Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Brief Break

I ended my last post by saying I would be back with details about my vacation reading--and here it is, almost a week later, and there is no post.  My apologies.

A few hours after I wrote that previous post, I received some sad and upsetting news.  I'll be fine--please don't worry--but I would like a bit more time to heal without responsibilities to this blog. 

Book discussion will resume next week, probably on July 5th.  Thanks for your patience.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Music in the Mountains

Happy sigh. This week my family is at violin camp, located in the beautiful mountains of south-west Virginia. This is our second year here, and we hope there will be many more summers in our future. For me and for David, this is pure vacation--a magical week full of no job responsibilities, no cooking responsibilities, no cleaning responsibilities, and a constant soundtrack of beautiful music. For my son, there is a lot of hard work learning new music, a lot of joy performing with new friends, and a lot of fun as the kids play soccer on the quad after the evening concerts.

One of my favorite events at camp is the annual talent show. Participants can perform any "talent" (or un-talent) that they would like, other than playing their instruments in the normal way. Here is my son's talent show skit, which you might especially enjoy if you are the parent of a young musician:

* * *

Tomorrow, back to books. I'll post about what I am reading here in the mountains.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sappho's BFF

In these days when my brain has been so Sappho-addled, I attended one of my husband's office parties.

Let me say up front that his office mates are brilliant and interesting people--but they are not (in general) the wonderfully strange, obsessed nerdy types with whom I usually associate. When I get together with my own colleagues, we rarely mention anything that the average 21st-century American would ever think to talk about. If someone speaks 21st-century to us, a lot of us have no clue what he or she is saying. I'm pretty lost when people start talking about what was on television last night--much less what new techno gadget to acquire, or what the newest lingo is.

(It is ironic that I am confessing my luddite status on a blog, is it not?)

One case of this current-culture blindness on my part is my ignorance of the whole Silly Bandz craze. You know those shaped rubber bands kids stack up on their wrists these days? (No? Just trust me. I only learned when someone offered my son one.)

But back to this office party full of normal people:

One of my husband's coworkers, the mother of two daughters, held up her wrists and showed us her newest acquisitions, found in a local gas station on the way to the party...
...rubber band shapes, words turned into art--difficult to puzzle out in the original, then twisted away from recognition completely, and stacked together in ways giving meanings perhaps not intended by their creators.

And I thought immediately what I know you must be thinking right now:

this is exactly what happened to Sappho's words!  It is the hidden echos, our own efforts to stretch those words into something meaningful to us now, that gives her poetry such power. It is the twisted stacking of mutilated words, made into something delicate but strong.  It is the crystal color of her words, so flexible that they can be shaped to our own modern minds and bodies, yet still holding the powerful snap of their original meaning.

(And as I gradually realized that all these nice people were wondering politely what the hell I was talking about, I immediately thought you all of you, all my new BFFs who understand such thoughts and obsessions...)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Stung with Love

Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics)In my reading of these various translations of Sappho, I've been struck by the difference in not just translations of the poem but in the introductions.  One especially comprehensive commentary can be found in Aaron Poochingian's Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments. The introductory essay is especially strong in its discussion of the historical context in which Sappho wrote as well as in its analysis of the history of Sappho interpretation.

In addition to the strong introduction, Poochigian provides specific commentary on each poem--significantly more detailed than in any other edition I have seen. In most translations, the footnotes are about translation issues or are explanations of little-known references. Here, however, we get full literary analysis. And the analysis is on set on facing pages--in what I think of as Shakespeare style. (Did you grow up with those paperback editions with notes on the even pages?)

Although I love the volume's introduction and its notes, I'm not bowled over by Poochigian's translations. As I have read Sappho over these last two weeks, I've grown to love the illusive and incomplete echoes of her poems that are still extant. Poochigian, on the other hand, wants to heal the rifts: "I confess that, though Sappho's remains are usually fragments that are themselves fragmentary," he writes, "I have done my best to create a sense of completeness." As he says, "I wanted my translations to be real poems in their own right."

In his efforts to emphasize the fact that Sappho did not write in free verse, the translator rejects using free verse translation. Translators who do so "betray her poems by their very nature," says Poochigian. Although the forms Sappho used to not convey into English, he chooses to use a form that would emphasize the fact that Sappho's poems were actually songs. He therefore uses rhyming English lyric.

Sweet mother, I can't take shuttle in hand.
There is a boy, and lust
Has crushed my spirit--just
As gentle Aphrodite planned.

Personally, I find Poochigian's use of rhyme heavy or clunky--not at all consistent with the almost ethereal echoes I've come to love in the more open translations of Sappho's fragments.

Here is another example--a part of one of Sappho's most famous verses:

That fellow strikes me as god's double
Couched with you face to face, delighting
In your warm manner, your amiable
Talk and inviting

Laughter--the revelation flutters
My ventricles, my sternum and stomach.
The least glimpse, and my lost voice stutters,
Refuses to come back.

Compare this even to William Carlos William's strictly paced version and we see something that, at least to my ears, seems flat.  But--although I'm increasingly drawn to the open weave of translations that acknowledge the tatters (such as Carson's), I'm intrigued by the idea that what Sappho's original readers may have heard was much closer to the tightly bound songs presented by translators (such as Poochigian).  What do you think?  Where do you fall?

Anybody else know of other translations to check out?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Vanity Fair by William Thackeray

I am way behind.  Today is the check-in for Allie's Vanity Fair read-along over at A Literary Odyssey, when we are supposed to have read roughly half the book.  I clock in at only about a tenth--but I am about to have what I hope will be a week full of heavy reading.  More details over the weekend.

Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (Oxford World's Classics)From the little I have read so far, Thackeray is fabulous!  I'm not sure I would have appreciated the author's sarcasm and satire back when I fell in love with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice in my high school years.  But for me now, a woman in her early 40s, Thackeray hits my funny bone--and my moral balances--in exactly the right way.

There is so much to talk about in the book already!  I promise to address some of those issues at the end of the month when the read-along finishes.  But for now, I want to talk about the illustrations rather than about the author's words.

William Makepeace Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair for serial publication complete with his own illustrations.  Some of the pictures are amazing, and some of the pictures seem almost awkward to a modern eye.  Due to their mixed quality--and the fact that Thackeray was content to have the novel published without the illustrations during his lifetime--many publishers choose not to print the pictures.  Penguin, for example, publishes an edition with a fabulous introduction but no images.  The editor argues that since "they never approach the degree of mastery displayed by Thackeray's writings" and are in some cases are "embarrassingly bad," the illustrations can "by no stretch of the imagination... be considered worthy accompaniments to a great work of literature.  I understand the point, but I disagree.  Penguin is one of my very favorite Classics publishers, but in this case I was eager to find a different imprint.  If the illustrations had been made by an artist unconnected with Thackeray, I might find it easy to accept the decision to axe the pics.  But when the author drew them himself?  I wanted to see them!

The Oxford World Classics edition, equally well introduced and in the same price range as the Penguin edition (although harder to find in US bookstores), includes images of all the original illustrations.  I encourage you to consider purchasing the Oxford and also finding a way to read the intro to the Penguin version.

This frontispiece (reproduced inside both the Oxford and the Penguin) fascinates me.  In reference to the illustration, the Oxford says, "Harlequin ruefully regards his own face in a cracked mirror, to the background of the towers of the church at Ottery St. Mary, where Thackeray spent happy childhood holidays."

Although I have not gotten far enough in the book to state for sure what theme is being illustrated here, my "reading" of the picture is that the vanity which comes from looking at one's self in the mirror (and one's masked self at that) is in direct contrast to the symbol behind of religion, community, and family.

*  * *

Of course, how an author portrays his or her characters is what almost always draws me to a book.  So far, I am loving both the sassy but not-so-nice character of Becky Sharp and the gentle William Dobbin.  Thackeray tells us that Vanity Fair is "a novel without a hero"--but, at least in the modern interpretation, both Sharp and Dobbin seem like potential heroes to me so far.  The author helped redefine what a "hero" is.  Instead of the Greek ideal of Achilles or even Odysseus, we have characters with complex personalities.  Sharp is smart and clever, strong and sarcastic, and out for herself.  Dobbin is both pathetic and noble, a new kind of gentleman.  I'm eager to see what comes next!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sappho, "as long as you are willing"

If you have any interest in the general issue of translation, Sappho's writing is a perfect piece of literature with which to start your explorations.  Try to check out and compare a few different versions.  Why Sappho?  First, the total volume of Sappho's writing that has survived is tiny--making the comparison of several translations a project that won't take you much more than a few hours.  Another reason it is such an excellent project is because the translations differ from one another quite enormously.  As Anne Carson says, reading Sappho is fundamentally an exercise in imagination.  You can see--in the various versions discussed in the previous posts and here--how much translation is an art rather than a science.

Poems and FragmentsAlthough his version first came into print in 2002, I have just discovered that Stanley Lombardo has translated Sappho's poems.  Having very much enjoyed his translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, I was very eager to see how he would treat Sappho.  Similar to Mary Barnard, Lombardo makes Sappho's fragments read like poetry.  Similar to Carson, he is more forthcoming about the the limits of the text we have extant.  He also tries to be reflective of the original rhythmic phrases.  On top of that combination of strengths, this version also includes a wonderful critical introduction by Pamela Gordon.  (My favorite quote from the intro: "An extensive bibliography seldom satisfies a longing to speak with the dead.")

Lombardo's recreated poems are both sharp and fragile--almost brittle, even, in their luminosity.  Using language like "quenched desire," "trembling," and "climax," he seems to get at the intense physicality of Sappho's poems about love without treading into too-modern wording.  One fragment leaves me breathless: "earth embroidered with flowers."

Pamela Gordon writes in her introduction that one of the most rewarding way to read Sappho is for us "to read an individual fragment as though we were reading a note in the bottle.  Each fragment comes to us against the odds and across the centuries, and none arrives with any original instructions about context or meaning.  All we know is that the sender is Sappho (though occasionally we are not even sure of that), and some of us are certain that we are the right recipient."  I am sure the latter us true for me.

*  *  *

The Complete Poems of SapphoAnother wonderful contemporary translation of Sappho's work is Willis Barnstone's Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho.  (He has a newer paperback edition called The Complete Poems of Sappho which I gather is the same translation.)

In some ways similar to Lombardo's book, Barnstone's volume begins with an excellent introduction which places Sappho in historical and literary contexts.  His poems attempt to be true to the originals, but Barnstone is not nearly as concerned with producing a literal translation as some others, such as those I discussed in my previous post.  He cares more about allowing Sappho to speak with a voice that can be heard, with at least some of the power it had in the ancient world.  "I go partway in reflecting the abused Greek text," he says, but typically he "limit[s] the mirror so the English can live."

I love how Barnstone shapes puns in English that try to reflect some of the depth of the Greek.  For example, here is the translator's version of "Words with Virginity":
Virginity, virginity, where have you gone, leaving me abandoned?
No longer will I come to you.  No longer will I come.

And here is Barnstone's translation of the new-to-us Sappho poem, found in 2004:
Growing Old

Those lovely gifts of the fragrant-breasted Muses,
girls, seek them eagerly in thrilling song of the lyre.

Old age has grasped my earlier delicate skin
and my black hair has become white,

my spirit turned heavy, my knees no longer 
carry me nimble for dancing like a fawn.

About these thing I groan.  What can I do?
For a human not to grow old is impossible.

They say Dawn, dazzled by love, took Tithonos
in her rose arms to the utter end of the earth.

Once beautiful and young, time seized him
into gray old age, husband of a deathless wife.

Barnstone states his hope that more library time sifting through papyrus fragments--and more technological advances such as the use of infra-ray technology to reveal texts, might possibly turn up more Sappho as the years progress.  What a gift--and how ironic that it is through the most modern of means that we may more closely approach the ancient.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sappho: If Not, Winter

Although I love Mary Barnard's poetic translations of Sappho, there are many other interesting choices available for the reader.  I'll spend the next few posts talking about some of the options available.  Today I will focus on a few translations by authors who say they place an emphasis on being accurate.  In the next post, I'll look at a few translators they are more concerned to create poems which the authors consider accessible to modern readers.

*  *  *

If Not, Winter: Fragments of SapphoAnne Carson's If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho is a fascinating version which emphasizes the fragmentary nature of what we have from Sappho.  When I first saw Carson's book on the shelf, I was stunned. How on earth could there be a 400-page edition of Sappho fragments?!

Carson does not give us a long introduction, but in the few pages she offers, she gives a beautifully provocative statement: "Even though you are approaching Sappho in translations, there is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp--brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure."

Carson's volume presents each fragment of Sappho's poetry on one page with a facing page in the original Greek.  Most of the gaps and guesses are marked very clearly with space and brackets.  Some of her translations are drop-dead gorgeous--but, by my lights, sometimes the poetry gets interrupted with Carson's efforts to be more faithful to the texts we have (rather than the feel of the poems as they might have felt at the time).  If you are interested in approaching the text as an historian--or as a detective--or even as a poet you might find this translation to be perfect.  Personally, I found Carson's interpretation fascinating and stunningly gorgeous in places, but I am very glad I had seen Barnard's translation first.

For a beautiful review by a reader who loves the poetry of Carson's version, check out Emily's discussion over at Evening All Afternoon.  As she writes, "I think my love for this book is due in equal measure to the stunningly beautiful translation of the parts of the poems that remain, and the spaces of silence where the papyrus has failed.  And don't miss Jason's review which contains the most brilliant sentence I think I've ever read: "I have never had a relationship with a piece of punctuation like I've now developed with the square bracket."

There are times when Sappho fragments seem almost too...um, well, fragmentary...to justify a two-page spread:

      they became [
      for not



At the same time, there is something absolutely wonderful about actually seeing almost everything extant from Sappho.  Our understanding of her writing style builds with each fragment we read, and our ability to to that "imaginal" work which Carson describes becomes a terrific game.

The title fragment is a wonderful example of the suggestive possibilities.  For me, the phrase "if not, winter" started resonating with the idea of unrequited love.  Instead of the narrator basking in the joy and sunshine of returned affection, the world turned dark and cold.  Of course, you might imagine this fragment in a wholly different way.

My favorite imaginings came from one of the last pages, which include several single-word poem fragments.  I loved putting the following bits together in my mind.  I didn't know they made Cel-Ray back in Sappho's Day!



      gold anklebone cups

*  *  *

Greek Lyric: Sappho and Alcaeus (Loeb Classical Library No. 142)David Campbell's Greek Lyric: Sappho and Alcaeus gives us an even less poetic version.  If you are interested in experiencing the emotional pleasure of Sappho's poetry, this is NOT the translation for you.  But if you are interested in seeing behind the scenes and experiencing the intellectual puzzle that is the translator's art--and especially the complications a Sappho translator faces--this book is an incredible source.  See if you can find a copy in the library to glance through.

An example of what Campbell presents:

          ...task...lovely face...unpleasant...otherwise winter...pain(less?)...I bid you, Abanthis, 
          take (your lyre?) and sing of Gongyla while desire once again flies around you, the lovely one

And this short section also has two footnotes directly beneath discussing translation issues (one even questioning whether a new poem might have started at "I").

Another example:

          ...(fleeing?)...(was bitten?)...(you of many names?)...gives success to the mouth...

*  *  *

I suppose too much accuracy leads us to abandon Truth.

*  *  *

The Love Songs of Sappho (Literary Classics)Another kind of accuracy that translators seek to match is Sappho's poetic style.  Paul Roche in his The Love Songs of Sappho (Literary Classics) acknowledges the difficulty of replicating the meter of the poet's Greek because Greek and English have inherently different sounds.  "Confronted with the perennial challenge of transferring the perfection of one language to the perfection of another," he writes, "I have done my best to get near not only to what Sappho said but the way she said it."

Trying to create in English the exact metrical patterns of Sappho's Greek lines would seem strained and strange.  They work only in the Greek.  "When a poetry is stripped of its original music," says the translator, "a completely new set of sounds and rhythms has to be found."  Roche has emphasized the ancient poet's use of both tight form and deep richness by creating his translations with assonance, alliteration, and a loose rhyming pattern.  Here is his version of one of the poems I've quoted before:

I More than Envy Him

He is a god in my eyes, that man,
Given to sit in front of you
And close to himself sweetly to hear
     The sound of you speaking.

Your magical laughter--this I swear--
Batters my heart--my breast astir--
My voice when I see you suddenly near
      Refuses to come.

My tongue breaks up and a delicate fire
Runs through my flesh; I see not a thing
With my eyes, and all that I hear
      In my ears is a hum/

The sweat runs down, a shuddering takes
Me in every part and pale as the drying
Grasses, then, I think I am near
      The moment of dying

* * *

It is astonishing to me how different these poems feel in their different translations. What do you think? Which ones do you find yourself drawn to? Perhaps this gets to the question of why we are reading ancient literature in the first place and what we hope to gain from it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sappho the Lesbian

One of the few things we know about the poet Sappho is that she was a Lesbian.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 
by Simeon Solomon (at the Tate)
 Uhm...that is...she lived on Lesbos, a Greek island off the coast of what is now Turkey. 

Of course, what most of us grew up hearing is that she was a lesbian Lesbian--but on that lower-case adjective, we're a lot less certain.  Certainly the way Sappho's sexuality has been portrayed over the centuries gives us a much more complex picture.  She has been portrayed as a sex-crazed heterosexual prostitute, a suicide that leaped to her death because her love for a specific man was unrequited, a school marm, a cult leader, and a virgin.  Take your pick.

Sappho was probably married, although some scholars suggest that the name for her husband implies her marriage was all a big joke.  (Could she really be married to someone named "Dick All-Cock from the Isle of Man," as one scholar questions?)  Her poems indicate she had a daughter, although some scholars suggest that her references are in fact to a young lover.

And some of her poems are about heterosexual love, as is this one, translated by Mary Barnard:

12. It's no use

Mother dear, I
can't finish my
You may
blame Aphrodite

soft as she is

she has almost
killed me with
love for that boy.

--translated by Mary Barnard

I love the sweet freshness of this poem.  It conveys the emotions of a first crush so beautifully.  But just because Sappho says she is talking about a boy doesn't mean she was in love with a real boy.  Just as Hesiod might have been creating a fictitious narrator, Sappho could have been assuming a different persona.  Since it is believed that many of her poems might have been performed at weddings, this interpretation seems quite feasible.  We just can't know what a love poem means about the feelings of its author.

Many of Sappho's poems are about a particular group of women.  And interestingly, many of these poems are much more erotic--about both bodily pleasure and bodily desire.  Look at this example, translated in that late 1950s by the incomparable William Carlos Williams:

Peer of the gods is that man, who
face to face, sits listening
to your sweet speech and lovely

It is this that rouses a tumult
in my breast.  At mere sight of you
my voice falters, my tongue
          is broken.

Straightway, a delicate fire runs in
my limbs; my eyes
are blinded and my ears

Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts
me down.  I grow paler
than dry grass and lack little
          of dying.

Certainly, the intensity of this poem (or any of the others like it in the collection) does not prove that Sappho loved women any more than the first example proves that she engaged in relationships with men.  And even if it did prove she had female lovers, that would not make her a lesbian (or bisexual) since those are constructions of sexuality that arose more than two thousand years after her death.

Nevertheless, I think it is hard to deny that Sappho's poems saw that women were sexual beings, full of beauty and passion and longing.  She imagined that both emotional and physical desires could be fulfilled in a variety of ways without censure or disapproval.  What a modern--and yet eternal--vision!

Perhaps it is exactly that idea that women can have desires that really sets the poems of Sappho apart from those of most of the men writing in the ancient world.  The poet-narrative feels great desire--and expresses it in her poems as love for other women.  Although this seems to be very clear evidence that Sappho was (at least in a loose ahistorical way) a lesbian Lesbian, I can also imagine that it might have been less threatening to see a woman being an active lover of other women than a woman being an active lover of men.  Whatever the choices that Sappho made, and however we interpret the choices her narrator made, the poems that we have of Sappho's give strength and a sense of eternal tradition to women who love women today.

*  *  *

For more about Sappho's life and her changing reputation over time, see these fascinating books:
The Sappho Companion (a fascinating compendium of writings about Sappho over time)
Sappho Is Burning (a difficult read but a thoughtful and very scholarly book)
Sappho's Immortal Daughters (an erudite and highly readable study)

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Poetry of Sappho

After the success of Homeric epic poetry in Ancient Greece, a new kind of writing began to bloom: lyric poetry. One of the most famous lyric poets in ancient Greece was Sappho.  Sappho's poems use her own voice to tell the story of her own experiences.  She insists that daily life and love are every bit as worthy of poetry as the martial splendors and stories of gods found in earlier epics.

Originally, lyric poetry was poetry sung to the accompaniment of a lyre, and possibly performed with the help of mimes and dancers.  Soon, however, lyric came to mean short, personal and immediate poems which could use a variety of meters.  Sappho wrote with what translator Mary Barnard (1958) calls a "fresh colloquial directness." Maurice Bowra says Sappho's language is "ordinary speech raised to the highest level of expressiveness." And Dudley Fitts argues that both Sappho's work and Mary Barnard's translation "is stripped and hard, awkward with the fine awkwardness of truth."  Paul Roche says her poems have a "sharpness and jewelry of sound": "plain and ornate at the same time, in the same line, in the very same phrase."

Only two complete poems of Sappho's still exist--and one of the two was found only a couple of years ago.  A few others seem very close to complete. Others poems are merely fragments.  A few are bits of Sappho's work quoted in later authors' texts.  Many poems were found on degraded papyrus--many of which had been torn into strips to make wrappings for mummies, or were faded and then turned into usable paper.  Some of these were preserved only because they were in very dry ancient trash heaps in the deserts of Egypt.

A century ago, archaeologists began to collect  these postage-stamp size bits of ancient papyrus and sent them to England.  As Jeanette Winterson writes while channeling the spirit of Sappho, "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY POEMS?  When I turn the pages of my manuscripts my fingers crumble the paper, the paper breaks up in burnt folds, the paper colours my palms yellow."

Some of Sappho's poems present an impressionistic view of nature.  I love these lines (translated by Mary Barnard) personifying the morning light:

3. Standing by my bed

In gold sandals
Dawn that very
moment awoke me.

and these about the evening light:

24. Awed by her splendor

Stars near the lovely
moon cover their own
bright faces
                when she
is roundest and lights
earth with her silver

* * *

Several extant fragments show Sappho confronting with the issues of mortality--the issue with which both Gilgamesh and Achilles struggle. Just as the two men come to understand, Sappho knows that while her body will die, her memory will live on.  That is, the body is mortal but nevertheless the self can become immortal.

60. You may forget but

Let me tell you
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us

and, more obviously:

100. I have no complaint

Prosperity that
the Golden Muses
gave me was no
delusion: dead, I
won't be forgotten

Gilgamesh hoped to be remembered as the great king of a great city.  Achilles knew he would be remembered as a magnificent warrior-hero.  But Sappho knows that she will be remembered because of her poetry. As she writes in fragment 9, "Words which I command are immortal."

*  *  *

In the next post, I'll discuss Sappho the Lesbian.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Foreshadowing in the Stream

Please excuse me for the delay in the appearance of this post.  The tominis got me off track...

Islands in the StreamIt wasn't more than a few pages into Earnest Hemingway's Islands in the Stream when I realized what was going to happen.  For those of you who don't want to hear any details about major events in the story, this is probably not the post for you.  Come join me again tomorrow for spoiler-free discussions of ancient poetry.

Still here?

As I mentioned in Thursday's post, Thomas Hudson is a man trying to come to terms with grief.  That grief is the death of his sons--something we only learn about at the end of the first section and the beginning of the second.  Although the fact of their deaths does not happen earlier, the reader knows the deaths are coming because of Hemingway's clear foreshadowing.  Nevertheless, there was a twist in my expectations which left me fascinated.

Hemingway lets us know from the very beginning that something bad is coming.  When Hudson is talking to the barkeep (who pours all those tominis and other drinks), they come up with a plan for large new paintings--of waterspouts overcoming fishermen, of hurricanes, of the sinking of the Titanic:

"Don't be shocked by its magnitude.  You got to have vision, Tom.  We can paint the End of the World," he paused.  "Full size."

"Hell," Thomas Hudson said.

"No.  Before hell.  Hell is just opening."

This End of the World--a personal End--is almost exactly what unfolds for us in the painting that is the next 400-plus pages of Hemingway's novel.

In another early scene, Hudson's writer-friend Roger tells him of the death of his younger brother David many years before.  When the two boys were out on the water, their canoe flipped and both were plunged into the cold water.  "'I tried to go down after him.  But I couldn't find him,' Roger said.  'It was too deep and it was really cold.'"  He confesses to Hudson that he'd never gotten over his guilt and sorrow about his brother's death--and he'd never been able to talk about it.  Instead, he turned to the world of writing novels not worth a damn, as he says.  It was an escape, a way to run away from his pain.

Hudson tries to convince Roger that he could write a great novel if he confronted his grief.  "You told me a hell of a good novel tonight if you wanted to write it," says Hudson to Roger after he shares the story of the drowning.  "Just start with the canoe."

"And end it how?"

"Make it up after the canoe."

*  *  *

It seemed clear to me by this point that someone loved by the artist was going to be coming to his end via drowning.  When Hudson's sons come and one is scared of going goggle-fishing but eventually agreed to go, I bit my nails during the entire scene.  When they are chased by a hammerhead shark, I knew we were at their deaths.  Then, when Hudson's son David catches an enormous fish and tries to reel it in for hours in the hot sun, I realized he'd be the goner.  Gosh, even his name was the same as Roger's dead brother.  I kept wailing to my own David (my partner) that watching David trying to catch the big fish was like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Right as young David pulls the thousand-pound fish to the surface, the men realized that the fish was only attached to the lure by a thread of flesh, and then by nothing.  "It was no good.  The great fish hung there in the depth of the water where it was like a huge dark purple bird and then settled slowly.  They all watched him go down, getting smaller and smaller until he was out of sight."  One of the men jumped into the water in an attempt to save the fish--that is, get the hook back into the fish so David could pull him out.  But the fish was comdemned to sink into the deep cold water.

Just as the tension on the fishing rod was released as the exhausted fish fell through the water, I suddenly felt free of the unbearable pressure of waiting for death of one of the sons.  The foreshadowing was about the fish's death!  While in a way I felt like Hemingway was manipulating my emotions, I also saw that he was using a fascinating literary trick, making two parallel but radically different drownings seem equivalent because of their potential impact on the living.

So all was well in the story, the family goes to the bar and pulls an almost sweet hoax on the patrons, and finally the boys board the plane to go home.  Hudson is sorry to lose them now that he has experienced the humor and love that have pervaded his home during the summer.

And then, I turned the page.  Hudson receives a telegram that two of his sons have died in a car accident while riding with their mother.  I turn a few more pages, and his other son dies while at war.

OK--so there will be a paragraph missing here.  I had hoped to say something interesting about how this sudden tragedy works in the book, but I'm afraid I'm almost speechless.  Please let me know what you make of it.  It seems to me that there is a sort of horrible relief which occurs when we are waiting for the worst to happen.  But Hemingway strips that away from us, leaving us with no defenses in place as we confront the shock that Hudson has, in its sudden and pure grief.

Hudson can't deal with his grief, closing off even more than Roger.  Eventually, he loses everything except his sense of duty, and finally he loses even that.  Islands in the Stream is a heartbreaking book.  Despite its weaknesses (discussed in my first Hemingway post), it is well worth the read.

Friday, June 3, 2011

How to Drink Like Earnest Hemingway

Earnest Hemingway Tomini

I mentioned yesterday that Hemingway's Islands in the Stream is full of alcohol-soaked moments.  While there are a lot of food references as well, the beverage descriptions are much more appealing.  Which would you choose: a peanut butter and onion sandwich or one of these:

Thomas Hudson took a sip of the ice-cold drink that tasted of the fresh green lime juice mixed with the tasteless coconut water that was still so much more full-bodies than any charged water, strong with the real Gordon's gin that made it alive to his tongue and rewarding to swallow, and all of it tautened by the bitters that gave it color.  It tastes as good as a drawing sail feel, he thought.  It is a hell of a good drink.

One character late in the book calls this drink a Tomini.  The Hemingway Cookbook agrees.  To Have and Have Another: The Hemingway Companion (what a perfect name!) calls their versions of the drink the Green Isaac's Special and the Hemingway Tom Collins.


2 ounces of gin
juice of one lime
dash or two of Angostura bitters
about 4 ounces of coconut water*

Mix the ingredients with ice and serve.

*Coconut water is the liquid inside a fresh coconut, not coconut milk.  It is sometimes available in cans or bottles.  If you buy it that way, make sure it is not sweetened.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

No Man is an Island

Since I've been talking about mysogyny in literature recently, I thought I would pour myself a little Earnest Hemingway.

Earnest Hemingway on Wine

This long Memorial Day week I've been in South Florida celebrating the 50th wedding anniversary of my in-laws.  The plan was to head to Key West with David's brother, his partner, and the celebrating couple.

Key West!  Excitedly, I began to pick out the perfect books to take.  And I eagerly planned a visit to the Hemingway Museum, with its cat drinking fountain made out of a urinal from Sloppy Joe's bar.

At the last minute, our trip plans fell through.  We instead are staying at my in-law's house, about an hour north of Miami.  I'm afraid no great literature was born in this land of retirees from New York, faux-Italian gated housing developments for "active adults" in Disney clothes, lots of great bagel places, and multicolored lawn statuary in varying scales. "In Fair Verona FL where we lay our scene..."  The natives here don't write.  They watch television repeats and go out to eat at 4:30 pm.  (Do you sense that I am a bitter and disappointed person?)  I definitely need a little of whatever Hemingway is pouring in the picture above.  And a good book.

*  *  *

Islands in the Stream : A NovelSo I opened the Hemingway I had packed: Islands in the Stream.

I know they tell you no man is an island--but what do you know: this man IS an island.  The trajectory of the book follows the main character as he becomes completely cut off from his emotional attachments.  Thomas Hudson becomes lonelier and more internal as each page passes.

Islands in the Stream was published posthumously.   The smooth, connected narratives that appear in the other Heminway novels are not here.  Instead of having Hemingway's final draft, we have three stories assembled by his last wife and his publisher.  The three sections trace the experiences Thomas Hudson has in Bimini, in Cuba, and on a gun boat fighting Germans off the SE coast during World War II.  Although they do not weave together particularly well, the disconnect between the stories is surprisingly effective--perhaps because they are separated by events that create a disconnect for the character.  (Tomorrow I'll talk a bit more about what those disconnects are, but I'll keep today's post free of details some of you might construe as spoilers.)

The first section chronicles Thomas Hudson's life on his island in the Bahamas.  Hudson has created for himself a regimented and productive life, but he lets go when his three sons come to visit him for the summer and makes connections with them instead.  The relationships between the boys and their father are beautifully portrayed.  They tease each other, laugh together, appreciate each other's beauty and strength, and learn to grow together.  The humor comes out loud and clear--not something I expected from Hemingway.  This section strikes me as most polished; it is a well-organized narrative told in fluid prose.  I find it both the most accessible and also the most exciting.

The second section takes us to Cuba.  Although I struggled a little with the incessant talk about cats and gin and fishing and more gin, I must say this section made me thirsty.  Here we are introduced to Honest Lil, a character I came to love even though I have no idea why she is in the book.  Honest Lil treads perilously close to being a caricature, but Hemingway pulls off his portrait without quite crossing that line.  The other female character in the book is in part two.  Hudson briefly reconciles with his first wife at the end of the section, but their love for each other does not seem to be enough to make up for the friction between them.

The third section is by far the weakest in my opinion and almost seems to just peter away.  Thomas Hudson has been utterly submerged in depression and grief, but at the same time he is almost completely successful in smothering his emotions.  Instead of the heavy doses of gin that got him through the second section, he now turns to duty.  The way he finds to confront his demons is by committing to do the job that he is responsible to do--whether or not he cares about it, and whether or not he risks his life.

I fall hard for characters who make an effort to grow and change during the course of a book.  (I fall hard for real people who make that kind of effort in life, too.)  Thomas Hudson tries to do the right thing, to be good, in different ways throughout the novel.  In the first section, we see him try to be a good father and unite with his boys.  In the second, he tries to be a good lover and unite with his ex-wife.  And in the third, he tries to serve his country and his crew.  Hemingway is playing off characterizations that we've seen as early as Homer's Iliad.  But what is uniquely modern, I think, is that although Thomas Hudson tries to turn things right, his attempts to be good all end in failure.  Instead of growth at the end, we see him shutting down.

Back to Hemingway tomorrow, then on to Sappho on Monday.
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