Category Archives: Classics

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

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

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/

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Filed under Classics, New York Review of Books

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?

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

Joy and Freedom: More Thoughts on Pilgrimage

It’s intimidating to try to write anything coherent or thoughtful about a book like Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. The magnitude and depth of the narrative and language is impossible to capture in any sort of post, no matter the length. But one thought that keeps coming to my mind as I read about Miriam’s journey is how greatly I admire her because as a woman living in the early twentieth century, she defies many of the expectations placed upon her because of gender. She isn’t looking for a husband, she doesn’t necessarily want children, she supports herself financially and she lives on her own. I’ve always been fiscally independent and haven’t relied on a spouse for monetary stability;  from a very young age I assumed that I would have my own career and I also think it’s an important example to set for my daughter whom I am raising with the same outlook. But I can’t imagine striving for what Miriam calls this kind of “freedom” in the early 20th century when all of the females around her, including her sisters, depend on marriage for personal, economic support.

Richardson’s protagonist does make several attempts to be successful at one of the few professions open to women in 1915, that of teaching.  After the German finishing school which is described in “Pointed Roofs”, Miriam also takes a position as an instructor in a small boarding school in North London, which she finds exhausting and depressing.  When Miriam resides in the country home of the Currie’s as their governess, her surroundings are more peaceful and her job is easier, but she still doesn’t feel that she is truly free.

It’s not until the fourth chapter in Miriam’s story, “The Tunnel”, that she feels true joy and happiness because of her free life in London.  She has a demanding job as a secretary in the office of a busy dentist, for which position she earns one pound a week.  This allows her to rent a room which, although is small and shabby, is entirely her own space; for the first time in her life she experiences bliss in the deliberate choice of living in solitude.  I find myself cheering for Miriam and eagerly reading each and every page of her story to see what decisions, as an independent woman, she will make next.

What makes Richardson’s text so brilliant is the layers of imagery that she builds in order to demonstrate Miriam’s challenge of traditional, gender roles.  For instance, Miriam decides to take up smoking cigarettes, which at the time is considered a distinctly masculine habit.  While rolling her father’s cigarettes she surreptitiously smokes one and thoroughly enjoys the little buzz that she feels.  When she is a governess at the Currie’s she boldly plays billiards and smokes with the men while the other ladies who are guests at the house sit quietly nearby and gossip.  And into the narrative of “The Tunnel” Richardson carries the image of Miriam as smoker to extend the idea that she is challenging traditional gender roles.  When she is trying on knickers and a new hat she is admiring her different look while she is smoking.  A line from Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva kept coming to mind in these various scenes with Miriam smoking as she takes new, additional steps in her life toward independence: “I want the vibration of happiness.  I want the impartiality of Mozart.  But I also want inconsistency.  Freedom? it’s my final refuge.  I forced myself to freedom and I bear it not like a talent but with heroism: I’m heroically free.  And I want the flow.”  The subtleties of language, nuances of words and flickering of images in the writing compels me to read Pilgrimage with a slowness and deliberation that few other books have warranted.

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Angulus Coeli: The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The setting of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s only novel entitled The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a tropical, volcanic island in the Antilles which is dominated by an old, French, aristocratic family that is holding onto their traditional, Jacobean politics.  Not surprisingly, Fermor, most famous for his travel writing, begins his story with a detailed history and geographical description of his fictional island.  He imagines it being occupied by Arawaks and Carib natives and eventually being discovered by Columbus who annexed it for the Spanish crown; he further envisages the island being neglected by Spain and later taken over by the French whose noble families settle on the island and make it as prosperous as Martinique.  Fermor says that his island was little known and that “Cartographer and historian unconsciously conspired to ignore it.”    But he does, however, include an obscure passage, written in Latin, by an Franciscan missionary who is not at all complimentary about this tropical location.  In this addition of the text from NYRB Classics, the Latin is not translated.  I offer my own translation here because it sets up a structure for the important themes and ideas that Fermor explores throughout his narrative:

Insula Sancti Jacobi tantis opibus, tanta copia, tantaque pulcritudine ornata, sicut angulus coeli ipsius videtur, sed, ob mores improbos pravosque incolarum, ob jactanciam, luxuriam et gastrimargiam et Gallorum et nigrorum, insula Sancti Jacobi pessimam insularum aliarum omnium justius, immo, verum angulum Gehennae putanda est.

The island of Saint Jacques, with such wealth and such abundance and adorned with such beauty, seemed as if it were a corner of heaven itself, however, due to the excessive and depraved habits of its populace, due to their boastfulness, the luxury and the gluttony of both the French and the black men, the island of Saint Jacques must be more justly considered, indeed, the worst of all other islands,  a true corner of Hell.

Berthe de Rennes, an elderly woman who now resides on an island in the Aegean, tells the story of Saint-Jacques and the exciting six years she spent there in her youth during the last decade of the nineteenth century.  Her audience is an unnamed Englishman she meets on the beach who visits her over the course of a few weeks while he is vacationing in the Aegean.   Berthe was orphaned, she tells her visitor, and had been taken in by an elderly aunt in France when her cousin, Count Serindan of Saint-Jacques, invited her to come live with his family and serve as the nanny and tutor to his four children.  Fermor beautifully captures the sights, sounds, tastes, textures and smells of this lush, tropical place, and through the descriptions of Berthe’s paintings and drawings of the island we glimpse an angulus coeli (corner of heaven):

The sketch-books covered the entire life of the island.  All of the fine buildings of the capital were there, the statues of Plessis and Rumbold and Scudamore and Braithwaite and Schoelcher; views of savannah and volcanic ravine and stifling forest; punctilious flower-paintings of hibiscus and balisier, of looping lianas, tree-ferns and dark branches where the Night Flowering Cereus grew.  Even the monuments and inscriptions of churches were copied down.  There was an abundance of negroes and negresses in their brilliant village costumes and flamboyantly disguised for carnival.

There is, however, a darker, more sinister side to this island which appears to be a paradise on a merely superficial level.  The Count employs many mulattoes on his estate whose lighter complexions and facial features resemble the Serindans.  Fermor leaves us to imagine for ourselves whether or not the unions between employers and laborers were forced or consensual.  Perhaps the most disturbing instance of debauchery is Fermor’s hint that Gentilien, the Count’s own butler, is the same age as his master and looks enough like the Count to be his brother—a glimpse at the mores improbos (depraved habits) going on for generations on this island.  The Serindan family’s influence over the lives of everyone on the island is eerily described by Fermor as “Olympian” which reference brings to mind the many amorous conquests of the Ancient Greek deity, Zeus.

It is during a ball that the Count throws for carnival that the excess and luxury of the island is fully revealed.  The lavish, overindulgent meal—a reflection of the gastrimargiam (gluttony) noted in the missionary’s Latin passage— that the Count has prepared for his Mardi Gras party brings to mind Trimalchio’s extravagant, Roman cena (dinner) in Petronius’s Satyricon. 

In the kitchen, urchins, sea-eggs and dwarf oysters—the last still clustering in scores on lengths of mangrove-stalk—were heaped in pails.  The snow-white whorls of the conch shells (each of them opening to display a pink internal helix) were arrayed like a tritons’ orchestra announcing, in a silent fanfare, the later delights of Iambi flambe au rhum.  A swarm of little frogs swam agitatedly round their tank; the shell of a turtle had already been evacuated by its lodger.  Horny backed iguanas, trussed like captured dragons, moved restlessly in their baskets.  The Count stopped and gazed at them.

The preparations for this decadent meal are a precursor to the wild and outlandish drama that will occur later on that evening.   Fermor is a master at composing exciting stories and weaves a fist fight ending with a duel challenge, an attempted elopement, a prank involving a deadly, venomous snake, and an appearance by lepers disguised as dominoes into the events that all take place during the Count’s Mardi Gras celebration.  Fermor creates an exciting, intense, romantic plot, the pivotal events of which unfold during the ball and involve Berthe, her favorite cousin, Josephine and the arrogant son of the island’s governor.

Volcanic explosions and imagery of hell and burning all permeate the last part of Fermor’s vivid narrative.  In a final, catastrophic, natural event the island pays its cosmic debt for such opulence and becomes the verum angulum Gehennae (true corner of hell) of the monk’s earlier description.    Saint-Jacques manifests itself as a Caribbean version of Sodom and Gomorrah which Biblical locations, because of their excess, are plunged into a fiery, violent, hellish end.  Fermor’s insinuation in the text that Berthe—who now ironically lives in Mytilene, the capital of  Lesbos—is much closer to Josephine than any of her other family members, augments the image of Saint-Jacques as a nineteenth century version of these profligate cities.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Literary Fiction, New York Review of Books