Call Him Cookie: When You Can’t Pronounce a Writer’s Name

This week, I received my second NYRB Classics Book Club selection.  The book club curator sends out a new book every month.  The subscriber does not choose the book.

I loved last month’s selection, The True History of of the first Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, by Diane Johnson, a biography of George Meredith’s first wife. (My review is here.)    I have qualms about this new book,  because it is by one of the Dreaded Soviet writers. Although I love 19th-century Russian fiction, the  prose of Soviet writers often seems turgid and clunky. They wrote under ghastly conditions, hence the uneven quality of the writing–or that’s my theory.

The August selection is Unwitting Street, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. A Kirkus Review blurb refers to the short stories in this collection as “tales.” I do hate a tale.  Unless it’s “Gogolesque.”

We shall see if I get along with Mr. KriZZZZZZhisanosssssky. I call him Krisky. Sounds like a cookie.

I do have another book by Cookie, Memories of the Future.  I read about half of the stories.  If I want to be an NYRB groupie, I must adjust to Soviet writing,

N.B.  I did admire one Soviet novel, Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya, written in the late 1930s. You can read my review here.

At Proust’s Salon: The Guermantes Way

Reading Proust can be ecstatic, or it can be a slog. And so I was enchanted by the following remark about Moncrieff’s translation of Proust in a letter from  Nancy Mitford to Evelyn Waugh. “There is not one joke in all the 16 of S. Moncrieff’s volumes. In French one laughs from the stomach, as when reading you.”

I have had a mixed experience with Proust. There is not a lot of joking in the revised translations of Moncrieff by Terence Kilmarten and D. J. Enright, as I recall.  But then humor is hard to translate.

I have had better luck with the  new-ish Penguin translations of In Search of Lost Time,   where even humor comes across.   In 2013, I finally connected with Proust through Lydia Davis’s lyrical translation of Swann’s Way, the first volume in the Penguin Classics edition of In Search of Lost Time. Davis writes beautifully and also has a sense of humor.

Now here I am, many years later–reading in a pandemic.  I recently felt the urge to read Proust after weeks of light-ish reading. And so I have spent three weeks reading Mark Trehorne’s lucid translation of The Guermantes Way, the third volume in the Penguin series.

Trehorne’s style is plain but robust.  I didn’t particularly notice the style, which is often a good thing in translation. The  narrative is surprisingly fast-paced, insofar as observations of minute details of social life and musings about culture and the arts can be said to be fast.   There isn’t much of a plot, but you don’t miss it. Instead, the novel consists of thoughtful and sometimes wickedly witty meditations and analysis of events in the unnamed narrator’s life.

As the novel opens, he is melancholy because his family has moved to a new apartment in a wing of the Hotel Guermantes  for his grandmother’s health.  He misses Combray.  But soon the narrator finds a new interest:  he develops a crush on Mme Guermantes, the duchess. When he isn’t reading, writing, or sleeping (and he sleeps badly), he thinks about her.

From the 2011 TV film of “À la recherche du temps perdu”

The narrator obsessively takes walks in the neighborhood so that he happens often to pass Mme Guermantes. She barely notices him and probably does not know who he is.  At the theater, he is enraptured when he sees her in a box with friends.  And he tries to get information about her from his  friend St. Loup, her nephew, who is not particularly impressed by his aunt.  But by the time the witty Mme Guermantes notices him and invites him to her elite salon, he no longer is interested.  That’s the way of the world!

I adored the hundreds of pages at the salons, especially the “third-rate salon” of Mme de Villeparisis, which doesn’t attract an elite clientele.  There is much humor in these scenes.  Though she is related to the Guermantes, she has fallen a few classes in the world.  Her guests include timid historians, brash novelists, and minor royalty. The intense rivalry between Mme de Villeparisis and Mme Leroi for guests at their salons reminds me of  Mapp and Lucia.

Mme de Villeparisis has the advantage over Mme Leroi of being an excellent writer, which means her salon is likely to be remembered by posterity even though the guests are less important.  Proust writes,

Her salon might be different from a truly fashionable one, which would not be frequented by many of the bourgeois ladies she entertained, and in which one would have encountered instead the sort of brilliant women that Mme Leroi had finally managed to attract, but nothing of this is perceptible in her memoirs, where certain dull acquaintances of the author’s have disappeared because there is no reason for them to be included; and the visitors who did not frequent her salon leave no gap in her work, because, in the necessarily restricted space available, there is room for only a few figures, and if they happen to be royal personages, historic personages, then the utmost impression of elegance that any memoir can present to the public has been achieved.

The writer has the last word!

A Masterpiece by a Nobel Winner: Sigrid Undset’s “Olav Audunssøn”

Sigrid Undset

The Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset is one of my favorite novelists–to the point that I tried to teach myself Norwegian after I read  Kristin Lavransdatter. Set in medieval Norway, this fascinating trilogy focuses on the struggles of willful, beautiful Kristin, who dumps her betrothed to marry Erlend Nikulaussøn, a charming but irresponsible knight with a bad reputation, whose neglected estate she must manage, along with yearly pregnancies and one handicapped child, and the consequences of Erlend’s radical politics (he goes to prison).

I am also a fan of Undset’s Olav Audunssøn, previously translated as The Master of Hestviken, a brilliant tetralogy set in medieval times. Somehow, this classic has been forgotten, while Kristin’s fans remain manifold.  And so I was delighted to learn that the first volume, Olav Audunssøn: I Vows, will be published by The University of Minnesota Press this fall.  The award-winning translator is Tina Nunnally.

I have an advance copy, and it seems appropriate to review it during Women in Translation Month. (Mark your calendars: the publication date of Olav Audunssøn is Nov. 10.)  The graceful prose had me spellbound from the beginning to the end. Like The Wreath, the first volume of Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset’s Olav Audunssøn delineates a tragic love affair.

In Olav Audunssøn, Olav and Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter are betrothed when they are children by their fathers–while their fathers are drunk. Is the betrothal real, or a joke? That is the question.  After Steinfinn Toresson’s death, the couple meets opposition to their match. Because they have had sex, they believe their relationship is a legal marriage. Ingunn’s relatives want her to make a better match.  Eventually the Bishop finds  witnesses to the betrothal and declares them married.  But an act of violence during a fight ends in Olav’s killing one of Ingunn’s kinsmen, and he goes into exile.

Olav has adventures abroad, while Ingunn suffers a brutally lonely ten years taking care of her grandmother on her aunt’s isolated estate. Ingunn goes nowhere, and sees no one.  She is loyal to Olav, but as an adult she suffers from his absence and wants to be married like other women. She becomes friendly with a young scribe who runs errands for a priest. And   Undset shows us without moralizing the different standards for the sexes.

Christianity is an important factor in Undset’s work, and I am fascinated by her descriptions of the lives of the monks and well-educated priests, the feast days and the church services, and the structure Catholicism gives to people who suffer unforgettable and unforgivable sins wrought by themselves and others.

Olav Audunssøn is a masterpiece, and I hope the University of Minnesota will publish the other books soon.

Quarantining “Claudius the God”

Book quarantine at Baltimore library.

I stare at a used copy of Claudius the God. I have stared at it for 24 hours. At least it feels like it. I’m waiting for a sign.

I called my cousin the librarian. “When will it be decontaminated?”

“No one dies from reading a book,” she said.

The official library book quarantine time is 72 hours here. Then patrons pick up their library books, and the most careful may quarantine them for another 72 hours. With all that quarantining, there isn’t much time for reading, is there?  We’re scared to read our own books.

“Quarantine theory” isn’t my cousin’s department, and she doesn’t have much confidence in her colleagues’ calculations. Although the ALA (American Library Association) site provides links to scientific studies of COVID-19 at the New England Journal of Medicine and the CDC, there is remarkably little information about the virus on paper. The virus lives on cardboard for 24 hours.

So I checked WebMD. It’s where I diagnose all my illnesses (usually correctly). WebMD says of paper like newspapers and mail: “The length of time varies. Some strains of coronavirus live for only a few minutes on paper, while others live for up to 5 days.”

Not very specific, is it?

“Reading Woman on a Couch,” by Isaac Israels

I’ve dutifully stayed home, washed my hands, worn masks at stores, and now I just want to read my book.  Is this COVID-fatigue?

According to UCDavis Health, COVID fatigue is born of constant stress and anxiety. And then we get careless about the precautions.

Kaye Hermanson, UC Davis Health psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. says, “We’re tired of being cooped up, tired of being careful, tired of being scared. Our collective fatigue is making some people careless – one reason COVID-19 is rising sharply again in California and throughout the U.S.”…

“We can help ourselves,” Hermanson said. “We’ve heard this before, but it’s true: It’s time to develop coping skills.” Those include:

  1. Exercise: “It’s the No. 1 best thing we can do for coping,” she said. “Any exercise – even a simple walk – helps. It releases endorphins, gets some of the adrenaline out when the frustration builds up. Just getting out and moving can be really helpful for people.”
  2. Talking: “This really helps, too. Just saying it out loud is important,” Hermanson said. “Find the right places and times, but do it. Ignoring feelings doesn’t make them go away. It’s like trying to hold a beachball underwater – eventually you lose control and it pops out. You can’t control where it goes or who it hits.
  3. Constructive thinking: “We may think it is the situation that causes our feelings, but actually, our feelings come from our thoughts about the situation,” she said. “We can’t change the situation, but we can adjust our thinking. Be compassionate with yourself and others. Remind yourself, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’”
  4. Mindfulness and gratitude: “The more you do this, the easier it gets,” she said. “Try being in the moment. You’re right here, in this chair, breathing and looking around. We put ourselves through a lot of unnecessary misery projecting into the future or ruminating about the past. For now, just take life day by day.”

I’ve decided I will read Claudius the God.

I hope this is as reckless as I get.

A Giveaway! Four Austens and “Mildred Pierce”

“Antiquarian Cat Reading,” by Edward Gorey

Happy Sunday! It is time for a giveaway of four Jane Austens and a Mildred Pierce. Leave your name in a comment if you’d like any (or all).

Here’s what’s up for grabs:

The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, annotated and edited by David M. Shapard.

Austen’s Mansfield Park (Modern Library paperback).

Mine doesn’t have the book jacket.

Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Modern Library hardback, without book jacket)

Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Signet).  This small portable edition is perfect for readers on the go!

A good reading copy that has obviously gone through the hands of a few readers.

James M.  Cain’s Mildred Pierce.  Another portable paperback for readers on the go!   I bought it used, and, alas, there is some underlining.  On the other hand, this is one of the best American novels I have ever read.   So if you don’t mind a well-read book, you’ll love the content.

I do look forward to getting these out of my house!   I can only send the books within the U.S., due to astronomical rates from the U.S. to  parts of the world.  (I don’t know what they’re thinking with those rates!)

The Politics of the Trail

I hate to see July go, though August is beautiful and slightly fallish already: I’ve seen a few crumpled brown leaves, the sumac is red, and the light is softer.

And yet I’ve been on the trail less this year than ever.

This agoraphobia must end, I decided. And so I went out on my bike with a pannier full of water bottles, banana, book, sanitizer, and wipes. Most people are slightly apprehensive, but you can’t wear a mask on a bicycle, or at least I can’t, because I need to breathe deeply. I have been known to try to hold my breath when I pass someone. Now how would that help? I do have a buff, a stretchy scarf you put around your neck and  can pull up over your face if someone looks particularly germy.  (I’m psychic!)

Most trails are wide enough that you can pass people easily, but some people hog the trail, and on one narrow section I turned around and backtracked because a group was spilling all over the place and walking toward me.

The politics of the trail!

I sat down for a snack, but the banana had popped in the pannier. I drank the  water as I read  Marie-Helene Bertino’s experimental novel, Parakeet. In the first chapter, a parakeet flaps around the narrator’s hotel room. Turns out she’s the narrator’s grandmother, trying to warn her against getting married!

Intriguing, yes? But soon it was time to go back and navigate the Covid-19 crowd.

Covid-19 is political:  we knew it, but you can see it more by the behavior on the trails.

A Bon-Bon of a Book: Ada Leverson’s “The Twelfth Hour”

The Twelfth Hour (Walmer edition)

Ada Leverson’s delightful, feather-light novels are a blend of Saki-like epigrams with the saucy rebellion of  Elizabeth von Arnim’s heroines.  I read  Leverson, best known for the entertaining trilogy, The Little Ottleys, when I need comfort.

Much to my surprise and pleasure, I recently discovered her first novel, The Twelfth Hour (1907), which is as charming as her later efforts. And the plot is hilarious, centering on the romantic problems of three siblings.

Leverson raises the question, Why is love so difficult? If you’re with the right person, how can you be unhappy? But the Crofton siblings all have romantic troubles. Felicity is married to the ideal man, Lord Chetwode, but he is never home: he is at the races or searching for antiques in distant counties. And people have started to notice his absence. She becomes susceptible to the attentions of Bertie Wilton, who is always there, unlike Chetwode.

Ada Leverson

Felicity’s younger sister Sylvia is engaged to Woodville, her father’s secretary, but she hasn’t told her father, who wants her to marry a middle-aged millionaire. Woodville is miserable, but Sylvia insists they wait till her twenty-first birthday.  And I must admit, Sylvia can be irritating: she is utterly unconscious of Woodville’s feelings.

Thank God for Savile, their younger brother, who is as wise about their loves as he is silly about his own (he is still at school but in love with an opera singer). He manages his sisters’ relationships beautifully, and I’m astonished by his clever negotiations.

Ada Leverson

You have to read Leverson’s dialogue to get to know her. Here is an example of Felicity and Savile.

“Look here, Felicity, I want to speak to you.”
“Yes, darling?”
“Does Chetwode know what’s going to win the Cambridgeshire?”
“How can he know, darling? Would it be fair? Of course he has some vague idea. Candid friend he said was the favorite. He says it’s a certainty. But his certainties!…”

Lovely and fun– a bon-bon of a book!

By the way, this is the Walmer paperback edition.  The publisher Michael Walmer reissues out-of-print books of the kind many of us enjoy (rather like Viragos and Persephones). I bought this online, and I must say, it is a much nicer paperback than the one I found of Bird of Paradise, which I read last winter.  I wrote about Bird here.

Wrapped up in Classics: The Seriousness of Reading Tacitus

You know how it has been this summer. Am I a nervous wreck? Sort of.

And though I have done some “light reading,” i.e., short new books and some slightly longer classics (Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City being the longest, at 672 pages),  the titles have not been as varied as usual.

I finally managed to squeeze in some Roman history, just to feel serious. In June I read Tacitus’s Annals, in Latin, of course. Though I can’t recommend J. C. Yardley’s stilted English translation (Oxford), the Latin prose is elegant, dramatic, and engrossing. (N.B. My sympathies are with Yardley, since reading and understanding Latin is one thing, translating it on paper into a differently-structured language and capturing the stylistic effects is altogether more demanding.)

tacitus annals penguinAs you know, it is Latin poetry rather than history that lured me into classics. Great as Tacitus is, I would far rather reread Ovid or Catullus. But Tacitus is a page-turner among historians, and his fascinating version of the mutiny of Germanicus’s troops after the death of the emperor Augustus, shortly before Tiberius’s official succession, is fast-paced, suspenseful, and entertaining.

Tacitus is also an eloquent composer of well-wrought speeches, allegedly delivered by the historical characters. This is one of the more charming aspects of Greek and Roman histories. Tacitus’s speeches fall somewhere between the delightful effects of Herodotus and the fascinating dialogue of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. And I was spellbound by the eloquence of the sympathetic character Germanicus, as he tries to get the troops under control.  And I was utterly astonished that one of the main agitators was the former leader of a claque in a theater.

annals tacitus vol. 1Tacitus also provides us with “royal” family history: I have always enjoyed reading about Augustus’s wife Livia, who possibly poisoned some of Augustus’s prospective heirs, or even Augustus himself. And  she was almost certainly responsible for the banishment of Julia, Augustus’s daughter. In Book I of the Annals, Germanicus’s son, “Little Boots” (Caligula), makes an appearance.  Raised in an army camp, he is popular with the troops.  Too bad he grew up to be a mad emperor.

Tacitus and I will meet again–but not yet!

A Trip to the Future: In Search of Lost Time

Dr. Anthony Fauci  announced that a vaccine for Covid-19 may be ready this fall.  And so, after a summer of lighter reading than usual, I’m finally hopeful and able to settle into Proust’s The Guermantes Way, the third novel in Remembrance of Things Past, or In Search of Lost Time, if you prefer the modern translation of the title.

I didn’t have the entire set, but these Vintage paperbacks were the first editions of Proust I read.

Some years back, I declared I intended to read all of Proust. I have a long history of intending to read Proust. As a teenager, I started with the last novel, The Past Captured. Perhaps I liked the cover? Perhaps it was short?  Now my mind needs to read  Proust in sequence, but it didn’t matter to me then and I understood it perfectly at the time.

My set didn’t have book jackets!

In the ’90s, I declared again I intended to read Proust. We bought a set of old Modern Library editions at The Haunted Bookshop, a small bookstore near the Greyhound bus station in my hometown. And so we ended up running for the bus with seven books weighing down our knapsacks.  I made it through four of the books that year.

In 2013, I declared it again. And so I read Lydia Davis’s translation of Swann’s Way (Penguin).  In 2014 I read Within a Budding Grove, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmarten and revised by D. J. Enright (Modern Library paperback edition). Here’s what I wrote in 2014 at my old blog, Mirabile Dictu

I am loving Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, though it’s futile to try to articulate it.  The series is one long novel, no? My husband, who has read the entire series in French, crossly says that Swann’s Way is the only volume worth reading.  Well, I’m simply loving it, but I see the structure is looser in the second volume, Within a Budding Grove. Of course it’s all modernist brilliance. And there are seven fucking volumes so get used to it! One basks in Marcel’s symphonic descriptions of places, walks, meals, dinner conversations, the hotel in Balbec, neurotic worries about girls, friendships with the pretentious Bloch and the generous Robert, and lovesickness for the lively Gilberte Swann,.  The pattern of hopeless, anxious love is set by  his relationship with his mother, but his love for Gilberte is also echoes the pattern of Swann’s courtship of the fickle Odette, who makes him miserable.   In the second volume, we are amazed to find that Swann has become a bourgeois husband bustling to convince government officials to dine with Odette, since his aristocratic connections won’t entertain her.  There are many comic episodes: when Gilberte tells Marcel that Swann and Odette don’t like him, Marcel is indignant and writes him a very long letter about his love and respect for the Swanns. Ah, youth!  So funny!

I will post something about The Guermantes Way –eventually. Meanwhile, let me refer you to a brilliant, fun article at, “How to read In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust,” by Marcelle Clements. The essay begins,

Some readers are lucky; they fall in love with Proust on page one and enter a sort of rapture that transports them through all six volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Others struggle, resist, quit in a huff. My guess is that many readers are alternately smitten and outraged by Proust’s prose style, especially in the opening pages, when we are in the dark—or rather, in a room where the drapes are drawn—and the only thing we can figure out with any certitude is that the narrator is unable to get to sleep and that this reminds him of many other sleepless nights.

I think I’ll follow Marcelle Clements’ advice. But only the future can tell if I’ll read all of them!

The Booker Longlist 2020

On the longlist!

I am excited about the Booker Prize. From the ’80s through the zips, I have read most of the winners.  In 2011 I fell behind, due to a disappointing longlist.  But I usually read one from the longlist or the shortlist, even if I don’t get around to the winner.

Last year I got back on track:  I read one book from the longlist,  Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, one from the shortlist, Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, and one of the two (tied) winners, Margaret Atwood’s Testaments. And I enjoyed all three.  So it was a good year.  (I still need to read the longlisted Salman Rushdie and John Lanchester.)

Anyway, I am so happy that the Booker Prize 2020 announcement has  not been delayed by the coronavirus. For some reason, other awards seem to be on hold this year.  The Booker International winner has not yet been announced!  Let’s get back to normalcy, even if the ceremony is virtual.

Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road is on the longlist, and I would be happy if she won it.  She has had a stunning career.  There are many, many reviews of Redhead online, and though I didn’t get around to reviewing it, it is one of my favorites.

I don’t consider myself a Booker judge, but here are two novels I think are award-worthy:   Anne Enright’s Actress (which I wrote about here) and Martha McPhee’s An Elegant Woman (which I wrote about here).  Perhaps McPhee’s book would be dismissed as a women’s saga, even though it is so much more than that.  You know how these things work.

Here is the Booker longlist.

Diane Cook – The New Wilderness
Tsitsi Dangarembga – This Mournable Body
Avni Doshi – Burnt Suga
Gabriel Krauze – Who They Was
Hilary Mantel – The Mirror & The Light
Colum McCann – Apeirogon
Maaza Mengiste – The Shadow King
Kiley Reid – Such a Fun Age
Brandon Taylor – Real Life
Anne Tyler – Redhead by The Side of The Road
Douglas Stuart – Shuggie Bain
Sophie Ward – Love and Other Thought Experiments
C Pam Zhang – How Much of These Hills is Gold

What books would you have added to this list?