Tag Archives: FS&G

Excellence and Honor in Logue’s War Music

Achilles and Agamemnon, Book 1 of The Iliad, Roman Mosaic

I continue my discussion in this post of Logue’s War Music by focusing on the Homeric Greek concepts of arête (excellence) and tîmê (honour).  For those who are interested, I have discussed in previous posts the ideas of kleos and aidos and how Logue deftly weaves these concepts into his startling translation of the Iliad.

When the Greeks land on the beach at Troy, they are really fighting two different wars: one against the Trojans and one amongst themselves.  The heroic code that is established in this warrior culture ensures that there is constant conflict and fighting among the soldiers themselves.  It is not surprising that Agamemnon and Achilles have a fight over prizes; what is surprising is that it took nine years for this argument to finally erupt.  They each strictly adhere to the values of arête (excellence) and  tîmê (honor), but their different applications of these concepts to their own circumstances causes a great deal of conflict, misunderstanding and arguing.

The Greek word arête, which comes from the superlative adjective aristos (the best), can simply be translated as “excellence.” H.D.F.  Kitto includes a thorough discussion of arête is his book The Greeks.  He points out that arête can be used to denote the excellence of the entire man, body and soul.  He states:

If it [arête] is used, in a general contest, of a man it will connote excellence in the ways in which a man can be excellent—morally, intellectually, physically, practically.  Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Phaeacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song.  He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing arête.

Kitto points out that Achilles is the hero who possesses this all-around type of excellence in the Iliad.  But arête can also be applied to more limited contexts as well.  Achilles, for example, places an emphasis and importance on his arête as a warrior, as a fighter, as the best fighter among the Achaeans.  He knows that the Greeks will not be successful without him and he is the reason they have sacked and looted many cities around the Troad.  It is this second example, this more specific application of arête, excellence on the battlefield, upon which Logue builds the conflict in his first book of War Music.  In his typical, forceful, succinct and shocking style Logue’s Achilles sums up the Greek’s modus operandi: “We land. We fight. We kill.  We load.”   And Achilles reminds Agamemnon of his prowess in battle: “Since I arrived, my Lord,/ I have sent 20 lesser Ilion towns/Backwards into the smoke.”  He further reminds Agamemnon that Briseis, a beautiful woman whose husband Achilles destroyed, is given to him by the Greek warriors as a prize “In recognition of my strength, my courage my superiority.”  Achilles views Briseis as a prize, a special reward for his arête in battle.  So when Agamemnon takes away Briseis in order to make up for his own, lost prize, Achilles sees this as an insult to his work and his arête.  Logue highlights the fact that Agamemnon can’t understand Achilles’ argument over the prize because the king views arête very differently.

Agamemon’s focus is not arête on the battlefield, but instead he places importance on arête as a king and leader.  Logue’s Agamemnon states: “As being first means being privileged,/ So privilege incurs responsibility./ And my responsibility is plain:/To keep the army whole. To see it hale./To lead it through Troy’s Skean Gate.”  Agamemnon’s arête, his excellence, depends on his status as king and ruler of the Greeks and this status, he feels, is tied directly to any prizes the Greek army retrieves from pillaged towns.  As leader he has first choice of the best prizes and when he is forced to give up his most valued prize, Cryzia, then he feels it is his right to take someone else’s “she” as recompense: “What does it matter whose prize she I take?/ But take I shall, and if needs be, by force.”  Logue has perfectly captured Agamemnon’s concept of arête with these forceful words.  Logue is intimately familiar with the intricacies of Homeric culture and underscores the fact that Achilles and Agamemnon cannot understand or even relate to one another’s arguments over Briseis since they each value very different forms of arête.

As Achilles and Agamemnon are arguing, they each make it a point of accusing the other of having no tîmê (honour) .  The Homeric idea of tîmê is tightly bound to a hero’s arête.  Through arête in battle Achilles gains a prize, Briseis, which becomes a symbol of tîmê for him.  When Achilles is stripped of this prize,  his tîmê  is also threatened.   Agamemnon, on the other hand, equates tîmê with the respect that should be shown to a king.  To be forced to give up his prize and not have another in its place is damaging to Agamemnon’s  tîmê: “..as the loss of an allotted she/Diminishes my honour and my state,/ Before the army leaves the common sand/Its captain lords will find among their own/Another such for me.”

Neither hero can relate to or see the other’s side because they each view arête differently and as a result gain tîmê by very different means. Logue perfectly captures the misunderstanding between these men, especially through the insults that he has them launch at one another.  Achilles accuses Agamemnon of having no tîmê and he knows what to say that will be the most offensive and insulting to the king:

“Shame that your King is not so  bound to you
As he is bound to what he sniffs.

Here is the truth:
King Agamemnon is not honour bound.
Honour to Agamemnon is a thing
That he can pick, pick up, put back, pick up again,
A somesuch that you might find beneath your bed.

Do not tell Agamemnon honour is
No mortal thing, but ever in creation,
Vital, free, like speed, like light,
Like silence, like the gods,
The movement of the stars! Beyond the stars!
Dividing man from beast, hero from host,
That proves best, best, that only death can reach,
Yet cannot die because it will be said, be sung,
now, and in time to be, for evermore.”

What I find so brilliant about Logue’s “translation” is that in this one, succinct speech his Achilles explains the specific meaning of Homeric tîmê as something that has religious significance and is something that lives on when a hero dies.   As I stated in my first post, I found it unsettling that Logue was not trained in Ancient Greek nor was he interested in a line by line translation of the Iliad.  He does, however, capture the true essence of these Homeric heroes as well as their mores and traditions with his startling, compact, unexpected and poetic lines.  The Iliad is a war poem and it should be jarring—Logue’s rendition of this epic has reminded me of this and has given me a new enthusiasm and excitement for Homer which I never thought would be possible since I have read it in Ancient Greek and English so many times.

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Review: Transit by Rachel Cusk

transitTransit, Cusk’s second book in what will be a trilogy of fictional autobiographies about the aftermath of her divorce, begins with an unsolicited email that Faye, the narrator, receives from a psychic.  The self-proclaimed astrologist says  that she is in possession of specific details about Faye’s life: “She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky.”  Just as in Outline, the narrator deliberately leaves details about herself out of the narrative; we only get passing glimpses of her life through her interactions with others.  A visit to the hairdresser, a trip to a literary festival, a date, and a party at a friend’s home all become the backdrop for intriguing conversations and interactions that partly reveal Faye’s own story.

At the beginning of this story, Faye has moved back to London with her boys after her divorce and has bought an apartment that is a disaster.  It requires a complete overhaul and the demolition of her apartment by the contractors becomes a metaphor for her own life.  She sends her boys away to spend a few weeks with their father while her surroundings are being dismantled.  She describes her house to a man with whom she agrees to go on a date:

I felt cold.  There were builders in my house, I added.  The doors and windows were constantly open and the heating had been turned off.  The house had become a tomb, a place of dust and chill.  It was impossible to eat or sleep or work—there wasn’t even anywhere to sit down.  Everywhere I looked I saw skeletons, the skeletons of walls and floors, so that the house felt unshielded, permeable, as though all the things those walls and floors ought normally to keep out were free to enter.

There is always the feeling in a Cusk novel that a simple description, like this one about her renovated home, has a much heavier and deeper meaning than what we encounter at first glance.  There are several passages that I found throughout the book that I underlined and were worthy of multiple reads.

One additional aspect of Transit that I found particularly intriguing were the descriptions of Faye’s children.  Similar to Outline they are never physically present with Faye in the book.  We only get descriptions of them when they call her from their father’s home.  When the boys call her they are lost, or locked out of the house, or feeling alone; they are still in need of her maternal love and I felt sad that they were separated from her, even if only for a little while.  At the end of the book Faye is at a party and the boys call her cell phone because they are fighting and cannot solve their conflict.  They ask her for help and admit that their father is nowhere to be found.  There are additional hints at the father’s anger, maltreatment of Faye and lack of involvement in the boys’ lives.  I am very interested to see if Cusk will further explore the post-divorce family dynamic in the final book of the trilogy.

Fate, identity, love, marriage and transitions are all themes that Cusk explores though the interesting conversations she writes for her characters.  Cusk’s writing is both compelling and philosophical, a combination which so few writers are successfully able to achieve.

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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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My Literary jouissance of 2016

This year has been a tough one for many reasons.  It is hard to believe that there could be a “best of” list for anything related to 2016 and I really wasn’t going to bother making a book list.  But Grant from 1st Reading  twisted my arm a bit and I was reminded that if there is one thing that kept me moving forward in 2016 it was the plethora of fantastic books I came across this year.

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his most recent book entitled Coming, explores the French word jouissance (pleasure) and the similarities between sexual pleasure and artistic pleasure.  Sexual jouissance and orgasm are irresistible desires for humans which we can never fully satisfy and thus we are constantly coming back and reaching for The Other.  Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again.  I would extend Nancy’s argument about renewed desire and satisfaction to include Bibliophiles such as myself who wallow in the aftermath of a great piece of literature.  We, as avid readers, are always attempting to renew that high, that euphoria, that bliss which slowly creeps up on us when we close the last page of a great book.  Some of us, after a good read, might even have the same expression on our faces as Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene which is depicted on the cover of Nancy’s book.  So the list of books below were the ones that brought me jouissance this year; or if I may be so bold as to say they were the standout books that caused me to experience a literary orgasm.

coming

Two Lines 25 is published by Two Lines Press and this 192-page volume contains fascinating literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish.  What excited me most about this collection is that it introduced me to the philosophy and writings of Jean-Luc Nancy.

The writing of Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite literary and philosophical discoveries this year.  I have read three of his books: Corpus, Listening and Coming.  His philosophy explores what it means to be human and he deals with subjects of touching, listening, desiring and loving.  My review of Coming will be out next month and I have so many thoughts about this slim volume that is only 168 pages.

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is a haunting reflection on what life was like for the author during the years of the Soviet Union.  Lebedev’s prose is dense and poetic and so thoughtful that I found myself rereading entire sections of the book multiple times.  I am very excited that Lebedev has another novel forthcoming from New Vessel Press entitled The Year of the Comet.

War Music by Christopher Logue is a book that I dismissed as soon as I saw it in the FS&G catalog because I don’t usually read any time of modern retellings of Ancient myths.  But Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed had such great things to say about it that I decided to give it a try and I am so glad that I did.  I have so many things to say just about the first 50 pages of this book that I am not sure how I am going to handle a review.  I am thinking of doing several short pieces on each section of Logue’s poem.  As far as retellings are concerned, I also discovered Christa Wolf based on his suggestion and I thoroughly enjoyed her Medea and Cassandra.

Seagull Books Catalog.  It’s unusual to find a catalog on a best of list, but the one that Seagull publishes each year is very special.  It includes writing from authors, translators and even bloggers from all over the world.  This year I was invited to contribute to the catalog and some of my favorite literary bloggers also have pieces in the catalog.  Selections from Roughghosts, Times Flow Stemmed,   Tony’s Reading List and of shoes ‘n ships can all be found in this fabulous collection of art and literature.

The Brother by Rein Raud is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. It my favorite title from Open Letters this year whose books are fantastic.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a skillfully written and poetic novel which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The ways in which he must navigate his life and his art around the Soviet regime are heartbreaking.

The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist is a true literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side. For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years. This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century. Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.

Berlin-Hamlet: Poems by Szilárd Borbély is my favorite collection of poetry this year published by NYRB Poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép are stunning. I find it so sad and tragic that the author succumbed to his deep sense of sadness and took his own life.

American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag is another work of non-fiction that was one of my favorites this year.  Kaag’s journey from Hell to Redemption in his own personal life via the 10,000 books in Ernest Hocking’s personal library gave me an entirely new appreciation for American philosophers. Kaag also reminds us of the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and that no matter what we might suffer we must keep moving forward.

 

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