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!

Happy 2020

The last sunrise of 2019, in New Orleans City Park.

It seems we all have a pre-programmed tendency to take stock of things, this time of year. Add to it the impending start of a brand new decade, and “taking stock” gets turbocharged.

I have just two personal reflections I’d like to share: one on the past decade, the other on the past year.

Regarding the decade: it will be forever inked in my memory as the decade I became a writer. And I mean that in the sense of finding my vocation. When I first put pen to paper, on March 27, 2010, little did I suspect the transformation that awaited me. There is something about giving my imagination a form, a shape into words, that has wholly changed me. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how I’ve changed, since there are multiple factors at work, and the cumulative effect of 10 years of living. The best way I can describe it is that I believe writing has made me both more of myself, and a better-defined version of myself.

And regarding 2019: it’s the year that reading finally resumed its rightful place in my life. I began Moby Dick on January 1, 2019, and actually finished it! (Sometime in March.) That experience, and the Serial Reader app, reawakened my appetite for reading. I read The Count of Monte Cristo, Great Expectations, the first two and a half volumes of the Wool series, and several shorter works, all digitally; and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend as an old-fashioned book. This is pretty significant for me, since I’ve always been a slow, meditative-type reader. I plan to say more about Great Expectations and The Friend in future posts; I’ll just say here that they were my two favorite reads of this past year.

I’ll conclude with this: I feel well-positioned for the next decade. In the early days of my writing, something always nagged at me. I knew if I didn’t read more, my writing would never develop in the way that I want it to, the way I want it to improve. Some of that “not reading enough” was just not being able to make the time, and some of that was a fledging writer’s concern of being unduly influenced by another’s style. I feel like I might have finally arrived at a balance.

Happy 2020, y’all.

Great Expectations: Thanksgiving Edition

So, I’m 53% of the way through Great Expectations. And since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I figured I’d focus on what I’m grateful for, regarding my reading of this work.

I’ve realized this year, 2019, has turned out to be my introduction to several 19th century classics. All published within a 20-year span during the mid-1800s. The Count of Monte Cristo was published in 1844, Moby Dick in 1851, and Great Expectations just ten years later, in 1861. Monte Cristo and Moby Dick are both relatively fresh in my mind, so I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between the three in my “gratitude” list:

  • I’m enjoying Great Expectations more than the other two. It’s definitely funnier. Granted, I don’t think Dumas or Melville were going for comedy, but their stories could have withstood being a touch less self-serious.
  • Pip is certainly the most relatable character in the three novels. Written in the first person, it begins when Pip is just a child. So many of Pip’s experiences, as Dickens relates them, ring true and timeless. Check out this quote: “In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.”
  • Speaking of injustice and timelessness, my ire hasn’t been raised as much with Great Expectations, as with the other two. There’s no getting around Melville’s racism, especially in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Or Dumas’s misogyny — in my numerous posts about Monte Cristo, I went on at length about how much I hated how Mercedes’s character and story line were handled. While Dickens is hardly a model of modern sensibilities — I’ve already read at least one dreadful depiction of a Jewish person — if I were to weigh the three works, I feel like Great Expectations has less to offend.
  • On a lighter note, I might be most grateful for the Serial Reader app. It’s reawakened my reading habit in more ways than one. I’ve found that I like reading on my phone so much, that I downloaded the Kindle app. I’m about halfway through Hugh Howey’s Wool series, all read on my phone. (Wool has been on my TBR list for years.)

I could go on, but I won’t. For everyone celebrating the holiday, have a happy Thanksgiving!

Great Expectations: 4%

“As soon as the great black velvet pall outside my little window was shot with gray, I got up and went downstairs” — Great Expectations, Chapter 2

So, not much has slowed down since I last posted here. I’m still struggling to find the time to put the finishing touches on The Conclusion on the Causeway, and my hopes of having it ready for public consumption before the holidays are dwindling.

But — I’ve started a new book on my Serial Reader app. I found I was missing the 15 to 20 minutes I put aside each day for the specific sort of reading Serial Reader enables. That little chunk of time is like an anchor, connecting me to my writing vocation, and helping me not drift too far on the currents of my day job and other obligations.

Up ’til now, the authors I’ve read via Serial Reader (Herman Melville, Alexandre Dumas, et al), were completely new to me. I’d never read any of their works before. I can’t say the same for Dickens. I remember enjoying A Tale of Two Cities when I read it in high school, and I remember really liking Sydney Carton.

I was considering David Copperfield, because it’s supposed to be a semi-autobiographical account of “a young man’s journey to becoming a successful novelist.” (I’m hoping to pick up a few tips.) But Great Expectations is about half the length of David Copperfield in Serial Reader issues. So I can reasonably expect to finish Great Expectations by the end of this year.

My way of managing my own “great expectations” into at least one goal I’ll be able to reach by year’s end.