Tag Archives: non-fiction

The Rush of Wonder: George Steiner on The Iliad

I was emotionally stirred when reading George Steiner’s beautiful second chapter in his book Errata in which he describes his initial experience with reading and translating Homer as a six-year-old boy: “My father, in broad strokes, had told me the story of the Iliad.  He had kept the book itself out of my impatient reach.  Now he opened it before us in the translation by Johann-Heinrich Voss of 1793.  Papa turned to Book XXI.”  Steiner’s father goes on to read Homer’s account of Achilles’s murderous fury and his killing of the Trojan youth Lycaon who begs for his life in vain.

Steiner’s father then opens the passage in Ancient Greek and as a very young boy he gets his first taste of the language:

My father read the Greek several times over.  He made me mouth the syllables after him.  Dictionary and grammar flew open.  Like the lineaments of a brightly colored mosaic lying under sand, when you pour water on it, the words, the formulaic phrases, took on form and meaning for me.  Word by sung word, verse by verse.  I recall graphically the rush of wonder, of a child’s consciousness troubled and uncertainly ripened, by the word “friend” in the  midst of the death-sentence: “Come friend, you too must die.”  And by the enormity, so far as I could gauge it, of the question: “Why  moan about it so?”  Very slowly, allowing me his treasured Waterman pen, my father let me trace some of the Greek letters and accents.

…Papa made a further proposal, as in passing: “Shall we learn some lines from this episode by heart?”  So that the serene inhumanity of Achilles’  message, its soft terror, would never leave us.  Who could tell, moreover, what I might find on my night-table when going back to my room?  I raced.  And found my first Homer.  Perhaps the rest has been a footnote to that hour.

Steiner further discusses what effect classic works like those of Homer, Tolstoy and Dante have on us.  He ends the chapter with this personal reflection: “Exposure, from early childhood, to these ordinances of excellence, the desire to share with others the answerability and transmission in time without which the classic falls silent, made of me exactly what my father intended: a teacher.”

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Nonfiction

Respice Futurum: Some Reading Plans for 2018

Henricus Respicit Futurum.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, The Woodstock Academy where I have had the privilege of teaching Latin and Classics for many years now, is one of the oldest public schools in the United States and has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum–-translated literally as “Look back at your future.” These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past— it is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.   Respice Futurum is an fitting description for thinking about my reading plans for 2018

Respicio in Latin means more than “looking back.” One of my favorite translations of this word is “to have regard for another person’s welfare.” The Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, applies respicio to the idea of self-improvement in his work De Clementia: sapiens omnibus dignis proderit et deorum more calamitosos propitius respiciet. (A wise man will offer help to those who are worthy and, in the manner of the gods, he especially will have regard for those in need.”) A good person, Seneca argues, always looks towards his future but uses experiences from the past to inform his decisions.  So as I look forward to books I intend to read in 2018, I can’t help but consider which literary selections in 2017 have influenced my choices.  Which books, based on previous choices, will give me a chance for deep reflection and even self-improvement?

Based on my past experiences, there are a few of my favorite publishers that put out spectacular books year after year.  A few of these titles I am looking forward to are:

Seagull Books:

Villa Amalia, Pascal Quignard
Eulogy for the Living, Christa Wolf (trans. Katy Derbyshire)
The Great Fall, Peter Handke (trans. Krishna Winston)
Monk’s Eye, Cees Nooteboom (trans. David Colmer)
Lions, Hans Blumberg (trans. Kári Driscoll)
Requiem for Ernst Jandl,  Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Rosalyn Theobald)

NYRB Classics:

The Juniper Tree, Barbara Comyns
Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin (trans. Michael Hofmann)
Kolyma Stories, Varlam Shalamov (trans. Donald Rayfield)
The Seventh Cross, Anna Seghers (trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo)
Anniversaries, Uwe Johnson (trans. Damion Searls)

Yale University Press:

Packing my Library, Alberto Manguel
A Little History of Archaeology, Brian Fagan
Journeying, Claudio Magris (trans. Anne Milano Appel)

I am also looking forward to more publications from Fitzcarraldo Editions, New Directions, Archipelago Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, Persephone Books (whose bookshop I hope to visit in the spring) and the Cahier Series. I’ve also heard that new books by Kate Zambreno and Rachel Cusk will be coming out later in 2018 and I am eager to read new titles by both of these women.

While I am waiting for the books listed above to be published, I will dip into German and British classics which I have loved reading over the last year. Here is what I have sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention in 2018:

German Literature:

Hyperion, Holderlin (trans. Ross Benjamin)
The Bachelors, Adalbert Stifter (trans. David Bryer)
The Lighted Windows, Heimito von Doderer (trans. John S. Barrett)
brütt, or The Sighing Gardens, Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Roslyn Theobald)
On Tangled Paths, Theodor Fontane (trans. Peter James Bowman)

British Literature:

Marriage, Susan Ferrier
The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf (I’d also like to continue reading her volumes of essays and diaries)
To the Wedding and G., John Berger
Pilgrimage, Vols. 3 and 4, Dorothy Richardson

Russian Literature:

I was disappointed this year not to get around to this stack of Russian literature in translation books as well as Russian history books I have sitting on my shelves—

Gulag Letters, Arsenii Formakov (ed. Elizabeth D. Johnson)
Found Life, Lina Goralik
City Folk and Country Folk, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (trans. Nora Seligman Favorov)
Sentimental Tales, Mikhail Zoshchenko (trans. Boris Dralyuk)
October, China Mieville

(I’ve toyed with the idea of starting War and Peace as well, but who knows where my literary moods will take me)

And for some Non-fiction:

I am very eager to read more George Steiner: Errata, The Poetry of Thought and Grammars of Creation are all on my TBR piles.
I am teaching a Vergil/Caesar class and an Ovid (Metamorphoses) class in the spring and in preparation for these authors I would like to read some of Gian Biaggio Conte’s books, especially Latin Literature: A History and Stealing the Club from Hercules: On Imitation in Latin Poetry.

I know, this list seems impossible, ridiculous, all over the place. But who knows what rabbit holes I will fall down, or where my journey will take me. All I can say for sure is that 2018, much like 2017, will be filled with great books and interactions with other wonderful readers. Happy New Year!

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Filed under British Literature, Cahier Series, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction, Seagull Books, Virginia Woolf

The Early Essays of Virginia Woolf

I am making my way through the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s essays that she composed between the years 1904 and 1912.  In “The Decay of Essay Writing” (1904) she gives us some insight into her motivations behind writing her personal essays.  She teaches us how to read her essays with a bit of a rant about the way in which writers in her day have approached the personal essay:

But though it seems thus easy enough to write of one’s self, it is, as we know, a feat but seldom accomplished.  Of the multitude of autobiographies that are written, one or two alone are what they pretend to be.  Confronted with the terrible spectre of themselves, the bravest are inclined to run away or shade their eyes.  And thus, instead of the honest truth which we should all respect, we are given timid side-glances in the shape of essays, which, for the most part, fail in the cardinal virtue of sincerity.

I wonder what Woolf would think of the personal essays written  in the 21st century?  In the age of the Internet and social media, have we gone too far the other way with oversharing?

Much of the first volume is taken up with reviews of books that Woolf did for the Guardian and the TLS in order to earn some money.   I am in awe of the wide range of books that she read.  Just as a sample, for the year 1905 she read:

Fiction: The Golden Bowl by Henry James; Arrows of Fortune by Algernon Gissing; A Dark Lantern by Elizabeth Robins.

Non-fiction: The Women of America by Elizabeth McCracken; The Thackeray Country by Lewis Melville; The Dickens Country by F.G. Kitton.

Even when her reviews are not flattering, she still makes me want to read a book.  I want to read what she read and replicate her literary experience.  Her review of James, for example, is not positive but she still inspires me to take another look at his novels:

‘She rubbed with her palm the polished mahogany of the balustrade, which was mounted on fine iron-work, eighteenth-century English.’ These are trivial instance of detail which, perpetually insisted on, fatigues without adding to the picture.  Genius would have dissolved them, and whole chapters of the same kind, into a single word.  Genius,  however, is precisely what we do not find; and it is for this reason that we do not count Mr. James’s characters among the creatures of our brains, no can we read his books easily and without conscious effort.  But when we have made this reservation our praise must be unstinted.  There is no living novelist whose standard is higher, or whose achievement is so consistently great.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Nonfiction, Virginia Woolf

A Lover’s Discourse—Fragments by Roland Barthes

I had a couple of very intense discussions recently with two people closest to me about the complicated, enigmatic, confusing concept of love—both filial and passionate.

There were two comments, each from a different person, that didn’t sit well with me and that I keep returning to over and over in my mind:

“You can dislike someone but still love that person.”

And

“You can love someone but feel no affection for that person.”

I did what I always do when I am struggling with something:  I read a book.  Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse is what jumped out at me from my shelves.  Divided into fragments, each chapter of sorts deals with different terms related to love—absence, affirmation, body, languor, tenderness, etc.  The author’s thoughts come from reading Goethe, Plato and Nietzsche, from conversations with friends and from his own life experiences.  Wayne Kostenbaum in the introduction to the translation describes Barthes writing: “Barthes never dissertates.  Barthes never stops to explain.  He is happy to make the lightest of allusions—a lodestone such as “Nietzsche” or “Descartes” in the margins—but to leave the reference unplumbed.”

I will share a few passages that were especially striking to me:

From the fragment entitled “Atopos”:

The atopia of Socrates is linked to Eros (Socrates is courted by Alcibiades) and to the numbfish (Socrates electrifies and benumbs Meno).  The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos.  I cannot classify the other, for the other is, precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire.  The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype (which is the truth of others).

Yet I have loved or will love several times in my life.  Does this mean, then, that my desire, quite special as it may be, is linked to a type?  Does this mean that my desire is classifiable?  Is there, among all the beings that I have loved, a common characteristic, just one, however tenuous (a nose, a skin, a look), which allows me to say: that’s my type!

From the fragment entitled “At Fault”—fautes/faults

Any fissure within Devotion is a fault: that is the rule of Cortezia.  This fault occurs whenever I make any gesture of independence with regard to the loved object; each time I attempt, in order to break my servitude, to “think for myself” (the world’s unanimous advice), I feel guilty.  What am I guilty of, then, is paradoxically lightening the burdern, reducing the exorbitant load of my devotion—in short, “managing” (according to the world); in fact, it is being strong which frightens me, it is control (or its gesticulation) which makes me guilty.

From the fragment entitled “The Ghost Ship”—errance/errantry:

How does a love end?—Then it does end?  To tell the truth, no one—except for the others—ever knows anything about it; a kind of innocence conceals the end of this thing conceived, asserted, lived, according to eternity.  Whatever the loved being becomes, whether he vanishes or moves into the realm of Friendship, in any case I never see him disappear: the love which is over and done with passes into another world like a ship into space, lights no longer winking: the loved being once echoed loudly, now that being is entirely without resonance (the other never disappears when and how we expect).  This phenomenon results from a constraint in the lover’s discourse: I myself cannot (as an enamored subject) construct my love story to the end: I am its poet (its bard) only for the beginning; the end, like my own death, belongs to others; it is up to them to write the fiction, the external, mythic narrative.

From the fragment entitled “Special Days”—fete/festivity:

The Festivity is what is waited for, what is expected.  What I expect of the promised presence is an unheard-of totality of pleasures, a banquet; I rejoice like the child laughing at the sight of the mother whose mere presence heralds and signifies a plenitude of satisfactions: I am about to have before me, and for myself, the “source of all good things.”

For the Lover, the Man-in-the-Moon, the Festivity is a jubilation, not an explosion: I delight in the dinner, the conversation, the tenderness, the secure promise of pleasure: “an ars vivendi over the abyss.”

Barthes’ book of fragments is one that I will dip into over and over again and find something new, fresh, and thought-provoking each time.

Finally, Books, Yo has written a fabulous personal reflection about love in his review of Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc.  Please do take a look at his blog and his fantastic writing.

 

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Filed under French Literature, Nonfiction, Philosophy

Review: Montaigne by Stefan Zweig

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Pushkin Press through Edelweiss.  Montaigne was originally written in German in 1941 and this English translation is done by Will Stone. This is my second contribution to German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.  Please visit their blogs for more great German Literature in translation and to see the full list of blogs that are participating.

My Review:
MontaigneStefan Zweig was forced to flee his home in Austria as the Nazis were taking control of his motherland.  For years he wandered around Europe as a nomad with no real place to call home.  As Europe is ravaged by war, he finds his way to the German community of Petropolis in Brazil and in 1941 he decides to write this brief biography of Michel de Montaigne with whose life he identifies on many levels.

Montaigne comes from a long line of hardworking ancestors.   His father’s family were fishermen and made their fortune by eventually owning their own fleet of ships.  His mother’s family were Jewish bankers from Spain who fled that county to avoid the Inquisition.  Montaigne’s grandfather buys a chateau and a vast estate in Bordeaux and intends to further the family’s aristocratic status through his purchase of land and a title.

Montaigne is brought up in the lap of luxury and it was very important to his father that his eldest son receive the best education possible.  As a result it was mandatory that Montaigne be fluent in Latin, for which purpose his father hired a German tutor when Montaigne was only four years old.  Montaigne was only allowed to speak in Latin and even the rest of the family and the household servants were required to learn some basic Latin phrases in order to communicate with the young boy.  As a result of this immersion in the language Montaigne is said to have been more comfortable speaking and writing in Latin than in his native French.  As a classicist I couldn’t help but simile at and appreciate this part of Montaigne’s story.  If only it were possible to educate all of my students in this way!

When Montaigne’s father dies he takes over as the head of household..  This foists a large responsibility on a man who sees his familial and civic responsibilities as mundane and tiresome occupations.  Zweig highlights Montaigne’s detachment from his family whom he even seems to view at times as a burden.  He never has fond words for his wife or the institution of marriage and at one point Zweig says that Montaigne is not even really sure how many children he has that are still alive.  Montaigne’s isolation from his family is further deepended when, at the age of thirty-eight, he decides that he wants to retire from his life, lock himself in the study in his tower, and read the precious books with which he has surrounded himself.

Montaigne’s view of books and reading is also noteworthy in Zweig’s account of his life.  Montaigne wants to absorb as much information and knowledge as possible and he scribbles notes in his books as various thoughts occur to him.  Montaigne states about his collection: “Books are my kingdom.  And here I seek to reign as absolute lord.”  It is during this time of self-imposed retreat and isolation that Montaigne tries to attain individual freedom and seeks to know himself as a man and as a human being on a deeper level.  His intentions, like other philosophers, is not to give his readers a specific ideology to follow.  Instead his thoughts and writings are introspective and intensely personal.

Ten years later, at the age of forty-eight, Zweig decides that he has had enough of his retirement and so decides to travel across Europe.  This journey becomes very painful for him since he suffers debilitating pain from kidney stones.  While he is away on his journey, the citizens of Bordeaux elect him in absentia as their mayor so at this point he decides to go back and serve his people.  Zweig reminds us, though, that Montaigne is no hero and his selfish habits come to the forefront once again when the plague breaks out in Bordeaux and he abandons his people to find for themselves.

Whether or not one is familiar with Montaigne, Zweig’s account of him is definitely worth a read.  Zweig was at a critical point in his life where he saw the world erupt in violence because of fascism and communism.  He commiserated with Montaigne who also saw his world torn apart by religious wars and fanaticism.  Zweig commits suicide in 1942 and this was one of the last things that he wrote.  Many believe that Zweig took Montaigne’s advice as far as death is concerned and decided to die on his own terms instead of living through a miserable exile imposed on him by outside forces.

About The Author:
Stefan Zweig was one of the world’s most famous writers during the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the U.S., South America and Europe. He produced novels, plays, biographies and journalist pieces. Among his most famous works are Beware of Pity, Letter from and Unknown Woman and Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. He and his second wife committed suicide in 1942.

Zweig studied in Austria, France, and Germany before settling in Salzburg in 1913. In 1934, driven into exile by the Nazis, he emigrated to England and then, in 1940, to Brazil by way of New York. Finding only growing loneliness and disillusionment in their new surroundings, he and his second wife committed suicide.

Zweig’s interest in psychology and the teachings of Sigmund Freud led to his most characteristic work, the subtle portrayal of character. Zweig’s essays include studies of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Drei Meister, 1920; Three Masters) and of Friedrich Hlderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, and Friedrich Nietzsche (Der Kampf mit dem Dmon, 1925; Master Builders). He achieved popularity with Sternstunden der Menschheit (1928; The Tide of Fortune), five historical portraits in miniature. He wrote full-scale, intuitive rather than objective, biographies of the French statesman Joseph Fouché (1929), Mary Stuart (1935), and others. His stories include those in Verwirrung der Gefhle (1925; Conflicts). He also wrote a psychological novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (1938; Beware of Pity), and translated works of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and mile Verhaeren.

Most recently, his works provided inspiration for the 2014 film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’.

German Lit Month

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Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction