Category Archives: Classics

Stranded in New York City: My Literary Adventure

This week I had the opportunity to visit New York City and explore one of its biggest and best bookstores.  The Strand, on 12th Street and Broadway, which has been in business for 86 years,  boasts 18 miles of books on three floors.  Browsing the massive collection of books is a bibliophile’s dream come true.  One of the things that impressed me the most is the abundance of what blogger Times Flow recently called “alt-lit”—which to me means literature in translation from around the world, books from small presses, and reissued classics.  Not only do they have a plethora of such interesting literature, but these types of books are displayed prominently on easy-to-browse tables on the first floor of The Strand.

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I recently acquired a copy of Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho and became intrigued with her writing and translating so I was excited to find two Carson books (well, more like pamphlets) at The Strand.  Her poetry collection entitled Float comes in a clear plastic box and contains a series of chapbooks with poems, reflections, lists, and thoughtful observations.  They are meant to be read separately or as one continuous, connected work; I would like to set aside enough time to read them all at once.

 

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I also found another  chapbook from Anne Carson that she wrote for part of the New Directions poetry pamphlet series.  I read The Albertine Workout on the train ride home and found it interesting, clever, humorous and erudite.   It’s ironic and thrilling that she penned such a small, thoughtful pamphlet on Proust!

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I also came across a rather inexpensive copy of Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones.  One aspect of The Strand that is also helpful is their abundance of new books on sale as well as inexpensive used book selection.

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I also couldn’t resist this new, pristine copy of Fagle’s translation of the Aeneid to replace my badly worn out copy.  The introduction by Bernard Knox is a fantastic piece of writing that makes this translation worth owning just for his essay alone.

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It was particularly exciting for me to walk into The Strand and immediately find books from many of my favorite small presses.  I browsed through books from Deep Vellum, New Vessel Press, Archipelago Books, Seagull Books and New Directions.  I found three books to add to my ever-growing collection from the New York Review of Books: The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, The Other by Thomas Tryon and The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout.

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I also found this copy of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenstrom published by Archipelago Books.

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Finally, I had the thrill of a lifetime when, as I was browsing this fabulous selection of books, I opened a copy of Recitation by Bae Suah from Deep Vellum which I recently reviewed.  Inside the front cover was a blurb from my review of her previous book, A Greater Music, that I wrote for World Literature Today.

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I also highly recommend The Strand Kiosk which is located outside of Central Park on E. 60th St. and 5th Ave.  It is only opened seasonally and I had the opportunity to browse the Kiosk during my visit last June and also came home with an assortment of great books.  And a final thing worth mentioning about The Strand is the third floor of the main shop on Broadway which is full of rare and collectable first edition books.  Their selection of rare books is also listed for sale on their website.  I am hoping that someday my copy of Bottom’s Dream from Dalkey Archive will be worthy of sitting among the rare books in their collection.  Although I doubt that I would ever be able to part with my copy!

I always find New York exciting and exhilarating and The Strand is a unique destination in the city that adds to the thrill of visiting.  I could have spent at least a few more hours there, I didn’t even make it to the second floor of books!  I am contemplating a day trip next month just to go back and visit this magical, literary place.  What are your favorite bookshops from around the world?

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Filed under Classics, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Osip Mandelstam, Poetry, Russian Literature

Review: Like Death by Guy Maupassant

I received an advanced review copy of this title from NYRB via Edelweiss.  This English version has been translated from the French by Richard Howard.

My Review:
like-deathOlivier Bertin is a painter in late nineteenth century Paris and his most famous work, his Cleopatra, has earned him enough fame to be sought out by the rich and famous of high society.  He is not interested in any romantic relationships with the bourgeois women he paints because he feels that are insipid and boring.  At a party one night, however, he meets the Countess Ann de Guilleroy and is immediately captivated by her beauty and charm and decides he must do her portrait.  As Bertin paints the Countess in his studio, the two have stimulating conversations and enjoy one another’s company more and more.

Like many romantic relationships, Anne and Bertin’s starts with great conversations and friendship.  Slowly, feelings of love overtake both of them until the painter can stand it no longer and decides he must have her.  When they consummate their relationship, Anne feels very guilty at first because she has had a good marriage to the Count de Guilleroy for seven years and they have a five-year-old daughter.  But she quickly realizes that Bertin makes her happy and she welcomes the painter into her inner circle so that they can have daily contact.

Henceforth she felt no remorse, merely the vague sense of a certain forfeiture, and to answer the reproaches of her reason, she now credited to a certain fatality.  Drawn to him by her virgin heart and her void soul, her flesh vanquished by the slow dominion of caresses, she gradually became attached, as tender women do who love for the first time.

There is no suspicion among Parisian society that they are having an affair and it simply appears that the Countess and Bertin are the best of friends and both share a love of the arts.  Bertin even becomes great friends with Anne’s husband, the Count.  Their affair carries on for twelve years and settles into an easy comfort, similar to many long-term marriages and relationships.  In two simple lines, Maupassant’s sublime prose describes the deep and abiding affection achieved by the lovers:

Months then passed, then years, which scarcely loosened the bond uniting Countess de Builleroy and the painter Olivier Bertin.  For him, this period was no longer theexaltation of the early days but a calmer, deeper affection, a sort of anitie amoureuse to which he had become easily and entirely accustomed.

The central crisis in the book occurs when Anne’s daughter, Annette, who has been growing up outside of Paris, makes her entrance into Parisian society at the age of eighteen; Annette is the exact image of her mother at that age and everyone, especially Bertin, notices the striking resemblance between mother and daughter.  Maupassant takes a lot of care in his writing to develop the contrast between the youth of Annette and the growing age of her mother and the painter.  He uses the seasons as a backdrop which  mimic the painter’s feelings and observations about mother and daughter.  For example, when Bertin first realizes that Annette is a younger, more energetic version of her mother it is springtime and Bertin has accompanied Annette to the park where children are playing and mother nature is in her first bloom.  The brighter, fresh weather and Annette’s youth give Bertin feelings of energy and passion that haven’t been stirred in him for many years.

At first it seems that the appearance of Annette has just reminded Bertin of the early stages of his relationship with Anne, that all-consuming, passion that marks the beginning of an affair.  But Bertin’s feelings gradually become deeper for Annette and he soon realizes he is even jealous of her fiancé.  Bertin doesn’t acknowledge his love for the young Annette until Anne detects them and points them out to the painter.  At this point in the book, Anne and Bertin both become hopelessly wretched because the painter has fallen in love with Annette, the younger, prettier version of Anne.  At times Anne and Bertin are a little hard to take because their feelings of misery are so intense and  they make frequent allusions to death which seemed a bit melodramatic.

Maupassant weaves an interesting commentary throughout the book on beauty, age, youth and the standards of beauty upheld by society.  Anne notices her increasing wrinkles and sagging skin and believes her appearance is to blame for Bertin’s lack of affection towards her.  And instead of being proud of her daughter she is jealous of Annette’s complexion yet unblemished by time and age.  Anne takes more time to apply make-up, takes extreme measures to make herself thin and only greets her lover in the dim light of the drawing room.  Olivier, too, suffers from an obsession with his aging appearance.  His white hair and paleness are particularly emphasized.  When a Parisian newspaper calls his art work old-fashioned, he becomes particularly distraught about his advancing years.  Maupassant’s meditations on the impossible standards of beauty to which we hold ourselves are just as relevant now as they were in the nineteenth century.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read because of Maupassant’s prose which perfectly captures the extreme and conflicting emotions of love and suffering.  The ending is rather dramatic, although not at all surprising given the title and other elements of foreshadowing that Maupassant scatters throughout his text.

 

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Filed under Classics, France, French Literature, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books

How Many Kisses are Enough?: My Translation of Catullus Poem 7

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Frederic Leighton, Acme and Septimius, c 1868

Monday is the first day of the spring semester for me and even though I have been teaching for nearly twenty years I still get nervous whenever I step into a new class.  This year the enrollment in my classes are especially robust, which makes me feel even a bit more anxious.  My Honors course this semester will be translating Catullus and it is always my hope that they grow to appreciate the many layers of his intense poetry.  Since I have Catullus on my mind I thought I would continue my translation series by offering my rendition of Poem 7 which is also considered the companion piece to Poem 5 that I translated in a previous post.

Like many of Catullus’s verses,  at first glance Poem 7 seems deceptively simple.  The poem is a mere twelve lines in hendecasyllabic meter and it is about kisses.  What could be a more trivial and frivolous topic for a poem?  But a closer examination of the Latin reveals the poet’s talent at deceiving his readers:

Quaeris, quot mihi basiationes
tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque.
quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis
oraclum Iovis inter aestuosi
et Batti veteris sacrum sepulcrum;
aut quam sidera multa, cum tacet nox,
furtivos hominum vident amores:
tam te basia multa basiare
vesano satis et super Catullo est,
quae nec pernumerare curiosi
possint nec mala fascinare lingua.

You ask, Clodia, how many of your kisses
are enough or more than enough for me,
and my answer is as many as the great number of
sands that lie in the Libyan desert in silphium-bearing
Cyrene between the oracle of sultry Jove and the
sacred tomb of old Battis; or as many as the number
of stars in the sky that spy on the secret affairs of
lovers during the quiet of night.  To kiss you so many
kisses would be enough and more than enough for crazy
Catullus.  And nosy men would never be able to count
this number of kisses and put a curse on us!

I imagine that when he is composing this Catullus and Clodia are in the midst of their passionate and intense love affair; whereas in Poem 5 he seems to be still trying to woo her, in Poem 7 they have consummated their relationship.  I imagine them coming up for air after a particularly intense encounter and Clodia posing this question to him, “Just how many kisses will be enough for you, you crazy man?”  His hyperbolic response—he won’t be satisfied until he receives as many kisses as grains of sand in a desert or stars in the night sky—is fitting for the depth of their ardor.  Catullus sends this poem as a response to his lover knowing that she is a docta puella, an erudite and intelligent woman who will understand his Alexandrian references.

The Romans referred to North Africa as Libya, so that is the part of the world to which Catullus is alluding.  North Africa, and  Cyrene in particular which he also mentions, is the birthplace of the Alexandrian poet Callimachus whose style Catullus is attempting to emulate in his poetry.  In contrast to epic poets that are concerned with larger themes and the grand achievements of heroes, Callimachus and the  νεωτερικοί “new poets” of the Hellenistic Period compose brief, erudite poems about intense emotions experienced by ordinary men.  Their poems are considered highly perfected works of art in which every word is carefully chosen and placed on the page.  Catullus and his friends are considered the Latin Neoterics or, as Cicero disdainfully labeled them the Novi Poetae, and their poems are equally as intelligent and polished as those of their Greek predecessors.  By appearing to casually mention Libya and Cyrene in a love poem, Catullus is name dropping and only the most learned readers could understand that his verses are so much more than a love poem.  The reference to Battos is even more obscure since this man was a distant relative of Callimachus and the founder of Cyrene which Herodotus explains was a Greek colony of the island of Thera.

But I do think it is important to return to Catullus’s underlying inspiration and motivation for composing this poem, his love for Clodia.  He wants an infinite number of basiationes which can be playfully translated as “kissifications.”  He reminds us that their love affair is clandestine by inserting into line 8 the secret lovers who meet under the cover of night.  He subtly underscores his sexual relationship with Clodia by mentioning the silphium plant that was used as an ancient form of contraception.  And finally, he emphasizes the fact that people are gossiping—mala lingua “evil tongues”— about his time spent with Clodia whose powerful husband could destroy Catullus if word of their love ever reached his ears.  Catullus’s raw, ardent and visceral poems would not exist without the passion and risk he experiences while engaging in this love affair.

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Lucretius, Epicureanism, and a sinking ship: My thoughts on the Inauguration

Battle of Actium. Castro, 1672.

Battle of Actium. Castro, 1672.

The beginning of Book II of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura has always been one of my favorite parts of this Roman poet’s epic.  As Inauguration Day approaches in my country, I keep mulling over these lines for various reasons which I will explain.  First, I offer my translation of De Rerum Natura 2.1-19:

Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;
non quia vexari quemquamst iucunda voluptas,
sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suavest.
suave etiam belli certamina magna tueri
per campos instructa tua sine parte pericli;
sed nihil dulcius est, bene quam munita tenere
edita doctrina sapientum templa serena,
despicere unde queas alios passimque videre
errare atque viam palantis quaerere vitae,
certare ingenio, contendere nobilitate,
noctes atque dies niti praestante labore
ad summas emergere opes rerumque potiri.
o miseras hominum mentes, o pectora caeca!
qualibus in tenebris vitae quantisque periclis
degitur hoc aevi quodcumquest! nonne videre
nihil aliud sibi naturam latrare, nisi ut qui
corpore seiunctus dolor absit, mensque fruatur
iucundo sensu cura semota metuque?

It is pleasant, when on the vast sea the winds are stirring up
the water, to look at the great misfortune of another person
from the land; not because it is pleasant to rejoice in
another man’s troubles, but because it is a relief to
comprehend what types of evils from which you yourself
have been spared. It is pleasant indeed to look upon great
battles in war being carried out on the battlefield,
the dangers of which you have no part in. There is
nothing sweeter than to possess the fortified, lofty doctrines of
the wise, as serene temples, from which place you might look
down upon others and see that they wander everywhere
seeking a path for their aimless lives, as they struggle with
their intelligence and fight for nobility, as night and day
they wrestle with great toil to climb to the highest
mountain of riches and to acquire things.
O miserable minds of men, o blind souls!
In what shadows of life, in what perils is this age of
yours have you passed! You see, don’t you, that nature barks
for nothing other than this, that pain be severed from the body
and that the mind, freed from worry and fear, enjoy
a pleasant feeling.

As I have spoken to various friends from around the world, especially in the blogging community, I can’t help but feel that other countries are standing on the shores and watching in horror the shipwreck that is occurring in American politics with the inauguration of our 45th President. I have a sense that Canadians in particular, with their universal healthcare, and progressive Prime Minister, are grateful, in the sense Lucretius describes, that they are not part of these turbulent waters in which we Americans have found ourselves drowning.

As the Inauguration approaches, I have tried very hard not to read about any of the preparations for it and I have also vowed not to watch the news coverage on the day of the event. I don’t want to experience this shipwreck of an historical event, but then I realized that perhaps my inability to watch the shipwreck signifies that I have created an illusion for myself. It’s not that I don’t want to watch it, but instead it’s impossible for me to see it because I am on that very ship, being drowned in those waters which the wind has stirred up. Sometimes it’s very difficult not to have such a feeling of despair.

In order to mitigate our despair what are those “lofty doctrines of the wise” Lucretius suggests to which we can cling? How do we counteract a war being played out in horror in front of our eyes—a war against healthcare, basic human rights, freedoms and liberties? We cannot exist in some Epicurean garden or paradise and simply watch these things happen without being affected and without protest or action.

I can’t help but think of our incoming president as I translate Lucretius’ description of men who crave riches and devote their lives to the acquisition of things. It is evident from any thirty-second sound bite we hear that our new leader struggles with intelligence (ingenio) and has quite a lofty view of his own nobility (nobilitate). I site as an example of this exaggerated sense of nobilitas the opulent signs displaying his name on every building he owns or partially owns.

Finally, I particularly admire Lucretius’ word choice in the last few lines when talking about pain (dolor)—our nature barks or howls out (latrare) for us to get rid of any type of pain that invades our bodies and to embrace those things that bring us pleasure. How can we apply Lucretius’ advice to our current political situation? Lucretius’ suggestion of avoidance, as I noted above, seems impossible in this instance. Avoidance, in fact, is downright irresponsible. We are left with the other piece of his philosophy—to embrace those things that give us pleasure. For me this would take the form of reading, writing, connecting with friends, holding my family especially close and setting an example of kindness, tolerance and understanding for my daughter and my students. Will this be enough to mitigate the pain? Who knows. Perhaps it might be better to look to the Stoics or the Cynics for more philosophical advice in this instance.

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Filed under Classics, Opinion Posts

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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Filed under British Literature, Classics