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.

Back to the Classics 2020, Wrapped

There’s nothing like pushing it to the last minute, but I did it! For the first time, I’ve managed to read books for all 12 categories in the Back to the Classics Challenge AND write about them (for 3 entries in the challenge).

I actually read more than 12 classics in 2020, but that ones listed below are the books I felt best fit Karen’s categories. Other than #5, I didn’t have to make a deliberate plan for any of these categories, in fact, for some of them I had finished the book before I realized that it was a perfect fit (such as The Wind in the Willows).

It feels like it’s been a long time since I read some of these: did I really read The Nibelungenlied this year?

As far as the books, I enjoyed most of them. (I don’t think “enjoyed” really applies to a book like Native Son, but I’m happy I read it.) I can’t believe it took me until this year to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Jane Austen is always a treat, and Cranford was a wonderful treat. But if I had to pick a top read, it would probably be the short story collection Ficciones. There’s no good reason it had been previously abandoned; sometimes I just do that.

My biggest disappointment with this list? Most of them aren’t on my Classics Club list – something to work on for next year!

  1. 19th Century Classic. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen (1811)
  2. 20th Century Classic. Appointment in Samarra – John O’Hara (1934)
  3. Classic by a Woman Author. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe (1794)
  4. Classic in Translation. The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio (Italian, 1350-53)
  5. Classic by a Person of Color. Native Son – Richard Wright (1940)
  6. A Genre Classic. The Secret Adversary – Agatha Christie (1922)
  7. Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain (1876)
  8. Classic with a Place in the Title. Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell (1851-53)
  9. Classic with Nature in the Title. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame (1908)
  10. Classic About a Family. The Nibelungenlied – Anonymous (c 1200)
  11. Abandoned Classic. Ficciones – Jorge Luis Borges (1956)
  12. Classic Adaptation. Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy (1874)

(simplerpastimes [at] gmail [dot] com)

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.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron
Giovanni Boccaccio
Italy, 1350-53
Translator, Wayne A. Rebhorn, 2013

Several things spring to mind at the mention of The Decameron: plague, sex, and corrupt priests. While the latter two items are abundant in the 100 stories that make up the pages of The Decameron, there is less of the Black Death than its reputation might suggest.

Written in the mid-1300s, Boccaccio’s collection of tales has a strong framing organization that divides the tales into sets of ten, told over a series of ten days. Each day also has a introduction and a conclusion and an Author’s Preface and Conclusion round out the book. It is in the Day 1 Introduction that one of the most famous passages, that describing the effects of the plague–which devastated Florence, Italy in 1348–is found. Interestingly, according to the Introduction of the edition I read, many of Boccaccio’s details come from an 8th century work, Historia Longobardorum by Paulus Diaconus, although Boccaccio’s father was also involved in organizing relief for the Florentines and may have shared what he witnessed with his son, who is believed to have been outside the city at the time. (It is also interesting to me to learn that the plague still exists, but is readily treated by antibiotics.)  Regardless of the exact sourcing, Boccaccio’s description of the devastation caused by the plague and the subsequent civic and moral decay is harrowing. The gruesome infection, mass burials, abandonment of friends and family, abandonment of all social, moral and ethical principles–such was the state of 1348 Florence.

Moreover, since they themselves, when they were well, had set the example for those who were not yet infected, they, too, were almost completely abandoned by everyone as they languished away. And leaving aside the fact that the citizens avoided one another, that almost no one took care of his neighbors, and that relatives visited one another infrequently, if ever, and always kept their distance, the tribulation of the plague had put such fear into the hearts of men and women that brothers abandoned their brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and very often wives their husbands. In fact, what is even worse, and almost unbelievable, is that fathers and mothers refused to tend to their children and take care of them, treating them as if they belonged to someone else.

Day 1, Introduction

Against this backdrop, Boccaccio sets his collection. A group of young Florentines, seven women and three men, feeling abandoned by family and friend, though yet healthy themselves, gather at Santa Maria Novella in the heart of Florence and decide to leave the city, embarking a few miles away to the countryside, to “hav[e] as much fun as possible, feasting and making merry, without ever overstepping the bounds of reason in any way” (Day 1, Introduction). This is the last the plague is mentioned, as we enter into a world of feasting, dancing, nature and storytelling.

Painting by John William Waterhoues of a group of young women and men  women in late Medieval/early Italian Renaissance clothing sitting in a garden and conversing.
A Tale from the Decameron (1916) by John William Waterhouse

It is quickly established by the young people that they will select a “queen” or “king” to order their existence on each day, with the first queen, Pampinea, setting the rhythm for the days that follow: they spend the mornings in gardens or meadows, a midday luncheon followed by music, dance and rest before finally gathering in a shaded spot during the hottest part of the day to tell their stories, one each. They deviate from the schedule only on Fridays and Saturdays for religious observance and personal hygiene. It is an idealized world they find themselves in, without intrusion of the outer world or its concerns. On one day, they visit a garden of such pristine beauty and isolation, that it seems as if it is meant to represent Eden. They are separate from–and we as readers in turn are separate from–all outside consideration or care.

Although on Days 1 and 9 the storytellers are allowed to give free reign to share whatever they wish, the remaining eight days are each themed, on stories ranging from tragic love to love overcoming all, from tricks played on others or wit employed against other to get something the trickster or wit desires to stories of liberality or magnificence of wealth and deed. Some are humorous while some are tragic. Intelligence and wit are roundly celebrated while foolishness and ignorance are punished or denounced. And yes, there is plenty of sex–and while early English translations altered or omitted some of the most scandalous tales, in general Boccaccio sticks with tame statements (embracing, sleeping with) or euphemism. I was put in mind of the bawdy humor of Shakespeare.

I was also reminded of Shakespeare by the style or themes of some of the tales, especially those dealing with lovers and confused identities. This isn’t perhaps surprising; although there were about 250 years between them, they had some of the same, or similar sources to reference, and it is believed that Shakespeare took a portion of the plot of Cymbeline from Day 2, Story 9 and As You Like it from Day 3, Story 9 (likely by way of a French translation).

What is perhaps more surprising–although not unprecedented, as Dante’s Inferno places not a few clergymen in the torments of Hell–is the number of stories featuring a corrupt or immoral priest, nun, or other religious figure. Clearly, even well before Martin Luther’s famous 16th century critique of the Catholic church, those outside of it–but still of the Catholic faith–saw hypocrisy, avarice, and lust within. (Which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising in an era in which the Church might be chosen as an occupation, not out of faith, but due to poverty or lack of other opportunity, or that might be chosen for a child by their parent.) However, the context of the stories–and especially within the framing introductions and conclusions–makes clear that the humor at the expense of the clergy is not reflective of any disbelief in the Christian faith, even if perhaps it expresses a cynicism at the honesty and integrity of the faith leaders.

At times the stories can feel a bit tedious or a bit repetitive. Although there is a wide variety of stories,  a group of 9 or 10 stories on a topic (the tenth storyteller, Dioneo, doesn’t always stick with the program) can sometimes make it feel as if one story is blending into the next. And even between the different topics, many of the stories somehow still end up about love (or lust). With 100 total stories, it is also easy to forget many of them by the time the book is completed. That is not to say there aren’t memorable stories. I especially found amusing the handful of stories from Day 8 and 9 that featured the (real) Florentine Calandrino. Portrayed in this context as a gullible dupe, his friends were constantly playing practical jokes on him. In general, in fact, the stories of Day 8 were some of my favorites, as many were amusing tales of tricks people play on one another, although there are other stories throughout that are laugh-out-loud as well. There are also some rather sweet stories in Day 2, of people who have suffered great misfortunes only to wind up with a happy ending.

However, we are also reminded that these stories are very much of their time–women as property, the nobility as far superior to those low-born (and therefore subject to different rules). Additionally, while most of the stories are grounded in the real world (if occasionally a bit far fetched), at times moments arrive that remind us that The Decameron was still a Medieval work, although one tiptoeing on the edges of the Italian Renaissance. We are starting to see the influence of learning and intellect, but there also remains the evidence of courtly love, chivalric behavior, and even on occasion a bit of magic.

There is another way The Decameron took me back in time. Many of the stories, especially in the second half of the book, are set in Florence, a city I know well, having spent four months there as part of my university course. The Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, near where our storytellers gather at the beginning and disperse in the end, is very familiar, as we passed through almost daily on our way to classes. An endnote for the third story of Day Eight sent me down a Google maps rabbit hole: it identified the location of Calandrino’s house as being near the corner of present day Via Ginori and Via Guelfa–which is where our apartment was (although in a 19th century building). Another story has the protagonist walking along Via della Scala, another familiar street: it was where our classes were located at the time. It was an unexpected jaunt down memory lane, but enjoyable nonetheless.

I picked up The Decameron as part of my libri Italiani project list, but also greatly inspired by Cleo’s (Classical Carousel) plans to read it this fall/winter. I’d previously read several of the stories for a college course, and it was fun to return to them. The edition I read was translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn, and while I generally found it very readable, I did find his decision to use words such as “guy” and “buddy” to represent common speech a bit jarring. On the other hand, Rebhorn provided a contextualizing introduction and copious endnotes providing information on Boccaccio’s sources, translation decisions or explanations (such as puns that don’t translate), and historical background, all of which can be useful to the reader. (Depending on your reading preferences–I found reading each note as I came to it too interrupting, so I took to reading all of the notes for a story before starting it.) Generally speaking, regardless of whether the reader wants all that sort of extra material, this is a book where it’s perhaps best to use one of the newer translations (there are a couple to choose from), as the older editions are often incomplete or bowdlerized.