My Year in Books: 2015


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Another year, another booklist. Without further ado, here’s the recap of 2015:

Classic Literature: Finally I made time for some of the big names. This was the year I specifically went out and bought a copy of The Trial (the last time I made such a calculated decision was when I read The Great Gatsby about five years ago). I also read my first Jane Austen, beginning in the most unlikely of places with Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon, only to find it was still good enough to make me hungry for more. And if Hermann Hesse is canon enough to count in this book cover - steppenwolfsection, I finally gave him another chance after the Siddhartha debacle, selecting his most famous work Steppenwolf – a quite brilliant example of the novel of ideas which, for all its frustrations, restored my faith in this particular writer and which I have a strong desire to revisit somewhere down the line.

Literature in General: I made quick work of The Levant Trilogy, cementing Fortunes of War in my personal pantheon of great works. This along with Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque – a terrifically underrated novel – and some little books by Patrick Modiano, means World War Two semi-saturated my spring reading list.

On the lighter side, Iris Murdoch’s crazed gothic burlesque The Unicorn;book cover - unicorn I still can’t decide if it was a big joke on the author’s part or a serious philosophical novel (perhaps it was both). At long last I returned to Jack Kerouac’s confessions with The Subterraneans and got my first introduction to the legendary Roberto Bolaño with the atmospheric crime novel The Skating Rink.

The worst book I read all year was the formally impeccable, taxing, lifeless, long as hell Irish novel Langrishe, Go Down by Aidan Higgins. I am quite serious in saying that reading and reviewing this book left me questioning why I had ever started reading literature in the first place and left me wistfully longing for genre fiction. I had three months of reader’s block afterward that I do not think a coincidence. The effect has thankfully begun to wear off and I am happily embroiled in Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square at the moment.

Modern Literature: Patrick Modiano was my big concession to the cutting edge this year, taking advantage of his sudden proliferation in the bookstores to acquaint myself with Honeymoon and Suspended cover - suspended sentences I also read the literary suicide note Last Words from Montmartre, which NYRB brought out last year and which hit me (and probably everyone else who read it) quite hard – I have a review all written up but have left it alone for the present to better distance myself from the text.

Otherwise, I also read the Slovak novel Ilona: My Life with the Bard, brought to the English market by Calypso Editions and providing some worthy food for thought.

Plays: Last year I read no plays and resolved to do better. I did return to the Greeks this year and read Euripides V off a friend’s bookshelf, containing ‘Electra,’ ‘The Phoenician Women’ and ‘The Bacchae.’ Later I got my first taste of Ibsen, reading An Enemy of the People off another friend’s shelves. More a diatribe than a drama, putting the entire “angry young men” movement to shame but too much of a polemic to leave me hungry for more.

Poetry: Apart from a worthy compendium of Georgian Poetry (translated by Lyn Coffin) I let verse shamefully pass me by.

Non-fiction: I took a break from the Harvard set following a very tedious and quickly aborted revisit of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Instead I read a few history books, selecting 1215: The Year of Magna Carta for the historic anniversary and Maimonides: A Spiritual Biography on the whim of not knowing anything about the man. Both payed off handsomely.

book cover - 1215

Two memoirs were also on the reading list. I was given Without You, There is No Us for Christmas last year and found the original hardcover of An African in Greenland in a box of free books. I also read the Auster – Coetzee letters collected in Here and Now, which left me particularly interested in Coetzee’s work.

Light reading: Let’s see… Crime was represented by Walter Mosley: Known to Evil, a Leonid McGill Mystery with a great cast of characters and a strong undercurrent of violence that rarely broke the surface and was more satisfying for it. Pulp melodrama was explored through the venue of a forgotten James T. Farrell story called Ellen Rogers. Exciting stuff!

Reading the Wiki page on B. Traven left me excited to give The Treasure of the Sierratreasure of the sierra madre Madre a try and in spite of some strong socialist soapboxing I found it mostly delivered. My first crossover into 20th Century horror (not counting Lovecraft) was The Haunting of Hill House, an ambivalent little book with rather awful dialogue and creative use of its haunted house. The good and bad really cancelled each other out in the novel and my response remains mixed.

And lastly, I did read The Little Prince, doubtless the most worthy contender in the “literary fable” genre I’ve yet read (not that that’s the highest praise). Being written for children by a Frenchman probably helped as I was for once thoroughly charmed.


As you can see from the number of links, I didn’t review as many of these as I wanted to and even let this blog go dormant for a few months so that I could recover some enthusiasm and tackle these books fresh (I’m on the Jane Austen review currently). We’ll see how well this strategy worked as Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews heads into the New Year.

The tally of books is slightly confusing due to a higher number of omnibuses than usual that makes me feel I’ve read more than I did (26 volumes but if taken as individual works it rises to 34). My tally from last year was 33, so it’s clear the three month break did not help me in this regard. It is a pity I only posted 12 reviews this year, a much steeper falloff from the 19 I managed in 2014.

However, 2016 is a new page for this blog and so I wish you all a happy new year as I prepare my next reviews.

Cleo de Merode reading


The Trial – Franz Kafka


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The TrialExpectations are almost impossible to avoid where the major classics are concerned. Having heard about The Trial all my adult life and already having seen the Orson Welles film adaptation, I finally went into the 1925 novel (written in 1914-15, my copy Schocken’s Definitive Edition translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir; a really lovely volume with Kafka’s drawings, diary excerpts and all unfinished and deleted work translated by E.M. Butler) with predictions firmly in place. I anticipated the story of Joseph K., accused without having done anything wrong, would follow the struggles of an unassuming everyman heroically defying the faceless state. I also figured that Orson Welles must have inserted a lot of the sexualized female characters because, well, it was the sixties and all. Amazingly (or not; I mean what’s a classic if it can’t surprise you?) I was wrong on both counts.

Welles’ film faithfully recreated all of the strange events in The Trial but reinterpreted their meaning. His vision of Joseph K. was a chaste man, offering only meek response to the femme fatales all around him. Kafka’s Joseph K. is callous and misogynistic, leveraging his plight to gain the sympathy and favors of women and feeling fury when they refuse him. Meeting a married woman seemingly trapped into servicing the court officials his response to her predicament is this charming fantasy: …probably there could be no more fitting revenge on the Examining Magistrate and his henchmen than to wrest this woman from them and take her himself. Then some night the Examining Magistrate, after long and arduous labor on his lying reports about K., might come to the woman’s bed and find it empty. Empty because she had gone off with K., because the woman now standing in the window, that supple, voluptuous warm body under the coarse, heavy, dark dress, belonged to K. and to K. alone.

This remarkably unsympathetic and even odious little man is what gives The Trial its kick. I can’t imagine an American writer of the same period doing this and certainly it’s not what Welles chose to do. He made K. into an unobjectionable hero. The Trial is more of a two-way street requiring re-assessment at every turn. I was often torn by my satisfaction to see this arrogant, bullying functionary get chewed up by the machinery of Law as – in spite of his personal behaviour – it is hard not to admire the man for attempting to defy so loathsome and monstrous an organization. So you see I was pulled scene by scene from one side of the battle to the other and this gave the novel a deep fascination even in the scenes Welles faithfully recreated and whose outcome I already knew.

As the case grinds along without development K.’s responses gradually evolve from aristocratic disdain of the proceedings to obsession and paranoia. Even though he’s never truly arrested or prevented from leading his daily life the trial consumes him and his job at the bank suffers for it. Kafka does a brilliant job depicting this subsequent paranoia in its most insidious, slow-burning form:

Every hour that he spent away from the Bank was a trial to him; true, he was by no means able to make the best use of his office hours as once he had done, he wasted much time in the merest pretense of doing real work, but that only made him worry the more when he was not at his desk. In his mind he saw the Assistant Manager, who had always spied upon him, prowling every now and then into his office, sitting down at his desk, running through his papers, receiving clients who had become almost old friends of K.’s in the course of many years, and luring them away from him, perhaps even discovering mistakes that he had made, for K. now saw himself continuously threatened by mistakes intruding into his work from all sides which he was no longer able to circumvent. Consequently, if he were charged with a mission, however honorable, which involved his leaving the office on business or even taking a short journey – and missions of that kind by some chance had recently come his way fairly often – then he could not help suspecting that there was a plot to get him out of the way while his work was investigated, or at least that he was considered far from indispensable in the office. Most of these missions he could easily have refused. Yet he did not dare do so, since, if there were even the smallest ground for his suspicions, a refusal to go would only have been taken as an admission of fear.

Counteracting such heavy material are subtle moments of humour (naturally, of the dark variety). In particular, the unfinished chapter ‘Conflict with the Assistant Manager’ notably lightens the mood, as does the bushy Nietzschean mustache of the Italian K. is called upon to entertain, which prevents him from lip-reading and was obviously perfumed; one was almost tempted to go close up and have a sniff at it. The black comedy leads to direct switchbacks as in the horrific sequence with the Whipper: upon fleeing the scene of punishment, Joseph K. is left alone with his thoughts and immediately attempts to weasel out of any responsibility to interfere on behalf of the wardens involved, with excuses ranging from the fear of witnesses catching him in such sordid company to blaming one of the warders for screaming – it must have been very painful certainly, but in a crisis one must control oneself. One might think of this as satire until the nightmarish conclusion of the chapter leaves you searching for explanations that will not be found.

The Trial is famous for being unfinished. The chapters come in fragments, an indeterminate amount of time passing between each one but there is a clear Kafka-labelled chapter called ‘The End,’ so although you won’t receive a single answer over the course of The Trial you can rest assured that you aren’t signing up only to be left hanging. What you’ll miss is what would have been the second half of the novel, some of whose ideas are conveyed in the series of unfinished chapters, including K.’s friendship with the prosecutor Hasterer and some information on his mother’s health and whereabouts – small things which would have filled out The Trial and perhaps added cohesion or at least allowed some characters to make more than one appearance in the book.

The question everybody loves to tackle is what The Trial actually means and it is indeed fun to speculate. Some take a literal view and say it’s a prediction of 20th Century totalitarianism and bureaucratic control. Kafka does quite brilliantly convey not only the crushing power of the law machine but also its shambling, rotting insanity where even those who work within it have no idea of the big picture. The system in The Trial is really in its death throes, sucking everything into the Court until it seems all-powerful yet is at the same time monstrously inefficient.

Another alternative is to take The Trial as a parable. None of it is meant to evoke a sustainable structure; it is only a larger version of the scripture told to K. by the prison chaplain. For that matter what is the meaning of the story the chaplain tells and which is K.’s own struggle in miniature? That no one who looks for the Law will find it? That going to the Law seeking Justice is futile? That Law can disrupt, change or even end one’s life but cannot resolve it? You could go on all day with such suppositions and every one of them could fuel ten papers.

The element which I latched onto concerns guilt and its absence. Joseph K. is a man who despises his social inferiors and is even impulsively violent toward them (unfinished chapter ‘Journey to His Mother’ makes this abundantly clear), who seems to maintain no strong affection for his family and is only civil to those he feels can help him with his case. He recruits women as tools and puts all blame on others when his case seems to be going badly. K. never questions his actions or feels any guilt for this behaviour. The novel is third person limited, with every event given from his point of view, including the famous opening line: Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning. It becomes a very unreliable statement when looked at from this angle…

“Crime” and “guilt” are never defined in the course of the story; the accusation against K. is never revealed and this allows them to take a more open-ended and universal meaning than if Kafka had revealed the circumstances. When Leni, his lawyer’s maid and mistress, tells K. that his mistake lies in being too unyielding, she urgently advises him that “you can’t fight against this court, you must confess to guilt.” He rejects the idea: Above all, if he were to achieve anything, it was essential that he should banish from his mind once and for all the idea of possible guilt. There was no such guilt. This legal action was nothing more than a business deal such as he had often concluded to the advantage of the Bank, a deal within which, as always happened, lurked various dangers which must simply be obviated. The right tactics were to avoid letting one’s thoughts stray to one’s own possible shortcomings, and to cling as firmly as one could to the thought of one’s advantage.

This fascinates me. It’s possible the German word “guilt” stands for means something more specific; I have to take the Muir translation on its own at present and it creates a metaphorical atmosphere where Joseph K. is on trial because of his own considerable personal failings. A man who feels no guilt is rather a dangerous person and this interpretation gives The Trial the semblance of a morality play.

Only the semblance, of course. This is all conjecture of the most delightful and exciting sort, as I suspect a re-read in five or ten years would give way to a cascade of new thoughts on the matter. Reading The Trial at long last was a happy experience for me, a thorough surprise that shows how Kafka earned his reputation, and I’m exceedingly glad I made time for it this year. What’s most impressive is how an incomplete work such as this could have become the widely read household name in literature that it is today – “surprise” is definitely the word of choice for The Trial. If you’re avoiding it for any reason, be it hype backlash or imagined redundancy, cease your mistake. It’s a classic for a reason.

Here’s a nice picture of Kafka with a dog.

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson


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The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics)

“Luke,” she called, leaning over the banisters. “Doctor.” Her voice was not loud, and she had tried to keep it level, but she heard the doctor’s book drop to the floor and then the pounding of feet as he and Luke ran for the stairs. She watched them, seeing their apprehensive faces, wondering at the uneasiness which lay so close below the surface in all of them, so that each of them seemed always waiting for a cry for help from one of the others; intelligence and understanding are really no protection at all, she thought.

Any haunted house story should feature the haunted house as the main character. You wait with bated breath for the next room revealed, the next move it makes. The people staying in such a place can be sympathetic or not but ideally they should be able to hold their own against the house, retaining concern (if sympathetic) or at least interest. The brightly sketched quartet of guests who make their way to the eponymous locale at the beginning of The Haunting of Hill House seem made to fit the bill, but the interest I felt in their fates was quashed as soon as they opened their mouths.

Dr. John Montague, a researcher of the paranormal cast sadly adrift in the 1950s (far past the heyday of Victorian ghost hunters and spirit mediums) resolves to stake his reputation on investigating the ill-reputed Hill House. Needing assistants for his research, he hires two young women with paranormal incidents in their backgrounds (a seemingly psychic card-reading in the case of bohemian Theodora and a poltergeist incident of falling rocks in the unhappy childhood of Eleanor Vance, our protagonist). Along with Luke Sanderson, the charming but useless young man who stands to inherit Hill House, the group moves in for the summer and choose (in a show of bravado and then as a coping mechanism) to act like carefree schoolchildren on holiday; behaving like overgrown Bobbsey Twins, planning picnics and engaging in wannabe-Wildean banter. Here’s Luke and Theodora playacting (they call Eleanor “Nell”):

“I would like to have been a goatherd, I think.”
“If you were not a bullfighter.”
“If I were not a bullfighter. Nell’s affairs are the talk of the cafes, you will recall.”
“Pan. You should live in a hollow tree, Luke.”
“Nell, you are not listening.”
“I think you frighten her, Luke.”

They talk like that a lot. Even Dr. Montague behaves in this asinine manner (pouting when it turns out Theodora doesn’t know how to play bridge, for example). After the first manifestations he complacently states that “not one of us, even after last night, can say the word ‘ghost’ without a little involuntary smile.” This was the moment where I realized that, horror classic or not, I was incapable of feeling any concern for these nitwits and started rooting for the house. It felt as if Shirley Jackson herself lost her interest in the cast, particularly the males, as soon as they entered Hill House. Luke is introduced feet first as a liar and a thief but nothing further is done with this information and he spends most of his time engaging in stale make-believe with the girls and manning the brandy decanter. Eleanor’s sole conversation with him leaves her bored – …the only man I have ever sat and talked to alone and I am impatient; he is simply not very interesting. Hey, I don’t blame her and I suspect Jackson felt the same. Montague has equally little use outside of the exposition and house tour he provides. As for Theodora, her characterization is patchy and changeable from scene to scene (critics like to read lesbian subtext in the two women’s interactions but I think Eleanor has way better chemistry with Hill House than any of the people staying there).

Eleanor is thus the only one who is reasonably well-developed. As a repressed and troubled woman whose catchphrase could be “my mother…” it’s no surprise that The Haunting of Hill House gets pegged as psychological horror. She’s not too tightly wrapped at the beginning and only gets worse but I wouldn’t agree that she’s an unreliable narrator – she’s in a haunted house that is stated in the first paragraph to be a living organism and repeatedly bends physics when it gets riled; rather than our heroine, the entire story is unreliable. Eleanor is a brittle, self-pitying mess but she really does have nowhere to go and she commands sympathy as Hill House focuses its attention on her and the others respond by turning a blind eye to her increasingly erratic speech and behaviour. They are all strangers to each other and this provides a genuine chill – in such a scenario, this troubled woman is derided and ostracized, looked down upon as an attention-seeker; implicitly seen as the weakest link, she’s offered no real support even from Dr. Montague, who should be taking full responsibility for his assistants. The sense of isolation that is a major part of the atmosphere in The Haunting of Hill House has as much to do with the people in it as its out-of-the-way location.

Still, most of the book’s shivers and fascination are in how Hill House reacts to Eleanor. I’ll spare the specifics of what it does but the house remains noticeably quiet until Eleanor shows it some respect, feebly protesting the uncleared dinner table left for the housekeeper in the morning. That very night comes the first aggressive manifestation. The following morning Montague describes poltergeist phenomena, eliciting a most disconcerting mood swing in Eleanor: Suddenly, without reason, laughter trembled inside Eleanor; she wanted to run to the head of the table and hug the doctor, she wanted to reel, chanting, across the stretches of the lawn, she wanted to sing and to shout and to fling her arms and move in great emphatic, possessing circles around the rooms of Hill House; I am here, I am here, she thought. She shut her eyes quickly in delight and then said demurely to the doctor, “And what do we do today?” Hill House is quick to respond…

This is what caught my interest, as Eleanor’s view of the house changes from loathing and fear to a rhapsodic sense of freedom and unity with it. Since the story wasn’t scaring me anyway I took this more mystical interpretation and rolled with it, though I’m sure Jackson intended Hill House to be an evil thing and the ending horrific (which it absolutely would be in real life). I feel a bit guilty about this but what else could I do? The dialogue is atrocious, the major characters underdeveloped, the minor ones completely stock (like the standard-issue horror-movie housekeeper and Eleanor’s petit bourgeois cliché of a sister) and Jackson killed what was left of her spooky atmosphere with the late addition of the “comic” character Mrs. Montague. She strides through the pages like one of Bertie Wooster’s fire-breathing aunts, being deeply offensive and belittling to everyone she sees and – despite being ready-made for some satisfying karmic retribution – she gets away without even a word against her. There’s nothing funny about her inclusion and she completely changes the tone of the novel just as Hill House prepares its most sinister onslaught.

The Haunting of Hill House was published in 1959 and I am perhaps being too hard on it. The characters get in the way but most of the supernatural occurrences are subtly drawn and memorable acts of the imagination. No gruesome manifestations are to be found and the housekeeper’s introductory speech is the only bit that verges on cartoonish. The actual horror elements have not dated. They didn’t “scare” me but I found myself pleasantly creeped out at times (to say nothing of the last 15 pages, which finally drop the quaint conversation charade and are unquestionably the strongest and most intense portion of The Haunting of Hill House).

Looking at reviews, it’s clear I’m the odd one out. Most people respond to the writing, the scares, the characters. I was remarkably unmoved by the entire thing. Perhaps I just don’t play ball when it comes to horror fiction – after all, my main points of comparison while reading were with two unusual short stories: Felisberto Hernández’ ‘The Balcony’ and Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis.’ Make of that what you will and seek this out if you think it’ll have a better effect on you than it did on me.

Shirley Jackson

Langrishe, Go Down – Aidan Higgins


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Langrishe, Go DownLangrishe, Go Down was published back in 1966 and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (a prestigious award by any measure, I’d think). With this debut, Aidan Higgins (born in 1927) became one of Ireland’s writer’s writers and – for me – a particularly challenging read. The book ostensibly follows the surviving Langrishe sisters, three old maids living alone in Springfield House, their family’s decayed Irish estate, but it rather quickly loses that focus and becomes something of a prose-poem with beautiful descriptions of Ireland and a long-winded story of a love affair that I found hard to sit through.

For me the strongest writing comes during the plotless opening salvo that follows Helen, eldest and emptiest of the Langrishe daughters: I have never known the love of the body or of the heart. People think that I am bored with them but that in fact is not so. I come empty-handed to them and go empty-handed away. Senseless to lament what cannot be changed; but there you are – one does. It is Helen who is the strongest character. She knows the history of the Langrishes and Springfield House and she of all the sisters tries to manage realistically. Yet she doesn’t recognise a former servant come across in a churchyard and silently pleads to escape him: Will you let me go? Will you let me be? We are paupers like the rest of you, except we live in a big house and enjoy credit. But we can’t pay our bills any more. There’s nothing to eat in the place except a few maggoty snipe hanging up in the larder. For all the eating we do, we might just as well not eat at all. Porridge and tea, tea and porridge. Heavy old stirabout that lies heavy on the stomach all day. Will you let me go?

These 80 pages stand almost on their own, unfurling haunting emptiness in page after page of desolate beauty: December snow breaks the windows of the greenhouse. Rot undermines the exposed roof supports and half of it falls in upon what has already perished there – tomatoes that nobody wants, a lone tea-rose, Belgium vine. The leaves of the chestnut tree dry up and fall in groups and singly. All that seasonal decay and dying fall to the ground, deprived of summer’s light and heat. The leaves cover the wrinkled conkers, soon to be obliterated. And so all goes away. The field-hands share the gabardine suits between them. Lily is cheated in a scheme for marketing Bramley seedlings. Winter invades the garden and the orchard, coming down from the freezing sky and up from the ground, to lay all in waste before it. Gaunt and famished like a wolf the neglected Alsatian Oscar starves in the backyard ash-pit.

Once this early segment is concluded and it proceeds backward in time to 1932, Langrishe, Go Down loses a great deal of forward momentum as Higgins devotes an extensive amount of the book to youngest sister Imogen and her short, stormy relationship with Otto Beck, who first roused and then snuffed her spirit. It is unfortunate that Higgins does very little to convey the affair, devoting himself instead to more and more elliptical scenes from their time together. Brief snippets of conversation, arguments unmoored from context and little faded glimpses of “passion” make up the bulk of the affair as he paints it.

By no coincidence for a book of this vintage, Otto Beck is a German; an esoteric intellectual wildman, poaching, tree-climbing and taking advantage, plundering the estate without conscience. Imogen sees in him a pagan figure: His restless eyes devour me. Mine meet them, and I flinch away. He has a small flat head and a fox’s face. One thinks of sharp teeth and a lolling red tongue; his expression never changes. He runs his tongue over his dry lips like a fox cleaning its chops. His small-boned body and animal nature suit that first image of him I carried away as a silly girl; a still face staring from among the leaves. Not stepping on a twig, alert, ready to pounce; the fire is burning in him, – lust and cruelty too. He seemed an outlandish, a legendary figure, that face among the leaves… Though Otto holds to no “worse” an ideology than egregious self-centeredness, in his actions he is always at the kill – whether fishing or ferreting, shooting pigeons or eradicating insects.

The age gap between Imogen and Otto is a scant four years (he’s 45 to her 49) but with no inheritance to speak of and nary a fling to her name, she’s long been an old maid and acts it. Imogen is a pallid individual, simpering and weak yet prideful. Her relationship with Otto devolves into petty insults and distrust and she listens in on gossip dismayed that she might be the subject. It’s a fact, people can never get enough of what’s bad for them... When her confessor convinces her to renounce Otto we are told this estrangement lasted perhaps a fortnight. Afterwards Otto sneers about “Irish piety.” Attempts on Higgins’ part to show Imogen as a passionate individual of some kind (running starkers through the night and such) do not convince and she actually comes across as a less developed (and certainly less intriguing) character than Helen in spite of being the ostensible protagonist. Otto is more charismatic but he’s kept at something of a distance.

Unfortunately, Imogen and Otto are the only characters even depicted for the majority of the novel, with scarcely a hint of the outside community and even less of her sisters. This may function as a demonstration of insularity and isolation but it is wearying and a little frustrating if you thought you’d signed up to read about the downfall of the Langrishes. That happened long before the book begins and the reason is never clearly stated. Why fail? Otto said. I don’t understand it. You have seventy-four rich acres of land, ten of that in tillage. You had a herd of cattle once, a supply of eggs, pullets, a vegetable garden, a fruit garden, an orchard. You did not live riotously; so why had it to fail?

So, if the protagonist and her lover are not interesting enough to keep the pages turning, what steps into the spotlight? Higgins’ elegant, lilting-Irish landscape painting. His is a wonderful example of fine prose, from rolling depictions of the pastoral seasons to richly detailed imagery of decay (not as imaginative as would come from the pen of Djuna Barnes or John Hawkes, but gorgeous as demonstrated). Eventually the narrative breaks down into isolated paragraphs, prose-poem impressions capturing like scattered memories their daily life. This further damages the narrative flow and character development but enhances the bucolic impressions:

Swallows dipping, catching flies. Sandmartins clinging to the sides of the bank opposite. Pitted with their nests. Riddled. Continually on the go. Swifts scouting over the shadowed river, touching the surface of the water with their wings. Smell of the river. The sound of it passing. Peaceful river. Purling. Water purls. A river purls. Kingfishers (a touch of brilliance) fly upstream with undeviating straightness. Waterhens jerking across the current. Their cries. River flags the trout swim along.

As Langrishe, Go Down concludes I am left to struggle between admiration and weariness. The unstoppable modernist language, freely experimenting with literary styles, is a gift. There is a transporting power to the prose and while the obscure allusions aristocratically bestowed upon an unworthy and ignorant audience are a challenge (unless you’re a German-language literary scholar or something), they are not what bog the writing down. The kernel of the story is sad and haunting but Higgins has no storytelling technique. His writing is exquisite but sensory in all it conveys. It only really works when describing the minutiae of existence, rather than the mechanics of a plot. Had he completely abandoned the alleged story of a love affair and just continued to follow Helen through her sad daily movements I would be more pleased. For something this rich with detail to feel so meager is a pity. Researching his later works, it appears Higgins swiftly turned to writing stream-of-consciousness impressions full-time and I am not surprised. It might be a better display of his talents, in any case – though sad to say I’m not especially curious to find out.

Aidan Higgins

The Subterraneans – Jack Kerouac


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The Subterraneans (Grove Press)According to sources, Jack Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans in three days and three nights (benzedrine was possibly involved). Putting aside the obvious need for editing, this move on Kerouac’s part proves beyond doubt that despite what his detractors say he was a genuinely gifted writer – whether you consider the result an unholy mess or the opposite, it is quite readable for a 72 hour writing blitzkrieg. The prose habitually fractures – soaring rhapsodically for a longer or shorter time, coming apart in midair and finding new footing for a relaunch to do it all again. I can only describe this as “live” prose, a staged performance far outdoing On the Road as Kerouac unloads everything in a bid to prove that spontaneous prose is a real, viable and artistically pure form.

Like all of Kerouac’s work, The Subterraneans (his third novel, published in 1958) is based on his own life and times. A quick character conversion chart is needed for full understanding: he thinly disguises himself as Leo Percepiad, Allen Ginsburg as Adam Moorad, Gregory Corso as Yuri Gligoric, William S. Burroughs as Frank Carmody and Lucien Carr as Sam Vedder. There are cameos by stars-on-the-rise William Gaddis and Gore Vidal (called Harold Sand and Arial Lavalina, respectively) and in the starring role, Alene Lee as Mardou Fox – the mentally unstable hipster girl, half African-American, half Cherokee, whom Kerouac shacks up with and soon dumps. He regrets it too late and, life sliding down the drain, sits down to write this book, making his addition to the large canon of “literary exorcism.”


Here’s Alene Lee sharing a human moment with W.S. Burroughs. Photo by Allen Ginsburg.

Kerouac was, even as Beats go, an extremely pretentious writer. His San Francisco is “gray” and “tragic” and his writer friends are inevitably compared to great poets and the angels: Julien Alexander the Christlike unshaved thin youthful quiet strange almost as you or as Adam might say apocalyptic angel or saint of the subterraneans… It’s flashy and ridiculous yet strangely endearing, even attractive. Such words were a part of the lingo (“beat” was linked to beatification, after all) so all the while Kerouac over-uses “Christlike” as an adjective to the point of silliness it doesn’t really dent the romanticism of the Beat Generation.

The Subterraneans makes for a different impression than On the Road, written in a different style (think of it as portrait opposed to panorama). His scattered snapshots of the San Francisco underground are dizzy and inconclusive, leaving the reader hungry for more. It is the subtext of On the Road that comes to the foreground here: as all the friends Kerouac had at the start of On the Road didn’t want to hang with him at the end of it – four road trips in four years later Kerouac was still acting like an irresponsible man-child while others were starting families and holding down jobs. It was pretty clear to me as I read how Kerouac’s story would end and The Subterraneans functions as a commendably honest sequel, as he sets down an account of his growing problems as a self-described drunken maniac. Perhaps this is a poor place to get introduced to Kerouac but it is a necessary chapter for those interested in the man’s life story.

But enough about him for now. The Subterraneans is just as much about Mardou Fox, a gentle, confused soul with at least one major breakdown in her past. She wants to settle down with Leo Percepiad and work on their relationship. He doesn’t. And in those days her love meaning no more to me than that I had a nice convenient dog chasing after me… Sad for him but good for her when she finally gives up and decides to be independent, no longer the little woman waiting at home all hours of the night fulfilling his real secretive Mexican vision of her following me down dark dobe streets of slums of Mexico City not walking with me but following, like Indian woman… Leo makes little to no effort at supportive behaviour and struggles with his basic prejudices and expectations of a woman’s role unsuccessfully. There’s no future for Mardou with him and when she finally blows him off it gives her a chance at a happy ending. Leo is left alone with his book of self-recrimination – deep in the dark pit of night under the stars of the world you are lost, poor, no one cares, and now you threw away a little woman’s love because you wanted another drink with a rowdy fiend from the other side of your insanity.

The Subterraneans focuses not, as you might expect, on the anatomy of a break-up – rather, Kerouac makes a mental mapping of all the thoughts and erroneous conclusions that led Percepiad to blow his chances until there were none left. His tone is also remarkably free from any accusatory bitterness; even when describing the things which Mardou did to irritate him he heckles himself for being an unreasonable man: she was sloppy (always putting off everything till tomorrow, the dirty room unwashed sheets–what do I really for Christ’s sake care about sheets). Everything bouncing through his head, the good times and bad all thrown together madly scrambled between a formal beginning and end. He lays everything out: the complex poison of insecurity and egotism that he struggles with, the tenderness he feels towards Mardou and the unexpected moments of intimacy forging what feels like a real connection between them. Kerouac doesn’t stop there, depicting both his callous disinterest in Mardou and the paranoid jealousy he could feel, spurred on by nothing more than a bad dream and a lot of booze. In this way, Kerouac’s time with her is displayed as mania both in his descriptions and his prose. It’s impossible to sort out what happened when. What it offers is a dynamic glimpse inside Kerouac’s head, one filled with much ominous foreshadowing of his end:

…realizing it’s all myself, a big subjective phantasy that my mother really needs me and would die if I weren’t around… … …saying to myself “If you keep on drinking like that you’ll die…” Sadly, he did not listen to his own warnings, becoming demoralized, giving up on life and drinking himself to death in 1969. He was 47.

Yet this book also shows (better than On the Road) how much Kerouac needed to write and why always about himself: It was on a morning when I slept at Adam’s that I saw her again, I was going to rise, do some typing and coffee drinking in the kitchen all day since at that time work, work was my dominant thought, not love–not the pain which impels me to write this even while I don’t want to, the pain which won’t be eased by the writing of this but heightened, but which will be redeemed, and if only it were a dignified pain and could be placed somewhere other than this black gutter of shame and loss and noisemaking folly in the night and poor sweat on my brow… Writing redeemed Kerouac, perhaps as a confession or an attempt to find some scrap of absolution, and all his bad decisions became grist for the mill producing a stack of novels. He was a devout Catholic and seeker of spiritual truths, after all. But even in this most personal belief of his, it is the sympathetic Mardou who points out the bitterness of the deal. Discussing Baudelaire, her comment could as well have extended to her sad typewriting lover. “I would have preferred the happy man to the unhappy poems he’s left us.”

Jack Kerouac

Ellen Rogers – James T. Farrell


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Ellen Rogers (Signet)If you know James T. Farrell (1904 – 1979) you know him for a trilogy called Studs Lonigan (1932-35), a frank Irish-American slum saga of some kind which wowed the literati and inspired Norman Mailer to change his vocation in life. And that early success turned out to be all the world needed of Farrell, who published over 40 books with bulldozer determination, all the while being slowly forgotten. Yet he sold as a pulp to judge by the number of his works Signet put out (all with wonderful cover art by classic pulp artist James Avati) so it’s clear average readers didn’t forget him. Just goes to show the power academics have over our collective literary memory.

Farrell wrote in the social-realist style and his 1941 novel Ellen Rogers can be seen as a reasonable demonstration of his flaws and talents (though judging by the Amazon sneak peak of Studs Lonigan his writing style became a good deal more simplified in the ensuing decade). The plot: Small-time manipulative bitch Ellen Rogers meets her match in lady-killer Ed “Hellfire” Lanson, who reduces her to a “bewildered lovesick girl” (quoting cover copy there). This is a novelistic equivalent to Hollywood melodramas of the era and has the two-fisted prose to match: She felt like crying. But she gritted her teeth, tautened her limbs, clenched her fists. She would be dry-eyed. She would not be weak.

But, oh God, how could she prevent Ed from leaving?

Clearly the feminists won’t be staging a Farrell revival and as a writer he was unconcerned with style, lacking the polish even of a Dashiell Hammett and rarely bothering with the descriptive pleasures Steinbeck would employ – perhaps all to the good, considering lines like the miracle of dawn was preparing for its unfolding before her eyes like a honeymoon in the sky. He boasted of never suffering writer’s block – all he wanted was to get his stories down on paper. No frills, no fuss. And this makes him a good example of literary pulp.

Like good pulpists, Farrell skipped the boring bits. The chapters of Ellen Rogers are short and broken into numerous sub-chapters, averaging 3-4 pages each. The book is character-driven, sticking to dialogue and amoral actions. Farrell was into socialism for parts of his life but unlike Steinbeck, B. Traven or Upton Sinclair he wouldn’t interrupt his story to deliver a conscientious plea or sermon – social awareness and moral condemnation are left to the reader’s own business and that, to me, gives Farrell a leg up over those guys.

So what does Ellen Rogers offer? The simple pleasure of a good story. A chance to brush-up on some 20s-30s lingo (The gaffer was a curious cuss). And despicable characters the author makes no apologies for; nor does he cast the blame on some societal scapegoat. Ellen is spoiled, bored, a femme fatale without the necessary wit to make a career of it. She starts the novel stringing along a local boy with a false pregnancy but when she meets Ed Lanson she quickly goes gooey-eyed and helpless. She’s upstaged from her own book and Ed takes over.

Ed is a hilarious, disgusting creation, a poseur intellectual of such magnitude I suspect some parody on Farrell’s part. He lives by a cod Nietzschean code, spouting all kinds of bullshit about how he and Ellen will “conquer” and “the world will be our onion” (seriously now, I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard at a book) all while plotting to make it big without doing any actual work. A chronic liar, he’s hauled to jail for non-payment of rent and tells anyone who’ll listen that he’s in for safe cracking. He acts the aristocrat and goes on about his pride while “borrowing” money – usually from women. He calls himself a writer but has never written; this doesn’t prevent him from telling random girls about his almost-finished work. “It seeks to depict the romance of reality, and the reality of romance,” he said, and she was unable to mask her bewilderment.

Bottomline: Ed Lanson is a smarmy, conceited ass and a layabout. Ellen Rogers is a weak, watery excuse for a femme fatale whose protests to the contrary ring hollow. “You don’t think I’m hard, do you, Ed? You think I’m soft, pliant. Well, I’m hard. Oh, yes I am. Hard. If you knew what I did to men, what I could do to them.” With such a cast, a biting comedy is introduced to the pages of flattery, ego-stroking and sentimental cooing they engage in together. A dime-store romance shown up in all its wishful cheapness by the paltry, contemptible duo at its heart. It doesn’t end well.

The book is a hoot yet there’s also more to it than simple entertainment. The women in Ellen Rogers are of a piece: stupid, needy, compliant. Exactly the type a player would go for. They listen to Ed expound his poisonous philosophy of the users and the used, unaware that he puts them in the second category. They respond with confusion, laugh it off, saying “you talk funny, Ed.” They go on believing he’ll make good and marry them. It’s sad. It also reminded me of A Hero of Our Time, concerning itself with the same moral themes as Lermontov, trickled down from the literary greats to the pulp realists. Some topics never fade.

Ellen Rogers is not so well written as his famous work, which he must have spent plenty of time polishing up. However, it’s a darkly funny snapshot of a time in America when “babbitry” was hot off the presses. Reading the entertainment of any era can give a surprising vantage point on the lives and concerns of ordinary people (and for all the Ivory Tower’s wish to represent them, probably more accurate). Average Joes of the 40s-50s might have read Ellen Rogers – they probably didn’t read Thus Spake Zarathustra. And books like Ellen Rogers are a great way to get your reading fix when you need to lighten up and take a break from the demand and focus of highbrow literature.

James T. Farrell

An African in Greenland – Tété-Michel Kpomassie


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African in Greenland There is a saying: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Very few people visiting foreign countries are willing to assimilate to that degree. They stay in hotels, they pick and choose their food, they don’t participate in any pursuits traditional to the area. They’re tourists or they’re travel writers. If the former, they don’t see the country they’re staying in; if the latter, they only tell you what fits the purview of their article, ignoring the rest. Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland offers an unvarnished account closer to amateur cultural anthropology than a memoir.

The modern tendency in memoirs is to talk about oneself and this can be particularly irritating when the writer is offering an eyewitness account of note (Suki Kim mooning after her “lover” while in North Korea, for instance). Kpomassie embarked on his account in a far more professional manner: the early portion of the book is given over to a personable depiction of the events which led him to travel from Togo to Greenland. Once he arrives, the book ceases to be about him and is instead wholly about the country. And yet, ironically, this is the rare time I would have welcomed a little egotism on the author’s part because Kpomassie is interesting enough to warrant it.

Kpomassie was born in Togo in 1941. He was raised in a traditional family – his father had eight wives, older siblings had unequivocal authority over younger ones and in the grip of sickness a white chicken may be sacrificed to postpone death. As a teenager harvesting coconuts from the top of a 60 foot palm tree, Kpomassie had a run-in with a python, knocking it from its perch only to meet it climbing up again. Halfway down the trunk, in terror of getting bit, he launched into space and fell about 30 feet. His father, grateful that the snake had spared his life, intended to dedicate his son to the python cult. Understandably, Kpomassie was a bit put off by the idea. A book he read in the local missionary bookstore gave him the idea of going to Greenland and he ran away from home in 1958.

Kpomassie’s journey was by no means simple. Each step of the way he needed funds. He’d go as far as cash would take him, find friends, get a job and settle in, preparing for the next leg and wrangling an education out of his nomadic lifestyle. During the first few years my lessons came regularly by post, and all was well. But because of my frequent moves, my exercises, corrected in Paris, were seriously delayed before reaching me. So I decided to teach myself, as this seemed to be the best answer for a wanderer like myself, and I embarked on a thorough study of all the French classics, beginning with the sixteenth century. My large suitcases eventually contained more books than clothes. It took him eight years to get from Togo to Greenland. That’s dedication, and it makes for an entertaining human-interest narrative. Once he arrives and meets the Inuit, the tone shifts to a darker register.

Greenland in the 60s was an unhappy place. Long a colonial state under Danish rule, in 1953 they decided to give Greenlanders Danish citizenship – a new policy requiring cultural assimilation. Attempting to graft a modern economic program of wage-earning (where fishing is the chief industry) onto a traditional community of hunters was a bad idea. The result: a lot of able-bodied Greenlanders simply live on allowances from the Danish government. Social engineering didn’t end there, as children were required to complete their post-secondary education in Denmark, resulting in widespread loss of the old ways, a discovery which clearly disturbed Kpomassie. Children are sent to school but are not taught anything about the traditional activities. Even worse, that way of life is disparaged to their faces, although it is their own. When they grow up, they can’t even paddle a kayak. That’s how things are for the Greenlanders on the southern coast. His response was to go further north and the entire book documents his restless drive to meet the true Greenlanders, even trying to reach Thule (though that doesn’t work out and he settles for Upernavik).

Pushback against Denmark came in the 70s and I dearly hope conditions have improved since Kpomassie’s account as An African in Greenland is as much a chronicle of unemployment, casual sex, rampant alcoholism and starving huskies as it is of warm hospitality and natural wonder.

Any travel account has to be judged keenly on the author’s landscape evocations though, and Kpomassie passes muster. There are lovely passages throughout which focus on landscape and weather patterns, from his first view of the northern lights to an early thaw and its surreal demise:

In less than twenty-four hours, the returning ice was thick enough to halt eight fishing vessels as they headed for the coast. The most powerful of them just managed to break a channel, and the others followed slowly into the bay, where they anchored one behind the other. That same night the channel froze, closed in on their hulls, and held them prisoner.

The temperature dropped back to minus forty degrees, so that in mid-March — while winter was drawing to its end in Europe — the Arctic faced intense cold once again … The sea was once more a vast, solid expanse in which captured icebergs alternated with snow dunes polished by the wind and ice hummocks that looked like frozen waves.

The canted ships caught in the pack-ice were like wrecks half buried in the sands of some immense white desert. There being no playgrounds or open fields in the neighbourhood, to my astonishment the young men began playing soccer on the frozen bay during the few hours of light we had each day.

Kpomassie’s anthropological eye takes note of customs, taboos, etiquette and family dynamics. He depicts the Greenland sense of humour, their generosity toward him and their resilience. He eats as they do (though he draws the line at dog meat) and gives unvarnished accounts of fishing, meat processing and dog sledding. He closely observes the different tasks of men and women, their traditional crafts and the treatment of children and old people.

Sometimes, particularly late in the book, he compares Inuit and Togolese culture – comparisons which show Togo to have a higher cultural resiliency, as a disappointed Kpomassie learns that in their amusements, the inhabitants of this western coast have retained hardly anything of their own cultural heritage, nothing that really belongs to them. The accordion which Hendrick tirelessly played was a foreign instrument. As for the Eskimo drums, made of a circular wooden frame covered with a stretched membrane which is tapped on the edge with a slender stick (strangely enough, never on the membrane itself), nowadays they can be found only at the National Museum in Copenhagen! I rather missed the New Year festivities in my home village, where our dances, not copied from anyone else’s, are cadenced to the rhythms of the tom-toms.

As an account of the country, An African in Greenland is not pretty or uplifting. Once he pushes far enough north to where there are still hunters among the fishermen, he discovers packs of huskies, neglected or wholly abandoned by families who’ve gone into fishing to make a living. They aren’t domesticated, are barely fed and as a result they scrounge for food, kill and eat each other and are known to go for children and even grown men on occasion. He also ends up, through a rare failure of local hospitality, left to stay with a degenerate named Thue, in what is the most disturbing part of the book. Thue lives with his family in total squalor and poverty, hunting for a minimal two hours a day, leaving his children in perpetual hunger – and no one in the village offers any aid, for reasons which soon become apparent when Kpomassie tries: Thue had brought back no game, not even a bird, so he asked me for money to buy coffee, biscuits, and some poliki (bacon). Instead of all that, however, he bought ten bottles of beer. Just as he was entering the house with the carton clasped to his stomach, one of his own dogs attacked him, and two of the bottles were smashed. No protective custody, no AA, no good samaritans stepping in, just an old man boozing it up while his children starve. Eventually, they eat the dogs.

These are the moments when I wanted some reflection on the part of the author. The oddest thing about An African in Greenland is in the lack of an emotional culmination. As I said, it’s not written in the modern style. Having made it to Upernavik and met old-timer Robert Mattaaq, he has found what he wanted. He stays with Mattaaq and his family in a traditional turf dwelling, listening to his folktales. He’s content, confidently awaiting a second winter in the Arctic, apparently grown quite close to Mattaaq….and then he changes his mind and decides to return to Africa. The goal no sooner reached than given up. The duty to one’s homeland stronger than the love of a new world. The regret at leaving Mattaaq whom he knows he’ll never see again. The long journey ahead as he prepares the return trip. This is big stuff. Six pages are all it gets. Frustrating.

An African in Greenland was published in 1981, translated by James Kirkup in 1983 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2001. I am happy to see it easily available. Kpomassie settled in France but in this age of air travel has visited both Greenland and Togo often. As far as other reviews go, I seem to be alone in my grim impressions. Maybe most people filter it out. Whatever your impressions, it is an important document and a compelling human-interest story.

Tete-Michel Kpomassie

Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews: Third Anniversary



Three years now I’ve been at this, so here is the annual commemorative post. As well as being the day I decided to start blogging in earnest, April 15 is also Tax Day. That’s not fun so here are four people who were born this day in history:

1452: Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15 (Old Style) and the world still stands in awe. Incidentally, until it was stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia in 1911 (subsequently earning plenty of publicity) the Mona Lisa was not actually all that famous or well-known.


The Washington Post dutifully reported the theft.


1843: Henry James was born. A powerhouse man of letters from an intellectual family, James is considered in some circles one of the greatest writers in English – in others merely an anemic waste of space. Among many other works, he wrote The Turn of the Screw (1898), one of the greatest skin-crawling ghost stories ever made and certainly the most ambiguous.

1916: Helene Hanff was born. She went on to write a series of letters to a British bookseller which, when published as 84 Charing Cross Road (1970), earned her an adoring audience. To connect with a stranger through a shared affection for the written word is doubtless a dream held by many book lovers as the slim volume of correspondence is still widely read today.

1960: Susanne Bier was born. A notable Danish filmmaker whose titles include After the Wedding (2006) and In a Better World (2010). Of the two, In a Better World won the Oscar. While it was a deeply disturbing film about parental weakness, violence among children and the “friend” mentality, it was also a melodrama with a falsely positive ending whereas the earlier After the Wedding did all it could to subvert the expectations of melodrama and came across to me as the more mature work.

after the wedding

There you go! That’s your April 15 trivia for this year.

So here are the books I am currently on file to review:

Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin
The Balkan Trilogy & The Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning
An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie
The Assault by Harry Mulisch

And here are ten books somewhere near the top of my to-be-read pile:

Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
The Three Leaps of Wang Lun by Alfred Doblin
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
The Symposium by Plato
Essays, Civil and Moral by Francis Bacon
Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by Joao Cerqueira
Georgian Poetry edited by Lyn Coffin
Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

girl reading

The Harvard Classics Vol. 2: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – Part 3, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius


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Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (AD 121-180), known as the last of the Five Good Emperors, was a rare ray of light in the den of depravity, the sink of iniquity that was the Roman Empire. I have a rather strong aversion to the Roman Empire. Fantastic engineers though they were, nothing will make me warm to a country whose chief architectural relic is a glorified abattoir. For this and other reasons, the latest entry in my Harvard series will be somewhat more disapproving than usual.

marcus aurelius bustMarcus Aurelius was not born an emperor. His father died when he was three and he was raised by his paternal grandfather amongst the posh villas on Caelian Hill. He was tutored at home. This time period was noted for the new Imperial practice of adoptive successions and he became the last of the adopted line stemming from Nerva in 96 AD.

As of 138, the current ruler Hadrian was ailing and selected Aurelius Antoninus, the husband of Marcus’ aunt, for successor. Marcus was adopted into the fold and lived with Antoninus and Hadrian until the latter perished. He received a bundle of titles and promotions, was taught administration and oratory and succeeded Antoninus in 161. Remarkably, this sudden elevation did not result in a ruined character. As he later wrote: …where a man can live, there he can also live well. But he must live in a palace–well then, he can also live well in a palace.

Aurelius’ reign was marked by the Marcomannic Wars (166-180), a series of invasions and rebellions fought along the Danube on the part of Rome’s Germanic and Sarmatian (Iranian) neighbours. Equestrian AureliusAurelius spent time on the campaigns and it was “among the Quadi at the Granua” that he began his Meditations. He never saw the conflict properly resolved in his lifetime – and of course these were merely the burning bushfires that would go on to one day subsume the Empire.

As Caesars go, he was really the best you could hope for. His Meditations are not a record of this life, however, nor were they written with an audience in mind – they are an account of good conduct, a way for Marcus Aurelius to focus, channel his inner Stoic and keep the “form” of Emperor from destroying the “substance” of himself as a humble man. The problem inherent with this noble undertaking was that the result is not remotely user-friendly and has no great originality. Epictetus was a Stoic instructor and his sayings, recorded by an earnest pupil, are as perfect an introduction to the philosophy as a patient reader could wish for. Marcus Aurelius was a student, not a teacher, and his Meditations are an exercise book: rigorous and thoughtful but also plodding and repetitive. There’s none of the personal touch that brought a level of intrigue to Plato’s Socrates and none of the well-exercised brevity that Arrian’s Epictetus put to such wonderful use. Take away his Imperial status and what is left? A philosophy student’s notebook.

I have no doubt some of my problem with this book stems from the antiquated translation by George Long, M.A. and would recommend readers to aim for a more streamlined version. There are of course various excellent passages scattered throughout the book and I shall quote one in full from chapter two, which works as an accurate summary of the themes Aurelius gave his focus and also gives good indication of his style in the Long translation: 17. Of the human life the time is a point, and the substance is in a flux, and the perception dull, and the composition of the whole body subject to putrefaction, and the soul of a whirl, and fortune hard to divine, and fame a thing devoid of judgment. And, to man-in-life-man-on-deathbed1say all in a word, everything which belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and vapour, and life is a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion. What, then, is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing, and only one–philosophy. But this consists in keeping the daemon within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, nor yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man’s doing or not doing anything; and besides, accepting all that happens, and all that is allotted, as coming from thence, wherever it is, from whence he himself came; and, finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded. But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.

Sober reflections, stern moralizing, rinse and repeat for the next hundred pages. This is why I would not recommend the Meditations to anyone who isn’t in a scholarly capacity. I understand that Marcus couldn’t just write a quick essay on the subject and hang it on the wall above his bed. To preserve and practice Stoicism in his position he had to remain focused, rewriting his personal mandates and shaping them anew on his travels. Doubtless it provided a calming task while on campaign. So I can see how this would have been a compelling necessity and I respect him for carrying it out but nothing will compel me to call the leftover husk of his endeavor an interesting read. These pages truly were meditations and unless you are willing to read them as such, they will be a source of some frustration.

There are dynamic texts to engage with and static texts to absorb. The Meditations is an example of the latter and unlike the similar Journal of John Woolman it lacks those light touches of the personal, the mystical and the anecdotal that I found so rewarding on a second read. The Meditations keeps up a continuous mantra that human life is not worth experiencing. Everything transient is scorned, all enjoyments derided as animalistic and emotions are censured as “womanish” and worthless. All that is left of value in his eyes are the rigours of asceticism, which I cannot agree with as the very transience of human experience is precisely what makes it so valuable to me. And probably to the majority of sensitive people. Oleg Oprisco Not, however, to Marcus Aurelius who takes a hard line on the matter: To receive the impressions of forms by means of appearances belongs even to animals; to be pulled by the strings of desire belongs both to wild beasts and to men who have made themselves into women, and to a Phalaris and a Nero: and to have the intelligence that guides to the things which appear suitable belongs also to those who do not believe in the gods, and who betray their country, and do their impure deeds when they have shut the doors.

In this Aurelius can be seen as trying to answer the question of what makes some men good if all aspects of their being are shared alike with animals, criminals, the weak and the foolish. The answer he found was uncomplaining trust in the gods and the nature of things – to be a man without any compulsion perfectly reconciled to his lot. This piety helped to establish him as part of the Western Canon and when you consider the examples of such Emperors as Caligula, Caracalla, and Nero he does look miraculous. His book is a testament to that but it also raises a question about Stoicism and how far it can reasonably be taken.

Stoicism can be seen as an attempt to diminish pain in what was surely a deeply traumatic and brutish era to be born into with its “games,” crucifixions, rudimentary medicine and other difficulties. A measure of Stoic training would be a natural aid in such a time period but for Aurelius it was likely a state of living as much as being, and perhaps that had a hand in the disastrous rulership of his son Commodus. After all, if you grew up in an atmosphere of deliberate austerity and at eighteen found yourself released from it and declared sole Emperor, what is the likelihood you would be able to moderate yourself in that environment? Commodus (161-192), Aurelius’ son and successor is quite possibly an example of how such matchless dedication to the higher things can go awry (or maybe he was just a bad egg regardless).

Note the difference.

Commodus took the throne at eighteen and put a spectacular end to the legacy of the five rational emperors. He reigned for twelve years before finally getting whacked and although his career started quietly enough, before long conspiracies were in the air and he became increasingly unhinged. He sought to fashion himself as the new Romulus, stuck statues of himself as Hercules up all over the place and named everything that wasn’t nailed down after himself (including the months of the year, for which he had to first give himself twelve names).

All of this would make him just a figure of fun but on a darker note he showed off his manliness in the arena, where he would slaughter exotic animals and the wounded and the maimed (I guess he figured nobody would miss them). He didn’t perform for free either – yes, as the ruler of Rome nobody could stop him from entering the arena but he charged them for each appearance anyway. In short, the man descended into complete megalomania. He was finally strangled by his wrestling trainer whose name (I am not making this up) was Narcissus. Oh, the irony.

An Athlete Wrestling with a Python 1877 Frederic, Lord Leighton 1830-1896 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1877

Who better to kill a megalomaniac?

Historical humour aside, what a disastrous legacy for Marcus Aurelius. In leaving Rome to his son (not that he had much choice, as naming anyone else would likely have led to civil war), he undid the measured rule and result of the adoptive system, heading straight back to dynasties of the unfit and the assassinations and suicides that go along with it. Have a look at Wikipedia’s list of Roman Emperors and study the “cause of death” column – it’s extraordinarily illuminating.

And this is where I pull the plug. I read the Meditations a few years back and a reread of the first four chapters has sparked well over a thousand words (as you see here) while confirming my earlier impression of the book being dull and unwieldy. I am now consumed with a nagging sense that there are other books waiting for my attention and that a complete reread of the Long translation is not required of me. I have filled my quota and while I staunchly defend the Western Canon under normal circumstances I have to admit that this one stumps me.

Up next: Essays, Civil and Moral by Francis Bacon. Goodbye to the Greco-Roman, hello to the Elizabethan!

Ilona: My Life with the Bard – Jana Juráňová


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Ilona. My Life with the Bard (Calypso Editions)A recent title from Calypso Editions, Ilona: My Life with the Bard was published at the tail end of 2014 to vanishingly little press. Jana Juráňová, while entirely unknown in the United States, is renowned in her native Slovakia as a writer and publisher, having co-founded the feminist journal ASPEKT in 1993 (during that period of cultural exploration following the end of Communist rule and the separation of former Czechoslovakia). ASPEKT did well and eventually morphed from anthology to publishing house, bringing out the first edition of Ilona back in 2008.

This slim novel positions itself as the life story of Ilona Nováková (1856-1932), “known” to history only as the wife of Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav (1849-1921), one of Slovakia’s most revered poets, though now little read outside of classrooms and rumored to be all but impossible to translate. He never mentioned his wife in his work, they had no children, and so she has vanished from history. But Ilona was an educated woman from a well-off family, married to a great poet. What was it she wanted? To what did she aspire? Was she content with the only role available to her or were her thoughts filled with the heady mix of ideas that spread through and defined Europe during the fin de siècle and which so animated her nationally-conscious husband?

Ilona is therefore a feminist work but this is an undogmatic feminism capable of a nuanced look at women in recent European history. Rather than portraying Ilona as a free spirit shackled to a misogynist pig, Juránová chose to tell of a truly ordinary life. Ilona is bright, modest and accepting of the limits of her time, finding a measure of happiness in what she’s offered. She possesses so little daring that the book is more unsettling than any number of novels with ahead-of-their-time, freedom-seeking heroines, reassuring modern readers with their similarity of outlook. This story is told in a narrative looking backward as a gray-haired woman recalls the past. We know at the beginning what the end will be:

She stretches out to reach the leaves of the houseplants. She is here, she is still here. All alone, without him. He has slipped away from her. Just like he had always done. To his study, for a walk, to the health resort. And, eventually, to the cemetery.

Just as Ilona is depicted as a woman of her time, the same measured treatment is allotted to Hviezdoslav. A flawed gentleman, grateful to his wife, respectful of her in a limited way and clumsily kind but also fussy, needy and of low self-esteem in the very thing that defines him as a poet and a person. He shores up his confidence by receiving admirers, fretting lest he fall out of fashion or be forgotten and Juránová treats his suffocating stature with gentle irony: The visits usually consist of conversations relating to the Bard’s work. This is the Great Poet’s favorite topic, although he feigns reticence. As a matter of fact, he is finding every other topic increasingly tiresome. Of course, it does happen that a visitor also has other matters to discuss but fortunately, one way or another, these usually also relate to the one and only topic that is of interest to him, such as the publications of his writings, his participation in some festival or other, or the translation of his works into other languages. Her husband is not vain. He is very modest. This is a well-known fact; it’s what everyone says about him. 

More sobering is the reveal that his feelings will not permit him to let his wife take any part in the creative process: Early in their relationship, once or twice she pointed out to him that a particular passage was too wordy or that another passage was too lengthy. He didn’t take it well and stopped speaking to her for a day or two, or just mumbled something. And although subsequently he was embarrassed to have reacted like this, he just couldn’t get over it. So she stopped offering her criticism. Most likely these matters were beyond her anyway. That last sentence shows her own failing. Ilona has no fight in her and lets Pavol’s frail ego and poetic requirements rule her life. One chapter outlines all the things she learned in finishing school (drawing, singing, geography, gymnastics, etc) and how she let all of it slide as soon as she married. Even though a man doesn’t leave a perfectly good wife because she does exercises in the morning.

In a way, Ilona is very similar to her husband – where his ego revolves around his status as an eminent poet, hers is every bit as tied up with the thought of being a perfect wife. So she tiptoes around her life-partner, making more concessions than he even asks her to. She tends him, tends her flowers and cleans the house obsessively. Her entire identity is bound to her role and it’s clear she takes pride in it. While it’s true she was hemmed in by her time period, women throughout history have bucked tradition. She had leisure time, she could have written or sketched or pursued something of private importance but she didn’t. The one thing she wanted very much was to have children, which unfortunately did not come about, though they ended up adopting her brother-in-law’s children, Jarko and Sidka, when his drunken widow proved incapable – a consolation of sorts. Throughout she tirelessly plays a role, allowing herself paltry self-expression, to what end?

This is not to wholesale “blame the victim” as Juránová depicts very well how tradition was stacked against Ilona finding any means of fulfillment outside of her marriage and she often primes the perfect targets of chauvinism to skewer. Hviezdoslav is a conservative man and his wife is not his equal. Juránová portrays this casual imbalance simply but unsparingly and it was the following scene, excerpted on B O D Y, that convinced me Ilona would be worth it:

When her husband decided to go to the seaside she hoped she might accompany him. She wanted to see foreign countries with him, she wanted to see famous paintings in famous galleries with her own eyes. But he chose to travel without her, taking her brother instead. When the protestant church in Dolný Kubín burnt down in 1893, Ilona’s brother went to Germany to collect money for a new one. He invited his brother-in-law to come along. She wanted to join them. But they would not let her.

During the preparations for the trip she kept raising the subject with her husband, trying to persuade him, hoping he might yet change his mind. But he was adamant. Sometimes he did not even respond to her. She went so far as to bring up the subject in the company of strangers but it was no use.

Once, when they had visitors, he asked her suddenly: “Tell me, my dear wife, what should a good husband and wife be like?”

“One body and soul,” she was quick to respond.

“You see. And when I go to the seaside it’s as if you were there with me.”

The company laughed appreciatively at his wit. She couldn’t contradict him. Had they been alone she would certainly have come up with a sharp retort. She wanted to say something after the visitors left. But he locked himself in his study because he needed his peace and quiet. And then he glossed over the whole thing. It was all very civil, well-mannered, as befits a good couple.

The novel ends up telling a very sad story about the common run of things. A life with its sorrows, growing older, losing family – only in this case sharpened by Ilona’s stunted sense of self. She ages gracefully but seeing the colors have vanished somewhere wonders which of her faces is the real one. Comparing her own safe existence with the unhappy lives of the rebellious women she’s known, she feels a chill – as if she had walked into a dead forest. Juránová gives regular glimpses into the lives of Ilona’s peers, women who divorced or betrayed their husbands, whose motivations she cannot begin to fathom and to drive the point home Timrava has a cameo.

Timrava (1867-1951) was the most notable woman writer of the time and like Ilona she was the daughter of a Lutheran minister. She lived with relatives most of her life and never married. She held a few jobs, didn’t make much money from her writing and traveled even less than Ilona did. That was her decision. It was Ilona’s decision to be conventional. Women make that choice all the time – some find it miserable and others make the best of it. There are Ilonas everywhere. They go to college because it’s expected of them, then they marry and forget it all. Some raise families and are fulfilled, some get divorced and try again.

So was Ilona’s choice “wrong?” Does being a good wife and loving foster parent count for less than leading an extraordinary life? After all, it’s only those who leave footprints that are remembered and Hviezdoslav wrote no love poems. A happy marriage–isn’t that more than a complete poetic oeuvre from which nothing is missing? Their love wasn’t for sale after all. … She’s been the lifetime companion to a Great Poet, a part of his life. Part of his life, for sure, but not part of his writing. But what is more? Literature or life? And is this the right question to ask?

Juránová asks these questions and more as she charts an ordinary life lived in the shadows of the intelligentsia. Aside from the cover art, I have no technical complaints to make. The translation by Julia and Peter Sherwood is quite good – I had previously been confused by the text’s tendency to see-saw between past and present tense but have since heard from the translators that this was based on the complex time shifts of the original work, which it could not have been easy to convey from one language to another.

In short, Ilona is a fine book. Subtle, moving and thought-provoking, the sort of novel that should be featured in feminist literature studies. I am left curious and hopeful that more of Juránová’s work will be brought stateside.

Jana Juranova