Sunday, November 30, 2014

Avianus tranlated by David R. Slavitt

We're all familiar with Aesop's fables but I had never heard of Avianus before so when I came across a copy I snatched it up and read it.

The Roman writer Avianus lived four centuries after Christ. By this time the Roman Empire had become the Holy Roman Empire, but Avianus was still a pagan and his fables reflect his personal beliefs.  His stories are a little longer than Aesop's but never more than a page long and are as often as not about people as animals and their dealings with each other as well as the usual interference-for good or bad- with the ancient Roman gods.  I did not realize how tenaciously some people still held on to those pagan beliefs, even centuries into the A.D. years.

The stories are pithy and can be extremely sarcastic at times.  They are not really moral lessons for children so much as social commentaries for adults.  They can also be witty and poignant.  One such fable is of a cute baby contest that Jupiter held on earth.  For a joke he chose the monkey's baby.  Everyone laughed at such an ugly little baby being chosen.  The mother monkey cherished her baby all the more, proclaiming Jupiter's judgement as affirmation of her own love for her child.  Everyone laughed even more but then fell silent "in awe of such blind passion."

Another fable goes as such:

Ooh la, la!  The leopard preens, 
glides along, sashays, parades
its grand rosettes. No jungle scene's
so grand as when a leopard's there,
with its gorgeous pelt and that debonaire
bon ton.  "The lion's beauty fades,

to a tawny insignificance
in comparison," the beast maintains,
so pleased with himself.  But then, by chance, 
a fox pops up to say, "Come, come, 
you're handsome enough.  But dumb, dumb, dumb!
What are good looks compared with brains?"

The Translator David R. Slavitt takes some license in translating the fables and putting them in poem form.  He also doesn't shy from using modern vernacular and idioms.  So unless we can read Latin we'll never know how accurate his translation is, however, I think the spirit of Avianus' work must come through.  At least someone's quick, penetrating spirit does.  We'll have to trust Slavitt that it is Avianus' wit and candour but perhaps colored by Slavitt's own.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times by George Sayer

Unlike the biography of Alistair McGrath, this biography was written by a former student and personal friend of Lewis.  No doubt because of that, the tone is much softer, less clinical, but fortunately not tainted with any subjective sentimentality.

Sayer studied under Lewis at Oxford where he also knew J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was a member of his inner circle and was his friend throughout his life.

While Sayer gives a lot of the same information as any other biographer as far as a chronology of his life goes, he also gives a much more personal touch to those facts.  His writing is much more like a story narrative so one feels as though they are reading a novel than nonfiction.

Sayers goes farther back into Lewis' ancestry.  He allows us to see what sort of families produced his parents, going back to the great grandfather and how they came to Ulster.

That is one thing this biography have shown me is that Lewis was an Irishman.  He seems so English and I suppose it is because he was a Protestant but also because at such a young age he moved to Oxford and lived there the rest of his life.  Unlike other Irish writers, such as Yeats, Joyce or Heaney, we get no Irish flavor in his writing.

Lewis' mother was kind and loving.  Lewis and his brother Warnie would refer to each other as "Archpigiebotham" (Warnie) or "APB" and "Smallpigiebotham" (Jack) or "SPB" because their mother would often warn them that if they didn't improve their behavior she would "spank them on their piggiebottoms." They used these nicknames for the rest of their lives.  Warren would refer to Jack as his "beloved SPB."  Both she and their father read voraciously to them.  Books spilled out of every nook and cranny.

A cute exchange with his father is recorded.  Jack sat down in front of his father in his study and informed him that he had a prejudice against the French.  When his father asked why, Jack crossed his legs put his fingertips together and said, "If I knew why, it would not be a prejudice."

When Lewis was ten his mother died of abdominal cancer.  His father, who had just lost his father and brother, had no emotional endurance for two young boys.  They were carted off to boarding school in England.  This tearing away from his family, while still in the throes of grief to go to another country far from home to a boarding school that proved to pattern itself after Oliver Twist, was instrumental in Lewis rejecting God.

Unlike McGrath, Sayers does not believe that Lewis was too shy or sensitive and needed to "buck up".  He sites sources that show the headmaster at this school was not only abusive, but insane.  This all played major roles in forming Lewis' beliefs.

Luckily he eventually wound up with a personal tutor, Kirkpatrick.  This was instrumental in developing Lewis' writing skills.  Eventually he wound up at Oxford but how he gained entrance is interesting.

In order to be admitted into Oxford, one has to pass not only the exams in subjects you excel at, such as languages, you had to pass all exams.  Lewis was hopeless as mathmatics and his scores prevented him entrance.  However, by serving in the military during WWI, he became exempt from passing the math tests and was admitted after all.  Can you imagine one of England's most profound writers and apologists almost not making it because he was no good at math?  It gives me encouragement since I am a math retard.

As with McGrath's biography, we learn of Lewis' relationship with Mrs. Moore, their residence at the Kilns, although Sayers plainly states that whether there was anything other than a mother- son relationship is a mystery.  He might have been covering up or he might be simply telling what he knows.

A couple of chapters are devoted to his war work, his radio broadcasts and also his writing of the Narnia Chronicles.

Sayers descriptions of Joy Davidman differ somewhat than McGrath's as well.  According to Sayers, Jack did develop love for Joy and he didn't marry her against his will, only to discover true love at the end.  They had a wonderful, loving relationship, even though she was a typical loud, brassy New Yorker.  Sayers goes into more detail of the development of that relationship and focuses a little more on Joy's desperate love for Jack.

We all know of Lewis' conversion which is faithfully recorded and the rest of his life.  What I enjoyed about this biography was the obvious warmth and, yes, joy that it exudes as it should when one is writing about a beloved friend.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Week Like Any Other Novellas and Stories by Natalya Baranskaya

Natalya Baranskaya is considered one of the Soviet Union's finest short story writers.  Most of her work was written in the 1960's but were eventually translated into English after the Soviet's fall.

A Week Like Any Other: Novellas and Stories is a collection of short stories. They are mostly about women and their lives in Soviet Russia.  It's important to remember she wrote these stories and they were popular in the Soviet Union during her lifetime.  Therefore don't expect any commentary on the harshness of living under a totalitarian regime.

Nevertheless, she does manage to convey the challenges people had trying to combine the ingredients every human wants for a meaningful life:  work, family, friendships.  Her writing is fluid and funny at times but mostly poignant.  It occurred to me that these stories couldn't really be classified as propaganda pieces because they don't spout tired cliches about how blissfully utopian life is under Communist rule.  I wonder if because, living inside that world, Branskaya thought she was presenting an idealistic life without realizing how hard that life was compared to Western countries.

In the first story, the best one I think, A Week Like Any Other, the narrator, a young woman, describes each day and hour of her week.  The pressures of getting up, getting the kids ready for school, breakfast for everyone, rush to work, rush to lunch, rush home to make a late dinner, get kids to bed, start over.

Inside that framework we see the woman's relationship with her husband --strained-- her children--neglected, although no more than any child who spends most of his childhood in daycare--her co-workers, the pressures to succeed and not miss any work regardless of her health or children sick.  She stays late, perpetually trying to get on top of her work, never quite succeeding.  

The story sounds tedious, but it is really quite interesting.  You are the invisible party to her life.  Sympathizing with her kids as they cry for her, hoping she and her husband stick it out, hoping she gets her work done and not get fired.

The other stories are shorter and perhaps not as interesting other than they show life in the Soviet Union.  One of the stories is much like the first one except it is told from a man's perspective.  A man who is trying to get ahead at work but is having to kow tow to ambitious bosses, watch what he says or how he reacts so there isn't a government investigation, and finally having to hide in exile until different leaders come into power that make it safe for him to return to work. 

  The government inspectors are not presented as people to be feared but rather as father figures who "take care" of everyone to make things right.  Nevertheless, there is an element of fear in knowing that there is an umbrella of authority watching every trite thing you do.  

I'm surprised the author got away with exposing such obvious intrusive tactics at the hands of the government.  Maybe this kind of intrusion was so normal under Soviet policy that it occurred to neither her or government censors there was anything wrong or abnormal about it.

What disturbed me was noticing how not very different life in America has become with all our "accountability" to government regulations.  We're not too far behind totalitarian regimes.

The remaining stories are about young women in love, not always requited, a young girl who wants to live with her father instead of her mother until she realizes he has mistresses, and a girl with a bad reputation in her village and how she copes with it, also how she causes it.

Each story provides a colorful view of Russian/ Soviet culture.  I don't know if I would read anything else by the author but I did enjoy this collection. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories edited by Alan Ryan

As I said in the previous post, even though these book reviews are being published in November, these are the stories I read throughout the month of October.  Autumn is the perfect season for scary stories, although I suppose the dark wintry days and nights in January would also suffice.

The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories is another anthology of stories dating from 1816 (The Fragment of a Novel by Lord Byron) to 1984 (Bite Me Not by Tanith Lee).  If one starts reading at the beginning and works his way to the end, he can see a transformation of the idea of Vampirism and the stories change accordingly.

Lord Byron wrote his fragment as a part of the contest that also included Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.  Whether Byron's story would have ultimately beat Shelly's will never be known because he quickly lost interest in writing it and took off for Europe with his companion, John Polidori.  This friendship deteriorated as well and Polideri and Byron parted ways on such acrimonious terms that Polideri wrote a Vampire story to its completion and to anyone who has read it, it's obvious who the Vampire is.  Hint:  Mysterious aristocrat appears at all the wealthy parties, seduces woman, and destroys their lives.  Not because he's a playboy, but because he's a Vampire(!) and sucks their blood for a living.

This collection also includes Good Lady Ducayne, Carmella, For the Blood is the Life as well as M.R. James An Episode of Cathedral History.  All of which deservedly have their place in the Hall of Greatest Vampire Stories Ever Told and been reviewed in my previous post.  That is the difficulty with anthologies.  One tends to come across the same tight circle of stories by the same authors.

 M.R. James' in 1919.  After that there is a jump of some years to 1931 and the stories develop into Science Fiction.  No longer is the Vampire simply evil.  He now is a predator, perhaps from another planet or a spiritual predator.  This last type is in perfect keeping with the older ones that were allegories of good vs. evil or the Christian being attacked by Satan.

The best example of the latter is The Mindworm (1950) by C. M. Kornbluth.  His vampire feeds off people's thoughts but is waylaid by a surprisingly old fashioned method. An example of the former would be Shambleau.  It takes place on another planet where a spaceman Spiff type character meets a strange woman creature who turns out to have her roots in the legend of Medusa.

I must confess the last few stories didn't interest me at all.  They were written after 1950 and have a definite modernist viewpoint.  By that I mean that the vampire is no longer a bad person.  Oh, he or she still preys on people, sucks their blood and all that but now it is an expression of their love. Or simply their nature and since right and wrong doesn't exist anymore, who are we to judge? The straw characters who are set up to judge in these stories are very stupid, narrow minded people indeed.  At least that's how they're made to look in these stories.

  I think one of the best stories is Carl Jacobi's Revelations in Black.  A man finds an old book in a bookstore, brings it back to his apartment to read it but finds that by reading it, he has unbound the "people" that were imprisoned by it.  I like the gradual revelations the story produces and the imagery it provides.  The man's escape is very narrow and exciting for the reader.

The editor provides a brief biography of each author and other works they wrote.  As a result I've enlarged my library-especially my Kindle- with more collections by these same writers.  The good news is because of the age of these writers most of their works are in public domain.