Sunday, December 22, 2013

The True Story of the Novel (6): The Chinese Novel

Yao Yuxin: Hsiang-yun among the flowers (1978)
[from Cao Xueqin: Hung-lou Meng, chapter 63]

They went out to look, and sure enough found Hsiang-yun lying on a stone bench in a quiet spot behind an artificial mountain. She was sound asleep and covered with peony petals, which had floated over from all sides to scatter, red and fragrant, over her face and clothes. Her fan, dropped to the ground, was half-buried in fallen blossoms, too, while bees and butterflies were buzzing and flirting around her. And she had wrapped up some peony petals in her handkerchief to serve as a pillow. They all thought she looked both sweet and comical..."
– Tsao Hsueh-chin, A Dream of Red Mansions, trans. Yang Hsien Yi & Gladys Yang (1978): vol. II, p. 364.

I've already had a fair amount to say on this subject at various times. My essay "In Love with the Chinese Novel: A Voyage around the Hung Lou Meng" appeared in brief 37 (2009): 10-28 (after being long-listed for the Landfall Essay Prize). I also put up a kind of bibliographical post with illustrations of classic Chinese novels here on the Imaginary Museum at roughly the same time.

If it does interest you, I recommend that you check out one or both of these pieces. There doesn't seem much point in repeating here what I've already written there. The topic is, however, a vast one, so I'm certainly not afraid of running out of things to talk about.

To summarise briefly, traditional Chinese critics have identified a canon of four - and only four - Great Classical Novels:

    The Three Kingdoms: The Peach Garden Oath (1591)

  1. Luo Guanzhong: Sānguó Yǎnyì [The Three Kingdoms] (c.1400)

  2. The Water Margin: Lu Zhishen uproots a tree (19th century)

  3. Shi Nai'an: Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn [The Water Margin] (late 14th century)

  4. Journey to the West: The Four Pilgrims (Summer Palace, Beijing)

  5. Wu Cheng'en: Xī Yóu Jì [Journey to the West] (1592)

  6. Dream of the Red Chamber: The Crab-Flower Club (19th century)

  7. Cao Xue Qin: Hóng Lóu Mèng [The Red Chamber Dream] (late 18th century)

Here are some of the principal English translations of each novel (all are fortunately now available in complete, scholarly versions):

    Moss Roberts, trans.: The Three Kingdoms (1994)

    The Three Kingdoms

  1. Lo Kuan-Chung. San Kuo, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Trans. C. H. Brewitt-Taylor. 2 vols. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1925.

  2. Luo Guanzhong. Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel. Trans. Moss Roberts. Foreword by John S. Service. 1994. 3 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press / Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

  3. Luo Guanzhong. Three Kingdoms. Trans. Moss Roberts. Foreword by John S. Service. 1994. 4 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2001.

  4. John & Alex Dent-Young, trans.: The Marshes of Mount Liang (1994-2002)

    The Water Margin

  5. Buck, Pearl, trans. All Men are Brothers [Shui Hu Chuan]. 2 vols. New York: The John Day Company, 1933.

  6. Shih Nai-an. Water Margin. Trans. J. H. Jackson. 2 vols. Hong Kong: The Commercial Press, 1963.

  7. Weir, David. The Water Margin. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978. [based on the BBC TV series]

  8. Shi Nai’an & Luo Guanzhong. Outlaws of the Marsh. Trans. Sidney Shapiro. 3 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980.

  9. Shi Nai’an & Luo Guanzhong. The Marshes of Mount Liang. Trans. John & Alex Dent-Young. 5 vols. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1994-2002.
    • Vol. 1: The Broken Seals. 1994.
    • Vol. 2: The Tiger Killers. 1997.
    • Vol. 3: The Gathering Company. 2001.
    • Vol. 4: Iron Ox. 2002.
    • Vol. 5: The Scattered Flock. 2002.

  10. Anthony C. Yu, trans.: The Journey to the West (1977-83)

    Journey to the West

  11. Wu Ch’êng-Ên. Monkey. Trans. Arthur Waley. 1942. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

  12. Low, C. C. & Associates, trans. Pictorial Stories of Chinese Classics: The Adventures of the Monkey God. 1975. 4 vols. Singapore: Canfonian Pte Ltd., 1989.

  13. The Journey to the West. Trans. Anthony C. Yu. 4 vols. 1977-1983. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, 1982, 1980, 1984.

  14. Wu Cheng’en. Journey to the West. Trans. W. J. F. Jenner. 1982. 3 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1990.

  15. Tung Yueh. Hsi-yu pu. Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Trans. Shuen-fu Lin & Larry J. Schultz. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1978.

  16. Pisu, Silverio. The Ape. Illustrated by Milo Manara. New York: Catalan Communications, 1986.

  17. Monkey [“Saiyūki”]: Season One: Episodes 1-13. Japan: Nippon TV, 1978.

  18. Monkey [“Saiyūki”]: Season One: Episodes 14-26. Japan: Nippon TV, 1978.

  19. Monkey [“Saiyūki”]: Season Two: Episodes 27-39. Japan: Nippon TV, 1979.

  20. Monkey [“Saiyūki”]: Season Two: Episodes 40-52. Japan: Nippon TV, 1980.

  21. David Hawkes, trans.: The Story of the Stone (1978-86)

    The Red Chamber Dream

  22. Tsao Hsueh-Chin. Dream of the Red Chamber. Trans. Chi-chen Wang. 1929. Preface by Mark van Doren. London: Vision Press, 1959.

  23. Kuhn, Franz, ed. Hung Lou Meng: The Dream of the Red Chamber – A Chinese Novel of the Early Ching Period. Trans. Isabel and Florence McHugh. 1958. The Universal Library. New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1968.

  24. Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone: A Chinese Novel by Cao Xueqin in Five Volumes. Trans. David Hawkes. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973-80.
    • Vol. 1: The Golden Days. 1973.
    • Vol. 2: The Crab-Flower Club. 1977.
    • Vol. 3: The Warning Voice. 1980.

  25. Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone (Also Known as The Dream of the Red Chamber): A Chinese Novel by Cao Xueqin in Five Volumes, edited by Gao E. Trans. John Minford. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982-86.
    • Vol. 4: The Debt of Tears. 1982.
    • Vol. 5: The Dreamer Wakes. 1986.

  26. Tsao Hsueh-Chin & Kao Ngo. A Dream of Red Mansions. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 3 vols. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978.

  27. Wu Shih-Ch’Ang. On The Red Chamber Dream: A Critical Study of Two Annotated Manuscripts of the XVIIIth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.

I suppose the first thing to say about these novels is that all they're very long; often available in a variety of versions, sometimes with different numbers of chapters; and that each of these chapters is carefully constructed, and generally introduced by a poetic couplet summarizing its contents.

Abridged or "adapted" versions can give you some of the flavour of the originals, but unfortunately they're bound by their very nature to miss out certain of the vital characteristics of these very particular masterpieces of the novelist's art: above all, the immense scope and inclusiveness of all four of these works.

Though they clearly build upon one another, each of the four has an atmosphere and style all its own:

  • The Three Kingdoms is a kind of Chinese Iliad, an immense chronicle of war and intrigue spanning decades and vast terrains: a profoundly serious meditation on war and peace and statecraft.

  • The Water Margin is equally complex, but far more popular and vernacular in tone. It chronicles the adventures of a group of Robin Hood-like outlaws, and is episodic in structure: serious and humorous by turns.

  • The Journey to the West continues this emphasis on popular culture: in this case myths and folktales, but combines them with a wise, witty, and deeply disenchanted vision of the doings of all the creatures in Earth and Heaven. Wu Cheng’en's novel is, essentially, a satire on conventional religion, but one can't help feeling that the author remains agnostic about the true nature of the universe lying behind this absurd veil of appearances ...

  • The Red Chamber Dream, finally, is a family chronicle - deeply autobiographical, we are assured, but transformed into a tapestry of poetry, philosophy and eroticism which rivals in intensity anything in Proust or Lady Murasaki. It's probably the most immediately approachable of these great novels, though the frustratingly fragmentary nature of the text means that only the first two thirds of the story seems to reflect accurately its author's original artistic intentions.

What else can one say? There they are. Read them. They're certainly as essential to any true understanding of the possibilities of the novel form as Tolstoy or Flaubert (not to mention Kafka or Joyce).

Once you have read them, though, a number of questions will no doubt arise for you. Why did only these four make the cut? What are all the other Classical Chinese novels like? Are they so inferior to these ones? How reliable is this particular piece of canon-making? Is there really a complete critical concensus about it?

Well, luckily the profusion of new translations of these and other Chinese novels in the second half of the twentieth century was accompanied with some marvellous works of literary analysis and commentary. The place to start remains C. T. Hsia's venerable The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction (1968), a work which is unlikely to be superseded anytime soon (despite certain blindspots in his judgements of the individual novels).

Hsia enlarged the canon of "classic novels" to six, including the vast and sexually explicit Jīn Píng Méi [The Golden Lotus] (1618), as well as Wu Jingzi's satire on Confucian bureaucracy Rúlínwàishǐ [The Scholars] (1750). Both are now available in reliable contemporary English translations, luckily (though David Tod Roy's magisterial five-volume version of the Chin P’ing Mei was only completed this year - a couple of months ago, in fact):

    The Golden Lotus: Hsi-men Ching with Golden Lotus (Ming dynasty)

    The Golden Lotus

  1. Egerton, Clement, trans. The Golden Lotus: A Translation, from the Chinese Original, of the Novel Chin P’ing Mei. 1939. 4 vols. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

  2. 'Lanling Xiiaoxiaosheng'. The Golden Lotus: Jin Ping Mei. Trans. Clement Egerton & Shu Qingchun (Lao She). 1939. Rev. ed. 1972. Introduction by Robert Hegel. 2 vols. Tokyo / Rutland, Vermont / Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2011.

  3. Kuhn, Franz, ed. Chin P’ing Mei: The Adventurous History of Hsi Men and his Six Wives. Trans. Bernard Miall. Introduction by Arthur Waley. 1939. London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1952.

  4. Kuhn, Franz, ed. Ko Lien Hua Ying: Flower Shadows behind the Curtain: A Sequel to Chin P’ing Mei. Trans. Vladimir Kean. London: The Bodley Head, 1959.

  5. Jin Ping Mei: Fleur en Fiole d’Or. 2 vols. Trans. André Lévy. 1985. Collection Folio 3997-8. Paris: Gallimard, 2004.

  6. Magnus. Les 110 pillules, d’après Jin Ping Mei. Trans. Luca Staletti. 1986. Paris: l’Echo des Savanes / Albin Michel, 1991.

  7. Roy, David Tod, trans. The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei. 5 vols. Princeton Library of Asian Translations. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1993-2013.
    • Vol. 1: The Gathering. 1993.
    • Vol. 2: The Rivals. 2001.
    • Vol. 3: The Aphrodisiac. 2006.
    • Vol. 4: The Climax. 2011.
    • Vol. 5: The Dissolution. 2013.

  8. Wu Jingzi (1701-1754)

    The Scholars

  9. Wu Ching-Tzu. The Scholars. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1957. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1973.

These suggested additions to the list have probably attracted almost as many English-language readers as the other four, given the immense popularity of Hsia's book. And, indeed, the first of them is unquestionably a masterpiece: one of the great novels of world literature. As for the second, its disjointed structure and the very targetted nature of its satire make it a little difficult for a non-Chinese speaking reader to judge. It's certainly not lacking in appeal, though:

    David Tod Roy, trans.: The Plum in the Golden Vase (1993-2013)

  • The Plum in the Golden Vase is probably the most erotically explicit of all great world novels. Its most recent translator, David Tod Roy, argues persuasively that this is part of the author's complex plan to show the necessary consequences of official corruption in his own day - for Hsi-Men Ching, the protagonist, read the Emperor, and so on down the chain. There's certainly little of the hedonistic romp about it - though some of the earlier, more selective translations did try to stress some of the more playful aspects of the action, trying to imply that this framework of morality was simply a kind of necessary smoke-screen. At least we're finally in a position to consider this question in detail, thanks to Roy's immense and painstaking work of translation and commentary ...

  • Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang, trans.: The Scholars (1957)

  • The Scholars is the least immediately impressive of these classic Chinese novels, but it's certainly readable enough, and one can see a kind of Balzacian intelligence behind it, alert to the untapped possibilities of the novel form for social and intellectual commentary.

It's probably too early to judge whether English-speaking readers are now in a position to appreciate properly the range and scope of the traditional Chinese novel. Certainly Lu Hsun's Brief History of Chinese Fiction (1923-24) lists large numbers of works which are still completely unavailable in translation. Of those that are extant, The 16th-century Creation of the Gods has little beyond the excitement of incident to add to the technical innovations of the "big five" (the four + Chin P'ing Mei). Li Yu's Carnal Prayer Mat is far more witty and entertaining, like a kind of Chinese Fanny Hill, but probably not in itself a "great work" (whatever that means).

The one that really sounds interesting is Li Ju-Chen's Flowers in the Mirror (1828), unfortunately still available only in an abridged and (we're told) inadequate English translation. It is - apparently - a kind of Chinese Alice in Wonderland, with certain aspects of the Pilgrim's Progress mixed in. But since a large part of its appeal comes from the learned game-playing of its author's prose-style, it seems quite likely that it will remain untranslatable for the foreseeable future.

I've compiled a list here of some other striking works of Chinese fiction, short and long. I wish I myself owned more of the excellent critical works which have come out on the subject since C. T. Hsia's, but they tend to be very expensive to buy, and to go out of print pretty quickly: the major ones appear to be Andrew H. Plaks' Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel (1987), David L. Rolston's Traditional Chinese Fiction and Fiction Commentary: Reading and Writing Between the Lines (1997), as well as the same author's earlier collection of edited essays How to Read the Chinese Novel (1990). The only other considerable work on the subject I have a copy of is Robert E. Hegel's excellent (though very specific) The Novel in Seventeenth-Century China (1981).

Miscellaneous Chinese fiction:
  1. Creation of the Gods [Fêng-shên yen-i] – 16th century
  2. The Carnal Prayer Mat [Jou Pu Tuan] – 1657
  3. Flowers in the Mirror [Ching hua yuan] – 1828
  4. Feng Menglong (1574-1645)
  5. Lu Xun (1881-1936)
  6. Pu Songling (1640-1715)
  7. Robert van Gulik (1910-1967)
  8. Anthologies & Secondary Literature

    Creation of the Gods [Fêng-shên yen-i] – 16th century

  1. Low, C. C. & Associates, trans. Pictorial Stories of Chinese Classics: Canonization of Deities. 3 vols. Singapore: Canfonian Pte Ltd., 1989.

  2. Gu Zhizhong, trans. Creation of the Gods. 2 vols. 1992. Beijing: New World Press, 1996.

  3. The Carnal Prayer Mat [Jou Pu Tuan] – 1657

  4. Li Yu. Jou Pu Tuan: The Before Midnight Scholar, or The Prayer-mat of Flesh. Ed. Franz Kuhn. 1959. Trans. Richard Martin. 1963. London: Corgi Books, 1974.

  5. Li Yu. The Carnal Prayer Mat. Wordsworth Erotic Classics: Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1995.

  6. Li Yu. The Carnal Prayer Mat. Trans. Patrick Hanan. 1990. Honolulu: University of Hawaí’i Press, 1996.

  7. Li Yu. A Tower for the Summer Heat. Trans. Patrick Hanan. 1992. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

  8. Flowers in the Mirror [Ching hua yuan] – 1828

  9. Li Ju-Chen. Flowers in the Mirror. Trans. Lin Tai-Yi. London: Peter Owen, 1965.

  10. Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang, trans. Excerpts from Three Classical Chinese Novels: The Three Kingdoms, Pilgrimage to the West & Flowers in the Mirror. Beijing: Panda Books, 1981.

  11. Feng Menglong (1574-1645)

  12. Feng Menglong. Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection. 1620. Trans. Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang. Seattle & London: Washington University Press, 2000.

  13. Zhou Shuren ['Lu Xun' / 'Lu Hsun'] (1881-1936)

  14. Lu Hsun. Selected Stories of Lu Hsun. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1960. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978.

  15. Lu Hsun. Old Tales Retold. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1961. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1972.

  16. Lu Hsun. Wild Grass. 1974. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1980.

  17. Lu Hsun. Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976.

  18. Lu Xun. Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. Trans. William A. Lyell. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

  19. Lu Xun. The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun. Trans. Julia Lovell. Afterword by Yiyun Li. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2009.

  20. Lu Hsun. A Brief History of Chinese Fiction. 1923-24. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1959. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1982.

  21. Pu Songling / P'u Sung-ling (1640-1715)

  22. P’u Sung-ling. Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. Trans. Herbert A. Giles. 1916. Honolulu, Hawai’i: University Press of the Pacific, 2003.

  23. Pu Songling. Strange Tales of Liaozhai. Trans. Lu Yunzhong, Yang Liyi, Yang Zhihong, & Chen Tifang. Illustrated by Tao Xuehua. Hong Kong: The Commercial Press, Ltd., 1982.

  24. Pu Songling. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Trans. John Minford. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006.

  25. Robert Hans van Gulik (1910-1967)

  26. Van Gulik, Robert, trans. Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An): An Authentic Eighteenth-Century Detective Novel. 1949. New York: Dover, 1976.

  27. Van Gulik, Robert. The Haunted Monastery & The Chinese Maze Murders: Two Chinese Detective Novels. 1961 & 1957. New York: Dover, 1977.

  28. Anthologies & Secondary Literature

  29. Hegel, Robert E. The Novel in Seventeenth-Century China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

  30. Hsia, C. T. The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction. 1968. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

  31. Lévy, André, trans. Le Sublime Discours de la fille candide : Manuel d’érotologie chinoise. 2000. Picquier Poche 224. Paris: Philippe Picquier, 2004.

  32. Ma, Y. W. & Joseph M. Lau, eds. Traditional Chinese Stories: Themes and Variations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

  33. Korean:

  34. Kim Man-Choong. The Cloud Dream of the Nine: A Korean Novel – A Story of the Times of the Tangs of China about 840 A.D. Trans. James S. Gale. London: Daniel O’Connor, 1922.

  35. Tibetan:

  36. Tshe ring dbang rgyal. The Tale of the Incomparable Prince. 1727. Trans. Beth Newman. The Library of Tibet. New York: HarperPerennial, 1997.

The last two listed there, from (respectively) ancient Korea and Tibet develop a number of themes from such Buddhist-inspired works as The Journey to the West, but with some additional flavour from their own indigenous traditions.

I should also explain the (apparent) anomaly of listing the sinologist Robert van Gulik among the other authors above. Van GHulik first published a translation of a "genuine eighteenth-century" Chinese detective novel, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, in 1949. He proceeded to follow this up with his own original series of crime novels starring the same character, which proved quite popular. It's certainly an unusual (possibly unique) example of direct influence between the Chinese and Western fictional traditions, even though the results read (to me, at any rate) a little on the wooden side.

I guess I began this post with a quote from the Hung Lou Meng to try and give you something of the half-realistic, half-idealised atmosphere of that particular novel. I'll close, instead, with a famous scene from The Three Kingdoms where the warlord Cao Cao reveals his true nature:

During his stay in Lü Boshe's house, Cao Cao overheard the sharpening of knives and a conversation among Lü's servants about whether to "kill or to tie up first", and he suspected that Lü was pretending to be hospitable towards him while actually plotting to harm him. He and Chen Gong dashed out and indiscriminately killed everyone in Lü Boshe's household. Later, they discovered that the servants were actually talking about slaughtering a pig for the feast and that they had killed innocent people. It was too late for regrets, so Cao Cao and Chen Gong immediately packed their belongings and left the house. Along the way, they met Lü Boshe, who was returning from his errand. When Lü Boshe asked them to stay with him, Cao Cao asked, "Who's that behind you?" When Lü Boshe turned around, Cao Cao stabbed him from behind and killed him. Chen Gong was shocked and he questioned Cao Cao, "Just now, you made a genuine mistake when you killed those people. But what about now?" Cao Cao replied, "If Lü Boshe goes home and sees his family members all dead, do you think he'll let us off? If he brings soldiers to pursue us, we'll be in deep trouble." Chen Gong said, "It's a grave sin to kill someone with the intention of doing so." Cao Cao remarked, "I'd rather do wrong to the world than allow the world to do wrong to me." Chen Gong did not respond and he left Cao Cao that night.

That final comment of Cao Cao's:
nìng wǒ fù rén, wú rén fù wǒ!
"I'd rather do wrong to others than allow them to do wrong to me!"

has become proverbial. In Luo Guanzhong's novel, however, the original wording, used by the historical Cao Cao in 189 CE, has been subtly altered to read:
"I'd rather do wrong to the world than allow the world to do wrong to me."

Chinese critic Yi Zhongtian claims, in a 2006 essay on the Three Kingdoms, that Luo "deliberately changed the words in the quote to reflect that Cao Cao had no sense of remorse because 'world' [lit. "people under Heaven"] carries greater weight than 'others' [lit. "people"], so as to enhance Cao's image as a villain in his novel."

Whether that's true or not, it gives us a vivid sense of the delicate balance between historical truth and fictional interpretation Lou tries to maintain throughout this most revered of the classical Chinese novels.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The True Story of the Novel (5): The Sagas of Icelanders

It's hard to know quite where to begin with a discussion of the Icelandic sagas. Why do people go on about them so much? Why are they so important? Are they so important? What makes them so different from other examples of medieval prose literature?

I suppose, from my own point of view, the main reason they need to be talked about here is because they so perfectly exemplify the aetiology of prose fiction I'm proposing: that it represents a fairly straightforward evolution from other pre-existing narrative genres.

Gabriel Turville-Peter's classic book The Origins of Icelandic Literature (1953) gives a very clear account of how the early chronicles of the settlement of Iceland, the Landnámabók (c.11th-13th century) and the genealogical treatise Íslendingabók by Ari Þorgilsson (1067–1148) - also known as "Ari the Wise" - provided much of the raw material on which the sagas are based. They were also much influenced by Saint's Lives, by the historical materials about the Norwegian kings also available to the early settlers, as well as the large body of summaries of Greek, Roman and Old Germanic literature compiled by the indefatigable early Icelandic scribes.

The sheer isolation of Icelandic society means that one can study the effects of all these blended materials as a kind of scientific case study in literary development. It's not that anyone could ever neatly explain away so unusual a phenomenon as the Icelandic family sagas (or Íslendingasögur, "Sagas of Icelanders") - with their unique blend of oral history and poetic creativity - but it is interesting to observe the parallels with (say) the origins of the Japanese monogatari or the Arthurian prose vulgate tradition.

In essence, then, the medieval Icelanders tried to summarise and copy all the literary materials available to them - from Homer's Iliad to the more recent stories of Tristan and Iseult or Sigurd the Volsung - and at some point in the process someone invented a break-off genre of more locally based stories, set in the farms and fields around about (though sometimes they range much further afield in time and space - as far, in fact, as America in the west and Constantinople in the East).

Snorri Sturluson: Prose Edda (1666)

Nobody knows if there was just one genius who originated the form, though it is true that Egil's Saga is sometimes attributed to the well-known historian Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241), author of Heimskringla and the - so-called - Prose Edda, a kind of encyclopedia of traditional Norse mythology and commentary on the very complicated ancient poems known as the Elder Edda. Besides that, however, no single author can be identified with any of the many surviving sagas, though internal evidence certainly suggests a number of different authors for the different stories.

It's also true to say that an exclusive focus on this particular type of saga falsifies the immense variety of prose literature available to medieval Icelandic readers.
Norse sagas are generally classified as:
the Kings' sagas (Konungasögur),
Icelanders' sagas (Íslendinga sögur),
Short tales of Icelanders (Íslendingaþættir),
Contemporary sagas (Samtíðarsögur or Samtímasögur),
Legendary sagas (Fornaldarsögur),
Chivalric sagas (Riddarasögur),
Sagas of the Greenlanders (Grænlendingasögur),
Saints' sagas (Heilagra manna sögur)
and Bishops' sagas (Biskupa sögur).
- Wikipedia: Entry on "Sagas"

Of all these genres, it's really only the Sagas of Icelanders and the Short Tales of Icelanders which are of central interest to contemporary readers. The first substantial critical treatment of any of them in English was written by Sir Walter Scott in the early nineteenth century, after he'd stumbled across an (abridged) Latin translation of Laxdæla saga. The culmination of all the vast amounts of scholarly attention they've received since then must surely be the five-volume edition of the complete corpus of family sagas (together with selected short tales) published in Iceland by the appropriately named "Leifur Eiriksson" [Leif Ericson] Publishing in 1997:

Vidar Hreinsson et al., ed.: The Complete Sagas of Icelanders (1997)

The Complete Sagas of Icelanders (including 49 Stories). General Editor: Viðar Hreinsson, Editorial Team: Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz & Bernard Scudder. Introduction by Robert Kellogg. 5 vols. Viking Age Classics. Iceland: Leifur Eiriksson Publishing Ltd., 1997.
  1. Vinland / Warriors and Poets
    • Forewords
      • By the President of Iceland
      • By the Icelandic Minister of Education, Culture and Science
      • By the Former Director of the Manuscript Institute of Iceland
      • Preface
      • Credits
      • Publisher's Acknowledgments
      • Introduction
    • Vinland and Greenland
      1. Eirik the Red's Saga
      2. The Saga of the Greenlanders
    • Warriors and Poets
      1. Egil's Saga
      2. Kormak's Saga
      3. The Saga of Hallfred the Troublesome Poet
      4. The Saga of Bjorn, Champion of the Hitardal People
      5. The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue
    • Tales of Poets
      1. The Tale of Arnor, the Poet of Earls
      2. Einar Skulason's Tale
      3. The Tale of Mani the Poet
      4. The Tale of Ottar the Black
      5. The Tale of Sarcastic Halli
      6. Stuf's Tale
      7. The Tale of Thorarin Short-Cloak
      8. The Tale of Thorleif, the Earl's Poet
    • Anecdotes
      1. The Tale of Audun from the West Fjords
      2. The Tale of Brand the Generous
      3. Hreidar's Tale
      4. The Tale of the Story-Wise Icelander
      5. Ivar Ingimundarson's Tale
      6. Thorarin Nefjolfsson's Tale
      7. The Tale of Thorstein from the East Fjords
      8. The Tale of Thorstein the Curious
      9. The Tale of Thorstein Shiver
      10. The Tale of Thorvard Crow's-Beak

  2. Outlaws / Warriors and Poets
    • Outlaws and Nature Spirits
      1. Gisli Sursson's Saga
      2. The Saga of Grettir the Strong
      3. The Saga of Hord and the People of Holm
      4. Bard's Saga
    • Warriors and Poets
      1. Killer-Glum's Saga
      2. The Tale of Ogmund Bash
      3. The Tale of Thorvald Tasaldi
      4. The Saga of the Sworn Brothers
      5. Thormod's Tale
      6. The Tale of Thorarin the Overbearing
      7. Viglund's Saga
    • Tales of the Supernatural
      1. The Tale of the Cairn-Dweller
      2. The Tale of the Mountain-Dweller
      3. Star-Oddi's Dream
      4. The Tale of Thidrandi and Thorhall
      5. The Tale of Thorhall Knapp

  3. Epic / Champions and Rogues
    • An Epic
      1. Njal's Saga
    • Champions and Rogues
      1. The Saga of Finnbogi the Mighty
      2. The Saga of the People of Floi
      3. The Saga of the People of Kjalarnes
      4. Jokul Buason's Tale
      5. Gold-Thorir's Saga
      6. The Saga of Thord Menace
      7. The Saga of Ref the Sly
      8. The Saga of Gunnar, the Fool of Keldugnup
    • Tales of Champions and Adventures
      1. Gisl Illugason's Tale
      2. The Tale of Gold-Asa's Thord
      3. Hrafn Gudrunarson's Tale
      4. Orm Storolfsson's Tale
      5. Thorgrim Hallason's Tale

  4. Regional Feuds
    • Regional Feuds
      1. The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal
      2. The Saga of the Slayings on the Heath
      3. Valla-Ljot's Saga
      4. The Saga of the People of Svarfadardal
      5. The Saga of the People of Ljosavatn
      6. The Saga of the People of Reykjadal and of Killer-Skuta
      7. The Saga of Thorstein the White
      8. The Saga of the People of Vopnafjord
      9. The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck
      10. The Tale of Thorstein Bull's Leg
      11. The Saga of Droplaug's Sons
      12. The Saga of the People of Fljotsdal
      13. The Tale of Gunnar, the Slayer of Thidrandi
      14. Brandkrossi's Tale
      15. Thorstein Sidu-Hallsson's Saga
      16. Thorstein Sidu-Hallsson's Tale
      17. Thorstein Sidu-Hallsson's Dream
      18. Egil Sidu-Hallsson's Tale

  5. Epic / Wealth and Power
    • An Epic
      1. The Saga of the People of Laxardal
      2. Bolli Bollason's Tale
    • Wealth and Power
      1. The Saga of the People of Eyri
      2. The Tale of Halldor Snorrason I
      3. The Tale of Halldor Snorrason II
      4. Olkofri's Saga
      5. Hen-Thorir's Saga
      6. The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey's Godi
      7. The Saga of the Confederates
      8. Odd Ofeigsson's Tale
      9. The Saga of Havard of Isafjord
    • Religion and Conflict in Iceland and Greenland
      1. The Tale of Hromund the Lame
      2. The Tale of Svadi and Arnor Crone's-Nose
      3. The Tale of Thorvald the Far-Travelled
      4. The Tale of Thorsein Tent-Pitcher
      5. The Tale of the Greenlanders
    • Reference Section
      • Maps and Tables
      • Illustrations and Diagrams
      • Glossary
      • Cross-Reference Index of Characters
      • Contents of Volumes I-V

Since I'm pleased to say that I recently acquired a copy of this rather sumptuous tome, it seems useful to list its contents in this comprehensive manner as a way of signalling the wealth of material available to the saga aficionado. As well as the 45 sagas included in this collection, the editors have also inserted 49 short tales of Icelanders (marked off with italics in the table of contents above).

There are, of course, a great many other translations of individual sagas, some probably superior in literary merit to the somewhat bland and standardised version included in this complete edition (like modern editions of the Bible translated by committee).

The immense care taken by the editors of the "Leif Ericson" text to ensure consistency in vocabulary and (especially) names of people and places, makes it an indispensable resource for the scholar. If you don't want to invest in the complete edition, though, Penguin books have published some volumes of selections from the larger corpus:

  1. The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. From The Complete Sagas of Icelanders (including 49 Stories). Ed. Viðar Hreinsson, Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz & Bernard Scudder. Iceland: Leifur Eiriksson Publishing Ltd., 1997. Preface by Jane Smiley. Introduction by Robert Kellogg. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001.

  2. Cook, Robert, trans. Njal’s Saga. From The Complete Sagas of Icelanders (including 49 Stories). Ed. Viðar Hreinsson, Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz & Bernard Scudder. 1997. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001.

  3. Whaley, Diana, ed. Sagas of Warrior-Poets. From The Complete Sagas of Icelanders (including 49 Stories). Ed. Viðar Hreinsson, Robert Cook, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz & Bernard Scudder. 1997. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002.

Diana Whaley, ed. Sagas of Warrior-poets (2002)

The first of these is particularly good, with a fascinating preface by American novelist Jane Smiley, author of The Greenlanders (1988). It probably contains sufficient detail for most general readers, in fact, especially when combined with the separate translation Of Njal's Saga, by common consent the most individually "epic" of the Norse sagas, issued concurrently by Penguin Classics.

For any of you interested in pursuing the subject, though, I've listed below all of the other books on the subject I've collected since I first took a class in Old Norse at Auckland University with Professor Forrest Scott some thirty years ago in (I think) 1983:

Robert Cook, trans.: Njal's Saga (2001)

  1. The Elder Edda
  2. Sagas
  3. Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241)

    The Elder Edda

  1. Hollander, Lee M., trans. The Poetic Edda. 1962. Rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

  2. Larrington, Carolyne, trans. The Poetic Edda. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

  3. Magnúson, Eiríkr, & William Morris, trans. Volsunga Saga: The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, with Certain Songs from the Elder Edda. 1870. Ed. H. Halliday Sparling. The Camelot Series. Ed. Ernest Rhys. London: Walter Scott, 1888.

  4. Morris, William, trans. Volsunga Saga: The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs. 1870. Ed. Robert W. Gutman. 1962. New York & London: Collier & Collier-Macmillan, 1971.

  5. Terry, Patricia, trans. Poems of the Vikings: The Elder Edda. Introduction by Charles Wisden. 1969. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1981.

  6. Sagas

  7. Blake, N. F. ed. The Saga of the Jomsvikings: Jómsvíkinga Saga. Nelson’s Icelandic texts, ed. Sigurður Nordal & G. Turville-Petre. London: Nelson, 1962.

  8. Dasent, George. M., trans. The Saga of Burnt Njal: From the Icelandic of Njal’s Saga. Everyman’s Library. London & New York: J. M. Dent & E. P. Dutton, n.d.

  9. Hight, George Ainslie, trans. The Saga of Grettir the Strong: A Story of the Eleventh Century. Everyman’s Library 699. 1914. London & New York: J. M. Dent & E. P. Dutton, 1929.

  10. Johnston, George, trans. The Saga of Gisli. Ed. Peter Foote. 1963. Everyman’s Library. London: Dent, 1984.

  11. Jones, Gwyn, trans. Eirik the Red and other Icelandic Sagas. The World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 1980.

  12. Pálsson, Hermann, & Magnus Magnusson, trans. The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America – Grænlendinga Saga & Eirik’s Saga. 1965. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

  13. Pálsson, Hermann, & Magnus Magnusson, trans. King Harald’s Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway – from Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla. 1966. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

  14. Pálsson, Hermann, & Magnus Magnusson, trans. Laxdaela Saga. 1969. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  15. Pálsson, Hermann, trans. Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Stories. 1971. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

  16. Pálsson, Hermann, & Paul Edwards, trans. Hrolf Gautrekkson: A Viking Romance. New Saga Library 1. Edinburgh: Southgate, 1972.

  17. Pálsson, Hermann, & Paul Edwards, trans. Eyrbyggja Saga. New Saga Library 2. Edinburgh: Southgate, 1973.

  18. Pálsson, Hermann, & Paul Edwards, trans. Egil’s Saga. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  19. Pálsson, Hermann, & Paul Edwards, trans. Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney. 1978. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

  20. Pálsson, Hermann, & Paul Edwards, trans. Seven Viking Romances. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

  21. Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241)

  22. Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Trans. Anthony Faulkes. Everyman’s Library. London: Dent, 1987.

  23. Sturlason, Snorre. Heimskringla: The Olaf Sagas. Trans. Samuel Laing. Ed. John Beveridge. Everyman’s Library 717. London & New York: J. M. Dent & E. P. Dutton, 1930.

  24. Sturlason, Snorre. Heimskringla: The Norse King Sagas. Trans. Samuel Laing. Ed. John Beveridge. Everyman’s Library 847. London & New York: J. M. Dent & E. P. Dutton, 1930.

  25. Sturlason, Snorre. Heimskringla, or The Lives of the Norse Kings. Trans. A. H. Smith & Erling Monsen. Ed. Erling Monsen. 1932. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990.

You'll notice that a great many of the saga translations listed above were done by Hermann Pálsson of Edinburgh University, initially in collaboration with ex-UK Mastermind host (and proud Icelander) Magnus Magnusson, and subsequently with my old English Department mentor Paul Edwards. Edwards was a very amusing character, who used to hold court around a huge wooden table with flagons of wine and lively conversation for any passing colleagues or students. I benefited greatly from his encouragement and example, and it's nice to be able to commemorate him here (he died sometime in the early 1990s, I believe).

But after all this bibliographical preamble, what are the sagas actually like to read? Well, they're very deadpan, pithy, understated. A few quotes may give you the idea:
In chapter 45 of Grettis saga, Þorbjörn knocked loudly on the door at Atli's farm, then hid. When Atli went to the door, Þorbjörn rushed up holding his spear in two hands and ran Atli through. When he took the blow, Atli said, "Broad spears are in fashion these days," and fell dead.

Ha, ha - very witty! Or the off-the-cuff remark by one of the characters in Njal's saga that the health of the thralls is poor that season, after a bunch of them have been murdered by his neighbour. Or the comment by the anti-heroine Guðrún in Laxdæla saga about her behaviour throughout to the hero Kjartan:
Þá mælti Guðrún: "Þeim var eg verst er eg unni mest."

Auden translated her answer as "He that I loved the / Best, to him I was worst" in his poem "Journey to Iceland." His friend Christopher Isherwood had once remarked that the characters in the sagas reminded him a lot of the personnel at their public school, and that thought appears to be the inspiration behind a lot of Auden's early poetry, as well as - in particular - his strange revenge drama "Paid on Both Sides" (1928).

Sagas tend to be composed in short chapters, and to begin with elaborate genealogies of the (eventual) main characters - hence the designation "family sagas." If you skip over these lists of ancestors, you'll often miss the reason for a murder, or a lawsuit, or an act of revenge two hundred or so pages later. The saga authors never discuss their characters' motivations, or delve into their psychology. All the action is described with the utmost objectivity, in a kind of super-hardbitten prose with no room for fluff or sentiment.

The characters do often compose (or inspire) poems, which are frequently quoted in context, but the technical demands of Old Norse skaldic verse are so exigent, that this generally gives little clue to their "inner feelings" or softer side. On the contrary, in fact.

The fascination of the stories lies in the difficulty of understanding just why their protagonists behave as they do. The impossible and self-destructive perversity of many of their deeds is such as to seem virtually incomprehensible without the elaborate framework of family relationships and overarching doom-laden pessimism which seem to have distinguished medieval Icelanders even from other Vikings.

For a long time the sagas were assumed to be basically factual, with a few historical inconsistencies here and there caused by oral transmission. More modern research has demonstrated how carefully composed and crafted most of them are, however, and - in particular - how little reliability there is in their accounts of people and places (within a larger framework of agreed-upon knowledge provided by such texts as Landnámabók and Íslendingabók). In short, they resemble contemporary historical novels far more than the family memoirs or local histories they were once thought to be.

Are they "novels"? Not in the traditional sense of the term. They demand far more from the reader than most modern novels can afford to. A lazy reader will understand little of what goes on in even the great set-piece sagas such as Njal's Saga or Laxdaela Saga, let alone the more diffuse and thematically mixed sagas such as Eyrbyggja Saga. The matchless precision with which the great scenes and personalities within them are recreated on the page does,however, make them every bit as compelling for the dedicated reader as, say, Homer or Virgil, and it would be hard to see the whole corpus of saga literature as inferior even to that created by such "epic" novelists as Tolstoy or Faulkner.

As what we understand by a "novel" continues to expand and diversify, it becomes clearer and clearer that the Icelandic sagas, one of the most impressive bodies of prose fiction in existence, still have a lot more to teach contemporary writers than we've so far been willing to learn.

Íslendingasögur (13th century)

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Boris Pasternak: The Last Summer (1934)

    Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960)

  • Pasternak, Boris. The Last Summer. 1934. Trans. George Reavey. 1959. Introduction by Lydia Slater. 1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.

I suppose that the most famous evocation of the last summer before the First World War is this beautiful lyrical novella by Russian poet Boris Pasternak:

from the blurb:
... during the winter of 1916, Serezha visits his married sister. Tired after a long journey, he falls into a restless sleep and half-remembers, half-dreams the incidents of the last summer of peace before the First World War 'when life appeared to pay heed to individuals'. As tutor in a wealthy, unsettled Moscow household he focuses his intense romanticism on Mrs Arild, his employer's paid companion, while spending his nights with the prostitute Sashka.

I remember it was one of the very few pieces of fiction I've ever finished reading and then immediately restarted from the beginning. I felt I'd missed too much of the implications of what was going on in my blind pursuit of the story. And, much though I admire Doctor Zhivago, I have to say that I enjoyed The Last Summer, short though it is, far more.

As I was paging through all my old files of reviews for my new Opinions website (now substantially complete), I came across quite a few unpublished ones. In most cases this was only too explicable, but there did seem to be one or two which I thought might be worth resurrecting. You decide. One of them was of Robert Musil's famous much-referred-to-and-little-read novel The Man Without Qualities, which I must have been slogging my way through in mid 1998.

    Robert Mathias Edler von Musil (1880-1942)

  1. Musil, Robert. Young Törless. 1906. Trans. Eithne Wilkins & Ernst Kaiser. 1955. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.

  2. Musil, Robert. Tonka and Other Stories. Trans. Eithne Wilkins & Ernst Kaiser. London: Secker & Warburg, 1965.

  3. Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Vol. 1: A Sort of Introduction; The Like of It Now Happens (I). 1930. 3 vols. Trans. Eithne Wilkins & Ernst Kaiser. 1954. London: Picador, 1979.

  4. Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Vol. 2: The Like of It Now Happens (II). 1930. 3 vols. Trans. Eithne Wilkins & Ernst Kaiser. 1954. London: Picador, 1979.

  5. Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Vol. 3: Into the Millennium (The Criminals). 1932. 3 vols. Trans. Eithne Wilkins & Ernst Kaiser. 1954. London: Picador, 1979.

  6. Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities: A Sort of Introduction; Pseudoreality Prevails; Into the Millennium. Trans. Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. 1995. London: Picador, 1997.

The reason it seems particularly significant to me now is that the whole immense novel is set in the year 1913, and one of the hero's main preoccupations throughout are the demands of a committee he belongs to whose job is to think of an appropriate way of commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the Emperor Franz Josef's accession to the throne of Austria-Hungary. When last heard of, the committee has settled on a suitable slogan for their celebrations: "Emperor of Peace" is to be the central motif.

I guess that none of you need me to tell you that by the year 1918, not only was stupid old Franz Josef safely dead and gone, but his entire empire and all it stood for was in ruins, and that any association between him and "peace" was somewhat belied by the frequent and brutal wars of repression he'd indulged in throughout his reign, from 1848 onwards ... There is something rather grand about the uselessness of it all, though: that committee solemnly deliberating as the clock ticks inexorably towards August, 1914.

I suppose that there's going to be no shortage of reminders of World War One over the next few years, as each ghastly anniversary of death and waste is reached, but I just couldn't resist reprinting my cheeky remarks about Musil's masterpiece here, just as I wrote them 15-odd years ago:

Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities (1930-43)

Robert Musil. The Man Without Qualities. Translated from the German by Sophie Wilkins; Editorial consultant Burton Pike. 1995. London: Picador, 1997.

Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities (vol. 1)

Talking of blurbs, this one informs us that:
The Man Without Qualities is one of the towering achievements of the European novel, and this edition is one of the most important publishing events of recent years.
Well, you can’t say better than that. It goes on to trumpet:
the fully-fleshed arrival in English of the third member of the trinity in twentieth-century fiction, complementing Ulysses and The Remembrance of Things Past
Fuck, better get reading, guys. Only, hang on a second – haven’t copies of The Man Without Qualities been thronging the shelves of second-hand bookshops for years, admittedly in three volumes rather than this one, imposing tome? (As Mad magazine once said: “In better stores in most cities; in lousier stores in all cities.”) Yes, but those were copies of the old translation, done from the old German edition. This is the new translation, done from the new (1978) German edition: Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften: Neu Edition, to be precise – not to be confused with the 1952 revised edition, or the 1930-43 first edition.

Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities (vol. 2)

What’s more, not only does this version have a funky new New York translator, it also has an “editorial consultant” (Is it his job to make the coffee? Or does he just sit in his office and wait to be consulted?) Enough of these cheap shots, though. You’ll be beginning to suspect that I haven’t read it through.

No, I have read the damned thing from cover to cover – call it my holiday project. I mean, I’ve heard that one before about novels on a par with Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu – last time it was Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, from no less a person than Vladimir Nabokov. And it wasn’t true then either.

Musil’s master-work begins well enough. The first chapter of Part One: “A Sort of Introduction,” is entitled “From Which, Remarkably Enough, Nothing Develops,” and sure enough, nothing does. We are introduced to our hero, Ulrich, who has no qualities to speak of, but whose career bears a certain resemblance to that of his creator, Robert Musil. Both began as soldiers. Both quit: Ulrich to become a mathematician, Musil to become an engineer. Musil, however, wrote a bestselling novel, Young Törless, when he was only twenty-six, and subsequently fought with distinction in the First World War. Ulrich is caught forever in a kind of sabbatical from life. It is 1913, just before the balloon went up.

And what does he do with his time? Well, he has a mistress (this is Vienna, after all), and he is interested in a sex criminal called Moosbrugger, whom he sees as an alter-ego, and he has a variety of neurotic and over-educated friends. Most of it, though, he spends on a committee he’s been roped into, which is supposed to be thinking of an appropriate way of celebrating the Emperor Franz Josef’s 70th jubilee in 1918. “Emperor of Peace,” as they like to call him.

Yep, there could be something a mite symbolic there, I reckon. I mean, is this Franz Josef character ever going to reach the year 1918, I keep asking myself? I can’t tell you how many hundreds of pages are spent describing the committee’s deliberations (at least half the book – and it’s 1130 pages long. “That’s a big twinkie,” as the man said in Ghostbusters.)

Part Three: “Into the Millennium” (or “The Criminals”) starts off promisingly, on page 726. Even Musil seems to have had enough of the committee for the moment, so he bumps off Ulrich’s father and introduces a rather saucy sister, Agathe, whom we haven’t met before. And it turns out Ulrich hasn’t seen her for years either, and finds her … strangely fascinating. By page 936, after a few hot glances over a wooden table on a mountain walk, “it would have been as untrue to say that she was disinclined to enter into illicit relations with her brother as that she desired to.” Instead, Ulrich goes back to Vienna to lecture his mistress on polyglandular balance, but it’s not long (a mere forty pages) before Agathe comes to join him. You’d think after all that they might actually do it, but Ulrich’s far more interested in talking. And he was still talking a hundred and fifty pages later when the pen dropped from Musil’s stiff, dead fingers. The last words of the novel are:
It was only then that Ulrich learned that Agathe had suddenly said good-bye and left the house without him. She had left word that she had not wanted to disturb him.
No, I mean: “Emperor of peace.” That sort of shit is important, man.

There’s something rather sad about it, in retrospect. It must have seemed such a cool idea: Vienna on the verge of the First World War, the pseudorealities of the past contrasted with dawning modernity – a drifting, futile, intellectual simultaneously disenchanted and fascinated by the intricacies of a dying civilisation … Jeremy Irons for Ulrich?

And the beginning is pretty sharp. But the years went by, the Weimar republic fell, Hitler came to power – all of a sudden a novel about committee politics in 1913 began to look a bit out of touch. Musil halfheartedly introduced a few ethnic German ideologues halfway through as a contribution to world peace.

And the point? Well, of course the futile committee planning a jubilee for 1918 can be seen as a model for Musil’s own novel: an enterprise wildly overtaken by events, “modern” by the standards of fin-de-siècle Vienna, but surviving into the world of Finnegans Wake. It was never finished. It seems impossible that it ever could have been finished. The time for that was long past: about 1922, perhaps, when it would have made a nice companion piece to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain.

The terrible thing is that Musil could still have saved it all, if only he could have stopped his hero prosing on, pompously, interminably, as Rachel the maid slips off to sleep with Solomon, and frigid Clarisse gets madder and madder, and Moosbrugger languishes in his cell, and dear Agathe is driven, finally, to get religion rather than listen to any more.

A terrible warning to us all? You think so? Buy it. You won’t regret it. Trust me.

[Unpublished (c.1998)]

I can't promise that I won't put up further posts as we reach some of those other milestones on the road to the Armageddon of 1914-18. I'll try to be a bit more respectful next time, though, perhaps. Or maybe not ...

Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities (vol. 3)

Thursday, December 05, 2013

A Triptych for Lee Dowrick

i.m. Lee Dowrick
(8th February, 1931 - 29th November 2013)

Launch of Golden Weather Anthology in Takapuna Library (19 September, 2004)

[Back Row (l-to-r): Shonagh Koea / Alistair Paterson / Stu Bagby / Lee Dowrick / Jan Kemp / Tony Green / C. K. Stead / Bust of Frank Sargeson / Wensley Willcox / Graeme Lay / Kevin Ireland
Front Row (l-to-r): Christine Cole Catley / Jack Ross / Jean Bartlett / Alice Hooton / Jacqueline Crompton Ottaway / Riemke Ensing]

It's Lee Dowrick's funeral today. For roughly a decade a group of us used to meet every month at her house in Devonport to read out poems and trade gossip about the "literary life." I have to say that I owe her quite a debt. That note she left in the Baxter and Mansfield Second-hand Bookshop, inviting aspiring poets to join her little group of "bookshop poets," made a big difference to me.

I met such poets as Leicester Kyle, Stu Bagby, and Raewyn Alexander through Lee's good graces. The other core members of the group, Alice Hooton, Jackie Ottaway, Wensley Willcox, became good friends and valued collaborators over the years. That invitation of Lee's, and her unfailing hospitality, helped to get me out of my solipsistic cave and out meeting other writers instead. My very first book launch, in 1998, was together with one of Lee's: That Was Then.

Today I'm going to her funeral, in Devonport, down by the sea, the little suburb she loved. Funny the way things turn out. The first time we met, it turned out that she'd once been a patient of my father's (as an East Coast Bays GP, there seem to have been few people here who didn't visit his surgery at one time or another). The last time we met, in the shopping centre, a couple of years ago now, she didn't know who I was, and couldn't think how to respond to my cheerful "Hi, Lee!"

I don't have much more to say about Lee, other than to say what a careful crafter of words she was, and that the few books of mostly nostalgiac poems she did publish don't really do justice to her gift as a writer. To demonstrate that, I thought I'd include a few of her poems here, ones which I published myself during my stint as co-editor of Spin. What better memorial for a poet than a few of the many, many poems she wrote and published over the years?:

happily never after

we’ll be married
in your protestant church
no room at the altar in mine
my family won’t come
our children will be
out of wedlock

don’t drink
from the beer bottle
please my darling
not while
at the wheel

- Spin 36 (2000): 23.


he shuffles along
feet heavy to lift
weighed down
with Oxford labels

vacating the brain
they slide down
the stalwart column
of his spine
to sit squarely
in laced up shoes

the wonderment
of this sweet life

- Spin 42 (2002): 22.

not waiting for mummy

I attack
the grimy comers of my room

while I wait
I scour them down
dig out
the stubborn stuff

built up layers
a sharp knife
shaves the skin

I scrape the corners
I haven’t
reached the pink yet

I wait

I will pick up
the silent beast
and dial a holiday
in Egypt

- Spin 33 (1999): 26.

Goodbye, Lee. We're all going to miss you a lot.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Jack Ross: Opinions

James Ko: "Jack" (c.1996)

So I've started another blog. You may have noticed that it's crept unobtrusively into the sidebar over there, listed under "Bibliography Sites." This particular one is devoted to providing consistent, accurate texts of all of my published essays, introductions and reviews, together with full details of the journals and books they originally appeared in. Thrilling, no? It's called (for what I suspect will be fairly obvious reasons): Jack Ross: Opinions. NINO: Nothing If Not Opinionated, as they say ...

I suppose that it sounds like a pretty egotistical thing to do (hence reproducing above that caricature of me by my ex-Language School student, James Ko). There have been previous suggestions, from time to time, that I should collect some of these essays - the poetry ones, in particular - in book form, but I have to say that I've always resisted it. It isn't that I don't enjoy reading collections of essays: just that my own ones, on examination, always seemed too clearly connected to particular arguments or controversies (or publishing contexts), and I found it hard to imagine them making much sense in isolation.

I have devoted a good deal of time to working in this form, though. Poetry and fiction remain my areas of predilection, but you don't always find poems and stories to hand when you want them - and editors do often seem to prefer commissioning essays and reviews. Academic committees like them, too.

Anyway, while the site is not yet complete (I've put up a bit over half of the essays I'd like to include on it eventually), I find that there are 125 pieces there already, covering the period from 1987 (when I published my first review, in Scotland) to a piece which appeared in the latest issue of brief [49 (2013): 129-45].

For further details on precisely how to navigate between these various sites, you could do worse than consult the post called Crossroads (listed on the side bar opposite under "Site-map"). It'll give you some idea of the extent of this web-based madness of mine.

I won't say, either, that I haven't blushed from time to time at the silliness and general effrontery of some of the opinions included on the site. But then, you have to start somewhere, and the only way to learn is to fail: again and again, repeatedly. My original plan was to suppress some of the more embarrassing ones (and - who knows - the links may not function quite so well to those ones) ... But I decided finally to throw them all up and let anyone who can be bothered to read them sort them out.

That isn't really the point, anyway: "You can't know where you're going until you know where you've been," as Laurence Olivier sagely informs his big-screen son in the Neil Diamond remake of The Jazz Singer. There are a lot of repetitions, tics of phrasing, favourite quotes which I've begun to notice now I've been forced to trawl through all of these pieces again. I'd like to avoid as many as possible of those in future.

Finally, though, the whole project has been (and continues to be) redolent of the same kind of schadenfreude Kendrick Smithyman so accurately describes in his 1968 poem "Research Project":
I fossick among very minor novelists
of our nineteenth century, ours, by God,
peculiarly by virtue of whatever was
held in common with other colonies.
Or, what held them.
I have picked pockets
of several shrouds and more than one
fashion of shroud, for crummiest of crumbs,
driest fragments, dust of droppings, bone
flakes. A shard flint-sharp at the edges,
that was prematurely aspiring red muscle,
a heart. Pick, and pocket.
Someone knew
an impulse to act, entertained a dream
of action

That "ours, by God" phrase rather sums it up for me: good or bad, these reviews and essays are mine, by God. They were the best I could do at the time, and - with all their obvious imperfections - I simply can't disown them, however much I'd like to sometimes.

Neil Diamond: The Jazz Singer (1980)

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Hawkes Bay Poetry Conference (November 1-3)

My trusty steed

I had hoped to have a complete pictorial record of the conference, but unfortunately the camera died on me shortly after my arrival in Hastings, so you'll just have to put up with these few atmosphere shots of the journey down, rather than the complete rogues' gallery which might otherwise have been possible:

Morning: Distant View of the Hauraki Plains

Once upon a time these drives were as easy as pie for me. Now Auckland to Havelock North, 540 kilometres-odd, 6-hours-on-the-road, leaves me as weak as a kitten. Still, never mind, there were some treats on the way. This medley of images from Taupo, for instance:

Taupo: the lake

Taupo: the town

Margaret Sweeney's Great Feat

Go Margaret! And then there was my brief stop-over in Napier looking for second-hand bookshops (though actually the best one I found was in Hastings, just down Heretaunga St., near the city centre):

Napier: the sea

Napier: the town

And then there was the fact that my room in the (aptly-named) Angus Inn Hotel was full of Rita Angus prints (together with one by Frances Hodgkins):

Rita Angus: Fog, Hawkes Bay (1966-8)

Rita Angus: Boats, Island Bay (1961-2)

Frances Hodgkins: The Pleasure Garden (1933)

But what of the conference itself? Well, it seems invidious to single out particular participants and readers from so many: four full plenary poetry readings, each with 12 ten-minute slots; four discussion panels, each with four speakers and a chair; a brilliantly inspiring opening reading by the poet laureate, Vincent O'Sullivan, together with a fine speech at the Saturday "working lunch" by Harry Ricketts ... I also enjoyed the trip to John Buck's Te Mata winery, so long associated with the poet laureateship (in fact, it might be said to have begun there).

It was a banquet, a feast, of all sorts of poetry: performance, personal, professional and perfunctory. I felt myself flagging at times, but as time went on it began to feel as if something was actually happening here, as if the sheer experience of immersion was having some cumulative effect.

Thanks to the organisers, Bill Sutton in particular, but also his able lieutenants from the Hawke's Bay Live POetry Society: Marie Dunningham, Trish Lambert, Dave Sharp, Carole Stewart and all the others who helped with the small groups sessions and the lunchtime discussion on Saturday (apologies for anyone I've left out).

It was wonderful to run into so many old friends: Rosetta Allan, Fiona Farrell, Bridget Freeman-Rock, Siobhan Harvey, Janet Newman, Sugu Pillay, Vivienne Plumb, Helen Rickerby, Barry Smith, and (of course) Alistair Paterson. Also to make some new ones (many of them people I'd corresponded with but never met): Doc Drumheller, Benita Kape, Maris O'Rourke, Nicholas Reid, Gus Simonovic, Pat White, Niel Wright ... together with many others.

I'll conclude, then, with a little verse I found myself scribbling during one of the sessions (I won't say which one):

The Counterfeiters

All New Zealand poetry
is crap

said David Howard's pal
on our ritual roadtrip north
to the Unicorn Bookshop

Oh I don't knowThere's Smithyman

He wasn't impressed
of you are trying to be as good
as Jenny or Billnot Homer or


I had to admit he had
a pointbut what street-cred did
he have?
He'd spent the whole journey
wanking on
about André Gheed ...


I have to say that that remark from David's friend has stayed with me, which is the main reason I saw fit to share it with the assembled poets at the conference. What's wrong with setting our sites a little higher than the norms we've become accustomed to?

If these kinds of meetings become more common among New Zealand poets, who's to say what we mightn't achieve in the future? Right now my hopes are particularly high.

Postscript (23/11/13):

Here are some pictures of the event, taken (for the most part) by photographer and poet Carole A. Steward, and posted on facebook by the irrepressible Gus Simonovic:

Janet Newman introduces the panel on
Form and Content in Contemporary Poetry:
r-to-l: Ben Fagan, Niel Wright, Jack Ross, Mary-Jane Duffy & Gail Romano.

Jack spouts on

The redoubtable Alistair Paterson

On the road to the Te Mata winery:
(note Gus Simonovic on the left, & Jack talking to Nicholas Reid in the middle distance)

John Buck shows us round the winery