Completed: El burlador de Sevilla (Spanish Lit Month)

Cover: El burlador de Sevilla“El burlador de Sevilla”
Tirso de Molina (written c. 1616; published c.1630, Spain)
My edition from Diez Comedias del Siglo de Oro, 2nd edition
José Martel & Hymen Alpern, editors
Revised by Leonard Mades

Don Juan:        Tío y señor,
Mozo soy y mozo fuiste;
Y pues que de amor supiste,
Tenga disculpa mi amor.


Don Juan:        Uncle and lord,
Youth I am and youth I was;
And you knew what it is to love,
You must excuse my love.

(my attempt)

Act 1

You know how sometimes you decide to do something that seems like a really good idea at the time, but in execution turns out to be not so great? Yeah, that would be my brilliant idea to read “El burlador de Sevilla” in Spanish. At first it seemed it would work out well: similar to my method of reading The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance, I decided read an English translation followed by the Spanish. It was an easy enough decision–I had both on hand, hand-me-downs from an aunt who once-upon-a-time was a Spanish teacher (before moving on to other things). The English read quickly enough, although I found myself with nothing to say about the play. So move on to the Spanish.

Which is when I became disappointed.

Turns out, the English translation I have* is…lacking. To be kind. First, it was in prose rather than making any attempt to match the poetry of the original. Fair enough, translation of poetry is understandably difficult. (Though Grossman proves it very doable.) Of course, it turns out that I’m a reader that wants the translation to at least follow the from of the original.  But on top of that, lines were reassigned to different speakers, sections were left out and an entire passage (a lengthy three-page monologue) was dramatically condensed and reassigned to a different speaker in a different act and there were even brand-new lines of dialogue added†. I feel like that’s taking poetic license a bit far! So all this to say, instead of reading through the Spanish for a general sense of the language and sounds of the original, instead I found myself trying to understand the entire thing. (I will admit, the English translation did at least give me a go by to help with some of the trickier places. Assuming the section hadn’t been omitted, of course.)  Thank goodness for online translation dictionaries!

I am glad I read the Spanish, though. The English left me feeling ambivalent towards it (turning it into prose is a travesty), but after conquering the Spanish, I find I like “El burlador de Sevilla” much better. I would LOVE to see it performed, but that seems highly unlikely. (Is there a recorded version anywhere, though?)

“El burlador de Sevilla” was the first dramatization of the Don Juan legend (although not perhaps the best known–Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni likely holds that title), the story of a womanizing trickster who seemingly seduces every woman he meets, heedless of consequence, and seeming to delight even in seducing the women his own friends love. Indeed, the question may be whether he takes more delight in the women or in the engaño (trick or deception) he pulls. But this play is in the hands of a Catholic monk (Tirso de Molina was the pseudonym for Fray Gabriel Téllez), so consequence there must be. His sins are not only his deceptive seductions, but also murder and arrogance. He does not repent until too late–and likely only out of desperation; doubtless Molina intended this as a morality play. Were it not for this moral, it would have felt in some ways like reading a Shakespearean comedy: deceptions and wrongs, but with everything turned right in the end (save Don Juan, of course), all told in poetic meter and fast-paced action among quickly-shifting scenes.

I do wish I had a better translation of “El burlador de Sevilla” on hand. (If you know of a good one I could get, do let me know.) Despite reading the Spanish second, and slowly (verrrrry slowly), I still feel as if I need another few go-throughs before I can really get to the heart of this play. The basic outlines are there, I know the plot, and can begin to see some threads of ideas to explore. The variety of women–for although most–but not all!–fall for Don Juan, they are each a different character with different responses. The limitations placed on both the women, and on the nobility–were not Don Juan’s fated decided by his sin, his King would chose his path for him. The importance of honor for both men and women, and the different concepts of justice then and now. And without a better hold on Spanish, I can’t even begin to comment on the language of the play. After all, I was so focused on basic meaning that I barely even noticed the rhyme schemes employed throughout. Perhaps one to revisit again?

I read this both for Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu of Winstons dad’s blog and Richard of Caravana de recuerdos and as part of a readalong (originally planned for June) hosted by Richard.

*If you must know, from Three Classic Don Juan Plays, edited by Oscar Mandel, 1971 edition. I believe out-of-print.

† I did consider that perhaps the editors were working from a different Spanish text, but not only have I not found  any significant variations between the Spanish I read and versions I found online, they openly admit to moving and condensing the above-mentioned monologue.

Week’s End Notes (16)

  • I cannot believe it’s the first of summer here. It seems I was just posting about the (long-longed for) start of spring and of Carl’s Once Upon a Time VIII and here we are at summer already.
  • I suppose part of my surprise at the arrival of summer already is that it seemed spring was late to start this year and then seemingly cooler than the last few years (which could be my poor memory) and rather wet. As evidenced by the fact that so many of the flower pics I’ve taken this year have raindrops in them.

Peonies After Rain

  • In fact, many local farmers were off to a bit of a late start because their fields were so wet. And then this week. Well.
  • While not as devastating as the sort of flooding that tends to make the national news (I sort of feel like northeast Ohio’s tagline should be “we get weather, but never quite as bad as…”), I’ve never seen it so wet locally. It started out with a localized torrential downpour Monday, just as I was making my way home from work. Between the near-zero visibility and the thundering of the rain on the roof of my car, it was perhaps the worst conditions I’ve driven in all year. Finally, it stopped and I thought all was good, an easy final fifteen minutes home…right up until I realized that the road was flooded (evidence: 1 car stalled mid-road). Detouring around proved difficult because of all the many low spots: in at least two locations, I saw men standing in the middle of the street, the water half-way up their calves.
  • Tuesday was okay, but Wednesday morning  another heavy downpour just before I left for work. The ground, still too saturated by Monday’s rain, wouldn’t accept any more water, so, although I detoured around the section that had been flooded Monday, I still found myself facing flooded roads. That settles it, I MUCH prefer driving in the snow. At least I don’t have to zig-zag all over the county to detour around bad winter roads. Then they’re all equally bad.
  • To add insult to injury, the rain was so localized that my coworkers all had the same response: “It rained?”
  • So all that to say I’ve become a little obsessed with the weather app on my tablet. It’s been dry the last few days, so fingers crossed the worst is over. (And come August we’ll probably be longing for rain!)
  • In other news, the end of spring means the end of Once Upon a Time, and while I don’t feel like I’ve posted very much about it, I DO feel like I had one of the best OUAT’s I’ve ever participated in. In addition to the books I’ve posted about (The Wizard of the Emerald City & Urfin Jus and His Wooden Soldiers for fairy tale, The Conjure Stories for folklore), I’m in the middle of another book of folklore, The People Could Fly, and I completed a reread of The Two Towers and am halfway through my reread of The Return of the King. I didn’t get to any mythology (unless one counts all the mythological references in the Siglo de Oro poetry I read back in April), but still–that’s the highest number of relevant titles I’ve ever read during a OUAT spring. Now I just need to finish out the “middle-ofs” and post on them.


  • I think this is the first time all year I haven’t felt that I was behind in posting about books I’ve read. I’ve been reading, I just haven’t finished anything lately. (Excepting the Tolkien books, which I’m going to post about as a whole.) I guess I’ve also finished reading an English translation of El burlador de Sevilla [The Trickster of Seville], but I don’t have any thoughts on that yet. I’m going to try the Spanish first, and if I’m still at a loss, I’ll reread the English.
  • El burlador de Sevilla is for a group read hosted by Richard of Caravana de recuerdos. It’s a play from the Spanish “golden age” of literature, first published in 1630. A nice short read (only a couple hours), it’s the first dramatization of the Don Juan legend. And it’s not too late to join in, I’m sure! I don’t know if Richard’s still planning on posting at the end of the month, but I probably won’t get to it until the start of July. Not only because of the rereads, but I’m really slammed at work right now. The project will be finished Friday, so I should have a breather after that.
  • I’ve also started Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold for the July Spanish Lit Event. The García Márquez readalong title for the event is actually News of a Kidnapping, but this one is shorter. The important reason for picking a book, of course. And if I have time, I’m sure I can find something else on my shelf for the month…
  • Notice, I’ve not mentioned a thing about my Ohio project. It’s not been completely neglected lately; The People Could Fly is comprised of folktales retold by Ohioan Virginia Hamilton. But I’ve not started The Bluest Eye as planned, nor anything else. Soon, I’ll get back to it soon.
  • But for now, I think I’ll take advantage of this absolutely lovely summer day, and read one of my current reads on the back porch. A perfect day for outdoor reading.
  • Have a happy reading week!

Reading Ohio, Completed: The Conjure Stories

The Conjure Stories by Charles W. Chesnutt (Norton Critical Edition)The Conjure Stories
Charles W. Chesnutt
(1887-1926, U.S.)
Norton Critical Edition, 2012
Robert B. Stepto and Jennifer Rae Greeson, editors

 Old Julius often beguiled our leisure with stories of plantation life, some of them folk-lore stories, which we found to be in general circulation among the colored people; some of them tales of real life as Julius has seen it in the old slave days; but the most striking were, we suspected, purely imaginary, or so colored by old Julius’s fancy as to make us speculate at times upon how many original minds, which might have added to the world’s wealth and literature and art, had been buried in the ocean of slavery.

“Lonesome Ben”

The Conjure Stories is a short story collection by the late 19th century/early 20th century African-American author Charles W. Chesnutt. Born in Cleveland, Ohio to free blacks from Fayetteville, North Carolina; his family returned to Fayetteville after the Civil War. Chesnutt grew up, taught school, and married in Fayetteville before eventually returning north to Cleveland with his family, where he passed the bar exam, began a successful court reporting business, and started writing. The Library of America describes his literary career thus:

…Charles W. Chesnutt broke new ground in American literature with searching explorations of the meaning of race and innovative use of African American speech and folklore. Rejecting genteel Victorian hypocrisy about miscegenation, lynching, and “passing,” Chesnutt exposed the deformed logic of Jim Crow with novels and stories of formal clarity-creating, in the process, the modern African American novel.

There are several unifiers in this particular collection of stories (a collection created, not by the author, but the editors–although, it should be noted most, if not all, were either published in Chesnutt’s collection The Conjure Woman or submitted by Chesnutt to his publisher for inclusion): the Fayetteville setting (here called Patesville), the framing device of a white narrator from the North (John) around a story told by his hired hand (ex-slave Julius) and ending with commentary by John or his wife Annie, most have a thread of the fantastic–conjuring–running through them.

“Do you live around here?” I asked, anxious to put him at his ease.
“Yas, suh. I lives der ober yander, behine de nex’ san’-hill, on de Lumberton plank-road.”
“Do you know anything about the time when this vineyard was cultivated?”
“Lawd bless you, suh, I knows all about it. Dey ain’ na’er a man in dis settlement w’at won’ tell you ole Julius McAdoo ‘uz bawn en raise’ on dis yer same plantation. Is you de Norv’n gemman w’at’s gwine ter buy de ole vimya’d?”
“I am looking at it,” I replied; “but I don’t know that I shall care to buy unless I can be reasonably sure of making something out of it.”
“Well, suh, you is a stranger ter me, en I is a stranger ter you, en we is bofe strangers ter one anudder, but ‘f I ‘uz in yo’ place, I wouldn’ buy dis vimya’d.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, i dunno whe’r you b’lieves in cunj’in’ er not,–some er de w’ite folks don’t, er says dey don’t,–but de truf er de matter is dat dis yer old vimya’d is goophered.”
“Is what?” I asked, not grasping the meaning of this unfamiliar word.
“Is goophered,–conju’d, bewitch’.”
He imparted this information with such solemn earnestness, and with such an air of confidential mystery, that I felt somewhat interested, while Annie was evidently much impressed, and drew closer to me.

“The Goophered Grapevine”

The first thing I really noticed was how difficult it could be to get through these stories, largely due to the heavy dialect employed by Chesnutt. I’m not certain to what extent the dialect was expected by white audiences or how accurate Chesnutt was in representing the actual speaking patterns of ex-slaves from the Fayetteville region, but this quote (from a letter Chesnutt wrote to his editor) is certainly suggestive that the dialect was more about audience expectations than reality:

 Speaking of dialect, it is almost a despairing task to write it. . . .The fact is, of course, that there is no such thing as a Negro dialect: that what we call be that name is the attempt to express, with such a degree of phonetic correctness as to suggest the sound, English pronounced as an ignorant old southern Negro would be supposed to speak it.

Of course, a glance at a dialect map of the U.S. today suggests that at the very least, Julius would have spoken a different dialect than John. But Chesnutt’s statement suggests that Chesnutt had to create something acceptable to white audiences, and that this included an audience belief that an ex-slave must surely be ignorant.

Fortunately, Chesnutt was a better author than to just pander to his audience. Instead, he subtly subverted the various stereotypes they might expect, allowing the slaves and freemen that populate Julius’s tales to cover the whole range of human characteristics, thereby showing his white audience that African-Americans were just as human as they were and undermining the nostalgia for a lost way of life then common in “plantation fiction.”* With the matter-of-fact voice of Julius narrating, it is hard to ignore the everyday ugliness of slavery–an ugliness present even on farms and plantations where the masters were otherwise decent folk, for the ugliness of slavery was that the slaves were not people, but property that could be disposed of–traded or sold–at will. Chesnutt proved that the slaves were people by showing their very human emotions, as they reacted to separation or jealousy or pettiness. And he showed nothing that suggested that it was a time to be nostalgic for.

Yet at the same time, the stories sometimes felt awkward to read–as a 21st century reader, at least. There was the casual use of racial terms, considered derogatory today but maybe not to Victorians; Julius was usually the speaker, though whether this implies that these words were truly more acceptable or just expected as part of “dialect,” I don’t know. Then too the occasional employment of a stereotype, e.g., “blacks like chicken,” as a story-instigator. Sometimes this stereotype would be subverted by the end of the story, but at others it seemed that Chesnutt was content to let it lie–Julius agrees with John about the chicken, while Annie, on the other hand, questions them both. Chesnutt often used Annie to provide an alternative perspective to John’s.

As it happens, I came across The Classics Club’s June question while thinking about this post. It regards how we deal with racist/sexist issues in classic literature. While I didn’t really answer that question here, I do think that Chesnutt’s The Conjure Stories demonstrate how a classic can be both awkward to read from a present-day viewpoint and offer an important look into the past.

I read The Conjure Stories for my Reading Ohio project, for my 19th Century project list, and as my folklore selection for Once Upon a Time VIII.

*A genre I was not aware of prior to reading selections of the essay “A Critique of the Plantation Legend” by William L. Andrews. (Included in part in The Conjure Stories, originally published in The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), 55-60 and 67-69.) Incidentally, I was very glad I decided to order (from the library) the Norton edition. There weren’t very many notes to the stories themselves, but the contextual and critical essays I read were both enlightening and interesting.

Completed: Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State

Cover - Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent StateThirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State
Joe Eszterhas and Michael D Roberts
1970, U.S.

Later in his speech [chaplain John Simons] said, “It seems to me that one of the faults of the older generation is their tendency to duck crucial issues for all generations. The younger generation is naïve, life is not that simple, but the elders run from change by placing the responsibility for every rocky event on some Communist conspiracy. The older generation that wields power now has sold out to its fear of Communism. Perhaps the middle generation can gain the power and achieve the maturity which is not afraid of criticism or change. If we do not, life will go on as usual–there will be more Kents and Jacksons and Vietnams and Cambodias and with each new horror the solid middle America will become smaller and smaller until there is nothing left but two unspeaking and unspeakable extremes tearing the guts out of this great country. If you are part of those extremes, get lost. I hope that you see Kent as an avoidable tragedy, not something you secretly longed for. Four young lives were lost that day and for a while one of our four freedoms was lost. Those lives are irretrievable. That freedom of assembly is retrievable.” (Ch. 10)

I’ve lived nearly my entire life (excepting four months in Italy) in Northeast Ohio. I earned my architecture degrees from Kent State. Somehow, it seems I’ve known about May 4–which is how I always think of the Kent State Shootings (among other names), just those two words of a date–for as long as I can remember. We discussed it in my high school government class. Every day I was at university, I walked past the markers, memorializing the locations where four students died. So for me, the knowledge of May 4 has always been there. I don’t have any perspective on what those far away know, are taught, though. Are high school students, studying Vietnam and the anti-war protests given more than a sentence, that at an anti-war rally at Kent State, May 4, 1970, four students were killed and nine injured (one paralyzed from the waist down)? Is Jackson State ever mentioned? Has Kent mostly been relegated to forgotten history books? After all, the book I read on the topic is only available in e-format (unless, as I did, you find a library copy).

It was strange, in a way, to read this book. It is the first time I’ve ever read a real-life narrative where I haven’t had to look for a map or search for images of the events–I knew the map already. The central part of campus where the events of May 4 took place has changed little since 1970, outside of a controversial annex to the gymnasium building. The current (soon to be former) architecture building overlooks Blanket Hill, from which the National Guard fired. The only building I couldn’t picture was the ROTC building, burned to the ground on May 2. Even the first violence that happened in the lead-up to May 4, in downtown Kent–that scene too, I could visualize, for it happened on the street where I currently work. (Although there has been much more change to the architecture of this street.)

Thirteen Seconds was begun in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, as Eszterhas and Roberts  were sent by their then-employer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the campus to cover the events. They spent three months interviewing many who had been there as well as friends and relatives of the victims. It was published before the end of the year, which gives it an immediacy that a later book might not have, but also means that there isn’t a perspective of looking back after many years. Not that this might mean anything in this instance; the events of that day are still controversial–no one has ever determined conclusively why the National Guard opened fire on the students. A reel-to-reel recording of the events (made by a student in one of the adjacent dorms) was analyzed in 2010 by audio experts and in 2012 by the FBI, but differing conclusions were reached as to just what the recording revealed–perhaps nothing.

This uncertainty and the confusion are represented well in the ninth chapter of Thirteen Seconds, “Monday, May 4″–Eszterhas and Roberts report conflicting accounts and perspectives from students and guardsman. It was the single most gripping chapter of the book–even though I knew what the outcome was, that events went so terribly wrong, I didn’t want to put it down once I had started. From the inexplicable maneuverings of the Guard (one of the witnesses interviewed, a Vietnam vet, couldn’t understand why one group of guardsmen moved where they did, tactically) to the conflicting witness statements to the tense post-shooting moments when a pair of university professors talked the remaining protestors–now shocked and further angered–into dispersing, it was intense reading.

Ezterhas and Roberts never lay blame–they are reporting on events, and on the lives of those impacted. Yet reading over the background leading up to May 4, it felt inevitable to me that something would happen. Tensions were way too high: the town was frightened, the National Guard were exhausted, the students were furious over the presence of the Guard, and bayonets were already fixed and guns already loaded. But the split–the divide between the students and those who thought the Guard were in the right, that they should have killed more–that is what really surprised me, what I couldn’t understand*. I didn’t really know any more about who the Weatherman were than a name; I didn’t have a context for the extreme fear felt by the town after a street party turned looting, which led the Mayor to call the Governor for assistance. Thirteen Seconds began to give me this context, providing background for the events, both on-campus and -off, leading up to the May protests. I still feel like I would like to investigate more, not just about the events at Kent, but about the late 60s/early 70s in general. It is an era I know little about, yet it seems that it must have been a time of great fear and conflict.

Two anecdotes to end with. I was sitting at my desk one morning this spring when one of the bosses walked over to look out the window at the gorgeous day. “I wonder if the daffodils are in bloom on Blanket Hill,” he said. I didn’t know, remarking that I haven’t been on that part of campus since I graduated. He then told me he has a difficult time going on campus around the start of May: he was friends with one of the students who was killed–a student who wasn’t even protesting, but just passing through. Some few days later, May 5, I was sitting at my desk eating lunch and browsing the internet when the phone conversation of another coworker caught my ear. “I was angry for many years.” “I just wish we knew what happened.” “I feel like we could talk.” He hung up his phone, and looked across the desks at me to comment–he was just talking to a former client, who had been there that day, as a guardsman, while he was a student. They had only just found out that the other had been there that day, on the opposite side. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that history happens to real people.

The NPR station affiliated with Kent State has a website devoted to the events of May 4 and its aftermath, HERE, which includes an award-winning radio documentary.

*I was also really surprised to learn both how small the city of Kent and the University were in the 1950s and how quickly both grew post-WWII. But it explains the look of the campus.

Week’s End Notes (15)

  • It’s been quite a week, to put it mildly. High stress, long hours, office scavenger hunt–the usual.
  • What, your office doesn’t hold scavenger hunts in honor of the departing intern? (And if all interns were as wonderful as this one, the future would be in really good shape.) So yes, that was probably the highlight of the week–and one of many things that prompts me to think I work at a really great place. Well, most of the time–it wouldn’t be a proper job if there weren’t moments I didn’t like it… ;)
  • I’m afraid I haven’t been reading much of anything lately. Those hopes that vacation would kick-start a reading spurt were dashed by the backlog on the DVR. Oops. I’m hoping to finish a book or two yet this weekend though–one of which returns me to my Ohio project which has been a little neglected of late. And the other for Once Upon a Time VIII–which, incidentally, if I’m going to make my goal of 4 books, I need to get moving on! Thankfully, two of my in-progress reads are for it.


Spanish Lit Month 2014

  • I’m also starting to think about my summer reading plans. The Ohio project will remain active, but sometimes I just can’t turn down a reading event/RAL/challenge. Stu of Winstonsdad’s Blog and Richard of Caravana de recuerdos are hosting their second Spanish Lit Month. Yay! If it was originally written in Spanish, regardless of country of origin or date, it qualifies. (And you may read in whatever language you like.) There are two optional RAL titles, News of a Kidnapping [Noticia de un secuestro] by Gabriel García Márquez or Three Trapped Tigers [Tres tristes tigres] by Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Stu would also like to dedicate the last week to Gabriel García Márquez in general, in honor of the recently deceased Nobel winner. I’ll definitely participate to some extent, and may try for the García Márquez title.


Books: The Bluest Eye; The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories

  • But in the meantime, I think I’d like to read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in June. This is one of the titles I’m planning to read as part of my Ohio project, although I know little about it beyond its Lorain, Ohio setting. (Morrison’s hometown.) If I remember correctly, the last time I mentioned The Bluest Eye, there seemed to be some interest in a possible readalong. If you think you might like to read with me in June, I’d be happy to host–just let me know if you are interested. (Alternately, if June is too soon, I would be open to an August RAL.) Regardless, I plan to read it this summer.
  • Unless I get distracted by a new acquisition or two…I really need to stay away from the bookstores! The latest:

The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, As I Lay Dying, Light in August

  • William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August, all in nice neat hardcovers. These were a vacation purchase, from a nice little bookstore located on the waterfront in Georgetown, South Carolina. It used to be bigger, but a fire tore through a section of the historic waterfront last September, destroying several businesses including the bookstore. They were fully insured, and have reopened in a new location, specializing mostly in local books, artwork, and good-quality used books (as above). Although my bookshelves regret the purchase, I’m glad I could do my tiny part to help them in their second venture.
  • And now I should really actually attempt some reading. A happy reading weekend!

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