An Hour’s Uninterrupted Reading: Emily Bronte and Willa Cather

Social media can be draining. I am so  tired of celebrities’ tweets, which newspapers now reprint to entice readers.  These social media platforms promote racism, sexism, fake news, blacklisting, and misinformation.  Enough!

Fortunately, an  hour’s uninterrupted reading of a book puts me back together again. This year I am reading novels, biographies, and letters to prepare for two significant literary anniversaries:  the bicentenary of Emily Bronte’s birth (July 30), and the 100th anniversary of the publication of Cather’s My Antonia (Sept. 21).

I love Emily and Willa.  In my mind I’m already roaming Emily Bronte’s moors and Willa Cather’s prairie.  Whom do I prefer?  I can’t decide.  I’ve been consistent since age 12  about loving the Brontes:  my favorite book used to be Emily’s Wuthering Heights; now it’s Charlotte’s Villette.   And I fell in love with Willa’s books when I was living in a cold, tiny, rented room my senior year of college.  Her novels about the Midwest, written in the early twentieth century,  perfectly captured what I was feeling that very cold winter.

Do you like literary museums?  This would be a good year to visit them. There’s something about old houses, and looking at writers’ possessions.   I’ve seen Willa Cather’s desk, Bess Streeter Aldrich’s desk (and her buffalo robe!), Louisa May Alcott’s desk, Dickens’ standing desk…  But not the Brontes’ desks!

Is it time for me to go to Haworth?  That’s a long way away.   Patti Smith has been to Haworth.  In her introduction to the  Folio Society edition of Wuthering Heights, she writes, “In West Yorkshire, in the village of Haworth, behind the village church, stands the Bronte Parsonage Museum.  Passing through the rooms, one may view the humble yet precious possessions of the Bronte family.”  I do want to see the humble possessions.  But at the same time I don’t like crowds, and I imagine that Haworth would be as crowded as Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.  Have you been to Haworth?  Did you like it?

I do love Nebraska, and that’s closer.  If you haven’t toured Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Willa grew up, I must tell you the Willa Cather Foundation gives the best literary tour I’ve taken, and I have taken many.  You can visit Willa’s home, the Red Cloud Opera House, the new Willa Cather Center, walk the Willa Cather Prairie, and so much more. The guides know everything about Willa. They know the background for all her books.   And this year they’re planning many My Antonia events, and are promoting a new 100th Year Anniversary edition of My Antonia with an introduction by Jane Smiley and the original illustrations by W. T. Benda.  (It will be published in March.)

And now I must get back to reading Emily and Willa.  I’m especially drawn to Willa, because it’s very, very cold out.

One of the original illustrations by W. T. Benda for My Antonia

The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin

“We will need writers who can remember freedom.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin’s 2014 speech at the National Book Awards

Ursula K. Le Guin

I wrote here a few years ago that Ursula K. Le Guin should have won the Nobel Prize.

In her honor, I am reprinting my post about The Unreal and The Real:  Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin.  This two-volume collection was published in 2012 by Small Beer Press and reissued in 2016 by Saga Press.

Ursula K. Le Guin was the first science fiction/fantasy writer I read as an adult.  Growing up, I read E. Nesbit’s books, Jonathan Key’s The Forgotten Door, and A Wrinkle in Time over and over, but then I gave up genre fiction. Later, in my twenties, a friend recommended  Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and I was amazed to discover parallels between her work and literary writers like Borges and Calvino.  Several of her novels and story collections are also reminiscent of Doris Lessing’s, or vice versa.

For those of you who don’t know her work, I would put her in line for the Nobel Prize for Literature, except that it seems no American writer will ever win the Nobel again.

Small Beer Press recently published two volumes of Le Guin’s stories, and I was eager to read them.  I read the second volume first, because it is a collection of her science fiction and fantasy stories, selected by Le Guin herself, while the first volume, Where on Earth, spotlights her more “realistic” fiction.  (And perhaps I’m not quite as interested in that.)

Le Guin writes in the introduction of Vol. 2:  Outer Space, Inner Lands about the blurring of boundaries between genre fiction and literature.  She writes about the  relationship between myth, legend, science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism.

She says of genre:

“Genre, a concept which could have served as a useful distinction of various kinds of fiction, has been degraded into a disguise for more value-judgment.  The various “genres” are now mainly commercial product-labels to make life easy for lazy readers, lazy critics, and the Sales Departments of publishers.”

“It’s not my job as a writer to make life easy for anybody.  Including myself.”

Many of Le Guin’s powerful books could be cross-listed as SF/fantasy and literature, but, with the exception of Lavinia, her historical novel about he Italian princess who marries Aeneas (in The Aeneid), I have found all of them in the SF section.  Booksellers shelf Doris Lessing’s science fiction in the literature section, because she began as a literary writer, but Le Guin, best known as an SF writer, and remarkably fluent,  doesn’t get the same courtesy.


There are many different kinds of stories in Outer Space, Inner Lands. Some of them take the form of ethnological reports on other planets.  In “Solitude,” an ethnologist and her two children, Borno and Serenity, spend several years on Eleven-Soro.  Narrated many years later by the ethnologist’s daughter Serenity in the form of a report, the story melds Serenity’s happy memories of her own coming of age with her mother’s sadness and isolation.  Serenity, who was a young child when they moved there, was accepted by the inhabitants of the “aunt-ring,”  learned the songs and stories the women told, and had an opportunity to “make her soul.”  Her mother was not allowed to attend their singing/storytelling sessions.

Serenity learned above all to avoid magic, tekell, “an art or power that violates natural law”:  the technology on her home planet, or even just one person trying to dominate another.   Her mother calls this superstition, but to Serenity it is common sense: even in marriage, there is tekell, because one person can control the other.   “You have no power over me,” she says to her mother when they want to take her back to their home planet.

The family cannot stay together on the planet.  Borno must leave with the other boys in adolescence to live away from women and jostle for power.   He sticks out the violent life for one year, then comes home and tells his mother he wants to go back to their planet.  Serenity’s dilemma is that she loves her family but utterly believes in the society she has been brought up in.

In another thoughful,  gripping story, “Nine Lives,” two men, Pugh and Martin, have been alone on Libra Exploratory Mission Base for years.  Their first glimpse of a member of an incoming support team on a video communicator floors them:  “Do they all look like that?  Martin, you and I are uglier than I thought.”

Le Guin writes about the difficulty of meeting strangers.  It is particularly tough for Martin and Pugh, alone for so many years.

“It is hard to meet a stranger.  Even the greatest extravert meeting even the greatest stranger knows a certain dread, though he may not know he knows it.  Will he make a fool of me wreck my image of myself invade me destroy me change me?  Yes, that he will.  There’s the terrible thing:  the strangeness of the stranger.”

But it is even more disturbing when  a support team emerges from the ship, and they are shocked to see  five men and five women clones–a tenclone. Later, nine of the clones die in a horrible earthquake, and the tenth, who almost dies, is in deep shock. He gradually learns from Martin and Pugh that doing the safe thing is not always the wise thing.  Breaking the rules can help one survive.

In my favorite story, “Betrayals,” an elderly woman has retired to a hut outside a remote village to meditate and learn to die.  She reads about a planet where there is always peace,  takes care of a dog and cat, and allows a Romeo-and-Juliet-type couple to take refuge in her house occasionally for love. But then she discovers that her neighbor, the Chief, a former tyrannical revolutionary leader who served time in prison, is ill with a cough that develops into pneumonia.  She doesn’t want to help him–she doesn’t care for him–he is there to die–but a lifetime of habit makes it necessary to do all she can.  She learns about the versatility of human beings, and that neither she, nor the chief are ready to die.

A remarkable collection.  My favorite of her books is The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (2002).  What are your favorites?

A Cult Classic: Plum & Jaggers by Susan Richards Shreve

Plum & Jaggers is a cult classic about comedy, though it is not a comedy. A sibling comedy troupe is born out of family history, in this case the survival of a terrorist attack.  The novel, which begins like a children’s book, morphs into a surreal fable about remoteness and tragedy.   The McWilliams children, Sam, Charlotte, Oliver, and Julia, are on a train to Rome in 1974 when a bomb explodes in the dining car, where their hippie parents are picking up lunch.  The children, especially seven-year-old Sam, the oldest, are  traumatized by the loss of their parents. Sam spends his childhood and much of his adulthood controlling and protecting his siblings.  He begins to write comedy as an adolescent, to entertain his friends at the reform school he is sentenced to for stealing materials to build a bomb shelter. Later,  he is expelled from a Quaker day school for writing plays instead of doing school work.

Before I go further, I must say that this is a very odd book.  Published in 2000 and marketed as an adult novel, it was reissued in 2013 in Nancy Pearl’s excellent Book Lust Rediscoveries series (published by Amazon).  Goodreads readers like it, but The New York Times slammed it:  my guess is that the reviewer didn’t know what it was.  Do I?  The first part, when the children move in with their grandparents, almost reads like a children’s book.  And then it is a distanced, surreal response to terrorism, when they are in their twenties and perform their comedy act, even opening for Second City.  The set is a dining room, with the family sitting around a table with two empty chairs for their absent parents, nicknamed Plum and Jaggers. There is also an unexploded pipe bomb underneath the table.

All the siblings have coping mechanisms, though they seem never to grow up:   Charlotte is an addicted reader, escaping through Anna Karenina; Oliver is the normal, popular guy who graduates from college and has a girlfriend; and Julia, a stubborn, self-willed free spirit, is happy working as a barista and actress, though she wonders why they all have to live together.

As adults, when they move to Chicago and perform at small comedy clubs, they are invited to open for Second City.  Sam asks what they think of their billing.

PLUM & JAGGERS: sibling comedy troupe—3 kids and a dog—Dysfunction meets hilarity. Join the ’90s. Remember your own childhood bliss.

“I think it’s amazing, Sam,” Charlotte said. “Amazing what you’ve done.”

“Thank you, Charlotte,” Sam said, a rare happiness building like fever, a lightness in the fetid summer air that was almost joy. “Joy.” What a lovely word, he thought, like bells. A pure sound undiminished by the thickness of the air. His team. His troupe. Plum & Jaggers on the lips of people as they left the theater.

In many ways, they are always dealing with terrorism: there is a bomb on the Metro, Sam corresponds with a woman who lost her husband and son during a bombing in Israel, and then a stalker threatens their comedy troupe.  And Sam can’t let them go.  Their relationship is so dysfunctional, but I like Sam, as do his siblings.  The comedy grows darker and darker–too dark.

Susan Richards Shreve writes in the preface, titled “To David Sedaris,”  that she was on a train to New York when she got the idea for the novel. But the sibling comedy troupe was inspired by an article she read about David Sedaris’s comedy act with his sister, Amy Sedaris, before he became famous.  In New York she  met with him and chatted to him about comedy, which grew out of “mainly delicious family stories, darkly funny, wicked, and generous. Quotidian life with all its exasperations, pratfalls, and missteps, its small and enormous hurts.”

Although Plum & Jaggers is not my favorite of Shreve’s books–that would be Queen of Hearts, which I wrote about here–I enjoyed it very much.  She is a graceful, thoughtful writer.  And I will read it again, as I do all her books.

When We Like Unlikable Characters: Audrey Maclintick in Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant

Perhaps on a first reading, we read a novel as the writer intends.   Well, not quite, but we tend to like the genial characters and to be less sympathetic to the unpleasant characters. Then, if we love a book and reread it, we may grow fond of the less engaging characters.

I am a fan of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. I had no idea what a treat I was in for when I bought the paperbacks at a used bookstore in my twenties. (I bought them for the covers.)  Although Powell’s 12-book masterpiece is often compared to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, I see it more as Evelyn Waughish–a very long Brideshead Revisited combined with the Sword of Honour trilogy.  Nick Jenkins, the charming, witty narrator-writer,  satirically sketches the colorful people in his life: Waughish aristocrats, night club goers, artists, writers, musicians, soldiers, wealthy businessmen, and charming, dissatisfied women.  But he also examines the vicissitudes of English society from the end of World War I through the 1960s–a high society I would  not aspire to, even if I understood British culture  well enough.

On a recent rereading of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, the fifth book in Dance, Audrey Maclintick, the unhappy, cranky wife of an unsuccessful music critic, surprisingly became my favorite character.

Must I defend Audrey?  I think I must.  If you lived in her cold, horrible house with a moody, misogynist music critic, you would be uncharming, too.  Dicey surroundings improve no one’s temperament.  When Nick’s friend Hugh Moreland, a successful  musician/composer, takes him to visit the Maclinticks, he is not prepared for the neighborhood:  “The house, when we reached it, turned out to be a small, infinitely decayed two-storey dwelling that had seen better days; now threatened by a row of mean shops advancing from one end of the street and a fearful slum crowding up from the other.”

Nick does not like the house, nor does he have a good impression of Audrey.  “’Find somewhere to sit,’ said Mrs. Maclintick, speaking as if the day, bad enough before, had been finally ruined by our arrival. ‘He will be down soon.'”

When Maclintick comes down in his slippers, Mrs. Maclintic is querulous.  “I thought you were going to get the man to see after the gas fire.  You haven’t moved from the house all day.  I wish you’d stick to what you say.  I could have got hold of him myself, if you weren’t going to do it.”

Now it’s not that Nick/Powell is entirely unsympathetic to Audrey. She isn’t a heroine, but she isn’t a fishwife, either. She is a comic character, and yet he captures her unhappiness, and certainly shows Maclintick as being far worse.   And as wives, we  must sympathize with Audrey. There are moments for all of us when the “gas fire” hasn’t been seen to, but if our husband isn’t a music critic, it is probably because he thought he could fix it himself.

There is also a ruckus over the lodger, Carolo, a composer. Like his wife, Maclintick  doesn’t wait for his friends to leave before complaining.  He doesn’t like Carolo’s writing in the corner while they are eating.  And poor Audrey is honest.  She says, “I like Carolo here….  He gives us little trouble.  I don’t want to die of melancholia, never seeing a soul.”

Poor Audrey!  Maclintick is inattentive and unkind.

And later, at a party, Audrey is charmed by Stringham, Nick’s old school friend, who is now an alcoholic, unwelcome at his mother’s house.  Audrey is ready to go out on the town with Stringham to escape the boring snobbish musical party, given in honor of Moreland.  Stringham and Audrey are both mavericks, but their attempt to escape is squelched.

The Maclinticks’ marriage does not end well.  In fact, it is tragic.  But can one blame Audrey for running off with Carolo?  I cannot.  Maclintick really does seem like a horrible man, though we have much sympathy for him at the end when he loses  his wife and his job and then…  But the consequences of that bad marriage temporarily save Moreland’s marriage to Matilda, an actress, to whom Audrey turns out to be linked in a surprising way.

Does anyone else like Audrey?   I never read Powell the same way twice.

Who are your favorite unlikable characters?  More on this anon from me.

Paul Rhys (Stringham), James Purfoy (NIck), and Zoë Wanamaker (Audrey) in “A Dance to the Music of Time”

Poetry on Friday: Praxilla’s Cucumbers and Dido & Aeneas Get Close in a Cave

It was such a beautiful day that I got out my Greek Lyric Poetry. And so I sat outside in fifty-degree weather at what we call our “cafe table,” mittens and wool coat temporarily abandoned.  Armed with a Greek dictionary and grammar, I read Praxilla, a little-known Greek woman poet of the fifth century B.C.

“To know Greek is to know yourself,” a professor once said to us.  Greek and Latin are cognate languages, but the emotional issues are very different for me. I channel the Latin like a Roman matron—I  am very practical, and was a Roman matron in an earlier life!—but the Greek of fifth century B.C. is very strange and remote  to me. I had barely heard of Praxilla, and no wonder: her work has survived only in a couple of fragments.

In the three lines we have of Praxilla’s poem, “Adonis,” the shades of the Underworld have asked Adonis after his death to name most beautiful thing he left behind in life.

Here is my literal prose translation:

“The most beautiful thing I have left is the light of the sun,/ next the shining stars and the face of the moon,/ and also summer cucumbers, apples, and pears.”

It seems very lovely to me, but apparently there is a  cucumber joke.  The cucumbers  cracked the Greeks up, because cucumbers don’t go with the sun, stars, and moon, or,  apparently, the fruit. I rather wonder if the cucumber is one of the Greeks’ bawdy jokes,  but my footnotes do not suggest that.  There are references to cucumbers in Aristophanes, however, and comedies are connected.  Praxilla’s cucumbers inspired a Greek proverb, “sillier than Adonis.”

And here is Richmond Lattimore’s superb translation:

Loveliest of what I have left behind is the sunlight,
And loveliest after that is the shining stars and the moon’s face,
But also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears and apples.

Oh, Lattimore, that is so lovely!  I do wish I could write poetry.

I am so not Greek! But I love it.


As you all know, I love Virgil’s Aeneid.  The Latin is elegant, stately, and richly allusive.  Even the plot, based loosely on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, is compelling.  But I never bother with  English translations–you don’t much once you know a language–and simply assumed that Virgil and the translators were in accord.

This month, due to our informal Virgil readalong, I have dipped into several modern translations.  Each time,  I have returned to the Latin with relief that I do not rely on translators’ idiosyncracies. Though we are all reading a book called the Aeneid,  we are not reading the same book.  These very different translations bear as little resemblance to each other as cucumbers and apples, to go back to Praxilla’s crazy joke.

Before I go on, let me say that just because I don’t care for a particular translation doesn’t mean it is not right for  you.  If you like a translation, stick with it.  You won’t see the problems or mistakes.

Without question, the best, richest, and most accurate of 21st-century translations  is that of Robert Fagles , who won the  Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the American Academy of Poets in 2007 for his Aeneid. (He won the same award in the 1990s for his translation of the Iliad.)  Not only does he write beautifully, but he understands the Latin thoroughly and captures the spirit of epic and the complex emotions of the troubled hero, Aeneas, who is fated to found Rome at the cost of his personal happiness.

I am equally enthusiastic about the  translations of Robert Fitzgerald (1983) and Allen Mandelbaum (1971). Again, both are fine poets in their own right who know their Latin well—as people did back in the day.  Mandelbaum won the 1973 National Book Award for his translation of the Aeneid.

Now on to two well-respected recent translations:  I respect but am personally  less keen on the  translations by David Ferry (2017) and Sarah Ruden (2008). Ferry’s poem is gorgeous, but there are mistakes and mysterious intrusions of his own poetic observations.  Still, I can make a very good case for reading this version on its own merits.  Sarah Ruden is very literal, and attempts to match the number of Latin lines in her economical English.  A fascinating exercise, but because each Latin word is so packed with subtle shades of meaning, it does not work for me.

But do read the ones that work for you!  All tastes are different.  And you won’t be comparing it with the Latin probably.

AND NOW A TREAT!  I am going to show you something very cool. In Book IV, when  Dido and Aeneas rush into the same cave for shelter from a storm, Virgil arranges the words so that the two are enclosed by the walls of the cave.  We cannot do this in English translation!

The orange words are the cave; the blue are Dido and Aeneas.  See how they are  in the cave?  Speluncam, in orange, means “cave,” and the adjective, eandem, which means “the same”and modifies the cave, is placed at the end of the line.

speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem

As you can see, Dido and the Trojan leader in blue  are  inside. Very cool!  And the word “leader (dux) is between Dido and the Trojan  because both Dido and the Trojan Aeneas are leaders.

Aren’t you overwhelmed?  I hope you liked it.

Have a good weekend and see you soon!

A Woman on the Edge: Are You a Reading Addict?

Picture a Bookaholic at the end of a day. She is wild-eyed and perhaps snappish. Her skirt is wrinkled and her makeup has worn off.  The mintue she  gets home she pops open a Diet Pepsi and plops down with a book.  It might be Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazelet Chronicles, it might be Marguerite Duras’ Wartime Diaries.  It doesn’t matter that much.  She will read Zane Grey in a pinch.   When her husband comes home, she barely greets him and he notes she is Woman is on the Edge of a Reading Breakdown!  “Will you get me a cup of tea?” she asks seraphically.  It is pseudo-seraphically:  she wants to be alone..  He gets her the tea and prays that after an hour she will be revived enough to make dinner, or at least go around the corner to the very slow Thai restaurant.

But we all have our different styles of bookishness.

Here is the definitive five-question quiz to determine if you are bookish, a literary intellectual, or a full-blown bookaholic.  I do not pretend to know all the answers. It’s like telling the future with an 8 ball.

I.  On your first date with your soulmate, you

  1. read the manuscript of his/her short story and believe it’s the most brilliant thing you’ve ever read.
  2. discuss the bizarre juxtaposition in the New York Times of a disparaging review of 75-year-old Isabel Allende’s latest novel with an obsequious interview with 84-year-old Philip Roth.
  3. go to a bookstore.

ANSWERS to all three.  You’re all three,  and if you chose 1 you’re also in love

II.  On your  vacation, you

  1. go to Paris and sit in a cafe writing poetry.  It’s probably the wrong cafe, but that makes no difference.
  2. hire a nanny so you can read without interruption in the attic like a mad woman.
  3. read Dorothy Parker and Dawn Powell so you can chat wittily at the Algonquin

ANSWERS to all three.  1-3 mean you’re all three, and if you chose 1 you’re also artistic

III.  Your house looks like

  1. a library
  2. a used bookstore
  3. a clean lovely house with a few tastefully-stocked bookcases

ANSWERS to all three.   1 or 2 means you’re all three, and if you answered 3 I don’t know you.

IV. What do you use as bookmarks?

  2. chewing gum wrappers, pencils, or  kleenex
  3. dogeared pages

ANSWERS TO ALL THREE.  If you answered 1, you’re all three.  If you answered 2 or 3, I can’t judge, because I don’t approve. and if there’s chocolate on your book I am quite irritated. Actually I’ve been there, done that, but am reformed.  Go to the library and pick up a scad of free bookmarks!

V.  What is your favorite book?

  1. What Is to Be Done? by N. G. Chernyshevksy
  2. Swann’s Way
  3. The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse

I’m joking!  I don’t know what your favorite books are.  All favorite books are great .

Only one question left:  What is your fav0rite book really?

Second Chances by Alice Adams

Alice Adams (1926-1999) is a neglected American writer.  In the 20th century her novels and short story collections were reviewed on every book page and her graceful short stories were published in The New Yorker.  All of us looked forward to the latest Adams:  we felt she was writing about our lives.  Although Adams’ books are not quite classics, they are excellent reads about women’s lives and relationships.  Many are set in San Francisco, her adopted hometown.

I recently came across my review of Adams’s novel Second Chances in 1988 for The San Francisco Review of Books, an excellent literary periodical published from 1975 to 1997.  Because Adams’ graceful novel is about aging characters, I am actually more interested in it now:  there are not enough novels about aging women.

And so her is my old review of Second Chances.  Enjoy.

Alice Adams has a talent for directness. Her narratives speed along, driven by the conversational rhythms of intimate gossip.  Her characters are chatty, but they also muse privately on the complexity of sexual relationships. They wonder if being “in love” is simply a matter of “healthy tissues rubbing against each other,” and worry that sexual encounters in old age will “form a repetition of adolescence.” In her new novel, Second Chances,  Adams wields a fine control over her conversational style and examines the chances and coincidences that govern the lives of a large cast of characters over a period of forty years.

Ravaged by illness, grieved by the deaths of spouses and friends, a group of aging men and women in northern California are skeptical about their ability to shape new lives for themselves. Dudley and Edward, two endearingly gossipy writers, discuss the “silliness” of their friend Celeste, who has been behaving strangely since the death of her husband Charles. She claims she is seeing a younger man, but Dudley and Edward doubt his existence. They speculate that Celeste is merely “acting out”–keeping busy so as not to brood over Charles. “The point is,” Edward decides, “the odd forms of her busyness. Some people just do needlepoint.”

In Second Chances, the “odd forms of busyness” become increasingly apparent. In the face of death, all make subtle adjustments and compromises. Celeste hovers near the phone to receive her beau’s infrequent calls; Dudley plays down her successful writing career to her husband Sam, once a successful artist; Edward writes few poems after his lover’s emergence as a gay activist; and unmarried Polly, having survived cancer, relives the excitement of the Spanish Civil War by secret nighttime forays to deliver anonymous gifts to poor Hispanic families.

Alice Adams (1926-1999)

Adams packs small, intimate moments with meaning, and her short, colorful scenes–a lunch, a dinner, an afternoon spent sorting old clothes–become emblematic of the characters’ attitudes toward thwarted love and friendship. In “The Past,” a four-chapter segment consisting of brief vignettes, Adams charts the gradual interweaving of the friends’ lives. In one scene we see Dudley, dazed after a night with Sam, struggling to behave normally at lunch with Celeste, despite her scattered thoughts. In another scene, Edward, having just met a new man, nervously tries to ascertain his sexual orientation. Later we see Celeste cleaning out her closet before here wedding to Charles, snapping at Polly, her least romantic friend who considers love a “disease” since her own long-ago affair with Charles.

Indeed, sex and disease, or sex and death, are closely linked in this moving, funny novel. Sexual love proves a mixed blessing to Adams’s characters, enhancing their creativity but also inflicting sorrow. Only the intrusion of cancer and AIDS finally resolves the very different lovers’ sexual dramas. But second chances do befall the survivors in fitting–if unexpected–ways.

Our Winter of the Aeneid: Madness and Duty in Book IV

Robert Fagles’s superb translation (the best, in my opinion).

Welcome back to the Virgil readalong.  All translations of the Aeneid are brilliant in different ways, and all are welcome to comment on their responses and interpretations. I am reading the Latin, and will occasionally guide you through a translation, or compare a translation to the original.

(Note: Our reading schedule is posted at the end of this blog entry. We have already discussed Book I here and Book II here. )

Today we’re reading Book IV, the story of the love affair of Dido and Aeneas.  It is the most famous, and perhaps the most widely-discussed book in the Aeneid.   It has inspired numerous works of literature and art, among them Dido’s letter to Aeneas in Ovid’s Heroides, Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, and Charles Martin’s modern poem, “Dido and Aeneas.” Shakespeare’s plays are rich with allusions to Book IV. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

When I first read the Aeneid as an undergraduate and Second Wave feminist,  Dido was my favorite character.  We were modern women; we empathized with Dido.   Our male classics professors didn’t pay much attention to the female perspective.  But  certainly writers through the ages have preferred Dido to Aeneas.  Later, as a graduate student in classics, I did much research and taught a Virgil class. And I began to view the details of Book IV with different eyes.  I discerned the tension between furor (madness) and pietas (duty).  I saw the perspectives of Dido, Aeneas, and perhaps Virgil.   And when I taught Latin at prep schools and in adult education classes, I tried to share these perspectives.

Some of you are reading Sarah Ruden’s translation.  It is my least favorite, but I will talk about it in a later post.

There is a historical context for Book IV.   No Roman could have read Book IV without thinking of two historical events:

Carthage (Dido’s city), one of Rome’s greatest rivals and brutal enemies, was destroyed in 149 B.C. during the Third Punic War. Virgil’s legend explains the enmity in terms of the love affair between Dido and Aeneas. Carthage was destroyed in the third of the Punic Wars. Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”) was said to be uttered by Cato the Elder at the end of his speeches, 149 B.C. Virgil celebrates Augustus and Rome through these allusions.

But more immediate would have been the Romans’ memory of the doomed “marriage” between Antony and Cleopatra. At the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Octavian/Augustus Caesar defeats Antony. Some consider the reference in Virgil a replay of the Punic Wars, with Augustus/Rome coming out ahead over the exotic east. Cleopatra, of course, commits suicide, traditionally from an asp’s bite (Plutarch’s story), as Dido does, more gorily, with a sword. But Dido is portrayed as a romantic, doomed figure from the beginning, and she is traditionally interpreted as more sympathetic than Aeneas. Aeneas’ views of duty are craven in comparison, or so we think nowadays. Dido represents Carthage, Aeneas Rome. But Virgil may be questioning empire as Aeneas gives up all personal life in despair. (You can find evidence for both sides.)

Christopher Marlowe’s “Dido, Queen of Carthage,” performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company 2017.

Book IV portrays the  tension between furor (madness) and pietas (duty). If Dido represents furor, tormented by love in the forms of a flame (flamma) and a wound (vulnus), then Aeneas is pietas (duty to his gods, country, and family)  When Aeneas “is buffeted by a gale of pleas” to remain in Carthage, he is compared ( IV.441 Latin, p. 111 Fitzgerald translation) to “an oaktree hale with age.” Dido, on the other hand, is compared earlier to a deer struck by an unwitting hunter.

But is furor or pietas more sympathetic? Many believe that Dido/furor is sympathetic, and that Aeneas/pietas is weak (certainly pietas is not much regarded nowadays).  And it is true that Aeneas does not come off well here.  His speech to Dido is cold, an unfeeling response. But we know from Virgil that Aeneas is heartbroken.  He writes (Book IV, vv. 279-80):

The Latin is:

At vero Aeneas aspectu obmutuit amens,
arrectaeque horrore comae et vox faucibus haesit.

My literal translation:

And truly Aeneas was astounded, frenzied at the sight,
and his hair stood on end with horror, and his voice stuck to his throat.

Robert Fagles’s superb translation:

Then Aeneas
was truly overwhelmed by the vision, stunned,
his hackles bristle with fear, his voice chokes in his throat.

What does Virgil mean by this description of madness? Aeneas is as mad (amens, literally “away from his mind) as Dido, who also is described as amens (pronounced ah-mense).  Is Virgil questioning the achievements of Rome and the teaching that Venus/love is subservient to Mars and duty?  Is Aeneas, as Venus’ son, now doomed, despite his eventual win?

Many read Book IV as a tragedy within the structure of an epic. There are references to two Greek versions of the Medea, Euripides’ Medea and Apollonius of Rhodes’s The Argonautica, an epyllion (little epic). In Euripides’s tragedy, Medea is a witch who kills her children and her husband Jason’s new bride in revenge for Jason’s deserting her for a younger women. Her love for Jason is as strong as Dido’s for Aeneas, and Jason is as obnoxiously logical as Aeneas when he explains he has to marry for power. Apollonius’s epyllion follows a similar path. Some of Dido’s speeches come directly from Apollonius.

Some of the primary elements of a tragedy are:

exposition (the set-up)

agon (struggle, conflict)

catastrophe (change of fortune)

peripeteia (reversal of circumstances or intention)

hamartia (caused by a tragic character flaw or mistake)

Protagonist brings about downfall through a mistake, not because he is evil, but because he doesn’t know enough.

anagorisis: a discovery [hinges on surprise)

suffering occasioned by discovery

lamentation (kommos)

catharsis (for audience)

Do let me know what you think about Book IV.  There is so much to discuss.  Books have been written on it.  And what translation are you reading?  I think Robert Fagles’ translation is the richest and the best, the closest in spirit to the Latin.  But I know that others of you are reading Ferry’s and Ruden’s.  Do you like the one you are reading, whatever it may be?


Jan. 22-28: Book IV

Jan. 29-Feb. 4: Books V and VI (the “short version” is Book VI)

Feb. 5-11, Book VII (Book VIII optional)

Feb. 12-18, Books IX

Feb. 19-25, Books X and XI

Feb. 26-March 4, Book X

Break of Day by Colette

When I first read Colette, I was exactly the age when one dreams of multiple choices: (a) independence, (b) wild sex, and (c) a brilliant career. Colette’s feminist heroines flee from love, disillusioned with love, but they also derive pleasure from knowing they can have love.  Her sensual descriptions of nature remind us that nature is the source of beauty and eroticism: the exquisite imagery transforms the novels into prose poems.

Colette’s graceful novel Break of Day is a lyrical account of Colette’s retirement from sexual love in middle age. It is less dramatic than her earlier novels, but in a way it is bolder: who wants to admit to getting older? Published in 1928, Break of Day perfectly describes the reasons for Colette’s decision in her fifties to set aside sexual love for solitude. In my favorite of her novels, The Vagabond, a younger alter ego of Colette, the independent Renee, also rejects love. But Renee gets another chance at love in the sequel, The Shackle. Somehow, we understand both heroines: in Break of Day, the narrator is simply called Colette.

Where do you retreat in middle age to ruminate about your life? Colette bought a house at Saint-Tropez on the Cote d’Azur. She describes living in a hypnotically gorgeous Paradise with her cats. She gardens and contemplates nature. Most of us would like to move to Saint-Tropez, but don’t have the opportunity.

Colette reflects on her late mother, Sidonie. She begins the novel with an old letter from Sidonie, in which she declined an invitation to visit her daughter. “…I’m not going to accept your kind invitation for the time being at any rate. The reason is that my pink cactus is finally going to flower.” Colette is amused: the blooming cactus is a metaphor for Sidonie’s independence, strength, and beauty in old age. Colette writes: “Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the discovery that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power or a pain the keen edge of its bit, I can still hold up my head and say to myself: ‘I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter–that letter and so many others I have kept.”

A gorgeous illustration from a Limited Editions Club copy of Break of Day.

Now that she is older, Colette is happiest alone, watching the colors of the sky and the sea and marveling at the faery-like cats who consent to spend time with her. But she is not alone: she has an active social life. Painters and their mistresses gather at her house; they go on night picnics and dancing.

The most faithful guest is her neighbor, 35-year-old Dial, an antique dealer and decorator. He doesn’t talk much, but he has fallen in love with her. Age doesn’t matter to Colette, but she doesn’t feel strongly about him, and treats him casually. After an encounter with a jealous young woman, she gently rebuff shis love. Although she doesn’t want Vial as a lover, we feel her chagrin when she knows she is letting love go.

This reminds me slightly of Doris Lessing’s Love, Again, in which the heroine is in her sixties and attracts three younger men. But she knows love cannot last in old age, and she rages. And, indeed, we see her aged at the end of the book.

Colette laughs about the independence of her heroines. In real life she didn’t let love go so easily. “And I said to myself that… I should be thenceforward like the woman I have described many a time…. while I was painting this lonely creature, I would go to show my lie, page by page, to a man, asking him, ‘Have I lied well?'”

That’s how we all feel at times. Don’t you remember reading Colette when you were an aspiring artist, or a world traveler, or a Buddhist, or something? Love would never get in your way. Well…

A few years later after Break of Day was published, Colette knew love again: she married a younger man who stayed with her till the end of life.

My Book Journals

My book journals

I recently read an amusing post at Stuck-in-a-Book about book journals.  He is busy consolidating his lists into a single notebook.  While he copied titles and authors into his new notebook, I experimented with my 2018 book journal.  Inspired by Goodreads stats, I added categories in columns:  Genre, Why?, Copyright, and Star Ratings.

It Was Not for the Better. I returned to my original format.

My 1997 book journal

In my first book journal, which I recently found in a box, I wrote the title, author, and date (when I remembered) and sometimes a short response to the book.  On January 6, 1997, I was enthusiastic about Wright Morris’s Plains Song: “This novel about three generations of women in the harsh Midwest reminded me of Willa Cather’s books. Cora, the unsmiling matriarch, reminded me of my grandmother.  Life on the farm was hard.  So hard. Iincomprehensible to me surrounded by books.  This novel really grew on me.”

In the next entry, I said I hated Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us:  “The worst novel I’ve read this year.”  Outlander:  “Cult reading at its weirdest.”  Brenda Peterson’s Sister Stories:  “A non-fiction book that explores the sister bond and the role of women’s friendships.  Worth reading!”  And some of the titles I don’t remember at all.  Playing the Bones by Louise Redd?

In later book journals, I was less thorough:  I never wrote “reviews.” From Feb. 2008 – December 2012, I kept a list of titles, authors, and dates in a journal with a stained glass motif on the cover. During these years I read a lot of Monica Dickens, Charles Dickens, Ruth Suckow, H. G. Wells, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and Elizabeth von Arnim.

One of the most beat-up notebooks.

Then there was the Miquelrius notebook with graph paper (2013-2015).  The binding cracked.

From 2016- 2017,  I listed titles, authors, and dates in an orange Moleskine notebook.  This year I switched to a tall orange Nava Notes notebook, because I wanted to expand my notebook to include short reviews.

And so it begins. I wrote this month about The Ice House by Laura Lee Smith:  “An entertaining novel, very well-written, about a group of people facing an OSHA investigation of an ice factory, and the consequences.  A very good read.  No much going on beneath the surface, though.” Continue reading