On Britain and Germany – Tacitus

20200505 On Britain and Germany

Back in January 1946 Penguin Books started a new series which is still going way beyond the dreams of the originators, that was Penguin Classics featuring all new translations of classic literature from around the world especially created for the series. They started in Greece with Homer’s Odyssey and the first Latin title was this one featuring two of the books by Tacitus, which was the fifth book in the series coming out in September 1948. On Britain and Germany is actually his two works Agricola and Germania and they were translated by Harold Mattingly who also wrote an extensive introduction along with the notes and glossary. His additional information in fact takes up almost half of the book at seventy six pages with Agricola being forty eight pages and Germania just forty.

Agricola

Representing Britain in this volume is Tacitus’s biography of his father in law Gnaeus Julius Agricola and whilst it does indeed include commentary on his seven years in charge of the conquest of most of Britain it does spends a significant amount of time back in Rome. Tacitus starts this work by stating that biographies are disapproved of in the current Roman society but that he will write this one anyway but unfortunately whatever his abilities as a historian way be revealed in his other works this is not a good example. He rarely states where any of the military actions he describes take place and his grasp of dates is also somewhat tenuous which makes working out what is going on quite tricky. He also has a rather odd idea as to the geography of Britain, stating that it is diamond shaped and not far from Spain with the island of Ireland being between the two countries.

This is where the text by Mattingly really comes into its own not only in the introduction, which prepares you for the lack of details but the notes which accompany almost every chapter clarify quite a lot of the text. One thing I really liked about this edition is that the notes are at the back of the book rather than at the bottom of the relevant pages, this allows the reader to more comfortably concentrate on the text and then pick up on the notes either as they go on or, as I did, complete Agricola and then read the notes. As stated above it is a fairly short biography so this is entirely practical.

Germania

Tacitus has barely started his description of Germania when he comes up with a sentence that I can safely assume is not one quoted by the German tourism authorities.

who would leave Asia, Africa or Italy to visit Germany, with its unlovely scenery, its bitter climate, its general dreariness to sense and eye, unless it were his home.

and a little later

The country in general, while varying somewhat in character, either bristles with woods or festers with swamps. It is wetter where it faces Gaul, windier where it faces Noricum and Pannonia.

He was remarkably polite about Britain in comparison, Noricum is modern Austria whilst Pannonia roughly equates to Hungary. After spending time being rude about the land he turns his attentions to the peoples and tribes of Germania, this is a place that includes not only present Germany but parts of France, Switzerland, the northern Netherlands and Poland. Beyond them is believed to be a great ocean rather than the Baltic Sea and the Romans seem to have almost no knowledge of Scandinavia. Rome appears to have only recently become aware of most of these peoples at the time of Tacitus and then only from contact through war so his descriptions of their lives are short of details and sometimes confused but he does discern a significant number of different tribes and kingdoms but does not ascribe what he would regard as civilisation to any of them other than the ones that have regular dealings with the Romans. His most damning assessment is applied right at the end of the short book with the little he has gathered regarding the Suiones (southern Swedes) and a neighbouring tribe that is only mentioned in Germania so is probably a misunderstanding by Tacitus of the same people or another part of Sweden.

Continuous with the Suiones are the nations of the Sitones. they resemble them in all respects but one – woman is the ruling sex. That is the measure of their decline, I will not say below freedom, but even below decent slavery.

Revisions

The book appears to have gained its original title in Penguin simply because it was translated soon after WWII finished and certainly in the notes Mattingly can be quite jingoistic at times for example in his opening line regarding Germania.

a detailed account of a great people that had already begun to be a European problem in the first century of our era, should still have a message for us in the twentieth.

It is clear that the choice of title was made to entice potential readers after the war whilst maybe calling it Agricola and Germania might not have done as much. Amazingly seventy four years after its first publication Mattingsly’s translation is still the one in the Penguin Classics catalogue, which now runs to well over a thousand titles, and most of the early titles have been completely replaced with updated translations. However it has been revised twice, initially presumably to replace the dated style of the introduction and notes but also to rename the book to the more useful ‘Agricola and Germania’ so that it is clearer what is actually included. The first revision was done by S.A. Handford and was published in October 1970, this book was renumbered from L5 to become L241 and the original version dropped. In 2009 it was revised again, this time by J.B. Rives and now has the ISBN 9780140455403 which makes it the equivalent of L540 when you breakdown the code and the Handford version is no longer available.

Conclusion

The book was very enjoyable and a good introduction to the works of Tacitus via two of his minor writings, what I now need to do is tackle his major works ‘The Annals’ and ‘The Histories’. Tacitus was a Roman senator so well placed to view the intrigues of the emperors and their rivals and this he covers in those more important works. Having the viewpoint from an insider of how the Roman empire was actually governed should be really interesting, I knew nothing about Tacitus before I read this book so I definitely need to find out more.

Boule de Suif and other stories – Guy de Maupassant

I have six volumes of short stories by Maupassant, three of which include his most famous tale Boule de Suif (literally ball of suet), and I have to admit that I haven’t read any of them. So in an effort to at least partly make amends I have picked one of the collections including Boule de Suif to read this week. The book I have chosen was the second title in the long running Penguin Classics publications and the fact that he was the second author chosen in this series, after Homer, suggests that the series editors regarded Maupassant highly. My copy is the first edition printed in 1946.

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There are seventeen short stories in this collection, but in total the book is only 218 pages long. Given that Boule de Suif is easily the longest at 45 pages on its own it is clear that some of the tales are extremely short and this for me is where Maupassant is at his best. Most, like ‘The Minuet’, are beautifully written character sketches where in just a handful of pages you feel you understand the sadness of the retired ballet master and his wife whose only solace is the park where he can dance uninterrupted and he believes unseen early in the morning. Others, such as ‘The Model’ are considerably less sympathetic to the protagonists, in fact rarely is Maupassant in tune with his female characters although some like Boule de Suif herself are beautifully drawn.

So lets get back to the title story, Boule de Suif as implied above is the less than flattering nickname given to an somewhat overweight prostitute who manages to get herself on a coach leaving Rouen trying to escape the occupation during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. The description of her in this translation is as follows:

The woman, one of those usually called “gay”, was famous for her youthful stoutness, which had earned her the nickname of Boule de Suif, the Dumpling. She was short and rotund, as fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints, like strings of miniature sausages: In spite of her shiny tightly stretched skin, and an enormous bust, which stuck out under her dress, she was nevertheless desirable, and was in fact much sought after, so attractive was her freshness. Her face was like a red apple, or a peony bud about to burst into flower. She had magnificent dark eyes, shaded by long thick lashes, and below a fascinating little mouth, moist to kiss, with tiny white teeth.

She was said moreover to possess many other attractions not visible to the eye.

Well you can certainly picture her from this sketch but I don’t think that she would have been very happy with the depiction. The story is very difficult to review without giving away too much but basically she is one of ten people on the coach in heavy snow which forces them into far closer proximity over a couple of days than any of them would like. Six are made up of two prosperous merchants along with the Comte de Bréville and their wives who regard themselves as far superior to all the others, there is also an idealist democrat who boasts of setting traps for the advancing Prussians but who would clearly rather escape than do anything risky now they are actually in his town. The party is completed by two nuns who take little part in the actual main story line. Suffice to say that Elisabeth Rousset aka Boule de Suif is treated shamefully by the rest of the characters and is frankly the only one to emerge with any credit at the end.

‘The Capture of Walter Schnapps’ is also set during the Franco-Prussian war and is about the only genuinely funny story in this collection, ‘The Deal’ is written to be funny but is too heavy handed in it’s telling to really succeed although it is possibly down to the translation rather than in the original French where it falls down. Back to Walter Schnapps though, he is an unhappy Prussian conscript who finds himself separated from his compatriots and resolves to become a prisoner of war to avoid further fighting and, more importantly for him, to get get better food than he is receiving. The problem is how to achieve this without getting shot in the process? The humour initially comes from his cowardice but towards the end it becomes a send up of wartime propaganda and all within nine pages.

I will just pick out two more of the tales included in this collection and these are both amongst the longest. ‘The Olive Grove’ is a dark story of a violent and arrogant past catching up with man who believes he has escaped it and does not end well for anyone. It is totally unlike all the other stories in this book and the contrast made it all the more striking. My final choice is also the final selection in the book ‘Madame Teller’s Establishment’, this was an absolute joy to read. Everyone in the story is so well described you feel you could have been with them on their trip. The story regards Madame Teller and her staff at her establishment which consists of five prostitutes and a waiter cum bouncer who looked after the rougher side of the house. She is invited to the confirmation of her niece and as she does not think that she can leave the business running in her absence, as she will need to be away overnight, she decides to take the five girls and the waiter with her to the little town where her brother lives. The resulting impact this has not only on her brothers town and the confirmation service but also back in her home where suddenly this well respected and frequented establishment closes without notice was beautifully told.

Well as I said at the beginning I have other collections of Maupassant and these will definitely be read soon after years of being neglected on my shelves and I heartily recommend him to you. There may be the occasional not very good story but they are all so short and surrounded by excellent alternatives that this hardly matters.

The Communist Manifesto

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I was first introduced to the works of Karl Marx at school. At the age of seventeen the teacher assigned to my year to teach the compulsory Religious Education class (oddly the only subject mandated by law in the UK) decided to take a VERY wide view of his brief. What he decided to do was, as we had already done many years of ‘normal’ RE classes, he would spend a term each on three significant thinkers of the modern age. This was interesting as philosophy was not available as a subject at my school so exposure to the three people he chose was a whole new concept for most of us. We started with Marx, then after Christmas moved on to Sigmund Freud and finally after Easter we reached Jean Paul Satre. We didn’t read The Communist Manifesto at the time (purchasing thirty copies might have been pushing the school governors a bit too much) but did discuss his ideas. I’ve owned this book for three years now so it seems about time I opened it.

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.

OK that was not how I expected the book to start but all is explained further down the page. What is being pointed out is that Communism at the time was being blamed for all sorts of things without anyone really knowing what it does stand for so the decision was made to have a symposium of international Communists and come up with a manifesto which ultimately came to be written by Marx and Engels. By the way His Most Serene Highness The Prince of Metternich-Winneburg was Chancellor of the Austrian Empire and François Guizot was Prime Minister of France during the time the manifesto was written. It’s safe to assume that whilst almost everyone has heard of Karl Marx and probably to a lesser extent Friedrich Engels almost nobody knows who the two people mentioned in the opening paragraph are any more.

In fact the entire book is nothing like I expected as it isn’t a manifesto as we would now understand the word, which is a document that sets outs a party’s proposed policies and aims in the lead up to an election. Instead it relies more on the original Latin derivation manifestare (to make public) which also comes from manifestus (obvious). What the book is intended to do is make public and obvious the arguments for communism and against the current status quo as seen by Marx, Engels and their grouping that instigated the document. In doing so it is split into four sections after the initial introduction.

The first is entitled Bourgeois and Proletarians. This is an attempt by Marx and Engels to set out their view of the current situation and how we got there with the modern industrialist bourgeois making money out of the work and indeed the lives of their downtrodden workforce proletariat. The irony that Engels is the son of a wealthy industrialist with factories in Germany and England and that it is his money that finances not only his lifestyle but allows Marx to live for the rest of his life without having to do any actual physical work and instead spend a large amount of time writing his later magnum opus Das Kapital in the British Library reading room is completely lost on both of them.

The second section is headed Proletarians and Communists. This is the only section that actually includes anything that can be described as a policy plan in the entire book.

These measures will of course be different in different countries.

Nevertheless in the most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.

10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c.

Of these the last one is probably the only non-contentious concept. The fourth is yet again an inability of Marx and Engels to recognise irony as both are emigrants to England from Germany but without Engels’ money they wouldn’t have had the leisure time to develop their theories. These policies have been tried to a greater or lesser extent several times by various countries. Sometimes, when taken literally, they have had disastrous consequences such as the application of numbers eight and nine by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia which started with forced movement of population away from the cities to the land, regardless of whether it was good for agriculture and ultimately led to the genocide of millions.

Even Marx and Engels recognised the difficulty in selling several of these to the proletariat, why should they work hard if the state takes everything they earn above what is needed to live? Most of part two is made up of a question and answer format addressing such points.

Part three, Socialist and Communist Literature, is probably the oddest part of the manifesto. It seems to consist mainly of the authors rubbishing of other movements, they appear to have a particular dislike of German Socialism spending almost 8% of the entire manifesto in a diatribe about its failures.

The final section, with the unwieldy title of “Position of the Communists in relation to the various existing opposition parties”, is a quick bounce around Europe stating where the authors see the state of communism. The manifesto ends with probably the most well known quotes from it, even amongst people who have never read it.

In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.

In all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.

Finally, they labour everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries.

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.
The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.
They have a world to win.

WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!

Daphnis and Chloe – Longus

It wasn’t long after starting reading this short book that I really wanted to slap both the protagonists. It’s a love story starting with two orphan babies that are separately found on the island of Lesbos with mysterious items that imply some history or maybe a fate from the gods for them however this seems to be largely forgotten as the story progresses. The two children are raised by families a short distance apart and Daphnis ends up as a goatherd whilst Chloe is a shepherdess and they grow up looking after their flocks together and slowly fall in love. What made them so frustrating though was their total naivety regarding sex, they look after goats and sheep for goodness sake surely they have noticed something over the years?

The book was written around 200AD, presumably on Lesbos, by a writer called Longus about whom nothing at all is known. There appear to be no other works by him and he has left no trace in history other than this short novel. Nobody even knows if Longus was his name or a even a real person or just something that has become attributed to the story. Through the tale the two of them suffer various calamities from being abducted by an invading army (Chloe) to falling in a pit dug to catch wolves (Daphnis) as they slowly progress from looking at the other one naked and getting all soppy (both of them) to trying kissing (oh this takes them ages to get round to) and very slowly finding out about sex (again both as it’s that sort of book)

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The main reason that I chose to read this though was to look again at translation and how styles have changed over the decades and this book is the only one where I have two different translations both printed by Penguin books but 55 years apart and where both translations are still in print. Above is the cover of the 2011 translation by Phiroze Vasunia when it was separated out as a single book in 2016 and below the original 1956 translation by Paul Turner.

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In ‘The Penguin Classics Book’ by Henry Elliot (review to come later) he writes

The 1968 reprint of Turner’s translation carried a notice “Former Penguin editions of this third century Greek novel, the prototype for all Arcadian love stories were we regret to say bowdlerised. Paul Turner has added the missing passages for this new edition on which the text is unexpurgated”

Now as I only have the 1956 original I cannot say what was put back in for the edition of 1968 but frankly the tale is not exactly controversial, certainly by today’s standards. In stating that I have to assume that the 2011 edition is not similarly censored but I cannot imagine that it would be. As I said at the start the story is so unrelated to sex that it defies belief for a large part of the book.

Along the way through the story they get increasing bad relationship advice, partly from men who want to have Chloe themselves and would be very happy to see Daphnis out of the way. It’s not really a give away to tell you that they do eventually get together, in the last few pages of the book and even their original parents are also revealed at this time. It is almost certainly the first example of a romance story and something that Mills and Boon would be very happy with nowadays, there are even pirates…

Hedda Gabler – Henrik Ibsen

The first thing you notice when you pick up Hedda Gabler is that there is no character of that name in the cast list. Gabler was her maiden name but at the start of the play she is just returning from honeymoon having married Jörgen Tesman so she is referred to in the cast as Hedda Tesman. As Ibsen himself wrote:

The title of the play is Hedda Gabler. My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than her husband’s wife. It was not really my intention to deal in this play with so called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions and human destinies upon a groundwork of certain social conditions and principles of the present day.

(Excerpt from letter to Moritz Prozor, December 4, 1890)

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The edition I have read is the Penguin Classic translated by Una Ellis-Fermor printed in 1950, she also translated a further collection of Ibsen’s plays for Penguin in 1958 entitled The Master Builder and other plays. When Penguin came to reprint this 1950 book it was retitled Hedda Gabler and other plays to match the later edition. In both volumes Ellis-Fermor describes the translations as ‘readers versions’. By which she means that although the plays could be performed from her translation her intention was to produce works that a reader would find comfortable to read. One thing I have definitely discovered during this month of reading plays is that although when performed on the stage a play can be a wondrous thing and transport you to worlds of imagination; when you sit and read them they are somewhat less satisfying. They were never intended to be read as literature after all, however Ellis-Fermor has, whilst retaining the structure of a play, made it so it can easily be read as a novella (102 pages in this version).

The play is in four acts all of which take place in the Tesman’s new home which has been purchased and furnished whilst they were away on their six month honeymoon under the supervision of Jörgen’s aunt Juliane. She has even put some of her own money into the purchase when finances became tight. It is clear the Jörgen needs the professorship that is available in order to finance is new life as a married man especially as Hedda appears to have quite expensive tastes. For her part Hedda is already bored of the marriage, Jörgen appears to be more interested in his work and books than her and the ‘honeymoon’ was really an extended research trip. There is a funny passage of dialogue near the beginning of act one where Juliane has clearly planned the layout of the house with two empty rooms to be used as nurseries and children’s bedrooms and Jörgen really can’t understand and thinks they are for his library extension and no matter how she hints at Hedda being possibly pregnant Jörgen just doesn’t twig.

When Hedda does finally appear on stage she is deliberately rude to Juliane and makes it clear that she doesn’t like the way the place has been decorated, Juliane leaves and in her place Mrs Thea Elvsted arrives with news of Ejlert Lövborg, Jörgen’s presumed rival for the professorship especially as he has published a book whilst they have been away on honeymoon. It is at this point that the complex relationships between the characters start to be explained. Thea was in a brief relationship with Jörgen before he met Hedda and she had also been at school with Hedda where she had been bullied by her. Hedda, for reasons of her own makes out that they were school friends and gets Jörgen out of the way to talk about Ejlert who Thea had moved in with after leaving her husband. Thea tells Hedda that she is worried about Ejlert as he has gone back to his old ways (presumably drinking) and that he had been threatened by a previous partner with a gun and she thinks he may meet her again. Hedda reassures her that no woman would do such a thing but as Thea leaves she goes to a cabinet and pulls out her fathers pistols as the first act closes.

Act two begins with Hedda firing one of her guns towards Judge Brack as he comes to visit Jörgen who is out at the time, she is clearly not mentally stable but as the play continues her instability revolves around a desire to totally control somebody else and it seems she is set on it being Ejlert. Whilst waiting Brack makes it clear that he also desires a relationship with Hedda although she is not at all keen on the idea. Jörgen returns and is soon followed by Ejlert at his invitation, once they actually meet Ejlert explains that he doesn’t want the professorship as he has a new book he is working on. Whilst Jörgen and Brack are talking in another room Ejlert tries to renew his relationship with Hedda and she sees that he can be the one she can control. Thea arrives towards the end of the act and the two woman settle down for the evening after Hedda has persuaded Ejert to accompany Jörgen and Brack on their planned night out with him to return at 10pm to escort Thea home.

Act three is set the next morning, both ladies are in front of the now cooling fire, Ejlert obviously didn’t return to take Thea home but when Jörgen comes in he is carrying Ejlert’s manuscript of his new book and is very excited about how good it is. He had seen Ejlert drop it in the street and picked it up but hadn’t returned it as he was afraid he would lose it again. However Jörgen gets a message that his other aunt is dying so needs to leave urgently. Ejlert meanwhile is convinced he has destroyed the book and arrives to tell Thea who is horrified as she had worked tirelessly on the book with him and leaves almost immediately. Ejlert left with Hedda is even more under her spell than when they were a couple and she seeing this as her chance to prove that she can control somebody presses him to commit suicide and gives him one of her pistols before he leaves. Afterwards she burns the manuscript.

The final act is very short and takes place soon after the previous scene. It turns out that Ejlert had gone from the Tesman house to the home of another previous girlfriend and there had died from a gunshot wound to the chest, Hedda thinks he shot himself in the heart (a truly romantic gesture) but no Judge Brack explains to her that the gun appears to have gone off accidentally and that he recognised the pistol thus insuring his power over her. Thea also reveals that she has the original notes from their work together so Jörgen and her start work to reconstruct the lost masterpiece. Knowing that her plans have failed and instead she is the one controlled Hedda retires to the other room and shoots herself which is where the play ends.

Hedda through out the play is depicted as a materialistic, narcissistic character, thoroughly unlikeable but someone who has drawn the three men to her in their own way. Jörgen has a wife who will help him progress in Norwegian society. Brack sees someone he can control and therefore use as he wishes. Only Ejlert Lövborg really loves her but she doesn’t reciprocate this love and he is apparently blind to the love from Thea Elvsted which could have made them both so happy.

At the end of the play you hope that Thea and Jörgen can get together as a couple during their work in resurrecting the lost manuscript. Finding through their shared loss a rekindling of the love they had in the past. Surely something good can come out of the tragedies.

Uncle Vania – Anton Chehov

Or is it Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, that appears to be the more usual spelling at least currently but I have spelt it the way I have in the title to this essay as that is how the Penguin Classics edition of 1959 which I have been reading has it so I will stick with it throughout.

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The first thing that strikes you reading the play is that for the first two acts Ivan Petrovich Voinitsky, whom his niece Sonia calls Uncle Vania, is largely an ensemble character and it is only in acts three and four that he comes to the front. The first act sets the dynamic tensions between the protagonists. There had clearly been a quiet routine in the house for many years with Sonia and Vania running the estate which had been her mothers dowry when she married professor Serebriakov. Sonia’s mother died some years ago and the professor has now retired to the estate from his home in the city and brought with him his second wife Yeliena who is just 27 years old, between them they have seriously upset the normal running of the household. To make things more complicated Astrov, the doctor who looks after the professor’s gout is attracted to Yeliena as is Vania, whilst Sonia is in love with Astrov. You just know it’s going to get messy and Vania is gloomy about the future as only a Russian can be…

Yeliena – What a lovely day … not too hot either

Voinitsky/Vania  – It would even be pleasant to hang oneself on a day like this…

There are four other characters in the play, all of which play minor roles so beyond the list below I won’t cover their actions.

  • Maryia Voinitskaia is Sonia’s grandmother/ Vania’s mother
  • Ilyia Ilyich Telyeghin was a local landowner but has lost all his money and now lives on the estate.
  • Marina an old children’s nurse
  • A workman – just needed to fill in such as fetching horses etc. when the main characters wouldn’t do such things.

Act two sees the complicated relationships become more strained. The doctor has been summoned but the professor won’t let him see him this means that he is yet again at the house and wants to spend time with Yeliena to convince her to leave the professor. Vania muses to himself that he missed his chance with Yeliena ten years ago

Voinitsky – [Alone] She’s gone! ten years ago I used to meet her at my sister’s house. She was seventeen then and I was thirty-seven. Why didn’t I fall in love with her then and ask her to marry me? It could have been done so easily! She would have been my wife now.

The professor meanwhile is in pain with the gout and frustrated with his existence at the estate where he feels he is wasting his time and doesn’t get on with anyone there.

Serebriakov – After devoting all my life to learning, after growing used to my study, to my lecture room, to esteemed colleagues – to find myself suddenly, for no reason at all in this crypt, to have to meet stupid people every day, to have to listen to their trivial conversation. I want to live; I love success, I like being a well known figure, I like creating a stir of the world, but here I feel an exile. To spend every minute regretting the past, watching others succeed, fearing death. I can’t! It’s more than I can bear.

Meanwhile Yeliena decides to at least try to make up with Sonia and during their talk admits that although she loved the professor when they married she soon realised her mistake but will remain true to him come what may. At the same time Sonia confesses her love for the doctor and asks Sonia to see if she can find out if he loves her.

Things come to a head in act three, Yeliena talks to the doctor about Sonia and he says he doesn’t love her but interprets the conversation as Yeliena using that as an excuse to talk to  him about love. he makes a clumsy pass at her during which he kisses her as she is pushing him away and this is seen by Vania who is just coming into the room at that point. Straight after this before anyone can settle the professor calls everyone together to say that he has decided to sell the estate and buy a villa in Finland for himself and Yeliena. At this Vania explodes with fury, the estate doesn’t belong to the professor but to Sonia and he has given no thought as to where the people who have always lived there might go and it is his family that should decide what to do with the estate as they paid for it

Voinitsky – The estate was originally bought for ninety-five thousand roubles. My father only paid seventy thousand and twenty-five thousand remained on mortgage. Now please do listen! This estate would never have been bought if I hadn’t given up my share of the inheritance in favour of my sister, whom I loved deeply. What’s more, I worked like an ox for ten years, and paid off the whole mortgage.

Serebriakov – I regret that I started this conversation.

Voinitsky – The estate is free from debt and in good condition simply because of my own efforts, and now that I’ve grown old, I’m to be kicked out!

Serebriakov – I don’t understand what you are driving at!

Voinitsky – For twenty-five years I’ve been managing this estate, I’ve been working and sending you money like the most conscientious bailiff you could have, and all this time you’ve never once thanked me for it. All this time – when I was young and now just the same –  I’ve been getting a salary of five hundred roubles a year from you, a pittance! and never once have you thought of adding a single rouble to it!

Serebriakov – Ivan Petrovich, how was I to know? I am not a practical man and I don’t understand anything about these matters. You could have added as much as you liked.

Voinitsky – Yes indeed, why didn’t I steal? Why don’t you all laugh at me now because I didn’t steal. It would have been fair enough and I shouldn’t now have been a pauper now!

The professor leaves the room shortly after this, soon followed by Vania and a shot is heard off stage then both men run into the room and Vania fires again, both shots miss, Vania drops the pistol and collapses into a chair as the act ends.

To be honest act four which is set the next day feels like a bit of a let down after the excitement of act three. It has been decided that the professor and Yeliena will leave straight away. With them going the doctor has no reason to still be there and he also leaves. Vania and Sonia sit down to work on the books of the estate which have been neglected whilst the professor has been there and all returns to how it was before.

I’ve seen the play performed, although that was many years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it but this was the first time I had read the script. The book contains eight plays in all so I will be reading those later.

The Frogs – Aristophanes

20181106 The Frogs

For November I’ve decided to read a selection of plays and the first one is The Frogs by Aristophanes. Normally I’m not a great fan of Ancient Greek dramas as you need a lot of knowledge of the gods and other characters involved but this translation is so readable I found myself laughing along as I read it. It was written in 405 BC and can be dated so precisely because it was created for drama competition as part of a festival honouring the god Dionysus in Athens where it took first place. Dionysus is one of the Greek gods with lots of jobs, according to the Wikipedia entry he is the god of the grape-harvest, wine making and wine, fertility, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and theatre and it is in the latter one of these roles that a drama competition in his name becomes obvious.

The play tells the story of Dionysus deciding to travel to the underworld to bring back the playwright Euripedes who had died the previous year in order to rescue the arts in Athens back from the doldrums that he perceives it to be in. The first act sees Dionysus and his slave Xanthias on their journey, initially they visit Dionysus’s half brother Heracles for advice which causes him to collapse with laughter as Dionysus has decided to dress like Heracles with the lion head cloak and club but he really doesn’t have the build to carry off the look. Eventually they persuade Heracles to explain the route he used when he went to get the three headed dog Cerebus and they duly set off. When they meet Charon, the ferryman of the dead he agrees to take Dionysus and this is when he encounters the frog chorus who sing during the crossing. Despite the play being called The Frogs this is the only time they appear in it. After various encounters with people who think Dionysus is Heracles and either hate him for taking Cerebus or love him for it they finally reach the home of Pluto ruler of the Hades.

Act two takes place entirely at the Pluto’s house where they find Euripedes and also another dramatist Aeschylus who had died about 50 years earlier. These two had been arguing for the last year about which was the better writer and should therefore sit with Pluto for meals. Dionysus takes it onto himself to judge a contest between them and they take it in turns to be rude about the others works with the chorus commenting as though it was a fight with each man landing viscous blows on the other. This gives Aristophenes a chance to parody each of the two dramatists styles and throw in his own critical comments on both of them. Eventually Pluto gets fed up and decides to determine the winner via a special set of scales which can measure the weight of an argument. Each man gets to speak one line into the baskets on the scale and they are marked against one another with the scale, to Euripedes’s annoyance Aeschylus wins both attempts by mentioning heavier objects. In the end Dionysus decides to simply ask the two dramatists for advice to save Athens, Euripedes has lots of fine words but Aeschylus has more practical suggestions so instead of having Euripedes brought back to life he decides on Aeschylus. A final parting shot from Aeschylus is to insist that Sophocles should have the seat as the finest dramatist rather than Euripedes.

Translations of ancient Greek and Latin have become far ‘less stuffy’ over the last few decades and this can largely be thanks to Penguin Books who started their series of Penguin Classics in 1946 with the express intent of making the classics more approachable. Compare this extract from the Harvard Classics edition of 1909 which is available on Project Gutenberg, which deals with the god Dionysus rowing across the Styx with Charon and encountering the Frog chorus.  The specific translator is not given for this edition on the site as this was a massive group exercise resulting in 51 volumes of a wide selection of classic works.

FROG CHORUS
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   We children of the fountain and the lake
   Let us wake
   Our full choir-shout, as the flutes are ringing out,
   Our symphony of clear-voiced song.
   The song we used to love in the Marshland up above,
   In praise of Dionysus to produce,
   Of Nysaean Dionysus, son of Zeus,
   When the revel-tipsy throng, all crapulous and gay,
   To our precinct reeled along on the holy
   Pitcher day.
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax.

 DIONYSUS. O, dear! O dear! now I declare I've got a bump upon my rump.

The same passage from the 1964 translation by David Barrett printed by Penguin and reprinted in the edition I have been reading.

FROGS
   Brekeke-kex, ko-ax, ko-ax,
   Ko-ax, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   Oh we are the musical Frogs!
   We live in the marshes and bogs!
   Sweet, sweet is the hymn,
   That we sing as we swim,
   And our voices are known.
   For their beautiful tone,
   when on festival days
   We sing to the praise
   Of the genial god -
   And we don't think it odd
   When the worshipping throng,
   To the sound of our song,
   Rolls home through the marshes and bogs.
   Brekekex!
   Rolls home through the marshes and bogs.

 DIONYSUS. I don't want to row any more.

 FROGS. Brekekex!

 DIONYSUS. For my bottom is getting so sore.

As you can see the Penguin edition is considerable more ‘lively’ and the translator has almost turned to the poetic structure of the limerick in order to emphasise the comic nature of the play. This is a form that he will return to several times during the translation in some places using the limerick itself. The play is only 110 short pages so I read it in two sittings, the edition is from the Little Black Classics series by Penguin and is one of the most expensive of these books at £2. I’m looking forward to reading more from this series of titles in the coming months.