Sunday, December 18, 2022

Reading &cet 2022, Part Two: I think I actually hate this book

Part One of my fascinating annual reading/writing roundup is here.


Lectures on Shakespeare by W.H. Auden: A famous poet gave a series of lectures about Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, and a couple of attendees took detailed notes that have been assembled into this mixed blessing of a book. Auden uses the plays as springboards for long rambles through his own extensive classical education, free-associating about the ideas with which he thinks Shakespeare grapples. Mostly entertaining, though Auden's fuddy Victorian sensibilities make many of his comments about sex and women cringe-inducing. But Auden is to be commended for not treating the plays as holy writ; he starts most lectures by pointing out the flaws in the plays, the struggles and failures he sees in Shakespeare's process of becoming immortal. Auden considers not the inspiration, but the labor, which is a refreshing gambit for a critic to make. 

Violin Technique and Performance Practice in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries by Robin Stowel: Exactly as exciting as it sounds. A compendium of excerpts, mostly from Baillot's The Art of the Violin, which I've already read, but also from many other early treatises on music. Bach and Quantz could be quite droll.

"The Trojan Women" by Euripides: Hecuba doesn't know why the Greeks aren't ashamed of themselves. "Argives once for fear of him slew this child!" 

"Iphigenia in Tauris" by Euripides: A remarkable play, possibly my favorite of Euripides' works. Orestes is sent to Tauropolis to steal a statue of Artemis that fell from heaven. There he meets his long-missing sister. I actually choked up when Pylades handed Iphigenia's letter to her brother. "I bring thee this, Orestes, from thy sister." Greatest recognition scene ever written. A prototype of the three-act Hollywood blockbuster. Quite like "Star Wars" now that I think about it.

The Ghost of Frederic Chopin by Eric Faye: An interesting premise (a television reporter investigates the claims of a 57 year-old Prague woman with no formal musical training who is in contact with Chopin's ghost, who dictates new compositions to her) is smothered to death by a lackluster and disappointing novel. Faye tries to mimic Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, not realizing that Auster's book is itself pretty lousy.

Blue Flowers by Carola Saavedra: An unnamed woman, after a traumatic breakup, writes a series of letters to her ex. She wants him to relive their final terrible day together, and her last letter is an offer to take him back, to absorb his hate and comfort him. The man who receives the letters is not the ex in question, and may in fact be a figment of the woman's imagination. Shades of Djuna Barnes/Clarice Lispector/Angela Carter. An angry book, a very angry book, in which forgiveness is a pretense, a cover for possessiveness in a world where men are bestial idiots who enslave and are enslaved by women, who aren't much better. Some gorgeous writing, a gilded poison pill. 

"Birds" by Aristophanes: Written just after Alcibiades' disastrous war in Sicily. Two Athenians, tired of the big city life, become birds and convince all the other birds to claim supremacy over the Olympians, extorting Zeus out of his scepter and his chamberlain, a beautiful goddess named Royalty. The scene where the gods negotiate with the birds is priceless and full of comic irony. The alternate version of Hesiod's "Theogony" is very funny. Good stuff. A high point for Aristophanes.

The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Stories of separation, longing, and return alternate with clumsy and repetitive graphic sexual episodes. Tóibín apparently thinks that the mere appearance of gay sex in a story carries enough weight that the passages don't have to either have any greater purpose in the story or be written in interesting prose. Rewrite the scenes with heterosexual couples (or cut them entirely) and you'll see just how pointless they are. There is an air of comfortable self-satisfaction about this whole book, which has stretches of very good writing, but is ultimately irritating and disappointing. 

Night Hawks by Charles Johnson: A collection of precious, poorly-imagined, grandiloquently ridiculous stories that trip over cliches at every other step. This guy is semi-famous where I live. I don't get it. I think I actually hate this book. 

"Ion" by Euripides: Ion asks outright, early on in the play, "If you can't trust Apollo, how is it possible to trust any god, or any god's representative?" A blow at the foundations of religion. So what's left? Who do we trust if not the gods? Euripides says we must trust each other and therefore honesty is crucial, and without honesty there is no community, no family, no future. A masterpiece.

"Seducers in Equador" by Vita Sackville-West: A man does what seems honorable and is punished for it. The interest is not in the plot (which the author gives away on the third page), but rather in the style of telling and the narrator's awareness of the artifice of fiction and her powerful sense of irony. Well worth reading.

"The Heir" by Vita Sackville-West: A comic reversal-of-fortune story, where a dull insurance man goes from lower-middle-class rags to resplendent rags of a sort of poverty, all quite joyfully as Sackville-West ratchets up the tension to a surprising and absurd climax. Good fun. The passages describing the house and gardens at the center of the story are very fine, exemplars of the form.

The Comédienne by Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont: A Dostoyevskian story of the brief and tragic career of a chorus girl at a provincial Polish dinner theater. La Boheme meets Black Snow. This 1896 novel was Reymont's first published book; he wrote many more and was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1924.  

"Lysistrata" by Aristophanes: The image that came to me as I thought about Aristophanes writing this play was the captain of a sinking ship making jokes about the Titanic. A well-crafted broad comedy about peace that cannot hide an exhausted pessimism about war.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: A slight and sentimental feel-good book about Abraham Lincoln. A pastiche of form (strings of chapter epigraphs, Faulkner's revolving narrators, Joycean streams of consciousness and a "Christmas Carol" version of Dante) that is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

Voices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzberg: The adult daughter of an Italian accountant describes how the lives of the wealthy family who employs her father are changed by the events of World War II. A short comic novel of desire and loss. Highly recommended.

"Thesmophoriazusae" by Aristophanes: Euripides, against all expectations, is trapped in a Euripidean dramatic situation inside an Aristophanes comedy, and the only way to survive is to use Aristophanes' methods. "Euripides," acting like Euripides, cannot win here. I thought I was being original when I used Chekhov and Kafka as characters in, respectively, Kafkaesque and Chekhovian stories, but I see that Aristophanes got there 2400 years before me. So much for originality.

Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell: Rural England, 1940. Waiting for peace, waiting for bombs to fall on railroads and villages, waiting for officers billeted in private homes to be called off to military bases. Thirkell's English bourgeoisie prejudices continue to show, but she also continues to show more interest and sympathy for the poor and the working classes. Plus, the usual marriage-or-not plots.

"Cyclops" by Euripides: The only extent complete satyr play, telling the familiar story of Odysseus versus Polyphemus. The jokes are bawdy but they do not come so quickly in "Cyclops" as they do in anything by Aristophanes. Despite the slightness of the play, Euripides' language is elegant and fine.

"Ichneutae" by Sophocles: A lengthy fragment (about the first two thirds of it, maybe?) of a satyr play from Sophocles, about the invention of the lyre by child Hermes, who is stumbled upon by a group of cowardly satyrs out looking for Apollo's missing cattle. Yeah, I know, but if you buy the premise, you can buy the whole bit. No sexual or scatological jokes, but the satyrs are very much like early-Hollywood comic figures, say the Three Stooges, but less violent.

"Philoctetes" by Sophocles: Sophocles' "Tempest," especially with the emphasis on language, the playwright's tool, the poet's tool. Odysseus makes language the tool of deception ("Words are what matter; words have power"), and Neoptolemus is conflicted about what he should say and why. Where was truth, one can imagine Sophocles asking himself, and having no answer. Depending on who you are and what you want, you have your pick of three possible heroes or villains. Four, if you count the playwright.

The Failure of Poetry, the Promise of Language by Laura (Riding) Jackson: see here.

Symposium by Plato: Funnier than anything else by Plato that I've read. The Aristophanes segment is certainly the best bit in it. 

The Borrowers by Mary Norton: Acquisitiveness is no virtue.

"Orestes" by Euripides: A masterpiece of pessimism. "But this is a dream, a prayer, a futile hope. It cheers the heart, but nothing more."

"Bacchae" by Euripides: Euripides had a lot on his mind when he wrote this one, and the result is another masterpiece, which one almost tires of saying regarding Euripides' plays. What no critic seems to have noticed are the clear references Euripides makes to Aristophanes. Bacchae is at least in part a clever inversion of both "Lysistrata" and "Thesmophoriazusae." Great stuff, subtle and unsettling.

Washing Up by Derek Mahon: I stumbled into one of Mahon's poems half a year ago and liked it a lot. Because the collection that poem was in is out of print, I bought a copy of Washing Up instead, and it came to me, over the sea and across the width of North America, all the way from Ireland. I very much wanted to like this book, but the poems seem lazy and haphazard, as well as slight. "Byron to Moore" is not bad, but it's a pale imitation of Browning's ventriloquisms.

"Iphigenia at Aulis" by Euripides: Iphigenia's speech accepting her fate is a masterclass in dramatic irony. Euripides draws attention one last time to the sacrifice of Athens' youth in pointless war fought for no good reason, appeasing those who want the war no matter the cost. The cost seems small at Aulis, another irony.

"Frogs" by Aristophanes: The poet holds a Make Athens Great Again rally, presenting a contest between a mythologized Aeschylus and a straw-man radical Euripides, all as an argument for allowing Alcibiades back into Athens. Political expediency over humanism, which blows up in Athens' face two years later. Propaganda a la Brecht, though our poet would've surely hated Brecht, that mouthpiece of the common trash. Unfortunate and wrong-headed, but really funny all the same. Apparently Aristophanes was parodying another comedy (known only through fragments) given at the same festival, in which comedy Sophocles and Euripides contend for Best Poet.

"Oedipus at Colonus" by Sophocles: The last surviving tragedy of the Athenian golden age. "For kindness' sake," Oedipus says, "do not open my old wound, and my shame." The chorus replies, "It is told everywhere, and never dies; I only want to hear it truly told." The Oedipus plays have always been alien to me; I do not understand them, nor their seeming importance to the ancient Greeks. I especially don't understand "Colonus." Oedipus is not a noble figure; he's more like Lear, or Job, still shouting about how his fate is unfair, and he never takes any of it on himself. He and his sons are all terrible and petty men, spiteful and selfish. I don't understand what, if anything, his supernatural gift to Athens is supposed to have been. There is plenty in this play about Athens being a noble city, fighting fairly on the side of righteousness, but what that's got to do with Oedipus, I have no idea.

Poetics by Aristotle: Not what I remembered. Aristotle gets some things wrong, but his view of drama is much wider than most people think, and his idea of "tragedy" encompasses more than a series of unfortunate events. Forget "catharsis," which is merely a passing thought of Aristotle's. The discussion of "action" is well worth reading.

Miss Bunting by Angela Thirkell: The landed gentry observe, to their alarm, the rise of the middle class.

"You know what I mean, Robert," said his wife. "They are on top now and they don't miss what has gone, because they never knew it, and they are going to make a horrible new world just as they like it, with no room for us. We are nearly as dead as poor Miss Bunting."

"I don't altogether agree with you," said Sir Robert. "Adams is very wealthy and has a good deal of pull. But it will be quite a long time before he and his lot can do without us and our lot. He won't turn that girl of his into a lady."

The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake: Pancake left us twelve stories before he committed suicide at a young age, but they're pretty good stories, quite Faulkneresque and serious about fitting language to mood and theme, and ruthless in examining humanity. That ruthlessness begins to be a problem when reading the stories consecutively, as Pancake's world is limited in terms of outlook, and the unrelenting violent grimness of his vision begins to seem habitual and stylistic rather than empathic and revealing. It would be interesting to see where Pancake took his writing had he lived. You can see him trying on various structural ideas, tinkering with mystery and exposition, deciding what to hold back from the reader and for how long, that sort of thing. He hadn't worked it all out, I think, but he was working on it. 

What My Last Man Did by Andrea Lewis: A multigenerational family saga, in the expanding American tradition of linked short stories. The middle stories are the best, with interesting narrative structures; quite admirable. The last few pieces seem unfocused, as if written primarily to loop back to the beginning of the book. Lewis shouldn't have tried to force that sort of formal unity on the book. I understand the impulse, but the book didn't want it.

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada: A young Japanese woman gives up her temporary office job and moves to the country when her husband takes a promotion. They live rent-free in a house next door to his parents' house. The woman, Asa, gradually loses her own identity with no job, nothing to do, no friends, no children, no neighbors her own age, and nowhere to go except a 7-11 a mile or two away from her house. Nobody bothers to learn her name; she's referred to as her husband's bride. One day she falls into a hole that may or may not be there and she begins to have Alice-like moments of slipping into an alternate reality, which is just as disturbing as actual reality. To save her sanity, maybe, she takes a job at the 7-11, knowing full well that this is just a way to fill in time and earn some spare cash, not a reflection of her personality. A sad book about the perceived value of young women. 

The Origin of Capitalism, a Longer View by Ellen Meiksins Wood: "As capitalism spreads more widely and penetrates more deeply into every aspect of social life and the natural environment, its contradictions are increasingly escaping all our efforts to control them. The hope of achieving a humane, truly democratic, and ecologically sustainable capitalism is becoming transparently unrealistic."  

Baroque Music: Style and Performance by Robert Donington: A classic work on the subject, referenced by most subsequent writers on baroque performance. Mostly a compendium of original sources about ornamentation (Quantz, CPE Bach, Rousseau, etc), with examples and commentary. Probably not as useful to the performer as Walter Reiter's fifty-lesson training course, which deconstructs actual sonatas and provides measure-by-measure suggestions.

God's Teeth and Other Phenomena by James Kelman: A sort of cross between Chekhov's "A Dreary Story" and anything by Samuel Beckett. Funny and sad and brilliant for the first two-hundred seventy-five pages, and self-indulgently too long for the remaining eighty. Had Kelman taken the advice of his narrator/protagonist and cut the repetition, the "different ways of saying the same thing," this would be a great book all the way through. Kelman (or, if you like, his narrator Jack Proctor) preaches writing-as-art and exhorts writers to sit and write, not to waste their time in writing-adjacent activities that look like paths to writing.


I have been concentrating my writing efforts this year on a new book, a novel in stories called Islands and Other Places, adding two long stories to the manuscript and submitting it to a couple of independent publishers. My novel Antosha! is currently in the hands of three respectable small presses. I won't know the outcome of those submissions until sometime in 2023, if one can believe in such a preposterous year.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

that's a poet


Arrivals in the mail from University of Nebraska Press. Tanella Boni is from Ivory Coast, and her poems are translated from French. The Sudanese poems (from thirty-one authors writing over a span of sixty years) are translated from Arabic. Both books are part of UNP's African Poetry Book Series, a worthy endeavor.

Boni uses some nice imagery:

the sea has lost the color of better days
forgotten the importance of a palette well-mixed
enough to bless the horizon sand to sky


as if the twelve labors of Hercules
once a point of fact
were just a bedtime story for people
after a hard day of hoping

"the color of better days" and "a hard day of hoping" are good.

The Sudanese poets, since the 1950s, seem to have been thinking a lot about identity, as Arab or not-Arab. There are war poems, an ancient tradition:

Dig no grave for me;
I shall lie in every inch of the earth.
I shall lie like water on the Nile's body;
like the sun over my homeland's fields.
The likes of me never take a grave for an abode.
They stood up,
and you stood up.
what makes the little tyrants think--and their faces grow pale--
that when the fighter dies so does the cause?

Political poetry, another ancient tradition:

With each coup in a dark abyss we plunge.
The heavy-footed junta besiege our songs.
They agitate our inkpot,
confiscate its internal peace.
They poison the cheerful spring
and place their muzzles on everything.
What a pleasant dream they disfigure,
in the eyes of each mother.

"they agitate our inkpot." That's a poet.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

speak, business

I received a system-generated message in my work email this morning that read, in part:

Since the end of September, the Business Network has been in an extended state of instability with functional disruptions reported almost daily.

This is news to no one, but "an extended state of instability" is an attractive phrase. I'm going to use that in my email auto-response from now on:

Since the end of September, I have been in an extended state of instability with functional disruptions reported almost daily. I will respond to your message during my next period of stability and functionality.

Friday, October 21, 2022

"Iphigenia in Aulis" by Euripides

This is what I think--Greece, like yourself,
Some god has driven you mad.

But perhaps this is a fable
From the book of the Muses
Borne to me out of season,
A senseless tale.

A terrible passion has seized all Greece
To make this expedition--not without
Heaven's contrivance.

But you, lady, suffer things savage and cruel
Even from those you love, so with my compassion
Which I put around you like a shield
I shall make right these wrongs abominable
As far as a young man can.

Reason can wrestle and overthrow terror.

My hopes are cold on that.

If there are gods, you, being righteous,
Will win reward in heaven; if there are none,
All our toil is without meaning.

Men are mad, I say, who pray for death;
It is better that we live ever so
Miserably than die in glory.

Oh, the mob--what a terror
And an evil thing!

But I will defend you!

All Greece turns
Her eyes to me, to me only, great Greece
In her might--

Never will your glory pass away.

O dayspring
Torch of God
And glorious light!
To another world I go
Out of this place
Out of time
To dwell.
And now, and now,
Beloved light

And the army too awaits you,
The mighty host of Greeks
Awaits eagerly for your death

And for the king,
O touch his head
With a glory everlasting.

(translation by Charles R. Walker)

Thursday, October 20, 2022

all my friends, current and future

Lately I find myself avoiding novels, in terms of reading. Just now I'm reading a book of Irish poetry, a scholarly study of capitalism, a play by Euripides, a book of literary criticism examining changes in technique/style in the final works of "important" novelists, and a few other odds and ends. I am not reading a novel. When Mighty Reader and I go to bookstores, which is often enough, I tend to buy story collections or books of poetry. Just this morning, I ordered two books of Sudanese poetry from those plucky folks at the University of Nebraska Press. At home, in our living room beside the sofa is a table (actually a wheeled tea cart, very faux Victorian) with probably sixty books piled atop it (our "to be read" stack, mostly, if one ignores the twenty or twenty-five books lined along the top of the bookshelf just to the right of the tea cart, another "to be read" staging area), most of them novels, most of them books I studiously avoid looking at when I'm "between books" and am searching the house for something to read. I will tend to pick up a story collection, a book of essays, a play, poems, more of the leftist economics I like, etc, and will not pick up a novel these days.

I'm not sure why that is. Is it the feeling that I've no real time to read anything of length, the fact that I no longer read on the bus or the train during my commute, or that I no longer leave my office during my lunch so I don't make time in the middle of my workday to read, the way I used to do? Is it that I have somehow lost faith in the novel, no longer see the form as relevant to life? No, it's not that; that's the crazy talk. I bought an edition of Anna Karenina a couple of weeks ago (because all we had at home was the P&V translation and I will have nothing to do with them) and it sits at the top of one stack on the tea cart, giving me the eye whenever I walk past. Someday, certainly, but not today and not tomorrow either. I don't know why not today, why not tomorrow.

Certainly it's difficult to take up any task that looks like it will require the remotest amount of concentration on my part (which is, I realize, an insulting thing to imply about what I am reading, as if poems and plays and short stories and essays and literary studies take no brain power to read), but I might blame the air pollution, the toxic smoke filling every nook and cranny of my fair city these days, giving the light rail tunnel a Victorian London aspect today, a haze of smog that's made its way into the immense building where I work, down into my own office on the ground floor. There isn't enough oxygen in the air, and the oxygen has been replaced by ash, and I am not thinking clearly. All I can taste, all I can smell, is burning. I am sure this has an effect on my thinking.

It's depressing, though, is what it is, to avoid all of these novels I bought in fits of excitement. Like I've become a hermit and abandoned all my friends, current and future. I do not know what this abandonment means, or how long it will last. Perhaps it's just a pre-apocalypse ennui that will pass once the actual apocalypse arrives, and I can get back to reading Tolstoy while the world burns down around us.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

all the possible greatness before him


Our neighborhood bookstore, Paper Boat Booksellers, is having a sale as long as the Mariners stay in the post season. We stopped by yesterday during the first couple of innings of game two against the Bluejays and while I did not benefit from the sale (30% off your second hardback book if you buy two), I found new things by authors I don't know (except for James Kelman; Mighty Reader has all of his books on the shelf so she was happy to see he's got a new novel out).  The non-Kelman books are story collections. Who can resist an author named Pancake? He died young, all the possible greatness before him coming to nothing. The chocolate bar at the top of the stack is something for emergencies; it went into the toolkit in one of the panniers.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

versus Laura (Riding) Jackson

Come, words, away to miracle
More natural than written art.
You are surely somewhat devils,
But I know a way to soothe
The whirl of you when speech blasphemes
Against the silent half of language
And, labouring the blab of mouths,
You tempt prolixity to ruin.

--from "Come, Words, Away" by Laura (Riding) Jackson

A couple of years after the publication of her Collected Poems, Laura Riding renounced poetry. She is more famous now for this renunciation and the great deal of writing she did to explain the act, than she is for the poetry she wrote during her twenties and thirties, poetry which influenced many of the Modernists. She is even more famous, I have discovered, for being the mistress/muse/instructor of Robert Graves during his most fertile years as novelist, poet, and critic. A succession of journalists and biographers have demonized Riding (known the last fifty years of her life as Laura (Riding) Jackson), calling her a witch, a madwoman, and the like. I've been reading The Failure of Poetry (a posthumous collection of notes, essays, and letters for a book Riding had planned), and I can tell you that Riding seemed like a difficult person. I find this difficulty fascinating, and because the book is so repetitive and frequently incoherent*, I am wondering more about the author than I am about her concerns with poetry and language.

In the final stages of that career I claimed, I think, more than anyone has ever claimed for [poetry]...I believed that it was [...] both path of the ideal in language and place of its realization. 

Part of the difficulty, it must be admitted, is that Riding has a very high opinion of herself. One can hardly blame her; nearly everyone who met her was struck by her intelligence, and her criticism of poetry is often so astute it's as if she is the only person on earth who knows how to look at a poem. This awareness of her own intelligence, coupled with an awareness of her gifts as a poet (and a prodigy at that, famous and influential in her early twenties), was also yoked to a fragile and immense ego. She was, she claimed, the end of poetry, the poet who had brought poetry as far as it could go, never to be surpassed. Robert Graves claimed to believe in her actual divinity, at least for a time. Riding saw her influence, in terms of poetic style, all around her for the rest of her life, and she was deeply stung by the lack of acknowledgement from those who "stole" from her, and deeply offended that these poets had gladly taken her formal poetic strategies but ignored entirely the philosophical motivation behind the innovations, rendering their own poetry meaningless, mockeries of her work. She also had axes to grind with Auden and Graves, especially the latter:

Mr. Graves is, of course, a very special case, in the history of my influence. For a period of about thirteen years of personal association, he, a man of limited, and largely derivative, literary skill, and constricted intellectual outlook, but of an audacious ambition, suggesting, by its very audacity, intents and virtues beyond the ordinary, had all he could use of my influence. 

Why did Riding give up poetry? Her version goes something like this: before turning away from poetry, she had thought that poetry was

where language could come into its own, and the speakers of words with it [...] Language is as the net of reason thrown over the universal, spread by the force of that all-touching spirit of being which it is human to be all-moved by, so that we are as ones having the net in our hands. then do we but keep the net clean, whole, well-mended, losing nothing caught within it, ordering everything in our mind's safe-keeping, knowing well what we have in each word (for word is the form of that which we catch in the net), we shall fulfill the sense of the net, of the spread over which it is spread, of the spirit that attends the spread and casts the net and gathers in ourselves, and the sense of ourselves. [...] When I found that the promise poetry gave of affording place for an occurrence in which words, World, and ourselves came, through words, under the saving principle of truth was but an invitation to act out--with the happiness of art--the tragedy of the Impossibility of such Good, poetry itself became Impossibility to me.

I am suspicious of this story, because her a priori assumptions about poetry are not necessarily true, and also because the passion with which she addresses poetry and poets seems quite personal and strikes me as the language of one who has suffered some injury, some trauma. I began to poke around in her biography and of course the story of her menage a trois with Graves and his wife Nancy came into view, the dual suicide attempt in London (Riding threw herself out of a fifth-floor window, and Graves--maybe--out of a fourth-floor window moments later; Riding was seriously injured but Graves was not), the skiving off to Majorca and the later parting of ways. Not long after, Riding renounced poetry. I thought for a while that the break with poetry was a reaction to the end of her affair with Graves, but Riding was not the sort to give up being the poet goddess just because one unstable and difficult acolyte was found wanting. Riding thought far too much of herself for that. Her poetry was, after all

a new order, that I instituted, which put a mark of finality between the human existence of history and a human immediacy that stays, and rendered the Past understandable in terms of not just itself.

Then I thought that, despite the seeming lack of autobiography in Riding's poems and other writings, the historical context might at least partly explain why Riding abandoned poetry in 1941. Her parents were poor Jews who emigrated to New York from Germany in the 1880s, and though they were not religious people, having a Jewish heritage might make one sensitive to certain world-historical events in the 1930s. During Riding's final years as a poet, Germany was conducting a mass murder of Jews, and Hitler's Nazi party had already begun their project to deform language itself, to create a language of propaganda that hid the truth behind emotional manipulation. If language itself could not be trusted, if metaphor served to sanitize genocide, then what faith could one have in poetry, the art of words? 

I don't think that political events had anything to do with it, though. Riding was openly opposed to poets using their work to pick sides over the events of the day, no matter how important those events might be. Riding's ideas about truth and poetry were beyond time, beyond history. And poetry's problem was poetry itself: poetry trades in metaphor and emotional manipulation, its symbolism triumphing over its meaning. Words were used not just for figurative language, but also to make combinations of sounds, a music of language, that had nothing to do with truth, and this craft of making music, making rhythm, making rhyme and all the rest of it, left poetry dead, left poetry a beautified and entrancing and seductive corpse that could be made to sing beguiling songs that had no real meaning or value. This was the failing, that the art, the poetic values of poetry, do not enhance language; they form a barrier to speaking truth, and this barrier, no matter how thin one made it, was fatal.

Poetry was dead, so Riding needed to move on, to the realm of pure (what she called "rational") language. In the 1930s, Riding had already embarked on a project called The Dictionary of Exact Meanings, "a collection of 24,000 crucial words of the English language defined in such a way as to erase any ambiguity..." That unambiguous dictionary is clearly a hopeless project, as language is a reflection of the mind, not of the universe, and our minds are nothing if not ambiguous and opaque. There is an inadequacy between the sign and its object, as Charles Sanders Pierce would say, but Riding denied that modern conception of language. Riding was battling historical forces and evolution, so was bound to lose the fight. She went down swinging, though.

None who have drawn upon my poems for advantage to their own have comprehended and acted upon, in so doing, the broadening and strengthening of the intellectual function of poetry that was the basis of, and governing reason of, my enlargement of its linguistic compass.

Riding believed that words have intrinsic (and, I think, fixed) meaning, that they are-and-contain their meaning, that meaning is not relative or imposed upon them by the psychology or social situatedness of the speaker, and that to believe the latter is to betray language somehow, to enter the realm of lies. It's a Wittgensteinian view, that reality flows from language, that to speak truth is to create the world, and that to speak less than truth is to say nothing. It also obviously hearkens back to Old Testament imagery, of God speaking the heavens and earth into existence. Riding herself, I think, worshiped language, or if not language, then some hidden god behind language. She said in 1980 that during her years a a poet, she'd been "religious in her devotion to poetry." She'd claimed for poetry--which she saw as an evolutionary development out of pre-literate religious chanting--the only path to truth, and claimed an exalted status for poets, as priestly truth-tellers among humanity.  She was a true believer, a fanatic, and fanatics are always either saints, or madmen, or both. Her writing about poetry after her abandonment of it has the aura of the disciple who has lost her religion: 

Poetry has been the vessel, in human society, of the objective of spiritual articulateness; and the vessel was not adequate to the pursuit of the objective. [...] Why, if it was so inadequate, was it not abandoned and replaced by something better? Human beings face crises of utterance they cannot avoid without denial of their nature: they have a final sort of speaking to do, and poetry conventionalizes the necessity, frames in the crises in a manner that seems to put the solution of them within safe reach. 

Between the poet as language-priest and the reading congregation there is an unwitting unholy covenant to evade the intellectual, and therefore linguistic, final difficulties, and yet by exploiting a certain "way with words"--the poet leading, the congregation following--to transcend them, dissolve them, soar past them. There is a diabolical side to poetry, which adds overtones of angelic beauty to the din of ordinary parlance. This is its futility, its ministering to the vanities rather than to the needs of human beings in their dependence on words, its raising them to heights of illusion of linguistic felicity only to let them drop down to real speaking ground with no increase of capacity to make--or rather, let--words carry full burden of meaning. Ultimately, in the human production and enjoyment of poetry, poetry proves good only for itself. It provides something to admire--to do which may be argued to be useful and also argued to be an empty justification for its existence.

As the apostate is, finally, how I've come to view Riding. She was the high priestess of a universal religion that has been forgotten, and poetry was a false idol she put by to become the high priestess of language-itself, of words-themselves, and she is the oracle of the god, and the scourge of heaven, and she is blinded by her own divinity and wisdom and enraged that we are not similarly blinded. Or, as I put it more than once to Mighty Reader, Laura (Riding) Jackson is brilliant but a bit of a crank, but I can see why people in close proximity were drawn to her, as the force of her personality is quite powerful, even just in these notes. In the flesh, she must've been quite something. A lot of her claims about poetry-as-poetry, ignoring all the "poetry is a dead end" stuff, is compelling and informative and useful if you want to be a better reader/writer of poems. When she's not blinkered by personal animus (and even sometimes when she is), she can reveal what there is in a poem in ways I've never seen anyone else do. A remarkable critical facility, quite impressive and one that cannot be dismissed. But as a personality, a bit of a narcissistic crank. She confused all of poetry with her own poet-activity, but there is no failing in poetry; it is merely that (as Paul Auster notes) "poetry as she conceived of it was no longer capable of saying what she wanted to say," so she abandoned it. She spent the rest of her life simultaneously decrying poetry and drawing attention to the triumphs she'd had there.

Despite all the wrong-headedness Riding displays about language and the art of poetry, despite her insistence that we all stop and look at her in admiration and gratitude, there is a strange and appealing optimism at the heart of her battle. Riding believes that truth, and therefore goodness, inheres within us as the root of our humanity, and that if we could only find a way of speaking that truth, we would become good. We would, maybe, restore to the world the primal good that God saw in His original speaking, would ourselves speak our way back into Paradise. Maybe Riding hoped for that paradise until the day she died. That hope is not nothing.

*It is ironic that Riding's quest for an unambiguous speech resulted in prose that is often nearly impossible to read. I am not the only person who has noticed this irony, but I might be the only reader who is amused by it, because I have great empathy for the artist whose faith in their art is tested by ideas of truth, so much that speech becomes inarticulate because one knows not which way to turn the phrase in order to avoid falsehood.

Also: I am not a (Riding) Jackson scholar, and there are a variety of conflicting versions of her life (and of Grave's life), and I may have some of my dates wrong here. Mostly my concern is with her as a complex character, with the tension between how she was clearly right and wrong about the same subject, taking extreme positions, living within her odd personal egotism. This could be one of my "how to write a novel" posts, because a lot of this sort of thinking goes into my process of working out a book. You were not wondering, but now you know anyway.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

By night star-veiling, and by day/Darkening the light and blotting out the sun


Below a vast column of
                      smoke, heat, flame, and
                                  wind, I rose, swaying

                                                               and tottering on my
                                                    erratic vortex, extemporizing
                               my own extreme weather, sucking up

 acres of scorched
           topsoil and spinning it
                                outward in a burning sleet

                                                                 of filth and embers that
                                           catapulted me forward
                                 with my mouth open

 in every direction at once. So
                     I came for you, churning, turning
                                         the present into purgatory

Excerpted from "Wasteland: on the California Wildfires" by Forrest Gander, whose 2019 collection Be With won the Pulitzer Prize (but is good poetry despite the award). Hank Thoreau supplied the snippet I stole for the title of this post.

Our house sits on the edge of a mesa-like peninsula, the ground sloping away to the north and east. Yesterday morning I stood in the street and watched Mighty Reader cycle down to the intersection half a block away, a point maybe thirty feet lower in elevation than where I stood. A gray haze filled the street down there, a haze that I knew grew thicker as one got closer to sea level, thickest down along the water where Mighty Reader would ride on her way to the office. On Tuesday evening we'd looked west and seen the sun low in the sky, dark and awesome and seeming to boil, painting the city with reflected fire, scorching air already heavy with cinders. It's hard to breathe on days like that; my eyes, nose and throat are raw and irritated. First by flood, I think, then by fire. O brave new world, that has such calamity in it.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

These are the joys Euripides has brought me!

Aristophanes, in Thesmophoriazusae (also known as The Poet and the Women), mounts a spirited defense of Euripides, who in Medea and (at least in his original version of) Hippolytus had gained something of a reputation in Athens as a hater of women. If you ask me, this reputation was undeserved; Euripides' portrayals of his characters were astute psychological studies, and he did not go easy on anyone. Undeniably his sympathies were with victims of all sorts, and many of his plays focused quite sympathetically on women. With the exception of Sophocles' Elektra, I don't know of any portrayal of women in the Ancient Greek tragedies that were more human and humane than those of Euripides.

Nonetheless, Aristophanes' play begins with Euripides expressing his fear that the women who've gathered to celebrate the Thesmophoria festival are going to condemn him for his misogyny and put him to death. Euripides asks the tragic playwright Agathon (a real-life contemporary of Euripides) to infiltrate the festival in drag and speak in his defense. Agathon is after all introduced dressed and speaking as a woman, his words so perfect that Euripides' cousin Mnesilochus practically swoons. Clearly, Agathon is the man--or woman, rather--for the job. Alas, he doesn't want the job ("Each man must bear his sorrows for himself," he says). Euripides then turns to cousin Mnesilochus, whose beard he shaves off, whose backside he scorches, and whose body he dresses as a women. Mnesilochus then trots off in disguise, getting to the temple just in time to join the women, who are trying Euripides in absentia. The speeches of the Assembly are quite funny. Mnesilochus accuses Athens' women (including "himself") of far worse behavior than anything found in Euripides' plays. This speech, oddly enough, does not sway the Assembly, and Euripides is found guilty. Meanwhile, Mnesilochus is discovered, arrested, and condemned. Things look pretty bad for our poet and his cousin.

This is where things get meta, as the kids say. Euripides--the real one, I mean--has lately written a series of plays in which women are rescued from terrible fates, and now here Aristophanes has put Euripides himself into a play where a woman (sort of) needs to be rescued. What happens next is a set of episodes where Mnesilochus and Euripides take on the roles of characters from Euripides' "rescue plays," in the hopes that (after all, we are watching a play so everyone on stage is an actor, right?) these fictional rescues will cross over into the "real" world and Euripides can spirit his cousin to safety. This is a wildly creative idea on Aristophanes' part. In his earlier plays, Aristophanes has broken the fourth wall, as the saying goes, by having characters speak to the audience directly, but he goes further here in disregarding many other conventions of the stage, or at least he has "Euripides" attempt to break the rules of whatever reality we're supposed to be in. Alas, the women do not play along, do not believe Euripides is the real Menelaus come to rescue the real Helen, etc. Euripides' art is not successful in swaying the real women of Athens. This is sophisticated literary stuff, multilayered and laugh-out-loud funny into the bargain.

By my count, seven of Euripides' plays are invoked or parodied by Aristophanes here:

Hippolytus (Mnesilochus asks Euripides if he dressed as a woman while writing Phaedra's speeches)

"satyrs" (I assume Mnesilochus means all of Euripides' satyr plays, and I further assume he's imagining Euripides dressed as a satyr, with horns, furry legs, and a gigantic phallus)

Telephus (who held the infant Orestes at knife point while taking refuge in a temple)

Palamades (in which, probably, Palamades is stoned to death after being falsely accused of treachery by Odysseus)

Helen (rescued from Egypt by Menelaus)

Andromeda (where the heroine, chained to a rock for sacrifice to the sea beast, is rescued by Perseus). I do not quite understand if the amusing Echo character here is supposed to be somehow Echo herself appearing on the comic stage from the real Euripides' play, or Aristophanes' Euripides character who is playing Echo from off-stage. It's quite recursive, the Andromeda bit.

Iphigenia in Taurus (where Iphigenia recounts her rescue at Aulis, when Artemis substituted a faun as the sacrificial victim and saved her).

In the end, "Euripides" must pretend that he's no longer acting one of his plays, and his Iphigenia strategy is played as real life, the poet putting on a dress to pass as a procuress who offers a dancing girl to a policeman in order to spring Mnesilochus from jail. This is a low comedy version of the Artemis rescue at Aulis. Euripides is no longer selling art, he's selling sex and jokes. He's become an entertainer rather than a poet. Of course, that dodge only works on the men, not on the women. 

I think Aristophanes is doing something here with the ideas of form and influence. Euripides, against all expectations, is trapped in a Euripidean dramatic situation inside an Aristophanes comedy, and the only way to survive is to use Aristophanes' methods. "Euripides," acting like Euripides, cannot win here. It is the comic poets who can truly sway the public, admirable as the tragic poets may be.

There is also an interesting theme, right from the outset, of men putting themselves in the place of women. Agathon says, just a few minutes into the action, that when a poet "sings of women, he assumes a woman's garb, and dons a woman's habits." Euripides ends up in a dress.

Aristophanes displays an extensive knowledge of Euripides' plays in "The Poet and the Women," and treats him pretty gently here, too. It's clear that the comic poet thought the tragic poet was being unfairly slandered, and was moved to speak on his behalf, to sway the public as only Aristophanes could. I'll bet Euripides laughed his little heart out over this comedy.

I read Benjamin Rogers' 1911 translation of the play. Pretty good work.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

You have just told me something horrible.

"In these months," he said, "I have driven a great many of my thoughts underground. I have dug out a little grave for them."

"What do you mean?" I said. "In these months, in these last months, since you have been engaged to me?"

"Why yes, of course," he said. "You know what yourself, too. We are practically always silent, now, together. We remain almost always silent, because we have begun to drive our thoughts underground, right at the bottom, right at the bottom inside ourselves. Then when we begin talking again, we only say things of no account.

"Formerly," he said, "I told you everything that came into my head. Not any more, now. Now I have lost the wish to tell you things. What I think about now, I tell a little of it to myself, and then I bury it. I send it underground. Then, little by little, I shall not tell things any more even to myself. I shall drive everything underground at once, every random thought, before it can take shape."

[...]"This is horrible," I said. "You have just told me something horrible."

"Didn't you know it was horrible?" he said. "You knew it, too, yourself. You knew that you had driven underground this self-awareness. You, too, have done what they all expected you to do. You went with your mother to the upholsterers, and furniture shops and linen shops. And all the time inside yourself you could hear the long cries of your soul, but always farther off, always fainter, always covered with more earth."

[...]"My love for you," he said, "was not a great love. You know that well. I have often told you it was not a great love, impassioned, romantic. There was something, all the same, something intimate and delicate, and it had its own fulfillment and its own freedom. We had something there; it was not much, but it was something. It was something very slight, very fragile, ready to break up at the first puff of wind. It was something which could not be captured and brought to the light or it would die. We have brought it to the light and it is dead, and we shall never recover it any more."

This is from Natalia Ginzburg's 1961 novel Voices of the Evening (translated by David Low).  It is the story of how the events immediately before and after World War II have damaged the lives of a small Italian town's populace, though of course none of them sees themselves as damaged. A short novel, comic and tragic in equal measures. Good stuff. Ginzburg's structural device of sectioning off the action with monologues (by women to whom nobody is listening) is an inspired and entertaining innovation. I should read more of her books.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Aristophanes on frustration

rested against him, shook away a tear,
and pressed his hand in both her own, to say:
"Oh, my wild one, your bravery will be
your own undoing! No pity for our child,
poor little one, or me in my sad lot--
soon to be deprived of you! soon, soon
Akhaians as one man will set upon you
[...] Be merciful! Stay here upon the tower!
Do not bereave your child and widow me!"

Great Hector in his shimmering helmet answered:
"[...] Go home, attend to your own handiwork
at loom and spindle, and command the maids
to busy themsemselves, too. As for the war,
that is for men" 

Iliad, Book VI (Fitzgerald translation)

LYSISTRATA: Always till now we have controlled our feelings and uncomplainingly endured whatever you men did--and in any case you wouldn't let us say a word. But don't think we approved! We knew everything you were up to. Many a time we'd hear at home about some major political blunder of yours, and then when you came home we'd be inwardly in great distress but we'd have to put on a smile and ask you: 'In the Assembly today, what did you decide to inscribe on the stone underneath the Peace Treaty?' And what did my husband alsays say? 'Shut up and mind your own business!' And I did. [...] But sure enough, next thing we knew you'd take an even sillier decision, and then we might go so far as to ask, 'Husband, why are you men persisting with this stupid policy?' Whereupon he'd glare at me and say 'Back to your spinning, woman, or you'll have a headache for a month. As for the war, that is for men!

Lysistrata (starting at 508), Aristophanes (2002 Sommerstein revised translation, Penguin Classics edition)

Aristophanes has Lysistrata's husband quote Hector, giving one statement of the play's theme. Everyone knows the premise of "Lysistrata": the women of Greece band together to withhold sex from the men until they negotiate a peace and end the Peloponnesian War. The fighting men in the play, running around with painful unrelieved erections, entreat the women to forgo the boycott, but the women hold out and are victorious. War as male activity with sexual overtones. I reread a lot of Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" this morning while I thought about Aristophanes' play. Shakespeare probably never read Aristophanes. 

In another scene in "Lysistrata," the leader of the male chorus tells the leader of the Athenian delegation to the women that he'd better cover up his erection, because "You wouldn't want your sacred emblems mutilated, would you?" This is a reference to events in 415 BCE, shortly before the disastrous expedition to Sicily: images of Hermes in Athens (consisting of a square pillar with a carved head and an erect phallus) were defaced, or rather, de-phallused, in an antiwar statement of some kind.

Aristophanes wrote possibly his most organized and focused play with "Lysistrata," which is surprisingly unified and has a clear, unbroken through-action. The jokes are funny, the characters are mostly well drawn, and it's clear that the playwright placed a high value on his central message, not letting himself stray from it for long. In this sense, it's also one of Aristophanes' most simple plays, at least in terms of structure. It's very funny (even to me, who am not so much a fan of Aristophanes), but the humor is a cover for the deep pessimism of the play. Yes, the Athenian and the Spartan warriors agree to terms laid down by their more rational wives, mothers, and daughters. Yes, there is peace. Except that Aristophanes doesn't even believe in his fictional peace. The chorus, near the end of the play, sings a song about how beautiful the future will be, how there will be plenty of everything for everyone, except that THERE WON'T, that all their promises will be broken, and the world is still the same pile of stinking khezein that it always was:

Embroidered horsecloths--magnificent robes--
Gold jewellery--whatever you need,
If your daughter's been given a basket to bear,
[...] Take freely whatever you seek.
You should look very closely to see what there is,
Explore every cranny with care,
For unless you have got sharper eyesight than me,
You'll find there ain't anything there!
[...]Let anyone who feels a lack
Of food, come round with bag or sack:
I've told my Manes he must be
Prepared to give you wheat for free.
One thing I should have said before--
You'd better not come near the door.
I hereby give you notice to
Beware the dog--she'll go for you!

Note that the dog is a she. The play ends with a hymn to Athena, apparently a traditional hymn that the audience would've known and not something that Aristophanes wrote himself. The playwright does a lot of work to put the idea into the audience's head that the gods--particularly Athena, the patroness of Athens--want the war to end. But nobody is listening to Athena, nobody is going to overcome the male pride that keeps the war going, and "Lysistrata" is a fantasy of a peace that nobody believes in. The image that came to me as I thought about Aristophanes writing this play was the captain of a sinking ship making jokes about the Titanic.

As noted above, I read Alan Sommerstein's 2002 revision of his 1972 translation, in the Penguin Classics edition. Lots of good introductory matter, lots of good notes, highly recommended. I found Sommerstein's edition lying on the sidewalk when I was walking to catch a bus, two weeks ago. What a coincidence.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Much cooler


The succession of hot days these last two months has done nothing good for my ability to concentrate. It's difficult to sleep, so atop the symptoms of heat exhaustion are the signs of sleep deprivation. I'm whinging, is what I'm doing, but also making note of the reasons why I've not been active on line much this summer. Summer is trying to kill me, is why. I shake my fist at Summer.

On a relatively cool day earlier this week, I did manage to do a little writing. Not for this blog, but instead the beginning of a new short story to be fitted into my growing novel-in-stories Islands and Other Places, which novel will be submitted to a plucky indie publisher in a month or so. I have notes for another story for this book, a story called "Baptists Under Water" that is not about Baptists under water, but I find myself not writing that story, despite the fairly detailed notes I've made. No, my Summer-addled brain has decided to write something else, for which I have no notes, no plan, no idea where the story goes, what happens, or why. What I have are two scribbled pages, which start like this:

Gregory is not surprised to hear a knock at the door. He's been expecting it, expecting the police, expecting the old woman in the house next door to report the shouting, the obscenities, the breaking windows and the fires. What does surprise him is that the policeman is not in uniform, is driving an older unmarked sedan, and has not come to investigate a domestic disturbance. The policeman has come, he says, to investigate a murder.

Gregory doesn't know anything about any murder, he says. Did someone get killed?

Two people got killed, the policeman says.

The policeman is tall, angular, and aloof. He wears dark glasses and a gray cowboy hat. Deep creases run down his cheeks, as if he is carved from the trunk of an old dead willow. The policeman nods in the direction of the wooden swing that hangs from chains at the western end of the porch.

Mind if we sit down, he asks.

Sure, Gregory says. He steps out onto the porch, closing the door behind him. Gregory is barefoot, in dirty jeans and a dirty black t-shirt with a faded Led Zeppelin logo across the chest. Gregory has short hair that hasn't been washed in a week, and he needs a shave.

You mind if I smoke, he says.

It's your house, the policeman says, taking a small notebook and a pen from the inside pocket of his canvas jacket. A pistol in a shoulder holster is momentarily visible and Gregory shivers. He does not like guns. He is afraid of police. When he was younger, in the Sixties, he'd had long hair and a beard--his Jesus Christ phase, as he thought of it--and police frequently stopped him after dark to pat him down, digging through his pockets looking for drugs. Gregory rarely used any kind of drug. He doesn't even like aspirin.

The policeman sits on the porch swing. It creaks as he settles into place.

And on like that for a few more paragraphs. I don't, as I say, know what happens next, but by now I've written enough short stories that I can tell that this story will work itself out as I go along. I have (so I tell myself) developed a sort of instinct for it. I can feel a whole, fully developed story behind this scanty opening. I cannot, despite how hard I try to convince myself, feel a whole, fully developed story behind the notes I've made for "Baptists Under Water." As a writer without a publisher and without readers, I have pretty much nothing but my process and my internal experience of that process in the way of a writing life, so naturally my writing processes fascinate me. I understand that they are not so fascinating to others. 

I'm reading some Vita Sackville-West stories, published the same time as Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. One of the stories is even dedicated to Woolf. They are odd little stories, artistically of high interest even if relatively unknown. I will probably not write about them unless the weather improves before I finish the book. No bets.

Monday, August 1, 2022

something whatever newish for someone wherever


One of my unpublished novels is a thing called Mona in the Desert. It's a family story spanning sixty-odd years, etc. Cervantes, witches, Shakespeare, cigarettes, sex, literary criticism, pyromania, frog ova, the works. War and peace and tequila. Stewardesses and fortune tellers. The synopsis is not important. What is important--to me at least--is that I continue to think that Mona in the Desert is a beautiful and startling and very good book. Alas, I have come to the conclusion, in the eight years since I first wrote the book, that no US publisher is going to put out an edition of my beautiful and startling and very good book. So I have added Mona in the Desert to the unpublished manuscripts available for your amusement or not on my Out of Print page. A clever reader will see this as a gesture of defeat, or submission, if they are not the same things. Yet it remains a good book. Read it or don't; nothing is at stake either way.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Some July reading


I've been quite busy this month, it being the beginning of the fiscal year in Washington state. I will also note in passing that it's damned hot for the Pacific Northwest and the heat saps the life force from my body. My death will likely be caused by heat stroke; I've been saying this for years. I do not like the heat. I realize that many people are suffering from higher than normal temperatures, and that where I live is not as dangerous as where many others live, so my woes are nothing compared to the woes of others. Yet still I complain, for I am human. A weakness. When we are all angels, we can merrily dance together on the surface of the stars. I look forward to it.

None of that, predictably enough, was what I meant to say when I began typing. No, I wanted to hit a couple of high points (if that's what they are) of my July reading. So here goes.

Lectures on Shakespeare by W.H. Auden: A famous poet gave a series of lectures about Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, and a couple of attendees took detailed notes that have been assembled into this mixed blessing of a book. Auden uses the plays as springboards for long rambles through his own extensive classical education, free-associating about the ideas with which he thinks Shakespeare grapples. Mostly entertaining, though Auden's fuddy Victorian sensibilities make many of his comments about sex and women cringe-inducing. But Auden is to be commended for not treating the plays as holy writ; he starts most lectures by pointing out the flaws in the plays, the struggles and failures he sees in Shakespeare's process of becoming immortal. Auden considers not the inspiration, but the labor, which is a refreshing gambit for a critic to make. His audience must've been exhausted by the end of the lecture series, as Auden seemed to run out of things to say and began repeating himself. I can't say I agree with a lot of Auden's ideas about Shakespeare or drama, but I am happy that Auden thought a lot about his subject and was willing to say what he thought. A strong opinion is a good thing for a literary critic.

"Iphigenia in Tauris" by Euripides: A remarkable play, possibly my favorite of Euripides' works. Orestes is sent to Tauropolis to steal a statue of Artemis that fell from heaven. There he meets his long-missing sister. I actually choked up when Pylades handed Iphigenia's letter to her brother. "I bring thee this, Orestes, from thy sister." Greatest recognition scene ever written. I quote a comment I made over on Wuthering Expectations: I've been doing some reading about the Dionysian festival and Greek sacrificial ritual, and I'm working on a theory (well, pulling together a couple of actual scholars' theories) that the sacrifice of a stud goat in honor of the winning playwright at the conclusion of the festival, and the Greek idea of sacrificial victims generally, were powerful influences on the idea and presentation of tragedy at the festival. One core idea of sacrificial killing was that all of the participants were guilty of the animal's death, but also that the animal itself carried a guilt for defying the gods in one way or another (bulls ritually slaughtered, for example, were first enticed to eat the grain from Zeus' altar, a crime punishable by death; in some sacrifices, she-goats were made to unearth the very knife with which they'd be killed, etc). So there was in Greek ritual an idea that one was inevitably going to commit a crime that the gods would punish by death, and sacrificial killing was a way of elevating the participants to the level of the gods in order to rid the community of the sacrilege being punished. This also implies, subconsciously at least, that the gods were guilty of murder. Euripides, in Iphigenia, is putting the focus on a different sacrificial rite, one where the priest holds the knife against the victim's throat but not killing the victim, an act of sacramental forgiveness. He moves away, at this point in time for whatever reason (tired of Athen's bloody and pointless killing of its neighbors? tired of the Dionysian focus on ritual death to appease capricious gods? who knows), from the idea that every activity is essentially moving forward to an appeasement of the gods through the spilling of our blood, to the possibility of refusing to kill, but refusing in a sacred manner pleasing to the gods. I'll be interested to see if his later plays support that not-quite-formed theory.

Blue Flowers by Carola Saavedra: A surprising book translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. An unnamed woman, after a traumatic breakup, writes a series of letters to her ex. She wants him to relive their final terrible day together, accusing and questioning and confessing to him, though her last letter is an offer to take him back, to absorb his hate and to comfort him. The man who actually receives the letters in the post is not the ex in question, and may in fact be a figment of the woman's imagination. Saavadra's narrator is maybe referring to the reader of the novel, about whom she doesn't care, for whom she will not be some kind of savior/lover/mother figure. It remains unclear who is whose victim here, but the toxicity of some kinds of desire is certainly made clear. A possible alternate title might be The Story of A. Shades of Djuna Barnes/Clarice Lispector/Angela Carter. An angry book, a very angry book, in which forgiveness is a pretense, a cover for possessiveness in a world where men are bestial idiots who enslave and are enslaved by women, who aren't much better. Some gorgeous writing, a gilded poison pill.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Reading &cet in 2022, Part One: not the inspiration, but the labor

I have been awful regards blogging about my reading life for the last couple of years. This year, I thought I'd just make notes about what I've read as I go along, and then post the whole shebang at the end of December, but even I haven't the patience to read through something that long, even if I'm the idiot who's written it. So here's the first six months' worth of my worthless notes on what I've been doing literature-wise in 2022.


Mozart: A Life by Maynard Solomon: If you think life is nothing but the working out of our Oedipal issues, then this is the psychobiography for you. Otherwise, just read the chapters devoted to musical analysis and skip the rest. There is plenty here about papa Leopold Mozart, but the alleged subject of the book, Wolfgang, is almost nowhere to be found outside of some long free-floating passages about victimhood.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago: If Umberto Eco had written a metafictional Kafka novel dedicated to Borges. Everything herein is a discursive metaphor for everything else, and I do mean everything. Brilliant stuff. A middle-aged Portuguese proofreader deliberately inserts an error into an unimaginative history book, after which he is invited to write an alternate history based on the error. Hijinks ensue. Also, there is a love story something like the one in Death With Interruptions. An absolute delight.

"The Persians" by Aeschylus: Xerxes sings the blues.

"Seven Against Thebes" by Aeschylus: Sharing is caring.

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding: Full of wit, sarcasm, and social observation, you can see how this long-winded and repetitive 1749 novel influenced pretty much everything that came after it. Contains eighteen non-fiction essays about writing and philosophy, mostly worth the effort. 1,000 pages in the Everyman edition, probably 200 of those pages are due to the extensive footnotes. It was like reading Gibbon, in that way, but generally funnier. Clearly influenced by Cervantes, but a little less imaginative, with a quite sloggy midsection leading to an exciting final act.

Basic Black With Pearls by Helen Weinzweig: Djuna Barnes and Paul Auster rewrite Walter Mitty. A middle-aged Toronto housewife, having led a desperate and lonely life, fantasizes that she's a Bond girl, only to realize that she's really trapped in Bluebeard's castle and might want a different fantasy. At one hundred and forty-five pages, this is a pretty short novel, but it's still about a hundred pages too long. Some nice moments, mostly narrative asides. "Acts of fellowship, I reflected sadly, take place only during bombings and public hangings."

Treatise on the Art of Violin Playing by Leopold Mozart: Say what you will about Leopold as a father or as a son, his Treatise would've earned him a permanent place in the history of western art music even had he not sired a genius named Wolfgang. It's a short book and the first third is padding (or, if you like, is a brief enough introduction to music theory), but the rest of the text is priceless, especially for players interested in 18th-century performance practice, most especially for players interested in the music of Wolfgang Mozart, who of course was quite well taught in violin playing by old Leopold.

"Prometheus Bound" by Aeschylus: I never saw the Sean Spicer-Hermes connection before now. But everyone has a fate, even the gods.

The Fixed Period by Anthony Trollope: A curiosity, an 1882 novel of the future, set in the 1980s. Not quite Logan's Run. More the Swiftian tale of an Eichmann who sees himself as a harried civil servant attempting to legislate social progress among English colonials who cannot reconcile his high ideals with their humanity. The only Trollope I have read. No fox hunting scene.

"Ajax" by Sophocles: Men laugh, men cry and all at the gods' behest. The end of an era. High times for the odious Odysseus, but only because Athena is sweet on him.

"Agamemnon" by Aeschylus: The old men of Mycenae get kicked around by fate. I read Tony Harrison's excellent and weird poetic translation.

"The Libation Bearers" by Aeschylus: Who mourns for whom, and why? Harrison's alliteration began to annoy me in this one.

Man of the World by Layne Maheu: Historical fiction about the invention of the French aeronautical industry. The description of Wilbur Wright's early promotional flights is breathtaking. A beautiful novel that I wish I'd written.

"The Eumenides" by Aeschylus: "Bloodright! like Troy, it's all rubble and ashes." The Furies defanged as the new gods continue to get their way. Or, the interference of the Olympians continues to wreck havoc among humanity. Or both.

Nothing But Waves and Wind by Christine Mantalbetti: de Tocqueville follows Lewis and Clark and gets his nose broken. It could only happen in America. "They've had just about all they can stand of the great outdoors." A little sloppy, but I liked it.

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin: Eight of the greatest short stories of the 20th century.

"Rhesus" by Euripides: Every mother's son will die in battle. What's the use of admiration from a hero who'll be just as dead as you tomorrow?

Once and Forever: the Tales of Kenji Miyazawa: Written in the early 20th century, a strange collection of pessimistic folk tales, full of violence, selfishness, and regret. Melancholy overlaid with absurdly cheerful innocence; The Wind in the Willows rewritten by Kafka and Ibsen.

"Alcestis" by Euripides: Risk-averse Admetos tells us how hard life is. Meanwhile, tipsy Hercules puts on his Lone Ranger hat and saves the day, offstage. Bergman could've made a great film version of this.

"Medea" by Euripides: the Ur-Buffy. Incredibly influential: a realistic breakup scene and then, yes, a chariot drawn by a pair of dragons. You've seen "Medea" whether you know it or not.

"The Heracleidae" by Euripides: Our goddess is bigger than your goddess.

Typee by Herman Melville: The introduction promises autobiographical erotic exoticism and xenoporn from the South Pacific written by "America's first literary sex symbol," but this is really the thoughtful and languid adventure of a sailor jumping ship in Polynesia; more Margaret Mead than Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling: What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding? What do we really talk about when we talk about really talking about reality?

"Hippolytus" by Euripides: Truly a masterpiece, a play about deceit presented as a play about desire.  Auden misses this aspect of the play when he says, "Its moral, in nonmythical form, is that sex is something you can't afford to make mistakes about."

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson: Old houses with peeling paint, occupied by women nobody recognizes. Very American writing, the prosaic horrors of 1940s middle class white people, many of whom are themselves the horrors in question. Recommended. 

Milkman by Anna Burns: An 18 year-old in Belfast is pursued by a dangerous IRA operative, undoing all the narrator's carefully crafted emotional distance from reality. Proustian, Joycean, Sternesque, Woolfish comic terror. Digressive and riveting, highly recommended despite it having won the Booker.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde: Rochester keeps two loaded pistols under his pillows and gives tours of Thornfield Hall when Jane is away. The "Richard III" as Rocky Horror bit doesn't live up to its premise.

"The Acharnians" by Aristophanes: A long and messy SNL-style anti-war skit that breaks the fourth wall into wee bits. Surprisingly modern. "Even comedy can sometimes discern what is right. I shall not please, but I shall say what is true." 

Rattlebone by Maxine Clair: A linked story collection about the Black suburbs of Kansas City in the 1950s. Not as powerful as James Baldwin's work, but pretty good. Rhythmic, jazzy prose.

Mozart's Chamber Music with Keyboard edited by Martin Harlow: Ernest and informative essays about the not-quite-seven percent of Wolfgang Mozart's oeuvre that makes up about eighty percent of his performed music. Alternately opaque and penetrating.

"King John" by William Shakespeare: And bad King John stood dumbly there, Blushing beneath his crown. Not about the Magna Carta though the play condenses the last six years of John's reign into a couple of months, act V giving us English civil war, a war against Louis VIII, John's death (not of dysentery but of poison by a wicked kamikazi Catholic), and the crown passing to Henry III. An early work of WS but some of the speeches are marvelous and the variety of modes of speech assigned to characters is impressive. WS already has impressive command over the rhythm and pacing of scenes. Richard I's bastard son is a comic role, a sort of running gag all to himself. Prince Arthur's death is very sad.

Konfidenz by Ariel Dorfman: Creepy anti-Nazi German man, exiled and working as a spy in Paris as WWII begins, obsesses over a much younger German woman; unsavory espionage porn as written by a self-pitying Humbert Humbert. A short novel that still manages to wear out its welcome.

The North of God by Steve Stern: A great book, by the 21st century's heir to Isaac Bashevis Singer, in which a rabbi tells a fantastical tale of enlightenment to the young mother against whom he is pinned in the cattle car that's taking them and a hundred other Jews to a Nazi extermination camp. The rabbi knows he is not Sherehezade, that the tale he tells can't save anyone's life, but he knows that some kind of escape is possible and necessary at the moment, and he provides it. I like this book so much that I wrote to Stern's agents to see if they'd represent one of my own novels.

"Hecuba" by Euripides: The Greek army murders another virgin girl in order to get good sailing weather. News of our inevitable death is always taken as an empty threat. "And gag him, too," Agamemnon orders as the prophet is dragged off stage. 

"The Knights" by Aristophanes: "An insult directed at the wicked is not to be censured." Cleon takes a beating in public, along with everyone else. Athenian politics looked a lot like current American politics. Demos has no idea what he wants, beyond sweets and flattery.

Growing Up by Angela Thirkell: Philip said he found himself that the older he got the more he realized that everyone in Dickens, without exception, was a real person, and quite a lot of them were among his friends. Written (and set) in 1942/43, rural England is shown suffering the impact of the War. Sons are lost, daughters are called into service, there are shortages and interruptions and there is inflation but England is very brave, and every cigarette not smoked is a nail in old Hitler's coffin. The plucky working class continues to forget how to doff their caps to the aging aristocracy. Plus, the usual Thirkell romance/marriage plot.

"Clouds" by Aristophanes: The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers. "What a pleasure to see your complexion! So refutatory you now look, so disputatory, so thoroughly Athenian!" According to the introduction of the translation I read (Moses Hadas, 1962), "It is said that when the maskmaker's art was applauded on his double's first appearance, Socrates stood up in his seat to show the likeness." There is no record of how Socrates felt after the play was performed.

"The Women of Trachis" by Sophocles: Heracles' humanity is burned away in the funeral pyre and his divinity lives on, a metaphor for the ongoing mortal/divine conflict that Deianira invokes at the start ("life, all of it, is nothing but an insufferable agony"). A sober, depressing play. "I have no notion of falling for this sickness of fighting pointlessly against the gods." 

"Peace" by Aristophanes: War is over, if you want it. Cleon has died a cowardly death in battle against the Spartans! The Spartan leader has died in battle against the Greeks! Time to sue for peace, so our hero rides a giant dung beetle to heaven, seeking divine intervention. Alas, the gods are on vacation, having left Hephaestus behind as a doorman. But Hephaestus knows where Ares has imprisoned Peace, so our hero gathers a coalition of working-class folks to free her. Power to the people! Fingers crossed.

"Elektra" by Sophocles: Elektra is the most isolated character in any Sophocles play, trapped inside her grief, her endless shouted accusations and prayers ignored. She is a prisoner, crying out from solitary confinement. It's a claustrophobic play whenever she's on stage. Elektra has no power, can take no action, except speech, so when Orestes finally arrives, she wants to talk and talk to him;  he wants her to put a lid on it until later because now, sister, is the time to kill mom. I imagine her isolation continuing into the future.

Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune by Christoph Wolff: What was Mozart doing during his final four years in Vienna? He was inventing new musical forms, every day, with an optimistic eye on the future. Had he lived longer, who knows what influence his developing style (more spare and focused, more polyphonic, more sophisticated in terms of orchestration) would've had on Beethoven and Schubert, not to mention on the still-active Papa Haydn?



Little to report so far this year. I've sent various manuscripts to agents, publishers, and people conducting contests. I think the universe is still trying to send me a message I obstinately refuse to understand. But the older I get, the less passion I have for the novelist's game, and the less often it occurs to me that I could pick up a pen and write a bit of fiction. So that part of things might just be winding down, which would be a fine thing, because vita brevis and all of that. Though I will admit that I've felt the stirrings of something in my imagination of late, something having to do with humanity's conception of the divine and the conflict between failing to live up to our divinities' expectations, their failing to live up to ours, and the resultant lowering of expectations for all involved which results, predictably enough, in the tragic history of humanity. So all of the great myths, possibly filtered through the wreckage of my very first novel (a tragicomic religious fantasy called The Jack of Hearts Remembers Me). This weekend, I wrote what may be the opening passage of this new novel. So we'll see what happens with that. The stakes are very low regarding my writing, and it's increasingly more difficult to sustain the level of concentration needed to draft a novel-length piece of fiction, so I have little faith that I'll write a new book. I've begun and abandoned a number of projects over the last few years. One of my writer friends is trying to talk me into starting an independent press with him. I certainly don't have the time or energy for that sort of nonsense.

Monday, June 27, 2022

it is only necessary to try to write a novel


The Defoe of Robinson Crusoe and A Journal of the Plague Year has no ambition to signify novelistically or to have his pseudomemoirs classed as "art." In the flux of his true-seeming stories, intentions are concealed and unrecognizable, questions the non-form refuses by virtue of its opacity [...]. It is a virtue of his pseudomemoirs that they are almost infinitely conformable to what each reader thinks life is. Moll, Jack, H.F., and the Cavalier are in their widely accommodating ideological spaces like the speakers of naive memoirs Defoe intends them to resemble, and Defoe is the original "readerly" writer. While the psuedomemoir may be a trick, it is a wondrously skillful one. To see just how difficult Defoe's task is, it is only necessary to try to write a "novel" today that succeeds not only in seeming like a true story (the easier task) but also in fixing the attention of readers dull and acute, naive and sagacious, superficial and penetrating. It is as if Defoe found in the older factual literature and its imitations a principle of ambiguity that is itself stable: narrate in such a manner that nothing is predictable and nothing, once it happens, is at all unbelievable.

From Narrative Innovation and Incoherence by Michael Boardman. If I were to try to name recent novels that follow Defoe's model of pseudomemoirs that pass themselves off as more "real" than "novelistic," I can only think of two early Peter Carey books: Jack Maggs and True History of the Kelly Gang. Most of Carey's novels are quite novelistic, some overtly postmodernist. My own fictions, no matter how thick I decide at the time to make the veneer of "realism," are all plainly artificial, representation rather than presentation, all the elements chosen to interlock in a system of symbol and theme, blah blah blah. I grew up on myths and legends and fairy tales, all expressionist forms more or less, so that's what I think stories look like.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Which Defoe wrote when, and for what purpose?

Another possibility that must be considered is that the new novel is always in a relationship of hostile competition with other novels, even with ones yet unwritten. The authorial task is always to achieve the truly new, to break with influence and strike out alone, with all the many consequences detailed by Harold Bloom (1973). The logic of such an explanation seems unassailable. Authors prize originality unless they are writing only for money, and even that goal does not necessarily discourage innovation. Yet I wonder if most novelists would accede to such a description of their efforts to create new structures. Such a work of "fiction based on scholarship," as Geoffrey Hartman put it, seems more like the hypothesis of someone who studies--probably poetry, at that--rather than creates novels, for it puts uppermost that which makes the author a solitary, tormented character in his or her own drama rather than a more or less stodgy worker, a short of shoemaker trebly vexed with sore fingers, recalcitrant leather, and grumpy customers. Among other things, novelists are makers, and as such they are often more interested in getting their novels written than they are in shedding influence, even if they are aware of it. Critics always construct "plausible" authors--I fabricate my own in the pages that follow--so that they can endow them with behavior that makes their own theories more convincing. One of my imaginary authors, who bears some resemblance to a real novelist I met in Chicago not long ago, finds my notions of what novelists "do" surprising. For example, I have always preferred to believe that most novelists are engaged in "imagining a world." This novelist, however, looked very skeptical and said, "Oh, no, I always write about myself. I don't know anything else."

From Narrative Innovation and Incoherence by Michael Boardman (Duke University Press, 1992). I underlined almost every word of this passage in my copy.

For it is true that every time I read a literary critic talking about the creative process, what is described is nothing like how fiction is written, at least not in my experience or in the experience of any of the novelists I know in real life (some of whom, yes, are actual published novelists). In my (unpublished, yes) novel Mona in the Desert, the narrator (a literary critic) writes about how literary critics fill the lacunae in novels with imagined themes and authorial intent that reflect their own ideas and not necessarily any ideas belonging to the author of the texts in question. Literary criticism, I claim, is sometimes just the working of yet another unreliable narrator, this time speaking from well outside the text. Of course I continue to read literary criticism, and my novel's narrator continues to write literary criticism. Perhaps Bloom's famous book should be titled The Influence of Anxiety. I am not the first person to make that joke.