Monday, November 29, 2021

life is probably nothing other than happiness - Jean Anouilh and Anne Carson adapt Greek plays, and Jean Giraudoux adapts something else

The French went nuts, in the 1930s and even more so in the 1940s, for adaptations of ancient Greek plays.  I don’t know why.  I have guesses.  The one I read most recently is Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (1944).  The play’s major theme of “duty to the state” versus “duty to something else” (the gods in Sophocles, perhaps the self in Anouilh) sounds like the perfect way to get in trouble with Nazi censors, but no, they seemed all right with the debate. 

A third of the play, one long scene, is nothing but the debate between Creon and Antigone.  Each debater is convinced, by the end, that they are less right than they thought.  Creon is, to a large degree, arguing to Antigone that she should live, that she should let him protect her from his own law:

You’ll despise me more than ever for saying this, but finding it out, as you’ll see, is some sort of consolation for growing old: life is probably nothing other than happiness. (tr. Barbara Bray)

Meanwhile Antigone argues, in contemporary French fashion, that life is nothing other than absurdity and Creon should execute her as soon as possible.  Psychologically, it often seems like she buries her brother not out of duty but as a form of “suicide by cop.”

Greek plays in general, and this one in particular, are ideal for stripped down sets, avant-garde musical accompaniment, and anachronisms.  The big surprise to me was the large, goofy part of the guard, pure comic relief, perfect for, say Lou Costello or Stan Laurel.


Anne Carson has a new adaptation of (riff on) a Greek play, the Herakles or Euripides (c. 416 BCE) turned into the H of H Playbook of Carson (c. 2021 CE).  Like her Antigonick (2012), but I think not her Antigone (2015), it is a mix of poetry and art book, jokes and tragedy, aggravation and brilliance.

I thought the piece starts to snap together when H of H takes the stage, his labors complete, his existentialist doubts just beginning.  Was that really such a good way to spend a life?  I mean, killing a lion, what’s the point of that?  He finds reading Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951) helpful for understanding his own psychology:

Our business was to crush the counterrevolution.  And Victor Serge sums it up: occupational psychosis.

This dang book has no page numbers.  Here it is:

Maybe another photo, too.  It is an art book:

H of H:

I should have left you in The Chair of Forgetfulness.


Maybe you did, Daddio, maybe you did.

H of H:

One correction.  I don’t call them gods.  If god exists, god is a perfect thing, not some hooligan from bad daytime TV.


Anouilh was deeply influenced – in fact inspired to become a playwright – by Jean Giraudoux, and I have trouble telling them apart.  Giraudoux’s “Greek plays” are mostly from the 1930s, while Anouilh’s are form the 1940s, so there’s a difference.  Their styles and interests are similar.  It is strange to think that plays by both writers were once commonly staged in English.

I read a non-Greek Giraudoux adaptation recently, Ondine (1938), where the lovely 1811 fairy tale novella of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué is turned into what else but absurdist French proto-existentialism.  Can a man survive the love a pure water spirit?  No, for he is human.

Parts – the tragic ending – are still lovely, parts ridiculous.  Parts both:

HANS: I’m being called too, Undine; called by something pale and cold.  Take back your ring, and be my true widow under the water. (almost at the end, tr. Roger Gellert)

Giraudoux stuffs in plenty of magic and trickery and surrealist goofing.  Unlike stripped-down wartime Anouilh, he had a budget.


I have been thinking about organizing some kind of readalong for next year, and one idea that seems almost good is to read through the extant Greek plays, all of them, at a pace of one a week.  They are all short, and there are only 45* survivors.  They are foundations of Western literature in multiple ways, and mostly a great pleasure in their own right.  Anyone interested? 

* I first wrote "44," miscounting Euripides, but now I think I will do a 46 week event, reading Menander's complete Dyskolos and also his completed The Girl from Samos.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Stories by Jayant Kaikini, a lost novel by Richard Wright, jittery little poems by Jean Follain - as he reassembled his black vertebrae

These books have to go back to the library.

No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories, Jayant Kaikini (2017, tr. Tejaswini Niranjana).  The second English collection of the stories of Kaikini, a former pharmaceutical biochemist who over four decades published six volumes of stories, as well as poetry and plays and so on, written in Kannada.  He is a Mumbai specialist, and a great part of the appeal of this collection is the trip to and around Mumbai, from the 1980s to the 2000s.  I am not much for the “travel” metaphor of reading fiction, but that is what I was doing here.

Stylistically, the stories would be comfortable in the New Yorker – in fact should have been translated and published in the New Yorker all along – with ordinary people having epiphanies and so on.  The title story (2000), for example, is about a young couple working on their wedding invitation.  They are both orphans, with not a hint of a family – the man does not even have a last name – and the comedy and poignancy comes not from their poverty, since they are no longer exactly poor, but their social anxiety.  Of course they should ask for presents!  They are not exactly rich, either.

The prose has a tendency that is what I think some reviewers identify as “lyrical”:

Popat had been staring in astonishment, waiting to see where the paper ball [the crumpled draft invitation] would fall.  In that moment, the distant half-finished overpass, the iron spikes, the faraway trucks, the construction rubble, the approaching trains, all looked like children’s toys to Popat.  (259)

This is the last line of the story, where earlier elements in the text culminate in a moment of intense meaning for Popat.  As they often do in contemporary short stories.

This collection was created and translated for an Indian market, and distributed as is in the United States, so it is full of untranslated words, unexplained references, and many other things I do not know.  I loved that aspect of the book.  I have the internet.  Even the blurbs are all from newspapers and writers I mostly don’t know.  The blurbage is shockingly measured, sensible, and accurate.  It is possible!  I have now seen it for myself.


The Man Who Lived Underground, Richard Wright (2021, but written 1942).  Am I nuts to think that the publication of a previously unknown prime-period Richard Wright novel – written between Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945) – would once have been a big event?  In, say 1981, or 1991?  Especially when the novel is as good as this one.  I thought it was quite good.  A long accompanying essay about the creation of the novel, “Memories of My Grandmother,” is perhaps even more important.  The novel was turned into a long story, and parts of the essay were pilfered for Black Boy, but still, I don’t get it.

The first sixth or so of the book is a long scene in which corrupt police torture and coerce a murder confession form an innocent black man.  It is rough going, but relevant, I would think?  People talk a lot about relevance.  I don’t know.  The victim escapes and heads into the sewers, where he deals with his trauma in a surprising way, by becoming a kind of existential visionary.  The book in in some ways an allegory, which is hardly my favorite thing, but as allegories go it is awfully concrete.


Transparence of the World, Jean Follain (1969, tr. W. S. Merwin).  Follain is a non-Surrealist surrealist poet, meaning he was not in a movement but the results do not look so different.  He was a friend of Max Jacob and Pierre Reverdy, and based on Merwin’s selections from 1933 to 1967 a minor poet compared to either of them.  He had one great trick, a sharp break between the beginning and end of the poem that shatters straightforward meaning but suggests another, weirder story.

Imperial Evenings (1941)

The emperors have not always donned fresh attire,
but sometimes faded ribbons
and hats worn till they shone
on the door-sills of farms
in the red end of days.
During those melancholy times the children
amused themselves with earthworms
in front of the stagnant water frothed with gold,
the bees hummed no longer,
the drunkard talked to the thicket
that was being swallowed up by the night
as he reassembled his black vertebrae.

Moving the emperors to the farms in the first sentence is also a break in sense.  I love that drunkard at the end.  Why do these particular people and activities need to be collected?  Why specify that they exist simultaneously?  Why not. 

This is Merwin’s translation.  I read the French, not the English, and sometimes skipped Merwin entirely, but when I checked his versions were always better than mine.