4. A Classic In Translation: Fragments of Sappho

For the Classics in Translation I read Anne Carson’s If Not Winter a Translation of Sappho’s Poems and I highly recommend it.  The Greek is On the left page, in startling red ink while Carson’s translation is on the right page in a calmer black ink. Brackets note the missing lines.  It is a beautiful way to read these fragmented poems; the blank spaces fill you with wonder- what was the complete poem like? There was such intensity in the fragments!

spangled is
the earth with her crowns

Her poems have a sense of pagan piety and duty and yet others were soft, lyrical, feminine with striking imagery:

“Evening you gather back
all that dazzling dawn has put asunder:
you gather a lamb, gather a kid,
gather a child to its mother.” 

To read The Classics is to cross the chasm of time and even language, to experience the permanence of the written word; even an ancient author like Sappho feels close to us when we read. Thousands of years, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution cannot change the human condition: love, hatred, pain, joy, suffering will always be a part of our lives.

Someone will remember us
I say
even in another time.

-Mrs Karl T. Cooper, Jr.

 

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Back to The Classics: Two Years Before The Mast

My parents taught me well to check if a book was abridged before reading it and reading an abridged version of Two Years Before The Mast was one of the few mistakes I made in that department as a young reader.  Even in the ridiculously cut-to-size adaptation I fell for, the story entranced me, took me worlds away from my ordinary life and even my usual imaginary worlds.

That’s one thing this classic sea story is: a full immersion in a lost world, the world of sailing ships.  It is still far from my typical reading fare but so interesting that, once I started, I picked it up every chance I got.  It’s the first hand account by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. of two years he spent as a sailor, to save his scholar’s eyesight.

Those two years involved huge physical risks, narrow escapes, storms at sea.   They involved mundane chores: scrubbing decks, mending and sewing, laundry.  Dana saw the pre-Gold Rush coast of California, visited the missions, observed a wedding there, a funeral.  We see through his eyes sailors’ dances, we hear the sailors’ songs and drawn-out calling of the ropes.  Of particular interest to me was the prized place of letters and books in the lives of men at sea.  Letters and newspapers were read and re-read.  Ships traded books when they met each other.  Dana reads aloud to his fellow sailors and during a particularly tedious time of high vigilance in icy seas recites memorized facts, Scriptures, and poetry to combat the oppressive boredom.

I was struck too by the function of the Sabbath in the largely secular lives of the sailors.  Dana speaks of the powerful boost to morale and renewed hope he gained during his first on-shore day of liberty, how critical such days of rest are to men living with routine deprivations, steady hard work, and, in this case, bad feelings between officers and crew after a traumatic outburst of injustice from the captain.  We get to see as well the customs of Catholics, at sea and in California, from an outsider’s perspective. Catholic ships take liturgical days of rest more seriously.  They arrange their sails for mourning on Good Friday of Holy Week.

I saw analogies between the sailors’ life answering to bells, seeing only a limited group of people for months at a time, and working together without being allowed to speak, to the lives of prisoners, and especially to the monastic life.

Dana’s two years off from school became a defining event in his life.  It is for those two years that interrupted his projected career and the book he wrote about them that we remember him today.  His book preserves for our national memory scenes and people and an entire way of life that would otherwise be forgotten.  It is worthy of its classic status.

 

Mrs. Aldertree

3. Woman Author: Rumer Godden’s Battle Villa Fiorita

Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden My first Rumer Godden. A revelation. This book is staggeringly beautiful and true-- in its joy and deep melancholy.

One of  Godden’s great strengths is she doesn’t get in the way of a good story. Whenever I read a book by her I feel thrown into another world from the first page. The Battle of Villa Fiorita was no exception; I was transported to Italy. Finding myself in the middle of high drama was confusing at first. It was difficult to keep track of the characters and what was happening, but by chapter three (or four) I was well acquainted with the characters and a lot of the backstory. The result of this immersion was a fascinating read, a plot that moved forward and an interesting development of characters.

Villa Fiorita is a story about marriage and children, and yet it begins with divorce. Fanny has left her husband and their three children to be with her lover, Rob. The couple have fled to the Villa to begin their new life together. The Novel begins with two of Fanny’s children: Hugh (14) and Caddie (12), describing the Villa Fiorita.  I always find Godden’s portrayal of children to be refreshing and surprising. Godden gives them a certain amount of autonomy without making them simply little adults. Hugh and Caddie have sold their possessions, plotted their escape and  traveled to Italy on their own to fetch their mother. They are waging war against the couple. Later on, Pia, Rob’s daughter from his late wife, joins the battle with a fierce child-like independence.

We keenly feel Hugh’s and Caddie’s intrusion as they observe and are shocked by the intimate details of  their mother’s and her lover’s daily living habits. Godden is able to focus on the small details to show the depth of the problem of infidelity: their mother’s scarf, his driving gloves, his cigarettes by their bedside. Pia (a Catholic) is also appalled by the adult’s behavior. Her arrival ushers in ancient codes and the tension between Protestantism and Catholicism. In the novel children are at once the blessing and the safeguard of marriage.

The story is also a coming of age story for Hugh, Caddie and Pia. They are all faced with a loss of innocence; they must confront their own desires, their own sexuality. Divorce has prematurely thrown them into the adult world.

Godden successfully shows the absurdity of divorce while remaining sympathetic to the entangled characters. Regardless of Fanny’s wishes for remarriage, the marriage bond cannot be broken by mere desires; she knows that she and Rob are play acting.

This is not simply a cautionary tale, it is more a study than a lesson. Much like Henry James’ The Bostionans, Godden’s The Battle of Villa Fiorita is exploring  the most salient and peculiar point in it’s society, in this case – divorce.

Towards the end of the novel we know that her marriage will never be the same, even if reconciliation takes place; so much harm has already been done and it is the children who suffer and who heal. As I read on and the pages diminished I began to think that reaching a satisfying ending would be impossible, but as one review stated so perfectly: “The ending is unimaginable until it arrives, and then appears inevitable. Splendid.”

Another Godden novel to treasure and share.

 

4. Children’s Classic: The Wind in The Willows

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Indulge your inner child and read that classic that you somehow missed years ago.”An appealing invitation.  As I suggested previously, it wasn’t that I “somehow missed” The Wind in the Willows, it was that I deliberately avoided it.  I loved the title; I didn’t like the movie.  I was very picky about my talking animal stories (I pretty much liked only Narnia books in that category).  So, though the movie’s theme, “soon, soon you will forget” haunted me with a sweet painfulness, I didn’t read the book.

Would I have liked The Wind in the Willows, if I had read it some thirty years ago? Mr. Toad’s plot with its ups and downs, with its constant sense of threat, and with his mercurial manipulative character would doubtless have made me nervous. I know because it made me nervous even as an adult and there were a few times I skimmed quickly to make sure nothing terrible was about to happen before I could relax and read every word. The constant amused affection with which the author follows the miscreant may have been lost on the younger me.

I’m sure though I would have loved the lyrical chapters starring Rat and Mole. This is where the sehnsucht and the numinous music that I heard in the book’s title come in. There is even a gnostic/pagan/crypto-Christian religious element to be found here, a spiritual dimension akin to the Magic of Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden.

The Wind in the Willows sits in a friendly way next to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia (and, as I saw another blogger mention, to Tolkien). From the descriptions of cozy meals shared by friends and snug underground houses to the aching quality of Joy in its pages, it was as if a band Talking Beasts from Narnian realms had crossed the border into the human world. It was perfect to read curled up on a couch, while the rains and winds, the sleet and snow, of mid-April howled around our house. So, all told, my inner child was satisfied with this one.

 

-Mrs. Aldertree

2. 20th Century Classic: The End Of The Affair

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A book that leaves you  wanting to read more by and about the author is a success, and when I returned this book to my shelves, I was gladdened to find a few other unread Greene novels. (I love how a library evolves, whenever you read a book and put it away, you see the collection anew. ) I was also  happy to discover that Greene was a catholic and even happier to find that he disliked being called a Catholic novelist; He preferred to be known as a writer who happened to be Catholic.

When I picked out this book for the back to the Classics Challenge, I didn’t know what to expect.  When I started it, I was immediately pulled in. Mid-way through, I became rather comfortable with my projected outcome. But when Greene failed to tie up loose ends, I began to see that the focus and the trajectory of the novel was not at all what I expected. Greene took a sharp and surprisingly mystical turn, a turn that gave me goose-bumps.

The story begins with Bendrix, a writer by profession, recounting the end of his affair with Sarah Miles, the wife of a civil servant Henry Miles. Bendrix is tormented by its end. He describes how, driven with jealousy, he hires a detective to find out if another man was to blame. But instead of uncovering another affair,  Bendrix, a self proclaimed atheist, discovers a beautiful story of a soul.

As the novel moves on, Greene is able to broaden the narrow scope of  first person narration and keep the tone intimate by incorporating letters and Sarah’s diary. The act of writing itself is a reappearing theme in the novel. In fact, there are several stirring scenes that involve the written word. I particularly loved the one where Bendrix discovers Sarah’s childhood books and begins to read her inscriptions inside. And near the end, it is both the detective’s simple letter and Sarah’s juvenile inscriptions that take on spine chilling, mystical and mysterious meanings.

In an age of atheism and rationalism Greene reminds us that religion is still relevant- Catholicism still alive and those who practice it may not find the path easy, most likely they find it to be a constant internal battle with oneself.

The novel ends with Bendrix’s weary prayer,

“O God, you’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone forever”

and that is enough, God can work with that, His heart yearns for souls and His grace is sufficient.

Next on my list Rumer Godden.

Mrs. Karl T. Cooper, Jr.

3. Woman Author: Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey

This is the only book by a woman author I have on my list for the Back to the Classics challenge.  About a third of the way in I thought it was going to be a disappointment. It certainly lacked the scope of the first two books I read for the challenge. First person narration almost always results in a narrower perspective.  The narrator-protagonist is from a happy but financially struggling family, scandalized and out of her depth as a very young governess for the children of a rich but deeply unhappy family.
The book picks up interest as Agnes moves into her second governess position.  She grows as a person.  She falls in love and, after losing contact with her beloved, learns emotional independence.  It is a Cinderella story in some ways but completely without any but the most quiet and natural magic and free of the sensational.
Wildflowers, primroses in particular, have a significant part to play in the story.  A primrose might be a good emblem for this book.  I found Agnes at first unsympathetic in her inability to see or show the good in most of the people, even the (deeply damaged) children, she lives and works among.  But, gradually, she comes into her own.
A Biblical Christianity informs the vision of the novel.  It has a delicate, satisfying conclusion.  The love relationships between mother and daughter, between man and maiden, are very finely drawn.  A right understanding of marriage, based on mutual respect and love, and a proper relationship to the goods of this world are contrasted with the disorders previously encountered.  Agnes endures and overcomes.  A somewhat oblique comment on education in the contrast between the impossible position of a governess and the sustainability of a private school strongly favors a culture of ownership.
Maybe it was the back of the book that kept me from reading it so long.  Agnes Grey is not socialist tract or an expose of unremitting grimness.  It’s a story of love, family working together, and a God who is faithful to His promises.
New Calligraphy Scroll Clip Art Fancy Flourish Clipart Best
-Mrs. Aldertree

1. 19th Century Classic: The Bostonians

The Bostonians

“I wish to write a very American tale, a tale very characteristics of our social conditions, and I asked myself what was the most salient and peculiar point in our social life, The answer was: the situation of women, the decline of the sentiment of sex, the agitation on their behalf.” –  from the Notebooks of Henry James

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“Do you really take the ground that your sex has been without influence? Influence? Why you have led us all by the nose to where we are now! Wherever we are, it’s all you. You are at the bottom of everything . . . She is the universal cause”

“ [Olive] would reform the solar system if she could get a hold of it”

“Oh, the position of women!” Basil Ransom exclaimed [to Olive]. “The position of women, is to make fools of men. I would change my position for yours any day,”

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I finished reading The Bostonians, the first book on my back to the Classics list, and love Henry James all the more for it. This book has been described as a satire and I agree it is funny filled with a good-natured irony, but it is more than a satire. It has a tragic touch and yet at its core it is a love story, the stuff of fairy tales.

It also deals with many themes I have struggled with and have been preoccupied with for years: the postbellum era, feminism, traditionalism, women in the domestic and political spheres, revolutions, reforms, reforms of the reforms, sympathy, true charity, and Mr. James addresses them all with a fierce and comic pen.

I read a few scathing reviews  and a few thoughtful ones that had me wondering if  we even read the same book! It appears that feminism is  controversial and this I think is what made me reread  it (I had abandoned this book once before) – I wanted His take on the movement.

Perhaps we have forgotten, so used to the movement, the advancement, the emancipation of women, that women were powerful and have always been powerful in a feminine way (have we forgotten Helen of Troy?)  Mr. James reminds us of this, that the domestic sphere has a power of its own,  (have we forgotten Penelope?)  There is something “divinely different” from the public life and that is the private life, hidden away for love of the other. The cloistered nun has great power, so does the housewife, both are a Joan of Arc in spirit setting the world on fire in little ways. A flame is just as bright in the home as it is outdoors, perhaps even brighter to those closest to it. What do we have if we sacrifice the private life? If we proclaim equality the absolute?

I found the book strikingly prophetic but not despairing. The characters themselves were believable and I loved reading about them even if I despised their views. I found them all to be well developed and the dialogue brilliant. Mr. James has a genius for it. Its juxtaposition to the characters actions, their surroundings, at moments  reminded me of Flaubert. The last three chapters were my favorite as Mr. James tied up the loose ends and set his fairy tale alive with a quietly dramatic and satisfying ending.

A brilliant novel but not an easy read, and of course, Mr. James leaves room for dispute as I have yet to find a review I completely agree with, which I suppose is part of the intrigue. As, Horace Elisha Scudder points out in his own review, “It is when we stop and take the book as a whole that we forget how fine the web is spun, and remember only the strong conception which underlies the book; the freshness of the material used; the amazing cleverness of separate passages;” We want to pin Mr. James down, and his book but it is too fine drawn for that, you dear reader, must read it for yourself.

-Mrs. Karl T. Cooper, Jr.

 

 

 

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2. 20th Century Classic: The Leopard

It had been around ten years since I last read this.  I remembered it was good but remembered hardly anything about it.  I’d been craving a re-read for awhile.

Like Henry Esmond, The Leopard is historical fiction, set well before the time it was written.  Giuseppe di Lampedusa based this, his only novel, on the life of his great-grandfather.  The author’s biography at the end of the book says that he contemplated writing such a book for twenty-five years and only started writing when he was sixty.  He did not live to see it published.  His novel is the fruit of a lifetime lived with books and in conversation about books: a single fruit — round, mellow, perfect, exquisite, and complex.  And, in the end, surprisingly bitter.  It is at once a first novel, charged with beginner’s energy and luck, and the work of a mature talent writing at the height of his powers.
It was as good as, and better than, I remembered.  It evoked Italy so powerfully, and even Sicily, which I’ve never visited, with its glaring sun and slow-moving but dangerous people.  It exposes a heart of darkness in a fiercely traditional society, in which true religion has been eaten away, leaving only its vulnerable outer forms.  It reveals the mean and cowardly spirit that animates the flashy revolution.  In the end, it is full of unbearable regret for something ineffable that might have been.
It is lyrical, sumptuous, and subtle, with a persistent edge of humor and bathos.  I defy anyone to read the chapter where lovers play hide and seek in the labyrinth of a decaying summer palace without at least a moment’s shiver of delight.
– Mrs. Aldertree
Mrs. Aldertree’s full “back to the Classics” challenge list can be found here