Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Aging in Literature

There should be a campaign to bring Enid Bagnold’s novel, THE LOVED AND ENVIED, back into print. First published in 1951, it focuses on a group of friends who confront the difficulties of aging through work, art, outings to the theater, improbable marriages, and mutual support.

Ruby, who has retained her beauty into her fifties, is loved, criticized, and envied by her friends. At the debut of her friend Rudi’s play, she mourns the news that a 70-year-old friend has married his fiftysomething housekeeper. It leads her to consider male aging in general.

“Alberti’s news, the light on his lonely condition, had so shaken her that when she caught sight of Edouard in the stalls and saw him bend his head to talk to his crumpled companion she felt for him too a tender and speculative compassion. All her men friends were getting older. The whole band, like a wagonette of picnickers, was driving towards the edge of the world. It was not so much the extreme edge, however, that gave her apprehension, as the pity she felt for hearts inwardly taken aback by the arrival of age. Contrary to what was supposed, it was easier for women.”

Is the arrival of age easier for women? Not all characters in the novel agree. Bagnold describes their rage against the absence or loss of beauty and attributes some of Ruby’s generosity to her lucky appearance. Rose, Eduard’s mistress, mourns the loss of her hair: “Her turbans were to Rose what false teeth might be to another woman.” Cora, a gifted painter, tells Ruby bluntly: “It puts me in a rage to think you aren’t grateful to God! If I could have one day of beauty, if the dear God in his kindness would let me change for one day the impedimenta I’ve had to put up with for fifty conscious years!” A character who attempted suicide because of her deformed face ironically profits from running an exclusive beauty salon.

Yes, the men suffer. They seek female companionship in old age as they become lonely and regret lost opportunities to connect. On the other hand, some of the women grow more independent.

A fascinating, witty novel about upper-class friendship, aging, and gender.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Amitav Ghosh

A political novelist reminiscent of V. S. Naipaul, Amitav Ghosh describes in THE HUNGRY TIDE the struggles of the people of the Sundarbans, a group of islands off the eastern coast of India. Nature is their biggest foe: tigers attack men in the mangrove forests; storms and tidal waves destroy villages; women expect to be widowed at a young age. But government policy has also been their enemy.

Ghosh interweaves the stories of Kanai Dutt, an interpreter, Piya, a marine biologist, Fokir, a poor fisherman, and Kanai’s uncle, illuminating the political policies that have conspired to destroy lives and the environment. Ghosh’s description of the massacre of Bengali refugees in Morichjhapi in the 1970s gives us a terrifying glimpse of an incident virtually unknown outside of India, according to Ghosh, who says the only published historical treatment in English is an article in the 1999 JOURNAL OF ASIAN STUDIES.

The following two passages are not about the massacre of the Bengali refugees, however. One is about passion for work, the other about ecology.

In the passage below, Kanai, an interpreter and businessman, makes a fascinating connection between marine biology and translation while observing Piya, a marine biologist, at work.

“...she was back in position with her binoculars fixed to her eyes, watching the water with a closeness of attention that reminded Kanai of a textual scholar poring over a yet undeciphered manuscript: it was as though she were puzzling over a codex that had been authored by the earth itself. He had almost forgotten what it meant to look at something so ardently--an immaterial thing, not a commodity nor a convenience nor an object of erotic interest. He remembered that he too had once concentrated his mind in this way; he too had peered into the unknown as if through an eyeglass--but the vistas he had been looking at lay deep in the interior of other languages. Those horizons had filled him with the desire to learn of the ways in which other realities were conjugated.”

The next passage describes the dwindling Orcaella (river dolphin) population in the Mekong, where Piya had worked before journeying to India.

“The Orcaella population of the Mekong was known to be declining rapidly and was expected soon to fall below sustainable levels. The Mekong Orcaella had shared Cambodia’s misfortunes: in the 1970s they had suffered the ravages of indiscriminate American carpet bombing. Later they too had been massacred by Khmer Rouge cadres, who had hit upon the idea of using dolphin oil to supplement their dwindling supplies of petroleum. The once abundant population of Orcaella in the Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s great fresh-water lake, had been reduced almost to extinction. These dolphins were hunted with rifles and explosives and their carcasses were hung up in the sun so their fat would drip into buckets. This oil was used to run boats and motorcycles.”

The horror of the massacre of the dolphins, in a spooky way, parallels the massacre of the Bengali. Ghosh also captures the commitment and frustration of the activists as they attempt to rescue people and the environment.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


"And in my heart such envy used to burn,
If I’d caught some one looking pleased with life,
Thou wouldst have seen how livid I could turn."--Canto XIV, vv. 82-84, Dante’s PURGATORY, tr. by Dorothy Sayers, Penguin

The envious dwell in Purgatory. Oddly envy isn’t discussed anymore. (Sexual jealousy, yes. Sexual jealousy is a popular theme in films and novels. But other forms of envy seem to be considered acceptable in contemporary society.) Dante’s hard-edged description of this sin makes it evident why the envious spend time in Purgatory. Guido del Duca, a 13th-century political and legal administrator in Ravenna, speaks the words above to Dante. Although Guido repents, he admits the ugliness of his past emotions. One envisions envy surging up like bile inside him.

One can imagine envy leading to crime: political character assassination; the falsification of information that led to the war in Iraq. Of course, the sowers of scandal end up in Dante's hell. But doesn’t it begin with envy?

Perhaps I don't think about envy because I'm not a careerist. I opted out of the traditional workplace years ago. Envy flourishes when people jockey for position and power. People in competitive professions talk about “having to watch their backs.”

The poor envy the prosperous. That's expected. Yet I’d never thought about the unhappy envying the happy, which shows a failure of imagination on my part. Dante reveals the hideous nature of sin.

Reading PURGATORY is an astonishing experience. Dante is not only a brilliant poet but understands the gamut of human emotions.

The Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale writes in his introduction to the Everyman edition of THE DIVINE COMEDY: “It seems to me that if Dante is a universal patrimony (beyond a certain level of necessary study)--and such he has become, even if he remarked more than once that he was speaking to few who were worthy of hearing him--then his voice can be heard today by everyone as it never was in other ages and as may never again be possible in the future, so that his message can reach the layman no less than the initiate, and in a way that is probably entirely new.”

Saturday, March 11, 2006


The cover of THE HUNGRY TIDE reminds my spouse of LIFE OF PI. “Do you think they did it deliberately?”

I laughed at his acuity. “There are actual tigers in the book, though.”

Honestly, the two novels couldn’t be more different. I'm very much enjoying Amitav Ghosh’s THE HUNGRY TIDE, set in the Sundarbans, a group of islands off the eastern coast of India. Ghosh’s political novel is beautifully written. The complex narrative alternates the stories of Kanai, a translator from Delhi, with that of Piya, an American marine biologist of Indian descent who is studying dolphins. Kanai is on his way to a remote village to visit his aunt, the organizer of a women's union and a hospital. She wishes him to read the papers of his late uncle. At the railway station, Kanai spots an unusual young woman.

The novel opens: “Kanai spotted her the moment he stepped onto the crowded platform: he was deceived neither by her close-cropped black hair nor by her clothes, which were those of a teenage boy--loose cotton pants and an oversized ite shirt....

“Why would a foreigner, a young woman, be standing in a south Kolkata commuter station, waiting for the train to Canning? It was true, of course, that this line was the only rail connection to the Sundarbans. But so far as he knew it was never used by tourists...”

At the end of their casual meeting on the train, he invites Piya to visit him. And after she tussles with two thuggish men on a boat and is rescued by a poor fisherman, she is glad to have the name of his aunt’s village.

Ghosh gracefully interweaves an exposition of Indian history and politics with Kanai’s memories of his last visit to his aunt and uncle and Piya’s involvement with a fisherman and his son.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Remembrance or Search?

The following passage from Part Two of WITHIN A BUDDING GROVE is a typical Proustian meditation on memory,both poetic and philosophical. It also provides a strong argument for translating A LA RECHERCHÉ DU TEMPS PERDU as REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST rather than IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME.

Proust writes: “That is why the better part of our memories exists outside us, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate: wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which, when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source, can make us weep again. Outside us? Within us, rather, but hidden from our eyes in an oblivion more or less prolonged. It is thanks to this oblivion alone that we can from time to time recover the person that we were, place ourselves in relation to things as he was placed, suffer anew because we are no longer ourselves but he, and because he loved what now leaves us indifferent. In the broad daylight of our habitual memory the images of the past turn gradually pale and fade out of sight, nothing remains of them, we shall never recapture it. Or rather we should never recapture it had not a few words (such as this ‘head of the Ministry of Posts’) been carefully locked away in oblivion, just as an author deposits in the National Library a copy of a book which might otherwise become unobtainable.”

Reading Proust is by turns ecstatic, intellectual, humorous, philosophical, and boring. In the above exquisite passage he analyzes memory, its relationship to concrete imagery and abstract emotions. Then he returns to the story, to M.’s train journey from Paris, away from his habits and pain over Gilberte, to his stay in Balbec, where new scenery and characters distract him from his neuroses.

Sometimes I tire of M.’s stream-of-consciousness. I admit I’m occasionally as bored by M. as Gilberte must have been. At other times I’m immensely amused, as when he describes the snobbish clientele at the hotel and the deterioration of the service after maid Francoise makes friends with some of the hotel employees (she refuses to disturb them on behalf of her employers).

It’s a long, brilliant, beautiful novel by a neurotically attentive writer who can turn a piece of furniture or a train journey into poetic prose.

M is such a sexist, though. Only his grandmother and the women of her generation are portrayed as well-educated and sympathetic. M. sees most women only as sexual beings or, in the case of Odette, as a kind of ideal fashion plate.

Five and a half more volumes to go...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Sayers or Mandelbaum?

Sayers or Mandelbaum? Their styles are so different that their translations read like different poems.

Here are their two versions of vv. 1-9 of Canto IV of PURGATORIO.

Sayers’s translation:

When some one faculty, by its apprehension
Of pain or pleasure, grows so clamorous
That it commands the soul’s entire attention,

Of all powers else the soul’s oblivious--
Which goes to show how false is the surmise
That soul is kindled above soul in us.

Thus, when such things engage our ears or eyes
As bend the soul towards them totally,
Time passes, and we mark not how it flies;

Mandelbaum’s version of the same lines:

When any of our faculties retains
a strong impression of delight or pain,
the soul will wholly concentrate on that,
neglecting any other power it has
(and this refutes the error that maintains
that--one above the other--several souls
can flame in us); and thus, when something seen
or heard secures the soul in stringent grip,
time moves and yet we do not notice it.

My old Bantam paperback of the INFERNO had the Italian text side-by-side with the translation. My newer editions of PURGATORIO and PARADISO have only the English. I suppose the publishers are saving money.

I’ll return to Mandelbaum for PARADISO, as Sayers died before she finished her translation. A friend of Sayers finished the PARADISO and I don’t know her work.

It’s very, very wearisome having to depend on translations of poetry. Maybe I could teach myself Italian.

Yeah. But will I?


N.B. The line indentations of Sayers's and Mandelbaum's translations don't come out right on Blogger. Apologies. I can't fix it.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

"Twilight of the Superheroes"

There are no dull moments in “Twilight of the Superheroes,” the title story of Deborah Eisenberg’s new story collection.

The italicized surreal prologue reads like science fiction. On New Year’s Eve in 1999, people all over the planet anticipate Y2K, the widely predicted computer breakdown that fails to happen. Nathaniel, the author of a comic strip, PASSIVITYMAN, tells his grandchildren about the millennium.

“It must be hard for you to imagine--it’s even hard for me to remember--but people hadn’t been using computers for very long. As far as I know, my mother (your great-grandmother) never even touched one! And no one had thought to inform the computers that one day the universe would pass from the years of the one thousands into the years of the two thousands. So the machines, as these experts suddenly realized, were not equipped to understand that at the conclusion of 1999 time would not start over from 1900, time would keep going.”

Nothing came of Y2K. No disaster happened. Nathaniel, who had spent the evening partying with friends, awoke with a hangover.

But in 2001 Nathaniel, his friends, and his uncle Lucien, an art gallery manager who had found him a loft apartment sublet, witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Lucien, mourning not only his dead wife but the death of history as he understood it, tries to analyze the meaning of events and to brace himself for the future.

“But the future actually ahead of them, it’s now obvious, had itself been implied by a past; and the terrible day that pointed them toward that future had been prepared for a long, long time, though it had been prepared behind a curtain.

“It was as if there had been a curtain, a curtain painted with the map of the earth, its oceans and continents, with Lucien’s delightful city. The planes struck, tearing through the curtain of that blue September morning, exposing the dark world that lay behind it, of populations ruthlessly exploited, inflamed with hatred, and tired of waiting for change to happen by.”

The curtain imagery is reminiscent of the Iron Curtain imagery that dominated the ‘50s and “60s. It seems appropriate.

While Lucien tries to make sense of current events, his nephew Nathaniel, a newcomer to New York City, becomes depressed and loses his sense of creativity. Instead of concentrating on his career, he dreams about Delphine, a cosmopolitan woman who had tolerated him and allowed him to sleep in her apartment while the debris from the Twin Towers was cleaned from his loft. He must also leave the loft that has been his home, because the owner is returning.

A sad, moving, brilliant story, characterized by arresting imagery and insights.