While I’m working up the energy for my next book posting, I thought I’d do a Miscellany just to keep the creative juices flowing. As this Midweek Miscellany is even more miscellaneous than usual, you’ll miss nothing by skipping over whatever you find boring.
First Miscellany: Travel and Books
I’m positively giddy with excitement, dear readers, after returning from a (very) limited little road trip, my first real outing since the start of the horrible pandemic last spring. Nothing fancy or extreme, you understand, and undertaken for serious reasons as it was prompted by unfinished business in my former home in the Washington, D.C. area. Back in the day when Mr. Janakay and I were birding in exotic locales, this little outing would have been a total nothing-burger, but after a year of being confined pretty much to one area it was (almost) a treat, despite the fact that I spent much of my time running errands and attending to boring old medical things.
Aside from the novelty of being in a different area (although I love palm trees it is nice to see a little variety in the flora), my little trip was quite a morale boaster in another way as well. When I moved last April, and again during a short business-related return trip last summer, the D.C. area was very different from its usual bustling, busy, self-absorbed self. Restaurants and movie theaters were closed; very few people were about on the street; the performing arts had disappeared; there were absolutely no tourists that I could see (you’ve never experienced a real tourist town, dear readers, until you’ve fought your way through a gaggle of tour buses all headed towards the tidal basin and the April cherry blossoms); museums were shuttered and — gasp! most telling of all — the beltway and commuting routes were a snap to navigate. The whole experience was uncanny and depressing; I found my mind wandering to all those college history readings about plague cities and so on. Sad! (to quote a former unnamed U.S. president. Don’t worry, dear readers; such a quote won’t happen again on this blog). On this trip, however, there were signs of life and recovery, albeit somewhat guarded ones. An increased number of restaurants, with patios draped in plastic to create “outdoor” dining spaces, were open; limited numbers of people were sitting about outside in socially distanced groups and enjoying the weather; a few museums were doing timed-entry admissions and there was, generally, a feeling of life returning, even if not to the same level as BC19 (before Covid-19). It was so heartening I didn’t even mind the increased volume of traffic. “Bring it on” I exclaimed to Mr. Janakay, as he dodged an oblivious lane-shifter who was simultaneously running a red light!
In addition to being a morale booster, my little trip was very handy for knocking off a few more titles from Mount TBR, which is increasing at an exponential rate (not my fault! Y’all shouldn’t be writing such great book reviews!) Since I’m far from ready to entrust myself to air travel, I had quite a lot of car time, physically tiring but great for getting through that satchel of books I always travel with (you would have blushed, dear reader, to have heard Mr. Janakay some years ago when we were packing to go to New Guinea! Although it’s blindingly obvious to any book blogger, Mr. J simply could not grasp why I needed so many books for a birding trip). From my early childhood, when I was yanked from my comfortable bed, plunked down in the back seat of a car and exposed to the dawn’s frightful light (my family took many, many long road trips and dad was a fervent believer in an early start. I still shudder at the memory of those dreadful sunrises), I perfected the art of reading during a car trip. Between travel and hotel down time during my actual stay in D.C. last week, I not only finished a Challenge book or two but also indulged in some spontaneous selections chosen as “light” relief (I’m using quotes because I don’t altogether buy into the typical categorization between literary and popular fiction). It’s ironic, however, that my three spontaneous choices were, with the exception of the Margery Sharp novel, so disappointing that I didn’t bother to include them in my pile.
In no particular order of preference, my week of wonderful reading included:
SECOND MISCELLANY: Museums
To my great disappointment, most of Washington’s major museums remained closed last week, including my very own personal favorite, the National Gallery, with the only Leonardo in North America and its four Vermeers (well, maybe three! One’s an “attributed to”). I was nevertheless able to get my fix by a short drive up Interstate 95-North to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and the home of the Barnes Foundation, which is allowing timed entry visits under very strict restrictions (capacity, for example, is severely curtailed). I’m very fond of the Barnes, although I’m far less familiar with it than my old home town museums. It has a fabulous collection, noted for its Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modernist art. Sixty-nine Cezannes! Fifty-Nine Matisses! One hundred and eighty-one Renoirs! (my apologies to Renoir lovers but IMO that’s one hundred eighty too many). In addition to all this, there are also numerous works by de Chirico; Gauguin; Picasso; van Gogh; Degas; Rousseau; and Seurat, with a scattering of old masters (Hals, Rubens and Titian) as well. Dr. Albert Barnes, who founded the museum in the 1920s, was also far ahead of his time in collecting African and Native American art. The Barnes is a fascinating place and one of the few museums that continue to reflect the vision and eccentricities of its founder. If you like art and you happen to be in Philadelphia, this is not a place you want to miss.
In addition to all the great art, the Barnes Foundation has a strong online presence. Its numerous lectures and course offerings have kept me going throughout the pandemic.
THIRD MISCELLANY: Nature
For a major metropolitan area, Washington and its adjacent suburbs have quite a bit of green space. It was a real joy to spend a couple of afternoons re-visiting one or two favorite spots, particularly as spring was well underway. I love my new climate — for one thing, it’s warm and Washington was quite chilly for most of my stay — but I must admit it’s difficult to tell that the season has changed by looking at a palm tree or a hibiscus plant, which pretty much blooms year round.
Enough for tonight! Time now to do a real book review, only — what should I choose from my recent reads?
Hello there, dear readers, assuming there are any of you left after my months of silence! Never one to overburden others with my written words (many, many years of turning out legal tootle on schedule finally induced me to take pity on myself and others in this respect), I was nevertheless shocked, positively shocked, to see that it’s been almost three months since I’ve posted anything on my moribund little blog. However did the blogosphere survive my absence? (Rest assured that my question here is satirical!) Although I’ve not been posting I have spent the last few weeks catching up on my blog reading and have no doubt annoyed some of you very much indeed by leaving long, rambling comments on your blogs. You may consider yourself revenged by the fact that your excellent reviews have caused me to add several new peaks to my own Mount TBR of unread books. I’ve simply lacked the energy and concentration, however, to contribute to the online bookish discussion by writing my own reviews. But all this is slowly, slowly changing, now that life is settling down and the boxes are (mostly) unpacked. Because I’ve practically forgotten how to type, much less arrange my thoughts in a coherent structure, I thought I’d ease myself back into things through the forgiving medium of a “miscellany” rather than a formal book review (hopefully the latter will start trickling in during the next few weeks, as I’ve been reading some lovely things).
Because the following sections are totally unrelated to each other, if you find one boring you aren’t missing a thing by scrolling down to the next.
A. MOVING (of most interest to those having a sadistic turn of mind)
Have you ever moved, dear reader? I don’t mean a student move, where you leave the plant at your mom’s, stuff the dirty undies (would one say “knickers” in the U.K. or is this term dated? If you’re British, please enlighten me here) in your backpack and — presto! — off you go! I mean a real, honest-to-god move involving a houseful of furniture; several thousand books; three snarling, foul-tempered cats who were perfectly happy in their old home and a stressed out Mr. Janakay. If you’ve done this, or something comparable, you can understand the trauma of my last twelve months, in which I’ve moved twice, the first a long-distance move to temporary quarters followed just recently by a move to my new and hopefully permanent home, thankfully located in the same city as my temporary abode. After surviving these physical relocations, and living out of boxes and suitcases for almost fourteen months, I can truthfully say “never again, dear reader, never again!”
B. Books Old and Books New; Books Read, Unread and (Maybe) Never to be Read
Despite the difficulties of the last two months or so, I did manage to keep reading. After all, isn’t that what we’re all about? Admittedly, there were disappointments; these primarily centered on my sheer inability to write any reviews for the Japanese Literature in Translation or Independent Publishers months despite reading a few books for both events. Ah, well, that’s what next year is for, isn’t it? My reading choices this year have been all over the place, or perhaps more accurately, more all over the plan than usual (if you’ve read my blog at all, you can see that my taste tends to be, ahem, “eclectic”). As my opening photo demonstrates, my little pile of completed books includes pop pulp (The Godfather, special 50th anniversary edition); a few classics (Henry James’ Spoils of Poynton and Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington); a little literature in translation (Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, for example) and a few fairly obscure offerings from an independent publisher or two, prompted by Kaggsy’s February event (Doon Arbus’ The Caretaker, published by New Directions, is a good example here). During the worst of my move I spent a great deal of time with Joe Abercrombie, an inexplicable choice, no doubt, to those who don’t share my taste for his fantastical grimdark world. What can I say? You either like this stuff or you don’t and, honestly, it was light relief to turn from movers, boxes and home contractors with Covid-19 problems to the exploits of Glotka the torturer. Although I generally enjoyed everything in my pile, some choices were particularly rewarding:
Although I have (almost literally) tons of books I want to get through this year as a result of various challenges, I have two or three in particular that I’ve added to my 2021 list:
Are any of you, dear readers, fans of Proust? If so, you absolutely owe it to yourself to at least spend an hour or so with:
Visual art was very important to Proust (“My book is a painting”), which is readily apparent from the literally hundreds of artists and paintings discussed at various points by the many, many characters who appear, disappear and reappear in In Search of Lost Time. Karpeles’ “visual companion” groups these many art works into chapters that correspond to Proust’s volumes; each entry has a brief introduction, a long quotation from the relevant passage in Proust and an illustration of the art, usually in color. Did you know, for example, that Swann “had the nerve to try and make” the Duc de Guermantes buy a painting “of a bundle of asparagus . . . exactly like the ones” the Duc and his guest were having for dinner? Quelle horreur! Thanks to Karpeles, you can see (and compare) Manet’s rejected Bundle of Asparagus with the Duc’s preferred painting, a “little study by M. Vibert” of a “sleek prelate who’s making his little dog do tricks.” Guess what, dear readers? The Duc should have followed Swann’s advice!
There’s a very good introduction, notes and an index listing the artists alphabetically and keyed to three different Proust editions. It’s been many years since I’ve read Proust and I’d forgotten the wonders of InSearch of Lost Time. After a few hours of browsing Karpeles, however, I’m tempted to re-read at least a volume or two. After all, there are several different editions!
On a last Proustian note: The New Yorker recently did a very good piece on “Conjuring the Music of Proust’s Salons,” in which Alex Ross reviews two recent recordings paying homage to an actual concert organized by Proust on July 1, 1907. Since Proust was as attuned to music as he was to literature and visual art, both recordings sound very interesting indeed. The New Yorker has, alas, a pay wall, but if you haven’t clicked too much this month the article is available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/03/22/conjuring-the-music-of-prousts-salons.
What’s a miscellany without a few nature photos, thanks to Mr. J? Although I miss some of the parks and preserves that were reasonably accessible to my old home, my new one is located little more than a mile (about 1.5 km) from a nature preserve and some very lovely scenery. Nothing dramatic, you understand, or particularly historic (if you crave history and/or dramatic scenery, you should pop over and read about some of Simon’s lovely excursions) but still — nice.
If you’ve read this far, dear readers, you no doubt agree with me that it’s time for this particular miscellany to end. I hope to post a real review later on in the week; until then au revoir.
It’s very heartening to Janakay that 2020’s Juneteenth is being given such wide notice, much more, it appears to her, than in previous years. In part, of course, this is due to its coinciding with one of those pivotal moments of social protest and, hopefully, social change. In part — and this is perhaps saying the same thing in a different way — it’s due to the growing awareness among white Americans of a holiday that has been given little attention or prominence by white institutions or a white-dominated media. Janakay is not proud of the fact, but she was largely unaware of Juneteenth until a few years ago. But then, Janakay has spent most of her adult life unlearning the version of the American Civil War that she was taught as a child. The mythology of the “lost cause” and its fantasy of a civil war fought over tariffs and states’ rights rather than freedom and human dignity had no room for a day commemorating the end of a horror that had tainted the country from its beginning. Could it be that after a century and a half we in these (theoretically) United States are finally willing to lay aside our comforting blanket of false history and recognize the pain and injustice inflicted so long on so many of our fellow citizens? To acknowledge that all of us are entitled to justice and to ensure that all of us actually receive it?
Well, enough of the soap box! Let’s observe Juneteenth 2020 with one of Janakay’s favorite formats, the miscellany!
MISCELLANY FIRST: A New Type of Equestrian Statue
Any fans of Kehinde Wiley out there? Without being particularly knowledgeable about it, I’ve loved his work since I first saw it in one of my basic art history courses. Wiley, of course, is best known for his official state portrait of a certain American political leader . . . .
Wiley is particularly known for his portraits of young urban Black men, clad in contemporary dress but posed in the manner of the elite of western culture while holding centuries-old symbols of status and power. It’s a powerful way to bestow dignity and respect on a frequently marginalized group, as well as a slyly subversive comment on how western art has traditionally excluded or marginalized Blacks.
Have any of you, dear readers, traveled through the eastern and/or southern United States? If so, you will no doubt have noticed the multiplicity of monuments to various leaders and notables of the lost cause, not to mention the omnipresence of their names on streets, parks, buildings and military bases. For those of you who have successfully avoided current news (congratulations on that, by the way), many of today’s protesters have demanded the removal of these glorifications of the U.S.’ slave-holding past. Wiley’s elegant and powerful solution (a commission from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art) was the creation of a gigantic bronze equestrian statue that acknowledged the past while creating an image for the present:
By sheer chance my visit last November to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (located in Richmond) coincided with the permanent installation of Wiley’s great statute in the plaza in front of the museum. Although they’re not as detailed as I would wish, my photos do give some idea of the scope and scale of Wiley’s wonderful statue:
“Rumors of War” stands only a few blocks away from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, which contains five giant statues of Confederate leaders and is located almost directly across from the Memorial to the Women of the Confederacy. Well done, Kehinde!
MISCELLANY SECOND: Remembrance
Have any of you, dear readers, seen “The New Yorker’s” June 22 cover? The magazine has had some fabulous covers over the years, but this one by artist Kadir Nelson is something exceptional. Titled “Say Their Names,” it’s a closeup examination of the violence inflicted upon black people in America. The magazine’s website has an interactive feature that gives you factual information about each of the figures contained within George Floyd’s body, from Floyd himself to Medgar Evers (assassinated in 1963 by a member of the Ku Klux Klan) to Emmett Till (a fourteen year-old lynched in 1955) to “the Unnamed,” the enslaved people who were buried in unmarked graves.
For a more all encompassing examination of slavery’s legacy in the U.S., the New York Times 1619 Project is an incredible source of information; it was timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia.
MISCELLANY THIRD: Hope
The poets always say it best. What better way to end Juneteenth 2020 than with the hope that Hughes’ plea will, someday, be answered:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Well, dear readers, since I’ve now reached page eleven of my paper on Renaissance child portraiture, I’ve decided to break from the 16th century for (imagine a drum roll here) — Monday Miscellany! This week’s miscellany will be more of a miscellaneous mess than it usually is, as the unofficial deadline for my paper is next Friday (that scream you just heard, dear readers, is Janakay having a weensy little panic attack. Not to worry! I’m doing some deep breathing, so I’m much better now). Because this post is largely a quick stream of consciousness, with its various parts having absolutely nothing in common with each other, feel even freer than usual to click hither and yon. To suit my current mood, which is a visual mood, I’ll begin with photos and a quick trip down memory lane:
MISCELLANY FIRST: BIRDS!
Back when Janakay and Mr. Janakay were busily, if not happily, employed turning out thousands (well, maybe hundreds) of pages of legal tootle, those breaks away from the law books and the bustle were made as frequently and exotically as possible. If you want remote, exotic and sometimes (very) uncomfortable travel, then you were born to go on a professional bird tour (don’t dare ask Janakay about her camping experience on that mountainside in central Peru. She might tell you, complete with scatological details!) Here are a few colorful little mementos of trips past, thanks to Mr. Janakay’s awesome photographic skills (Janakay herself is far too lazy to carry that big old camera lens):
And, the rarest of them all — the Kagu! One of the most endangered birds on the planet, the Kagu lives in a small patch of preserved habitat on New Caledonia, a Pacific island (located about 750 miles or 1,210 km east of Australia) that is still affiliated with France (New Caledonia was a French territory that, I believe, rejected independence in a fairly recent vote).
MISCELLANY SECOND: DONNA TARTT: BOOK vs MOVIE
Does anyone out there besides myself adore Donna Tartt’s novels? I came late to the DT bandwagon and probably would never have read The Secret History, her first novel, had I been left to my own devices, as I had somehow gotten the impression that it was one of those sensationalist, potboiler, best-seller things. Well, fortunately, I wasn’t — left to my own devices, that is — I had an incredibly persistent literary-minded friend who talked me into trying it. Ten pages in and I’m a fan of Tartt and all her works! For life! I have totally drunk the Kool Aid (if you don’t understand this metaphor, it’s just as well). Where has this woman been my entire reading life? When is her next book coming out and how do I survive until it does? Can I join her fan club? I’m exaggerating, but not by much!
To be fair, Secret History is a bit of a sensationalist potboiler (and it did sell off the charts) but oh, my stars and whiskers, good gracious me — can that woman write! Throw in the fact that the plot concerns a group of oddball misfits who are studying classics at an elite New England school (I studied Latin and classics, among other things, at a much more plebian state university in the New England area, so I could identify. I and my fellow Latin students were weird! But harmless!) and I don’t mind admitting that I was not only hooked but mainlining! Unfortunately for those (like myself) who have addictive personalities, Tartt is not a prolific novelist. I had to wait over a decade for her second novel, The Little Friend. Was the wait worth it? Weeeeell …….. sort of; not really; maybe. The incredible way with words and literary skill were as great as ever but the narrative, for me at least, was a flop. Still — that brilliant writing, the creepy sense of atmosphere, the characters . . . .
Another long (very long) wait and then comes — The Goldfinch! The New York Times’ assessment (a “smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind”) was an vast understatement, in my opinion. I was powerless before a novel named for one of my favorite paintings, particularly one with the message that “art may addict, but art also saves us from ‘the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.'” This is one long book — almost 800 pages — and while I read it I lived in Tartt’s world and not my own. I only wish I could read it again, for the first time, but we don’t get the same gift twice, do we? Given my reaction to the book, you can imagine my excitement when I learned last winter that a movie was coming out in September! Dread (“this book can’t be filmed”) warred with excitement (“I don’t care — I have to see what they do with Boris!”) and neither won. With trepidation mixed with longing and seasoned with hope (forgive my purplish prose, dear reader, but I was très excited) I marked the opening day on my calendar with a very large red “X” and started counting down the days until the movie came to a theater near me.
You can imagine my dismay when, a week or so before the opening day, the very negative reviews started rolling in. Strictly for the birds (so clever, the New York Times). A movie that “lies as flat as a painting.” (Oh, those critics! so entertaining!) The Washington Post critic, not to be outdone by her colleagues, didn’t like the movie either but couldn’t come up with anything clever to say; she had to settle on being offended by its “unmistakable air of unexamined privilege” and the WASPY sounding names of several of the characters (the novel is partly set in New York City’s Upper East Side, for gosh sakes! Of course the characters are privileged! Do we need to examine the socio-politico basis for it?) Oh, and she couldn’t sympathize with the main character, whom she found to be self-pitying (in case you can’t tell, I have severe reservations about WaPo’s movie critic, whom I’ve been stuck with reading for years). Perhaps I am being just a little unfair; no one, but no one, had a kind word to say about Goldfinch: the Movie. Critical opinion was so unanimous that the movie was an awful waste of time that even I, much as I loved the story, almost decided to skip the movie.
Last Friday, however, flush with the triumph of finishing page eight of my draft (did I mention I have a paper due this week? Oh, I did!) I made my way to the nearest art house theater that served alcohol and settled in for two hours and thirty minutes of “fabulous book into lousy movie” disappointment. And — I wasn’t disappointed! Was the movie as good as the novel? Of course not; it never is! Did it have faults? Oh yes — it was definitely a bit slow at times, and there were certainly things I didn’t like (some of the casting; the fragmented narrative) but on the whole I thought it was, actually, pretty good. And definitely worth seeing despite the flaws. But then, what do I know, compared to all the professional critics who panned it? My reaction was possibly due to a case of reverse expectations, i.e., the reviews were so very bad, my expectations were so very low, that anything short of a disaster would have made me happy. Perhaps I simply liked the novel so much that I’d put up with anything, just to see the characters on a screen in front of me. A mystery inside an enigma, to misquote a great man.
Have any of you, dear readers, seen the movie? If so, I’d really like to hear your reaction. Has anyone read The Goldfinch, or either of Tartt’s other two novels? Ditto! (and it’s o.k. if you’re not a fan! Despite my DT worship I can understand how others might be less smitten by her art. How very boring it would be, if we all liked the same things, wouldn’t it?) It’s almost a truism to say we’re always disappointed when a favorite book is made into a movie — what’s been your experience? Mine is usually “I hate, hate, hate the movie,” which is why I’m so interested in the fact that this time my reaction was actually quite different. The only comparable situation I can think of personally was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas; a complex and wonderful novel made into a sort of C+ movie that I sort of C+ liked! Any thoughts?
MISCELLANY THIRD: ART
Any René Magritte fans out there? (as I recall, Silvia likes his work!). I don’t know much about 20th century art but it’s hard to resist Magritte. Don’t we all need to have our world view shifted just a little at times? Magritte is very, very good at that! This painting is titled, for no particular reason that I know of, Sixteenth of September, which just happens to be today’s date (from where I’m typing at least). I’d like to say I thought of the painting myself, but truth compels me to give credit where it’s due — the New York Times’ daily cooking newsletter! Thrown in gratis, along with a recipe for meatloaf with carmelized cabbage! (If you’re interested, the newsletter also recommended Lara Prescott’s debut thriller, The Secrets We Keep. Has anyone read it yet?)
Have I mentioned that I have a big research paper to write on Renaissance child portraiture? Oh, I have!!! Since making that communique I’ve actually managed to complete a few pages at an astonishingly slow rate of production, so slow it would have gotten me promptly fired from my old brief-writing job, pleading (with utter sincerity) for truth, justice and the American way of life, not to mention the government’s right to collect its trust fund taxes or to impose appropriate market designs on various energy exchanges. (If you’re unfamiliar with trust fund taxes, market design or energy exchanges consider yourself very, very fortunate. I thought I had mercifully blanked it out, but I do believe the pressure of writing my portraiture paper is giving me stress induced flashbacks. I suppose it’s the equivalent of PTSD for a Vietnam vet). Anyways . . . . since I’ve just completed a paragraph or two on Renaissance family life (nutshell summary: father knew best) I felt totally justified in taking a teensy, weensy little break this morning involving breakfast out (i.e., someone else cooked), a farmer’s market and new (to me anyway) books. And, since it’s Monday, I have a perfect recipe (so to speak) for a Miscellany!
In a truly rare work break (smiley face here) from my Renaissance research this morning, I decided to catch up with my blog reading. My very first (and, as it happened, last) click of the day landed me here, where “Stuck in a Book” described in voluptuous detail a very recent and quite major book haul. Well, dear reader, Janakay has been a very good (and fiscally responsible) girl this summer vis à vis book purchases (interlibrary loan works quite well thank you) but . . . it’s just never safe, dangling temptation in front of an addict! And the combined omens were just so overwhelming — my very first blog stop discussing a book binge; the absolute necessity for a reward after all my hard work; the fact that my favorite breakfast spot is practically on the way to:
Well, it just all came together!
When I first drove up I thought the yellow “50% Off” sign was hyperbole but no! These guys were really discounting everything in the store by FIFTY PERCENT!!! What did I tell you about those omens? I mean — it was so obviously MEANT to be! I headed for the fiction section straightaway, but (another intervention by Divine Fortuna. If you follow my post to the end, you’ll see I’m in a Roman mood) I first had to pass through “Art History.” This section was pretty tightly packed (I had to move a few piles to get to stuff) and space was a bit limited, requiring me to sit on the floor to examine the treasures. The effort, however, was more than worth it, as I scored some major finds. (A tip for the temperate — you know it’s a binge when the cashier gives you a box and offers to help you carry your books to your car!).
My last art image, I promise, but I couldn’t resist just one more!
Miscellany third: Ancient Rome
At this point, I bet you thought I’d never get around to ancient Rome but ha! fooled you. I was headed that way all the time!
Last week I was very excited to have my first class in Roman art and archaeology. Back in the day, i.e., when I was a “real” student (trying very hard not to think about getting a job) I was very interested in classical subjects. Although my interest has waned over the years I still love classical culture and was thrilled when I was finally able to enroll in this course;
As I long ago discovered, however, one can love a subject and still find one’s mind wandering down wayward paths, particularly when one is trying to distinguish between two early Roman temples that look distressingly similar! During one such detour from required learning I found myself thinking about what a presence, still, ancient Rome holds in popular culture; from there I began mentally listing movies and books with a Roman theme (perhaps the equivalent of counting sheep?) Because there are literally hundreds and hundreds of these, I established the following parameters to keep my list manageable: (1) I allowed only 30-40 minutes to come up with titles (and a little longer to research a few); (2) I listed only items about which I had personal knowledge (i.e., I’ve either read it, read a review of it or have it on a TBR list) and (3) I attempted not to annotate (that part wasn’t very realistic, as you can see below). Since I may actually get around to making this into a real bibliography one day, I’d love to have additional recommendations or reactions to the titles. Also, as you’ll see, most of the listed books are pretty dated, so if you know more recent titles, please share!
Historical novels about ancient Rome (alphabetical by author):
Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. The Last Days of Pompeii. Perhaps the best known novel by an unfortunately prolific Victorian novelist. You may not know that Bulwer-Lytton penned the immortal opening lines, “It was a dark and stormy night.” His greatest claim to contemporary fame is that lines such as this inspired the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which entrants compete to see who can write the worst possible opening sentence for a novel. If all this doesn’t scare you off from reading Pompeii, I say — go for it! (You’ll be sorry.)
Caldwell, Taylor. A Pillar of Iron. The novel gives star treatment to Cicero; Caesar is a vaguely sinister character. I can’t believe it’s still in print, but life is full of such mysteries. Since my assessment may be inaccurate (it’s certainly biased. I spent a miserable semester trying to translate one of Cicero’s speeches) I feel compelled to note that one reviewer on Amazon refers to it as “one of the best books I’ve ever read.” Don’t you think that it’s differences in taste such as this that make our big beautiful planet so very interesting?
Dolan, Mary. Hannibal: Scourge of Imperial Rome (also published as Hannibal of Carthage). The Romans are the bad guys in this fictionalized recreation of the lost account of Sosylos, a real-life Greek historian (probably a freedman) who accompanied Hannibal over the Alps and into Italy in the Second Punic War. I read this novel several times as a kid and loved it. Tragically out of print.
Douglas, Lloyd. The Robe. A 1940s? 1950s? best seller with a religious theme (Roman soldier is present at the crucifixion); the stuff many movies are made of. Watch them and skip the book.
Duggan, Alfred. Family Favorites (not the warm and fuzzy kind! Set in the reign of an emperor who made Nero look like Santa Claus) & Three’s Company (the second Triumvirate of Mark Anthony, Octavian & Marcus Lepidus; told, in a typically Duggan touch, from the point of view of the non-entity Lepidus). I don’t think Duggan is much read these days; a pity as his wit is dry and his historical research impeccable. I prefer his novels set in Medieval times (Count Bohemund is great) but these are definitely worth checking out (Favorites at least is available on Kindle).
Fast, Howard. Spartacus. A best-seller from the 1950s; the movie, I suspect, is better known. Haven’t read it in years, so I’m not sure how it’s aged.
Flaubert, Gustave. Salammbo. I was so intrigued to learn that Flaubert wrote an historical novel set in the time of the first Punic War I bought a copy. What are TBR lists for?
Graves, Robert. I, Claudius & Claudius the God. Fabulous books, thankfully well known and readily available. Less well known but worth checking out if you like late empire (I do) is Graves’ Count Belisarius.
Harris, Robert. Pompeii. The title rather explains what’s going on, doesn’t it? My reaction was “meh” although Harris has a lot of fans out there. Are you one? If so, speak up! Janakay is open-minded (about books, that is!)
Shakespeare, William. Anthony & Cleopatra. O.K., I know it’s a play (I could have also listed Julius Caesar, but I like this one better). Worth it just to read Anthony’s “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch Of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space.” If the story didn’t happen this way, it should have!
Sienkiewicz, Henryk. Quo Vadis? Did you know that Sienkiewicz won the 1905 Nobel Prize for literature? Neither did I, until I did this list! I do know that this novel has been the basis for a couple of movies. And — one of the novel’s great characters, Petronius the Arbiter, was “real;” Tacitus wrote all about him! (spoiler alert: Petronius comes to a tragic end when he falls out of favor with Nero). Petronius turns up again (below) as the author of the Satyricon.
Sutcliff, Rosemary. A wonderful English novelist who specialized in writing about Roman Britain (her Sword at Sunset is a wonderful, very realistic re-telling of the Arthurian legend). She did several novels classified as YA that, depending on your mood, are well worth reading regardless of your age (hey! I’m ancient and I just finished re-reading one); the best, IMO being The Silver Branch,The Lantern Bearers and The Eagle of the Ninth. I loved these books so much I’m seriously considering a nostalgia purchase of the reprints (with original illustrations) offered by the folks at Slightly Foxed (a wonderful quarterly publication for those who read BTW).
Waltari, Mika. The Etruscan & The Roman. Waltari was a Finnish writer who did several of these single title thingeys; perhaps the best known is The Egyptian. I’m not sure I’d like them now, several thousand books after I first encountered them, but I do recall particularly enjoying The Etruscan, perhaps because that pre-Roman culture is just so very mysterious.
Vidal, Gore. Julian. The life of this last pagan emperor of Rome (and enemy of the emerging Christian faith) was grist for Vidal’s pen. If you like Vidal, you’ll probably like this. If not, stay away, life is short.
Wallace, Lew. Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Did you know that Wallace was a general (Union variety) in the U.S. Civil War? Mr. Janakay, who knows quite a bit about the subject, informs me that Wallace was “not bad” as a military commander and that he rather unfairly took the fall for the Union’s first-day losses at the battle of Shiloh. As for his literary ability — well, I’d probably just watch the movie (particularly if you like mega-Hollywood, old-timey Charlton Heston things).
Warner, Rex. The Young Caesar and Imperial Caesar. Warner was an English classicist; these two books are fictionalized first person accounts of Julius Caesar’s life. Although they’re stand alones, you’ll need to read both to get Caesar’s entire life. I was pleasantly surprised to learn they’re available on kindle for a modest price; they’re now on my “will one day re-read them” list. When I do so, I’ll let you know if they’ve held up well!
White, Edward Lucas. The Unwilling Vestal (a Tale of Rome Under the Caesars). A former professor of mine (“The Classical Epic in Translation”) spent much class time raving about this old novel’s whimsical charm. Being an impressionable child, I wasted a couple of days discovering the guy had lousy taste for novels originally written in English. Learn from my example, grasshopper!
Wilder, Thorton. Ides of March. Set in the last days of the Roman Republic & a very popular read in the 1950s, when (I believe) it reached best seller status. Not sure how it would date; if you’ve read it — let me know!
Williams, John. Augustus. Re-issued fairly recently in one of those nice NYRB classics editions. This is one that’s been on my TBR list for some time. Williams BTW is also the author of Stoner, the newly re-discovered lost classic du jour.
Yourcenar, Marguerite. Memoirs of Hadrian. Another permanent resident on my TBR list.
Contemporary (and popular) mystery series set in ancient Rome:
Davis, Lindsey. Marcus Didius Falco mysteries. I started reading these as they were being published and lasted through the first four or five. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderfully funny, well-plotted and entertaining series but . . . we all have to say good-bye sometimes.
Saylor, Steven. His Sub-Rosa series is set in the time of the late Republic and centers on the exploits of a detective known as Gordianus the Finder. There are a lot of books in this series (twelve? fourteen? difficult to count, as I believe there’s also a novella or two); the few I read back when were quite good but — three was enough!
Science Fiction directly inspired by Roman history:
Asimove, Isaac. The Foundation Series. An incredibly influential sci-fi classic (Elon Musk & Paul Krugman cite it as inspiration); the ancient Galactic empire is dying and humanity faces centuries of barbarism. Edward Gibbon’s Decline & Fall, anyone? I read this work repeatedly in my teens; my attempted re-read about twenty years ago was a tragic failure. Like much of early sci-fi, brilliant ideas combine with a clunky style, which I can no longer handle (after a similar experience with another Asimov novel, I’ve decided my love affair is over!). Others, however, have had different reactions, so check it out for yourself.
Contemporary essays about the classics (includes Greek classics):
Mendelsohn, Daniel. How Beautiful It is and How Easily It is Broken. Mendelsohn is a scholar steeped in the classics; he has the rare and wonderful ability to link classical themes to current pop culture. I’m not a big reader of essays, but I loved this collection.
Beard, Mary. Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations. Your very own tour of the ancient world, with one of the greatest classical scholars on the planet as your guide. And — she can write! If you’re at all interested in the classics, this is a necessity.
Hamilton, Edith. The Roman Way. An oldy, but a goody; very readable essays on the major Roman authors. Hamilton gives non-Latinist a wonderful sense of the various authors’ styles, as well as lots of substantive information about the works’ contents. Hamilton’s The Greek Way is even better, but that’s off topic!
Writings by actual, real life ancient Romans that are worth checking out:
Please keep in mind that I’ve only read a smidgen of the vast amount of available material, and did that years and years ago. (In other words, additional suggestions are welcome.) But since I’m nothing if not foolhardy, here’s my very selective, highly idiosyncratic and very limited list. Do you have any Latin favorites? If so, share, share!
Apuleius. The Golden Ass. The only Latin novel to survive in complete form; adventures of a would-be sorcerer who mistakenly turns himself into a jackass (if memory serves, I think he wanted to change into a bird but got the spell wrong). Aside from its considerable literary merits, I have a soft spot for this one. Back in the day, I loaned my copy to a friend who was driving home for Christmas. When she was pulled over for speeding (hey! we all want to get home quickly for the holidays!), my loaner was clearly visible in the empty passenger seat. The cop who flagged her down not only found the title hilarious, he also thought it perfectly described his patrol partner. The cop was so amused, in fact, that my friend got off with a warning rather than a ticket! Never say reading great literature doesn’t pay off!
Petronius. Satyricon. The author was a favorite courtier of Nero’s until he criticized the imperial poet’s rhymes (not to mention his musical skills) once too often (see Henryk Sienkiewicz, above). Only fragments survive, but as one of them is Trimalchio’s Feast, it’s a must-read. Warning: not for the squeamish or puritanical (I learned lots of interesting Latin verbs the semester we read this). The translation you choose is everything for this particular classic; look for the liveliest, most irreverent possible. You could always watch the Fellini movie of the same name if you don’t feel like reading (it’s filled with arresting images) but the book is better.
Virgil. Aeneid. If you like epics, only the Iliad is better (well, maybe Beowulf, but that’s a different culture). Read the poem and you’ll discover why Dante made Virgil his guide through the afterlife, the poetry is that good (particularly the chapters about Dido, one of the best female characters in all of classical lit).
Catullus. If lyric poetry’s your thing, it doesn’t get much better. Catullus was probably the only guy of his day and time who didn’t realize his beloved Clodia was the most sexually promiscuous woman in Rome and a husband-poisoner to boot; but it’s that kind of blindness that makes great love poetry. Although the Clodia poems (he calls her “Lesbia” but no one was fooled) are probably his best known work, Catullus’ poetry covers much more ground. His poem on Attis, who joins the priesthood of the savage goddess Cybele, is incredible (not, not, not for the faint at heart) and there’s the wonderful poem written when Catullus visited his brother’s grave (“now and forever, brother, hail and farewell”). Many, many translations are available.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. A prime source for every myth you ever wanted, or needed, to read. Trust me, reading Ovid will make it much easier for you to enjoy the artwork the next time you visit the museum (when in doubt European artists have always turned to Ovid for a subject).
Histories: if you’re into the (technically) non-fiction, there’s lots and lots to chose from. A “you were there” account from the front: Caesar’s Gallic Wars, perhaps the oldest surviving piece of cleverly disguised political propaganda (Caesar wrote it to convince the folks back home that he was a serious military commander). Juicy, filthy, wonderful gossip (in the 21st century, this guy would be working for the tabloids): Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars. Stern, republican, “this is what made us great” virtue: Livy (in our day, he’d probably be writing political speeches).
Well, that’s it for tonight folks! I’d love to hear comments, or additions to my list, but for now it’s back to those two very similar, early Roman temples . . . I think one of them has a few more columns on the left side . . . .
Those of you who check out my blog now and again may have noticed that it’s been quite some time since my last post. Three weeks! How can that be? Where has all that time gone? My fall semester classes officially begin tomorrow, but I’ve actually been at it for most of August, frantically working on the second part of a two semester project that I began last spring, on 16th century Italian portraits of children. I’ve spent several months doing research and I’m now at the point where I simply MUST begin writing! I’ve made outlines, collated notes, requested ten more books from the interlibrary loan department, read many interesting art history articles (some even tangentially related to my topic), went to the movies, went shopping for novels on Amazon, made banana bread, went to more movies, bought more novels, made cranberry bread, started this post . . . . . wait! wait! Something’s wrong! I simply must begin writing about Italian Renaissance portraits! Oh well, I think I’ll do this post instead (then check out the movie schedule and catch up on some book blogs).
MISCELLANY PART I: BACK TO SCHOOL READING
Since this is Monday, my post will be a miscellany that’s more of a “mess–allany” than usual! It’s in several parts, so if you get bored (now, honestly, how could that be? Please do realize I am being sarcastic here!) you won’t lose content by scrolling through the dull parts.
Since this is a book blog, I’ll begin with – – – reading! Although I’ve done a tremendous amount of it this month, most of my reading has been very narrowly focused —- of the “I simply must begin writing my paper but first I’ll skim another article” type — which is not to say it’s been dull (if I weren’t the type to find Renaissance Italy interesting, I wouldn’t have used August to read about it!) I am stuffed, positively stuffed, with interesting factoids about the Italian Renaissance! Did you know, for example, that families in 16th century Florence recorded their sons’ births in the family account books but often didn’t bother recording the daughters’? That children of both genders were farmed out to wet nurses almost immediately after birth and only rejoined their biological families around the age of three or so (some even stayed with the nurse until age seven)? That couples who wanted to conceive a son were advised to tie the guy’s left testicle with string and to eat lots of hot food (I’ll spare you the theory behind this)? Did you know that some scholars estimate that half of the children born during this period died before their first birthday, and that half of these survivors died before age thirteen? Although scholars only begin studying the history of “childhood” around 1960 or so, they’ve produced some incredibly interesting and very accessible work since that time on families, marriage, childhood and women’s roles in Renaissance Italy. If you’re up for non-fiction, some of these are definitely worth reading, such as . . .
As for my own particular Renaissance woman and her depictions of certain Renaissance kids (the topic of my paper and my excuse for all that reading about childhood and family life):
And — here’s the kids!
MISCELLANY PART II: AUGUST MOVIES
Does anyone besides me like movies? Although I’m reallynot addicted (honestly, I can go weeks and weeks without a hit), in times of stress they’re my go-to drug of choice, especially when combined with potato chips! Like most sane people, I generally watch movies at home, but when piles and piles of (unread) Renaissance art books are staring at me, I resort to a conveniently located local theater, which specializes in current art house, repertory and foreign films (fortunately, it also has a great bonus program, which has come in really useful this month). In August I hit the jackpot, so to speak — my local guys were celebrating the 1970s, one of my favorite periods for “old” American movies.
I did go current, however, at least at the beginning, by kicking off August with Quentin Tarantino’s latest, “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.” Has anyone else seen it? If so, I’d like to hear your thoughts, particularly as I’m not a Tarantino fan (I generally think he’s a bit over-rated, and his movies normally are far too bloody for me). In a sense, I liked this one despite myself, but it was good! (although it is pretty violent). Anyway, August movie month had what I considered an auspicious beginning:
I followed this current release with lots and lots of repertory, seeing, in no particular order:
“You Only Live Twice” (1975): Didn’t date well and don’t bother, unless you really, really want to see Sean Connery masquerading as a Japanese fisherman, complete with skin makeup (don’t ask). I didn’t and left halfway through, as life is short.
“The French Connection” (1971): I wasn’t a fan when I first saw this, oh so many years past, but it’s held up surprisingly well.
“The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968): A heist movie totally devoid of suspense; even Steve McQueen couldn’t save it. High point was Faye Dunaway in a lavender hat (she was lovely).
“Chinatown” (1975): One of the all time greats; saw this one twice! Who could forget that closing scene?
“Nashville” (1975): I love Altman’s movies and this is one of his best. Surprisingly (and depressingly) still relevant to our sad political times.
“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971): another Altman (told you I love his movies). Saw it twice this month, once solo and once with Mr. Janakay (it was necessary for his cultural development!).
“Diary of a Mad Housewife” (1970): Carrie Snodgress won a Golden Globe (and was nominated for an Oscar) for her work in this comedy-drama. She is good (makes you wonder what her career might have been had she never met Neil Young) and, despite being a bit of a period piece, the movie still works.
“The Last Picture Show” (1971): How could I have forgotten how great this was? Cloris Leachman deserved three oscars!
Does my list include anyone else’s favorites? Or not-favorites, as the case may be? Any recommendations? (I still have lots of Renaissance art to get through, so movie going in the near future is a distinct possibility.) Has anyone seen “The Farewell”? If so, please share your opinion, as I’m dying to see whether Awkwafina lives up to her reviews!
MISCELLANY PART III: FUN READ
Humanity has perished, victim of a zombie plague; all that’s left are the animals. The tale is (mostly) narrated by S.T., a formerly domesticated crow who’s spent his life with his beloved Big Jim, a junk-food eating, beer-drinking redneck, and Dennis, a slobbery but good natured bloodhound. Aside from being hysterically funny (yes, it is!), there’s a lot going on in this deceptively simple little story. Take my word for it, this is NOT just another post-apocalypse zombie novel (and if you don’t believe me, check it out on NPR).
MISCELLANY PART IV: THE 1619 PROJECT
You may or may be aware that in August 1619 a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans landed in the British colony of Virginia. The unfortunates aboard were sold to the colonists and “American” history (at least, of the United States variety) was off and running. To mark the 400th anniversary of this momentous event the New York Times compiled its 1619 Project, which explores the history of slavery (a history that was certainly never taught in any school I attended) and the way in which it’s affected every aspect of life in these sort-of-United States. The Project uses historical objects from the National Museum of African American History and Culture as a starting point for its scholarly essays and journalistic pieces, and interspaces its factual material with poems and short stories by noted black artists. Not to be missed; here’s the link to get started.
MISCELLANY PART V: CONCLUSION
Did I mention that I have a paper to write on “Changing Concepts of Renaissance Childhood: Three Portraits by Sofonisba Anguissola”? (note: title is subject to change) Clearly, it’s time to call in someone who’ll keep me focused . . .
P.S. The old-timey school room shown at the beginning of my post is an 1871 painting by Winslow Homer, called, appropriately, “The Old School Room.” You can see it at the St. Louis Art Museum in St. Louis, Missouri.
Do you ever have nights when the internet is calling your name, in a voice not to be denied? When you just can’t stop clicking, going from website to website? When it happens to me, it’s a bit akin to Odysseus and the sirens, except that I don’t have the magic ear plugs or whatever to protect me, so I just keep clicking away. I can’t explain the phenomenon but I’ve noticed (oddly enough) that it always seems to occur when I’m facing a day filled with tasks I don’t want to do or appointments I don’t want to keep!
Today my clicking compulsion centered on summer reading lists, which abound this time of year. I adore lists of summer reading recommendations! Although I don’t really change my reading selections by the season, it’s always fun to see what other people are reading, or what they think you should be reading; I’m a bit lazy and checking out lists of reading recommendations is also an easy way for me to stay somewhat current with new books, as many summer reading lists heavily feature newly published work. Since I’d hate to keep the fruit of my “labor” to myself, I’m listing the lists my clicking has uncovered!
I rely pretty heavily for my reading recommendations on the book section contained in The Guardian. Although it can be a little frustrating when there’s a lag in the U.S. edition (I’ve sometimes waited for months before a particular title becamse available in the U.S.), the Guardian covers numerous U.S. as well as U.K. authors and its reviews are truly excellent. For 2019 it’s published an excellent “Summer Reading Guide,” with a hundred recommended fiction and non-fiction titles. The guide lists relatively recent books, covers a wide variety of genres (such as “Modern Life” and “Page Turners,”which are thoughtfully listed with the title) and encompasses non-fiction as well as fiction. I found some interesting fiction recommendations here, of books I had either forgotten (Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher) or didn’t know about, such as Halle Butler’s The New Me. The Guardian doesn’t have a pay wall (an increasingly rare occurrence), so no problem with access. I really love The Guardian’s book section.
The New York Times has also compiled a Summer List of seventy-five titles from a similarly wide variety of genres such as “Thrillers,” “Travel,” “Crime,” Horror,” “Outdoors” and so on. Unlike The Guardian’s more traditional format, the Times’ list is more of an interactive affair, so more clicking is required. Also unlike The Guardian, the Times has a paywall, so if you’ve exceeded your monthly quota of free clicks, you may have to wait until next month to see the list.
The Washington Post has given a slightly different twist to its summer recommendations, coming up with “100 Books for the Ages.” Want to know what to read when you’re 43 years old? Why, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, of course! Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is for the 24 year olds, while Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex is recommended for the age 30 set. O.k., o.k., I know it’s gimmicky but it is kind of fun! And it’s quite encouraging to see Herman Wouk’s Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author recommended for the centenarians among us. The Post has also a more conventional “20 Books to Read This Summer,” which is a bit heavy (for my taste) on non-fiction, such as Steven Gillon’s biography of John F. Kennedy Jr. (The Reluctant Prince) and Evan Thomas’ bio of Sandra Day O’Connor (First). Although pretty conventional, the fiction choices are of all the latest & trendiest, so you’ll be well able to impress the other lawyers when you’re standing around the water cooler. And there is one piece of exciting news: Colson Whitehead has a new novel, The Nickel Boys, which will be available on July 16th. The Washington Post, like the NY Times, has a paywall; if you’ve only one free click left I’d go for “100 Books for the Ages.”
Just as a reminder that tastes differ, and that mine differ quite a bit from the terminally esoteric, I usually check out the seasonal reading recommendations from contributors to the Times Literary Supplement. Each contributor offers a chatty little paragraph discussing his or her reading choices, which can be particularly interesting if you have a thing for a particular contributor, such as the great classicist Mary Beard. On a somewhat less elevated level, the New Yorker’s writers have compiled a “What We’re Reading This Summer” feature, which, as you might expect, covers a select but quite broad range of fiction, memoir, and non-fiction. Both publications are picky about subscriptions so your access ability may be limited if you’re a non-subscriber who browses them on a frequent basis.
Are there any Guy du Maupassant fans out there? If so, I’d certainly welcome your thoughts on his work. I’ve just finished one of his novels, Like Death, and don’t know quite what to think. I, dear reader, also have a confession to make that does not speak well for myself, namely that despite du Maupassant’s international reputation as a master of the short stoy, I was barely acquainted with his work. And, my heavens, there’s certainly a lot of it to meet!
Although dying at age 42, Maupassant was an incredibly prolific writer who produced over 300 short stories, six novels, several travel books and lots of journalism in his brief writing career. Of all that treasure trove I had read, prior to this time, one short story — “The Necklace” — and that only because I was required to do so in a literature class I was taking oh, so many, many years ago. Despite enjoying the story (more than many of the others I was required to read), I had no interest at the time in further exploring Maupassant’s work. Well, dear reader, a few years ago I purchased a copy of Maupassant’s Like Death (reissued by NYRB Classics in one of those gorgeous paperbacks that it does so well, i.e., acid free paper, tasteful cover art and introductions written by well-known folks), with the idea that his time for me had finally come at last! And yet, and yet — the book has sat on my shelves, gathering dust for, oh, at least a couple of years. All I can say is “thank heavens for reading challenges,” particularly ones that require me to stretch myself a bit. Because I needed a selection for the “Classic in Translation” category for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate, I’ve actually, finally gotten around to reading a second work, and a novel, no less, by Guy du Maupassant.
Like Death revolves around a simple but piquant situation. Olivier Bertin is a wildly successful society painter, acclaimed by the critics and beloved by the haute monde of late 19th century Paris. As though to prove that life never seems to distribute its gifts fairly, Bertin is also good-looking, witty, athletic and, on the whole, not a bad guy. The novel implies, without telling us his precise age, that Bertin is somewhat past the midpoint of life; although he is beginning to feel his age, Bertin is still vigorous and eager to enjoy all the good things that life has to offer.
Included among the good things is Bertin’s long-standing relationship with Anne, Countess de Gilleroy, who has been Bertin’s mistress for over twelve years; the two began their passionate affair when Anne’s politician husband retained Bertin to paint his wife’s portrait. Anne, a beautiful and intelligent woman, is quite adept at maintaining a delicate equilibrium between husband and lover; when as a young woman Anne was first presented with her husband-to-be, she quickly realized that “one cannot have everything” but must seek a balance between the good and the bad aspects present in every situation. The countess is a successful society hostess, a devoted wife who listens with apparent interest to her husband’s accounts of his legislative triumphs (monsieur le comte particularly enjoys discussing agricultural issues) and a tender mother to her only child, her daughter Annette. The chatelaine of an elegant establishment (designed principally to appeal to her lover Bertin), the countess has structured her entire emotional life around her relationship with Bertin. She is, in short, as passionately in love with the artist as she was as a young girl while Bertin, on the hand, regards their long-standing affair as more of an amitié amoureuse — a loving and irreplaceable friendship that is, nevertheless, lacking the magic and intensity of its earliest days.
The lovers’ delicate equilibrium is upset by the entry onto the scene of Annette, who has returned to Paris after a country upbringing to make her debut and to marry the excellent young aristocrat whom her father has selected for her. Annette, whom the painter has not seen since she was a child, is the very image of her beautiful mother minus twenty years or so. The aging Bertin is immediately and inevitably attracted; with great psychological acuity Maupassant charts Bertin’s emotions as he transfers his love from the aging countess to her young and unsophisticated daughter on the cusp of marriage and adulthood. Bertin initially justifies his feelings for Annette by conflating his love for the two woman; his attraction for Annette, he (falsely) tells himself, is due simply to the fact that she is in some ways a reincarnation of her mother; his love for one inevitably includes his love for the other. Ultimately, however, Bertin realizes that his passion for the countess has been totally subsumed by his love for her daughter. The countess, of course, realizes far sooner than Bertin what is happening; while the novel focuses on Bertin it also presents a masterful and sympathetic portrayal of a strong and intelligent woman who is facing her emotional death and physical mortality with both dignity and courage.
Plot-wise, that’s it! The “action” in this novel — the countess gives a dinner; she and Bertin meet their friends at the opera; Annette and Bertin walk through the park and so on — is a dull affair to us barbaric 21st century types. There is, nevertheless, a great deal going on in this novel, albeit on an emotional and psychological level. Although I did not find Like Death to be an altogether successful novel (more below), I have nothing but admiration for Maupassant’s grasp of psychology. Based on the vast knowledge obtained from reading a single short story (please understand, I’m being sarcastic here) I had expected a well drawn, realistic description of late 19th century life among the well to do, as well as a twisty ending. I was totally unprepared, however, for the subtlety of Maupassant’s psychological insight and the skill with which it was presented. To give just one example, Maupassant sets a key scene in which Bertin realizes both his mortality and the hopelessness of his passion for the young Annette at the opera, where Bertin is listening to Faust, a story in which an aging scholar sells his soul for eternal youth and the love of a much younger woman. Time and again Maupassant uses a small but convincing detail to expose a character’s state of mind, or sketches a scene of utterly convincing psychological realism.
So what’s my overall assessment of the novel, both positive and negative? In addition to the positive points that I’ve already discussed it’s worth noting that various critics (who, unlike myself, can actually read French) have found the NYRB translation to be extremely well done and lively (apparently stiff and artificial translations have in the past hampered Maupassant’s popularity with anglophones). On the negative side, however, I thought the interior nature of the story was perhaps better suited to a short story than a novel and that certain melodramatic plot devices rather undercut the subtle psychology that was elsewhere so evident.
There are a number of equally successful ways for a modern reader to approach this novel. The easiest, and the most fun, is to regard it simply as a wonderful period piece. If you choose this approach, pretend that a maid has just dusted your reading space (this requires a lively imagination if you’re reading in my living room), imagine that those wilting flowers from the farmer’s market are a fresh bouquet of ivory-colored roses in a crystal vase, pour yourself a glass of champagne (make this part real, not imaginary), put some Debussy on the stereo (or, better, Fauré) and settle in to enjoy the wealthy and well-connected life of 19th century Paris. If you’re a bit more of a literary scholar, read the introduction by the novel’s talented translator, who makes a very cogent argument that Maupassant’s techniques influenced the latter work of Marcel Proust. If you’re attracted to issues of gender, well, focus on the countess, the societal constraints dictating her choices and how a strong and determined personality can nevertheless fashion her own life. Finally, the novel’s treatment of aging and mortality, and of how we all face both, give it a universal appeal.
Although I’ve already gone on for far too long, I simply must ask whether anyone else loves the painting I used at the beginning of this post? Although a good deal of 19th century art leaves me cold, Cailebotte’s Rainy Day is one of my favorite paintings in the entire universe (and just think — we’re lucky enough to have it in the U.S., in Chicago!). I cheated a bit to use it here, as Bertin, an academic painter, would have been horrified by Cailebotte’s new-fangled Impressionist style, with its cropped figures and unusual geometry.
Despite my inability to concentrate on any one object for more than ten minutes, or to spend more than a couple of hours, max, on an art stroll, I adore museums. Perhaps it’s because of their variety: there’s a museum for everyone and for every mood and personality type. Interested in the history of fire alarms? The next time you’re on the Baltimore Beltway, take a detour to The Fire Museum of Maryland, which has one of the world’s greatest displays of working fire alarms. Want to see some interesting stuff without getting out of your car? Well, the Museum of Wonder in Seale Alabama (which claims to be the world’s only drive-through museum) is where you need to be!
Are you an aficionado of the circus? Then go immediately to Sarasota, Florida! It was formerly the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus (many circus performers settled there, not to mention John and Mabel Ringling themselves) and has a really great circus museum, founded in the late 1940s.
And, of course, there are the big boys of the U.S. museum world — the Metropolitan, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Frick, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, to name only a few — those places you go when you’re in need of a serious dose of heavy culture, or a nice cafe to relax in on a hot day in the city or a browse in a great store full of art books and prints. My favorite of these — the place where I head when I’m not in the mood for one of our quirkier little cultural hors d’oeuvres — is Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. It’s a fabulous museum to visit especially when, as now, there’s a major exhibition or two going on.
Although I love the East Building, which houses a wonderful collection of 20th century art, my focus today is on the older part of the Museum. So — back to the dome! We all have our little rituals and one of mine is to always stop here for a moment or two to admire and to contemplate.
The NGA usually has some sort of special show or exhibition going on. The current attraction is a fabulous show on 16th century Venetian art, featuring the paintings of Tintoretto, a contemporary and rival of the great Titian (the two artists, by the way, loathed each other). Since many of Tintoretto’s paintings are really, really large and seldom travel, this is a great opportunity to see something of his best work without a trip to Italy!
Besides the special Tintoretto exhibition (around for the next month or so), there’s always something to see or enjoy at the NGA. If you’re not in the mood for paintings, or food, or books — well, the building itself is worth a visit!
And when the weary museum visitor needs a physical and mental time-out, he or she can always head for one of the garden courts in the old West Building, which are thoughtfully provided with very comfortable seating around the edges ……
Doesn’t this look like the artist painted a “real” bouquet? Surprise! He didn’t, at least not in the strict sense of the word. I love Dutch art from 16th-17th centuries because it’s so sneaky — the reality portrayed in the paintings is illusory (also, the paintings are justfun!) Even a very wealthy person, much less an artist (even a successful one like van Huysum) couldn’t afford a bouquet like this — the flowers would simply be too expensive. So artists painted imaginary bouquets, juxtaposing flowers that bloom at different times of the year, flowers the artists had never seen (these guys sometimes worked from prints or other paintings) or flowers that were so rare they could only be seen by visitng a specialized botanical garden, as van Huysum did on occasion (there was one in Haarlem).
It’s hard to see all the details (if you want to really zoom in on the digital image, go to the website of London’s National Gallery. It’s worth the time), but do notice the butterflies flitting about among the blossoms, the droop in a few of the flowers and, oh yes the fly! (it’s the little brown speck on the left side of the ledge supporting the vase, above the bird’s nest and below the blue flowers; find the grapes and look slightly above and to their right). A century before, these items would have been intended as a reminder that we, like the flowers and the butterflies, are emphemeral beings, and, like them, will soon disappear. Van Huysum, however, was the last of the great Dutch flower painters and by his time these floral masterpieces were largely cherished for their sheer visual beauty rather than their moral message. For any gardners wandering by my blog — how many different species of flowers can you count? (hint — there are at least twelve!) And, while you’re enjoying the blossoms, notice those adorable little cupids in the relief on the terracotta vase! And the fruit! And the bird’s nest and ……………….