Memorably Manic: On Folio Society Books & Reading Robert Graves’s “Count Belisarius”

Do you love shopping?  Have you ever bought a $2,900 handbag after watching The Devil Wears Prada? Or spent $300 on a Folio Society limited edition ? (Yes, the latter.)

Mind you, you don’t have to suffer from manic-depressive illness to have Memorably Manic moments.  We apply the MMM phrase to any $250-plus purchase that is not a computer or a washing machine.

My Memorably Manic moment occurred in 2014 when I ordered the Folio Society edition of the complete text of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children.  In my defense, I am a Trollope fan.  But you may wonder:   How could I afford it?  Did I take to the streets and sell my prescription thyroid drugs?  (No! I went without new clothes.)

I am a fan of paperbacks, which are compact, flexible, and suitable for reading in the horizontal position.  But I was mesmerized by an article in The Guardian about the publication of the complete text of The Duke’s Children.  Steven Annick, an American Trollope scholar, had restored the complete text from the manuscript at Yale.  When Trollope’s sales were waning, his editor, Charles Dickens, Jr., had required Trollope to cut 65,000 words.

Annick put them back.

And so I ordered the limited edition– an enormous leather object.

Oh, dear, it was lovely, but unwieldy.  I usually read in the horizontal position, and that was impossible.  So I gave the oversized  book to a charity sale.

Was the FS limited edition a one-off?  No, because I have bought used editions of FS books at reasonable prices.  I don’t care for the REALLY oversized FS books, but I love my used set of  Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy .

WHAT AM I READING NOW?  I am loving Robert Graves’s historical novel, Count Belisarius, a brilliant retelling of the story of Belisarius, who was a Byzantine general  in the sixth century under the rule of Justinian. If you are a fan of Graves’s dazzling  I, Claudius, you will love Count Belisarius (why isn’t it a BBC series?).  Belisarius, known as the Last Roman because of his courage and integrity (what the Romans would call virtus), was loyal to Justinian, despite his taking credit for Belisarius’s victories.

Not all historians have been Belisarius fans:  Belisarius’s secretary, the historian Procopius, reviled Belisarius in his over-the-top book, The Secret History, along with Justinian, Justinian’s wife, Theodora, and Belisarius’s wife Antonina (the women were former actresses and prostitutes).  But in The Wars of Justinian, Procopius praised the achievements of Justinian and Belisarius. So perhaps Procopius had manic moments, too. (I recently wrote about The Secret History here.)

Graves is sympathetic to Belisarius. He intended to write the book from the point-of-view of Antonina, Belisarius’s wife, but at the suggestion of his girlfriend, the poet Laura Riding, changed the perspective to that of Eugenius, Antonina’s eunuch slave. Lindsey Davis, who wrote the introduction to the Folio Society edition, finds this decision disappointing.  But she points out that the trusted domestic servant has been the model for later narrators of historical novels (think Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, narrated by Cicero’s secretary).   Davis writes,

Use of such a figure has since become standard practice where men of letters write their novels about famous fellows from history.  It can have the advantage that as part of the hero’s household, the narrator supplies private insights, though we get no pillow talk from Eugenius.  Graves fits him out with an appealing background (he is the son of a British king, captured by Saxon pirates) and he is no cipher, because from time to time he assists his mistress Antonina with her schemes, not least helping to dethrone a pope.

Theodora and Antonina, childhood friends and the powers behind the throne, are by far the most interesting characters. But Graves is such a master of plot and characterization that there are no stick figures:  Belisarius, noble and courageous from boyhood, is commanding and believable.  As a boy, during a dinner at his uncle’s, Belisarius speaks eloquently of what it means to be Roman.

“‘Roman’ is a name borne by hundreds of thousands who have never seen the City of Rome and never will; and so it was, I believe,in the greatest days of the Empire.  To be Roman is to belong not to Rome, a city in Italy, but to the world.  The Roman legionaries who perished with Valens were Gauls and Spaniards and Britons and Dalmatians and many other sorts; of true-born Romans among them there cannot have been many hundreds….  Now, suppose that one could combine Hun archer and Gothic lancer and civilize him as a Roman, and put him under camp discipline–that, I think, would be to breed a soldier as near perfection as possible.  I intend to command such troops someday.”

Don’t fear being bored by soldiers: Graves’s war scenes are vivid and suspenseful.   If, as a Latin student, you fell in love with Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (for the gorgeous prose!), and Livy’s history (also gorgeous prose!) and even admired Belisarius’s enemy, the Greek historian Procopius, you will appreciate Graves’s facility in describing battles:  it is part of a long narrative tradition.   Trained in rhetoric,  Belisarius delivers speeches worthy of Cicero, especially when preventing mutiny, or cementing the plan for recapturing Carthage from the Vandals.

There is much to muse about in Grave’s intelligent chronicle of Justinian’s age, which he describes in the preface as  the overlapping of the Classical Age with the Romantic Age of medieval legend.

Horace vs. Stephen King: Which is the Better Horror Writer?

Horace is rarely compared to Stephen King.  In fact, he is never compared to Stephen King.  I am the first to make the comparison.  And I don’t read Stephen King, because his books give me nightmares.

Although my “Truth in Wine” series of posts depicted Horace as an adorable oenophile who conversed with a wine jar, there are serious, even stern, facets to his character.  The six poems known as the Roman Odes (the first six odes of  Book III) are very disturbing. His descriptions of the wrath of Juppiter, Juno, and other gods are as blood-curdling as any passage in Stephen King. Yes, we are patriotic, but I am always disturbed by Horace’s famous line,  dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” (Carmina III.2).  It gave me flashbacks to writers’ conferences where the war veterans submitted disturbingly violent short stories in which the teachers had to find positive elements to praise in order to support the men psychologically.  And of course Wilfred Owen, the World War I poet, wrote his own response to Horace in the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

Wilfred Owen

  Here’s the dulce et decorum bit of Wilfred Owen’s poem
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 

Life was one long war in the first century B.C. in Rome.  Horace  had fought (on the wrong side) of the civil war between Octavian (later called Augustus) and Antony.  In his poetry, Horace alludes to the peace established by Augustus, who became a benign emperor, though never called that, in the wake of three civil wars.  Horace praises the cardinal virtues, the morals, and the old Roman religion:  Augustus wanted to reform the decadent society.   Some consider Horace’s Roman odes propaganda, but others point out the ambiguities that sometimes undercut the surface.

In Book III, Ode 6,  the dulce et decorum sentence is the crux of the fourth stanza,  which falls in the middle of Horace’s eight-stanza poem.  And the placement of the stanza emphasizes Horace’s  view of war and death.  Here is the entire stanza (the Latin below the English):

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit imbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.               15

It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.
Death chases even the man who flees
and does not spare the peace-loving youth:
it gets him in the back or the knees.

* “peace-loving” is often translated “cowardly”

Horace says that no one can escape war or death. They’ll get your back or knees if you turn away.    And does this knowledge of the inevitability of death make it easier for the survivors of war and the parents of the dead?  I am not a member of a military family.  I have never faced this situation. Would the Romans have found comfort in this philosophy?

Cool Books in Air Conditioning: Patricia Moyes’s Murder a la Mode & Graham Greene’s The Quiet American

Matisse, “Woman Reading with Tea”

One never gets used to the Midwestern heat. My husband dislikes air conditioning, but in these record-high temperatures I couldn’t live without it.  Though I can be sprightly and cheerful  in front of fans blowing at top speed, I need the AC at night.

We struggled over the issue of AC for years.  No, my husband said.  But during a drought one summer, I bought the last air conditioner in town–I called many, many stores before I found one at Sears.  We stuck it in the bedroom window, wedged a copy of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire beneath it, and then fanned out the plastic pleated shutters on either side.  Not the safest installation: the vampire Lestat held it up.

Even with central air and no vampire installations, the heat is exhausting. So I stayed home last week and took a mini-vacation indoors. And I read the perfect cool books. What can be cooler than the fashion world and a Graham Greene quasi-thriller?   I recommend:

1. Murder a la Mode by Patricia Moyes.  Patricia Moyes’s mysteries are delectable, especially Murder a la Mode, a cozy classic–now back in print, published by Felony and Mayhem Press.  Set in the 1960s at the offices of a London fashion magazine, it captures the hectic quibbling and high-pitched tension of the staff’s hurrying to put out the Paris fashion issue.  Having returned late from the spring show in Paris, they are still bickering over layouts at midnight.  The art department is histrionic, and only the level-headed,  soon-to-retire editor Margery French can soothe Patrick, the art editor, who refuses to give a double spread to an ugly hat:  “that…that pudding on stilts.”  Teresa Manners, the posh fashion editor, has a pitch-perfect fashion sense and insists that the hat will be the axis of the season.  Meanwhile,   Helen, the assistant editor, must stay behind to write the copy and photo captions after the others leave. When Helen is found dead the next morning from  cyanide in her tea, Inspector Henry Tibbett investigates, with the help of his niece, Veronica, a model.  (P.S.  Moyes worked as an assistant editor at Vogue, so she gets the details of the fashion magazine just right.)

2.  Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Greene is one of the most intelligent writers of the 20th century, and his intelligent  well-plotted novels are peopled with intelligent men who agonize, Greek tragedian-style, about their emptiness and angst.  I am not Greene’s biggest fan–I prefer his pop predecessor, W. Somerset Maugham–but his characters definitely know how to be cool in the most volatile situations.

That is true of The Quiet American,which I recently read to stay cool.  The narrator, Fowler, an English war correspondent in Saigon in the 1950s,  has witnessed battles, bombings, and atrocities in the war between the French  and the Vietminh guerrillas.  He knows just what his newspaper will or will not publish, and he regards himself as an observer, not an activist.

The British empire has fallen, and Fowler cynically watches the new world politics enacted in Vietnam.  But when an American comes to Saigon and threatens Fowler’s way of life (and the Vietnamese way of life), Fowler eventually must act.  Pyle, an American employed in the Economic Aid Mission, seems at first friendly and naive, irritating and sincere:  he earnestly believes that  “a third force” can save Vietnam.   Pyle wants not only to Americanize Vietnam but to poach on Fowler’s personal territory:  he falls in love with and steals Fowler’s mistress, Phuong, after chivalrously warning Fowler of his intentions.  But when one of Fowler’s contacts tells him the truth about the death-dealing “plastics” industry Pyle is setting up, Fowler must cross a moral line.

Gorgeous writing, even though this book is not for me.   Greene needs only a paragraph or two, or a line of dialogue, to establish character and mood.   In the following passage, he describes his first meeting Pyle at a cafe.  Pyle asks to join him, because there are no free tables.

“Was that a grenade?” he asked with excitement and hope.

“More likely the exhaust of a car,” I said, and was suddenly sorry for his disappointment.  One forgets so quickly one’s own youth:  once I was interested myself in what for want of a better term they call news.  But grenades had staled on me; they were something listed on the back page of the local paper–so many last night in Saigon, so many in Cholon:  they never made the European press.  Up the street came the lovely flat figures–the white silk trousers, the long tight jackets in pink and mauve patterns slit up the thigh.  I watched them with the nostalgia I knew I would feel when I left the region forever.  “They are lovely, aren’t they?” I said over my beer, and Pyle cast a cursory glance as they went up the rue Catinant.

The Pyles of the world turn out not to be what they seem, and the Fowlers have more to them than you noticed.  Love the writing, but am indifferent to the book.  It’s something about Greene:  not for me.

Dare We Buy Informally “Banned” Books?

The other day, I went to a used bookstore. For once I was very well-organized: I was looking for books  for my science fiction project, and I was determined to buy only books on my checklist.  But alas, I found nothing:  they did not have Liu Cixin’s award-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem, nor could I find Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, nor Vonda N.  McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting.

I had ridden my bicycle, and it was so hot outside that the asphalt glittered and a steamy haze rose off the cars.  I couldn’t face leaving immediately, so I browsed in the literature section. There was nada–we already have tons of Jane Austen, Trollope, and T.C. Boyle–but finally I noticed a copy of Sherman Alexie’s memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.

Some years ago, my husband and I were very amused by Alexie at a reading in Iowa City:  he is as witty as a stand-up comedian.  But the minute I took the book off the shelf, I began to sweat.  Perhaps I was dehydrated, but it was also nervous sweat.  And then I remembered that Alexie is under a cloud due to sexual harassment allegations. As I recall, they were of the “he-kissed-me-in-a-bar-without-consent” category, and one was actually “he-didn’t-help-me-publish-my-poetry.” I don’t consider those serious accusations,  but I decided not to buy Alexie’s  book,  because I was afraid the surly young clerk would humiliate me or call me out.

I usually don’t give a damn what anyone thinks.  But then I remembered the cause of this Alexie-rooted fear. A month or two ago a Millennial blogger (sorry, no idea who it was) expressed indignation because one of Alexie’s short stories appeared in an anthology. Good God! Forget talent, and forget “innocent until proven guilty.”  If it’s posted on Twitter or Facebook, it must be true, right?

The award-winning Alexie is a witty, brilliant chronicler of Native American life.  He grew up poor on a reservation, and writes about it. Whether or not he is a perfect man,  he has not, as I understand it, committed a crime.

If great writers had to be role models, we wouldn’t have any of either sex. Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay–all pretty much assholes.

I bought nothing at the store that day.

Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya

I prefer novels to short stories.  I love long, enthralling nineteenth-century novels with vividly imagined characters.  But I wonder if the short form is more accessible to today’s readers, as they become more engrossed in the minuscule worlds of tiny phones.

At any rate, the Russian writer Tatyana Tolstaya’s new collection of short stories, Aetherial Worlds, is my favorite new book of the year.  I have long admired Tolstaya, the granddaughter of the science fiction writer Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoy; she is a spellbinding writer of genre-crossing literature.  NYRB has published two of her books, The Slynx, a dystopian masterpiece, and White Walls, a collection of surreal and fantastic short stories.

Her new book, Aetherial Worlds, is a collection of elegant, wide-ranging stories, some realistic, some satiric, others surreal, still others fantasies.  In two of my favorite stories, the history of a house is central to the narrative.

In “The Invisible Maiden,” the narrator recalls childhood summers in the ramshackle dacha her mother fixed up, which was large enough to house seven children, the nanny, and two old women called “the grannies.” But the crazy unplanned house, she tells us, was built by “an imbecile” named Curly.

Curly’s stupidity manifested itself variously; for example, all the rooms on the first and second floors, save for one, faced north, and not a single ray of sunshine ever found its way to them. And so the house grew moldy and rotten, all the quicker because Curly, unable to refrain from stealing building materials, constructed the dacha with no foundation. In the faraway corner of the garden he erected a roomy Finnish outhouse with two seats—a two-holer—but as he absconded with the partition wall, an interesting opportunity presented itself: you could now visit the shitter in pairs. Curiously, no one ever took advantage of this.

The narrator describes not only their summers at the dacha but their fates as the years pass.  I especially love the character Aunty Lola,  an impoverished old woman who regards the dacha as her real home because she lives the rest of the year in a tiny converted janitor’s closet in a communal apartment.  The women of the older generation, including the nanny, have very different beliefs, habits, and histories from those of the younger generation. Tolstaya describes their experiences and eccentricities in detail.

The title story, “Aetherial Worlds,” is also the story of a house.  The narrator has moved from Russia to New Jersey to teach creative writing at a small college.  She buys a house near Princeton, “a long gray unfinished barn with a leaky roof, tucked away in the back of an overgrown plot in an unprestigious rural corner.”  Originally owned by an African American woman, the house has a gorgeous garden, and the narrator feels the ghost walking around the property.

She loves the house, which is entirely hidden by greenery in the summer, but teaching is a challenge.   Most of the students are lazy and cannot really read books.   When she asks an especially recalcitrant student to tell her what a story by Salinger or Hemingway is about, he answers, “I dunno.  I didn’t like it.”  She tries to be tactful when she criticizes them, because her job depends on student evaluations.  She learns the art of “psychological buffoonery” and to use simpler vocabulary. She explains,

And so the instructor must find more nurturing and beguiling ways to make the student realize he is a lazy ignoramus (if that is, indeed, what she wants him to realize), so that very student will be forced to admit it to himself and his friends will be able to corroborate it. Any earnest appeal to principles, to conscience, to exemplars worth aspiring to, or other such highfalutin crap that’s so popular in my homeland, doesn’t work here at all. Here one must provide nonstop entertainment for the group while simultaneously making each and every student feel they are number one, the subject of boundless and incessant care. All this without familiarity. And without fulsome praise. If a professor attempts to weasel their way into a student’s favor with too much fawning or too high a grade in the hopes of receiving a good evaluation, the student will only come to despise them and, upon getting the last word, shit all over them.

The years go by, and she does teach two brilliant student-writers, one of whom is autistic and believed by most to be mentally challenged.  (Later, he goes to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.) But the fairy-tale house with its garden is at the center, until she decides she wants to live near the college and rents it to a young man who claims he wants “a sterile environment.”  And what happens next defines America for her in a nightmarish way.

Other stories are whimsical or satiric.    In “Without,” she speculates on a world without Italy.  “Greeks would be everywhere, there having been no Romans to conquer them–though that would, most likely, have been done, with great satisfaction, by the Persians once Alexander the Great died.”  In “The Window,” the character Shulgin learns that his neighbor is getting free appliances from a mysterious window in a Soviet building:  when the shutters swing open, regardless of whether they call out “coffee grinder” or “a package,” you must yell back, “Deal!”, or your life will become magically nightmarish.

Fabulous stories, of many different genres.

Bubble Tea, A Mystery Swap, and Cindy or Sandy?

My cousin and I are sitting on the porch on a windy day slurping bubble tea.  We’re wearing old paisley bandannas (circa 1970s) to keep the hair out of our eyes while we pore over books for our annual mystery swap. My pile has surplus copies of Dorothy Sayers’s Have His Carcase and Busman’s Holiday, while hers tends toward  Laura Lippman and Patricia Cornwell.  We’re opposites, but we both do love mysteries.

We agree to swap Simenons:  The Two-Penny Bar, a moderately enjoyable book in which Maigret learns from a condemned man about a murder committed six years ago, for Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses, which my cousin (a librarian) stole from a discard pile at the library. Though I never understand the Maigret mystique–all Simenons are alike–at least they’re fast reads.

With some reluctance, I agree to part with one of my favorite Patricia Moyes books.  (“That isn’t in my pile; you’re cheating.”)  If you haven’t read Patricia Moyes, who wrote 19 books in the Inspector Henry Tibbets series from 1959 to 1993, I can affirm that they are utterly delightful.  In the third book, Death on the Agenda, Henry goes to Geneva to a police conference on devising ways to stop narcotics smuggling. Emmy, his wife, goes along to see friends and shop.  And Moyes, who once worked as an assistant editor at Vogue, describes fashions in detail:  I yearn for the peignoir Emmy buys, a “white chiffon peignoir scattered with embroidered roses and edged with lace.” But the day after a posh party,  Henry is accused of killing an American cop who’s suspected of leaking information to the drug dealers.  Emmy helps Henry investigate, and what a web of lies, sex, money, and crime they untangle!

And so it’s philanthropy to part with a Moyes.  This is such a fun book!  But then we reach a crisis: should I trade my Janet Evanovich pile for her Laura Lippmans?  I love Evanovich’s heroine, Stephanie Plum, a doughnut-eating New Jersey bounty hunter, but the titles, which all have numbers (One for the Money, Four to Score), are interchangeable.  Which have I read?

“It doesn’t matter, because she eats doughnuts in every single book,” says my cousin practically.

We make the trade.

And then it happens.

A woman approaches.  With a clipboard.  That can’t be good.  And before we go inside, she is upon us.  She is campaigning for a candidate for the Democratic primary, and have I heard of Cindy?

“Which Cindy?” my cousin says.

The campaigner is startled.  “There’s only one.”

“I’m sure there are two.  Or is that Sandy?”

“I’m here for Cindy ___.  She’s concerned about Planned Parenthood, the environment, and mental health.”

I’m concerned about mental health,” my bipolar cousin says. “Does she know that a corporate psych hospital chain has been barred from moving in here, though the state has shut down five hospitals?  And that mental hospitals no longer allow the mentally ill to smoke, or take supervised breaks outdoors?”

Now the woman is rattled.  “Cindy wants to increase funds for mental health care facilities.”

Sandy wants to increase funds for research for psychotropic medications that will improve the lives of millions of people.”

“I do agree with Cindy on the environment,” I say, just to cut this short.  “I will vote for Cindy.”

The poor woman ticks off a bunch of boxes on her clipboard and thanks us.

“Now that,” I tell my cousin, “was outrageous.”

“I’m voting for Sandy.”

“Except there is no Sandy.”

Chill out and Dumb Down: Should I Throw out Georgette Heyer?

Vintage woman reading.

Chill out and dumb down.  We’re Americans in the summer of 2018.

I’m sitting in a hammock reading Balzac’s underrated classic,The Vicar of Tours, one of three stunning novellas in The Celibates, and at the same time wondering if an ice pack on my head would cool me off.  (It’s 95 degrees.) Then the landline rings and I step inside.

It’s my cousin the librarian, who calls 10 times a day from the reference desk.  “Look at The New York Times Book Review.”

“Why?”

“The summer reading issue,” she hissed.

I open my tablet.  And there it is.  In “73 Books to Read While the Sun Is Out and the Days Are Long,” there are no reviews of literary fiction.   None.  There are thrillers, true crime, cookbooks, and eight review-ettes of romance novels.  And, as you can imagine, it’s the latter that annoys me.  Should you want to read Wicked and the Wildflower, The Kiss Quotient, or Too Wilde to Wed, The New York Times is now the place for you.

“Who did this?” I ask.  Then we say in unison, “Pamela Paul!”

Since 2013 Pamela Paul has been the editor of The New York Times Book Review, and in 2016 she also became editor of the three daily book critics, who used to be in another department.   We don’t know what Paul’s credentials are (a book on parenthood? being a mom?) but things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. The Times now has a romance columnist, has published two interviews with the best-selling Danielle Steel, and two of the daily critics have been “disappeared” (is this Argentina?).  No,  not really, but Michiko Kakutani and Jennifer Senior left last year.  Of the daily threesome, only the tough, incisive critic Dwight Garner remains, and he is almost warm and fuzzy now. There are two new critics who haven’t made much of an impression on me yet.

Is there a dumbness pollution in the newsroom?  Something’s amiss.

It kind of makes me want to throw out my Georgette Heyers.

SPECIAL ROMANTIC TREAT.  Here is the opening of one of the romances  reviewed, Eloisa James’s TOO WILDE TO WED.  It kills me that the NYT reviews this shit! It’s just not as good as Heyer.

Lord Roland Northbridge Wilde—known to his friends and family as North—had been taught at his governess’s knee that a gentleman defines himself by his respectful and decorous manner toward the fair sex. He did not ask indelicate questions, nor engage in boorish behavior.

Even, or perhaps especially, if the lady was his fiancée.

It never occurred to North that he might be tempted to behave otherwise. As a future duke, he confided it beneath his dignity to kneel while asking Miss Diana Belgrade for the honor of her hand in marriage, but he donned a coat that had been praised by the king himself. The ring he slid on his finger had belonged to his grandmother, the late duchess of Lindow.