Thursday, October 30, 2014
I continue on, a happy woman, in the Patrick O'Brian series. In the wine-dark sea of his prose I feel like a small nameless boat trailing along effortlessly just beyond his wake. I smile and make notes as his characters tell me about classical authors - Martial, Diocletian, Lucullus, Homer, Thucydides, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, Pindar. Recently I brought home an old Modern Library copy of The Latin Poets from my very own book booth, so I could attempt to keep up, but honestly I haven't even opened it yet. There it sits, atop a pile of other books on the ancients, some I've mentioned here already and some not. I will attend to them, I know, when snow flies. Which, according to our local forecast, may be this very weekend.
But I digress. And instead I want to mention how well Patrick O'Brian convinces us of the reality of his fictional world - as a willingly captivated reader, I enter that world, and believe, and live there. And in a twenty-book series (actually, twenty books and a fragment of a twenty-first), I will gratefully live there for a long time indeed. Completely convinced, I might add, thanks to O'Brian's use of contemporary accounts and reference books, his thorough characterization, and his attention to the minutiae of daily life in the early eighteenth century. It feels so complete and so true.
Until recently I didn't know that there is a term for this level of detail, this creation of time, place, people, the whole shebang - world building. It's usually used in connection with science fiction and fantasy, in books and film (The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc), and also in gaming, but I think it could equally apply to any work of literature in which another place and time is recreated with this extremely high level of detail. After all, the past is another world, isn't it? Some time ago I came across the term on the terrific daily weblog of artist and author James Gurney, himself a world builder (he's written about how he came to paint and write his Dinotopia books in this great series of posts from a few years ago). A more recent post addresses a question regarding the age range for prospective readers of his illustrated books. Part of his response is this lovely statement:
"A book should be like a swimming pool, with a shallow end and a deep end."
Well, in re-reading Patrick O'Brian, it's easy to skim along, but I also find that the books go as deep as one could ever wish. In fact they seem to mean even more to me, this time around. Anyway, I don't know where I'm going with all this, other than to say how satisfying it is as a reader to encounter writers who have the ability to transport us so convincingly to places and times other than our own, and allow us to feel at home there. Off the deep end, in books as in life? Or in another world? It's a good place to be.
Monday, October 20, 2014
the slow fall
A seasonable passage, from H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian (p.12):
"In Whitehall a grey drizzle wept down upon the Admiralty, but in Sussex the air was dry - dry and perfectly still. The smoke rose from the chimney of the small drawing-room at Mapes Court in a tall, unwavering plume, a hundred feet before its head drifted away in a blue mist to lie in the hollows of the downs behind the house. The leaves were hanging yet, but only just, and from time to time the bright yellow rounds on the tree outside the window dropped of themselves, twirling in their slow fall to join the golden carpet at its foot, and in the silence the whispering impact of each leaf could be heard - a silence as peaceful as an easy death."
And so it is here this beautiful October morning - the quiet, the falling leaves, the pale woodsmoke, the hillside, even the old cemetery near our house. I notice it all, I mean I pay close attention indeed, but I don't think I could write a paragraph like that if my life depended on it. Instead I look and look, and paint and paint, and I tell myself that that is another kind of worthy description. As a painter friend of mine says, "You can only do what you can do." I take her advice and keep doing what I do. Noticing, painting. Reading.
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
picking up where we left off
In his Ancilla to Classical Reading, Moses Hadas says (pp.135-136):
"Comments or opinions here offered are in no sense authoritative, and by no means justly apportioned.... For modern and more systematic opinion on ancient writers the reader will naturally turn to more formal histories of literature; here nothing more than marginalia to such histories can be expected."
And in A Book of Voyages, Patrick O'Brian says (pp.xv-xvii):
"Most books of voyages say in their prefaces that they intend to be useful. 'Let us have no unnecessary ornamentation at the outset of a work in which we propose nothing but the weighty and the useful,' begins one; they hardly ever speak of giving entertainment.
The intention of this book is quite different; its aim is to give the reader pleasure. It makes no claim to being a scholarly work, and it has no didactic purpose."
Praise be! Since I revel in marginalia, and dislike didactic purpose... I mean, bring on the unnecessary ornament! All this is to say that since we last spoke, I have had a million and one things to do, and the only things I truly want to do are snack and read ancient poetry and Patrick O'Brian novels. Thus I find myself reading his Aubrey-Maturin series for the fifth time (I think - it's been at least seven years since I last read them), and in fact have already finished the first two, Master and Commander and Post Captain. I cannot even begin to tell you how utterly satisfying I find them. All I will say is, if you haven't yet sallied forth into his fictional realm, adventure awaits, alongside oceans of splendid writing. Not convinced? No interest in the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars? Well, do back-of-the-book blurbs ever convince you to read a book? How about these:
"The best historical novels ever written." - Richard Snow, New York Times
"Master and Commander raised almost dangerously high expectations; Post Captain triumphantly surpasses them... a brilliant book." - Mary Renault
The novels are about the British Navy, certainly, but really they are about that which never gets old. Human nature - disappointment, triumph, ambition, passion, jealousy, self-control, friendship, love. It's not for nothing that he's considered by many to be a latter-day Jane Austen. Sometimes I think that his writing is what would have occurred had the naval officers in Jane Austen's Persuasion been able to tell their own version of events. Well, as I travel around the world and back with Patrick O'Brian's cast of characters this winter, I will continue to investigate classical authors too. I don't have to look far, though. This week, in Post Captain, I smiled to see mention of "...half-remembered instances of courage from Plutarch, Nicholas of Pisa and Boethius..." (p.109), and a translation of a fragment of Sappho (ibid p.433):
"'The moon has set, and the Pleiades; midnight is gone; the hours wear by, and here I lie alone: alone.'"
In pursuit of more reading about Moses Hadas, I came across this wonderful essay, by his daughter Rachel Hadas, which makes me want to seek out some of his translations. And in pursuit of more Patrick O'Brian, I found this, which I read long ago and was happy to rediscover, the Paris Review interview from 1995. Here is a little bit, a very pleasing little bit:
What is it like to fall into the past?
The sensation of falling into the past is not unlike that of coming home for the holidays from a new, strenuous, unpleasant school, and finding oneself back in wholly familiar surroundings with kind, gentle people and dogs—inconveniences of course, such as candlelight in one’s bedroom (hard to read by), but nothing that one was not deeply used to."
That is the feeling of his fiction, and of some of the classical translations I've been reading - a homecoming. A lovely rich emotion, and a perfect counterpoint to the spare emptiness of the approaching season.
Sunday, October 05, 2014
back to the source
After weeks of having nothing, not a single book, lingering on my bedside table (the waiting stacks in the book room notwithstanding), I'm feeling more like my old self, and have finally started a few books I'm excited about reading. Yesterday I visited a favorite local independent bookstore and came across this:
A Book of Voyages edited by Patrick O'Brian (Norton 2013). New to me, though the publication date in this country was last year, and the copyright page says 1947. All to the good, this eccentric anthology of obscure travel narratives, mostly from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with sections entitled Pleasant Travels by Land, Unpleasant Voyages, Oriental Splendour, Inefficient Pirates, and other miscellaneous subjects. The jacket copy hints that some of these real-life tales may have been primary sources for O'Brian's fiction. I've just started to read his brief introductions to each section, and realized quickly how much I've missed his voice, so to speak. Maybe this will be the winter I read the Aubrey-Maturin novels yet again, it's been far too long.
My other winter reading project is taking shape. After delighting in the immediacy and relevance of Boethius, and examining my scant collection of other authors of classical antiquity, I've decided to give it a go and read some Greek and Latin literature over the coming months. In translation of course, since, although I did take Latin in high school, I retained precisely none of it. To start with I am returning to an old favorite, a great browsing book, one I am now reading from cover to cover. I've mentioned it here before, many years ago. The wonderful Ancilla to Classical Reading by Moses Hadas (Columbia University Press 1954). Which begins at the beginning, thusly (p.3):
"The simplest explanation for the survival of the classics is that ordinary readers have found them worth preserving. Their vogue has naturally fluctuated with vicissitudes of history and vagaries of taste, but periodic renascences have returned to them with renewed zeal and fresh advocacy."
Regarding the ancients, Hadas continues (p.5):
"Aside from professional and traditional judgments, can vulgar opinion and gossip throw light upon our authors and help bring them to life?"
Gosh, I hope so! I'm over a hundred pages in, and so far we've discussed the origins of Greek literature, why books were declaimed and then written, and distributed, with some fascinating glimpses of the development of reading as a pastime, and collecting, libraries, and the book trade, in Greece, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. Drama, poetry, prose, literary criticism, censorship - and this is all just in part one of the book, entitled Production, Reception and Preservation. I am about to begin part two, Literary Gossip, which covers, chronologically, all the Big Names of antiquity, with copious quotations from their works. Hadas says early on, again in the spirit of primary sources, "I myself have always believed that text is more useful than commentary, and so have cited ancient authors freely." (p. vii) Can't wait.
Immediately to follow, waiting on the bedside table (remember the bedside table?), is the gorgeous, massive hardcover Latin Literature: A History by Gian Biagio Conte, translated by Joseph B. Solodow (Johns Hopkins University Press 1994). I see from my secret code inside the back cover of the book that I bought this in 2006 for ten bucks. I've thought about selling it, since even the softcover is a pricey item these days, but it's just so comprehensively beautiful that I've always kept it, throughout all the moves and culls of past years. And I find that the first sentence of the foreword, by Elaine Fantham, puts all doubt to rest (p.xxiii):
"The book you are holding in your hand is an extraordinary achievement. If you care at all about Rome and its literature, pagan and Christian, this book will soon become your friend, and before long you will wonder how you ever managed without it."
Keep this book, KEEP it! It practically shouts at me to do just that. Would that I had done so with all the Loeb Classical Library editions that have passed through my hands over the years. I think the only Loebs I currently own are a few volumes of Virgil, won by my grandfather as a Latin prize at his prep school. I do have a shelf of other classics, mostly poetry, to slowly work my way through. Between those, and whatever else I can turn up locally, and the Patrick O'Brian novels waiting patiently in the wings, I should be occupied for the foreseeable future. This must sound absolutely insufferable - All she does is read! - which is so, so not the case. Trust me on that.
Monday, September 29, 2014
what, a coincidence?
See you, September. I was away for a week-long art retreat, then I spent a week helping one of my sisters get through a difficult surgery, then I had a head cold for a week. Which brings us to now. I still am suffering from the head cold. However, things are looking up, and I am at the point in its denouement at which I am taking an interest in life again. Reading, even. I spent much of the month escaping into Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer novels - re-read for the umpteenth time, each of them, purely for comfort - and last night was the first time in weeks I picked up something brand new to me. I read it in one sitting - a little softcover I found at Goodwill a few weeks ago for two bucks. The Red Notebook: True Stories by Paul Auster (New Directions 2002), a collection of short yet completely compelling anecdotes all hinging on the actual occurrence of the highly improbable. Each tale is tied up with his quick, smart, to-the-point prose like tidy ribbon around a gift. They are gathered from several decades of his life, and either happened to him or were told to him. Once you read the first one, there's no stopping. I had to read them all, immediately. They get better and better as the book unfolds. They are too short to really even talk about or quote from, although I will just mention that near the end of the book he says (p.98):
"What a coincidence.... My life has been filled with dozens of curious events like this one, and no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to shake free of them. What is it about the world that continues to involve me in such nonsense?"
Nonsense, yet portentous nonetheless? Well, he draws no conclusions about the coincidences he writes about. He simply presents them as fact, as undeniable history, even saying at one point (p.15), "...facts are facts, and there's nothing I can do about it." We read and think Dot dot dot (...) and move on, wondering.
Everyone has some of these in life, I think. One such happened to me, when I was waiting in a hospital in Boston with my sister, nearly two weeks ago. She was asleep, post-surgery, and I was sitting next to her, feeling sorry for both her and for myself (ugly, I know, but it must be said). I decided to read a bit more of a book I mentioned previously, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (Harvard University Press 2008). I opened it to where I'd left off weeks before and immediately read the following (p.10):
"'...have you understood what I have been saying? Has it sunk in, or are you a donkey hearing a lute? Why are you still weeping?... If you want the physician's cure, you must bare your wound.'"
Needless to say, I was electrified. Lady Philosophy continues on a few pages later, saying (p.38)
"'...stop your weeping. Fortune does not hate everyone in your family, and when those anchors still hold fast, the storm, however violent, is not overwhelming. You have present consolation and you have hope for the future.'"
That doesn't sound like much, but to me, at that particular moment, boom, I was thunderstruck. And equally, consoled - which is indeed one of the main precepts of the book, and which is why I must have brought the book along on this trip in the first place. So, not a pure coincidence, more of a pre-planned one, but still. I find there's a lot to be said for carrying around small books of real-life philosophy. And I plan to do so more often.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
End of summer, end of summer; to me those have always been the three saddest words in the English language (Henry James, forgive me). Today I'm taking advantage of a foggy cool morning by folding up most of the summer linens, packing them away, and washing flannel shirts. I love flannel, and sweaters, and the woodstove, and hot tea, but after the extremities of last winter I must say I am dreading the return of cold weather. I've lived in Maine all my life, and I do love it in its varied seasons, but this was the first winter I truly thought I don't know if I can do this. Not that I have an alternative. It was so cold for so long, it felt like some kind of wild nineteenth century winter straight out of the Little House on the Prairie books. But enough about the weather - what will be, will be. I'll shelve these worried thoughts with all the unknowns of life and talk about those other things we love to shelve.
Books. I continue to love shopping at library sales, because I can always pick up a stack of books to read that I never would have otherwise sought out, much less bought new at their retail prices. At the last library sale we attended I bought two such - a hardcover of Bowie: A Biography by Marc Spitz (Crown 2009) and a fat softcover entitled Freight Train Graffiti by Roger Gastman, Darin Rowland, and Ian Sattler (Abrams 2006). I paid a dollar and fifty cents, respectively.
First - the David Bowie bio is a tell-all fanboy rave and in retrospect I think I learned a little too much about one of my idols. I mean, I knew that during the course of his multifarious career there must have been sex, drugs, and (of course) rock'n'roll, and lots of it, but I had no idea of the scope and depth of his addictions. I came of age during Bowie's Let's Dance phase, when he was clean and sober (I think...?) and handsome and pop mainstream, yet still edgy and androgynous and gorgeous. A wildly successful misfit. A perfect teen idol. And I think my first major crush to boot. Well, the biography goes into all the dirty details of his life before and after this time period, so I don't need to. I'm glad I read it, and I did learn all kinds of interesting facts about other people in Bowie's circle. (Brian Eno, for example. I used to love his ambient album Music for Airports. Now I know that his full name is Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno. And he composed the start-up tone for Windows 95.) All in all, the book seemed like a long costume drama, with characters in full make-up throughout, trying to be themselves and yet other at the same time.
Second - Freight Train Graffiti is a 350-page brick of a book, illustrated with full-color photographs, and another kind of tell-all text. Also edgy, and also full of people also using aliases. I read it with the rapt attention of an outsider looking in at this highly specific subculture with its own history, evolution, rules, and language. I've always been fascinated by trains and hobos (I wrote about this recently here), and in fact we used to keep an eye on the local train tracks to spot certain monikers and pieces of graffiti. One writer in particular seemed to have tagged every train car - someone called The Solo Artist. We saw this tag and its accompanying quick scribble-drawing for years and years on boxcars around here. Long ago I resigned myself to the fact that I would never know anything about this person - not exactly an idol of mine, but someone I wondered about, being interested, as I always have been, in the denizens of fringe cultures of many kinds. But, as I was browsing in this book - holy crackers - here he is! Quoted at length, with photographs of the evolution of his moniker. The authors say this (p.300):
"The Solo Artist is so well known that even graffiti artists with little knowledge of monikers still know of his work. He is equally respected and revered in both the moniker world and the graffiti world."
I really couldn't believe it. One of life's mysteries is illuminated for all time. He is never identified by his real name (the only named people in the book are writers who have died - graffiti being, um, illegal), but he does talk at length about how he started writing graffiti and how his moniker came to be. Googling led me to this Utne Reader article, "The Art of Freight Train Painting," in which the author says, "An American man who signs himself The Solo Artist is said to have autographed 100,000 cars over 20 years." Amazing.
More things I love to read about, rather than participate in. Well, after reading these two books, I'm thinking there's certainly nothing wrong with leading a clean-and-sober, straight-and-narrow, law-abiding life. In fact it is a blessed relief. The fog is lifting - time to go hang some clothes out on the line and soak up the last of the summer sun.
Sunday, August 17, 2014
A quiet Sunday at home. I'm considering rearranging the book room. After reading so many published diaries and journals over the past several years I thought it would be fitting to shelve them together, in a new space, chronologically. No matter what their nominal subject matter, i.e. "art" or "history" etc. But the must-stay-organized gene runs strong in my family, and I'm not sure that I can override an innate tendency I have to keep authors' works shelved together, rather than wildly shelving their books in multiple places - in the very same room, even, what chaos! - so at the moment this idea remains just an idle thought. Pleasant to contemplate, while the books remain exactly as they are.
In other news, I have managed to break with tradition in a different way - by adding two new links to the sidebar. So many blogs I loved to read have gone silent in the past year (I could write a book entitled You Once Blogged and Now You Only Tweet: An Internet Saga), and sometimes I find myself sitting here at the screen in search of something new to read. And rather at a loss. If I am in such a trance that I can't remember to turn off the computer and pick up a book, I hope to at least remember to read the TLS and Guardian blogs, for current book news. I also check the new links at PhiloBiblos, and look at Thomas's sidebar. Anyone reading any terrific book blogs I should know about? Please drop me a note, if so. As always, just looking for something good to read.