The Summer Giant Book Project: After Broch’s The Death of Virgil, What? Perhaps The Tale of Genji

No more Broch: There's a new sherrif in town!

No more Broch: There’s a new sherriff in town!

It is a running joke in my family that I have a Giant Book Project every summer. I am happy to read a giant Dickens, a giant George Eliot, or a giant Sigrid Undset. No one would  be surprised to see me lugging a set of Balzac in one of those carts you attach to your bike.   In 2010,  I made a mistake: I decided to read Hermann Broch’s modernist classic, The Death of Virgil. I have started it, abandoned it, and restarted it for six summers… and after 100 pages last year I crossed it off my list as unreadable.

Naturally it should be the perfect book for a former Latin teacher who taught Virgil’s Aeneid many times.  (Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris/Italiam, fato profugus...  And if I were your teacher, you memorized more.)

What could be more intriguing to a Latinist than a novel depicting Virgil’s dying days, in the form of poetic stream-of-consciousness, with the sole action in the first 100 pages being the dying man’s ogling  a boy  as Virgil is carried on a stretcher from Augustus’s ship to the palace?  Give me a cereal box.  Give me the directions to the microwave.  Give me The New York Review of Books. Snore zzzzzzzz

Lovely prose, if you like your sentencesto go on for pages.

And floating in his awareness, floatingly borne aloft over the shouting heads, floatingly borne aloft over the festival fires of uproarious Brundisium, floating, held high in the undulant movement of the present, he experience the boundless contraction of trime’s onrush in the style of immutalibity:  everything was his, all was embodied in him…

That floating goes on for a couple of more pages.

In Mary McCarthy’s academic satire, The Groves of Academe,  she sketches a hilarious picture of a “progressive” college where the students have tutorials instead of classes, and major in whatever they want, even if it is Broch’s The Death of Virgil and they don’t know Latin.  I can ditch the whole problem of what is possibly a bad translation of Broch and reread Virgil in the original.

So what will my Big Book of the Summer be?  You know, the one I’ve always meant to read, but never finish!


The Tale of Genji.

tale of genji dennis washburn 51lpKmqt3yL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Years ago I read 300 pages of this lyrical  if rambling eleventh-century Japanese novel in Tyler Royall’s translation (Penguin).  l enjoyued it up to a point, but shut the book one day and realized I preferred reading Fielding’ randy rambling Tom Jones  to Lady Murasaki’s  randy g1100-plus page masterpiece.  But Last summer I had second thoughts: I bought an e-book of Dennis Washburn’s new scholarly translation for $2.99.  I quite liked it in moderation, but I was critical of Washburn’s style.  It has that slightly awkward air of this-may-fit-well-in-Japanese-but-the English-is-improvised-Western-man-meets-Lady Marasaki.

I am, however, not wedded to this transltion.  In Ian Buruma’s review in The New Yorker last summer, he described the difficulties of translation, named the former translators, and  compared  their styles of other tarnslators.

Arthur Waley's translation

Arthur Waley’s translation (abridged)

seidensticker genji 61YAAC0KNXL

Edward Seidensticker’s translation

He explains,

The chief difficulty in translating “Genji,” into modern Japanese almost as much as into English, is the extreme elusiveness of Heian-period court Japanese—not just the language itself but also the many references and allusions. Every page is sprinkled with poems or phrases pointing to Chinese and Japanese literary sources that an eleventh-century aesthete might have been proud to notice but are lost on most Japanese today, let alone the reader of an English translation. Another problem lies in the character names. Since it was thought to be rude to call people by their birth names, most of the people in “Genji” are identified only by rank. A common solution in translations is to use nicknames derived from poems the characters compose or from their physical surroundings or qualities: Lady Rokujo lived in a mansion on Rokujo, or Sixth Avenue; Lady Fujitsubo lived in the Fujitsubo, or Wisteria Pavilion. Genji’s grandson, Niou, a devastatingly handsome womanizer, is known as the Perfumed Prince, because of his exquisite smell (niou, in Japanese).
A literal translation of “Genji” would be unreadable. And the vagueness, so poetic in Japanese, would simply be unintelligible to the Western reader. The trick is to retain the flavor of Murasaki’s lyrical style while transmitting, with some degree of precision, what she meant to say. Since we often don’t really know what she meant, much has to be left to guesswork and interpretation.

The two most famous English translations of “Genji”—Arthur Waley’s, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, and Edward Seidensticker’s, in 1976—could hardly be more different. Waley regarded gorgeous prose as more important than accuracy. When he found a passage, or even a whole chapter, too boring or obscure, he just skipped it. He compensated for the vagueness of the original Japanese by making up something equally lyrical in Bloomsbury-period English.

This is all very interesting, and I’m thinking of trying the Waley or Seidensticker.

Have any of you read this?

Any recommendations?

Virago Month, F. M. Mayor’s The Squire’s Daughter, & the Broch Project

Sorry, we make a lot of jokes about rehab here. I'm in iced tea rehab (three Arnold Palmer today!)

I’m in iced tea rehab this summer (three Arnold Palmers today:)!

I do want to have an online social life–sort of!

This is Virago month.   I belong to several online groups, but I neglect them.  Fortunately bloggers announced that the Virago group at Library Thing is sponsoring a Virago all-the-time reading month.    I dutifully have begun ONE  Virago,  F. M. Mayor’s The Squire’s Daughter (1929).   It is not quite as elegantly-written as The Rector’s Daughter,  her masterpiece,  but it intelligently dissects the interwar issues facing the aristocrats who enjoyed the Edwardian age and their children, the Lost Generation.

The Squire’s Daughter  begins at the turn of the century, a Golden Age for the the aristocracy.  Fast forward 30 years, and Carne, the DeLaceys’ Jacobean mansion, is too expensive, the servant problem is shocking, and the Squire is faced with selling it.  His two daughters gad about London, and his son is a dilettante who socializes with arty types.  But then there is their golden cousin, Rex, a brilliant, strong, attractive, athletic man  (like Jamie in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book–Jamie, Jamie!–I must try to finish Volume 1!).  If only Rex were the heir! Sir Geoffrey thinks.

All right, I’m enjoying this, but I do find the restless, “boyish” heroine, Ron, annoying.  She hangs out with the wrong set in London and alienates her parents’ friends and serfs (sorry, villagers and inferiors) with her sharp tongue at home.  She is reckless, gads about with the chauffeur, and hates herself after he kisses her and then resigns because she rebuked him.   Will she be a spinster like Aunt Violet, whom I quite like?   Actually, I know whom she’ll marry if she marries.  Could it be the 40ish v-i-c-a-r from a neighboring town?  Oh, I’m probably wrong.  More on this later (since I don’t know now).

Mayor, F. M. - The Squire's Daughter coverI must mock the servant problem.  In many interwar books, there is so much grief over this. (Our empire came later.)  On the farm my grandmother rose at dawn to make breakfast for the hired hands, did all the housework with the help of my mother, cooked two more meals, chauffeured her children to Catholic school in town, and played Bridge at night.  Eventually they moved into town.  My grandmother and mother vowed never to go outdoors again.  They hated nature!

But how do people do it?

I mean the servant problem!

No!  Keep up with their online groups.

Our pear tree is growing.

Our pear tree.

I’m sitting in the back yard listening to the cicadas.  The sky is overcast and  purple, getting dark.  Everything is green, green, green.  There has been too much rain.  The trees we planted a few years ago are growing, and I feel proud, because we  never planted trees before.  There are no mosquitoes at the moment, because we’ve had a few days without rain.

This time of year I  sit in the back yard and drink iced tea (“Want some iced tea?” I ask my cousin who is on the wagon).

The death of Virgil broch 27426And then there is the Broch project.  In May 2010  I vowed to read Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil. Yes, it is hilarious that I am still reading it.  I read 50 pages in 2010.  Then I started over in 2011.  Then I started over in 2012.  Then I started over…

This year I have made it through 100 pages. And then I collapsed.   “That is probably the farthest anyone has ever read in that book,” everyone says.

But I must continue.

It is a difficult modernist novel.  It’s all stream-of-consciousness, the beautiful sentences go on for pages, Virgil is dying, he still has an eye for the boys (one accompanies him from the ship to Augustus’s palace), he wrote the poem The Aeneid and regrets it isn’t finished, sometimes it is clear, sometimes it is unclear, and starting around page 100 it seems to be arranged in verse.

No, I’m not enjoying it.

I should go back to Virgil.  I mean the real Virgil, not the novel.

The Latin is much more fun than this novel translated from the German.

As someone said at Goodreads, “So, I finished. What I want to know is, where is my prize?”

That’s how I’m feeling at the moment.  But I must finish.

Are your summer reading projects going well?