Category Archives: Seagull Books

Respice Futurum: Some Reading Plans for 2018

Henricus Respicit Futurum.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, The Woodstock Academy where I have had the privilege of teaching Latin and Classics for many years now, is one of the oldest public schools in the United States and has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum–-translated literally as “Look back at your future.” These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past— it is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.   Respice Futurum is an fitting description for thinking about my reading plans for 2018

Respicio in Latin means more than “looking back.” One of my favorite translations of this word is “to have regard for another person’s welfare.” The Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, applies respicio to the idea of self-improvement in his work De Clementia: sapiens omnibus dignis proderit et deorum more calamitosos propitius respiciet. (A wise man will offer help to those who are worthy and, in the manner of the gods, he especially will have regard for those in need.”) A good person, Seneca argues, always looks towards his future but uses experiences from the past to inform his decisions.  So as I look forward to books I intend to read in 2018, I can’t help but consider which literary selections in 2017 have influenced my choices.  Which books, based on previous choices, will give me a chance for deep reflection and even self-improvement?

Based on my past experiences, there are a few of my favorite publishers that put out spectacular books year after year.  A few of these titles I am looking forward to are:

Seagull Books:

Villa Amalia, Pascal Quignard
Eulogy for the Living, Christa Wolf (trans. Katy Derbyshire)
The Great Fall, Peter Handke (trans. Krishna Winston)
Monk’s Eye, Cees Nooteboom (trans. David Colmer)
Lions, Hans Blumberg (trans. Kári Driscoll)
Requiem for Ernst Jandl,  Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Rosalyn Theobald)

NYRB Classics:

The Juniper Tree, Barbara Comyns
Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin (trans. Michael Hofmann)
Kolyma Stories, Varlam Shalamov (trans. Donald Rayfield)
The Seventh Cross, Anna Seghers (trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo)
Anniversaries, Uwe Johnson (trans. Damion Searls)

Yale University Press:

Packing my Library, Alberto Manguel
A Little History of Archaeology, Brian Fagan
Journeying, Claudio Magris (trans. Anne Milano Appel)

I am also looking forward to more publications from Fitzcarraldo Editions, New Directions, Archipelago Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, Persephone Books (whose bookshop I hope to visit in the spring) and the Cahier Series. I’ve also heard that new books by Kate Zambreno and Rachel Cusk will be coming out later in 2018 and I am eager to read new titles by both of these women.

While I am waiting for the books listed above to be published, I will dip into German and British classics which I have loved reading over the last year. Here is what I have sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention in 2018:

German Literature:

Hyperion, Holderlin (trans. Ross Benjamin)
The Bachelors, Adalbert Stifter (trans. David Bryer)
The Lighted Windows, Heimito von Doderer (trans. John S. Barrett)
brütt, or The Sighing Gardens, Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Roslyn Theobald)
On Tangled Paths, Theodor Fontane (trans. Peter James Bowman)

British Literature:

Marriage, Susan Ferrier
The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf (I’d also like to continue reading her volumes of essays and diaries)
To the Wedding and G., John Berger
Pilgrimage, Vols. 3 and 4, Dorothy Richardson

Russian Literature:

I was disappointed this year not to get around to this stack of Russian literature in translation books as well as Russian history books I have sitting on my shelves—

Gulag Letters, Arsenii Formakov (ed. Elizabeth D. Johnson)
Found Life, Lina Goralik
City Folk and Country Folk, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (trans. Nora Seligman Favorov)
Sentimental Tales, Mikhail Zoshchenko (trans. Boris Dralyuk)
October, China Mieville

(I’ve toyed with the idea of starting War and Peace as well, but who knows where my literary moods will take me)

And for some Non-fiction:

I am very eager to read more George Steiner: Errata, The Poetry of Thought and Grammars of Creation are all on my TBR piles.
I am teaching a Vergil/Caesar class and an Ovid (Metamorphoses) class in the spring and in preparation for these authors I would like to read some of Gian Biaggio Conte’s books, especially Latin Literature: A History and Stealing the Club from Hercules: On Imitation in Latin Poetry.

I know, this list seems impossible, ridiculous, all over the place. But who knows what rabbit holes I will fall down, or where my journey will take me. All I can say for sure is that 2018, much like 2017, will be filled with great books and interactions with other wonderful readers. Happy New Year!

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Filed under British Literature, Cahier Series, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction, Seagull Books, Virginia Woolf

Ruins in Motion: My Essay for the 2017-2018 Seagull Books Catalogue

Every year Naveen Kishore and the talented staff at Seagull Books craft and publish a catalogue filled with original pieces of literature, art and translations from around the world.  This year they have truly outdone themselves.  Each of the 1500 catalogues has an different and individual cover.  I have included some photos of my copy, Naveen’s provocation for this publication and my response which is included in the catalogue.

Naveen’s Provocation:

It begins slowly. Always in slow motion. With just the right pink and gold that the light designer ordered for the occasion. The script as perfect as can be. The director’s genius about to be rewarded. The performance about to, yes, begin. The curtain to rise. An audience seated. Resigned to what they know will unfold. Without change. Like having seen it happen before. Not here. Not at this particular venue. Or at this play. In their lives. They know the drama. The realism. The script. The dance. The moves. They know. Everything.

Drop a bomb. Set off a device. Blow to smithereens. Unless you do. The image that springs to mind when you see a ruin is gentle. Floating into the mind. Sideways. Almost horizontal. A sense of having fallen into something slowly. Over time. Perhaps what you labeled love. Like leaves. The kind that autumn sheds. Those. Very. Leaves. I guess things fall into gentle ruin. They do. That is the phrase I seek. The familiarity of the tragic. The kind that is foretold in every gesture you create. For yes. It is creative. This ruination. How else would it ever have got to the stage it has. One of utter helplessness. Descending into an aesthetically designed. Even overwhelming. Futility.

Embraces like coagulated clots growing. Thickening. Clinging walls. Solidifying layers settling. In an intense and congealed setting for decay to blossom. Into? Dare I say it? Decay. Decay yet to be born so unborn decay. The kind that waits. Waiting to grow. Flourish. Thrive. Open. Unfolding decay. One that matures into full blown decay. Without containment or known boundaries. Therefore spreading. This decay. Decay as epidemic. A decay of ruination. Utter and complete. Defeated decay. Gnawing at the foundations. Of what? Of what once. Was. Eroding decay. Relentless and unceasing. And yes. A committed decay.

A twilight turned yellow.

My Response:

Ruins. From the Latin noun Ruina—meaning a forward, uncontrollable movement, a headlong rush; a headlong fall, a downward plunge; a collapse. Derived from the Latin verb ruo—to move swiftly, to hurry on. Ruins are in motion, moving forward, taking on new shapes and forms. The story of Dido and Aeneas in Vergil’s Aeneid comes to mind as I think about ruins in motion.

Dido and Aeneas are both refugees—Latin profugus, to have a forward flight, also a word in motion— attempting to escape the ruins of their respective cities and their former lives. My favorite character in Vergil’s Aeneid, even going as far back as my first attempt at translation of this epic in high school, has always been Dido. The love of her life, her husband Sychaeus, was murdered by her brother Pygmalion in order to steal Sychaeus’s fortune. Pygmalion’s greed and violence forces Dido to flee Tyre and abandon her former, happy life. Similar to the boatloads of homeless Syrians we see today also escaping the Levant, Dido travels across the Mediterranean to the shores of North Africa where she attempts to build a new home, a new kingdom in Carthage.

In the midst of trying to put her life and her city back together Aeneas, a refuge himself from Troy, lands on her shores after his fleet encounters a violent storm at sea. Interestingly, Vergil describes this storm as caeli ruina, “the ruin of the sky.” The poet’s first mention of ruina comes at the very moment when fate drives Aeneas towards Dido and the Carthaginian shores. But we know that as soon as the curtain opens on this epic, that the fate of Dido is not a happy one; her encounter with Aeneas, though at first passionate and mutual, will be the source of her final and tragic ruin. Vergil poignantly, repeatedly and sympathetically calls Dido infelix, “unlucky.”

At first, Dido’s story shows us that ruins can be a good thing, an excuse or an impetus for a new start. When Aeneas arrives on the shores of Carthage he witnesses a new city being built under the careful guidance of Dido. Vergil is a master at juxtaposing` the old and the new, destruction and rebuilding, ruins and rebirth. Aeneas eagerly surveys the building of Dido’s new city—the harbor, walls, a theater and a temple are all works in progress that draw the Trojan’s amazement and wonder. Vergil compares the workers, the builders of this city to a hive of bees, filling the cells of their hives with honey and getting the necessary materials for their work. Fervent opus, redolentque thymo fragrantia mella. “Their work glows; the fragrant honey is scented with thyme.” This is Dido’s second chance, her spring, her twilight. Or is it?

Amidst the construction of her new city, Vergil inserts an opposing image of ruins in the form of a fresco in the temple at Carthage. As Aeneas tours this temple he views some of the most horrific scenes from the fall of Troy: the allotment of the Trojan women, the body of dead Hector being dragged around the walls by Achilles and the murder of Priam in the midst of his own palace. Aeneas weeps openly at the sight of these reminders of his ruined city.

Dido, the very symbol of these opposing themes—ruins and rebuilding– is standing at the center of this temple and it is significant that this is the first place where she encounters Aeneas. The frescoes of Troy become not only a reminder of the ruins Aeneas has fled, but they also serve as a foreshadowing of the destruction that Dido will inevitably suffer as a result of her encounter with Aeneas. Ruins in the Aeneid are always in motion.

In her kindness, compassion and empathy Dido opens up her home as a place of solace. She and Aeneas share the miserable fate of refugees escaping ruins and searching for a better place to put back together their lives: Non ignara mali miseris succurrere disco. (Not ignorant myself of misfortune, I know how to help those who are also miserable.) Dido runs to help Aeneas—the verb succurrere in Latin literally translates as “running to help”— thereby setting her ruin in motion; her expeditious offer of succor is paid for with her destruction. Aeneas and Dido engage in a physical relationship and settle into a “marriage” of sorts that is fittingly blessed by the goddess of marriage, Juno, and the goddess of love, Venus.

Jupiter, however, the Paterfamilias of the universe and the god who represents fate sends an urgent reminder to Aeneas of his mission to found and build a new Troy. And so Aeneas readies his men and his fleet to leave Carthange and set sail for Italy which act of utter abandonment has a devastating effect on Dido. Vergil’s description of Aeneas flight from Troy is striking; he hurries the preparations for his journey like a man on fire: Idem omnes simul ardor habet; rapiuntque ruuntque: /Litora deseruere; latet sub classibus aequor. (The same fervor grabbed hold of all the men at the same time; they rushed and they carried themselves away, and they deserted the shores; the sea lie hidden under so many ships setting sail.)As Aeneas is rushing away (ruunt, verb form of ruina) from Carthage, Dido sits atop her own funeral pyre, plunging herself headlong into Aeneas’s sword and into her final destruction.

As early as Book I, Vergil alludes to the difficulty of founding a new city in the wake of the utter destruction of Troy: tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem (It was such a monumental task to found Roman.) Molis here is another building word in Latin also meaning “rocks, a pile of materials.” Troy had to fall, many hardships had to be suffered and Dido had to be left behind and abandoned in order for Rome to be built; the ruins of Troy rise again in the form of the greatness and splendor of Rome.

Vergil’s message not only applies to the ruins from which the grandeur of Rome came about, but also to the circumstances under which human life and fate operate. Something bigger and grander and stronger have the potential to emerge out of the ruins that befall us in life; and Vergil reminds us that, yes, there have to be sacrifices, ruina (ruins) like the death of Dido, that are strewn along the roads that lead to something better.

Anthony from Time’s Flow Stemmed has also written a beautiful and profound response:

A Contribution to Seagull Books’s Annual Catalogue

Joe from Roughghosts has written a deeply personal and poetic response:

The cost of words: My submission to the 2017-2018 Seagull Books catalogue

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Filed under Nonfiction, Seagull Books

Mokusei! by Cees Nooteboom

Identity, time, space, art, photography, culture, passion and love.  These are just some of the topics that Nooteboom explores in his beautifully written, stirring novella.  Arnold Pessers is a Dutch photographer who gets a job with a travel agency to take photos in Japan for one of their brochures.  Pessers would rather spend his time doing more creative art projects, but assignments like this boring brochure are what pays his bills.  Nooteboom’s description of his character’s profession also gives us a hint at the numbness he feels about his life: “His world, and this was a fact to which he resigned himself, was a world of brochures, of ephemera that no one would ever look at again; the decay, the sell-out, the morass.”  Pessers instantly falls in love with the mysterious model he chooses for the photo shoot and over the course of five years he maintains a long distance yet fierce love affair with the woman he calls Mokusei.

When Pessers first arrives in Japan, he connects with De Goede, an old friend who works as a cultural minister in the Belgian Embassy.  As De Goede guides Pessers through different tourist attractions, they discuss the misperceptions that western tourists have about the Japanese people and its culture.  De Goede complains that visitors pick up “half-baked” ideas about Zen or Japanese history and think they know all about this culture:

They don’t speak the language and in most cases never will.  They know a little, which is really nothing, about Japanese culture, but that doesn’t bother them, they have something  better than knowledge, they have an idea about Japan.  And this idea always has to do with a certain form of asceticism or purity or whatever you like to call it.  To put it briefly, it comes down to this, that they are convinced that the Japanese have managed better than other people to keep their heritage intact, as if in some kind of pure, unadulterated culture.

The ugliness, the stupidity, the ruthless slavishness with which the Japanese copy our worst habits, the buying of mass products, the ridiculously aped decadence—they refuse to see it.

The many nuanced and misunderstood layers of this culture mirrors Pessers’s relationship with the Japanese model.  As they travel to Mount Fuji for the photoshoot and stay at a ryokan together, his time with her is intense, passionate, exotic and shatters him in so many ways: “It was passion that would burn him down to his roots and through which all that came before and after would fade, because this time it was love first and foremost and only secondly a story.”  In addition to sending letters and running up his phone bills to call her, he travels to Japan to see her several times over the course of the next five years.  He cannot find the words to describe to his friends what he feels about her.  Her presence in his life has caused him to reexamine his own existence and to look at his world differently.

Pessers doesn’t know very many details about her life in Japan.  She refuses to visit him in Europe and when he hints that he wants a life with her and children she tells him this is impossible because of her culture—her parents would never approve of such a union.  He has three different names for her, which add to the mystery about her identity and her culture:

Mokusei is one of the few Japanese plants that smell, he learnt later, and that was what he had called her from then on.  Now she had three names, one secret, only known to him as Snowy Mask, her own, Satoko, which he never used, and Mokusei.  By that name he wrote to her, it was a name that existed only for them.

The other Nooteboom title that I have read, Letters to Poseidon,  also showcases the author’s ability to take something mundane—a flower, the sea, a nickname, a landscape—and write about it in such a way that makes one look at it from a fresh, philosophical perspective.

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Filed under Novella, Seagull Books, Uncategorized

Charges by Elfriede Jelinek

Aeschylus’s tragedy The Suppliant Women is a unique piece of Ancient Greek theater because the poet uses the chorus, normally reserved for a secondary role, as the protagonist of his play.  The Danaides, the fifty daughters of Danaus, are refugees from Egypt where they were going to be forced into marriage with their cousins.  Having chosen flight from Egypt instead of  mandatory betrothal, The Danaides arrive in Argos seeking asylum.  As the chorus/protagonist of this tragedy, these women tell us, with one, strong, loud, simultaneous voice, about the hardships they’ve suffered and they beg, as suppliants at the altar of Zeus, for protection.

Elfriede Jelinek adopts the narrative structure, setting and themes of Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women for her drama entitled Charges which delivers a powerful, raw, emotional depiction of the refugee crisis playing out globally.  The nobel prize winning author witnesses via television and other media—she is an agoraphobe—the plight of a group of refugees from Central Asia and the Middle East who arrive in Vienna in November of 2012 and set up a camp in front of a church.  The local populace engages in an intense debate about what to do with these illegal immigrants, politicians and the media get involved, and some of the refugees take shelter inside the church where they go on a prolonged hunger strike.

At the same time that this humanitarian tragedy is unfolding, a world-renowned, Russian opera singer and the daughter of Boris Yeltsin, both very wealthy with powerful political allies, are given citizenship.   While the refugees from the church are shuffled off to a monastery where they can be kept out of public site these two privileged women are bestowed with the freedom and honor of asylum and naturalization.  Although she uses this scenario that takes place in her hometown as the backdrop for her drama,  Jelinek chooses not to mention Vienna or  other specific place names in her text;  she makes her themes of displacement, fear and privilege universal, ones that can be applied to any of the current refugee crises we see playing out on a daily basis in various parts of the world.

Les Danaide, by Paul Oesten, 1908

By using the chorus, in the tradition of an Ancient Greek tragedy, Jelinek is able to employ several dramatic techniques to emphatically get her point across about the desparate and sad plight of the refugees.  For instance, as is common in ancient tragedy, the chorus in Charges repeat themselves, in a rhythmic way, circling back often to the same themes and topics.  In addition, punctuation and connectives are dispensed with in order to give their speech a vehemence that conveys the deplorable hardships that they have suffered and continue to suffer:

We lie on the cold stone floor, but this comes hot off the press, here it is irrefutably, irreconcilably, poured into this brochure like water that instantly runs down and out instantly, like water thrown from cliff to cliff, turned into water as well, sinking like statues, almost elegantly, with raised hands, no, no, from dam to dam, into the bottomless, into the micro power plant, down, down it goes for years, we vanish, we vanish as we become more and more, funny, we still vanish, though our numbers increase, our  courage does not vanish, there are ever more, though also fewer and fewer of us, may don’t even arrive, the suffering people are falling like water off the cliff, down the butte, into the chute, over the mountains, through the sea, over the sea, into the sea, always thrown, always driven…

The most striking similarity between The Suppliants and Charges is the explanation that the refugee choruses give in both plays for choosing flight from their homelands and for seeking refuge from strangers. Aeschylus’s chorus begins the play with an justification for their sea voyage to Argos:  “This exile is our own decision.  We have fled a despicable situation.”   The words spoken by Aeschylus’s chorus more than two thousand years ago, which evoke sympathy and compassion from the audience,  is equally fitting for Jelinek’s refugee chorus who, by their own choosing, have also escaped dangerous conditions in their homeland and at sea.  Escape into the unknown is a theme that Jelinek’s refugees return to repeatedly in the play; they speak of family members who have been murdered and their attempts to avoid the same fate for themselves.  Some of the most heartrending parts of the chorus’s speech are when they recount their griefs and their woes and the endless indignity of their misfortunes:

…We look around, but how does prosperity work?  If it is that common, should we have it too?  At least be able to obtain it?  After those monstrous killers back home, no, that isn’t your fault, we aren’t throwing that in your face, we are throwing ourselves in front of you, after they took everything from us, we should be able to get something, anything back, no?  Something should be accessible to us, we should get something, instead you call us a cursed, raging brood, brood, brood!  Like animals! Brood of foreigners!

Hearing the refugees speak, in the first person, about their escape, rejection and maltreatment from other citizens of the world increases the pathos of Jelinek’s narrative.  There is a point in their speech during which the tone of the narrative becomes decidedly angry; these feelings of resentment come from the fact that two prominent Russian women are given citizenship while these refugees live in squalor like beggars.  The opera singer, in particular, becomes the focus for Jelinek’s outrage as the author uses parallels between this privileged refugee’s circumstances and the mythic character of Ovid’s Io.

Io was loved by Zeus and in order to protect his lover from his wife’s wrath, Zeus disguises Io by turning her into a cow.  In Jelinek’s narrative the opera singer becomes that cow, traveling around the world, not suffering any consequences for her transgressions.  Once this prominent woman is issued citizenship, she chooses not to live in this country but instead travels the world.  Io is usually a character worthy of sympathy because of her seduction by Zeus; but in Charges the opera singer becomes a derogatory cow, the name of which animal is uttered with biting sarcasm:

How did she become a citizen?, alright then, we guarantee you no one died there, in that dump, not the daughter either, the European cow, excuse me, she turned into one only now, an official main residence has been registered here, which we don’t have, she does, but she does not live there either, you are here to stay, you have a say, you have the voters, at least on your side, you the but sponsors but no trace of those—now I don’t know myself whom I mean.

In his book The Greeks, H.D.F. Kitto argues that the Greek dramatists used myths infused with moral, religious and philosophical meaning to instruct their fellow Athenians on how to live a good life.  Drama becomes “an explanation of human life and of the human soul.”  Jelinek has brilliantly adopted the medium of these ancient poets in order to enlighten us about those who have been displaced from their homes and cannot return safely.  The chorus of refugees in Charges, speaking in one loud, emphatic, emotional voice is distressing and tragic.  We should treat them with dignity, kindness and generosity instead of with disgust and xenophobia and recognize that this has become a human rights crisis of epic proportions.

Vitvkirche, Protest of Refugees, 2012. © Bwag/Commons

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Filed under German Literature, Seagull Books

A Bibliophile’s Conundrum: How do you organize your books?

There have been complaints recently by my family members (i.e. my husband) about the piles of books that have taken over various parts of the house.  The kitchen table has two stack of books that are getting so high they are threatening to topple over and crush one of the cats.  The book piles are also in the way of the cats’ favorite window from which they view the yard; notice the picture of Henry attempting to navigate around the books in order to watch a chipmunk that has made a nest under his favorite window.

Current stack of books on the kitchen table

 

Henry attempting to navigate around the current stack of books on the kitchen table

Then there are the various piles on the coffee table, the top of which table can barely be seen because of the amount of books. (As I look at this photo I realize it’s probably not a great idea to have so many candles among my books.)

But it is not that I am lazy or unwilling to move my books.  My issue is one of organization and trying to make decisions about which books go where and oftentimes these important decisions paralyze me.  I like to keep the pile of books that I really want to read immediately (which has grown impossibly large) as close to me as possible, thus all of the Vergil books currently hanging out on my coffee table.  I also like to categorize books by my favorite publishers: thus I have a handsome collection of Seagull Books and New York Review of Books.  But then I also like to collect books by author and by topic.  And finally, my Classics books are organized by subject—Greek tragedy, for instance, and within each of those categories books are further organized by author—Aeschylus, Euripides, etc.

Some of my Seagull Books Collection

 

Some of my NYRB collection

The conundrum I have comes when a book falls into more than one shelving category; for instance, I have collected many Ann Carson books, but one of them is a NYRB publication, so where do I put that book?  It seems that it ought to go in the Carson section, but then my NYRB collection seems lonely and incomplete without it.  And what should I do with the Bachmann/Celan Correspondence book that I recently reviewed?  I want to put it with the other Seagull titles, but then again I have a growing section of Bachmann books and a small section of Celan poetry.  Oh, and I also have a shelf of books all about letters and correspondence (the Letters of Virginia Woolf, Love Letters of Great Men, Nabakov’s Letters to Vera, etc.)

Books from my Classics collection

Nothing aggravates me more than when I can’t find a book because I forgot where I shelved it.  I have been looking for my copy of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Listening for weeks.  Did I put it with the philosophy books?  It isn’t with the other Nancy titles.  I bought a translation of Propertius’s poetry that has the exact same cover as the Nancy book.  Should I have a section of books that have the same covers?  It’s really exhausting.  My husband has generously offered to build me another bookshelf or two; although this also further enables my habit of book hoarding.

How do my fellow bibliophiles organize books?  I would love to see some photos!

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Filed under Anne Carson, New York Review of Books, Opinion Posts, Seagull Books