The Culture of the TLS

Why do I read the TLS?  Who is its ideal reader? Is she a professor emerita with a Proust monomania, or an Eastern European immigrant barista who haunts Bloomsbury bookshops?

No, I am my own demographic. (We all are.) As a cranky, working-class, state-university-educated feminist, I have constructed a fantasy world of the TLS.  The poorly-paid critics and editors smoke hand-rolled cigarettes as they type on old-fashioned typewriters, wearing twin sets, buns, and ballet shoes, like Anita Brookner’s spinsters,  or chatting pretentiously like the poet Dorothy Merlin and her savvy bookseller husband Cosmo in Pamela Hansford Johnson’s  satiric novel, Cork Street, Next to the Hatter.  They are all, in short, living in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Yes, I love the worlds of Brookner and Johnson, but I understand that the TLS is nothing like that.  I subscribe to the TLS for three reasons: (a) the  reviews of books on classics, (b)  reviews of and features about women’s literature, and (c) the entertaining literary column, “N.B.”, by J.C.

Last week the critic Dwight Garner at the New York Times explored the  TLS culture in an entertaining profile of  Stig Abell, “A Scrappy Makeover for a Tweedy Literary Fixture.” Abell, 38, is the editor, a Shakespeare enthusiast, and author of a new book, How Britain Really Works: Understanding the Ideas and Institutions of a Nation, which has just been published in the UK.

Garner writes, “When Stig Abell was named the editor of the venerable Times Literary Supplement, or TLS, two years ago, the baffled reaction among book people was nearly audible. Stig who?”

A former editor of  the Sun, which is apparently a tabloid, Abell does have literary qualifications:  he earned a double first in English from Cambridge and had written reviews for the TLS, the Spectator, and other newspapers.

Stig told Garner, “We want to keep our core audience.  But there are many others out there — they do all sorts of things professionally — who remember a time, perhaps in college, when they fed their minds and stretched themselves. They want that feeling again. We want those readers, too.”

Abell is hiring more women writers and writers of color. Sales are up.

I shall keep my fingers crossed and hope they continue to use correct grammar (they’ve had some wobbly pronouns) and publish brilliant articles.  Details, details!

And good luck!

Pop Lit Weekend: Mysteries, Histories, & Historical Novels

We planned to go to Iowa City on Memorial Day. We planned to picnic at Lake McBride–without wine, despite Horace’s urgings (see yesterday’s post).  Then we would decorate my mother’s grave.   Memorial Day has long been the American Day of the Dead, without the tacky plastic skeletons.  When did it became a military holiday?

But it was too hot to travel:  100 degrees.  And so we stayed indoors and read pop lit.  Here’s what I read:

THE LIGHT READ.  Elizabeth George may be the greatest American mystery writer today, and she is by far the most fervent Anglophile.  Writing from Washington state, she sets her page-turners in the UK, and the latest, The Punishment She Deserves, is a brilliant, twisty psychological novel.  Her pairing of detectives is rooted in the Golden Age tradition of upper-class sleuths with their butlers or batsmen, or,  in its later 20th-century incarnation, police officers of different ranks like Reginald HIll’s fat, rude Detective Superintendent Andrew Dalziel and university-educated Sergeant Peter Pasco.  George’s protagonists, Inspector Thomas Lynley, the eighth Earl of Asherton, and spiky Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, an overweight working-class woman who lives on chips and cigarettes, work together brilliantly, despite divisive class differences (which are stressed).

In The Punishment She Deserves, Lynley and Havers conduct a nightmarish Rubik’s cube of an investigation of an investigation of the suicide of a deacon in police custody.  Picked up in the middle of the night 19 days after an anonymous caller accused the deacon of pedophilia, Ian Druitt is found hung from a doorknob by his priestly garb–a stole–in a room at the station. Not only is it a weird suicide, but  Gaz Ruddock, the police community support officer, had been keeping an eye on his boss’s hard-drinking son, Finn, a multi-pierced college student who volunteered with Ian at an after-school program, and reporting to his mum.  Finn insists the accusation against Ian are trumped-up, and other townspeople say the same.  And what do the drunken college students Gaz picks up from bars and drives home know?  Was Ian’s death a suicide or murder?

HISTORY OR HISTORICAL NOVEL?  Are you a fan of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius?  Do you wish you could find similar novels about the other Roman emperors?

Procopius’s The Secret History reads just like a novel. Best-known as the author of two histories which celebrate the achievements of the eastern Roman emperor Justinian, Procopius did a complete reversal in this gossipy little book. Was this page-turner in the literary form of a Greek invective an articulation of what he really thought, or was it written because he changed his mind? The translator of the Penguin edition, Peter Sarris, explores the possibilities.  He  writes in the introduction, “…Procopius comes across as an extraordinarily creative author who was able to take the inherited literary forms of antiquity and rearrange, recombine and reappropriate them in ways that look novel.”

Most historians describe Justinian’s passion for religion, law, and administration, and praise his brilliant general Belisarius.  But Procopius reviles the corruption of Belisarius, a general often called the Last Roman, his wife, Antonina, a murderous witch who has studied magic, the emperor Justinian, who he says destroyed Rome, and the empress Theodora, a former prostitute and obscenely nimble actress.  These are not the characters I know from other histories.

In the first chapter, “The Tyranny of Women,” Procopius relates many scandals about Antonina and Theodora. He begins,

Belisarius was married to a woman of whom I had something to say in the preceding books.  Her father and grandfather were charioteers who had displayed their skills both in Byzantium and Thessalonica; her mother was one of the theater tarts.  She herself in her early life had lived a profligate kind of life and had thrown off all moral restraint; she had been continually in the company of her father’s magic-mongering friends and had learned the arts essential to her trade.  Later when with all due ceremony she married Belisarius, she had already given birth to one child after another.  So it was already her intention to be unfaithful from the start, but she took great care to conceal this business, not because her own conduct gave her any qualms, or because she stood in fear of her spouse–she never felt the slightest shame for any action whatever, and thanks to her regular use of magic she had her husband wrapped around her little finger–but because she dreaded the vengeance of the empress; for Theodora was only too ready to rage at her and bare her teeth in anger.

This is a remarkable read.  But do you see why I consider it a historical novel rather than a history?

Truth in Wine, Part 3: Horace’s Nature-and-Wine Cure

This is the third in the “Truth in Wine” (veritas in vino) series, inspired by reading ancient lyric poetry. The Greek and Roman poets, from Archilochus to Horace, wrote of the empyrean pleasures of drinking wine. And though I do not drink wine, which makes me very sleepy, Horace’s wine in moderation becomes a metaphor for tranquility in daily life.  His Epicurean odes encourage us to live in real time, rather than in our anxieties about the future.

If you worry, as I do, about politics, war, air pollution, the still-distant goal of equal pay for equal work, nuclear power, and the practice at staring at phones instead of the sky–in short, everything–Horace’s “Nature-and-wine cure” is the perfect remedy.  In this charming ode (Carmina II.XI), he tells his friend, Hirpanus Quinctus, to stop worrying about enemy tribes (the Cantabrian and the Scythian) and drink wine and sit under a tree.  So Happy Memorial Day weekend!  Once you get past the first difficult stanza, you will love the ode. And you can read my other posts on truth in wine here and here.   N.B.  “Quenching the cups of burning wine” refers to mixing the wine with water.

Here is my translation:

Horace, II.XI

Hirpanus Quinctus, stop worrying about what
the warlike Cantabrian or the Scythian are scheming:
the Adriatic sea separates the Scythian from Rome.
Don’t fret about the needs of life:

the demands are few. Smooth youth and grace
flee behind us when dry old
age drives away playful loves
and easy sleep.

The same charm of spring is not always
on the flowers, nor does the blushing moon
shine with one face. Why do you fret your
inconsequential mind with endless plans?

Why do we not loll carelessly
and drink under the tall plane or pine tree,
our white hair fragrant with roses,
and anointed with Syrian

balsam oil, while we may? Bacchus
drives away our gnawing cares. What boy will
more quickly quench the cups of burning Falernian
with flowing water?

Who will call the inconstant courtesan
Lyde from home? Bid her to come with
her ivory-decorated lyre, her disheveled hair bound
in a knot in the style of the Spartan.

Knut Hamsun’s “Victoria” & E-books vs. Audiobooks

I recently read and enjoyed the Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun’s poetic novella, Victoria (1898).  The style is graceful and melancholy, and though we may feel uneasy about the alternation of ecstasy and torment in the pre-pharmacological/electronic age, Hamsun moodily explores the difference between intense emotions and real experience.

This is the kind of book you love in adolescence.  I was discomfited by Hamsun’s romanticism, but I also felt nostalgic for a simpler time. The lyrical Norwegian novelist’s books were in vogue in the seditious ’70s, when I found them at used bookstores, drawn to the psychedelic/pop art covers.

From what I remember of that more idealistic time, I liked anything offbeat or rebellious.  And there is an underlying theme of resistance in his strange little novels.  Dreamy prose, romanticism, class differences, alienation:  Victoria had all the components, and the style was elegant.   This time around I read the Penguin, translated by Sverre Lyngstad in 2005.

Hamsun asks questions about love and idealism.  Can you fall in love and maintain a passion unconsummated? The poet-hero, Johannes, a miller’s son, is obsessed with Victoria, a neighbor at the castle.  When asked as a child to row Victoria in a boat with her brother and a snobbish friend to the island, he plans to show her the caves, the quarry, and birds’ eggs.  But the class-conscious (and brutal) Otto, a 15-year-old “gentleman,”  treats Johannes like a servant, and tells him to go back and mind the boat. Johannes is surprised but not disheartened because he lives in his imagination.

As the years go by, Johannes and Victoria admit on various occasions that they love each other, but drift apart. Johannes returns to the city and becomes a successful poet.  One day he runs into her while she is spending a few days in town.  And in one of many beautiful passages, Hamsun describes their not-quite chance meeting.

A day in September.

This out-of-the-way street was his favorite promenade; here he strolled as in his own room, because he never met anybody, and there were gardens behind both sidewalks, with trees having red and yellow leaves.

How come Victoria is walking here?  What can have brought her this way?  He was not mistaken, it was she; and perhaps it was she who had walked there yesterday evening, when he looked out the window.

Victoria tells him she has read his poetry, and he emphasizes that the poems are about her. He notices she is wearing a ring, and asks if she is engaged to Otto, now a lieutenant. She is tight-lipped about this, and seems angry that he brings it up.  Before they part, she tells him that she loves him.

And nothing comes of it. Victoria is engaged to Otto. She expects Johannes to marry Camilla, a beautiful young girl he saved from drowning.  And in one of the most grueling scenes in the novel, they misunderstand each other at her engagement party.

It ends in tragedy.  How could it otherwise? Ironically, the writer survives, but Victoria dies.  Nineteenth-century writers often kill off women. Will Johannes be able to write again?  Of course he will.

No, it’s a lovely book, but not quite for me at this time of life.

Coincidentally, the 19th-century Swedish novel, Niels Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen, tells a similar story, with a poet at its center and doomed love.  Was this the Scandinavian love story of the 19th century? (It was a coincidence that I read these two together.  And I thoroughly enjoyed Niels Lyhne, too.)

E-BOOKS VS. AUDIOBOOKS.

Publishers tell us book sales are thriving.  Well, if they say so.  Judging from our independent bookstores, which stock fewer  titles every time I visit,  the physical book has not quite triumphed.

E-book sales are flat, but reporters gloss over the publishers’ control of the (now high) pricing of e-books, which cost as much as paperbacks. Books are much nicer, granted, but e-books have their advantage, in terms of lightness and the size of type.

The studies say people don’t understand what they read on e-readers. I wonder what on earth they mean. The experience may not be quite as pleasant, but type is type.

And I wonder why audiobooks aren’t studied and compared to books.    The experience of listening to a book is even further from the experience of reading a book.

But then I figured it out.  Audiobooks are expensive!

$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

Truth in Wine, Part II: Horace’s Ode to a Wine Jar

I do hope Livia (Sian Phillips) is drinking wine, not poison (I, Claudius)

Yesterday I posted a piece called “Truth in Wine?  On Not Drinking Wine & Reading Ancient Poetry.”  As promised, I am posting my literal translation of Horace’s “Ode to a Wine Jar,”  Book III.XXI.  And I have an extra  treat: John Conington’s translation, 1882.  Mine will give you the gist, while Conington provides the poetry.

FIRST TRANSLATION

“Ode to a Wine Jar  (Horace III.XXl, translated by Kat)

O born with me in the consulship of Manlius,
Whether you bear lamentations or jokes,
whether strife and insane loves,
Or easy sleep, O sacred wine jar,;

For whatever purpose you keep
Fine Massic wine, worthy of a festival,
Climb down from the storeroom when Corvinus orders
me to bring mellower wines.

Although austere Corvinus is
Steeped in Socratic conversations,
He does not neglect you:
It is said that often with unmixed wine
The virtue of Cato the Elder was warmed,

You bring a gentle compulsion
to generally unresponsive genius;
You take care of wisdom and reveal
arcane counsel while Lyaeus* jests (* Bacchus, the god of wine)

You bring back hope to anxious minds
And give strength and the horn* to the pauper (*the horn is a symbol of power and confidence)
who trembles neither at the angry crowns of kings
Or the weapons of soldiers, after you.

Bacchus and, if she is happy,Venus, will be there
and the Graces slow to loosen the knot
And burning lamps will shine
Until returning Phoebus routs the stars.

*******************************************

SECOND TRANSLATION

Horace’s “Ode to a Wine Jar,” translated by John Conington’, 1882

O born in Manlius’ year with me,
Whate’er you bring us, plaint or jest,
Or passion and wild revelry,
Or, like a gentle wine-jar, rest;
Howe’er men call your Massic juice,
Its broaching claims a festal day;
Come then; Corvinus bids produce
A mellower wine, and I obey.
Though steep’d in all Socratic lore
He will not slight you; do not fear.
They say old Cato o’er and o’er
With wine his honest heart would cheer.
Tough wits to your mild torture yield
Their treasures; you unlock the soul
Of wisdom and its stores conceal’d,
Arm’d with Lyaeus’ kind control.
‘Tis yours the drooping heart to heal;
Your strength uplifts the poor man’s horn;
Inspired by you, the soldier’s steel,
The monarch’s crown, he laughs to scorn,
Liber and Venus, wills she so,
And sister Graces, ne’er unknit,
And living lamps shall see you flow
Till stars before the sunrise flit.

Truth in Wine? On Not Drinking Wine & Reading Ancient Poetry

Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine & Roses

In vino veritas (there is truth in wine)

Is there truth in wine?

My first boyfriend was an alcoholic, and there wasn’t much truth in wine for him.  He did the things that alcoholics do:  he conducted his social life in bars, drank on the job, lost his job, passed out on lawns, fraternized with bar owners, and was warned by our doctor that he would die if he kept it up.

I left him, dear Reader, many years ago, but it did affect my attitude toward drinking. I avoided wine, because every night he downed bottle after bottle with friends who slurred their words as they deluded themselves about the possibility of sex with beautiful women, or laughed about wild parties where someone did something inbecilic, hence hilarious.  This drunken revelry was not for me: I  sat in the bedroom, doing homework and, on occasion, reading Zola’s L’Assommoir. 

So why do I love ancient poems about wine? Well, wine humanizes the poets, whether you drink wine or are a teetotaler: the ancients drank a lot of wine, and the lyric poets don’t seem falling-down-drunk types.  The  witty Catullus may have written the first comical “Bring Your Own Bottle” poem (a dinner invitation in which he tells a friend that he will dine well if he brings the dinner, wine, and wit).  And Horace wrote many poems about wine:  my favorite is his ode to a wine jar, in which he informs the jar of his appreciation “whether you bring lamentations or jokes, whether strife and insane love, or easy sleep.” And he adds that his serious philosophical friend Corvinus, though “steeped in Socratic dialogues,”  appreciates the fine Massic wine:  even Cato the Elder did!

In addition to Horace, I have been reading Harry Eyres’s light, charming, intelligent book Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet.  Though I didn’t go to Eton, and  enjoyed Horace at a university, Eyres and I have something in common.  Like me, he is returning to Horace after many years and is overjoyed by the discovery of the layers of meaning in each measured poem

Eyres is also a wine merchant’s son.  He writes,

You could say there is nothing more central to Horace’s poetry, and philosophy than wine… The centrality of wine often passes relatively unnoticed, or is overlooked because “it is just a convention” or because wine is surely not serious as a subject.

The prominence of wine in Horace’s poetry was not overlooked by me, for good and obvious reasons.  I was the son of a wine merchant; I grew up among bottles and boxes of the restorative fluid.  Wine was central to our family economy and to my father’s philosophy. Wine was also what drew me to Horace in the first place, what forged a connection I couldn’t miss.  Though there was much I couldn’t and didn’t understand about Horace, I immediately understood what he felt and expressed about wine, how he grasped wine’s deeper power even as he also relished different vintages and crus as a Roman connoisseur.

I also am very much enjoying Eyres’ translations of Horace.  They are not quite translations–rather, they are modern versions–in which he updates the classical references to, say, the war in Iraq, or, instead of using the Roman name Corvinus, he substitutes the common name Jim.   It’s a little strange at first, but effectivel Too often the literal English translation cannot be  understood without many looks at the Latin, and that wreaks havoc of the point of translation.

I will try to post one of my translations or one of Eyres’ translations in the next few days.

Meanwhile, Carpe diem! (Seize the day!) Nunc est bibendum. (“Now it must be drunk…”)

Look for poetry another day….

Balzac’s “Letters of Two Brides” and “A Daughter of Eve

An 1898 copy of Balzac’s A Daughter of Eve and Letters of Two Brides

In the introduction to the 1898 edition of Honoré de Balzac’s novel Letters of Two Brides, the critic George Saintsbury assures us it is not the best of Balzac.

It is far, far from his best.  Nonetheless, it has been reissued by NYRB,  in a new translation by Jordan Stump, under the title The Memoirs of Two Young Wives.  After reading a sample online of the new translation, which didn’t seem very different from my 1898 copy (translated by R. S. Scott), I stuck with the old:  and  chips of paper littered the floor as I cut the pages.  And that’s a reason to read the new!

Written in the form of letters between two best friends, this slight epistolary novel explores women’s attitudes toward marriage.  Two women of very different social strata went to convent school together.  Louise, intended by her aristocratic family to be a nun, is rescued from the convent by her Carmelite aunt’s knowledge that Louise is “in a decline.” Once she is home in Paris, her mother dolls her up in splendid clothes, she thrives at social events, and she is a belle. But Louise falls in love with her Spanish tutor, who turns out to be a former duc (exiled) but is still, I think, a count–or maybe the opposite–and let me say this romanticism is completely unlike Balazc.

I find Renee more sympathetic than Louise, because there’s none of this hanging from the balcony/hiding in a tree business–that’s what Louise and her lover (later her husband) go in for.  On the other hand, Renee’s family always intended her to marry. Once home in the country, she agrees to marry a traumatized war veteran, former prisoner-of-war, and landowner.  She doesn’t love him, but she wants a family.  And, though I’m surprised by this, her practicality is much more sympathetic than Louise’s drama.

Eventually, I became intrigued–especially by Renee, who is a philosopher.  And the two brides are so different that they bicker back and forth:  Louise tells Renee her marriage to the tutor is one long passion fest, and she pities Renee for not being in love. (Louise later has a second passionate marriage).  Renee tells Louise that she can’t expect the madly-in-love thing to last forever and needs to think about what will last.  Guess who wins in the end?

This book is very slight, and actually a bit gushy as well as romantic.   I am baffled as to why it was reissued.   Saintsbury, who writes the introduction to the 1898 translation,  doesn’t admire it either:  he thinks French writers don’t know how to write about women.   I simply thought it was a lesser work of Balzac.

If I were to reissue one of Balzac’s out-of-print novels about women, I would choose A Daughter of Eve, an entertaining novella in which a megalomaniac journalist exploits the infatuation of a countess and his mistress-actress to found a newspaper.  It is published in the same edition (1898 Gebbie Publishing Company) as Letters of Two Brides. After panning Letters of two Brides, Saintsbury writes, “There are, however,… considrable condolences and consolations in “Une Fille d’Eve.”   I agree.

A Daughter of Eve is engaging, if slight, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Two virtuous sisters who have led a sheltered life grow up in total innocence and are shocked when it comes time to marry.  Marie Eugenie marries a rich banker, Mr. Nucinigen, and Marie-Angelique marries a count. They thrive for a number of years–it’s better than living alone– until one day, after years of virtuous marriage,  Countess Marie de Vandenesse  takes a lover, the journalist Raoul Nathan.  And this becomes a problem, because soon everybody, especially Nathan, will need money.  Will the rich lose all their money?

Balzac

I’ve never met a novel I didn’t like in Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a series of  approximately 95 novels and stories.  But Letters of Two Brides/The Memoirs of Two Young Wives is not especially memorable, so I would skip right to A Daughter of Eve.