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Archive for January, 2012

It is Day 5 of my Twelve Days of Reading The Aeneid.

I’m on schedule with my reading, but two days behind on posting.

I’m lugging my old Latin text everywhere, translating on bicycling breaks, surreptitiously glancing at it at Starbucks (not wanting to look radically pro-print when everybody else is technological), and at a friend’s house while she watches reruns of Sex and the City.

Aeneid Book IV fits in with Sex and the City.  It is the story of Dido’s love affair with Aeneas, and their working together to build the city of Carthage until Mercury reminds Aeneas that he is fated to found Rome.  Hence, Sex and the City.

Below are my notes for a class I taught on Book IV.  I used to be a Latin teacher.

The tension between furor (madness) and pietas (duty) dominates Book IV as it does the earlier books of the Aeneid. If Dido represents furor, tormented by love in the forms of a flame (flamma) and a wound (vulnus), then Aeneas is pietas.  When Aeneas “is buffeted by a gale of pleas” to remain in Carthage, he is compared ( IV.441 Latin, p. 111 Fitzgerald translation)  to “an oaktree hale with age.” Dido, on the other hand, is compared to a deer struck by an unwitting hunter.

Aeneas and Dido in Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage at the National Theatre, London, 2009.

But is furor or pietas more sympathetic?  Many believe that Dido/furor is sympathetic, and that Aeneas/pietas is a betrayor.  And it is true that Aeneas does not come off well here. His speech to Dido is cold, an unfeeling response to Dido’s.  Is Virgil questioning the achievements of Rome and the teaching that Venus/love is subservient to Mars and duty?  Is Aeneas, as Venus’ son, conflicted?

Many read Book IV as a tragedy within the structure of an epic.  There are references to two Greek versions of the Medea, Euripides’ play, and Apollonius of Rhodes’s The Argonautica, an epyllion.  In Euripides’s tragedy,  Medea is a witch who kills her children and her husband Jason’s new bride in revenge for  Jason’s deserting her for a younger women.  Her love for Jason is as strong as Dido’s for Aeneas, and Jason is as obnoxiously logical as Aeneas when he explains he has to marry for power.  Apollonius’s epyllion follows a similar path.  Some of Dido’s speeches come directly from Apollonius.

Some of the primary elements of a tragedy are:

exposition (the set-up)

agon (struggle, conflict)

catastrophe (change of fortune)

peripeteia (reversal of circumstances or intention)

hamartia (caused by a tragic character flaw or mistake)

Protagonist brings about downfall through a mistake, not because he is evil, but because he doesn’t know enough.

anagorisis:  a discovery    [hinges on surprise)

suffering occasioned by discovery

lamentation (kommos)

catharsis (for audience)

There is also a historical context for Book IV.  No Roman could have read Book IV without thinking of two historical events:

Carthage, one of Rome’s greatest rivals and brutal enemies, was destroyed in 149 B.C. during the Third Punic War.  Virgil’s legend explains the enmity in terms of the love affair between Dido and Aeneas.  Carthage, Rome’s great rival, was destroyed in the third of the Punic Wars. Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”), or a similar sentence was said to be uttered by Cato the Elder at the end of his speeches, 149 B.C.. Virgil celebrates Augustus and Rome through these allusions.

But more immediately would have been the Romans’ memory of the doomed “marriage” between Antony and Cleopatra.  At the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Octavian/Augustus Caesar defeats Antony. Some consider the reference in Virgil a replay of the Punic Wars, with Augustus/Rome coming out ahead over the exotic east.  Cleopatra, of course, commits suicide, traditionally from an asp’s bite (Plutarch’s story), as Dido does, perhaps more gorily, with a sword.  But Dido is portrayed as a romantic, doomed figure from the beginning, and because she in traditionally interpreted as more sympathetic than Aeneas with all his pietas, it causes us to question Virgil’s own interpretation of events.  Dido represents Carthage, Aeneas Rome, and the doomed love affair appalls us.  Virgil may be questioning empire.  (You can find evidence for both sides.)

SUMMARY OF BOOK IV:  Aeneas and Dido, queen of Carthage,  begin their love affair.  They take refuge in a cave during a storm and “the high sky bears witness to their wedding” (Fagles’s translation).  Dido considers them married; Aeneas does not.  But he stays the winter with Dido, helping her build Carthage (Dido is a refugee from Tyre).   Mercury descends from Olympus to remind him of his fate and that he must build his own city in Italy.  Afraid to tell Dido, he prepares his ships, and she confronts him.  When he leaves, she commits suicide.

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A few weeks ago I read Angela Huth’s Nowhere Girl, a beautifully-written novel about a young woman who has separated from her rather sappy second husband, Jonathan, a failed playwright.  The narrator, Clare Lyall, is at loose ends in London: her first husband, Richard, has just died, and she is introduced at a party to Joshua, a man with a black eye who puts out cigarettes on his thumb.

Now doesn’t that tell you Joshua is bad news?

Clare recounts her story in that humorous, slightly hopeless tone that only an unconventional heroine of novels of the ’60s and ’70s can convey.  Published in 1970, it is reminiscent of the early novels of Margaret Drabble, Penelope Mortimer, Paula Fox, and Nora Johnson. Huth, whom I knew previously from her 1994 novel Land Girls, now fits into my pantheon of ’70s literature.

Clare’s reflections are original and amusing.  After her first husband’s funeral, she muses about the gaudy wreath taped onto the coffin, and his parents’ decision to cremate him.

To me, it no longer mattered that he had died.  But I did wish they had pushed him overboard, which he would have liked, instead of decorating his coffin to look like something from a smorgasboard, and treating him to the absurdity of the afternoon’s performance. “

After the funeral, Clare sits on a park bench and talks to a lively old woman, Mrs. Fox, whose quiet sister, Edith, is on furlough for the day from the Gulliver Old People’s Home in Herne Bay.  Mrs. Fox likes to hear the buses.

I never liked the quiet of the old days, you know.  What I like is a supermarket on a Saturday morning.  Or those demonstrations in Trafalgar Square.  As a matter of fact, I was at one of those not long ago.  I’m not quite sure what it was all about, to be honest, but there I was shouting away with the rest of them, and one of those policemen nearly took me away in a van.”

Both Clare and her unreliable new lover Joshua enjoy the company of Mrs. Fox, whom Joshua seems almost to prefer to Clare.  But this realistic and decidedly unsentimental novel takes off in an unexpected direction:  it is not about happy relationships, and what you think will happen doesn’t.

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On Day 2 of reading The Aeneid, I rushed through the dazzling Book 2 between  errands and twice-baking potatoes.  I didn’t finish till late at night.

“Are you actually reading that in bed?”  I was asked.

“Mm hm.”  I peered over my glasses

It is a very good read.  But it’s a lot of Latin for 12 days.  The Aeneid is divided into 12 books.

In Book 2, Aeneas tells Dido, the queen of Carthage, the story of the fall of Troy and the survivors’ exodus–reluctantly organized by Aeneas, who does not want to lead.  Aeneas’ personal life ends the night he awakens to the clash of arms and the Greeks in the city.  He remembers:  “I hear a roar like fire/assaulting a wheatfield, whipped by a Southwind’s fury” (Fagles’ translation).

As he seizes arms and rushes into battle, he encounters Panthus, a priest of Apollo, fleeing with his grandson and carrying “sacred things” and images of the gods.  Panthus delivers one of the most tragic speeches in Roman poetry, telling Aeneas there is no hope.  The most famous line from his speech is:

fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium et ingens               
gloria Teucrorum

A literal translation is:

“We were Trojans, this was Troy and the mighty glory of the Trojans.”

Robert Fagles’s translation is:

“Troy’s no more.  Ilium gone–our awesome Trojan glory.”

There is a reference in REM’s song “Cuyahoga” to these lines. The song is about the American Indians, long routed from the Cuyahoga River, and the ruin of the Cuyahoga River later  by  industrial pollution:  it caught on fire in 1969.
Here are the lines from R.E.M.’s song:

This is where we walked, this is where we swam
Take a picture here, take a souvenir
Cuyahoga
Cuyahoga, gone

Here is Panthus’s entire Latin speech from The Aeneid, with an English translation by Theodore C. Williams below.

‘uenit summa dies et ineluctabile tempus
Dardaniae. fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium et ingens               325
gloria Teucrorum; ferus omnia Iuppiter Argos
transtulit; incensa Danai dominantur in urbe.
arduus armatos mediis in moenibus astans
fundit equus uictorque Sinon incendia miscet
insultans. portis alii bipatentibus adsunt,               330
milia quot magnis umquam uenere Mycenis;
obsedere alii telis angusta uiarum
oppositis; stat ferri acies mucrone corusco
stricta, parata neci; uix primi proelia temptant
portarum uigiles et caeco Marte resistunt.’               335

English translation by Theodore C. Williams (available free online):

“Dardania’s death and doom are come to-day,
implacable. There is no Ilium now;
our Trojan name is gone, the Teucrian throne
Quite fallen. For the wrathful power of Jove
has given to Argos all our boast and pride.
The Greek is Iord of all yon blazing towers.
yon horse uplifted on our city’s heart
disgorges men-at-arms. False Sinon now,
with scorn exultant, heaps up flame on flame.
Others throw wide the gates. The whole vast horde
that out of proud Mycenae hither sailed
is at us. With confronting spears they throng
each narrow passage. Every steel-bright blade
is flashing naked, making haste for blood.
Our sentries helpless meet the invading shock
and give back blind and unavailing war.”

And here is the video of the R.E.M. song:

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The Aeneid, Day 1: Broken

If you have to be a hero, why complain about it?

That is how I responded to Virgil’s Aeneid the first time I read it, when I was a  young girl and knew little about Roman culture.

Virgil’s very human characterization of Aeneas as a depressed, torn, miserable man, probably with post-traumatic stress disorder, was innovative in epic.  Based on the Iliad and the Odyssey, poems inspired by the Trojan War, Virgil’s Aeneid has a different slant on the heroic life.  Aeneas is a realistically drawn character, stretched to his limits by war and exile.  He does not have the luxury to sulk in his tent, as Achilles did in The Iliad.   Fated to ensure the survival of the Trojan people, Aeneas must sacrifice his personal life to lead the refugees of the Trojan War to Italy, where they will found Rome.  He is fessus–tired.   And he can’t give the job to someone else.

You must understand the Roman concept of pietas to appreciate the Aeneid.  Pietas means duty to the gods, one’s country, and one’s family.  Aeneas is repeatedly called pius Aeneas, partly because an epithet is characteristic of epic, but also to remind us of why he does what he must do.

As Virgil explores the conflict between the longings of the personal man and the stoicism of the public figure, he creates a new kind of poem.  Our culture has no comparable concept to pietas, and we have no epic like The Aeneid.

We first meet Aeneas in a shipwreck, when he is very much the personal man, wishing himself dead.

O terque quaterque beati,
quis ante ora patrum Troiae sub moenibus altis
contigit oppetere!

“O three and four times blessed, those who happened to meet death beore the altars of their fathers under the high walls of Troy!”

Everyone is fessus–tired.   The Trojans are tired.  The ships are described as tired.

But when Aeneas  and only seven of his 20 ships reach the shores of Libya, he must be strong and says (Fagles translation)”  “My comrades, hardly strangers to pain before now, we have all weathered worse.”

And he delivers one of the most famous lines of The Aeneid:

forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. 

“Perhaps one day it will be a joy even to remember these things.”

He has lost his wife, friends, and many relatives in the war.  Does he believe what he says?  He knows how to say it.

And doesn’t this remind us all of sadness and disasters we have overcome?

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12 Days of Reading Virgil

I’ve been spending too much time online.

It’s sad, isn’t it?

I get up in the morning and check my email.  And then I check it again.  And then I check it again.  I can’t even drink coffee anymore while I check my email because I had to buy a new laptop after a coffee spill a few years ago.  I find 34 emails, maybe two from people I know.  The Angela Thirkell group talks about the new audiobook version of Pomfret Towers; the Inimitable Boz is discussing Miss Mowcher, the dwarf in David Copperfield; and a department store sends a link to shop for TOMS slip-ons, which look very cute.

And somehow because of all the email, links, and newspaper articles, there’s never time to reread The Aeneid.  And one of my goals for the year is  to use some of my spare internet time for reading poetry.

Aeneas escapes from Troy with his father and son (Federico Barocci)

Virgil’s Aeneid is one of the most stunning and confounding poems in any language.  I read it as an anti-war epic; some less Latinate souls believe it is pro-war.   In the first book, Aeneas, the son of Venus and the Trojan Anchises, and a refugee of Troy whose mission is to found Rome, says he would rather be dead.  The gods are against him.  Juno has cajoled Aeolus, the god of winds, to free the winds and wreck Aeneas’s ships–yet again.  (It’s complicated; you’ll have to read it).  Some readers think Aeneas is a coward, and that Achilles in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, on which the Aeneid is based, is bolder and more inspiring.

That’s as may be, but who are we?  We are Aeneas (or would be if we were men), not Achilles.

It is difficult to translate Latin into English, because Latin is highly inflected–word endings change to show meaning–and the structure of English depends on word order.  Of the translations, I recommend Robert Fagles’ and Robert Fitzgerald’s.  But I’ve never read a really BAD translation of The Aeneid.

I know the poem well; I have read it several times in Latin.  I taught Virgil as a “Visiting Lecturer”  (!!!) and then at a high school for a few years.  I attempted to help my adult ed Latin students translate a few passages from Virgil, because they would never progress to the point of reading him on their own.

So, for the next 12 days, I will read one book a day of The Aeneid, or at least part of a book a day, instead of checking my email a dozen times a day.

Maybe I’ll even memorize a few more lines.

It’s better than investing in that program that keeps you off the internet for a few hours for money, don’t you think?

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In Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, set in a totalitarian U.S., everyone carries “apparati” (the equivalent of smart phones) and plugs in to “fuckability” ratings, shopping, and GlobalTeen messages.

The hero, Lenny, still reads books.  Other characters’ attention is too fragmented.

“I thought about that terrible calumny of the new generation:  that books smell.  And yet, in preparation for the eventual arrival of Eunice Park, I decided to be safe and sprayed some Pine-Sol Wild Flower Blast int he vicinity of my tomes, fanning the atomized juices with my hands in the direction of their spines.”

I hoped Shteyngart’s future wasn’t here yet, but of course it is.

Some addicts can barely tear themselves away from texting and surfing the net even when they’re on bicycles.

Now here’s something more to break their concentration.  Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Knopf, Random House, and others are beginning to publish “enhanced books,” e-books and apps with videos, audio, and internet links.

I have some news for the publishers.  These are not books.  It’s something called the internet.

We were distressed last week by an article in The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 20), “Blowing up the Book,” about the nascent business of “enhanced books.”

Nothing but cooking wine in the cupboard and nothing stronger than Cold-Eze in the medicine cabinet, so I simply had to deal with it.  (Later I had a malt cup.)

It’s one more method of breaking down concentration, denigrating the value of the book, and reducing literacy.

And why are they doing it?

According to a consumer survey by Bowker in 2008, Americans spend 3.9 hours per week reading books, as opposed to 15 hours online and 12.1 hours watching TV.

I guess that explains the publishers’ motive.

Traitors!

They don’t want to be left behind financially, as they were with e-books.

So they’re putting themselves out of business instead by pandering to the internet crowd.

If you’re reading Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali:  His Live and Times, the author’s words are not enough.   No, there are also video clips and audio clips.

There is even an “enhanced” version of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, with videos of Didion discussing the death of her daughter.  Now that is the end of culture.

Ron Charles, the Washington Post book editor and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, was way ahead of us on this.  In 2010, he made a hilarious video, “Get Ready for Book Apps.”

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Edith Wharton’s Birthday

Happy Birthday, Edith Wharton!

It is her 150th birthday.   There was a sesquicentennial celebration today at The Mount, her newly restored house in Lenox, MA, but it wasn’t possible for me to be there.  (It is a bit far from here.)   I meant to read one of her short stories in her honor instead.

Can you believe I’m behind on my posting?

Wharton (1862-1937) is one of our best American writers.  She won the Pulitzer for her superb novel, The Age of Innocence, and was the first woman to win it. The House of Mirth and Old New York, a collection of four novellas, are  brilliant.  And if you haven’t read The Custom of the Country, don’t let the sun go down before you get your copy.

I recently purchased two volumes of her Collected Stories from the Library of America and very much look forward to reading  them.

I recommend her short story, “Xingu,” which you’ll enjoy if you’ve ever belonged to a women’s club or book group.  It made all of us in an AOL book group laugh.

Here is the link to the Library of America for the story.

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Best "Having-a-Baby" Novel

I read a lot of women’s novels. I don’t call them that, but 72% of the books I read in 2011 were by women.  I read literary novels and genre fiction.

But they are mostly literary novels.

I didn’t know that till this weekend.

Over the weekend I read Jennifer Weiner’s Then Came You, despite the chick lit label, because I wanted to try a novel by this perceptive promoter of women’s fiction. I quickly understood that it was not for me.  Weiner is a highly intelligent woman and good researcher who knows how to dramatize a social issue, in this case surrogate motherhood, but this novel turns into a fairy tale. The egg donor, the surrogate mother, the intended mother, and her jealous stepdaughter have problems.  The baby brings them all together.

It’s not that Weiner doesn’t write well.  Some of it is well-written, some of it is poorly written.

But it seems to be written for an audience of women that I don’t know.

There are other things in life than motherhood.  And babies don’t alway fix things.

I will say this, Weiner’s is a variation on a theme.  There are many much more saccharine books out there about babies’ turning people’s lives around.

The most mawkish baby novel I ever read was Anna Quindlen’s Blessings.

“I don’t read Quindlen,” one woman said.

I soon saw why.

The plot is, well, idiotic.  Two teenagers leave a baby in a box in front of the estate called Blessings.  Skip, the caretaker, and Lydia Blessings, the owner of the estate, want to keep the baby, and there is much forced comedy as they try to do this secretly.  And, if I remember correctly, the baby saves a whole town, not just Skip and Lydia.  Probably the teenagers come back; I don’t remember but it seems likely.

No idea if Quindlen’s other novels are good, but I guarantee that this is terrible.

There are also great books about having a baby.  The best I’ve read is Margaret Drabble’s comic novel, The Millstone.  The narrator, Rosamund Stacey, a recent Cambridge graduate, gets pregnant “out of wedlock,” as we used to say, the first time she has sex.   George, a BBC announcer with whom she had a one-night stand, has no idea.  But Rosamund plods along and has the baby by herself, continues to do her research at the British Museum, and loves her baby, but there are also the anxieties of motherhood, the baby’s health problems, etc. It’s not a having-a-baby fix-it book.

Here is a scene everyone will recognize:  Rosamund having a pelvic exam.

“It was the first time that I had ever been examined, and I could have put up with Dr. Esmond, who was a gray-haired old man with rimless glasses, but I was not prepared for being examined by five medical students, one after the other.  I lay there, my eyes shut, and quietly smiling to conceal my outrage, because I knew that these things must happen, and that doctors must be trained, and that medical students must pass examinations; and he asked them questions about the height of the fundus, and could they estimate the length of pregnancy, and what about the pelvis.”

Published in 1965, this novel is a classic.

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The National Book Critics Circle Award announced its finalists Saturday, and will announce the winners on March 8.

I have read four of these: Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (very good), Allan Hollingshurst’s The Stranger’s Child (brilliant), Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia (very good), and Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence (brilliant), proving that I have indeed absorbed the critical climate of 2011.  No, it’s not that way.  I had read other books by Eugenides, Hollingshurst, Spiotta, and Lethem:  hence my interest.

Fiction

Teju Cole, Open City (Random House)

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (Knopf)

Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision (Lookout Books)

Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner)

Nonfiction

Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Random)

James Gleick, The Information (Pantheon)

Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War (Knopf)

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead: Essays (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)

Autobiography

Diane Ackerman, One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing (W.W. Norton)

Mira Bartók, The Memory Palace (Free Press)

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (Little, Brown)

Luis J. Rodríguez, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone)

Deb Olin Unferth, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War (Henry Holt)

Biography

Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of the Revolution (Little, Brown)

John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (Penguin Press)

Paul Hendrickson, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (Knopf)

Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking)

Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Belknap Press: Harvard University Press)

Criticism

David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Faber & Faber)

Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews (Graywolf)

Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence (Doubleday)

Dubravka Ugresic, Karaoke Culture (Open Letter)

Ellen Willis, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press)

Poetry

Forrest Gander, Core Samples from the World (New Directions)

Aracelis Girmay, Kingdom Animalia (BOA Editions)

Laura Kasischke, Space, in Chains (Copper Canyon Press)

Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Bruce Smith, Devotions (University of Chicago Press)

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It is the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

For years I have supported NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League).   Long ago, after a drive to collect signatures on Pro-Choice petitions and postcards, we volunteers had a stamp-licking/addressing/mailing party. Some  had had abortions; some had not.  Some were quiet; some told their stories.   The one I remember most vividly was the middle-aged stay-at-home mom who had been whisked away as a pregnant teenager to a home for unwed mothers, with a cover story given out about going to live with relatives–and being forced to have a baby against her will and then give it away had been the most traumatic event of her life, she said. She would have given anything for an abortion.  Another rode a bus from Illinois to New York (one of the few states with legal abortion before Roe. v. Wade) to get an abortion, and afterwards had to get right back on the bus because she didn’t have the money to stay overnight.  A hard-working dancer who worked at many jobs could not sacrifice her career for a fetus.

Here is President Obama’s statement today:

As we mark the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we must remember that this Supreme Court decision not only protects a woman’s health and reproductive freedom, but also affirms a broader principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters. I remain committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose and this fundamental constitutional right. While this is a sensitive and often divisive issue- no matter what our views, we must stay united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant woman and mothers, reduce the need for abortion, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption. And as we remember this historic anniversary, we must also continue our efforts to ensure that our daughters have the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities as our sons to fulfill their dreams.”

And here is a clip from a Pro-Choice rally in 2011.

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