Archive for the 'Book Note' Category

Blake: The Book of Urizen

January 30, 2023

The Book of Urizen
William Blake
(Random House, 1978) [1794]
102 p.

Twenty years ago I spent some time reading Blake’s prophetic writings, and could make nothing of them. To be more precise, they were lunatic. In them he described — though that word implies a certain clarity of presentation that I could not discover — a complex mythology peopled by mysterious beings of his own creation: Los, Thiriel, Orc, Urizen, and many others. The verse was, or appeared to be, heavily symbolic, so much so that the poems begged, to my mind, to be decoded into something more didactic, but, lacking the decryption key, I gave up in frustration.

I’ve tried again, with, I’m afraid, little better results. The Book of Urizen is one of his earliest works in this genre, and it tells, in verse of deep purple, how the world was created by an evil being called Urizen, who then dominated it, shackling up its denizens with chains of Science and Religion. According to the notes accompanying this edition, Urizen represents, in the mythology, opposition to spiritual awakening and progress, and the poem is about how such opposition came to control the world. Blake saw systematic reason, embodied in both Newtonian science and in organized religion, as an obstacle to spiritual progress.

Without some hand-holding, however, I’m not sure I would have been able to extract even that basic understanding of the poem. Perhaps it’s worth looking at some of the verse. After a brief invocation of the muses, it begins in this way:

Lo, a shadow of horror is risen
In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific,
Self-clos’d, all repelling. What Demon
Hath form’d this abominable void,
This soul-shudd’ring vacuum? Some said,
“It is Urizen.” But unknown, abstracted,
Brooding secret, the dark power hid.

Sense can be made of it, but it has an ugly, crabbed sort of feel. Later we read about a sphere of blood:

Life in cataracts pour’d down his cliffs.
The Void shrunk the lymph into Nerves,
Wand’ring wide on the bosom of night,
And left a round globe of blood
Trembling upon the Void.
Thus the Eternal Prophet was divided
Before the death image of Urizen;
For in changeable clouds and darkness,
In a winterly night beneath,
The Abyss of Los stretch’d immense;
And now seen, now obscur’d, to the eyes
Of Eternals the visions remote
Of the dark separation appear’d:
As glasses discover Worlds
In the endless Abyss of space,
So the expanding eyes of Immortals
Beheld the dark visions of Los,
And the globe of life-blood trembling.

The globe of life-blood trembled,
Branching out into roots,
Fibrous, writhing upon the winds,
Fibres of blood, milk, and tears,
In pangs, Eternity on Eternity.

I have no idea what is going on here. A lot of the poem is like this. The words are syntactically correct but convey little meaning. I’m not saying there is no meaning — Blake laboriously traced each word onto bronze plates, and clearly meant each word to be there — but for most readers the effort to penetrate the meaning will be considerable. Most readers, in the intervening two centuries, have not bothered, and I can’t blame them. The verse itself is not very musical or memorable. I’m afraid this is as far as I’m inclined to go with Blake’s mythology. Twice bitten, thrice shy.

Conan Doyle: The Sign of Four

January 24, 2023

The Sign of Four
Arthur Conan Doyle
(Dover, 2003) [1890]
99 p.

In this, the second Holmes novel, our detective of the strict observance lands in the middle of a head-scratching international murder-robbery in which a one-legged man and his dwarf have commandeered a chest full of gems and other delights. The quest: to find the one-legged man and his dwarf, which you would think would be pretty easy, but proves otherwise.

It’s not as good a novel as the earlier one, though it’s a challenge to say why. For one thing, the crime itself is quite convoluted, proceeding in stages, and I had trouble following exactly what was happening, and trouble remembering what had happened already. Maybe I was reading too often on the brink of unconsciousness. But then Holmes’ special powers of detection were not quite so impressive on this outing as they were before. Familiarity breeds contempt? There just didn’t seem to be that much for Holmes to do that might not have been done by a lesser mortal. Also, he’s a tad too keen on cocaine.

Holmes, I thought, lived by a maxim that ran something like this: “When you have eliminated the likely explanation, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this book he gives an odd variant: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. Surely one does not have to eliminate, in any practical sense, the impossible. Maybe it was the cocaine talking.

On the positive side of the ledger, this book introduced a winsome romance between Dr Watson and Mary Morstan, whom I gather will be soon married.

After publication, Conan Doyle abandoned novels for a decade and devoted himself instead to short stories, where Holmes, I am told, really came into his own. We shall see.

Calderon: Life is a Dream

January 16, 2023

Life is a Dream
Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Translated from the Spanish by Gregary Racz
(Penguin Classics, 2006) [c.1630]
xxvi + 123 p.

Pedro Calderón, who, it so happened, was born on a boat (hence, ‘de la Barca’), was a Spanish playwright of the generation after Lope de Vega. Unlike de Vega, who tossed off plays like Denny’s tosses off hotcakes, Calderón was known for his careful polishing, revisiting and revising his plays in order to invest them with beauty and philosophical depth. He had an interesting life. He was already writing for the stage in his twenties, and achieved renown in his thirties. When he was fifty years old, however, he (mostly) gave up writing plays and became a priest, devoting his talents thereafter to the composition of autos sacramentales, one-act allegorical dramas traditionally performed in Spain during the Feast of Corpus Christi. Perhaps we’ll read one of those at a later date, if we can find one.

Life is a Dream is apparently generally considered to be one of his greatest achievements. It takes place in Poland, and is involved with a succession problem in the Polish court. The king is elderly, and, though he has a son, Segismund, his son has, since birth, been imprisoned in a tower because it was foretold, by various omens, that the king’s son would be a ruthless tyrant who would destroy the realm. The king ordered him confined for the good of the kingdom.

But the king is a Christian, and is unsure whether he ought rightly to trust the omens and astrologers who claim that the prince’s fate is fixed:

The direst fate, we know for fact,
Much like the rashest temperament
Or strongest planetary pull,
May boast some influence on free will
But cannot make man bad or good.
(I, vi)

He therefore decides on a clever stratagem: drugging his son with a strong sedative, he removes him from the tower and brings him to court, setting him up amid all the trappings of royalty. The idea is to see if he behaves justly or tyrannically. If the former, he can become heir; if the latter, he will be sedated again, returned to the tower, and told that the experiment was just a dream.

The prince, it turns out, behaves very badly indeed. Nearly his first act as “king” is to defenestrate a servant, and he is bent on worse. Back to the tower he goes, where, awaking, he speaks to his tutor with amazement about his “dream”:

My heart made bold with power and vice…
I’d thought to rule with tyranny
And match the evil I’d been done.
(II, xviii)

But sleeping princes, unlike sleeping dogs, cannot be allowed to lie. The people now know that their prince lives, and they raid the tower to liberate him. A civil war ensues, son against father, for the throne.

The play seems destined for a familiar tragic ending, bodies littering the stage. But — at the risk of spoiling a 400-year-old story — a funny thing happens, and it ends in joy instead, marriages all around. Just how this reversal comes about is presumably an ingredient in the play’s good reputation, although I myself feel that I’d like to see it staged before deciding whether it manages the tricky maneuver successfully.

**

There is much rumination in the play about the difference between dreams and reality, between sleeping and waking. How do I know that I am awake and not dreaming? Am I the same person when I dream? Do my actions in a dream reveal, or even shape, my character?  The structure of the story allows these kinds of questions to arise in an intriguing way.

Years ago I took an interest in the phenomenon of ‘lucid dreaming’, in which one becomes aware, in a dream, that one is in fact dreaming, and then consciously uses the greater freedom of dreams to have experiences, like flight, which are otherwise impossible. I never made it far enough into this practice to discover if it is a real thing or not, and for years now dreams of any kind have been rare, but the play reminded me of the strangeness of dreams, that shadow world in which we, at least sometimes, are awake even while we sleep. “I sleep,” said the singer of songs, “but my heart is awake.”

I was also reminded of Christopher Nolan’s film Inception, which is similarly all about the interplay between dreaming and waking. Those familiar with the film might have been dismayed, as I was, by the prevalence of those faults that beset so many science fiction films: arbitrary rules, non sequiturs, and irrational choices. Why is the implanting of a thought — “inception” — thought to be difficult to achieve? Doesn’t it happen every day, all the time? How exactly does the token help distinguish the dream world from the real? Why must they not “die” in the dream? The entire film is sustained by a tissue of these logical lacunae. But the difficulties vanish if we suppose that the film’s “reality” is actually a dream, for dreams are full of these kinds of non sequiturs. The whole “reality” of the film is, on this reading, happening in the mind of the main character while he dreams, and in fact the film contains quite a number of hints that this is indeed the case. The main difference with Calderón’s play is that in the film a dream state is mistaken for reality, whereas in the play it is the other way around.

Nor should we forget that a film, like a play, is a sort of dream for us: an alternate reality that we inhabit for a time. While we watch it we are “asleep”; when it ends we “awake”.

*

There are a number of interesting ideas at work in the play, therefore, and I enjoyed reading it. One feature of the play that I appreciated was that Calderón gave his characters several long speeches; this is something that we find in Shakespeare, but which I really have not found in the other English playwrights from the time. These long speeches allow us a sustained window into the thoughts of the characters, which I found enriched the play considerably.

As to its literary merits, it’s hard to judge in translation. Calderón wrote in verse, and in this Penguin edition Gregary Racz does his best to mimic the verse forms in English, complete with rhyming, where appropriate. It was pleasant to read, but it’s not really possible to say more.

There are a few more plays by Calderón that interest me, so I believe I’ll be returning to him again over the next few months.

 

McCarthy: Child of God

January 12, 2023

Child of God
Cormac McCarthy
(Vintage, 1993) [1973]
197 p.

They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching in the ruts and the musicians on chairs in the truckbed teetering and tuning their instruments, the fat man with guitar grinning and gesturing to others in a car behind and bending to give a note to the fiddler who turned a fiddlepeg and listened with a wrinkled face.

So begins this harrowing tale of a loner turned killer in rural Tennessee. Lester Ballard is poor, homeless, without a family, and incapable, it seems, of living in society.

He is small, unclean, unshaven. He moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a constrained truculence. Saxon and Celtic bloods. A child of God much like yourself perhaps.

He roams the countryside, scavenging, bedding down in abandoned out-buildings, treasuring his rifle and not much else. He might be crazy. When, one fateful day, he discovers two lovers dead in their car on a deserted road, he does something that removes all doubt, and the novel, which was already sombre and crepuscular, takes a hurtling plunge into the dark.

So dark and depraved does it become that this reader, at least, began to wonder what the point was. I expect McCarthy’s books to be violent and disturbing, but in later novels like No Country for Old Men and The Road there is always a glimmer of light around the edge, a crack through white a hint of redemption or justice might be glimpsed. That glimmer is harder to find here. What is McCarthy up to? Is a portrait of evil enough? Are we to feel compassion for this man? Hatred? Should we long for justice, for him and those whom he harms? I think it’s possible, as readers, to answer all of these questions in the affirmative, but how the book itself answers them is sometimes murky. The title, maybe, gives us a hint.

Certainly one good reason to read the book, despite its difficulties, is the rough allure of its prose. Muted, laced with idiomatic colour, severe, and sometimes starkly beautiful, his voice is one of a kind. Look again at that opening sentence above. It’s quite long, and has a meandering feel, but it functions something like a cinematic image: we see first the wide shot, with a row of vehicles coming up, and then we’re focused on the back of the truck, and then an individual man, and finally an individual face. We get a sense of motion, both back and forth, as they rock over the ruts, and also forward and in. And then there is the alliteration: caravan and carnival, teetering and tuning, guitar and grinning, fiddlepeg and face. And the touches of poetry: “swales of broomstraw”. I read that sentence, set the book in my lap, and smiled, happy to be in the hands of a master again.

To take another example, consider this passage in which Lester is lost inside a cave:

Ballard lay listening in the dark but the only sound he heard was his heart. In the morning when the light in the fissure dimly marked him out this drowsing captive looked so inculpate in the fastness of his hollow stone you might have said he was half right who thought himself so grievous a case against the gods.

Again, we have a sentence that keeps going where another author might have split it up, more tidy-like. There’s a striking visual image of Lester lying on the rock, like a figure sketched in chiaroscuro, and a blending of the narrator’s voice, I think, with Lester’s own, a hint of which comes through in the last phrase. It has a stern beauty. The book is full of things like this.

It is not full, though, of quotation marks.

Aeschylus: The Persians

January 9, 2023

The Persians
Aeschylus
Translated from the Greek by S.G. Benardete
(Chicago, 1991) [472 BC]
44 p. Second reading.

In 480 BC the Persian army, led by the emperor Xerxes himself, invaded Greece in an attempt to subdue the regions, including Athens and Sparta, that had resisted his father’s invasion ten years earlier, but in a remarkable series of battles — first at Thermopylae, then Salamis, and finally Plataea — the Greeks, against the odds, defeated him. It was one of the most important, formative series of events in Greek history, and they could be justifiably proud of what they had achieved.

Less than ten years later, Aeschylus presented this play at the annual Dionysia festival. It is the earliest of his plays to come down to us, and it is unique among surviving Greek tragedies in portraying a recent historical event, for it relates the aftermath of the Greek victory over the Persians. Remarkably, it is set in the Persian court. The characters are Xerxes, his mother, and the ghost of his father.

Even more remarkable than Aeschylus having set his drama in the enemy camp, so to speak, is that he adopted the Persian point of view. The events are tragic for the Persians, and for the pathos of the drama to work his audience must feel their pain. They must consider the Persians not as victims to be gloated over, or bullies to be treated with contempt, but as people suffering a loss and deserving of some level of sympathy. It stands, therefore, as a notable testament to Aeschylus’ magnanimity, and, presumably, since it won first prize at the festival that year, to the magnanimity of the Athenian audience.

The play itself follows the conventions of Greek tragedy, of course. There are long speeches from the few characters, there is a gregarious chorus that comments on the action, and, for those of us reared on Shakespeare, it feels stiff and slight on circumstance. The theatrical conventions were very different, and it is difficult, at least for me, to form a mental picture of the action and to get the feel of the thing.

But I am pleased to have read the play (again), for it stands close to the headwater of the amazing torrent of creativity and generous humanity that was to pour from Athens over the succeeding century or two. We are onto a very good thing.

Favourites of 2022: Books

December 27, 2022

C.S. Lewis once said that an unliterary person may be defined as someone who reads books only once. It’s a remark that’s always stung a little, but in 2022 I enjoyed, for a limited time at least, the pleasure of being a literary person according to Lewis’ standard, for I did a good deal of re-reading. In fact,  my favourite books of the year — Homer’s Odyssey and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment — were both re-reads, and I wrote at some length about them in this space.

It was also a year in which I completed the Roman reading project in which I’d been engaged for a few years, and launched a similar Greek reading project that will occupy me for a few years more, if all goes as planned.

But today I’d like to highlight my favourites of the books I read for the first time this year. There are plays, biographies, novels, and a few nonfiction titles. It was a great year of reading!

**

In alphabetical order:

Blake: A Biography
Peter Ackroyd

I like to pick a particular poet and spend a few months with him. I began the year in the company of Robert Frost, was irritated for quite a while by Walt Whitman, and am ending the year perplexed by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ grammar, but mid-year I spent time with William Blake, and read this biography as an adjunct. Neglected in his own lifetime, we now look back on him as an important figure, not only on account of his positive achievements, but for how his figure stands out against the historical ground, and Ackroyd’s careful and meticulous biography greatly improved my understanding and appreciation of the man.

*

Piranesi
Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke’s slender Piranesi unfolds as a kind of metaphysical science fiction story, where the setting and the situation are so strange and unfamiliar that it takes time for us to get our bearings, and longer still to understand where the story is going. Yet it’s also a compelling tale from the outset because of its winsome central character. The book is concerned with such matters as the honour we owe the dead, the duties of friendship, and the virtues that make a man great. It adds up to a thoughtful exploration and presentation of natural piety in the guise of a cosmic mystery. A remarkably beautiful book.

*

I have continued my tour of early-ish modern drama, reading mostly lesser-known playwrights of the generation or two after Shakespeare, both in England and on the continent. Of the dozen or so plays I read in 2022, two stood out for their excellence and, as it happens, for their opposite tendencies. John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, from 1633, is a sordid business that puts disturbing sexual depravity on the stage, and John Milton’s Comus, from 1634, is a celebration of chastity and purity. Both are beautifully written, both, I would think, dramatically effective, and both, though by contrary means, a portrait of the destructive power of lust in action. A brilliant double-bill!

*

The Mayor of Casterbridge
Thomas Hardy

Another trip to Wessex, another tragic tale. It’s a story about a man who rides fortune’s wheel up, then down again, but is fundamentally, I think, about the importance of truth-telling, and of the dangers that attend concealment and deception, especially between those who love one another. Hardy is a master, and it was a consolation just to read such a superbly well-written novel.

*

Kenogaia: A Gnostic Tale
David Bentley Hart

In a world where authority keeps a strict watch on its people, and access to information is restricted and curated, sometimes the thing to do is to train your eyes on things above. Maybe you’ll see something. That’s what happens to the hero of this rousing adventure story, and it sends him careening through a series of amazing discoveries en route to a revelation that breaks his world open, almost literally. I’ve had a hard time keeping up with Hart’s breakneck pace of publication over the past few years, but I’m glad I found the time for this one. [notes]

*

Child of God
Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s novels are often dark and disturbing, and Child of God is more dark and disturbing than most. It’s a truly harrowing tale about a man who commits unspeakable acts of violence and disgrace. We have a right to ask why we should trouble ourselves to read it, much less to recommend it to others, as I am doing here. McCarthy has an established habit of introducing into his bleak and troubling stories some glimmer of light, some shred of hope, some rumour of grace or justice. It can be slight and subtle — it is certainly so here — but it is there nonetheless. We are to see, I think, that evil can never be completely triumphant, A green shoot always arises from the ashes. And that is worth knowing. A second reason to endure the tale is the tough, spare beauty of the prose; nobody else writes like this.

*

Art & Scholasticism
Jacques Maritain

Over the years I’ve accumulated a sizable stack of books by Jacques Maritain, but for one reason or another I’ve not got around to reading them. This year I pulled down this relatively slender volume in which he gathers up various scraps of commentary about the arts let fall from the workbenches of the scholastic philosophers, especially Thomas Aquinas, and arranges them into something like a systematic treatment. I found it a fruitful enterprise. Despite a certain amount of pedantry about species and genus, the book contains lively analyses of, among other things, what counts as art, how art relates to beauty, how art relates to morality, and how the arts can be corrupted. Do the scholastics ever disappoint?

*

The Figure of Beatrice
Charles Williams

Beatrice was for Dante much more than just a love interest, and in this study of Dante Charles Williams explores what we can learn from Dante about what he learned from her. In so doing, he develops a kind of theology of romantic love that I found surprisingly creative and insightful, and which helped me to deepen my understanding of my own experience of love. Much food for thought, and a fine guide to the Divine Comedy as well. Beautifully written.

*

A Pelican at Blandings
P.G. Wodehouse

This was the last Blandings novel that Wodehouse completed, and, since I was reading them in order, it has served for me as a kind of milestone. I have walked the extensive grounds, but have now reached a neighbouring hilltop where I stand, looking back. I see Beach, the butler, arranging flower pots on the balcony. The Hon. Freddie Threepwood is on the lawn, setting out a bowl of Donaldson’s dog biscuits for somebody’s pooch. Rupert Baxter, secretary to Lord Emsworth, is around back of the house studying the eaves, and he appears to be wearing yellow pyjamas. I see Galahad Threepwood lounging easily on a chair down by the fish pond. Away in the distance, partly concealed behind a tree, I think I see Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe with binoculars pointed in the direction of the pig-pen. And, yes, sure enough, following his gaze, there is Lord Emsworth himself, plying the Empress of Blandings with apples and potatoes. I’m going to miss this place. [notes]

***

Read again: Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Gorgias, Protagoras, Meno; Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth; Homer: Iliad, Odyssey; Aeschylus: Oresteia; Sophocles: Theban Plays, Philoctetes; Euripides: Medea, Hippolytus, The Trojan Women, The Bacchae; Lewis: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Magician’s Nephew; Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment; Tolkien: The Hobbit; MacLachlan: Sarah, Plain and Tall; Herodotus: Histories; Burgess: The Adventures of Prickly Porky, The Adventures of Grandfather Frog; Pressfield: Gates of Fire.

Multiple things by the same author: Plato (12), Sophocles (5), Aeschylus (4), Euripides (4), Robert Frost (4), William Shakespeare (3), Gene Wolfe (3), Arthur Conan Doyle (3), Homer (2), Hesiod (2), P.G. Wodehouse (2), Philip Massinger (2), C.S. Lewis (2), Pedro Calderon (2), Thornton Burgess (2).

***

As is my custom, I made a bar graph of the publication dates of the books I read this year. It looks like this:

This year I had a double-humped distribution: the cluster on the left contains the things I’ve read for the Greek reading project, and the cluster on the right is everything else. Coverage since 1500 was not too shabby this year. That yawning gap in the medieval years is sad.

All in all, though, it was a pretty good year of reading.

Vega: Fuente Ovejuna

December 19, 2022

Fuente Ovejuna
Lope de Vega
Translated from the Spanish by Gwynne Edwards
(Oxford, 1999) [c.1613]
80 p.

My course of reading in early-ish modern drama has, until now, been confined to the sceptered isle, but now, after a few dozen plays made for the London stage, I am soaring south and east, to Spain, and the plays — or, at least, a play — of Lope de Vega.

I confess I didn’t know anything about him prior to picking up this volume. According to the introduction, he was one of the principal architects of Spanish drama in the seventeenth century, responsible for developing several of the conventions that subsequent playwrights relied on. His plays broke with the classical unities of time and place, were not shy to mix comedy and tragedy, and were often explicit about the moral lessons conveyed by the play’s action.

He was also tremendously prolific. Cervantes called him monstruo de naturaleza — a monster of nature — because of his incredible productivity. Some contemporaries reported that he had written over 2000 plays, and he himself boasted that he could write a play in a single day. Impious exaggeration, perhaps, but over 350 of his plays are extant, so he was, at minimum, ten times more prolific than Shakespeare.

The present play, Fuente Ovejuna, is a history play based on events that happened in a town of that name in the late 15th century. The ruler was cruel and tyrannical. When he was found murdered, an investigation was opened by the royal court, but the townspeople, when ordered, even under torture, to reveal the identity of the murderer, would only answer, “Fuente Ovejuna”. This solidarity was their protection, and no-one was ever convicted.

It’s a good story, then, with a winsome portrait of ordinary people resisting unjust power through friendship and loyalty. De Vega embellishes the plot with some romance. There are a few scenes with Ferdinand and Isabella, for pomp and circumstance. But the play, on the whole, felt to me rather thin and forgettable. The characters felt generic, and the language — at least in translation, and that is an important caveat — fell far short of the richness I’ve grown accustomed to from the English playwrights. There were no neat aphorisms, no impressive speeches, nothing much going on linguistically beyond serviceable verse to move the story forward.

By way of brief illustration, the play ends, as many English plays of the period do, with an actor turning and speaking directly to the audience. But compare this

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

to what we get here:

And so, my friends, we end Fuente Ovejuna.

It is possible that this apparent lack of depth and richness is traceable to the aforementioned haste with which he was reputed to write; I don’t really know. I do know, however, that my original plans to read all three of the plays in this Oxford edition are being shelved for now, and I plan to move on to one of the Spanish playwrights of the next generation, Pedro Calderon de la Barca.

*

Hart: Kenogaia

December 15, 2022

Kenogaia
A Gnostic Tale
David Bentley Hart
(Angelico, 2021)
432 p.

Imagine you were to live in the aftermath of an “Age of Ilumination”, in a society that prizes reason and progress above all, in which old books, and the ideas they contain, are forgotten or forbidden, and in which it is believed that the nature of the cosmos, conceived of as a great machine of gears and wheels governed by “rational principles of force and structure”, implies that human nature is also mechanical, and so suitable for rational and scientific manipulation. Maybe you don’t have to imagine very hard.

Imagine further that you have reason to doubt certain aspects of the prevailing story. Maybe some family lore hovers in your memory, maybe an intuition or an intellectual difficulty bothers you in quiet moments, maybe your curiosity about older ideas got the better of you and you learned something that you can’t forget. And imagine that this doubt and discomfort leads you into conflict with the reigning powers.

Put this way, the contemporary relevance of the scenario in Kenogaia is obvious. Hart plunges us into an imagined world which is, in many respects, quite different from our own, but puts his characters into an historical situation we recognize. Michael is a young man whose life is disrupted when his father discloses to him a secret about a reality from beyond the immanent world, an incursion of the transcendent, that calls into question all he has been taught, and in so doing brings him under peril of the reigning powers — or the reigning powers under peril of him.

The story that plays out is one rich in fantasy and incident, replete with mysterious beings, stirring adventures, and startling revelations that unveil realities long and carefully concealed. The imagined world is a curious mixture of scientific dystopia and religious theocracy in which those who question the existence or benevolence of the “Great Artisan” are accused of “epistemic and psychic malfeasance” and subjected to all the corrective powers that its drug-wielding psychiatrists can muster. Much of the drama of the tale — and it is a tremendously dramatic tale — is generated by Michael’s efforts to resist the lies and blinders imposed by the authorities and penetrate to the truth of things.

This truth of things, as it is gradually revealed (and I shan’t reveal much here), brings us, in a way that surprised me, to the book’s subtitle. Gnosticism is, in my experience, a slippery word for a slippery set of ideas, but that we are beings imprisoned in this carnal world, that the cosmos is the creation of a powerful being of massive and foundational malevolence, and that our spiritual task is to escape this shell into a higher, brighter reality are all claims that I associate with Gnosticism, and, as such, this is indeed a Gnostic tale.

I was surprised because a plain reading of the novel is that it is an apologia for Gnosticism, an attempt to portray all the beauty and majesty that can be found therein, and I didn’t expect that from Hart, who is a Christian, and a theologian of considerable subtlety and ability. Nobody, of course, is forbidden to explore, in a work of fiction or otherwise, a metaphysical and religious system at odds with his own. It might be done with both subtlety and success. But there are enough authentically Hartian notes embedded into the story — his universalism, for example — that I began to wonder if the book might be meant straightforwardly and sincerely, revealing a turn in his religious thinking that is carrying him into a sublime heterodoxy. Riddles in the dark.

Thumbing back through my copy, I see that I marked up and bent the pages much more frequently in the early going. As the story progressed I was not losing interest, but was simply more and more contented to follow the twists and turns of the story. These twists and turns also surprised me. His earlier fiction collection, The Devil and Pierre Gernet, was wonderfully erudite and intricate, but could not be described as twisty nor turny. Kenogaia is comparatively unbuttoned, more hurtling and rollicking, more inclined to a glass of fresh juice than a smoky whiskey. I almost would not have pegged it as coming from Hart’s pen but for the reassuring prevalence of obscure words sprinkled everywhere. Gleed, daedal, bedizen, imbricate, diamantine, wimpling, insufflation, plosive, contumacious, susurrous, complect, mephitic, fuliginous, lazuline. Eat your philological heart out.

Despite some perplexities, therefore, about the drift of the whole affair, I enjoyed the book, and I hope he has more stories up his sleeve.

Sappho: Poems

December 12, 2022


Stung With Love
Poems and Fragments
Sappho
Translated from the Greek by Aaron Poochigian
(Penguin Classics, 2009) [c.600 BC]
xlvi + 95 p.

There is, at this cultural moment, something of a chic for Sappho’s poetry. The market is flooded with dozens of translations, but it is perhaps a little unclear to what extent the attention is due to the intrinsic quality of her poems and to what extent to extrinsic factors. This collection, like all the others, consists of “poems and fragments,” but mostly the latter.

She lived roughly 630-570 BC, and was prolific, and famous through the Greek world in her lifetime. Her poetry was originally collected into nine substantial books, estimated at about 9000 lines of poetry in total. We know that in the first century BC the complete collection was still extant, and the notes in this volume say that she was likely one of the influences on Catullus and Horace (and, I would suggest, Tibullus). Over the subsequent centuries, however, the poems were lost. It is suspected that the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 was one of the sad occasions of destruction. The upshot was that for centuries her poems were known only in tiny fragments. This started to change in the 1870s, when modern archeological techniques began turning up new fragments, and scholars even recovered one entire poem. In 2004 another entire poem was reconstructed.

In this volume Aaron Poochigian has collected about one-third of the roughly 230 known poems and fragments, excluding mainly indecipherable and single-word fragments. This, it appears, is about the extent of readable Sapphic poetry at this time.

Many of the modern translations render Sappho in free verse. (I got a stack of them from the library and looked through them.) Sappho herself, however, did not write free verse. Her poems were largely written, it will come as no surprise to learn, in Sapphic stanzas. For his translation, Aaron Poochigian chose to put them into English lyric forms, with rhymes, both because the lyric poem calls to mind the fact that many of these poems were songs, and because the rhyme underlines the emphatic endings that are characteristic of Sappho’s Greek lines. Not a bad strategy, I think, and I was happy to have chosen this collection to read front to back.

What about the poems themselves? To be honest, their fragmentary state makes them hard to enjoy. We get a gradual impression that the poems were highly personal, and contained beautiful or striking imagery, but it’s nearly impossible to form any view of the structure of the poems from what we have. Thematically, Poochigian has gathered the fragments together into groups: there are a substantial number invoking goddesses, another group related to the Trojan War (which surprised me!), some erotic poems, and a fairly large group of wedding poems.

Let’s look at a few examples. This night scene, I thought, was quite beautiful:

Star clusters near the fair moon dim
Their shapely shimmering whenever
She rises, lucent to the brim
And flowing over.

But that’s the whole fragment, so it doesn’t amount to much more than an impression. Another with similar qualities, but even less substance, was this:

Over eyelids dark night fell
Invisible.

I like it, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.

As you might expect, when the pickings are slim there can be a tendency to make the most, or even more than the most, of what we have. I laughed a little, along these lines, when I read this fragment:

A handkerchief
Dripping with…

and found Poochigian describing it (in his often excellent notes) as “tantalizing and elliptical”. Apparently this little fragment has even “acquired a cult status in some literary critical circles.” Maybe so!

Some hard-to-specify-exactly amount of Sappho’s chic today arises because she may have been a lesbian.  She did write love poems, some of them addressed to women, but it’s not clear — it’s never clear in these poems — whether she is speaking in her own voice or an assumed one. Certainly the number of poems celebrating heterosexual love (in the form of weddings) is greater than the number that could be construed as homosexual. This might be due to historical selection bias. The lesbian poems, if that is what they are, are not “erotic” in any pornographic sense; they just have to do with attraction between women, as in this example:

Either I have slipped out of your head
Or you adore some fellow more, instead.

*

Sappho seems, based on her contemporary fame, to have been a major talent, and it is a shame that so much of her work has been lost. The arc of recovery over the last 150 years gives us some grounds for hope that future generations will have more than we have, but the sad fact remains that we have very little of what once was. For me, she has to remain a poet who, like so many of these poems, is alluring, but finally elusive.

Wodehouse: A Pelican at Blandings

December 8, 2022

A Pelican at Blandings
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2010) [1969]
240 p.

Wodehouse’s novels are by reputation frothy larks, so readers can be forgiven for being caught off guard when, early in A Pelican at Blandings, something happens that strikes cold dread in the heart: Lord Emsworth’s prize pig, the Empress of Blandings, refuses to eat a potato.

When, in a subsequent scene, a large painting of a female nude is installed at Blandings Castle, I began to feel my palms sweating, and when, in a still more subsequent scene, not just one but two coteries of thieves plot to steal the painting, I was confirmed in my judgment that this is an uncharacteristically disturbing and unwholesome entry in Wodehouse’s canon, and by a significant margin.

To be sure, some of the elements that are familiar from earlier Blandings novels recur here, but typically with some shocking twist. A young woman wants to marry against her family’s wishes, but she wants to marry a man pretending to be a looney doctor’s junior assistant. A rich woman arrives as a guest under false pretences, but Wodehouse, in a move that must have imperiled cross-Atlantic diplomatic relations at the time, chooses to make her an American. Even more outrageous calumnies occur, or are suggested, but for propriety’s sake I won’t mention them here.

Obviously, and notwithstanding the admitted truth that the writing in A Pelican at Blandings is a dream, I cannot recommend the book unreservedly. Mature readers might enjoy aspects of it — rather, I suspect, as some people apparently enjoy those Saw movies — but I would advise, in that case, that it may be best to keep near at hand a cold compress and a hot toddy — and perhaps a potato.