All That You’ve Seen Here Is God: New Versions of Sophocles and Aeschylus by Bryan Doerries

All That You've Seen Here Is God Bryan Doerries 9780307949738 Any translator of Greek tragedies for new audiences has to be bold.

I was intrigued by the boldness of Bryan Doerrie’s All That You’ve Seen Here Is God, a collection of new “versions” of four plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus.  He translated them for Outside the Wire and Theater of War, two groups that give dramatic readings of plays for soldiers, prisoners, and health professionals.  They also host discussions with the audiences. Doerries has translated Sophocles’s Ajax, Philoctetes, The Women of Traxis, and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound.

His translations are spare and accessible, if lacking in the poetry of the Greek. The traumas of the heroes are vivid and moving to the military audiences.

Doerries explains that he is not interested in literal translation, though he starts with the Greek text.   He writes that he is trying “to build a bridge between the ancient and contemporary worlds.”

He writes,

Tragedy is an ancient military technology, a form of storytelling that evokes powerful emotions in order to erode stigmas, elicit empathy, generate dialogue, and stir citizens to action.  When you plug a tragedy into a community that is ready to receive it, the story does what it was designed to do.  Like the ancient Athenian audience in the Theater of Dionysus, the war-hardened Marines who gathered [at one of Doerries’s productions] knew the plays, not as representations of war and its aftermath, but as lived experience.

A Theater of War dramatic reading of

A Theater of War dramatic reading of “Ajax” and “Philoctetes”

So often Greek tragedies do treat issues of war and its consequences.  One of the most intense plays is Sophocles’s Philoctetes, in which the hero, Philoctetes, is abandoned by his fellow soldiers on an island. When Philoctetes stumbles into a shrine on the island, a snake (often a symbol of a god) bites him, and his screams and incurable stinking wound make him an unbearable companion and outcast.  Odysseus, the trickster “intelligence” officer, advises the Greek kings, Agamemnon and Menelaus, to leave him behind when they sail to Troy. Only Philoctetes’s bow makes it possible for him to survive on Lemnos alone.

He is forgotten until nine years later a seer, Helenus, tells the Greeks that they cannot win the war without Philoctetes and his bow. Odysseus plots with Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to trick and abduct Philoctetes.  But Neoptolemus reexamines his ethics after meeting Philoctetes.  And there is a deus ex machina, Herakles, who intervenes and explains what must the Greeks must do.

Doerries’s stark translation of the words of the compassionate chorus is very effective.  They know Zeus has been hard on criminals but Philoctetes has done nothing to deserve this.

But there is no story
I have ever heard
that matches the cruel
and meaningless fate
of this harmless man
who has done nothing
to deserve his pain.

I love this translation, but it is much simpler and shorter than the Greek. Here is a more literal translation of the same lines by David Grene, and the longer lines also look more like the Greek.

But I know of no other,
by hearsay, much less by sight, of all mankind
whose destiny was more his enemy when he met it
than Philoctetes’, who wronged no one, nor killed
but lived, just among the just,and fell in trouble past his deserts.

Grene captures the Greek more exactly, and naturally I prefer the poetry.

Sophocles’s Ajax is also a story of a hero who becomes an outcast due to illness.   In Doerrie’s introduction to Ajax, he focuses on the hero’s “mental disintegration” and the resulting violence, which he compares to similar incidents of madness and violence among Iraq vets.  (He cites an article in The New York Times.)  After the prize of Achilles’ armor is given to Odysseus rather than Ajax, Ajax intends to kill Odysseus and his men.  Driven mad by the goddess Athena, he slaughters cattle, believing they are Greeks.   How can he bear the dishonor after he sees what he has done?

Doerrie’s translation is powerful.  Ajax’s wife Tecmessa says,

Our home is
a slaughterhouse,
littered with cow
carcases and goats gushing
thick blood

Although the translations are short and effective, it is the introductions that mark Doerries’s intentions:  he is much more didactic than the Greeks.  (Is this an American thing?  Like Oprah?)  In Doerres’s introduction to Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, the story of the god who stole fire for man and then was punished by Zeus, he emphasizes the likeness of Prometheus to men and women who work in maximum-security prisons.  After performances for guards, social workers, and food-service workers in prisons, he says,

I have heard many audience members say, ‘I am Prometheus,” relating the stigma, societal judgement, and loneliness associated with their profession to the character’s solitary confinement.

The last play, Sophocles’s The Women of Trachis, is the least well-known. Heracles’s wife, Deianeira, is understanding when a beautiful woman, Iole, is brought home from the wars as “booty” (in both senses) for Heracles. But then, in the fashion of Medea, who sends her husband’s new bride a poison robe, she sends her husband a poison robe, which she has dyed with the blood of the centaur Nessus, who attempted to rape her and was killed by Herakles.  Deianeira did not, of course, intend to poison her husband: Nessus told her the blood was a love charm.   But in both cases  of Deianera and Medea, it is a younger woman who inadvertently causes the tragedy.  Burning with pain, Heracles wants his son to kill him.

The final lines of Heracles’s son’s last speech, addressed to Iole are missing from Doerries’s translation.  I have an uncorrected proof, so perhaps the lines were restored.  But Doerries reads this primarily as a play about euthanasia, and has presented it for health professionals.  Perhaps for his purpose, the last lines were deemed unneccessary.

Doerries, the founder of Theater of War and the co-founder of Outside the Wire, is a talented writer, with a laudable approach to the classics.  But I hope that university students still read the Greek and the more vivid translations by classicists  This would, however, make a very effective text for a high school or a community college, in addition to Doerries’s target audiences.

Theft at the Little Free Libraries

B. S. Johnson omnibus 414QPWDQFFLToday we saw a copy of the B. S. Johnson Omnibus at a used bookstore.

Good news, you say.

It would be, except it was my copy.

Little Free Library

Little Free Library

This summer I donated it to a Little Free Library, one of the free book boxes that have popped up in front yards and on trails. There are about 25,000 in the U.S. and 40 other countries.  The signs say, “Take a book. Leave a book.”

When I revisited the LFL, I was pleased that someone had taken the Johnson, since I doubted that anyone knew his experimental writing.   (I blogged about his very weird novel, House Mother Normal, here).

This particular Little Free Library is on a trail.  Depressing to think that somebody is stealing the books and selling them.  Well, readers must get some of the books.

There have been thefts at Little Free Libraries in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Pioneer Girl book5After the thefts in Lincoln, the University of Nebraska Press donated multiple copies of some of their books to the Little Free Libraries.  They  include “Pioneer Girl” by Andrea Warren, “Beaver Steals Fire” by Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and “Grandpa’s Third Drawer — Unlocking Holocaust Memories” by Judy Tal Kopelman.

According to the Omaha World-Herald,

It was incredibly lucky timing,” said Rosemary Vestal, publicity manager for University of Nebraska Press. “This did not come from the libraries being emptied out. This was in the works before that. But it was really lucky that we could help out in this way.”

It is discouraging that thieves would steal from Little Free Libraries.  The books are free:  someone took them.   I guess you have to keep trying, knowing that sometimes books will get into the right hands.  But I probably won’t donate to the trail location anymore.

Aristophanes Sighting in Michael Stipe’s “10 Favorite Books List”

Four Plays by Aristophanes William Arrowsmith 41CrJyLASYL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_In graduate school, we translated the knotty Greek of Aristophanes and guffawed at the ancient jokes. The chorus of frogs is hilarious in The Frogs as they croak their Greek frog sound:  “Brekekekex koax koax.”

In this day and age they probably dare not teach Aristophanes without issuing “trigger alerts.”

Michael Stipe 14bookshelf-2-master180And so I was thrilled by a recent sighting of Aristophanes in The New York Times T Magazine. Michael Stipe, the singer for R.E.M., my favorite broken-up rock band, shared his “Top 10 Favorite Books.”

One of them is Four Plays by Aristophanes, translated by William Arrowsmith.  (It includes The Birds, The Clouds, The Frogs, and Lysistrata.)

Stipe says, “I love the bawdiness and audacity of both writer and translator.”

The book will be in stock at Amazon on Sept. 2, so I can only suppose there was a rush after the article was published.

Congrats to Stipe for making Aristophanes a best-seller, or if not a best-seller, a good seller!

Below is a photo of of Nathan Lane and the chorus of frogs in The Frogs,  a musical adaptation of Aristophanes’ play by Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove.

The Frogs Lincoln Center Theater July 16, 2004 Credit Photo ©Paul Kolnik NYC 212.362.7778

The Frogs
Lincoln Center Theater
July 16, 2004

Julie Hayden’s The Lists of the Past

Julie Hayden The Lists of the Past 515loR8TpSL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The writer Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, selected Julie Hayden’s The Lists of the Past to be reissued by Pharos Editions, a small press.  This brilliant collection of short stories, originally published in The New Yorker, was published by Viking in 1976. Hayden, the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Phyllis McGinley, worked at The New Yorker in the 1960s and ’70s as the “News Break” editor. She died at age 42 of cancer and kidney failure.

Strayed writes in the introduction about her discovery of Hayden’s work:

It began as things do these days with a Facebook post.  My friend, the poet Cate Marin, wrote of her admiration for a writer I’d never heard of, a woman named Julie Hayden. Cate had assigned one of Hayden’s stories to the students in her college class.  When I emailed her and asked her to tell me more, she responded with an urgent tone, imploring me to read Hayden’s work, and included a link to a New Yorker fiction podcast of Lorrie Moore reading Hayden’s story “Day-Old Baby Rats.”

These meticulously-detailed stories are little gems.  They are jigsaw puzzles of scenes we slowly put together.  The book is divided into two parts, “Brief Lives”  and “The Lists of the Past”:  the stories in “Brief Lives” are often fragmented and experimental, while “The Lists of the Past,”  a group of linked stories, is essentially a realistic novella about a family in Connecticut.

In “Day-Old Baby Rats,” the unnamed heroine, a heavy drinker, sips all day from a flask.  From the moment she wakes up, she drinks Scotch for her tremors.  She is indignant about air pollution and would like to report some oily black smoke from the stacks, but the Office of Air Resources’ recorded message says it is closed till Monday.  She  puts on her rabbit coat and oversized sunglasses to go out, but first has a confrontation with the UPS man.  She refuses to accept a package, because he has repeatedly nicked bark off the plane tree with his truck.  She says she should report him.

Lady.”  He stops in mid-trill.  “Be nice.  I can’t go through this again.  Just sign the little slip, I give you the package, and everybody’s happy.”

Julie Hayden

Julie Hayden

She is dying to know what’s in the package, but refuses it.  Her memory is terrible:  at Macy’s, she can’t find her Macy’s charge card, then remembers she doesn’t have a Macy’s charge card. She forgets completely about the package she has bought.   She wanders into St. Patrick’s Cathedral to have a drink from her flask, and ends up in a confessional, inventing sins for a German priest.  At the end of the story, when we find out she has been waiting to go to a particularly grueling appointment,  we have compassion for her forgetfulness, drinking, and desire to report and confess, though they seem to be independent of the appointment.

I am very fond of “The Lists of the Past,” the second part of the book, linked stories which form a very spare novella..  In “The Stories of the House,” we are introduced to the gardening-obsessed father of a tight but dysfunctional family in Connecticut.  The story begins with a list:

(1) Cut Grass South Side

(2) Rake Turnaround

(3) Prune


The lists are quite beautiful.  Details about the work, shared by him and the gardener, Myron, accompany the lists.

We get to know him very well by the tasks.  He bought the beloved country house before World War II, and before the suburban developments were built.  He loved the house so much that he made a dollhouse, an exact replica of the house.  Now the grandchildren love it.  But the  story takes some strange turns:  it  ends with a vivid scene of a terrified black man, rescued by the Underground Railroad, hiding in the concealed hole in the basement before being taken to Canada.  Then the story briefly flashes back to the father.

Very weird, very beautiful.

In the next five stories, the saga of the family continues.  Cornelia, one of his adult daughters, takes care of her mother and the  gardens (he has several) and checks items off the list while he is in the hospital with a fatal illness.  (The roses are particularly tricky.)  Her mother stays in bed and asks for crossword puzzle answers. “What is a five-letter word for ‘lively’?” The  tale of gardening, the family’s interactions, and the father’s illness become more intense.  Will the items on the lists ever be checked off?

Very, very moving.  Yes, I like the second part better than the first.  But the whole collection is worth reading.

The Liberal Arts at Blackstock College in Pamela Dean’s “Tam Lin”

Tam_Lin_by_Pamela_Dean Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is a classic.

It is a splendid retelling of the “Tam Lin” ballad (you may know Fairport Convention’s version of the song).  It is also an argument for a liberal arts education. This brilliant novel is set at Blackstock College (based on Carleton College) in Minnesota in the 1970s, and chronicles the four years of the heroine Janet Carter’s education.  She is an English major, though her classics professor advisor,  a “demon recruiter,” tries to lure her into classics.  (She does take Greek.)  The classics majors are rumored to be crazy, and indeed, are very strange, especially a group of actors who speak Shakespearean English: “Cry me mercy, lady!”

Why is she an English major?  She explains to one of her roommates:

Look,” said Janet, irritated, “if the thing you liked best to do in the world was read, and somebody offered to pay your room and board and give you a liberal arts degree if you would just read for four years, wouldn’t you do it?”

Janet's favorite poet

Janet’s favorite Romantic poet is loathed by her classics major boyfriend, Nick.

On the internet many lists have been posted of books read by characters in such TV shows as “Mad Men” and  “The Gilmore Girls.” Well, the curriculum at Blackstock College in Dean’s novel is far more interesting.  And so I have compiled a partial list of poems, plays, and novels read by Janet, discussed with her brilliant friends, quoted, and sometimes staged or set to music.

A great liberal arts education!


Herodotus’s The Histories

T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral

T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”

Homer’s The Iliad

homer iliad 41IJLxMzEGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Homer’s The Odyssey

Raymond Chandler’s mysteries

E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros

I've always meant to read this!

I’ve always meant to read this!

“The Romance of the Rose”

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”

Samuel Delany’s Babel-17

Ace F-388 Paperback Original (1966). Cover by Jerome Podwil

Ace F-388 Paperback Original (1966). Cover by Jerome Podwil

Shakespeare (Janet takes two or three Shakespeare classes)

 Hamlet (Janet and three friends attend a production, critique it, and frequently refer to it)

riverside shakespeare il_570xN.182900060The Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon  (all Greek students have this)

Matthew Arnold’s On Translating Homer


Keats (Janet’s favorite poet)

Milton’s Paradise Lost (read as science fiction by Janet)

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Thomas Middleton/Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy

A very important play, staged by the classics majors/actors as a revenge in itself

One of the most important plays in this novel, it is staged by the classics majors/actors as a revenge.

Arthur Koestler’s The Watershed

Cyrano de Bergerac (Janet’s boyfriend Nick is writing an opera of it)

John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi

Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet (Janet hates it; her roommate loves it)

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows

Oxford English Dictionary

John Donne

John Donne's Poetry 41eyb8c9O9LThomas Campion

Thomas Wyatt

Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (Janet’s boyfriend Nick has set it to music)

Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings

Ballantine lord of the rings tolkein 29tolkien-slide.10Addison


Chase and Phillips (possibly the most horrible Greek I textbook ever)

All of Balzac

Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning

The Lady's Not for Burning Fry 2058Dumas’s D’Artagnan romances

Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night

Nancy Drew

Pope’s Dunciad

Pope's dunciadDickens





Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Hardy Tess RO60078264Spenser


Jane Austen’s Emma

emma jane austen penguinSylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

Jane Eyre

Samuel Johnson

James Boswell

Richard Brautigan

Lewis Carroll

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time

L'Engle WrinkleInTimePBA1A complete set of E. Nesbit

Hermann Hesse

C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces

Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time

tey daughter of time 2 51OOOpRnniL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

The End of August, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, and Phyllis McGinley’s “Ode to the End of Summer”

resurrection lilies DSCN4534I bicycled past a meadow of Resurrection lilies.

Our own Resurrection lilies are gone.  I regret that I only looked at them once or twice.

I have not spent enough time outdoors this year.  Too many mosquitoes.

I was finally able to sit  in the backyard  and read today.  It was cool and the mosquitoes are gone.  Occasionally while reading one spaces out and is mesmerized by the  sky, the moon in the afternoon, and the birds flying so high.

Tam_Lin_by_Pamela_DeanI was rereading Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin,  a splendid retelling of the “Tam Lin” ballad. It is set at Blackstock College in Minnesota (based on Carleton College) in the 1970s, and takes us through four years of the heroine Janet Carter’s education.

Dean writes of early fall,

The trees and grass were still green as summer, but the air and sky had thinned indefinably, as they did in autumn, and the first few leaves, dropped from what trees you could never tell, were drifting downwards in the sunlit air.

I have also recently discovered the poet Phyllis McGinley, known as a poet of the suburbs.  She won the Pulitzer Prize for her light verse collection, Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades with Seventy New Poems (1960),

I love “Ode to the End of Summer.”

“Ode to the End of Summer” by Phyllis McGinley

Summer, adieu
Adieu gregarious season.
Goodbye, ‘revoir, farewell.
Now day comes late; now chillier blows the breeze on
Forsaken beach and boarded-up hotel.
Now wild geese fly together in thin lines
And Tourist Homes take down their lettered signs.

It fades–this green this lavish interval
This time of flowers and fruits,
Of melon ripe along the orchard wall,
Of sun and sails and wrinkled linen suits;
Time when the world seems rather plus than minus
And pollen tickles the allergic sinus.

Now fugitives to farm and shore and highland
Cancel their brief escape.
The Ferris wheel is quiet at Coney Island
And quaintness trades no longer on the Cape;
While meek-eyed parents hasten down the ramps
To greet their offspring, terrible from camps.

Turn up the steam. The year is growing older.
The maple boughs are red.
Summer, farewell. Farewell the sunburnt shoulder
Farewell the peasant kerchief on the head.
Farewell the thunderstorm, complete with lightning,
And the white shoe that ever needeth whitening.

Farewell, vacation friendships, sweet but tenuous
Ditto to slacks and shorts,
Farewell, O strange compulsion to be strenuous
Which sends us forth to death on tennis courts.
Farewel, Mosquito, horror of our nights;
Clambakes, iced tea, and transatlantic flights.

The zinnia withers, mortal as the tulip.
Now from the dripping glass
I’ll sip no more the amateur mint julep
Nor dine al fresco on the alien grass;
Nor scale the height nor breast the truculent billow
Nor lay my head on any weekend pillow.

Unstintingly I yield myself to Autumn
And Equinoctial sloth.
I hide my swim suit in the bureau’s bottom
Nor fear the fury of the after-moth
Forswearing porch and pool and beetled garden,
My heart shall rest, my arteries shall harden.

Welcome, kind Fall, and every month with ‘r’ in
Whereto my mind is bent.
Come, sedentary season that I star in,
O fire-lit Winter of my deep content!
Amid the snow, the sleet, the blizzard’s raw gust
I shall be cozier than I was in August.

Safe from the picnic sleeps the unlittered dell.
The last Good Humor sounds its final bell
And all is silence.
Summer, farewell, farewell.

Completely Dissimilar: Edna O’Brien’s The Love Object: Selected Stories, & Dodie Smith’s The New Moon With the Old

Mirabile Does

Mirabile Does “Nothing in Common”

I used to love writing “Mirabile Does Middlebrow” posts.

They were fun and no pressure, short columns in which I bunched together  five or six books.

But my reading has been so eclectic lately that it is difficult to group the books.  And so  I am “doubling up”  with two completely dissimilar books, Edna O’Brien’s The Love Object: Selected Stories, and Dodie Smith’s comic novel, The New Moon With the Old.

Edna O'Brien The Love Object 71MdmZSzh8L1.  I expected great things of  Edna O’Brien’s new book, The Love Object:  Selected Stories.  And she delivers, so I ended up buying the hardcover of this stunning collection as well as the e-book.  I prefer her lively early stories, many of which are set in Ireland, to the sophisticated stories that portray women in love with powerful men in London.  These heroines are often wispy and forlorn.   Yet O’Brien’s writing is always lyrical and sensual, and her development of characters is rich.  This collection of 31 stories, written between 1968 and 2011, is a classic.

In “Sister Imelda,” two characters  from O’Brien’s charming 1960s trilogy, The Country Girls, are resurrected (or perhaps born?).  I love the voices of Caithleen, the narrator, and her rebellious friend, Baba.  When they return after the summer to their convent school, they are surprised that a pretty  nun with flashing eyes is teaching geometry and home-ec.  Why would someone so attractive be a nun?

O’Brien has a gift for comedy, and Caithleen is a hilarious narrator.

She was a right lunatic, then, Baba said, having gone to university for four years and willingly come back to incarceration, to poverty.  We concocted scenes of agony in some Dublin hostel, while a boy, or even a young man, stood beneath her bedroom window throwing up chunks of clay or whistles or a supplication.

Geometry is Caithleen’s worst subject, and Sister Imelda becomes so irritated that she throws a duster at her.  But she gives her a holy card after she loses her temper, and soon there is a strong attachment between the two.

Sister Imelda pursues the friendship too intensely, and one pities Caithleen, stuck in a girls’ school.  At the end of the year, Sister Imelda believes Caithleen will return and become a nun, but Caithleen flees and never writes her a letter.  (We are much relieved.)  A few years later, she and Baba pretend not to see Sister Imelda on the bus.

O’Brien is eclectic.  She is adept at comedy, but she she can make it realistic or surreal.  In two short stories about the character, Mrs. Reinhardt, O’Brien proves her mettle.

In “Number Ten,” Mrs. Reinhard “sleepwalks” and has a secret dream life.  O’Brien begins,

Everything began to be better for Mrs. Reinhardt when she started to sleepwalk.

The pictures she sees in her dreams are more compelling than those in her husband’s art gallery.  One day she is sorting laundry and finds a little golden key in the pocket of her husband’s seersucker jacket. Soon she “sleepwalks” into a taxi and goes to a mews house, Number Ten, which turns out to be her ideal house, especially the bedroom.  But Mrs. Reinhardt’s interpretation of the dream/sleepwalking may be different from the reader’s.  What really is Number Ten?  We have our suspicions.

In “Mrs. Reinhardt,” the heroine has separated from her husband, who is having an affair with a younger woman.  At a beautiful hotel, she  cries and misses her husband, but enjoys the gorgeous scenery, walks in the woods, and unwisely wears her expensive necklace in the dining room. O’Brien connects this story to “Number Ten” by saying she was “like a sleepwalker ”

After a brief affair with a handsome man she meets in the woods, she panics (and, I might add, so would we). She has difficulty surviving on her own.  But, lo and behold, it is a comedy and has a happy ending

In “Paradise,” a beautiful young woman becomes involved with a millionaire who has a villa on the Mediterranean.  She enjoys the luxury, the beautiful view of the harbor, and the tranquility of the household created by servants.  (She takes tranquilizers, too.)  But there is a problem:  the guests are snobbish about her inability to swim. And so her lover, who is equally appalled,  extravagantly hires an English swimming instructor. As she fearfully learns to swim, something happens: she begins to feel disconnected from the man and his guests.

In the title story, “The Love Object,”a young woman wmeets a married lawyer at a party. Going to bed with him is bliss, but he is not often available.   He calls the shots, and at one point they break up.  But the heroine has strong needs.  Will she keep away from him?

O’Brien is a prolific but extremely accomplished writer, and I savored each of the 31 stories.  This collection is truly a classic, and I can’t say that about many modern books.

The New Moon With the Old Dodie Smith 732423The New Moon With the Old by Dodie Smith.  Smith is best-known for her children’s novel, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but we adult fans love her charming novel, I Capture the Castle.. (It is in print, thank God.) Narrated in the form of a diary by 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, it tells the story of her family’s colorful life in a crumbling castle  the father is an indigent writer, who hasn’t written in years; the artistic, affected stepmother used to be a model;  the beautiful older sister, Rose, knows no men and has learned to flirt from old books; and the younger  brother, the intelligent Thomas, goes to school.

Smith wrote other books, but we had to scour the internet for them until a few years ago when Corsair reissued them  as paperbacks and e-books.  My favorite of her novels is The New Moon With the Old , a 1963 pop masterpiece that has fallen below the critical radar.

The New Moon With the Old is a fairy tale about work, a subject seldom treated in novels. Even better, the fairy tale is about unconventional jobs.  The novel begins with the arrival of Jane Minton, the new secretary at Dome House. She has seldom been so excited by a job: she is half in love with her new  employer, the businessman Rupert Carrington,  But a few days after she arrives at Dome House he flees the country because he is guilty of fraud, and Jane is left to tell his four children, and cope with the household.  The novel is the story of what happens to Jane and the four Carringtons afterwards, when all must fend for themselves. (Three of the four children are adults.)

Dodie Smith andher dalmatian.

Dodie Smith and her dalmatian.

Smith divides the novel into five Parts, one for Jane and the other four for the Carringtons. The novel is held together by Jane, who must get another secretarial job but stays on to organize the penniless household. All must find jobs, and the results are very comical.  Fourteen-year-old Merry, a talented actress, is kicked out of her girls’ school, runs away, has her hair dyed red and teased by a provincial  hairdresser, and finds a job directing an aristocratic family’s amateur theatricals. Nineteen-year-old Drew becomes a companion to a 70-year-old woman who is slavishly trapped in an Edwardian life-style (he is writing a novel about Edwardian life.). Clare, 21, who wants to be “a king’s mistress” (because she has read so many Dumas novels), is really fit for no job.  But she becomes a companion to an ex-king  in London (she reads aloud to him), and finds love (not with him, though)..  The oldest son, Richard, a composer, is the most tedious of the lot,  and is briefly pursued by his father’s mistress, but even he finds his way to work eventually.

Smith is just so damned funny.  This is a book you laugh out loud at, and one you’ll want to read again.

5 Literary Links: Spies Watched Doris Lessing, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Top 9 Historical Novels, London Lit Weekend, & Summer Reading

Here are Five Literary Links worth pursuing.  Check out the following articles and essays.

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

1. Richard Norton-Taylor at The Guardian reports that MI5 spied on Doris Lessing for 20 years.  He writes,:

MI5 targeted the Nobel prize-winning author Doris Lessing for 20 years, listening to her phone conversations, opening her mail and closely monitoring her movements, previously top secret files reveal. The files show the extent to which MI5, helped by the Met police special branch, spied on the writer, her friends and associates, long after she abandoned communism, disgusted by the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956.

This article is well-worth reading.

The Tale of Genji 9780393047875_3002. At the Washington Post, Steven Moore reviews Denis Washburn’s new translation of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, the eleventh-century Japanese novel.  I am reading this translation and  loving it.  (And it’s only $2.85 on the Kindle.)

Georgette Heyer devils-cub3. At Barnes and Noble Reads, you will enjoy  Philippa Gregory’s “Top 9 Historical Novels.”  Among them are Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, Mary Renault’s The King Must Die, and Namoi Mitchison’s The Corn King and the Spring Queen.

london lit weekend llw-kp-banner650x2264. Are you longing to attend the London Lit Weekend curated by the TLS (Oct. 3-4)?  The speakers will include  “Melvyn Bragg, the novelists Claire Lowdon and Jonathan Coe, the translator Ann Goldstein (whose translations of Elena Ferrante have worked their way onto many a summer reading list), as well as the philosopher Mark Rowlands (whose books include Can Animals be Moral? and Running with the Pack), and Max Porter, whose forthcoming novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers breathes new life into Ted Hughes’s Crow.”

light summer-reading5.  At the Wall Street Journal, Lee Siegel provides a history of the tradition of summer reading in his fascinating essay, “The End of the Ambitious Summer Reading List.”  (N.B.  I find Siegel slightly pompous:   He thinks no one reads classics in the summer.  Heavens, all he has to do is read some blogs or go to Goodreads!)

D. J. Taylor’s Books Reissued As E-Books & Musings on Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage

Back in print as an e-book.

Back in print !

D. J. Taylor, a brilliant novelist, biographer, and critic, is one of my favorite writers. His historical novel, Derby Day, was nominated in 2011 for the Man Booker Prize, his biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Award in 2003, and his elegant counterfactual novel, The Windsor Faction, won the Sidewise Award for Best Long-Form Alternate History in 2014.

Orwell by d. J. taylor {8EFA7CA0-FADC-4538-A57A-2DE04BA35866}Img400But you all know that. I have written about it before.   Anyway, here is an announcement:  several of his books have  been  reissued as e-books by Open Road Media.  The three aforementioned are available, as are  several of his earlier books, including the novels Real Life, English Settlement, Great Eastern Land, The Comedy Man,  and Trespass; a biography of Thackeray; and a collection of stories, After Bathing at Baxter’s.

I have yet to read his early books, but I did like his 1999 novel, Trespass, which pays homage to H. G. Wells’s delightful satire, Tono-Bungay.  Tono-Bungay, invented by the hero’s uncle, is a harmless concoction sold as a  pep drink through brilliant advertising.  (I wrote about Wells’ book at my old blog.)  Taylor nods to the brilliance of Wells in his comical story of the rise and fall of George Chell, whose life has been nomadic since his eccentric entrepreneur uncle was ruined by a financial crash six years ago. As he muses on his uncle’s past, he also analyzes his own rise from working-class Norwich to the City in London to the financial crash. The past and present chapters alternate, usually with a Q&A chapter between.”

And, by the way, Taylor’s new collection of short stories, Wrote for Luck,  was  published last winter by Beggar Galley Press, a small press in the UK.  It is not available in the U.S., but you can find  used copies on the internet.

Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage.  Years ago an archaeologist friend recommended Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold, a novel whose heroine, Frances Wingate, is an archaeologist. This became one of my favorite books, and when I reread it nowadays, Frances reminds me slightly of the classicist  Mary Beard.

I have read  Drabble’s books multiple times.  Not, however, her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, which was published in 1962. summer bird-cage margaret drabble db977f612f2e6c4597777305751444341587343When I went back to it recently, I had mixed feelings.  Much of it is delightful, but it is also a bit dated.

It is a strange little comedy.  Sarah, the witty, thoughtful narrator, has been teaching English conversation in Paris. She is going home for her older sister Louise’s wedding. She doesn’t like Louise, who is beautiful, snobbish, moody, and often unkind.  Yet Sarah, who has recently graduated from Oxford,  has had enough of Paris, and doesn’t know what to do next.

Sarah’s voice is charming and comical.

I hadn’t really been doing anything in Paris.  I had gone there immediately after coming home from Oxford with a lovely, shiny, useless new degree, in a faute-de-mieux middle-class way, to fill in time.  To fill in time till what?  What indeed?  It was quite pleasant, teaching those birdy girls, but it wasn’t serious enough for me.  It didn’t get me anywhere.

I read this in graduate school, and we all chortled over it.  Would we ever have jobs? We found Drabble hilarious.  But one of my friends, who was going on for a Ph.D., thought A Summer Bird-Cage was anti-feminist.

I wouldn’t go that far, but today Sarah’s scorn of “academic women” seems a little jarring.

When her roommate says parties are tiresome, Sarah thinks,

As she said that, I suddenly glimpsed in her the traditional university woman, badly dressed, censorious, and chaotic.  I didn’t like what I saw…

Oh, dear.  I do know what she means.  I used to think my women professors were hired because of their eccentricities and lack of style. I long ago repented of that view, but perhaps this is simply how the young think.

A Summer Bird-Cage Margaret Drabble 41xhpFHPI0L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_I still find Sarah’s lack of direction vaguely charming, because women’s personal lives are often more important than their  jobs.  But the novel is not just about Sarah’s youthful squandering of time.  It is also about  her love-hate relationship with her doppelganger, Louise, who is fashionable, brilliant, and beautiful, but really quite disagreeable.  Louise snubs her guests, and when Sarah points out that Louise is wearing a dirty bra under her wedding gown, she doesn’t care. She goes off joylessly to Italy with her unlikable, but very rich, writer husband.  Her reasons for marrying him?  You’ll find out.  She is blatantly having an affair with his best friend, an actor.

Meanwhile, Sarah moves to London with Gill, an artist friend, and gets a job at the BBC.  The job means nothing to her:  she is more interested in parties.  She is observant and witty and vaguely looks forward to marrying her old boyfriend, who is at Harvard.  She doesn’t know quite else what to do.

But we finally learn that Sarah isn’t without direction:  she hopes one day to write a novel as funny as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.  And we know Drabble succeeds.

In general I prefer Drabble’s later novels, but if you want to read a great ’60s comedy, try Drabble’s third novel, The Millstone, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. The  scholarly heroine, Rosamund, approves of the sexual revolution, but she hasn’t yet experienced it personally. When she takes a break from her academic research to lose her virginity, she has the bad luck to get pregnant.  She decides to raise the baby on her ow,.  This slight book is comical, moving, and beautifully written.