Friday, September 14, 2018

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert remains one of the most important pieces of 19th century French literature.  In Lydia Davis’s introduction to her new translation of Bovary, she quotes Flaubert, “‘Yesterday evening, I started my novel.  Now I begin to see stylistic difficulties that horrify me.  To be simple is no small matter.’  This is what Flaubert wrote to his friend, lover, and fellow writer Louise Colet on the evening of September 20, 1851, and the novel he was referring to was Madame Bovary.  He was just under thirty years old.” (ix).  In my Batcheler days, I met a member of the French Language department at The University of Pennsylvania.  The details of the event have withered away, but I have not forgotten the 2-3 hours we spent discussing Emma Bovary and her tragic story.  Since then, I have read and re-read Bovary too many times to count.  I have used it dozens of times in my world literature classes.  Now, I have a new translation by Lydia Davis, and I am thrilled--once again with the power of this masterful novel.  

The story has so much minute detail, his prose is magnificent, and this new translation has rekindled all my passion for Emma.  Instead of robbing my first-time readers of this story, I have selected an interesting passage for comparison with my original copy translated by Margaret Cohen.  I begin with Cohen’s version.  “The atmosphere of the ball was heavy; the lamps were growing dim.  Guests were flocking to the billiard room.  A servant got upon a chair and broke the window-panes.  At the crash of the glass, Madame Bovary turned her head and saw in the garden the faces of peasants pressed against the window looking in at them.  Then the memory of the Bertaux came back to her.  She saw the farm again, the muddy pond, her father in his apron under the apple trees, and she saw herself again as formerly, skimming with her finger the cream off the milk-pans in the dairy.  But in the splendor of the present hour her past life, so distinct until then, faded away completely, and she almost doubted having lived it.  She was there; beyond the ball was only shadow overspreading all the rest.  She was eating a maraschino ice that she held with her left hand in a silver-gilt cup, her eyes half-closed and the spoon between her teeth” (Cohen (45-46).

Here is Lydia Davis’s version.  “The air of the ball was heavy; the lamps were growing dim.  People were drifting back into the billiard room.  A servant climbing up onto a chair broke two windowpanes at the noise of the shattered glass, Madame Bovary turned her head and noticed in the garden, against the window, the faces of country people looking in.  Then the memory of Les Bertaux returned to her.  She saw the farm again, the muddy pond, her father in a smock under the apple trees, and she saw herself as she used to be, skimming cream with her finger from the pans of milk in the milk house.  But under the dazzling splendors of the present hour, her past life, so distinct until now, was vanishing altogether, and she almost doubted that she had ever lived it.  She was here; and then, surrounding the ball, there was nothing left but darkness, spread out over all the rest.  She was at that moment eating a maraschino ice that she held with her left hand in a silver-gilt shell and half closing her eyes, the spoon between her teeth” (Trans, Davis (44-45)).

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is one of those novels a reader can easily fall in love in a heartbeat.  5 stars for Cohen and Davis.

Chiron, 9/14/18

Good Trouble by Joseph O'Neill

Joseph O’Neill has put together a slim collection of short stories which can easily occupy an afternoon or two.  He won the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction in 2009.  He was born in Ireland of Irish/Turkish ancestry.  He preferred English, because, as he wrote "literature was too precious" and he wanted it to remain a hobby.  He began writing poetry, and Good Trouble is his fifth novel. 

In “Pardon Edward Snowden,” he shares some cogent observations.  He receives a poem from a fellow poet, Jarvis, which he shares with his friend, Liz.  “She wrote back: ‘So great that you’re writing again!  This is good—best thing done in a while.  So effortless “Physics” and “fizz” is a pleasure.  And don’t think I haven’t noticed that the English-language contractions erase “I” and “u.”  In a poem drowning in materialism, that’s just such a smart, playful way to raise the issue of subjectivity.’ // Mark did not get back to Liz.  Or to Jarvis. // Re the Dylan Nobel, Liz said, ‘It’s depressing.  I can’t separate it from the Trump phenomenon.’ // The election was a week away. // ‘Yes,” Mark said.  ‘And hypercapitalism, too.  The reader as consumer.  It’s an interesting question.’ // He kept secret, even from Liz, the fact that he’d already written on this question” (9).  This passage encapsulates this story.

In “The World of Cheese,” O’Neill wrote, “It had never occurred to Breda Morrissey that things might go seriously wrong between herself and her son, Patrick.  But back in the fall he had declared her ‘persona non grata’—his actual expression—and pronounced that she was no longer permitted to have contact with her grandson, Joshua, on the grounds that she would be ‘an evil influence.’  It was a crazy, almost unbelievable turn of events, and all about such a strange matter—a scrap of skin” (31). 

“The Death of Billy Joel” has a somewhat disturbing title.  O’Neill writes, “For his fortieth birthday Tom Rourk organizes a golf trip to Florida.  He e-mails (sic) a total of ten men, but only three say yes.  A few, including some of his oldest and, historically and theoretically, best friends, do not even summon the energy to reply.  Two of the three who agree to join him, Aaron and Mick, are his regular golfing partners in New York and friends of only a few years’ vintage.  Only the final member of the quartet, David was at college with Tom back in the eighties.  David now lives in Chicago.  Tom hasn’t seen David in a long time, and hanging out with him is one of the things he’s most looking forward to” (68).  Another teaser, as to whether this will be fun outing or a disaster.

Lastly, we have “Goose.”  “In late September, Robert Daly flies New York-Milan.  He travels alone: his wife, Martha, six months pregnant with their first child, is holed up at her mother’s place upstate, in Columbia County.  Robert is going to the wedding of Mark Walters, a Dartmouth roommate who for years has lived in London and is marrying an English girl with a thrilling name—Electra.  Electra’s mother is Italian, hence the Italian wedding.  […]  Italy, New York friends tell him, is the most beautiful country in the world” (118). 

Bravo if you can figure out the connection of these and the other seven stories.  Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill is a story which will have you puzzled through to the end.  5 Stars  

Chiron, 8/25/18

Circe by Madeline Miller

I have had a long-time fascination with the history and lore of the ancient Greeks.  The connection of these gods, goddesses, nymphs, witches, and heroes never to be forgotten, pop up over and over in many different forms.  Madeline Miller now has now written two fantastic books on the ancient Achaeans, as they referred to themselves.  Her first, The Song of Achilles, was a spellbinding story of the greatest hero of his age.  Miller now adds Circe to her credit. 

According to the dust jacket, Miller was born in Boston and attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in classics.  She lives in Narberth, PA, with her husband and two children.  She won the Orange Prize for Achilles, which has been translated into twenty-five languages. My hope is she might write a novel on Kalypso, another of my favorite characters in The Odyssey.

Chapter One begins, “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.  They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and [a]thousand cousins.  Least of the lesser goddesses, our powers were so modest they could only scarcely ensure our eternities.  We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves.  That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures.  In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride (3).  This introduction tells me about a part of the pantheon of gods/goddesses which I knew precious little.  It turns out Circe is a witch with formidable powers.

Another aspect of the Achaeans was punishment.  Miller writes, “The punishment of a god was a rare and terrible thing, and talk ran wild through our halls.  Prometheus could not be killed, but there were many hellish torments that could take death’s place. […].  On the appointed day, the doors of my father’s receiving hall were thrown open.  Huge torches carbuncled with jewels glowed from the walls and by their light gathered nymphs and gods of every variety.  The slender dryads flowed out of their forests, and the stony oreads ran down from their crags.  My mother was there with her naiad sisters; the horse-shouldered river-gods crowded in beside the fish-white sea-nymphs and their lords of salt.  Even the great Titans came: my father, of course, and Oceanos, but also shape-shifting Proteus and Nereus of the sea; my aunt Selene, who drives her silver horses across the night sky; and the four winds led by my icy uncle Boreas.  A thousand avid eyes.  The only ones missing were Zeus and his Olympians.  They disdained our underground gatherings.  The word was they had already held their own private session of torment in the clouds” (17-18).

These teasers should get the juices of adventure flowing.  Circe has pity for Prometheus as he awaits his punishment.  She brings him food and water.  When she discovers her witch-powers, her father exiles her to a distant island, Aiaia.  She explores her prison, and learns the lore of witch-power, and takes control of the plants and animals on the island.  Many visitor’s come to her island, Jason and Medea in search for the golden fleece.  Of course, Ulysses comes and spends the year at the feet of Circe.  Another visitor is Hermes, the messenger of the gods.  Her father also sends some women to the island for temporary imprisonment.  This does not sit well with Circe.

This glimpse into an amazing array of figures from ancient Acheaha only begins to scratch the surface.  The ending is particularly interesting as eons of time pass on Circe’s Island.  Madeline Miller has written a fascinating peek into times we can only enjoy through her version of Circe.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/21/18

Men without Women by Haruli Murakami

Haruki Murakami is one of the most interesting writers I have encountered over the last decade.  He tells interesting stories, and I always feel as though I am sitting in an easy chair as he spins another fantastic yarn.  His prose is simple and to the point. He uses ordinary language, and following his threads is always absorbing.  I have a hard time putting aside any of his stories regardless of length.  His latest novel, Men without Women is a case in point. 

My first encounter with Murakami occurred when I came across a novel with an intriguing title: Kafka on the Shore.  Other equally fascinating titles are 1Q84, Norwegian Wood, and The Strange Library.  Men without Women belongs in this category to be admired, ruminated over, and reread.  His descriptions of characters reveal the deepest of emotions that a man can experience when he has lost a love, or a friend.  I find pieces of his puzzles fit nicely into my experiences.

This collection contains seven stories, and it is impossible to pick a favorite—they are all my favorites.  In “Drive My Car,” Kafuku hires a peculiar woman to act as his chauffeur.  Murakami writes, “Kafuku seldom drew distinctions between men and women in his daily life.  Nor was he apt to perceive any difference in ability between the sexes.  There were as many women as men in his line of work, and he actually felt more at ease working with women.  For the most part, women played closer attention to details, and they listened well.  The only problem occurred when he got in a car and found a woman beside him with her hands on the steering wheel.  That he found impossible to ignore.  Yet he had never voiced his opinion on the matter to anyone.  Somehow the topic seemed inappropriate” (5).  In the story, “An Independent Organ,” Mr. Tanimura plays squash with a doctor friend, who suddenly passed away.  Goto breaks the news to Tanimura.  Murakami writes, “As we were saying goodbye he said, ‘Mr Tanimura, I know this is an imposition, but I have a favor to ask.  Please remember Dr. Tokai.  He had such a pure heart.  I think that what we can do for those who’ve passed on is keep them in our memories as long as we can.  But it’s not as easy as it sounds.  I can’t just ask anyone to do that.” // You’re absolutely right, I told him.  Remembering someone for a long time is not as easy as people think.  I’ll try to remember him as long as I can, I promised.  I had no way to decide how pure Dr. Tokai’s heart really was, but it was true he was no ordinary person, and certainly someone worth remembering.  We shook hands and said goodbye” (111).

In the title story, “Men without Women,” a man was woken at one A.M.  Murakami writes, “A man’s low voice informed me that a woman had vanished from this world forever.  The voice belonged to the woman’s husband.  At least that is what he said.  And he went on.  ‘My wife committed suicide last Wednesday,’ he said.  ‘In any case, I thought I should let you know.  In any case.  As far as I could make out, there was not a drop of emotion in his voice.  It was like he was reading lines meant for a telegram, with barely any space at all between each word.  An announcement, pure and simple.  Unadorned reality.  Period” (212).

This fascinating collection of stories—Men without Women by Haruki Murakami—is a great introduction to Japanese literature.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/8/18

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Ninth Hour by Alice Mcdermott

Alice McDermont has won the National Book Award, as well as a finalist for numerous other prizes.  She teaches at Johns Hopkins University.  The Ninth Hour is her eighth novel.  To quote the dust jacket, "On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens the gas tape in his Brooklyn tenement.  He is determined to prove--to the subway bosses who have recently fired him, to his badgering pregnant wife--that "the hours of his life belonged to him alone."  His suicide has repercussions among the neighbors, but the repercussions to his widow, Annie, and his unborn child have far greater impacts.   

A nun appears ready to help the unfortunate widow.  These nuns take over to a good bit of the work to overcome the result of the suicide.  McDermott writes, “In her thirty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular and poor women in general.  Her own little Tammany, Sister Miriam called it. // She could get this woman’s husband buried in Calvary.  If it was all done quickly enough, she could manage it” (15).

The nuns clean, scrub, and even paint the apartment to rid it of the memories of Jim, the widow’s husband.  The nuns hire her to do the laundry for the convent, and even allow her to bring her newborn to the laundry while she works.  The nuns avoid talking about the incident, but outside the convent, there is enough chatter to alert the church about the suicide.  Alice writes, “She could tell herself that the illusion was purposeful: God showing her an image of the young man, the suicide, trapped in his bitter purgatory, but she refused the notion.  It was superstitious.  It was without mercy.  It was the devil himself who drew her eyes into that tangle, who tempted her toward despair.  That was the truth of it” (19).  The sisters cut corners, wheedled and cajoled to keep their charitable endeavors flowing so important to many of the parishioners. 

Sister Jeanne prays.  “She wanted him buried in Calvary to give comfort to his poor wife, true.  To get the girl what she’d paid for.  But she also wanted to prove herself something more than a beggar, to test the connections she’d forged in this neighborhood, forged over a life time.  She wanted him buried in Calvary because the power of the Church wanted him kept and she, who had spent her life in the Church’s service, wanted him in. // Hold it against the good I’ve done, she prayed.  We’ll sort it out when I see You” (30.

The child was born and grew up among the sisters.  The nuns believed the child, Sallie, was destined for a life in the convent.  McDermott writes, “It was Sister Jeanne who suggested Annie give her baby the nun’s name in baptism.  A formidable patroness for the child” (130).  They spoke to Annie about the miraculous occurrences when the old nun died.  Alice continues, “Annie didn’t doubt the report.  Sister Jeanne couldn’t tell a lie.  But Annie was inclined to reconcile such miracles with the sensible world.  Sister St. Savior died in July.  The windows were surely open—or, if they weren’t, Sister Jeanne, who held onto the old superstitions, would have opened one the moment the old nun passed.  Surely roses bloomed somewhere in the neighborhood” (130).

Alice McDermott’s latest novel, The Ninth Hour, is a sweet and loving story of a band of nuns who try and make life a little bit better for the poor of Brooklyn.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/7/18

Florida by Lauren Groff

 Lauren Groff made the long list for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, but unfortunately, her newest novel, Florida, did not make the cut.  This interesting novel focuses on eleven people who live and work in and around Florida.  The stories are only loosely connected, but each is interesting in its own way.

I was particularly intrigued by “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners.”  Groff writes, “Jude was born in a Cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.  Few people lived in the center of Florida then.  Air-conditioning was for the rich, and the rest compensated with high ceilings, sleeping porches, attic fans.  Jude’s father was a herpetologist at the university, and if snakes hadn’t slipped their way into their hot house, his father would have filled it with them anyway.  Coils of rattlers sat in formaldehyde on the windowsills.  Writhing knots of reptiles lived in the coops out back, where his mother had once tried to raise chickens.  At an early age, Jude learned to keep a calm heart when touching fanged things.  He was barely walking when his mother came into the kitchen to find a coral snake chasing its red and yellow tale around his wrist (13).  When I was young, I had an interest in snakes, but my interest waned when I could find none in a brown stone row house in Philadelphia.

In “Eyewall,” an attempt to raise chickens had some odd results.  Groff writes, “It began with chickens.  They were Rhode Island Reds and I’d raised them from chicks.  Though I called until my voice gave out, they’d huddled in the darkness under the house, a dim mass faintly pulsing.  Fine, you ungrateful turds!  I’d said before abandoning them to the storm.  I stood in the kitchen at the one window I left unboarded and watched the hurricane’s bruise spreading in the west.  I felt the chickens’ rising through the floorboards to pass through me like prayers” (64).  Groff has a talent for bringing into sharp relief, the two- and four-legged, as well as those with no legs at all.

“Flower Hunters” ends on a peculiar note.  The unnamed narrator wants to call her friend Meg, but she remembers Meg wanted to “take a break” from their relationship.  Lauren writes, “Two weeks ago, she called Meg at eleven at night because she’d read an article about the coral reef in the Gulf of Mexico being covered with a mysterious whiteish slime that was killing them, and she knew enough to know that when a reef collapses, so do dependent populations, and when they go, the ocean goes” (167)

Snakes appear off and on, and here is another, “Snake Stories.”  She writes, “It is strange to me, and alien in this place, and ambivalent northerner, to see how my Florida sons takes snakes for granted.  My husband, digging out a peach tree that had died from climate change, brought into the house a shovel full of poisonous baby coral snakes, brightly enameled and writhing.  Cook! Said my little boys, but I woke from frantic sleep that night, slapping at my sheets, sure the light pressure on my body was twining of many snakes that had slipped from the shovel and searched until they found my warmth” (206).

Lauren Groff is a writer who can easily describe a character in her stories as well as calmly describing dangerous reptiles.  Florida is a story for readers who abhor snakes, as well as those who are fascinated by the scaly creatures.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/2/18