The Iliad: 100%

Sunrise over the New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden, June 29, 2021. The sculpture could be inspired by The Iliad, but I don’t think it is.

I recently finished The Iliad, and all I can think to say is: thank God for the movie Troy. Being able to picture Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Brian Cox, and Sean Bean in my mind’s eye as I slogged through the text about Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, and Odysseus was tremendously helpful. Although, on the few bits with Hector’s wife Andromache, I thought less about Saffron Burrows and more about Charlize Theron, because her character in The Old Guard is named Andromache.

When I write “the few bits with Hector’s wife,” I mean it. The Iliad is very male-centric. Even though they were apparently fighting the Trojan War over a woman (Helen), she does not factor into the story very much. What does factor into the story? LOTS of fighting. And some Olympic-type sports. And the Greek gods behaving like Grade A A*holes. I read a version translated by Alexander Pope, where Zeus, or Jupiter, was referred to as Jove. And Jove gets mentioned everywhere, by jove.

The description of the fighting was pretty evocative, and might be the only thing I really enjoyed about this read. Catch this: “He fell heavily to the ground, and the spear stuck in his heart, which still beat, and made the butt-end of the spear quiver till dread Mars put an end to his life.” What a picture! (Although this time Mars gets the attribution, not Jupiter.)

Spoiler alerts ahead: there are two bits of ancient history that I kept expecting to encounter in The Iliad, but they never came up. The first was the death of Achilles. His death in Troy is foretold throughout the story, but the story ends with Hector’s burial, and Achilles apparently very much alive. According to an article by Philip Chrysopoulos in Greek Reporter: “The death of Achilles is not mentioned at all in The Iliad. His killing by Paris, who had discovered the one weak spot of the Greek warrior, comes from another ancient legend, which says that Paris shot Achilles in the heel with an arrow and killed him.”

The second was the Trojan Horse. It is referenced in The Odyssey (which I’m currently reading), but not in The Iliad. And unless it comes up again in more detail, all the reader finds out is that it was Odysseus who kept everyone quiet when they were hiding in the wooden horse. Given all the visceral action sequences in The Iliad, I would have liked to read a depiction of what happened when they came charging out of the horse.

But while these two Greek classics are not proving to be favorites, I definitely feel I’m benefiting from the experience. Getting a first-hand sense of these stories, foundational to so much of western thought, seems to be having a clarifying effect on me. That’s it for now!

Mrs. Dalloway: 100%

Photo by Ming Jun Tan on Unsplash

“…having done with the triumphs of youth, lost herself in the process of living, to find it, with a shock of delight, as the sun rose, as the day sank.”

— from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is my most engaging read yet this year. Out of the eighteen serials I’ve read on the Serial Reader app, it might be my favorite. Great Expectations comes close, but can’t match the synchronicity I experienced. I never recognized as much of myself in Pip as I did in Clarissa Dalloway. The fact that I’m the same age as Mrs. Dalloway in the novel certainly helped foster this feeling.

That can seem pretty loaded, to say that I identify with a privileged, middle-aged, woman living in excessive comfort in early 20th century London. But that’s not what I mean by stating “I see myself in Clarissa Dalloway.” And I’m pretty positive Virginia Woolf’s intention was not to glorify Mrs. Dalloway’s privilege.

To me, the whole point is that there is so much more to everything, and everyone, than the categories we put them in.

I had a similar experience many years ago when I read Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I remember strongly identifying with the protagonist, Anne Elliot. Not only did we share a name, we were the same age. Not yet 30 years old, I was at a point in my life where I wasn’t excited about my future prospects. Something needed to change — I needed to change — to course-correct my life. What I took from Persuasion was that if things could change for a 27-year-old woman in the Regency period, there was no reason why I couldn’t shake things up for myself at the fin de 20th siecle.

Clarissa Dalloway is at a different stage of her life, (as am I). Now it’s not so much about changing your life, as it is making sense of it. And what Virginia Woolf accomplished so masterfully in the novel is capturing the multi-facetedness of life, of perception, of everything. Reading Mrs. Dalloway was like being hit with, and comprehending, a brilliant stream from the multiverse. Not only do we understand how Clarissa Dalloway perceives things, we understand how she is perceived, chiefly through the characters of Richard Dalloway, Peter Walsh, and Sally Seton.

And what can I say about the other anchor for the story, the Great War veteran Septimus Warren Smith? Suffering from PTSD and rapidly losing his grip on reality, reading his scenes was difficult, to put it mildly. Clarissa Dalloway does not know him, but knows his doctor, Sir William Bradshaw. When she learns of Smith’s death from Bradshaw, she is profoundly affected, and the story comes back around to itself in the most amazing way. It was one of the most convincing depictions of humanity’s interconnectivity I’ve encountered.

I didn’t go into Mrs. Dalloway with high hopes. I read Woolf’s Night and Day first, and didn’t care much for it. There was only one character I really liked, Mary Datchet, and she kinda gets the narrative shaft. Night and Day was published six years before Mrs. Dalloway, so I guess it just goes to show how writers can develop. Something else I can hope to identify with.

To conclude: my recent interest in Virginia Woolf relates to her novel Orlando. I read it in college, and remember being very intrigued with how time is treated in the story. I plan to re-read it this year, and Night and Day and Mrs. Dalloway were a sort of grounding in Woolf. Tying it back to time, the striking clocks were another thing I loved about Mrs. Dalloway. So I’ll leave you with this, right after Clarissa learns about Septimus Warren Smith:

The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room.

Don Quixote: 65%

Photo by Cdoncel on Unsplash

I read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces last year. It was an effort that took about 15 years. I’d tried to complete it at least twice before, at the urging of folks who claim it’s a masterful comedy that captures the spirit of New Orleans like no other book.

While I feel like “masterful” is an apt descriptor, I’m less inclined to agree with the comedy part. Every time I tried to read it, I found it really, really depressing. It’s evident to me how much of himself Toole poured into the book, and I believe it was ultimately his undoing. And while it definitely captures a flavor of New Orleans that only a native could express so truthfully; it’s a bitterer flavor, and a meaner spirit than I hope to capture in my fiction.

Anyway, I steeled myself and managed to finish it. And it spurred an interest in reading Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote. How so, you may ask? Because, I’d seen more than one reviewer describe Dunces’ main character, Ignatius Reilly, as a 20th-century Don Quixote. So I marked Don Quixote as a “Read Later” on my Serial Reader app, with the intention of starting it as 2021 began.

And, so far, so good. I’m enjoying Don Quixote much more than A Confederacy of Dunces. And I definitely am NOT getting the sense that Don Quixote was Cervantes’ undoing. Here are a few observations thus far:

  • Two stories / ten years. Don Quixote consists of two parts, published roughly ten years apart. It’s my understanding that the the first part of the story was an unprecedented success for Cervantes, and led to his writing further adventures for his protagonist. (Fascinating bit of 17th-century intrigue: an impostor apparently published a “fake” story featuring Don Quixote before Cervantes released the second part.) But as far as Cervantes’ original, I notice a difference between the two parts, which I really dig. The humor of the first part seems to be more at Don Quixote’s expense; while he comes across as a stronger and more aware character in the second part. I feel more empathy for him, and like him better in the second part.
  • Life for a noble in 17th century Spain. The experience of reading Don Quixote has been very immersive for me. The world of the novel feels evident and tangible, more so than most of the classics I’ve read over the last several years, with the exception of War and Peace. But while Tolstoy’s classic dropped me off in Russia in the early 1800s, Don Quixote sends me back another 200 years! And even given the further time displacement, the climate of Spain and all the Catholic stuff feel very familiar to me, more so than the world of War and Peace. Plus, the fact that Cervantes philosophizes a whole lot less than Tolstoy has made it a more entertaining read.
  • Knights-errant / superheroes. One last thought: while most of the knights-errant of the chivalric romances — the objects of Don Quixote’s obsession — are unfamiliar to me, it’s been very easy to imagine them as superheroes. Heck, they even call Batman the Dark Knight. Just another thing that makes the world of Don Quixote seem a lot closer than 400 years ago.

The Celtic Twilight: 100%

View from our Dublin hotel room, at the end of May 2019. It was nearly 10pm, a much later twilight than I am accustomed to in Southern latitudes.

So, I finished W.B. Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight on my Serial Reader app a few weeks ago, but haven’t had the opportunity to share anything about it until now.

Overall, it was a mostly fun and light-hearted read, especially after slogging through ALL The Canterbury Tales. While most of The Tales felt undeniably real, the essays in The Celtic Twilight had an ephemeral quality to them. Case in point, in “The Friar’s Tale,” the devil in his green suit seemed like someone I could easily meet today. The faeries and “Sidhe” that Yeats wrote about felt as shimmery and fleeting as you’d expect such otherworldly creatures to be.

A few noteworthy items I took from The Celtic Twilight:

  • Yeats wrote about Ben Bulben, a mountain in County Sligo: “…the mountain in whose side the square white door swings open at nightfall to loose the faery riders on the world.” I love this idea. If I ever return to Ireland, I would love to go hiking there.
  • In an essay entitled “Dreams That Have No Moral,” Yeats lays out a rambling history of a young man named Jack and a series of giants who cry, “Fee-faw-fum, I smell the blood of an Irishman.” A little different from how I learned Jack’s story, and this tale had no beanstalk.
  • I’ll wrap this up with my favorite quote from The Celtic Twilight:

“Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear.”

The Canterbury Tales: 82%

I’m on track to finish Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales via my Serial Reader app in just about a week’s time, so this is likely my last post regarding the collection of 14th century stories.

It’s been a slog, I have to admit. Serial Reader contains all the tales, including several that were omitted from the paperback version Tim and I have been sharing. I can understand the choice to omit. One tale in particular, “The Tale of Melibeus,” felt particularly long and boring. The teller of this tale is the narrator himself, named, coincidentally (or not), Chaucer. The whole thing is a drawn-out dialogue between Melibeus and his wife, Prudence, as she tries to convince him to take her advice regarding a matter of revenge against his rivals. I swear, she has to mention Solomon at least a hundred times. Yes, the Solomon from the bible, the guy who advised splitting a baby in two.

The tales all seem filled with biblical and medieval religious references. Two particular ones were recently familiar to me, meaning, I’ve encountered them in the past year or so (and not during my own ancient school days). They are both from “The Monk’s Tale,” another story that’s not in our paperback. It’s basically a laundry list of mighty folks through the ages who have fallen when fortune takes a turn against them.

  1. In recounting how Belshazzar of Babylon met his fate, “mene, mene, tekel” popped up. I wrote about this in a post last year: The Writing on the Wall. A quick recap of that post — it’s about this phrase’s original meaning, how Belshazzar had been weighed and measured by God, found wanting, and his kingdom would be divided. And how the phrase is referenced in Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, and, perhaps not surprisingly, in the movie A Knight’s Tale.
  2. There’s a bit about Ugolino, Count of Pisa, and how he and his children starved to death while imprisoned. But it gets more gruesome when Dante’s Inferno is referenced. Dante’s fiction puts Ugolino in the second circle of hell with his betrayer, Archbishop Ruggieri, the one who supposedly caused his starvation in real life. In Inferno, Ugolino gnaws on Ruggieri’s skull for all eternity. I remember this reference in The Count of Monte Cristo, it comes up when Edmond Dantes is held at Chateau d’If, before he meets Abbe Faria.

So, bottom line, I feel like I’m getting a better understanding of a lot of ancient stories and their contexts. And that feels worthwhile. But I’ll also be happy to take a break from all this heaviness soon.

Maybe it’s time to watch A Knight’s Tale again.

The Canterbury Tales: 50%

So, I’m about halfway through Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales on my Serial Reader app. And this time, Tim is reading along, not on Serial Reader, but via the tome featured in the picture above. Kind of a summer reading project for us both. A few observations thus far:

  • The hard copy book features both the original Middle English text and the translation to Modern English. The Middle English is pretty cool to look at, and it’s also pretty cool that The Canterbury Tales is considered one of the first works of prose to be composed in English. (Or maybe not prose, but poetry. In any event, I think Chaucer was among the first to take the type of stuff written in French and Latin at the time, and write it in English.)
  • The Canterbury Tales was unfinished when Chaucer died. (And, interesting fact, he died 40 years before the printing press was invented.) There’s no way to determine how he meant the finished work to appear. I’ve discovered that the order and inclusion of the individual tales varies, depending on the version you’re reading.
  • So far, I’m not loving the subject matter. Murderous in-laws cast a poor woman out to sea (“The Man of Law’s Tale”), there’s unthinkable spousal emotional abuse (“The Clerk’s Tale”), and, spoiler alert, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” ends with a rapist living happily ever after. I realize times were different 600 years ago, but that doesn’t make the cruelty any more palatable. In fact, it offers some unsettling insight into our human history.
  • All this leads me to prefer to think of Chaucer more like Paul Bettany’s portrayal of him in the 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale. It’s wildly anachronistic, but the character’s eloquence, motivations, and overall humanity are worthy of 21st century admiration.

Macbeth: 100%

So, Macbeth had been on my TBR list for awhile. After plowing through Serial Reader’s 235 issues of War and Peace, I thought 10 issues of Macbeth would be a walk in the park. It was, mostly, thanks to a generous helping of internet assistance with the Elizabethan English. (The “litcharts” website was particularly helpful!)

I always enjoy discovering the context of famous quotes. For example, there’s the line that begins “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day…” and ends “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (I can easily picture and hear my Mom reciting this, especially the first part, even though she’s been gone over 5 years.) Well, this is Macbeth’s speech when he finds out his wife is dead. He pretty much says, “she was going to die sooner or later,” and then launches into that speech.

Kinda harsh. But this also comes in the last act of the play, when both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were pretty far down the road to hell, anyway.

But one of the most interesting connections I made from reading Macbeth was one I wasn’t expecting. Very early on, in Scene 2 of Act 1, I encountered this quote:

“The multiplying villanies of nature / Do swarm upon him”

I immediately recognized it as something V says when he saves Evey in the beginning of V for Vendetta.

For the uninitiated, V for Vendetta (one of my favorite movies) is about a vigilante named “V” in a not-too-distant-future England, who dons a Guy Fawkes mask. Guy Fawkes is the best-remembered member of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Catholic separatists attempted to assassinate King James and blow up Parliament. V in the movie, like a post-modern Guy Fawkes, attempts to overthrow the seriously oppressive government of this not-too-distant-future England.

So here’s what I wasn’t expecting: there’s possibly a much stronger connection between Macbeth and V for Vendetta than just the use of some quotes.

Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606, and some believe he wrote it to remove any suspicion of connection between himself and the people behind the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare’s mother was Catholic, and his father might have been a covert Catholic. His father was also friends with the father of one of the main conspirators, Robert Catesby. And, Shakespeare frequented the Mermaid Tavern, where the plotters met (to plot, apparently).

There’s a lot of stuff in Macbeth that would have appealed to King James. Take the noble character Banquo, whom the witches say will never be king, but will beget kings. Banquo is supposed to represent King James’s ancestor Banquho, Thane of Lochquhaber. And then the witches themselves — King James wrote a book about witchcraft, so he was obviously pretty interested in the subject.

Now, just how much “c.y.a.” was involved in Shakespeare’s motivation for writing Macbeth, we’ll never know. But it’s got me examining my own motives for writing a little more closely.

War and Peace: 100%

I really wanted to add an exclamation point to the title of this post. But with the percent sign, it may look like I’m cursing (War and Peace: 100%! — though it probably needs a hashtag and an at symbol, too, to really look like I’m cursing…War and Peace: 100%@#!)

Anyway, I don’t want to curse, I just want to shout from the rooftops: I’ve finished War and Peace!!!

It was definitely a challenge, probably the most challenging thing I’ve read via Serial Reader. (Moby Dick was tough, too, but only about 1/3 as long. Rousseau’s The Social Contract was no picnic, either, but it was mercifully short — I was done within two weeks.)

War and Peace was challenging, but ultimately worth it. It wasn’t so much the language or story that was challenging; it was processing all the human experience that is packed into that book.

When I started out, I wasn’t sure how much I would like it. In my first post about War and Peace (War and Peace: 19%), I complained about not liking the characters and not caring about the translation.

Fast forward to now. I wound up buying a hard copy, (pictured at the top of this post), mainly because I wanted to be able to reference chapters I’d already read more handily than the Serial Reader interface allows. But it’s also a more recent translation (by Anthony Briggs), and when Tolstoy gets into really deep and heavy stuff, I found this version helpful.

And speaking of deep and heavy stuff, I can no longer say that I don’t like the characters. But that doesn’t mean I necessarily like them now, either. What I can say is that I feel like I know the characters, inside and out, especially Pierre, Andrey, and Natasha. I’m having a hard time thinking of another book I’ve read where the interior life of multiple characters was so expertly portrayed.

On balance, it feels like the past four months was a very good time for me to read War and Peace. Even though the story takes place at a time 200 years in the past, it was so immersive, so much still rings true, and there’s so much that’s transcendent; that it offered a welcome, alternative, perspective on the current state of things. An escape, if you will.

I’ve leave you with a recent photo I took that makes me think of the character Andrey. He has several epiphanies in the story — one occurs while he’s laying wounded on the battlefield at Austerlitz, gazing at the sky. And a separate epiphany occurs as he passes an oak tree in a carriage. For an oak tree and sky — things I see and pass, literally, every day — to make me think of a character in a story…it feels notable, certainly. And maybe even a bit transcendent.

 

 

 

War and Peace: 54%

N for Napoleon? Photo by William Krause on Unsplash.

Okay, so, I can say this about Tolstoy’s War and Peace: it’s certainly immersive. And those privileged characters I found unsympathetic when I was roughly 20% through? I have a bit more sympathy for them now.

I feel like that immersion is definitely expanding my knowledge base. Right now in the novel, it’s the summer of 1812, and Napoleon has commenced his invasion of Russia. I don’t remember learning much about this in school, other than it was one of the times Russia employed a scorched-earth policy. When you grow up in New Orleans, and learn about the War of 1812, it’s about the one where the U.S. declared war on Great Britain. And inevitably, how Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans. Fought after the British has ratified a treaty ending the war. Reading about Napoleon’s campaign against the Russians, I’m getting the sense that things were pretty bad all over in 1812.

About my changing sympathies for the characters…I have to admit, I got caught up in the whole storyline of Natasha getting engaged to Prince Andrew, having to wait a year, getting impatient and almost running off with the louse Anatole. Melodramatic? Absolutely. Really engaging? For me, yes. Tolstoy had a way of capturing the inner life of his characters that is worth some attention.

And don’t get me started on the Freemasons! You’ve got Pierre, the same character who tied a bear to a policeman at the beginning of the story, becoming a Freemason. This might be the most I’ve learned about Freemasonry since the “Stonecutters” episode of The Simpsons. I have more sympathy for Pierre, now, too. The last chapter I read featuring Pierre showed him realizing he’s in love with the aforementioned Natasha (who’s in a love quadrangle?), but nothing’s happened between them yet. I get the feeling that things are going to get real messy when Napoleon starts making his way toward Moscow.

So, yeah, I guess I’m enjoying the reading experience a bit more than when I first began. I still wish War and Peace was a little shorter. 🙂

War and Peace: 19%

Photo by Filip Bunkens on Unsplash

So, I started reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace on January 1, via Serial Reader. My goal is to finish it by the end of April.

And I’ll be honest: so far, I’m not loving it. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and most of them are pretty unsympathetic. It doesn’t help that a preponderance of them are referred to as princes and princesses. Also, in many instances, facial expressions are described with “as ifs,” something I find highly annoying:

“Prince Vasili’s two valets were busy dressing him, and he looked round with much animation and cheerfully nodded to his son as the latter entered, as if to say: ‘Yes, that’s how I want you to look.'”

I guess the “as ifs” were the simplest way to translate the Russian to English, at the time the version I’m reading was translated. But I really don’t care enough about the story or the characters to get a better understanding. I’m satisfied with just the suspicion that there must be some nuance to the Russian language that is lost to me.

And speaking of unsympathetic characters — one of the main ones, Pierre, ties a policeman to a bear early on in the story. Yes, a bear: the big, shaggy, omnivorous, plantigrade mammal. I’m not even sure how this is done, because it’s only referenced in the past tense, as the event that gets Pierre thrown out of Saint Petersburg. I’m having a hard time getting that vision out of my head.

But, the reading experience is not without some benefits:

  • I’ve been much more engaged and enlightened by the war scenes (over the peace scenes, which mostly take place in society parlors and the like). I’ve learned that a unicorn was a type of Russian cannon from the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • I’m pretty sure I’ve never read any Russian literature before. I’m all for expanding my frame of reference, even if the experience is not 100% pleasurable. There’s some sort of lesson in the discomfort, but I’m not sure what it is yet.
  • The settings are like a fantasy to me. I’ve never been to the parts of the world where the book has taken me (Moscow, Saint Petersburg, parts of Austria), nor have I ever lived in a snowy place. There’s a scene where old man Bolkonsky (Prince Bolkonsky) has snow shoveled back onto the road to discourage the above-referenced Prince Vasili’s visit. It was kind of funny, and it’s what I was thinking about when I chose the image featured above.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about War and Peace in future posts. That’s it for now!