Pushkin’s Prose Tales: Russian Romanticism, Russian Literature…

Pushkin’s prose tales, mostly uncompleted, tantalize and torment readers both with their beauty and with the wistful sense of ‘what might have been’ that their incompleteness conveys….

The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin, trans. Gillon R, Aitken (image courtesy Goodreads)

This selection from the 2015 reading list is a re-read from my undergraduate days. The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin in the Gillon Aitken translation includes every piece that Pushkin worked on. Like any scholarly edition, it has that painstaking sense of completeness that can feel like both a blessing and a curse. It is wonderful read all the prose that Pushkin attempted in his life; it is painful to be left wondering again and again as stories and novellas break off with the translator’s too oft repeated message:

(Pushkin never completed this story.)

Pushkin is Russia’s first great modern writer. Renowned even more as a poet than as a prose writer, his magnum opus, Eugene Onegin, tells a story that is haunting in its prescience: a sensitive poet is drawn into a duel and killed due to his flirtatious fiancée.

Pushkin himself was killed at the age of 37 in a duel caused by his flirtatious wife. Art can imitate life with disastrous consequences.  Continue reading

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George Harrison’s Birthday…

George Harrison’s 72nd birthday…a bittersweet reminder that All Things Must Pass…

George Harrison (image courtesy Wikimedia)

In many ways it’s pointless to write or say much more about The Beatles. They remain, despite revisionist rock historians’ best efforts, rock music’s most important band. Arguments about their merits as solo artists follow similar paths. John is better because he was truest to rock and roll’s founding principles. Paul made what Dave Marsh once called “the Decision for Pop” because he wanted to be loved. Ringo was – well, Ringo was better than anyone expected but still the luckiest sod in musical history.

Then there is George. Known during the Fab Years as “the quiet Beatle,” his release from what had become for him the prison of being a Beatle led to a creative outburst and the best of all Beatle solo efforts, the magnificent All Things Must Pass. Many critics think George had the best solo career of any former Beatle. I think Paul has done so but then, I’m his buddy.

On to the music…

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The Brothers Grimm and the functions of the folk tale…

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm‘s compilation of stories known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales are powerful, perhaps shocking (perhaps not), entertainment for children of any age – and a structuralist literary critic’s dream…

The J. H. Sears edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (image courtesy Etsy)

The next book from the 2015 reading list is another of those “rescued” books of mine. Lea  and I were wandering around a local antique/junk shop when we came across a “children’s edition” (or what passed for a children’s edition early in the 20th century). The book I have was published by J.H. Sears and Company of New York, although the edition I have was “set up, printed, and bound” by the Kingsport Press of Kingsport Tennessee. There is no publication date, but the book is inscribed, “Nancy Ivey/Grade 1/1929-30″ so this book is at least 85 years old, perhaps older.

No translator information is provided in the text. (J.H. Sears was not big on giving credit, one suspects, to avoid paying author/translator royalties.) From textual evidence I have been able to determine that the translator was one Susannah Mary Paull, also credited as Mrs. H.B. Paull. Her translation was done in 1872. Mrs. Paull died in 1888. So for the economical Mr. Sears, use of her translation was a sweet deal. At most he may have paid a small “work for hire” fee, though that seems unlikely. Mrs. Paull was noted as a translator for young readers.

As I mentioned above, however, what makes this translation of interest to a contemporary reader is that this translation is one that leaves in much of the gore, violence, and brutality that was  systematically excised ever further as the 20th century went on – and that makes the new Jack Zipes translation a revelation to many readers. One doubts that Mrs. Paull’s translation would pass muster as a children’s book these days. But for a reader like me, it made reading the tales far more enjoyable than the  sanitized versions I read as a child.

And so to the tales.

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Love and Time: Medieval Chinese Poetry

The poems of Ou-yang Hsiu reflect both the poet’s refined understanding of the complexities of his life as part of a multi-layered, ritualized culture and his desire to look beyond that culture at the question of being human….

Love and Time: The Poems of Ou-yang Hsiu, translated by J.P, Seaton (image courtesy Goodreads)

Another look at Asian poetry in this essay, one that might serve as a companion to the work I discussed last week, The Ink Dark Moon.  Love and Time is a collection of the poems of 11th century scholar/imperial official/literatus Ou-yang Hsiu.

Ou-yang was a fascinating figure. A highly principled public official, he helped to implement important reforms that made the Song dynasty’s government more efficient and honest. As a historian he contributed both a history of the Chinese imperial dynasties and promoted epigraphic historical study. It is perhaps as a prose stylist that Ou-yang was most influential as a writer: he is considered a master of the Classical Prose style and is noted for having added a rich expressiveness to Chinese prose, especially to travel writing.

As a poet, Ou-yang was playful and experimental. While he developed mastery of two classic Chinese styles Shi and Ci, Ou-yang, especially in his middle age, expanded the subject matter from the traditional hymns, odes, eulogies, and expressions of romantic desire. Ou-yang added topics such as family life, friendship, drinking wine, and politics. He also played with tone, poking fun at himself and exaggerating for comic effect. Continue reading

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How to be Good: Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew

Diderot’s most well known piece, the dialogue Rameau’s Nephew, is a discourse on what good behavior is – delivered with droll irony by one who has found being good beyond his capabilities….

Denis Diderot by Louis Michel van Loo (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Part of the pleasure of reading is finding those odd connections between works that at first seem unlikely to be related in any way. Such is my experience with this re-reading of Denis Diderot’s masterful dialogue concerning good behavior and bad, Rameau’s Nephew. As I made my way again through this witty, ironic masterpiece of argument about morals and ethics, for some reason I was reminded of another work whose thematic focus was on that elusive goal of being good: Nan, the late Victorian children’s book by Lucy C. Lillie that I read (and wrote about) a year and a half ago. The object lessons of Nan are simple and straightforward, of course: tell the truth, don’t steal, mind your manners, obey your elders. One of Nan’s most ingratiating traits is her desire to help the less fortunate – a trait that the book clearly describes as more than compensating for her lack of intellectual and artistic talent. She may not be the brightest bulb in the lamp, but she’s a good, kind-hearted bulb and that, Ms. Lillie tells us, is what matters.

Rameau’s nephew is a sort of “anti-Nan.” He has talent, wit, intellect. He more than compensates for these gifts by being lazy, conniving, and morally and ethically questionable. As you have probably already guessed, he’s a hell of a lot more fun to read about than Nan. Continue reading

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The Ink Dark Moon: Medieval Japanese Poetry

As women members of the Heian court of medieval Japan, poets Ono no Kamachi and Izumi Shikibu lived lives that were proscribed and governed by artifice. Through poetry they found ways of expressing their feelings and insights about those lives. 

The Ink Dark Moon – Ono no Kamachi and Izumi Shikibu – translated by Jane Hirschfield and Mariko Aratani (image courtesy Goodreads)

This book from the 2015 reading list was recommended to me by my wife Lea who has a deep affection for, appreciation of, and skill at Asian poetry and its forms. The Ink Dark Moon is a collection of poems by two women of the Heian period of Japanese history. This particular period of Japanese history was one of great cultural achievement in both art and literature, Interestingly, most of the outstanding poets of the period are women and the two poets represented in this work, Ono no Kamachi and Izumi Shikibu, are perhaps the finest of these poets.

The dominant verse form used by the poets is the Japanese classical waka in its short form known as the tanka. In Japanese a tanka has 31 syllables arranged  in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. (One can compare this to the more familiar haiku which is even briefer and which follows, in Japanese, a syllabic pattern of 5-7-5.)

[Note: these syllabic forms are impossible to reproduce in English because of the difference between an inflection-based language like Japanese and a word order based language like English. This translation by Hirschfield and Aratani does an admirable – indeed, a remarkable – job of bridging the gap, but the translations are that – translations. They are not literal word-for-word reproductions of the works of Kamachi or Shikibu.]

The themes of these poems are strictly limited and are described in detail in the preface to a 10th century anthology called the Kokinshu. Suitable subjects include “human emotion in general; thoughts raised by observing the sights and sounds o the natural world; religion; the taming of wildness of the spirit…and [most prominently, especially for these poets] relations between men and women.” Continue reading

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The Art of War as Explained by a Simpleton…

Call it Simplicius Simplicissimus or The Adventures of a Simpleton – H.J.C. von Grimmelshausen’s picaresque novel of the Thirty Years War is the godfather of all great anti-war literature whether solemn indictment like The Red Badge of Courage or All Quiet on the Western Front or absurdist comedy like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five

The Adventures of a Simpleton also known as Simplicius Simplicissimus (image courtesy Goodreads)

The Adventures of a Simpleton, also know as Simplicius Simplicissimus (and by other titles) is a book that I have long loved, though this re-read is only my third of this classic satire of the lethal nonsense we call war. The edition I used this time was one I picked up in my favorite used bookstore, my original copy from undergraduate school having disappeared on its own picaresque adventures at some unknown moment in the last 40 years. This entry on the 2015 reading list moves us forward in time several hundred years from the folk literature (with some Horace thrown in) of the last few weeks. As a result we get a known author (although we don’t know a lot about him) and we get our first prose work since those outliers about World War I and John Winthrop I wrote about at the beginning of the year.

More interestingly, from a literary standpoint anyway, we get what will come to be called variously a novel, a mock-heroic romance, a picaresque novel, or a picaresque. The adventures of the hero, initially called Simplicius because of his naivete (and because discovering his real name, indeed his true identity, becomes an important subplot of the work) are episodic, disjointed, and certainly varied. Simplicius is, at one point or another in the story, a devoted acolyte to a religious hermit, a foolhardy page to an aristocrat military commander, the butt of a practical joke that makes him dress and act like a calf and serve as a jester, a clever and resourceful dragoon, musketeer, and outlaw, a reluctant husband, a gifted gigolo, a chastened smallpox survivor, a fortunate man of means, a discovered gentleman,  and , finally, a serious scholar and religious hermit.

Yeah, it’s quite a ride.

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