Saturday, January 21, 2017

Election 2016

I am renaming Orozco's print, "Election 2016."
Like all right-thinking people, I conclude, when an election goes my way, that a good system is working as it should. When it doesn’t go my way, I bemoan a deranged system where the δημος, the mob, can be unduly influenced by a δημηγορος, a demagogue. In the case of the election of 2016, it was hardly any skill of a demagogue that did the trick. Anybody can see through that guy—unless you’re in love. Proust says more than once in In Search of Lost Time that the beloved is never a real person but always the imaginary creation of the lover. The electorate fell in love with a figure of their own imagining, a combination of wealth, celebrity, and take-me-back nostalgia, who was going to restore a past that meant different things to everyone who imagined that the promiser could bring it back. For one guy it meant a time when you didn’t have to have a college degree to get a good job. For another guy it was a time when everyone “knew his place.” For one woman it was a time when the faces all looked like hers. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Suite Française

The last couple of years have begun for me with reading about the beginning of WWII. At the beginning of 2016 I read A. J. Liebling’s The Road Back to Paris about the fall of Paris (Liebling was there until a day or two before the Germans marched in) and the beginning of the war before the U. S. entered the European theater and the Germans began to be pushed back in North Africa.  At the beginning of this year I read Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, about Parisians fleeing the city just before the Germans marched in, and the people in provincial France coping with the occupation. These were two completed novels of a projected five that Némirovsky wrote in 1942, just before she was sent to Auschwitz, and which weren’t published until 2004. In the first novel, Storm in June, Némirovsky follows four groups of people as they attempt to get out of Paris and to what they hope is the safety of Nîmes, Tours, or Vichy. In the second novel, Dolce, she shows us the people in and around the village of Bussy: the local aristocracy, the families of the village, and the farmers, as they cope with German officers living in their houses. Némirovsky skewers the provincials and their stinginess, one farmer’s truculent, jealous and resentful nature, the haughtiness of the local aristocracy, and the minute hierarchical gradations among the bourgeoisie. She strikes me as owing more to Flaubert than to any Russian novelist. She delights in careful description, often, as in Flaubert, choosing the physical details that give insight into a venal, selfish, or weak character. Clarity and precise word choice, lyrical passages, but mostly lucid and simple storytelling characterize her writing. By 1942 Némirovsky had been a successful novelist for thirteen years and though writing in a tense and deteriorating situation, she got her adopted countrymen down on the page with grace and precision.

Monday, December 26, 2016

2016 Reading

About a quarter of my reading this year was nonfiction. A J. Liebling’s The Road Back to Paris (1944) gave me a view of the beginning of the war in Europe by a writer whose style I’ve always liked; my friend Chris Buckley’s book of memoir/essays Holy Days of Obligation (2014) told me much about him I hadn’t known. I very much enjoyed a collection of Max Beerbohm’s essays called The Prince of Minor Writers (2015), selected and with a fine introduction by Phillip Lopate. Beerbohm is the funny, urbane, self-deprecating writer Virginia Woolf, no slouch at the form herself, called the prince of essayists. Not so much fun was Bruce Chatwin’s quirky travel book In Patagonia (1977). The worst book I read his year was Charles Fernyhough’s The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves (2016), which does not deliver on either of its subtitle’s promises. I was in search of something helpful toward an essay I’m writing about talking to myself, and Fernyhough was a disappointment.
            I finally finished Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations in the 1968 edition introduced by Hannah Arendt. I had read the essay on art and mechanical reproduction years ago, and also the essays on Baudelaire, and “Unpacking My Library,” but some of the other pieces were new to me. In an odd deconstruction of Proust’s mémoire involontaire Benjamin asks whether it is not closer to an art of forgetting than remembering. The two Kafka essays were also “illuminating.” Like David Foster Wallace, Benjamin highlights Kafka’s way of literalizing metaphors in his stories, though Benjamin doesn’t see this as a source of humor the way Wallace does.
            One of the year’s pleasant impulse reads was Witold Rybczynski’s entertaining, well-illustrated history of the chair, Now I Sit Me Down (2016). And after rereading E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (1965) last year, I went on to read again two other, very different art books: Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology (1939) and Joshua Taylor’s Learning to Look (1957).
            I also reread two modernist books on the novel: Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction (1921) and E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927). I looked at them partly because I read this year, for the first time, some of the novels they talk about: Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (1833), Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878), Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (1830), and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880). I’ve decided despite being blown away by all these and, in the past, by War and Peace (1869) and Crime and Punishment (1866), that my favorite Russian novels are Anna Karenina and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862).
            Other books that I’d put off reading in the past that I got around to reading with pleasure this year: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and an Alice Munro collection called Too Much Happiness (2009). They all pleased me as they had already done for so many others. Do you find that the books you’re reading always justify their reputations?
            Beloved raised a question in my mind right away about the ghost. Am I comfortable reading about ghosts? I guess the question for me is really an aesthetic one rather than a metaphysical one: what do you do with your ghosts? The Christian tradition divides into those on the Roman Catholic side, who’ve always believed that the dead continue to have an interest in the living, and the Reformation/Protestant side who thought they didn’t. If you think spirits abide then ghosts can’t be utterly foreign to you; even the hyperconservative Samuel Johnson had an open mind on the subject. I don’t believe spirits abide, but I believe in fiction.
            The most unusual books I read this year were the Rybczynski book on the history of chairs, Machado de Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881)—which is a satiric, anti-Romantic novel narrated by a dead man—and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1833). Onegin is a novel in verse, but not just any verse; it’s written in patent imitation of Byron’s comic novel in verse, Don Juan (1821), though its matter is a tragic look at the honor code that leads Onegin to kill his best friend Lensky in a duel, and it treats cynically the sheltered Russian class from which its characters come. Also out of the ordinary in this year’s reading was Wild Apple (2015), a book of poems by HeeDuk Ra, sent to me by my friend and former student Daniel Parker, who translated the poems with his wife YoungShil Ji. They live in Daegu, South Korea, and Daniel teaches at Keimyung University. The poems range in reference from the southwestern United States, which inspired the title poem, to Ra’s homeland of South Korea and feature, among much nature description, pig’s heads for sale in the market, the female clam divers of the southern islands, and public baths. I was grateful for Daniel and Shil’s clear notes about Ra as well as about Korean language and culture.
            For balance and mental hygiene I also read this year a couple of Pogo collections and eight P. G. Wodehouse books.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Thousand Nights and a Night

            I am very much enjoying my reading of the new Everyman’s edition of The Arabian Nights. Among collections of framed tales such as The Decameron, The Panchatantra, The Canterbury Tales, and The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, the last has the most compelling frame story:  Scheherazade, the clever daughter of the vizier of King Shahryar, seeks to marry the king even though he executes each wife he marries the morning after the marriage night. By telling him stories she does not finish the night they are begun, she uses his curiosity to prolong her life, and eventually, after a thousand nights, he has fallen in love with her.
            Inevitably, a work whose edges are as amorphous as The Thousand Nights and which has been around more than a millennium is going to be a target for cultural appropriation. Wen-Chin Ouyang, who edits and introduces the 2014 Everyman edition, focuses on this aspect of The Arabian Nights and even uses the title Sir Richard Burton gave the work in his ten-volume appropriation of the tales for English speakers (1885-6).
The Hazar Afsan, a Persian collection mentioned in tenth-century accounts, seems to be the origin of what became The Thousand and One Nights, which is yet another version of the title. This collection, which has the frame story, was then translated into Arabic and transmitted in various Syrian and Egyptian manuscripts, accreting tales with each manifestation and continuing to do so when translations were made into European languages. Elements of Indian, Jewish, and Egyptian folk stories join those of Arab and Persian origin. The stories that many readers think of as the heart of The Arabian Nights—Aladdin and his lamp, Ali Baba and the forty thieves, and the voyages of Sindbad the Sailor—are almost certainly of European origin, added in the 1704 French translation of Antoine Galland and the editions of other European translators.
            Eight tales appear in all the manuscript versions. The first canonical tale is that of the merchant and the Ifrit or Demon who threatens to kill the merchant for inadvertently having killed the Ifrit’s son by throwing away a fruit pit. On the day appointed for his death (the merchant has wangled a stay to get his affairs in order), the merchant is joined by three men leading a gazelle, two dogs, and a mule, respectively (all the animals turn out to be people who have been enchanted into these forms). The three men tell stories that engross the Ifrit enough so that he lets the merchant go. During each of the tales Scheherazade pauses, always at a critical point, because morning is approaching, and King Shahryar agrees to keep her alive until the next night, when the story will be concluded. This first tale echoes and furthers the frame of the whole Nights in that it is itself framed, its tale within a tale structure is of itself  a delaying tactic, and finally it mirrors the larger frame story because its merchant protagonist, like Scheherazade, is kept alive by the telling of tales.
            “The Fisherman and the Jinni” is the second of the canonical tales. Here too are nested tales the fisherman tells the Jinni after luring him back into the copper jar where he was imprisoned during the time of Solomon, and from which he emerged with the intention of killing the person who freed him—the fisherman. The fisherman’s story of Rayyan’s cure of King Yunan is interrupted when the king tells his jealous vizier the story of Sindbad (not the one who has his own, non-canonical tale of seven voyages later) who regrets killing his falcon. The vizier comes right back with the story of a vizier killed by his king because he led the king’s son into danger from an ogress. King Yunan heeds the jealous vizier and prepares to kill Rayyan. But Rayyan fools him into fetching a book with supposed magic powers but which actually has poisoned pages that kill Yunan. Rayyan had implored mercy in vain from Yunan; the fisherman reminds the Ifrit how he had implored mercy to no avail. When the fisherman relents and released the Ifrit, the demon allows the fisherman to catch fish for which he is rewarded by his king, but they are magic fish that attract disturbing visitors when they are cooking. The king goes in search of answers about the magic fish and finds a young man half turned to marble, who tells a story of his bewitchment by his unfaithful wife. The king finds her and forces her to disenchant the young man, the fish, and the whole kingdom.
            The other canonical tales are “The Story of the Porter and the Three Ladies,” the stories associated with “The Hunchback’s Tale,” “The Story of the Three Apples,” which contains “The Story of Nur al-Din,” The Story of Ali ibn Baqqar,” and “The Story of Qamar al-Zaman.”
            The Sindbad stories—that is “The Seven Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor” reminded me how different the real Arabian Nights is from any of its popularizations. The occasional grave-robbing doesn’t show up in Disney, though the giant, always malevolent creatures like the Roc do. But there are nightmarish figures like the old man who attaches himself to Sinbad’s shoulders and will not let go even when the two are sleeping. And, too, there are the echoes of European literature, for example in the Polyphemus-like giant who eats Sindbad’s companions until he devises a stratagem to make the ogre drunk and put out his eyes. The Sindbad tales have their own frame story, as each voyage is told by Sindbad the Sailor to another Sindbad, a landsman.
 Sindbad’s voyages have a reassuring pattern similar to that of many of the other tales. He grows restless at home in Baghdad, goes to El-Basrah to take ship, is separated from his companions by shipwreck or other disasters (such as being marooned on an island that turns outs to be a huge whale sleeping on the surface of the sea), undergoes thrilling adventures, and finally is reunited to his companions or finds new friends, returning home even richer than he left it.
            Ouyang makes the interesting decision to use different English translations for different tales: Edward William Lane’s somewhat prudish translations from his (1838-41) edition, those of Burton, who especially relished the erotic tales, John Payne’s translations, to which Burton was heavily indebted and which tend to be more poetic, and the Jean-Charles Mardrus French translation (1899-1904) that was turned into English by Edward Powys Mathers (1923), providing far from the first case where the texts we have available to us are translations of translations.