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Autumn by Hölderlin

Autumn is my favorite season. Even though my profession allows me to have my summers free, I feel the most at peace and at ease during the autumn. I am sharing a lovely, simple poem from Hölderlin (translated by Michael Hamburger) that, for me, captures the contemplative spirit of the season:

Autumn

The legends that depart from land and sea,
Of spirit that once was here and will return,
These turn to men, and there is much we learn
From time that, self-devoured, moves speedily.

No image of the past is quite mislaid
By Nature; summer’s dog-days fade,
But back to earth at once will autumn fly;
The ghost of showers gathers in the sky.

In a short time how much has passed away!
The countryman observed behind his plough
Sees how the year meets a glad ending now;
Such images complete the human day.

The sphere of earth adorned with rocks revolves
Not like a cloud, which after dusk dissolves;
Within a gold day the earth appears,
And to perfection no complaint adheres.

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Two Lives…: The Novellas of Marguerite Yourcenar

Two Lives and a Dream, which includes three of Yourcenar’s novellas, was originally published in 1934 as La Mort conduit l’attelage (Death drives the cart).  The English version I read was translated by Walter Kaiser and published in 1987 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  The first two stories in the collection An Obscure Man and A Lovely Morning take place in mid 17th century Amsterdam and England and describe the rough and turbulent lives of a man named Nathanaël and his illegitimate son named Lazarus.  My first impression of Yourcenar’s writing is that she was a master storyteller, especially in the genre of historical fiction.

We are introcuded to the character of Nathanaël in An Obscure Man with a description of his childhood in Greenwich, England to which place his Dutch  parents have emigrated and live in a small community of expats.  Nathanaël was “weak chested and afflicted with a slight lameness” so he was not sent to work on the docks with his father and his brothers.  Instead he becomes an assistant to the town’s schoolmaster who educates him and teaches him Latin, which skill will come in very handy later in his life.  As a teenager, Nathanaël falls in love with Janet, an apprentice to a tapestry maker, whom he defends against the violent advances of a local drunk.  When Nathanaël fears that he has killed the intoxicated man he stows away on a ship bound for the Caribbean and later the primitive wilderness of Maine and Canada.  When the rest of his crew perishes in a shipwreck off the coast of Canada, Nathanaël is saved by an older couple and their daughter, Foy, with whom he falls in love.  Their life in the wilds of the New World is harsh as it is difficult to live such a primitive existence.  But his time in this wilderness, with its simplicity and his uncomplicated love for Foy, comprise some of the happiest moments in his life.

After spending two years in the New World, Nathanaël loses Foy to consumption so he decides to make his way back to England and then to Amsterdam where he works for his uncle as a proofreader in his printing business.  One night he meets a prostitute named Sarai in a local tavern and their sexual connection leads him to believe that he loves her.  But he learns that Sarai is a liar and a thief and when she becomes pregnant he wonders if the child, a boy named Lazarus, is really his. Nathanaël eventually loses contact with Sarai and his son and he becomes a valet in the home of a wealthy politician.  Throughout the story, Nathanaël’s health worsens as he is prone to fits of coughing and fever.  His master sends him to the Frisian islands in the hopes that Nathanaël will regain his strength, but instead he dies alone on this island among the waves of the sea and the nesting, peaceful birds.

Nathanaël’s life is always in flux as the story moves from one interesting episode in this obsure man’s life to the next in rapid succession.  One of the few constants in his life is death and loss.  Death Drives the Cart would certainly be a fitting title for this collection had Yourcenar chosen to keep it.  I don’t think I’ve ever read such a short book with so many death scenes.  But Yourcenar uses this theme to reflect on the value of life, which actually serves to make the book uplifting and even thought provoking.  Even though Nathanaël has endured the brutal hardships of an average, obscure man in the 17th century, every where he turns he encounters the kindness of others.  A dying Jesuit priest, Foy’s parents, a coworker, an employer all demonstrate to him that kindness is not hard to come by in this world.  And Nathanaël himself develops into a kind and compassionate man—he once saves a puppy from being fed to a lion which is a unique example of his good character.  A Lovely Morning, the very short sequel to Nathanaël’s story shows that this kindness is extended to his son who escapes the streets of Amsterdam by being invited by generous strangers to act in a traveling theater group.

As Nathanaël is dying on the Frisian island, he takes stock of his life and decides that overall he has been a good and decent man.  His tolerance for all people, regardless of race or religion, is a perfect example of how we all ought to live and is a timely message of tolerance that counters the violence and disgusting display of bigotry demonstrated by hate groups in my country this weekend.  I will end with an apt quote from Yourcenar that includes some of Nathanaël’s thoughts during the last few hours of his life:

People falsify everything, it seemed to him, in taking such little account of the flexibility and resources of the human being, so like the plant which seeks out the sun or water and nourishes itself fairly well from whatever earth the wind has sown in it.  Custom more than nature seemed to him to dictate the differences we set up between classes of men, the habits and knowledge acquired from infancy, or the various ways of praying to what is called God.  Ages, sexes, or even species seemed to him closer to one another than each generally assumed about the other: child or old man, man or woman, animal or biped who speaks and works with his hands, all come together in the misery and sweetness of existence.

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Being Happy is For What?: Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector

One day at school young Joana, the female protagonist in Near to the Wild Heart, asks her teacher a philosophical question that shows she is more thoughtful than most other children: “What do you get when you become happy?”  Her teacher is flummoxed at the child’s unusual question so asks Joana to repeat it.  This time Joana asks, “Once you’re happy what happens? What comes next?”  The teacher asks her to rephrase the question one more time in different words.  Joana comes up with: “Being happy is for what?”

Joana spends the rest of the novel attempting to answer her own question.  What will make her happy and how will she know when she is truly happy?  When she is a little girl she is raised by her widowed father and from a young age Joana displays a unique curiosity about life.  She enjoys role playing with her dolls and spending time with her father and making up spontaneous poems with him.  When her father dies she is forced to live with an aunt and uncle who can’t seem to connect with their free-spirited niece so they send her off to a boarding school.

Despite the fact that Joana enjoys her solitude and likes to feel free and untethered, she marries a man named Octavio anyway. From the beginning of her marriage, Joana feels that her role as a wife causes her to abdicate her freedom and her identity.  She is most comfortable in the morning when Octavio leaves for work.  Did she marry Octavio because she thought it would bring her this elusive feeling of happiness?  Now that she is living with him she is not so sure about anything.  She contemplates leaving Octavio and when she discovers that he is having an affair with his ex-fiancé, Joana is handed the perfect reason to break off the marriage.  With the exception of her father, all of Joana’s relationships are unsatisfactory and disappointing to her.  She  spends a great deal of time pondering the relationship with her husband and their marriage:

It was his fault, she thought coldly, anticipating a new wave of anger. It was his fault, it was his fault.  His presence, and more than his presence: knowing that he existed took away her freedom.  Only rarely now, in a quick escape, was she able to feel.  That was it: it was his fault.  How hadn’t she discovered it earlier? she wondered victoriously.  He stole everything from her, everything.

The style of Lispector’s novel is very similar to her later work, Agua Viva.  The story is told in the third person, but from the point of view of each character’s most inner thoughts. Piece of the plot, like Joana’s thoughts, are given in fragmented pieces of melodic prose.   Joana’s thoughts linger over questions of life, death, solitude, freedom and happiness which are themes that Lispector continues to explore in her later works.  Images of the sea are also prevalent in this novel as Joana feels an affinity to the freedom and boundless nature of the ocean.  When she first goes to her aunt and uncle’s house, she consoles herself by lying on the beach, close to the sea.

The grains of sand nipped her skin, buried themselves in it.  Even with her eyes closed she felt she felt that on the beach the waves were sucked back by the sea quickly, quickly, also with closed eyelids.  Then they meekly returned, palms splayed, body loose.  It was good to hear their sound.  I am a person.  And lots of things would follow.  What?  Whatever happened she would tell herself.  No one would understand anyway.

It is fitting that at the end of the story Joana decides to take her father’s inheritance and roam.  The last time we see her she is standing on the deck of a ship, looking out to sea and loving her freedom, her choice and her newly found serenity: “The ship floated lightly on the sea like on gentle open hands.”

I have found that Lispector’s novels, although brief, take quite a bit of time and concentration to understand and appreciate. What resonated with me about this book, in particular, is the idea of finding the right balance between solitude and  company.  But when I closed the last page of the book I had the distinct feeling that I ought to start the book over for fear of what I didn’t grasp in her writing the first time around.

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Review: Enigma Variations by André Aciman

My Review:
enigma-variationsGiovanni, Maud, Manfred, Chloe and Heidi.  There are the people whom Paul has loved or lusted after throughout the course of his adult life and each one has left an indelible mark on his character and on his soul.  Aciman is a master at capturing the different stages of a love affair by devoting a chapter to each of Paul’s partners who all contribute varying degrees of love, lust, passion and commitment to the story of his life.

The first two chapters of the book are the most compelling and showcase Aciman’s ability to describe and capture emotions that are oftentimes too private to share.  Paul, the narrator, arrives on a small Italian that was his family’s summer home and reflects back on the last season his family spent there when he was an adolescent.   Paul remembers that as a twelve-year-old boy he experienced his first sexual awakening and because his was physically drawn to another man he is confused and ashamed.  Paul’s mother wanted to have an old desk, a family heirloom restored, so she invited the local cabinetmaker over to their home to examine the desk.  Giovanni, an attractive, strong man with attractive hands and a mellifluous voice immediately drew young, adolescent Paul’s attention:

That morning in our house, because he stood so very close to me, something undefined in his face left me as shaken and flustered as when I was asked once to recite a poem in front of the entire school, teachers, parents, distant relatives, friends of the family, visiting dignitaries, the world.  I couldn’t even look at him.  I needed to look away.  His eyes were too clear.  I didn’t know whether I wanted to touch them or swim in them.

Aciman is a master at describing the innocent and naïve feelings that come with a first crush.  Paul begins showing up at Giovanni’s shop and helps him refurbish his parents’ desk.  The desk has a secret compartment that was not discovered by anyone in the family until Giovanni inspects it.  The hidden box within the desk that remains unknown to the family is a fitting image and parallel for the secret feelings that Paul has for the young and handsome cabinetmaker.  As Paul is visiting the island for the first time in ten years, all of his memories and desires for Giovanni come flooding back to him.  Paul is also there to inspect his family’s home which was burned down by the locals for some mysterious reason.  Aciman provides a compelling plot as the mystery of solving this crime is slowly unraveled throughout the first chapter.

The second chapter is devoted to Manfred, a man Paul meets at the Central Park tennis court in New York.  Paul is now in his late-twenties, has some sort of a career in writing and publishing and is living in New York City with a woman named Maud.  Aciman builds a complex character through Paul to make the point that love, passion and sexuality are never easy or well-defined.  Paul is equally attracted to and sexually stimulated by men and women.  Even though he lives with Maud and has a great physical and emotional relationship with her, he cannot stop thinking about Manfred whom he sees every morning at the tennis court.  It takes Paul two years to work up the courage to speak to Manfred.  When Manfred pays him the slightest attention with a look, a nod or a remark, Paul is elated.  Once again, Aciman is so adept at capturing the various stages of a person who has a romantic crush on someone and can only love from afar.  Paul has a private, inner dialogue with his longed for Manfred:

Every morning I watch you walk to your court, I watch you play, and I watch you leave an hour and a half later.  Always the same, never brooding, just silent.  Occasionally, you’ll say “Excuse me” when I happen to stand in your way, and “Thank you’ when your ball drifts into my court and I hurl it back to you.  With these few words, I find comfort in false hope and hope in false starts.  I’ll coddle anything instead of nothing.  Even thinking that nothing can come of nothing gives me a leg to stand on, something to consider when I wake up in the middle of the night and can see nothing, not the blackout in my life, not the screen, not the cellar, not even hope and false comforts—just the joy of your imagined limb touching mine.  I prefer the illusion of perpetual fasting to the certainty of famine.  I have, I think, what’s called a broken heart.

Anyone who has ever loved someone from afar can identify with the pain and torture of Paul’s words.  Finally after two years of this hidden, inner torment, Paul and Manfred go out for a drink and lay all of their feelings out for one another.  We are led to believe that Paul has finally found the right person for him, that a man like Manfred can satisfy him in a way that could never be by a woman.  But, this is only the half-way point of Paul’s story and it is far from over.

The last three chapters all deal with women that Paul is further drawn to.  Chloe, who Paul has known since college, has an especially profound effect on his emotions.  They keep running into each other at social gatherings about every four years and every time these accidental meetings take place their sexual passion is intense.  But they can never commit to one another so their relationship is nothing but a series of false beginnings that never go anywhere.  In the last three chapters, Paul’s self-doubts and emotional confusion don’t fade away with time or age.  Whenever he finds himself in a committed relationship, he is always looking for or thinking about someone else.  I found his story at this point a bit tedious because even in middle age he has not found what can make him happy.

Always looking, always doubting, never happy, Paul becomes a depressing, cliche of a dissatisfied middle-aged man.  Perhaps this is meant to reflect Paul’s continuing struggle with his sexuality;  Aciman’s language and plot in the first part of the story is much more interesting than the ending of the novel.  But overall, it is still worth the read.  This book has many of the same themes and subjects he explores in his previous novel, Call Me By Your Name.  This story also reminded me of Bae Suah’s exploration of the complexities of human sexuality in her novel A Greater Music.

About the Author:
Andre AcimanAndré Aciman was born in Alexandria, Egypt and is an American memoirist, essayist, novelist, and scholar of seventeenth-century literature. He has also written many essays and reviews on Marcel Proust. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Condé Nast Traveler as well as in many volumes of The Best American Essays. Aciman received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University, has taught at Princeton and Bard and is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at The CUNY Graduate Center. He is currently chair of the Ph. D. Program in Comparative Literature and founder and director of The Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center.

Aciman is the author of the Whiting Award-winning memoir Out of Egypt (1995), an account of his childhood as a Jew growing up in post-colonial Egypt. Aciman has published three other books: False Papers: Essays in Exile and Memory (2001), a novel Call Me By Your Name (2007), which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Lambda Literary Award for Men’s Fiction (2008) and Eight White Nights (2010).

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Review: The Heart of the Leopard Children by Wilfried N’Sondé

leopard-childrenThe Heart of the Leopard Children is Wilfried N’Sondé’s first book to be translated into English.  It was written and published in French and this English edition has been translated by Karen Lindo.  This title is part of the Global African Voices series by the Indian University Press whose mission is to publish “the wealth and richness of literature by African authors and authors of African descent in English translation. The series focuses primarily on translations of new works, but seeks to reissue longstanding classics that are currently out-of-print or have yet to reach English-speaking readers.”

The unnamed narrator in this novella emigrated to Paris from the Congo when he was a small child.  His parents were hoping to escape poverty in Africa, but the deplorable conditions in the housing project where they live with many other immigrants is not much better than their original home.  The narrator is sitting in a jail cell because he has been accused of a violent crime.  In between beatings from the police, he reminisces about his younger days which he spent with his best friend Drissa and his girlfriend Mireille.

My full review appears in the January 2017 issue of World Literature Today.  To read my full review click on the link: http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2017/january/heart-leopard-children-wilfried-nsonde

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