Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Diogenes and the Game Chicken

The first year students are moving into the dorms at Mount Holyoke today.  One of my daughters is in the cohort.  Not surprisingly, it’s a happy day.

It also makes it a good time to reflect a bit on Dombey and Son, which despite the title has much more to do with Dombey and his Daughter than his Son.  But first a note about the book as a whole.  Of all the Dickens books I have read, and I have read almost all the major novels now, this is far and away the messiest.  Dickens wrote serials, and I have enjoyed reading them as such.  Before I start, I find out the original chucks (Wikipedia, thou art so fair—indeed, Wikipedia is the only place I can find this rather interesting bit of information), and read the novel in those chunks.  It’s fun.  One thing was immediately obvious in this book, however.  After about the fifth installment, Dickens had no idea what came next.  By about half-way through, he was totally lost.  Two-thirds of the way through, the novel was the aforementioned mess.  Then, at the end he redeemed it with a very Dickensian ending and all was well.  But, my goodness, was this book unbelievably disjointed.  Characters kept wandering in for no apparent reason, stuck around for an installment or two and then wandered off.  Whole subplots were introduced for no apparent reason and then they just ended.  Characters just vanished from the scene, almost as if they were forgotten.  Dickens books are long, to be sure, but this is one which could easily have been shortened just by eliminating all the pointless extraneous material.  If Dickens can’t be bothered to figure out why Alice Brown and her mother matter, then why should I be reading their…I was going to say “tale” but that makes it seem like there was a story about them.  When we show up at Mr Feeder and Cornelia Blimber’s marriage, it is worth wondering why these characters have been completely absent for the last 650 pages (truly, not an exaggeration)—if they aren’t worth mentioning for that long, why am I supposed to be glad they are suddenly, out of the blue, getting married?  And so on, ad nauseam.  If this was the first Dickens novel I had read, I am not sure I would have read another.  Fortunately, having read and loved Dickens for quite some time, I leave this book with a warm glow of admiration at the cast of caricatures I have now met.

But, about daughters.  Dombey doesn’t like his daughter, for nothing more than the reason that she isn’t a son.  That’s the firm name, after all: Dombey and Son, not Dombey and Daughter, and the firm is everything.  The son, Paul, is Little Nell on Steroids—the death scene will give you a cavity if you aren’t careful. The daughter, Florence, is an admirable heroine.  She loves her father, deeply, despite the fact that she knows full well he barely knows or cares that she exists.  And it is there that causes me to have a really hard time sympathizing with Dombey.  Sure, I get the whole “In the Old Days, Sons mattered more” thing.  But to be so ridiculously cold toward your daughter?  Well, that I cannot imagine.  Yeah, I know it’s all sickly sweet to say this, but my daughters (all three of them) are amazing.

And so as Lily settles into her dorm, I do hope she knows that I love her and am truly very proud of her.  She is an amazing, fantastic young woman.  I cannot imagine my life without her in it.

This is her song.  I used to hum that to her every night when she was very young and I was trying to get her to go to sleep.  I can’t hear it without thinking about her.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Leaning Tower

Egads!  The semester starts next week and I am looking at a tower of books sitting next to my computer waiting to be reviewed.  So, think of this as a Tower Reduction Measure.

1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is one of those Fad Books which reminds one that every now and then along comes a Fad Book which is actually worth reading.  Sadly, a good Fad Book will inevitably spawn a set of copycats and propel Flynn into iconic status which means a steady stream of Flynn novels not worth reading rising to the top of the bestseller charts.   Gone Girl is a clever book (which is undoubtedly why that font of Great Book Recommendations, Mallory, recommended it).  But, cleverness in a story is not the sort of thing which is easily reproduced.  Maybe Flynn will surprise me; maybe this isn’t a one-hit wonder situation.  But I am deeply afraid this is one of those Dan Brown situations in which a Fad Book generates a cottage industry.  (It is worth noting, however, that The Da Vinci Code was a terrible book, while Gone Girl is good, so perhaps the comparison is not fair.)    But, the sequel problem aside: Gone Girl is worth reading if you like novels with mysteries in them or if you just appreciate a cleverly constructed story.  Also, by the way, I think this may be a noir novel, but to be certain, I’d have to get a definition of Noir, and well,  you know how that goes.  It would fit right into the Library of America Crime Novels series, though,

They are already in the process of making a Gone Girl movie, by the way, a fact which I know solely because the actor playing the lead in the Gone Girl movie was just announced to be the next Batman.  Nick (from Gone Girl) and Batman (from, well, Batman) have absolutely nothing in common, so either the actor in question is one superlative actor or at least one of these roles will be a disaster.   Hollywood is a curious place.

2. Speaking of Hollywood, P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle is a collection of stories, half of which are about Mr. Mulliner's relatives in Hollywood.  (The other half are about, surprisingly enough, the folks from Blandings Castle.)  [Then there is a Bobbie Wickham story thrown in which makes the fact that I have divided the book into halves a bit problematic.]  As with all Wodehouse, the stories are fantastic and funny.  Much insight into Hollywood, where Wodehouse spent some time (terribly unsuccessful as a script-writer, by the way.  Interesting to note that the ability to write witty dialogue in a book and to do the same in a screenplay are very different skills.)  In one passage, Wodehouse gives a rather nice explanation for why so much of the product from Hollywood is horrid.  You can blame it on the Nodders.  As Mr Mulliner explains:
Putting it as briefly as possible, a Nodder is something like a Yes-man, only lower in the social scale. A Yes-Man’s duty is to attend conferences and say “Yes.” A Nodder’s, as the name implies, is to nod. The chief executive throws out some statement of opinion, and looks about him expectantly. This is the cue for the senior Yes-Man to say yes. He is followed, in order of precedence, by the second Yes-Man—or Vice-Yesser, as he sometimes is called—and the junior Yes-Man. Only when all the Yes-Men have yessed, do the Nodders begin to function. They nod.
That explains much.  Very much.  There are clearly too many nodders in Hollywood.

3. There are too many nodders in the publishing world too.  Take Douglas Adams.  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a masterpiece.  No doubt about it.  The sequels are also good—some brilliant moments throughout.  But, Adams also wrote a pair of books about Dirk Gently, and these needed someone, somewhere to say, “You know Douglas, you are funny, to be sure, and the plotlessness of the Hitchhiker series is part of the point, but if you want to set out to write an amusing mystery story with a Holistic Detective, you really need, you know, a plot that, you know, coheres, or else the book will in the end be a totally pointless exercise with a few jokes thrown in.”  Nobody said that to Douglas Adams.  Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency isn’t too bad.  There is some nice play on the two Big Coleridge poems which is a bit amusing.  (I first read these books decades ago, before I knew a thing about Coleridge—the book is definitely better if you know about Coleridge.)  And being Douglas Adams, there are sentences throughout which are very funny.  But, as a mystery, it’s pretty bad.  Too many moving parts, each one of which is designed because the part provides a joke, but all those parts jumbled up and thrown into a big pot do not make a palatable dish.

4. The sequel to the first Dirk Gently book is a horrific mess.  To be honest, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul has many clever verbal pyrotechnics here and there and some genuinely funny scenes.  But the plot is a total train wreck.  The book has one feature, the presence of Thor and Odin in the story, which induced a rather surprising realization.

In my life, I have read a fair number of books about the Norse Gods.  First, there are the Marvel comic books.  Thor is a rather interesting character in the Marvel Universe, and the rest of the pantheon is fun.  Then there is this Douglas Adams book.  Wagner has an entire opera series all about the Norse Gods.  Thor, Odin and Loki also show up in The Sandman series.  And then Gaiman brings back the Norse gods in American Gods, which come to think of it has an eerie and curious similarity to the basic idea behind The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.   That’s a lot of reading about Norse gods.  Yet, I cannot think of a single time I have ever read a book about the actual Norse gods—all these pop culture stories, and a Wagnerian opera, but never anything original.  Then when I stopped to think about it, other than the source book for Wagner’s opera, I have no idea what source books there are.  Clearly, my education about Norse deities is seriously lacking.  I should probably fix that. 

5.  Hopefully fixing that failing in my literary education will be less painful than fixing my failure of appreciation of short stories.  Ambrose Bierce wrote stories about the Civil War.  They all seem designed to end with an ironic twist, which is supposed to leave the reader gasping with shock, but once you see the trick and expect the ironic ending, the stories devolve into the utterly predictable.

Ah, the stack of books is much shorter now.  Life is good. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Translating Gilgamesh

In an earlier post, I praised the existence of Clara’s assigned summer reading, both the assigned book (Things Fall Apart) and also the whole idea of assigned reading.  Clara was assigned a second book, and here there is not praise, but lament.

But first, it is worth a moment to revisit the idea of assigned summer reading.  I said nice things about it.  And then I read this.  I’ll start by noting that MacBeth is remarkably perceptive in that post.  Quite honestly, she is not only entirely correct in her conclusion, but I had not realized all that myself until I read her post.  No doubt about it:  the only reason I like assigned summer reading is that it gives me some hope that maybe Clara will just read a book worth reading straight through and then maybe we can have a really interesting conversation about it before the school has the chance to chop up the book and utterly destroy any hope of it actually being enjoyed.

And that is exactly why the second book Clara had to read this summer was so depressing.  The book: The Epic of Gilgamesh.  But, it wasn't the book itself that is the problem, it is the translation she had to read.  She was assigned the Benjamin Foster translation, used in the Norton Critical Edition.  And therein is a very useful demonstration of how picking a bad translation can utterly destroy the hope of achieving any good from assigning a book.

The background for those who don’t know it:  Gilgamesh was written roughly 4000 years ago.  All we have of it is some fragmentary stone tablets.  We have enough tablets to patch together the rough storyline, and honestly, there is enough there to make an interesting story.  Comparing Gilgamesh to other epics is a useful literary pastime.  A short version of the story is here.

But, if you are going to assign Gilgamesh to 14 year old kids, one would hope the goal would be to get them to see the story.  And to that end, there is a very useful recent translation by Stephen Mitchell which does exactly that.  Mitchell’s translation reads like an epic tale told by a firelight.  It is fast paced and exciting.  It is, in other words, exactly like what you imagine this tale was like to ancient Babylonians.

The Foster translation assigned to Clara, however, goes for accuracy, not readability.  It is, instead, just what is on the tablets, in all their fragmentary glory.  Reading it would be an exercise in futility, so the editor helpfully tells you what is going on before each fragmentary bit and fills in a few of the blank spots and places where we really don’t know what the word means.  This “translation” is, in other words, utterly unreadable.  An believe me, I tried.  I read the whole thing.  And even though I knew the story and I like the story and I think the story is worth knowing, it was torture.

Consider one of the high points of the story: Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the monster Humbaba.

From Foster’s translation:
Gilgamesh heeded his friend’s command,
He raised the axe at his side,
He drew the sword at his belt,
Gilgamesh struck him on the neck,
Enkidu, his friend, […]
They pulled out […] as far as the lungs,
He tore out the […]
He forced the head into a cauldron.
[…] in abundance fell on the mountain,
[…] in abundance fell on the mountain,
He struck him, Humbaba the guardian, down to the ground.
His blood […]
For two leagues the cedars […].
He killed the [glories] with him.
The forest […]
He slew the monster, guardian of the forest,
At whose cry the mountains of Lebanon [trembled]
At whose cry all the mountains [quaked].

And in Mitchell’s translation:
Gilgamesh, hearing his beloved friend,
came to himself.  He yelled, he lifted
his massive axe, he swung it, it tore
into Humbaba’s neck, the blood
shot out, again the battle axe bit flesh
and bone, the monster staggered, his eyes
rolled, and at the axe’s third stroke
he toppled like a cedar and crashed to the ground.
At his death-roar the mountains of Lebanon shook,
the valleys ran wild with his blood, for ten miles
the forest resounded.  Then the two friends
sliced him open, pulled out his intestines,
cut off his head with its knife-sharp teeth
and horrible bloodshot staring eyes.
A gentle rain fell onto the mountains.
A gentle rain fell onto the mountains.

Let’s imagine you have to pick one these two translations to give to a 14 year old to convince said student that the book is interesting and has something to teach us.  Which translation do you pick?  Not even a contest.  Sure, if you know the story already, there is perhaps something interesting in seeing all the missing parts in Foster’s translation as a way of seeing what is actually there and what is interpolated.  But, to read the story, why would anyone rather read that?  And to teach something?  Again not a contest—nobody in ancient Babylon heard the story the way Foster translated it.  They all heard it the way Mitchell translates it.  So, why in the world would anyone assign the Foster translation as summer reading?

[Fortunately, I convinced Clara to read the Mitchell translation instead of the one she was assigned.]

So, MacBeth is right.  I don’t really like assigned summer reading all that much.  I just like the idea of a kid discovering that some books are Great and well worth reading just for the pure enjoyment of reading them and talking about them.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Whatever happened to Annie John?

Fictional autobiography is a tricky genre.  To even have a hope of seeming realistic, the narrator can neither be omniscient nor completely linear in story-telling.  Memory is a fickle beast, and a narrator with too much memory lacks realism.  But, also to be realistic, it helps is the narrator does not have total self-awareness.  We are all the victims of motives and thoughts not conjured up in either our conscious minds or our memories; we are all subject to revisionist history of our actions.  To write a fictional autobiography, then, is to suggest just enough—if the autobiography has no suggestions of what is hidden from the narrator, it will not be believable, but if it leaves too much hidden, then the story will not cohere.

Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John is a mixed bag.  First, the prose is quite good; the book is a literary pleasure to read.  But, as a story?  An odd problem.  If we take the story at face value, it is the reminisces of an adult about her childhood in Antigua.  A bildungsroman, and in many ways a terribly conventional one.  The setting is a Caribbean island, and there is much about the atmosphere of the book which clings to that setting, but the basic storyline could be anywhere at any time.  Taken at face value, the story is really just not all that interesting.  But, clearly we aren’t meant to take the story at face value.  Our heroine starts off when she is young describing a very close relationship with her mother, and by the end of adolescence she has developed a deep antagonism toward her mother.  So far, so conventional.  But, the cause of this transformation is left totally unexplained in this novel.  Over time, her mother moves from Saint to Villain, and yet there is nothing explaining why.  Are we just supposed to think this is the natural process of aging?  That seems a bit farfetched.  Are there things about the mother and daughter left unsaid?  Almost certainly.  There are hints littered throughout, but what are hints and what are extraneous details?  No way to tell.  And therein lies the problem.  This is a work of fiction: there is no true person underneath this narrative.  So, how are we to construct the true person?  Before engaging on some hunt for clues to a mystery, it would seem to be necessary that there is a solution in order to make the quest worthwhile.  If there is not solution, then with what are we left?  A mystery story which ends in such a manner that no matter who you think did it, you might be right.

So, is the book worth reading?  A curious question.  Compare it to Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One which I recently reread.  (And, I bet that is the first time anyone compared these two books.)  The Miller story is also a bildungsroman; the coming of age of Bruce Wayne and how he turns into Batman.  There are hints of a deep psychological need to become Batman, born of childhood trauma.  We can speculate about what is left unsaid, we can form a psychological profile of our hero.  The format is different, the plots are not much alike, but there is a genre similarity in the stories of Bruce Wayne and Annie John.  Which story has more description of character?  No doubt about it: Annie John.  But, that is partly the product of the relative lengths of the two stories and that Miller’s book is not simply telling the story of the birth of Batman, but the development of Jim Gordon and Selina Kyle as well.  As literature, if you are willing to accept that writing a comic book requires a literary skill, then they are both quite good.  (Those who habitually disparage the comic book will find that comparison ludicrous.)

There is one huge distinction between these two book, however.  By the end of Miller’s book, I am interested in Bruce Wayne’s psychology.  He rises above the pages to become a person about whom it is worth thinking.  (In fact, Christopher Nolan made a trilogy of movies in which Bruce Wayne is the character we find in Miller’s book.)  By the end of Annie John’s story, on the other hand, I have lost all interest.  There is simply too much left undefined in Kincaid’s novel.  At the half-way point, I had high hopes for Annie John, but by the end, I no longer cared about our heroine; yes, there might be an interesting backstory to her somewhere, but without constructing one myself, she ends up looking a bit, well, comic-bookish.  Annie John would fit in well in the Dark Days of the Avengers (two dimensional characters with an inadequate backstory to make you care if they stay or leave).  Annie John sails off to England at the end of the novel, and I genuinely have no interest in her; which, I must say is a rather sad fate for a character I grew to like when she was young.