Communication in the Midst of Solitude: My Year in Reading—2019

In his essay “On Reading,” Proust writes, “Reading is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.” I try to make reading plans every year but I honestly never know where the year will take me. This year was a stellar year for me as far as these “communications in the midst of solitude” were concerned. But my communications were carried farther by the literary connections for which I am very grateful—-readers of my blog, my fellow bloggers, and, the one that has the most influence on my reading, the wonderful literary community on Twitter. I know that social media is a tough place for some—I’ve seen many come and go. But my little corner of book Twitter has proven to be a wonderful place this year and I would like to thank all of those who have commented, connected, supported my reading on this blog and on Twitter.

Fiction and Non-Fiction:

Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys

Deadlock by Dorothy Richardson

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert, trans. by Robert Baldick

A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

The Fox and Dr. Shimamura by Christine Wuunicke, trans. by Philip Boehm

Ovid’s Banquet of Sense by George Chapman

The Odyssey by Homer, trans. Emily Wilson

Romola, by George Eliot (I only got half way through this one. Not the right time for this book for me.)

The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, illus. by Dore

The Completion of Love by Robert Musil, trans. Genese Grill

The Temptation of Quiet Veronica by Robert Musil, trans. Genese Grill

The Confusions of Young Torless by Robert Musil, trans. Shaun Whiteside

Thought Flights by Robert Musil, trans. Genese Grill

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Landscapes by John Berger

The Man Without Qualities Volumes 1 and 2 by Robert Musil, trans. Sophie Wilkins

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

Hadji Murat by Tolstoy, trans. Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes

Contre-Jour by Gabriel Josipovici

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, trans. Moncrieff et al.

The Immoralist by Andre Gide, trans. Richard Howard

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, trans. Michael Henry Heim

Aline & Valcour Volumes 1 and 2 by Marquis de Sade, trans. Jocelyne Genevieve Barque and John Simmons

Notebooks 1935-1951 by Camus, trans. Philip Thody and Justin O’Brien

The Stranger by Camus, trans. Matthew Ward

Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt (I have been reading this book for half the year and have about 300 pages left to read which I will finish in the final week of the year.)

Poetry:

I have read more poetry this year then every before because I have been stopping to read selections from the poets that Michael Schmidt discusses in his book Lives of the Poets. Too many to list here. So listed here are only the collections I’ve read in their entirety:

Poets on Poets, edited by Nick Rennison and Michael Schmidt

A Test of Poetry by Louis Zukofsky

Astonishments: Selected Poems of Anna Kamienska, trans. David Curzon and Grazyna Drabik

Love and I by Fanny Howe

Lapis: Poems by Robert Kelly

Elegiac Sonnets by Charlotte Smith

The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems

Selected Poems by Charlotte Mew

The Last Innocence/The Lost Adventures by Alejandra Pizarnik

Selected Poems of Attila Jozsef, trans. Peter Hargitai

The Withering World by Sandor Marai, trans. John Ridland and Peter V. Czipott

The Romantic Dogs by Roberto Bolaño, trans. Laura Healy

I’ve also continued to translate my own selections of Ancient Greek and Latin poetry which I won’t bother to list again. But translating Sappho was a particularly rewarding experience.

And finally, I’ve done posts on the fabulous artwork I’ve had the pleasure of viewing this year. I had the pleasure of seeing the Bonnard exhibit at the Tate Modern, The Blake Exhibit at the Tate Britain, The Ruskin Exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art, and, my favorite, The Troy Exhibit at The British Museum. A stellar year for reading, for poetry and for art all around.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Holidays, and Io Saturnalia!

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Aline & Valcour Volume 2 by Marquis de Sade

In a letter written from prison to his wife in 1784, Marquis de Sade complains about his discomfort and what he perceives as his ill treatment:

You are also well aware that my dizzy spells and my frequent nosebleeds, both of which I have when I’m not lying down with my head perched extremely high, had obliged me to have an oversized pillow. When I tried to take this wretched pillow with me, you would have thought I was trying to steal the list of those who had conspired against the State; barbarically, they tore it from my hands and declared that matters of such magnitude had never been tolerated.  And indeed I realized that some secret rule or regulation of government doubtless stipulated that a prisoner’s head should be kept lowered, for when to remedy that situation owning to the fact that my oversized pillow had been denied me I humbly requested four planks of wood, they took me for a madman. A swarm of commissioners descended upon me, who, having verified that I was indeed most uncomfortable in bed, in their infinite wisdom concluded that the rules were the rules and ’twas impossible to change them. Verily I say unto you that that you have to see it to believe it, and were we to learn that such things were taking place in China, our tender and compassionate Frenchmen would wast not a moment shouting to the high heavens: Oh! those barbarians!

Marquis de Sade wrote Aline & Valcour during this same period of time while locked up in the Bastille, one of the many incarcerations he would suffer through in his life.  The second volume of this book, as it is published by Contra Mundum Press, becomes more deeply introspective and philosophical as Sade’s incarceration is obviously wearing on him.  The eponymous characters of the story are completely absent from this long interlude.  Instead it involves the story of Sainville and Leonore, two lovers that are similarly kept apart by their parents and a series of terrible accidents.  The pair, just recently reunited, spend the night at Aline’s family’s home and tell their long, sad tale.

Sainville and Leonore elope and are spending their honeymoon in Venice when Leonore is kidnapped by a crazy Italian count who wants to keep her as his sex slave.  Sainville travels to Africa and parts of the south seas in the hopes of finding her and he visits two very different countries, one a savage, barbaric tyranny and the other a beautiful, peaceful utopia.  These two very different places allow Sade to reflect on political philosophy, religion, the treatment of women, and the nature and rights of man.  In Africa, King Maacoro of Butua is a tyrant who uses women for sex, domestic work and heavy labor.  He eats the flesh of his captured enemies as well as women who are sacrificed to the country’s savage deities.  Sarmiento, a servant of the King explains the horrible conditions under which women live in this place:

It is impossible to describe, my friend, the subjugation of women in this country. To possess many of them is a luxury but made little use of. Whether rich or poor, men think as one on the matter. Females are worked here like our beasts of burden in Europe. They sow and plow the fields and harvest the crops; in the house they clean and serve and, in addition, they are offered up to the gods and immolated. They are perpetually faced with the men’s ferocity and barbarism and become victims of their ugly moods, intemperance and tyranny.

We are meant to be horrified, I think, at the barbarism of the men in this place and particularly at the way in which women are used as chattel.  I was surprised, given Sade’s reputation and his other writings, to find that he thinks women should be treated properly and respectfully by men.  In his own letters he is abusive and angry towards his own wife, but apparently he doesn’t feel that it is appropriate for all women to be treated so harshly.

By contrast, in the kingdom of Zame, where Sainville lands next, women are treated as equals among men.  In this utopia, all worked together to produce goods and services to that all citizens are happy and get what they need.  The description of this kingdom is very Marxist and Socialist in nature. And it is Zame who Sade uses at his mouthpiece for condoning unnecessarily harsh laws and prison sentences:

Don’t you know that prison, the worst and most dangerous of punishments, is nothing but an ancient abuse of justice, and that despotism and tyranny follow in its wake? The necessity to keep in custody one who shall be judged led naturally first to the invention of irons, maintained under barbarism. That atrocity, like any act of severe rigor, was born of ignorance and blindness. Inept judges, daring neither to condemn nor absolve, would often prefer to keep the accused in prison, conscience clear because they don’t take the life of the man but neither do they return him to society.

Sade also continues to be influenced by Lucretian and Epicurean philosophy.  As Sainville is looking for his wife and is constantly suffering shipwrecks and other horrible misfortunes, he invokes the name of Lucretius:

Here a philosopher might profit from the study of man, observing with what rapidity a change in atmosphere drives him from one state to another. An hour ago our sailors were drunk and cursing. Now they raised their hands to implore Heaven’s protection. Fear is truly the wellspring of religion and, as Lucretius said, the mother of all cults. Were man gifted with a better constitution and a nature less prone to disorder, we’d never hear talk of gods on earth.

It’s in the context of religion that Sade brings up Lucretian thoughts again, but this time it is curious that this speech comes from the mouth of his villain in the Kingdom of Butua.  The religious rites of these people are brutal and barbaric and they also believe in the materialism of the soul and the death of it once it is detached from the body—a major tenet of Lucretian philosophy.  Sarmiento once again explains to him, “Their notions concerning the fate of souls in the afterlife are quite confused. First of all, they don’t believe the soul is distinct from the body; they say it’s only the result of the way we are organized by Nature. Each type of organization necessitates a different soul and that is all that separates us from the animals. Their system seems to me quite philosophical.”

But why attribute this philosophy to those who live in the dystopia instead of the utopia?  The fate of the soul and the afterlife are never discussed with Zame.  Perhaps these are ideas that intrigued Sade, but ones that he couldn’t quite accept as his own personal belief system?  The second volume, although it veers from the main story, is just as, if not more, intriguing and thought-provoking as the first.

On to Volume III.

 

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Reading The Stranger via Camus’s Notebooks

The Stranger was one of those books I read at eighteen that left almost no impression on me.  I’ve had no desire to revisit any of Camus’s writing until recently when a friend, who is one of the most astute readers I know, recommended reading some of Camus’s other, less well-known, writing.  For the past week or so I have been captivated by Camus’s 400 pages of Notebooks that span the years 1939 through 1951.  He includes vivid descriptions of scenery, personal reflections, ideas for new novels and plays and his philosophical views on life, death, love and art.  In an entry from 1942, Camus writes a response to a negative review of The Stranger which he never sends.  It is the response to his critic which inspired me to reread The Stranger this week alongside the Notebooks. 

Of course a lot has been written about Meursault’s taciturn nature and the fact that he only speaks when answering direct questions.  On this reread what stood out to me most was Meursault’s inner strength, especially when settling into life in a small prison cell.  Typical for anyone incarcerated he misses his freedom, seeing and interacting with nature, and women.  But he settles into a routine that gives him comfort and he remembers an important bit of advice his mother gives him (trans. Matthew Ward):

I waited for the daily walk, which I took in the courtyard, or for a visit from my lawyer. The rest of the time I managed pretty well. At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it.  I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything.

Camus often writes about death in his Notebooks and believes that the only way to attain true liberty in this life is to free oneself from a fear of death.  His protagonist hopes for a stay of execution but eventually accepts his fate, without the help of the prison Chaplain who is utterly annoyed with the prisoner’s disinterest in God.  In one final speech at the end Meursault reflects on his argument with the Chaplain and the absurdity of life:

It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew why. So did he. Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising towards me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living.  What did other people’s deaths or a mothers’ love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter tome when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also call themselves my brothers?

Camus’s own description of Meursault in the Notebooks (1942) are enlightening, to say the least, and completely changed the way I view Camus and his most famous novel (trans. Philip Thody):

It’s a very studied book and the tone…is intentional. The tone is heightened four or five times, to be sure, but this is to avoid monotony and to provide composition. With the Chaplain, my Stranger does not justify himself. He gets angry, and that’s quite different. I’m the one to explain then, you say? Yes, and I thought about that considerably. I made up my mind to this because I wanted my character to be led to the single great problem by way of the daily and the natural. The great moment had to stand out.

One final side note, I am also reading Sade and thinking about Lucretius and Epicureanism.  I see some of these same thoughts and threads in Camus—dispelling the fear of death, deity as a distant figure that cares nothing for humans, the random absurdity of the universe. Camus writes about Lucretius and Sade in his Notebooks.  A wonderful reading coincidence for me.

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This White Peace: Camus’s Notebooks

In his notebook entry for November 11th, 1942 Camus writes:

In the morning everything is covered with hoarfrost; the sky is shining behind the garlands and streamers of an immaculate village fair. At ten o’clock, when the sun begins to warm everything, the whole countryside is filled with the crystalline music of an aerial thaw: little cracklings as if the trees were sighing, fall of the frost on the ground like a sound of white insects dropped on one another, late leaves constantly falling under the weight of the ice and barely bouncing on the ground like weightless bones. All around, the hills and valleys vanish in wisps of smoke. After looking at it for a time, one becomes aware that this landscape, as it loses its colors, had suddenly aged. It is a very ancient landscape returning to us in a single morning through millennia…Thus spur covered with trees and ferns juts out like the prow of a ship into the joining of the two streams. Freed from hoarfrost by the first rays of the sun, it is the only living thing in this landscape white like eternity. In this spot at least the mingled voices of the two rushing streams join together against the endless silence surrounding them. But gradually the song of the waters is itself fused into the landscape. Without diminishing a jot, it nevertheless becomes silence. And from time to time nothing but the flight of three smoke-colored ravens brings signs of life back into the sky.

Seated at the peak of the prow, I follow that motionless navigation in the land of indifference. Nothing less than all nature and this white peace that winter brings to overheated hearts—to calm this heart consumed by a bitter love. I watch as this swelling of light spreads over the sky negating the omens of death. Sign of the future in short, above me to whom everything now speaks of the past. Keep quiet, lung! Fill yourself with this icy, pure air that feeds you. Keep silent. May I cease being forced to listen to your slow rotting away—and may I turn at last toward…

It’s only been in the past five or six years that I’ve become very interested in reading the letters, notebooks and diaries of authors. Camus’s Notebooks, which span the years 1939 to 1950 are extraordinary, as the above passages demonstrates, and have given me such a different view of the man and his writing. I’ve even started rereading The Stranger, a book which I have not looked at since I was a teenager.

I was thinking that a good translation project for me next year would be to translate a series of ancient letters—Horace, Seneca or even Pliny.

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We Mislead, but Sweetly: Aline & Valcour, Volume I by Marquis de Sade

This is the first English translation, expertly and smoothly rendered from the French by Jocelyne Genevieve Barque and John Simmons,  of Marquis de Sade’s epistolary novel.  Written in 1786 while he was locked in the Bastille, this book is very different from Sade’s later, more pornographic, writings.  Contra Mundum Press has, wisely, decided to break up the novel into three volumes—easier to carry and nicely displayed on one’s shelves.  My impressions of the first volume are ones of astonishment—at the riveting adventure story, the slowly unraveling mystery, and a philosophical statement on Epicurean/Lucretian philosophy.

Aline and Valcour are young lovers kept apart by Aline’s vicious and depraved father, President Blamont,  who wants to pawn her off to his equally sadistic friend, Monsieur Dolbourg.  Blamont and Dolbourg take extreme pleasure in keeping young women as sex slaves and doing unspeakable things to them—although, as I mentioned, Sade’s descriptions of these debaucheries is minimal compared to his later writing.   The mental and physical pain that Blamont causes for his wife, daughter, and victims is a theme that occurs constantly in the letters and his choice of epistolary style allows Sade to struggle with the concepts of pain and pleasure on a philosophical level.  Madame Blamont writes to Valcour :

Can I justly pretend to some perfect happiness?  Does it exist anywhere beneath the heavens above? To be put on earth to suffer is the simplest thing in the world.  Are we not here as gamblers around the table? Does Dame Fortune favor everybody seated there? By what right dare they accuse her of squandering their gold instead of winning it?  The hand of the Eternal One suspends above our heads good and evil in equal portions and they spill indifferently upon us.  I might have been happy just as, so it happens, I’m miserable—a question of chance.  And the greatest fault of all is to complain.  Moreover, can’t we imagine taking pleasure even in extreme unhappiness? But dint of sharpening our soul, unhappiness intensifies sensitivity; its impressions, by developing in a more vigorous way all manner of feeling, bring about pleasure unknown to those who are cold-hearted and unfortunate enough to have experience only tranquility and prosperity.

Sade’s vision of a deity is Epicurean in the sense that this being is indifferent to our fmisortunes.  Pain and pleasure for Sade are very closely related and one cannot experience happiness without first being exposed to extreme forms of pain.  Does Sade see his novel as didactic, as a way of teaching us this lesson?  Is he trying to dispel our fears of pain and death?  The epigram that Sade writes at the beginning of Aline & Valcour in which he quotes Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 2.55-61 gives us a a small clue (this translation is my own; in the Contra Mundum version, the authors use R.C. Trevelyan’s 1937 translation):

Just as small children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so do we, as adults, fear in broad daylight things that are just as irrational as the fears of children in the dark when they imagine things before their eyes. Therefore, it is necessary for us to shake off this terror and gloom of the mind, not by the rays of the sun or the brightness of daylight, but by the appearance and reason of nature.

 

Lucretius sees poetry as a way of tricking people into dispelling their fear of pain and death.  In his most famous metaphor, poetry is the honey we rub on the edge of a bowl in order to coax a child into  taking his bitter medicine.  One other, quite obvious allusion, to Lucretius in Aline & Valcour also gives us a clue as to Sade’s philosophical motivations with his writings.  Once again, it is Madame Blamont that writes to Valcour on behalf of herself and her daughter:

I ought not to have allowed you to come to know Aline or her unfortunate mother; today, we would certainly all have less pain; and for the pain we inflict upon others we can never be consoled.  But all is not lost—no, Valcour, not all. My barbaric husband, who torments you so, might yet reconsider, so too the ridiculous monster who trails his every step. It might dawn on him that he’ll reap non of the hoped-for pleasure from she who hates him so. That much, at least, I can only hope and believe, though I know illusion is to unhappiness as honey rubbed round the rim of a glass of absinthe, offered to a child in pain: we mislead, but sweetly.

Sade, however, has a more sinister view of this deception.  How much is an author or philosopher really fooling anyone with this “honey?”

Will the lovers eventually be together?  Will Blamont’s victims escape his torments?  And who are the mysterious house guests that appear at Madame Blamont’s at the end of Volume I?  These plot considerations as well as Sade’s philosophical threads have me eagerly reading Volume II.

 

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