Category Archives: Classics

If Only Sleep Would Come: One Night by Umberto Saba

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan, 1878

One of my favorite literary bloggers, Tom from Wuthering Expectations, did a post on Modern European Poetry with a focus on the Greek poetry contained within this wonderful volume.  If you haven’t had a chance to read Tom’s posts then please do yourself a favor and peruse his blog.  His analysis of literature is full of what the Roman poet Catullus would call facetiae (wit) and lepida (charms).

As I was reading through this collection of modern poetry, I was happy to find poems by Ingeborg Bachmann whose name I have seen many times on bloggers’ personal canons.  A few poems by the Italian author Umberto Saba also captivated me.  I thought I would share one particularly short yet moving piece (Catullus would definitely approve!)

One Night

If only sleep would come, as it has come
on other nights: already slipping through
my thoughts.

Instead now,

like an old washerwoman wringing clothes,
anguish wrings another pain from my heart.
I would cry out but cannot. As for torment—
suffered once—I suffer on in silence.

And that which I have lost, only I know

Translated by Felix Stefanile

2 Comments

Filed under Classics, Italian Literature, Poetry

Fato Profugus: Teffi’s Memories—From Moscow to The Black Sea

As I was reading Teffi’s memoir about her katabasis from Russia to Constantinople during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, two words from Vergil’s Aeneid kept coming to mind: fato and profugus .   After barely escaping from the burning and destruction of Troy, Aeneas is profugus–“exiled”, “driven forward”, he is essentially a fugitive or a refugee.  The fate of his sea voyage and his various landings are the result of fatum, “fate” driving him along from one place to the next; he rarely, if ever, chooses his next destination.  Like Aeneas, Teffi is a refugee and much of her flight from her motherland is a result of fate and circumstance.  At one particularly dramatic part of her journey in Odessa she reflects, “And then there I was, rolling down the map.  Fate had pushed me on, forcing me wherever it chose, right to the very edge of the sea.  Now, if it so wished, it could force me right into the sea—or it could push me along the coast.  In the end, wasn’t it all the same?”

Teffi’s journey begins in Moscow when an impresario named Gooskin approaches her and convinces her to do a series of readings in Odessa: “My Petersburg life has been liquidated.  The Russian Word has been closed down.  There is, it seems, no possibility of anything.  Or rather, there is one possibility; it appears, day after day, in the shape of a squint-eyed Odessa impresario by the name of Goodskin, who is trying to persuade me to go with him to Kiev and Odessa and give public readings there.”   There are many scenes throughout the narrative, similar to this opening paragraph, in which Teffi allows herself to be swept up and carried along the waves of fate and hordes of people and luggage from one city to the next.

The tone of Teffi’s narrative reminded me of Lenora Carrington’s memoir Down Below;  in both memoirs there is strange calm, almost an indifference that pervades the texts.  But I would argue that each woman, writing her memoir in hindsight, is attempting to relate the most harrowing and traumatic experiences they have ever experienced and the only way to revisit such horror is to do it with as little emotion as possible. Both of these narratives also seem to be cathartic farewells for these women: Carrington bids goodbye to her mental illness and her relationship with Max Ernst while Teffi is paying a final adieu to her beloved Russia.

Teffi’s Memories were originally written and published as serials in the Russian language newspaper Vozrozhdenie  between 1928 and 1930.  At that point Teffi had been in exile for ten years and was able to tell her story of chaos, violence and destruction caused by the Bolsheviks as they take over one city after another with a certain amount of detached calm.  The human spirit can only take so much suffering and Teffi gives us a glimpse into her mindset as she escapes one dangerous situation after another.  When she is left almost alone in a desolate hotel in Odessa, unsure of how she will escape that city she writes:

My future was a matter of complete indifference to me.  I felt neither anxiety nor fear.  In any case there was nothing I could do.  In my mind I retraced my strange journey from Moscow, always south, always further south, and always without any deliberate choice.  In the form of Gooskin, the hand of fate had appeared.  It had pushed me on my way.

As  Teffi  narrowly escapes invading forces while making her way south from Kiev to Odessa to Novorossiisk,  she describes her experiences with cramped train journeys, cold and uncomfortable living quarters, food shortages and outbreaks of  Spanish influenza and typhus.  Teffi’s humor and strong spirit, however, prevent the tone of this memoir from becoming horrendously bleak.  As she leaves Odessa she runs into a beauty salon full of women who don’t want to go into exile without getting their hair done; in Novorossiisk she meets a woman who is so proud of her newly made dress that is fashioned completely out of medical gauze.

In addition to her humor and her resilent spirit, there are certain objects that Teffi carries along with her that give her comfort as a refugee.  Her guitar, her religious artifacts and her sealskin coat are dragged along with her from city to city.  One of the most poignant stories in the book was about her sealskin coat that she wraps around her for warmth while traveling by train and she makes us understand that those coats represented the entire, prolonged journey of Russian refugees:

Were there any of us who did not have a sealskin coat?  We put these coats on as we first set out, even if this was in summer, because we couldn’t bear to leave them behind—such a coat was both warm and valuable and none of us knew how long our wanderings would last.  I saw sealskin coats in Kiev and in Odessa, still looking new, their fur all smooth and glossy.  Then in Novorossiisk, worn thin around the edges and with bald patches down the sides and on the elbows.  In Constantinople—with grubby collars and cuffs folded back in shame.  And, last of all, in Paris, from 1920 until 1922.  By 1920 the fur had worn away completely, right down to the shiny black leather.  The coat had been shortened to the knee and the collar and cuffs were now made from some new kind of fur, something blacker and oilier—a foreign substitute.  In 1924 these coats disappeared.  All that remained was odds and ends, torn scraps of memories, bits of trimming sewn onto the cuffs, collars, and hems of ordinary woolen coats.  Nothing more.  And now, in 1925, the timid, gentle seal was obliterated by invading hordes of dyed cats.  But even now when I see a sealskin coat, I remember this epoch in our lives as refugees.

Teffi’s memoir is timely because it reminds us that the many refugees we see on a daily basis in the media are suffering hardships that we couldn’t begin to otherwise imagine.  What objects do these refugees, who are also exiled by fate, carry along with them?  As these refugees are forced to live in camps and not welcomed by other nations we should ask ourselves what would have happened if Teffi didn’t have a place like Paris to welcome her and give her a new home?

12 Comments

Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Russian Literature

An Addendum to my Personal Canon

When I recently wrote a list of the books that have had the greatest impact on my life, I naturally included several ancient authors.  Each work on the list is something I have translated myself and I was thinking about those texts in the original Latin or Ancient Greek.  But I have had many inquires about my favorite translations of these texts, so here is my addendum.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are the old chestnuts that I return to time and again:

Homer, Iliad: The Robert Fagles translation is still my favorite (the intro. to this text written by Bernard Knox is worth the price of the book alone).  For those who want something more daring, Chapman’s translation of Homer is also something I have really enjoyed.  And for those who want something really daring, Christopher Logue’s interpretation of the Iliad, entitled War Music, is stunning (regular readers of my blog will know that I flipped my lid over this and wrote four different posts about it.)

Presocratic Philosophers: Since these authors are in fragments, the best book I have found that includes both interpretations as well as translations is The Presocratic Philosophers by G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven and M. Schofield.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon: Once again, I have to go with the Robert Fagles translation of this which is a Penguin Edition.  This edition also includes translations of the Libation Bearers and the Eumenides.

Euripides, Trojan Women, Medea: The Oxford World’s Classics editions translated by James Morwood are my staple translations for all of Euripides. The Trojan Women and Medea are in separate volumes.  The edition with Medea also includes Hippolytus, Electra and Helen.  The edition with Trojan Women also includes translations of Hecuba and Andromache.

Sopocles, Oedipus, Antigone: The Penguin edition is my favorite which is translated by Robert Fagles and includes all three of the Theban plays. (Can you tell that I am partial to the translations of Fagles?)

Plato, Symposium: The Tom Griffith translation by the University of California Press is still my favored edition and also includes engravings by Peter Forster.

Aristotle, Poetics: I still go back to the first translation of this I’ve ever read by Leon Golden published in 1968 by Florida State University Press.  It also includes an excellent running commentary.

Catullus, Carmina: Although the English is a bit Archaic since it was originally published in 1913, I still love the Loeb translation edited and revised by G.P. Gould.  This edition also includes the poems of Tibullus which I also highly recommend.  Tom, whose erudite writing about classic literature can be found at Wuthering Expectations, recommended the Horace Gregory translation published in 1952 which I am thoroughly enjoying!  I have been reading the translations from Gregory this semester as I translate the Latin text with my students and it has been a most enjoyable experience.  Sometimes a different translation, even an older one, gives us fresh eyes.

Vergil, Aeneid: I’ve always loved the Robert Fitzgerald translation of the Aeneid which is the Vintage Classics edition, that is, until Robert Fagles published his. I also am excited to read the new translation of it that will be published by the University of Chicago Press in the fall of 2017.  Word on the street is that David Ferry’s new translation is fabulous.  Stayed tuned for my official opinion.

Seneca, everything he wrote, especially The Trojan Women: I love the dual language edition by Elaine Fantham which has been out-of-print for quite a while.  The introduction and the commentary are extraordinary.  There is also a new translation of all of Seneca’s plays that was just published by The University of Chicago Press.  Elaine Fantham was part of the team of editors and translators on this project before she passed away and I am very eager to devote my full attention to these new translations.  Stay tuned for my thoughts!

Cicero, De Senectute, Pro Caelio: The Penguin Editions of both of these translations are excellent. Cicero: Selected Works, translated by Michael Grant includes De SenectuteCicero: Selected Political Speeches includes the Pro Caelio. These are the editions that I use to teach Cicero in my classes.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Heroides: For the Metamorphoses I have always loved Rolfe Humphries’s translation that was originally published by The University of Indiana Press in 1960.  The translation by Allen Mandelbaum published in 1995 is also excellent.  Finally, the A.S. Kline translation is also very good and is available online here: http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Ovhome.htm

The Loeb edition of the Heroides, translated in 1914 by Grant Showerman and revised by G.P. Gould, is still my favorite. This edition also includes the Amores which I very highly recommend.  Maybe I also should have included the Amores on my personal canon?

Propertius, Elegies: (Many read Catullus and Ovid and unfortunately bypass Propertius.  But his poems are just as good and important.)  Once again, I have to go with the trustworthy Loeb edition translation by G.P. Gould.

Lucan The Civil War: (A very underappreciated epic from the Latin Silver Age)  And yet again, I have to go with the Loeb edition of Lucan translated by J.D. Duff and originally published in 1928.

I realize that there are quite a few Loeb editions on the list, but the dual text and the older translations have always appealed to me.  Please leave further suggested translations for any of these authors in the comments!

13 Comments

Filed under Classics, Opinion Posts

Venit Ver (Spring Arrives)

Fresco, The Roman Goddess Flora

The Latin poet Catullus had a passionate yet turbulent love affair with a prominent married woman named Clodia. When Clodia finally releases him for good, Catullus accepts a position on the staff of the Roman governor of Bithynia to get out of town for a while and away from any painful reminders of his love affair. He chooses this long and tedious journey to get as far away as possible from Rome in order to nurse his sore wounds. But as we learn from poem 10, the governor of Bithynia was a crook and Catullus did not make any profit there. After a year in this outpost in Asia Minor, Catullus writes a poem in 56 B.C. as he is about to embark on his journey home. It is springtime and Catullus has that renewed sense of hope which comes with the warmer air and the fresh breezes. The meter is hendecasyllabic:

Catullus, Carmen 46:

Iam ver egelidos refert tepores,
iam caeli furor aequinoctialis
iucundis Zephyri silescit aureis.
Linquantur Phrygii, Catulle, campi
nicaeaeque ager uber aestuosae:
ad claras asiae volemus urbes.
Iam mens praetrepidans avet vagari,
iam laeti studio pedes vigescunt.
O dulces comitum valete coetus,
longe quos simul a domo profectos
diversae varie viae reportant.

My Translation of Carmen 46:

Now spring returns the mild warmth
now the fury of the equinoctial sky is silenced
by the pleasant breezes of the west-wind.
Let the Phrygian plains, Catullus,
and the fertile fields of Nicaea be left behind:
Let us fly through the well-known cities of Asia.
Now my mind, trembling with anticipation, strongly desires to roam,
now my happy feet become lively with eagerness.
Take care, oh cherished group of friends
who, having traveled together far from our homes,
are now being carried back on different roads.

I find this time of the year, May in particular, to be the most difficult to get through as far as teaching my classes are concerned. The springtime causes the students to become increasingly impatient because they are trapped in a classroom as the weather is becoming warmer.  Who could blame them! The spring has mixed blessings for me: I enjoy the warmth of the sun and the budding flowers but I don’t look forward to fidgety students who are increasingly eager to carry their laeti pedes (happy feet) away from these halls of learning for summer.

Fresco from the Villa di Livia

9 Comments

Filed under Classics, Opinion Posts

Review: Blindness by Henry Green

Blindness is the first of Henry Green’s nine novels and has elements of autobiography woven into the character sketch of seventeen-year-old John Hayes, a student attending British public school in the early twentieth century.  The first part of Blindness is written as a series of diary entries by John who is attending Noat, a school that closely resembles Green’s alma mater, Eaton.  John’s diaries are filled with entries about his keen interest in writing, stories of his silly friends, anecdotes about public school life and the various duties of his important role as the secretary of the Noat art society.  During one of his trips home, John is injured in a horrendous, freak accident and he is permanently blinded.  Forced to leave school and live at Barwood with his stepmother and old Nanny, John’s carefree life comes to a dramatic end.  In Green’s unique presentation of a Bildungsroman, young John must reexamine the world through the use of his other senses and learn to deal with his new version of reality as he moves forward with his life.

Green’s use of  diary entries for part one of his book, the single chapter of which is aptly called “Laugh,”  is a subtle way of showing us the humor and quirks of John’s easy existence but without turning his protagonist into a ridiculous caricature of a British school boy.   John’s entry for October 1 reads:

Brown, a friend of mine, has hit Billing, who keeps the food shop where you get rat poison, in the stomach so that he crumpled up behind the counter: the best thing that has happened for years.

Billing had apparently hit Brown previously, and had sent him to the Headmaster for being rude, and he, instead of backing Billing up, had asked Brown why he had not hit back: so when Billing hit Rockfeller today, Rockfeller being with Brown was rude to Billing, who attacked Brown, who laid Billing out.  Meanwhile Brown has gone to his House master to ask that Billing’s shop may be put out of bounds, and Billing presumably is going to the Headmaster.  There will be a fine flare-up.

John’s diary is replete with these seemingly mundane stories that Green’s writing style manages to make witty and charming.   John takes his role as secretary of the Noat art society very seriously and is oftentimes stressed out because of the various shows and lectures the he helps to organize.  Social ostracism, wearing the right clothes and hats, thoughts on his favorite books and his interest in a writing career are topics that fill up the pages of this entertaining diary.  We also get a glimpse of John’s fussy stepmother who is consumed with running her household, fighting with the Town Council and making certain that everyone in the village is behaving properly.  John thinks that she doesn’t really understand him on any kind of a deep level, but he acknowledges that she is a concerned and loving mother figure to him.

Although the rest of the book is not written in diary form, Green continues to narrate the actions through the intimate thoughts of various characters.  Green’s strength as an author begins in this first book with his ability to allow his audience to experience the events and images of the book right alongside with his characters.  For example, we learn through her rambling thoughts that Nanny has raised John since he was born and that she is completely distraught over the accident; Mamma is concerned that John will never have anything to do with his life and will be in danger of staying a bachelor.  Mamma dearly misses her husband, John’s father, whom she is certain would have know the right courses of action to deal with this tragedy.

Parts two and three have a marked change of tone from the humorous to the more serious.  But Green manages to do this without turning the story into a banal tragedy.  What ties the three parts of this book together is John’s optimism even when he can no longer see.  As he learns that there is no chance that he will ever have his vision back, he absorbs this bad news with a stoicism that developed in him while he was a student at Noat.  He tries to console his mother and his nanny who seem much more distraught at the news of his blindness than John himself.  While he is getting used to the darkness that has permanently set in we see the first glimpses of his optimism:

But he was blind, everyone would be sorry for him, everyone would try to help him, and everyone would be at his beck and call; it was very nice, it was comfortable.  He would take full advantage, after all he deserved it in a conscience.  He would enjoy life.  Why not?  But he was blind.

Another strength of Green’s writing that shines through in Blindness is his ability to describe in great detail images that beautifully capture the splendor of the English countryside.  Green weaves these different images throughout his story so that they are fitting for John’s metamorphosis from Caterpillar, to Chrysalis, to Butterfly, as the three parts of the novel are fittingly named.  When John is first blinded he is still trying to experience the beauty of Barwood estate through memories of vision.  Green writes:

So much of life had been made up of seeing things.  The country he had always looked to for something.  He had seen so much in line, so much in colour, so much in everything he had seen.  And he had noticed more than anyone else, of course he had.

But when he had seen, how much it had meant.  Everything was abstract now personality had gone.  Flashs came back of things seen and remembered, but they were not clear-cut.  Little bits in a wood, a pool in a hedge with red flowers everywhere, a red-coated man in the distance on a white horse galloping, the sea with violet patches over grey where the seaweed stained it, silver where the sun rays met it.  A gull coming up from beneath a cliff.  There was a certain comfort in remembering.

As John adjusts to his new world, Green shifts his imagery in the final part of the book from an emphasis on the visual to the aural and the tangible:

He was in the summer house.  Light rain crackled as it fell on the wooden roof, and winds swept up, one after the other, to rustle the trees.  A pigeon hurried rather through his phrase that was no longer now a call.  Cries of rooks came down tohim from where they would be floating, whirling in the air like dead leaves, over the lawn.  The winds kept coming back, growing out of each other and when a stronger one had gone by there would be left cool eddies slipping by his cheek, while a tree further on would thunder softly.

John’s newfound outlook on life coincides with a bizarre relationship he has with a woman named Joan who lives in a dilapidated cottage with her drunken father.  Green’s insertion of this storyline and character has a mixed success in the overall narrative structure of the story.  There is a long interlude at the end of part two that describes Joan and her miserable life with her father who was once the village parson but has been ostracized because of his alcoholism and the rumors that he deceased wife was cheating on him.  The abrupt change from John and his family’s perspective to Joan and her father seemed out of place especially since her story was given no real ending by Green.  At best Joan serves as a catalyst for John to explore the world through other senses as he and Joan take long walks in the woods together.  But it is evident that their different social classes and upbringing is too much of an obstacle for them to have any long-term commitment to one another.

The Joan episode is not completely devoid of its merits within the framework of the book, however.  Green could have been easily turned their story into the cliché blind-rich-boy meets and marries poor-downtrodden-scared girl who live happily ever after.  Even in his first novel Green writes an unexpected ending;  John’s optimism wins over and an unlikely character, who isn’t Joan, helps him embrace a new life and become the adventurous, independent butterfly he is meant to be.

About the Author:
Henry Green was the nom de plume of Henry Vincent Yorke.  Green was born near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, into an educated family with successful business interests. His father Vincent Wodehouse Yorke, the son of John Reginald Yorke and Sophia Matilda de Tuyll de Serooskerken, was a wealthy landowner and industrialist in Birmingham. His mother, Hon. Maud Evelyn Wyndham, was daughter of the second Baron Leconfield. Green grew up in Gloucestershire and attended Eton College, where he became friends with fellow pupil Anthony Powell and wrote most of his first novel, Blindness. He studied at Oxford University and there began a friendship and literary rivalry with Evelyn Waugh.

Green left Oxford in 1926 without taking a degree and returned to Birmingham to engage in his family business. He started by working with the ordinary workers on the factory floor of his family’s factory, which produced beer-bottling machines, and later became the managing director. During this time he gained the experience to write Living, his second novel, which he worked on during 1927 and 1928. In 1929, he married his second cousin, the Hon. Adelaide Biddulph, also known as ‘Dig’. They were both great-grandchildren of the 1st Baron Leconfield. Their son Sebastian was born in 1934. In 1940, Green published Pack My Bag, which he regarded as a nearly-accurate autobiography. During World War II Green served as a fireman in the Auxiliary Fire Service and these wartime experiences are echoed in his novel Caught; they were also a strong influence on his subsequent novel, Back.

Green’s last published novel was Doting (1952); this was the end of his writing career. In his later years, until his death in 1973, he became increasingly focused on studies of the Ottoman Empire, and became alcoholic and reclusive. Politically, Green was a traditional Tory throughout his life.

7 Comments

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