Tag Archives: Classics

Luxury and Death: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The Satyricon, written by the emperor Nero’s arbiter elegentiae (judge of style), Petronius, in the first century B.C.E., is one of the most interesting pieces of realistic fiction that has survived from antiquity.  The work, estimated to be the size of a modest modern novel, is highly fragmentary so that the plot as a whole can only be loosely reconstructed.  The narrator, an amoral yet educated man named Encolpius, has done something to offend the Roman god of sexuality and fertility, Priapus, and as a result has been stricken with a horrible case of impotence.  He travels around Italy with his companion and young lover Giton looking for a cure, for the Roman equivalent of Viagra.  The work has been described as a satire, as a mock epic, and a picaresque novel; it is lewd, it is bawdy and it is funny.

The Satyricon, however, also has an underlying moral message and a serious side for which William Arrowsmith argues in his seminal paper entitled, “Luxury and Death in the Satyricon.”  The central episode of the novel, which is also the most extant part of the work that has survived, is the Cena Trimalchionis—The Dinner of Trimalchio; Encolpius and Giton, along with a third friend they picked up somewhere along the way named Ascyltus, are invited to an elaborate dinner at the home of a ridiculously wealthy freedman named Trimalchio.  The themes of luxury and death are meticulously and deftly blended together in the dinner party scene during which Trimalchio’s ostentatious wealth is fully on display along side his obsession with his own mortality.  He is rich enough, for instance, to hire a trumpeter that does nothing all day but sound his horn on the hour.  He has a water clock in his dining room, a very expensive and rare item for a Roman, which also marks time for him.  And the symbol, for me, that best displays the juxtaposition of the wealth and death themes is Trimalchio’s elaborate fresco that depicts the fates measuring and cutting the thread of his life—Trimalchio’s thread, of course, is painted in gold.

As I was reading Mrs. Dalloway, the famous first lines of Arrowsmith’s article kept coming to my mind: “The Satyricon is a book obsessed with luxury (luxuria, that is) and death, and Trimalchio, the central character of the central episode, is a man with wealth and death very much on his mind.”  Arrowsmith’s words, I think, can be slightly amended to fit rather well with Virginia Woolf and her characters: Mrs. Dalloway is a book obsessed with luxury (luxuria, that is) and death, and Clarissa Dalloway, the central character of the central episode, is a woman with wealth and death very much on her mind.

Clarissa Dalloway, the fifty-two-year-old wife of a British politician, is busy planning one of her famous dinner parties for her usual group of upper class British friends and acquaintances.  She spends the day buying and arranging flowers, ordering around her maids and cooks, and laying out expensive silverware.  In the first few pages of the novel as she is bustling about her home and then about London, Big Ben lingers in the background, reminding her of every hour that has slipped by, thus reminding her of her mortality.  In the midst of her wealthy home and the luxuries she is setting out for her party, the clock faithfully strikes the hour:

For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty,—one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes.  There! Out it boomed.  First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.

In the afternoon just before her party, an old flame visits Clarissa and he makes fun of her planning.  This, combined with her husband’s comments about her elaborate parties, causes her to examine why she fusses over these displays of ostentation and wealth for her upper class friends.  Thoughts of death and mortality are oftentimes mixed in her mind with thoughts of wealth and luxury which, to her, mean standing in society, social class, importance.  Social status brings meaning to Clarissa’s life, it is what keeps her going.  But the more she clings to these luxuries, the more she realizes their worthlessness and the more she thinks about life and death:

They thought, or Peter at any rate, thought, that she enjoyed imposing herself; like to have famous people about her; great names; was simply a snob in short.  Well, Peter might think so.  Richard merely thought it foolish of her to like excitement when she knew it was bad for her heart.  It was childish, he thought.  And both were quite wrong.  What she liked was simply life.

“That’s what I do it for,” she said, speaking aloud, to life.

The other, seemingly disparate plot, that runs parallel to Clarissa’s story is that of Septimus, a traumatized veteran of The Great War who feels utterly lost and hopeless as he tries to integrate himself back into civilian life.  His wife, Rezia, anguishes over trying to get him help before he harms himself as Septimus’ delusions become more frequent and more alarming to her.  He is a man obsessed with death and wonders if there is any meaning or point to life: “It might be possible, Septimus thought, looking at England from the train window, as they left Newhaven; it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.”  Septimus’ thoughts and actions mimic the pattern of Clarissa’s own existential crisis.  They are both consumed with thoughts of death.

Similar to Petronius, it is during Clarissa’s party that the themes of luxury and death culminate in the text.  As she is greeting her guests, which include the Prime Minister, death intrudes on her upper class world.  She is numb, going through the motions of greeting her guests, when she is shocked out of her wealthy surroundings by the rumor of a suicide: “She felt, somehow very like him—the young man who killed himself.  She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away.  The clock was striking.  The leaden circles dissolved in the air.  He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.  But she must go back.  She must assemble.”  I will end with another quote from Arrowsmith that I think applies equally well to Trimalcho and to Clarissa Dalloway: “Like hybris, luxuria affects a man so that he eventually loses his sense of specific function, his virtus or arête.*  He surpasses himself, luxuriating into other things and forms.”  For just a moment, it is death that brings Clarissa out of her surroundings, but then she comfortably goes back to her party.

*Virtus in Latin means courage, virtue or strength.  Arete in Ancient Greek means excellence.

I have yet to read Woolf’s letters or diaries.  I was wondering if anyone has come across a reference to Petronius in any of her writings?  I don’t think it is too far fetched that Woolf would have been familiar with Petronius.  It interesting that F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing about the same time as Woolf,  was greatly influenced by the Satyricon in composing The Great Gatsby —another novel obsessed with luxury and death—and even considered the alternative title Trimalchio’s Dinner for his novel.

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How we Perished, Each Alone: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I realize that entire academic careers and volumes of dissertations and articles are dedicated to studying the influences of Vergil on Virginia Woolf.  I have not looked at any of the scholarship nor do I wish to.  My writing here, I am sure, will not be new or unusual but it is simply my own interaction with the texts of Vergil and Virginia Woolf.  (Also, a bit of a warning that I do have a spoiler in my writing about the second part of the books.)

As I made my way through the three parts of To the Lighthouse, Vergil’s lines from Georgics 1.199-203 kept coming to mind.  The Roman poet is giving advice about scattering seeds for a successful harvest and concludes with a universal maxim (translation is my own):

sic omnia fatis
in peius ruere ac retro sublapsa referri,
non aliter quam qui aduerso uix flumine lembum
remigiis subigit, si bracchia forte remisit,
atque illum in praeceps prono rapit alveus amni.

Thus all things are fated to quickly hasten towards something
worse and to slide backwards, similar to when a man is hardly
able to steer his boat with his oars against the opposing
stream, and if, by chance, he should remove his arms, then he
and his skiff would be swept away by the swiftly moving river.

Part one of To the Lighthouse, “The Window,” captures a day in the life of the Ramsay family—mother, father, eight children and a few house guests—at their summer rental home in the Hebrides. At the center of the family is Mrs. Ramsay, middle-aged yet still beautiful, whose role as loving mother, wife and hostess is the unifying and joyful force behind their blissful, summer days. It is her care and understanding and warmth that steers her children towards a good and happy life. She reassures her youngest son, James, that he will make his greatly anticipated trip out to the lighthouse on the following day; despite his repeated refusals, she offers their crabby and aloof  houseguest, Mr. Carmichael, comforts like newspapers and tobacco; with a simple look she is able to calm her husband whose irrational anger flares up when a guest is taking too long eating his soup at dinner. Mrs. Ramsay shelters the children from their father’s stern presence which wavers between indifference and irritation. The dinner scene sympathetically describes Mrs. Ramsay at the center of it all:

And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her. Again she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men, for if she did not do it nobody would do it, and so, giving herself the little shake that one gives a watch that has stopped, the old familiar pulse began beating, as the watch begins ticking—one, two, three, one, two, three. And so on and so on, she repeated, listening to it, sheltering and fostering the still feeble pulse as one might guard a weak flame with a newspaper.

It is Mrs. Ramsay’s arms, her effort, that steer the family ship upstream, against the harsh tides of reality. In chapter two, “Time Passes,” the summer house is described as empty, desolate, lonely because the family has not visited it in the ten years since the untimely death of Mrs. Ramsay. The house in ruins, overtaken by nature, foreshadows the lack of joy and unity in the family without their wife and mother:

Only the lighthouse beam entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw. Nothing now withstood them; nothing said no to them. Let the wind blow; let the poppy seed itself and the carnation mate with the cabbage. Let the swallow build in the drawing-room, and the thistle thrust aside the tiles, and the butterfly sun itself on the faded chintz of the arm-chairs. Let the broken glass and china lie out on the lawn and be tangled over with grass and wild berries.

The second chapter is the most poetic—its repetitive lines and sections are akin to songs and melodies—and it includes many Vergilian allusions to the fourth Georgic. The most striking and pathetic of which is the Orpheus and Eurydice image when Mr. Ramsay is “stumbling along a passage one dark morning” and reaches for Mrs. Ramsay but his arms “remained empty” because she died suddenly the night before.

In the final chapter, ten years have passed and the family has decided to visit their summer home but there is a marked change in their mood and interactions with one another. Without Mrs. Ramsay they cannot recapture the joy of the last summer in the house. Mr. Ramsay, whose irritability and tyranny is no longer subdued by his wife, scares his children and makes his guests uncomfortable.  He has, mostly definitely, hastened towards something worse in the absence of his wife.  He decides to take James and Cam, now teenagers, on a boat trip out to the lighthouse to make up, somehow, for the trip that was never taken ten summers prior. Their tense and miserable journey out to the lighthouse is laden with water and sailing imagery that is, for me, especially reminiscent of the Georgics passage which I translated above:

The sea was more important now than the shore. Waves were all round them, tossing and sinking, with a log wallowing down one wave; a gull riding on another. About here, she thought, dabbling her fingers in the water, a ship had sunk, and she murmured dreamily half asleep, how we perished, each alone.

 

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Love Stories Must Never be Left Unfinished: Irretrievable by Theodor Fontane

“Love stories must never be left unfinished and when harsh reality has cut the thread before its time, then it must be spun out artificially.” This seems to capture perfectly the sad fate that Fontane writes for the married couples in both Effi Briest and Irretrievable. Each story features a marriage in which, although a minor indiscretion has occurred, one of the spouses chooses a desperate and unnecessary end to their relationship, their family and their lives.

Set between 1859-1861 in Schleswig-Holstein, five years before the German-Danish War, the novel  deals with Count Helmut Holk who has been married to his beautiful and devout wife Christine Arne for twenty years. Even though they have very different personalities—he is easygoing, indecisive and not spiritual, she is moralistic, self-righteous and cold— their attraction, admiration and affection for one another, at first, was rather strong.  They build and move into a beautiful castle that overlooks the sea.  And they have two teenage children, a boy and a girl, for whom Christine is searching out boarding schools that will provide them the best education.  Schleswig-Holstein at this point in time is still ruled by Denmark and the Count has an important position as an attendant at the court of the Danish princess.  Just before the Count leaves his family to serve the princess in Copenhagen for several months, there are signs that the Holks’ marriage is starting to show signs of wearing thin on both of their nerves.  Fontane describes Christine’s thoughts just before the Count is called to Denmark:

In spite of having the best of husbands whom she loved as much as he loved her, she yet did not possess that peace for which she longed; in spite of all their love, his easy-going temperament was no longer in harmony with her melancholy, as recent arguments had proved to her more than once to an ever-increasing degree and even though she would strive with all her might to resist her tendency to disagree.

I felt that Holk was the more sympathetic of the two characters throughout the story.  Fontane lets us view the marriage from the outside, through the eyes of Christine’s brother and two local clergymen, who all agree that her moralizing and constant judgment of her husband is too much and is driving them further apart.  When Holk goes to Copenhagen, the time, distance and experiences with the Princess force him to realize that what he really wants is a partner who gives him warmth, affection and understanding;

Ah, all that bickering and nagging! I’m longing for a new life, one that doesn’t begin and end with religious tracts, I want harmony in my home, not a harmonium, joy and mutual understanding and air and light and freedom.  That’s what I want and that’s what I have always wanted, ever since the first day I arrived here, and now I’ve been given the sign that I’m going to be allowed to have it.

I also found the Count’s naivete, especially when he encounters the women in Copenhagen, to be amusing and even endearing.  He is especially captivated by Ebba, the princess’s lady-in-waiting, who flirts with him and uses him for one night of unbridled passion which the Count is clearly not accustomed to.  But he figures out too late that Ebba is just using him as a temporary amusement and his wife, for the better part of a year, will not forgive his indiscretion.  Holk is a character that develops a great deal of personal knowledge and growth in Fontane’s narrative so I found it disappointing that he would even consider going back to Christine; she is still the same dour, melancholy woman he married and their time apart didn’t change that.  He learns the hard way that any happy times that they had previously are irretrievable, there is no way back to the past.

As Fontane says in the novel, a love story can’t have a non-ending—the author couldn’t possibly allow Holk and Christine to live together in their castle, no matter how miserable they make each other.  It’s interesting to note that in Effi Briest, it is Effi’s husband that is the morally stringent, destructive force in the novel because in Irretrievable it is the wife that plays this role.  It is Christine that makes a fatal, ruinous decision (I won’t give it away) that brings a definitive end to their love story, their marriage and the novel.

I am thoroughly enjoying Fontane’s novels and I have a volume of his shorter works that is published by The German Library to look forward to.

(I read the NYRB Classics translation entitled Irretrievable but this novel has also been translated into English as Beyond Recall and No Way Back.)

 

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Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Effi Briest, the tragic, eponymous heroine of Fontane’s novel, is the only child of a  German aristocratic couple living on an idyllic country estate outside of Berlin.  When Effi is seventeen years old, she is married off to Baron Geert von Innstetten who is twenty years her senior.  In addition to the age gap, their very different views on life doom the marriage from achieving any peace and contentment from the start.

When we first meet Effi she is playing in the garden on her parent’s estate, her favorite place in the world.  Effi loves nature and is a carefree spirit who always laughing and taking great delight in socializing with her family and friends.  An hour before she is engaged to Innstetten she is playing tag in the yard with her three best friends.  When she is introduced to her finance, she is excited at the prospect of marrying a man who is ambitious and will provide a good life for her.  Innstetten is a Landrat in Kessin, a senior politician that oversees a large rural population.  But during their engagement there are hints at the aloofness of her future husband in the letters he sends to her.  Effi mentions to her mother that “most of what he writes I could put on the noticeboard at the town hall where his official announcements are posted.  Geert isn’t a Landrat for nothing.”  Effi’s statement is a perfect example of Fontane’s subtle and allusive narrative—we are given hints about the great contrast between Effi’s needs and Geert’s inability to fulfil those desires.

When Effi moves to Innstetten’s home in Pomerania, she is still very much childlike and innocent.  She is oftentimes frightened by noises she hears in her new home and an old legend about the previous owner and his “Chinaman” adds to her terror.  The local Prussian nobility is unwelcoming and aloof and, except for a town chemist who is especially warm and kind to her, Effi is socially isolated.  Innstetten is oftentimes away fulfilling his administrative duties and when he does spend time with his wife he only gives her “one or two tired if well-intended caresses.”  She is oftentimes unhappy and doesn’t realize that it is due to the fact that her marriage has failed to satisfy her emotionally or physically.   It is no big surprise that Effi engages in a brief yet passionate love affair with Major Crampas, a reputed womanizer who is more passionate and expressive than her husband.

But Effi, in the end, develops no real attachment to Crampas and decides that the best course of action for herself and her family—she has an infant daughter by this time—is to stay with her husband who is being promoted through the ranks of the political system.  When Effi and Innstetten move to Berlin for his new ministerial post, Effi believes that the affair is something in the past, a long-forgotten indiscretion.  She still has bouts of sadness because she misses the emotional and physical connection with Crampas but she puts aside her own needs for the sake of her husband and daughter.

Innstetten, who was a former suitor of Effi’s mother, has spent his life working and improving his career.  After the rejection by Effi’s mother, he has denied himself intimate human connections or marriage.  But the thought of having another chance with a young woman who greatly resembles his former love is too tempting.  He seems delighted with Effi and throughout their honeymoon and the early days of their marriage he is very complimentary and affectionate to his young wife.  But once he settles back into his routine he takes on the role of an authority figure.  It is Crampas who points out to Effi that Innstetten has assumed the role of “pedagogue” in their marriage.    Effi’s high spirits and vigor are greatly contrasted with her husband’s restraint and self-control.  He is a man of the law and sees the world in terms of moral imperatives and absolutes.  Effi’s affair is her attempt to free herself from these constraints.

Effi keeps her love letters from Crampas locked away in her sewing box and six years after the affair has ended, while they are living in Berlin, Innstetten discovers the letters quite by accident.  Even though he still loves his wife, his strict adherence to his values causes him to make decisions that destroy his entire family.  He challenges Crampas to a fatal duel, throws his wife out of his home and doesn’t allow Effi any further contact with her daughter.  Innstetten’s handles the situation in the only way he feels right, but his morally correct actions bring him no peace or comfort.  Several years after Effi is gone, he has a vulnerable moment and confides in one of his only friends: “But I’ve forgotten how to be glad about anything.  If I said that to anyone other than you, it would just sound like a glib phrase.  But you can follow my drift.  Look at this place; look at how empty and desolate it all is.”

The strengh of Fontane’s narrative lies in the character of Effi that he creates for his story.  Effi stands among famous 19th century female characters like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary as an example of a daring woman who resists the sexual, emotional and even political restraints that are imposed on her.  Effi finally returns to her parent’s home, the one place she was truly happy and free to be herself.  She dies, full of heartache and grief, but is buried in her favorite place in the garden and, as a last act of defiance and free will,  she requests her own, original name be carved on her gravestone: Effi Briest.

(I read the Penguin Classics version translated by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers.  Persephone Books has also published a translation by Walter Wallich that was reviewed by Ali at her blog: https://heavenali.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/effi-briest-theodor-fontane-1895/).

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When is the Right Time to Let Go?: Other Men’s Daughters by Richard Stern

The plot of Stern’s novel in which an older man who has a love affair with a younger woman and divorces his wife, could have easily turned into the typical, hackneyed plot that such a book often veers towards.  Stern’s intelligent writing delves into the nuances and complications of marriage, middle age, physical attraction and love.  The story astutely and sensitively makes us aware of the sacrifices and heartache that each party in this complicated, all-to-human situation suffer.  “Love,” Stern writes, “Famous, frozen word concealing how many thousand feelings, the origin of so much story and disorder.”

Dr. Robert Merriwether is a profession of biology and physiology at Harvard in the late 1960s.  He also practices medicine in his free time during the summer and that is when he meets Cynthia, a young college student who has made an appointment to get a prescription for birth control.  When Cynthia starts running into him around Cambridge and eventually admits her attraction to Robert, he realizes how badly he was in denial about the state of his lifeless marriage.  His wife had begun to withhold affections years ago, yet they remained married and functioned as a family for the sake of their four children.  I felt genuine sympathy for this man who, up until he meets Cynthia, has just been going through the motions in his daily routine and in his relationships.  After a weekend spent in the company of Cynthia he has a difficult time settling back into his normal life: “Sunday was difficult for Merriwether. Tomorrow he’d be back in his own rectangle: home-class-lab-club. The boxed life. Though not an empty box.”  Because of Cynthia he starts giving lectures in other cities in the northeast so that he can have getaways with her for the weekend.  He also spends a summer in France with her, another trip and experience that allows to have different adventures that he wouldn’t have previously considered: “They became easier and easier with each other. Her intelligence and wit delighted him.  So many years he had been uncomfortable, sometimes miserable at Sarah’s incomprehension.  Partly, it was that Sarah played the fool.”

As for Sarah, Robert’s wife, we also get her side of the story and the sacrifices which she has made for the marriage and for their family.  She has given up having a career of her own to stay home and take care of the four Merriweather children and to tend to the creaky, old New England house passed down through Robert’s family.:

And he blamed her.  As if her body could be purchased by three daily meals, and this leaky hutch which she alone kept up.  (He couldn’t hammer a nail.) As if he really cared to make love to her.  Frigid? No, no more than any woman with a husband who saw her as an interior broom. By no means frigid.

Contrary to Robert’s interests, Sarah had studied humanities and her Master’s thesis was on Courtly Love.  The impending divorce has caused her to take some classes towards a Master of Arts in Teaching.  She could support herself from the profit of the sale of their house and by teaching French and Spanish in local schools.  She learns of Robert’s affair in a very public way, which is a particular embarrassment in their conservative, New England community.  I especially felt sorry for Sarah because of the physical anguish this causes her.  But she understands that her marriage had been a source of angst for years and the best decision for her is to separate from Robert.  They live in their house together, in separate bedrooms, with their children for a year while the divorce is being finalized and the property is being sold.  During this time they become so bitter and angry towards one another that they can only communicate with terse notes.  The Merriwethers think that by staying together as long as possible that they are doing the best thing for their children, but the tension and fighting that their living situation causes seems to do more harm than good for the family.  Stern’s narrative forces us to contemplate some difficult questions to which there are no easy answers: Why do we stay in a relationship?  When is the right time to let go?

The final person in this triangle is Cynthia who is not the typical seductress that one would expect in such a story.  It is obvious when Stern introduces her into the plot that she has every intention of seducing Robert and these scenes are cringe worthy.  But as the story progresses we learn that Cynthia is a very intelligent young woman who is bored with men her own age; she works hard at her studies and also challenges Robert in ways that his wife never could.  They have interesting discussions, they read together and they encourage one another’s interests.  Cynthia’s relationship with Robert also causes her a great deal of stress and anxiety.  She eventually transfers from Swathmore and moves to Cambridge so that she can be closer to Robert and she spends many hours alone while she waits for Robert to visit when he has free time.  Stern’s makes his story stronger by showing that Cynthia and Robert’s relationship is not perfect, that no relationship is perfect.  Cynthia suffers from bouts of depression and anxiety because of the pressure she puts on herself to achieve academic success and she and Robert often argue over this topic and many others.  Stern surprisingly ends his novel on a positive note—Cynthia and Robert have enough love and kindness and respect for one another to stay together for a while.  But will they know when it will be the right time to let go?

Trevor has also written about this title and has an interesting view of the book:  http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/31/richard-stern-other-mens-daughters/

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