The City and the Mountains, José Maria de Eça de Queirós, t. Roy Campbell

“Leaning in His super-divine forehead which conceived the world, on the super-powerful hand which created it–the Creator was reading and smiling. I dared, shivering with sacred horror, to peep over His radiant shoulder. The book was a popular edition, paper-covered. The Eternal was reading Voltaire in the new, three-franc, cheap edition, and smiling.”

Published in 1901, the year after Eça de Queirós’ death from tuberculosis, The City and the Mountains has a reputation as a masterpiece as Eça de Queirós that of “Portugal’s Flaubert” [1] and the Amazon product description says that the “novel is a hymn to country life,” which is true enough.

Jose (Ze) Fernandez, the narrator, is a landowner from rural Portugal who grew up and received his education in Paris where he met Jacinto, the scion of a particularly wealthy and powerful family. The first half of the novel takes place in Paris, the center of civilization. There, Jacinto is a sort of super-modern man with access to books and machines and comforts. For Jacinto, for one to be modern that person needs to devote himself to improvement, that is the collection or mastery of all things. Without these features, man is reduced to the position of an animal–just a stomach and a phallus, as he at one point says.

Ze Fernandez doesn’t have the same tolerance for city life as Jacinto and, after a temporary reprieve back home in Portugal, he finds himself distinctly uncomfortable in the city. He also begins to notice upon his return a change in his friend. Instead of achieving greatness within civilization, Jacinto is smothered by it. The novel takes a sudden turn at the midway point when Jacinto decides to return to his ancestral estate. Though he initially struggles in the transition away civilization to rustic simplicity, Jacinto becomes refreshed and energetic. Perhaps predictably, Jacinto finds himself happily married with children and Ze Fernandez concludes of Paris: “only two impulses seemed to live in that multitude, the love of pleasure and the love of gain.”

It is possible to consider Eça de Queirós’ vitriol against modern urban life, particularly against the unseen consequences of labor, the desire to avoid hardship, and the speed of life heavy handed (as the sole Amazon customer review does), but some of the heavy handedness is the result of the juxtaposition of the two settings. The radical change from one to the next is enhanced by Eça de Queirós’ rich descriptions of each place, but it is the change itself that establishes the contrast. Moreover, The City and the Mountains falls into the same literary family as other fin-de-siecle authors who explored the consequences of civilization and what happens inside and outside its bounds.[2] Eça de Queirós’ observations about the bourgeois mindset are as poignant and funny as his portrait of rural life is (mostly) unrealistically idyllic. Certainly, his commentary on modern man, so dependent upon seen and unseen labor, creature comforts that cause people to literally lose touch with reality,[3] and the constant sensory demands of civilized life should not be dismissed as a novelty of the fin-de-siecle. In many ways these concerns are more pressing than ever.

I should note that there are a few references to contemporary Portuguese issues such as the fear of an attempted coup by Dom Miguel, the son of the exiled king Joao (John) VI and himself king until the 1834. But the political issues are not central to the plot and only once or twice would knowledge of it have added an added layer of realism and/or satire to the novel.[4]

While The City and the Mountain is well worth a read, I would not recommend this translation. Roy Campbell’s translation came off stilted and choppy and, Zounds!, were the interjections unfortunate. I do not read Portuguese so it may be that Campbell was true to the original language at the expense of smoothing it into literary English. But here is a brief comparison with a new translation:

“From this terrace * * * we can see well the dismal rows of houses where the common people cower beneath that immemorial opprobrium from which neither religions, nor philosophies, nor morals, nor their own brutal violence can ever liberate them. There they lie scattered about the city like vile manure which fertilizes the City. Centuries roll by. The same dirty rags cover their bodies, and men will drudge and their women will weep and whimper for ever. How this labour of theirs edifies and enriches the city!”

(t. Roy Campbell)

“From this terrace, * * * we have a clear view of the dismal houses where the populace remains weighed down by that ancient opprobrium from which neither religions or philosophies or morality, nor their own brute strength, will ever be able to free them! There they lie, scattered about the City, like some kind of vile human manure. The centuries roll by, and the same immutable rags cover their bodies, and beneath those rags, through the long day, the men will labor and the women will weep. And the wealth of the City, dear Prince, is built on the labor and tears of the poor.”

(t. Margaret Jull Costa)

In this limited sample, the new translation is clearer English prose and is structured in such away that it encourages the reader to carry on rather than get bogged down.[5] Since I found this translation un-conducive to easy reading but enjoyed the novel anyway, I suggest trying the new version.

Next up is The Castle by Franz Kafka.

[1] So says an editorial review from Amazon.
[2] For instance, I saw loose similarities between Eça de Queirós and Joseph Conrad. Where one’s wilderness is bucolic, the other is wild and savage. Conrad’s Mr. Kurz is Eça de Queirós’ Jacinto without ancestral lands or obsession for toys.
[3] See also David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and the movie Wall-E.
[4] Ze Fernandez holds a party at which Jacinto receives a cool reception. Contextually their mistrust makes sense without knowing the historical situation, but knowledge of Portugal’s tumultuous political history in the 19th c. would have tied the book together a bit more neatly.
[5] This is a personal opinion and someone with a grasp of the original language may disagree about which translation is better. But read enough books in translation and you get a feel for which ones are poorly done.

Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon

“From this high look-out the Earth would have appeared no different before the dawn of man. No visiting angel, or explorer from another planet, could have guessed that this bland orb teemed with vermin, with world-mastering, self-torturing, incipiently angelic beasts.”

Star Maker, published in 1937, was Olaf Stapledon’s fourth fiction work [1]. The unnamed narrator (revealed to be the same narrator as in his first book, Last and First Man) goes out into a hill after a fight with his wife. On this walk he undergoes a psychic transformation that allows him to fly up into space. First he looks upon the earth, but soon he begins to explore the galaxy, searching for other inhabited worlds and intelligent life forms. As the psychic powers of the narrator expand he identifies his “self” with an ever expanding network of beings that strives for perfect harmony and perfect unity, often with catastrophic consequences. Stapledon lays out an imaginative account of civilizations, the galaxy, and divinity. The story unfolds in ever expanding layers, each building on the themes in the earlier layers.

Stapledon has a particularly negative opinion of machinery and civilization. It is clear that some of his pessimism comes from rise of fascism in Europe, as there are a number of undisguised allusions to his contemporary world. But the novel is not simplistic worrying over the potential dangers of fascism. Rather, Stapledon spins out an extended allegory for civilization, potential civilizations, and existence, of which fascism is just a small part.

The eponymous character in the novel is a divine creator equated with God, whose perfect existence is the ultimate goal for nearly every being in the novel. The narrator focuses on the Star Maker during the climax of the novel and it is in this section that Stapledon’s training as a philosopher is most evident [2]. The editor of the edition I have notes allusions and parallels to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Bible, and ”Piers Plowman, but it is clear that Stapledon was also steeped in the work of a plethora of other medieval and late antique philosophers and theologians.

Star Maker is not a typical novel. For instance, there is only one named character [3] and the narrator is an unnamed Englishman married to an unnamed woman. Too, the novel has an ascending, repetitive narrative pattern reminiscent of meditative literature, rather than a traditional arc. Individual characters are unimportant, replaced by races and collectives. But Stapledon demonstrates a remarkable imagination in populating his universe so that, even as there seems to be an inevitability about how civilizations behave, each race has its own particular character [4]. Star Maker is atypical, but it is a masterpiece of science and utopian (as well as hints of dystopian) fiction.

I’ve added Star Maker to my honorable mentions section of my list of favorite novels. Next up is The City and the Mountains, a novel by Portuguese writer José Maria de Eça de Queiroz.

[1] Quite by accident, this is the first of his books I have read. It was just the first of his books I managed to get my hands on.
[2] Stapledon earned a PhD in philosophy from the University of Liverpool.
[3] Bvalltu, an alien from Other Earth, the first stop on the galactic tour.
[4] The variety of races were my favorite part of the novel and many of his creations seem to preempt the creations of science fiction and fantasy stories of later generations.

Syria and Egypt

Moris and Assad

Assad, Morsi

I know a number of people who can’t stand Danziger’s Cartoons (or politics), but I have had a long-running soft-spot for some of his dark observations about politicians, political campaigns, and foreign leaders. But I wanted to actually deconstruct this cartoon about Assad and Morsi because I think that it doesn’t work.

The target of this comic is Assad, not Morsi. As such, it is the latest in a long series of cartoons in which Danziger is critical Assad being allowed to kill thousands of citizens in Syria and the joke is that if Assad is allowed to murder thousands of citizens in order to keep power, then Morsi should take a hint and do the same thing. Now that the joke has had any trace of dark humor flogged from it, I need to point out that the joke falls flat because, unlike the best observations Danziger makes, it shows no trace of awareness about the situation in that part of the world. Instead, it seems to have taken the casualty count from the civil war in Syria, the headline that Morsi was resisting protests, and a wise-crack that maybe Morsi ought to use military force to suppress the protests.

But Morsi was overthrown by the Egyptian military, led by General al-Sisi, a man who considers himself an heir to Nasser.[1] In the wake of Morsi’s ouster, Assad praised the Egyptian military for removing him, saying: “Whoever brings religion to use for political or factional interests will fall anywhere in the world.” He draws a comparison between the Syrian opposition and Morsi’s government, suggesting (unfortunately not without a shred of truth) that he (and the army) is ruling a secular government and protecting religious minorities. Like in Turkey, the army in Egypt receives credit for ensuring secular government and stands apart from a government that leans toward one religious denomination or another. So Morsi never had control of the army and had its support for only a short time. Danziger’s joke targets Assad, but brings in Morsi even though their situations were nothing alike. The better comparison to Assad was Mubarak and could potentially be al-Sisi, but Mubarak is gone and al-Sisi is not (yet) a target. And then there are differences between Syria and Egypt in terms of ethnic and geographic makeup.

[1] The army has been saying that they are acting on behalf of the Egyptian protesters (who they may have incited) and limiting the power of the Muslim Brotherhood. But, to put it cynically, the problems that prompted the protests against Morsi’s administration were largely the same problems that prompted protests against Mubarak’s administration. I do not know what, if anything, Morsi’s government did to fix those problems, but anyone who supports democratic governments should be watching Egypt with some concern. Conversely, the past few years have been hopeful for democracy in Turkey in that the military has allowed top officers to be arrested and have not overthrown the Erdogan government. Of course, the result in Turkey has been massive protests met with curfew, tear gas, and arrests by the police.

June 2013 reading recap

One of the nice things about finishing the comprehensive exam process is that it is again possible to do some reading for fun. I have (sort of) been able to take advantage of this opportunity and again trying to keep a list of those books I’ve read with the idea that I will post a recap at the end of each month, including a brief blurb about each book. Magister Ludi made the June list because it was the first book I managed to finish in the wake of my exams and the only non-academic book I was able to read in May.

Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse
Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, three year after the publication of this book and it is impossible to ignore the possibility that the award was for this novel, though the award’s website suggests that Hesse won for his collected body of work. Magister Ludi, also published as The Glass Bead Game, tells the story of Joseph Knecht, a music prodigy and elite glass bead game player. Hesse sets the story in the fictional central European (German?) province of Castalia, the home of the elite schools that train glass bead game players and possess explicit parallels to both Catholic monastic communities and academic institutions. Castalia and the glass bead game are dedicated to purely intellectual pursuits, untainted by and removed from normal communities. Magister Ludi is a meditation on history, intellectualism, the relationship between the university and society and I particularly recommend it for anyone who has pursued, is pursuing, or may considering pursuing an academic lifestyle. This book is not a quick read, but is well worth the time invested. To put how much I enjoyed this book in perspective, I added it to my list of top novels where I have it ranked fourth.

Nelson: Sword of Albion, John Sugden
I reviewed this second volume of Sugden’s biography of Admiral Nelson here. In short, Sugden reveals intimate details from the last seven years of Nelson’s life (the recovery from the loss of his arm through his death at Trafalgar), focusing on Nelson’s relationships in the admiralty, his wife, Emma Hamilton, and his fellow officers. It was a somewhat interesting book, but I thought it fell flat, particularly in that this particular focus on Nelson and his letters led Sugden into superficial readings and a focus on a particular sliver of society.

Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk
To the authors of Amazon comments complaining that Istanbul is all Orhan all the time, the subtitle is “Memories and the City” and it is a literary memoir. Memoir: “a narrative composed from personal experience.” Pamuk, another Nobel Prize winner, is a Turkish novelist who has lived his entire life in Istanbul and entwines his memories of growing up in a well-to-do family in Istanbul after the revolution with the growth and modernization of the city. It is not a history of the city and Pamuk talks about few people other than his family and artists who used the city as the subjects, but he does an excellent job of giving the reader a feel for the city and also writing a memoir. I do suspect that Istanbul will appeal more to people who have spent time in the city than to those people for whom the city is just an idea.

A Supposedly Fun thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
Both Flesh and Not, DFW
Consider the Lobster, DFW
Three David Foster Wallace essay collections, each with some particularly great essays. Wallace’s style of long, frequent, and frequently nested footnotes can sometimes get convoluted, but he had a particularly engaging style and tone. He comes across as earnest, rebellious, and more honest than the rest of us, while also being dry and sarcastic. Reading his stories also reminded me of conversations I have had with some of my favorite people in that the flow of conversation may be unpredictable, but it is always engaging. I walked away from the essays wishing that he could comment on some recent things, including the movie Wall-E, Twitter, and the soon-to-be post Federer tennis scene, and I am looking forward to reading some of his other stories. Most likely I am going to read “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” because I loved the movie that was based on it, and will probably work my way up to Infinite Jest. It is also something he wrote in one of his essays that prompted me to finally check some of Kafka’s books out from the library.

In a Free State, V.S. Naipaul
The book I liked least,, In a Free State is three short stories bracketed by entries from Naipaul’s travel journal. The main setting of the stories range from London, to Washington DC, to East Africa and have different plots, but each fundamentally come back to the issues of freedom, power, and cultures. The first two stories (both shorter and much better than the eponymous story) both deal with people of non-Western background going to DC and England (respectively) and then grapple with the nature of economics and identity within those new roles, while the third follows the journey of two white people in East Africa while the state they live in is torn apart by what a civil war (and all-but) ethnic cleansing. I will probably give some of Naipaul’s other books a chance, but his prose did not hook me the way many other writers’ prose can and I was disappointed with this collection.