Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

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

Review: Like Death by Guy Maupassant

I received an advanced review copy of this title from NYRB via Edelweiss.  This English version has been translated from the French by Richard Howard.

My Review:
like-deathOlivier Bertin is a painter in late nineteenth century Paris and his most famous work, his Cleopatra, has earned him enough fame to be sought out by the rich and famous of high society.  He is not interested in any romantic relationships with the bourgeois women he paints because he feels that are insipid and boring.  At a party one night, however, he meets the Countess Ann de Guilleroy and is immediately captivated by her beauty and charm and decides he must do her portrait.  As Bertin paints the Countess in his studio, the two have stimulating conversations and enjoy one another’s company more and more.

Like many romantic relationships, Anne and Bertin’s starts with great conversations and friendship.  Slowly, feelings of love overtake both of them until the painter can stand it no longer and decides he must have her.  When they consummate their relationship, Anne feels very guilty at first because she has had a good marriage to the Count de Guilleroy for seven years and they have a five-year-old daughter.  But she quickly realizes that Bertin makes her happy and she welcomes the painter into her inner circle so that they can have daily contact.

Henceforth she felt no remorse, merely the vague sense of a certain forfeiture, and to answer the reproaches of her reason, she now credited to a certain fatality.  Drawn to him by her virgin heart and her void soul, her flesh vanquished by the slow dominion of caresses, she gradually became attached, as tender women do who love for the first time.

There is no suspicion among Parisian society that they are having an affair and it simply appears that the Countess and Bertin are the best of friends and both share a love of the arts.  Bertin even becomes great friends with Anne’s husband, the Count.  Their affair carries on for twelve years and settles into an easy comfort, similar to many long-term marriages and relationships.  In two simple lines, Maupassant’s sublime prose describes the deep and abiding affection achieved by the lovers:

Months then passed, then years, which scarcely loosened the bond uniting Countess de Builleroy and the painter Olivier Bertin.  For him, this period was no longer theexaltation of the early days but a calmer, deeper affection, a sort of anitie amoureuse to which he had become easily and entirely accustomed.

The central crisis in the book occurs when Anne’s daughter, Annette, who has been growing up outside of Paris, makes her entrance into Parisian society at the age of eighteen; Annette is the exact image of her mother at that age and everyone, especially Bertin, notices the striking resemblance between mother and daughter.  Maupassant takes a lot of care in his writing to develop the contrast between the youth of Annette and the growing age of her mother and the painter.  He uses the seasons as a backdrop which  mimic the painter’s feelings and observations about mother and daughter.  For example, when Bertin first realizes that Annette is a younger, more energetic version of her mother it is springtime and Bertin has accompanied Annette to the park where children are playing and mother nature is in her first bloom.  The brighter, fresh weather and Annette’s youth give Bertin feelings of energy and passion that haven’t been stirred in him for many years.

At first it seems that the appearance of Annette has just reminded Bertin of the early stages of his relationship with Anne, that all-consuming, passion that marks the beginning of an affair.  But Bertin’s feelings gradually become deeper for Annette and he soon realizes he is even jealous of her fiancé.  Bertin doesn’t acknowledge his love for the young Annette until Anne detects them and points them out to the painter.  At this point in the book, Anne and Bertin both become hopelessly wretched because the painter has fallen in love with Annette, the younger, prettier version of Anne.  At times Anne and Bertin are a little hard to take because their feelings of misery are so intense and  they make frequent allusions to death which seemed a bit melodramatic.

Maupassant weaves an interesting commentary throughout the book on beauty, age, youth and the standards of beauty upheld by society.  Anne notices her increasing wrinkles and sagging skin and believes her appearance is to blame for Bertin’s lack of affection towards her.  And instead of being proud of her daughter she is jealous of Annette’s complexion yet unblemished by time and age.  Anne takes more time to apply make-up, takes extreme measures to make herself thin and only greets her lover in the dim light of the drawing room.  Olivier, too, suffers from an obsession with his aging appearance.  His white hair and paleness are particularly emphasized.  When a Parisian newspaper calls his art work old-fashioned, he becomes particularly distraught about his advancing years.  Maupassant’s meditations on the impossible standards of beauty to which we hold ourselves are just as relevant now as they were in the nineteenth century.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read because of Maupassant’s prose which perfectly captures the extreme and conflicting emotions of love and suffering.  The ending is rather dramatic, although not at all surprising given the title and other elements of foreshadowing that Maupassant scatters throughout his text.

 

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Filed under Classics, France, French Literature, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books

A Rite of Passage: My Review of Samskara by U.R Ananthamurthy

samskara_1024x1024The word Samskara or Sanskara is from Sanskrit and is a central concept to many of the ideas embodied in Hinduism.  There are several definitions for this word including: “A rite of passage or life cycle ceremony”, “forming well, making perfect”, “the realizing of past perceptions”, and “preparation and making ready.”

Samskaras are also, in one context, the diverse rites of passage of a human being from conception to cremation, which mark specific events in an individual’s journey of life in Hinduism.  In U.R. Anathamurthy’s novel, Samskara specifically refers to “a rite for a dead man” and it is this compulsory rite which is given to Brahmins at their passing that becomes the central controversy of this book.  When the story begins, a Brahmin community is presented with the dilemma of deciding who will perform the samskara for one of the members of their community who had become a heretic.  The leader of this orthodox Brahmin community (agrahara), Praneshacharya, has to decide what to do with the body of his fellow Brahmin who drank, ate meat, fished in sacred waters and, worst of all, was living with a sensual, lower caste woman.

Praneschacharya has adopted an extreme form of asceticism by living with a sickly, invalid wife and having a sexless marriage.  He cares for and baths his wife on a daily basis and views the denial of his physical needs as a form of penance that will garner him blessings in this life and the next.  But when Praneschacharya has his first sexual encounter, a whole new world of pleasure causes him to question his orthodox beliefs.  As he tries to make the best decision about the heretic’s burial and comes to grips with his crisis of faith, it is Praneshacharya who has his own samskara or rite of passage in his life.

Read my full review of this classic piece of Indian literature on Asymptote.

 

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Review: Back by Henry Green

I received a review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books.  This title was originally published in 1946 and is the first book in a series of nine by author Henry Green that NYRB is reissuing.

My Review:
backThe premise of this Green novel is deceptively simple: Charley Summer, recently released from a POW camp in Germany during World War II, is repatriated back into England.  Although Charley suffers from a severed leg for which he must wear a prosthesis, his greatest source of pain is the love that he lost while he was in that German prison camp.  Rose, a woman with whom he was having a passionate love affair, dies from an illness before Charley is sent home.  We first meet Charley when he is trying to find Rose’s grave in an English churchyard and we immediately discover that the plot is much more complicated than we were first led to believe.

Charley is shell-shocked, grief-stricken and disoriented as he tries to settle into a job in London and reconnect with old acquaintances.  He visits Rose’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Grant who are also having a hard time dealing with the death of their daughter amidst sirens and bombings.  Mrs. Grant is confused and displays signs of dementia; she doesn’t recognize Charley and thinks that he is her long-lost brother John who died in World War I.  Her confusion and trauma reflects Charley’s own disoriented state of mind.  As Charley is departing from this painful reunion, Mr. Grant gives him the address of a woman named Nance whom Mr. Grant requests that the young man look up while he is in London.

Charley works in the office of a manufacturing firm in London and when they send him a new secretary his emotions become further muddled.  Miss Pitter, a rather plain looking woman, attracts Charley’s attention as he likes to start at her arms.  Green relates to us bits and pieces of what a character is thinking only through dialogue,  which is oftentimes very sparse.  Charley in particular is a man of few words so it is difficult to understand what is really going on inside his head.  But he seems, at times, attracted to Miss Pitter and unsure of how to proceed with her.  Charley’s diffidence and lingering feelings for Rose appear to keep him from acting on a  possible relationship with Miss Pitter.  His short sentences, which are oftentimes canned answers like “There you have it,”  and his inability to stand up for himself whenever someone is taking advantage of him make Charley a character wholly worthy of sympathy.  Green is a master at writing tragic characters who are awash in their sad fates.

To complicate matters even further, Charley pays a visit to Nance who was recommended to him by Mr. Grant.  When Nance opens the door to greet Charley he faints dead away because Nance looks just like his Rose.  The ensuing confusion over the identity of Nance and Rose reads like a bit of a slapstick, “Who’s on First” type of a comedy.  Charley is addressing Nance as if she were Rose, but Nance is completely confused and doesn’t understand what he is talking about.  Charley comes to the conclusion that Rose never really died but instead changed her hair color and moved to London to become a tart.  He spends quite a bit of time thinking of a way to get her to confess that she really is Rose.  These scenes are humorous but also have an underlying hint of sadness because it further highlights Charley’s emotional confusion and turmoil.

One more interesting aspect of Green’s writing that must be mentioned is the story he includes in the middle of the narrative.  It is Rose’s widower, James who sends Charley a magazine story about the 18th century French  court in which a woman mistakes a royal guard for her lost lover.  This is what the Roman poet Catullus would call a libellus, a little book, embedded within the story of Charley.  I felt that the story was only tangentially related to Charley’s predicament;  there is the case of mistaken identity in both narratives but Charley doesn’t appear to learn any type of a lesson after he reads this libellus.  He is too involved in his own issues to gain any type of perspective and it is only very slowly and gradually through love, understanding and patience that Charley begins to untangle his confused mind.

This is a brief but very engrossing novel.  It took me the better part of a week to read and absorb all that was going on in order to write these few words about it.  Green uses the stress of World War II in order to highlight the madness and confusion into which a traumatized mind can so easily descend.  This isn’t a pretty love story but it is certainly one that is more true to real, human life.

About the Author:
h-greenHenry Green (1905–1973) was the pen name of Henry Vincent Yorke. Born near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, England, he was educated at Eton and Oxford and went on to become the managing director of his family’s engineering business, writing novels in his spare time. His first novel, Blindness (1926), was written while he was at Oxford. He married in 1929 and had one son, and during the Second World War served in the Auxiliary Fire Service. Between 1926 and 1952 he wrote nine novels, Blindness, Living, Party Going, Caught, Loving, Back, Concluding, Nothing, and Doting, and a memoir, Pack My Bag.

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Review: Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others and Me by Teffi

My Review:
TeffiThis book is a collection of autobiographical essays from the renowned, female Russian author Teffi.  The essays were all written during the early part of the twentieth century and reflect Teffi’s own struggles with having to flee a turbulent and oppressive Russia.  The collection is divided into four parts, the first of which is entitled “How I Live and Work.”  These first few essays in the book capture her inner thoughts and self-doubts as she becomes Teffi “The Author.”

The second part of the book, “Staging Posts” deals with various aspects of Teffi’s personal life from her upbringing in a wealthy Russian family to her emigration to Paris during the Russian Civil War to her time in France during the German Occupation.   Teffi is well-known for her wit, but these essays show us an emotionally tender and serious woman.  She begins her essay entitled “Valya” on a sad and brutally honest note: “I was in my twenty-first year.  She, my daughter, was in her fourth.  We were not well matched.”  In this essay Teffi has a difficult time connecting with her daughter and I was not surprised to find out that her marriage was dreadfully unhappy and she eventually leaves her family in order to pursue her writing career.

My favorite essay in the third section of the book “Heady Days: Revolutions and Civil War” is the one that describes Teffi’s bizarre encounters with Rasputin.  This essay is a perfect example of Teffi’s ability to write a humorous essay but also to display her serious and emotional side.  When Teffi meets Rasputin, he is smitten with her and he tries to seduce her.  But Teffi sees right through his act; although many women have fallen for his smooth words and intimate gestures, Teffi finds his behavior strange and a little pathetic.  Rasputin comes across as a buffoon and we do laugh at his antics, but at the same time we also feel sorry for this ridiculous man who is finally killed by one of the many assassins who are after him.

The fourth and final part of the book is dedicated to some of the famous authors and artists that Teffi has come in contact with.  At the age of thirteen Teffi is enthralled with Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  She is so distraught by the death of Prince Andrei in this novel that she is determined to meet the author and ask him to change the story.   Teffi shows up at Tolstoy’s home but is so flabbergasted to meet him that all she can do is ask for his autograph and slink away in embarrassment.

The quality that comes through in every one of these essays is Teffi’s innate ability to read and truly understand people.  When she meets Lenin she senses a man who is crafty and cunning.  She meets many famous people throughout her life, from the Russian poet and novelist Merezhkovsky to the artist Repin to various other writers, journalists and politicians.  She is never fooled by the façade of their importance but instead she sees the true humanity beyond the exterior.

I have to admit that I am smitten with Teffi after reading this one volume from NYRB classics.  I ordered three more of Teffi’s books after I finished this one. I don’t think I’ve done Teffi’s writing justice in this brief review and so everyone must read a least one of her essays to experience her brilliant writing.

About the Author:
Teffi PicTeffi was a Russian humorist writer. Teffi is a pseudonym. Her real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya (Наде́жда Алекса́ндровна Лoхви́цкая); after her marriage Nadezhda Alexandrovna Buchinskaya (Бучи́нская). Together with Arkady Averchenko she was one of the most prominent authors of the Satiricon magazine.

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