All Dressed up and Nowhere to Go? Read Proust!

 Kristin Stewart reading Proust

It is your mission. You decide to finish Proust.  “It’s all downhill after Swann’s Way,” a friend confided. And since it has been five years since you read the last volume, you don’t even remember who the characters are.   So Swann’s Way again?

Funny, you’d rather read catalogues. One thing new this spring: all the models are suddenly LGBT.  Yes, the women are all holding hands…on a beach…and wearing plenty of things you’d like to buy:  embroidered jeans, summery tunics, and slip-on sandals that doubtless would slip off.  

If you bought these lovely clothes, you’d be all dressed up with nowhere to go. These days, you mow the lawn for fun. Or go to the grocery store! 

The state has “reopened”–it  proudly is a hotspot– and it is a bit too much.  And so many people are staying home.  Restaurant dining rooms are empty.  The parking lot at Perkins is empty (perhaps it’s closed altogether).  Penney’s is out of business.  Supposedly drive-in theaters are open, but I’d like to know where the heck these drive-ins are.

The drive-through at Starbucks is very popular:  I’ve seen the lines!

Really, it’s enough to inspire you to stay home and keep reading Proust.  I’m going to go eenie-meenie-mo and pick a volume.

Chekhov in Covid-19 Spring: Rereading “The Sea Gull”

Medvedenko:  Why do you always wear black?

Masha:  I am in mourning for my life.  I’m unhappy.

–Chekhov, The Sea Gull

I recently found an old Modern Library book, Best Plays by Chekhov. I was thrilled to find it, because there is a Chekhov revival at the moment, or at least there should be.  A new translation of Chekhov’s short stories by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky has been published, and though The New York Times critic disliked it, I have  enjoyed what I’ve read. But I also love Ronald Hingley, who translated nine volumes of Chekhov’s plays and six volumes of his stories for Oxford University Press.  The four-volume Folio Society set of Chekhov’s Collected Stories is translated by Hingley.

The Folio Society set of Chekhov’s The Collected Stories, translated by Ronald HIngham

While thumbing through Chekhov’s stories,I realized  I prefer the plays, so I decided to return to them.   And as soon as I read the opening lines of The Sea Gull , I was in love with his work, just as I was the first time.

I was an intense young woman, and though I was fairly contented when I read The Sea Gull, I identified with the misery of Masha. (We were all brooding young women then.)  I loved the cynical Masha’s witty point of view (see quote at top of post), though she is a second-string character in the play, very much in the shadow of Nina.   She  feels unrequited love for Konstantine Treploff, a suicidal aspiring writer who feels unrequited love for Nina, a charming young aspiring actress, who is in love with a famous writer…and so it goes. As the play opens,  Nina is acting in an amateur production of a play Treploff has written (performed in the barn), but Treloff’s brash flamboyant mother, a famous actress, is so loudly mocking that he  decides not to finish the performance.  Poor Masha knows she will never get anywhere with Treploff.  She may be brighter, but how can she compete with Nina?  

Chekhov’s characters speak intensely about the need for a new form in drama and in literature. It seemed very  modern when I read it, and probably still is, though I knew a little more about the theater then. The ring composition in The Sea Gull is perfect (too perfect?):  it comes full-circle, with the last act mirroring the first–and a tragic ending.

Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt

Translator Stark Young’s introduction to this 1956 Modern Library edition is fascinating.  He says he translated The Sea Gull for the actors Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt.  Critics expected lofty language, and were so puzzled by the simplicity that they  believed it was “an adaptation.”  But Young explains that Chekhov’s vocabulary is very simple.  He writes, “Of all the dramatists Chekhov least deserves the muddle of the various styles that have been foisted on him in English–the involved, for instance, or the elevated, or the psychological-gloomy, or the turgid-soulful, or the flat, or the lacking in lyricism or in wit.”

I am not at all sure where we got this Modern Library book. I know I read the plays in paperback, possibly the Signet, translated by the great Ann Dunnigan.  I prefer the blue cover (the older edition), but it is still in print by Signet, with the white cover (on the right).

We Could All Use Horace’s Letter of Recommendation!

Have you ever spent a day reading Jane Austen and Horace?  It is a strange conjunction.

If you are more like Emma (Emma) than the modest Fanny Price (Mansfield Park), you will enjoy Horace’s witty letter of recommendation written in the form of a poem. If Emma had known Horace, she would have pasted it in her album.  She also would have persuaded herself it was  a love letter to her friend Harriet, for whom she was shamelessly trying to find a husband.

Honestly, I’m not even sure if Horace was heterosexual.

Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton (or do I mean Horace?)

Fanny would have found something improper about Horace’s letter.  God knows what, but that’s the way Fanny is.

You may know Horace for his famous odes, but he also wrote two books of Epistulae (Letters).  Epistula I.lX is a charming letter of recommendation for Septimius, who shamelessly bullied him until he wrote it.  Sometimes I love Horace, sometimes he is smarmy, but here  he is very smooth and funny-I can only imagine that Septimius got the job.

 Nobody reads Horace in English, because the Latin is concise and the English, alas, requires many, many, many more words. Here is my wordy English translation.

Dear Tiberius,  Septimius is the only one who understands

how much you think of me.  When he urges me

to praise and introduce him as a man worthy

of your intellect and honorable family,

he discerns and knows what I can do better for him

by the enjoyment of the  gift of being a closer friend.

Indeed, I have said many things to excuse myself

but I feared I would be thought to have pretended

 less power than I have, hiding the favorable assistance

I could give.

And so, to flee the reproaches of a greater fault,

I have stooped to the networking of bold men.

If you approve of the modesty set aside because of a friend’s request,

enroll this man in your company and trust that he is good and brave.

A College for Lost Souls: Elisabeth Thomas’s “Catherine House”

I did not mean to read science fiction this month.  I am wearied of the way it has seeped into our lives. On a recent bicycle trip, I was ready for the apocalypse. I took not only a bottle of water, but sanitizer, a mask, wipes (originally makeup wipes), allergy pills, Tylenol, an extra sweater, Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, and Elisabeth Thomas’s debut novel, Catherine House.  I was ready for…the suburbs?

I read a bit of Sanditon, which is charming, and then I started Catherine House, a fast-paced, entertaining, odd little book, which I may  have confused with  another new novel which I think was compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

It is true that Catherine House is a college novel, albeit portrayed through a lens of SF and horror.  Thomas has a knack for spare, muted sentences that create the perfect unobtrusive background for a sinister plot.  The narrator, Ines, a first-year student, has a brooding presence and is not entirely enchanted with the school; cynicism keeps her cognizant of the director’s dangerous charisma.  On the other hand, she feels lucky to have  been accepted at any college, let alone Catherine House, an exclusive three-year college famous for its research on a substance called “plasm.”  All of the students consider themselves lucky to be there, to the point that they don’t worry about the college’s cult-like culture.   They agree not to leave campus until after graduation, and are denied the internet, TV, newspapers, and magazines, and contact with their families.  

Ines skips classes–she is not particularly academic–and devotes her time to drinking too much, blacking out, and having lots of sex (why doesn’t anyone in these books get STDs, I mused). She is disturbed by mandatory sessions of chanting led by the director and enhanced by plasm, given in the form of acupuncture needles.  When her plasm-obsessed roommate, Baby, a brilliant but nervous girl who eccentrically picks locks to relax, is found dead, Ines wonders what happened.  But somehow she can’t follow this line of thought, because there is nothing for her out in the world.

Several of Ines’s friends have doubts about Catherine House, but also have nowhere to go.  And one sees there’s a pattern in the student population.  

This novel is not perfect–the plot falters a bit near the end– but it is an enjoyable little novel.  It’s not Donna Tartt:  I call it “Wuthering Heights meets Enid Blyton and Frankenstein.” But this will be fun for fans of SF/fantasy college novels like The Magicians by Lev Grossman and Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergei Dyachenko.  It especially reminds me of the latter.

The Plague Notebook: Groceries, A Hit to Comedy, & What I’m Reading

The Mature People’s Shopping Hour, obviously snapped before masks were recommended.

Everybody’s got it.   The plague.  The virus.  Even Dr. Anthony Fauci is in self-quarantine.

I had the sniffles the other night, but then I always feel sick after going to the grocery store. In our masks, we feel like extras in a remake of  Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. There was no sanitizer to wipe down the cart, so my husband gave me one of his gloves.  It reminded me of the scene in Little Women, where Jo and Meg  each wear one clean glove and carry one stained glove at a dance.  (Jo had spilled lemonade on her gloves, if I remember correctly.)  We each wore one glove, but this was sanitation etiquette, not party manners.

I would rather shop during  “mature people’s hours,” 7-8 a.m., but Mr. Nemo thinks we’re not “mature” enough.  Also it’s too early in the morning.   I imagine it would dispel the general anxiety and paranoia of being in a crowd, though.  Most people during regular hours wear masks, but some do seem to be maskless and ill.  (Perhaps they don’t have anyone to shop for them.) And of course the “mature” are better at self-distancing than the young, who surmise (falsely) from the news that only old people with underlying health conditions will suffer and die.


N.B.  I don’t have the virus.  It’s allergy season.  Splendid!  

SO WHAT’S NEW ON THE BOOKISH FRONT?  I was so bored one afternoon that I made a book video (one minute, 46 seconds, and too long at that!). Oh, so that’s what I look like, I thought, curiously without mortification.  I can weather the most fantastic changes and not care, a gift from the Three Fates, or possibly the Muses.

What inspired me to make a video was the boredom of lockdown TV.  Comedy especially has taken a hit now that all the comedians are talking to each other from different rooms:  it’s like watching Hillary in 2016, trying desperately to connect.   But kudos to Parks and Recreation, which did a kind of virus-education fund-raiser–and ended up showing Leslie how to make a group video phone call.  Now that’s information we might actually need. 


In progress:  Gene Wolfe’s The Sword of the Lictor, the third in the award-winning Book of the New Sun quartet. Folio Society recently published a Limited Edition of this science fiction classic.  I have a paperback.

Jane Austen’s Sanditon.  Now that I’ve watched the last season of  Homeland (what will I do without Carrie?), I’m turning to the Masterpiece drama Sanditon.  I may already have read an old edition of Sanditon, finished by “Another Lady,” or perhaps that was Lady Susan!  Anyway, it was long ago.  But Jane Austen, finished or unfinished, is always a pleasure.

American Indian Stories, by Zitkala-Sa (1876-1936).  This collection of autobiographical stories and selected poetry of Zitkala-Sa, a member of the Yankton Dakota,  is beautifully-written and absorbing.  I am especially impressed with the account of her experiences at a missionary boarding school in Indiana, where well-meaning teachers proved to be racist.  Why have I never heard of her before?  This is one of the books in the excellent Modern Library Torchbearers series.

AND I HOPE SOON TO READ Love, Anger, Madness, a Haitian triptych by Marie Vieux-Chauvet.  According the the book jacket, “this stunning triptych of novellas vividly depicts families and artists struggling to survive in Haiti under terrifying government oppression. “

Stay home, stay safe, and ignore the politicians!

When People Love Movie Stars Too Much

Ashton Kutcher

Some people love movie stars too much.  Take Kim Reynolds, the Republican governor of Iowa.  We were gobsmacked when she proudly announced during a daily coronavirus update that  her “friend Ashton Kutcher” had recommended a Utah company to manage Iowa coronavirus test results. She awarded TestUtah a no-bid $26 million contract to establish the TestIowa program–without consulting any Iowa experts. 

Naturally, many of us were shaken by the decision, even before we learned the Utah company was under investigation. Much as we like Ashton Kutcher, an actor from Cedar Rapids, he is not exactly Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institue of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Does Kutcher have a medical degree or a background in science? No, he has a friend at the company. Mind you, I do not blame Kutcher. You know whose responsibility it is? Kim Reynolds, who has made bad decision after decision during her governorship and today reopened Iowa for business, even though the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths rises every day.

Not surprisingly, TestIowa has proved incompetent.  There have been botched test results, and many people have reported to the Des Moines Register that they have been waiting up to two weeks. One nurse said  she was tested on April 25 and still hasn’t learned the results.  Reynolds’ spokesman (somebody had to take the fall!) admitted that some samples were  “potentially damaged.”   

Kim Reynolds has endangered the health of Iowans.  I have five words for her:  Keep it in your pants!  That is a metaphor:  I don’t mean to suggest she had relations with her crush.

And I have two words for Iowans: Impeach Kim!

Stay safe, stay home, and ignore the politicians.

Atlan, the Fates, & Pandemic Wars

First, what am I reading?

I have just finished Jane Gaskell’s Atlan, Book 3 of the Atlan quintet, a fantasy cult classic series that is a feminist answer to Game of Thrones. Gaskell skillfully employs tropes from myths, fairy tales, Shakespearean comedy, lyric poetry, and even “The Perils of Pauline.”  The plot elements are jumbled up to delightful effect. 

Written in the form of an engaging diary, this lively series delineates the spellbinding adventures of Cija, whom we first meet as a haughty princess in a tower who has been brought up to believe she is a goddess and that men are extinct.  She is delighted to learn men exist, but is surprised to be taken hostage by a blue scaly man, General Zerd, whose army has invaded her mother’s country.  She attempts in vain to assassinate Zerd, dresses up as a boy to evade him, has a reluctant affair with an attractive man who unfortunately turns out to be her half-brother, and attempts to save Atlan, a Paradisiacal continent that all the armies of her world want to occupy.  Yes, there are referecnes to Atlantis.   And there’s more, always more action!

In Atlan (Book 3), a more mature Cija finds herself the empress of Atlan, stormily married to Zerd, who has conquered the beautiful continent and become emperor.   When another war starts, he packs her off with her baby and some servants, but they are attacked en routes by wolves (who become magical allies) and then enemy soldiers.   Cija escapes to an inn where she becomes a scullery maid. And the inn is home to some rough characters:   bandits, buskers, and beggars  spend the winter there, until the thaw, when they go back to their prosperous business. So many adventures…I can’t recount them all…but it is the tone of Cija’s observant writing, witty, moody, and sometimes poetic, that keeps us going. 

PANDEMIC HORROR  I have always known that the Three Fates are not nice women, but I never imagined that they would cut the  life thread of  a security guard at a Dollar Store for saying masks must be worn in the store.  (He was shot to death.) That was in Michigan, one of the most beautiful states i have ever visited.

“Michigan seems like a dream to me now…”

What a gorgeous state, forests, lakes, islands…

What a pity....

“The Three Fates,” by Giorgio Ghisi (1520-82)