Saturday, October 30, 2021

Sonnets 1-50 by Petrarch


Because of Covid, my wife and I were not able to travel anywhere exotic for our 20th anniversary. But we did take a little trip up to Sonoma County that involved delicious food and artisan hard cider, a walk on the beach, and a visit to Jack London’s estate. And also, visits to a couple of amazing used bookstores in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. 


One of my finds in Sebastopol was this Folio Society edition of Petrarch’s sonnets, in both Italian and English translation. At nearly 400 pages, it is far too much to read in one sitting, so I decided (on the principle that the universe uses a base-10 counting system and loves big round numbers) to read the first fifty sonnets, and work my way through the book over time that way. I also am taking the advice of the editor. 


One final presumptuous word - of well-meant advice. Do not, dear reader, try to devour the sonnets at one go… Take them one or two or at most a half a dozen at a time. Savor them, roll them on your tongue, assimilate them. Otherwise, you will do neither Petrarch nor yourself justice. After all, they were thirty-odd years in the writing. Approach them as the poet approached his love - and as love should be approached - with respect, tenderness, and a willingness to learn, and without haste, impatience, or gluttony. Then, even as he did, you will return to them often.


First, a bit about Petrarch. Francesco Petrarca, commonly known as Petrarch, was an Italian Renaissance poet who greatly influenced subsequent poets from his day to the present. If one were to list the writers of the Italian Renaissance, two poets stand out: Dante, and Petrarch. And it would be difficult to determine which had the greater impact. 


Petrarch’s preferred form was the sonnet. He didn’t invent it - that honor probably goes to Giacomo da Lentini a couple centuries prior - but he did write the earliest ones that remain popular around the world today. That is why the particular form of sonnet he wrote in is called the Petrarchan Sonnet (not to be confused with the Shakespearean Sonnet.) 


The form for a Petrarchan Sonnet is fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, with the rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA for the first eight lines, and one of the following variants for the last six: CDE CDE, CDCCDC, or CDCDCD. There are a few others used by modern poets for the final six lines, but Petrarch stayed traditional. The poem is divided into two quatrains, often each expressing a thought, followed by the final six lines forming a response, or a shift, from the ideas of the first part of the poem. 


The form, as you can see, is both rigid and a challenge to write. I was drawn to the sonnet from my high school days, and even wrote a few, although they were lost when I moved away from home. Probably just as well, because they were technically perfect, but rubbish. I am not a poet despite my love for poetry. It was fun to write them, though - I like a challenge. For what it is worth, I preferred to write in the Petrarchan form. 


Petrarch’s sonnets are all part of a big cycle, and are about his unrequited love for “Laura.” In real life, Petrarch was smitten by a married woman, and she was probably his model for Laura, although there is no solid agreement on her identity. Her husband was an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade, although there is no evidence he shared his descendent’s proclivities. Sadly, she died in her late 30s, leaving Petrarch to his grief, which he poured out in further sonnets. And also in a long narrative religious allegory poem in terza rima, the same form as Divine Comedy, in which Laura is memorialized as a character. 


In this particular edition, the original Italian is presented alongside an English translation of the same sonnet. This makes for fun reading. Although I am far from fluent, I can pick up at least some of the meaning (like I can for Spanish), so it is interesting to see what choices the translators made. 


And speaking of translators, there are many in this book, starting with Chaucer, and continuing to the 20th Century. In all, there are 27 different translators, including the editor who selected the versions he preferred for each poem. This does mean that the poems vary in their feel, from practically medieval to modern traditional. One could argue whether this is good or bad, I suppose, but it was probably necessary for this edition, unless Folio wished to commission a complete new translation. In any case, I am certainly not going to quibble about the choice, since just having a beautiful hardback edition on my shelf makes me happy. The translations I read are good, too. It isn’t as if hacks were chosen - these are legitimate poets and translators. 


The introduction was also very helpful, providing the background information to understand the poems and the history behind them. 


Petrarch, like a surprising number of writers, was originally intended for the law. He did not enjoy his legal studies, however, and eventually gave them up. As he himself put it:


I then set out for Montpellier to study law, and spent four years there, then three at Bologna. I heard the whole body of the civil law, and would, as many thought, have distinguished myself later, had I but continued my studies. I gave up the study altogether, however, as soon as it was no longer necessary to consult the wishes of my parents [after his father’s death…] My reason was that, although the dignity of the law, which is doubtlessly very great, and especially the numerous references it contains to Roman antiquity, did not fail to delight me, I felt it to be habitually degraded by those who practice it. It went against me painfully to acquire an art which I would not practice dishonestly, and could hardly hope to exercise otherwise. Had I made the later attempt, my scrupulousness would doubtless have been ascribed to simplicity.


Man, that’s a sick burn. As a lawyer, that smarts. But on to the poems. 


From the first fifty, here are the ones that stood out to me. 


The first is entitled “Love Madness,” and is number VI in the collection. The translator is Robert MacGregor. (1805-1869) I believe the titles were added later, not in the original, but they help identify the poems.


So wayward now my will, and so unwise,

To follow her who turns from me in flight,

And, from Love’s fetters free herself and light,

Before my slow and shackled motion flies,

That less it lists, the more my sighs and cries

Would point where passes the safe path and right,

Nor aught avails to check or to excite,

For Love’s own nature curb and spur defies.

Thus, when perforce the bridle he has won,

And helpless at his mercy I remain,

Against my will he speeds me to mine end

‘Neath you cold laurel, whose false boughs upon

Hangs the harsh fruit, which, tasted, spreads the pain

I sought to stay, and mars where it should mend.   


The next one is translated by John Nott (1751-1825), and is one of several wherein the poet speaks to others. It is also not obviously a Laura poem, but it fits in the sequence. 


“Encouragement to a high-minded friend”


Intemperance, slumber, and the slothful down

Have chased each virtue from this world away;

Hence is our nature nearly led astray

From its due course, by habitude o’erthrown:

Those kindly lights of heaven so dim are grown,

Which shed o’er human life instruction’s ray;

That him with scornful wonder they survey,

Who would draw forth the stream of Helicon.

Whom doth the laurel please, or myrtle now?

“Naked and poor, Philosophy art thou!”

The worthless crowd, intent on lucre, cries.

Few on they chosen road will thee attend;

Yet let it more incite thee, gentle friend,

To prosecute thy high-conceived emprise. 


More typical of the Laura them is this one, translated by Capel Lofft. (1751-1824) 


“Laura, source of tears and joy”


Down my cheeks bitter tears incessant rain,

And my heart struggles with convulsive sighs,

When, Laura, upon you I turn my eyes,

For whom the world’s allurements I disdain.

But when I see that gentle smile again,

That modest, sweet, and tender smile, arise,

It pours on every sense a blest surprise;

Lost in delight is all my torturing pain.

Too soon this heavenly transport sinks and dies:

When all thy soothing charms my fate removes

At thy departure from my ravished view.

To that sole refuge is firm faith approves

My spirit from my ravished bosom flies,

And winged with fond remembrance follows you.


I am not that familiar with Lofft, but his skill is apparent. I looked him up, and, lo and behold, he was a lawyer by day. And a controversial one - he appealed the death sentence of a servant girl convicted of stealing 40 shillings from her master. (Back in the day when theft got capital punishment…) When the appeal failed, he accompanied his client to the scaffold. Apparently, unlike the American tradition where defense attorneys are expected to take on unpopular cases, in England of the time, he was looked down on for defending a low-class thief, and showing compassion before her execution. So that was a cool rabbit hole to go down. 


Anyway, here is another Lofft translation, in which he duplicates not just the rhymes, but the ending words of the original. 


When I reflect and turn me to that part

Whence my sweet lady beam'd in purest light,

And in my inmost thought remains that light

Which burns me and consumes in every part,

I, who yet dread lest from my heart it part

And see at hand the end of this my light,

Go lonely, like a man deprived of light,

Ignorant where to go; whence to depart.

Thus flee I from the stroke which lays me dead,

Yet flee not with such speed but that desire

Follows, companion of my flight alone.

Silent I go:--but these my words, though dead,

Others would cause to weep--this I desire,

That I may weep and waste myself alone.


Here is the original:


Quand’io son tutto vòlto in quella parte

ove ‘l bel viso di madonna luce,

et m’è rimasa nel pensier la luce

che m’arde et strugge dentro a parte a parte,

i’ che temo del cor che mi si parte,

et veggio presso il fin de la mia luce,

vommene in guisa d’orbo, senza luce,

che non sa ove si vada et pur si parte.

Cosí davanti ai colpi de la morte

fuggo: ma non sí ratto che ‘l desio

meco non venga come venir sòle.

Tacito vo, ché le parole morte

farian pianger la gente; et i’ desio

che le lagrime mie si spargan sole.


Take time to admire the craft in each. I re-read this one several times just because of the craftsmanship.


[Note: the lowercase at the beginning of lines is in the original. It is different than the usual English convention.]


This next one, titled “As the moth to the flame,” was translated in the 16th Century by Thomas Wyatt. The translation is a classic in its own right, one of the best known of Petrarch’s poems. 


Some fowles there be that haue so perfit sight

Against the sunne their eies for to defend;

And some because the light doth them offend,

Do neuer appeare, but in the darke or night.

Other reioyce that see the fire bryght,

And wene to play in it, as they do pretend:

But find the contrary of it that they intend.

Alas, of that sort I may be by right,

For to withstand her loke I am not able:

Yet can I not hide me in no dark place:

So foloweth me remembrance of that face:

That with my teary eyn, swolne and unstable,

My desteny to beholde her doth me lead:

And yet do I knowe, I run into the glead.


The next sonnet was translated in the 20th Century, by Morris Bishop, and is entitled “Meditation on Death.”


Near and yet nearer looms the final day,

Setting the finis to my misery,

Time swift and yet more swiftly seems to flee,

Bearing as swiftly all my hopes away.

I say to my thoughts: “We shall not long delay

Talking of love together; as we see

The snow, fresh-fallen, vanish suddenly,

So, soon, shall pass the burden of our clay.

And we’ll have peace; for with the body dies

Hope, the mad agent of our desolation;

And fear dies too, and laughter, wrath, and pain.

Perhaps, from uttermost annihilation,

We’ll see some new, strange, marvellous thing arise,

And all our suffering, we shall know, was vain.”


Here is another by MacGregor. He translated many, and I like his style. I also love this particular poem. 


“Wordless in her presence”


If fire was never yet by fire subdued,

If never flood fell dry by frequent rain,

But, like to like, if each by other gain,

And contraries are often mutual food;

Love, who our thoughts controllest in each mood,

Through whom two bodies thus one soul sustain,

How, why in her, with such unusual strain

Make the want less by wishes long renewed?

Perchance, as falleth the broad Nile from high,

Deafening with his great voice all nature round,

And as the sun still dazzles the fix'd eye,

So with itself desire in discord found

Loses in its impetuous object force,

As the too frequent spur oft checks the course.


I’ll end with another by Nott, which pretty much sums up unrequited love. 


O how unwary was I on that day,

When at the first Love smote me with his dart,

Till by degrees he triumphed o’er my heart,

And governed it with arbitrary sway!

I little thought its firmness would give way,

Its strength decrease by his insidious art:

So doth it fare with all who will depart

From safety’s path, and amid dangers stray.

‘Twere folly since resistance to pretend,

We now can only try if aught of prayer

Preferred by morals Love will deign attend.

I ask not, for ‘tis vain and claims no care,

That my fond passion should abate or end;

I ask that Laura may such passion share. 


I have so far enjoyed my experience of Petrarch, and look forward to browsing further in the future. 


Friday, October 29, 2021

Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. I’m not really much of a horror reader, so nearly all of our annual “Spooky Lush” books have been ones I would not have otherwise picked up. This is definitely one of them. While I am glad I read it, and the discussion was interesting as usual (and it was nice to be back in person with friends for the first time in over a year and a half), I can say that Anne Rice isn’t exactly my cup of tea. 


Time has flown, and I realized that this is the 51st title that I have read for this club, although some of those I read later rather than for the club meetings. Covid has also meant, ironically, that I have been able to attend all of the meetings over the last two years, which has been fun. I will append the list of books at the end of this post. 


Anyway, apparently this book was wildly popular, if a bit controversial, when it came out in 1976. It puts a bit of a twist on the vampire story, telling it from the point of view of a vampire. It doesn’t depart from the formula as much as Twilight would later, but it has some new ideas. 


Apparently, Rice wrote the book in part as a way of dealing with her grief over the death of her young daughter - Claudia is patterned after her. 


The basic idea is that Louis is made into a vampire by Lestat, a lone vampire who is pretty much an abuser, withholding information from Louis in order to make him dependent on Lestat. This happens in New Orleans back in the late 1700s. Louis is an enslaver, and Lestat feeds primarily on the enslaved in the first part of the story. (This is just one of the things in this book that is pretty uncomfortable.)


Later, sensing that Louis is about to leave him, he practically blackmails Louis into creating another vampire, this time out of a five-year-old girl named Claudia. 


Because vampires are immortal, they do not age, and Claudia becomes, over time, a woman trapped in a child’s body. This causes her distress, and she decides to take revenge on Lestat, attempting to kill him twice. Louis and Claudia then flee, first to Transylvania, then to Paris, in search of information about who and what they are. 


In between, there is some mild sexiness, some disturbing scenes, and a certain amount of philosophizing. The last was the part I found the most interesting. Otherwise, it was okay, reasonably well written, but not on the same level as the original


Here are a few lines I jotted down:


“People who cease to believe in God or goodness altogether still believe in the devil. I don’t know why. No, I do indeed know why. Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult.” 


I wonder how much this matches up with Rice’s own journey, first away from the Catholic faith to atheism, then back to Catholicism much later in life - although from what I can tell, she no longer believes in organized religion, and considers herself a humanist. It sounds like quite a journey in any case. 


A lot of the philosophy is on the nature of evil. Because vampires are (sort of) immortal, they look at morality a bit differently. 


“Evil is a point of view,” [Lestat] whispered now. “We are immortal. And what we have before us are the rich feasts that conscience cannot appreciate and mortal men cannot know with regret. God kills, and so shall we; indiscriminately He takes the richest and the poorest, and so shall we.” 


The thing that I have found the most disturbing in the last few years has been how many supposed “christians” think this way in practice. At least the idea that, well, since God kills, we are entitled to do so too. Think about the response to Covid, and the fatalism that “nobody dies before their time” so we should not wear masks, refuse vaccines, and threaten public officials who try to keep people safe. One has to wonder if they would be so casual about letting their kids run in traffic. Or, think about the fact that three quarters of white evangelicals think we have no duty to rescue refugees. Hey, I guess God doesn’t care about them either, so why should we? 


“I’m convinced that Lestat was a person who preferred not to think or talk about his motives or beliefs, even to himself. One of those people who must act. Such a person must be pushed considerably before he will open up and confess that there is method and thought to the way he lives. That is what happened with Lestat. He’d been pushed to where he had to discover even for himself why he lived as he did. Keeping me with him, that was undoubtedly part of what pushed him. But I think, in retrospect, that he himself wanted to know his own reasons for killing, wanted to examine his own life. He was discovering when he spoke what he did believe.” 


That last line is fascinating. Recently, a friend I have made noted that belief isn’t so much deciding what we believe, but discovering it. I think if we are willing to step outside ourselves, we can often see that what we actually believe - as revealed by what we do and say - is a lot different from what we think we believe. This is related to the idea that we don’t actually get to decide whether we are racist. Other people will look at our words and actions and draw conclusions about whether we are or not. (And some people get very pissy when others draw the obvious conclusions.) 


There is a bit of sex in the book, although not between vampires, who have no ability to enjoy any pleasures of the flesh, such as eating or sex. But, as in the original, it is pretty obvious that the attraction of mortals to vampires is sexual in some way. (And seriously, a beautiful nubile woman being pierced by pointy things, eventually dying? That’s not intended to be sexual? Or judgy about women having “forbidden” sex? And the Victorians definitely didn’t believe that illicit sex caused women to waste away, right?) 


Rice’s version is definitely more bisexual and homosexual than Stoker’s original. In fact, the attractions between vampires seems to qualify as homoromantic bordering on homoerotic. There is definitely a crush by Lestat on Louis, and by Louis on Armand. But Louis also kind of has the hots for Claudia, which is kind of icky. (From other members, I understand that Rice has a pedophilic vibe to some of her books. Not full on, but at least hinted. Which probably was more acceptable in literature in the 1970s than now.) 


I do want to quote a passage on vampirism and sex that I think is interesting. It is a conversation between Claudia and Louis. 


“What was it like…making love?”

“It was something hurried,” I said, trying now to meet her eyes. How perfectly, coldly blue they were. How earnest. “And…it was seldom savored…something acute that was quickly lost. I think that it was the pale shadow of killing.” 


As Rice describes the kill, the vampire feels a sort of intimacy with the victim, as if the blood itself carried the hopes and dreams and emotions, and thus the vampire feels a momentary bond and connection with the victim. It’s a bit weird, but also makes sense in the context of vampirism as a metaphor for sex. Adding the intimacy part is just another layer of the same idea. 


There is also an excellent discussion between Louis and the French vampire Armand on the source of evil. This is a philosophical problem that plagues all monotheistic religions, and there is no easy or entirely satisfying answer to it. 


“Then we are not….” I sat forward,”....the children of Satan?”

“How could we be the children of Satan?” he asked. “Do you believe that Satan made the world around you?”

“No, I believe that God made it, if anyone made it. But He also must have made Satan, and I want to know if we are his children!”

“Exactly, and consequently if you believe God made Satan, you must realize that all Satan’s power comes from God and that Satan is simply God’s child, and that we are God’s children also. There are no children of Satan, really.” 


That is ultimately the issue. If an all-powerful god truly created everything, they must be responsible for the existence of evil too. And, as I said, there is no satisfying theological answer to this, at least that I have ever heard. (And the Fundamentalist one is the least satisfying of all.) The best I can find is that some fundamental law of the universe related to free will (which presumably god created) requires the existence of evil in order for good to exist. But, as I said, not fully satisfying. Of course, a necessary part of thinking philosophically or metaphysically is the acceptance of reality even - especially - when it doesn’t fit neat theories or ideologies. No adult way of thinking can avoid the necessary paradoxes and tensions of existence. This is both why Fundamentalism is so attractive - it eliminates the need for deep thought and acceptance of discomfort - and why Fundamentalism is at its core a toddler-level way of thinking about the world. 


These philosophical musings were interesting, but I also felt like Rice never answered Louis’ fundamental questions. More than anything, he wants to know who and what he is, and how the vampires came to be. But the book never really answers any of that. He (and the reader) is teased with promises of revelation, but nothing ever is revealed. The last third of the book goes really fast, and there are hints of this and that, but other than existentialist ennui, there are no real revelations. The trip to Transylvania and Paris moves the plot forward, but it doesn’t add anything of significance to either Louis’ or the reader’s understanding. 


There are a whole bunch of books that came later to make this essentially the first of a series, and perhaps there is more explanation in those books. I believe this one was intended to be a stand-alone at the time, though, so it was disappointing that explanations are never given. 


So, I guess in summary, it was an interesting book, and reasonably well written, but it seemed to start off going somewhere that it never went, and ultimately, the needs of plot won out over answers. And, of course, I am not really into horror for its own sake, so I’m probably not the best person to evaluate the book on its own terms. 




Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. A few of the books were “optional” second books for a given month.


Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng 

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Big Sur by Jack Kerouac

The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Broad Band by Claire Evans

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Circe by Madeline Miller

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

There There by Tommy Orange

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Educated by Tara Westover

Stiff by Mary Roach

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Artemis by Andy Weir

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore