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Moon Clock by Donald Hall

Like an oarless boat through midnight’s watery

ghosthouse, through lumens and shallows

of shadow, under smoky light that the full moon

reflects from snowfield to ceilings. I drift

on January’s tide from room to room, pausing

by the wooden clock with its pendulum that keeps

the beat like a heart certainly beating, to wait

for the pause allowing passage

to repose’s shore—where all waves halt

upreared and stony as the moon’s Mycenaean lions.

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A Reading List Inspired by Kafka

I have the worst book hangover I’ve ever had in my life. I keep thinking about Stach’s biography of Kafka, and Kafka’s life and everything related to Kafka. I am having a hard time focusing on other books this week. As I was reading Stach I keep a list in my notebook of books that Kafka read, kept in his library, or mentioned often. Most of the books on my list were already sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention. I am thinking of slowly trying to make my way through some of these books next. If Kafka loved them, then maybe I will too.

Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857. Sentimental Education is mentioned in all three volumes of Stach’s biography because it was one of Kafka’s favorite books. He even learned French so he could read it in the original language. Flaubert’s style of writing was one Kafka wished to emulate.

Franz Grillparzer, “The Poor Musician.” This short story was one of Kafka’s favorites. I have Volume 37 of the German Library which I bought to read Stifter, so I was thrilled to find that the Grillparzer story is in the same collection.

Heimito von Doderer, The Lighted Windows. Doderer’s name comes up a few times in Stach’s biography. Thanks to a Twitter post from flowerville, I had already bought this Doderer book. Now I have more motivation to finally read it!

Heinrich von Kleist. Hyperion; The Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist; An Abyss Deep Enough-The Letters of Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist is one of Kafka’s go-t0 authors. I’ve already read, and loved, Penthesilea, but I still have Hyperion sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention. Kafka actually loved to read the letters of Kleist, Flaubert and Hebbel.

Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet; Letters on Life; Letters Summer 1926 with Pasternak and Tsvetayeva; The Notebooks of Laurids Brigge. Rilke, who was also born and raised in Prague, is mentioned a few times in Stach’s biography. Rilke and Kafka actually met briefly at a literary reading. I’ve had most of these Rilke books sitting on my shelves for a while and I am now very eager to explore his writings.

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain; Death in Venice and Other Stories; Thomas Mann Diaries 1918-1939; Thomas Mann Letters. As a contemporary of Kafka whose novels were very popular Mann is mentioned several times by Stach. Kafka and Brod, while vacationing in Italy, met Mann’s brother Heinrich as well.

Søren Kierkegaard. Either/Or; Kierkegaard-Letters and Documents; Works of Love; The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard by W.H. Auden. One of Kafka’s last diary entries is about Either/Or. But it was not so much his philosophy that Kafka was interested in as his personal life. Kierkegaard also had a failed loved affair and a broken engagement with a woman named Regine. So I am reading these letters as well as a biography of Kierkegaard recently written by Stephen Backhouse.

Max Brod. Three Loves. One of the things that I learned from Stach’s biography is that Max Brod was a prolific writer. The amount of novels, articles and reviews he turned out is astonishing but very few of them have been translated into English. I was lucky enough to find a rare copy of his novel Three Loves which hasn’t been in print since the 1930’s at my favorite NYC bookstore, The Strand.

This is by no means a complete list. These are the ones that piqued my curiosity and that I could find in English translation. There are many other books that I would liked to have included, but are not translated into English. Friedrich Hebbel, Felix Weltsch, and Oscar Baum, just to name a few. It was actually Hebbel’s 1800-page diary he was reading when Kafka wrote the famous line in his letter to his friend Oskar Pollack: “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

On an unrelated note, I also have the three volume autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir that I am contemplating reading. I also just bought a few of the novels and volumes of poetry written by H.D. I am hoping one of these books will pull me out of my rut! If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

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For National Poetry Day: Eavan Boland’s Eurydice Speaks

Niccolo dell’Abate. The Death of Eurydice. c.1552-71. Oil on canvas.

One of my favorite passages of poetry in all of Latin Literature is the Orpheus and Eurydice story in Vergil’s fourth Georgic. After his wife’s tragic death, Orpheus’s love for Eurydice sends him to the depths of the underworld to retrieve her. But when he breaks Hades’s one stipulation, that he cannot look back at her on their journey out, she is lost to him once again. Ovid also includes his own version of the myth in the Metamorphoses. I have been dipping in and out of Eavan Boland’s poetry for the past week and her use of myth as inspiration for her poems has resonated with me. This piece, inspired by the Eurydice myth, gives her a voice (the focus of the myth is usually on Orpheus) and is a particularly striking reflection on loss, recognition, memory and reunion.

How will I know you in the underworld?
How will we find each other?

We lived for so long on the physical earth—
Our skies littered with actual stars
Practical tides in our bay—
What will we do with the loneliness of the mythical?

Walking beside ditches brimming with dactyls,
By a ferryman whose feet are scanned for him
On the shore of a river written and rewritten
As elegy, epic, epode.

Remember the thin air of our earthly winters?
Frost was an iron, underhand descent.
Dusk was always in session

And no one needed to write down
Or restate, or make record of, or ever would,
And never will,
The plainspoken music of recognition,

Nor the way I often stood at the window—
The hills growing dark, saying,

As a shadow became a stride
And a raincoat was woven out of streetlight

I would know you anywhere.

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You Were Not Made to Live Like Brute Beasts

I’m sharing two excellent introductory descriptions about Dante that really stayed me as I was reading last night.  Each quote demonstrates, in very different ways, why Dante is timeless and why we still read him, hundreds of years later, with enthusiasm and awe. The first is from Dante: A Very Short Introduction written by Peter Hainsworth and David Robey and published by Oxford University Press:

Fatti non foste a viver come bruti
ma per sequir virtute e canoscenza
[You were not made to live like brute beasts,
but to pursure virtue and knowledge.]
(Inf. 26.119-20)

The lines are some of the most famous in the Divine Comedy.  Energetic, compressed, assured, and, in the original, immediately memorable, they urge us to embrace the capacities that our human nature offers and live them to the full, not just for private satisfaction, but to acquire both moral virtue and knowledge of the world.  It is a vision of what human life should be, which Dante took from classical philosophy and which he repeatedly affirms.  It will be at the heart of the Italian Renaissance and is still a vital element of Western culture today.  In If this be a man Primo Levi recounts that it was these lines that he recalled at one of his worst  moments in Auschwitz, and no wonder, for it was precisely what these lines are saying that Nazism was set on destroying.

The second quote comes from Reading Dante by Guiseppe Mazzotta and is published by Yale Press:

So, what kind of poem is this?  What is its genre? Is it an epic? Is it an autobiography?  Is it a romance? I think it’s all of the above.  Perhaps the best term for it is encyclopedia, a word that means a “circle of knowledge,” representing a classical idea that derives from Vitruvius, who wrote of the genre.  This idea of circularity is crucial, in a sense that to know something you have to have a point of departure, from which you will pass through all the various disciplines of the liberal arts, only to arrive right back where you started.  The beginning and the ending in a liberal education must coincide, but you will find out things along the way that allow you to see with a different viewpoint or perspective.

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A Plea for some Sleep: Somnus by the Roman Poet Statius

Rereading Dante has sent me down many an interesting rabbit hole, one of which includes reexamining the works of the Silver Age Roman poet Statius.  I have not translated Statius for many years because my first encounters with his epics, in particular, were not pleasant ones.  But Purgatory has inspired me to pick up Statius once again—I will read and translate sections of his epics the Thebaid and the Achilleid.  More on those two pieces of literature in a later post, but as a preview I offer here a translation of one of Statius’s poems from his collection entitled Silvae.

Silvae in Latin means either “forests” or “materials”, a fitting name for what Statius meant to be occasional poems that are written hastily or on the spur of the moment.  Divided into four books, the Silvae include poems in praise of the Emperor Domitian, consolation poems, and commentary about ordinary things like a tree or sleep.  In the preface to Book I Statius writes about his compositions (all translations of Latin are my own): mihi subito calore et quadam festinandi voluptate fluxerant cum singuli de sino meo prodiderint—“with a passion and a certain desire for haste they suddenly flowed from me and each individual one was produced from my heart.”

I offer here my translation of Silvae IV entitled “Somnus” (Sleep) which is a plea to this fickle god to cure the poet’s insomnia. I especially identified with these verses because the beginning of a new semester, the unusual heatwave and a variety of other factors have also brought me a long bout of insomnia:

Oh most peaceful of gods, youthful Sleep, what crime have I committed, what mistake have I made, to cause me to be so wretched and to lack your gifts? The entire herd is silent, the birds, the wild animals and the curved tree tops all have the appearance of weary sleep. Even the fierce rivers do not have their usual sound; the shuddering of the waves has died out and the oceans, leaning on the earth, grow quiet. The moon, returning seven times now, has looked down on my sullen face. So often have the lights of Oeta and Venus revisited me and so often has Aurora walked past my groans, sprinkling me, in pity, with her cold whip. How will I get through this? I couldn’t bear this even if, like sacred Argus, I possessed the thousand eyes which he was used for an alternating vigil and which were never awake all at once. But, ah now, alas! If any lover, during the long nighttime hours, holding his arms entwined around a girl, drives you away from him on purpose, then please come to me instead; I do not ask that you pour all the power of your wings over my eyes—only a man who is much happier would pray for this;  but touch me with the very tip of your wand—for that is enough—or tread over me lightly with your raised foot.

One interesting thing to note is Statius’s heavy use of characters and names from history and mythology.  In order to understand fully this short poem,  one must look up or know something about Oeta, Venus, Aurora, and Argus.  He uses the same heavy-handed technique in the Thebaid.  As promised, more on that later.  But I am glad that Dante has goaded me to take another look at Statius.

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