The OF Blog: February 2011

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thoughts on this past week's "literary" controversy

Through M. John Harrison's blog, I was made aware of this quaint little article by John Mullan called "Twelve of the best new novelists."  It seems to have stirred up a faint bit of recycled controversy over its definition of the neologism "literary fiction."

I have no problem with the creation of such a term; in the increasingly-rigid structure of publishing nomenclature, it certain carries a ring of prestige and pedigree that several other new categories, such as paranormal romance or the latest iteration of "urban fantasy," just do not possess.  But what, pray tell, is Mullan (and by presumption, similar advocates in the UK, or at least the ones who voted with him on that list of twelve) considering to be "literary fiction?"

The first thing that I notice is the picture of the selected twelve.  They certainly are a glowing bunch, aren't they?  Perhaps it's just an anomaly or maybe the UK is less ethnic diverse these days than I had been led to believe, but it was surprising to see an all-Caucasian group there.  But let's just say it is an anomaly and move on to other thoughts.

What came to my mind afterward is that Mullan's definition of "literary fiction" excludes so much that what he seems to conceive of as properly belonging to that group would consist largely of bourgeois Bildungsromans.  Taking Mullan at his word that I must "attend to the manner of their telling," what I have gathered from reading several of the UK novels generally considered to be part of this literary fiction category, such as Howard Jacobson's 2010 Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question, is that manner trumps all.  There is such a focus on experience that one begins to wonder which experience is being elevated.  When I read Andrea Levy's The Long Song, what I noticed is that once I dug beyond the surface level of detailing the late-slavery period on Jamaica is that she was not really saying anything new that other late twentieth-century works such as Alex Haley's Roots or Edward P. Jones' The Known World had not already stated.  The "experience" there was tied in so much with its "manner" that its execution felt perfunctory, partially devoid of that vitality and sense of horror and shame that one might expect from such a novel purportedly dealing with the cruel and wanton exploitation of a whole group of people.  It just seemed too sanitized, too much something that the bourgeoisie could read, go "tut-tut" about, and then move on, hardly questioning the casual exploitations of today.

There is a constraint that I've noticed in several works of "literary fiction, particularly that of the UK variety (the American branch I must admit, seems more willing to mix and match, playing more with palettes appropriated from other genres of literature).  The sense of class is more readily apparent in these type of stories, as the narratives largely deal with middle-class concerns (job and marriage satisfaction, self-identity in a changing world, other assorted mid-life crises, etc.) or with "good" working-class families who are struggling to rise up to join the ranks of the bourgeoisie.  Sometimes, other ethnic groups are mixed in, but the sense one gets from the reactions to these works is that the authors are praised more for the "exotic" qualities of their characters' situations rather than embracing the different cultural reactions these characters might have to their experiences.  This is not a universal case, but it does occur enough that some mention is merited.

Another element to literary fiction seems to be the reliance upon lists and external recognition to push a book into readers' homes, as Mullan himself admits:

The Booker prize became a passport to commercial success. "Literary novelist" started to look like a rewarding career path, not an after-hours occupation. Prizes and lists were ways on to this path. Jack, himself responsible for the 2003 Granta list, is blunt: "Literary novels really depend on prizes, and they depend on lists." 

Lists, categorizations, rankings - all hallmarks of an industrial organization schema.  It is so ingrained these days in Anglo-American societies that one just cannot escape completely this insidious development.  Stories are not judging on their own intrinsic qualities, but rather on relative position to another work.  "Author X's work will appeal to those who enjoyed Author Y or Author Z's work..."  The art of reading and writing is thereby reduced to something that can be jotted down in a ledger book or its modern equivalent, the spreadsheet.  Instead of being potentially subversive works, such fictions are now largely considered (with a few occasional exceptions, usually driven by competing commercial concerns) to be safe, tamed products which serve to reinforce certain social models.  Perhaps Harrison sums it up best in his conclusion:

So the good news is that, along with its liberal humanist programme, the Clapham arm of literary fiction can continue its project of watering down the linguistic fluency and technical agility of its genuinely interesting precursors from the distant past of literature–that great age of Picador, King Penguin, and the Virago Modern Classic, which saw not just the invention of women writers but of magic realism & the euronovel too; while the hipster arm gets a bamboo chip & lemon grass latte & tries out its new neighbourhood app.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Things I have not yet read which I aim to finish in 2011

I'm thirty-six, going on thirty-seven.  My youth is now fading; I want to finish certain things lest I die prematurely.  This is not a "bucket list", however; I fully expect to add to this as I continue to mature and discover new literary troves in a variety of languages.  But here below are some prominent works that I have not ever completed:

1.  The King James version of the Bible - I have read most of Bible, in Catholic and Protestant editions, in various languages, over the years.  Yet I have never sat down and read from cover to cover the 17th century English translation which has had such an important influence on literature as well as on religious thought.  Only have about 1600 more pages to go; at this current rate, maybe in a few months I will have finished it all.

2.  All of Shakespeare's plays - I have read the majority of his tragedies and a few of his comedies and histories.  Yet I have not read them all.  I am going to rectify that this spring. 

3.  Les Miserables in French.  I think my French, although still shaky, might be enough (although with a parallel reading of a translation) for me to attempt it this year.  Sometime in the next few months.

4.  Read all of Vladimir Nabokov's works, in English or in translation.  I've read most of his major works, but there's still more to be read.  Later this year.

5.  Finish reading all of Mark Twain's works.  Was going to do that this month, but I got sidetracked, so I'll just spread it out over the year and get as many of them read as possible.

6.  Read more, if not all, of Kafka's works, in either German or English translation.  I did find a used set of his works in German recently and I want to refresh my abilities in that language back to the intermediate-level I had 15 years ago.

7.  Read Goethe's Faust in both German and English.  I've read both parts in English before, but I want to read the German in a parallel-text type situation.  Should finish this in the next 1-2 weeks.

8.  Read all of William Faulkner's works.  I have several of his novels, but I want to do a systematic reading at some point.  Maybe this summer; Faulkner, for some reason, I associate with the summertime.

9.  Read all the published parts of Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality.  I've read Parts I and II, but not all of III.  Sometime before autumn.

10.  Read more Decadent writers, in English and in translation.  I've been haphazard in my reading, but I'll try to organize things a bit more.  Probably attempt this by the autumn, a season which I associate with Decadence. 

11.  Read more, if not all, of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series books I have bought.  I own nearly 1/2 of those now, but I still need to get around to purchasing the rest.  Only read about 1/3 of them to date.  This might be an occasional project throughout the year.

Any particular long-postponed reading goals you wish to share, in hopes of inspiring myself or others to attempt it with you?

More quotes from books being read

It has dawned upon me that I have never placed a proper valuation upon womankind.  For that matter, though not amative to any considerable degree so far as I have discovered, I was never outside the atmosphere of women until now.  My mother and sisters were always about me, and I was always trying to escape them; for they worried me to distraction with their solicitude for my health and with their periodic inroads on my den, when my orderly confusion, upon which I prided myself, was turned into worse confusion and less order, though it looked neat to the eye.  I never could find anything when they had departed.  But now, alas, how welcome would have been the feel of their presence, the frou-frou and swish-swish of their skirts which I had so cordially detested!  I am sure, if I ever get home, that I shall never be irritable with them again.  They may dose me and doctor me morning, noon, and night, and dust and sweep and put my den to rights every minute of the day, and I shall only lean back and survey it all and be thankful that that I am possessed of a mother and some several sisters.

Gott verzeihs meinem lieben Mann,
Er hat an mir nicht wohl getan.
Geht da stracks in die Welt hinein
und läßt mich auf dem Stroh allein.
Tät ihn doch wahrlich hicht betrüben,
Tät ihn, weiß Gott, recht hezlich lieben.

The storm raged fiercely all that night, but nothing of particular note occurred.  The next morning, however, when they came down to breakfast, they found the terrible stain of blood once again on the floor.  'I don't think it can be the fault of the Paragon Detergent,' said Washington, 'for I have tried it with everything.  It must be the ghost.'  He accordingly rubbed out the stain a second time, but the second morning it appeared again.  The third morning also it was there, though the library had been locked up at night by Mr. Otis himself, and the key carried upstairs.  The whole family were now quite interested; Mr. Otis began to suspect that he had been too dogmatic in his denial of the existence of ghosts, Mrs. Otis expressed her intention of joining the Psychical Society, and Washington prepared a long letter to Messrs. Myers and Podmore on the subject of the Permanence of Sanguineous Stains when connected with Crime.  That night all doubts about the objective existence of phantasmata were removed for ever.
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.  I'm stupid about executions.  The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there was to read about in the papers - goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.  It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

Sensitive though poor, imaginative though forever hungry, Douceline learned early in life to delight in caresses and embraces.  She loved to pass her hands across the cheeks of little boys, and to put her arms around the necks of little girls, stroking them as she might have stroked a cat.  She loved to kiss the knitted fingers of her mother's hands, and whenever she was banished to the corner to do penance for her petty sins she would occupy herself in kissing her own palms and her own arms, and the bare knees which she would raise up to her lips one by one.

The English word "decadence," and its French counterpart décadence, derive from the Latin cadere, to fall.  But the kind of fall indicated thereby is a special one, as signified by the verbs to which the nouns are parent:  the obsolete decair in Old French and "decay" in English.  To decay is to rot, to fall away from a state of health into a gradual ruination which is punctuated, but not begun or ended, by death.

The rain came unexpectedly, after nearly three years of drought.  In those days, Youssef still lived with his mother in a whitewashed house that huddled with others like it along a narrow dirt road.  The house had one room with no windows, and a roof made of corrugated tin held down by rocks.  The yard, where his mother did the cooking and the washing, was open to the sky.  It was in the yard that she cleaned the sheep hides she took in on the day of Eid, and there Youssef received the rare friends who came to visit.  The front door was painted blue, but over the years rust had eaten its edges, turning them reddish brown, so that holes had begun to appear at each of the four corners.

These quotes are from seven books which I am either currently reading or hope to begin reading this weekend.  Several, if not all, of these shall be reviewed.  Some are re-reads, while others are waiting to be discovered either for the first time or for the first time in its native language.  These books, by both men and women, span genres and centuries, yet there are some common threads to be found in many, if not all, of them.  Which ones do you recognize without resorting to Google?  Which passages appeal to you even if you have never heard of the book or author?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Valuing a book collection

Over the past three months, I have purged my collection of somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 books.  Those 200 books brought me nearly $1000 in store credit at McKay's, a Nashville used bookstore and I have used the majority of that credit to purchase class sets of books I plan on using in class in the next several months.  Thinking about that got me to dwell on the various valuations I place on my book collection.

Obviously, the first type of valuation that occurs is seeing how much I've had to spend in order to amass a collection.  In the first photo above, of my Easton Press (and unseen are my 12 Franklin Library leatherbound volumes) collection, I believe I've spent somewhere between $1500 and $2000 since September on collecting nearly 70 used limited-edition, leatherbound editions of classic works of literature.  Since this is only a small part of my collection (I haven't bothered cataloging everything due to plans to shift hundreds of MMPB editions to the treatment center's school library), I would guesstimate based on what I own and what I have received in store credit for middle-of-the-road items, that my entire book collection is worth somewhere between $3000 and $10,000.

But monetary value is only part of the equation when it comes to valuing books in a collection.  In the second and third pictures, there are some extremely limited-editions of works from some of my favorite authors.  Look some of them up on ABEbooks or e-bay and you might see some trying to sell the same edition for upwards of several hundred dollars.  But it's not so much the dollar figure as it is the owning of something special from authors one enjoys most that adds a sort of sentimental value to the equation.

Sometimes, it is books received from authors who send these to you not to get you to review them (although that might be nice and desirable),  but because they are generous people.  In the second through fourth pictures, there are some books, many of them rare and hard to find, that were sent to me because the authors knew I'd love to acquire them because I am a vocal fan of their writings.  That sort of generosity is priceless; the books serve only as a physical reminder of friendships forged around the love of literature and not necessarily over being a fan of that particular author's work (although that too is the case).

It is nice receiving works from those who just think you'll enjoy these.  I blogged about this months ago, but several books in this picture above were sent to me just because he thought I'd be able to do justice for them in reviews.  In the near future, I hope this proves to be true.  The expectations placed on particular books can certainly add value to the collection that cannot be measured by anything tangible.

Collections ought to be intensely personal and idiosyncratic.  Here is a look into a collection-within-a-collection that deals with more spiritual matters.  Collecting translations of one of the most important literary works in human existence can be a sign of placing a value on personal spiritual and meditative development.

But perhaps the most important value that comes from a book collection is how the collector utilizes the books at his/her disposal.  I could have easily shrink-wrapped several of these books; virtually all have been read.  It isn't so much the maintenance of monetary value (it would pain me greatly to sell any of these for whatever reason) as it is the potential for personal growth and change that makes my personal book collection such a valuable thing to consider. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Miguel Cervantes, Don Quixote

En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme...

In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind...
With these words, Miguel Cervantes begins one of the greatest prose works in human history. Depending on how the reader chooses to approach Cervantes' two-part creation, Don Quixote can be viewed as a devastating critique of the excessive proto-Romanticism found in the popular 15th-17th century heroic epics, or it can be read as an endearing tragic/comedy of an idealist sallying forth into a jaded, materialistic world.  How the reader approaches the material perhaps says as much about s/he as it does about Don Quixote as a whole.

Published in two parts between 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote (or El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, to give this book its modern Spanish title) is not strictly speaking a novel.  Rather, it is a series of sallies or adventures by an aging bachelor, Alonso Quixano (or Quesada or other possible names, if one pays overly strict attention to the introductory chapters), who has come to see himself as the heir to the Paladins of France or to all the Amadus (Amadi?) of Gaul, Greece, and other parts known and unknown.  When Cervantes began writing this work, epic poems from the likes of Ariosto (whose Orlando Furioso comes out relatively unscathed compared to the other epic poets of the time) to Cervantes' sometimes-rival Lope de Vega were all the rage.  Some of these works, like those of Boiardo and Ariosto have survived the test of time, while those like de Vega's attempt to write an epic within the Orlando mythos are drab, lifeless affairs.  Cervantes satirizes this in the Ch. 6 of Part I, when, under orders from Quixote's worried niece, a local curate and barber are dispatched to sort through Quixote's books in order to remove the ones most likely to have caused his chivalric malady:

Y el primero que maese Nicolás le dio en las manos, fue los cuatro de Amadís de Gaula, y dijo el cura:

- Parece cosa de misterio ésta; porque, según he oído decir, este libro fue el primero de caballerías que se imprimió en España, y todos los demás han tomado principio y origen déste; y así, me parece, que, como a dogmatizador de una secta tan mala, le debemos sin excusa alguna condenar al fuego.

- No, señor - dijo el barbero - , que también he oído decir que es el mejor de todos los libros que este género se han compuesto; y así, como a único en su arte, se debe perdonar.

- Así es verdad - dijo el cura -, y por esta razón se le otorga la vida por ahora. Veamos esotro que está junto a él.

- Es -dijo el barbero-, Las sergas de Esplandián, hijo legítimo de Amadís de Gaula.

-Pues en verdad - dijo el cura, que no le ha de valer al hijo la bondad del padre; tomad, señora ama, abrid esa ventana y echadle al corral, y dé principio al montón de la hoguera que se ha de hacer.

Hizolo así el ama con mucho contento, y el bueno de Esplandián fue volando al corral, esperando con toda paciencia el fuego que le amenazaba.

- Adelante - dijo el cura.

- Este que viene - dijo el barbero - es Amadís de Grecia, y aun todos los deste lado, a lo que creo, son del mesmo linaje de Amadis.

- Pues vayan todos al corral - dijo el cura -, que a trueco de quemar a la reina Pintiquiniestra y al pastor Darinel y a sus églogas, y a las endiabladas y revueltas razones de su autor, quemara con ellos al padre que me engendró, si anduviera en figura de caballero andante.

The first that Master Nicholas put into his hand was "The four books of Amadis of Gaul."  "This seems a mysterious thing," said the curate, "for, as I have heard say, this was the first book of chivalry printed in Spain, and from this all the others derive their birth and origin; so it seems to me that we ought inexorably to condemn it to the flames as the founder of so vile a sect."

"Nay, sir," said the barber, "I too, have heard say that this is the best of all the books of this kind that have been written, and so, as something singular in its line, it ought to be pardoned."

"True," said the curate; "and for that reason let its life be spared for the present.  Let us see that other which is next to it."

"It is," said the barber, "the 'Sergas de Esplandian,' the lawful son of Amadis of Gaul.'"

"Then verily," said the curate, "the merit of the father must not be put down to the account of the son.  Take it, mistress housekeeper; open the window and fling it into the yard and lay the foundation of the pile for the bonfire we are to make."

The housekeeper obeyed with great satisfaction, and the worthy "Esplandian" went flying into the yard to await with all patience the fire that was in store for him.

"Proceed," said the curate.

"This that comes next," said the barber, "is 'Amadis of Greece,' and, indeed, I believe all those on this side are of the same Amadis lineage."

"Then to the yard with the whole of them," said the curate; "for to have the burning of Queen Pintiquiniestra, and the shepherd Darinel and his eclogues, and the bedevilled and involved discourses of his author, I would burn with them the father who begot me if he were going about in the guise of a knight-errant." (p. 72)

This passage sets the tone for most of the rest of the First Part; Quixote (and after a short while, the peasant/squire Sancho) refers again and again to these chivalrous works before proceeding to do all sorts of madness.  While many readers might chortle at the tilting at windmills or Quixote's attempt to evoke knightly privilege in order to get out of paying for lodging and food at an inn, what made these scenes hilarious for readers in Cervantes' time was the knowledge that he was satirizing some of the most popular writers of that generation and the one before it.  Regardless of how one approaches the iconic scenes from the First Part, it is a testimony to how memorable Quixote has made his characters and their situations that different interpretations can be applied to any particular scene with equal enjoyment being possible.  Borges' Pierre Menard, if he were in existence, might be nodding his head in agreement with this.

The Second Part is different in feel from the First.  It is not as outlandish; Don Quixote is not as buffonish here and the savage satire which Cervantes utilized in the First Part has been toned down in favor of longer, more philosophical passages.  Yet this does not mean that the narrative weakens in its power.  Instead, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza expand their roles, becoming not just the butt of jokes, but also commentaries on the meanness and cruelties of the actual world which is mostly devoid of the chivalric values that Quixote expresses.  If the first half was devoted to satirizing the excesses of chivalry, the second concerns itself with showing how idealism, in reasonable amounts, can be an antidote for the world's self-inflicted ills.

Although I first read this in Spanish, I did read the Easton Press edition, containing a 19th century translation by John Ormsby.  I wish I could say it was a good translation; those who know the slightly archaic 17th century Spanish in which Cervantes composed will have realized that Ormsby took some liberties with the text in order to make it read better for an English audience.  Yet it is not terrible; there are times where the subtleties of Cervantes' prose shines through in this translation.  This is more than I can say of the Signet Classics translation of Don Quixote that I read several years ago, as that one left me wondering just what it was that was supposed to be so wonderful about Cervantes' story.

Don Quixote, as I said above, is not a true novel, but more a collection of adventures which are interconnected.  As such, the stories and adventures are woven together almost perfectly; each blends seamlessly into the next.  Combined with the satiric wit that Cervantes uses to set up several scenes, this novel is a comic masterpiece which also serves as a commentary on a now-moribund literary genre.  It is truly a classic which contains several elements that will appeal to a broad audience.  Highly recommended.


Much ado about nothing?

Sometimes, I hate myself for reading through my Twitter feed after I've awakened.  This morning, it seems the hot topic of the early morning US hours is talking about a release party for repackaged covers and an ARC.  Yes, a party was held for covers and an advanced reader's copy, not for the street release of China Miéville's upcoming book, Embassytown (which won't be available until May in the UK and I think the summer in the US).  Think about that for a minute.

Perhaps it is simply due to me being a Southerner who lives thousands of miles away from the two main genre-publishing poles for the Anglophone markets, but it does seem rather odd to be hosting a shindig for repackaged covers and a galley proof.  Maybe it simply is, as I saw it argued on Twitter, a way of celebrating an author and getting people involved, but it seems rather odd to have something where only a few erstwhile reviewers are invited along with industry people.  Perhaps that's how they do things up there in the UK; I don't know if anything similar happens in New York, but it just seems rather strange to have such an affair if the purpose weren't to generate some positive coverage of an upcoming release from those who are best able to effect such a thing.

Is it necessarily a "cynical PR" thing?  Depends on how one views it, I suppose.  All I know is that it just seems to be a case of making much ado about a nothing thing such as repackaging an author's backlist and introducing the cover for his upcoming novel.  Maybe I should steal this concept and have a flying squirrel circus promote Squirrelpunk whenever it is close to its release.  After all, any PR is good PR, right?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine

Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and of Thy wisdom there is no end.  And man, being a part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee, - man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that Thou 'resistest the proud,' - yet man, this part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee.  Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.  Lord, teach me to know and understand which of these should be first, to call on Thee, or to praise Thee; and likewise to know Thee, or to call upon Thee.  But who is there that calls upon Thee without knowing Thee?  For he that knows Thee may not call upon Thee as other than Thou art.  Or perhaps we call on Thee that we may know Thee.  But how shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?  or how shall they believe without a preacher?  And those who seek the Lord shall praise Him.  For those who seek shall find Him, and those who find Him shall praise him.  Let me seek Thee, Lord, in calling on Thee, and call on Thee in believing in Thee; for Thou hast been preached unto us.  O Lord, my faith calls on Thee, - that faith which Thou hast imparted to me, which Thou hast breathed into me through the incarnation of Thy Son, through the ministry of Thy preacher.

For most people, the word "confession" contains the connotation of a criminal act being admitted to by the criminal responsible for such an act.  There is certainly that element present in the fifth century The Confessions of St. Augustine, but there is a deeper, more spiritual aspect to this word which better suits what St. Augustine accomplishes in this work.  Practicing Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some Oriental Orthodox are quite familiar with the theological confession; Catholics are enjoined to make at least one Confession a year.  These religious Confessions are much more than an admission of culpability, although this certain lies at the core of this Sacrament.  Rather, Confessions are also professions of faith, faith in the justice as well as the mercy of a divine, omnipotent God.  They are also means by which miscreant humans are reconciled with God through his mercy.  St. Augustine's Confessions is more readily understood when such concepts are kept in mind.

As befits the title, The Confessions of St. Augustine is a combination of his admission of sinning through his own faults, in both words and deeds, and his later reconciliation with God and how this reconciliation has impacted his life and the Western Church whose direction he largely changed with treatises such as The City of God.  St. Augustine's Confessions are of great value to readers for they reveal not just the religious journey and detours taken during his youth, but also his conceptions of sin, particularly Mortal Sin (until his time not considered to be an essential part of Christian doctrine), and the ways humans sought to praise God even as they rejected and scorned him.

The Confessions of St. Augustine is divided into four books in this Easton Press edition.  Roughly chronological in order, they trace his development from a youth in the Roman province of Numidia through his dalliance with the Manichean heresy to his later conversion to orthodox Christianity by the time he was 33, around 387 AD.  It is a mixture of personal confessions, such as his wanton theft and waste of pears from a local orchard, and religious thought, expounding upon the introductory paragraph quoted above.  It is this combination of personal reflection and self-condemnation and religious philosophy which makes this book so fascinating to consider.

However, The Confessions of St. Augustine is not an easy read.  Although this difficulty is compounded whenever older, more ornate translations such as this 19th century translation I quoted above from the Easton Press edition are used, one needs at least some grounding in Catholic theology to grasp the fullness of his arguments presented throughout this book.  St. Augustine's frequent self-abasement can be confusing at times, especially if these moments are not considered as being but one side of the coin of reconciliation with the Triune God, but if one focuses carefully and neither ignores nor concentrates overmuch on both the confessional and the praising aspects of this book, she might be rewarded greatly for this effort.  "Rewarding" perhaps is the best adjective I can think of to describe this work; I certainly would not use "enjoyable," or at least not in the sense that most would associate with that word.  The Confessions of St. Augustine is not a work that should be read casually, but rather is a tome whose text should be considered and whose merits should be praised or dismissed after careful thought.  For those readers who are willing to do this, I would recommend this crowning achievement in late Patristic Christian thought.

Questions regarding languages

As many of you know, I have a fascination with languages and how people communicate, both verbally and non-verbally alike.  I never am satisfied with having only one way to communicate (I write in English most of the time so monolinguals can understand me, to the detriment of my writing skills in Spanish) and my recent experiences with reading Easton Press' often-atrocious translations of French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Russian writers has led me to consider renewing and broadening my study of languages and their literatures. 

Since I have had several multilingual people respond on this blog in the past, here is a little questionnaire (English monolinguals can also answer some of these):

1.  Which language(s) that employ either the Latin or Cyrillic script do you think would be the most challenging for an English native speaker to learn and why (I'm excluding most other scripts due to availability and my inability to distinguish letters in Arabic script)?

2.  Which language(s) have the richest variety of written works in the three traditional genres (prose, drama, poetry)?

3.  If you are aware of it, which language(s) have a healthy or at least growing SF/F scene(s)?

4.  If you want to learn any other language besides the one(s) you already know, which one(s) would that be and why?

Very curious to hear your thoughts.  I know I'm having to focus a lot more on French and German at the moment, due to having students enrolled in elementary levels at the drug rehab center where I teach and those certainly will receive first priority in the coming months, but I am tempted to learn at least the reading rudiments of at least one other, so comments might sway me a bit here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

'Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.  But I warn you, if you don't tell me that this means war, if you still try to defend the infamies and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist - I really believe he is Antichrist - I will have nothing more to do with you and you are no longer my friend, no longer my "faithful slave," as you call yourself!  But how do you do?  I see I have frightened you - sit down and tell me all the news.'

It was in July 1805, and the speaker was the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honour and favourite of the Empress Marya Fedorovna.  With these words she greeted Prince Vasili, a man of high rank and importance, who was the first to arrive at her reception.  Anna Pavlovna had had a cough for some days.  She was, as she said, suffering from la grippe; grippe being then a new word in St. Petersburg, used only by the élite.

Reading Leo Tolstoy's 1865-1869 War and Peace is not reading a novel, or at least not a novel that has a definite beginning, middle, and end.  When I re-read this tome for the first time in over a decade, what I found to be interesting was this sense of a "great sweep" or perhaps a tidal wave, which would drag characters and their situations close to the reader, before events would toss them back out into that breaking wave of events.  War and Peace, for me at least, is not so much a novel reading, but an epic experience which has to be judged on criteria other than just plot, prose, or characterization.

From its opening paragraphs, quoted above, War and Peace conveys a sense of transformation that its characters, reactionary as some of them may long to be, cannot overcome.  Opening during the 1805-1809 phase of the Napoleonic Wars, the reader is thrown pell-mell into 1805 St. Petersburg society life.  In this first part (out of 15, plus two epilogues), Tolstoy explores via chats among characters such as Anna Pavlovna, Princess Mary, and Pierre Bezukhov the social dynamics of the Russian aristocracy in the immediate years before the fateful 1812 campaign.  Tolstoy notes the francophiles in this social set, with their preference for French over Russian (some cannot speak more than the rudiments of their presumed "native" language) customs, even when these customs are 50 or more years out-of-date in France.  As their lives unfold before us, with their gossips on the nefarious doings of Napoleon (the more the reader knows of the events of 1804-1805 involving the "eviction" of several dukes, counts, and other European nobility in favor of Napoleon's friends and family, the more fascinating this undercurrent becomes), the reader develops a keener sense of Russian social life.

This stands in stark contrast to what is happening in Austria during the lead-up to the disastrous Battle of Austerlitz:

So the soldiers, after a twenty-mile march, were kept mending and cleaning all night long without closing their eyes, while the adjutants and company-commanders calculated and reckoned, and by morning the regiment - instead of the straggling, disorderly crowd it had been on its last march the day before - presented a well-ordered array of two thousand men each of whom knew his place and his duty, had every button and every strap in place, and shone with cleanliness.  And not only externally was all in order, but had it pleased the commander-in-chief to look under the uniforms he would have found on every man a clean shirt, and in every knapsack the appointed number of articles, 'awl, soap, and all,' as the soldiers say.  There was only one circumstance concerning which no one could be at ease.  It was the state of the soldiers' boots.  More than half of the men's boots were in holes.  But this defect was not due to any fault of the regimental commander, for in spite of repeated demands boots had not been issued by the Austrian commissariat, and the regiment had marched some seven hundred miles.

Much of the action in Ruthenia and Gallicia is seen through the eyes of the young Prince Andrew, who commands part of this regiment.  In stark contrast to the social niceties of St. Petersburg or Moscow, military life is seen as strict, constrained, with an artificial order imposed over the passions that are often found on the battlefield.  There is a sense of doom that lies over these early war sections, as Napoleon, that harbinger of change, sweeps through battlefields like a gale storm, scattering his enemies as if they were chaff in the wind.  The first volume builds slowly throughout, alternating between the vacillations of the Russian court, as Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon go back and forth between the poles of allies and embittered enemies, to the condition of the Russian army during and after the crushing defeat at Austerlitz.  The characters introduced feel more like witnesses to something great and terrible rather than existing outside of their milieu, but this actually serves to heighten the epicness that unfolds in the second volume.

Volume II, released in 1869, opens with a very different tone than what is found in the first volume:

From the close of the year 1811 an intensified arming and concentrating of the forces of Western Europe began, and in 1812 these forces - millions of men, reckoning those transporting and feeding the army - moved from the west eastwards to the Russian frontier, towards which since 1811 Russian forces had been similarly drawn.  On the 12th of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature.  Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

From this point, Tolstoy shifts his focus full-bore to the moment, to that seemingly foretold clash between East and West, between the revolutionary fervor of the French-led Western Europeans and the patriotic ardor of the Russians who, with their army in near full-flight over a thousand miles and with one of their two capital cities in flames, with the fierce onset of winter turn back the seemingly inexorable tide represented by Napoleon, driving him out of Russia.  It is in this momentous event where each character's life, whether it be a socialite or a soldier's, becomes (re)defined and recast against the events of 1812.  The panic, the resolve, the cri de guerre merge together to create an epic tapestry woven of these characters' thoughts and lives and how each thread helps in the creation of an event which is still a matter of legend in Russia nearly two centuries later.  Tolstoy captures the epicness of this moment perfectly, as each scene, each action contributes to the sense that well after the fact, we too have become witnesses to a spectacle whose structure cannot be constrained by the usual novel conventions.  By the time the final page has been turned and we see a new generation emerging, one that is scarred by revolution and yet reluctant to return wholeheartedly to the ancien regime. This sense that more is to come creates a sense of "openness" that is fitting for a tale which begins in media res and which hints at future revolutions to occur.  War and Peace simply concerns itself with two poles of human interaction and the result is a staggering achievement.  Highly recommended.

Leatherbound Classics: Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

Somtime (faire Ladies) there lived in Arimino, a Merchant, very rich in wealth and worldly possessions, who having a beautifull Gentlewoman to his wife, he became extreamly jelous of her.  And he had no other reason for this foolish conceit; but, like as he loved hir dearly, and found her to be very absolutely faire:  even so he imagined, that althogh she devised by her best meanes to give him content; yet others would grow enamored of her, because she appeared so amiable to al.  In which respect, time might tutor her to affect some other beside himself:  the onely common argument of every bad minded man, being weake and shallow in his owne understanding.  This jelous humor increasing in him more and more, he kept her in such narrow restraint:  that many persons condemned to death, have enjoyed larger libertie in their imprisonment.  For, she might not bee present at Feasts, Weddings, nor goe to Church, or so much as to be seen at her doore:  Nay, she durst not stand in her Window, nor looke out of her house, for any occasion whatsoever.  By means whereof, life seemed most tedious and offensive to her, and she supported it the more impatiently, because shee knew her selfe not any way faulty. (Seventh day, Fifth story)

Along with Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio was one of the leading writers during the 14th century flowering known as the Italian Renaissance.  Writing somewhat after the other two, Boccaccio's verse and prose have long been read and studied both inside and outside of Italy.  His most famous work, The Decameron, has been available in English for nearly four centuries. 

I first read Boccaccio's work in 1995, in an Oxford World's Classics.  At the time, I found the stories to be quaint, amusing, and translated into a clear, intelligible English that gave enough hints of the richness that must exist in the Italian original.  Unfortunately, one of the problems I'm encountering as I acquire and read the Easton Press editions of famous works is that too often they choose older, often less accurate translations for their works.  Reading the 1620 Fritz Kredel translation almost completely destroyed the esteem that I had for Boccaccio's story.  Kredel's translation, riddled with odd word choices, archaic (and inconsistent) spellings, and bowdlerized passages, contains very little of the magic that I found implied in the Oxford edition.  The prose is too stilted and there just isn't any sense of "life" in these stories; the outdated, inaccurate prose translation just makes a total mess of things.

This is a pity, for the Boccaccio that I remember (and which is but faintly found in this particular edition) is a rich feast of stories that contain slices of life from early Italian Renaissance town-life.  Structured around a frame story involving three noble men and seven ladies fleeing Florence during the initial Black Death (occurring less than twenty years before Boccaccio composed these stories), The Decameron contains ten sets of ten stories (many of them revolving around specific themes such as unfaithful wives or foolish people) that vary in tone from playful to admonitory to all parts between these two poles. 

Readers of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (itself published a few decades after The Decameron) might see some surface similarities between the two works, particularly in some of the story themes and even in how these tales are executed.  Those wishing to judge the superiority of one over the other likely will find Chaucer's work a more fulfilling read, despite its unfinished status at the time of Chaucer's death.  A major weakness in Boccaccio's structure is that although the stories by and large are entertaining, the frame story feels dull and lifeless in comparison; the ten noble storytellers fail to engage with each other (or with the reader) in the lively fashion that the Miller and the Reeve do in Chaucer's tale. 

This lack of a strong, compelling framework weakens the impact of the stories.  Even the best-told tales feel flat because after 5-10 pages, it's on to the next tale, with very little interplay (and that which present tends to be perfunctory and not played up to effect as in Chaucer's interludes) between the narrators to serve as an effective transition from tale to tale.  Furthermore, despite the ribald nature of several of Boccaccio's stories (unfortunately, three of these were deleted from the Kredel translation; he substituted three inferior imitations), the Easton Press edition fails to capture the lively spirit of these tales; it all just feels so drab.  This is almost always the fault of Kredel's pathetic translation, as in more modern translations, Boccaccio's wit and playful banter are more readily upon display than they are in this 1620 translation.

Would I recommend readers try reading Boccaccio in translation?  Yes, provided that they read a much more current and faithful translation.  Storytelling relies so much upon the artful use of language and poor translations, such as this archaic Kredel rendering, do no favors to author or reader.  The Decameron is one of the earliest frame/nested story creations of European literature and although it was surpassed by Chaucer and, arguably, Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in structure and interstory connections, The Decameron is still a masterpiece whose brilliance still shines through even the worst of translations.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Poll Results

Cervantes, Don Quixote
  23 (26%)
Fast, April Morning
  2 (2%)
Whitman, Leaves of Grass
  7 (8%)
Yeats, The Poems of W.B. Yeats
  14 (16%)
Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
  10 (11%)
Aesop, Fables
  9 (10%)
Emerson, The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson
  2 (2%)
Andersen, Fairy Tales
  9 (10%)
Montaigne, Essays
  9 (10%)
Kafka, The Trial
  22 (25%)
Thackeray, Vanity Fair
  9 (10%)
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
  11 (12%)
Dickens, Great Expectations
  13 (14%)
St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine
  23 (26%)
Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
  19 (21%)
Russell, Swamplandia!
  8 (9%)
Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
  5 (5%)
Mirbeau, Torture Garden
  8 (9%)
Masoch, Venus in Furs
  10 (11%)
Stendhal, The Red and the Black
  13 (14%)
Tolstoy, War and Peace
  30 (34%)

Marked in bold are the books I'll review first from this list.  Depending on time/energy, I'll try to have reviews of these done by early March.  In a week or so, around the end of the month, I'll post another set, as it seems doing so encourages me to review more and it might be exposing readers to books which might intrigue them now that they are aware of their existence.  Although I must admit some of the choices might lead to relatively poor reviews, due to the nature of the work being considered, this might also help me develop as a more well-rounded reviewer and critic.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

There seemed to be no use in waiting by the little door, so she went back to the table, half hoping she might find another key on it, or at any rate a book of rules for shutting people up like telescopes:  this time she found a little bottle on it, ("which certainly was not here before," said Alice,) and tied round the neck of the bottle was a paper label with the words "DRINK ME" beautifully printed on it in large letters.

It was all very well to say "Drink me," but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry:  "no, I'll look first," she said, "and see whether it's marked 'poison' or not":  for she had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends ha taught them, such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked "poison," it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later. (pp. 12-13)

Originally published in 1865, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has delighted generations of readers, children and former children alike.  Lines such as "Off with her head!," or "curiouser and curiouser" have taken their place in the pantheon of literary quotes which have transcended their origins and have become expressions divorced from their literary milieu.  We know that if the Cheshire Cat grins, it will be the final thing we see of it.  Sizes change, as one can be small enough to look a mouse in the eye and tall enough that a large house cannot contain you.  Hatters and march hares gather together for tea and dormice are barely bothered by their mad chatter.  It truly is a wonderland, full of places to explore and oddities to encounter.

It would be easy to dismiss Carroll's work as being mere whimsy, suitable only for those children who still color their skies green and their grass purple.  However, this attitude would be akin to the reader putting on blinders.  What makes Carroll's story so memorable isn't necessarily so much the zany characters and situations that Alice encounters, but rather how Alice herself appears in this novel.  She is no one special.  She does not hold the power to change the tides of history or to alter the course of events for the inhabitants of Wonderland.  She is a very ordinary girl in a very extraordinary place and it is through her mundane eyes that we encounter the weirdness of her adventures in Wonderland.

Childhood can be a terrifying experience.  Each year, sometimes in as short of a span as a single month, we grow inches.  Our faces fatten and then lengthen and thin out somewhat.  Our legs seem too big for our bodies, or is it merely our heads are so huge when we are young?  Games that seem to be so much fun one day become silly "childish" games a scant few months later.  We barely knew what to make of it all and damn if some of our imagined worlds became full of our insecurities!  In re-reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland I found myself reflecting back on my own faintly-remembered youth; some things I had considered best forgotten with the passage of time.  Yet reading this story recently brought back memories, both of those fond dreams of discovery and the terrible waking nightmares that what I might discover might harm me irreparably.

Carroll here does not talk down to children.  He does not dismiss those flights of fancy, but rather uses them to connect with them.  Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, was anything but a social charmer in his adulthood.  Timid and yet brilliant when it came to mathematics, he found himself more comfortable being around children; Alice's Adventures in Wonderland began as a story told to amuse a little girl.  One of the many strengths of this novel, besides of course its vivid imagination, is how "natural" Alice feels.  In a day and age where children were expected to mind their P's and Q's and to be seen and not heard, Alice is presented in a sympathetic light, one that shows her being (mostly) level-headed even when bedlam was breaking out around her.  Carroll never "talks down" to her or to any of his characters.  If anything, this novel feels more like Carroll is a co-conspirator in the daily romps than a fusty old adult looming over a child, expecting them to mind their business and to emulate the serious adults around them.

Some modern readers have complained that there is little rhyme nor reason to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  They cite the lack of a coherent plot and the absence of well-developed, dynamic characters.  These criticisms would have a point if this novel were anything but what it actually is.  Structured around a dream, Alice's adventures aren't meant to solve anything as much as to let the reader's mind wander and wonder along meandering paths until a certain creative sense is achieved.  Alice is memorable not for what she says or does, but for the fact that she stands in place of us, allowing us to dream of talking white rabbits in waistcoats, pulling out pocket watches and tisking over lost time, or of psychotic queens of spades ordering executions left and right.  Dreaming is one of the most enjoyable parts of being human and even when the dreams turn to nightmares, we recharge our creative energies from indulging in these.  Alice's Adventures in Wonderland simply reminds us that some qualities of child-like thought should never be lost.  Highly recommended.


Collecting is such a universal human trait.  Whether it is cars, guns, books, or scars, so many of us enjoy organizing and collating things that should be brought together, at least in our minds.  When I was in my early teens, baseball card (and later, sports cards) collecting was the big time, just as it was morphing in the mid-1980s from a youthful activity to a lucrative business opportunity for traders.  I gave that up, however, before I graduated from high school.  Lately, I've begun collecting leatherbound books, in particular the Easton Press 100 Greatest Books Ever Written and assorted Franklin Library books from their lists that aren't reproduced on the Easton Press list.

There is a sense of enjoyment in tracking down good quality used books for a relatively affordable price.  In the picture above, roughly 75% of the leatherbound books I own are pictured.  I imagine that there are other collectors reading this article.  Perhaps you have stories and/or pictures of your collections, whether they be of books or of something else?  I'd love to see them, in case my curiosity might be sparked once again.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

My Locus Online article, Best Heroic Fantasy of 2010, now live

Here's the link to the article.  Hopefully, this little roundup will generate some discussion in some quarters of the web, even though I don't expect many to agree with all of my choices or the rationales behind them.  Feel free to leave your thoughts here, even if it's just to berate me for leaving out Authors X, Y, or Z or including sucky authors A, B, or C.

"Do not speak unless you can improve the silence"

Each school day, my students are required to spend upwards of thirty minutes writing daily journals in response to quotes and questions that I write on the markerboard.  Above is the quote I used for Wednesday's journal topic.  Despite some students thinking I was posting it because I disciplined a couple for excessive talking, this topic came about due to curiosity about how some students handle silence. 

Silence is something that is usually disdained until one has great need for me.  I am one of those people who needs a lot of conversation in order to function socially, but I also need quiet solitude in order to order and to compose my thoughts.  For the past few days, I have been mostly silent at this blog.  It's not because of anything "bad," per se, but rather because I just could not improve the silence.  I haven't had the time/energy to write the reviews I had planned for this week (or rather, I've written one piece that's nearly 2000 words, but that is being posted elsewhere).  Rather than half-ass it, like some might do in my situation, I decided to wait a bit.

Luckily, tomorrow begins a four day mini-vacation for me, as my students are out of school through Tuesday and I'm (mostly) caught up with all of my paperwork in advance of a quarterly evaluation from DCS next month.  I have not been idle during the interim, however.  I have found myself reading more and more non-fictions than I have in recent years.  I finished reading Justin Halpern's pithy Shit My Dad Says and found myself reflecting upon some of the shrewd evaluations contained within those short, acerbic observations made by Halpern's retired father.  I am also reading Rousseau's Confessions and have begun a cover-to-cover reading of the King James version of the Bible for the first time since my pre-adolescence. 

Through all of this re-reading and re-evaluating, I find myself thinking more than in recent years.  Yet such thoughts have required silence in order for them to coalesce and to ferment.  Hopefully, in the near future there will be something to present from this, as I would be curious to see if my reading (re)education might reveal some insights as I approach the beginning of middle age in a few years.  But when silence is broken, conversations become valued.  I wonder what readers here might have to say in terms of silence and conversations of any sort.  Care to share?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Bankrupt Redundancy of Outrage

So while I was busy starting a new grading period at work, apparently there was some outrage about this piece on "bankrupt nihilism."  At first, I just dismissed it with nary a thought; it is based on hearsay and some rather odd conclusions, but then I stopped for a moment to consider the reactions to that piece.  Why would there be so many vociferous oppositions to a piece that merely reflects the opinions of a likely sizable percentage of casual epic/heroic fantasy readers who prefer things kept in a sort of stasis since the time Tolkien's last pipe was smoked?

Seems to me that rather than getting outraged yet once again because someone, ill-informed and ill-read or not, speaks disdainfully of current trends in a subgenre whose online fanbase seems to live for such controversies, it might make more sense to just shrug, consider for a moment if the arguments presented have any merit and/or evidence, and then move on down the road.  Not worth spending more than a couple of paragraphs on in any case, I believe, unless you want to relive your outrage over and over again whenever someone presents a dissenting opinion.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Updating the leatherbound photos

In the past couple of weeks, I've added the Emerson and I think the Yeats to the top shelf of the maple bookcase I use to house my leatherbound editions.

A few more addition here:  Aesop, Stendhal, and Sterne.

St. Augustine and Thackeray are the only two additions in this photo.

 Only Les Miserables is new this time.

Nothing new here.

Rabelais and Hans Christian Andersen are new to the Franklin Library editions I'm collecting (the above photos are of Easton Press editions).

Which ones of these do you think have the best-designed spines?

Ready for another round of book/review voting?

Since the past poll was quite successful, I thought I'd bring it back for the books that I've recently finished or shall finish this weekend (minus a couple that I had to leave out either due to writing reviews this weekend or for another project).  Like the first poll, there is a mixture of the old and the new, prose, poetry (but no drama this time, sadly), non-fiction and fiction alike.  There may be something for everyone or everything for some people. 

Like the first time, you can vote for as many as you'd like to see reviewed here.  Just keep in mind that some works I read might be more of a challenge to cover decently than others, not that this ought to dissuade you (or me) from voting (or reviewing) for those works.  Should also note that two more books from the previous poll, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, will be reviewed in the very near future, along with Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Feel free to comment here if you want to persuade undecided readers which books might lead to the best possible reviews (of the mixture of the personal recollection and, if it merits, a more critical stance).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"The Order of Things" and review ranking "systems"

As a subscriber to The New Yorker, I often find myself thinking about several of the pieces that they publish.  One just came out this week in the February 14-21 issue, called "The Order of Things."  Written by Malcolm Gladwell, the article starts off by noting how ranking systems such as that employed by Car and Driver can distort data when certain variants are either not taken into account or have too much weight placed upon them.  After establishing this, Gladwell then proceeds to tackle the infamous U.S. News and World Report College Rankings that is published annually.  Viewed as a sort of benchmark, this ranking system is often cited by university promotional staff as reasons why their college ought to be chosen over competitors, despite the same sort of distortions that take place within the data collation and analysis. 

Gladwell's article reminds me yet once again why book review-related systems, whether they be Amazon star ratings or what Goodreads employs or even those 5, 10, or even 40 point scales utilized by some online reviewers, ought to be taken with quite a few grains of salt.  One size-fits-all systems are ill-suited for heterogeneous entities, whether they be types of cars, university core subject foci, etc.  This is especially true for books, whose elements often do not fit into nice pre-fab squares (one only had to look at the interminable debates over how to define "fantasy" and "science fiction," not to mention other genres and subgenres to see the futility on display there). 

It has always baffled me to see many readers comment that they value ranking systems, considering how obviously flawed they are going to be.  Can one rate, for example, a work by Rabelais with one by Sartre?  Or a book written by Gene Wolfe compared to one by Karen Tei Yamashita?  Should one even attempt to "rank" at all when doing a review?

I would argue that due to the wide variance between stories that having anything approaching a single-entity review system, particularly that which employs "rankings," is going to be a pointless exercise that detracts from other, more important aspects of reviews, which deal with the reviewer's interactions with the text and how well engaged that reader was with that particular text.  Comparing Umberto Eco to George R.R. Martin makes as much sense as comparing a piranha to a cobra.  Both might bite you in the ass and kill you, but the methodologies of each are too dissimilar to rank one higher or lower than the other.

Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees

Fu il 15 di guiugno del 1767 che Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, mio fratello, sedette per l'ultima volta in mezzo a noi.  Ricordo come fosse oggi.  Eravamo nella sala da pranzo della nostra villa d'Ombrosa, le finestre inquadravano i folti rami del grande elce del parco.  Era mezzogiorno, e la nostra famiglia per vecchia tradizione sedeva a tavola a quell'ora, nonostante fosse già invalsa tra i nobili la moda, venuta dalla poco mattiniera Corte di Francia, d'andare a desinare a metà del pomeriggio.  Tirava vento dal mare, ricordo, e si muovevano le foglie.  Cosimo disse:  - Ho, detto che non voglio e non voglio! - e respinse il piatto di lumache.  Mai s'era vista disubbidienza più grave.

It was on the fifteenth of June, 1767, that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, my brother, sat among us for the last time.  And it might have been today, I remember it so clearly.  We were in the dining room of our house at Ombrosa, the windows framing the thick branches of the great holm oak in the park.  It was midday, the old traditional hour followed by our family, though by then most nobles had taken to the fashion set by the sluggard Court of France, of dining halfway through the afternoon.  A breeze was blowing from the sea, I remember, rustling the leaves.  Cosimo said:  "I told you I don't want any, and I don't!" and pushed away his plateful of snails.  Never had we seen such disobedience.

Italian author Italo Calvino wrote stories and novels of all shapes and forms from his earliest published tales in the 1940s up until his death in 1984.  His 1957 novel, Il Barone Rampante (The Baron in the Trees in English translation), however, might be his most picturesque.  Set in the waning years of the aristocratic 18th century, Calvino through the Rousseauesque lead of Cosimo explores the changes that occurred in Europe from the days of the Enlightenment through the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the short-lived restoration of near-absolute monarchs in Western and Central Europe.  It is in turns a comic and tragic novel, seen through the travels and experiences of the tree-dwelling man, Cosimo.

The passage quoted above is from the first paragraph of the story.  The English translation, done by Archibald Colquhoun in 1959, for the most part attempts to remain true to the basics of the story, but there are times where Colquhoun changes the imagery Calvino employs.  In the excerpt provided above, Colquhoun in his substitution of "house" for "villa" removes the aristocratic element from the di Rondò residence.  Cosimo, and his narrator brother of course, are not simply well-to-do bourgeois who live in grand houses; they have some seigneurial rights in the region of Ombrosa (the boys' father has his heart set out to regaining the lapsed title of Duke of Ombrosa for the family).  Throughout the rest of the story, there are several other small yet sometimes significant semantic shifts that occur in the translation into English.

Yet despite this and the adoption of the more innocuous "The Baron in the Trees" title over the more direct "The Rampant Baron," the translation does succeed in capturing much of the general thrust of Calvino's story.  Cosimo in his youth rejects his father's authoritarian, aristocratic ways, declaring as he climbs into a nearby oak tree that he will never again set foot on earth.  This rather exaggerated defiance of paternal power (and paternalism in general) resembles in some ways Rousseau's then-radical ideas on youth and their education.  Yet Cosimo is not a full stand-in for Emile; in his experiences living from tree to tree (often carried out to exaggerated effect, such as when later in life he comes to talk with Napoleon), he converses with people, famous and ordinary alike, about then-current philosophical trends, on life, on suffering, and all the emotional palettes that comprise that rich painting we call life.

Calvino treads a fine line between the reduction of this tale into farce and the possibility that Cosimo might become merely a moralizing spokesperson.  Having a protagonist wandering from tree to tree, living separate and yet surrounded by grounded humans and their concerns, allows Calvino to keep Cosimo slightly distant and aloof from our affairs without removing him from quotidian concerns.  The view in the trees might be higher than that on the ground, but it is also obscured, a point which Calvino exploits at times, especially with Cosimo's love affair with Viola.  In addition, while Cosimo is living apart from his family, we see through his brother Biagio's eyes, the tyrannical and mad aspects of the di Rondò family life, as the loveless marriage of their parents begets arranged marriages that lead to tragedy for the brothers' sisters.  It is this undercurrent of sadness and inflicted cruelty that gives The Baron in the Trees a darker tone that keeps it from being strictly a light-hearted affair.

At times, however, Calvino risked having his story becoming too distant from its central character (and narrator).  He almost loses control of the story when he has Cosimo discoursing with Spaniards, Russians, and other folk from the time immediately following the French Revolution.  It seemed in those places that the focus had shifted from Cosimo's relationship with the changing world to Cosimo being merely present at anything remotely historical.  However, Calvino manages to swing the focus back to a more personal take on Cosimo's continuing act of rebellion.  The concluding chapters serve to reinforce what Calvino has set up throughout the tale and Cosimo's end becomes true to the life he has read.

The Baron in the Trees is not my favorite Calvino tale (that would be Invisible Cities, followed by If on a winter's night a traveler...), yet it would be near the top of his works that I would recommend to those who are unfamiliar with his works.  Here Calvino is more direct in conveying what he wants to explore and Cosimo certainly is an engaging character.  Calvino's prose is clear, incisive, and rarely tedious or digressive.  Even at his most farcical, he manages to imbue this story with serious elements that cause the reader to consider more than just the humor being displayed in sometimes outrageous fashions.  This results in a deceptively complex tale which at first seems to be almost whimsical until the narrative "hooks" are firmly set in place and the reader comes to reflect upon the whole range of emotions and movements embedded within the tale.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, Grimm's Fairy Tales

Long ago, when wishes often came true, there lived a King whose daughters were all handsome, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun himself, who has seen everything, was bemused every time he shone over her because of her beauty.  Near the royal castle there was a great dark wood, and in the wood under an old linden tree was a well' and when the day was hot, the King's daughter used to go forth into the wood and sit by the brink of the cool well, and if the time seemed long, she would take out a golden ball, and throw it up and catch it again, and this was her favorite pastime.

Once upon a time, in a different clime and place, people did not sit around their television sets or computers and watch Jersey Shore or discuss in mocking tones some faux pas committed and then posted on YouTube for all to behold.  Rather, people from village to village would tell and retell stories that mixes fantasies in with (pardon the pun) grim realities.  In England, several folklore traditions and rhyming poems were gathered together under the Mother Goose umbrella by the late 17th century.  In late 17th century France, Charles Perrault borrowed heavily from existing regional folk tales and created memorable tales that passed into several languages.

By the time the German nationalist and linguist brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm began gathering disparate German-language folk tales in the early 19th century, the medium for expressing stories had begun to change.  It was little accident that it was in the 17th century, when literacy was beginning to become more widespread in England and France that popular transcriptions of hoary tales began to emerge.  Germany, fragmented as it was until the mid-19th century, was slower to see a rise in interest in national folktales.  When the Grimm brothers began the research that culminated in Grimm's Fairy Tales, they had as their target audience adult German readers, particularly the educated burgher class, who would (so they hoped) treasure these tales as written survivors of Germany's rich oral historic past.  Instead, what happened was within a generation, these tales had passed into the province of children, where stories such as "The Frog Prince" (quoted above), "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Tom Thumb," among others became viewed as being mere childish fantasies, doomed to fade just as juvenile attitudes wilt in the strong heat of maturity.

Ingrained as those attitudes are even today, it is difficult to look at these stories through the prism which the Grimm Brothers viewed these tales.  Yet if the reader is willing to not just suspend disbelief but to embrace what is happening behind and around the texts, to explore what the brothers left unstated (or presumed to be understood by their original audience), then that reader may discover a depth to these stories that at first glance might not be readily apparent.

One place to start would be the very short tale of "Knoist and His Three Sons."  While the Easton Press edition might not be the most elegant, this translation by Louis and Bryna Untermeyer does give the gist of the tale fair enough for purposes of analysis:

Between Werrel and Soist there lived a man whose name was Knoist, and he had three sons.  One was blind, the other lame, and the third stark-naked.  Once on a time they went into a field, and there they saw a hare.  The blind one shot it, the lame one caught it, the naked one put it in his pocket.  Then they came to a mighty big lake, on which there were three boats; one sailed, one sank, the third had no bottom to it.  They all three got into the one with no bottom to it.  Then they came to a mighty big forest in which there was a mighty big tree; in the tree was a mighty big chapel; in the chapel was a sexton made of beech-wood and a box-wood parson, who dealt out holy-water with cudgels.

"How truly happy is that one
Who can from holy water run!"

In this tale, we see all sorts of contradictions, from the sailing within a boat with no bottom to the blind doing the active hunting of a rabbit to the final turn of phrase regarding the holy water-filled cudgels.  If we stop and consider this short tale for a moment, there is nothing overtly fantastical about this, or at least not in the sense of its internal structure and thematic elements existing (nearly) independent of actual life.  Instead, it is the rhyming couplet at the end which carries the rather forceful message of the tale, one that is much more serious than whimsical.  

This is not isolated to this one particular tale.  Consider the darker implications behind a tale such as "Little Red Riding Hood."  While several other cultural historians have argued that this tale serves as a metaphor for the (de)flowering of a maiden, I believe the key lies in element of the cakes and wine.  In the older, French-derived versions of the tale, the wolf kills the grandmother and serves Little Red Riding Hood her blood as wine and her flesh as cakes, a sacrilegious reference to the Eucharistic Host.  It is telling that by the time that the Grimm brothers have recorded this story, the Eucharistic element has been diminished into nothing; the Wolf has eaten whole both grandmother and granddaughter before each is rescued by the huntsman.  Yet the imagery still persists nearly two centuries after the Grimm Brothers' version:  vulnerable girls are still stalked each and every day and the guileless may be powerless against the guileful.  
This "deep reading" approach does little, if anything, to diminish the joy of reading paupers becoming princes, of the famished receiving unexpected bounty, or the haughty experiencing a sudden downfall.  Who doesn't rejoice when in a tale the good triumph over the wicked, even if it might not occur as often as desired in real life?  An attentive reader, reading these tales not just as childish musings but rather as stories that reflect the desires and fears of centuries of folk tale-relating villagers, might find herself becoming entranced with these wondrous stories all over again.  Highly recommended.

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