Monthly Archives: May 2018

A Certain Amount of Daring: Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to read my first Jane Bowles story, there was a rather strong, positive reaction to her writing.  But the comments I received about Two Serious Ladies still did not prepare me for reading this story.  This short novel, in fact her only one, is enigmatic, humorous, surprising, even shocking and sad all at the same time.  Truman Capote’s description of the story, I think, sums it up best:

Voyaging for the first time into Two Serious Ladies, I was immediately disoriented.  I did not know what to make of this object at all.  There was no discernible narrative strategy.  There was no way of explaining or analyzing the processes at work.  Interpretation was useless.  The vistas were dispiriting, the food foul, the wind always howling.  Her people were mournful, impulsive, and as erratic in their peculiar journeys’ flights as bats.  They were often drunk.  They thought continuously, obsessively, but had no thoughts exactly, no helpful method of perceiving the world or their positions in it.

Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield, the two serious ladies, spend very little time together as they are casual acquaintances.  Each has her own distinct story, but what fascinated me about both of them is their attempt to live on their own terms and find their own versions of happiness.  I found them a bit crazy but also rather brave.  Mrs. Copperfield is dragged to Central America by her adventurous husband; we get the feeling that she stays with him out of a sense of duty, even fondness or nostalgia, but she would much prefer to be off on her own.  And that’s exactly what she does.  In Colon she stays at a seedy hotel, makes friends with a prostitute, and drinks way more gin than she ought to.  At the end of the story she tells Miss Goering, “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years.  I know I’m as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.”

Miss Goering is horrified by Mrs. Copperfield’s new outlook on life, but perhaps she is frightened by those qualities which she recognizes in herself.  When the story begins she is a spinster living alone on her family’s home in upstate New York but she slowly gathers a rather strange entourage of people around her.  I found Miss Goering’s narrative to be the most surprising.  What oftentimes begins as a humorous description of her adventures quickly turns melancholy; twice she is invited by men back to their apartments and on both occasions nothing turns out as one would expect.  She is different from Mrs. Copperfield in that she seems to be on a mission to save herself and the strange men she meets from some sort of sin.  Her last words in the novel are mysterious and disconcerting: “‘Certainly I am nearer to becoming a saint,’ reflected Miss Goering, ‘but it is possible that a part of me hidden from my sight is piling sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield?’ This latter possibility Miss Goering thought to be of considerable interest but of no great importance.”

I am very eager to read Bowles’s letters which I am impatiently awaiting to arrive in the mail.  I suspect, from what little I know about her life and from reading this book, that I will find among them humor, sadness, loneliness and a lot of drinking.

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Filed under Classics, Literary Fiction

Entrusting One’s Sleep to Another: Propertius 1.3

Auguste Jean Baptiste Vinchon. Propertius and Cynthia at Tivoli.

Sextus Propertius, a Latin elegiac poet of the Augustan age, is, rather unfortunately, not as well-known as other poets of this era. He was friends with the most famous men of his day including Vergil, Maecenas and Augustus. His talent as an elegist is evident in his four books of poetry which contain 92 poems. I was fortunate enough in graduate school to be in a program that appreciated his work and I took three different classes that focused on this poet. I admit that I haven’t looked at or translated his work in many years, but he seemed like just the thing to suit my mood this week.

In Poem 1.3, he visits his lover, Cynthia, while she is fast asleep in her bedroom. In his amorous and drunken state he is tempted to wake her with a showering of kisses, but holds off for fear of angering her. He, instead, watches her sleep. I find the images of the first 20 lines, comparing her to a sleeping Ariadne and a Bacchante, simple yet sensual and intimate. I offer here my translation of lines 1-20:

Cynthia seemed to me to be breathing softly and quietly while sleeping with her head on her entwined hands; similar to weary Ariadne as she was lying on the deserted shores while Theseus sailed away on his ship; or similar to Andromeda, finally freed from the harsh cliffs, as she was resting during her first sleep; and similar to a Bacchante, exhausted from her continual dances, as she collapses on the grassy banks of the Apidanus. As the slave boys were shaking the torches late into the night, I dragged my feet, drunk with too much Wine, into her room. Not quite yet completely out of my senses, I softly attempted to lie on the bed beside her. Although two relentless gods, Love and Wine, were driving me, seized with a double passion, to disturb Cynthia while she was sleeping and to slip my arm under her and to steal drawn out kisses, I did not dare to interrupt my lover’s rest for fear of incurring the reproaches of her anger with which I am all too familiar. Instead I remained fixed to my spot with my eyes intent upon watching her—I was like Argus, the 100-eyed monster, who kept a vigil over Io with her strange horns.

Propertius’s last few lines, in particular, capture the vulnerability and sensuality of one lover watching another while asleep. It reminds me of the intimacy and trust involved in the experience of sleeping beside another person as described by Quignard in his novel Villa Amalia:

Entrusting one’s sleep to another is perhaps the only real indecency.

To let oneself be watched while sleeping, feeling hungry, dreaming, growing erect or dilated is a strange offering.

She could see his eyes quivering beneath his lids, moving beneath the pale, fragile skin. She could see everything. She could see he was dreaming. Who was he dreaming of? Curiously, she dreamt he dreamt dreams that weren’t dreams of her.

It turned out that he too sighed in his sleep—just like his little daughter.

They both of them gave enormous sighs—like sighs of relinquishment.

Stuart Shotwell’s novel Tomazina’s Folly has, for me, one of the most tender scenes in literature as a woman looks through her lover’s private sketch book in which he has drawn erotic and caring images of his ideal marriage:

As she went on through the book she discovered that a conspicuously recurring theme was that of one spouse watching the other sleep: the wife, sometimes gloriously nude, sometimes fully clothed, either in bed herself or in a chair, watched her husband as he slept; and likewise the husband watching over his wife. There was a tenderness and curiosity and protectiveness in the expression of the watchers, as if they themselves could not sleep, but wanted their spouses to dream undisturbed.

Finally, Jean-Luc Nancy in The Fall of Sleep touches upon the reasons why falling asleep beside another person is an extension of an act of intimacy:

Sleeping together opens up nothing less than the possibility of penetrating into the most intimate part of the other, namely, precisely into his or her sleep. The happy, languid sleep of lovers who sink down together prolongs their loving spasm into a long suspense, into a pause held at the limits of the dissolution and disappearance of their very harmony: intermingled, their bodies insidiously disentangle, however intertwined they can sometimes remain until the end of sleep, until the instant joy returns to them as renewed for having been forgotten, eclipsed during the time of their sleep, where their agile bodies surface again after having been drowned at the bottom of the waters they themselves poured out.

Propertius’s poem ends with his lover waking up, accusing him of being in the embrace of another woman, and complaining that he wasn’t there to fall asleep with her. Cynthia’s wish for him is that he get a taste of his own medicine and that he also experience a lonely night without her in his bed.

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Filed under Classics, French Literature, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Poetry

I Hold You in Imagination: The Poetry of Elizabeth Jennings

I finally received in the mail today a volume of poetry by Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) that I have been eagerly awaiting for weeks. The edition, entitled “Timely Issues” is published by Carcanet Press, which has also printed the other volume I own, her “Selected Poems.” Jennings was very successful with her poetry in her earlier years, publishing her work in various literary magazines and winning awards and prizes. But as her life progressed, she was mentally and physically fragile and suffered from breakdowns which caused her to be hospitalized. Her illnesses, her deep Catholic roots, and the difficult love affairs in which she engaged pervade her poems. I find her poetry simple, yet profound, quite lovely, and even soothing. I include here in my post three of my favorites from the Carcanet collections; they need no commentary or analysis as I think that would ruin my post—they stand better simply, on their own.

About These Things

About these things I always shall be dumb.
Some wear their silences as more than dress,
As more than skin deep. I bear mine like some

Scar that is hidden out of shamefulness.
I speak from depths I do not understand
Yet cannot find the words for this distress.

So much of power is put into my hand
When words come easily. I sense the way
People are charmed and pause; I seem to mend

Some hurt. Some healing seems to make them stay.
And yet within the power that I use
My wordless fears remain. Perhaps I say

In lucid Verse the terrors that confuse
In Conversation. Maybe I am dumb
Because if fears were spoken I would lose

The lovely languages I do not choose
More than the darkness from which they come.

Remembering Fireworks

Always as if for the first time we watch
The fireworks as if no one had ever
Done this before, made shapes, signs,
Cut diamonds in air, sent up stars
Nameless, imperious. And in the falling
Of fire, the spent rocket, there is a kind
Of nostalgia as normally only attaches
To things long known and lost. Such an absence,
Such emptiness of sky the fireworks leave
After their festival. We, fumbling
For words of love, remember the rockets,
The spinning wheels, the sudden diamonds,
And say with delight, ‘yes, like that, like that.’
Oh and the air is full of falling
Stars surrendered. We search for a sign.

Assurance

My love, I hold you in imagination,
Either mine or yours,
And it is stronger than remembered passion.
It uses memory with all its force.

O the clocks go silent, time departs,
Now is forever here.
How delicate yet strong are our two hearts,
Mine beats for you now almost everywhere.

Only when my world is rent with storm,
Threatened by sadness or
Overcome by black words which can come
And threaten me with the inner, hideous war

Only then, I’ve lost you. O but fast
A little flash of sun,
A hurrying memory returns you blessed
And our great love is stalwartly at one.

In a wonderfully written and compelling article entitled “Clarify Me, Please, God of the Galaxies” Dana Gioia concludes about Jennings’s poetry, ” Her poems flash like meteors illuminating what it means to be human.”

What poetry is everyone else reading lately? I would love to have some new recommendations in the comments.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Poetry

Some Thoughts on The Warden by Anthony Trollope

I was emailing a friend who has read quite a bit of Trollope and he remarked that this author’s novels are rather entertaining but when one closes the last page of some of his tales, they are soon forgotten.  After reading his messages about Trollope, and also seeing a thread on literary Twitter about The Warden,  I was very eager to give Trollope a try for myself.  I have rather mixed feelings about this first novel; some parts of it were amusing but overall I was a bit underwhelmed with my first experience in Barsetshire.

No one in Trollope’s narrative, which story involves an attempt at economic reformation of the Church,  is spared his sarcasm and ridicule.  The Warden, a kind, old man who lives with his daughter Elenor, has served his position as leader of Barchester hospital that cares for poor, elderly, retired, working class men who would otherwise be homeless.  It was established in the benefactor’s will in the 15th century that, in exchange for his minimal work, the Warden receives a yearly salary of 800 pounds and the use of a comfortable, some might even say lavish, home.  Reformers, led by a local doctor named John Bold, believe that the old bedesmen living at the hospital ought to receive a larger share of the income from the hospital’s estate.  When lawyers, other reformers, and the newspaper weigh in on the matter, the Warden is, rather unfairly,  made out to be a prime example of the greed of the clergy who take money from the poor in order to live in the lap of luxury.

The archdeacon, also the son-in-law of the Warden, is satirized by Trollope as a prime example of the Church clerics who will defend this institution at any cost:

Though doubt and hesitation disturbed the rest of our poor warden, no such weakness perplexed the nobler breast of his son-in-law.  As the indomitable cock preparing for the combat sharpens his spurs, shakes his feathers, and erects his comb, so did the archdeacon arrange his weapons for the coming war, without misgiving and without fear.  That he was fully confident of the justice of his cause let no one doubt.  Many a man can fight his battle with good courage, but with a doubting conscience; such as not the case with Dr. Grantly.  He did not believe in the Gospel with more assurance than he did in the sacred justice of all ecclesiastical revenues.

The reformers are equally a target of ridicule in Trollope’s tale.  John Bold, who had good intentions when he stirred up the whole controversy and genuinely wanted to help out the poor, old bedesmen, is easily swayed to put the matter aside because of love.  Bold is courting the Warden’s daughter, Eleanor, and when Eleanor pleads with her lover to put aside the case against the hospital and her father, he is very quick to oblige:

‘I would give her my soul, if it would serve her,’ said Bold still addressing his sister; ‘everything I have is hers, if she will accept it; my house, my heart, my all; every hope of my breast is centred in her: her smiles are sweeter to me than the sun, and when I see her in sorrow as she now is, every nerve in my body suffers.  No man can love better than I love her.’

Even though Trollope makes Bold seem a bit of a fool by giving up his attempt at reform for a woman, I was glad that Bold made this decision.  The sappy, romantic in me was glad Bold chose love over a law suit.

Trollope goes on and on poking fun at various parties involved in the attempt to redistribute the Warden’s salary among the bedesmen.  But the book ends on a rather sad note when it is the Warden and the old men at the hospital who suffer the most from the fight between the clergy and the reformers.  Although they are themselves not entirely blameless in the matter, it is their lives that are most negatively affected by the arguments of more important and influential men.

Despite my mixed feelings, I will continue with the Barsetshire Chronicles.  My friend, who I mentioned above, did remark that Barchester Towers, the next book in the series, is definitely worth a “quick spin through the eyeballs.”

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Filed under British Literature, Classics

Oh Gracilis Puer! Translations of Horace Ode 1.5

Horace’s Ode to Pyrrha can be interpreted in many ways, but I’ve always detected a note of jealousy over a woman and a love that eluded him. He has put aside his relationship with the woman who is now engaging in a tryst with a man he, rather condescendingly, calls a gracilis puer (simple boy.) He then accuses Pyrrha of being vain and shallow and believes that only those who truly know her realize that her beauty is skin deep. If he doesn’t care for her anymore, if he is so relieved to be free of her, then why protest so much? Why insult her?

I offer here two translations, one is my own and one is by a fellow classicist. We had great fun exchanging and critiquing (arguing over) one another’s translations. I won’t identify them, but one translation is very traditional, closer to the grammar of the original text and the other is more colloquial and captures the spirit of the poem without being as literal.

Translation #1:

So who’s that pretty boy, soaked in cologne,
grinding against you in the rose bushes
near that pleasant grotto, Pyrrha?
Is it for him that you do up your blonde hair,

stylishly simple? Ah, how often
he will be in anguish over fickle faith
and fate, and be caught off guard – astounded –
as if at the sea abruptly churned up by a dark gale.

He may be enjoying you now – your radiance –
always believing in your easy-going love, unaware
of the deceptive way the wind blows.

Miserable are they who’ve never basked in your glow.
As for me – see my dripping clothes hanging on the holy temple wall as an offering
for the powerful god of the sea? Well, they show that I’ve survived that particular storm.

 

Translation #2:

What simple boy, having doused himself in perfume,
hems you in on a bed of roses under cover of a pleasant
cave? For whom do you, Pyrrha, simple in your
elegance, arrange your golden locks?

Ah, how many times will that boy cry over fickle
faith and fickle fortunes and, in his insolence,
will stand aghast at the oceans made rough by
black storms;

That trusting boy, who now enjoys
you in all your magnificence and who always hopes you
are available and always hopes you are loveable,
is ignorant of your false charms.

Wretched are those to whom you appear glamorous
without knowing your true self. A sacred wall shows that
I have suspended my wet clothes there as a votive
prayer for the powerful god of the sea.

Which do you prefer?

(As a side note I showed both of these translations to my students and it sparked an interesting and lively debate about the art of translation. They were able to pick out which translation was my own. They are my Vergil students, most of whom I have had for five semesters of Latin, so they are all too familiar with my style, quirks, approach to translation, etc.)

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