BOOK REVIEW: The Perfect Nine by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and MumbiThe Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: October 6, 2020

 

As Homer did for the Greeks, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o does for the Gĩkũyũ people, using epic poetry to convey morals by way of gripping stories that are rich in both action and symbolism. The story revolves around a slew of suitors who travel from near and far with interest in the gorgeous and talented daughters of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi – the daughters being the titular “perfect nine.” [Lest one take the allusion to Homer too far, the problem faced in this story is not how to be rid of the suitors, but how to find the best of them and have the daughters each have a husband she desires. Also, in the case of this myth, the answer to the question of how to deal with the suitors is not to murder them all — on the contrary, discouraging the use of violence as a problem-solving tool is among the major morals taught throughout this work.]

I’ve long been meaning to read works by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. I have a policy of reading literature from each country I visit, and when one looks into literature from Kenya his name stands above all others. He’s not merely one of the major figures in Kenyan literature, but of African and global literature as well. However, before I got around to reading one of his novels, I was lucky to have the opportunity to read his latest work, which is due out in the fall of 2020.

The story takes the Nine and their prospective suitors on a journey of adventure that will test their mettle as they carry out a mission, traveling through perilous territory that Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi once traversed, themselves. As in Greek and Norse Mythology, the enemies are often supernatural, as is necessary given how capable the Nine are shown to be. Most of the suitors – certainly the ones that live through the early adventures — are no slouches themselves.

The morals that are conveyed through the story are non-violence (whenever possible), opposition to misogyny and patriarchal norms, a variety of virtuous attitudes and actions, and a kind of tribal attitude. By tribal attitude, I don’t mean tribalistic in the sense that that they suggest attacking or even denigrating those of other tribes, but Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi insist that all the suitors and daughters live nearby — with none allowed to return to the homeland of the suitors. However, as this plays out in the latter part of the story in a way that I’ll leave to the reader to discover, there is an opportunity for learning that modifies the strong tribal norm. [It also leads to the teaching of another important virtue which is to avoid the “you’re dead to me” attitude that one often sees in stories when two parties are at loggerheads.]

I was fascinated by this work. Because — in the manner of mythology — it has some preliminaries to get through at the start, it felt a little slow out of the gates. [Though it was much quicker to delve into the adventure than were the early chapters of “The Odyssey” in which Telemachus goes out looking for his father.] So, don’t worry, the story gets into a taught journey of heroes in no time.

I highly recommend this book for readers of fiction and mythology.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction by Bart van Es

Shakespeare's Comedies: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction by Bart van Es
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in

 

I picked up this guide because I recently finished reading through a superset of Shakespearean comedies. By a superset I mean all the plays that are unambiguously classed as comedies (e.g. “The Comedy of Errors,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “The Merry Wives of Winsor,” etc.,) but also the ones called “problem plays” (i.e. “Troilus and Cressida,” “Measure for Measure,” and “All’s Well That Ends Well”) and some late plays that are sometimes called “romances” (e.g. “Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen.”) Having read 18 plays [in some cases] called Shakespeare’s comedies, I had questions that I hoped the book would help to answer.

The first such question is “what’s a comedy?” I was somewhat familiar with various literary definitions, but still plays like “Measure for Measure,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and even [in ways] “The Merchant of Venice” seem a bit dark – regardless of how things worked out for the lead character in the end. I was pleased to learn that I’m not the only one befuddled by this question. It turns out there is a great deal of debate among scholars on the topic. This topic is discussed in the introduction, in an epilogue, and at various points in between. The epilogue looks at one variation on the question, which is “When did Shakespeare stop writing comedies?” The reason is that his latter plays that are classed as comedies (on folios, playbills, and by scholars) tend be much more mixtures of tragedy and comedy.

The book is organized into five chapters, each of which takes on a different characteristic of the plays. I liked this arrangement as it allowed the author to compare and contrast Shakespeare’s work with his contemporaries on crucial aspects of a play. A recurring theme throughout the book is to consider what the norm was for comedies during that period and then to look at how Shakespeare followed, bent, or blew up the rules.

Though I liked the organization, I found some of the chapters more intriguing than others. The first, entitled “World,” explores setting. One major distinction between Shakespeare’s comedies and those of his peers is discussed in depth. While it was common to set comedies in urban environs, Shakespeare wrote a lot of forest scenes, and while he employed even more urban settings, van Es argues that the urban settings are forest-like in terms of expansiveness.

Chapter two examines wit in the works of Shakespeare. In doing so, it differentiates humor and wit and suggests the latter was more Shakespeare’s forte. The author also considers where Shakespeare’s wit is most clever and where it is ham-handed or even out-done by his contemporaries. One thing that I wish there was more of would have been elucidation of peculiarities of humor and wit of the day. There is some of this, and I did learn some new things. Still, when one is reading Shakespeare, no matter how much one is engaged by the story, there are references that one doesn’t know what to make of because while they must have made perfect sense in the lexicon of the time, they are meaningless (or divergently meaning) in today’s language. Some of these can readily be Googled, but not all. I have seen books that systematically explain such terms and phrases, but this one only offers a few examples.

Chapter three is about the theme of love. There is a lot that seems strange to modern sensibilities in Shakespeare’s work as pertains to love and relationships. Take “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Helena can have anything she wants from the King of France (who she cured of a fistula) but she insists on marrying Bertram — a man who despises her, resents her for what he views as having tricked her, thinks he is vastly better than her, and (worst of all) is not. How tricking a disgruntled jerk – Count or no – into moving back to live with one is considered a happy ending is hard to fathom. This was another area in which I was reassured to find that I’m not the only one who found some of the relationship matters bizarre.

Chapter four is about the element of time. During Shakespeare’s era it was normal for a comedy to take place over the course of a day – i.e. a short period. A couple of Shakespeare’s early comedies comply with this norm, but that is less and less the case as his works progress. “Pericles” and “The Winter’s Tale” both see infants grow into marriageable age (granted that was like 12 in back in those days, but still) over the course of a play. [Granted, not everyone would class those works as comedies.]

Chapter five was by far the most interesting to me. It discusses the idea of characters, and it does so largely by employing E.M. Forester’s conception of flat versus round characters. Comedies of the day relied heavily – if not exclusively – on flat characters. Characters that were like caricatures, having simple motivations and little of the depth that might make them relatable or sympathetic. The author argues that Shakespeare increasingly wrote characters that were – to a person — round. Shakespeare was often able to gain comedic effect by making characters seem flat at times for which it was called. However, it’s also considered that this need for roundness might explain why Shakespeare’s late “comedic” plays are far less clearly comedic than one might expect.

The book has graphics, references, and a further reading section.

Chapter five and the epilogue really improved my view of this guide. I was not displeased with it prior to that point, but didn’t think it offered any great value-added to my understanding of the topic. However, in the end I found the book highly informative and useful. If you’re looking for a concise, no-nonsense guide to Shakespeare’s comedies, it’s worth having a look.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Literary Criticism by Owen Holland

Introducing Literary Criticism: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Literary Criticism: A Graphic Guide by Owen Holland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

As the title and subtitle suggest, this book is an overview of the field of literary criticism that uses graphics (mostly cartoon drawings) to assist in conveying the information. This is one volume in a large series (Introducing Graphic Guides) that covers a range of subjects, mostly in the humanities (at least as far as the titles I’ve seen.) I picked up this book because it’s a topic I’ve developed a curiosity about, I knew almost nothing about, and it – like many titles in the series – was available to borrow via Amazon Prime.

As far as I can tell, the book covers all the major schools of criticism. Having looked around a little bit out of curiosity, I found the same headings are widespread. I do feel that the book would have benefited from being less personality-driven and more conceptually driven. By that I mean to say, it felt like the author thought his primary task was to list all of history’s most major literary critics. There’s a large number of individuals mentioned, but with little insight into how these critics engaged a piece of literature. I know that this is supposed to be a concise introduction, but I was dismayed by how little I felt I understood of the topic at the end compared to books that I’ve read of a similar nature (e.g. Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series.) In short, while I understand there’s limited space to cover a vast discipline, I don’t think the space available was used well.

I must admit that part of my confusion stems from the fact that literary criticism seems to be very different from what I thought it to be – and has been becoming increasingly so. So, I assumed that literary criticism had something to do with questions of how effectively elements such as language, narrative arc, metaphor, metrical form (or formlessness), character development, etc. are used in creating a resonance between writer and reader. [When I do reviews, these are the types of questions that inform my commentary. i.e. Is the story intriguing? Are the characters believable? Is the language skillful / beautiful? Is meaning conveyed in as approachable a manner as the subject allows (or if it’s more complicated, does that complication serve a reasonable end? etc.] To the degree these questions were ever of interest to literary critics, they seem have been replaced by another question: “Does this writing make ____________-ists feel warm and fuzzy, or mean and prickly?” [Where the “-ist” in question might be a feminist, a Marxist, or an environmentalist – just to name a few.] I may be misinterpreting what modern literary criticism is and does, but the fact that I’m doing so after having read this introductory guide supports my argument that maybe there was better use of space than having such a great number of critics cursorily mentioned – not to mention the cartoons (which seemed to serve little purpose.) The one thing the personality-driven approach does is give one plenty of examples of works to read to learn how various schools of literary criticism take on their appointed task, but I’d have rather had a clue about that from just reading the book.

I suspect that there are titles in this series that are able to use graphics to greater benefit – given their subject matter. In this work, the graphics are mostly cartoons that restate key points from the text in speech bubbles – so the art essentially fulfills the role that text-boxes do in some magazines and books, but in a more space-intensive way. If there were no graphics in this text, I don’t think I would have felt that I missed out on anything.

This book will show you how the field of literary criticism progressed and who the major players were, but doesn’t offer much insight into how critics engage with works of literature. Early in the book, this doesn’t make much difference, but — given the direction the field went in — it raises a lot of questions. There is discussion of whether art should be judged on its artistic merits or whether it rises and falls by its morality and social merit. I guess the answer the field collectively came to is the latter. [i.e. What matters is how happy or unhappy a work makes the segment of society the critic represents – I guess?] However, this makes it much more difficult to conclude how critics evaluate works. Do feminist critics dismiss all of Shakespeare as garbage because it disregards the agency of female characters in the way of that time? Do ecocritics toss “Moby Dick” in the trash because its about whaling? Or do these critics not engage with such texts because they are irrelevant to them? It would have been nice to have some insight into these questions, because it matters as to whether the field has anything worthwhile to say if you are a reader as opposed to an ideologue.

If you want a who’s who of literary criticism combined with some vocabulary building, this book has you covered. However, to see how critics engages with texts to produce criticism, you’ll probably need to go elsewhere.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

The Winter's TaleThe Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

The moral of this story is that great power combined with human frailties like jealousy, vanity, and pettiness is a recipe for misery – even [perhaps, especially,] for the all-powerful individual. Stated another way, all humans get a little crazy from time to time, but if one has power over life and death the craziness isn’t just a passing fancy.

Leontes, the Sicilian King, has enjoyed an extended visit from his old friend King Polixenes of Bohemia. As Polixenes intends to leave the next day, Leontes is politely trying to talk his friend into staying longer. Leontes then asks his Queen, Hermoine, to take on the task of nagging Polixenes while Leontes steps out to take care of some business. When Leontes returns, he finds the Queen has succeeded in talking Polixenes into staying. At this point, Leontes is driven into a jealous madness, assuming his wife must be sleeping with Polixenes because she was able to talk the Bohemian King into something Leontes couldn’t. Leontes immediately becomes certain of this infidelity, despite the fact that he has no evidence for it and – it will turn out – no one believes the Queen has been unfaithful. While Leontes keeps his rage to himself, he orders one of his trusted Lords, Camillo, to murder Polixenes.

While neither Camillo nor Paulina (the Queen’s closest friend) would be considered marquee characters, they are the MVP’s of the play. Both characters take actions that put themselves at great risk when confronted with the dilemma of whether to do the right thing or to comply with the dictates of the King. Camillo first does this by refusing the assassinate Polixenes and then fleeing to Bohemia (which is necessary given Leontes’s madness.) [In an intriguing turn, Camillo will again have to do the right thing, this time, in the face of Polixenes’s wishes – i.e. when Polixenes wants to punish his son for sneaking out to apparently court a commoner. This incident with the — previously reasonable — monarch reinforces the aforementioned story moral, and perhaps establishes a few hundred years before Baron Acton’s dictum that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”] Paulina is vocally (and, later, in other ways) supportive of the Queen, even when it is clear she is raising the hackles of King Leontes.

The madness of Leontes is fascinating. He not only concludes with certainty that the Queen cheated on him, he also makes the leap that his current son, Florizel, and the child that Queen is due with when she is arrested were both sired by Polixenes. The fact that all his Lords and Paulina (wife of a Lord) politely suggest to him he is in error does not sway him. As an attempted concession toward reason, he consults an Oracle. Even when the Oracle’s sealed response comes back telling him that he is wrong, that his wife and Camillo are both right, and he is going to end up without an heir unless he can find the child that he sent away (the infant delivered in the gaol) he is unswayed – until moments later when he learns his once beloved son, Florizel, is dead. Despite the fact that he’d concluded Florizel was a bastard, he is moved by the death of the boy – at least in combination with the swooning of the Queen — which appears to be her death as well.

The rest of the story plays out the fate of the child that was sent away by the King. The child was taken by Antigonus (another of Leontes’s Lords and husband to Paulina) who doesn’t survive the trip but does leave the child where a shepherd ends up finding her.

This is an intense take on the jealousy and insanity. The story is gripping throughout. There are plenty of intriguing twists and turns. It’s fascinating how many ways Shakespeare can play the simple plot of unfounded jealousy. Needless to say, this play is highly recommended reading.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Cymbeline by William Shakespeare

CymbelineCymbeline by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This play, like a number of Shakespeare’s works, revolves around erroneous mistrust regarding infidelity. While it’s usual for star-crossed lovers to spend the length of a play trying to be wed — against all odds and opposition — this story turns the tables. At the beginning of “Cymbeline,” the King’s daughter (Imogen) is already married to a gentleman named Posthumus Leonatus. However, Leonatus is being deported from Britain back to Rome because the King, Cymbeline, doesn’t sanction the wedding. So, the young lovers in question (Imogen and Leonatus) are forced into a long-distance relationship. Both Cymbeline and his Queen would prefer Imogen marry Cloten, the Queen’s son. [While that sounds incestuous, the hitch is that Cymbeline is twice married. Imogen is his daughter from his first wife; Cloten is the Queen’s son from her previous marriage. So, the problem with marrying Cloten isn’t incest, but rather that the Prince is a pompous gas-bag who nobody likes — except his treacherous mother. Not to mention, Imogen still considers herself wed to her true love, Leonatus.]

The geopolitical context of the play is that Britain has stopped paying tribute to Rome, and the Romans are sore about it. However, Britain has been on the rise as the Roman empire has apparently been waning — having transitioned from Julius Caesar to Augustus. At any rate, it’s no longer a slam-dunk that Rome would defeat Britain in battle. This broader context is important because it explains why Rome sends diplomats and – eventually — soldiers to Britain.

One of the Romans sent to Cymbeline’s court is Iachimo, who is cast as a “gentleman,” but whom we will learn is anything but. Iachimo, insulted by Leonatus’s pining over his wife when Rome has so many lovely women, tells Leonatus that he should just get on with getting busy, because he can be sure that Imogen has. Leonatus refutes this. Iachimo says that he’s going to visit Cymbeline’s castle as part of a Roman delegation and he bets Leonatus that he can get in the sack with Imogen. Leonatus tells Iachimo it will never happen; Leonatus has iron-clad trust in his wife’s chastity. However, Leonatus goes along with the bet because winning it will be the next best thing to stabbing Iachimo.

During the visit Iachimo is sternly rebuffed by Imogen. But before she can summon the guards to bounce him, Iachimo really gets despicable — cleverly shifting his tack. He plays off his proposition as being a bad joke in bad taste, apologizes, and – behaving in a gentlemanly fashion – he warms her up to him. So much so, that when he asks a small favor, she readily agrees. The favor is to store a trunk of valuables in her room that he doesn’t trust being shipboard. However, he uses the trunk to Trojan horse his way into her sleeping chambers. That night, once she is asleep, Iachimo sneaks out and makes note of the furnishings of the room, a birthmark that he can see given Imogen’s nightie that he wouldn’t be able to see in her daytime attire, and – for good measure – he thieves a bracelet off her wrist. The bracelet and the information he acquired will become the evidence Iachimo uses to convince Leonatus that he made the beast with two backs with Imogen. While Leonatus is dubious at first, he eventually concedes the bet, giving Iachimo his ring and sending an order to his servant, Pisanio (who stayed in Britain to serve Imogen,) to murder Imogen. Pisanio, being near Imogen on a day-to-day basis, doesn’t at all believe she has been unfaithful, and finds himself on the horns of a dreaded dilemma.

The story plays out moving from Cymbeline’s palace to the countryside, and then to a chaotic fifth act in which all is reconciled in the aftermath of a battle between the Romans and the British in which Cymbeline’s forces are victorious. (As you might have realized, despite the play being named for him, Cymbeline is not one of the lead characters. However, his fifth act interrogations are the means by which the resolutions and revelations are made.)

The tension that is maintained throughout this work is visceral. It plays with a number of common plot devices seen in Shakespeare: women disguised as men, a potion that causes a short-lived appearance of death, and unexpectedly reunited family, but still it remains a distinctive story. It may be one of the lesser known works of Shakespeare, but it’s definitely worth reading.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: And the Earth Will Sit on the Moon by Nikolai Gogol

And the Earth Will Sit on the MoonAnd the Earth Will Sit on the Moon by Nikolai Gogol
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This collection contains five short stories by the esteemed 19th century Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol. (According to marketing materials, the finalized edition may have a sixth story located in the book’s second half.) For a small collection, it’s a diverse set of stories including surrealism, speculative fiction, and grim and gritty realism. That said, there is a theme that runs throughout, and it’s the social humiliation and envy of being in the middling territory of a hierarchical / aristocratic society.

The first three stories, which are among Gogol’s best known, are set in Saint Petersburg, and feature low-level bureaucrats. In other words, the bottom tier of the upper crust – not peasants, but poor relative to what they were expected to maintain and lacking status compared to almost everyone around them. Whatever else is going on throughout these stories, these characters are striving to save face — and the odds of doing so are against them.

“The Nose” is a story in which a barber finds a human nose in a loaf of bread he’s eating for breakfast. [Lest this seem gross beyond measure, the story is completely surreal / dream-like and there is no gore.] The barber recognizes the nose as one belonging to a civil servant who is one of his regular customers. The barber panics and pitches the nose in the river, trying to get rid of the evidence. The story picks up with the civil servant who lost the nose, and his attempts to discern its whereabouts.

“Diary of a Madman” is – as the name suggests – a chronicle of a man who descends into madness. Gogol does an artful job with pacing. He begins by establishing a lead character that one might find quirky, but not particularly insane. Then we see the character as he registers a conversation between two dogs in the street. As the story continues, at first the only anomaly is the man’s belief that dogs communicate in words (spoken and written) and that he can uniquely understand them. Then, when the man begins to believe he is the King of Spain, his madness becomes complete and all-encompassing. It’s interesting to see how Gogol communicates this madness, down to the change of sensible diary headings (i.e. the date) to bizarre substitutes.

“The Overcoat” is a story about a poor civil servant whose coat is falling to shreds, so – though he can’t afford it – he invests in a new one. While the story is mostly realistic, it does take turns into speculative territory near the end. However, the themes of envy, obsession, and the glee of apparent upward mobility (even if it’s for something as superficial as a new coat) provide the story’s tension.

The book takes a little turn at this point. The first three stories were set in Saint Petersburg, but the latter stories are set out in rural villages.

“Old World Landowners” is about a cute old couple who owns the lands encompassing a village and surrounding territory. It is Gogol’s take on a myth from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” but instilled with a grimmer, more Russian, sentiment. The couple are not only adorable, but are essentially the glue that binds the community.

“The Carriage” is about a gentleman from a small and boring village. At times, a military unit takes up residence in this village, and – when they do – they instill life in an otherwise bleak small town. The gentleman comes to visit the General and his officers — desiring to impress them. He is most proud of a Viennese carriage that he recently acquired. He invites them to lunch the next day, but all does not go as planned and the man is faced with utter humiliation.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. Despite the nineteenth century prose, the stories are readable and engaging. While the stakes are more often saving versus losing face (as opposed to life-and-death) Gogol does a great job of building the feelings of humiliation and woe – even for readers from a very different form of society. The stories may feature uniquely aristocratic Russian circumstance, but they still work because they deal in universal human emotional experiences.

I’d highly recommend the book for readers of fiction.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Conversations, Volume 3 Jorge Luis Borges [Int: Osvaldo Ferrari]

Conversations, Volume 3Conversations, Volume 3 by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This book of interviews with Jorge Luis Borges has me jonesing to read a collection of his short fiction. I must admit that, despite Borges’ great stature as an author, I’ve only ever read one of his stories, and that was lost amid a huge anthology (also perhaps a poem or so under the same constraints.) However, I was intrigued by the possibility of gaining some insight into the Argentinian author credited as one of the founders of the magic realism genre in Latin America. I not only gained said insight, but I also developed an affinity for Borges as a thinker. These interviews not only discuss literature, but also philosophy, politics, language, and other topics as they interact with the literary world. The chapters, of which there are almost thirty, are topically organized and a few pages each.

The interviews are published as dialogues between Osvaldo Ferrari and Borges. That is to say, they are in transcript form so that one can experience the question and response as if you were witnessing the conversation. I found this worked well, and one could sense a camaraderie between the two men.

Let me answer a few questions about which readers might be interested. First, I came in late to the game, and one might wonder if there was any problem reading this, the third volume, first. It caused me no problems. Once in a while Ferrari would reference something the two discussed at an earlier point, but I didn’t feel any confusion (it was never necessary to have heard what they said earlier to interpret a reply.)

Second, given that the conversation is between two Argentinians, readers from other parts of the world might wonder if there is any difficulty following the discussions if one doesn’t know much about the art and social worlds of Argentina. Again, I would say the answer is no – for the most part. There are brief forays into Argentinian literature and politics, but the bulk of the discussion is cosmopolitan. I’d say there was considerably more page space devoted to Irishmen (e.g. Joyce and Yeats) and Americans (e.g. Emerson and Whitman) than there was to Argentinians.

Finally, if you’re wondering whether the book is highly focused on Borges’ work, the answer to that, too, is no. Borges discusses his own work enough, for example, that I now feel I know where I should begin my reading of him. However, he generally seems reticent to discuss his own work and the interviewer was responsive to that preference and picked his questions carefully.

If you’re interested in literature, I’d highly recommend this book. I found Borges penchant for minimalism and simplicity appealing, and yet he had deep insights to offer into a wide range of topics.

View all my reviews

POEM: The Cult of Leandra [Day 25 NaPoMo: Triolet]

[A triolet is a poetic form of eight lines (or using 8-line stanzas) in which a rhyme scheme of ABaAabAB is employed — where the capital letters involve lines that are repeated verbatim and the lower case lines are new. So, though the stanza is eight lines, there are only five unique lines and just two rhymes per stanza.

Leandra was the name of a much courted beauty whose story features in the penultimate chapter of the first volume of Don Quixote. After being duped into an elopement that was — in fact — a robbery, she was sent away to a convent. Many of the men who pined after her ended up as shepherds and goatherds, spending their days alternately cursing and defending the gorgeous Leandra.]

Bemoaning true beauty’s raw loss.

Swains retreat to the goatherd life,

as happens when the loins are boss.

They decry true beauty’s raw loss,

as their idle stones gather moss,

they mope of the lost scenic wife.

Bemoaning true beauty’s sad loss.

Swains retreat to the goatherd life.

BOOK REVIEW: Odyssey by Homer [A. Pope translation]

The OdysseyThe Odyssey by Homer

Translated by: Alexander Pope

Amazon page

 

This epic poem tells the tale of the action-packed return of the King of Ithaca, Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin,) from the Trojan War, as well as, of his resumption of the throne. The return home is harrowing because, early in the journey (though not in the story,) Odysseus blinds a cyclops that turns out to be the son of the sea god Poseidon (a.k.a. Neptune.) Because he incurs the wrath of Poseidon, the journey which – even in the rickety sailing / rowing ships of the day – would have taken a few weeks, took ten years, most of which he was the guest / hostage of the nymph Calypso. Retaking the throne was challenging because he was enshrouded in a disguise by Athena (a.k.a. Pallas) so he couldn’t just walk right up and say “remember this face, I’m the boss.” The disguise is donned so he can make sure his wife, Penelope, is being faithful (despite the fact that he’s been schtooping nymphs, witches, and probably a few human women that don’t bear mentioning) and since throngs of suitors have descended on Penelope’s castle who would rather see Odysseus dead (in hopes of acquiring his kingdom) it’s safer all around to check things out in disguise.

The poem doesn’t take a linear approach. It begins twenty years after the war at Troy. Everyone who survived is back, except Odysseus and his men, and so a plague of suitors vies for Penelope’s hand in marriage so that one of them can acquire Ithaca’s wealth. Penelope, the picture of matrimonial virtue, is not having it, but Greek hospitality says you’ve got to feed and look after visitors (because they might just be gods in disguise.) The first few books not only set up the problem of the suitors but also follow Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, as he travels around trying to find out from those who returned from Troy whether they know anything about Odysseus’s whereabouts.

The poem then skips to where Odysseus was at the time of Telemachus’s travels, which was stuck on Calypso’s island. The gods intervene to force Calypso to let the King go, but Poseidon is still upset and swamps Odysseus’s ship. Odysseus washes up onshore and makes fast friends with the local king and queen. It is through friendly discussion that we hear about all the trials and tribulations of Odysseus’s journey up to that point. He tells the couple about how he blinded a cyclops with clever word play and a flaming stick, how Poseidon first tempest-tossed him, how he ended up on the island of the nymph / witch – Circe, how Circe turned his men into swine, how he survived the Sirens by plugging the ears of his men and tying himself to the mast, how he survived the horrifying monsters Scylla and Charybdis, how he visited the underworld and met with some comrades from the Trojan War, how he got stuck on Calypso’s island, and then how he ended up on the island on which he tells the story. The king and queen are big fans, and send Odysseus off with best wishes and some parting gifts.

Odysseus makes it back to Ithaca, is summarily dropped off on the shore with said gifts – while he’s sleeping. That’s when he gets his disguise from Athena. He reveals himself to Telemachus, but otherwise keeps it all on the down-low, even keeping his return from Penelope. Telemachus also has to be careful because many of the suitors would love to assassinate him because he’s the only male opposition to their plans (if you haven’t noticed, Ancient Greece was misogynistic.)

Odysseus checks out the town in his beggar disguise and is enraged that the suitor’s have overstayed their welcome, are eating all the island’s livestock – not to mention trying daily to get in his wife’s knickers. It all comes to a climax when a festival banquet takes place, and Penelope (who is always looking for creative and / or polite ways to put off her suitors) says that she’s willing to marry any among them who has the strength and skill to string Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through a dozen axe heads (battle-axes with a hollowed out blade so the weight is reduced.) They all fail. Some have arms too puny to string the bow; others lack the accuracy to shoot through the rings. That’s when disguised Odysseus says he’d like a try. The suitors object that he’s a beggar and couldn’t possibly run a kingdom. Telemachus, who knows what is up and who is – with his mother – hosting the event, agrees to let the disguised King take his shot. He succeeds, and then goes on a killing spree of the suitors.

After the bloodbath, he has to take great efforts to convince Penelope that he is actually her husband, the King. The god-given disguise is only part of what makes Penelope doubt. Odysseus has convinced everyone else by then. However, Penelope has had men trying to get in the sack with her for a decade, and to her mind it wouldn’t be above some skeezy god to play this gambit to try to bed her. She thinks the killing spree smells of god-like activity. [Even by Hollywood standards one guy killing 108 suitors (plus who knows how many of their groupies and hangers-on) strains credulity.] But eventually she is convinced.

Then Odysseus has to go see his father, Laertes, who is not long for this world. It’s during this visit that a second wave of attackers comes, and the “feeble old man” Laertes puts a javelin through the chest of the first of them. Then there’s a divine intervention that keeps the bloodbath from rolling on.

The most commonly stated moral of the story is: don’t run afoul of the gods. [Put more broadly / secularly, this could be restated as: behave morally.] Of course, Odysseus is not particularly moral, and he ultimately does alright despite being a liar, a trickster, a cheater, and a hypocrite (not to mention the murderousness.) So, there might be an additional clause, i.e. “behave virtuously, but – if you can’t – be on good terms with a few choice gods.” In truth, “use deception skillfully” may be more of the true moral of the story. Being tricky is a major part of what gets Odysseus through when all about him are dying. Modern critics sometimes take as a moral: “If women be nutty, then men are stark, raving lunatics.” This is consistent with what we see in the story (and, perhaps, in life,) but it would probably be attributing more progressiveness to the blind poet, Homer, than was the case.

I read the Alexander Pope translation, which is surprisingly readable given that it’s from the early eighteenth century (1720’s.) There were a few turns of phrase that I couldn’t find anywhere in dictionaries or search engine, but nothing that caused a major misunderstanding. It is a metered and rhymed translation, so it’s fun to read. Still if one isn’t comfortable with reading archaic English (for example if one doesn’t like reading Shakespeare,) one might not find it as enjoyable and easy to follow. That said, the edition I read had a short prose synopsis at the start of each book (i.e. chapter,) and reading that increases comprehension of the verse [if you don’t mind spoilers, which – if you’ve read this far, you presumably don’t.]

I’d highly recommend reading the Odyssey, and I was pleased with the Pope translation.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: A Little History of Poetry by John Carey

A Little History of PoetryA Little History of Poetry by John Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Out: April 21, 2020

Amazon page

 

This book offers a wealth of biographical insight into poets, stretching back beyond Homer, but without getting caught up in the minutiae of full biographies. Rather, it’s more about presenting tidbits of information that help uncover why a given poet’s verse is as it is – both mixing an understanding of where the world was during that poet’s time and what the individual was going through. But that’s not all the book does. It also shows the reader how poetry changed over the centuries, how changes in society influenced poetry, and – sometimes — how poetry influenced society.

If covering poetry from “The Epic of Gilgamesh” through poets of the 20th century in a book with the word “little” in the title seems impossible, it is. It’s done in this volume by being English language poetry-centric. (Some might prefer to call it Western-centric because it discusses the likes of Ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as some German, French, Russian, and Italian poets, but these discussions are largely in the context of those poets interacting in the larger world of poetry.) That is, while it discusses foreign language poetry, it’s mostly with respect to poetry that influenced (or in some cases was influenced by) English-language poets. This focus is most profoundly seen in the book’s dalliances with Asian poetry, which are few and brusque. The book discusses a few Chinese poets as well as Japanese haiku poets, but explicitly in the context of how they influenced Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound. (Also influencing the minimal mark of Indian and Zen schools of poetry is the fact that the Beat poets were lost from the selection process as well.) The only other noteworthy mention of poetry of Asian origin is about Rabindranath Tagore, mostly because he was a Nobel Laureate and was globally prominent enough to influence poets of the English-speaking world (most of his work was originally in Bengali, though he did a lot of his own translations to English.)

The previous paragraph is not so much of a criticism as it might sound. It’s clear that any book that opts to take on an artform with as much longevity and universality as poetry in a single compact volume is going to have to be highly selective. However, I wouldn’t want anyone entering into the book thinking they would learn something about where Norse poetry or Hungarian poetry or Arab Ghazals (none of which bears a substantial mention) fit in the broader poetic scheme, and I can see how someone from an African or Asian tradition would come away offended by the lack of acknowledgement of global poetry. In short, what the book does, I felt it does very well, but its title could make people think it’s a different book than it is.

As a history, the book’s forty chapters are, quite logically, chronologically arranged. However, there are sometimes overlapping time periods because of how poets are thematically grouped. Each chapter shines a light on anywhere from one to about twenty poets (two or three is most common) who were exemplars of the time period. Generally, the chapters describe key details about each poet and his or her place in the art, and then dissects a particularly important work or two from said poet. Except in the case of a few short form pieces, whole poems aren’t presented, but rather illustrative lines or stanzas. (In many cases, I found myself pulling up whole poems on the internet because of curiosity that Carey aroused. Except for a few of the most recent poems, almost all the works discussed are in the public domain, and can be readily accessed.)

I learned a great deal from this book, and I was turned on to some poets that I hadn’t thought much about before by learning of their lives. I’ll definitely be reading more Spender, Wheatley, Auden, and Rossetti. There are many poets I’ve read without any touch of biographical insight beyond a vague notion of when they lived, and so it was interesting to gain an inkling of the world of each.

If you’re interested in poetry or the history of literature, I’d highly recommend this book. While it is English language-centric, if one approaches it knowing that, I think you’ll find it well worth your time.

View all my reviews