Tuesday, February 28, 2006


“All the ideas that I had formed of the hours, different from those that exist for other men, passed by the Swanns in the house which was to their everyday life what the body is to the soul, and whose singularity it must have expressed, all those ideas were distributed, amalgamated--equally disturbing and indefinable throughout--in the arrangement of the furniture, the thickness of the carpets, the positions of the windows, the ministrations of the servants.”--Proust’s WITHIN A BUDDING GROVE

I’ve been slowly reading IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME. I’m reading the second volume, WITHIN A BUDDING GROVE.

Proust evokes the slow passage of time and the changes wrought, and the slight plot revolves around the love life of Swann and the narrator M.’s budding passion for Swann’s daughter, Gilberte, then for Albertine. Proust ‘s ornate sentences and elaborate descriptions of upper-class life have an opiate effect on me.

I’m occasionally bemused by Proust’s meditations. Much as I love the elegance of this translation (by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright), the experiences of the narrator, M., differ from my own.

In short, I’m not rich.

Life in IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME consists of lunch, tea, salons, reading, walks to the Champs-Elysées, going to the theater, and, apparently, worshipping furniture. Proust describes the architecture of churches and interiors of houses in loving detail, often matching them to his psychological and emotional states.

As a middle-class person, my pleasures are simpler.

What’s this about furniture? The exquisite passage describing the possessions of Swann, which goes on and on, slightly exasperated me.

“...and there was nothing, not even the painting by Rubens that hung above the chimney-piece, that was not endowed with the same quality and almost the same intensity of charm as the laced boots of M. Swann and the hooded cape the like of which I had so dearly longed to wear...”

I have known a Swann or two in my time and have admired their luxurious houses. But their Oriental carpets, windows, comfortable sofas, and paintings have never stimulated me to M’s pitch of ecstasy.

Furniture means nothing. A Barcalounger chair is more comfortable than an antique wingback.

Proust’s reveries on nature, madeleines, and reading move me. His passion for furniture does not.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Dante Translations

The most daunting task for the Dante reader is selecting a good translation.

I used to despair of translations. For years I read English poetry or poetry in the original of the few languages I’d studied, because I saw no point in reading unreliable translations. Stripped of its language, poetry is often reduced to a crude outline. And translators play fast and loose with the texts. Not that I blame them: turning an inflected language into syntactically rigid English is nearly impossible.

But I left school long ago, and at last it dawned on me I didn’t need to play by scholarly rules. I was unlikely to read THE DIVINE COMEDY if not in translation.

So I’m bending the rules, and it’s a pleasure.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I admire Mandelbaum’s translation of the INFERNO. Now I’ve begun Dorothy Sayers’s introduction to her 1955 translation of PURGATORY. She writes so beautifully and is so brilliant that I wish I had a copy of her INFERNO as well.

Although I read and admired Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries years ago, I’d been led to understand that her Dante translation and scholarship were out of date. The best writers never go out of date, though.

Her translations have been reissued in attractive new Penguins, and if they live up to her introductions, they’re well worth the price.

Here’s part of her fascinating opening paragraph:

“Of the three books of the COMMEDIA, the PURGATORIO is, for English readers, the least known, the least quoted--and the most beloved. It forms, as it were, a test case. Persons who pontificate about Dante without making mention of his Purgatory may reasonably be suspected of knowing him only at second hand, or of having at most skimmed through the circles of his Hell in the hope of finding something to be shocked at. Let no one, therefore, get away with a condemnation--or for that matter a eulogy--of Dante on the mere strength of broiled Popes, disembowelled Schismatics, grotesque Demons, Count Ugolino, Francesca da Rimini, and the Voyage of Ulysses, even if backed up by an erotic mysticism borrowed from the Pre-Raphaelites, and the line ‘His will is our peace,’ recollected from somebody’s sermon. Press him, rather, for an intelligent opinion on the Ship of Souls and Peter’s Gate; on Buonconte, Sapia, and Arnaut Daniel, on the Prayer of the Proud, the theology of Free Judgement, Dante’s three Dreams, the Sacred Forest, and the symbolism of the Beatrician Pageant. If he cannot satisfy the examiners on these points, let him be to you as a heathen man and a publican....”

Sunday, February 26, 2006


I'm a fan of epic poetry: the grand themes, the complicated narratives, the struggles of the heroes, and the imaginative descriptions of gods and mythic monsters. Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES, Virgil’s AENEID, and Milton’s PARADISE LOST are three of my favorite poems.

Yet no one writes epic in the 21st century. It’s a dead form. Poets presumably study epic, but compose lyric and narrative poetry instead. The epic form doesn’t suit the casual mores of modern times, I suppose.

This is my year of reading THE DIVINE COMEDY, a long allegorical narrative poem. I found three translations of the INFERNO on our shelves: Robert Pinsky’s, Alan Mandelbaum’s, and John Ciardi’s. My original plan was to read Pinsky’s, the most contemporary, but after inspecting all three, I chose Alan Mandelbaum’s translation. The language is lucid and passionate, the images vivid and horrific. And the lines correspond exactly to the Italian.

Much as I admired the INFERNO, I can’t say I enjoyed my tour of hell. Dante had a grisly imagination, influenced by his knowledge of the works of Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Statius, and St. Thomas Aquinas. The deeds of the sinners are often sinister, but the punishments are disproportionate. This is a 14th-century person’s vision of hell. In Canto 28, the Sowers of Scandal are perpetually wounded by a demon with a sword, and after healing, wounded again. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, walks maimed, split open, with his bowels hanging between his legs. His sin? Dante considered him a “sower of dissension.”

The last canto in Dante’s INFERNO describes Dis, or Lucifer, emperor of the king of hell, a three-faced monster with wings beneath each face, whose wings agitate cold winds that freeze Lake Cocytus. Dante is horrified.

O reader, do not ask of me how I
grew faint and frozen then--I cannot write it:
all words would fall far short of what it was.
I did not die, and I was not alive;
think for yourself, if you have any wit,
what I became, deprived of life and death.
--vv. 22-27 of Canto 34, Alan Mandelbaum’s translation of INFERNO

I couldn’t wait to get out of hell. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when Virgil grabbed Dante and clambered over Lucifer’s body and got out of there.

I’m looking forward to PURGATORIO, in Dorothy Sayers’s translation.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Gaylord No. 10

Few of the books I read are library books. This winter I've read SWANN'S WAY and Dante's INFERNO, books I've had in my collection for years. I buy books at library sales and used bookstores, shopping for books the way other women shop for clothes. I have so many books that, when I vacuum or dust, I get distracted by the fascinating titles on my own shelves.

Let’s see. Would I like to read Rebecca West’s THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER or Colette’s THE CAT next?

My local librarian doesn’t have a clue what I read. Since I own most of my books, Big Librarian, ha ha, can't turn over accurate records to Big Brother. Although I support my local library, I'm not a regular patron. I impulsively check out new novels, mysteries, and DVDs on my bimonthly visits. The librarian must think I’m addicted to the works of Anita Desai and Ngaio Marsh, though as often as not these books sit on the table undisturbed until I return them unread.

I love the smell of libraries, though--old paper?--and approve the mix of great literature, genre books, biographies, and reference books.

I recently checked out a 1960s mystery from the library. It had a shiny cellophane cover, the kind which crackles when you open the book.

It made me nostalgic. These days my branch library applies practically invisible, noiseless book covers instead of the old-fashioned kind I prefer.

I opened the ‘60s book and read the underside of the book jacket. It reads like a poem:

Gaylord No. 10

For Books 91/2 Inches to 10 Inches


The Trusted Source

Gaylord Bros.

Syracuse, NY

Los Angeles, CA



Insert dust jacket between the liner and the plastic cover.

Slide book jacket to top edge of cover, fold bottom of cover to the height of this jacket and

Replace protected dust jacket on book and attach flaps with tape or adhesive.

Call 1.800.448.6160 to Re-order.

Gaylord is still in business, by the way, 109 years old. Check out their website: http://www.gaylord.com/

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


It didn’t make the Best of the 20th Century List. Yet John Wyndham’s THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS is a great example of apocalyptic literature.

This 1951 science fiction classic, reminiscent of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, is creepier and more entertaining than Wells’s more famous masterpiece. Wyndham isn’t a greater stylist than Wells: his prose is workmanlike--no flourishes. The plot, however, is riveting. My spouse advised me not to read THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS at night, claiming it was too damned scary. But I was glued to it for a couple of evenings, notwithstanding my fears.

Wyndham begins the third paragraph: “The way I came to miss the end of the world--well, the end of the world I had known for close on thirty years--was sheer acccident: like a lot of survival, when you come to think of it.”

The narrator’s philosophical observations enhance this end-of-the-world narrative. While mysterious green lights flash and blind the majority of the world’s people one night, the narrator is hospitalized for an eye ailment. He awakens to a strange silence and leaves his room to find the remaining patients blind. He takes to the streets, one of the few sighted people left in London, and saves a sighted woman, Josella, who has been enslaved by a blind man to help him forage for food. The narrator and Josella, horrified by the chaos and riots, form a relationship and quickly fall in love.

Gangs and looters are not the only danger. Walking plants called triffids, once farmed for oil, have escaped and are killing people. Yes, it sounds far-fetched, but Wyndham’s long pseudo-scientific chapter persuaded me.

An organized gang separates the narrator from Josella. After a plague decimates London, he escapes to the country in search of her and other survivors. He observes:

“The sight of the open country gave one hope of a sort. It was true that the young green crops would never be harvested when they had ripened, nor the fruit from the trees gathered; that the countryside might never look as trim and neat as it did that day, but for all that it would go on, after its own fashion. It was not, like the towns, sterile, stopped forever. It was a place one could work and tend, and still find a future. It made my existence of the previous week seem like that of a rat living on crumbs and ferreting in garbage heaps. As I looked out over the fields I felt my spirits expanding.”

Wyndham is brilliantly imaginative. The atmosphere is definitely ‘50s--there’s a glum post-atom-bomb certainty of the inevitablility of man’s destruction, combined with a lack of hipness --but the story still speaks to us. Are we more or less optimistic about the future than Wyndham was? Possibly more, possibly less: I’m out of touch. Wyndham’s dystopian tale is also a thrilling adventure of survival.

And, I must add, it has been richly plagiarized by the writer of the film 28 DAYS LATER. No infected monkeys in THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, but both heroes survive because they are in the hosptial when other human beings are stricken.

The photo of John Wyndham was found at: http://www.billsparks.com/assets/images/Sci-Fi/wyndham.j

Monday, February 20, 2006


I ordered a madeleines pan from Williams-Sonoma. This sounds extravagant, but I couldn’t find one at Target or K-Mart. I was reading IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME and wanted a Proustian experience. But madeleines aren't a popular cookie.

Everyone knows the scene in SWANN’S WAY in which M., the narrator, describes the exquisite experience of eating a madeleine. He equates the taste of madeleines with joy and sensuality. If madeleines were the source of joy, I would bake them.

Proust wrote: “...one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petite madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence, or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. When could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?” (p. 62, C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation, Modern Library edition)

Making the madeleines was fun. I combined two recipes from THE GOOD HOUSEKEEPING COOKBOOK and THE NEW YORK TIMES COOKBOOK. First you melt one-fourth cup butter or margarine and let it cool. Then you whip two eggs with a pinch of salt until it peaks. Then add one-third cup of sugar, two tablespoons at a time, beating the mixture until the froth becomes a stiff peak. Then add a half teaspoon vanilla. Then fold in two-thirds cup flour and the margarine (or butter).

Fill the seashell molds of your French nonstick madeleines pan three-fourths full and bake for 8 minutes in a 375-degree oven.

My oven must have been too hot, because the fluted bottoms of the cookies were too brown (I turned them over when they’d cooled so I could admire the shell pattern). I also had trouble figuring out how to remove them from the pan. The spatula was too big, so I used a knife to scrape them out.

The overall taste was disappointing. I had wanted homemade Pepperidge Farm cookies. Instead, I had shell-shaped sponge cakes (which I later learned they were supposed to be anyway).

Next time I’ll try a different recipe and perhaps I’ll use butter instead of margarine.