Thursday, June 26, 2014

Catching up

I apologize for the unplanned silence. I haven't really felt like reading or posting lately, so maybe a break was what was needed. Since I haven't read much I'll post on what I've recently watched, which was infinitely better.

Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes has a great review of Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest Coen brothers movie now available for viewing at home. I would say I'm one of the few moderate fans of the Coen brothers…some of their works I love, some I'm not so wild about…and this one was a winner for me. The "WTF is that supposed to mean" symbolism that the Coens include in their movies is still there but seems dialed down quite a bit, letting the story naturally unfold. It also includes some of the most rounded characters they've ever presented, even if they are on the screen for a few seconds. Like Trevor I watched the film again soon after finishing it to pick up on things I missed the first time. Read Trevor's review. It's a movie I'm sure I'll watch again soon.

I had been meaning to watch Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game and was finally able to do so. While it's now considered a masterpiece, I found it much darker than any review I've read. The plot is simple—a week-long retreat at a country estate provides plenty of opportunities for tangled relationships of French society's upper crust (and of their servants) to play out to a disastrous end. Renoir liked to say it mirrored the "moral callousness" of the time, but I don't think that's quite right, as reflected by the title. Most of the characters are only callous toward anything that is outside their code of ethics. It's OK to cheat on your wife as long as you follow certain rules, for example. But there is a double-edged sword at play here. While simultaneously criticizing the mores of the time and showing his characters sympathetically, Renoir seems to reinforce the importance of what *should* underlie the rules. For example, the estate gamekeeper Schumacher demonstrates a cartoonish view of honor that reveals no underlying basis other than his feeling that he has been offended. How he reacts to the offense demonstrates he doesn't understand why she should feel that way. He's adrift and the two options reflected in other situations is a nihilistic approach, not caring about what happens, and the exaggerated responses he delivers. It's a brutal reflection of society at the time and I now understand the violent reaction at its release—no one likes seeing such an ugly reflection in the mirror. Very highly recommended. Watch it and you'll see the basis for many other films. I'm looking forward to going back and rediscovering some of the influences on the movie, such as Musset's Les Caprices de Marianne and Beaumarchais' Le Mariage de Figaro.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it the "Dumas summer of the musketeers" for us. Our timing is great since BBC America has just started airing The Musketeers series and (based on the first episode) it's a hit with the boys. The credits are clear that the series is based on the characters from Dumas' novels, so expect a lot of invention and liberty taken with the original. Which is fine with me, especially if the episodes continue to be done as well as the first one. I'm never quite sure why some changes are made from book to screen…why 1630 was chosen instead of the novel's opening in 1626, for example…but as countless other filmmakers have discovered the stories and the characters provide so much opportunity for fun. A few snippets of dialogue:
King Louis XIII (while shooting birds): "There's something about shooting that makes a man feel fully alive."

Queen Anne: "Unlike the birds, I suppose."

King Louis: "They're born to be shot like rabbits…and poets."


Guard: "What do you want?"

Constance: "Fifty sous and I'll take you to heaven."

Guard: "Are you one of those religious nut cases?"

Check your local listings and enjoy.

One of the 'goals' I had this summer was to take the boys to a play, so I took them to see a local performance of City of Angels by Larry Gelbart (book), Cy Coleman (music), and David Zippel (lyrics). The storyline follows an author as he attempts to turn a successful novel into a screenplay. Author and story intertwine as his creation takes on a life of its own, which leads me to reflect once again that everything comes back to Cervantes (with a healthy dose of Unamuno). While the youngest boy was bored by the intermission the oldest enjoyed the whole thing. I thought it a very well done performance of a complicated (staging-wise) production by a local troupe. Who knows…I may even convince them to go to another play this summer!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

This weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal

If you have a chance to pick up a copy of the current Weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal I recommend you do so. The review section has reviews on books about World War I in addition to several essays about the conflict. There's also a review of The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (author of The Leopard), a NYRB Classics collection of three stories recently translated by Stephen Twilley. The stories include the title story of the book, his final work, as well as “Joy and the Law” and "The Blind Kittens."

Two of the stories pick up on parts of The Leopard. Since the review is behind an online paywall I'll only provide a short quote from the final paragraph that looks at "The Blind Kittens," intended to be Lampedusa's second novel. Only the first chapter was completed, which is what is included here. "The Blind Kittens" starts with a nod to The Leopard, with the upstart Batassano closing a deal on the selling off of lands by aristocrats to prop up their dwindling estates. His meteoric rise seems tainted by his acquisition of tainted land.
Here once more is Lampedusa's dry irony; here is his tender gaze at the anachronistic Sicily, its cruelty and provincialism; here is one last shot at the impotence of its shunted-aside ruling class.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Instant viewing: The Three Musketeers (1973) free on Amazon Prime

The boys and I started reading The Three Musketeers last week and we're enjoying it. Looking to see what film versions were available for instant viewing I found 1973's movie directed by Richard Lester and written by George MacDonald Fraser (of Flashman fame). I've always enjoyed Lester's and Fraser's version and the kids love the additional humor in it.

Several Amazon Prime movies I was interested in seeing are no longer available for free viewing, so if you're interested in watching it don't wait too long!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture (Volume 1) by Werner Jaeger – Introduction [bumped, edited]

Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture (Volume 1) by Werner Jaeger (2nd edition), translation by Gilbert Highet (New York: Oxford University Press)

I'm bumping this to the top to keep the posts in this series close together. I know this series won't interest everyone but I find Jaeger's work fascinating.
Every nation which has reached a certain stage of development is instinctively impelled to practice education . Education is the process by which a community preserves and transmits its physical and intellectual character. For the individual passes away, but the type remains. The natural process of transmission from one generation to another ensures the perpetuations of the physical characteristics of animals and men; but men can transmit their social and intellectual nature only by exercising the qualities through which they created it—reason and conscious will. … By deliberate training even the physical nature of the human race can alter, and can acquire a higher range of abilities. But the human mind has infinitely richer potentialities of development. As man becomes increasingly aware of his own powers, he strives by learning more of the two worlds, the world without him and the world within, to create for himself the best kind of life. His peculiar nature, a combination of body and mind, creates special conditions governing the maintenance and transmission of his type, and imposes on him a special set of formative processes, physical and mental, which we denote as a whole by the name of education. Education, as practised by man, is inspired by the same creative and directive vital force which impels every natural species to maintain and preserve its own type; but it is raised to a far higher power by the deliberate effort of human knowledge and will to attain a known end.

From these facts certain general conclusions follow. To begin with, education is not a practice which concerns the individual alone: it is essentially a function of the community. The character of the community is expressed in the individuals who compose it; and for man, … far more than for any animal species, the community is the source of all behaviour. The formative influence of the community on its members is most constantly active in its deliberate endeavour to educate each new generation of individuals so as to make them in its own image. The structure of every society is based on the written or unwritten laws which bind it and its members. Therefore, education in any human community (be it a family, a social class, a profession, or some wider complex such as a race or a state) is the direct expression of its active awareness of a standard.

Now, education keeps pace with the life and growth of the community, and is altered both by changes imposed on it from without and by transformations in its internal structure and intellectual development. And, since the gasis of education is a general consciousness of the values which govern human life, its history is affected by changes in the values current within the community. When these values are stable, education is firmly based; when they are displaced or destroyed, the educational process is weakened until it becomes inoperative. (xiii - xiv)

Forgive me for the lengthy quote but there was no good way to summarize Jaeger’s opening points in his introduction, titled “The Place of the Greeks in the History of Education,” other than to quote him. Now a summary for the rest of the intro...

Under the model the Greeks set up, education formed the basis for paideia, intertwining their values, culture, and community in the process. Jaeger credits the Greeks as creating new principals for communal life that focused on the pursuit of an ideal.

Jaeger’s purpose with the book Paideia was to give an account of Greek culture by looking at paideia’s character and development. As Greek city/states developed, they focused their usage of culture to create a "higher type of man." Education would need to embody and justify this goal. The Greeks looked at the role of the individual and the community and how each formed the other. This outlook was a part of their greater view of nature, where nothing was separate from the rest, each “an element in a living whole.” Within the interlocking nature of individuals and community came the development of the idea of individual freedom. “The variety, spontaneity, versatility, and freedom of individual character” provided “the necessary conditions that allowed the Greek people to develop so rapidly in so many different ways.”

Jaeger spends some time looking at the different arts in Greece and how they progressed, initially focusing only on aesthetic instincts but progressing to incorporate an intellectual component to idealize the subject. “[T]he Greeks always sought for one Law pervading everything, and tried to make their life and thought harmonize with it.” Universal patterns were studied and theories constructed to locate things in their particular place of the whole:

The unique position of Hellenism in the history of education depends on the same peculiar characteristic, the supreme instinct to regard every part as subordinate and relative to an ideal whole—for the Greeks carried that point of view into life as well as art—and also on their philosophical sense of the universal, their perception of the profoundest laws of human nature, and of the standards based on them which govern the spiritual life of the individual and the structure of society.

The Greeks realized that they could shape people as a potter molded clay. “They were the first to recognize that education means deliberately moulding human character in accordance with an idea.” Plato captures this idea, using the metaphor of molding character in the Republic several times. At all times there is a sense of the guiding pattern, the idea or typos, leading to a final product. Everything the Greeks did ultimately focused on man. They developed anthropomorphic gods. They would philosophize on the cosmos in order to explain human problems. Most importantly they would attempt to comprehend the state by understanding man. “Other nations made gods, kings, spirits: the Greeks alone made men.”

Paideia starts from ideals, not from the individual. These ideals were the goal, whether the subject was poetry, art, or philosophy. The ideals were rarely static, instead developing over time. “The Greek mind owes its superior strength to the fact that it was deeply rooted in the life of the community.” The hard part was translating these ideals to an aesthetic form that would serve to educate and benefit the community without impinging on individual freedom.

A conflict between ideals helped produce some of the Greeks' greatest works. From Homer to Plato the duel between individual freedom and responsibility to the community works to develop and define the ideal. Jaeger looks at the development of Greek culture and Greek literature and concludes that their histories coincide with each other—“for Greek literature, in the sense intended by its original creators, was the expression of the process by which the Greek ideal shaped itself.”

Jaeger closes with an acknowledgment of the time he was writing (pre-World War II) and the benefit he hoped would accrue from studying, clear-eyed, the educational method and values of the ancient world:

But at this juncture, when our whole civilization, shaken by an overpowering historical experience, is beginning to examine its own values once again, classical scholarship must once more assess the educational value of the ancient world. That is its last problem, and its own existence will depend on the answer. It can be answered only by historical science, on the basis of historical fact. The duty of classical scholarship, therefore, is not to give a flattering and idealistic description of the Greeks, but to interpret their imperishable educational achievement and the directive impetus which they gave to all subsequent cultural movements, by studying their own intellectual and spiritual nature.

The table of contents on this volume and additional links can be found here.
'In hand and foot and mind built foursquare without a flaw'—these are the words in which a Greek poet of the age of Marathon and Salamis describes the essence of that true virtue which is so hard to acquire. (xxii)

Monday, June 02, 2014

Herodotus Salon recording

On May 14, 2014 Paul Cartledge and James Romm talked about Herodotus and the two new translations of his Histories. It's well worth the hour to listen to the salon sponsored by Reading Odyssey, which can be found here.

I asked about other recent books on Herodotus they have enjoyed and they provided some books that will be added to my to-be-read stack soon in addition to the two new translations by Pamela Mensch and Tom Holland. Don't forget Cartledge's After Thermopylae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars (and his lecture on the book) or Romm's Herodotus in the Hermes Book Series, both wonderful books as well.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture (Volume 1) by Werner Jaeger - Preface [bumped, edited]

Picture from

Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture (Volume 1) by Werner Jaeger (2nd edition), translation by Gilbert Highet (New York: Oxford University Press)

I had planned on posting on Werner Jaeger's monumental work Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture last year and didn't get very far before other things came up. I intend to correct that this year, so I'll begin with the initial posts I did publish and will go from there. Postings on the book will be sporadic, like everything else on this blog. The copy I am reading and quoting from is the fourth printing of the 2nd edition, published in 1962.

So what is paideia (the concept)? Before we get to the prefaces Jaeger provides a helpful explanation, both of the word and why he uses it:

Paideia, the title of this work, is not merely a symbolic name, but the only exact designation of the actual historical subject presented in it. Indeed it is a difficult thing to define; like other broad comprehensive concepts (philosophy, for instance, or culture) it refuses to be confined within an abstract formula. Its full content and meaning become clear to us only when we read its history and follow its attempts to realize itself. By using a Greek word for a Greek thing, I intend to imply that it is seen with the eyes, not of modern men, but of the Greeks. It is impossible to avoid bringing in modern expressions like civilization, culture, tradition, literature, or education. But none of them really covers what the Greeks meant by paideia. Each of them is confined to one aspect of it: they cannot take in the same field as the Greek concept unless we employ them all together. Yet the very essence of scholarship and scholarly activity is based on the original unity of all these aspects—the unity which is expressed in the Greek word, not the diversity emphasized and completed by modern developments. The ancients were persuaded that education and culture are not a formal art or an abstract theory, distinct from the objective historical structure of a nation’s spiritual life. They held them to be embodied in literature, which is the real expression of all higher culture. (v)
So why write about or study paideia? Jaeger presents several reasons in his Preface.
  • His study “ treats paideia, the shaping of the Greek character, as a basis for a new study of Hellenism as a whole.” Jaeger said he noticed a lack of explaining “the interaction between the historical process by which their character was formed and the intellectual process by which they constructed their ideal of human personality.” (ix)
  • The subject is important, not just because it hadn’t been done in this manner, “but because I believed that a solution to this important historical and intellectual problem would bring a deeper understanding of the unique education genius which is the secret of the undying influence of Greece on all subsequent ages.” (ix)
  • The book should help “all who seek to rediscover the approach to Greece during our present struggles to maintain our millennial civilization.” (ix) [Jaeger was writing in 1933.]
  • The way we view and understand ancient Greek culture and education affects our understanding of “the humanism of earlier centuries than our own.” (x)
  • “[E]ven to-day, it is impossible to have any educational purpose or knowledge without a thorough and fundamental comprehension of Greek culture.” (x)
  • This approach isn’t meant to “replace history in the traditional sense—the history of events.” This study attempts “to describe history in a way which explains the life of man through the creative literature which represents his ideals.” This study focuses on literature “is our most direct approach to the spiritual life of the past.” (xi)
  • While this study looks at the paideia of the Greeks, Jaeger believes the Greeks themselves are “the paideia of mankind.” (xi)
I’m providing the table of contents from Volume One below so you can see what’s included. I’m including a section at the end of this post for links to Jaeger’s work, which will hopefully grow as my reading continues. As usual, if you have any comments, tips, experience, etc. please feel free to comment!

Introduction: The Place of the Greeks in the History of Education

BOOK ONE: Archaic Greece
1. Nobility and Areté
2. The Culture and Education of the Homeric Nobility
3. Homer the Educator
4. Hesiod: the Peasant’s Life
5. State-Education in Sparta:
       A new cultural pattern: the polis and its types
       Historical tradition and the philosophical idealisation of Sparta
       Tyrtaeus’ call to arête
6. The City-State and Its Ideal of Justice
7. Ionian and Aeolian Poetry: the Individual Shapes his own Personality
8. Solon: Creator of Athenian Political Culture
9. Philosophical Speculation: the Discovery of the World-Order
10. The Aristocracy: Conflict and Transformation:
       The transmission of Theognis’ poems
       The codification of the aristocratic educational tradition
       Pindar, the voice of aristocracy
11. The Cultural Policy of the Tyrants

BOOK TWO: The Mind of Athens
1. The Drama of Aeschylus
2. Sophocles and the Tragic Character
3. The Sophists:
       Their position in the history of culture
       The origins of education theory and the ideal of culture
       Education and the political crisis
4. Euripides and his Age
5. The Comic Poetry of Aristophanes
6. Thucydides: Political Philosopher

Links on Jaeger:
Werner Jaeger’s biography at the Gifford Lectures site

Jaeger’s entry at Wikipedia

Links on Paideia (the book) and paideia (the concept):
Old Ideals for a New World?, a review of Paideia by Borit Karlsson at H-Net Reviews. Karlsson looks at criticisms and ongoing subjects of discussion criticisms of the work and some of the ongoing subjects of discussion. A note on what was lost in the English translation, in particular Jaeger's use of an older style German that "carries within itself the ideals and imaginations--'Bildung'--of nineteenth-century views on knowledge and education as a means to mans growth as a moral and ethical being."

A Microsoft handouts presentation on "Paideia": An Introduction to Ancient Greek Cultural & Educational Concepts by G.D.Albear, M.A., at Eastern Illinois University. Looks to be an extremely helpful overview.

A tribute to Jaeger and Paideia by Clara Claiborne Park. A Reconsideration: Werner Jaeger's Paideia

Dallas Baptist University has quite a bit on the concept of Paideia, with a focus on the tie-in between the Greek concept and the rise of Christianity (a topic Jaeger also wrote about in a work I also hope to cover). There are more posts by them, easy to find browsing through the DBU Paideia College Society.

The Wikipedia entry on paideia

Werner Jaeger
Picture source

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The inventor of the cock-and-bull story?

I had more quotes from the recently released Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of Gab by Bohumil Hrabal that I didn't mention, but I didn't want the post to run too long. I stumbled across a copy of Hrabal's 1966 story collection The Death of Mr. Baltisberger (sometimes titled The World Cafeteria) and I realized the last entry in Rambling on was an introduction to the earlier collection. A passage in the earlier translation struck me as much as it did in the recent release, so I'll provide a short post with the "paragraph" that struck me. Well, paragraph is misleading for a six-page sentence, but you catch my drift. The earlier version was translated as "Handbook for the Apprentice Palaverer" by Michael Henry Heim, but I'll go with the recent version titled "An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of Gab" by David Short in the Karolinum Press edition.
…I'm a corresponding member of the Academy of Rambling-on, a student at the Department of Euphoria, my god is Dionysos, a drunken, sensuous young man, jocundity given human form, my church father is the ironic Socrates, who patiently engages with anybody so as to lead them by the tongue and through language to the very threshold of nescience, my first-born is Jaroslav Hašek, the inventory of the cock-and-bull story and a fertile genius and scribe who added human flesh to the firmament of prose and left writing to others, …

— from Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal
English translation by David Short
Afterword by Václav Kadlec
Illustrations by Jiří Grus
Charles University in Prague, Karolinum Press
ISBN: 978-80-246-2316-0

The end of this paragraph in Heim's translation is "and his human qualities made the others feel uncomfortable with their pens." When I hear cock-and-bull story, though, Laurence Sterne is the first name to come to mind. Heim's translation has a slightly different take—"inventor of the beer-hall story"—that sounds better, but even there I would argue with Hrabal about this. Over a pint in the pub, of course. But then, maybe that's what he intended.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal

Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal
English translation by David Short
Afterword by Václav Kadlec
Illustrations by Jiří Grus
Charles University in Prague, Karolinum Press
ISBN: 978-80-246-2316-0

Dear colleagues and friends,

On the occasion of 100th anniversary of Bohumil Hrabal's birth, we would like to present two new additions to the Fiction Series. The collection of stories entitled Rukověť pábitelského učně (Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab) contains Bohumil Hrabal's 1970s short stories. They are mostly texts written in and inspired by the community in Kersko. Our collection strives to recreate the author's original intentions, and thus presents even the stories left out due to the 1970s censorship.

Both Czech and English language versions are accompanied by Jiří Grus's original illustrations.

(from the Karolinum Press website)

One afternoon I was in a little restaurant/bar listening to a truck driver tell the most wonderful stories. No matter how outlandish or grotesque the tales, he could sell them as having really happened. Like the time he crested a hill in backwoods Arkansas and plowed into a herd of sheep…when you laugh at a man describing how he used a tire tool to pry dead sheep from his wheel wells you know you’re listening to a master storyteller.

I thought of that truck driver—what it takes and what it means to be a master storyteller—as I read these wonderful stories by Bohumil Hrabal. My posts on Hrabal have made it clear how much I enjoy his books, and this collection of short stories may be my favorite yet. The reader is immersed in the sylvan Kersko settlement located in Bohemia, where the forest, cottages, byres, and pubs are populated with memorable people and animals.

And the characters…ah, these creations are wonderful. There’s an old man with wild hair who enjoys watching his goats fight over the window seat of the car when he drives them to pasture. There’s two friends, both paralyzed below the waist, who share an insatiable love for life and beer—one of them permanently keeps a bottle-opener hanging from a string on his wheelchair. There’s a friend with the best intentions in the world repeatedly messing everything up, not to mention frequently missing a turn in the road and wrecking his car. There’s a nun who lovingly deals with her damaged wards. These characters are poignant and surprisingly real, expanding to a third dimension outside of the page.

The stories are funny and often frivolous, but they also take on a serious and bittersweet tone when broken dreams of what might have been come into play. Dark and troubling components, barely lurking beneath the surface, add ambiguity on how to read Hrabal’s stories. I’ll focus on some recurring themes in these stories that highlight that ambiguity.

Hrabal had a reputation for sitting in the pub, closely watching what went on around him and engaging in spirited conversations. The funniest stories in this collection usually involve a pub (or drinking in general) and the narrator’s neighbors and friends. The two paralyzed friends, for example, demonstrate a beautiful testament to true friendship. Friendships take on added dimensions as other components are added, though. Pranks played by friends on each other make the reader question if there is any difference in how they would treat people they despise. The mood swings of a pub owner make one narrator question if the two were really friends, acknowledging he goes through the same swings, treating his own friends the same way at times (although he forgives him during his next "up" swing). The loss of a friend in a story leads to a question of who was going to amuse the pub goers now, as if the value of a friend is solely based on entertainment value.

Entertainment value leads to a side-topic—the role of alcohol in these stories. The narrator of “Lucy and Polly” tells us that

from six o’clock onwards the sole preoccupation of any true man of Kresko and its forests is to spend a pleasant evening over a pint in the pub, and all the banter and chit-chat, the arguments and imbecilities are a brilliant way to unwind from our daily tribulations…”. (229)
Alcohol provides not just a social lubricant or relaxation but a form of entertainment in itself. Pub patrons laugh at each other’s misfortunes on their way home from a night of drinking. In my favorite story, “Beatrice,” the narrator describes children with mental and physical defects as having a “mantle of mercy” around them, shielding them from the horrors of their life. Alcohol provides a similar “mantle of mercy” for many of the characters in these stories as dreams are broken and power is wielded arbitrarily against them. In the extended opening sentence of “An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab,” which takes up almost the whole story, the narrator extols the usefulness of doing silly things like getting drunk “while there’s still plenty of time,” but also hints at the worthlessness of his life that such behavior masks. It’s one of many double-edged swords Hrabal wields in his stories.

The greatest ambiguity, though, comes in the role of storytelling. The collection of stories in this book is a testament and celebration of the art of storytelling. Questions about storytelling’s role in society and its purpose for listeners keep bubbling up in the text. The best storytellers in these stories usually have some sort of damage. In “Fining Salami” the storyteller talks about how great life was until his wife left. The narrator remarks that his stories have been repeated many times, not just to provide comfort but more than likely an escape. Details in stories that should cause shame reveal a type of pride, allowing the teller to share his embarrassment while embellishing what happened. Since many of the stories deal with a distant past, they seem to afford the teller a way to revel in youth again. While the stories offer a wistful look back, they often provide a painful comparison with the present.

The story of the troubled children mentioned in “Beatrice” provides a good example of the ambiguity in Hrabal’s use of storytelling. The narrator lovingly describes the children and their behavior, but he seems to revel in their pitiful situation since it provides a great story. When the narrator asks Sister Beatrice if it would have been better if the children had never been born, she replies “Homer was born blind,” a non sequitur given the dire condition of these kids. Instead of applying her reply to the children, though, the narrator reflects on how Homer continues to live through his stories. Many of these tales highlight characters who similarly seem to want to live on forever through their tales. Since Hrabal saw the state destroy entire printing runs of his books, it’s difficult not to apply this situation to him, too. As the narrator in “Beatrice” reflects, there is a “sacred radiance that irradiates everything” making what happens beautiful and breathtaking, but it is memory and storytelling that makes it last beyond the fleeting moment.

This collection of stories was originally subject to the Czechoslovakian censors. As in his other books, Hrabal’s subversion wavers between subtle jabs and over-the-top farce. The local police commandant, his chest full of medals, makes several appearances in these stories (once as a narrator). The villagers acquiesce to the arbitrary whims of officials and silly laws. I get the feeling that Hrabal isn’t necessarily political, it’s just that his experience with Communists provides so much rich material. There’s not many places you can read a great line like “We guard the substance of socialism against the foe, even if that foe turns out to be a feral cow.” Hrabal turns out to be an equal-opportunity lampooner, though. As Václav Kadlec points out in the Afterword, Hrabal focuses on the materialism of Czechs in his stories. While there is a subtle “West is best” message, providing soft jibes at the centrally guided state, Hrabal also highlights the dark side in consumerism. One narrator’s friend, obsessed with finding bargains, is “in reality a poor wretch who wished not to have to contemplate the pointlessness of not only his life but all life.” That escapism, whether through shopping, storytelling, or alcohol, provides a central theme to these stories.

There’s more in these stories, including echoes of history and meditations on eventual death, for the reader to explore. Thanks to Karolinum Press for putting out another wonderful book (and the University of Chicago Press for distributing it in the U.S.). I think this collection would be an excellent starting point for a reader wanting an introduction to Hrabal's writing. Very highly recommended.

Note: I’m working on getting a copy of Jiří Menzel’s movie version of “The Snowdrop Festival” that has English subtitles. I’ll post on it if I’m successful.

Illustration by Jiří Grus
Picture source

Note: A version of this review is also posted at The Mookse and the Gripes.

Update: There have been plenty of pieces written in celebration of what would have been Hrabal's 100th birthday this year. I'll include a few links from Radio Prague I have enjoyed:

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm
Alfred A. Knopf (March 2014)
ISBN: 978-0-307-59687-1

Seneca was born in 4 B.C. on the Iberian peninsula to the son of a accomplished rhetorician (Seneca the Elder). The young Seneca moved to Rome to study rhetoric and was introduced to Stoic philosophy. Entering politics he rose to the rank of Consul but ran afoul with Caligula. Banished to Corsica under Claudius (at the bidding of Claudius’ third wife Messalina), Seneca eventually returned to Rome to tutor the future emporer Nero, Claudius’ fourth wife’s (Agrippina’s) son. His writings include philosophical essays and letters along with chilling tragedies. Seneca became a close adviser to Nero on the emperor’s ascension to the throne. Nero spiraled out of control and Seneca was implicated in a plot to assassinate the emperor. Seneca committed suicide in 65 A.D. at Nero’s request.

How should we view Seneca? James Romm opens his book with divergent possibilities passed down through history: a Stoic philosopher, doing his best to minimize the actions of a deranged emperor, or maybe an opportunistic manipulator, enriching himself at others’ expense while hypocritically preaching virtue and ethics. Maybe a truer course in evaluating him lies somewhere between these two extremes, where “Seneca merely got more adept at weaving his opportunistic stratagems into the weft of his philosophic discourse” (page 217, footnote to page 14)

The debate ofver the appropriate view of Seneca began in his own lifetime and included some of Rome’s most famous early historians, adding to the difficulty in uncovering a “real” Seneca. Cassius Dio, relying on writers close to Seneca’s own time, paints a negative picture in his Roman History. The anonymous writer of the play Octavia (written around 70 A.D.) emphasizes Senca’s role as Stoic philosopher. The Annals of Tacitus walks between those two extremes, providing an ambiguous account of Seneca. As Romm puts it, “Seneca posed a riddle he [Tacitus] could not solve.”

There are two terms describing Senca that were used during or just after his lifetime, capturing the difficulty in a conclusive evaluation. On one hand Seneca is described by an ancient Greek term, tyrannodidasklalos (“tyrant teacher”), emphasizing his role as tutor to Nero, an emperor obsequiously lauded when he became emperor but eventually spun out of control. Pliny the Elder, though, provides the description princeps eruditorum (“princeps of the wise”), a wry phrase that may contain layers of irony.

While in exile Seneca wrote about how much he enjoyed his life in Corsica:

Why would any devoted Stoic, having found a paradise of Reason beneath a benign firmament, ever return to the cesspool [he] called Rome? The question goes to the heart of the enigma of Seneca’s life. Seneca’s friends and supporters recognized its importance, for the suggested, in the play Octavia, and elsewhere, that his return to Rome from Corsica, eight years after leaving the city, was not voluntary. But Seneca gives them the lie in his own writings. In a second open letter from exile, probably written a year or two after the first, Seneca showed, obliquely but urgently, that he was desperate to be recalled by the emperor Claudius. (28)

There are plenty of great characters around Seneca that come to life in Romm’s account. Central to the story is Nero, becoming emperor as a teen but lacking anything resembling a moral compass. Nero’s mother Agrippina viewed anything deviating from her plans, including Nero’s sexual partners, as subversive. There’s the dissent of Thrasea Paetus, a curmudgeonly senator who made a persistent show of not supporting Nero. Seneca found himself in the center of a scheming, violent world, where his guilt by association (and likely more) is probable in several murders carried out by or for the emperor. Just reading Seneca’s transparent lies in support of Nero leaves a bitter taste that could (and probably should) taint all judgment on his writings.

To partially mitigate some of that harsh judgment, Romm provides details on the nature of political power in Seneca’s time. The line of emperors had been hereditary (or some convoluted version) down to Nero. Regime change was extremely unlikely, carrying a high price for unsuccessful attempts, while simply mentioning it could prove an unhealthy exercise to the writer, his family, etc. In addition to these circumstances, what tied Seneca to Nero? Romm highlights how members of Seneca’s family were dependent on Nero's good graces, providing something akin to a hostage situation. There was the wealth that Seneca amassed since his return from banishment. It’s possible that Seneca believed he could soften Nero’s rule, avoiding situations that would be far worse without him as an adviser. There’s evidence that Seneca may have tried to escape from Nero’s court, or at least reduce his role. Unfortunately the moral stature that landed Seneca his job as Nero’s tutor kept him chained to Nero’s rule to provide legitimacy. Romm stresses the fateful return from exile, a decision that determined the remainder of Seneca’s life. Seneca revisited that decision, directly or obliquely, in his writings, most powerfully in his drama Thyestes.

Romm explores the two worlds of Seneca, political and philosophical, and admits he is unable to reconcile the “two Senecas together into a single personality.” While slightly emphasizing the political angle, Romm stresses the equality of the two worlds. A major focus of the book is to place Seneca’s work in a historical context, understanding what was going on politically at the (estimated) time of a work’s writing as well as what was happening in Seneca’s personal life. In evaluating any writer's work there is a question of how much of their personal life to attribute to the text, and Seneca’s writings raise the same issue. An additional drawback to this approach is the uncertainty of the timing of most of Seneca's work, so if Romm is wrong in his estimation then much of what follows could be called into question.

Romm stresses the need to read Seneca’s philosophical writings and his tragedies as a whole, even though they "inhabit two nearly opposite moral universes at the same time." (76) Despite the differences between the two forms—the tragedies contain plenty of despair and nihilism while his philosophical prose works are optimistic about humanity (linking piety, reason, and the gods)—they need to be evaluated together to provide a clearer picture of the writer.

Romm walks a fine line in the book by evaluating many of Seneca's writings as playing a "double game," which would "expound his Stoic ideals and improve his political image." (54) He makes it clear that Seneca's work should NOT be read for coded messages or ulterior motives, rather that his works have dual purposes and should be read accordingly. I have put together a summary of what I got from Romm's text on these dual purposes in some of Seneca's works (and added a few things I found strange about these works).

If you get turned around in following the Julio-Claudian family tree (as I do), Romm does a good job of describing the intricacies and importance of the relationships. Fortunately there are some helpful graphics available online, such as this one, to help keep things straight. It would have been nice to have something similar in the book, pared down for the principle characters and lines mentioned.

Romm’s writing (as in Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire) is fast-paced and easy to follow. The question that lurked in the back of my mind while reading this, though, was who is this book written for (besides my obvious interest)? In focusing on Seneca’s careers and his writings in particular, the reader gets plenty of historical background on the author and Nero, but the book isn’t a biography of either man nor a complete history of Rome during this period. Romm stresses this point in advance. His focus is on reconciling the two sides of Seneca, a task he admits may be impossible. For someone that knows little or nothing about Seneca and wants to read his work, this book provides one way *how* to read him and what to look for in addition to the standard introductory summaries of his works. For anyone more familiar with the writer or the times, it would still provide a good overview on the arguments of how to view Seneca and his writings.

Romm explains how he arrives at many of his opinions given the many contradictory facts and opinions about Seneca. He doesn’t shy away from providing competing positions either…be sure to read the footnotes for some interesting places to dig deeper for various viewpoints. Romm may feel he has failed at unifying the two sides of Seneca, but he has succeeded in highlighting the human nature of Seneca and what that meant for both the courtier and the writer. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 09, 2014

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree By Wilma Stockenström

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree By Wilma Stockenström
Translated from the Afrikaans by J. M. Coetzee
Archipelago Books (April 2014)
ISBN: 978-1-935744-92-4

The insult of not being allowed to be human that I have overcome. All ugly visions too, of hairy huts and skew door openings that try to entice me in and lock me up, all false solutions, all wrong exits; for I myself determine appearance and reality. I rule. I dream outwards and with the self-assurance of those who have long ago discerned that it is all just appearance I smile to myself, follow my own path diligently, will drink this parting poison gift in the nourishing awareness that dream leads to dream. (117-8)

I have so much to tell of a trip to a new horizon that became an expedition to a tree. (34)

In this disturbing and lyrical novel we follow the many paths of a former slave’s memory. The narrator had been sold into slavery as a little girl, passed along to other owners once she has either served her purpose or her owner dies. The story begins with her describing her life in a southern African veld, where she now lives in freedom and relative safety of a baobab tree. Her life now provides plenty of time for her to muse on her past life as a slave and her current status as a free woman.

As a little girl she was captured along with other villagers and sold to an owner who specifically acquired young girls to deflower them. Although she gave birth to several babies they were all taken away from her and sold. Other owners have used, abused, or befriended her. Upon the death one owner his youngest son “inherits” her and treats her as a companion. She accompanies him on an expedition across southern Africa, where both of them are betrayed by her benefactor's oldest brother and left to die in the veld. She survives, barely, and makes finds a home in a baobab tree.

Stockenström avoids presenting a clichéd character by providing the unnamed narrator (none of the characters are given names) with complex, often contradictory thoughts. The mixed messages provide the most disturbing and realistic parts of the story, especially when she notes how much she enjoyed some of her roles as a slave. The narrator notes, “It was the privilege of a slave girl to have everything given to her.” She luxuriated in what one owner provided her, reminiscing, “I was the head slave girl of the richest man here. I had more power than many a wife. Love of ease characterized my life.” Compared to her free life she recalls that it was “pleasantly advantageous and easy to be property.” When reflecting on the mentality of several of the owners, she tends to see herself as a parasite, assessing her worth only by the price she brings in the marketplace.

Disquieting meditations also temper her initial enjoyment of freedom. She feels inferior to the beasts in the wild since she has little knowledge of survival—her former refinements are of no use here—while at the same time she becomes irritated when wild animals treat her as an equal (the correlations are too easy). She finds her language and intellect inadequate when she is unable to name things, such as trees or fruit, but she’s able to provide moving descriptions about how she feels. Her relationship with the “little people” of the bush turns problematic. She would have not survived without their help of food and clothes, but when she tries to obtain a formal recognition of her existence from them she realizes she has stepped over unspoken rules. Even though she relies on the “little people” for survival, it’s a voluntary arrangement on both their parts. She believes at times she only exists in dreams, hers and others, feeling most alone when she discovers a piece of ‘humanware’, which reminds her she has no one to share it with. “It is a strange experience to share a life without contact.” Given the nature of contact she has survived provides quite a pause for what it is she actually longs for.

Most of the second half of the story covers the expedition her last owner and his oldest brother take to discover an overland route to a rumored city. While the entire story is just over 120 pages and even that feels too long at times, this extended episode gives the narrator time to highlight the “dream of the unknown. The enticement of the foreign.” It also allows her to focus on the dissoluteness of much of the current owner's family while providing some detail on how she ended up living in the baobab tree.

The last few pages include several heartrending moments, the most moving for me was the narrator’s musing on death, leading to thoughts about her stillborn child:

I crouched in the belly of the tree and understood the flickering train of thought in my baby who had chosen darkness over the light of life. It was an ecstasy of never being. It was the only true victory: neither death nor life had meaning. It was equilibrium. It was the perfection of non-being. (122-3)

Is that what the narrator has been striving for? She reaches a state where she longs for nothing anymore, but that doesn’t seem enough for someone that has witnessed and experienced so many atrocities. It’s a disturbing journey through the many pathways of this former slave’s memory, which gives this short book its power. Highly recommended.

Excerpts can be found at Aymptote Journal and Guernica. The page at Asymptote also has a translator’s note from J. M. Coetzee.

Note: A version of this review is also posted at The Mookse and the Gripes.