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.