Poets in Exile: The Tale of Genji, Ovid’s Tristia, and Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape

tale of genji dennis washburn 51lpKmqt3yL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Tonight I’m writing about three books:  Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Ovid’s Tristia (Sad Things), and Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape. Don’t worry:  I shall connect them!

First, The Tale of Genji.  I skipped last week’s post on Genji. Sorry.  It is not that I’m not enjoying this eleventh-century romance  (often referred to as a novel) about court life in Heian Japan.  Quite the contrary.  It has vivid characters, and an intriguing, if rambling, plot:  Genji the womanizer has a lot in common with many literary seducers:  Vronksy (Anna Karenina) , Tom Jones, Byron, Count Dracula, and Ovid’s persona in his love elegies.

But most important, this long prose narrative was written by a Japanese woman at the Heian court.

Though women dominated the literature of the mid-Heian period in Japan (who knew?), Murasaki’s Genji is “the supreme prose masterpiece of Japanese literature,” says translator Edward G. Seidensticker.  I  am alternating between Edward G. Seidensticker’s  graceful translation (Knopf, 1976)  and the scholar Dennis Washburn’s solid, readable  one, which has excellent footnotes (Norton , 2015).

Shikibu’s long narrative is easy reading, once you get the hang of it (and a few hundred footnotes!).  She tells the story of Genji, the beautiful, brilliant son of the emperor’s favorite concubine.  Genji is a talented poet and musician who wins competitions in these arts at court.  Everyone respects him.  If only Obama would institute poetry contests in the U.S. government (though most of those senators don’t look too poetic)!

But, alas, Genji is not just a poet:  he is also the immoral seducer of innumerable women.  The love of his life is Fujitsubo, his own father’s consort (yes, astonishing! and isn’t that incest?).  She gives birth to Genji’s son,  and has no choice but to pretend the baby is the emperor’s. The stress and Genji’s badgering after she ends the affair drives  into a nunnery to escape his  attentions after the Emperor’s death.

As you can imagine, Shikibu, a woman writer, admires Genji’s charm but does not  approve the consequences for many of the women. (Heartbreak, pregnancy, trauma, infrequent visits or unwanted visits.)  Some of this is drama, some of this is satire.  There are occasional authorial comments, and she also allows us, in the course of a mostly impartial narrative, a few windows into the women’s minds.

The plot rambles wildly.  In one chapter, the narrative descends into a ghost story!  One of Genji’s most elegant but neglected girlfriends, the Rokujo lady, possesses the spirit of Genji’s sick wife.  A tale of possession!  Genji recognizes her spirit and communicates with her.  And his wife dies!  The Rokujo lady knows things have gone too far, and she follows her priestess daughter out of the city to a temple, despite Genji’s protestst of love.

And then it happens.  Genji is exiled!  Well, it is the result of a court intrigue, and not for anything serious, but he has always gotten away with everything.  He is having an affair with Oborozukiyo, the sister of the spiteful Kokiden, who is the wife of Genji’s late father and is the mother of the new emperor, Suzaki. Kokiden hates Genji and views him as a threat to Suzaki.  She uses his immorality as an excuse to bring him down.  She bullies her son, into stripping Genji of his rank.  Humiliated, Genji goes into exile at Suma.  Shikibu  describes  Suma as a site

 …in ancient times…where the nobility had built villas and estates. He heard, however, that it was now a desolate, deserted backwater dotted with a scattering of fishermen’s huts. He no longer wanted to stay on in a residence where throngs of people bustled in and out, and yet he knew he would certainly be anxious about his household affairs should he go far away from the capital. His predicament left him confused and indecisive.

Ovid the poems of exile 41PN5KVZB3L._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_As a classicist, I was also  reminded of Ovid’s Tristia, a long poem he wrote after he was exiled to an uninhabitable small island by the Emperor Augustus, who was trying to legislate morality,  for carmen et error (a poem and an error).  The island of Tomis was far wilder and unforgiving than Genji’s Suma.  The poem for which he was banished is thought to be Ars Amatoria, The Art of Love, a guide to seduction.

In Gilbert Highet’s brilliant book, Poets in a Landscape, he observes, “Immoral Ovid was, but he had high standards of art.”  Even Augustus laughed at Ovid’s humorous poems about love.  But suddenly…

Ovid was accused of high treason and sent ln to exile for the rest of his life. Aged fifty, he was banished to the remote frontier post of Tomis, now Constanta, on the Romanian coast of the Black Sea.   He lingered there for nearly ten years, writing pathetic letters home, begging the emperor for mercy, protesting his partial innocence; then he died, still unforgiven.  No one to this day knows why the most popular and distinguished poet in Rome was suddenly arrested and expelled from life.  He himself knew, but did not dare to say.

Here is an excerpt from Ovid’s Tristia, III. X, translated by A. S. Kline and posted online.

If anyone there still remembers exiled Ovid,

if my name’s alive in the city now I’m gone,

let him know that, beneath the stars that never

touch the sea, I live among the barbarian races.

The Sarmatians, a wild tribe, surround me, the Bessi

and the Getae, names unworthy of my wit!

While the warm winds still blow, the Danube between

defends us: with his flood he prevents war.

And when dark winter shows its icy face,

and the earth is white with marbled frost,

when Boreas and the snow constrain life under the Bears,

those tribes must be hard-pressed by the shivering sky.

Snow falls, and, once fallen, no rain or sunlight melts it,

since the north wind, freezing, makes it permanent.

So another fall comes before the first has melted,

and in many parts it lingers there two years.

The power of Aquilo’s northern gales is such

it razes high towers, and blows away the roofs.

Men keep out the dreadful cold with sewn trousers

and furs: the face alone appears of the whole body.

Often their hair tinkles with hanging icicles,

and their beards gleam white with a coat of frost.

Wine stands exposed, holding the shape of the jar,

and they don’t drink draughts of mead, but frozen lumps.

Shall I speak of solid rivers, frozen by cold,

and water dug out brittle from the pools?

The Danube itself, no narrower than lotus-bearing Nile,

mingling with deep water through many mouths,

congeals, the winds hardening its dark flow,

and winds its way to the sea below the ice:

Feet cross now, where boats went before,

and horses’ hooves beat on waters hard with cold:

and across this new bridge over the sliding flood

barbarous wagons are pulled by Sarmatian oxen.

I’ll scarcely be believed, but since there’s no prize

for deceit, the witness should be given due credit:

I’ve seen the vast waters frozen with ice,

a slippery shell gripping the unmoving deep.

Seeing was not enough: I walked the frozen sea,

dry-shod, with the surface under my feet.

NOTE:  Alas, Genji got to go home, but Ovid had to stay at Tomis for life


Sigrid Undset’s The Axe, the First Volume of The Master of Hestviken

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We were at the Waffle House when an artist friend recommended Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian writer who won the Nobel for Literature. Between teaching and studies I had little leisure in graduate school, and I laughingly wondered if Undset (1882-1949) might be too modern for a reader who spent her days with the Presocratics, Cicero, and Bradley’s Arnold.  He teased me because I was a fiction junkie who crawled into bed every night at eight with Dickens or Mrs. Gaskell.  He thought I needed to venture beyond the nineteenth century in my reading.  He was a wild artist.

Sigrid Undset, 1928

Sigrid Undset, 1928

Summer came, and I was free, if exhausted.  Bleary-eyed and insomniac, I found a copy of Undset’s trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, at a used bookstore.  I  felt a special bond with Kristin, a brilliant and practical but troubled Catholic heroine in the Middle Ages.  These gorgeously-written novels, The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross, published in the 1920s, chronicle Kristin’s life from childhood through old age.  Kristin’s difficulties with many different kinds of love (filial, marital, maternal, religious) resonate with so many of us.  In 1928 Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature, “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages,” says the Nobel Prize website.

After a recent rereading of Kristin, I wanted to go back immediately and start it again.  But I decided instead to reread Undset’s tetralogy, The Master of Hestviken, also set in medieval Norway.  It is stunning, though its characters are less sympathetic.

Originally published between 1925 and 1927, it follows the fortunes of Olav Audunsson and Ingunn Steinfinssdatter.  In The Axe, the first volume, they are betrothed as children at a banquet.  But the loves and crimes of Ingunn’s parents, Steinfinn and Ingebjorg, rock the future for the next generation and threaten to obstruct the marriage. The entire family is living in a kind of Golden Age paradise and blissfully ignorant of what lies in store for them.  Ingunn, a tomboy, plays outdoors with her brothers and Olav (Stienfinn’s foster son) while her lovely younger sister prefers the duties and pursuits of women.

undset set masterThen violence interrupts their idyll.  Year ago, when Steinfinn fell in love with Ingebjorg, she was already betrothed to Mattias.  When Ingebjorg’s father rejects  Steinfinn’s suit because of this betrothal, Steinfinn  didn’t take the rejection seriously and the next year “abducted” the willing Ingjborg.  The two lived as if married, but could not legally marry, even though they had children.   When Ingbjorg was pregnant with her third child, the Queen intervened so the couple could marry..  But seven years later, Mattias, the man  originally betrothed to Ingebjorg, invaded their house with an armed band of man and took his revenge, tying up naked Steinfinn and holding Ingebjorg on his lap.  He stops just short of rape.

As you can imagine, violence brings more violence.  Steinfinn eventually takes revenge, and before his death there is a question of whether the children  are really betrothed: Steinfinns suggests it was a joke as a party.  But Olav and Ingunn are already lovers and feel quite desperate.  They consult the bishop, who is on their side, but then hot-headed Olav kills a man in the bishop’s house and is exiled.  Later the bishop is exiled.  Then Ingunn is sent to live with her aunt and spends her days caring for her beloved grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s.  But this is no life for her, and she simply spends years waiting for Olav.  Everyone agrees that he will returne once he is absolved, and then they will be married .

the axe undset new edition 51gayU-j-9L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Neither character is as likable as Kristin Lavransdatter or her noble slacker husband Erlend, but I do feel a special sympathy for Ingunn.  Here is a young woman with nothing to do, who lacks the talents and skills of Kristin.  She spends her days dreamily sewing and fantasizing about weddings and imagining being a mother of many children.  Finally her aunt takes her to a wedding.

At the great wedding she had been made to wear bright-colored clothes, a silver belt, and floating hair. At the time she had only been shy and confused.  But it left its mark in her.  When she was back in her grandmother’s room at Berg, new images floated before her mind–she saw herself walking with Olav, jewelled and glorious–it might be in the palace of some foreign king; this seemed to compensate for all these years she had sat in the corner.

Poor Ingunn!  She is completely, tragically powerless, a woman who needs to be married to fulfill herself.  Not at all like Kristin, but then few are.  She  flirts with a young scribe she met at a wedding.  Then he date-rapes her and she is broken.  Her pregnancy changes her relationship with Olaf, who is a decent man, but there is a double standard here.    This is a feminist novel:  Undset portrays the tragedy of a woman who has few rights and no control over her future.

Not for Classicists: Ann Patty’s Living with a Dead Language

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I am militantly outspoken.  And that’s why I seldom request review copies.

But I could not resist a review copy of a new book with the title Living With a Dead Language:  My Romance with Latin. I am a classicist and former Latin teacher.

Unfortunately, this account of a former editor’s study of Latin is riddled with errors.  (I  pray someone caught them before the publication date,  June 14.).

I felt my blood pressure go up as I read this poorly-edited book (there are more Latin errors than I used to see on my average students’ exams) and finally flung it aside.  Should I write about it or ignore it?  This is not a review but a heads-up:  you would be more likely to want to read Latin if you read Vigil’s Aeneid, a stunning epic poem, or Gilbert Highet’s beautifully-written, scholarly Poets in a Landscape, an eloquent book about the relationship of Catullus, Virgil, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, and Juvenal to the Italian landscape.

So what is the point of this new Latin memoir?  The author, Ann Patty, an editor who discovered the best-selling writer V. C. Andrews (whom I haven’t read) and acquired the rights for Yann Martel’s Life of Pi  (which I have read), was a savvy figure in her field:  she even had her own imprint.   After she was forced to retire (she says 100 people were laid off in a single day)  the days seemed very long.  So she decided to audit Latin classes at Vassar and Bard.

It’s an interesting concept for a book:  it’s a pity it’s so poorly executed.  Well, Patty enjoyed Latin, though at first she wasn’t very good at it.  She got a 6 out of 10 on her first quiz and an 85 on her first test.  When a student offered a tip that flashcards were the key to learning a language,  the willful Patty bought index cards but devised her own system. And I gathered that is typical of Patty.

Always being a thrifty sort, I did not make them, as Camilla did, one word per card, Latin on one side, English on the to her, but rather squashed three words with translations on each card.  I left the back blank, figuring I would need it later.

Such inefficiency!  Tsk, tsk.  The point is to look at the English side of the card, say the Latin to yourself and/or write it down, then check the answer and spelling on the flip side. Later, you repeat the cards with Latin to English.

But that is nought compared to the errors in her exegesis of Latin grammar.

I’ll spare you a course in Latin, but just a few things:

Patty does not understand what is meant by the “mood” of a Latin verb.  She says there are three.  No,  there are four.

The four moods of the Latin verb (a verb is a word that describes an action or state of being) are:

1. the indicative –  states a fact.  EXAMPLE:  “She runs, she praises, she sings, she dances, etc.”

2. the subjunctive:  states a possibility.  EX.: “He may run, might run, would run, etc.”

3. the infinitive:  states the action of the verb without a subject. EX.: “To run, to praise, to sing, to dance, etc.”

4. the imperative:  a command.  EX.: “Run!” “Sing!”  “Dance!”

Patty claims there are only three Latin verb moods, but then hedges her bets with five add-ons:  she identifies  “indicative, subjunctive, imperative, plus the infinitive, participle, gerund, gerundive, and supine.” The last four are not verbs or moods of verbs:  the  participle and gerundive are verbal adjectives, and the gerund and supine are nouns.

All right, that’s enough grammar for you guys today!  But the editors needed a classicist to  proofread it.  She does say in the acknowledgements that “the Latin teacher Curtis Dozier: saved the  book from being a a mess of errors,”  but it is unclear whether he read the book, because she  also refers to him as summum magistrum (accusative case) rather than summus magister (the correct nominative case).

I don’t know whether she’s more naive or pompous.  Bits of autobiography are mixed haphazardly into the narrative.  Her observations on Roman literature are so pedestrian I was embarrassed.  I am shocked (yes, I’m a schoolmarm) that she uses SparkNotes to help her with Catullus.  And her tedious sections on etymology need editing, though I gather this is what interests her.

In short, this book needed much more work.  David Denby’s stunning Great Books, an account of his return to Columbia to study literary and philosophical masterpieces in core humanities classes, would have been a good model.

If any of you read it, please let me know what you think.  Perhaps if you don’t know Latin…?

The Summer Reading Kit & Three Literary Links

Mrs. Modern Darcy's Summer Reading Kit

The Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer Reading Kit

Do you long to spend your vacation in a hammock catching up with Daniel Deronda or The Tale of Genji?   Though summer reading has a reputation for being dumbed-down, many of us love to combine a classic with mysteries and pastel-colored beach books.

And there are plenty of recommendations on the net, because. as the critics like to say, everybody’s a critic.  If you’re looking for down-home suggestions, some serious, some light, visit the blog Modern Mrs. Darcy and sign up for her Summer Reading Kit.

“Mrs. Darcy” has designed the Summer Reading Kit for librarians and “bookish enthuisasts.”

She writes,

To inspire your patrons in their reading journey, I’ve created a summer reading poster (sized 18×24) that lets patrons see 30 absorbing, high-interest titles at a glance. These titles are from the Summer Reading Guide (which many librarians are already using as a summer reading resource), and they’re organized by category so readers can easily see what books will appeal to them.

I’ve also created summer reading bookmarks that double as a reading list. Patrons can jot down titles they hear about from you or anyone else so they don’t have to agonize over what to read next after they finish a great book.

I certainly would love those bookmarks.


hold still by strong 256228941.  There is a fascinating interview at The Rumpus with Lynn Steger Strong, author of the novel Hold Still, in which the main character, Maya, is obsessed with Virginia Woolf.

Filgate writes,

As soon as I was introduced to Lynn, we immediately bonded over our shared love for running and Virginia Woolf. When I found out that her debut novel Hold Still has to do with both, I moved it up to the top of my gigantic to-be-read pile, and I’m so glad I did. Hold Still is about an English professor who has to reckon with a terrible mistake her daughter made, one that tests their already shaky relationship. But trying to sell the book on the plot alone takes away from the true backbone of this novel. Open it for the story; read it for the sentences that stay with you like a gift.

2. Nan at Letters from a Hill Farm writes about leaving Facebook.

Some of my readers may have noticed me around the blogging world a little more often recently. That’s because I quit Facebook on Saturday April 23. I initially joined two years ago just so my kids wouldn’t have to bother to send me text photos of pictures they had posted on Facebook. But it grew and grew. You know how it goes. Someone asks to be your friend, and you think of people you ought to send a friend request to, and boom you’ve got a whole bunch of Facebook friends. There were very occasional requests that I did not accept. But I still ended up with some friends that I barely knew or had never met. I’m not the kind of person to ‘unfriend’ so I’d keep getting information from them. I connected with some high school friends, and just like when I was actually in high school, there were some people I liked and others not so much. A lot of my friends were younger, Margaret’s friends, who so very kindly welcomed me. At first it was loads of fun but then it was not fun anymore. There were too many notifications and too many items in my feed. It was too busy, too quick.

all fall down image003.  At A Penguin a Week, Adam Gee writes a guest post about James Leo Herlihy, a writer best known for Midnight Cowboy.

Gee writes about his debut novel, All Fall Down.

When I pick up an old Penguin I’m hoping for a surprise – something off-beat, long neglected, out of left field, a lost gem. ‘All Fall Down’ delivered.

It’s the first novel from the Detroit writer who went on to write ‘Midnight Cowboy’ five years later in 1965, James Leo Herlihy. It’s a coming of age story in the heritage of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, a decade in its wake. It follows the growth of Clint Williams from an isolated, uncommunicative 14 year old to an emerging adult with the capacity to care and love.

I hope to find a copy one day!

Charlotte Armstrong’s “Mischief” in Library of America’s “Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s”

Women Crime Writers the 50s 9781598534313Last year the Library of America published two volumes of women’s noir classics, Women Crime Writers:  Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s and Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s.  The writers included in these two volumes–Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay, Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar, and Dolores Hitchens–were pioneers of domestic suspense.

According to editor Sarah Weinman’s introduction at the Library of America Women in Crime website,  women often set their books against a domestic background.

Women’s magazines are of particular interest in the story of domestic suspense, because of their audience:Young and middle-aged women, single and married were seeking respite from their ennui and alienation. The appearance of domestic suspense fiction poked holes in the “happy homemaker” ideal put forward by the more positive, beauty-and fashion-oriented articles.

mischief charlotte armstrong 3970846765_1f52e65198After enjoying the 1940s volume last fall, I have finally embarked on the 1950s.  Charlotte Armstrong’s clever, gritty suspense novel, Mischief (1950), is terrifying.  It reminds us that, even in the flourishing economy of the 1950s,  there was a threat to the security of domestic life.

In Mischief, the middle-class Jones family is as secure as they can be. When Peter O. Jones, the busy editor and publisher of the Brennerton Star-Gazette, goes to a convention in New York, he takes his wife Ruth and daughter Bunny along. They plan to spend a few days seeing New York after the convention.  They stay at the Majestic Hotel in midtown Manhattan.

But there’s a glitch:  Peter’s sister Betty calls to say she can’t babysit for Bunny while he and Ruth attend the dinner. Peter has to make a speech, and Ruth wants to hear it.  And so the very nice elevator man, Eddie, who has worked at the hotel for 15 years,  says his niece, Nell, can babysit. She is very quiet.  Ruth notices there’s something  slightly off about her demure manner.  But they’ll be gone only a few hours.

From the very first page, Ruth comes across as a strong, intelligent character.  Peter is kind, but he is absorbed in work, so she is the one who must protect the family from domestic problems.   On the first page she muses about hotels.

What a formula, she thought, is a hotel room. Everything one needs. And every detail pursued with such heavy-handed comfort, such gloomy good taste, it becomes a formula for luxury.  The twin beds, severely clean, austerely spread. The lamp and the telephone between.  Dresser, dressing table.  Desk and desk chair (if the human unit needs to take his pen in hand).  Bank of windows, on a court, with the big steam radiator across below them, metal topped.  Curtains in hotel-ecru.  Draperies in hotel-brocade.  Easy chair in hotel-maroon.  The standing lamp.  The standing ash tray, theat hideous useful thing.  The vast empty closet.  And the bath.  The tiles.  The big towels.  The small soap.  The very hot water.

mischief charlotte armstrong dG-521a One of the fascinating things about Armstrong’s brilliant plotting is that no detail is wasted. Every item in the paragraph above is crucial to the plot.This is a short book, but no word is wasted. What looks like domestic life can’t be domestic in a hotel.

Ruth can’t get over the nagging feeling she shouldn’t leave Bunny with Nell.  She tries to overcome it with logic.

And Nell doesn’t do anything untoward at first.  After reading a story to Bunny in a monotone (Bunny is puzzled:  why is it so much more interesting when Mommy reads it?), Nell says Good night and leaves the door to the adjoining room slightly open as Ruth had requested. Then she embarks on mischief.  Nell makes a lot of expensive crank phone calls.  (The switchboard operator notices and wonders what’s going on.)  Then she goes through Ruth and Peter’s things.  She tries on Ruth’s clothes and jewelry, walks around in her mules, and spills the perfume and powder on the dressing table.  Uncle Eddie pops in on his break and nervously tries to persuade her to put everything back.  The thing is, Nell goes several steps farther than any normal snoopy babysitter would.

Another resident of the hotel, Jed, has quarreled with girlfriend Lyn on his last night in New York.  So he smokes a cigarette outside, and makes eye contact with Nell as she looks out the window. (Armstrong calls the hotel “a fish bowl.”)  He goes up to the room to flirt with her (or score), but  soon realizes Nell is a nut: when he tries to leave, she threatens him and he wants to calm her down.  When her uncle Eddie comes back, she pushes Jed into  the bathroom.  And then things get more and more berserk.

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Marilyn in the film, “Don’t Bother to Knock.”

I shall say no more because the book is very plot-oriented. And, the way, it was filmed in 1952 as Don’t Bother to Knock and starred Marilyn Monroe.  (I haven’t seen it.)
Armstrong was a very prolific writer:  a playwright, a mystery writer, a suspense novelist.  She even published three poems in The New Yorker.

I used to see her books around but since I wasn’t a big fan of mysteries or suspense novels I never bothered with them.  Now I shall.

The other novels in Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s are Patricia Highsmith’s The Blunderer, Dorlores Hitchens’s Fool’s Gold, and Margaret Millar’s Beast in View.  Perfect summer reading!

Translations of Anna Karenina: Constance Garnett, Maude, or Pevear & Volokhonsky?

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The Maude translation of Anna Karenina (Everyman)

“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”–Anna Karenina, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude

I am a fan of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, though I prefer his heftier classic, War and Peace, which is an action-packed popcorn read, almost like reading a movie.  But since Anna is shorter (though still long), it is more popular and accessible both to the literati and the common reader.  It was chosen as an Oprah book club selection in 2004, and though it’s not “the Harlequin romance of its day”  described at her website guide , her fans read and loved it.  And that’s what matters.

My favorite book.

My favorite book.

In fact, everybody loves  Anna Karenina.   Rufus Wainwright, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jilly Cooper, and David Brooks list it as one of their favorite books–and could a singer, a literary novelist, a pop novelist, and a New York Times columnist be more different?  The novelist  Robert Hellenga told me in 2014 in an interview here that he has read it “so often that I tend just to dip into in when I need a shot of writing adrenaline.”

I collect editions of Anna Karenina the way a friend collects Bakelite bracelets. At the moment I have five, one of them a glitzy Folio Society edition. I have four different translations, but my favorite is Aylmer and Louise Maude’s, the translation approved by Tolstoy–and get it while you can, because Everyman and Dover are now its only print publishers, I think. (You can also find the Maude in a used Oxford World Classics edition, but beware, the 2016 paperback has a new translation by Rosamund Bartlett.)

An illustration from the Folio Society edition of Anna Karenina

An illustration from the Folio Society edition of Anna Karenina

I love almost all translations of Anna Karenina–I enjoyed David Magersack’s in high school,  and recently discovered Rosemary Edmonds– but some critics are so adamant in their partisanship that they get hysterical over new translation.

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Constance Garnett’s translation (the revised version(

One of these partisans is the brilliant critic Janet Malcolm. In her article, “Socks:  Translating Anna Karenina,” in The New York Review of Books (6/23-16),  she eccentrically endorses Constance Garnett’s translation.  She explains that English and American readers have “until recent years…largely depended on two translations, one by the Englishwoman Constance Garnett and the other by the English couple Louise and Aylmer Maude, made respectively in 1901 and 1912.”

She quotes the scholar Gary Morson, who is infuriated by the new translations.  He wrote,

“I love Constance Garnett, and wish I had a framed picture of her on my wall, since I have often thought that what I do for a living is teach the Collected Works of Constance Garnett. She has a fine sense of English, and, especially, the sort of English that appears in British fiction of the realist period, which makes her ideal for translating the Russian masterpieces. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were constantly reading and learning from Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot and others. Every time someone else redoes one of these works, reviewers say that the new version replaces Garnett; and then another version comes out, which, apparently, replaces Garnett again, and so on. She must have done something right.”

I admit, Constance Garnett’s Tolstoy hasn’t worked out for me.  I found it clunky, but it was a revised edition of her translation.  (You can download a free e-book version of her original translation, and perhaps that’s the one to read.)  And Garnett has a reputation for writing rapidly and sometimes skipping parts she doesn’t understand. Malcolm thinks this is a sexist interpretation of her work.  And she may be right.

But Malcolm also admits Garnett made thousands of mistakes, and that the revisions in a recent Modern Library edition are often awkward.

Why is Garnett our only choice?  Because Malcolm and Morson  hate the award-winning translators Ricahrd Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (and skip anything in between). I am a fan of P&V’s stunning work, and their translations are now widely taught in American universities. Their lyrical translation of Doctor Zhivago made me finally appreciate Pasternak:  the only other English version is a lacklustre 1958 translation cobbled together hastily in a couple of months after Pasternak won the Nobel. Reading that had led me to assume that Pasternak won only for his politics.

Pevear, an American, and his wife, Volokhonsky, a Russian, have a fascinating philosophy of translation.  They don’t want to write elegant Victorian-style English:  they like to “Russianzie” the English, to capture Tolstoy’s own sometimes awkward, quick style,  complete with occasional inversions, without attempting to pretty it up.  And yet, it is elegant, if different from the Edwardian translators.

This new philosophy of more literal translation has been applied occasionally to Greek and Latin classics lately, so I am familiar with it. People try different things to capture the nuances of a language.

Malcolm wants a certain elegance.  But if you think she loathes P&V, wait till you see what she has to say about Marian Schwartz.

She writes,

Another argument for putting Tolstoy into awkward contemporary-sounding English has been advanced by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and, more recently, by Marian Schwartz,4namely that Tolstoy himself wrote in awkward Russian and that when we read Garnett or Maude we are not reading the true Tolstoy. Arguably, Schwartz’s attempt to “re-create Tolstoy’s style in English” surpasses P&V’s in ungainliness.

I understand wanting to pass on tradition and preferring the old to the new, but I also appreciate the “quiet revolution” of the new translators, as Susannah Hunnewell refers to P& V in The Paris Revew.

Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations have been lauded for restoring the idiosyncrasies of the originals—the page-long sentences and repetitions of Tolstoy, the cacophonous competing voices of Dostoevsky. Though ­almost unanimously praised by reviewers and Slavic scholars, they have a few critics who accuse them, in fierce blog posts, of being too literal or prone to unidiomatic turns of phrase. Pevear, who is sometimes drawn into the online jousting, never apologizes for erring on the side of the unfamiliar sounding over muting the original.

I’m in both camps:  the old and the new. It is always good to have more than one translation at bookstores.

When Light Novels Are “Pastel Lit”: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers

emma straub Modern Lovers coverPastel lit is back!  Recently at the bookstore I spotted several women’s novels with cute pastel-colored covers.   How I’d love to dip into one of those turquoise or pink  chick lit books!  I know some of you object to the phrase “chick lit,” but I use it to describe light formulaic romances like Bridget Jones.  Some use the blanket phrase “women’s fiction” for romances and pop family “issue” novels, but then what do you call literary fiction by women?

So I have coined the phrase “pastel lit” for pop women’s fiction.

And I found an excuse to read it.  Michiku Kakutani at The New York Times enjoyed Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and didn’t think it was entirely a beach read.A nd Alex  Kuczynski in The New York Times Book Review thought it was a witty romp, though he bashed the ending.

But, unfortunately, it is strictly pastel lit.

It’s not a bad book: It has its audience.  It’s not chick lit exactly, but it is fluffy.  This superficial novel with its pared-down prose reads almost like an outline. Two well-to-do couples, Elizabeth and Andrew and  Zoe and Jane, and their two children, Harry and Ruby, who attend the same private school,  live cozily on the same street in Brooklyn.   But there are problems in both marriages.

It opens with Elizabeth, a realtor, going to her neighbor Zoe’s house for a book club.  That should have been my cue.:  book clubs in novels usually indicate the book is super-light. It turns out Elizabeth and her husband Andrew (a rich guy who doesn’t do much) and Zoe, an African-American restaurateur whose rich parents used to be a Motown duo,  were in a band called Kitty’s Mustache when they were students at Oberlin.  There was a fourth member of the band, Lydia, who had a solo career after the band broke up.  She became famous but died of a drug overdose.

Usually I like books about bands, but I got stuck on the name Kitty’s Mustache.

Straub writes,

The band was called Kitty’s Mustache, a hat tip to Tolstoy’s heroine.  They were regular college kids, in love with the idea of their own cleverness.  No one had ever thought of anything before.  It was the best night of her life to date, easy.

Nobody likes a reader who points out a mistake. BUT ARE YOU READY?   It’s not Kitty in Anna Karenina, but  Sonya in War and Peace who dresses as “a Circassian…with burnt-cork mustache and eyebrows” and goes out mumming on Christmas Eve with her cousins Natasha, dressed as a hussar, and Nicholas (whom she has a crush on), dressed as a woman.

It’s not Kitty’s mustache but Sonya’s mustache!

Tolstoy writes,

Sónya’s costume was the best of all. Her mustache and eyebrows were extraordinarily becoming. Everyone told her she looked very handsome, and she was in a spirited and energetic mood unusual with her. Some inner voice told her that now or never her fate would be decided, and in her male attire she seemed quite a different person.

Everybody falls in love with Sonya with that mustache!

I consider this mistake a failure not of Straub but of her editors.  I understand completely how Straub made a mistake, but surely somebody in publishing has read Tolstoy. And what about fact checkers?  I’ll give you a hint:  type in “mustache” on your e-book of War and Peace and tada!

Okay, Straub clearly loves literature. Elizabeth tells us the name of the band’s hit song, “Mistress of Myself,”  comes from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  The two heroines’ names, I noticed, are “hat tips” to Pride and Prejudice:  Elizabeth like Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of P&P, and Zoe’s last name is Bennett.  And her wife is Jane!  Lydia the dead singer:  the brat in P&P who elopes!

Andrew becomes involved with a cult, so I don’t have the faintest idea what his name refers to.

The chapters alternate between the viewpoints of the adults and their 17-year-old children. Somebody wants to make a movie about Lydia (the famous singer)… Andrew doesn’t want them to and won’t sign the forms…  Elizabeth and Zoe do and will sign..   And  Elizabeth’s smart son Harry and Zoe’s underachiever daughter Ruby who have attended the same private school forever fall in love, which is a problem. Why?

The problems of the rich!

Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger & Do Costume Dramas Matter?

Clayhanger penguin 20th century bennett 9780140182699-usHow very much I enjoyed rereading Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger (1910),  a compelling realistic novel in the tradition of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga!  Bennett is less known in the U.S. than the Nobel-winning Galsworthy, but they have similar strengths: both are superb storytellers, if not always elegant stylists, and their chronicles of work, marriage, and changing social mores among the middle classes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are fascinating, moving, and historically significant.

It has occurred to me that I owe a debt to British costume dramas.  I would never have discovered Bennett or Galsworthy without “Masterpiece Theater,” which has shown British TV adaptations of novels for many  years. Clayhanger has not been in print in the U.S. (except in print-on-demand and e-book editions) since  PBS aired the TV show in 1976.  I may roll my eyes when I read a review of Julian Fellowe’s adaptation of Doctor Thorne, but the series would have sent me running to the bookstore when I was young.

clayhanger bennett penguin tv cover 9780140009972-uk-300Bennett’s Clayhanger trilogy (Clayhanger, Hilda Lessways, and These Twain) is an enthralling story of provincial life.   Set in the fictitious Five Towns, which are based on six towns in the Potteries district of Staffordshire where Bennett grew up, Clayhanger  is a bildungsroman that follows the shy, awkward character Edwin Clayhanger from school graduation to early middle age. The son of a successful printer, he hopes to escape going into his father’s business when he leaves school and become an architect instead.  His dreams are soon squelched.  Why?  Because it is impossible to resist his father Darius, at least if you are Edwin.  And we become sympathetic when we learn Darius’ story , which, sadly Edwin never learns.

When Darius was seven, his family was evicted and they spent a brutally Dickensian night in the workhouse before a Sunday school teacher named Shushian, who remembered Darius as a promising student, saved the family and found both father and son work.  Darius had to work long hours in brutal conditions, but eventually became a printer’s devil and bought an enormous business.

Edwin doesn’t quite have Darius’s oomph, but he is smart and rapidly becomes involved in the business. When his father buys a “new” used printing machine, it is a great occasion.

The descriptions of the workplace and machinery are fascinating.  The floor has been rickety in the building for years, but Darius has ignored this.  The new machine is very heavy.

Edwin could not keep out of the printing office. He went inconspicuously and, as it were, by accident up the stone steps, and disappeared into the interior. When you entered the office you were first of all impressed by the multiplicity of odours competing for your attention, the chief among them being those of ink, oil, and paraffin. Despite the fact that the door was open and one window gone, the smell and heat in the office on that warm morning were notable. Old sheets of the “Manchester Examiner” had been pinned over the skylight to keep out the sun, but, as these were torn and rent, the sun was not kept out. Nobody, however, seemed to suffer inconvenience. After the odours, the remarkable feature of the place was the quantity of machinery on its uneven floor. Timid employees had occasionally suggested to Darius that the floor might yield one day and add themselves and all the machinery to the baker’s stores below; but Darius knew that floors never did yield.

The floor does indeed almost break under the new machine, but Edwin does something with pulleys and hooks and prevents a disaster.

clayhanger tv and book cover ch03But how does Edwin’s soul live?  He is stimulated by the company of the Orgreave family, whose son Charlie Orgreaves (known as the Sunday) attended school with him.  Mr. Orgreave is an architect, and his wife and children read, listen to music, and discuss art and architecture.  Edwin attempts to do architectural drawings and begins to read French novels.

But what about his love life?  Janet Orgreave is charming, but he is attracted to her fierce, brooding friend, Hilda Lessways.  Hilda sometimes visits, and Edwin and Hilda fall in love, but it comes to nothing.  His father refuses to pay him more than one pound a week, even when he is 30.  It’s a very, very stuffy household.  How can anyone live?

hilda lessways md6774804080So many disappointments for Edwin.  The characters are all bottled up.  But you need to read the whole trilogy to really appreciate what happens.  There are many gaps in the first book The second novel, Hilda Lessways, fills in all the gaps about her character.  And she has work, too:  she ends up running a rooming house.

Fortunately Edwin and Hilda meet again eventually and…

Bennett was influenced by French and Russian writers.  According to the intro to the Penguin, H. G. Wells said Anna of the Five Towns was ‘an underdeveloped photograph.” Bennett explained “the degree of development was that of Turgenev and Flaubert.”

Bennett has his fans, but in a way he got cheated,  because of the rise of modernism and the way it pushed everything out of its path.  You were either the brilliant (a) Virginia Woolf, H.D., Djuna Barnes, Dorothy Richardson, and James Joyce (whom Woolf hated, by the way) or  the unfashionable (b) John Galsworthy, Elizabeth von Arnim, H. G. Wells, and Arnold Bennett (whom Woolf hated, by the way.)

And so that leaves Woolf.  Woof!

No, I’m joking.  I love Woolf.

Woolf loved some books better than others

And I like more books than Woolf liked.