Poetry

LES CHANTS DE MALDOROR BY THE COMTE DE LAUTREAMONT

If you have been following my reviews for any length of time you will be aware that there are many things of which I am afraid. Spiders! Fatherhood! Demonic possession! Death! Yet it is increasingly the shark that haunts my mind like he haunts the sea, silently slicing through the darkness until he is upon me, intent on ripping out my throat! He is a ghoul, shaped like a knife-blade. He is swift and agile madness, with the skin of an elephant and teeth like the sharpest shards of glass. How feeble, how ungainly man seems when compared to this creature, how unlike a God.

Given its awesome, horrifying appearance, and its savage power, it is no surprise that Maldoror – the sinister creation of the Comte de Lautréamont, who was himself the alter ego of Isidore-Lucien Ducasse – is an admirer of, and sees himself in, the shark. Indeed, he wishes that he were the son of one and, in Les Chants most [in]famous passage, he actually couples with a female, inspiring the most eyebrow-raising title of any article I’ve ever come across: Shark-shagger. Yet his admiration isn’t limited to these beasts; Maldoror [or the Comte] sings the praises of the louse, the tiger, the ocean, mathematics[!]…anything, it seems, that isn’t human.

Maldoror was, we’re told, once a happy, ’upright’ child, indicating that something [or a combination of things] happened to effect a change in his personality or character. Yet it is also claimed that he felt as though he was ‘born wicked’, and had tried his best to disguise his nature. In any case, one is led to believe – due to the sheer number of rants dedicated to the subject, if nothing else – that an ever intensifying disgust for humanity was at least partly responsible for his subsequent ‘career of evil’. Throughout, Maldoror rails against human weakness of character, hypocrisy, hunger for fame and money, etc.

However, while all that might be enjoyable [especially if, like me, you agree with the sentiments expressed], such misanthropy isn’t unique or even unusual in works of literature. What sets Les Chants apart, what makes them a still thrilling, shocking, and amusing experience, is that Maldoror doesn’t simply hate humanity, he wants to make it suffer, in imaginative, creative ways. My favourite example of this is when he breeds a pit of vicious lice, which he then lets loose upon the unsuspecting public. Moreover, he openly enjoys these activities, so that the book reads like an ode to cruelty and sadism. Children, one assumes because they are representative of innocence and purity, are paid special attention, with Maldoror extolling the pleasures of abusing and then freeing them, so that one is seen as both their torturer and their saviour. He also gleefully admits to wanting to slice off their rosy cheeks with a razor.

“One should let one’s nails grow for a fortnight. O, how sweet it is to drag brutally from his bed a child with no hair on his upper lip and with wide open eyes, make as if to touch his forehead gently with one’s hand and run one’s fingers through his beautiful hair. Then suddenly, when he is least expecting it, to dig one’s long nails into his soft breast, making sure, though, that one does not kill him; for if he died, one would not later be able to contemplate his agonies.”

Before continuing it is necessary to return to that comment, that assertion that Les Chants is funny, especially as a lot of the book’s content is, without question, unpleasant [sadism is, in fact, something that I find particularly abhorrent]. The reason I find Les Chants entertaining, rather than unbearable, is that they are, for the most part, [intentionally] over-the-top, bizarre and vaudeville; and they feature a main character so thoroughly dastardly, such that even the nastiest bits are absurd or almost farcical. The best example of this is when Maldoror is watching a ship sink and delights in the forthcoming annihilation of the crew and passengers. At this stage, the story is engaging, but not necessarily funny. It is when the hero decides to shoot a survivor as he swims towards the shore that the scene is taken into the realm of comedy [although you may argue that what it provokes is the uncomfortable laughter of disbelief].

sedlec

[Sedlec Ossuary or bone church, Czech Republic]

There are an abundance of religious references in Les Chants, and God, in particular, is routinely mocked and criticised and doubted. Lautréamont says that God, although powerful, is untrustworthy, and suggests that the creation of heaven, or the bestowing of any kind of eternal reward, is inconsistent with a Being who causes suffering, or is prepared to allow his people to be miserable or wretched, on earth; in one of the most memorable and amusing passages, he imagines God as a kind of blood-thirsty tyrant, sitting on a throne of gold and excrement, wrapped in unclean hospital sheets. Of course, for anyone who wants to offend, who wants to position themselves as anti-establishment, religion is an obvious, necessary target. An author intent on writing filth and getting up people’s noses isn’t really doing his job if he doesn’t blaspheme.

Some critics would have you believe that Maldoror is the Devil, which isn’t the strangest claim, considering how grotesque and seemingly immoral he is. Certainly, there is something of Milton’s charismatic Satan about him; and he does harbour ambitions of overthrowing God and taking his place, indicating that he is no mere mortal. Moreover, there is one quite chilling scene in which he endeavors to tempt a young boy into murdering someone who has wronged him. Yet I prefer not to think of Maldoror as the Devil, as something so easy to digest. To label him thus is almost a kind of comfort. We may not like the Devil, but we do understand him. It is, therefore, far more frightening to think of Maldoror as an ordinary man, although I don’t believe he is that either.

“I am filthy. I am riddled with lice. Hogs, when they look at me, vomit. My skin is encrusted with the scabs and scales of leprosy, and covered with yellow pus.[…] A family of toads has taken up residence in my left armpit and, when one of them moves, it tickles. Mind one of them does not escape and come and scratch the inside of your ear with its mouth; for it would then be able to enter your brain.”

So, what, then, is he? For me, he is a bogyman, a nightmare; he is Nosferatu’s shadow climbing up the wall. One might also call him an outcast, although I’m not sure myself how accurate that is [for you have to want to be part of something to be cast out from it]. He does, however, identify with outcasts, with prostitutes [with whom he claims to have made a pact to ruin families] and hermaphrodites. In any case, what most struck me while I read Les Chants is that Maldoror is essentially a kind of Mr. Hyde, he is the bad in every one of us, the dark side. Indeed, it is said in the text that evil thoughts exist in all men. This theory is given extra weight when you consider that it isn’t always clear who is narrating the book, that while it begins in the manner of someone [the Comte] describing, in the third person, the outrageous acts and character of another man, the majority of it is written as though the one committing these acts is the narrator, almost as though Maldoror has seized control, of the text and of Lautréamont himself.

WORSTWARD HO BY SAMUEL BECKETT

Second last. Nearly done. Say one. Say none. Till nohow on. At last.

At last. Say done. Say book. Say read. Again. Misread? Again.

A man and child. Holding on. Till end. Till done. Till nohow on.

Hand in hand. Hold and held. Not one. Become one. Then fade.

Old man. Up and stand. Up and done? No. Bit by bit. Old age and done.

Old age and done. On no more. On ground. In ground. In earth. Then done.

In ground. Now gone. Say book. Say read. Say read again. Till nohow on.

THE ODYSSEY BY HOMER

My parents split when I was very young. The arrangement they made between them was that my brother and I would spend the weekends with our father, but would live, during the week, with my mother. One winter, when I was ten years old, it started to snow heavily and gave no indication of stopping any time soon. It was a Sunday morning and my brother and I were due to leave dad’s and return to what, for us, was home. The snow, however, had other ideas.

To go home we had to catch two buses. The first was running late, but, otherwise, the ride, although slow, was pretty uneventful. We arrived in the centre of Sheffield sometime around one o’clock. It was then that things started to go awry. At the stop where we would usually catch the next bus, which was to take us into Rotherham, there was one already waiting. It did not, however, give the appearance of preparing to go anywhere; the engine was off and the driver was stood outside, smoking a cigarette. Being ten years old I did not want to ask the driver what was happening but I heard another potential passenger enquire as to when we would be allowed to board. ‘You won’t’ said the driver. ‘All buses have been cancelled due to the snow. I’m returning to the depot.’

At this a strange kind of panic overcame me. My brother and I were halfway between my mother’s and my dad’s, with no phone and our fare the only money in our pockets. Typically, my brother wanted to wait it out. The buses would start running again soon, he said. But I knew that wasn’t the case. The snow had settled, and heavy spidery flakes were still bombing the city. Waiting would only make it harder to walk; and walking, I knew, was inevitable.

To return to dad’s was, relatively speaking, easier; it was closer and the route was straightforward; but, as when after the split, when we were asked which parent we wanted to live with, we instinctively felt drawn to our mother, despite the inevitable hardships. And so, our decision made, we set off through the snow in the direction of home, following the route the bus would have taken. Yet time and distance, we found, are deceptive. What had taken 25 minutes on a bus, would, we thought, only take us an hour. But the bus wasn’t a young child; it wasn’t cold and tired and scared. On the bus, home had always seemed close, just around the next corner; but as we mashed through the snow it seemed impossible, unreachable; it seemed, after a couple of hours, as though it no longer existed; nothing existed, except the snow, which is all we could see.

Two or three times my brother fell down, and I, almost without stopping, dragged him to his feet, shouting encouragement into the snow. At some point night fell too; and still the heavy spidery flakes came down, punctuating the darkness. By this stage I could not have said why I was doing what I was doing; instinct had kicked in; one foot followed the other, regardless. I remember coming to a distinctive spot, a part of the journey that, by bus, always felt significant, because it meant only another five or ten minutes until we reached home. But on foot, mashing through thick boot-clinging snow, that last leg, which was up hill, seemed monstrous.

Eventually we made it, of course. As we descended the hill on the other side we were met by my mother and her then boyfriend, who, we were told, could not bear to wait any longer and had started to walk to meet us on the way. And there it was: home; which is, I found, not a physical building, but the look in my mother’s eyes as she ran to greet us.

cave-poly

[Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus by Jacob Jordaens]

The point of this story is to illustrate how universal great literature is, for whenever I think back to that day, which is something that I do quite often, I am immediately reminded of The Odyssey, Homer’s immortal poem. My brother and I did not encounter any Sirens, or Lotus Eaters or Cyclops, but our walk through the snow was, in principle, a fight to get home, to overcome adversity and return to the familiar and comfortable. And, on the most basic level, this is just what The Odyssey is about. Following the war at Troy, as he sought to return to Ithica, to his wife and son, Odysseus had stumbled from one disastrous situation to the next, until the great warrior found himself entrapped on an island for seven years by Calypso, a Goddess. Eventually, with the help of Pallas Athena, he is allowed to leave; and so continues his famous, epic quest.

“Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say
that we devise their misery. But they
themselves- in their depravity- design
grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.”

It may seem like an unusual thing to say about epic poetry, but there is a tremendous amount of dumb fun to be had when reading The Odyssey. The tricking of Polyphemus – who Odysseus gets drunk and subsequently blinds – is probably the most famous episode, but I also particularly enjoyed the beautiful witch Circe, who turns a number of the ship’s crew into pigs. To the modern reader, The Odyssey is a fantasy, having much in common with something like The Tempest or A Midsummer’s Night Dream or even fairytales; indeed, to highlight a more recent example, one can draw a number of parallels between Homer’s work and the Lord of the Rings saga. In this way, I would say that it has a broader appeal, is easier to digest, and certainly contains greater variety, than the brutal, relentless Iliad.

Despite the weird creatures, the faraway lands, the quest, and the prominence of a great hero, the heart of The Odyssey is conventional and domestic, in that it is concerned with values such as love and friendship and the importance of family. Again, this is in contrast to The Iliad, where honour and death and war are the focus. When Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, goes in search of news of his father he is given hospitality from a number of Odysseus’ friends, and their sons and daughters and wives, who are willing to do all they can to help him. Penelope, meanwhile, is, even after a number of years, and not knowing whether her husband is alive or dead, still resisting the suitors who have almost taken over her house. In fact, she even plays a trick on them, promising to take a new husband only after she has finished weaving a shroud, while unpicking it each night to make sure that she never does.

“Now from his breast into the eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms,
longed for as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
Few men can keep alive through a big serf
to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches
in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind:
and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband,
her white arms round him pressed as though forever.”

One thing I find refreshing about Greek myths, and by extension Homer’s work, is that women play such a strong role. It’s funny how hundreds of years later women would be seen as delicate, incapable creatures who need protecting by being locked up at home, and yet here their position, and personalities, are not dissimilar to the men’s. For example, Goddesses are worshipped and invoked just as much as God’s, and it is not the case that these Goddesses are concerned with flower arranging and children, they get their hands dirty, intervening and interacting with what is happening on earth, be that war or whatever. In fact, although The Odyssey is certainly Odysseus’ story [the clue is in the title], the second most important character is the grey-eyed Pallas Athena. Moreover, as noted earlier, Penelope, although upset that her husband is lost or dead, is no sap, while, conversely, the mighty Odysseus frequently bursts into tears.

If you have read any of my reviews you will likely know that, when approaching translated literature, choosing the best translation is, for me, of paramount importance; so much so that there are books that I haven’t enjoyed in one translation, and later really liked in another. The question of which translation one should read becomes particularly critical when one is concerned with poetry. Part of me, I must admit, is resistant to the idea of translated poetry altogether, because I just cannot see how it can possibly bear any great or significant resemblance to the original. Yet I think this is less of a danger with epic, narrative poetry; with something like The Odyssey, the translator has a story to tell, and as long as he or she tells it faithfully they have done at least half the job right.

For The Iliad I chose Robert Fagles’ critically acclaimed version. The reason for this is that I felt that his robust [you might uncharitably call it inelegant] style suited the material. I did, however, cringe frequently at some of his phrasing and word choices, which were far too modern for my taste. Therefore, for The Odyssey I went with Robert Fitzgerald, who, I believe, had a stronger ear for poetry and a more subtle touch. Yet, having said that, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Fitzgerald’s rendering to the first time reader of Homer’s work. I think the popularity of Fagles’ translations has much to do with how accessible they are; the truth is that most people don’t care about the use of modern language in an ancient Greek text; in fact, the average reader would likely prefer language that is recognisable to them.

In comparison, Firtzgerald’s rendering is more of a challenge. Don’t get me wrong, his work is still readable and is, for the most part, easy enough to get a handle on, but some of his choices are potentially alienating or disorientating. For example, character and place names are spelt in a way that most of us will not recognise [Calypso is Kalypso, Circe is Kirke, Ithica is Ithika etc]. In most cases, deciphering these is, as you call tell by my examples, not especially difficult, but occasionally the spellings are outright baffling. The worst I can recall is Sirens, which in Fitzgerald’s version is Seirenes. When one encounters something like this, one is, unfortunately, taken out of the text as you try and work out what or whom exactly we are dealing with.

However, as previously hinted, the strength of his version is that it stands up as poetry. I can’t, of course, say that it is the best or most successful version, not having read them all, but it is consistently smooth, beautiful and stirring. There’s one line in it, which is repeated throughout the text, about the dawn’s ‘finger tips of rose,’ that I was particularly taken with, and which, moreover, I have seen elsewhere translated in such disappointing and clunky ways.

sirens

[Odysseus and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper]

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the poem is the sophisticated structure. I expected that it would be episodic, and it is, but I did not anticipate a non-linear narrative. The Odyssey begins in media res, with significant proportion of the action already in the past. As we enter the story, Odysseus has been missing for many years, the suitors are surrounding his house in an effort to take his wife, and his son is about to begin his own journey for news of his father. Therefore, for quite some time the main character is off-stage, so to speak. When he does appear, he spends much of his time recounting the details of his life following the war in Troy. So, we only have access to the most exciting, and the most famous, episodes as flashbacks.

What this highlights is the important role that oral story-telling plays in the text. Throughout, Odysseus and many other characters tell tales, be they fictional or true, as a way or bonding or sharing information or entertaining each other, in the same way that we do now. I have always found this interesting, this seemingly universal, immortal desire to give voice to, and share, stories with other people. It is something, as the rambling introductions to my reviews attest, that I feel compelled to do myself. At one stage, Athena turns Odysseus into a beggar, and the hero creates for him an entire history, fleshing out and breathing life into the character he is playing. So there you have it: a book that shouts loudly about home and family and so on, but which, in a more subtle fashion, is equally concerned with, as well as being itself an example of, the joy and importance of communication and human interaction.

THE AENEID BY VIRGIL

Canto I

One day, although not yet half way through life’s journey,
I found myself in a forest dark, having wandered
From the path intended. Poor me! This wood, so foreboding,
Promised me evil beyond telling. So, must I tell then
Of what I saw, though in telling my fear would return anew?
With three savage beasts, at my heels attending,
I trod with heavy heart deeper into the leafy labyrinth.
I spent the night without even fitful sleep, hour upon hour,
My eyes open and turned towards the pitch-dark abyss
Above my weary head. Is this what death holds, I wondered,
To wander, hopeless and hunted, without our natural rest?
With daybreak I took up my peregrinations, until upon
A mountain I there came. No way over or around; and so
The beasts closer came, encircling, with stern attention.
All lost, thought I, but, at that moment, I beheld a figure
Of human form. ‘Save me!’ I cried, ‘Be you man or shade.’
Man I am not, yet once I was. Augustus I served, in Rome
I dwelt, as a poet. I, it was, who once famously sang of
Mighty Aeneas, the Trojan prince.’ What good fortune!
‘I too am a poet!’ I said, at which the great man chuckled.
‘Your poetry, I am aware of, but please let us not speak of it.
You know my name and my work?’ ‘You are Virgilius, author
Of The Aeneid, which I recently read, although you look
Like Italian midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo!’ The poet smiled,
And said, ‘I took the form of famous footballer, peerless Pirlo,
Because you know not what Virgil looks like. Now let’s
Take a stroll; no harm will befall you while you walk with me.’
And so we moved off, with Virgil leading; the way now clear,
And fear from my heart cast. ‘Where are we going,’ I asked
My guide. ‘Down we go, to a place terrible and frightening.
Many things you’ll see, and lessons learn, if that world
You can bear.’ ‘I’ll bear up, master, but please, do not
In darkness leave me. What’s the name of this awesome place?’
‘It is Book-Review Hell, son. Look!’ And before me I saw
A dark opening, a door, with these words above:
Abandon perspective, humility,
And conventions of grammar,
All who enter here.

description
Andrea Pirlo as Virgil, painting by Gustave Dore 1874

Canto II

Inside, in fear, I clung to the hard wall as we descended deeper,
Despite the poet’s promise that no harm would me befall.
‘Tell me, master, as a distraction, about your hero Aeneas;
Isn’t he but one-dimensional? No personality has he to speak of.’
The poet puffed with indignation, ‘What know you, boy,
Of personality?’ A low-blow, I thought. ‘Aeneas is a hero;
Don’t they almost always blandly embody traits like courage,
Honour and so forth? If one-dimensional bothers you,
I suggest from epic poetry, impertinent youth, you keep away!’
For the offence I begged his pardon. The poet softened slightly,
And went on to say, ‘He may not, on the surface, be compelling,
But of interest there is much. He is a man burdened by destiny,
With no control over his life. By divine will he’s pushed forward,
Away from his new wife Dido and into a great and bloody war;
And his brutal frustration is murderously poured out in the end.’
At that, reticent to enrage him further, I fell silent, despite
Being eager to speak about the structure of the poem;
How episodic The Aeneid is! How I often felt like I was
Playing Zelda: at every plot point, crucial, there is an obstacle to
Overcome, or a task to complete, to pass to the next stage!
O sage, do not think this is a criticism, if you are reading this.
‘Look!’ he said, to regain my attention, and before me now I saw
Many men, all alike, with dress identical, moving one to another.
As one spoke, the other listened, then stepped away towards
The next man, to repeat what he had just heard. ‘What is
This place?’ I asked great Virgil. ‘This is Plagiarism,’
He replied. ‘To avoid a stay here, one must never take
What isn’t yours and pass it off as original thought.’
I nodded, seriously. ‘Master, I agree, but some claim
Your poem is but Homer’s work, re-written.’ ‘Listen,
[P], I’d never deny the influence of the Greek genius,
But his work I used as a launch-pad for my own. I did not
From him steal; the aims, the style, etc, are different,
The similarities between our poems are superficial only. Tell me,
Have you heard Be My Baby?’ I told him I had, that I love
That song. ‘The drumbeat, how many times have you heard it,
In how many songs throughout the years? Homer is like that
Beat; he’s the foundation upon which many build their own work.
Now, come, let us proceed.’

description
Zelda, illustration by Gustave Dore 1880

Canto III

As we penetrated deeper, I pressed the poet further, ‘Master,
Would it displease you, if we speak more about The Aeneid?
At least allow me to say how much I enjoyed your poetry,
Your graceful lines, your use of extended metaphor and simile;
But by far my favourite aspect of your work was how dark
And gothic your presentation of events, your Cyclops,
For example, and how Dido meets her end. And what about
the work of Allecto? Pure horror’.’Now is not the time,
But, speaking of gothic, of dark and unsettling, turn your eyes
Towards what stands before them now.’ I raised my eyes as
I was bidden, and there I saw a room. From floor to ceiling,
From wall to wall, were crushed, or packed tightly together,
Men and women, with no space to move in, each groaning,
Some dead, some dying. ‘O master, what is this awful place?’
‘This is Personal Anecdotes, [P]; somewhere I thought you’d well
Know. Here one is forced to struggle for breath in a room
With all the people one has used in one’s reviews.’ I now saw
I thought, the error of my ways, and so asked my guide
To please take me away, for I could not bear any longer
To gaze upon the terrors of that room.

Canto IV

My guide obliged and swiftly showed me to the next,
A place where silence reigned. A relief for my ears,
After all the ungodly groaning. ‘Where are we now?’
I asked my companion. The room in which we stood
Was dust-filled, sported spider webs a-plenty, and on
Hard wooden benches sat large groups of men, all seemingly
Asleep. Without answering Virgil held a finger to his lips,
The universal request for quiet. But I could not hold my
Tongue, I was consumed by curiosity, and so I whispered,
‘Tell me, master, what goes on here?’ And at that the men
Awoke, and as they moved great clouds of dust ascended
Into the air. The men, in panic, screamed and shouted,
‘I can’t breathe, please save me!’ The dust, it seemed,
Was choking them; their eyes streamed, their skin
Itched, and loud sneezes erupted from all noses, bringing
Further dust down from the rafters.’These men cannot die,’
My guide proclaimed, ‘But suffer greatly, they must. The dust!
The dust! O until it again settles it will stop-up their throats,
Obstruct their breathing.’ I could not prevent a tear, for
So much woe had I this day witnessed. The poet continued,
‘This is the room of Over-long, Dry, and Academic Reviews.
There is no humour here, no lightness of touch; here you’ll find
the plot-summarizers; and tedious explorers of character,
Motivations, their words taken from University lecture notes.
Review, you must, The Aeneid, but beware do not devote most
Of your review to explaining how Aeneas is a Trojan, who
Fought for Troy in The Iliad, although he was only a small-time
Player; or how The Aeneid begins with survivors of that war
Looking for a new land on which to settle; don’t tell readers
All there is to know about their travels, their travails,
Or Aeneas’ ultimate victory over the Latins, or the short but
Exciting Arrans and Camilla episode.’ I felt as though I must
Interrupt, briefly, ‘Should I not mention how Camilla fights with
Her breast exposed?’ My guide laughed and smiled benignly.
‘I think that is fine; a quite titillating detail, excuse the pun.’
‘She is my favourite character, tits aside,’ I told the eminent poet;
For a female warrior one doesn’t expect to find,
In an ancient epic.

Canto V

‘How much more, master, must I endure, how many
Rooms are left on this tour?’ Virgil patted my shoulder,
Paternally, and said, ‘No more, [P]. The tour has come to
An end.’ I expressed surprise, although not disappointment,
For Dante had been accompanied through nine circles in all.
‘You are correct,’ said Virgil ‘but in order to visit the rest of
The rooms you must buy my tour-guide.’ I grimaced and mumbled
Something about forgetting my wallet; at this, the poet rolled
His eyes. ‘So, what now?’ I asked, for the subject I sought
To change. ‘Now, back you must go, to the world above,
To write a review for The Aeneid.’ I said I would most
Gladly return, but could I first run by him some more ideas.
The poet nodded, and I then commenced, ‘The translation,
Master, whose would you recommend? Latin, most no longer
Comprehend. I read Fitzgerald, and was satisfied. No
Lombardo-like modern phrases, no Fagles-mangling of
Famous lines.’ The poet chimed, ‘Fitzgerald is fine; I approve
Of his work. He did not impose his own style on my poem
Like Fagles did. No translation is perfect, of course, none
Can capture all aspects of my genius. But Fitzgerald, at least,
Makes no glaring errors or missteps. His poetry is fluid and
Most readable.’ I demonstrated my agreement and begged
To raise one last point, which I voiced thus, ‘The Aeneid
You wrote as propaganda, this almost everyone knows;
Your aim to tie the Roman people to the legendary Trojans.
Caesar Augustus is even by name mentioned, as the one
Who will bring an age of gold. And yet, I found it to be
Not as tub-thumping as I had expected. Of course, Aeneas,
It was clear, would be victorious in the end, but still he
Suffers painful losses.’ The poet replied, ‘Good points, [P],
You please me greatly, for I am a poet first and foremost,
political puppet I was unwillingly. But now I have my own
Burning question: how will you review The Aeneid?
My mind you must put at ease, and promise
No poem of your own.’

Yeah, right.

LOST ILLUSIONS BY HONORE DE BALZAC

For me there are a great many things that contribute to a rewarding reading experience, an almost ineffable series of qualities that a novel must possess for me to be able to enjoy it. Indeed, these things are what I am looking for when I am sat on my bed losing my mind for days on end, surrounded by shaky towers of books. Yet there is perhaps a single, fairly straightforward thing that elevates my favourites above the others, which is that I see something of myself in them. The more of myself I see, the more I cherish the book. I imagine most people feel that way. There is, however, one book that feels almost as though the author was possessed of the ability to see into the future, to fasten onto some kid from northern England and follow his progress, or deterioration, over the space of around twelve months. That book is Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac.

I don’t, of course, want to make the entire review about me [again!], but I find it impossible to think or write about Lost Illusions without referencing my experiences, without putting my gushing into some context, more so because the book is certainly flawed if I view it dispassionately, so let me tell a little story and get it all out; let my story serve as a kind of introduction. When I was nineteen I met and fell for a model who lived in London. Until I met her I was pretty uninterested in girls; I mean obviously I liked them and all, but I wasn’t crazy about them. Coming from where I come from, I didn’t really know that girls could be as elegant and beautiful as this particular girl. The more I liked her, the more time I spent in London until I was pretty much living there. For a while I enjoyed myself immensely; the girl was on the cusp of success and took me to lots of parties and events. I adored London. I was starstruck. If you’re a working class kid from Sheffield and you have this gorgeous girlfriend who is fawned over everywhere, and you yourself, for being with her, are fawned over also it is difficult to maintain perspective.

However, after a while things started to go awry. I began to notice that the people around her, and around me, who I had trusted were actually only looking out for themselves. Almost one by one I realised this. The scales falling from my eyes was a painful process, so much so that I almost went down with them. It was, I came to understand, impossible to have friends in London, or in those kinds of fashionable circles anyway, that the people who smiled at you were likely plotting to stab you in the back. Slowly I started to pick up their habits, to become cynical and two-faced and manipulative, because I thought that the only way to survive. Before too long I was living in a moral vacuum, where cheap sex, drugs and social climbing were the norm. It wasn’t until I returned home, back to Sheffield, that I came to understand how much I had changed. I lost something in London, something that, I guess, everyone loses at some point in their life. What had I lost? My illusions.

Lucien Chardon’s story arc is eerily similar to mine. He is a provincial poet, who moves to Paris, thinking that he will find fame and fortune. What he finds, instead, is that people in a big city will happily crawl over your carcass in the pursuit of their own wants and desires. He finds that everything, and everyone, in Paris is false, even if they appear absolutely to be the opposite. Lucien, like myself, is green and in the end Paris swallows him up. Of course, this kind of story is not particular to me, or Lucien, but you have to credit Balzac for nailing it. It shouldn’t, but still does, amaze me that human beings have changed so little over hundreds of years. The funny thing is that at the start of Lost Illusions I scoffed at Lucien Chardon. I inwardly belittled him, judged him harshly, and, quite literally at times, rolled my eyes at him. I suppose the reason for that is that not only was his story like mine, but his character also, and that embarrassed me. I even put the book down two or three times, actually abandoned it, because, I realised later, I wanted to distance myself from Lucien. Chardon is psychologically, emotionally, at war with himself. Part of him is thoughtful, artistic, sensitive, and another part is ruthless and ambitious and self-serving. This is what makes Lucien human to the reader; he knows what the right thing is, and feels drawn to that course of action, and yet, because he is so self-obsessed, is able to convince himself that what ultimately serves his own desires is the right thing and will, in the end, produce the best results for everyone, even if he has to trample on them in the meantime. This is, I would guess, why Balzac chose to call his protagonist a name that resembles the most seriously fallen, the most humanly flawed character in literature: Lucifer.

“I should do evil, with the best intentions in the world.”

Structurally Lost Illusions is really clever. In the beginning, Lucien plays court to Madame de Bargeton, the fashionable matriarch of Angouleme, and thinks, when he wins her, that he has done all the hard work, has won the finest victory, has raised himself to the top, only to find when they move to Paris that his victory is worthless, is nothing, and that there is a much greater, more difficult, war to fight: the fight to bring Paris under his heel. It’s a little bit like when playing a computer game and you destroy what you think is the end-of-level boss/bad guy, only to find that actually it was just some minion and the real boss is waiting for you around the next corner and he is fucking huge. What unravels after the opening section is, as noted, a tale of treachery and double-dealing of Shakespearean proportions, but I do not want to linger over all that. It’s great, of course, but I have written plenty about it already and any more would lead to serious spoilers. There are, however, numerous other fascinating ideas and themes present in the book.

Perhaps the most obvious concern is that of money; indeed it was Balzac’s most persistent theme, the one that found its way into nearly all his work. Lucien is of low birth, and so has barely a franc to his name. Yet his ambitions require capital. One needs money to make money. One needs money to grease wheels; one needs it to convince others of your worth. So it goes. As well as Lucien’s story Balzac gives some space to David Sechard, Lucien’s brother in law. David enters the novel as the son of old Sechard, the bear, who is engaged in selling his printing press to his progeny for an exorbitant price. David agrees, even though he knows the press isn’t worth what his old man is asking for it, and ultimately ends up in a dire financial predicament. Balzac, it seems to me,  was torn between trying to show the evils of money, while showcasing its absolute necessity. Many of the characters in Lost Illusions do horrendous things for it, yet the most kindhearted, most sympathetic suffer horribly from want of it. Related to what the author has to say about money is the idea that there is a tension between art and commerce. Lucien at one point in the novel has a choice to make between being an artist or journalist. One will require hard work, but will lead to artistic fulfilment [and perhaps fame and fortune eventually], the other will lead to quick and easy gains but artistic bankruptcy. The author appears to be suggesting that it is near impossible to be an artist in a world so obsessed with money, that the lure of money will lead genius astray.

The most interesting aspect of the novel, for me, is what Balzac has to say about old and new approaches. In discussion of the paper business and journalism, he makes the point numerous times that things are becoming cheaper, of lesser quality. Indeed, David is an inventor and he embarks on experiments in order to create a cheaper, lighter kind of paper. It’s not just paper either, but, Balzac points out, clothes and furniture are not as well-made as they once were, will not last as long. Even artwork is being downsized, made more readily available. It is a kind of cheapening in step with the times, in step with the moral character of the people. Even professions are not what they once were, with journalism being derided as a fully corrupt occupation, when it could, in fact, be a noble form of employment. Once again, I laud Balzac’s insight, his prescience, because isn’t this exactly how the world is these days? Everything is plastic, crap, will fall apart after a couple of days; and everything is up for sale. And aren’t the press a bunch of talentless hyenas, who praise and condemn with one eye on their own purse?

As i am sure is obvious by now I passionately love Lost Illusions, but, as I mentioned earlier, it is not without flaws. David, for example, is excruciating. He’s a complete nincompoop. No matter what Lucien does he stands by him, like the craziest kind of put-upon girlfriend. It’s fucking infuriating. No one, unless sex is in the mix somewhere, is that bloody gormless, that forgiving. Balzac took Dickens’ saintly women archetype and furnished it with a penis and even less good sense. Secondly, this being a novel written in the 1800’s, and it being Balzac in particular, Lost Illusions is a melodrama. So, if people constantly wringing their hands and bursting into tears every two pages over absolutely nothing grinds your gears then you might want to re-think reading it. The melodrama didn’t bother me though, it never really does; Shakespeare is melodrama too, let’s not forget. Finally, Lucien, we are led to believe, is a potentially great poet, even potentially a man of genius, and, well, what little of his poetry is presented to us is, uh, shit. That’s a bit of a problem. I did wonder if Balzac was portraying Lucien as a great poet in jest, bearing in mind much of his novel is concerned with falsehood and how the least talented often prosper [which Lucien did at one stage]. However, having read around the book a little, it does not seem as though that is the case, that Honore was in earnest about Lucien’s greatness and talent, even though to my mind it would have been better had he been intentionally rubbish. In any case, none of that compromised my enjoyment too much. For a novel concerned with writing, with talent and greatness, it is quite apt that it is itself a work of genius.

THE SOT-WEED FACTOR BY JOHN BARTH

Vladimir Nabokov called Don Quixote a story of hideous cruelty. While I think that this statement is horribly reductive and does the great and beautiful and moving novel a huge disservice, one can still understand where he was coming from; on face value, the knight of the mournful countenance is a mentally disturbed old geezer who is beaten and tricked and taken advantage of. There is a strain of literature, perhaps beginning with Cervantes, that deals with the naive or foolish being put through the wringer. For our entertainment, no less. Indeed, this isn’t specific to novels, or even fiction. Look at TV programmes like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and its ilk; the most engrossing aspect of those shows is the opportunity to watch a bunch of idiots [who, we at least like to think, clearly underestimated the situation they have signed up for] being physically and mentally tortured.

Other notable examples of literature as hideous cruelty are Voltaire’s Candide, Honore de Balzac’s Lost Illusions, and the novel under review here. In fact, The Sot-Weed Factor is essentially what you would have if you had asked Voltaire or Cervantes to rewrite Lost Illusions, which, like Barth’s novel, deals with a budding poet being introduced to the savage ways of the world. I don’t think that is a coincidence; Barth was clearly paying homage to these great writers, not only by stealing their content but, perhaps most impressively of all, by aping their style:

Is man a savage at heart, skinned o’er with fragile Manners? Or is savagery but a faint taint in the natural man’s gentility, which erupts now and again like pimples on an angel’s arse?

So, yes, like Candide et al, the unfortunate Ebenezer Cooke encounters just about every form of misfortune within the pages of this book. The Sot-Weed Factor is near 800 pages long and so the misery and pain he suffers becomes as attritional and relentless as the sort served up in some kind of art house movie [Requiem for a Dream, maybe. Or Miike’s Audition]. And, yet, I must confess, that far from eliciting my sympathy I thought Cooke, in the beginning at least, a near insufferable, gratingly supercilious moron, and cynically licked my lips at the prospect of his downfall. This is maybe where Barth’s character differs from the characters we have been comparing him to; one roots for Quixote and Candide because we can relate to their aims, because we find them charming and romantic. Lucien is not quite so likeable, but, unlike Cooke, he doesn’t consider himself superior and is prepared to involve himself in the world [which ultimately leads to his ruin]. Ebenezer, on the other hand, is largely unsympathetic because he is so precious; and therefore one wants him to fail, one wants him to see the light, or recognise the truth of the world.

And then he does, and, miraculously, my opinion of the book and the character changed. It was somewhere around the halfway mark I realised that I was for the hapless poet, that I felt for him and his plight, that far from making him bitter, or even more pompous, the disasters that befall him make him more humane, more likeable, and ultimately heroic. What is most satisfying, most original, about The Sot-Weed Factor is this journey, is Ebenezer’s transformation, which is actually the inverse of Lucien’s; the more awful the world reveals itself as being, the more he wades into the slough of life, the more Ebenezer is normalised. In Lost Illusions, however, Lucien starts out full of optimism and humility, only to become corrupted. I liked Barth’s take on this more than Balzac’s; I like the idea that the reality of the world doesn’t have to leave you cynical and mean, but that experience, good and bad, can actually help to shape you in a positive way.

It would have been nice to have ended my review on that positive note, to be able to laud John Barth for bestowing upon America a novel that fills in, to some extent, a space on its bookshelf. Indeed, he has, to a large extent, given us the American novel that it had until this point lacked [with the notable exception of Huck Finn]. However, there is one aspect of the book that caused me some consternation, and it would be remiss of me not to mention it. There is, unfortunately, a lot of rape in The Sot-Weed Factor, and I have a hard time understanding its purpose. Certainly, the rape isn’t gratuitous, but that is almost worse; it is tossed off so frequently and matter-of-factly that I was made to squirm more than if he had laboured over it. At least when a rape scene is gratuitous the author is saying this is significant. Barth appears to use it as a kind of comic prop, and that bothered me immensely, because never, in my opinion, is rape funny. Rape has no comic potentiality. I really don’t give a fuck if that makes me seem humourless or overly-serious. I don’t buy, either, the argument that the author was merely showing us how life was in the 17th century. Was everyone running around madly raping each other in the 17th century? No. Barth was clearly having too much fun, creating scenes in which women are caught  – arse invitingly displayed – in the rigging of a ship, for that argument to convince.

METAMORPHOSES BY OVID

Certain philosophers, including John Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, have claimed that one has to accept, to confront, the fact that one has been abandoned, and, as such, one has to take responsibility for who you are and what you do. I’ve always liked that idea, have lived my life that way as much as possible, and yet I find religious belief, which certainly allows for individual responsibility but which is the anthesis of a philosophy of abandonment, incredibly attractive. For many of the existentialists religious belief is bad faith, in that it is to accept, and submit to, an authority outside of yourself which provides guidelines [and demands] for your behaviour. Well, I’m not a believer, and never have been, but I happen to find that unfortunate. Bad faith it might be, but it would be a relief, would ease a lot of my anguish, if I could look at the world around me and see a plan, could envisage a plan for myself. I can’t though, I just don’t feel it; and then I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Metamorphoses is an epic poem, comprising fifteen books and over 250 myths [thanks wiki]; it is an attempt to chart the creation and progress of the world, in much the same way as the Old Testament does. Now, I’m certainly not saying that I believe, in the strictest sense of that word, the stories that Ovid laid down, all those Gods and shape-shifting beings, but the book did have a profound effect on me. Genuinely so. I think sometimes, and I’m guilty of it too, that reviewers give the impression of being permanently enraptured. Not every book we read is life-changing, or perfect or a profound and beautiful experience; some are though, and this kind of feels like one. As a result of my reading I’ve started to look at the world a little differently. Ovid’s poem explained the world to me, presented the world to me, in a new and exciting way; and, suddenly, it is a richer place.

Behind each of the things and creatures Ovid touches upon there is a story, and as I came upon these things in my every day life I was reminded of the applicable tale and felt, yeah, happier, somewhat comforted. It may be naíve, but it struck me that this must be what it’s like to be a religious believer: everything makes sense, everything is as it ought to be. Take one of my favourites, the story of Arachne. Arachne was involved in a weaving contest with Pallas Athena. At the conclusion of the contest Arachne hangs herself; Pallas Athena transforms the girl into a spider, her nimble fingers now her legs, to hang forever more. As a result of this story I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eye one without thinking of Arachne, without seeing her in it; of course, I’ll still  murder the multi-eyed motherfuckers, but my experience has [like Arachne herself] been transformed, and so I’ll perhaps do it with a heavier heart; I even feel a little less frightened of them.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that the only way to relate to the book is as a pseudo-spiritual experience. Metamorphoses is, more than anything else, great fun. As the title suggests, the primary theme is one of change or transformation, and within the pages we encounter people becoming trees, birds, bears, and rivers, to name a few; then there are the nymphs, naiads, and dragons etc. A great number of the stories or episodes are parables, yes, but one could justifiably approach them as fairytales. Obviously, some are more interesting than others, but all are short and readable; if you were to open the book at random I’d wager that you’d find something to entertain you within a couple of pages. I was particularly taken with Phaeton and his dodgy driving of his father’s [the sun god Helios] chariot of light [he loses control and burns half the earth], Tereus’ kidnapping of his wife’s sister [don’t worry, his wife gets payback], and Echo’s unrequited pursuit of Narscissus [yeah, so that wasn’t doomed, was it? You’ve got great taste in men, love].

It is, it’s worth noting, a pretty lusty book too, with lots of gettin’ it on between Gods and Gods, and Gods and mortals, and just about everyone and everything else. On this point, this is apparently what happens to you if you trick your father into bumping uglies with you:

Frankincense Tree1

Oh Myrrha, you dirty so-and-so.

There is also, by the way, a lot of rape to navigate, which, as is always the case, I could have done without, but which is, thankfully, never graphic. The women aren’t all mindless airheads either; Juno, for example, is one of the strongest, certainly most wicked, characters; her stock response to her husband’s [Jupiter] indefatigable infidelity is to try and ruin the girl[s] and, usually, the resulting offspring. Her behaviour would make Glen Close blush and could provide inspiration for a whole series of Japanese revenge films.

If I have any criticisms of the work they would be structural ones. In the translation I read the individual stories are titled, yet it is clear that Ovid intended his Metamorphoses to be read as one long continuous poem, that it is essentially meant to work as a complete piece. However, some of the connections between the episodes are tenuous at best and this may irritate readers who want a more straightforward narrative. Ovid will often tie one story to another by saying something along the lines of well, that happened over there, but over here something equally interesting was going on or after presenting the story of, say, Perseus he will write Perseus’ nephew had a friend, whose uncle knew someone who had a goat. Well, that goat was owned by… as an introduction to the next, and so it’s sometimes a bit like he was playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon. I didn’t mind this though, the [sometimes amusingly unsuccessful] attempts to link the individual stories made the book more engaging, satisfied that part of me that usually doesn’t enjoy short stories. On a side note, one could also perhaps credit Ovid with inventing the idea of stories-within-stories, as sometimes he would begin by telling the tale of one character only for that character to then embark on another story entirely.

I don’t have any other negative comments to make, except to say that there is some repetition. My biggest regret was reading Stanley Lombardo’s translation, which is just awful. His word order is at times odd and confusing, although I guess he would claim that Ovid’s is too. What I do know is that Ovid was not responsible for the use of slangy contemporary phrases, such as it got on his nerves or hot under the collar [these are my examples; I can’t remember any of Lombardo’s off the top of my head, but they are exactly the kind of phrases he regularly employs]. I was genuinely concerned that Jupiter was going to tell someone to not have a cow, man. Or announce that the girl he has just spied is well fit, or that the lyre playing is dope. Of course, some people may prefer modernised language, but, quite frankly, fuck ’em. Other than that, Metamorphoses is very highly recommended. Get Allen Mandelbaum’s translation if you can though.