Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Books Read in June 2024 - "Why can't we steal the calm vegetable clairvoyance of these great rooted lives?"

Three weeks in Portugal meant less and different reading.


Wolf Solent (1929), John Cowper Powys – among the most eccentric novels I have ever read, up there with his contemporaries D. H. Lawrence and Ronald Firbank!  I feel I should write about it; I feel I should read The Glastonbury Romance (1932) first!  See where he is going with this.  The exclamation points in puzzling places are one of Powys’s eccentricities.  The quotation in the title can be found on p. 356 of the 1961 edition.

Winter’s Tales (1942), Isak Dinesen – for all seasons.

Loving (1945), Henry Green – just perfect.

Brat Farrar (1949), Josephine Tey

Grendel (1971), John Gardner

High Stakes (1975), Dick Francis

I had both the Tey and Francis in Portugal with me as my light reading which was a minor mistake.  I knew that the Francis novel was obviously (see left) a horsey book, obviously, but I did not know that Brat Farrar was also a horsey book (see below – I guess I did not look too carefully at the cover), and two in a row pushed a bit past my threshold of interest.  But there I was.  

I enjoyed that neither book was in a hurry to turn into a mystery or thriller.  It was not until at least halfway through Brat Farrar when I saw that the book would indeed qualify as a mystery.  A third of the way into the Francis it was unclear if it had any story at all (it does).  None of this is meant as a complaint, since I enjoyed both books’ voice and characters and even horses and am frankly often happiest when the genre formulas are set aside for a while.


A Treatise on Poetry (1957), Czeslaw Milosz – a survey of Polish poetry in poetry form.



Portuguese was mostly menus and worksheets.  French was neglected.

Douze petits écrits (1926), Francis Ponge – like a preface to Ponge’s next book, the 1942 masterpiece Le parti pris des choses.

Trente-trois sonnets composés au secret (1944), Jean Cassou – composed in his head, a half-sonnet per day, in a Vichy prison where he was being held for Resistance activities.  Kept in his head, too, since he had no means to write anything down until his release.  Beyond criticism, really, although I found a non-sonnet, a translation of a Hugo von Hoffmansthal poem, especially beautiful.  All published in 1944 under the name Jean Noir.  Poetry as heroism.

Monday, July 1, 2024

Three weeks in Portugal

I was in Portugal for three weeks in June.  Five hours a day for four days I was in this inlingua classroom in Porto, or one much like it:

The results:

B1 in Portuguese after about two years of fairly relaxed study – relaxed until those four days – which seems pretty good.  Maybe B2 in reading (standards defined here).  An enjoyable part of this visit to Portugal, my fourth, is that I could aggressively buy books:

And also:

And even moreso:

The Portuguese school curriculum includes an anthology of historic shipwrecks.

Still a while before I can, or I mean dare, read Saramago or Lispector in Portuguese, but I have plenty to read until then.

I strongly encourage anyone who does not overcome with anxiety at the idea of taking a language class to take an immersive class in the relevant place.  Cavilam in Vichy is pleasant, for example.  They give you a test and drop you right into a class.

I put a photo on Twitter every day, mostly adding to my collection of Pessoaiana.  Pessoa soap, Pessoa dish towels.  The Fernando Pessoa brand expands with Portuguese tourism, my puzzle being that so few people who did not go to a Portuguese-language school have any idea who he is.  Yet his image is everywhere, on everything.

A minor pleasure was this photo of a Pessoa board game, photographed in a museum gift shop, that went mildly viral, my only such experience.  At this moment, 481 likes, 37,000 views, whatever any of that means.  I wonder how many copies I sold.  The main use of Twitter is advertising, and turning  its users into marketers.  Still, it was amusing.

It was an extremely educational vacation.  Many thanks, as usual, to St. Orberose for his time and advice.  How sad that I cannot link to his blog anymore, but he is busy with his novel.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

The Making of Americans as conceptual art - I have already made several diagrams

Sometime I will be able to make a diagram.  I have already made several diagrams.  I will sometime make a complete diagram and that will be a very long book...  (580)

I am going to write about The Making of Americans as conceptual art, art where how it is made is a central part of what the work is.  Art that, strangely, does not necessarily have to be experienced like less conceptual art (I do not think there can be such a thing as non-conceptual art, but there is a moreness and a lessness).  Books that do not need to be read to be understood, films that do not need to be seen.

A couple of works I had in mind while reading The Making of Americans, and while wondering why I kept reading it, were George Seurat’s monumental painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1886) and Andy Warhol’s eight hour single-shot film Empire (1965).

Seurat’s painting can be experienced instantly by entering its gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago, and is full of delightful details worthy of more attention, but for the viewer interested in technique it is also a demonstration of what was once an innovation, pointillism.  After a year of preparation, much of Seurat’s time was spent mechanically filling in the grid.  I had the sense that Stein was doing something similar.  Not that the artist, or the viewer, cannot take pleasure in the work of the moment, the brushstrokes and sentences.  "There are some pretty wonderful sentences in it and we know how fond we both are of sentences" (letter to Sherwood Anderson, p. xiii of the Dalkey Archive edition).

I was also wondering why Stein’s book was so long, and why Seurat’s paintings were so large.  What would the difference be if  La Grande Jatte were 10% smaller?  What if Stein’s book were 725 pages rather than 925 pages?  Of course the case of Seurat is more poignant because he died at 31, meaning he spent four years of a short career producing two paintings.  If only there were a third. Heaven knows we have plenty of Gertrude Stein’s work.

Warhol’s Empire, by contrast, a single shot of the Empire State Building filmed for eight hours and five minutes, does not need to be seen at all for the concept to be clear.  A description and a still pretty does the job.  Like so many museum films, even those much shorter than Empire, there is no expectation that anyone watches the whole thing.

Not to deny anyone’s experience of these pieces.  I am just saying that the conceptual aspect, pointillism or repetition or stasis, is easily detachable from the work itself which becomes in that sense arbitrary.

The Making of Americans feels somewhere in between to me.  Anyone interested in how far the novel can be pushed should read some of it.  Ten pages somewhere in the middle?  Finnegans Wake is similar.  Reading a few pages, maybe the first few pages and the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section, quickly shows a lot of what Joyce is doing.  Not everything, but a lot, while Ulysses does not reveal itself in the same way.  Most readers of either book will quickly know if they want more or have had enough, thanks.

I guess The Making of Americans had just enough variation of style for me to keep going, or to feed my neurosis.  James Elkins has written a related piece about not finishing Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling (1965), a genuine descendant of Stein’s book, although longer and a full half-pound heavier.  I have seen a number of people on Twitter enjoying Miss Macintosh.  They will be ready for the Dalkey Archive reissue of The Making of Americans currently scheduled for September 2025.  Plenty of time to finish.  The William Gass and Steven Meyer introductions to the Dalkey edition are excellent, with Gass interested in style and Meyer in the process of creation.

I likely spent thirty hours reading The Making of Americans.  I could have watched Empire three times!  Or made it halfway through Fallout 4.  The recent marathon reading of the novel at Paula Cooper Gallery took 52 hours.

I will note that soon after Stein finished The Making of Americans she wrote Tender Buttons (1913), a radical move in the opposite direction, 78 little pages, compressed, filled with plain, material words.  “Cocoa and clear soup and oranges and oat-meal” (58), the words recontextualized, perhaps pushed towards nonsense and abstraction, but also inescapably things, or names of things.  Miss Macintosh appears to blend the concepts of the two books.  Maybe I will read it, or look at it more, someday.


Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Stein's style - Mostly no one will be wanting to listen, I am certain

Not many find it interesting this way I am realizing every one, not any I am just now hearing, and it is so completely an important thing, it is a complete thing in understanding, I am going on writing, I am going on now with a description of all whom Alfred Hersland came to know in his living.   Mostly no one will be wanting to listen, I am certain. (595)

The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress is built on gerunds and participles.  There are two just in that title.  People do not have “life” but “living,” not “existence” but “being.”  Poor David dies young, so he was “being a dead one” who was not living past “the beginning of his middle living.”  Stein’s novel is sometimes like an academic work with a specialized vocabulary.  What is the difference between “independent dependent living” and “dependent independent living”?  The terms are explored in some depth.  The influence of Stein’s teacher William James is visible.

The gerunds accumulate.  Or participles.  There are sentences whose meaning depends on figuring out the part of speech.

He was being living every day.  In a way he was needing to be certain that he was being living every day he was being living.  He was being living every day he was being living.  He was being living every day until he was not being living which was at the ending of the beginning of the middle of being living.  He was being living every day.  (862)

Etc.  Assume that every quotation is from a paragraph that goes on for a while longer. 

Stein is also attracted to other “-ing” words like “thing” and “something,” both for the assonance and the abstraction.  David, who is doing the “being living” above, is a sensualist compared to his siblings, interested in “feeling,” “smelling,” “eating” and so on as part of “being,” with never a hint of what he feels, smells, or eats.  Everything is subsumed under the gerunds.

To my surprise I found David’s death (the quotation above is pulled from several similar pages in some sense describing his death) somehow moving, at a fairly abstract level, in part because after 800 pages I had found a way to read Stein.  Close reading did not get me too far.  No, I found a voice, a kind of chant, helped by her ancestor Walt Whitman and one of her descendants, the composer Frederic Rzewski, particularly his 1973 “Coming Together” (the link goes to a recording of the piece) which takes a text by an inmate of Attica and builds Stein-like repetitions from it, with an increasing intensity of meaning.  Rzewski takes the title, gerund and all, from the prisoner’s text, but also I now see from Stein:

This coming together in them to be a whole one is a strange thing in men and women.  Sometimes some one is very interesting to some one, very, very interesting to some one and then that one comes together to be a whole one and then that one is not any more, at all, interesting to the one knowing that one, that one then is shrunken by being a whole one, some have not that happen to them by being a whole one, some are richer then, all are solider then to those knowing them when they come together inside them.  It is very strange this coming together to be a whole one.  (382)

Tomorrow I will dodge the question of why I read, or finished, this book by rambling about conceptual art.

Monday, June 3, 2024

everything in a being is always repeating - reading Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans

Since I actually read the thing for some reason I will write some notes on Gertrude Stein’s enormous The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (1925).  It is a monster.  Why did I read it?  No, that is not the right questions.  There are good reasons to read it.  Why did I read all of it?  Let me defer that question.

The Making of Americans is 925 big, big pages of avant garde novel-adjacent text.  Stein wrote it over several years, mostly after Three Lives (1909), when it quickly evolved from a relatively conventional family narrative with a plot and characters and the usual thing into a more purely stylistic work of conceptual art.  It is a bit like James Joyce’s move from Dubliners to A Portrait of the Artist to Ulysses to Finnegans Wake, each time paring away more of what is conventional to fiction and emphasizing what is stylistically new.  Except that Stein’s started with Portrait and moved straight to Finnegans Wake, all before Joyce published anything.

Stein finished writing, and Alice Toklas finished typing, the beast in 1911, but no one wanted to publish any of it until Ernest Hemingway brought some of it to Ford Madox Ford in 1924.  The world had caught up with Stein; Modernism had happened.  Not too much later Stein would write a big bestseller.

The Making of Americans is nominally about three siblings, Martha, Alfred, and David Hersland and the people around them, parents, spouses, and friends.  Here Stein begins a new section, about Alfred Hersland and his wife Julia Dehning:

I have been giving the history of a very great many men and women.  Sometime I will give a history of every kind of men and women, every kind there is of men and women.  Already I have given a history of many men and women.  Sometime I will be giving a history of all the rest of them.  This is now pretty nearly certain.  I have been already giving the history of a very great many men and women, I will now be giving the history of a number of more of them and then of a number more still of them and then still of some more of them and that will be a long book and when I am finished with this one then I will begin that one.  I have already begun that one but now I am still writing this one and now I am beginning this portion of this one which is the complete history of Alfred Hersland and of every one he ever came to know in living and of many others I will be describing now in this beginning. 

On p. 479, halfway through, this passage was discouraging.  I have added some bold emphasis to aid skimming.  Perhaps the important thing to note, aside from some evidence that Stein has a sense of humor about what she is doing, is that the repetition of words and phrases and even entire sentences is the basic compositional principle of the passage – of the entire novel – going far beyond the repetitionsfar beyond the repetitions of Three Lives.  The repetition is part of the metaphysics of the novel:

Always from the beginning there was to me all living as repeating.  This is now a description of my feeling.  As I was saying listening to repeating is often irritating, always repeating is all of living, everything in a being is always repeating, more and more listening to repeating gives to me completed understanding.  (291)

Maybe another thing to note is that, for all of the “many men and women,” the only character in these passages is the narrator.  She has a voice and an attitude; she has motivation.  She is arguably the only real character in the book, and the plot might be her writing of the book.  The only plot, really.  Martha Hersland marries a philosophy professor who leaves her for another professor.  Alfred and Julia divorce and he remarries.  David, the younger brother, dies young.  But almost all of this is presented abstractly.  I doubt there are ten pages in the book, more than one percent of it, made up of any kind of scene.  Five year-old Martha angrily throws her umbrella in the mud.  The specificity of this action, the time and place and presence of a material object, was a shock.  It is “repeating,” I guess, but psychologically.

That second passage emphasizes the aspect of the book I will save for tomorrow’s grammar lesson: the “-ing” words, the endless flow, or flowing, of “-ing” words.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Books Read in May 2024 – Some are certainly knowing what they are meaning, some are certainly not knowing what they are meaning.

A month without writing anything.  Plenty of reading, though.


The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), James Weldon Johnson

The Making of Americans (1925), Gertrude Stein – read over the course of months.  The quotation up above is from p. 783.  I will write about this book soon, if only to plant a flag on the peak.

All My Sons (1946), Arthur Miller

Dialogues with Leucó (1947), Cesar Pavese – a sequel to Ovid.

A Scrap of Time and Other Stories (1983), Ida Fink – terrible, in the “terror” sense, Holocaust stories, almost all about people who hid, or tried to hide, the camps in the distance.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989), José Saramago – a romance novel.

Erasure (2001), Percival Everett – Is the Roland Barthes parody in the movie, somehow?



Collected Poems 1930-1993 (through 1948) &

The Land of Silence (1953) &

In Time Like Air (1958), May Sarton – smart cosmopolitan formalism; not yet a Maine poet.

A Mask for Janus (1952) &

The Dancing Bears (1954) &

Green with Beasts (1956), W. S. Merwin – more smart cosmopolitan formalism.

Daylight (1953), Czeslaw Milosz – or whatever part of the book is in New and Collected Poems.

Grackledom (2023), Leslie Moore – a Maine poet and artist.  Just look at this book, irresistible.  I live about a quarter mile from a grackledom.



Naples '44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy (1978), Norman Lewis – Since he knew Italian, he was an administrator behind the lines.  Since he is a skilled British writer, his account of the post-war Italy is essentially comic, dark, dark comedy.

With the Old Breed (1981), E. B. Sledge – It occurred to me that I had read plenty about soldiers in Europe and nothing about the Pacific.  Sledge was an American Marine who fought in two nightmarish battles, on a coral island and on Okinawa.  Clearly written and open-eyed.



Journal (1943-9), André Gide

Les bonnes (1947) &

Le Balcon (1956 / 1960 / 1962), Jean Genet

Victimes du devoir (1953) &

Amédée ou Comment s'en débarrasser (1954), Eugène Ionesco

Portuguese study was all in class and in the textbook.  June’s study will be in Portugal itself.  Let’s see how that goes.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Books I Read in April 2024 - this irritation passes over into patient completed understanding

Grinding away at Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (1925), a genuine monster.  “As I was saying it is often irritating to listen to the repeating they are doing, always then that one has it as being to love repeating that is the whole history of each one, such a one has it then that this irritation passes over into patient completed understanding” (291 of the 1966 edition).  So true!


Ris and Vamin (11th c.), Fakhruddin Gurgani – a long poetic romance, although translated by George Morrison into extremely rhetorical prose.  The story is that of Tristan and Isolde; in fact, the Celtic romance likely, or let’s say possibly, has distant Persian roots.  The book is among the most metaphor-packed texts I have ever read, many conventional and repeated, many others more surprising.  “So many cups full of wine were seen in the hands that you would have sworn the plain was all tulips” (224), for example.


Jakob von Gunten (1909), Robert Walser – I had never read an actual novel of Walser’s but only his little essays and sketches.  No surprise that this novel, at least, is a collection of essays and sketches with some recurring characters, a cousin of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910).  The pages eventually drift into a more novel-like form.

t zero (1967), Italo Calvino

James (2024),  Percival Everett – Huckleberry Finn told from the point of view of Jim, at least up to a point, when the novel turns into something else.  James is not a fifth as goofy as Everett’s Dr. No.  John Keene’s “Rivers” (2015) is also told by Jim but after the events of the novel.  These two texts would work together in interesting ways, and I assume they will frequently taught alongside Twain.

If I were to get on the wait list at my library right now, I would be number 61 for 16 copies, although five more copies have been ordered.  James is a hit.



Paterson (1946-58), William Carlos Williams – Another trip down the river.

Meditations in an Emergency (1957), Frank O’Hara

A Dream of Governors (1959) &

At the End of the Open Road (1963) &

Selected Poems (1965), Louis Simpson

Selected Poems (1979), W. S. Graham

Modern Poetry (2024),  Diane Seuss – A strong voice.



A Morte do Palhaço e o Mistério da Árvore (1926), Raul Brandão – The Death of the Clown and the Mystery of the Tree, a novella about a sad clown who wishes he were a tree.  “The book is as much a prose poem as a novel.”  Perhaps a smidge too hard for my Portuguese right now.

Journal (1939-1942), André Gide

Monday, April 22, 2024

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr's La plus secrète mémoire des hommes - one of his objectives was to be original without being original

La plus secrète mémoire des hommes
(2021) by Senegalese novelist Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, published in English as The Most Secret History of Men (2023), is the first imitation of Roberto Bolaño I have seen outside of Latin American literature.  Many reviews note that Sarr’s novel is “Bolañoesque,” but I have not found one that notes that it directly imitates The Savage Detectives (1998).  La plus secrète mémoire des hommes, like The Savage Detectives, is about a writer’s search for the forgotten author of a single work (an entire novel this time, not a single poem), it shares Bolaño’s three-part structure, with a many-voiced middle section (it does shift more voices into the third part), and is thematically about the link between writing – publishing, really – and death.

Also, the title of the novel is from the French translation of The Savage Detectives.  Sarr uses a paragraph of Bolaño, with the title, as the epigraph of his novel.  He is not hiding anything:

Charles reproached Elimane for having pillaged literature; Elimane responded that literature was a game of pillaging.  He said that one of his objectives was to be original without being original, since that was one possible definition of literature and even of art, and that his other objective was to show that everything could be sacrificed in the name of an ideal of creation. (232, tr. mine)

Sarr is not as radical an avant-gardist as his creation Elimane, whose novel is explicitly a collage novel.  Or at least I don’t think La plus secrète mémoire is a collage novel.  If I missed all the hidden quotations how would I know.  Anyway.  Elimane and his fictional 1938 novel with the Borgesian name, Le Labyrinthe de l’inhumain, have some distant parallels with Malian novelist Yambo Ouologuem’s 1968 Bound to Violence, perhaps the angriest novel I have ever read, which its merits aside ran into trouble for plagiarism.*  But again, the imaginary Elimane is a deliberate conceptualist, not a plagiarist but a collagist, a trickster.  Plus the difference between an African novel appearing in 1938 versus 1968 is enormous.  The narrator passes a single copy of Elimane’s lost novel around to the entire African literary diaspora in Paris, while Ouologuem’s novel, although banned from sale for a time, is in French libraries.  American libraries for that matter.  I don’t want to push the parallel too far.  But Ouologuem is another bookish ghost in this bookish novel.

It takes him a while, until page 275, but Sarr does hit on a variation or extension or argument with Bolaño’s literary death cult that would likely have made him happy, or angry, and Sarr extends the idea to a good twist all the way at the end.  I thought La plus secrète mémoire had some dullish patches, but persist, I advise.

It’s because of all this, of all this promoted and prize-winning [promue et primée] mediocrity, that we all deserve to die.  Everyone: journalists, critics, readers, editors, writers, society – everyone.  (308)

I don’t agree with this, but that is a separate issue.

I found Sarr’s settings – Paris, Amsterdam, Bueno Aires, Dakar – bland, thinly described.  I’ve been to Dakar – gimme some Dakar, man.  The narrator is in the central market, which “overflows with shouting, arguments, laughter, honking horns, bleating sheep, religious chants” (348) etc., still pretty generic, I was thinking, until this:

I had before me the proof that the most ordinary spectacle of the streets of this city rendered the novel pointless.  Try to exhaust a Dakarian place?  Perec could return and try.  (348)

All right, fine, never mind.  I don’t believe Perec had been mentioned before.  One more writer in a writer-packed novel.


* Michael Orthofer’s review of Bound to Violence goes into the details well. And his review of Sarr’s book is here. 

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Books I read in March 2024 - Literature was a game of pillaging, and this book showed it.

A nice little run at Persian literature this month.  And I am reading in Portuguese again, slowly, slowly.


Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings (1110),  Abolqasem Ferdowsi – See here for notes on this big epic in Dick Davis’s translation.

The Essential Rumi (13th c.),  Rumi – I am not much of a mystic but Rumi, in Coleman Barks’s translations into American free verse, impressed me with his variety of imagery, earthiness, and irony.  I remember Rumi as a major source of little gift books by bookstore cash registers, next to those little volumes of Rilke, but his wisdom is more ironic than that might suggest.

Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz (14th c.), Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun, & Obayd-e Zakani – There was a “scene” in Shiraz for a while.  Hafez is the drunk pretending to be a Sufi mystic, or vice versa; Jahan Malek Khatun is a love struck princess, an actual princess; Obayd-e Zakani is a dirty young man, then a dirty old man, full of gusto.  Fun stuff, via Dick Davis.

The Colonel (2009),  Mahmoud Dowlatabadi – A grim and depressing novel about betrayal and grief in Iran circa 1988, and before, and after.  Tom Patterdale translated and wrote the detailed, useful notes.  Plenty of references to Shahnameh.



The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945),  Elizabeth Bowen – Jamesian indirection during the London Blitz, part of almost every story.  Bowen is a lot more material than James, with lots more food and furniture, although in Jamesian fashion food, furniture, and for that matter entire buildings are present in their absence.  Very much to my tastes, except that I have a heck of a time remembering Bowen stories, a cost of indirection.  An invitation to reread.

Eleven (1970),  Patricia Highsmith – If you are asking if I read this collection of horror stories because it plays a part in the recent Wim Wenders movie Perfect Days (2023), yes, that is right.  The story “The Terrapin,” specifically.

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (1991),  Tony Kushner – I will see it performed in May.  Eager.

The Lowering Days (2021),  Gregory Porter – A Maine novel, earnest and violent.  The striving for wisdom, often aphoristic, was not to my taste – if just one character had a sense of humor – but the George Eliot-like exercise in sympathy was well-done.  And I learned a lot about my neighbors Down East, who are more violent than I thought.

Dr. No (2022),  Percival Everett – The narrator is a mathematician specializing in nothing who is hired by a billionaire who wants to be a Bond villain, so there we have two Dr. Nos, and a good sense of Everett’s sense of humor.  Charles Portis, Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, César Aira; Everett, or anyway this book, fits in there somewhere.



Ovid's Poetry of Exile (9-17),  Ovid – David Slavitt’s “very loose” translations of Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, Ovid complaining from exile with humor and personality.

The Wild Iris (1992),  Louise Glück



O Alcaide de Santarém (1845),  Alexandre Herculano – a bit of Portugal’s Walter Scott.  If you’ve been to the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon you’ve seen his gigantic, ornate tomb, near Pessoa’s little Modernist one.

As Mulheres de Tijucopapo (1981),  Marilene Felinto – An angry feminist Brazilian novel, recommended by my Portuguese teacher.

Contos de morte (2008),  Pepetela – Occasional stories by the Angolan writer, just my reading level.

La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (2021),  Mohamed Mbougar Sarr – I hope to write a bit about this one.  The bit in the title, in my translation, is on p. 232.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Ferdowsi's Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings - No one has any knowledge of those first days unless he has heard tales passed down from father to son

My little Persian literature syllabus in March was built on Aboloqasem Ferdowsi’s gigantic epic Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings (1010), a slender 850 pages in Dick Davis’s 2006 prose (mostly) translation.  He added another 100 pages to the 2016 edition, whether filling out some of the parts he summarized or putting some of the prose into verse I do not know.  A real poetic version would really expand the page count.

No one has any knowledge of those first days unless he has heard tales passed down from father to son.  This is what those tales tell: the first man to be king… was Kayumars. (p. 1)

King Kayumars “taught men about the preparation of food and clothing, which were new in the world at the time” (1).  Fire, irrigation, and domesticated animals soon follow (without fire that first prepared food is perhaps, I don’t know, fermented).Ferdowsi is really beginning at the beginning, taking us from the first king and the beginning of history, including the first plot against the king (still on page one), through the Islamic conquest of Persia.  From legend to history.

The first half of the epic is more purely legendary, with a wars against demons as often as men, although a recurring theme is the great hero serving the bad king.  The most famous bad king tries to conquer heaven by training four giant eagles to carry his throne, equipped with lances, into the sky.  He hangs chunks of meat from the lances for the eagles to chase.  “Others say that he fought with his arrows against the sky itself, but God knows if these and other stories are true” (185).  He becomes famous as an idiot.  I love this story.

The book is split in the middle when it intersects with history with the story of King Sekander (there he is on the left), who I know as Alexander the Great, in this version Greek but also half-Persian and Christian (his banner includes “the beloved cross,” 458).  Sekander spends his reign leading his army across the world, slaying not just enemy armies but also a dragon and a monstrous rhinoceros.

After this extraordinary interlude, the Shahnameh becomes more like a medieval chronicle, more tied to historical sources, maybe a little more dull, although among other good stories there is still a long episode involving a giant devil worm.  Giant magical worms are, I understand, popular right now.

Davis’s version of Shahnameh, so heavily in prose, feels something like a longer version of the prose retellings of the Indian epics, like R. K. Narayan’s Ramayana, that I enjoy so much.  Davis argues that he is mimicking the many oral and written prose retellings of individual episodes that followed on the Shahnameh.  The other Persian books I read, whether later classical poetry by Hafiz or a contemporary Iranian novel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, made frequent reference to characters and episodes from the Shahnameh.  In this branch of literature, essential reading.

Ferdowsi’s epic is late, as epics go, so it is more syncretic, more clearly descended from other sources, than I am used to reading.  The legendary Alexander story, is a centuries-old genre by the 11th century.  Or, to be precise, it is more obviously syncretic, since the Mahabharata and Iliad and Hebrew Bible are also patchworks of earlier stories, but since the sources are all lost the Iliad and so on become the beginning of the tradition.  The Shahnameh’s Persian sources are mostly lost, but traces of the Indian, Greek, and various West Asian legends are quite clear, as well as a mix of Zoroastrianism and Islamism ethics that is something unique.

The syncretism, the mix of things , is one of the pleasures of Shahnameh for someone like me, who has read in a number of epic traditions.  The atmosphere is unusual, too, with lots of jasmine and camphor and people turning “pale as fenugreek.”  The battles, of which there are many, look like this:

The plain became a sea of blood, as if red tulips had sprung up everywhere, and the elephants’ legs glowed like pillars of coral.  (55)

Strongly recommended to anyone who likes this sort of thing, and not to anyone else.  I borrowed the page with Alexander speaking with giant birds (the birds for some reason not visible) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns many more images form the Shahnameh.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Metamorphoses, Books XI to XV - The whole of it flows

I had better finish up Ovid’s Metamorphoses before I forget what was in it.  It is full of memorable things, but I have limits.  Books XI through XV, the last five, in this post.

Book X ended with the songs of Orpheus, so he has to begin Book XI with Orpheus’s gruesome death, the sin that eventually leads to the downfall of Morpheus the Sandman.  That’s Neil Gaiman, not Ovid.  Then Ovid tells the great King Midas stories, his “head more fat than wyse,” classic fables.  Arthur Golding shifts register just a bit into a more fairy tale-like tone:

Then whither his hand did towch the bread, the bread was massy gold:

Or whither he chawed with hungry teeth his meate, yee might behold

The peece of meate betweene his jawes a plat of gold to bee.

In drinking wine and water mixt, yee might discerne and see

The liquid gold ronne downe his throte.  (XI, 277)

It’s like children’s poetry.

There’s a terrific storm at sea and shipwreck in Canto XI.  The Romans, the elite Romans at least, expressed in Seneca’s letters and many other texts, hated going to sea.  Or else loved reading descriptions of storms.  I just read Ovid rewrite the storm scene in the first book of Tristia, written on his way to exile on the Black Sea coast.

Ovid has been shaping Greek and Roman mythology into a more or less coherent history, from creation to Augustus, from the first lines of Metamorphoses, and in the last books the intersection of myth and history becomes firm – the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the founding of Rome take us to the present of Emperor Augustus.  Ovid did not invent this idea.  The generations of heroes, for example, with the parents of the Homeric heroes having their own stories like the hunt for the Calydonian boar, was well established, but now Ovid is up to Homer and Virgil and more human-scale stories.  Curiously, then, he skips the Iliad and writing around the Odyssey, keeping Circe’s metamorphosized pigs and using the Cyclops mostly for his role in the story of Acis and Galatea that for some reason early modern artists and composers liked so much.  Ovid’s version is grotesque and ludicrous.

Ovid only borrows scraps from the Aeneid, giving five lines to the story of Dido while keeping, of course, the transformation of the ships of Aeneas into mermaids.  As with Homer, Ovid can assume his readers know this “history” inside and out.

More surprising is the featured singer in Canto XV.  Where before, in Cantos V and X, we heard the Muses and Orpheus, this time Ovid gives us Pythagoras, the pre-Socratic philosopher, an actual person, probably, legendary but not mythic, the perfect exponent of the great Ovidian themes:

              hear me out: nothing

endures in this world!  The whole of it flows, and all is

formed with a changing appearance; even time passes,

constant in motion, no different from a great river,

for neither a river nor a transitory hour

is able to stand still.  (Martin, XV, 527)

Metamorphosis is not an element of myth, but of existence, of human life, as we transform from infancy to childhood to adulthood to old age.  It would be stranger to turn into a tree or a flower, but it is still strange that I was once a baby.

None of this will surprise anyone who spent some time with the pre-Socratic philosophers, or with Lucretius, last year.

I’ll end by noting Ovid’s last bout of hideous gore, perhaps his goriest yet, when he has old Nestor tell the Homeric heroes about the famous battle between the Lapiths and the drunken centaurs.  Since it took place at a wedding no one was armed, and all of the weapons were improvised, allowing Ovid all sorts of creative, repulsive murders, each described with care, as in this violent cooking simile:

His crushed brayne came roping out as creame is woont to doo

From sives or riddles [also sieves] made of wood, or as a Cullace [broth] out

From streyner or from Colender.  (Golding, XII, 312)


Thanks to everyone who read along, whenever that was.  This has been pure pleasure for me, whatever my reluctance to write this dang thing.

Friday, March 1, 2024

Books I read in February 2024 - if there is truth in poets' prophesies, then in my fame forever will I live

Persian literature in March: the epic Shahnameh in Dick Davis’s mostly prose translation, plus the classical poets he translated in Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz, plus some Rumi and at least one contemporary Iranian novel, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel (2009).  Maybe The Conference of the Birds.  That’s a nice syllabus.

As for the past month:


Metamorphoses (8 / 1567), tr. Arthur Golding

Metamorphoses (8 / 2004), tr. Charles Martin – those are Ovid’s and Martin’s last lines up there in my title.

Ovid and the Metamorphoses of Modern Art from Boticelli to Picasso (2014), Paul Barolsky

Many thanks to everyone who read along, commented, corresponded, etc.  A great pleasure.


Nones (1951), W. H. Auden

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018). Terrance Hayes


The Return of the Soldier (1918), Rebecca West

Brideshead Revisited (1945), Evelyn Waugh – muted compared to his great earlier novels, although it has some outstanding scenes.

The Folded Leaf (1945), William Maxwell

Mendelssohn Is on the Roof (1959), Jiří Weil – a fellow Twitterest told the story about how the Nazis wanted to pull down the statue of Mendelssohn from the Prague opera house, but instead demolished Wagner’s statue because he had the biggest nose.  A terrific story but obviously false, although internet searching revealed that Prague tour guides tell it all the time.  The source, I discovered, is Jiří Weil’s grim, ironic novel Mendelssohn Is on the Roof, about the workings of the Final Solution in Prague.  The Nazis are ridiculous, even stupid, but they are also relentless and thorough, so guess which statue, in the novel, gets it in the end.  The tour guides have tidied up the story a little too much.  Through the awful subject, a distinctly Czech ironic stance, like Kafka or Čapek, was visible.

Gray Ghost (2007), William G. Tapply –The French title of this detective novel is Casco Bay – hey, that’s where I live.  Londoners and Los Angelenos are used to fictional characters passing right by their home, but I am not. 

The Guest Lecture (2023), Martin Riker



Le bureau des affaires occultes (2021), Éric Fouassier – a historical mystery guest-starring Vidocq, the great super-criminal turned super-detective, best known now as Balzac’s recurring mastermind Vautrin.  I will reserve comment until Emma of Book Around the Corner reads the novel in July, except to say that it was good for my French.

I have a little Portuguese novel going, too, slowly, but it is not finished yet.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Metamorphoses, cantos 7 through 10 - more Heroides, more gore, more of everything - What meen my dreames then? what effect have dreames?

Metamorphoses is fluid, quick, and ever-changing.  Let’s look at cantos VII through X, which have their share of famous stories, stories famous, or as famous as they are, because of Metamorphoses.  Venus and Adonis, Baucis and Philemon, Orpheus and Eurydice, Pygmalion.  Icarus – I can’t read the Icarus story without Breughel’s painting in my mind, and perhaps even Auden’s poem about the painting.  The episode is now layered with art, as are those other stories – Shakespeare, Gluck, Shaw, and so many others.

Plus these cantos contain the Medea story at length and quite a lot of Hercules.  Large parts of these stories will still be fresh and perhaps overpowered a bit by the versions by Euripides, major sources for Ovid.

A funny case is the hunt for the Calydonian boar, the second all-star team-up in Greek mythology after the Argonauts, in canto VIII.  My understanding is that based on surviving titles the Calydonian boar and the soap opera among the various heroes was a popular source for Athenian playwrights, second to Homer as a source of plots, but none of those plays have survived, nor have any epic poems on the subject.  Our main source is now Ovid, who treats the heroes with contempt, disemboweling them or running them up trees:

And Naestor to have lost his life was like by fortune ere

The siege of Troie, but that he tooke his rist upon his speare:

And leaping quickly up a tree that stoode hard by,

Did safely from the place behold his foe whom he did flie…  (Golding, 205)

Or how about Telamon, an Argonaut, and the father of Ajax:

                   … whom taking to his feete

No heede at all for egernesse, a Maple roote did meete,

Which tripped up his heeles, and flat against the ground him laide. (206)

Some heroics.  So although Jason and Theseus are in the hunting party, most of these heroes are second-stringers, fathers of the better-known characters in the Iliad.  Nestor will return in Canto XII, telling stories to the Iliad heroes, including one even more gory than the boar hunt.  Ovid is brilliant in his repetitions.

Ovid’s details, his mix of big and small, are marvels.  Baucis and Philemon are the kind old couple who feed the gods, in disguise, when their selfish neighbors will not:

… the trembling old lady set the table,

correcting its imbalance with a potsherd

slipped underneath the shortest of its legs;

and when the table had been stabilized,

she scrubbed its surface clean with fragrant mint.  (Martin, VIII, 291)

Everyone who writes about this scene mentions the potsherd, because it is delightful. But Metamorphoses is full of such things.

I’ll end today by noting the continuity of Metamorphoses with Ovid’s earlier, youthful Heroides.  He often gives his heroines monologues, or sometimes even letters  Medea, who was in Heroides, has a great one at the beginning of Canto VII.  Atalanta has one in Canto X. The incestuous Byblis writes an impassioned letter to her brother that could almost be a monologue in a grim John Webster play, except that the lines have too many syllables:

What meen my dreames then? what effect have dreames? And may there bee

Effect in dreames?  The Gods are farre in better case than wee.

For why?  The Gods have matched with theyr susters as wee see.  (Golding, IX, 239)

Maybe I can blast through the last five cantos this weekend.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Daryl Hine's Ovid's Heroines - I, who could a dragon hypnotize

An anti-Valentine’s Day book now, Ovid’s Heroides (25-16 BCE, somewhere in there), a collection of fictional letters in verse written by mythical heroines to their no-good boyfriends and husbands.  Many end in suicide.  Dido castigating Aeneas, Phaedra mourning Hippolytus, spurned Sappho jumping off a cliff.

Although strictly speaking written as letters, many of the poems edge close to monologues and interiority, thus their large influence on the European novel and the English play.  Short, punchy, and I believe fairly easy, every Latin student would have spent some time with the Heroides.  A number of older translations are student editions, trots; I have only read Ovid’s Heroines (1991) by Daryl Hine, which is poetry by a poet.

Here is miserable Medea, who mostly tears into unfaithful, ungrateful Jason, but sounds like she is talking to herself here:

My magic arts are gone, enchantment fails,

Not even mighty Hecate avails.

Daylight I loathe, I lie awake all night,

Uncomforted by sleep however slight,

And I, who could a dragon hypnotize,

Cannot induce myself to close my eyes

With drugs that proved so potent otherwise.  (p. 25)

She has not murdered her own children yet, but in a Shakespearian touch seems to come up with the idea by overhearing herself – “My anger has enormities in store, / Which I’ll pursue” (27).

Hine puts the poems in “chronological” order, much like Metamorphoses – quote marks because the chronology is a fiction – so the book moves from Hypermnestra not murdering her new husband, a story we would have read in Aeschylus if the sequels to The Suppliants had survived through many other stories we know from Greek plays, including a Homeric section, Helen and Paris flirting and Penelope begging Ulysses to come home:

Think of your father’s peaceable demise

If only you were here to close his eyes.

But me, a girl the day you sailed away,

You’d find a crone if you returned today.  (107)

Ovid ends with Roman stories (Dido and Aeneas – he is so often in competition with the older Virgil) and Greek romances, most notably the two letters between Hero and Leander, I believe the first telling of the complete story.

See, Christopher Marlowe appears again, with another story of horny teenagers, this time based on poems Ovid likely write when he was himself a teenager:

                                                How often I’ve caressed

Your clothes, left on the beach when you undressed

To swim the Hellespont!  (“Hero to Leander,” 125)

Poor Hero.

The waves, subsiding, promise calm to come,

And soon you’ll find your route less wearisome.  (131)

I guess it is not really the complete story, since the reader has to know how it ends.

Heroides sometimes feels like a practice run for the more sophisticated and complex Metamorphoses.  But its form is new and its little touches a pleasure.  The psychology is pretty good for a teenager.  The verse – well, I will have to learn Latin to judge that.  Hine’s version is a lot of fun.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Ovid's Amores and Marlowe's Ovid - Love slack’d my muse

Since it is Valentine’s Day, I’ll riffle through Ovid’s Amores (16 BCE), as translated by Peter Green in The Erotic Poems (1982) and Christopher Marlowe as Ovid’s Elegies (1599).  A statement of purpose:

I, Ovid, poet of my wantonness,

Born at Peligny, to write more address.

So Cupid wills: far hence the severe!

You are unapt my looser lines to hear.

Let maids whom hot desire to husbands lead,

And rude boys, touch’d with unknown love, me read … (II.1, first six lines, tr. Marlowe)

Or, in more modern language:

A second batch of verses by that naughty provincial poet,

    Naso, the chronicler of his own

Wanton frivolities; another of Love’s commissions (warning

    To puritans: This volume is not for you).

I want my works to be read, by the far-from-frigid virgin

    On fire for her sweetheart, by the boy

In love for the very first time…  (tr. Green)

Those both seem good to me.  Green may in some sense be more accurate, and certainly makes fewer errors.  With a poet at Marlowe’s level “error” is not such a useful concept, although Ovid’s Elegies is an early work, if that is a useful idea for a poet who died at 29.  Marlowe likely made his translation when he was a teenager, is what I am saying, and I wonder if it began as a Latin exercise.  Few students would finish all 49 elegies.  But Marlowe was perhaps our most Ovidian poet, one conceptual artist looting another.  Ovid may well have been a teenager when he began the Amores.  One horny teen of genius responding to another.

Before Callimachus one prefers me far;

Seeing she likes my books, why should we jar?

Another rails at me, and that I write

Yet I would lie with her, if that I might.  (Marlowe, II.4)

Is this Ovid or Marlowe?

Ovid, introducing his book, says that “With Muse prepar’d, I meant to sing of arms” (I.1), like Virgil, but “Love slack’d my muse, and made my numbers soft” and anyway he knows he is better suited to love than war.

Ovid is thorough.  He covers the field.  In I.4 he begs his girlfriend not to sleep with her husband, and if she does “be your sport unpleasant.”  One elegy is about another kind of erotic failure:

I blush, that being youthful, hot, and lusty,

I prove neither youth nor man, but old and rusty.  (III.6)

And another, the most shocking is about physical abuse.  The abuser feels terrible:

Bescracth mine eyes, spare not my locks to break,

(Anger will help thy hands though ne’er so weak.)

And lest the sad signs of my crime remain,

Put in their place thy keembed hairs again.  (I.7)

Of course that is the important thing to the abuser.  The shock, my shock, is the contrast of the lightness of tone with the subject.  Ovid’s psychology seems right.

Marlowe’s verse in Ovid’s Elegies is immature, compared to “Hero and Leander” and the perfect “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” but it is full of great lines and passages.  He is sometimes tricky to untangle, which is never a problem with Peter Green.  What a pleasure to have the choice.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Canto 6 - the sexual assaults - Because the lewdness of the Gods was so blazed in it.

Back to Ovid.

First, I have just begun Paul Barolsky’s Ovid and the Metamorphoses of Modern Art from Boticelli to Picasso (2014), a work of art history about Ovid written in the spirit of Ovid.  The book is of the highest interest, and is a long way from the catalogue of paintings that it might suggest, again, much like Metamorphoses, the catalogue of myths that is not like that at all.  Many thanks to the real-life Ovid readers who pointed me towards this book.

Second, Cantos 6.  Canto 6 in particular is a good place to discuss the sexual assaults in Metamorphoses, all of the rape and attempted rape.  Ovid, among the most pro-sex writers of the Roman world, treats the rapes as terrible crimes, whether committed by gods or men.  The number of assaults is perhaps wearing, but Ovid’s attitude is not so far out of line with what I will presume to call ours.  He is more of a fatalist, I suppose.

Canto 5 ended with the a chorus of women turned into birds for daring to challenge the Muses to a singing contest.  Canto 6 begins with Arachne challenging Athena – Minerva – to a weaving contest.  Minerva weaves a self-congratulatory piece that includes, hilariously, another time she won a prize (for creating the olive tree).  Also, in typical Ovidian fashion, four bonus metamorphoses, all of poor saps punished for challenging gods, are depicted in the corners.

Meanwhile Arachne creates a tapestry showing eighteen examples of various gods, transformed into bulls and horses and grapes (?) and so on, raping women.  Unwise strategically, but outstanding as a form of protest.  And Arachne does not even lose the contest:

    Not Pallas, no, nor spight it selfe could any quarrel picke

    To this hir worke: and that did touch Minerva to the quicke.

Who thereupon did rende the cloth in pieces every whit,

Bicause the lewdnesse of the Gods was blased so in it.  (Golding, p. 140)

Arachne becomes a spider.  Ovid takes every opportunity to blaze the lewdness of the Gods, but since he does not really believe in them he does not fear punishment.

The rest of the canto is nothing but horror: the slaughter of Niobe’s children by Apollo, described with Ovid’s usual delight in gore (“a second arrow punched right through his throat,” Martin, 200), then a glance at he flaying of Marsyas, “entirely one wound” (Martin, 205), and ending with the worst, and likely now most famous of them all, the nightmarish rape and mutilation of Philomela by her brutal, barbarian brother-in-law.  Golding spends five lines, Martin six, just describing Philomela’s severed tongue.  Pure horror and cannibalistic revenge.  I have seen people wonder why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus.  If we think of young Will wanting to outdo his favorites, Ovid and Seneca, it is clear enough what he is doing.

Anyway, my main point is that although Ovid certainly writes about sexual assault a lot, he does not excuse it.  He may perhaps indulge in the horror. 

A paradox of his style is how it feels so light.  Terrible subjects in a light, quick, elegant style.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Books I read in January 2024 - as long, indeed, as this book, which hardly anyone will read by reason of its length

The best book I read was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which will also be the best thing I read in February.  I gotta catch up on my posts.

One big book down, and as a result my list of January books is more sensible.

TRAVEL, let’s call it

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), Rebecca West – I will try to write this up a bit.  I should find something in 1,150 pages to write about.  The quote up in the title is from here, obviously, p. 773 of the Penguin paperback.


Ten Nights of Dream (1905-8), Natsume Sōseki

Arrowroot (1930) &

The Secret History of the Lord of Musahi (1935), Junichirō Tanizaki

Go Down, Moses (1942), William Faulkner – the end of the great run.  Was it Hollywood that got him, or the booze, or just the inevitable movement of time?

The Glass Bead Game (1943), Hermann Hesse – a Utopian novel about a society, hundreds of years in the future that puts the highest value on Bach and mathematics and pretends that Modernism – heck, Romanticism – did not happen.  A huge Romantic himself, Hesse writes a spiritual sequel to Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer, salvaging Germanic culture from Austro-Prussian neuroticism and Hitler.  A strange book.

Watt (1945 / 1953), Samuel Beckett – meanwhile Beckett killed time in southern France carrying messages for the Resistance and creating logic puzzles in the form of a novel.


Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), Richard Wilbur

Xaipe (1950), E. E. Cummings

Inward Companion (1950), Walter de la Mare – Wilbur’s first book; late books by Cummings and de la Mare, all a treat.  I didn’t get to the Stevie Smith’s book from 1950, presumably also a complete delight, or to Neruda’s Canto General, presumably something less pure.


Selected Poems (1934-88), René Char – several years ago I read the right-hand pages, the ones in English.  This time I read the left side.

Le Seuil Le Sable: poésies complètes, 1943-1988 (1991), Edmond Jabès – before writing the mammoth Book of Questions that made his reputation, Jabès published a series of Surrealist, Max Jacob-like chapbooks in Egypt.  Those make up Le Seuil, “the threshold,” I assume he means to his major work of later decades.  I thought they were petty good on their own terms, but I have a taste for that sort of thing.  I wonder if Surrealist poems make for bad French learning, since the whole point is to confuse context.  Le Sable, “the sand,” the small number of words that make up the late poems of Jabès.

Trois chambres à Manhattan (1945), Georges Simenon – a French actor, nearly divorced, picks up a woman.  He doesn’t like her, he loves her, he becomes jealous, obsessive, submissive, and so on.  That’s it, no murder, almost no melodrama, just Simenon on love and sex and maleness, but without his addiction to prostitutes.  Readable but kinda dull.

 I have almost finished my Portuguese textbook and have begun an actual class.  Reading will follow at some point.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Some lesser works of Sōseki and Tanizaki - deep in the earth directly beneath Lady Kikyō’s toilet

Dolce Bellezza is running her 17th Japanese Literature Challenge.  Amazing, well done, etc.

I read some short works for it, which I will pile up here: three short works by Natsume Sōseki, collected in a Tuttle volume that looks like it is titled Ten Nights of Dream Hearing Things The Heredity of Taste and a pair of Junichirō Tanizaki novellas paired up in The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot.  Sōseki and Tanizaki are exactly who I read last year, and quite possibly who I read for many years more.

The translators, in the introduction, emphasize that the Sōseki pieces are “lesser” although “not unimportant,” but I enjoyed them more than the one other work of Sōseki’s I’ve read, the short novel Kokoro (1914), by reputation a great work, I presume more for its culturally significant subject than its art.  But perhaps these stories are like études, technical exercises no matter how catchy the melody.

“Ten Nights of Dream” (1908), for example, is a series of ten dreams, each a few pages long, perfect newspaper fodder.  Some pieces are pure surrealism, accumulations of symbols, while others are little parables.  A man dreams that he is watching a famous 13th century sculptor at work.  He is told that the sculptor does not create the image of a god, but rather finds the god within the wood, the Michelangelo conceit.  When the narrator tries to carve a god, he botches it again and again, concluding that there are no longer gods in the wood.  See, a little parable.

The dreamer spends the last dream knocking pigs into a bottomless pit – “still the pigs, more pigs and more, kept grunting up toward him” – before falling in the pit himself (63).  I have a strong taste for this type of thing.  But any imaginative write can knock out fake dreams, I know.

Similarly, “Hearing Things” (1905) is about an anxious man who becomes hopped up on ghost stories and begins thinking ghosts are everywhere:

“It’s all imagination,” he immediately went on, continuing his conversation with Gen-san.  “You think to yourself that they’re frightening, so the ghosts get uppity and then, of course, they start wanting to come out” (110). 

That’s the narrator’s barber, deflating him so that the story can end happily.  The story is more about the literary representation of the uncanny than about anything actually uncanny.  So again, an amusing exercise.

“The Heredity of Taste” (1906) is the most interesting, a series of Tristram Shandy-like digressions that end up telling the story of a soldier killed in the Russo-Japanese war, which is treated tragically under the narrator’s comic.  And the lack of jingoism was interesting.

It was a wonderful time when Kō-san waved the flag, but I’ve been told that where he lies at the bottom of that ditch he’s just as dead and just as cold as any other soldier.  (145)

Aiko Itō and Graeme Wilson translated the Sōsekis.

I have enjoyed – again this is just taste – Tanizaki’s historical fiction, his stories about samurai and warlords, more than his contemporary stories, and Arrowroot (1930) and The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi (1935) were not exceptions.  Lord Musashi is about a samurai with a sadistic sexual kink, a common Tanizaki preoccupation, this time involving severed heads, and more specifically severed noses.  I suppose the historical setting is absolutely necessary, since such a story set in contemporary Manchuria would be too disgusting to read.  Tanizaki pretends to have found unlikely original sources describing Lors Musashi’s sex life while also explaining obscurities of the actual historical events.

In other words, Terukatsu now found himself deep in the earth directly beneath Lady Kikyō’s toilet.  (74)

It is that kind of story, with the usual Japanese political and military events caused by motives stranger than the norm.  On the same page is a reference to another story about “the beautiful Heian court lady who tantalized a suitor with a copy of her feces fashioned out of cloves” which Tanizaki finally wrote up fifteen years later in Captain Shigemoto’s Mother (1949), which I read last January.

Arrowroot is a gentler thing, an example of the distinctive Japanese genre of the literary travel story that dates back at least to the 9th century Tale of Ise, where characters visit beautiful or historic sites in large part because of the poems or plays or stories about them.  In this case, Tanizaki wants to explore a canyon which perhaps sheltered an exiled warlord but more importantly along the way is able to see a  drum make of fox skins that is featured in a famous Nōh play.  The narrator is perfectly aware that the drum he sees is not the real thing, and the warlord cannot possibly have lived in the canyon.  The “real” association is false, but the literary side, the story, remains true.  The story is still the story.

The translator, Anthony Chambers, in a note about magical Japanese foxes, writes that “[f]oxes are so partial to tempura and fried tofu that they can be summoned by setting out these delicacies” (201).  Me too, me too.  Just try it.

Meredith, thanks as always for the push to read these Japanese books.