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.