I had less time for reading this year than I would have liked. When I selected Drago Jancar’s haunting and beautiful The Tree with No Name for Slate’s Overlooked Books, it was still with the knowledge that I’d read a lot less fiction than I’d wanted. And Antal Szerb’s excellent, though modest Journey by Moonlight is a bit of a cheat, since I read it (and wrote about it) when Pushkin Press published it all the way back in 2003, rather than when NYRB Classics reissued it this year. It’s stayed with me, though, so I can pick it with more certainty than some of the other choices.
And Alonso de Ercilla’s 1569 Spanish-Chilean epic The Araucaniad has been an alluring title to me since I read about it in David Quint’s fascinating Epic and Empire in connection with Lucan’s Civil War. Quint described The Araucaniad as one of those rare epics that takes the side of the losers, and it’s one of those artifacts, like Lucan’s Civil War, that doesn’t fit neatly with any common sense of literary history. Its relevance stems from its own grim variation on a theme that is at the heart of so many great epics and books: in Quint’s words, “that those who have been victimized losers in history somehow have the right to become victimizing winners, in turn.” It deserves a new translation.
As with last year, I haven’t read the entirety of some of the nonfiction selections: Chris Wickham is an excellent historian but I’m not going to deny that some of his Annales-ish wonkery had my eyes skimming. And while the biology and physics books are pretty interesting, I can’t say with much certainty that they’re accurate.
If anyone’s curious as to why some book or other made the list, feel free to ask in the comments. Thanks again for reading my work here or elsewhere.
(As always, I do not make any money from these links; they’re just the easiest way to get the thumbnails.)
John Marston was one of the nastier Renaissance playwrights, and his lack of restraint eventually appears to have gotten him in so much trouble that he had to leave the stage altogether and enter the clergy. His play The Malcontent, which was probably performed in 1603 and then published in 1604, is a severe melodrama of a deposed Duke, Altofronto, grouchily plotting to regain his rulership by pretending to be a truth-telling counselor and misanthrope–named Malevole, just to make that point clear–and bringing out the worst tendencies of those in the court. They don’t need much encouragement, since the court’s “minion” Mendoza, who is sleeping with the current Duke’s wife, has plenty of Machiavellian plans of his own, and Altofronto/Malevole just needs to tap him to push him over the precipice. The expected “happy ending” is more reassuring than that of Measure by Measure, but even less convincing.
But there are two poetic, though somewhat out of place, soliloquys reflecting on the wretchedness of man that caught my attention. They have the typical gnarled flow of Marston’s prose, which seems to be closer to its Roman Silver Age antecedents than anyone else’s (Seneca was a huge influence at the time). And thanks to the notes of G. K. Hunter in my Revels edition, I see that both speeches were adapted from a single source: Joshua Sylvester’s translation of Du Bartas’ epic religious poems. Marston alters them both in style and tone, but he appropriates structure and imagery freely. The first invokes the title of the play and is a looser borrowing:
JOHN MARSTON, THE MALCONTENT III.ii
MALEVOLE I cannot sleep ; my eyes’ ill-neighbouring lids Will hold no fellowship. O thou pale sober night, Thou that in sluggish fumes all sense dost steep ; Thou that giv’st all the world full leave to play, Unbend’st the feebled veins of sweaty labour! The galley-slave, that all the toilsome day Tugs at his oar against the stubborn wave, Straining his rugged veins, snores fast ; The stooping scythe-man, that doth barb the field. Thou mak’st wink sure : in night all creatures sleep ; Only the malcontent, that ‘gainst his fate Repines and quarrels, — alas, he’s goodman tell-clock ! His sallow jaw-bones sink with wasting moan ; Whilst others’ beds are down, his pillow’s stone.
DU BARTAS, THE FIRST DAY OF THE FIRST WEEK, tr. JOSHUA SYLVESTER
The Night is she, that with her sable wing, In gloomy Darkness hushing every thing, Through all the World dumb silence doth distill, And wearied bones with quiet sleep doth fill. Sweet Night, without Thee, without Thee, alas, Our life were loathsome; even a Hell to pass. …… He that, still stooping, tugs against the tide His laden barge alongst a River’s side, And filling shores with shouts, doth melt him quite ; Upon his pallet resteth yet at Night. He, that in summer, in extremest heat Scorched all day in his own scalding sweat, Shaves with keen Scythe, the glory and delight Of motley meadows ; resteth yet at night, …… Only the learned Sisters’ sacred Minions, While silent Night under her sable pinions Folds all the world, with painless pain they tread A sacred path that to the Heavens doth lead.
Where he borrows images, Marston sharpens the prose: “The galley-slave…tugs at his oar against the stubborn wave” in Sylvester becomes “He that, still stooping, tugs against the tide” in Marston. “He that shaves with keen scythe the glory and delight of motley meadows” becomes “The stooping scythe-man that doth barb the field.” The drastic difference is that into Du Bartas’ picture of sleep’s respite from the cruel world, Marston injects the malcontent, “goodman tell-clock,” who can’t sleep. (I admit I don’t know what Sylvester is getting at with “painless pain.”)
The second speech is more unquestionably plagiaristic. It is delivered by Pietro, Malevole’s successor and target. Pietro, here, is describing to his wife Aurelia the terrible hell she’s brought to him by sleeping with Mendoza.
JOHN MARSTON, THE MALCONTENT IV.v
PIETRO My cell ’tis, lady ; where, instead of masks, Music, tilts, tourneys, and such courtlike shows, The hollow murmur of the checkless winds Shall groan again ; whilst the unquiet sea Shakes the whole rock with foamy battery. There usherless the air comes in and out : The rheumy vault will force your eyes to weep, Whilst you behold true desolation : A rocky barrenness shall pierce your eyes. Where all at once one reaches where he stands, With brows the roof, both walls with both his hands.
DU BARTAS, THE FIRST DAY OF THE SECOND WEEK, tr. JOSHUA SYLVESTER
Who, Full Of wealth and honour’s blandishment, Among great Lords his younger years hath spent ; And quaffing deeply of the Court-delights, Us’d nought but tilts, tourneys, and masks, & sights – If in his age his Prince’s angry doom With deep disgrace drive him to live at home In homely cottage, where continually The bitter smoke exhales abundantly From his before-un-sorrow-drained brain The brackish vapours of a silver rain : Where usherless, both day and night, the North, South, East and West winds enter and go forth, Where round-about, the low-roofed broken walls Instead of Arras hang with Spiders’ cauls, Where all at once he reacheth as he stands. With brows the roof, both walls with both his hands.
This Sylvester source passage is far harsher than the earlier, with knottier syntax to match. (“His before-un-sorrow-drained-brain” seems worthy of Marston. Or Robert Walser.) The context is a long simile for the expulsion from Eden, comparing it to a Prince who’s been reduced to living in poverty. Again, Marston roughs up Sylvester (Marston gets a “rheumy vault” out of Sylvester’s “homely cottage”), but Sylvester has already done half the work in making his prose so jagged. Marston had far less distance to go in adapting it into his style. The final image, of the inhabitant virtually trapped in a tiny room no taller nor wider than he is, is grim enough that Marston leaves it outright.
In both cases I prefer Marston for the sharper-edged and more visceral prose. Hunter cites an earlier critic from the 1930s using the passages as evidence of Marston’s lack of talent, so maybe we’ve finally caught up with Marston. (I think Eliot was a fan.)
Hunter points out that at least one other writer of the period, Thomas Tomkis, borrowed from the first Du Bartas passage. Hence one of the more common homilies of the Renaissance, lost in our originality-obsessed age: if you see a good image or a memorable theme, no matter how different the context to what you’re writing, don’t hesitate: steal it.
So many books, so many books. I consciously tried to expand my reading horizons this year, which has helped to swell my reading list to unmanageable lengths. Sifting out worthy entries in disciplines with which I’m not especially familiar is not at all easy, so sometimes I just have to go on faith that apparent hard work, diligence, and care have resulted in an enlightening end product.
Krasznahorkai’sSatantango is certainly for me the book of the year, though in its way Lucan’s Civil War was as well, and I was very happy to have William Bronk‘s later poetry collected.
I have hardly read all of all of the nonfiction selections–I’ll be lucky if I ever read the Bailyn book cover to cover–but they have all been of note to me at least as reference or inspiration. Some stragglers from 2011 have snuck in as well.
If anyone’s curious as to why some book or other made the list, feel free to ask in the comments. Reviews on a couple are forthcoming.
(As always, I do not make any money from these links–this was just by far the simplest way to get thumbnails and metadata.)
Slovenian writer Drago Jančar published The Galley Slave in 1978, but it doesn’t bear too many signifiers of that particular time, at least to Western eyes. Its setting is firmly premodern. Even though the novel is set in the identifiable 17th century, plague and witch-trials are the two most frequent events. This is not the civilized world.
Emerging from a long trek through a swamp, Johan Ot arrives in a small town in Central Europe, around the Adriatic. Protestantism burgeons, Leopold I is Holy Roman Emperor, and the plague is visiting town after town, so I suspect we are in 1679, year of the Vienna Plague.
Everyone is scared, even the Emperor. No one understands a damn thing. The Scientific Revolution may have happened, but the upper classes are absent from this book; this is about the countryside, and so it feels medieval. No one knows who to blame and no one knows what causes anything. Is it God? The Devil? Witches?
The nightmarish events and even the protagonist’s name, Johan Ot, might recall Kafka, but the resemblance is only superficial. In Kafka there is a sharp delineation between the protagonist and the other characters and setting. Josef K., Gregor Samsa, and the rest are devoid of true allies, and they are always singular characters distinct from anyone else in the world.
In The Galley Slave, Johan’s fate is not signaled to be anything especially different from that of those around him, other than by chance or misfortune. Others can be friendly or hostile, but they hold no secrets. Some of them have authority and control, though–people do not differ by levels of knowledge, only by degrees of power. At times, Johan does begin to suspect he might be different, a thought that Kafka’s characters resolutely avoid. The chaotic tumble of events, which sends him all around the Adriatic coast and eventually toward Venice, is closer to Kleist or Leskov.
Johan has some medical skills; he takes up lodgings in the town and is comfortable. Jančar tends to announce the forthcoming plot points before they occur, lending a didactic and premodern slant to the narrative. So when there is much talk of witch trials and the gathering of evidence, we know Johan will be arrested and tried long before it happens in a flash, after a dizzy summary of pagan rituals that seem half-dreamed by him.
Though the process for the trial is set out in detail, again hinting at Kafka, the condemnation is quick. (Carlo Ginzburg’s The Night Battles depicts how such trials went.) Yet Johan escapes his death by being taken in by a revolutionary millennial religious brotherhood (leftovers of the Templars?), seeking to overthrow church and state both. From them he sees “the true face of the world”:
Fire and blood and chaos were the order of the day. The cruel, bloodthirsty Turk was still skewering innocent Christian children on his pike before their parents’ eyes. He had been beaten back a hundred times, but still he wouldn’t relent. Rebellious peasants were being condemned to death and the gallesy. The nobles were undermining the Emperor’s and the Church’s authority with their plots and feuds. The Church was perpetrating the worst sacrileges. Barely had it managed to subdue Luther’s false prophets than it was once again overtaken by greed, sin, and viciousness….
But the old brotherhood was still alive. It was corroding this world of darkness at its roots. It’s true it had been involved in the uprisings. It’s true it had been a part of conspiracies. For aren’t all means permitted when one is destroying a world built on chaos and error? (84)
This truth fades. The brotherhood sends him on missions to spread the secret gospel (it might be Protestant, but it feels millennial), but he loses interest and falls in with a reasonably affable group of merchants, settling down and sleeping with Dorotea, the wife of successful merchant Locatelli. The government and the revolutionaries have not forgotten him, of course.
Further events ensue, including an anomalous episode between Dorotea and Emperor Leopold, which seems to have wandered in from another book. Other frequent but less jarring shifts in tone occur as well, making it harder to figure out just who Johan Ot is, or just who anyone is. Beneath the chaos, this is the center of the book, and whatever identity Johan claims for himself is slowly removed as he is drawn toward his eventual fate as a Venetian galley slave.
The question of identity is paramount. Though this is hardly a totalitarian regime, Johan is claimed by various groups over the course of the book, and his inability to find any enduring place for himself.
What did Johan Ot want, where did he come from and where was he going and what, in fact, was he doing in the middle of this moment that seemed forever to turn back on itself? Surrounded by dangers and pleasures that, to tell the truth, had absolutely nothing to do with him? What brilliant notion did Adam have inside him that his eye burned bright and his mind spun and spun, and all he craved was action? And Ot’s covenant–hadn’t he once been a member of a group that also wanted to create and order things in this world? He had? A horrid shudder went up his spine. He had? And a sharp realization shot through him, one that had already pushed him out into the world so many times before: get going. Bad things are brewing here. Blades are being sharpened here, and ropes are being braided for necks. Get going. Away from this place. Here he would only rot in some tower of justice again, some joker would put on the thumbscrews and he’d be paraded through the streets on a cart like some exotic beast. That morning by the river he felt the whole of the chaos of the universe within him, and it shifted and jostled and collided inside him, sharpening into a single, clear thought: get going. (171)
Each time he leaves he loses himself. Hints of his life before the start of the book are given, but only faintly. The use of the premodern setting is extremely unsettling: the moorings obtained in urban life to assert one’s self, one’s thoughts, and one’s sanity simply don’t exist. Superstitions cannot be so easily disposed of, when a coherent truth is not available. Johan tries to trust his senses and his instincts, but they cannot stand up to the assault of incoherence.
Here Kleist looms large, but Kleist remains at the level of event and surface to portray the cosmos more than the person. Jančar’s delicate engagement with Johan’s psychology creates a frightening evocation of ego-collapse, the likes of which readers are fortunate not to know today. Whether it is accurate is difficult to tell: the premodern pre-urban mentality seems to resist capture in words. (That strange Leopold/Dorotea episode causes the book to lose focus for a bit.) But with those psychological touches, Jančar gets closer to its absolute foreignness than many, and the last third paints Johan’s final release of his self with an austere and punishing gracefulness.
It’s best summarized when Johan is sick, lying on a hillside watching a procession of inspired, self-flagellating pilgrims with torches. A toothless vagrant tends to him and tells him:
“You’re bad off,” he said. “You’ve seen everything but you’ve understood nothing. Everyone is getting slaughtered and flattened in these times of ours. Other people know why. You haven’t passed any of your tests very well.” (245)
To which Johan replies, in a virtually anachronistic moment of clarity:
“I see just one thing–this sorry country and this terrible mess. This mental illness that’s crossing through the land and drenching it through and through–the land, the air, the people. I said that once somewhere. They tried to butcher me for that. So I’ll say it again: spiritual anguish is being forged into human substance. That’s why all of this has to collapse, disintegrate, and rot. Along with me.” (247)