Category Archives: New York Review of Books

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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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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A Rite of Passage: My Review of Samskara by U.R Ananthamurthy

samskara_1024x1024The word Samskara or Sanskara is from Sanskrit and is a central concept to many of the ideas embodied in Hinduism.  There are several definitions for this word including: “A rite of passage or life cycle ceremony”, “forming well, making perfect”, “the realizing of past perceptions”, and “preparation and making ready.”

Samskaras are also, in one context, the diverse rites of passage of a human being from conception to cremation, which mark specific events in an individual’s journey of life in Hinduism.  In U.R. Anathamurthy’s novel, Samskara specifically refers to “a rite for a dead man” and it is this compulsory rite which is given to Brahmins at their passing that becomes the central controversy of this book.  When the story begins, a Brahmin community is presented with the dilemma of deciding who will perform the samskara for one of the members of their community who had become a heretic.  The leader of this orthodox Brahmin community (agrahara), Praneshacharya, has to decide what to do with the body of his fellow Brahmin who drank, ate meat, fished in sacred waters and, worst of all, was living with a sensual, lower caste woman.

Praneschacharya has adopted an extreme form of asceticism by living with a sickly, invalid wife and having a sexless marriage.  He cares for and baths his wife on a daily basis and views the denial of his physical needs as a form of penance that will garner him blessings in this life and the next.  But when Praneschacharya has his first sexual encounter, a whole new world of pleasure causes him to question his orthodox beliefs.  As he tries to make the best decision about the heretic’s burial and comes to grips with his crisis of faith, it is Praneshacharya who has his own samskara or rite of passage in his life.

Read my full review of this classic piece of Indian literature on Asymptote.

 

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Review: His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas

I received a review copy of this title from the New York Review of Books via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original Spanish in 1890 and this English version has been translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

My Review:
his-only-sonBonifacio Reyes has spent his whole life carrying out the commands that others have bestowed on him.  When he is a young man he is coaxed into eloping with Emma Valcárcel , the spoiled only child of Don Diego Valcárcel, a prominent lawyer in what Alas describes as a “third-rate provincial capital.”  When the couple’s plans are thwarted and they are captured , Emma is confined to a convent and Bonifacio is banished to Mexico where he will live a sad and lonely existence for the rest of his life.  Or so he thought.

When Emma’s father dies she is finally released from the convent and as her father’s sole heir, she lives a comfortable and pampered life.  Despite the time that has passed, Emma continues to pine away for her beloved Bonifacio but in order to avoid a town scandal, she wants a different husband first before she marries Bonifacio.  Emma manages to capture a sickly husband who doesn’t last very long, and once she is done playing the role of mournful widow, she has her family track Bonifacio down in Mexico where he is working for a newspaper.  Bonifacio is easily lured back to Spain where, within three months, he becomes the kept husband of Emma.

Alas slowly unravels Emma’s dark side throughout the novel.  Emma declares very early on that the honeymoon is over but she keeps her handsome Bonifacio around her, dressed in the finest clothes, to show him off to the rest of the provincial town whenever it is convenient.  Bonifacio spends most of the day playing a flute which he finds among his deceased father-in-law’s old papers.  The couple appears to settle into a comfortable, yet affectionless, existence together:

Emma never asked him about his interests nor about the time they filled, which was most of the day. She demanded only that he be smartly dressed when they went out walking or visiting. “Her” Bonifacio was merely an adornment, entirely hollow and empty inside, but useful as a way of provoking the envy of many of the town’s society ladies. She showed off her husband, for whom she bought fine clothes, which he wore well, and reserved the right to present him as a good, simple soul.

The turning point that really sours their marriage is a miscarriage that Emma suffers which affects her health and prematurely ages her.  After this distressful brush with death, Emma becomes an unbearable tyrant and unleashes all of her frustrations and abuses on Bonifacio.  Alas’ story reads like a tragicomedy in which neither partner in the marriage is happy but neither party can be without the other.  Bonifacio is on call in the evenings so that he can rub unguents and lotions on his wife’s sickly body and while he does these and other demeaning tasks for her she hurls abuses and insults at him.  The most awful part of this for Bonifacio is not the name-calling or even the completion of these tasks, but the sheer noise that Emma raises when Bonifacio is carrying out his duties.  Bonifacio craves, more than anything in life, to have peace and quiet in his house.  Whenever Emma calls his name, the poor man shutters:

Telling Bonifacio off became her one consolation; she could not do without his attentions nor, equally, without rewarding him with shrill, rough words.  What doubt could there be that her Bonifacio was born to put up with and to care for her.

Bonifacio, who prides himself on his appreciation for music and the arts, finds a second home at the local theater where a troupe of second rate opera singers have temporarily set up shop. Bonifacio finds the peace and quiet he so craves among the opera singers who view him, at first, as a cash cow and as a sucker that will pay for their expensive dinners.  Bonifacio gets into a couple of touch spots trying to get money out of his wife’s uncle, who serves as the family accountant.  Bonifacio quickly realizes that the best way to get into the heart and the bed of Serafina is to give her partner Mochi money whenever he asks.  Bonifacio engages in a passionate and sensual love affair with Serafina and he carefully keeps his musician friends away from his home and his wife.

At this point in the story Alas ramps up the comedy as Bonifacio and Emma engage in an elaborate game of cat and mouse.  Emma has gradually been recovering her health and is only pretending to be an invalid.  One night when Bonifacio comes home from the theater smelling of rice powder, Emma suspects that he is having an affair.  But instead of screaming and yelling at her husband, she seduces him and for the first time in years they start having sex again.  The sex, though, becomes, like Emma’s character, a bit crazy and depraved.   Emma admits that she has been hatching a maniacal plan to bring down both her adulterous husband and her accountant uncle who she believes is stealing from her:.

The first part of her plan is carried out when Emma insists on going to the theater and meeting Bonifacio’s music friends with whom he has been spending so much time.   But while at the theater, Emma is herself smitten with one of the opera singers, a baritone named Minghetti.  Emma and Minghetti flirt shamelessly with one another and arrange to see each other on a regular basis when Minghetti offers piano lessons to Emma.  This is where the story reaches its pinnacle of farce as Emma and her lover carry on right under Bonifacio’s nose.

It is also at this point that Emma finds out that she is pregnant.  Bonifacio becomes maudlin and sentimental over the fact that he will now have a son and promises to changes his ways.  He swears he will take more financial responsibility for his family and he gives up Serafina as his lover.  Bonifacio’s final act of absurdity is his refusal to believe that anyone besides himself is the father of Emma’s baby.  The novel concludes with this one statement that Alas puts in the mouth of his unheroic hero which deftly mixes the tragic and the comic: “Bonifacio Reyes believes absolutely that Antonio Reyes y Valcarcel is his son.  His only son, you understand, his only son!”

 

About the Author:
LEOPOLDO ALAS (1852–1901) was the son of a government official, born in Zamora, Spain. He attended the University of Oviedo and the University of Madrid, receiving a doctorate in law. A novelist and writer of short stories who adopted the pseudonym Clarín (Bugle), Alas was one of Spain’s most influential literary critics. He became a professor of law at the University of Oviedo in 1883 and published his first and best-known novel, La Regenta, in 1884; his second novel, Suúnico hijo (His Only Son), was published in 1890. He died in Oviedo at the age of forty-nine.

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Review: Back by Henry Green

I received a review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books.  This title was originally published in 1946 and is the first book in a series of nine by author Henry Green that NYRB is reissuing.

My Review:
backThe premise of this Green novel is deceptively simple: Charley Summer, recently released from a POW camp in Germany during World War II, is repatriated back into England.  Although Charley suffers from a severed leg for which he must wear a prosthesis, his greatest source of pain is the love that he lost while he was in that German prison camp.  Rose, a woman with whom he was having a passionate love affair, dies from an illness before Charley is sent home.  We first meet Charley when he is trying to find Rose’s grave in an English churchyard and we immediately discover that the plot is much more complicated than we were first led to believe.

Charley is shell-shocked, grief-stricken and disoriented as he tries to settle into a job in London and reconnect with old acquaintances.  He visits Rose’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Grant who are also having a hard time dealing with the death of their daughter amidst sirens and bombings.  Mrs. Grant is confused and displays signs of dementia; she doesn’t recognize Charley and thinks that he is her long-lost brother John who died in World War I.  Her confusion and trauma reflects Charley’s own disoriented state of mind.  As Charley is departing from this painful reunion, Mr. Grant gives him the address of a woman named Nance whom Mr. Grant requests that the young man look up while he is in London.

Charley works in the office of a manufacturing firm in London and when they send him a new secretary his emotions become further muddled.  Miss Pitter, a rather plain looking woman, attracts Charley’s attention as he likes to start at her arms.  Green relates to us bits and pieces of what a character is thinking only through dialogue,  which is oftentimes very sparse.  Charley in particular is a man of few words so it is difficult to understand what is really going on inside his head.  But he seems, at times, attracted to Miss Pitter and unsure of how to proceed with her.  Charley’s diffidence and lingering feelings for Rose appear to keep him from acting on a  possible relationship with Miss Pitter.  His short sentences, which are oftentimes canned answers like “There you have it,”  and his inability to stand up for himself whenever someone is taking advantage of him make Charley a character wholly worthy of sympathy.  Green is a master at writing tragic characters who are awash in their sad fates.

To complicate matters even further, Charley pays a visit to Nance who was recommended to him by Mr. Grant.  When Nance opens the door to greet Charley he faints dead away because Nance looks just like his Rose.  The ensuing confusion over the identity of Nance and Rose reads like a bit of a slapstick, “Who’s on First” type of a comedy.  Charley is addressing Nance as if she were Rose, but Nance is completely confused and doesn’t understand what he is talking about.  Charley comes to the conclusion that Rose never really died but instead changed her hair color and moved to London to become a tart.  He spends quite a bit of time thinking of a way to get her to confess that she really is Rose.  These scenes are humorous but also have an underlying hint of sadness because it further highlights Charley’s emotional confusion and turmoil.

One more interesting aspect of Green’s writing that must be mentioned is the story he includes in the middle of the narrative.  It is Rose’s widower, James who sends Charley a magazine story about the 18th century French  court in which a woman mistakes a royal guard for her lost lover.  This is what the Roman poet Catullus would call a libellus, a little book, embedded within the story of Charley.  I felt that the story was only tangentially related to Charley’s predicament;  there is the case of mistaken identity in both narratives but Charley doesn’t appear to learn any type of a lesson after he reads this libellus.  He is too involved in his own issues to gain any type of perspective and it is only very slowly and gradually through love, understanding and patience that Charley begins to untangle his confused mind.

This is a brief but very engrossing novel.  It took me the better part of a week to read and absorb all that was going on in order to write these few words about it.  Green uses the stress of World War II in order to highlight the madness and confusion into which a traumatized mind can so easily descend.  This isn’t a pretty love story but it is certainly one that is more true to real, human life.

About the Author:
h-greenHenry Green (1905–1973) was the pen name of Henry Vincent Yorke. Born near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, England, he was educated at Eton and Oxford and went on to become the managing director of his family’s engineering business, writing novels in his spare time. His first novel, Blindness (1926), was written while he was at Oxford. He married in 1929 and had one son, and during the Second World War served in the Auxiliary Fire Service. Between 1926 and 1952 he wrote nine novels, Blindness, Living, Party Going, Caught, Loving, Back, Concluding, Nothing, and Doting, and a memoir, Pack My Bag.

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