Monthly Archives: April 2007

Introduction to DQ

I was hoping to post on Harold Bloom’s introduction to Don Quixote after I’d had a chance to read it this evening, but I’ve just finished it and I thought it was terrible, so I won’t be posting on it after all.  Has anybody else read it, from the Edith Grossman translation?  Yes, I’ll admit I’m tired this evening and not at my reading best, but still I couldn’t make much sense out of it and I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked it even if I’d felt more alert.  It’s rambling and vague and has rather too much Hamlet in it.

So, instead, I’ll give you a paragraph from Edith Grossman’s “Translator’s Note to the Reader,” which is short but much better than Bloom’s irritation introuction.  Describing Cervantes’s writing, she says:

[It] is a marvel: it gives off sparks and flows like honey.  Cervantes’s style is so artful it seems absolutely natural and inevitable; his irony is sweet-natured, his sensibility sophisticated, compassionate, and humorous.  If my translation works at all, the reader should keep turning the pages, smiling a good deal, periodically bursting into laughter, and impatiently waiting for the next synonym (Cervantes delighted in accumulating synonyms, especially descriptive ones, within the same phrase), the next mind-bending coincidence, the next variation on the structure of Don Quixote’s adventures, the next incomparable conversation between the knight and his squire.  To quote again from Cervantes’s prologue: “I do not want to charge you too much for the service I have performed in introducing you to so noble and honorable a knight; but I do want you to thank me for allowing you to make the acquaintance of the famous Sancho Panza, his squire….”

Tomorrow — to the novel itself!

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Eat, Pray, Love, II

I finished the second part of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love today, and while it’s quite different from the first (which I wrote about here), I enjoyed it very much. In this section, instead of seeking pleasure in Italy, Gilbert is seeking God in India. The section has a completely different feel to it; now, instead of practicing Italian and eating pasta all day, she scrubs floors, chants, and meditates in an Indian ashram. She intends to stay at this ashram only 6 weeks and then to travel around India for the next couple months, but after the first 6 weeks are up, she finds herself wanting to stay, so she does.

The section describes her spiritual explorations, her struggle with meditation, first, and then her extreme dislike of the ashram’s practice of chanting the Gurugita every morning. The Gurugita is 182 verses long, and it takes 1 1/2 hours to chant. People get up at 3:00 a.m. and get breakfast only after a session of meditation and then the chanting. Gilbert struggles and struggles with the discipline necessary to do all of this, and with her mind’s unwillingness to settle itself. This is how she describes her struggle with the Gurugita:

When I try to go to the chant, all it does it agitate me. I mean, physically I don’t feel like I’m singing it so much as being dragged behind it. It makes me sweat … Everyone else sits in the chant huddled in wool blankets and hats to stay warm, and I’m peeling layers off myself as the hymn drones on, foaming like an overworked farm horse. I come out of the temple after the Gurugita and the sweat rises off my skin in the cold morning air like fog — like horrible, green, stinky fog. The physical reaction is mild compared to the hot waves of emotion that rock me as I try to sing the thing. And I can’t even sing it. I can only croak it. Resentfully.

But she does learn to sing it. One morning she wakes up to find her roommate has padlocked her into her room and that she is about to miss the chant. Before she realizes what she’s doing, she finds herself jumping two stories out her window so she can join the others. There was something in her that didn’t want to miss it, that insisted she be there. When she arrives she tries to think of a way to make the chanting meaningful, and she decides to dedicate it to her nephew Nick, and this makes all the difference. The chant now becomes one of the most important parts of her time in India.

Gilbert describes a number of spiritual “breakthroughs” she experiences, times when she feels her mind finally quieting down, when she enters new levels of consciousness, when she has dreams and visions. All of this interests me very much, although I find myself, not suspicious or disbelieving of it, but distanced from it somehow. I am very interested in spirituality, but I don’t seem to be able to stick with any kind of spiritual practice long enough to experience anything similar. I’m not sure I’m the kind of person who can. But then again, I don’t know, and I wonder if I’m missing out on something wonderful.

I’m a little uncertain about giving meditation (or any other spiritual practice, for that matter) a serious try partly because, I think, I went through many years as a child of trying to participate in worship and prayer at my parents’ church and not succeeding very well. I grew up thinking I should be feeling God’s presence in church or in prayer on my own and sometimes thinking that I did, but then doubting myself almost immediately afterward. I spent a lot of time feeling like a spiritual failure, and one of the best things that happened to me was growing up and coming to believe that I was actually okay with being a spiritual failure, and that a life without believing in God or feeling God’s presence was quite all right with me.

So I remain intrigued by stories of people’s spiritual journeys, particularly those stories from outside the Christian tradition, and I also feel a bit wistful. There’s something in me that responds to these stories and that feels curious about them, and that also thinks I could learn a lot and benefit from picking up with my own journey. And there’s another part that would prefer to stay far away.

At any rate, Gilbert is now on her way to Indonesia for the last part of the book, which is supposed to be about finding pleasure and devotion both. I’m sure to post on it when I’ve finished.

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Rilke’s Duino Elegies

51tv9khwakl_aa240_.jpgI have read only the first elegy of ten from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, but already I’m glad I picked up this book; the first elegy is quite beautiful. Rilke begins by asking this question: “If I cried out, who could hear me up there, among the angelic orders?” The poem goes on to describe the speaker’s sense of isolation; since he does not believe that angels will hear him, he asks, “Oh who can we turn to, in this need? Not angels / not people, and the cunning animals realize at once / that we aren’t especially at home in the deciphered world / What’s left?”

To this question, the only answer the poem gives is this: “But listen / to that soft blowing … that endless report that grows out of silence. / It rustles toward you from those who died young. When you went into churches / in Naples and Rome didn’t their fates touch you gently?” The speaker is thinking about death and finds himself completely alone except for the “soft blowing,” the “report,” that seems to come from those who died young. He thinks about how strange death is: “Of course it is odd to live no more on the earth / to abandon customs you’ve just begun to get used to / not to give meaning to roses and other such / promising things.”

I think all of this is beautiful, but especially the very end of the poem when the speaker thinks about the purpose of suffering. He ends the poem with this question:

Is the old tale pointless
that tells how music began in the midst of the mourning for Linos
piercing the arid numbness and, in that stunned space
where an almost godlike youth
had suddenly stopped existing, made emptiness vibrate in ways
that thrill us, comfort us, help us now?

My book’s notes tell me that Linos was “a vegetation god similar to Adonis” and that the one mourning Linos was likely Orpheus, “the legendary first poet and musician.” So music and, by extension, art, comes from grief, suffering, and death. Music has made the “emptiness vibrate.” There is no angelic order to comfort us, and there is nothing but silence and the voices of the dead to help us face death, but there is, in consolation, the beauty of music. All this is a question, though — the speaker wonders if the old tale of Linos and Orpheus is pointless after all.

I’m not doing justice to David Young’s translation, however; he’s decided to break each of Rilke’s lines up into three shorter ones, the second and third sections of the line below the first, and each one indented (I can’t reproduce this on WordPress, or at least I can’t without driving myself crazy trying). Young says he was inspired by William Carlos Williams’s triadic line. Here is his reasoning:

As I began to work on the Elegies I found that the long lines of the original were difficult to reproduce in English (or, more strictly speaking, American). Read aloud, they sounded fine; the listener could follow in the reader’s voice the emphases, hesitations, and variations in speed. On the page, however, the long line did not readily suggest the “living” quality, and was one of the features most likely, I came to feel, to make the poem seem like a museum piece.

Williams’s triadic line worked for him because “a long line made up of three shorter, overlapping units makes an extremely flexible instrument of expression. The more I have worked with it, the deeper my respect for it has grown.” I feel that perhaps I shouldn’t like this because it’s messing so much with the original, but, then, translating a poem necessarily means messing with it, and I do like reading the poem in short lines; it’s got a flow to it that’s a pleasure to follow. Two other translators of Rilke, Edward and Vita Sackville-West, wrote this about Rilke’s lines, that they are like “an immense road, admitting many thoughts and images abreast of one another, and seeming to suggest movement in more directions than one,” and I think Young’s translation captures this well.

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Eat, Pray, Love

I’ve now finished the first of three sections in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and although at first I found the writing style a bit glib and Gilbert’s sense of humor a little silly, I now find myself completely won over. The book is about how Gilbert decided to spend a year traveling after suffering through a bitter divorce and a heart-wrenching affair; she travels first to Italy to find pleasure, then to India to practice devotion, and then to Indonesia to try to find a balance between the two.

In the Italian section, Gilbert finds pleasure mainly by eating the best food possible in Rome and every other Italian city she travels to. She also takes joy in learning Italian, first through lessons at a language school and then simply by talking to as many Italians as she can.

Part of what won me over was simply the forthright honesty with which Gilbert tells her story — she describes her horrendous divorce in ways that make it clear just how awful it was but that also don’t ask for your pity and don’t sound whiny or self-indulgent. I think her light, almost glib tone works better when she’s describing something serious; somehow the serious subject matter modulates the voice so that it comes across as brave rather than annoyingly light.

But I also like the ideas she’s exploring, and, as I understand it, the next section on prayer and devotion are even more idea-driven, so I’m looking forward to it. In the Italian section, she writes a lot about the pursuit of pleasure and why she and Americans generally have such a hard time with it. These passages really spoke to me:

Generally speaking, though, Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure. Ours is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one. Americans spend billions to keep themselves amused with everything from porn to theme parks to wars, but that’s not exactly the same thing as quiet enjoyment … Americans don’t really know how to do nothing. This is the cause of that great sad American stereotype — the overstressed executive who goes on vacation, but who cannot relax.

For me, though, a major obstacle in my pursuit of pleasure was my ingrained sense of Puritan guilt. Do I really deserve this pleasure? This is very American, too — the insecurity about whether we have earned our happiness. Planet Advertising in American orbits completely around the need to convince the uncertain consumer that yes, you have actually warranted a special treat.

I can be like this — not able to enjoy myself and relax and do nothing because I’m haunted by this feeling that I need to be using my time productively, need to be doing something worthwhile, need to be improving myself in some way. I am very much an inheritor of that Puritan guilt, the mindset and work-ethic that turns pleasure-seeking into a sin.

Towards the end of the section, Gilbert writes this:

It was in a bathtub back in New York, reading Italian words aloud from a dictionary, that I first started mending my soul. My life had gone to bits and I was so unrecognizable to myself that I probably couldn’t have picked me out of a police lineup. But I felt a glimmer of happiness when I started studying Italian, and when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt — this is not selfishness, but obligation. You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.

Isn’t that last sentence beautiful? Seeking beauty in life is not a bad goal to have at all.

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Too many books?

I may be getting myself into, oh, just a tiny bit of trouble. I had a nice list of three “currently reading” books going for a while, the Proust, Gaskell, and Brewer, but then I got the urge last weekend to begin another book, and when the Alberto Manguel one on reading didn’t work out, I decided to try some poetry. So I’m now reading Rilke’s Duino Elegies. There are ten elegies, and I’ve finished the first. It’s quite beautiful, and I may post on it soon; for now I’ll say that I’m enjoying the dual-language edition, with German on one page and English on the other. I can read a little German, so I had fun thinking about the decisions the translator made.

So that’s fine, not a big deal, but then I decided to request some books from my library, and one of them turned up much sooner than I thought. I picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love yesterday and couldn’t help but begin it right away. I’ve now read about 50 pages and may have trouble putting it down to spend some time with my other books. I find her breezy writing style occasionally just the tiniest bit irritating, but otherwise, this is exactly the kind of book I like — a mix of genres (travel, memoir, spiritual autobiography, food writing) and an appealing persona — she’s open, honest, courageous, and smart. I’ll be writing more about this soon.

Okay, so that’s a lot to be reading, but what’s really got me worried is that I’m supposed to be starting Don Quixote soon. I will be starting it next week, definitely, and I’m excited about it, but I think I’d better get a lot of reading done this weekend, or I’ll soon enough find myself in the middle of 6 books, a number I haven’t yet reached and won’t really know how to handle.

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Novels on novels, II

I’m a little more than halfway through Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, and although I’ve found it slow in places, I think that’s my fault and not the book’s, and there are just as many times I’ve found myself wanting to read on as I’ve been tempted to put the book down. All that’s to say, I’m still reading this book and am glad I’m doing so.

When I was reading Jane Austen’s Sanditon, I noticed that Austen had some things to say about novels and reading, and it turns out Gaskell does too; it seems to be the case that we can judge a character based on what Gaskell tells us about his or her reading habits. (And, really, isn’t that the way the world should be? That all our time spent reading would communicate volumes, so to speak, about what wonderful people we are?)

Mrs. Hamley, for example, is meant to be a sympathetic character; the novel’s heroine, Molly, loves her very much, and she turns out to be a peaceful center in the novel, the other characters missing her very much when she’s gone. And this is how Gaskell describes her reading:

Mrs. Hamley was a great reader, and had considerable literary taste. She was gentle and sentimental; tender and good.

I love the easy slide here from being a great reader with taste to being a good person.

Molly herself is not a deep reader; when asked if she likes reading, she says, “It depends upon the kind of book … I’m afraid I don’t like ‘steady reading’ as papa calls it.” But she does love poetry and she is capable of losing herself in a Sir Walter Scott novel (The Bride of Lammermoor). She turns out to be suggestible when it comes to reading; when she befriends Roger, another central character, he becomes her personal tutor, suggesting books for her to read and discussing them with her. When Molly and Roger are separated for a while:

He felt something like an affectionate tutor suddenly deprived of his most promising pupil; he wondered how she would go on without him; whether she would be puzzled and dishearted by the books he had lent her to read …

A little later in the novel another character accuses her of becoming a bluestocking and reading “deep books — all about facts and figures.” She responds that she has come to find those “deep books” interesting. As befits a novel’s heroine, she has proven her ability to learn and change.

Roger has a brother Osborne, and early on we learn that Osborne reads and writes poetry, while Roger:

is not much of a reader; at least, he doesn’t care for poetry and books of romance, or sentiment. He is so fond of natural history; and that takes him, like the Squire, a great deal out of doors; and when he is in, he is always reading scientific books that bear upon his pursuits. He is a good, steady fellow, though …

The family owns a portrait of these brothers showing Osborne deep in a book of poetry, and Roger trying to draw his attention to something outdoors. I get the feeling that Gaskell thought of reading and writing poetry as a feminized pursuit and therefore a little unsuitable for Osborne; it’s fine for Molly and Mrs. Hamley to love poetry, but not for Osborne — he turns out to be a disappointment, a weak and susceptible failure, not “manly” enough. Roger, however, turns out splendidly, becoming his family’s savior; his scientific reading and his love of nature bring him worldly success — he earns some fame for publishing an important scientific paper — but it also seems to prove he is, according to Gaskell, the proper sort of man, energetic, capable, outdoorsy, and scientific, but not poetic. In her “deep” reading of facts and figures, Molly may be venturing a bit into “male” territory, but she is doing so with a man’s guidance, and so this doesn’t really disrupt the proper gender roles.

Molly has a stepmother, Mrs. Gibson, who is — no surprise! — a major pain. And this is what Gaskell says about her reading:

About novels and poetry, travels and gossip, personal details, or anecdotes of any kind, she always made exactly the remarks which are expected from an agreeable listener; and she had sense enough to confine herself to those short expressions of wonder, admiration, and astonishment, which may mean anything, when more recondite things were talked about.

No, she is not known for her intelligence or her insight. She also reads light novels, ones, not at all like Wives and Daughters, that are meant merely to pass the time, “the dirty dog’s-eared delightful novel[s] from the Ashcombe circulating library, the leaves of which she turned over with a pair of scissors.” She considers these novels “little indulgences that were innocent enough in themselves, but which [her] former life had caused her to look upon as sins to be concealed.”

Mrs. Gibson’s daughter, Cynthia, who is a sympathetic character but not entirely trustworthy and with a dark secret in her past (at least I think so — it hasn’t been revealed yet, but there are hints …), turns out not to be much of a reader; she prefers millinery to reading, we learn. Mrs. Gibson tries to get Cynthia to undertake some “improving reading,” but her motives for this are bad ones, and neither Mrs. Gibson or Cynthia persist in this quest to improve Cynthia’s mind.

So, I’m fascinated by the way one’s reading is a clear guide to one’s character in this novel, and the way reading gets gendered. I shall have to see how all this plays out as the novel continues …

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My Don Quixote reading schedule

Cross-posted at Tilting at Windmills

My thought for the Tilting at Windmills blog was that people would choose their own reading schedules to finish the book whenever works best for them, but I also thought I’d share my own plans, and perhaps participants can post theirs in the comments or in a separate post.  Or not — we’re all about flexibility here.  But for me, setting a goal and making it public works pretty well.  It’s worked very well for my Proust reading — I’m still reading about 50 pages of Proust a week and I have been since last July.  I suppose I’m nothing if not methodical.

So I thought 50 pages a week of Don Quixote would work well too; with my edition (the Edith Grossman one) of about 950 pages of text and my plan to begin reading around May 1st, that would take me up into the first week in September.  For long novels that pace works well for me because it gives me plenty of time for other books so I don’t get to feeling bogged down, and it keeps me immersed enough in the book to stay interested and to feel I’m making steady progress.

So — feel free to post whenever you like and on whatever you like, as long as it’s at least loosely DQ-related, and let’s have fun!

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