Monthly Archives: October 2017

Caveat Regnator: A Translated Excerpt from Seneca’s Trojan Women

Andromache and Astyanax, The Fall of Troy.

What is it like being an advisor to a powerful, narcissistic leader whose main interest lies not in serving his constituency but instead in acting and performing for his sycophantic groupees?

No, I’m not talking about the current state of American politics.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 B.C. in Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder and served as the emperor Nero’s closest advisor.   When he was brought to Rome at an early age to obtain an education that would prepare him for a political career, one wonders if he ever imaged that his fate would be entangled with the affairs of two volatile and difficult emperors. In 41 A.D., during the first year of the reign of Claudius, Seneca was condemned to death by the senate on the charge of having committed adultery with Julia Livilla, Claudius’s niece. Claudius, however, spared his life and banished him to the island of Corsica where he spent the next eight years.

Seneca was recalled early in 49 A.D. by Agrippina, Claudius’s new wife, in order that he might become the tutor of her sixteen-year-old son Nero. When Nero ascended to the throne, Seneca acted as the Emperor’s chief advisor for at least five years. Somewhere in the midst of all of this Seneca managed to write treaties dealing with moral philosophy, volumes of private letters, a work dealing with terrestrial and atmospheric phenomena, a satire on the deification of the emperor Claudius and even several tragedies. Scholars have debated for centuries about when this influential rhetorician and adherent of the Stoic sect found time to compose these tragedies.

Seneca’s extant dramatic works include the Hercules Furens, Phoenissae, Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes, Hercules Oetaeus, and the Troades. My post and translation today focuses on the Troades. This play deals with the aftermath of Troy’s destruction, as the Trojan women are standing amongst the ruins of their city and waiting to hear which Greek hero will claim them as plunder. Andromache desperately tries to save her son Astyanax by hiding him inside the tomb of her husband Hector. After Andromache is forced to give up her son, he is thrown by the Greek soldiers from the last remaining citadel of the city. Achilles’ ghost also demands the sacrifice of Polyxena in this play and the pathetic account of her death is related to us in the messenger’s speech. Seneca drew his subject matter from a long tradition of Greek plays that include Euripides’ Trojan Women and Hecuba and Sophocles’ Polyxena, as well as the epic tradition that includes Homer, Vergil and Ovid.

In this opening scene in the Troades, Hecuba, the once proud queen of this glorious city,  has a warning for any leader who takes his power for granted.  No wonder the Greeks were afraid of her (translation is my own):

Any ruler who has faith in his power and who reigns supreme in his grand palace and does not fear the fickle gods and gives his trusting spirit to happy matters, let him look at me and at you, Troy:  Never has fortune presented a greater proof that the haughty stand on weak ground.  The pillar of powerful Asia has been overthrown, that extraordinary work of the gods; and even though many came to her aid—Rhesus who drinks from the cold waters of the Tanais, spreading its sevenfold mouths, and the neighboring Amazon who, looking over the wandering Scythians, strikes the shores of Pontus with her unmarried troops, and Memnon son of Aurora who first, greeting the newborn day, mixes the warm Tigris with the red colored sea—Troy still falls by the sword,  Pergamum collapses on itself.  And the highly adorned walls lie heaped in ruins with scorched roofs.  Flames surround the royal palace and the entire house of Assaracus is smoldering.  The fire does not hold back the greedy hands of the victor:  Troy, as she burns, is torn to pieces, and the sky is hidden by the billowing smoke.  This black day, overcome by a dense cloud, is covered with the embers of Troy.

This has always been one of my favorite passages in Latin literature to translate.  Hecuba stands among the burning ruins of her once grand city and, before she laments her sad fate, gives a stern warning to any ruler who might feel secure in his position.  How very Stoic of her.

Maybe this warning does aptly apply to current American (and global) politics?

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They Spill from your Shelves, They Sprawl by your Bed: Worlds from the Word’s End by Joanna Walsh

I’ve been feeling so restless and scattered lately with my reading (and maybe my life?)  Nothing seems to hold my attention for very long.   After I finished Effi Briest, which book I loved, I ordered more Fontane and while I was waiting for those books to arrive in the mail, I started a few others (well, more than a few).  Since it is the centenary of the Russian Revolution in October, I pulled off of my shelves several books of Russian history and literature that I had every intention of reading this month.  I managed to get about 60 pages into Gulag Letters by Arsenii Formakov and 20 pages into China Mievelle’s book October.  I also set aside 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution and Russian Émigré Short Stories, which have yet to make it off of my coffee table.

But I was craving more fiction so I read two short books, The Year of the Drought by Roland Buti which I enjoyed, but didn’t take much time to read, and Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place which I thought was interesting but not fantastic.  (I’ve ordered a few more of her books to see if any other of her titles resonate more with me than this first one I read.)  After staring at the three stacks of books sitting on my coffee table, wandering into the book room and staring at my shelves, flipping through the books on my bedside table, and consulting literary Twitter, I thought Joanna Walsh’s new collection of short fiction might be just the thing for me.  And I was right, sort of…

Walsh’s second story in Worlds from the Word’s End entitled “Bookshelves” begins by describing a bibliophile’s collection of books.  I felt right at home in her story, among her books:

They spill from your shelves.  They sprawl by your bed, luxurious, splayed sometimes and discarded at an early page,  broken by your attentions.  On your shelf more books you would like to read are waiting, books you have ordered, their white bodies fat with potential.

But the author acknowledges that sometimes being surrounded by this number of books is overwhelming, one can’t possibly read all of them because “there are just so many to conquer.”  Walsh then asks us to open our minds and imagine, “Something you never thought might happen”:   A being who crawls out of your bookshelf who has read all of your neglected books!  Imagine stumbling upon this being sitting at your table, smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee.  This being has actually read all of your discarded, half-read books, anything that was sitting in a bag for the charity shop, including “ill-judged gifts from well-meaning relatives” and “gardening manuals” and even the  “memoirs of politicians.”  I began to feel better about the stacks of books sitting neglected on my own shelves and a little less guilty about the dozens of books I’ve sent to the charity shop.  I especially like the ending when the narrator realizes that this poor being has read some really lousy books and she feels grateful and even superior for her own literary discretion.

It is fitting that I didn’t actually finish all of the stories in Walsh’s collection, abandoning the book just before I made it through the last few stories.  My attention was diverted by the arrival of Thomas Bernhard’s Collected Poems and Music & Literature No. 8.   So I was hoping that one night, very late, when I can’t sleep that I will stumble into my kitchen and encounter one of my cats, sitting at the table, with a cigarette in one paw, a book in the other, and a glass of wine/whiskey in front of him, who will describe to me the rest of Walsh’s book.

Meanwhile, my other Fontane books arrived in the post and I’ve started Irretrievable.  So I guess I will stick with German Lit. for a while, but then again…

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Year of the Drought by Roland Buti

Thirteen-year-old Gus Sutter vividly remembers the summer of 1976 not just for the preternaturally harsh drought, but also for the incidents leading up to the disintegration of his family.  Gus, his mother and father, his older sister Lea, and a mentally challenged worker named Rudy live on the family’s farm in the Swiss plateau.  Buti’s take on a coming-of-age story is captivating because of the impending sense of doom and ruin that he weaves throughout Gus’s narrative.  All of the nature around them foreshadows the sad fate of this family; the crops are burning in the sun, the family dog, Sheriff, keeps fainting and their chickens are dying by the dozens in the heat.  The Sutter’s ancient mare, Bagatelle, who never moves from her barn has broken free from her rope and made her way down to the local river to die.  And finally, perhaps the most eerie omen of all, is that Gus has found a dove that cannot fly because its fail feathers have been destroyed by a predator.

The arrival of a strange woman named Cecile, an employee at a neighboring post office, is the first hint that something is wrong with the Sutter family unit.  Cecile seems  oddly close to Gus’s mother and he can’t quite figure out why their relationship makes him so uncomfortable.  His mother has never shown very much affection or emotion towards her family.  Gus’s description of her, the morning after he finds the wounded dove,  is particularly sad since it comes from her thirteen-year-old son who clearly craves his mother’s affection:

I was glad that she had petted my dove, accepted its presence without argument.  Mum was always busy with a multitude of tasks that no doubt helped to keep her from feelings of despair.  I would have liked to be in the bird’s place.  I would have liked her to set down her towel and dry her hands, to come over and kiss me, stroke my hair, tickle my neck with the tips of her fingers.  When I left for school, she would give me a dry peck on the cheek, a kiss from the very tip of her lips that echoed in the cool morning.  Lingering on my skin for less than a millisecond, her mouth imparted no sense of its moistness.  She never gave me a tender pat of encouragement to send me on my way.

She is too busy playing the role of mother, housekeeper and accountant to enjoy anything else in life, but Cecile awakens something in her that Gus has never seen before—genuine happiness.  Gus slowly realizes that Cecile is a threat to his family when he discovers that since Cecile has moved in, Gus’s father is sleeping in the guest room.  When Gus questions his father about it, he is ruthlessly scolded for not minding his own business.

The character for whom I had the most sympathy was Gus’s father, Jean.  He inherits his farm from his own father and works from sun up until sunset to make barely enough of a living on which to sustain his family.  He is a man of few words, so it is through his actions that he demonstrates his unique, unconditional love for his wife, even when she abandons him, their children and the farm.   One night at dinner when Cecile encourages Gus’s mother to get a job, Jean nearly chokes Cecile to death in a fit of rage.  Later on, a group of neighbors make fun of Jean because of his wife’s indiscretions with Cecile and he punches and kicks these men until they can no longer stand.  But as revenge, those same men beat Jean with farm tools until he can’t walk and has to stay in bed for days.  Even Gus himself, who makes a disparaging comment about his mother after she leaves, is punched in the mouth and knocked out by his father.  As his wife drifts further and further away from him, he seems to be preparing himself for the inevitable.  Gus observes about his father:

He seemed to have decided that only objects and animals were worthy of his consideration.  He would carefully examine each tool he picked up, as if a pitchfork or a shovel could bring some answer to the problem of suffering.  He had taken to sitting down in front of Sheriff and staring at him, which made our dog uncomfortable, unused as he was to being treated as anything more than part of the furniture.  He would hang his head to the side quizzically, tongue hanging out, as if waiting for an explanation.  The truth was that Dad was training himself for solitude.

Gus’s father, after his wife leaves and the children are on their own, spends his days alone at the farm.  A very sad fate for a kind, honest, hardworking man who loved his wife, his family and his land.  Buti has created a memorable group of characters whom he fittingly sets among a vivid and harsh landscape.

Thanks to Grant at 1st Reading for recommending this book to me.  Please stop by his blog and read his wonderful review of this novel: https://1streading.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/year-of-the-drought/

 

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Mokusei! by Cees Nooteboom

Identity, time, space, art, photography, culture, passion and love.  These are just some of the topics that Nooteboom explores in his beautifully written, stirring novella.  Arnold Pessers is a Dutch photographer who gets a job with a travel agency to take photos in Japan for one of their brochures.  Pessers would rather spend his time doing more creative art projects, but assignments like this boring brochure are what pays his bills.  Nooteboom’s description of his character’s profession also gives us a hint at the numbness he feels about his life: “His world, and this was a fact to which he resigned himself, was a world of brochures, of ephemera that no one would ever look at again; the decay, the sell-out, the morass.”  Pessers instantly falls in love with the mysterious model he chooses for the photo shoot and over the course of five years he maintains a long distance yet fierce love affair with the woman he calls Mokusei.

When Pessers first arrives in Japan, he connects with De Goede, an old friend who works as a cultural minister in the Belgian Embassy.  As De Goede guides Pessers through different tourist attractions, they discuss the misperceptions that western tourists have about the Japanese people and its culture.  De Goede complains that visitors pick up “half-baked” ideas about Zen or Japanese history and think they know all about this culture:

They don’t speak the language and in most cases never will.  They know a little, which is really nothing, about Japanese culture, but that doesn’t bother them, they have something  better than knowledge, they have an idea about Japan.  And this idea always has to do with a certain form of asceticism or purity or whatever you like to call it.  To put it briefly, it comes down to this, that they are convinced that the Japanese have managed better than other people to keep their heritage intact, as if in some kind of pure, unadulterated culture.

The ugliness, the stupidity, the ruthless slavishness with which the Japanese copy our worst habits, the buying of mass products, the ridiculously aped decadence—they refuse to see it.

The many nuanced and misunderstood layers of this culture mirrors Pessers’s relationship with the Japanese model.  As they travel to Mount Fuji for the photoshoot and stay at a ryokan together, his time with her is intense, passionate, exotic and shatters him in so many ways: “It was passion that would burn him down to his roots and through which all that came before and after would fade, because this time it was love first and foremost and only secondly a story.”  In addition to sending letters and running up his phone bills to call her, he travels to Japan to see her several times over the course of the next five years.  He cannot find the words to describe to his friends what he feels about her.  Her presence in his life has caused him to reexamine his own existence and to look at his world differently.

Pessers doesn’t know very many details about her life in Japan.  She refuses to visit him in Europe and when he hints that he wants a life with her and children she tells him this is impossible because of her culture—her parents would never approve of such a union.  He has three different names for her, which add to the mystery about her identity and her culture:

Mokusei is one of the few Japanese plants that smell, he learnt later, and that was what he had called her from then on.  Now she had three names, one secret, only known to him as Snowy Mask, her own, Satoko, which he never used, and Mokusei.  By that name he wrote to her, it was a name that existed only for them.

The other Nooteboom title that I have read, Letters to Poseidon,  also showcases the author’s ability to take something mundane—a flower, the sea, a nickname, a landscape—and write about it in such a way that makes one look at it from a fresh, philosophical perspective.

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Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Effi Briest, the tragic, eponymous heroine of Fontane’s novel, is the only child of a  German aristocratic couple living on an idyllic country estate outside of Berlin.  When Effi is seventeen years old, she is married off to Baron Geert von Innstetten who is twenty years her senior.  In addition to the age gap, their very different views on life doom the marriage from achieving any peace and contentment from the start.

When we first meet Effi she is playing in the garden on her parent’s estate, her favorite place in the world.  Effi loves nature and is a carefree spirit who always laughing and taking great delight in socializing with her family and friends.  An hour before she is engaged to Innstetten she is playing tag in the yard with her three best friends.  When she is introduced to her finance, she is excited at the prospect of marrying a man who is ambitious and will provide a good life for her.  Innstetten is a Landrat in Kessin, a senior politician that oversees a large rural population.  But during their engagement there are hints at the aloofness of her future husband in the letters he sends to her.  Effi mentions to her mother that “most of what he writes I could put on the noticeboard at the town hall where his official announcements are posted.  Geert isn’t a Landrat for nothing.”  Effi’s statement is a perfect example of Fontane’s subtle and allusive narrative—we are given hints about the great contrast between Effi’s needs and Geert’s inability to fulfil those desires.

When Effi moves to Innstetten’s home in Pomerania, she is still very much childlike and innocent.  She is oftentimes frightened by noises she hears in her new home and an old legend about the previous owner and his “Chinaman” adds to her terror.  The local Prussian nobility is unwelcoming and aloof and, except for a town chemist who is especially warm and kind to her, Effi is socially isolated.  Innstetten is oftentimes away fulfilling his administrative duties and when he does spend time with his wife he only gives her “one or two tired if well-intended caresses.”  She is oftentimes unhappy and doesn’t realize that it is due to the fact that her marriage has failed to satisfy her emotionally or physically.   It is no big surprise that Effi engages in a brief yet passionate love affair with Major Crampas, a reputed womanizer who is more passionate and expressive than her husband.

But Effi, in the end, develops no real attachment to Crampas and decides that the best course of action for herself and her family—she has an infant daughter by this time—is to stay with her husband who is being promoted through the ranks of the political system.  When Effi and Innstetten move to Berlin for his new ministerial post, Effi believes that the affair is something in the past, a long-forgotten indiscretion.  She still has bouts of sadness because she misses the emotional and physical connection with Crampas but she puts aside her own needs for the sake of her husband and daughter.

Innstetten, who was a former suitor of Effi’s mother, has spent his life working and improving his career.  After the rejection by Effi’s mother, he has denied himself intimate human connections or marriage.  But the thought of having another chance with a young woman who greatly resembles his former love is too tempting.  He seems delighted with Effi and throughout their honeymoon and the early days of their marriage he is very complimentary and affectionate to his young wife.  But once he settles back into his routine he takes on the role of an authority figure.  It is Crampas who points out to Effi that Innstetten has assumed the role of “pedagogue” in their marriage.    Effi’s high spirits and vigor are greatly contrasted with her husband’s restraint and self-control.  He is a man of the law and sees the world in terms of moral imperatives and absolutes.  Effi’s affair is her attempt to free herself from these constraints.

Effi keeps her love letters from Crampas locked away in her sewing box and six years after the affair has ended, while they are living in Berlin, Innstetten discovers the letters quite by accident.  Even though he still loves his wife, his strict adherence to his values causes him to make decisions that destroy his entire family.  He challenges Crampas to a fatal duel, throws his wife out of his home and doesn’t allow Effi any further contact with her daughter.  Innstetten’s handles the situation in the only way he feels right, but his morally correct actions bring him no peace or comfort.  Several years after Effi is gone, he has a vulnerable moment and confides in one of his only friends: “But I’ve forgotten how to be glad about anything.  If I said that to anyone other than you, it would just sound like a glib phrase.  But you can follow my drift.  Look at this place; look at how empty and desolate it all is.”

The strengh of Fontane’s narrative lies in the character of Effi that he creates for his story.  Effi stands among famous 19th century female characters like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary as an example of a daring woman who resists the sexual, emotional and even political restraints that are imposed on her.  Effi finally returns to her parent’s home, the one place she was truly happy and free to be herself.  She dies, full of heartache and grief, but is buried in her favorite place in the garden and, as a last act of defiance and free will,  she requests her own, original name be carved on her gravestone: Effi Briest.

(I read the Penguin Classics version translated by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers.  Persephone Books has also published a translation by Walter Wallich that was reviewed by Ali at her blog: https://heavenali.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/effi-briest-theodor-fontane-1895/).

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