Tuesday, April 6, 2021

While the Gardener mows


    Do you know how to hop
    About with just one leg?
    Harder than you’d think.
    Muscles grab that you didn’t
    Know you had.  Meanwhile
    Josh waits while Jessica     
    Barks her permission
    For him to go out back to
    Mow, edge.  Edgy when I read
    Barrie wrote Robert Louis
    In Samoa.  Imagined things
    Which more or less became
    The boy who never grew who
    Instead hit his train head on.
    One needs to grow is the lesson
    Here, even if it means growing
    Old. How old can one grow you
    Ask?  He’s mowing now.  Jessica
    Seems to be chewing a wall.    
    Walls surround.  No chewing
    Anyone’s way through any.

    Someone will tell us when
    We’re to be shot.  Someone
    Is always shooting.  Wars
    Are endemic.  Shouting, too
    When regimes change.  Clouds
    Descend bringing rain.
    I hop up on one leg to see.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Hardy compared to Homer as having written a “classic”

Hardy’s The Return of the Native is being advanced as a “classic.”  Most critics I’ve read consider it his best novel.  But how does he stack up against Homer?  Homer writes about heroes at the dawn of civilization.  His heroes deal with gods and goddesses and possess enormous courage and prowess. 

Hardy’s Clym Yeobright was born on Egdon Heath, a spread out primitive farming community.  He left it to become a successful diamond merchant in the city (Paris) and then returned to teach the village children of Egdon Heath.  The confused Eustacia Vye hates living on the heath and wants to move the city.  She hopes Clym will take her there.  Meanwhile Clym’s cousin Thomasin, content to live on the heath but in love with the flashy Wildeve hopes he will stay with her on the heath.  Wildeve however is in love with Eustacia, and is willing to take her to the city but she is by this time in love with Clym.  Clym studies night and day to become a teacher, and nearly blinds himself in the process.  Not being able to see well enough to study, he takes up a job as a furze-cuter.  Eustacia has married Clym hoping to convince him to take her away from Egdon Heath, but not only is he unwilling to leave.  Now he is unable to.  Confusion ensues, Eustacia agrees to run off with Wildeve but can’t go through with it and throws herself in Shadwater Weir.  Wildeve jumps in to save her and they both drown.  Clym settles back into the local community and becomes a lowly preacher.  Thomasin marries a local dairy farmer and is happy with him. He is very happy with her.  Clym has no one. 

It is only because of his publisher’s urging that Hardy allows Thomasin to end up happily married to Diggory Venn.  Hardy wanted her to end up a solitary widow.

Just as Homer wrote about heroes at the dawn of civilization, Hardy wrote about village life perhaps not a the literal dawn of large cities, but something like that.  Clym went off to the city but wished to return to his village.  Eustacia had heard about the city and wants to live there.  Thomasin is happy in her village.  This in effect, according to Hardy is a pitiful situation.  Hardy writes well, but he isn’t interested in warfare or heroes.  He is very much taken with pitiful people, Tess, Jude, the Mayor of Casterbridge.

So can anything of Hardy’s be considered a classic?  Surely not in a Homeric heroic sense, but his novels compare well with some of the tragedies of the citified Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus which were based upon Homeric themes.  The Greek playwrights however are constrained to write on Homeric themes.  Hardy on the other hand has no Homeric thoughts and sees only the pitiful effects of an unjust and uncaring civilization. 

Classics as War Literature


Unarguably, Homer, Virgil, Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus were the only classics for centuries.  In Western Europe, the Renaissance consisted of rediscovering these classics.  And key to these classics was the Trojan War.  The method for fighting that war changed little in succeeding centuries.  Even by Napoleon's time there was only a marginal difference.  His soldiers had bullets, but tactical attacks were made with bayonets.  In the midst of the American Civil War it was demonstrated that bayonet attacks against entrenched troops using rifles that could be reloaded quickly were destined to have unacceptable casualties.  Though this lesson should have been well understood by the First World War, it was not.  British, French and German soldiers were ordered to fix-bayonets and charge entrenched enemies equipped with machine guns.  Most had learned this lesson by World War Two, but the Japanese were famous for their banzai charges which were successful against poorly equipped Chinese, but suicide against the Marines who island-hopped using machine guns and rapid firing M1's.

Have there been "classics" written about warfare that is radically different from the way the Trojans and Achaeans fought?  What comes to mind?  All Quiet on the Western Front for example?   I see that as an antiwar novel whose author is pessimistic about WW1 tactics.  Improvements in communications let the people back home understand the nature of modern warfare and they were critical of it.  British and French populations were so traumatized by the devastating methods of their generals that they refused to adequately prepare for Hitler's initiation of WW II.  The U.S. had less excuse for being unprepared, but it had a history of isolationism as a result of being located between two oceans.  

One might see modern warfare in a great state of flux and think it impossible to write a classic that will be pertinent for succeeding generations.  How would such a thing be possible when warfare is sure to be different?  I read Nelson DeMille's extremely well-written Up Country.  His protagonist, Paul Brenner thirty years after the Vietnam War in which he was an an accomplished and decorated combat soldier, returns for an Odyssey Up Country.  Rather than a Homeric as-it-happens trek, Brenner recalls significant events as he travels.  Rather than Gods and Goddesses thwarting him, he has a Communist Colonel who dogs him throughout his entire journey.  Odysseus thwarts Penelope's suitors and restores himself on Ithaca.  Paul Brenner thwarts the Communist colonel as well as corrupt American officials in Vietnam and returns safely to America. 

DeMille has the current advantage of writing in a modern language understood by English-speaking people everywhere and potentially translated into any modern language.  Homer has been translated into modern languages, but ancient Greek is translated into modern languages with uneven results.  Scholars of ancient Greek are regularly expressing unhappiness with earlier translations and creating new ones.  So, is there any possibility of a DeMille’s Up Country being thought equal to The Odyssey?   No.  The Odyssey is incomparable.  Even if DeMille is easier to read and understand than Homer, Homer has the prestige. Homer is in a sense the definition of “classic.” 

Imagine a college literature class 500 years from now.  It will still be valuing Homer, but will it value DeMille?  What could they say about him?  He may have had Homer in mind when he wrote Up Country and so isn’t as original.  Also, he wrote about a forgotten war between the U.S. and Vietnam; whereas no generation forgets the Trojan War.  Also, DeMille’s soldiers fight in a fashion that was used for a short time, but Homer’s soldiers fought using a method present at the dawn of history and subsequently used for hundreds of subsequent years.

Will anything being written today be current 500 years from now, be, in other words a “classic” at that time?  I’m reluctant to say “no,” but at the moment I can’t bring anything to mind.

Miscellaneous thoughts about "the classics" part 2


For the reasons I mentioned in Part 1, I doubt that Wild Fire will be considered a classic in the future.  On the other hand, the DeMille novel I finished last night, Night Fall (published in 2004) may.  It takes as its starting point the crash of TWA 800.  After an extensive investigation, as one can read in Wikipedia, this crash was considered to be caused by a mechanical failure, but many witnesses said they saw a flash going up toward TWA 800 before it exploded.  Those reports were discounted.  ATTF (Anti-Terrorist Task Force) detective John Corey in Night Fall is warned not to investigate this five-year-old cold case, but he is tenacious and discovers a video of the explosion which proves that a missile caused it.  Agents in the CIA and FBI are attempting to keep him from exposing their cover-up.  As I read I couldn’t see how DeMille was going to manage a suitable ending.  I paused to check and the official cause of the TWA 800 crash is still describe as a mechanical failure.  Several attempts are made to get the evidence and the witness from John Corey; so to play it safe he agrees to meet them in a very public and safe location where he can provide the CIA and FBI with his evidence and ultimatum.  He chooses the Windows on the World for his venue.  It was on the top floors (106th and 107th) of the North Tower (Building One) of the original World Trade Center.  A caravan of cars drives to Building one.  John Corey is in the last car which becomes separated from the cars in front because of traffic.  His wife FBI agent Kate Mayfield decided to wait for John downstairs.  Thus the tape, witness, and those who want to keep the cover-up covered (most of them)  are tidily killed in the September 11, 2001 attack. 

DeMille does a very good job in Night Fall; much better than Ann Patchett does in Bel Canto using a comparable scenario.  She too uses a real event and sticks to the history, but in her case the history doesn’t seem integral to her story.  In DeMille’s Night Fall, it does (in my current opinion.)

Of the five DeMille novels I’ve read thus far, The General’s Daughter might become a classic.  The 850 page Up Country may become a classic as well.  Paul Brenner’s trek up through Vietnam held my interest and I was not in that war.  The downside may be that Paul, like John Corey in Night Fall is being opposed by those who want to keep the Vice President (who is sure to be elected President) from being exposed as a murderer.  CIA operative Susan Weber, converted to Paul’s point of view during their trip up country, claims to have hidden the evidence against the VP.  In actuality, the evidence was taken from them by a Vietnamese Colonel who harassed them during their entire journey.  Paul leaves Vietnam and flies home.  Susan stays behind to presumably enjoy what will happen when they learn that a Vietnamese colonel who hates America has the evidence against the Vice President. 

Night Fall is tidier than Up Country, but perhaps the latter can justify its length by means of Paul Brenner’s quest.  Up Country is based upon DeMille’s knowledge of Vietnam and his experiences in the war.  Night Fall is based upon the published accounts of the TWA explosion and crash.

Just as the Iliad described various battles; so did Up Country.  The Achaeans won their war and took Helen back to Athens.  The Americans lost their war and fled in helicopters. 

John Corey is a more humorous protagonist.  Perhaps John Corey is easier for DeMille to write about.  He has thus far written seven John Corey novels. 

My current plan is to read all of the Paul Brenner and John Corey novels.  I have read a number of detective series in the past.  I had never thought any of them would become classics, but maybe some of them (in addition to some of DeMille's novels) will.  Sherlock Holmes seems light-weight.  Back when it was first published some of his readers seemed more taken with Holmes than his author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  But now Sherlock has achieved one of the requirements of a classic.  He has lived on into several succeeding generations of readers.  Most of us seem to love a good mystery.  Why is that?  Sherlock Holmes is in some of the Franklin lists but not Agatha Christie, whose Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot seem destined to live as long as Sherlock.  Why is that? 

Miscellaneous thoughts on the "Classics"

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are the earliest Classics.  The Iliad is about a war and the Odyssey is about a veteran of that war during the process of his returning home.  The war was fought with spears, swords and shields.  Virgil’s Aeneid is about another veteran of the Trojan war.  This veteran goes off to found a new nation. 

War in Homer’s and Virgil's days was fought from or against city-states and city-states we learn from archeology were a sociological advance over villages.  Going back further in time we find only hunter-gatherer tribe and those tribe members didn’t know how to write and left us no classics. 

The Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid were valued as epic poems.  Milton didn’t strive to create a classic, he strove to create an epic poem that would stand with the earlier three.  Others have striven to write epics.  Hart Crane’s Bridge is a recent example, but no attempt since Paradise Lost has been considered a success. 

The list of “classics” includes more then these epic poems.  A Classic might be a well-told story about a war, War and Peace, for example.  A Classic might also be a well-told story about an individual, Crime and Punishment for example.  It might also be a story of a great event, Moby Dick and Red Badge of Courage are examples.

A problem for good novelists, novelists seemingly capable of writing classics is that the circumstances of our societies changes rapidly.  I’m currently reading Nelson DeMille’s Wild Fire.  In it he has an ATTF (Anti-Terrorist Task Force) agent attempt to infiltrate a home-grown terrorist organization.  The agent is described as taking with him a very expensive 12 MP Nikon camera equipped with a 300 mm lens.  I suspect this is the Nikon D700 camera which was expensive in its day.  It is still an excellent camera, but most would consider it obsolete.  Wild Fire was published in November 2006.  The world of technology has changed dramatically since 2006.  Shall a novelist then play it safe and not mention technology?  Perhaps DeMille thought he was doing that by not mentioning the Nikon model, but his mentioning 12 megapixels gives it away.  Perhaps he thought 12 megapixels was going to be as good as it gets.  I thought that back then.  We were wrong. 

Also, from Wikipedia, “As of 2020, right-wing extremist terrorism accounted for the majority of terrorist attacks and plots in the US and has killed more people in the continental United States since the September 11 attacks than Islamic terrorism.  Thus, DeMille writing about a Right-Wing Terrorist organization attempting to trick the U.S. government into thinking it has been attacked by Islamic terrorists is a much-used plot.  But perhaps it was not over-used when DeMille wrote in 2006.  Nevertheless, while I am only 17% through Wild Fire I am not very excited about reading a novel with a plot that was subsequently over used.  On the other hand this prejudice isn't fair to a novelist who was the first to use this theme.  The Wild Fire American terrorists seem a bit like some of Ian Fleming's evil villains.    

Regarding "Classics" as "novels that matter"

 Without an elaboration I have yet to imagine, I can’t make that definition work, or, can’t make that elaboration work without having such novels preach; which would seem to disqualify a novel from being “great.”  Years ago in my left-wing days I read a lot of Communist-oriented novels.  Jack London wrote some – terrible stuff in my opinion, as were all the others.  I recall reading one by Clara Weatherwax called Marching, Marching.  In a 1936 review, Joseph Vanzier, aka John G. Wright, a Trotskyite, concluded “As for the novel itself, it is a travesty on literature and a libel against the working class. Its style is the dregs of the Joyce tradition, drained off through the worst of Wolfe and Faulkner, combined with school-essay “straightforward” writing. Its characters are wooden monstrosities, conceived with a kind of horrible masochistic delight in repulsive details and an infantile pleasure in trivial nobilities. The book is liberally interlarded with long speeches on war, strikes, trade unions, Fascism, apparently lifted from back copies of the Daily Worker.

“What is tragic is to realize that even in a book so bad as this there are materials, lost in the morass, for genuine and even great literature. Not the least in the charges of the indictment against Stalinism must be the stultification of intelligence and sensibility to which it condemns its adherents.” 
I’d be interested in learning what Vanzier thought “genuine and even great literature” would be.  Would giving it a Trotskyist emphasis satisfy him? 

Moving into the present I can imagine Nelson DeMille’s The General’s Daughter mattering to those who disapprove of discrimination against women in the same way that Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles mattered to those who disapproved of the sexual mores of Victorian England, and before Tess was the Scarlet Letter which exemplified Hawthorne’s disapproval of the mores of early Massachusetts.  

As to whether The General’s Daughter might one day be included in someone’s list of Classics (It is only in Franklin’s collection of “Signed First Editions”), The Scarlet Letter is included in the Franklin Library’s 100 greatest books of all time, but Tess of the D’Urbervilles is not. 
Franklin also published the 50 volume Oxford Library of the World’s Greatest Books.  Both The Scarlet Letter and Tess of the D’Ubervilles are included in the 50.  I read them years apart, but my recollection is that Hardy is more heavy handed than Hawthorne.  Tess murders her seducer and is to be hanged.  Hester Prynne is merely shunned for refusing to name her seducer.

Put in more personal terms I continue to like The Scarlet Letter whereas while I admit that I was powerfully affected by Tess of the D’Urberilles I no longer like it; however, perhaps in this ongoing search Italo Calvino is useful: “In the 1980s, Italo Calvino said in his essay "Why Read the Classics?" that "a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say" and comes to the crux of personal choice in this matter when he says: "Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him." Consideration of what makes a literary work a classic is for Calvino ultimately a personal choice, and, constructing a universal definition of what constitutes a Classic Book seems to him to be an impossibility, since, as Calvino says "There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics.”   

Alas, even if I agree with Calvino, I won’t be inventing such a library.  I’ve read most of the novels on these various lists over a long period of time, and I am not willing to go back and reread novels I no longer like in order to reevaluate my feelings.       

On the value of reading

 I'm convinced that we retain more from our early formative years than we realize -- or maybe we later realize some of it from the results.  In my own case I was raised by my paternal grandmother until I was ten. She had lost her hearing in her adolescence for a year or two and so never finished high school.  She made up for it by reading and convinced me that reading was the most important thing I could do.  One could read greater teachers than our schools could provide.  My first library card was a very big deal for me.  I describe my feelings after I got back from Korea as not liking the peace-time-Marines and list that as my reason for not shipping over.  And yet I spent my free time at the 29 Palms base library reading "classics," and I supplemented those by subscribing to Black's "Classics Club" which involved receiving a new book every month.  So perhaps I have deceived myself by thinking I might have shipped over if I was promised some agreeable duty.  Perhaps the books I carried about in my sea bag counted more than any Marine Corps' promise could.

And now I am 86 years old, and quite content to be sequestered in my well-furnished house with my well-furnished library, reading one book after another.  I am pragmatist enough to need a purpose, but I recall that my grandmother gave me one years ago: keep reading.  It will equip you to do anything you want to do and make you more than a match for any future that awaits.