Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Stephen Mitchell, 2006
Akkadian, c. 1700-1000 BCE

Humbaba said, “Gilgamesh have mercy
Let me live here in the Cedar Forest.
If you spare my life, I will be your slave,
I will give you as many cedars as you wish.
You are king of Uruk by the grace of Shamash,
honor him with a cedar temple
and a glorious cedar palace for yourself.
All this is yours, if only you spare me.”

Enkidu said, “Dear friend, don’t listen
to anything that the monster says.
Kill him before you become confused.”
(Book V)

There is a scene near the center of the ancient Mesopotamian epic poem Gilgamesh that strikes me. Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, and Enkidu, his closest friend, are in the midst of the Cedar Forest. Aided by Shamash, the sun god, they have the monster Humbaba at their mercy. Humbaba is a guardian, charged by the god Enlil to guard the Cedar Forest. He is fierce, frightening. Enkidu, stout of heart and fighter though he is, fears him. Even Gilgamesh, who decreed that they must kill Humbaba to “drive out evil from the world”—or perhaps merely for the fame—grows afraid once within Humbaba’s presence. But this doesn’t stop the epic’s protagonists. They subdue Humbaba. The monster now pleads for his life, and Gilgamesh seems to hesitate. Perhaps the victory is enough. But Enkidu, initially opposed to the journey to the Cedar Forest and the killing of Humbaba, eggs the king on. So the monster is slain, the trees are cut down. It is not clear from the poem if all of the trees are cut down, or just some. Are they to be shipped to Uruk for construction, or is this merely a demonstration of Gilgamesh’s might?

It is a turning point of the poem. Leading up to these events, we have been introduced to the protagonists and have seen them set off on their early adventures. But now we watch them make a decision: to kill, to destroy. Coupled with the next episode (when they kill the Bull of Heaven, sent by the goddess Ishtar as punishment for Gilgamesh’s refusal to become her husband) we have reached the apotheosis of Gilgamesh’s arrogance. The gods will decide that someone must pay the price for these crimes against the gods, against their favored monsters. And so Enkidu must die.

Coming at this from a twenty-first century lens of conservation and stewardship, it is hard not to read Gilgamesh’s arrogance and destruction here as emblematic of the arrogance and destruction of humankind. It suggests to me to the question: who is the real monster: Gilgamesh or Humbaba? We aren’t given enough context to know. A twenty-first century reading is likely completely off base, but it speaks to the power of this ancient epic, that even with the passing of millennia, still it resonates.

One of the oldest surviving pieces of literature we know, Gilgamesh is perhaps most familiar to many Western readers for the story related in the latter half of the poem (Book IX) that greatly resembles the flood story found in the Biblical book of Genesis. But the epic is mostly Gilgamesh’s story and his personality dominates. Enkidu–wild man of nature–has been sent by the gods to relieve the citizens of Uruk of the tyranny of a king who “Takes the son from his father and crushes him,/takes the girl from her mother and uses her,” (Book I) and to the extent that Gilgamesh is distracted from his city and his people, this is successful. But Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s balance, does nothing to subdue Gilgamesh’s ego. It is only Enkidu’s death–the price paid for slaughtering Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven–that knocks Gilgamesh back. Yet still he rages: now he is forced to face mortality but still he seeks to subvert it, searching out the only known man to have defeated death and been granted immortality, Utnapishtim, survivor of the Great Flood.

It is a short poem (at least what survives), but still manages to pack in what feels like a lot, not only of the adventures of Gilgamesh, but the journey he takes in learning to accept that he too will die, no matter how great he is or his city or his feats. The death of Enkidu brings this to the fore but it still takes Gilgamesh additional wanderings and ultimately, failings, before he can accept mortality for himself. Gilgamesh’s pride in his own abilities is humbled, not by another, but by the ravages of time. And yet, at the end he still brags, showing off his city, the great city of Uruk. It is if he knows that thousands of years later we will still read of him and his exploits.

I have now read two English versions of Gilgamesh, the first a prose version by N.K. Sandars (1972 revision) and the second a poetic version by Stephen Mitchell (2004, the version quoted here). I found the poetic version to my preference, though I do not agree with all of Mitchell’s liberties with the text. True, given the nature of the original—fragmentary and difficult for all but the most specialized scholars to read—any edition for the lay reader will require additions and clarification to make sense of it. Mitchell helpfully includes notes on his changes (indeed, his notes and Introduction combined are longer than the poem), but I question why he rearranged sections of the poem. And I would prefer that he hadn’t removed some of the repetitions, which he felt would be off-putting to the contemporary reader. Perhaps. But to me the circularity, the word-for-word repetitions of complete passages, gives a sense not just of what the original may have been like, but of a literature that is in fact not Western. On the other hand, he produced a very readable text that maintained a poetic from and kept the same divisions (largely) of the originals, while Sandars’s version turns it to prose chapters that break in different locations than the clay tablets on which it was originally found.

I read Gilgamesh as part of my Classics Club project list and for Back to the Classics, Translation category.

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution
Stephen Heyman
US, 2020

I imagine someone has already done this, perhaps as a personal reading challenge or a college literature course, but you could make a decent reading project of expat-writers living in Interwar France, the “Lost Generation” writers. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. Stein. Ford. A 1920s-30s project.

For most today that list wouldn’t include a writer then among the most famous but largely forgotten today, his early writing deemed too old fashioned, his later novels derivative. Look Louis Bromfield up on JSTOR and the most current references are to agricultural or environmental articles. Indeed, unless you are from a particular area of north-east-central Ohio, are reading your way through the Pulitzer winners, or have an interest in the history of small scale and organic farming, you’ve probably never had reason to hear the name Louis Bromfield. A far cry from his lifetime: best-selling novelist, friend of celebrities, political activist. To quote Deirdre Bair’s cover blurb, “If Stephen Heyman had written Louis Bromfield’s life as a novel, readers would have found the tale too tall to believe.”

And it’s true. I found Heyman’s biography fascinating, unputdownable, almost novelistic in structure. Although the overall arc is chronological, a strict chronology is forsaken in favor of theming each chapter: “Foreign Soil” about the expats in Paris; “Hothouse,” about Bromfield’s Senlis garden, or “Germination” about the early years for Bromfield’s farm. I found it fitting to the telling. Bromfield’s persona and the times in which he lived also made for a memorable slice of literary and agricultural history. He may have gained fame as a novelist, but it is his passion for the land, and his early activity in soil conservation and sustainable farming that continues to resonate today.

An Ohio native son, Bromfield’s early life was unremarkable: born in Mansfield in 1896, he fell in love with farming from an early age, in spite of his mother’s dreams of his becoming a great writer. He chose instead to attend Cornell to study agriculture–though only for one semester–, before attempting unsuccessfully to save the family farm. A stint at Columbia (studying journalism) followed before he enlisted in the army during World War I. So far, so normal. But his mother’s dreams were kept alive: he moved to New York, worked as a journalist, married, and started writing novels. The novel writing funded he next ventures: a move to Paris, then later the countryside in Senlis, where he created his gardens, which would become famed across France, as were his Sunday parties. The gardens even drew the attention of Edith Wharton, who would become friends with Bromfield, as they bonded over their roses. However, she avoided the garden-parties of the younger generation. The Senlis garden also provided Bromfield an opportunity to learn from and observe the local gardeners, tilling the same soil that had been used and reused over the centuries to grow their own little crop of vegetables. Bromfield was  only too aware of the ways in which many American farmers had failed their own soil, turning it from fertile to barren through poor practices, as was at that very moment becoming clear with the appearance of the Midwestern Dust Bowl.

The idyllic interwar period could not last and Bromfield saw the clouds gathering. In contrast with many Americans of his time, he knew that isolationism was untenable; war was inevitable. At the same time, he was anxious to try out his new ideas, to return to the farms of his youth. The family made their return to Ohio, eventually buying a farm south of Mansfield, that Bromfield would christen “Malabar,” a farm that would become well-known through his books and as the wedding-site for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, both friends of Bromfield’s. It was at Malabar that he would live out the remainder of his years, tilling the Ohio soil and experimenting, always experimenting with ways to improve the soil, improve yields, while at the same time avoiding potential pitfalls: seventeen years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Bromfield was speaking out against DDT. He knew the importance of yield to a farmer’s livelihood, but he could also see the dangers of monoculture and unvetted chemical solutions. His writing at the time largely turned to memoirs and meditations on farming, and in them, as well as at speaking engagements, Bromfield preached conservation and stewardship.

After his death in 1956, Bromfield’s farm was turned over to a conservation organization and eventually turned into a State Park. His literary reputation already in decline among critics,  eventually his books would be largely forgotten by the reading public as well, outside of the “farm books” which remain influential among farming-environmentalists such as Wendell Berry.

He seems to have been a complex man. Passionate about his farm, yet short-sighted and controlling enough that he drove his younger daughters away: they and their husbands would found their own farms elsewhere. His very liberal politics of the 1920s and 30s would give way to conservative politics during the Second World War when he grew angry over the Roosevelt administration’s failures (in his eyes) to account for farmers in their war policies–he wanted draft exemptions for farmers and for the factories to continue to turn out at least a moderate amount of farm equipment and parts, concerned that to do otherwise would threaten the food resources of a country at war. He was a conservationist and environmentalist who loved the soil, but was not a pure “organic” farmer in today’s sense, choosing a more moderate path that would ensure both yields and soil health.

Having read The Planter of Modern Life, I’m more determined than ever to read some of Bromfield’s novels (and maybe some of his agricultural work). Although it appears that they are largely out of print in paper editions, I was fortunate to be able to pick up copies of two of his better known novels The Farm (a favorite of the last President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, apparently) and The Rains Came several years back at a regional bookstore. The biography focuses more on the gardens and farming than the novels, but what little it says of the novels intrigues me, The Farm as a semi-autobiographical story, and The Rains Came as a novel set in India about which at least some Indians spoke approvingly: Indian poet Krishnalal Shridharani is quoted, “You know how sensitive we Indians are to all forms of ‘imperialism,’ literary or otherwise,” he said, calling the book “the first ‘real’ novel on India by a non-Indian.” Yet another layer to the story of a life most interesting.

A New Year

In some ways I can’t believe it’s a new year already. Then in other moments, I look back at what I read or did in 2020 and the beginning of the year feels so far away–was it really just a year (or less) ago that….?

I suppose a lot of us are feeling that way this year. 2020 was a strange year, with much sadness or anxiety or anger. It seems odd to me that the pandemic turned it into a year in which such a large portion of the planet felt that the next year couldn’t come soon enough. And yet, I was thinking about it–there are probably people for whom 2020 was a good year, or at least had some really good moments–new family, new jobs, new experiences. And for other people, their situations were probably already so bad, that 2020 was nothing different, other than in the specifics.

One thing that was not really changed for me by 2020 was my reading. Although I did have slump towards the beginning of the pandemic when everything was much more uncertain, and a family friend was very, very ill, as spring turned to summer I found my way back, and ended the year with an average of over 5.6 hours of reading per week, better than my goal from the start of the year to read an average of 5 hours each week. This 5.6 hours translated into a total of 35 books plus the Sherlock Holmes short story “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” which is the best I’ve done since I started keeping track eleven years ago.

It was good reading, too. I started the year with Agatha Christie (of course!) and Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. This second book really set the tone for the year–not only was it an excellent read, but I set out to read it in a specific time frame, and when I actually met my weekly goals, it was the spark that really allowed me to aim high with long or difficult books this year: just keep reading. It’s hard to pick highlights this year; I enjoyed so many of them and I don’t think there was a book I disliked this year. However, ranked from favorite to most favorite (ha):

10. Rereads (The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) – it almost doesn’t seem fair to include these, as if your rereading something, it’s a safe assumption that you probably liked it. But all are loved, and sometimes you just need something “comfortable.”

9. Agatha Christie (The Secret Adversary through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) – So much fun. The perfect light reading in between heavier or more serious novels. I also generally thought Roger Ackroyd (post forthcoming) very good.

8. Piranesi (Susanna Clarke) – the newest book I read in 2020 (published in September), but I was completely immersed in the fantasy world.

7. The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio) – inspired by a postponed readalong, I finally read the entire collection, and while I sometimes found it a bit redundant (and some stories are just problematic by 21st century standards, but that’s a different issue), it felt a real accomplishment to finish. And it was fun!

6. Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy) – although Hardy is not known for “happy” stories, this is not as dark as some, and I loved following the changing seasons over the course of the novel. And the sheep.

5. Readalongs. The books I read this year for readalongs (The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe and Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara) weren’t my favorite in and of themselves, but the camaraderie of reading with others, and the benefit of reading others takes/points of view, means readalongs are always a highlight.

4. Cranford (Elizabeth Gaskell) – Gaskell is one of my favorite authors, and while the episodic format and small-town charm of Cranford is quite unlike the others of hers I’ve read, it is an absolute delight.

3. The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame) – Another episodic novel, and one that also has a strong connection to the seasons. It’s a book I’d consider a seasonal read for any season and full of charm and adventure and nature.

2. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain) – I can’t believe I’d never read this before, but it was an absolute delight.

1. Ficciones (Jorge Luis Borges) – so glad I finally read this! A collection of short stories that are not quite fantasy, but definitely fantastic. On the reread list, as well as further Borges and the Argentine epic Martin Fierro.

As far as general statistics, it looks like I read books or stories by 24 different authors (lots of repeat authors this year!), of which 11 were/are women and 17 men, with one unknown but likely male (the author of The Nibelungenlied). Most of these were, as usual for me, originally written in English, but five were translated from Spanish, Italian, French, and German. Seven different countries are represented. (I think–some of these may depend on how you count, as borders do like to change…) Seven were rereads and eight were non-fiction. The age of the books ranged from really old (c. 1200) to new (2020), with most of the books published prior to 1970, but 14 since 2000. So an interesting mix.

As I’m looking forward to my 2021 reading, I’m hoping for more of the same, generally. Maybe some more translations, likely some more contemporary commercial fiction (I have some books that I just need to read already…). More Agatha Christie, more from my Classics Club list (I did poorly here in 2020–I read lots of classics, just not from my actual list). Generally…more. After the success of last year, I’m aiming a bit higher: can I make 40 books? I’d like to average 6 hours of reading a week, ideally more consistently than last year. It should be doable, I just have to act on it. Always pushing myself to do a little better, read a little deeper, think a little more clearly. It’s had to know for sure–as 2020 showed us only too clearly–what a new year will hold in store, but I always look forward to the open possibilities.

Native Son by Richard Wright

Native Son
Richard Wright
US, 1940

He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain. And toward himself he was even more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough.

Book 1: Fear

Richard Wright’s Native Son is not a seasonal read. It is brutal, in violence and emotion. It is the story of–part of the story of–Bigger Thomas, a young Black man in 1930s Chicago: fearful, angry, and without hope. The relief agency finds him a job as a chauffer for a rich white family, the Daltons, whose wealth comes from real estate, including controlling shares in the company that owns the rat-infested apartment building in which the Thomas family lives. Throw the Daltons’ daughter, Mary, a beautiful, rebellious wild-child flirting with Communism (or more than flirting) into the mix and there is a recipe for disaster. The disaster comes quickly, with an act of (accidental, though predictable) violence at the end of the first part of the novel, followed by ever-more panicked and foolish decisions on the part of Bigger and the inevitable consequences.

The novel, in three parts–Fear, Flight, Fate–is seen entirely through Bigger’s eyes. Although narrated in the third person, we are privy to Bigger’s thoughts, his feelings, his fears, his angers. And it is not a pleasant place to dwell. Bigger is angry. He is afraid. He hates all white people, doesn’t understand them. He sees no real hope, has no happiness, embraces violence. He never seems to empathize, rarely seems to care about anything beyond himself. And yet, it is a tribute to Wright’s bravery and ability as a writer, that this distasteful character is given a measure of humanity–by exposing all of Bigger’s thoughts and feelings to the reader–such that I found myself actually concerned with his fate (though to be honest, I would likely be less emphatic with a real-life Bigger).

Wright does this in part by making Bigger’s motivations and feelings understandable. Not only has Bigger lacked for opportunity in life–in the last section of the novel we learn that he had dreams as a kid, which he knew were impossible merely because of the color of his skin–but he has also had very little interaction with white people, and none of it positive. He can see the white world only as oppressive. It is no wonder he reacts with confusion to the attempts of kindness on the parts of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton and by Mary. But this kindness is also a problem. It’s not just that it’s new to Bigger, it comes across to me as, if not condescending, at least misguided. The elder Daltons’ seek to help “the Negros” philanthropically, but without an understanding of what is really needed and without an acknowledgement of their complicity in the system (specifically in this novel, of redlining and segregation) that makes this very philanthropy necessary. Mary’s motivations may be more genuine–she speaks of equal humanity of the races–, but she often uses phrasing such as “those people,” which feels separating. Mary expresses concerns for the lives of Black people, but there’s still a slight edge of exoticism or condescension to her words, even while you see her trying to learn, saying “[w]e know so little about each other.” Bigger may not be able to put into words precisely his discomfort, but Mary has identified a root of the problem.

A running theme throughout the novel is blindness. It is explicit in the person of Mrs. Dalton, who is physically blind. Bigger uses the term after his crime, thinking that his eyes have been opened (by his actions and how he feels about them after) and that those around him–his family, his friends, his girlfriend Bessie–remain blind.  Jan, Mary’s communist boyfriend, doesn’t use the actual word, but he tells Bigger late in the novel that now he “sees.” Wright is not subtle here; this is his purpose for his novel. He is attempting to open his readers’ eyes, to remove their blindness to the ways of the world, to open their understanding.

In some ways I’m surprised that Native Son was selected by the Book of the Month Club in 1940. He did have to edit out a more sexually explicit passage, but even at that, it is still a dark, violent book, and one with positive portrayals of communists and their messaging. It must have been a shock for many of its readers! It is sad that in some ways it remains relevant today–we still are too often blind to the true natures and needs of those unlike us, too many young people still live in fear and anger. I am reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me; he describes the young men of his childhood neighborhood as living in fear and putting on a swaggering persona to mask this fear. It is somewhat concerning to me that it seems possible Bigger may serve to act as a reinforcement of a negative stereotype about young Black men, but Wright’s decision to center such an unappealing character in a novel about revealing the inequities and evils of racism and some of the inevitable consequences makes the book all the more powerful. Native Son is not uplifting, not comforting, not reassuring, but an important read in the pantheon of American 20th century literature.

I read Native Son as part of my Classics Club list and for the “Classic by a Person of Color” category in the Back to the Classics challenge.

“Nutcracker and Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann & “The Tale of the Nutcracker” by Alexandre Dumas

“Nutcracker and Mouse King”
E.T.A. Hoffmann
1816, Prussia
&
“The Tale of the Nutcracker”
Alexandre Dumas, père
1845, France

Translated by Joachim Neugroschel
Introduction by Jack Zipes (Penguin Classics)

For the entire twenty-fourth of December, the children of Medical Officer Stahlbaum were not permitted to step inside the intermediary room, much less the magnificent showcase next door. Fritz and Marie sat huddled together in a corner of the back room. The deep evening dusk had set in, and the children felt quite eerie because, as was usual on this day, no light had been brought in. Fritz quite secretly whispered to his younger sister (she had just turned seven) that he had heard a rustling and murmuring and soft throbbing in the locked rooms since early that morning. Also, not so long ago (Fritz went on), a short, dark man with a large casket under his arm had stolen across the vestibule. However, said Fritz, he knew quite well that it was none other than Godfather Drosselmeier.

Opening, “Nutcracker and Mouse King”

The Nutcracker is a story so familiar as to seem universally known. Or at least, the ballet is. For on opening the pages of E.T.A. Hoffman’s original short story, one soon discovers–unsurprisingly, perhaps–that the ballet diverges greatly from the source material. Although the core begins the same–on Christmas Eve, young Marie (often Clara in the ballet) takes a nutcracker doll, whose jaw was cold-heartedly broken by the enthusiasm of her brother Fritz, into her care; she observes, and eventually participates in, Nutcracker’s battle with the Mouse King; and she is eventually transported to a magical sugar candy land–the stories differ greatly in the particulars. The ballet is set on only a single night, rather than the week (or more) of the story, it spends far more time in the imaginary land of sweets than the few pages of the original, and it completely omits the fairy-tale-within-a-fairy-tale of Princess Pirlipat and the Hard Nut. In short, it centers on the more saccharine (literally!) elements of Hoffman’s tale rather than the more bizarre, and sometimes even grotesque imaginations he included, limiting such elements to the first act, in the form of Godfather Drosselmeier and the battle with the mice.

These elements, though, by no means make “Nutcracker and Mouse King” a horror story. Instead, it is a fantastical tale of dream-world and imagination, where not only toy soldiers, but gingerbread figures and dolls do battle with swarming mice hordes, where a beautiful princess is transformed into a malformed creature with the face of a nutcracker by the curse of a mouse, where mice and girls may make bargains in sweets and for a favorite toy’s safety. It is in short, a delight, if an oddity.

I’ve never read any of Hoffman’s other stories, so I do not know if this is characteristic of his writing–or honestly, if it was a misstep of the translation–but at times it seemed disjointed, as if the subject had changed midsentence, or the verb didn’t quite align. For example: “…she wrapped [the ribbon] around his injured shoulders and covered him all the way up to her nose” (14). Or this one is perhaps more baffling:

Clärchen bent down so deep that she was able to clutch Nutcracker’s skinny arm, and she gently pulled him up. Then she quickly detached herself with her multispangled girdle and she was about to hang it around Fritz’s neck. But Fritz stepped back two paces, put his hand on his chest, and spoke very solemnly:

“Do not, oh my lady, wish to waste your grace on me.” He faltered, took a deep breath, and then he tore the ribbon from Marie’s shoulders–he pressed the ribbon against his lips. Fritz now hung the ribbon around his waist like an officer’s sash.”

17-18

This is the only place where Nutcracker is referred to as Fritz (I assume this is who Fritz is here)–and seemingly out of nowhere. Is this evidence that the story is only entirely in Marie’s imagination and she has yet to settle on Nutcracker’s appropriate name (later “Herr Drosselmeier”) or is it a lapse on the part of the author? I’m not entirely happy with the former idea (though the latter seems unlikely), as I am perfectly content to read this fairy story as something that actually happened rather than confined to the realm of Marie’s imagination. (In fact, I was a bit miffed, reading Jack Zipes’s introduction in which he suggested that everything happens in Marie’s imagination. Has he no imagination of his own?! I may still be a child at heart…)

In contrast with Hoffmann’s original, the rewriting by Alexandre Dumas, père, is far more fluid–and florid–a story telling. I don’t know the purpose of his writing it, as–save for a framing story in which the narrator (Dumas) falls asleep at a children’s Christmas party, is discovered, tied up, and will only be loosened by his child-captors in exchange for a story–there isn’t much original added, and the changes made seem inconsequential to the plot (while softening its edges). To me it seems more a translation. And perhaps that was the real intent, to create something readable for French children (that Dumas could also profit from). Zipes says that Dumas may have been working from a translation himself, but that wouldn’t preclude a “French translation” as motivation. Regardless, it seems more a curiosity than a necessity.

Although in the future I would probably stick with the original, it was fun to have read both versions, especially timed during the holiday season (and accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s music). A true Christmas classic.