Category Archives: British Literature

Review: Transit by Rachel Cusk

transitTransit, Cusk’s second book in what will be a trilogy of fictional autobiographies about the aftermath of her divorce, begins with an unsolicited email that Faye, the narrator, receives from a psychic.  The self-proclaimed astrologist says  that she is in possession of specific details about Faye’s life: “She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky.”  Just as in Outline, the narrator deliberately leaves details about herself out of the narrative; we only get passing glimpses of her life through her interactions with others.  A visit to the hairdresser, a trip to a literary festival, a date, and a party at a friend’s home all become the backdrop for intriguing conversations and interactions that partly reveal Faye’s own story.

At the beginning of this story, Faye has moved back to London with her boys after her divorce and has bought an apartment that is a disaster.  It requires a complete overhaul and the demolition of her apartment by the contractors becomes a metaphor for her own life.  She sends her boys away to spend a few weeks with their father while her surroundings are being dismantled.  She describes her house to a man with whom she agrees to go on a date:

I felt cold.  There were builders in my house, I added.  The doors and windows were constantly open and the heating had been turned off.  The house had become a tomb, a place of dust and chill.  It was impossible to eat or sleep or work—there wasn’t even anywhere to sit down.  Everywhere I looked I saw skeletons, the skeletons of walls and floors, so that the house felt unshielded, permeable, as though all the things those walls and floors ought normally to keep out were free to enter.

There is always the feeling in a Cusk novel that a simple description, like this one about her renovated home, has a much heavier and deeper meaning than what we encounter at first glance.  There are several passages that I found throughout the book that I underlined and were worthy of multiple reads.

One additional aspect of Transit that I found particularly intriguing were the descriptions of Faye’s children.  Similar to Outline they are never physically present with Faye in the book.  We only get descriptions of them when they call her from their father’s home.  When the boys call her they are lost, or locked out of the house, or feeling alone; they are still in need of her maternal love and I felt sad that they were separated from her, even if only for a little while.  At the end of the book Faye is at a party and the boys call her cell phone because they are fighting and cannot solve their conflict.  They ask her for help and admit that their father is nowhere to be found.  There are additional hints at the father’s anger, maltreatment of Faye and lack of involvement in the boys’ lives.  I am very interested to see if Cusk will further explore the post-divorce family dynamic in the final book of the trilogy.

Fate, identity, love, marriage and transitions are all themes that Cusk explores though the interesting conversations she writes for her characters.  Cusk’s writing is both compelling and philosophical, a combination which so few writers are successfully able to achieve.

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Conversations with Faye: My Thoughts on Outline by Rachel Cusk

My Review:

outlineWhen my daughter was in preschool and I started taking her to various birthday parties and playdates to which she would be invited by her friends I always felt awkward and out-of-place. I was oftentimes the only mother at these gatherings who had a career and an only child.  When I would confirm that my daughter is an only child I would get a look, a comment:  “Oh you only have one child.”  I felt as if having a single child made me a mother, but not enough of a mother to be considered a part of their club.  And after my daughter was born I remember various family members asking not if we were having more children but when.   Of the various people portrayed in Cusk’s Outline, I identified most with Angeliki, a writer of contemporary women’s fiction, who describes her marriage and her reasons for having one child with her husband.  Because of my experiences with how people react to my decision to have an only child ,Angeliki’s story and her words particularly resonated with me.  Her remark at the thought of having more than one child is startlingly honest, “I would have been completely submerged.”

In Rachel Cusk’s first book of a trilogy that is loosely autobiographical, a recently divorced author named Faye is traveling to London from Greece where she will teach a short writing workshop.  While on her travels she encounters various people like Angeliki who share the stories of their lives, their loves, their identities and their perceptions of the world.  It is through their stories that the author starts to realize how her own identity and perception of the world have had a dramatic shift since the dissolution of her marriage.  On the plane ride to Athens, she meets a man who was raised in Greece but was educated in English boarding schools.  She simply refers to him as “her neighbor” throughout the narrative as he proceeds to give her the details about the passion, progress and dissolution of two of his marriages.

While in Athens, Faye meets others—a writer, a publisher, a fellow teacher, her students—with whom she has lengthy conversations.  She goes on a boat ride and a swim with her neighbor from the plane where she observes another family having an outing.  As she notices the ways in which father, mother and children interact with one another in a mundane setting Faye observes:  “I was beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own.”  This simple yet profound statement signifies that the discussions with her friends and her acquaintances are continually reshaping and reforming her own identity and her own views of the world as a single woman, a single mother, and as a person that is no longer half of a couple.

Cusk’s writing is philosophical and meditative and she uses her talents to make simple settings appear unique and intriguing.  An airplane ride, a swim in the ocean, dinner at a seedy Greek restaurant are all seen from a new point-of-view and become vivid backdrops for Faye’s conversations during which people share the most intimate details about their lives.  Her description of the atmosphere on the plane also appears to be a commentary on the various lenses through which we view others:

The plane seemed stilled, almost motionless; there was so little interface between inside and outside, so little friction, that it was hard to believe we were moving forward.  The electric light, with the absolute darkness outside, made people look very fleshy and real, their detail so unmeditated, so impersonal, so infinite.

One subject, in particular, that runs throughout all of the conversations is marriage and family life.  Cusk’s book could have easily turned into a typical narrative oftentimes found in contemporary women’s fiction that presents one lamentation after another condemning marriage and lauding the single woman as a heroine of strength and fortitude despite the horrible personality flaws of an ex.  Cusk’s approach to writing about marriage is more intelligent and philosophical; she understands that life is complex and she reaches beyond the usual, fictional narrative to underscore these complexities.  Faye offers little detail about her own life to her various acquaintances, but when she does voice her opinions during theses conversations they are thought-provoking and profound.  She says to her neighbor on the plane,   “Among other things, a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious.”

Cusk’s novel  is a meditation on life, love, relationships and our multilayered and ever-evolving perceptions of these things.  It will be very interesting to see how she continues her conversations about these topics in the next book of the trilogy entitled Transit.

For more interesting reviews and comments on Cusk’s books visit: Times Flow Stemmed and flowerville.

About the Author:

cuskRachel Cusk was born in Canada, and spent some of her childhood in Los Angeles, before her family returned to England, in 1974, when Cusk was 8 years old. She read English at New College, Oxford.

Cusk is the Whitbread Award–winning author of two memoirs, including The Last Supper, and seven novels, including Arlington Park, Saving Agnes, The Temporary, The Country Life, and The Lucky Ones.

She has won and been shortlisted for numerous prizes: her most recent novel, Outline (2014), was shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Goldsmith’s Prize and the Bailey’s prize, and longlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize. In 2003, Rachel Cusk was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’

She lives in Brighton, England.

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Hero-Shaming: Aidos and Nemesis in Logue’s War Music

Nemesis and Tyche

Nemesis and Tyche

Fat-shaming, slut-shaming, body-shaming, teen-shaming, pet-shaming.  In the blogging and book world I have even seen list-shaming recently.  There has been an explosion of attempts in the 21st century to shame one another into appropriate behavior via social media.  But what do these online exchanges really accomplish?  Have they really made us a more moral and ethical society?  Or is all of this shaming a badly veiled form of bullying and harassment?

It seems that we have come a very long way from the Homeric concept of shame, aidos, which was a quality a man or woman possessed that was a motivation for him or her to follow what was considered the correct behavior.  Aidos is the feeling of shame, humility or modesty that is specifically related to three aspects of Homeric society: situations involving sexuality, the entertainment of guests, and standing one’s ground in battle.  This last category especially pertains to the heroes in the Iliad Aidos, or shame, is what keeps a Homeric hero on the battlefield despite the horrors of warfare.  If a man flees from the battlefield due to fear or cowardice he feels great aidos, shame, in front of his fellow warriors.  James Redfield in his pivotal book “Nature and Culture in the Iliad” sums up aidos and its impact on the Homeric hero: “Combat is the crucial social act, for in combat the survival of the collectivity is at stake.  The aidos felt in battle is an experience of the collectivity; a man stands his ground because he shrinks from betraying his fellows.”

The exemplar of a hero with the most acute sense of aidos in The Iliad is Hector.  He goes into fierce battles brought on by his brother because to hide away from war would cause him great aidos. In Book VI of The Iliad, Hector returns home in the midst of fighting the Greeks in order to speak with his wife Andromache and see his infant son Astyanax.  In this beautiful yet deeply sad exchange between husband and wife, Andromache begs Hector not to go back into battle and she appeals to his sense of pity to persuade him.  She argues that when Hector dies she will be a lonely widow and their son will be a fatherless orphan.  Hector greatly pities his beloved wife as he contemplates with horror the aftermath of Troy’s destruction when she will be carried off as a slave to serve in a Greek man’s home.  But not even the thought of his wife as a captive will keep him from rejoining the battle.  What does keep him fighting and risking his life is his sense of aidos; he will die of shame, he says, if he does not return to battle and has to face the men or women of Troy who will think him a coward who shrinks from battle.  As with the concept of kleos, Homeric aidos is deeply rooted within community, something that is dependent on one’s society.

Paris is a flawed Homeric hero, the antithesis to his brother Prince Hector.  When Paris is saved from battle by the goddess Aphrodite, he feels no aidos at leaving the battlefield.  He is happy to sit in his rooms and drink in Helen’s beauty.  Paris’s sense of aidos is never fully developed and his lack of aidos makes him impervious to any nemesis he might incur.

I am disappointed that Logue did not recreate the scene in Book VI between Hector and Andromache because it is one of my favorite parts of the Iliad.  Logue does, however,  in his account of Iliad Books 3 and 4, approach the subject of Hector’s sense of aidos when the Prince volunteers himself to the Trojans who are trying to decide which man will fight Menelaus one on one.  The Trojans say about Hector’s offer:

Hector has fought and fought, has given blood and now—
Breathtaking grace,—offers his life and his armour to end
The hostilities he did not cause.

In this simply stated line, Logue alludes to one of Hector’s primary motivations for fighting a war against men who have not personally wronged him: his sense of aidos.  But the Trojans decide that it should be Paris who fights Menelaus since he started this mess in the first place.  Logue primarily deals with the Homeric idea of aidos through the character of Paris as an example of how a hero ought not to behave.  In Logue’s account, which is faithful to the Homeric plot, Aphrodite swoops in and saves Paris just before Menelaus is able to slaughter him.  When Paris reappears back in their palatial bedroom, Helen attempts to persuade Paris to go back out onto the battlefield and fight for her.  She is trying to appeal to Paris’s sense of aidos which is futile become he completely lacks this Homeric quality.  He is a defective Homeric hero:

Your death will be the best for everyone
Troy will reopen.  I shall sail for Greece.
And you will not survive your cowardice.

And later in Logue’s account of Iliad Books 7-9,  when the Greeks are beaten back to their ships and suffer horrible loses, the heroes appeal to one another’s sense of aidos to keep them on the battlefield.  The Greek men shout to one another:

Stand still and fight.
Feel shame in one another’s eyes.
I curse you, God.  You are a liar, God.
Troy will be yours by dark—immortal lies!
Home!
Home!
There’s no such place!
You can’t launch burning ships.
More men survive if no one runs.

In typical, short burst, hard hitting sentences Logue perfectly captures the Homeric ideal of aidos.  Logue’s last line of this quote in particular is reminiscent of Iliad V.531 and XV.563 when the Greeks and Trojans, in the midst of battle, are shouting to each other that when men feel aidos, more of them are likely to be saved in combat than perish.  So the Greek heroes’ need for kleos (fame) is what made them follow Agamemnon and Menelaus across the Aegean in the first place, but aidos is what keeps them from fleeing in horror every time they take their places on the battlefield.

The Greek concept of Nemesis, “righteous indignation  or “retribution” is closely related to aidos.  If a man acts improperly then he will incur the nemesis of his community;  it is aidos that keeps a man from behaving badly and attracting nemesis.  Redfield says about this Homeric concept:  “But nemesis is provoked by any act which is both improper and unexpected, ranging from failures of tact to cowardice and  betrayal.”  The outlandish behavior of the suitors, for instance, evokes nemesis in those who witness their bad manners.  Paris’s lack of aidos when he is carried off the battlefield is something that brings out nemesis in Hector who tries to persuade Paris to do the right thing.

I have found Logue’s insertion of nemesis into his poem especially interesting.  As Helen appears on the wall at Troy and looks down at the assembled armies, there is a hush over the warriors as they stare at her in awe.  And one after the other says about her:

Ou nem’me’sis…
Ou nem’me’sis…

There is some behavior that, while not ideal, is still within the acceptable social norm.  Such behavior is considered ou nemesis (ou meaning “no,” “not”).  Running from mortal danger (except on the battlefield), for instance, is ou nemesis.  I thought for a long time about Logue’s use of this phrase in relation to Helen and I believe it is his way of explaining the unfortunate circumstances under which Helen arrived in Troy.  Logue points out that it was Aphrodite that gave Helen to Paris, so Helen herself really can’t be shamed for causing this war that was not entirely her fault.  Thus, her situation is ou nemesis, even from a Greek fighter’s standpoint.  It’s also interesting to note that if it were not for her, then these heroes would not have this prime opportunity for kleos (fame).  So, another reason for ou nemesis.

In my next Logue post I will turn my attention to what, exactly, happens on the battlefield.  What makes a fighter or a man excellent?  How is honor related to a hero’s excellence?

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Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2017

books-2017

I have the privilege every day of going to work at a place that I love and that has a long and rich tradition of education.  The Woodstock Academy, founded in 1801, is one of the oldest public schools in the United States and it has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum– “Look back at your future.” (For the philologists out there, respice is a present active imperative, a compound made up of the prefix re (back, again) and the verb spicio (to look) and futurum is the accusative, singular of the noun futurum which is formed from the future active participle of sum.)

These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past.  My husband likes to say that this motto is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.  I thought Respice Futurum is apt for a reflection on books as well;  it seems fitting to look ahead to my reading plans for 2017 while also reflecting on the types of books I have encountered over the past year and how they will influence my reading choices moving forward.

According to my list on Goodreads I read 105 books, a total of 24, 484 pages in 2016.  A few books were left off this list such as Pascal Quignard’s Roving Shadows and The Sexual Night. The Goodreads list also doesn’t include a few volumes of poetry I’ve read and some collections of essays.  And my list does not include any of the Latin or Greek authors I’ve translated or retranslated in 2016.   This was not a bad year for me, but not my best either.   The books in translation I have read have come from the following languages:  French, German, Spanish, Estonian, Russian, Italian, Bulgarian, Korean, Malayalam, Kannada, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish, Slovene, Icelandic, Hebrew, Norwegian, Portuguese.

In looking at this list of lit in translation, I would like to explore more books from Asia and Africa which are not well-represented on my list.  I would also love to explore more books translated from Arabic which is a huge gap in my translated fiction.  If anyone has suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

Almost all of the books I have read have been published by small presses which will continue to be my main source of reading: Seagull Books, New Vessel Press, Open Letter and Deep Vellum, Archipelago, New York Review of Books and Persephone Books. 

My first read of 2017 has been The Story Smuggler by Georgi Gospondinov.  This is #29 in the Cahier Series and the first one I’ve read from this series.  I loved it so much that I went back and bought six more titles from the series, so there will be more Cahier titles in my future.

Gospondinov’s book The Physics of Sorrow is my favorite book from the Open Letter Catalog and one of my first reads in 2017 that I just started is another title from Open Letter, Justine by Iben Mondrup. 

A book that I have already started in 2016 and will finish in 2017 is The Collected Prose of Kafka from Archipelago Press.  This is a title that I am slowly making my way through and savoring.  Archipelago has managed to collect some of Kafka’s best short pieces into one volume.

I have discovered the works of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy this year and reading his extensive backlist published in English should keep me busy for a very long time.  Next up on my list of books written by him is his title on Sleeping.

Speaking of French writers, I am eager to read Pascal Quignard’s Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings in 2017.

I was lucky enough to get an advance review copy of  Russian author Sergei Lebedev’s The Year of the Comet which is being published in 2017 by New Vessel Press.  I am very excited that I will have an interview with Lebedev coming up in an issue of Numero Cinq, for which literary magazine I am also privileged to continue to do production editing, to scout and recruit translators and to write reviews.   I am also looking forward to two additional lit in translation titles from New Vessel:  Moving the Palace (from Lebanon) and Adua (from Italy.)

I am always eager to read whatever Seagull Books publishes and thanks to their wonderful catalog I have discovered some classics of Indian literature.  I am also looking forward to reading Goat Days by Benyamin which is already sitting on my bookshelf.  I also understand that Seagull is publishing more works from Tomas Espedal in English translation which I am very eager to get my hands on.  A long-term, very long-term goal of mine is to read the entire backlist from Seagull Books.  I will do my best to put a large dent in that list this year.

This year I discovered Ugly Duckling Presse and I am eager to explore their backlist of poetry as well as their essays.  I have a copy of To Grieve by Will Daddario on my shelf already.  I would like to read more essays this year, so please leave suggestions for essays in the comments!

Finally, I would like to read more classics in 2017, especially Tolstoy, Pushkin and other Russian masters.  I have a collection of Tolstoy’s short stories and a copy of The Complete Prose of Pushkin sitting on my shelf that I have yet to read.  I also look forward to the reissues of classics from NYRB who is publishing more books my Henry Green.  I am hoping to have read all six reissued Green books by the end of 2017.  And, as always, I look forward to whatever classics from British, (mostly) female authors that Persephone Books has in store.

And as far as posts on my blog are concerned, I have always shied away from writing about Latin and Greek and classics, but my reading of Logue’s War Music has inspired me to continue writing about The Iliad and to do some of my own translations and interpretations of various Latin authors.

classics-booksA sampling of some of my most cherished classics books; the Loebs are nestled snugly on the bottom shelf.

Well, I could go on and on about my reading plans for 2017 or I could just go and actually get to reading.  Happy new year to all of my fellow bibliophiles.  I hope you also get a chance to Respice Futurum.

chair-bookroomThe cozy spot where much of my reading takes place.  It is overlooked by a print of The Roving Shadows cover done by Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull Books artist.

 

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The Best of Bests: Kleos In Logue’s War Music

achilles_agamemnon_pompei_mosaic_namnaples_100006Achilles and Agamemnon, Scene from Iliad Book I.  Mosaic, Pompeii

As I discussed in my first post on Christopher Logue’s War Music, it is jarring to read an interpretation of the Iliad that does not begin with the first line of Homer’s epic.  Logue instead chooses to begin his poem with a concept of kleos, an idea that is central to understanding the motives of the Bronze Age heroes who agree to follow Agamemnon across the Aegean to scale the walls of Troy.

In most English versions of the Iliad, kleos is translated as “glory” or “fame” but these definitions do not fully capture the complexity of this Ancient Greek word.  When Logue begins War Music, Achilles is having an upsetting conversation with his mother about Agamemnon’s violation of xenia and his greedy, selfish behavior which has caused fighting among the Greek warriors.  In the course of speaking to his mother, Achilles mentions to Thetis the prophecy about his fate in life: he can choose not to fight at Troy, go home and live a long life but no one will remember who he was or any deeds he accomplished.  This path will not give him any kleos.  However, if Achilles stays and fights the Trojans, he will die bravely in battle and although his life will be cut short, he will have great kleos.  When we view kleos in the context of Achilles’s conversation with his  mother, we come to understand that kleos is fame or glory that lasts well beyond a hero’s life.  Men for generations will remember Achilles and the stories of his excellence (arête) on the battlefield if that is the fate he chooses.  Kleos is derived from the Ancient Greek verb kluein, “to hear” so kleos can also be defined as what other people hear about a man, for generations after his death.

In order to better understand kleos, we have to look at the Bronze Age view of the Underworld as it is presented to us in the Odyssey.  When Odysseus recalls various shades from the after life, Achilles is one of the old friends he meets and speaks with.  Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a slave or a man of humble means on earth than a king of the dead.  The Homeric view of the afterlife is a very bleak one, the heroes wander around in a type of limbo and there is no chance for reincarnation such as that presented in Vergil’s stoic version of the afterlife.

So the heroes who fight at Troy believe that they get just one life, just one chance to do something brave and heroic, something that people will remember long after a hero has died.  The opportunity for this type of fame, or kleos, presents itself in the form of valor on the battlefield.  That is why they agree to cross an ocean to help capture a city that has not done anything to personally provoke them.  Helen’s beautiful face many have launched Menelaus’s ship, but getting her back is an opportunity for the other warriors to fight on the battlefield at Troy and earn kleos.

James Redfield in his pivotal book Nature and Culture in the Iliad, argues that there is a social aspect to kleos, a man must earn his kleos from the society in which he lives.  Redfield writes:

Kleos is specially associated with the gravestone.  Society secures its memories of the dead man by creating for him a memorial to perpetuate his name, and remind men to tell his story.  He will not be utterly annihilated.  Thus the kleos of the hero is to some extent a compensation to him for his own destruction.

There is one final aspect of kleos that Achilles brings up when his shade speaks to Odysseus from the grave.  Achilles is eager to hear about the heroic exploits of his only son, Neoptolemus, and when Odysseus confirms that the young  man has proven himself to be a valiant warrior in his own right, Achilles is most pleased.  Kleos, thereforeis also carried on from father to son, it is something that is nurtured and fostered and carried on from one generation to the next.  A man’s kleos can become greater if his son carries out heroic deeds.  Part of Medea’s motivation for murdering her own children is that she will not allow Jason’s kleos to continue on through their son.  Also in the Odyssey, Telemachus eagerly awaits the homecoming of his father because it is his paternal kleos that he is eager to carry on.

Logue not only begins War Music with the theme of kleos, but he deftly weaves it throughout his interpretation of the Iliad.  Logue captures the notion of kleos on the very first page of War Music, with his fast-paced, heavy hitting poetry. Achilles says to his mother:

You had had me your child, your only child,
To save him from immortal death. In turn,
Your friend, the Lord our God, gave you His word,
Mother, His word: If I, your only child,
Chose to die young, by violence, far from home,
My standing would be first; be best;
The best of bests; here; in perpetuity

Notice that Logue uses some of his favorite poetic devices to emphasize Achilles’s kleos which will be greater than any other man’s.  Anaphora, for instance, is used to highlight the fact that Achilles is to Thetis her “only child.”  “His word” is also repeated which shows Achilles desperately clinging to the promise made by Zeus himself that he will have kleos.    Achilles’ will “be best,” “The best of bests.”  And my favorite of Logue’s literary devices, which is pervasive in War Music, is asyndeton.  Logue’s elimination of any and all connective words makes this entire speech dramatic and urgent and puts an exclamation point on the reason, the only reason, that Achilles stepped foot on the beach of Troy in the first place—to gain kleos.  And finally, attaining kleos is the one thing that keeps Achilles from carrying out his threat launched at Agamemnon to sail home and not help sack Troy.

Why don’t the Trojans just pack Helen up, open the gate and send her back to Menelaus?  Their reasons for fighting this war are not simply to let Paris keep his stolen wife or to defend their famous walls.  In Book II, Logue turns his attention to the Trojans who also desire kleos.  Hector gives a speech in which he says that he is tired of hiding behind the walls of Troy and wants nothing more than to fight the Greeks in combat:

We are your heroes.
Audacious fameseekers who relish close combat.
Mad to be first among the blades,
Now wounded 50 times, stone sane.

Hector wants kleos just as much as any Greek but he does have one additional motivation to fight Greece.  Up next, my post will be about Hector, my favorite Homeric hero, and the concept of aidos.  And in the future other aspects of War Music that I would like to explore are the role of the gods and fate and the role of women as prizes and wives.

war-music

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