Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Republic of Pemberley

Came across a fun website for the Austen-obsessed:  The Republic of Pemberley.  In the Republic,
We, all of us, remember only too well the great relief we felt upon discovering this haven for Jane Austen Addicts. If your eyes did not widen, if you did not gasp in recognition, if you did not experience a frisson of excitement when you discovered a whole campful of soldiers - er - a whole websiteful of fellow Jane Austen Fanatics, then this place may not be for you. We are The Truly Obsessed here and have been known to talk for weeks about Jane Austen's spelling quirks and Mr. Darcy's coat ("No, no - the green one.")
In addition to discussion forums on a variety of Austen-related topics, there is a wonderful and extensive jokes page, from which:

Pride and  Prejudice in One Minuet!
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be want of a wife.
  • "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me."
  • "I am all astonishment. How long has she has she been such a favorite? -- and pray, when am I to wish you joy?"
  • "No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night."
  • "It is my cousin, Mr. Collins, who when I am dead, may turn you all out of the house."
  • "I had not thought Mr. Darcy so bad as this -- though I have never liked him."
  • "Engaged to Mr. Collins! My dear Charlotte--impossible!"
  • "Why should they try to influence him? [Mr. Bingley] They can only wish his happiness; and if he is attached to me, no other woman can secure it."
  • "Neither of us perform to strangers."
  • "I must tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
  • "This will not do," said Elizabeth "you will never be able to make both of them good." "For my part, I am inclined to believe it all Mr. Darcy."
  • "Oh yes! -- If one could but go to Brighton!"
  • "I am grieved indeed," cried Darcy; "grieved -- shocked."
  • "It is possible?" cried Elizabeth "Can it be possible that he will marry her?"
  • "But gracious me! I quite forgot! I ought not to have said a word about it. I promised them so faithfully. What will Wickham say?"
  • "'Tis too much," she added, "by far too much. I do not deserve it. Oh! Why is not everbody as happy?"
  • "Not so hasty if you please."
  • "You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me at once."
  • "Oh Lizzy! It cannot be. I know how much you dislike him."
  • "But in such cases as these a good memory is unpardonable."
  • "If any young men come for Kitty or Mary, send them in, for I am quite at leisure."
Also from the jokes page:
  • Jane Austen Top Ten Song List ("Lord, It's Hard to be Humble"--Mr. Darcy)
  • Jane Austen Punishments List (A visit to a library with Miss Bates)
  • Answering Machine Messages of Jane Austen Characters ("I am most seriously displeased to have missed your call. I will return it at my earliest convenience (yours is of no consequence) for I must have my share in the conversation."--Rosings Park
If you're an Austen fan, give it a look; you won't regret it. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wednesday Verse

Reading Hamlet
by Anna Akhmatova

A dusty waste-plot by the cemetery,
Behind it, a river flashing blue.
You said to me, 'Go get thee to a nunnery,
Or get a fool to marry you...'

Well, princes are good at such speeches,
As a girl is quick to tears,--
But may those words stream like an ermine mantle
Behind him for ten thousand years.

1909, Kiev

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Beautiful Words From a Terrible Time

Lately I've been reading some of the poetry and essays of Czeslaw Milosz; specifically those essays collected in Legends of Modernity, written during the German occupation of Warsaw in 1942-43, and some of his poetry from the same period. 

Legends of Modernity is comprised of eight essays and nine letters, the letters being an exchange between Milosz and a friend, also in Warsaw, named Jerzy Andrzejewski.  In the essays and the letters, Milosz attempts, using his knowledge of European literary history, to trace some of the origins of the rise of Naziism (which he saw as a European moral/spiritual crisis) and its destruction of European society.  The writing is scholarly, often detached, and rarely mentions National Socialism or the Germans specifically.  This may be because Milosz saw Naziism as the end result of a long process with many branches to explore.  It was also certainly his own way of coping with the horrors around him; as he explains in his notes to the 1996 Polish edition:  "It was an attempt at autotherapy according to the following prescription:  if everything inside you is agitation, hatred, and despair, write measured and perfectly calm sentences;  turn yourself into a disembodied creature observing your carnal self and current events from a great distance."

The first six essays were of the most interest to me.  In each of these, Milosz discusses a theme ("legend"), from nineteenth and twentieth century European literature, looking for currents of thought and beliefs about human nature that could have contributed to the disaster.  He draws no definitive conclusions, makes no pronouncements.  He is going through an exercise.

"The Legend of the Island," for example, examines the popular idea of the "island" (here the island of Robinson Crusoe) as a place away from other people, where one might realize all one's finest qualities and undeveloped potential away from the leveling and corrupting influences of collective humanity. 

In "The Legend of the Will," Milosz looks at the "superior man" character, taking Nietsche's superman, Stendhal's Julien Sorel, and Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov as examples of the man who believes his unique strength of will and clarity of vision place him above the rest of society and its morality.

"The Experience of War" is the most overtly personal of the six "literary" essays.  Milosz wants to understand how "people are experiencing this war internally."  He turns to War and Peace and the character of Pierre Bezukhov.  Napoleon's conquest of Europe over a century earlier ("innocent" in comparison to National Socialism) stands in for that of Hitler.  "Moscow in flames and a crush of carriages on panic-stricken roads are close to our present understanding," says Milosz, and uses Bezukhov's feelings and actions in "an observation of war from the perspective of a civilian participant." 

The remaining two essays, and the letters between Milosz and Andrzejewski, I confess, interested me much less, mainly because they referenced literary and philosophical movements, and personalities from prewar eastern Europe, with which I'm unfamiliar.  Still, the letters in particular were moving--the voices of two friends discussing philosophy and religion while living under the boot of a thuggish regime. 

I wanted to read his poetry, too, from the period of the occupation.  Here we have the opposite of the detachment of the essays.  His feelings show:  outrage at the violation done by war to every creature, large and small, on the earth.  The poems are restrained--they are not maudlin--but the pain is there.  From "Song of a Citizen" (1943):

This I wanted and nothing more.  In my later years
like old Goethe to stand before the face of the earth,
and recognize it and reconcile it
with my work built up, a forest citadel
on a river of shifting lights and brief shadows.

This I wanted and nothing more.  So who
is guilty?  Who deprived me
of my youth and my ripe years, who seasoned
my best years with horror?  Who,
who ever is to blame, O God?

The essays try to put mental order in place of chaos, and the poems put words to the grief.  Read them both. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Life After Liquid Paper

If you are as old as I am, you were a young adult when personal computers became available to consumers, and that gunky white correction fluid with its little paintbrush went away forever.   "The Muses of Insert, Delete, and Execute," on the front page of the New York Times Arts section this morning, is an interview with Professor Matthew G. Kirshenbaum of the University of Maryland, who recently gave a lecture at the New York Public Library called "Stephen King's Wang," on the history of writing in the digital age.  (Anyone remember Wang computers?)  Check out this interview for an amusing look back at the history of word processing and some of those early machines. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Best of a 2011 Foray Into Modern Lit

Have been reading a lot of modern(ish) literature over the past year, mainly because I've been assigning it to my daughters, and trying to read it ahead of them.  It's been a year of many pleasant surprises.  Surprises, because I've never tended to gravitate toward the modern in literature.  Here, then, is a sampling of my discoveries.

Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen Publisher's decsription:  "Originally published in 1934, Seven Gothic Tales, the first book by "one of the finest and most singular artists of our time" (The Atlantic), is a modern classic.  Here are seven exquisite tales combining the keen psychological insight characteristic of the modern short story with the haunting mystery of the nineteenth-century Gothic tale, in the tradition of writers such as Goethe, Hoffmann, and Poe."    What liked about it:  moody, atmospheric, and elegantly told. Check out her other short story collections--Winter's Tales and Last Tales.
Dimanche by Irene Nemirovsky 
Publisher's description:  "Written between 1934 and 1942, these ten gem-like stories feature all the elements so brilliantly exhibited in Nemirovsky's best-selling novel Suite Francaise:  a keen eye for the details of social class; the tensions between mothers and daughters, husbands and wives; the manners and mannerisms of the French bourgeoisie; questions of religion and personal identity.  Moving from the drawing rooms of prewar Paris to the lives of men and women in wartime France, here we find the beautiful work of a writer at the height of her tragically short career."  What I liked about it:  Nemirovsky's sympathetic, and at the same time absolutely clear-sighted look at human relationships, particularly mothers and daughters.  She depicts flaws and failures without flinching, but with gentle understanding.  And I'm a sucker for prewar European settings.  Also try her Fire in the Blood and All Our Worldly Goods. 

The Book of Sand and Shakespeare's Memory by Jorge Luis Borges 
From the publisher's description:  "Showcasing Borges' depth of vision and his singular image-conjuring power in stories about an infinite book, a one-sided mirror, a golden mask, and a scholar who mysteriously acquires Shakespeare's memory, this hypnotic collection is the capstone to an august literary life."  What I liked about it:  The plots that start with an absolutely ingenious idea, and follow it to an unexpected, but totally logical, conclusion.  Also try his Labyrinths

Selected Stories by Lu Hsun
Publisher's desription:  "Ambitious to reach a large Chinese audience, Lu Hsun wrote his first published story, 'A Madman's Diary,' in the vernacular, a pioneering move in Chinese literature at that time.  With 'The True Story of Ah Q,' a biting portrait of feudal China, he gained popularity in the West.  This collection of eighteen of his greatest stories demonstrates the rich variety of his style and subjects."  What I liked about it:  the portrait of early twentieth-century China, its rural and urban landscapes; its families who seem at some times feudal, at other times modern. 

Malgudi Days by R. K. Narayan  
Publisher's description:  "Introducing this collection of stories, R. K. Narayan describes how in India, 'the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story.'  Malgudi Days, featuring short fiction written over almost forty years, is the marvelous result.  Here Narayan portrays an astrologer, a snake charmer, a postman, a vendor of pies and chappatis--all kinds of people, drawn in full color and endearing domestic detail.  And under his magician's touch the whole imaginary city of Malgudi springs to life, revealing the essence of India and of human experience."  What I liked about it:  Delightful characters--the human, domestic side of "stock" Indian types (snake charmers and their ilk).  Also try his A Tiger For Malgudi.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Publisher's description:  "First published in the Soviet journal Novy Mir in 1962, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch stands as a classic of contemporary literature.  The story of labor camp inmate Ivan Denisovitch Shukov, it graphically describes his struggle to maintain his dignity in the face of communist oppression.  An unforgettable portrait of the entire world of Stalin's forced labor camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is one of the most extraordinary literary documents to have emerged from the Soviet Union and confirms Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's stature as 'a literary genius whose talent matches that of Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy' (Harrison Salisbury)."  What I liked about it:  the depiction of a sort of "culture" developed by the gulag inmates that helped them not only survive but live with ethics, goals.

The Physicists by Friedrich Durrenmatt
Publisher's description:  "The Physicists is a provocative and darkly comic satire about life in modern times, by one of Europe's foremost dramatists and author of the internationally celebrated The Visit.  The world's greatest physicist, Johann Wilhelm Mobius, is in a madhouse, haunted by recurring visions of King Solomon.  He is kept company by two other equally deluded scientists:  one who thinks he is Einstein, another who believes he is Newton.  It soon becomes evident, however, that these three are not as harmlessly lunatic as they appear.  Are they, in fact, really mad?  Or are they playing some murderous game, with the world as the stake?  For Mobius has uncovered the mystery of the universe--and therefore the key to its destruction--and Einstein and Newton are vying for this secret that would enable them to rule the earth.  Added to this treacherous combination is the world-renowned psychiatrist in charge, the hunchbacked Mathilde von Zahnd, who has some diabolical plans of her own... With wry, penetrating humor, The Physicists probes beneath the surface of modern existence and, like Marat/Sade, questions whether it is the mad who are the truly insane."  What I liked about it:  the sense of urgency underneath the silly farce.  A scientist insists that the relationship of modern society to science is like that of a customer to a prostitute--we want to make use of it, but we're not interested in where it came from or how it works.  

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Publisher's description:  "Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the world's great antiwar books.  An American classic.  Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim's odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most."  What I liked about it:  Vonnegut skillfully weaves two narrative threads--the Dresden bombings and Billy's postwar life and mental unravelling--which together convey absolute outrage at all wars. 

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
Publisher's description:  "A modern classic, Einstein's Dreams is a fictional collage of stories dreamed by Albert Einstein in 1905, when he worked in a patent office in Switzerland.  As a defiant but sensitive young genius is creating his theory of relativity, a new conception of time, he imagines many possible worlds.  In one, time is circular, so that people are fated to repeat triumphs and failures over and over.  In another, there is a place, visited by lovers and parents clinging to their children, where time stands still.  In yet another, time is a nightingale, sometimes trapped by a bell jar.  Now translated into thirty languages, Einstein's Dreams has inspired playwrights, dancers, musicians, and painters all over the world.  In its poetic vignettes, it explores the connections between science and art, the process of creativity, and ultimately the fragility of human existence."  What I liked about it:  Wonderfully imaginative mini-stories.  And the fact that they remind me strongly of Borges' stories. 

Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin
Publisher's description:  "In The Aeneid, Vergil's hero fights to claim the king's daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire.  Lavinia herself never speaks a word.  Now, Ursula K. LeGuin gives Lavinia a voice in a novel that takes us to the half-wild world of ancient Italy, when Rome was a muddy village near seven hills.  Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom, until suitors come.  Her mother wants her to marry handsome, ambitious Turnus.  But omens and prophecies spoken by the sacred springs say she must marry a foreigner--and that her husband will not live long.  When a fleet of Trojan ships sails up the Tiber, Lavinia decides to take her destiny into her own hands.  And so she tells us what Vergil did not:  the story of her life, and the love of her life."  What I liked about it:  the character of Lavinia.  She is presented as a fictional character who knows that she doesn't really exist, except in the mind of her creator, Vergil, whose gentle communications with her are quite touching. 

Possession, A Romance by A. S. Byatt
Publisher's description:  "Winner of England's Booker Prize and the literary sensation of the year, Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story.  It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets.  As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire--from spiritualist seances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany--what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas."  What I liked about it:  a large portion of the book is comprised of the Victorian poets' works.  Byatt didn't just invent some poets, she apparently composed a body of work for each one and included it in the book.  And it's really good.  It's what I enjoyed most about Possession

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Sense of Place

Regardless of whether a book has its own vividly evoked sense of place, it also, for me, has a second sense of place--the place (and time) in which I read it.  Some books are so strongly associated in my mind with where and when I read them, that even seeing them on the shelf puts me right back into that time/place.  These books pull at me with two--what?--layers? of memory. Their own setting, and the setting in which I experienced them.

I first read Suite Francaise while staying with relatives in San Diego one August.  It was (no surprise) lovely weather there, fresh and breezy.  As I live on the Gulf Coast and was thus escaping 100+ degree temperatures, and home and school responsibilities, I felt that I was in paradise.  So as I sat under a shady green arbor with my feet up, Irene Nemirovsky's sympathetic and graceful language conjured mothers and fathers, happy and unhappy wives, young women in love.  It is a story of refugees and war, but what I remember of it is family and romantic relationships, some tranquil, some stressful, and calm, loving people.  And the cool, green, relaxation of my setting.  Would I have experienced the book differently in a different setting?  Remembered it more as a war story?  I don't know, but each time I read another of Nemirovsky's books, that calm, breezy relaxation steals into it.

Here's a more counterintuitive example.  Dracula and The Road to Wigan Pier, read on a visit to Puget Sound.  A horror story and Orwell's expose of poverty among English coal miners.  Not generally considered vacation reading.  But I read the Orwell each morning as I sat with my tea after breakfast facing the water--and almost no physical sight has ever been as calming to me as that gray, pearly, shimmering water stretching away to nothingness in the mist.  I tell you I fairly loved those coal miners.  Evenings, then, were for Dracula.  Our routine had been to spend the days walking in the mountains, and come home for dinner in our rented cottage.  After dinner, we'd sit around the fire, watching TV, playing board games, or reading (me).  Nicely tired after a day outdoors and ready to be gently creeped out, I spent an hour or so with Dracula listening to the fire crackle and the cottage floors creak, and the kids not fight because they were also too tired.  Bliss.  Dracula is now an evocation of cozy contentment. 

This is not just a vacation phenomenon.  Agatha Christie and Mary Stewart are forever linked in my mind to the house I grew up in--the front porch swing and my bedroom--and adolescent angst and daydreams of my future.  I would read and reread those two authors;  I can practically recite their books.  If I crack open a Mary Stewart now (and I still have all of them), I can taste the iced tea we drank at home, feel the vinyl of the porch swing cushions, wonder all over again if I were like the heroine, and would I ever see Europe, and who my husband would be. Exotic French and Greek and middle eastern settings, and my front porch, somehow always overlaid with each other now.

There are, of course, plenty of books that don't have any such associations with where and when I read them, but so many do that I wonder if this is a universal experience, or just a weirdness of mine.  I'd love to hear your "sense of place" stories--please share!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesday Verse

by Czeslaw Milosz

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago.  Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Wilno, 1936

Tangents; or Deciding What to Read Next

Very often my reading choices seem to consist of chain reactions.  In the chain's simplest form, one book makes direct reference to another, which I then feel compelled to seek out and read.  Example:  The Great Influenza, a history of the 1918 flu pandemic, includes a passage from Katherine Anne Porter's novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider which describes a character's flu-induced delirium:
She lay on a narrow ledge over a pit that she knew to be bottomless, though she could not comprehend it; the ledge was her childhood dream of danger, and she strained back against a reassuring wall of granite at her shoulders, staring into the pit, thinking, There it is, there it is at last, it is very simple; and soft carefully shaped words like oblivion and eternity are curtains hung before nothing at all.
With that last line, she had me.  I was compelled to seek out and read Pale Horse in its entirety, touching off a Porter binge that continued through Noon Wine, Holiday, and Ship of Fools.  Likewise, I discovered Rilke's poetry via The Panther, which was a favorite poem of a paralyzed patient described in Oliver Sacks' Awakenings

Other chains are less straightforward, and more like zig-zagging series of tangents.  The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, an Australian writer, led me to try another Australian, David Malouf, whose gorgeous An Imaginary Life led me back to Ovid's Metamorphoses (vaguely remembered from college).  Likewise, Ursula LeGuin's Lavinia (randomly discovered in the library) was so lovely that I tried her Hainish trilogy.  I also had a peek back at some of her other works (The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, and The Left Hand of Darkness) that I had enjoyed in high school and college.  LeGuin is the only SF writer I have ever liked, and indeed she has been described as a science fiction writer for people who don't like science fiction. (Am also looking forward to reading the Aeneid, partly because Lavinia, an imagining of the Aeneid from a minor character's point of view, was so intriguing.)

Recent attempts to read in German (slowly, laboriously, with a dictionary at my elbow) have led to trying new works in English, and vice versa.  I've read some stories by Heinrich Boll to prepare for reading him in German.  Am reading Bernard Schlink's Der Vorleser because I liked The Reader.  Friedrich Durrenmatt's Die Physiker made me want to compare it with its English translation, The Physicists. Lots of Agatha Christie in German is happening around here, only because I've read so much of her in English.  Oh, and a wonderful European language bookstore I found while visiting London last summer yielded a bonanza of German translations: Pride and Prejudice, Alice in Wonderland, The Metamorphosis, and The Diary of a Young Girl

I could go on and on, but I won't. (You're welcome.)