Lowly Creatures

The garden spiders are getting fat this time of year. Overnight they close off new paths between the back porch and the jasmine, the alder and the wood cabinet, the chicken coop and the Japanese maple. The webs can be four feet across but are invisible until I walk through them, feel them clinging to the hairs of my arm, see the blurred form of the spider itself dangling in front of my glasses.

There are more mosquitoes in the city this summer than I recall from past years. We set up a screen and projector in a corner of the yard and watched Grease one night. We ate citrus-flavored ice pops and the kids groaned at every song. No one escaped unbitten. We counted up our welts and compared them the next day.

Meanwhile ants make daring incursions into the house. I left the dog’s breakfast uncovered on our way out the door for Mass one Sunday. Coming home, we found the bowl crawling with them and a highway six lanes wide that started under the front door and wound impressively through the living and dining rooms.

In his 1954 autobiography, Scottish poet Edwin Muir says we feel a special fascination and horror for insects as children because we’re physically nearer to them than to the airy world of the adults who tower over us and live their lives in the clouds. He writes:

The insects were all characters to me, interesting but squalid, with thoughts that could never be penetrated, inconceivable aims, perverse activities. I knew their names, which so exactly fitted them as characters: the Jenny Hunderlegs, the gavelock, the forkytail, the slater – the underworld of my little underworld… Their presence troubled me as the mind is troubled in adolescence by the realization of physical lust. The gavelocks and forkytails were my first intimation of evil, and associations of evil still cling round them for me, as, I fancy, for most people.

On a camping trip as a boy, I once found what I imagined to be a tiny dinosaur with a low, squat body and a small head raised up on a long neck. I was charmed and nearly snatched it up in my hand but instead called an older boy over to show him. He explained that it was, in fact, a poisonous scorpion and I was looking at it the wrong way round. For weeks I got chills just thinking about it.

I’m not bothered by most creepy crawlies anymore, but the house centipedes that scramble across the concrete floor of the basement make me uneasy: living, panicked eyebrows of dissolute old men who’ve been up to bad things and fear the light. And when I snip off dahlia blossoms from the garden and put them in a vase, only for two dozen earwigs (Muir’s forkytails) to drop out from among the petals, I do feel a little sick.

Some insects, however, are magic. The other night I was watering the back garden at twilight. The first stars were coming out in the east, while the west was still fading to purple. As I turned the hose toward the ferns and ivy that grow against the fence, orange Isabella tiger moths one after another came fluttering from the shadows to brush against my face and fly up toward the sickle moon.


In today’s Prufrock newsletter, Micah Mattix gently ridicules an essay by Leslie Kendall Dye about how the arrangement of books in her Manhattan apartment make a sort of “emotional map” of her personality. God preserve us from book fetishists and mystics! You want to know what the arrangement of books in my house says about me? It says I’m a lazy slob. Yes, as Mattix points out, readers are naturally curious about the bookshelves of other readers, but let’s not scrutinize our own stacks for insight into our hearts and personalities. You want to know the truth about yourself? Step one: Go to Confession.

Patrick Kurp in Anecdotal Evidence today plays a different kind of bookshelf game: “Pick any bookcase in your own house. Bottom shelf. Eighth book from the left. What is it?” I consulted the largest bookcase I own and the answer is a 1955 hardcover Humanities textbook by William Fleming titled Arts and Ideas. My dad had a copy he’d purchased for some high school or college course. As a teenager, I loved this book. Not that I read or understood much of it, but I liked the pictures and especially the floorplan diagrams of famous European cathedrals, which inspired me to buy massive sheets of graph paper and design my own. In my dad’s copy, I remember he had crossed out the chapter title for the “Baroque” period and written “Broke” instead.

MacDuff vs. Pevear & Volokhonsky

For a long time I’ve admired re-readers like Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence, but it’s a rare thing for me to re-read even my favorite novels. This summer, however, I’ve decided to make a change and finally revisit a half dozen or so of the Greatest Hits in my reading life. I’m starting with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I last read (can it be?) thirty years ago.

I own a battered paperback of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation but perhaps, I thought, I should try something different. I hoped to turn up a decent copy of the old Constance Garnett translation, since I’ve enjoyed her Chekhov and Tolstoy translations so much, but no luck. My patience ran out and I bought David MacDuff’s 1993 translation for Penguin instead.

It went pretty well for the first hundred or so pages but then I began to compare the two translations and, well, let’s just say that I’ve set aside the MacDuff and returned to my yellowing, dog-eared P&V. Husband-and-wife translation machine Pevear and Volokhonsky get mixed press these days but comparing them with MacDuff, I begin to think that perhaps they really deserved the accolades and awards they won for their 1990 translation of The Brothers Karamazov after all.

I’ve collected some comparison passages to illustrate why I say so, but first this caveat: I cannot read Russian; I am a monolingual English speaker; I don’t know which translation is more accurate; I can only say which I prefer, and why. All right, let’s begin with this passage from MacDuff, describing Fyodor Pavlovich after he’s just burst in to disrupt a fancy luncheon at the monastery:

“And although he was very well aware that with each word he pronounced he would add an even greater quantity of even more absurd rubbish to what he had already delivered, he was unable to hold himself in check and went plummeting down as though over a precipice.”

Note the Britishism (“rubbish”). MacDuff is a Scot, so it’s allowed, but he throws out others that feel more awkward, like “chap” and “pater” (which makes Dmitry, when he says it, sound like an English baronet’s brat).  Here’s how P&V render it:

“And though he knew perfectly well that with each word he would be adding more and more absurdities of the same sort to the nonsense he had already spoken, still he could not help himself and plunged headlong off the mountain.”

The P&V version is shorter, crisper, and I find “plunged headlong off the mountain” more visually engaging than “went plummeting down as though over a precipice.”

Next up is a passage from only a few pages later. Alyosha is walking back from Elder Zosima’s hermitage toward the monastery where he was to help serve lunch. As he approaches, however, he sees his father, his brother Ivan, and several others departing suddenly amid shouts and accusations. His father tells him he must immediately leave the monastery where he’s been living as a novice and come home.

MacDuff’s translation:

“Alyosha, upon hearing the injunction of his father hurled at him by the latter from his carriage as he left the monastery, stood still for some time in great bewilderment. Not that he stood dumbfounded, for that never happened to him.”

A bit wordy, first off. But what, I ask, is the difference between “standing still…in great bewilderment” and “[standing] dumfounded”? Not much that I can parse out. For all I know, MacDuff may be the more accurate here, but P/V render the passage in a way that helps me to sense a distinction and keeps me from stumbling as I read:

“Alyosha, having heard the order his father shouted to him from the carriage as he was leaving the monastery, remained for a while in great perplexity. Not that he stood there like a post – such things did not happen to him.”

Finally, here’s a somewhat longer passage from the same page. I think it illustrates, in miniature, all that’s distinctive between the two versions. MacDuff gives us:

“He knew only too well that the injunction, issued out loud and with such ostentatious clamour, had been made ‘in the heat of the moment,’ for the sake, as it were, even, of aesthetic effect – in much the same way as recently an over-inebriated artisan of their little town who on his own name day and in the presence of guests, losing his temper on being refused any more vodka, had suddenly begun to smash his own crockery, rend his own clothing and that of his wife, break his furniture and ultimately the windows of the house, and all of this for nothing but the sake of aesthetic effect.”

Note MacDuff’s choice of words: “injunction,” “clamour,” “over-inebriated,” “artisan,” “aesthetic effect.” He tends toward Latinate polysyllables and abstract or general terms rather than language that appeals to the senses. Pevear and Volokhonsky improve on these points when they translate the passage:

“He understood that the order to move, given aloud and with such ostentatious shouting, was given ‘in passion’, even for the beauty of it, so to speak – just as recently in our own town a tradesman who got a little too merry at his own birthday party, in front of his guests, became angry when they would not give him any more vodka and suddenly began smashing his own dishes, tearing up his and his wife’s clothes, breaking his furniture, and, finally, the windows, and all again for the beauty of it.”

MacDuff is probably more accurate in saying “name day” rather than “birthday” – since in many European (and especially Orthodox) countries a person’s name day (patron saint’s feast day) is traditionally celebrated in the way English speakers celebrate a birthday. But P&V use fewer – and generally, simpler – words, and are plain better at drawing the scene.

Miscellaneous Book Notes

~ Into the Silence by Wade Davis ~

Some books are longer than their page count, and this is one of them. Into the Silence runs 600 pages but reads twice as long. I give Davis credit for being a good storyteller and marshalling his source material with skill. His WWI battlefield descriptions nearly rival those in Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel. Davis’s narrative of British-Tibetan relations and of the 1921-4 expeditions to Everest are full of fascinating tidbits. It’s all just too much. Too much detail. Too many people. I don’t need to know what George Mallory ate for breakfast each morning.

I’m sure it doesn’t help that I read Into the Silence while sick. I can thank Davis for several nights of phantasmagorical fever dreams: trenches full of stinking human gore; the incessant, demonic roar of guns at the Somme; hot-house jungles thick with leeches and screaming monkeys; moonscape steppes and distant vistas of extra-terrestrially large mountain ranges; wilderness caves inhabited by filthy, half-naked holy men mumbling incantations while shouldering tridents and drinking butter tea from human skulls.

I recovered from my flu and finished the book at about the same time. Coincidence?

~ The Quarter by Naguid Mahfouz ~

What’s the difference between a simple story and a “deceptively simple” story? Perhaps the latter rewards meditation, or lingers in the memory, in a way the former does not. Or perhaps a “deceptively simple” story obscures the skill of the writer in the same way a violinist’s apparently effortless performance of a Bach sonata hides years of practice.

Both of these, I think, help to explain the appeal of this collection of apparently simple stories set in a single Cairo neighborhood.

~ Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel ~

I wanted to give Emily St. John Mandel another chance. Several years ago I had been hooked by the basic premise of Station Eleven (a traveling theater troop in post-apocalyptic North America) but was disappointed by the performance. In my review of Station Eleven I complained that the characters were flat and the prose smelled of a writers’ workshop retreat. Things do not improve with Sea of Tranquility.

Cardboard characters and insipid dialogue aren’t the worst of it, however. There’s an embarrassing amount of self-reference. The character of Olive Llewellyn, a transparent alter-ego for Mandel, is on a book tour in the year 2203. The fandom is overwhelming. The book she’s promoting involves (like Station Eleven) a viral pandemic, and – irony of ironies – an actual pandemic breaks out while Llewellyn’s on tour (which also happened to Mandel). How gratifying for Llewellyn/Mandel to learn (since Sea of Tranquility leap-frogs timelines) that her books are still read and admired 200/400 years later in the 25th-century!

Mandel also panders to the fads and politics of the moment. As I couldn’t help noticing at the time, Station Eleven had a cast of characters exemplary in its racial/ethnic diversity. That was 2015, however, and now it’s not kosher for white authors like Mandel to write about non-white characters. She’s still careful to display her progressive bona fides by including six same-sex couples – I counted them – among the characters in Sea of Tranquility. Nothing should be off-limits in fiction, of course, but in Mandel’s case these are the self-conscious choices of a careerist rather than an artist.

No more Mandel for me. I should have known better. How does the saying go? “…Fool me twice, shame on me.”

“I Would Net Them If I Could”

~ John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr ~

I have an awful cold today and can’t think to write well but I want to share a quote from Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life. A Cambridge don, Scurr has a gift for writing unusual biographies. I very much enjoyed her most recent book, Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows, which I wrote about here. Scurr’s book on Aubrey was published a few years earlier.

John Aubrey lived through some of England’s most tumultuous decades. Born in the reign of Charles I, he grew up in the shadow of the last generation of Elizabethans. As an on-and-off student at Oxford he witnessed but did not participate in the Civil War. He made as few waves as possible during the Protectorate, the Restoration of the Stuarts in the person of Charles II, the brief reign of Catholic James II, and the “Glorious Revolution” that put the more respectably Protestant William and Mary on the throne. Interspersed among these was the plague year of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666.

Aubrey lacks the gravitas of Milton, the flair of Pepys, the joy of Traherne, the omnivorous intellect of Browne, and the encyclopedic genius of Burton, but he still makes easy friends of those who discover him through his wonderful, gossipy Brief Lives, which was only published a hundred years after his death. He knew – and wrote about – everyone, and yet in some ways he hardly belonged to his own era. Aubrey was an antiquarian from the cradle (and one of the first-recorded Stonehenge obsessives). His interest was always The Past and the people who inhabited it, and he was determined to ensure that as little of it as possible would be lost to oblivion through the forgetfulness and violence of men.

Scurr presents Aubrey’s life in the form of a journal, one that he never wrote. She pulls from letters, notebooks, and manuscripts (published and unpublished) to stitch together his life history in the first person, updating the spelling and punctuation and filling gaps here and there with her own inspired interpolations. It’s a risky experiment, but it works. You can hardly tell where Aubrey ends and Scurr begins.

But all of this is by way of preface to the quote I wanted to share, in which Aubrey bemoans the loss of historical knowledge that followed Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Scurr in her notes sources this passage from “MS Aubrey 2, fol. 18b”:

“My grandfather says that in his time all music books, account books, copybooks, etc. were covered with pages of antiquity, and the glovers at Malmesbury even used them to wrap their gloves for sale. He says that over the last century, a world of rarities has perished hereabouts. Before that, they were safe in the libraries of Malmesbury Abbey, Broad Stock Priory, Stan Leigh Abbey, Farleigh Abbey, Bath Abbey, and Cirencester Abbey. All these old buildings are within twelve miles of my home. But when the great change – the Dissolution – came, the religious houses were emptied, the occupants all turned out in the road, and their manuscripts went flying like butterflies through the air. A hundred years later, it seems to me that they are still on the wing. I would net them if I could. It hurts my eyes and heart to see fragile painted pages used to line pastry dishes, to bung up bottles, to cover schoolbooks, or make templates beneath a tailor’s scissors.”

Here’s where, in my best curmudgeonly style, I say that Aubrey’s time (or, more broadly, the long aftermath of the Reformation) is not so different from our own. Of course, human nature being a constant, no time or culture can be entirely alien to any other, but perhaps there are special parallels between England in the seventeenth century and life in the Anglophone West today.

We are living through a period of intense scrutiny of our own history. It has the intensity of hatred, and specifically of self-hatred, and it is wed to a ferocious determination to efface and rewrite everything that offends enlightened contemporary sensibilities. Our time, like Aubrey’s, is one of jostling interests, radical impulses, and the redefinition of old terms. Those stoking the fire we boil in assure us it’s a necessary purging – that our pain is “progress” – and that beyond the cauldron we’ll luxuriate in a new Age of Aquarius.

Those of us who question or reject this (dishonest) project are considered irrelevant at best, and at worst obstacles in need of removal. But to tell the truth, there’s little we can do. We can’t even be sure what comes next week, and most of those who in their own generation would stand athwart history and yell “stop” are never even noticed. We can try, in small ways, to belong as little as possible to our own era, but there’s no escaping the air we must breathe. The past is consumed and flies off into the sky – like sparks from a fire, like butterflies. Perhaps the best we can do is to take a cue from Aubrey, break out our nets, and catch what we can.

O Fortuna!

~ Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington ~

Booth Tarkington is unfashionable these days, and has been for years. A figure of the so-called “Golden Age of Literature in Indiana,” Tarkington wrote more than two dozen novels and, from 1902 to 1903, served as a member of the Indiana House of Representatives. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice, and several of his books were made into movies, but next to no one reads them anymore. Tarkington is unfashionable in large part because he seems overfond of the term “darkies,” but I also can’t help thinking his name does him no favors. It’s the kind of name George Lucas might have dreamt up on a bad day for a minor character in one of his Star Wars sequels.

Alice Adams (1921) is the second of Tarkington’s novels I’ve read, after The Magnificent Ambersons (1918). The latter is probably more ambitious, tracking the fortunes of a family being ground through the gears of modernity at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Alice Adams (made into a 1935 movie starring Katharine Hepburn) is more domestic, focused on the matrimonial, social, and financial ambitions of the twenty-two year old heroine, her ailing father, her mother (a sort of Lady Macbeth of Indiana), and her problematic younger brother.

Tarkington writes with clarity and some style, and he tells a good story, but he excels at drawing scenes and characters, which is what (in my opinion) contemporary writers are most of the time so poor at. I’m regularly disappointed at the lack of sincere interest today’s novelists are able to stir up in me for their characters. (The only exception I can cite from books I’ve read in the past few years is Elena Ferrante’s stunning My Brilliant Friend). For Tarkington, it feels effortless. For example, when Alice Adams says of her brother Walter, “Everything he does or says seems to be acted for the benefit of some mysterious audience inside himself, and he always gets its applause,” we see both Walter and Alice more clearly, and we want to see more.

In his own era Tarkington was more a popular than a “literary” writer. That, too, may help account for the fact that we’ve forgotten him. And yet, if you can muster the courage to look past the casual racism, you’ll find an affection for human relations, a maturity of perspective, and even a wisdom that are in short supply among authors today who use – and avoid – all the right words. Only fools will prefer fashion to substance. Alice Adams herself hits the nail on the head: “It’s funny; but we don’t often make people think what we want ‘em to, mama. You do thus and so; and you tell yourself, ‘Now, seeing me do thus and so, people will naturally think this and that’; but they don’t. They think something else – usually just what you don’t want ‘em to. I suppose about the only good in pretending is the fun we get out of fooling ourselves that we fool somebody.”

Pretty Things

~ A Few Collectors by Pierre Le-Tan ~

The late French illustrator Pierre Le-Tan (who published his first New Yorker cover at age 19) was a collector of art and antiques. What he offers in his final book, alongside some charming pictures, are brief prose sketches of friends and acquaintances who shared the same passion. It’s a rarefied world; Le-Tan references modern artists unknown to me, whose works I would probably hate. And yet this is an unpretentious and very delightful book.

There are different kinds of collectors. The wealthy Patron-of-the-Arts variety gets little respect from Le-Tan. “A kind of halo now crowns dull, laborious men who have lived only for money and power,” he writes. “With art they acquire the so-called ‘glamour’ they lacked, while also realizing that it’s a considerable source of profit. Nonetheless, the delight an aesthete can derive from looking at artworks remains forever alien to them.”

The collectors he admires are those who – like himself – simply thrill to beautiful things, and who love the hunt. “The idea of speculation has never crossed my mind, nor of ‘decoration.’ Collecting is for me both essential and completely useless.”

Le-Tan describes collectors of paintings, of posters, of antique dolls and antique keys, Chinese ceramics, English earthenware figurines, and decorative Islamic tiles. Some of them are hermits, some are exiles, some are eccentric spinsters. One kept in his basement a gallery of nineteenth-century wax model heads of executed criminals, made with their own hair. Another, when he died, left behind a carefully preserved and labelled collection of crumpled scraps of paper found at restaurants, libraries, or on the street.

Of special interest to me are the collections that no longer exist in fact but only in memory. Before divesting themselves of their acquisitions (often to pay bills), many collectors make costly photographic catalogs of them, which they invariably still refer to as “my collection.” An elegant older woman, a friend of his parents, once gave the young Le-Tan a tour of her collection by pointing out all the dark rectangles on the walls of her home where paintings used to hang, describing each in detail.

I like to think I have an aesthetic sense, but I am no collector. Some of my possessions I am especially fond of: a pocket watch my wife gave me soon after we married; an 1871 French Chassepot sword bayonet with a brass handle; a cedar chest that belonged to my great-great-great-grandmother. It’s true, I will buy miniature souvenir totem poles when I find them at antique shops, but too much attachment to mere “things” always smells to me of rank materialism.

On the other hand, magpies and raccoons are famous for collecting shiny things, and you can hardly accuse them of a moral failing. Perhaps to be a materialist, properly understood, is not so bad a thing. Who, after all, is more materialistic than God, who created the material cosmos ex nihilo and called it good? In this sense, you might say that Le-Tan communicates a godlike joy in the particular objects of his admiration, and there’s an appealing humility in his knowing himself not to be their owner but only a privileged, temporary caretaker.

“For my part,” he says, “a mix of disenchantment and wisdom acquired with age has taught me that nothing belongs to us.”


~ Lucky Per by Henrik Pontoppidan ~

In a late chapter of Lucky Per, Pontoppidan’s hero befriends the dour and vaguely disreputable Pastor Fjaltring. Both men lead intellectually isolated lives but they discover a shared interest in books. “The solitary life is, from time to time, very sociable,” Pastor Fjaltring says, with reference to reading. “When you look inside yourself with sufficient thoroughness, you often have the strange sensation of having hosted visitors.”

Books can do that: rearrange the mental furniture, hang a new picture over the mantle, open a window. They can also smash the china, leave stains on the carpet, or brick up a door. You might compare the act of reading to a form of voluntary possession in which guests – angelic or demonic – enter your home with often unpredictable results.

There’s a variation on the “desert island library” game in which readers name the books that have most enriched their lives. We’re less inclined to think about the books that have done us harm. Perhaps we read them at the wrong time of life, without the right guidance or preparation, or perhaps the ideas they contained were simply poisonous. Had I read it thirty years ago, Lucky Per might have been such a book for me.

Lucky Per was first published in Denmark in 1904 but only translated into English about ten years ago. Though Henrik Pontoppidan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1917, he’s almost unknown in the English speaking world. It’s a fine novel in many ways. In a recent interview, Christopher Beha put Lucky Per on a level with the works of Henry James and Leo Tolstoy. I wouldn’t go that far, but I think it compares favorably with Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.

Per (Peter Andreas Sidenius) is the son of a stern Lutheran clergyman. He rebels against faith and family and by determination and – yes – luck makes a way for himself in Copenhagen, climbing the social ladder and achieving notoriety as an engineer with big ideas. Eventually he becomes engaged to Jakobe Salomon, daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, who is probably the most compelling character in the book. Soon, however, the gravitational forces of blood and a childhood spent in the shadow of the Cross begin to act on Per.

Pontoppidan’s novel is not a simple tale of return, however. He’s more realistic than that in tracing out the meandering paths most lives follow. Per’s desire for an authentic relationship to the world, his passion for renunciation, and his fetishization of suffering lead him in unanticipated directions. There’s an early nineteenth-century Romantic flavor to the story, but its deep disillusionment is unmistakably modern.

That’s the combination that might have made the book more powerful for me – and potentially dangerous – if I’d read it when I was nineteen or twenty. Pontoppidan makes Per’s absolute self-absorption into something glamorous. It looks like a quest for truth, but I can’t help seeing it now as a sort of headlong rush toward hell. In the end, Pontoppidan’s realism fails him most notably when it comes to honestly describing the inevitable devastation to lives and relationships that people like Per leave in their wake.

Ode to Joy

I am an extremely boring person with only a limited capacity to enjoy life. That’s what I’ve decided after attending this year’s Accordion Social at the Forest Grove Senior Center. It was the Tualatin Valley Accordionists’ first Accordion Social since the pandemic. Back in October 2019 I wrote about the last one, which in retrospect I can’t help but see as the last golden glimmer of summer sun before the literal plague of winter fell upon us.

The trouble with me is, I don’t play accordion. But perhaps it’s not too late. The average age of the performers at this year’s event was north of seventy. Most of them were amateurs but some drove hundreds of miles – one even flew in – just to be present, and not a single one wore a COVID mask. One confessed to being a “Polkaholic.” Another, who plays weekly at an Italian restaurant, sang along to his rendition of “Smile” – a tune written by Charlie Chaplin.

An older married couple gave one of the most memorable performances. The husband, wearing a black vest with floral embroidery, played accordion, while his wife – heavy eyeliner, dressed all in white with a rakish black hat – sang a cabaret tune, first in English and then in her native Czech. Her back was bent with osteoporosis or untreated scoliosis, which gave her high-heeled dance moves a special daring.

My sixteen-year-old daughter played Pietro Frosini’s “Jolly Caballero” to gasps of admiration and rapturous applause. She’s very good, and the nerves she felt beforehand seemed to vanish on stage. During intermission, one woman congratulated her and said, “You can tell who doesn’t have arthritis in this room!” An elderly gentleman, face positively aglow, took her by the hand and simply kept repeating, “God bless you, God bless you, God bless you.”