Come Close – Sappho

Sappho died over 2,500 years ago and in the intervening millennia almost all of her poetry has been lost. That she was highly regarded in her time can be seen from contemporaneous sources some of which regard her as the tenth muse ranking her amongst the gods themselves. But sadly she was neglected during the medieval period possibly due to the interpretation of the subject matter of much of her verse which didn’t fit into the strict moral compass of the catholic church and it was the church which performed much of the transcription from ancient texts to works that have lasted into our modern era. However excavations have uncovered fragments of her work even as recently as the last decade and we now have 650 lines of the estimated over 10000 she wrote. Apparently there were nine papyrus rolls of Sappho’s works held in the great library of Alexandria, the first one alone represented twice as much verse as we have available in the present day but those would have been lost in the fire and subsequent neglect whilst controlled by the Roman empire. That this book has roughly 450 lines makes it a positive bargain as it only cost 80p when first published in 2015 and now retails at £2 but still as it represents over two thirds of her extant output this is still money well spent. It is taken from the 2009 Penguin Classic book ‘Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments’ translated by Aaron Poochigian and simply collates the poems without any biographical information or analysis of the works which is the feature of the longer book.

Sappho wrote mainly lyric poetry, that is words designed to be accompanied by music, not songs as such but embellished by a tune, they tend to be in praise of heroic deeds of men and gods along with love songs praising a partner, or potential partner. It is her love poetry that is most famous and was most admired in antiquity but it is the belief that it specifically praises love of a woman for another woman that has given us the word sapphic for women attracted to women and also from her nationality as a resident of the Greek island Lesbos the word lesbian. Having said that this is not a collection of erotic verse, far from it, the lines are expected to be performed, these are expressions of love but nothing more explicit and make for a pleasant afternoon’s reading. It should be borne in mind as well that for the most part these are just fragments of poems, only two works are believed to be complete, so there may be much context that is lost. However I am in danger of writing a review that is longer than the entire book I have just read so let me finish with all we have left of one of the poems.

Stand and face me, dear; release
That fineness in your irises

May you bed down,
Head to breast, upon
The flesh
Of a plush
Companion

The Diving-Bell & the Butterfly – Jean-Dominique Bauby

I first read this extraordinary book when it came out in 1997 and somehow it seems to be the perfect book to read again at the end of 2020 which has seen so much tragedy throughout the world. Jean-Dominique Bauby was editor in chief of Elle magazine in Paris when a brain stem trauma put him first in a coma and then as he comes round from that he is completely paralysed, able to move only his left eyelid, his mind however was still as active and alert as ever. Locked in Syndrome is fortunately rare but a book written from inside the prison of an body unable to move is even rarer, that the book is this good is probably unique. The diving-bell of the title refers to his immobile but still painful body whilst the butterfly represents his thoughts flying free, beyond the confines of his hospital room. The book was dictated by Bauby winking as letters were laboriously read out one at a time by his assistant, Claude Mendibil, and she then slowly composed the words and then checked that each one was correct. The chapters are short but each one took days, if not weeks, to dictate one letter at a time as Claude repeatably read out

E S A R I N T U L O M D P C F B V H C J Q Z Y X K W

The sequence of letters is not alphabetic as that would have taken too long, instead they are in order of frequency in French, by comparison in English the first twelve letters would be ETAOINSHRDLU.

The chapters vary in subject from hopeful, when he feels a little progress has been made or he is recounting a good day going along the seafront at Berck-sur-Mer, which is where the hospital is, in his wheelchair to sad when things are not going well or the small frustrations at his inability to communicate to all but a handful of people who can use his letter system, there are also two chapters recounting dreams he has had which are comic and moving at the same time. Because the chapters are short you can pick the book up whenever you have a spare few minutes and enjoy the next beautifully written passage and feel that you are catching up with his oh so slow progress. It should be a depressing read, but it isn’t, each small victory over his condition is celebrated and he is funny in the good times.

It is only in the penultimate chapter that Bauby addresses the events of Friday the 8th December 1995 when his life was completely turned upside down. As he says in the book he knew he needed to cover this but was avoiding it for as long as possible. The day starts so normally with time in the office before heading off to collect his son for a trip to the theatre and a meal before spending the weekend with him. He had separated from his wife a few months earlier and had not spent quality time with his son since then. Sadly soon after collecting Théophile in what was fortunately a chauffeur driven car he started to feel unwell and collapsed with the massive stroke that would put him in a coma for twenty days

Bauby died on the 9th March 1997 just two days after the first edition of this book was published in France and sixteen months after he first slipped into a coma but he left us a great book of tragedy and hope. In the final short chapter he was making slight progress with speech training and could grunt (his word) along to a simple tune and although this was a tiny step forward you feel his joy at this triumph over adversity but sadly he succumbed to pneumonia before getting much further.

Maigret Travels South – Georges Simenon

20200609 Maigret travels South

This book arrived in the post yesterday having taken almost fifty days to get here from the USA and it occurred to me that I have never actually read anything by Simenon. I wanted it as this is the first edition of the first Maigret book published by Penguin and came from the New York operation set up by Allen Lane and Ian Ballantine during WWII when transatlantic exports were not possible.  It was published in September 1945 whilst the UK parent company didn’t get to Maigret until January 1950 and this title would eventually appear in the UK in January 1952 printed along with nine others as part of the Simenon Million (10 books each in an edition of 100,000 published simultaneously).

Simenon’s novels are quite short so Penguin, along with other publishers, have normally put two together in one volume and this contains ‘Liberty Bar’ along with ‘The Madman of Bergerac’ and even then the book is only 250 pages. Both stories were translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury who translated several of the early Maigret novels printed by Penguin. As they are separate novels only linked by Maigret not being in his regular Paris haunts but much further south I will review them separately.

Liberty Bar

The seventeenth Maigret novel sees the great detective sent off on a murder investigation which apparently requires great tact, something he keeps repeating to himself whenever he gets frustrated by the progress of the case. It’s set in Cannes and Antibes and you can tell straight away that Maigret is not comfortable here. He makes no concession to the location wearing his black coat and bowler hat regardless of the heat and so dramatically stands out where presumably in Paris he would be much like anyone else in the capital. William Brown has been murdered is another mantra he keeps repeating, but his first problem is who was William Brown? Because without understanding that there is no way to work out what had actually happened and why.

My first surprise was nothing to do with the plot but how much alcohol is consumed right from Maigret’s arrival and introduction to the local detective whom immediately suggests going to a bar. Every time we see Boutigues he is either drinking or about to open a bottle and Maigret gets through plenty in his own right especially when he finds Liberty Bar. The characters we are introduced to are wonderfully drawn by Simenon, the four women in particular, the mistress, her mother, the alcoholic bar owner and the prostitute and the time when they finally meet at the funeral, which is engineered by Maigret whist he claims to not know anything about it, is poignant but also funny as they manoeuvre for precedence.

Right up until almost the end I had no idea who had done it and you are cleverly pointed into various dead end possible solutions. My first Maigret story was an absolute delight.

The Madman of Bergerac (Le Fou de Bergerac)

To my surprise the next novel included in this book was written earlier, being number fifteen in the Maigret series, but just emphasised that you really can read any of the seventy five novels plus numerous short stories pretty well in any order. If anything it was also a better story with Maigret solving the murders and the mysterious past of some of the most important characters in Bergerac all from his bed after being shot. I’m not really giving anything away here as that happens very early on in the novel and provides a reason for the Inspector not being able to see for himself what is going on but having to piece everything together from conversations in his room at the hotel where he goes to convalesce.  This plot device is fascinating as Simenon tells the reader Maigret’s thought processes as he slowly unravels the tangled web of lies and half truths surrounding the people he suspects.

The novel starts with Maigret having to go to Bordeaux just to tidy up some loose ends on another case and he takes the overnight train. However the upper bunk of the couchette he ends up in is occupied by a restless man whom in the middle of the night sits up, nervously pulls his patent leather boots over knitted grey wool socks, climbs down the ladder, slips out of the compartment leaving the door open and after waiting for the train to slow down jumps from the carriage. This wait had alerted Maigret as he hadn’t closed the door behind him so he saw him about to jump and got up and followed him being shot by the stranger when he realised he was being pursued.

Who was the mysterious man in grey socks? Why did he jump from the train? And is he anything to do with the murders of women who are strangled and then a long needle inserted in their hearts that has so rattled the town of Bergerac? All this Maigret solves from his bed in one of the best murder mysteries I have read for a long time.

One thing is certain I need to read more Maigret.

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.

Strange Pilgrims – Gabriel García Márquez

For my 100th post on this blog I have chosen one of the lesser known works by Gabriel García Márquez, in fact it is his last published collection of short stories. They were started during the 1970’s and 80’s but were not actually published until 1992 with an English translation appearing a year later. My copy is the Penguin books edition translated by Edith Grossman and published in 1994 with a bizarre cover by Matthew Richardson of Eastwing Design. The twelve tales are linked by being all about Latin American characters travelling or living in Europe, this was a familiar position for Márquez at the time as he lived in Barcelona for seven years in the 1970’s, going there after the success of his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”.

Born in Columbia, Márquez spent a lot of his life in Mexico, although his time in Europe clearly had a significant influence on these works. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 he is probably best known for his novels, three of which are also on my shelves along with three more books of short stories. However because there are so many reviews of his novels such as “Love in the Time of Cholera”and “One Hundred Years of Solitude”  and also as I have a soft spot for well crafted short stories this collection had to be the one to read this week.

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In the preface Márquez explains the long gestation of these stories, beginning with an exercise book in which he wrote sixty four tales none of which he was quite happy with, the dates each story was started is given after each one in the book and I have added this information as a date in brackets after each title below. He had several goes at rewriting but was never satisfied and the book was added to his papers to be looked at again when he might have a better idea how to work with the material. Unfortunately the exercise book got lost, presumably thrown out by accident, so he had a go at recreating them from memory. This reduced the total to about thirty and he is sanguine about this regarding the other half as clearly not good enough if he couldn’t remember how they went. The stories were still not right though and it was not until a final eight months of solid work finished the last ten included in this collection, which were all worked on simultaneously, that he finally had a book that he was happy to publish in the early 1990’s.

The twelve stories are each briefly reviewed below:-

Bon Voyage, Mr President (June 1979)

The first story concerns a familiar subject for Latin America, that of a deposed and exiled president finding treatment for illness in a foreign country, in this case Geneva in Switzerland. He is recognised by one of the ambulance drivers who comes from his original country and the driver plans along with his wife to get money from him by selling a fake insurance and funeral plan. The plot does not go as they intended and the development of the three characters makes an interesting twist.

The Saint (August 1981)

The Saint in the story is the incorruptible body of a seven year old girl from Columbia being taken round Rome by her father in an attempt to have her recognised as a saint. Well that is the initial premise anyway. In truth the story is more about the various characters staying in the hostel near the Vatican and their inter-reactions not only with each other, the saint and oddly the lion in the nearby zoo. The final two sentences of the tale though switch the meaning of the title in an unexpected way.

Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane (June 1982)

I’m not sure what to make of this story, it has a distinct voyeuristic tone that can be a little uncomfortable. The narrator sees a beautiful woman in Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris and then is pleased to see that he has the seat next to her on the plane to New York. The descriptions of watching her sleep next to him throughout the flight without any communication taking part between them throughout the journey makes odd reading.

I Sell My Dreams (March 1980)

Another tale regarding sleep, although this time the prophetic dreams of a Colombian woman who had come to Europe as a child and is first encountered by Márquez in Vienna. He sees her again many years later in Barcelona when he meets the Chilean poet Pablo Naruda and she is in the same restaurant and she is still making money from her dreams.

“I Only Came to Use the Phone” (April 1978)

The most disturbing story in the collection. A woman is driving on the way to Barcelona in a storm when her car breaks down. She is eventually picked up by a bus which drops her off at its destination so that she can use the phone. However the rest of the passengers are female mental patients and it is assumed at the asylum that she must also be a patient and she is prevented from calling her husband, sedated and admitted. The story describes her ultimate mental collapse as she tries and fails to explain her true situation.

The Ghosts of August (October 1980)

At less than four full pages this is the shortest work in the collection and is a really good ghost story, this time set in Tuscany and again involving a real person, in this case Venezuelan writer Miguel Otero Silva.

María dos Prazeres (May 1979)

Maria is a semi-retired prostitute in her seventies, originally from Manaus in Brazil but living for most of her life in the Gracia district of Barcelona. She now has only one client who has come to her weekly for decades and it is more a relationship than a business proposition. Convinced she is soon to die the story concerns her elaborate plans for her funeral and what is to happen with her belongings including her little dog afterwards. You really get to know her as the story unfolds and just as with other stories in this collection things suddenly change at the end.

Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen (April 1980)

The eponymous Englishmen are simply bit players in this tale of a Colombian widow who has travelled to Italy planning to see the Pope soon after the end of WWII. What it is more about is her reactions to post war Naples and her fears when she has to make her own way rather than the planned help she was expecting.

Tramontana (January 1982)

The Tramontana of the title is a persistent and powerful wind that the narrator of the tale experienced for three long days whilst staying in Cadaqués in Catalonia. He describes it as oppressive presence taking a personal affront to the presence of him and his family. It also clearly has a strong effect on all those who experience it.

Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness (1976)

Two young boys from Alta Guajira on the Colombian Caribbean coast are on the island of Pantelleria at the southern end of Sicily for a long summer holiday. For the first month they were with their parents and all was wonderful but they had left them in the care of a German governess called Miss Forbes whilst they went on a writers retreat elsewhere in the Mediterranean. She is very strict and the holiday had become intolerable to the boys, so much so that they resolve to kill her but the plot does not go as they intended…

Light is Like Water (December 1978)

This very short tale (around five pages) is positively surreal and again features two young boys around the ages that Márquez’s children would have been when he started to write it. As the narrator explains, he was asked how the light came on at a touch of the switch and replied “Light is like water, you turn the tap and out it comes”. Taking this seriously the boys break a bulb and sail a boat on the pool of light that cascades out of it despite being in an apartment on the fifth floor of a building in Madrid. But you should never play with liquid light.

The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow (1976)

Like the boys in ‘Light is Like Water’ the protagonists of this final tale are originally from Cartegena de Indias on the Colombian Caribbean coast but this time they are wealthy young adults recently married and travelling from Madrid to Paris overnight in a Bentley convertible that had been a wedding present. But Nena has cut her finger on a rose thorn and the bleeding will not stop.

A very enjoyable collection and if you have never read any Márquez it’s a good place to start. The stories do all feel that they belong together, possibly due to the simultaneous final rewriting yet are sufficiently different to highlight alternate aspects of his style. Highly recommended.

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…