Tag Archives: Yale University Press

Video Meliora Proboque, Deteriora Sequor: The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf

I have to admit that I was drawn to this book because of its autobiographical aspect.  Having just lately read quite a bit of Virginia Woolf’s extensive and varied forms of writing, I was curious to get a glimpse into her personal life with her husband.  Published in 1914, Woolf began to compose this biting satire of English life in the early 20th century on his honeymoon.  Harry Davis, the male protagonist in the novel who thinks he is very different from the other young people that live in his London suburb, is a harsher and more cantankerous version of Woolf himself. Harry has just  moved outside of London to Richstead with his parents and his younger sister Hetty.  Upon their arrival the Davis family is invited over by their new neighbors, The Garlands—four unmarried, virgin young women and their widowed mother.  Harry hates everything about their ordered and conventional life and these women view Harry as a discontented man whose behavior is strange and sullen.

Harry is restless and the last thing he wants to do is settle down with one of the virgins he meets in the suburbs and live a boring, formulaic life as a husband, father and businessman.  He reads deep, philosophical novels, he paints and he prefers to spend his time with other interesting people.  His painting at a local studio causes him to come in contact with a woman named Camilla Lawrence who is believed to be based on Virginia Woolf.  Camilla, unlike the Garlands, is urbane, sophisticated, educated and aloof.  Harry visits Camilla, her sister Katharine and their father and engages in witty conversation with people whom he feels are his equals.   Harry’s interactions with her make him contemplate the meaning of love and how one falls into it.  Camilla’s lack of  mutual desire or interest in Harry is, at times, a harsh portrayal of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s own courtship.  Harry’s thoughts about love are depressing and confused:

It seemed ridiculous that one human being could affect another human being like this.  Love? Was it all imagination, a fantastic dream of this absurd little animal, man?  It was impossible at moments to believe that he felt anything for Camilla at all.  After all, what had he asked of her? To say: ‘I love you.’ Would that have thrown him into ecstasies—for twelve hours, or at most, to judge from what seemed best among others, for a few hours spread over twelve months.

Even though he has fallen in love, Harry continues to mock people like the Garlands and when Gwen, the youngest daughter, asks to borrow one of Harry’s books he has some harsh opinions of her and the other virgins in Richstead:

Harry did not forget to send Dostoevsky’s Idiot to Gwen, and he laughed to himself not unkindly as he handed it to the Garlands’ maid.  He was putting strong wine into the mouth of a babe with a vengeance.  He hoped it would not completely upset her digestion, yet he had not much compunction if it should make her feel a little uncomfortable, because, after all, that was what in his opinion these virgins of Richstead really needed—something to show them that life was not all Richstead, virginity and vicars, needlework and teas.  And when he had said ‘For Miss Gwen, please,’ he did not give very much thought to her or The Idiot.

In the end, however, Harry’s arrogance causes him to be hoisted with his own petard.   A comment that Mr. Lawrence makes to Harry is rather fitting for his tragic fate in the novel: Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor (I see better things and approve of them, but I follow worse things–Ovid, Met. 7.20)  The ending was quite a surprise for me and I won’t give it away but I will say that the title of Woolf’s novel is both ironic and sarcastic.  I highly recommend this book to those who are interested in taking a peek at Woolf’s mindset while he was on his honeymoon with Virginia.

 

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics

The School for Misfit Children: Such Fine Boys by Patrick Modiano

The Modiano titles that I’ve read so far, Little Jewel, Suspended Sentences, and this latest novel published by Yale University Press, all have a mysterious yet emotionally languid quality to them.  It is both odd and compelling to mix these tones in a narrative but the author does it, quite successfully, in all three of these books.

Such Fine Boys describes a French boarding school for boys in the mid-twentieth century.  Modiano’s description of The Valvert School in the first few pages of the book is strange and even a bit dark:

The Valvert School For Boys occupied the former property of a certain Valvert, who had been an intimate of the comte d’Artois and accompanied him into exile under the Revolution.  Later, as an officer in the Russian army, he fell at the Battle of Austerlitz, fighting against his own countrymen in the uniform of the Izmailovsky Regiment.  All that remained of him was his name and a pink marble colonnade, now half ruined, at the back of the park.  My schoolmates and I were raised under that man’s morose tutelage, and perhaps some of us, without realizing it, still bear the traces.

The fourteen chapters in Such Fine Boys each contain a different story about a boy who attended the school.  The young men that attend Valvert come from wealthy, aloof families who don’t have very much time to spend with their children and as a result they become melancholy, feckless adults.   Most of the stories are told from the first person point-of-view by a man who is a former student at the school named Patrick.  The author shares more than a name with his protagonist since Modiano also spent most of his young life in a French boarding school and saw very little of his parents.  Another oddity of the novel is that two of the stories are told by a different narrator, another former student named Edmond who becomes a minor actor in a traveling theater troupe.

The narrator’s interaction with each of the boys at Valvert is overshadowed by a mysterious set of circumstances.  A boy named Michel Karve, for example, is described as having a cold and formal relationship with his parents who don’t visit very often.  Even though Michel’s parents are wealthy, the boy wears badly fitting clothes and is fed simple meals while his parents dine out with friends.  Michel sends the narrator to his parent’s apartment to retrieve his few belongings and never wants to have anything to do with his parents again.  As is typical in all fourteen vignettes in the book, the narrative raises many questions about Michel’s circumstances that are never fully explained.

The chapter that best illustrates the languid tone of Modiano’s stories is the one which describes an old schoolmate named Alain Charell. When the narrator meets Alain by chance at the Gare du Nord he reminisces about the boy he knew at school: “What had become of his parents? His father, with his saffron-yellow hair and mustache, looked like a major in the Indian Colonial forces.  Had they disappeared, like their lawn and their Trianon?  I didn’t dare ask.”  Alain and his wife, Suzanne, have a bizarre open marriage and have sex with random strangers while the other spouse listens in the next room.  They both seem to take quite a few drugs and one night, in particular, Suzanne suffers from the affects of whatever substance they are ingesting as she must be held up and taken to the restroom by her husband.

One night while the narrator is sleeping he receives a startling phone call from Alain who insists that he and his wife must see him. Alain says on the phone, “Come right away.  It’s urgent.”   When the narrator arrives at a brassiere, no details about the importance of such a sudden meeting are given; they sit for a while in the crowded restaurant and they eventually take a walk around the deserted city.  The only word I could think of to describe these bizarre events and the tone with which they are conveyed is languid, unexpectedly languid:

After a while, Suzanne rested her head on my shoulder.  They surely didn’t want me to leave, and I suddenly thought we might spend the entire night on this bench.  On the other side of the empty street, from a tarpaulin-covered truck with its lights out, two men in black leather jackets were unloading sacks of coal with rapid, furtive movements, as if on the sly.

What was so urgent that the narrator was suddenly woken out of a sound sleep?  Why didn’t he ask his friends these questions immediately?  Perhaps, once again, it is something he didn’t dare ask.

Trevor at “The Mookse and the Gripes” has also reviewed this title as well as Modiano’s other latest release, Sundays in Augusthttp://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/30/patrick-modiano-such-fine-boys/

 

 

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Filed under France, French Literature, Literature in Translation

Review: Blameless by Claudio Magris

I received a review copy of this title from Yale University Press.  This book was published in the original Italian in 2015 and this English edition has been translated by Anne Milano Appel

My Review:
The unnamed protagonist in Blameless has been obsessively collecting items associated with fighting and warfare for decades in order to establish a war museum in his native home of Triste.  His collecting began shortly after World War II, during which time he helped negotiate the liberation of Triste.  He gathered so many items throughout the course of these post-World War II years that they could only be stored in a hangar.  His entire life was consumed with establishing his museum to the point that he even slept among his objects and papers.  When he dies in a fire that consumes him and some of his precious objects in the hangar, it is a woman named Luisa that is tasked with curating the museum and organizing his notes, objects and stories.

The novel is not easy to read and both its images and its disjointed structure make it disconcerting, but also appropriate for a story that deals with the violence and atrocities of war.  While he was collecting items for his war museum, the narrator also kept copious and detailed notes in a series of journals, some of which were presumed lost in the fire that killed him.  The narrative alternates between pages from the narrator’s journal, descriptions of items that are to be displayed in the museum, and Luisa, the curator’s, own story as a child of a Jewish woman and a black man.  The most difficult parts of the narrative to read and grasp are the narrator’s thoughts in his journal.  There are layers of stories within stories, personal reflections, and names of spies, informants, victims and those involved with perpetrating war crimes.

Magris does not shy away from describing atrocities of war.  Scenes of torture, for example, and descriptions of the last moments of victims who are sent to the gas chambers at the Risiera are described.  The unnamed narrator’s collection culminated with his copying into his journals the words written on the walls of the Risiera by victims who were about to be murdered by the Nazis.  But the notebooks in which he transcribed these horrors go missing and Luisa is left to speculate what mysteries they contain about the horrific evens that occurred  in Triste during the war.

There is a constant tension in the book between images of love and death.  Items of war—guns, tanks, axes and bullets are meticulously described as Luisa plans how they will be displayed in the war museum.  The final, violent days of the liberation of Triste are related by the narrator in great detail.  And the violent death of Lusia’s aunt, a nurse serving in the war, who  is kicked to death by a band of racist thugs is found within the pages of this war novel.  But there are also glimmers of love and even hope.  Luisa’s mother Sara, orphaned when her own Jewish mother is killed during the war, comes out of her deep depression when she meets her husband, a black American who comes to Europe for the liberation.   Together they bond over the persecution that their ancestors have suffered through the course of many generations.   They find a deep level of comfort in one another’s company that sometimes not even their daughter cannot penetrate.  Magris eloquently relates their first night together in his lyrical prose:

Every sunset is different, in all the thousands of millennia no two evening’s glowing embers have been identical; the switch instead wastes no time with lighting effects, its’ not a huckster trying to lure mothers with glittering trinkets for their children, but always turns on the same light and turns it off to the same darkness, like someone who takes his job seriously.  But one night, that night, when the dark hand—dark on the back, the palm was lighter—which had gently touched her arm helping her up the poorly lit stairs had reached to turn the handle and open the door, Sara, looking at the strong, powerful brown hand, had felt that even a small mundane gesture can reveal a man and that something can change, suddenly, in your heart.

One image that struck me which is ubiquitous in Magris’s narrative is that of the sea.  The sea is presented as both a source of comfort but also something that can consume, overwhelm and suffocate.  The book opens with a description of the narrator’s acquisition of a submarine and his of his fear of the sea.  By contrast, Luisa’s mother has fond memories of Salvore, a town by the sea on the other side of the Gulf of Triste where her mother safely hides her during the war.  In these scenes Magris writes about a sea that is calming and beautiful:  “The sea is blue, a dazzling light;  when it reverberates in the fierce noonday heat its brilliance is blinding, a darkness in which you cannot see anything, like at night.”   Luisa’s mother uses the blinding, white light of the sea as a shelter from the war that is being waged around her.

In the very last scene in the book. however, Magris returns to the image of the all-consuming sea and the submarine.  As the narrator is suffocating in the conflagration of his hangar and hallucinating, he conflates his own death scene with the deaths of those who were suffocated and burned at the Risiera.  As he is dying he has the chilling and horrific sensation that he is sinking in one of those submarines along with the other victims in the war.  As the sea is swallowing him he sees the remnants of his war museum:

I must have entered the submarine that I had the Navy give me.  Yes, I’m going under; through the porthole I can see the white pages with those numbers and names sinking to the bottom.  They dumped the waste into the sea, into the gorge, they dumped us here, between the Patoc and the sea, the water can’t be very deep, but we’re going down, down, throwing garbage into the sea is a crime and so is throwing men in, but the judge declares there is no cause to indict.

I was impressed with the high level of Magris’s erudition mixed with his poetic language and intriguing plot.  Much like Compass which I recently finished,  is not an easy read, but for those who enjoy a literary challenge then I highly recommend Blameless.  Has anyone else read any other Magris books?  I also have Danube sitting on my “to read” pile.

About the Author and Translator:
Claudio Magris has been a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Trieste since 1978. He is the author of Danube, a best-selling novel now translated into more than twenty languages, and in 2001 he was awarded the Erasmus Prize. He has translated into Italian the works of such authors as Ibsen, Kleist, Schnitzler, Buchner, and Grillparzer.

Anne Milano Appel is a professional translator. Her translation of Stefano Bortolussi’s novel Head Above Water was the winner of the 2004 Northern California Book Award for Translation.

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Filed under Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation