his life as a civil servant very successful.  The young poets, whom Schnitzler satirizes as bombastic and overly self-important, stage an evening of poetry readings and drama at which event Saxberger is invited to participate. Saxberger learns that although it is nice to get a little bit of late fame and recognition from this ridiculous group of writers, he made the correct decision in pursuring a different career.  Trevor at Mookse and The Gripes has written a much better review of this book than I could have done and I highly encourage everyone to read his thoughts: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/08/arthur-schnitzler-late-fame/

Party Going by Henry Green describes exactly what the title suggests: a group of British upper class men and women are attempting to get to a house party in France but are stuck at the train station in London because of thick fog.  Green’s narrative starts out on a rather humorous note as he describes these ridiculously fussy, British youth.  They panic with what Green calls “train fever” every time they think they are in danger of missing their train.  They fret over their clothes, their accessories, their luggage, their tea and their baths.  As the story progresses they become increasingly mean and petty towards one another which made me especially uncomfortable.  The men are portrayed as idiots and dolts who are easily manipulated by the vain and churlish women.  In the end I found Green’s characters so unpleasant that I couldn’t write an entire post about them.  I’ve read and written some words about his novels Back and Blindness both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I still intend to read all of the reissues of his books from the NYRB Classics selections even though I wasn’t thrilled with Party Going.

So which titles have my fellow readers found mediocre?  Do you bother to write anything about the ones that are just okay?

41 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, German Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella