Sunday, December 31, 2023

If Not, Winter - Fragments of Sappho translated by Anne Carson, Folio Society edition

 I am very happy with my purchase of this beautiful edition.

The letterpress quality and the cream - colored paper are just splendid. Homer would say "a wonder to behold".

The esthetic quality is especially evident, when I compare it to the Cambridge University Press Sappho translated by Diane J. Rayor and André Lardinois.

The paper of this hardcover edition is of a disturbing whiteness, so much so, that one has the impression that it is a "print - on - demand" horror.

But comparing both books reminds me of a problem I often have when reading historical Folio Society editions. While the Folio's are often, as objects , unbeatable in look and feel, their content is not of the highest order in accuracy or actuality.

With 100 fragments more than in the Folio, the Cambridge edition and translation is the book for the scholar or the enlightened amateur. The Folio edition however is bilingual and comes with the Greek text.

Finally , the Diane Rayor translation is more cautious, plainspoken and less manipulative "artistic".

In the Folio's edition, it is Anne Carson translation ( with all due respect ) that is the predominant voice.

But the Sappho scraps have always been a playground for free interpretation and association.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Reading Oscars 2022

All along the year 2022, I crawled slowly further over the lines of Dante Alighieri's Commedia. One canto each evening before bedtime (if not distracted by something else).

By now, I finished the Inferno and moved on to the Purgatorio. Virgil is still guiding Dante, but I expect the elusive Beatrice any day now.

I am reading Dante's poetry from a beautiful bilingual hardcover edition in which every canto is preceded with a synopsis and followed by a detailed commentary.

This is necessary to orientate oneself within this large and strange medieval canvas. The Reader needs guidance to explain the figures, the politics, the hates and loves of the poet. I was able to put the Commedia in context thanks to two excellent and nicely illustrated works that I consult regularly: Dante in Love by A.N. Wilson and Dante's Divine comedy: a journey without end by Ian Thomson.

Still, I interrupt my Dante readings too frequently to plunge into other interesting books.

Recently, while trawling at book markets, I have been buying second hand "La Pléiade" editions of French and Classic works still missing in my library. With a bit of negotiating, one can buy these beautiful orphaned leather-bound tomes at a third of their actual prices. The beauty of these physical books encourages new readings.

So, it comes that I have made lengthy reading excursions within the collections of gems written down by the Greek tragic poets Aeschylus and Sophocles (The Persians, Prometheus bound, Agamemnon, Oedipus and a few more). Whilst not unknown to me, these mythical texts read in the spare surviving text is something quite different than all the modern versions one finds now. (Euripides is planned for 2023).

I have now started the "ordeals of Théagène et Chariclée" better known as the Aethiopica by Heliodorus of Emesa. An adventure story, playing out in Egypt and what now is known as Sudan, written 1800 years ago!

While reading these second hand Pléiades, I have also returned to old friends, heroes of my youth: Saint -Exupéry for instance with his deep Human "Terre des Hommes" and "Vol de Nuit". With nearly half a century gone since my first readings, it is a strange experience to reread those familiar books through older eyes. The remembrance of the text has been superseded by the remembrance of the experience of my first readings.

My dear Father passed away in the last days of 2021. While cleaning up the apartment where he and my mom lived, I have sifted through hundreds of his books and divided them with my sisters. The sheer number of volumes forced us to still give boxes filled away. Cleaning up the library of a loved one is a difficult process. Each book a memory, each quote a remembered moment.

 Still, I recuperated my part and lost myself in some of Dad's most beloved "livres de chevet". I could hear his voice quoting whole chunks of his books (what a memory he had) and laughed with the parts that I knew that had amused him.

Dipping in and out my Dad's best loved books: Histoire de France by Jacques Bainville,  Histoire de France et s'amuser, Les rois maudits by Druon

Totally different but a great experience nonetheless was the reading of the Anabasis by Xenophon. Especially experiencing it in the splendid Robert Strassler's Landmark edition. What a brilliant series! I can’t wait for THE LANDMARK Polybius which is expected for 2023.

Another Classic, as fresh as 2000 years ago was "The Poetics" by Aristotle translated, rearranged and introduced by Philip Freeman. Both books enthused me enough to write a review.

I also read two Herzog's this year. The Twilight World is a short story about Hiroo Onada, a Japanese officer hiding on the island of Lubang in the Philippines, who misses the end WW2 and remains in hiding until 1972. In the last days of the year, I rushed through Herzog latest memories "Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle: Erinnerungen. He fills in the last gaps of his biography, settles some scores and excuses himself for a few of the errors he made in his life. What a Man!

Heinrich Mann's ( Thomas' brother ), Professor Unrat ( Better known as the blue Angel ), I could not finish for the moment.

But I did finish Bartleby, the Scrivener by Melville, not the original book, but the story memorized and retold within the scope of the Art project "time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine" by Mette Edvardsen

I read another Harsch, Adriatica Deserta / Kramberger with Monkey and enjoyed it. I hope that with his Eddy Vegas book, now in an American edition, he can make his breakthrough.

Finally, two books that I read with a lot of pleasure: "The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance" by Ross King (2021) and "The Burgundians" by Bart Van Loo. Both books were very instructive. One about the history of Florence at the moment of the introduction of the first printing press. The other about a large chunk of history when the Kings of France competed with the dukes of Flanders about the hegemony of Western Europe.

First prize goes to Xenophon.

Once more a great reading year.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine

The loss of irreplaceable books has recently been on my mind. 

While visiting the fair for Artbooks in Ghent, I was attracted by a stand with slim books where they sold transcripts of books learned by heart and remembered by readers. These works were the results of the Art project "time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine" by Mette Edvardsen, who, inspired by the characters of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, enthused participants to become living books.

From a Homer writing down his epics 2700 years ago to avoid forgetting, to people learning whole books by heart to remember them even if books are destroyed, the circle has come to a full close.

To become a "living book" could be a final chapter in Valéry Larbaud's tongue in his cheek portrait of a passionate reader. 

Which book would you learn by heart ?

Sunday, June 5, 2022

"The Poetics" by Aristotle

"How to tell a Story, An ancient Guide to the Art of Storytelling for Writers and Readers" is nothing less than Aristotle's classic masterwork "The Poetics", translated, rearranged and introduced by Philip Freeman.

Freeman is a university professor in Malibu California ( yes, some guys just have it all ) and to reassure  his readers that he has not tinkered with the text while rearranging, the book is printed with the original Greek text on the left-hand side and the English translation on the right.

Aristotle's "Poetics" is of course THE seminal text in literary theory which cannot be absent from your library. It's a thin book with a huge content and reading it you are reminded of all these concepts and idea's which we take for granted nowadays but which were posited and explained first by the great Aristole: there is the Mimesis ( imitation ) of Auerbach's fame, the Catharsis ( purification ),  the apò mēkhanês ( Deus ex Machina ) and even the Homeric Anagnorisis ( Recognition ).

Reading the  Poetics invariably comes with this sad awareness that writings, these repositories of  narratives and knowledge, are fragile and fleeting. Throughout his book, Aristotle illustrates his literary concepts with numerous examples of texts and authors, most of which have been lost. Lost, probably forever, altough they were once written down and numerous copies existed. The Margites, a comic epic by Homer Himself for instance, gone...The Antheus by Agathon dissapeared, the Lynceus by Theodectes, lost; the Cresphontes by Euripides and the treatise "On Poets" by Aristotle forgotten...

This sad feeling culminates when the book frustratingly ends with chapter two "on Comedy" followed by white pages. The second part of the "Poetics" is lost too.

Umberto Eco, in his "In the name of the rose" fantasizes that the last copy of Aristotle's Comedy is destroyed by the fictional Jorge, the obsessive blind librarian, in a bonfire that sets the whole medieval library ablaze.

An interesting read!

Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Twilight World by Werner Herzog

It is not really surprising that one grows trust - issues after fighting 5 years of intense war.

So when Hiroo Onada, a Japanese officer on an endless guerrilla mission on the island of Lubang in the Philippines, is informed that Japan has surrendered and the conflict is over, he does not believe it and creeps even deeper in the jungle to continue the fight. For thirty more years...

Initially consisting of four soldiers, over the years the squad is reduced to a single person. One soldier surrenders in the fifties and walks out of the jungle. Two others are killed by Philippine troops trying to oust them out of the forest. Only Onada keeps eluding all tentative of contact in the decades following the end of WW2. 

Onoda will remain hidden until 21 February 1972, when Norio Suzuki, a young world-traveller, onto whom the soldier has stumbled in the forest, convinces the old man to come out of his hiding . 

His is the story told in The Twilight World, the latest book by famous cinematographer Werner Herzog. Herzog has a penchant for exceptional characters, especially so if they are hidden, lost or trapped in the jungle. Suffice to remember his movies or documentaries featuring Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Dieter Dengler and Juliane Koepcke. And now with his recent novel, the Twilight World, he has added to these Hiroo Onoda. 

The title of the book sounds even more dramatic in the original German: "Das Dämmern der Welt, like in the operatic word "Götterdammerung", a slow darkening, a closing out of the light, a creeping darkness preceding a full black-out. 

When on tour in Tokyo in 1997, Herzog shocks his hosts, by preferring a meeting with the jungle rescapee instead of with their Emperor. According to the German, He and Onoda, both jungle - aficionados, connect easily and have long discussions. The soldier tells his story and the 100-page novel is Herzog interpretation of it. While clearly irenic in intention, the author sides with the loner; the point of view in the narrative is the one of the warrior. The peaceful inhabitants of the island, who fear the ghost in the forest are rarely mentioned, their perspective is omitted. 

One can either mock or pity Onada for wasting away 30 years in the jungle. But the truth is more complex. Over the decades American war planes and warships kept flying over or passing the island. Unbeknownst to him, they are enroute to the next battlefields, the Korean and then the Vietnamese. Refusing to surrender, the old Japanese remains a danger for the isolated local civilians he encounters on the fringe of the jungle. And it is rather unfair from Herzog that he tells about the death of the two companions of Onada, killed in ambushes by Philippine soldiers and not about the 30 farmers the Japanese officer kills over the years, stealing their food and destroying their crops. 

As long as one of the belligerent parties decides to continue the fight, and there is always one who does, the fight continues. 

That is also Onoda's statement in a sentence that might be a blurb for a book on Human History. 

"The truth is that War is never over. Only the locations of the battlefields change"

Monday, January 31, 2022

Kramberger with Monkey by Rick Harsch


picture by Natasha Juhnov

There was such a man.

Three decades ago, there was, in far-away Slovenia, a self-made businessman with presidential ambitions, orating to his fellow-citizens with a monkey on his shoulder.

He was killed. Someone shot him down, just like the Kennedy's. They caught the suspect; a drunk. Intoxicated he confessed; sober he denied. But he went to prison all the same.

And the Monkey, asks the narrator, where was it when the fatal shot rung? Did it call in sick that day ?

So begins Rick Harsch's novel "Kramberger with Monkey", a wild and runaway exploration on political murders, rogue reporters, innocent scapegoats, invisible hitmen, murdering chimps, seedy politicians, ludicrous conspiracy theories, emerging democracies and coagulating autocracies.

In 44 dazzling funny chapters, and with a handful of devilishly selected scenes ( both true and fictional ), the author reminds us of the senselessness of the human comedy played out in an indifferent world.

As always with Harsch : dark entertainment shedding light.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

"Anabasis" by Xenophon

Lately I have been reading, enjoying and schooling myself with the 2400 year old "Anabasis" written by Xenophon.

The story relates the ordeal of the 14.000 Greek mercenaries who enter the Persian Empire in 401 BCE, commissioned by the Persian prince Cyrus (the Younger), in his attempt to dethrone his older brother King Artaxerxes.

But things do not go as planned and the mercenaries get themselves stranded a few kilometers from the city of Babylon (the actual Bagdad), deep into enemy territory and with all their senior commanders dead. The troops however are feared Hoplites and the army of Artaxerxes hesitates to launch a frontal attack, even at the moment when the Greeks are at their weakest. This gives these foreign phalanxes just the few days they need to reorganize and elect new leaders.

Enters Xenophon. It is a bit unclear why this 30 year old, well-educated scion of a wealthy Athenian family, is among these fighters, but in this moment of confusion and chaos, he stands up as one of the new leaders. Their new objective: get the army of mercenaries out of Persia as fast as they can. A march of 1500 km through unknown and dangerous territory, surrounded by numerous hostile armies and tribes, awaits them.

It is no wonder that such a story still captivates the mind.

I have read Xenophon narration in the illustrious Robert Strassler's Landmark edition. This is a series of important historical texts, translated and annotated by numerous specialists in the field. Lavishly illustrated with maps, with detailed drawings of battle formations and with pictures of the actual sites, these books make a huge difference on the reading experience. If there is a proof that digital reading will never fully replace reading a paper-book, this is it.

Xenophon’s Anabasis (which basically means an "inland march") turns out to be a detailed report of the long retreat to get out of enemy territory. Its main attraction is that it is written on the level of the individual grunt; no great overarching strategic vistas. It is continuous "problem solving" on human level. Do we attack or negotiate? Do we cross the river or not? Shall we advance or wait? And this with the continuous concern to keep the vanguard and rearguard safe and the distance between them never dangerously overstretched.

Besides turning out to be a very capable and humble commander, Xenophon is also a perfect narrator. Even though he is an Athenian, he has strong and open sympathies for the Spartan lifestyle: resilience, perseverance, grit. No wonder he is banned from Athens. And he couldn't care less. Xenophon was an early student and follower of Socrates, and he was disgusted with the Athenian city for the condemnation of the famous philosopher. His Anabasis therefore can somehow be read as Socratian philosophy applied to a long survival situation.

Tough as steel in battle, proud when deserved but humble when in error.

A strong recommendation