Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Teaser Tuesday (February 24, 2015)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading

Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teaser:

To be told repeatedly that one's future is blighted because of the possession of a silver mine is not, at the age of fourteen, a matter of prime importance as to its main statement; but in its form it is calculated to excite a certain amount of wonder and attention. In course of time the boy, at first only puzzled by the angry jeremiads, but rather sorry for his dad began to turn the matter over in his mind in such moments as he could spare from play and study.

(p. 61, from Nostromo by Joseph Conradqlp 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Classic Literature moment at the Oscars

I don't usually watch the academy awards, but for some reason I stayed up to watch it last night. All very much the same as most years, some amusing moments, some annoying, some poignant. Biggest surprise for me, Lady Gaga did an outstanding job performing a medley from The Sound of Music; Julie Andrews even seemed moved by it.

But the point of this post, there was a bookish moment. During the period when they show pictures of persons associated with the film industry who passed away in 2014, there was a shot of Gabriel García Márquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and other classic novels. Most of his books have not been adapted to film, so I was a bit surprised, but I guess he was a film critic, and screenwriter.

He was the first author I read in 2015, so it resonated.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (43 down 57 to go)

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain ~ Opening line of a 999-line poem entitled Pale Fire, which is central to the novel Pale Fire.

This is the first time I’ve read Pale Fire. I previously started, and did not finish, a different novel by Nabokov, so this is the first by Vladimir Nabokov I have finished. Pale Fire is a postmodern novel employing metafiction, in the form of a 999-line poem also titled Pale Fire.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a unique and complex novel. In attempting to simplify, I will likely only confuse. But it is my task, per my quest, so I shall try. At first I thought this was not a novel at all, but a poem. Upon completion, I realized that combined, the foreword, the poem, and the commentary tell a story in a unique way, or metafiction. As such, it is indeed novel in the most literal sense. In fact, you could argue it is the only novel, or at least the most novel of any of the novels I have read.

Not very clear, is it? The story told by pale fire is only realized by reading the foreword, and the poem, and the commentary. The foreword is not a real foreword, but a fictional foreword by the fictional character Dr. Charles Kinbote, a colleague and friend John Shade, the fictional author of the poem. After the poem, the fictional Kinbote offers fictional commentary on the fictional poem, by the fictional author Shade. All three parts are actually the fictional creation of Nabokov.

And a brilliant creation. I didn’t like Pale Fire at first, or even in the middle, but almost with the very last line of the commentary, it all became clear and I was stunned. Truly the most novel novel I’ve read.

This novel satisfies square G5 of 2015 Classics Bingo: Published 1950-1999

I’d like to offer a recommendation on how to read Pale Fire. Read the poem first in entirety, it is written in four cantos. It is quite clever, and small passages make sense of a limited scene or impression, but you will probably not sense a single congruous tale. Next read the foreword. Then read commentary that pertains to Canto One, and then reread Canto One. Do the same for Canto Two, Three and Four, and then reread the entire poem.

And you’ll have the whole story. The story of an exiled King living incognito as a professor at an American University, of the King’s childhood, the revolution, his escape, and the assassin sent to track him down.

A bit more about the poem: it rhymes. It’s a bit old fashioned, but I still like poetry that rhymes.

             One ear in Italy, one eye in Spain,
               In caves, my blood, and in the stars, my brain

Also, 999 lines might seem like an untidy number. The poem is unfinished as the meter is incomplete; line 999 does not have a corresponding rhyme. Kinbote realizes the first line is also the last line, or line 1000. The poem tells the tale of the exiled King, but as Kinbote puts it (and note the play on the Novel/Poem’s title), it tells the tale with: 
Echoes and wavelets of fire, and pale phosphorescent hints,... 
The author, Shade, also wrote parts with apparent precognition of events yet to come.

Lastly, a word about the title. There is an amusing bit of irony in the commentary, where Kinbote expresses his disdain for the technique of deriving titles from some other poetic work.
See Browning’s My Last Duchess. See it and condemn the fashionable device of entitling a collection of essays or a volume of poetry – or a long poem, alas – with a phrase lifted from a more or less celebrated poetical work of the past. Such title possess a specious glamor acceptable maybe in the names of vintage wines and plump courtesans but only degrading to the talent that substitutes the easy allusiveness of literacy for original fancy and shifts onto a bust’s shoulders the responsibility for ornateness since anybody can flip through a Midsummer-Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet, or, perhaps, the Sonnets and take his pick.

The irony is that the title Pale Fire is from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens.
The moon's an arrant thief,  And her pale fire she snatches from the sun (Act IV, scene 3). 
I'm certain it was intentional.

Excerpts from the commentary:

The summer night was starless and stirless, with distant spasms of silent lightning.

Vainly does one look in Pale Fire (oh, pale, indeed!) for the warmth of my hand gripping yours, poor Shade!

All the seven deadly sins are peccadilloes but without three of them, Pride, Lust and Sloth, poetry might never have been born.

Let me close this important note with a rather anti-Darwinian aphorism: The one who kills is ALWAYS his victim’s inferior.

Quoting Shade: Kings do not die – they only disappear, eh, Charles?

…kinbote means regicide in your language? Asked my dear Shade.
Yes a king’s destroyer, I said (longing to explain that a king who sinks his identity in the mirror of exile is in a sense just that).


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I, Claudius by Robert Graves (42 down 58 to go)

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

So, I’m Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I’ll be able to make people read my books now. ~ Claudius

This is the first time I’ve read I, Claudius or Robert Graves. The novel is written as if it is the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus also known as Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (hereafter referred to as Claudius), the fourth emperor of Rome. It is historical fiction as Graves did his research, so the major events, personalities, and dates are considered fairly reliable, while the anecdotal details and dialogue are largely fiction.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies square O2 of 2015 Classics Bingo: Historical Fiction 

The story begins in 10 BC with Claudius’ birth, during the reign of Augustus who became emperor after Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. The story ends with Caligula’s assassination in 41 AD and Claudius accession as emperor.

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains some minor spoilers, mostly events that are recorded in history.

Claudius gives a first-person narration of the lives of the first four Roman Emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and himself, though the narrative ends when Claudius is made Caesar almost by accident. The sequel Claudius the God tells of his reign and succession by Nero the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Wait, what? Did you know Julius Caesar was not a Roman Emperor? I didn’t. He was dictator of the Republic. After Julius Caesar was assassinated Augustus’ reign marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Imperial era. Weren’t expecting history, were you? Sorry, this book is history.

Claudius is raised in and around the imperial palace as he is the grandson of Augustus’ wife, Livia, from a previous marriage. He is not much of a physical specimen in the proud family. He stammers, is deaf in one ear, limps, has a nervous tick and is sickly. His family, mother included, call him Claudius the Idiot, or That Claudius, or Claudius the Stammerer, or Clau-Clau-Claudius, or Poor Uncle Claudius. That last one came from his nephew Caligula…he’s a peach.

Augustus is kinder than most, and Claudius says of him
I could never find it in my heart to hate Augustus as I came to hate my grandmother, for his dislike of me was without malice and he did what he could to master it…

It wouldn’t seem Claudius was destined for much, had it not been for several omens. The first being a prophesy in poetic form, from a Sibyl (pagan prophetess) that hints at some distinction. On another occasion, a pair of eagles fighting in the sky, drop a wolf cub and the child Claudius catches it. An Auger (diviner of omens) tells that it signals Claudius will be Emperor. Claudius sister Livilla, who was particularly cruel scorns the interpretation
Wretched Rome, with him as her protector! I hope to God I’ll be dead before then!

The Augur turned on her and pointed with his finger
"Impudent girl,” he said, “God will no doubt grant your wish in a way that you won’t like!”

As he grows older, Claudius is excluded from official events, as his grandmother Livia fears he will embarrass the family. Free to do as he wishes so long as he keeps out of the way, Claudius begins a career as a historian. He has an excellent mind, and is a very good researcher, translator, and writer. Few take him seriously.

One who does, Polio a noted and aged historian, advises Claudius how to live a long busy life with honor
...exaggerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head and twitch with your hand on public or semi-public occasions. If you could see as much as I can see, you would know that this was your only hope of safety and eventual glory. It’s not the last time he receives such advice.

It seems to serve him well. It may indeed have saved Claudius as no one views him as a threat. Claudius has two true friends, his brother Germanicus and his cousin Postumus. Besides Claudius these are two of the few “good guys” in this story. But alas, Germanicus and Postumus were viewed as threats by their ambitious relatives.

The Emperors grow progressively worse. Augustus is fairly benevolent, but easily manipulated by Livia who is ambitious and cruel. Near the end of his life Augustus has a better opinion of Claudius and tells him
Germanicus has told me about you. He says that you are loyal to three things – to your friends, to Rome, and to the truth.

Livia eliminates rivals of her son Tiberius, until he is established as heir to the empire, and then she poisons Augustus. Tiberius becomes emperor. He and Livia do not love or trust each other, but they concentrate on mutual enemies, real and perceived, without killing each other. Tiberius begins as a decent emperor, but by the end of his life he is cruel and depraved. 

But his successor Caligula is one of the vilest leaders in human history. He is sexually perverse, gratuitously violent, hedonistic, narcissistic, and probably outright mad. No one was safe from assassination, violence, or sexual abuse. One example: Caligula orders a family executed for some imagined slight. One of the family members is a young girl, who according to the law could not be executed because she was a virgin. The guards are ordered to violate her, so they could proceed with the execution. Upon witnessing this, Claudius says
Rome you are ruined. 
He also wrote of this period: 
I felt like a man living on the slopes of a volcano… 

Caligula is assassinated and the Praetorian Guard seize Claudius and make him emperor against his wishes.

I’ll tell you one thing this book did for me: it made me feel a whole lot better about the political climate in the United States. I wondered how a nation, let alone an empire could exist under such conditions, but Claudius himself may have given the answer. During Tiberius rule, when treachery, intrigue, suspicion, greed, lust for power, and numerous other vices were the rule, Claudius observed that Tiberius and Livia actually governed Rome fairly well, it was only the inner circles of politics that were a disaster. He described it this way: 
The canker in the core of the apple – if the metaphor may be forgiven – did not show on the skin or impair the wholesomeness of the flesh….But I was living in the apple’s core, so to speak, and I can be pardoned if I write more about the central canker than about the still unblemished and fragrant outer part.

My only complaint with this book, isn’t really a complaint; just a warning. It reads so much like an autobiography and eye-witness account, it is easy to read as if it is all genuine history. Claudius reportedly wrote an autobiography, but it is lost. Graves makes a compelling, but fictional, recreation. 


…there are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth. ~ Claudius

I believe that evil is its own punishment. ~ Claudius

Film Rendition: The 1976 BBC min-series is marvelous. Very true to the book and perfectly cast. There is a second part, Claudius the God, based on Graves sequel, but I have not viewed that yet.