Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a certain slant of light”

the-essential-emily-dickinson-y450-293Here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson.

There’s a certain Slant of light (320)

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

Brutal Winters in Willa Cather: Why Aren’t Women’s Clothes Warm?

a lost lady cather vintage 1972 51nRiPWgiIL._SX298_BO1,204,203,200_Winters can be brutal in the Midwest.  Think  Willa Cather. She was the first writer I read who described the bitter winters of Nebraska (and  contiguous states).  I spent winter nights my senior year in college reading her books in a chilly rented room in a run-down house.  One of the pleasures of winter is reading about winter.

In one of Cather’s most brilliant novels,  A Lost Lady, the heroine, Marion Forrester, can hardly bear winter in Nebraska. She and her husband, a railroad magnate, used to winter in Colorado Springs.  He was an officer for a bank in Denver, and when it failed, he  compensated the bank customers’ losses with his own money.

Marion Forrester is gracious and sophisticated, but she wishes he had kept some of the money.  Temperamentally she is unsuited for country life.

“Oh, but it is bleak!” she murmured. “Suppose we should have to stay here all next winter, too,… and the next! What will become of me, Niel?” There was fear, unmistakable fright in her voice. “You see there is nothing for me to do. I get no exercise. I don’t skate; we didn’t in California, and my ankles are weak. I’ve always danced in the winter, there’s plenty of dancing at Colorado Springs. You wouldn’t believe how I miss it. I shall dance till I’m eighty.… I’ll be the waltzing grandmother! It’s good for me, I need it.”

I have known desperate women in small towns, and who isn’t desperate in winter?  Gradually Marion compromises herself in her association with Ivy Peters,an exploitative lawyer she has known since boyhood who speculates dishonestly.  All of Cather’s characters are vivid, perhaps because they were her friends and acquaintances in real life.  Cather based the Forresters on a gracious couple in her hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska.  The model for Captain Forrester was Silas Garber, the fourth governor of Nebraska, and the founder of the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank in 1889.  When the bank failed in 1893,   he gave his own money to the customers. (Would anybody do that nowadays?)   Like Niel, the narrator of A Lost Lady, Willa frequently visited Mrs. Garber (the model for Mrs. Forrester), a charming woman who, in the words of my guide on a Cather tour of Red Cloud, ” brought sophistication to the town.”

Keeping warm is half the battle of liking winter.  All of my friends had trouble keeping warm.  None of us had a car. We all walked and walked.  Our rooms were within walking distance of downtown and campus.  We wore  parkas with fur-trimmed hoods, or layers and layers under wool coats from thrift stores.  The best thing about working–and everybody had part-time jobs–was that we were temporarily in a very warm building.

The thing is, it is harder and harder for women to find warm clothes.   You can’t get them at the mall.  You need to order from outdoorsy catalogues.  Here’s what I’ve noticed.  The jeans and corduroy pants from Lands End are thinner than they used to be, and no longer have pockets. When I walk out the door, my trunk is warm because of the parka, but I need long underwear under these thin girlish pants because my legs are freezing even when it’s over 30 degrees.   These clothes are made for women who walk from the house to the car, and then from the car to work.  For long distances, you need warmer clothes.

It’s like saying to women, “You aren’t supposed to be outdoors.  You’re supposed to be ornaments.”

Nobody should say that to women ever.  Not if they take walks and bike. And we do.

In Which I Am Surprised by Pushkin’s Stories


God bless the state universities!  Without education for the people, this particular Iowa City girl might never have read Pushkin. I went to college on Pell grants, loans, and part-time jobs, and had to sell my books to buy tampons, but who didn’t?  It only took seven years’ working at a poverty-level job to repay the loans.  Here’s a little secret they don’t share with Millennials: the economy back then was terrible, too.

One of the best reasons to go to the university:  you can read Pushkin as part of your work. I loved Eugene Onegin, a playful novel in verse, and enjoyed a few of the stories, though not as much.

At the Barnes and Noble Review,  Heller McAlpin writes about a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky,  Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin.  Mind you, I don’t have the new book but  I got out my trusty Everyman edition, The Collected Stories, translated by Paul Debreczeny.

New edition of Pushkin’s prose.

McAlpin hopes that Pevear and Volokhonsky’s lively new translation will help new readers discover Pushkin, but has compared translations and does not find them very different. He writes,


In the brief introduction to her translation of my well-worn Everyman edition of The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories, Natalie Duddington wrote, “As a poet, Pushkin is untranslatable: the exquisite beauty and the austere simplicity of his verse cannot be rendered into a foreign tongue . . . But his prose has none of this poetic quality and loses but little in translation. It is vigorous and straightforward and sounds as simple and natural today as it did a hundred years ago.”

Clearly, prose is easier to translate. So it’s not surprising that a comparison of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s new edition with earlier translations — by T. Keane, Rochelle Townsend, and Natalie Duddington — reveals just minor differences: “gloomy Russia” becomes “sad Russia,” “the damned Frenchman” becomes the more humorous “that cursed moosieu.” More salient is the title of Pushkin’s frustratingly unfinished novel based on his great-grandfather Ibrahim Gannibal: The Moor of Peter the Great instead of the more common The Blackamoor of Peter the Great or Peter the Great’s Negro. Despite the avoidance of the racial epithet, none of the ironic edge of this comment is lost in translation: “Too bad he’s a Moor, otherwise we couldn’t dream of a better suitor.”

And so I quickly fell into my book.  The first narrative,  The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, is based on the story of Pushkin’s maternal grandfather, an African who was taken hostage as a boy and purchased for Peter the Great, who raised him as his godson.  In Pushkin’s fascinating story of the relationship between the czar and the hero, Ibrahim,  a handsome, charming black man, Pushkin explores attitdues toward race.  In Paris, Ibrahim is eventaully accepted, to the point that his color is almost forgotten, partly because he attracts women, and he has an affair with a duchess.  But when the czar writes wishing his godson were bakc in Russia,  Ibrahim dutifully deserts his Duchess and goes to Petersburg, where he works very hard for the brilliant czar.  But ironically this relationship does not guarantee the Russians’ acceptance of Ibrahim in society.  An aristocratic family resists the czar’s suggestion of a marraige between Ibrahim and their duaghter.

And then suddenly the story ends, six paragraphs into Chapter 7, and I thought I’d gone out of my mind.

So I skimmed the introduction and learned The Blackamoor of Peter the Great is an unfinished novel.

And now I’m haunted by the characters and will never know what happens.

I do wish the fragments were labeled as such in the contents.  I read a sample of the new translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and the introduction is better organized.  There are other prose fragments as well.

Here are a few sketchy notes about why you should read Pushkin.

  1. Pushkin established intimacy between the reader and writer.  Explored basic themes of maturation and metamorphosis.
  2.  Pushkinesque–opposed to romantic–clear, spare; few similes, metaphors, metonymic style, contiguity, evocative.
  3. Pushkin played with form.  More natural prose.
  4. Attempt at psychological fix. The beginning of realism for Russian novel.

Okay, you’re just going to have to read an introduction, because I’m done!

In the Mood to Read Emily Dickinson & Literary Links

the-essential-emily-dickinson-y450-293I am in the mood to read Emily Dickinson.

Unable to find my copy of The Complete Poems because of the recent black mold chaos of moving bookshelves, I ordered a lovely little book, The Essential Emily Dickinson, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’ introduction is erudite and witty: she begins with a comparison of Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

Between them, our great visionary poets of the American nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and Walt Whitman (1819-1892) have come to represent the extreme, idiosyncratic poles of the American psyche:  the intensely inward, private, elliptical and “mystical” (Dickinson); and the robustly outward-looking, public, rhapsodic and “mystical” Whitman.  One declares, “I’m nobody!  Who are you?”  The other declared:  “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos…”

I must reread Whitman, too.  By the way, I loved the “I’m nobody!” poem in junior high.Remember those gigantic anthologies we staggered to English class with?  Walt Whitman wasn’t in it.   Too gay?

Emily Dickinson is very fashionable these days. Well, she was never out of fashion.  But who would have guessed my decision to read Emily would coincide with the publication of Dan Chiassan’s essay (Dec. 5, 2016) in The New Yorker, “Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry.” He writes,

gorgeous_nothingsThe poems of Emily Dickinson began as marks made in ink or pencil on paper, usually the standard stationery that came into her family’s household. Most were composed in Dickinson’s large, airy bedroom, with two big windows facing south and two facing west, at a small table that her niece described as “18-inches square, with a drawer deep enough to take in her ink bottle, paper and pen.” It looked out over the family’s property on Main Street, in Amherst, Massachusetts, toward the Evergreens, her brother’s grand Italianate mansion, nestled among the pines a few hundred yards away. Dickinson had a Franklin stove fitted to a bricked-up fireplace to keep her warm, which meant that she could write by candlelight, with the door closed, for as long as she wanted. In much of the rest of the house, the winter temperature would have been around fifty degrees. Though she usually composed at night, Dickinson sometimes jotted down lines during the day, while gardening or doing chores, wearing a simple white dress with pockets for her pencils and scraps of paper. A younger cousin recalled her reciting the “most emphatic things in the pantry” while skimming the milk.

I also learned that New Directions has published two books about the scraps, Envelope Poems and The Gorgeous Nothings, both edited by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner.  I’d love to have these!  Oh, well, after my Dickinson marathon, and if I can find The Complete Poems in one of my boxes.



1. William Trevor died last week.  You might want to read George O’Brien’s excellent article in The American Scholar, “Injurious Entanglements:  Remembering William Trevor’s Anglo-Irish Stories.”  Here is an excerpt:

William Trevor, who died on November 20,is conventionally and conveniently thought of as an Anglo-Irish writer. But to consider him in that way is less to apply the finality of a category than to initiate an exploration of the distinctive significance of his work. It’s true that, in a literal sense, Trevor was Anglo-Irish. Born William Trevor Cox in 1928 in Mitchelstown, County Cork, he was reared and educated in Ireland. But his adult life was spent in England, first in London, then in Devon. Yet, the hybrid identity that the Anglo-Irish label typically brings to mind, together with its divisions and fidelities, is only one of many contexts featured in the body of work produced during the 50 years of Trevor’s prolific career.

2 In The Rumpus, there is an interview with novelist Alice Mattison about her new book on writing.

kite-and-the-string-mattison-51bc33sysml-_sx329_bo1204203200_Mattison’s newest book, The Kite and the String, is a meditation on her lifelong journey through the craft of writing. Taking a balanced approach of warmth and realism, she welcomes readers into a conversation about not only what makes for good writing but also of the necessary balance between the independent, solitary writer and the social writing community. She draws upon her years as a poet and prose writer, supported by her many decades of teaching children and adults alike. Accessible and unbiased, Mattison is an encouraging guide for new and seasoned writers; she is cautious in advising that a strategy of success for one will easily not work for all, but pushes her readers to try most anything that may better enhance their work. Nerves are to be harnessed and channeled into production, while the quieter, more sedentary moments between writing spurts must be equally cared for and valued. We are reminded through wit and honesty that a career in creative writing is most certainly an uphill endeavor with innumerable and unpredictable obstacles. The rewards, however, can be of equal if not unparalleled significance.

3 At Open Letters Monthly, Rohan Maitzen, an English professor, writes about Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

This term it’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s subtle, devastating novel The Remains of the Day that resonates with current events in ways that seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago. Ishiguro has said in interviews that he used the appeasement era as an abstract cautionary tale about how we are all, in our own ways, butlers, including politically: going about our jobs either unable or unwilling to see how we might be serving larger agendas, finding dignity in doing our work well rather than in ensuring we do the right thing. He wasn’t literally warning us not to give Nazism a second chance — and yet here we are.

A very good week of reading online!

Balzac’s Modeste Mignon & Why We Need the Nineteenth-Century Translators

balzac-modeste-mignon-the-purse-vol2Wouldn’t it have been fun to read Balzac as each volume of The Human Comedy was published in the nineteenth century? We would have read him furtively while cleaning our master’s study (I was a maid in my previous life, which is why I abhor cleaning), or openly if we were impoverished spinster stenographers wearing fingerless gloves in an unheated garret. I first read Pere Goriot in just such a chilly rented room.

I have read many Balzacs in Penguin paperbacks, but a complete set of The Human Comedy, a series of  approximately 95 novels and stories, has not been translated since the nineteenth century.   Have you read Modeste Mignon?  Here we must thank the nineteenth-century translators.  There are no modern translations of  Modeste Mignon.  Clara Bell, who was commissioned along with Ellen Marriage and Rachel Scott by George Saintsbury at the end of the 19th century to translate Balzac’s work, wrote at breakneck pace because she needed money and the pay was low.   Modeste Mignon is very readable and  often enthralling but the long correspondence between the heroine and her lover drags.  Okay, you’re permitted to skim the letters.

It is an amusing novel about love and novel-reading:  what could we readers like better?  The heroine, Modeste, an avid reader, is determined to fall in love, though she  knows no suitable young men. (I was rooting for the smart dwarf who works in the family business, but  he has no chance.)  No, Modeste picks a poet.  If you want to have a doomed love affair, fall in love with a poet. Judging from Balzac’s description, poets were just as opportunistic then as now.

Balzac likes to bend genre.  This is a gentle comedy, and yet his heroine is as sharp as they come. Part traditional narrative, part epistolary novel, part satire, Modeste Mignon traces the fortunes of  an attractive young woman, Modeste, who wills herself to love and  gathers three suitors before the book is done.

My 19th-century edition of Modeste Mignon/
My 19th-century edition of Modeste Mignon/

As the novel opens, her father Charles Mignon is away at sea trying to recover the family’s lost fortunes.  They do not know if or when he will return.  The older Mignon daughter eloped with a man who rejected her; she returned home very ill and died. (You know the trope:  The Sexually Active Woman Must Die.)  Then  Modeste’s mother went blind, and now they live quietly with Monsieur Dumay,  a family friend and the manager of the business while Charles is away,  and his childless wife Madame Dumay, who dotes on Modeste and Mrs. Mignon. The adults conspire to shelter Modeste from relationships with men.

No wonder Modeste turns to books. She needs to live in dreams. Like Madame Bovary and Catherine in Northanger Abbey, she reads novels and romantic poetry and longs for love and excitement.  Balzac explains,

Modeste fed her soul on the modern masterpieces of three literatures, English, French, and German. Lord Byron, Goethe, Schiller, Walter Scott, Hugo, Lamartine, Crabbe, Moore, the great works of the 17th and 18th centuries, history, drama, and fiction, from Astraea to Manon Lescaut, from Montaigne’s Essays to Diderot, from the Fabliaux to the Nouvelle Heloise,—in short, the thought of three lands crowded with confused images that girlish head, august in its cold guilelessness, its native chastity, but from which there sprang full-armed, brilliant, sincere, and strong, an overwhelming admiration for genius. To Modeste a new book was an event; a masterpiece that would have horrified Madame Latournelle made her happy,—equally unhappy if the great work did not play havoc with her heart.

An illustration from Modeste Mignon
An illustration from Modeste Mignon

An intelligent but naive reader, Modeste writes philosophical, mystical,  and hyperbolically emotional tetters to a Parisian poet she has never met, Canalis.  He is not a good poet, but she loves his  verse.  Balzac too had fans who wanted to be his penpals, and he had read the correspondence between Goethe and his fan Bettina Brentano, who was thirty-seven years younger.  Canalis doesn’t want a Bettina:  he bangs our the verse for money and owes his love and loyalty to a middle-aged duchess who is his patron. It is Canalis’s secretary, the aptly named Ernest de La Briere, who replies to Modeste’s letters, under the name of Canalis, and soon the missives  are flying back and forth.  And so the comedy of their correspondence begins.

When Charles comes home a rich man, he is not exactly thrilled about the letters.

“I have read your letters,” said Charles Mignon, with the flicker of a malicious smile on his lips that made Modeste very uneasy, “and I ought to remark that your last epistle was scarcely permissible in any woman, even a Julie d’Etanges. Good God! what harm novels do!”

Modeste is now an heiress. Suddenly Canalis and a glamorous Duc are “in love” with her.  Does poor Ernest have a chance?

There are some infelicities with tone in this translation. I suspect the letters between Modeste and Ernest would be much sillier in a modern translation, because Modeste and Ernest are so naive and earnest..  But this speculation is based partly on a scene in War and Peace, in which Prince Nicholas Andreevich is ironic about his daughter Mary’ s correspondence with her friend Julie.

At the sight of the letter red patches showed themselves on the princess’ face. She took it quickly and bent her head over it. “From Heloise?” asked the prince with a cold smile that showed his still sound, yellowish teeth.

“Yes, it’s from Julie,” replied the princess with a timid glance and a timid smile.

And here’s a footnote on this passage in War and Peace from Aylmer Maude.  “The prince is ironical. He knows the letter is from Julie, but alludes to Rousseau’s novel , Julie, ou la nouvelle Heloise, which he, an admirer of Voltaire and of cold reason, heartily despised. A.M.

So you see, both fathers recognize “Julie” in their daughters’ epistolary style.


How I Became My Aunt



I have been musing about favorites.

Favorite food:  omelette from Hamburg Inn in Iowa City.  Favorite TV show:  Gilmore Girls.  Favorite book: Barbara Comyns’  Our Spoons Came from Woolworths.

Speaking of favorites, I recently metamorphosed into my favorite aunt.

I was not her favorite niece. That is not how things work.   Her favorite was Sandra, my maverick cousin, a talented violinist who dropped out of college, lived in a van for a year during a cross-country trip, got an associate’s degree in graphic design, worked for a marketing firm, and later went back to college.

Mind you, I quite like Sandra.  What I’ve noticed is men don’t like Sandra.  She’s bossy.

“I thought you would be her favorite,” said my mother.

We were gossiping over a family contretemps.  Sandra  inherited everything when my aunt died, and my father felt he should have inherited everything.  It was like Middlemarch.

When my aunt retired, she moved to the small town where my father lived.  It is an extremely ugly town, but he was her favorite brother. She joined a church, became active in the community, and told me not to gossip at the cafe  because it would be all over the town within minutes. Once when I was staying at her house, I got an empathetic call from a stranger about something I had mentioned in public.

My aunt was authoritative.  Everybody shaped up.  My father no longer made inappropriate sexist remarks at the table.  I cannot say what he said elsewhere.

And she got us all together for the holidays.

“How will you feel if you haven’t seen your father before he dies?” she asked.  (N.B.  He was perfectly well.)

I thought about it.  I realized it was my duty.  It didn’t go very well, but I visited once a year.

My father didn’t appreciate her interventions or even notice my presence on those rare visits.

“She pays people to do everything for her,” he said resentfully.  Bossy women:  they just don’t appeal, do they?

taintor-dinner-from-scratch-48022d460c9463ed6c4a9cf5ac2f4b92And it was true:  she had a gardener and a cleaning lady.  She had holiday dinners  catered.  She either ordered  from Harry and David or went in for catering from the Hy-Vee.

And how lovely those dinners were!  The conversation was scintillating, considering . We learned who was protesting against the war, who was struggling to succeed as a nurse practitioner, and who was getting married or divorced.  As for me, I  mentioned reading Anna Kavan:   it upset her when I said  Kavan was a heroin addict, so I learned I had a ways to go in the fine art of conversation.

After my aunt died, the family scattered.  As I said, I am not the favorite (not outside my immediate family), and I have not been able to be a good holiday hostess.  Nor has anyone else.

For instance this year I ruined the turkey.

I turned up the temp too high.  I usually cook it at 325 degrees for a very, very long time.  This year I had it at 350.  It was the first time I’ve ever ruined the turkey.

My husband went out and bought smoked turkey and the fixin’s at the Hy-Vee.  We sat in front of the TV and ate excellent, reasonably healthy food.  AND I DIDN’T PREPARE ANY OF IT.

Thinking about my aunt, I ponder the Subject of Duty.   I am not Electra.  My father was unkind to my mother and me.

I am my mother’s daughter.


It’s not just my aunt.  It’s the bloody Latin.  No, I don’t separate it from my own life.  I taught Virgil and pietas (duty to the gods, country, and family) for so many years.

What is my duty? Not to leave the students during a bloody earthquake?

If my aunt was right, it goes beyond work.

I’m still figuring it out.  But at least I know I can have my holiday dinners catered.

Booker Xenophobia: Timing, Timing & More Bad Timing

Posh Brit writers want Americans banned from Booker!
Some Brit writers want to bar Americans from Booker Prize.

A month after the African-American writer Paul Beatty won the Man Booker Prize for his novel, The Sellout, the excellent writer Julian Barnes  has said Americans should not be eligible for the prize.

Was it the Latin errors?  No, that is my thing.

The Brits want Americans out!  According to the  Telegraph, Barnes, who won the Booker in 2011, said, “The Americans have got enough prizes of their own. The idea of  being Britain, Ireland, the old Commonwealth countries and new voices in English from around the world gave it a particular character and meant it could bring on writers.”

Oh, dear–the Commonwealth!

He added, “If you also include Americans – and get a couple of heavy hitters – then the unknown Canadian novelist hasn’t got a chance.”

Well, the Canadians  have prizes, too.  This year’s Booker-shortlisted Canadian writer, Madeleine Thien, won two:  the Governor General’s Award the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Mind you, I am an Anglophile and have read most of the Booker winners.

By all means, give the Booker to the Brits! Who cares?

But what bad timing!  To protest after the first American winner is black.

Rallying round Barnes are other white Writers of a Certain Age, A. S. Byatt, winner of the Booker for her great novel Possession, novelist Susan Hill, who was a judge on the 2011 panel,  Peter Carey,  winner of the Booker for True History of the Kelly Gang, Booker-longlisted Philip Hensher and Amanda Craig, a novelist I’ve never heard of, so I can’t connect her to the Booker.

It’s the year of Brexit and Trump:  the timing couldn’t be worse.

Didn’t I tell you I detected anti-American feeling in London?