Monday, July 30, 2018

Life in Bucharest

Life Begins on Friday 

Life Begins on Friday

"The people of Bucharest were having a bad day. It had snowed , there were still twelve days till the end of the year, and twelve hours till the end of the day."

This is a feel good novel busy with everyday life as lived by a large cast of singular individuals. It all takes place with seasonal aplomb during the final 13 days of 1897.
A young aristocrat is discovered lying in the snow, mortally wounded. He takes a while to die, uttering something mysterious as he expires. Nearby another man is also found. He is not injured, only confused, certain only that his name is Dan. He is briefly suspected of the shooting. His mildness helps confirm his innocence, while his strange footwear suggests he has come from afar. Life moves on, very quickly.

There is also a generous amount of snow: “there were still twelve days till the end of the year . . . the whiteness, which stretched from one end of the city to the other, from the Cotroceni Palace to the Obor district . . . was melting in the afternoon sun.
“The icicles looked as if they were coated in oil and were beginning to drip onto the heads of the passers-by. The streets were quite busy, as they always were on the days before Christmas.”

Into the chaos stumbles little Nicu the messenger boy and he really does trip in the snow. He is eight years old and as lively as he should be at his age – free to run around a bustling metropolis mixing with grown ups who, with one dastardly exception, are kindly to him. The boy is also bothered with the troubles of his mother, a washerwoman who suffers from mental illness. His life is precarious and much sadder since the death of his grandmother. But Nicu, the heart of the novel, is reliable and is trusted to run errands. He has many friendships, including those with the family of Dr Margulis, that lead him into complicated and interesting escapades.

All the characters, if not quite connected, run parallel to each other. Nicu’s daily chores bring him to the quaintly atmospheric newspaper office, and Parvulescu revels in recalling the glory days of journalism. The office, dominated by two very different brothers, is busy and the staff is engaged, eccentric and dedicated. Various stories are doing the rounds. It is a different world, the world of yesteryear.

Hapless mystery man Dan is given a job on the paper as he claims to be a journalist and, having been presented with a test story, proves his competence. Dan is a present-day journalist who has somehow stepped back in time. Exactly how is not explained but no one should apply a literal reading to this incidental, episodic narrative. Dan’s plight causes him to open his eyes and begin to live. He looks about him and notices: “ . . . carriages to which were harnessed pairs of glossy horses, an ox cart creaking under a gigantic barrel, hansoms, irritable coachmen . . . the people were seemingly all dressed in the same fashion, one matching the other. The ladies wore hats swathed in scarves tied beneath the chin; their waists were unnaturally slender and their heavy garments reached to the ground. The men all had bowler hats and canes.” Dan feels happier. “It was as if I found myself in the world of a young and active God, having lived in an increasingly ruinous world that had lost its God or which had been lost by God.”

Life Begins on Friday was first published in Romania in 2009. Within the pages of this delightful and surprising novel these stories and others are interwoven with each other - while the most significant character of all turns out to be the city of Bucharest itself. The prose is descriptive and the tone formal yet conversation. Translator Alistair Ian Blyth skillfully negotiates the shifts between first and third person, and contrasting voices. Parvulescu’s engaging characterization drives a narrative of loose ends which is far more about human responses to events, major and routine, than to story. Old world charm, a sense of period and the very human individuals who populate it makes this novel a rare delight to be enjoyed, whether or not it is snowing outside.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Education in the Art of Love

The Art of Love 
by Ovid

The Art of Love

"If anyone among this people know not the art of loving, let him read my poem, and having read be skilled in love. By skill swift ships are sailed and rowed, by skill nimble chariots are driven: by skill love must be guided."
- The Art of Love, Book I, 1-4.

The art of love encompasses three books by Ovid. Using an elegiac verse style he expounds the varieties of amorous and erotic adventure in graceful language. Originally written for the sophisticated society of Augustan Rome, his poetry has continued to entertain and entrance readers ever since.

The first two books contain advice for the predatory male, but the third Ovid devotes to the opposite sex, to avoid, as he affects to say, any charge of partiality. The whole is in the mode of the erotic Alexandrian elegy, but leavened with Ovid's wit. The tradition appears to be rooted in Asia Minor due to the nature of the diction. While the elegy was originally primarily made of laments there were erotic elegies before Ovid. Among the Greeks Mimnermus and Theognis were considered great elegiasts.

The book is filled with stories and advice, here is a sample: 

“You ask perhaps if one should take the maid herself? Such a plan brings the greatest risk with it. In one case, fresh from bed, she’ll get busy, in another be tardy, in one case you’re a prize for her mistress, in the other herself. There’s chance in it: even if it favors the idea, my advice nevertheless is to abstain. I don’t pick my way over sharp peaks and precipices, no youth will be caught out being lead by me. Still, while she’s giving and taking messages, if her body pleases you as much as her zeal, make the lady your first priority, her companion the next: Love should never be begun with a servant.” 

Ovid gives a sympathetic insight into a society that was becoming consumed with a moral laxity. By contrast Horace provided a more moralistic tone of censure in his Satires. The work has enjoyed a continuing popularity ; Ovid's knowledge of human, particularly of feminine, nature, the brilliant picture of the social life of Rome, the studied artlessness of the comparisons he draws from animals and from pursuits such as hunting, farming, or sailing, the narratives that he cannot resist interweaving with his teaching---all these elements, together with a considerable degree of humor and irresistible wit, have combined to give the work a unique attractiveness. However the result of Ovid's sympathetic eroticism was the arousal of the disfavor of Augustus; Ovid was exiled for life to the coast of the Black Sea, and felt that his poetry was at least partially responsible for his misfortune. We are fortunate that the text has endured.

"But avoid men who profess elegance and good looks, and who arrange their hair in its proper place. What they tell you they have told a thousand women; their fancy wanders, and has no fixed abode." - The Art of Love, Book III, 433-36.

Monday, July 09, 2018

A Hieroglyphic World

The Age of Innocence 

The Age of Innocence

“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.”   ― Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence is the twelfth novel published by Edith Wharton, winning for her the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The story is set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s. It centers on the impending marriage of an upper-class couple, Newland Archer and May Welland. And the introduction of a woman, Ellen Olenska, plagued by scandal whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and morals of 1870s' New York society, it never devolves into an outright condemnation of the institution. In fact, Wharton considered this novel an "apology" for her earlier, more brutal and critical novel, The House of Mirth.

Apology it may be, but it still has biting passages and moments of silent despair for the primary characters of Newland and Ellen. And there is the sacrifice of artistic, romantic impulses for family duty and societal respectability. Newland Archer, a young lawyer from one of New York's best families, thinks he is in love with the exotic Countess Ellen Olenska and even entertains the thought of leaving his wife for her, but when he learns that his wife May is pregnant, he abandons all hope of love and happiness and decides to stay with May.

The difficulty of genuine human communication in the upper strata of society is an important theme in the Archer plot. Newland Archer lives in what Wharton calls "a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs." Most of the important personal communications between Archer and his wife are left unsaid. Many times Archer imagines what she is saying to him (or more complicated yet what she thinks he is saying to her), but of course Archer may be reading the hieroglyphics wrong. Because so little that is felt is actually expressed, Archer at times appears to be having an internal dialogue with himself.

Wharton's attention to the mores of the upper class includes details based on her own experience. But her insights into the psychology of the characters, especially Newland and Ellen as noted above, were what I found most interesting. The regrets of an aging man for what might have been have seldom been limned as well as in Miss Wharton's story.

Critics praised her novel The Age of Innocence most highly among all her works. Set in New York of the 1870s, it displays the sometimes rigid customs of New York’s wealthy elite and the difficulties that its members sometimes have in departing from these customs in order to pursue desire that is outside their bounds. It was lauded for its accurate portrayal of how the 19th-century East Coast American upper class lived, and this, combined with the social tragedy, earned Wharton a Pulitzer Prize — the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman. Edith Wharton was 58 years old at publication; she lived in that world, and saw it change dramatically by the end of World War I. The title may be read as an ironic comment on the polished outward manners of New York society, when compared to its inward machinations. This is the best of her novels in my estimation, although the bittersweet The House of Mirth is my personal favorite.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Poet for an Age

The Collected Poems
 of W.B. Yeats 

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart;"
- "The Second Coming"

I have enjoyed the poetry of William Butler Yeats for many years as evidenced by my well-worn copy of his Complete Poems. But there is more to enjoy when considering this protean author for throughout his long life, William Butler Yeats produced important works in every literary genre, works of astonishing range, energy, erudition, beauty, and skill. His early poetry is memorable and moving. His poems and plays of middle age address the human condition with language that has entered our vocabulary for cataclysmic personal and world events.

"O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?"
("Among School Children", p 105)

The writings of his final years offer wisdom, courage, humor, and sheer technical virtuosity. T. S. Eliot pronounced Yeats "the greatest poet of our time -- certainly the greatest in this language, and so far as I am able to judge, in any language" and "one of the few whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them."
He was also a great poetic chronicler of his homeland as can be seen in these lines:

"The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans."
("The Wild Swans at Coole", p 131)

There are always new things to be learned, new sounds to sing to, and new beauty by which to be possessed, when reading and meditating on the poetry of this masterful author.