Sunday, February 26, 2012

Running Away to Home by Jennifer Wilson

Source of Book: Borrowed from the Library

I am participating in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know. If you want to join in or see what we are reading, the link to that post is here:

Reading to Know - Book Club

Our selection for January was Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias

First, a quick synopsis of the book. Jennifer Wilson is a middle-class, Midwestern, married mother of two. She is also a writer by vocation. Fed up with the rat race, she and her husband plan to spend a year abroad, and live for the entire summer in a small village in Croatia – the one her ancestors left 100 years ago. During their stay, she attempts to get in touch with her roots, simplify her life, and come to some sort of peace with herself. It does not go exactly how she planned, but she learns some things about herself and others.

I want to give a quick explanation before I launch into my screed about book genres.

I enjoyed this book. I think it was mostly well written, and avoided most of the faults of the genre in which it has been cast.

This is a recent book, which means that it was selected for publishing because it met the publisher’s vision for a certain genre. (I’m sorry to be so cynical about this, but genres have become increasingly rigid and niche marketed.) Thus, this book has been written, and probably edited too, to fit into the “exotic escapist trip leading to self discovery” genre, even if the story itself doesn’t quite fit the mold.

Wilson deserves serious credit, in my opinion, for bucking the cardinal rule of this genre, which states that the woman should learn that the main impediment to her happiness is her husband. (See Exhibit A: Eat, Pray, Love; Exhibit B(1), Julie and Julia; and Exhibit B(2), Cleave) Rather, she comes to a greater appreciation of her husband and kids. If anything, she writes quite charitably about her husband.

I do not want to create the impression that I did not enjoy this book, because I did. It is an interesting story, and the characters are memorable. Wilson is admirably introspective in the true sense. She attempts throughout her adventures to be honest about her own faults, and refuses to blame others for them.

This is where I wondered what this book would have been had she been honest with herself at the outset of the trip about what it really was. Wilson, like the typical writer of these stories, is financially blessed. She and her husband, through good jobs and reasonably frugal living, are able to live abroad on their savings for a full year. In addition, her writing work is likely to be there when she gets back – in fact, she gets a book deal. Her husband is confident in his ability to find work in his field upon return. Thus, they get to spend a year without the obligation to work. And, you know, I would find my life to be much simpler if I could ditch the job too.

I agree that there are some things we can simplify. We do not need a large number of possessions. We would have less housework to do if we had smaller houses. The endless parade of activities cut into any time we might have to reflect or build friendships. But this isn’t really what we mean when we say we want to simplify.

Thus, I believe that this is the unacknowledged fantasy of the whole thing. We readers, indeed all of us, would like our lives to be less stressful. We would like things to be simpler. We would like to go through each day with a minimum of obligations. So I think that if Wilson had been honest, she would have realized that this wasn’t some quest to “find herself”, or “simplify her life.” It was, plain and simple, an extended vacation from obligation. It also happened to be an adventure, and a complete change from what she had been doing. However, all of that was dependent on her ability to escape from a significant portion of her responsibilities.

I would contrast this with her ancestors, who left Croatia for the usual reason. Like most of the immigrants throughout the history of our nation, they had a lack of opportunities at home, and the hope of greater things in a new land. They left with little other than the clothes on their backs, and worked long, hard hours for their food and shelter. It was, perhaps, an adventure, but it wasn’t about “self discovery”.

For the vast majority of human history, and indeed, over a large portion of the globe in these modern times, people have had to work hard to survive. “Simplification” meant finding some way of making a task easier.

Books of this sort therefore connect with both a fantasy and with a deep fear. At about Wilson’s age when she wrote this, many if not most of us realize that we are halfway though our lives, and we will have spent the majority of it sleeping and performing our obligations. Very little of our lifespan is actually spent doing what we wish to do. Thus, the fantasy isn’t really about living a simple life. It is about being able to have others do the mundane for us, so that we can chase fulfillment. The dream of living in past times is really the dream of being wealthy in a past time. Being a member of the Nobility, so that others will clean the house, grow the food, raise the kids.

This is where I believe the genre caters to a lazy part of our psyche, and why it often begins or ends with a divorce. Few of us can afford to quit our jobs. Even fewer of us would desert our children. We probably would not trade our homes for a small shack. How then, can we fulfill the fantasy? How can we escape our obligations? Well, about all that is left is to dump the spouse. And so it goes.

Ok, I’ve had my rant. Again, I do not want this to reflect badly on the book, because Wilson largely avoids these faults.

I want to point out a few things that stuck with me.

First, I love Wilson’s sense of humor about her life. She knows better than to take herself completely seriously, which is why she is able to write affectionately about the foibles of others.

I liked her lament that she never really learned about her cultural heritage. Her ancestors were embarrassed, so they did their best to show only the Americanized side.

“I wished I had more to teach Sam and Zadie [her children] about our roots. I knew not one recipe. Few Croatian words. No helpful bedtime stories in which the misbehaving child gets disemboweled by wolves.”

Wilson also describes the details of Croatian life in a memorable way. I liked her description of the shocking effect it had on her children to realize that meat comes from real, live animals. Her son Sam swore off of meat for much of the trip after seeing a whole sheep roasted. I’m more like Wilson’s husband Jim, who pulls off in a village in the middle of nowhere when he sees a whole pig being put into a roadside barbeque.

I’ll admit that I liked Jim quite a bit from this story. Although I will never be as socially easy-going as he was throughout this adventure, I really admire his ability. From the very beginning, he takes a laid-back approach to the whole adventure, which is, after all, his wife’s idea. He does his best to have fun, get along, make friends, and embrace the craziness of the whole thing. And, of course, imbibe alcohol with the guys. Naturally, everyone loves him, and he has the time of his life. By the end of the summer, at the going-away party, he is toasted as the non-Croatian who turns out to be the most Croatian of them all.

I also had to laugh at the incident where Zadie, the 4 year old, manages to shatter a glass by biting into it really hard. My kids, of course, would never do that. Nope. No way…

Finally, I really loved the story of finding the source of the one river. I would love to take that hike someday, and find the cool pool where the water just bubbles up.

As a conclusion, I would recommend immersing oneself in the story itself, and tuning out the “finding myself” frame to the narrative. Wilson has a story to tell, but the conclusion is not what Wilson (or her editor) feels the need to make it in the final chapter. Wilson has a good time, makes friends, connects with her husband and kids, but she doesn’t really find an epiphany. The last little bit seems tacked on to make it fit the mould, rather than because it is truly Wilson’s conclusion.

Note on alcohol: Several of the other members of the book club have made particular mention of the abundant drinking in this book. There certainly is plenty, including plenty of drinking before lunch, which doesn’t even sound good. Wilson’s host, Robert, is an alcoholic, even by Croatian standards.
My contribution to the discussion is this. First, we Americans still have a hangover (pardon the pun) from prohibition. Most cultures, and a portion of our own, have a history of social alcohol use that is reviled by other segments of our society. Thus, you have Baptists, Mormons, and other groups with a tendency to demand total abstinence. I would note that, regardless of the culture, there seems to be a certain percentage of alcoholics, even during prohibition.
My second thought is that we Americans have a weird way of embracing the alcohol-saturated cultures of Europe, while we turn our noses up at those here in our own country, particularly if they have brown or black skin, or watch car races. One country’s riff-raff is apparently another country’s beloved peasants.

Note on coarse language: There is a moderate amount of vulgarity and profanity in this book. It does not rise to the level of, say, Tom Clancy or other modern pulp authors, but it is there. Whether this is a problem for the reader may depend on whether the reader ever has lived outside of a conservative, Christian, middle-class community. Where I grew up, this book would barely get a PG rating, so I did not find it particularly distracting. There is nothing here I did not hear by third grade, at the latest. I am not fond of authors who use “earthy language” to cover for their lack of descriptive powers, but I think that Wilson used language judiciously, primarily when quoting other people or describing their conversations. I did not feel that she went for shock value or used it in a careless manner. One of the other members of our book club pointed out that both the language and the alcohol are accurately described, and that the book would not have been honest had these been omitted.

Links to reviews by other book club members:

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Source of Book: Borrowed from the library

This is my second annual Black History Month post. Last year, I read and reviewed a poetry collection by James Weldon Johnson, 50 Years and Other Poems. [Note: posted on Facebook, and recently re-published in Res Ipsa Loquitur, the magazine for the Kern County Bar Association.] This year, I chose another selection from the Harlem Renaissance, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The scope of the Harlem Renaissance is beyond the scope of a simple blog post, and I am hardly the person to write it. I have long admired the poetry that came out of the movement – Johnson, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. I have read a few essays as well, but this is my first real plunge into the fiction of the era.

This book was written in the 1930s, and was largely forgotten. It was “rediscovered” in the 1970s through the efforts of such luminaries as Alice Walker, who worked to bring it to the attention of a wider audience.

I would classify this book as a novella. In the edition I read, it was a little more than 200 pages – double spaced with plenty of white space. While a quick read, it contains a significant degree of dialect, so an acclimatization period is necessary. I found a few expressions to be unusual. Hurston describes the “honeymoon” phase of a relationship as the man talking or speaking in rhymes. I had never heard this used before, and was unable to find a good reference to it online. It does inspire me to keep my words to my wife poetic –at least occasionally.

How should this book be described? Is it an adventure story? A coming-of-age story? A romance? Perhaps it is a bit of each, all mixed together. The central character, a light skinned African American woman, is a fascinating and well developed character. Her life and growth is the story. Her grandmother, her three husbands, a hurricane, life, death, longing. These all impact her, but she remains. She is the story. 

Allegedly, Hurston wrote this book in a mere seven weeks during a trip to Haiti. If so, it would be a remarkable accomplishment. As it is, this is a remarkable book regardless of its genesis. 

Zora Neale Huston

Two things particularly struck me about the development of the characters. First, Janie, the protagonist, is a remarkably nuanced character. Despite the short length of the book, and despite the “exotic” feel of the setting, Hurston does a remarkable job of placing the reader inside the head of a complex and dynamic character. Second, Hurston creates a cast of people, not caricatures. Nobody is perfect. Each is deeply flawed, but still sympathetic at some level. In some cases, this was disturbing, as all the characters seem to accept domestic violence as normal and ordinary – something foreign to a reader like myself from twenty-first century white America.

Hurston begins her story at the end, by recounting Janie’s return to the town she left several years ago. The town gossips, sitting on their porches, are eager to dissect Janie, the returning town prodigal. Janie chooses to tell her story to her closest friend, Pheoby. I loved Pheoby’s husband Sam’s description of the gossips.

“Yeah, Sam say most of ‘em goes to church so they’ll be sure to rise in Judgment. Dat’s de day dat every secret is s’posed to be made known. They wants to be there and hear it all.

Hurston’s perspective on racial relations from the early 1900s is also interesting. Janie’s grandmother (another nuanced and not quite sympathetic character) gives Janie her philosophy of life.

“Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out…So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”

This might be the best known line from the book – one I had heard without knowing its source.

The mule is one of the themes of the book. Not only does Hurston use the metaphor above, she devotes the better part of a chapter to the life, death, and burial of a mule. The original owner practically starves the beast, while complaining about its supposed intractability. Eventually, Janie’s second husband, Joe, buys the animal as a pet for Janie. When it eventually expires of old age, it is given a lavish funeral. This episode parallels the narrative in two ways. First, Janie is largely treated as a mule by Joe. While he is basically an honorable and hard working man, he views Janie as a lesser being, fit for working for his goals, while being emotionally starved. Second, the funeral has a counterpart near the end of the book when Janie throws a big funeral for her third husband – the one she actually loves – after he dies in tragic and dramatic circumstances.

One of the most jarring things about this book was the casual misogyny. Not just the acceptance of violence, but the automatic dismissal of women by the men. Joe and Janie have a telling exchange, and in public too!

“You sho loves to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothing, Ah see!”

“Dat’s ‘cause you need tellin’,” he rejoined hotly. “It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillum and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves.”

“Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!”

“Aw naw they don’t. They just thin they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”

This devastating break in the relationship culminates when Joe is on his deathbed, and Janie proceeds to berate him in an excruciating evisceration lasting up until the moment of his death. This scene will linger in my memory for its devastating impact using a minimum of words. I would absolutely prefer that my wife disembowel me in the literal sense than make me suffer what Janie inflicts on Joe.

And yet, one cannot completely hate Janie for this. Joe is one of those flawed men who consider others as raw materials to be used for his own ends. If he had simply granted Janie a little love and respect. If he had only defended her when other men made her the target of their sexist remarks, things would have been different. In this respect, the portion of the story devoted to the marriage of Janie and Joe is a tragedy in the classical sense: the lives of good people destroyed by a fatal flaw.

Janie is an example of the quasi-feminist heroine popular in her time. I can see some clear connections with some contemporary literary characters, such as Kate Chopin’s protagonists, the Schlegel girls from Forster’s Howards End, and others. In addition, Janie clearly influenced Alice Walker and Toni Morrison in their treatment of the unfulfilled woman oppressed by piggish men.

After Joe’s death, Janie runs away with a much younger, poor man, nicknamed “Tea Cake”. Their marriage is in many ways the ideal of a true love, although, once again, violence is casual and expected. Janie is finally allowed to function as an equal. She learns to shoot, eventually surpassing her husband in skill. (I know a little about this from personal experience.) She wears overalls and works in the fields along side Tea Cake. She gets to experience the world in ways that change her forever.

Throughout the narrative, Hurston explores the nature of racial prejudice, lending it a unique perspective. Like Janie, Hurston was of mixed race, not quite fully black. Interestingly, Hurston was attuned to the fine degrees of racism that exist in all subcultures. Those of us whose ancestors immigrated in the 1890s have heard tales of how German, Scandinavian, and Italian immigrants were considered “dirty” and “low class” compared to those who came over on the Mayflower or in the early days of the nation. In my own experience, I have seen how Central and South American immigrants are considered to be the similarly “dirty” and “low class” by the Mexican immigrants. Somehow, this must be ingrained in the human psyche to be so universal. In Hurston’s narrative, Janie is revered by another mulatto, while the darker Tea Cake is reviled. Likewise, Janie is never fully accepted by the darker blacks, being considered too “white” to be truly safe.

This distinction is further reinforced by Hurston’s use of terms in referring to white and black. Those of higher, usually white, social standing are referred to as “people”, while the lower classes, typically black or other minorities, are referred to as “folk”.

In the final catastrophe, however, Hurston hints at a higher vision. A hurricane approaches, and Janie and Tea Cake and others are waiting to see if they will have to flee their homes. Hurston describes the scene by using the title of the novel.

“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

God is present not only in the storm, but in the aftermath. The poor laborers are conscripted to bury the dead, but instructed to determine whether each body is black or white. The whites get coffins, while the blacks are buried in ditches, covered with quicklime to disintegrate the bodies.

“They’s mighty particular how dese dead folks goes tuh judgment,” Tea Cake observed to the man working next to him. “Look lak dey think God don’t know nothin’ ‘bout de Jim Crow Law.”

And now, nearly one hundred years later, Jim Crow is largely a relic of the past. A black man is in the White House. One in twelve marriages is interracial. While racism is far from gone, there are some promising signs for the future. For those of us in Generation X, a book like this is as foreign as a novel describing English nobility.

The Harlem Renaissance aspired to the creation of true art that would conquer prejudice. While no art can truly heal all wounds, books like this can go a long way in sharing experience. I look forward each year to exploring a perspective that, while somewhat unfamiliar, is also recognizably and deeply human and universal.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Source of book: I own this. All three versions. I also gave away a version illustrated by Gustave Dore (to my brother), but I sort of wish I still had it. Yes, I am a nerd. 

I would have to classify this book as more of a project than an ordinary read. I read three completely contrasting translations for comparison, although I only read every word of the Robert Pinsky translation, and probably only read about a quarter of the Melville Best Anderson poetic translation. I limited myself to the first part of the complete Divine Comedy, the Inferno.

I can probably consider this to be part of my ongoing project to read the great epics. I read the Iliad and the Odyssey when I was in high school. I read the Aeneid in my 20s, and read Paradise Lost in 2010. Dante would be a logical next step.

Dante wrote his work in the early 1300s, during a time of political turmoil in Italy. It was considered a bit of a revolutionary work at the time because he wrote in the vernacular Italian, rather than Latin. It is considered to be one of the great literary works, influential long after its time. The work was originally entitled simply Comedia, or Comedy. This referred primarily to its happy ending, not its humor. It was later referred to as the Divine Comedy, although Dante himself never gave it that name.

Dante drew on a variety of sources for his conception of hell, purgatory, and paradise. Medieval theology, foreign to us, spelled out many of the concepts. Dante further drew on Aristotle’s conception of the three levels of sin: incontinent sins, where a person is seduced by his own lusts and appetites; violent sins; and sins of fraud, the worst of all. He must add in two categories of his own to reflect Christian theology: the heretics, who are punished in flaming coffins; and the mere unsaved, who reside in Limbo, outside of the gates of Hell proper.

He also makes references to figures of history and myth, in particular biblical figures and those of Greek and Roman mythology. He also incorporates a large number of contemporary figures – in essence, he is able to revenge himself on his enemies by placing them in hell and detailing their crimes.

Perhaps the most significant influence is that of Virgil. In the Aeneid, Aeneas travels to the underworld in a rather strange and haunting episode. Not only does Dante draw from many elements of this story, he chooses “Virgil” to be his guide through Hell.

Unfortunately, I do not know Italian, so I was unable to read it in the original. One of my versions has the Italian text, and I could make out some words here and there, which helped when determining which translation was closest to the original.

To understand the issues facing the translator, it helps to understand Dante’s poetic form, terza rima. This form consists of three line stanzas, with an interlocking rhyme pattern. The rhyme would be diagramed like this:




This is not that challenging in Italian as there are fewer total sounds, and many more words rhyme. English, by comparison, has a great diversity of sounds, perhaps because we have stolen words from many languages, and a rather few of them actually rhyme. Most famously, for example, nothing rhymes with “orange”.

The translator, then, has to balance the demands of terza rima with a need to accurately translate the text itself. There are a number of approaches to this dilemma. The translations I read are vastly different in their approach to the translation, and result in completely different reading experiences.

Poetic Translation by Melville Best Anderson

This book is the most attractive volume of the three. A Heritage Press boxed hardback from 1944, I found it used for a ridiculous low price. At least it appears to have been read at some point, unlike many of my used hardbacks. The illustrations in this volume are an important feature. For the first time, it printed William Blake’s engravings. I would have bought this for that alone. (Side note: I saw Blake’s original illustrations for Paradise Lost at the Huntington Library last year. Simply amazing.) 

 The Whirlwind of the Lustful, Illustration by William Blake

Anderson’s approach to the translation is a rigid adherence to the terza rima form. The rhyme is exact, and he keeps each tercet intact. In the original, each tercet contains a complete thought, with few exceptions. Anderson retains this division, and makes an attempt (to the degree possible) to keep each line intact. The advantage of this technique is that it reads as poetry. The form and the cadence remain intact throughout the entire work. The disadvantage is that such rigidity requires that the rules of syntax and the natural flow of the language must be significantly bent. Thus, instead of reading in natural language like the original, it reads rather obscurely. The language seems artificial, stilted; and it is difficult to follow the story if one does not already know what is happening. 

Prose Translation by H. R. Huse

In contrast, the translation by Huse is strictly prose. This well-made paperback Rinehart Edition was also found used for a low price. Huse translates line for line, but without worrying about either rhyme or rhythm. His lines are of uneven length, and occasionally include extra words in brackets as an explanation of a reference. This is not to say that it is completely without a poetic feel. The story itself, and Dante’s use of words, lend themselves to poetry even within prose. However, it is clearly not true poetry in this translation. On the positive side, the narrative itself is very clear. It is easy to follow the narrator’s adventures, and any unclear passages are clearly explained by notes. There are no illustrations in this edition.

The Robert Pinsky Translation

This hardback was a Christmas gift from my lovely and thoughtful wife. I have admired and enjoyed Pinsky’s own poetry, and even more his writings on poetry. (His Classic Poems series on is amazing. In addition to a group of well educated readers who regularly comment, Pinsky himself takes part in the conversation.) Pinsky takes an interesting and somewhat novel approach. While preserving the terza rima form, he takes liberties both with the definition of “rhyme”, and with the divisions of the tercets. First, he uses approximate, rather than strict rhyme, preferring that the consonants, rather than the vowels agree. This may not sound promising, but Pinsky has a real gift at preserving the poetic flow. The rhyme remains clear, the lines read well, and one rarely notices the technique itself. Secondly, Pinsky chooses to break up the original tercets. His tercets may contain portions from the prior and subsequent tercets. An original grouping may be expanded or condensed as determined by the translator. The advantage of this technique is that Pinsky can preserve the natural flow of the English language, particularly where the meaning requires additional words, or often fewer words to express the thought. The disadvantage, of course, is that the compact thought of each original tercet is lost.

Pinsky’s translation is illustrated by Michael Mazur, who has provided a deliciously dark and atmospheric set of monochrome prints. 

 A sinner in the frozen lake gnawing on the head of his enemy from life. Illustration by Michael Mazur

As can be seen, the translation process is a question of compromises. No approach is perfect. However, I found that, after a few pages of each, I was primarily reading the Pinsky translation. Unfortunately, he only translated Inferno, so if I choose later to read the two remaining sections, I will have to rely on another translation.

Inferno, the first section of the Divine Comedy, is divided into 34 sections, entitled “Cantos”. A quote from Canto III, the inscription on the gates of Hell, gives an excellent comparison of the three translations.


“Through me the way is to the city of woe;
Through me the way unto eternal pain;
Through me the way among the lost below.

Justice commoved my high creator, when
Made me Divine Omnipotence, combined
With Primal Love and Wisdom Sovereign.

Before me nothing was of any kind
Except eterne, and I eterne abide:
Leave, ye that enter in, all hope behind!”

Note the perfect rhyme and complete thoughts, but also the strained syntax.


“Through me you go into the city of grief,
Through me you go into the pain that is eternal,
Through me you go among the people lost.

Justice moved my exalted creator;
The divine power made me,
The supreme wisdom, and the primal love.

Before me all created things were eternal,
And eternal I will last.
Abandon every hope, you who enter here.”

Here, the meaning is clearer, but there is little of poetry.


“Through me you enter into the city of woes,
Through me you enter into eternal pain,
Through me you enter the population of loss.

Justice moved my high maker, in power divine,
Wisdom supreme, love primal. No things were
Before me not eternal; Eternal I remain.

Abandon all hope, you who enter here.

In this case, the quote takes up only seven lines, but the poetry remains.

Another quotation from Canto V is illustrative. Minos, the demon who sorts the souls that arrive in hell into their appropriate levels, signals the level by the number of times he curls his tail around himself.

There Minos stands and snarls with clamor grim,
Examines the transgressions at the gate,
Judges, and sends as he encircles him.

Yea, when the spirit born to evil fate
Before him comes confessing all, that fell
Distinguisher among the reprobate,

Seeing what place belongs to it in Hell,
Entwines him with his tail such times as show
How many circles down he bids it dwell. (Anderson)

There Minos stands, horrible and snarling,
Examining the offenses, judging,
And sending down as he girds himself –

I mean that when an ill-born soul
Comes before him, it confesses wholly,
And that discerner of sin,

Seeing what place in Hell belongs to it,
Encircles himself with his tail as many times
As the degrees he wants it to descend. (Huse)

                        Minos the dreadful

Snarls at the gate. He examines each one’s sin,
Judging and disposing as he curls his tail:
That is, when an ill-begotten soul comes down,

It comes before him, and confesses all;
Minos, great connoisseur of sin, discerns
For every spirit its proper place in Hell,

And wraps himself in his tail with as many turns
As levels down that shade will have to dwell. (Pinsky)

I find this to be both the most clear and the most graceful account of this scene. I am particularly fond of the phrase “connoisseur of sin”, which is a direct parallel of the original. Pinsky seems to be able to draw out these delicious phrases from Dante’s original without losing the piquancy of the original idiom.

Dante goes on to describe the sights and sounds of Hell, in this case, the punishment of the sins of incontinence. Again, the translations have completely different flavors.

And now the notes of woe begin to smite
The hollow of mine ear; now am I come
Where I am pierced by wailings infinite.

I came into a place of all light dumb,
Which bellows like a sea where thunders roll
And counter-winds contend for masterdom.

The infernal hurricane beyond control
Sweeps on and on with ravishment malign
Whirling and buffeting each hapless soul.

When by the headlong tempest hurled supine,
Here are shrieks, the moaning, the laments,
Here they blaspheme the puissance divine. (Anderson)

Now I begin to hear the sad notes of pain,
Now I have come to where
Loud cries beat upon my ears.

I have reached a place mute of all light
Which roars like the sea in a tempest
When beaten by conflicting winds.

The infernal storm which never stops
Drives the spirits in its blast;
Whirling and beating, it torments them.

When they come in front of the landslide
They utter laments, moans, and shrieks;
There they curse the Divine Power. (Huse)

And now I can hear the notes of agony

In sad crescendo beginning to reach my ear;
Now I am where the noise of lamentation
Comes at me in blasts of sorrow. I am where

All light is mute, with a bellowing like the ocean
Turbulent in a storm of warring winds,
The hurricane of Hell in perpetual motion

Sweeping the ravaged spirits as it rends,
Twists, and torments them. Driven as if to land,
They reach the ruin: groaning, tears, laments,

And cursing of the power of Heaven. (Pinsky)

Throughout the Inferno, Dante pairs the sin with the punishment. For example, all sexual sin is punished by continual movement. The merely lustful are blown about by endless winds, the sodomites must continually walk to avoid being immolated by falling flames, and the seducers and pimps are driven along by a devil with a whip.

In the first category are Francesca da Rimini and her lover, Paolo. As with many of the characters, Dante as narrator shows them great sympathy, while Dante the poet condemns them to Hell. Francesca and Paolo, despite their brief appearance, are memorable for their comparative innocence. Tchaikovsky wrote a symphonic poem to depict this episode, using swirling chromaticism to depict the winds that drive the lustful.

Another great example of this comes from Canto VII, where the narrator begins to truly comprehend the evil of sin and its consequences.

Justice of God! Who is it that heaps together
So much peculiar torture and travail?

How is it that we choose to sin and wither? (Pinsky)

Of the translations, only Pinsky emphasizes the role of our choice. The others focus on the consequence of sin, but not its voluntary nature. “How is it that we choose to sin and wither?” Just an amazing line.

I also loved the punishment for the sullen in Canto VII: they are now submerged in a bog, unable to appreciate the daylight they scorned.

The suicides are described in Canto XIII, which I feel contains some of Dante’s best writing. The Canto begins with the word Non, that is, “Not”. Dante and Virgil enter a wood, with “The leaves not green”, “The boughs not smooth”, and “No fruit”. This repetitive use of non is then echoed by the use of cred (“believe”).

I believe
My guide believed that in my belief the voices
I heard from somewhere in the grove

Came somehow from people who were in hiding places –

Indeed, the souls of the suicides are imprisoned in the trees themselves, as Dante finds when he inadvertently breaks off a branch.

One shoot of a mighty thornbush – and it moaned,
“Why do you break me?” Then after it had grown
Darker with blood, it began again and mourned,

“Why have you torn me? Have you no pity, then?
Once we were men, now we are stumps of wood:
Your hand should show some mercy, though we had been

The souls of serpents.” As flames spurt at one side
Of a green log oozing sap at the other end,
Hissing with escaping air, so that branch flowed

With words and blood together – (Pinsky)

The suicides are classified as violent sins – violence against one’s self. In the same class are the sodomites, those violent against nature. Two things struck me here. First, one particular soul claims that his “fierce wife” drove him to sodomy. I’m not sure Dante believed him either. Second, if Dante is to be believed, the Catholic Church has a long history of transferring and protecting pedophiles.

Moving on to the sins of fraud, Dante and Virgil must hitch a ride to the next level on the back of Geryon, a creature from Greek mythology, and a symbol of fraud. He is described thus:

“Behold the beast with the pointed tail
That can cross mountains and break through walls;
Behold the one that infects the whole world!” (Huse)

“Behold the beast with pointed tail, whose guile
Doth mountains cleave & valls & weapons rend;
Behold him who doth all the world defile.” (Anderson)

“Behold the beast that has the pointed tail,
That crosses mountains, leaves walls and weapons broken,
And makes the stench of which the world is full!” (Pinsky)

Another dilemma faced by the translator is how to convey the meaning of the original. This is particularly problematic when translating idioms. If I were familiar with Italian, I’m sure I could have found a few idioms that were perplexing. Even the casual reader, though, can appreciate the difficulty of translating the word merda. In the original, this is a vulgarity, and a rather offensive one at that. However, translators have generally tried to soften this word, or make it more highbrow. Whether this stems from a prudish sensibility, or from a snobbish view of literature, it is inaccurate and fails to reflect the true potency of the original work.

While sexual sinners are punished with motion, it is the flatterers that have to roll in the shit. This section is where Anderson’s poetic translation struggles.

I saw one head so smeared with ordure all,
If clerk or layman ‘twas not evident.  (Anderson)

When asked about the reason he was condemned, a flatterer replies, “To this has plunged me down the sycophance / Wherewith my tongue was never satiate.” I think this misses the clarity and impact of the word “flattery”. Pinsky’s version packs a punch:

Searching it with my eyes,
I saw one whose head was so befouled
With shit, you couldn’t tell which one he was –

Layman or cleric.
“Down here is where my flatteries , that store
With which my tongue seemed never to be cloyed,
Have sunk me.”

Also in this section of fraudulent sins is a character to appear later in a Puccini opera: Gianni Schicchi. This character impersonated a recently dead person, in order to make a new will. Schicchi takes the opportunity to give himself a bit off the top of the estate. Dante shows him no sympathy, unlike Francesca and others. Puccini, however, turned the entire episode into a rather hilarious comedy. The most famous aria from that opera is O Mio Babbino Caro. (Roughly translated as “Please do this for me, Daddy”, this was a request at a wedding I played at. The irony was delectable.)

Dante stands at an interesting junction between ancient and modern. He looks to the past, but also toward the future in literature. We now take for granted the image of devils in Hell with pitchforks. It is in the Inferno that we have the imagery appear, complete with burning pitch. Later, Dante anticipates an element of modern horror: the transformation. While Ovid wrote of transformations, typically performed by the gods, Dante goes one step further and makes the transformation spontaneous and internal, stemming from one’s own defects. His picture of a man turning into a dragon, and vice versa, is a chilling vision.

Dante also envisions the arguments put forth by Machiavelli in The Prince. Political cunning is punished as a fraudulent sin. Where Machiavelli would condone and encourage the making of meaningless promises that will never be fulfilled, Dante condemns these politicians to the eight circle of Hell.

The very pit of Hell itself is reserved for those who are treacherous. Interestingly, the center of Hell is not hot, but cold. The sinners are submerged, to various degrees, in a lake of ice, not fire. In the center is Satan himself, locked in place at the waist, and fanning his wings, which creates the chill.

Dante here uses a parody of the Trinity by depicting Satan as having three faces colored yellow, black, and red; symbolizing impotence, ignorance, and hate, respectively. The mouths chew on Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius.

Two final word pictures bracket the pit of Hell.

                        Here it was something less
Than night and less than day…(Pinsky)

And, as Virgil and Dante pass through the floor of Hell at the center of the earth, and ascend to the other side, the section concludes with the word stelle. In fact, the other sections close with this word as well, giving a feeling of unity and eternal vision to the greater poem.

And following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I – so far,
Through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars. (Pinsky)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day 2012

by Robert Herrick

          JULIA, I bring
          To thee this ring,
Made for thy finger fit ;
          To show by this
          That our love is
(Or should be) like to it.

          Close though it be
          The joint is free ;
So, when love's yoke is on,
          It must not gall,
          Or fret at all
With hard oppression.

          But it must play
          Still either way,
And be, too, such a yoke
          As not too wide
          To overslide,
Or be so straight to choke.

          So we who bear
          This beam must rear
Ourselves to such a height
          As that the stay
          Of either may
Create the burden light.

          And as this round
          Is nowhere found
To flaw, or else to sever :
          So let our love
          As endless prove,
And pure as gold for ever

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Trafalgar, edited by Tom Pocock

Source of book: I own this. A beautiful Folio Society hardback given to me by my brother.

This book is unusual in that it lacks an attributed author. The majority of the text of the book consists of the actual accounts of the Battle of Trafalgar written by those who lived through it, both from the English perspective, and that of the French and Spanish forces. The connecting material, which I assume was written by Tom Pocock, ties the narrative together, putting the primary sources in perspective with each other and with the timeline.

I found the print layout to be interesting in the way it denoted the quoted sources. In most books, the quoted matter is indented, and often printed in a smaller typeface. This tends to de-emphasize the quotation as not as important as the main text. In contrast, this book prints the primary sources in a slightly larger typeface, thus bringing them into the limelight. Pocock’s transitional narratives are thereby given less visual weight than the source material, which works because the connecting material feels naturally important in explaining each quotation.

The Battle of Trafalgar was fought on October 21, 1805, between the British Navy and the combined fleets of Napoleon’s France and his ally, Spain. The British won a spectacular victory, establishing supremacy over the sea which was to last well into the 20th Century. Losing no ships of their own, they captured or destroyed 22 ships of the Franco-Spanish fleet, without a single loss of their own. The loss in lives was similarly lopsided, attributable to superior tactics, better sailing skill, and more accurate gunnary. The cost was high, however. Admiral Horatio Nelson was killed in the battle, thus becoming one of the most famous British war heroes.

While this book was well written and engaging, it was also painful to read. Fiction and even movie depictions cannot do justice to the bloodiness of naval combat in the age of sail. Masses of iron in sizes ranging from 42 pound balls to chains to grape shot fired at point-blank ranges at splintery wooden ships lead to a gut churning result. The writers of the day pull no punches, even in writing to their wives. There are endless details of limbs and even heads being instantly severed, of men cut in half by chains, blood running all over the decks despite the sand placed there, pieces and chunks of human flesh spattered everywhere, amputations without painkillers. In the ships that first engaged each other at the outset of the battle, casualties were high. Several French and Spanish ships lost nine-tenths of their crews. In some ways, this is a good reminder that our modern wars are far less devastating in terms of actual casualties. We would consider the risk of losing half of a fighting force to be unacceptable.

One particular narrative captured my imagination. James Spratt (nicknamed “Jack”, of course), a midshipman, was eager to be part of a boarding crew of an enemy ship due to his skill in swordsmanship. When the wind died, making it impossible to get close enough to board directly, he obtained permission to take a crew of 50 or so to swim across and board that way. Unfortunately, in the din of the battle, his followers missed the signal, and he found himself climbing into the stern cabins of a French ship alone. He fought his way through a series of enemies in true action movie fashion, and eventually was able to get on deck and signal to his shipmates. The wind picked up enough to allow the ships to contact, and the hand-to-hand battle was on. Spratt describes the combat and his role in it, including his act of saving the life of a French officer who was attempting to surrender. Soon afterward, his right leg was broken by a musket ball. As he describes it, “I felt something like an electric shock and darted at [his opponent], but my right leg turned up between my thighs with my shinbone resting on the deck.”

The battle ended soon afterward with the surrender of the French ship, and Spratt was returned to his own ship. Amputation of the leg was recommended, but he refused. After the battle, a storm blew in, keeping the fleet at sea for another five days, during which his leg was continually battered about. In port later, his leg was set in a wooden frame, the closest to a cast that was available in those days. He was feverish for a few days, then had an awful itching in his leg, which turned out to be a colony of maggots. While he didn’t know it, it is likely that the maggots kept the leg from turning gangrenous. His leg healed, but was three inches shorter than it was. Although he attempted to return to a life at sea, his leg was never able to take cold weather. He was given a land-based assignment at a signaling station, where he was instrumental in developing a visual signal system related to the semaphore signals to which they led.

While this story is the most dramatic, there are many more in this book. The characters tell their stories rather well. Since letters were the only form of communication with home for sailors, even those with low educational levels appear to have written at least a little – or had someone write for them. Thus, this book is able to give a picture of the battle from a multitude of perspectives.

Since this is a Folio book, it is truly beautiful to hold and read. Everything is of excellent quality, but the illustrations stand out. Tom Pocock, in addition to being a respected author and war correspondent, is a relative of Nicholas Pocock, a painter known for his depictions of naval battles from the age of sail. As a contemporary of the battle itself, he was able to give us the details of the ships and battles in a memorable and accurate way. His paintings are represented in this book, along with those of Benjamin West, J. M. W. Turner, and others. Also included are portraits of the various British captains, newspaper illustrations, and photographs of Nelson’s sketches of the plan of battle.

I doubt this book is readily available, but it is worth a look if you can find it used. For those interested in a good fictional depiction of this era, I recommend the books written by Patrick O’Brian, one of which, The Letter of Marque, was previously reviewed in this blog. 

One of several paintings by Nicholas Pocock included in the book:

Trafalgar Battle - 21th of October 1805 - Situation at 17h by Nicholas Pocock


 My favorite illustration is this painting: The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the mizzen
starboard shrouds of the Victory
by J. M. W. Turner (oil on canvas, 1806 to 1808)

A further note: The Victory, Nelson's flagship (and also where he died) still exists, although it is now in permanent dry dock after nearly 200 years afloat. It is still in commission in the Royal Navy, and used as a museum ship in Portsmouth, England. One of the sails, shot through with balls, is also on display at the Royal Naval Museum. Someday, perhaps, I will get a chance to see this ship, along with the rebuilt Cutty Sark, the last of the clipper ships. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

My Review of Why Mahler? by Norman Lebrecht

Source of Book: Borrowed from the library
Date originally posted on Facebook: June 5, 2011

This recently written book is an odd combination of biography, autobiography, and commentary. Lebrecht gives an account of Mahler’s life intermixed with the story of his own travels and concert experiences and with his views of Mahler’s work. In one respect, this makes the book more personal than a true biography – the work could more accurately be entitled “My Mahler”. Unfortunately, Lebrecht has a bit of a tendency to indulge himself through purple prose and by inaccurate license in assigning thoughts to Mahler himself and other persons.

Mahler is indeed a fascinating figure, personally and musically. As a Jew in pre-Nazi Austria, he faced regular prejudice and outright hostility. He also experienced a good share of tragedy, surrounded by death throughout his life, a fact that was to play a major in his music.

Mahler was born in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) as a double minority – both a Jew and one of a small German speaking community within Bohemia. His father and mother were unhappily married; with his father a notorious philanderer, and his mother a malingerer. Of the couple’s 14 children, only half survived infancy. Mahler’s parents ran a Jewish tavern during his childhood.

Mahler eventually attended a conservatory, and attained a series of posts as a conductor, eventually becoming the musical director of the Vienna Opera. Mahler is considered to be one of the most influential conductors of all time, breathing new life into every post he held. His compositions were less successful. At the time, a mixture of prejudice and lack of sympathy with the music itself led some of his contemporaries to suggest that he stick to conducting. Despite this, he continued to write.

Mahler eventually came to the United States to conduct the Metropolitan Opera and later the New York Symphony.

Mahler’s personal life was both tragic and turbulent. In addition to the frequent child deaths in his family, he lost additional siblings in early adulthood. Always emotional, he had a series of love affairs before taking up with his eventual wife Alma. She was substantially younger, came from an anti-Semitic family, and had her own strong willed and difficult personality. One of their children died in infancy of diphtheria, and soon afterward, Mahler himself was diagnosed with heart failure due to recurrent bouts with scarlet fever beginning in childhood. (The same disease killed several of his siblings) Eventually, Mahler himself succumbed at age 50, leaving behind 10 symphonies and a number of song cycles.

Mahler’s music was controversial from the very beginning. Although influenced by Wagner and Bruckner, it is unmistakably unique. Lebrecht identifies the essential quality as the ability to say and mean more than one thing at once. This contains a good deal of truth. Mahler’s emotion is at the surface of his music, but the emotion isn’t clear. In Tchaikovsky, for example, the emotionality is straight forward – sorrow, despair, joy, longing, love, etc. In Mahler, there is often a mixture. Sometimes, this mixture seems absurd, contradictory, or impossible. A seemingly serious passage will be interrupted by the banal or the absurd. The funeral march will give way to a sappy popular tune or a trite melody will be transformed into a soaring theme.

An excellent example is in the 3rd movement of Mahler’s first symphony. Mahler begins with, of all things, Frere Jacques, transposed into a minor key, played by a solo string bass in a high register. This funeral march suddenly gives way to a Klezmer band playing a series of trite Yiddish tunes. Mahler originally described this as the funeral of a hunter with the animals following behind in celebration. Lebrecht suggests an alternate theme – one Mahler wouldn’t say because it would be too difficult for his audience. The use of a child’s tune as a funeral march suggests the brothers and sisters he described as being carried out of his home in tiny coffins as the rowdy band played in the tavern below. Listen and decide for yourself. 

Mahler’s music is certainly haunted from beginning to end by death. This should not be considered a flaw, as death comes to us all, and surrounds us as it did Mahler – our circumstances simply allow us to ignore it better.

Mahler’s music wasn’t embraced during his lifetime, although he had some limited success. After his death and the rise of the Nazis his music was banned in the German speaking countries as “decadent”, a code word for “Jewish”. The music didn’t catch on in the United States until later, but was brought to the consciousness of the public by Leonard Bernstein and others after World War Two. Since that time, Mahler has become one of the most recorded classical composers of all time.

Mahler remains controversial. Many if not most either love or hate his music. Love or hate, he has been influential musically on both 20th century classical music, and in the eventual movie music to come. A quick listen of John Williams reveals his debt to Mahler.

With this in mind, Lebrecht does an excellent job of advocating for Mahler’s music. He clearly considers Mahler to be the best composer of all time, and comes to this conclusion having immersed himself in the music to an astounding degree. It is refreshing as a musician to read from an author who understands and knows the music and who has taken the time to listen to numerous live concerts in addition to multiple recordings. Lebrecht clearly loves the music – if not all of its interpretations. He brings an interesting perspective to its interpretation.

Lebrecht also cuts through the static on the mixed reputation of Mahler’s works. Such luminaries as the philosopher Wittgenstein concluded that the music was “worthless”, although he granted that it took “a set of very rare talents to produce this bad music.” Lebrecht questions why, if the music was so bad, it elicited such a violent reaction.

“Bad art does not require intelligent deprecation.”

True words worth borrowing.

Where Lebrecht is weak is in his insistence on making Mahler more than he was: an excellent, moving, and influential composer. Lebrecht falls for the common modern day fallacy that art can cure evil. The theory in this case is (roughly) that if a person (say Hitler), had embraced Mahler’s music, it would have made him emotionally whole and cured his anti-Semitism. This is dubious, if for no other reason, that Hitler liked and admired much that is good and admirable in the various arts. Such good taste did nothing to prevent the murder of 6 million of his fellow humans.

The problem comes with the elevation of a man to the status of a god. By such deification, claims are made about the object of admiration that cannot be true, thus distracting from all the truly good and noble things the man did.

I particularly took issue with Lebrecht’s claim that Mahler is unique in the way musicians respond to his music. Lebrecht correctly notes that professional musicians have to, to a certain degree, isolate their own emotions from the music they are playing. A generally sanguine individual like myself, for example, cannot let my own happiness intrude on the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique – despair must come through whether I can personally feel it or not. Lebrecht goes too far, however, by claiming that, “Mahler, alone among composers, allows [musicians] to emote and still perform.” As an illustration, he mentions a musician who was transported by the music to a previous strong emotional experience. Perhaps there are those rare, jaded musicians that have had this happen only once, with only one composer. There are many more of us who have experienced this on many occasions, with many different pieces. If I may be allowed to generalize from my own experience, I can reliably find myself overwhelmed by emotion while playing at our concerts. Most recently, I found Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, 4th movement, to be a visceral experience – and there are many more moments. I can even come into a passage knowing that it has affected me in the past, and still have involuntary shivers in my spine and physical-emotional reaction that puts me beyond time and space. I suspect all true musicians have felt the same way more than a few times.

By all means, read this book. I would recommend a quick perusal of a less biased biography to fill in the details first before accepting the claims of this book at face value, but this book will raise awareness of Mahler’s excellent music and awaken a desire to hear more of it.

A few notes for listening:

Symphony #4 is probably the easiest introduction to Mahler. Conveniently, the Bakersfield Symphony is performing this on Saturday, February 11, 2012.
Symphony #1, although long, is well worth the effort
I particularly love Symphony #5, for whatever that is worth.
Don’t let this limit you, however – there is great music in all of his symphonies.

If you have Netflix, Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s concerts are available for rental. His introduction to Mahler gives an excellent slice of the music.
YouTube also has an excellent selection of great performances.