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.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Metamorphoses Cantos IV and V - gore, Pyramus and Thisbe, and a rap battle

Bacchus continues his reign of terror in Canto IV of Metamorphoses by turning three sisters who refuse to believe in his divinity into what “we in English language Backes or Reermice call the same” (Golding, 99) “[Or, as we say, bats.]” (Martin, 140).  How sad that we lost the word “reermice.”  But what is new here is that the three sisters, before their transformation, tell stories that also feature transformation, one after the other, the most famous of which is Pyramus and Thisbe.

The Pyramus and Thisbe story is not a mythological story but a tragic romance of the ludicrous sort, as Shakespeare saw perfect for travesty.  Charles Martin shifts his rhetoric to emphasize the ridiculous side of the story (warning: gore ahead):

  “It was as when a water pipe is ruptured

where the lead has rotted, and it springs a leak:

a column of water goes hissing through the hole

and parts the air with its pulsating thrusts;

splashed with his gore, the tree’s pale fruit grows dark;

blood soaks its roots and surges up to dye

the hanging berries purple with its color.” (Martin, 128)

This just-so story about why mulberries turn purple is the bit of Ovid Willa Cather borrowed for O Pioneers! (1913).  Shakespeare for some reason omits theses special effects (“With the help of a surgeon he might yet recover and prove an ass”).  Somehow Arthur Golding’s translation does not sound so silly.  But Martin has A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream behind him; silly is the only way to go.

The Canto ends with another romance, this time purely mythological, the Perseus story, full of metamorphoses, not just everyone turning to stone from Perseus’s super-weapon, but the creation of coral, another just-so story tossed in.  The Perseus saga shifts, in Canto V, to another parody of Homer and other epics, an insane scene of mass slaughter as gory as a Hollywood action movie, and part of the joke is that the scene goes on forever, ten blood-soaked pages in Martin.  One poor schmuck dies when his sword rebounds into his own throat.  Like an action movie, it is not just the number of kills, but the variety.

Every fifth book of Metamorphoses ends with a performance, in this case two, a song contest.  Martin shifts meters, letting one side rap and giving the other a loosey-goosey irregular five-beat line that somehow feels closer to Golding’s long lines but without the rhyme.  That’s how Ovid delivers the story of Proserpina (another just-so, why there is winter).  The rap is not in today’s style, but more like that of “Guns and Ships” from Hamilton, or maybe “Lazy Sunday.”  The rappers, challenging the Muses themselves, lose the battle and are turned into, what else, birds, magpies according to Golding,

Now also being turnde to Birdes they are as eloquent

As ere they were, as chattring still, as much to babling bent. (Golding, 135)

Ten cantos left.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Cantos II and III - or just III, it turns out - And Cole and Swift, and little Woolfe

A month ago I wrote about the first Canto of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Now I will move through the Cantos two or three at a time, just leafing through the books, really, with luck getting at what Ovid is doing.  Cantos II and III today.

Ovid established his cosmology and created the world in Canto I.  Now he is ready to do what he loves best, turning innocent young women into plants.  Or water, or constellations.  And turning innocent and less innocent men into stags and snakes, and writing just-so stories.

The gods are highly human, impulsive and wicked, sometimes more like impersonal, uncaring forces, and other times more like all-powerful dictators.  The rulers, the philandering Jove and the wronged wife Juno, so jealous and petty that she loses any sympathy, are especially menacing, but really danger can come from any direction at any time.  Mere humans are also generally terrible if they have any power at all.  That’s the ethos of Metamorphoses.

Canto III is full of the revenge of Juno.  She is especially awful to Semele, the mother of Bacchus.  She plays the Snow White trick, visiting to her as “a crone / with whitened hair and wrinkle-furrowed skin” (Martin, III, 101) to goad her into making a request from Jove that will cause her death – “incinerated by Jove’s gift” (103).  It’s all Semele’s fault then, not Juno’s.

Little fetus Bacchus is of course unharmed, and, sewed up in his father’s thigh, becomes the second child after Athena to whom Jove gives birth.  The gods live in a strange world.  An entire series of Bacchus stories follow in later Cantos, some familiar from our reading of Euripides.  Ovid is adept at interweaving the mythic story cycles, turning them into little sagas, into history.

For example, earlier in Canto III Cadmus founds Thebes by defeating a dragon and sowing the teeth to grow warriors from the earth.  A series of Thebes stories, mostly tragic, follow.  Eventually (Canto IV) Cadmus and his wife will themselves will be transformed into dragons.  They live in a cave on the Dalmatian coast, occasionally terrorizing the locals until the 4th century when St. Hilarion makes them immolate themselves, presumably converting them to Christianity.  See Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1943), her giant book about Yugoslavia.  “Without doubt it was Cadmus, it was literature” (252).  She does not actually see the cave, though, but takes the word of St. Jerome.

Canto III – not sure why I am only pulling things from Canto III – features another of Ovid’s modes, explicit parody, in Actaeon’s catalogue of hounds, a Homeric pastiche, comic but grimly so, since the dogs are about to tear poor Actaeon to pieces:

Blab, Fleetewood, Patch whose flecked skin with sundrie spots was spred:

And Tawnie full of duskie haires that over all did grow,

And Tempest best of footmanshipe in holding out at length.

And Cole and Swift, and little Woolfe… (Golding, 68)

And “shaggie Rugge,” Jollyboy, the entire pack.  I wonder if Shakespeare was thinking of this passage when he named King Lear’s little lap dogs.

Actaeon’s metamorphosis and death is gory and detailed, as many of Ovid’s transformations will be, but I find Echo’s change to be the most horrible:

unsleeping grief wasted her sad body,

reducing her to dried out skin and bones,

then voice and bones only; her skeleton

turned, they say, into stone.  (Martin, 106)

More of that to come in Metamorphoses.  More of everything.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

The Best Books of 2024

For the last year and a half I read short books, mostly, which was psychologically satisfying and anyway necessary to fit the available energy and concentration.  Now, though, back on my feet, I hope, I am ready to read long books again.

Long, and I mean it, like Rebecca West’s 1,150 page Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), a novelistic tour through Yugoslavia mixed with a fragmented Gibbon-like history of the region.  I am almost halfway through without losing much enthusiasm.

My chronological drift has taken me into the 1940s, and I plan to read a number of the major works of the decade.  Nothing else I am likely to read comes close to West’s monster, although The Second Sex tops 700 pages.  But in the last couple of years I passed over a number of likely books because they were too long, so now is the time to gather them up.  Is A Glastonbury Romance (1932) really almost 1,200 pages?  Was John Cowper Powys out of his mind?  Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (1925), under a thousand, seems almost reasonable, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night (1932) a breeze at 600, except I hope to read it in French, and Finnegans Wake (1939) practically a novella, except that it is written in the style of Finnegans Wake.

Yes, of course, this post is some kind of post-surgery overreaction.  Now I will read Finnegans Wake!  Now I will read The Tale of Genji!  And so on.  I am aware.  Although last summer, wondering what the first readers of Finnegans Wake saw, I read the first four or five installments published in 1924 and 1925 under the noncommittal title “Work in Progress” and found the idea of reading more plausible.

I greatly enjoyed my little immersion in Indian literature a couple of months ago, where I mixed classical epics and poetry with modern novels.  I want to do that again.  Several times even.

First: Persian literature.  Dick Davis has been publishing piece of Ferdawsi’s Shahnameh (1010) for decades.  His latest version (2016) is just under a thousand pages; I doubt that is half of the entire epic, likely the longest ever written by a single person.  Along with Ferdawsi I could read Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (1177) and the poetry of Rumi (12th c.) and Hafez (13th c.), all of which have been translated by Davis.  Maybe, looking at modern novels, I could try My Uncle Napoleon (1973) by Iraj Pezeshkzad, translated by, let’s see, Davis again.  Any Persian expedition is likely to become the Dick Davis show.  Well, it is a great lifetime achievement, and he is a fine poet in his own right, as I know from his 2009 collection Belonging: Poems.

Second: Arabic literature.  The One Thousand and One Nights, not necessarily such a long book depending on exactly which texts are included in the translation.  The 2021 Annotated Arabian Nights is a beauty.  I am not sure what else I might read.  A browse through the Library of Arabic Literature will find something.  Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley is from 1947, so that is an easy choice.  I wonder what his earlier novels about ancient Egypt are like?

Third: Japanese literature.  The Tale of Genji (11th c.) and The Pillow Book (1002) alongside Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (1964).  Then move to The Tale of Heike (14th c.) and some more recent works, more Sōseki and Tanizaki and Kawabata, maybe.

Fourth: Chinese literature.  One of the early novels, like Romance of the Three Kingdoms (14th c.), likely in some still enormous abridgement, followed by The Story of the Stone (1791-2).  Then, or alongside, some novels from the 1940s, Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City (1943) and Qian Zhongshu’s Fortress Besieged (1947).

For example.  Let’s say.  Maybe these are the best books of 2024 and 2025.  Or 2035.  No, look, one big book per month is twelve books.  Maybe I really get ten read, or eight.  That’s pretty good.  That’s not pure bluster.

If anybody would like to recommend a Persian, Arabic, etc. book, short or long, classical or contemporary, please do.  If anyone would like to read along with one of these beasts, please let me know. They all seem like terrible readalong books, since they are exactly the books where the pace should not be forced and the reader’s right to give up halfway – a tenth of the way – through is paramount.  Still, let me know.

Now I need to get writing about Ovid.  Speaking of whom, if anyone wants to continue reading Roman literature in my company, I am completely open to the idea.  Let’s say you have joined me with Plautus, Terence, Lucretius, Ovid, Seneca the playwright, and Seneca the Stoic.  We still have Virgil, lots of great lyric and satirical poets, Pharsalia, Satyricon, Cicero, a shelf of famous historians I have never read, and St. Augustine.  Lots of interesting things.  Julius Caesar, I’ve never read Caesar.  Let me know, let me know.

Thanks for indulging the silliest-sounding thing I have ever written here.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

The best books of 2023, in a sense - "Aren't you tired of reading?"

Last January seems even more distant than usual at this time of year.  It will likely not surprise anyone that 2023 now comes with a strong feeling of Before and After.  So I will indulge in the “facetious and silly” exercise of identifying the best books I read in 2023.  Sorting through the actual books of the year is also a good hobby, but not mine.

I mean “best” in the sense that the books are the most imaginative, artful, innovative, beautiful up to a point, linguistically rich or at least interesting, and still generative of other significant works of art.  Obviously one can value other things.  My list of favorites of the year would be similar but somewhat different, including more silly stuff.

Plato’s dialogues (4th cent. BCE), of which I read almost all, were easily the best book or books I read last year, and I mean best as literature, as invention and story-telling and linguistic play and all of that.  As the extended development of one particular character, approaching the novelistic.

A few other books – Lucretius’s The Way Things Are (1st BCE) and Lucian’s Satires and Dialogues (2nd CE) – would make this list on their own, but I am tempted to add everything we read as part of the march through Greek and Greekish philosophy.  The pre-Socratics, Diogenes, and Seneca were all richer because they were part of the project, because they conversed with Plato.  No, reading does not always have to be a course of study, it does not always have to have a syllabus.  Sometimes, though.  Many thanks to everyone who read along with any of this.  It was a real help to me.

The great highlights of my little post-surgery course in Indian literature, in Sanskrit, Tamil, Kannada, and English, were the obvious:

The Mahabharata (2nd BCE – 2nd CE / 1973) in the William Buck retelling

The Bhagavad-Gita (added to the above at some point) in Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation

The Ramayana (2nd BCE – 2nd CE / 1972) in the R. K. Narayan retelling

All just thrilling stuff.  Narayan is explicit that he compresses anything he does not find so thrilling the later classical poetry and modern novels and Peter Adamson and Jonardon Ganeri’s Classical Indian Philosophy (2020) became more interesting with the ancient epics behind them.  Vivek Narayan’s 600-page counter-epic After (2022) would not exist without them, since the thing it is “after” is the Ramayana.

The best novels and the like:

Little Novels of Sicily (1883), Giovanni Verga, the D. H. Lawrence translation

The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), Leo Tolstoy

Ulysses (1922), James Joyce – in its own category, almost , although what tedium in passages, including in some of the most brilliant, like the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter that parodies the bulk of English literature.  When I last read this book I could identify, I don’t know, the Dickens chunk, while now I could see almost everyone.  It is some kind of progress, I guess, in the study of literature, to be able to identify a Carlyle or Pater parody.

Invitation to a Beheading (1936), Vladimir Nabokov, plus the most extraordinary of the last half of his Collected Stories, “Signs and Symbols” and “The Vane Sisters” and so on.

The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck – a novel written in many modes, which should have endeared it to postmodernists, except that two of the modes, the sentimental and didactic, are low prestige.  Or used to be.  Pynchon and DeLillo readers should revisit the novel.  It is more of a systems novel, an omnibook, I remembered.  I enjoyed several other more minor Steinbeck books last year, but none were like this one.

Ficciones (1944), Jorge Luis Borges - fundamental

The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944), Katherine Anne Porter, especially the cluster of Miranda stories, “The Old Order.”

Delta Wedding (1946), Eudora Welty – the richness, the fluidity, the insights.

En attendant Godot (1952), Samuel Beckett – somewhat different in French than English.

The Leopard (1958), Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Invisible Cities (1972) and If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), Italo Calvino - the title quotation is from the last page of the latter.

Every one of these I had read before, although mostly long, long ago.

Some books of poems:

L'Art d'être grand-père (1877), Victor Hugo – The Art of Being a Grandfather, the great thunderer as an old softy.

La jeune parque (1917) and Charmes (1922), Paul Valéry

Poesias Heteronominos (1914-34), Fernando Pessoa – a collection of the various Pessoan personas.  I wanted to read Pessoa in Portuguese and I did, even if I doubt I could do it again right now,  Maybe Alberto Caeiro, the shepherd poet.

A Marvelous World (1921-52), Benjamin Peret – Surrealism as a principle of life.

Autumn Journal (1939), Louis MacNeice

Transport to Summer (1947), Wallace Stevens

Poems of Paul Celan (1947-76), tr. Michale Hamburger – as if I understood these.

In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus (2007), X. J. Kennedy

This Afterlife: Selected Poems (2022), A. E. Stallings

Seren of the Wildwood (2023), Marly Youmans – a genuinely mysterious fairy tale poem, too mysterious for me to say anything about it.  If Youmans, a longtime Friend of the Blog, were more of an abstraction, as most authors are to me, I would say she is in a “major phase.”

Next up: the best books of 2024.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Books I read in December 2023 - No one’s worse than you, she says

Lots of short fantasy fiction this month, perhaps everything in the first section except the May Sarton novel and Eugene O’Neill play, balanced by a complementary pair of Holocaust memoirs.


Ocean of Story, Vol. 1 (11th cent.),  Somadeva, tr. C. H. Tawney, ed. N. M. Penzer (“Penzer is a maniac”)

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927 / 1941),  H. P. Lovecraft – the beginning of Lovecraft’s comic masterpiece.  Yes, also cosmic, sure, why not, but mostly hilarious.

The English Teacher (1945),  R. K. Narayan

1984 (1949),  George Orwell – decades ago I had not understood this novel as a response to the Blitz.  To totalitarianism, obviously, but Orwell also wonders if London will ever really be rebuilt, if rationing will ever end.  It was a good question.

The Palm-wine Drinkard (1952),  Amos Tutuola – another lively folktale pastiche novel, like the Brazilian one, Macunaima, I read last month.

A Shower of Summer Days (1952),  May Sarton – Sarton has caught my attention as a Maine writer, but that was her old age.  For some reason here, earlier, she wrote a quite good Irish country house novel which is also, as my wife pointed out, a comic remake of Elective Affinities.

Long Day's Journey into Night (1956),  Eugene O'Neill – so much poetry quoted in this play.  When I last read it, let’s say thirty-five years ago, what did I know about Swinburne or Dowson or Baudelaire.  Or anyone.  I had heard of Shakespeare.

Elric of Meliboné (1972),  Michael Moorcock – funny, but not as funny as Lovecraft.  Last read at least forty years ago.  A friend collected the Lovecrafts and Moorcocks, while I assembled Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books.  An education in the classics.

The Living End (1979),  Stanley Elkin

Wakefulness (2007),  Jon Fosse

Olav's Dreams (2012),  Jon Fosse

Weariness (2014),  Jon Fosse – aka, the three novellas bundled together, Trilogy, or as it says at the top of every odd-numbered page, Triology.  The Dalkey Archive blurb claims a “rich web of historical, cultural, and theological allusions” which was utterly invisible to me.  I especially enjoyed the oblique murder story, or more correctly the obliqueness of the murder story.

You’re awful, the Girl says

You’re the worst guy in the whole of Bjørgvin, she says

No one’s worse than you, she says

No everything is awful, she says (p. 100)

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed (2017),  Mariana Enriquez – highbrow horror from Chile.  It is always interesting to see what is going on in the literature of the South American south, even if the recently resurgent genre is not really for me.  It can’t scare me (see Lovecraft above) but it can still disgust me.


Ovid's Heroines (25-16 BCE / 1991),  Ovid / Daryl Hine

Ovid's Elegies (16 BCE / 1599 CE),  Ovid / Christopher Marlowe

The Owl and the Nightingale (12-13 cent.),  anonymous, tr. Simon Armitage

Collected Poems 1921-1951 (1952),  Edwin Muir

I hope to write about the Ovid books soon.  They are not at the level of Metamorphoses, but what is.


Smoke over Birkenau (1986),  Liana Millu

Still Alive (1992/2001),  Ruth Kluger – please see Dorian Stuber’s blog for notes on both of these books.



La condition humaine (1933),  André Malraux

Bacchus (1951),  Jean Cocteau

Rhinocéros (1959),  Eugène Ionesco

Still plugging away at Bom Dia!, my Portuguese textbook.