What non-Go book are you reading right now?

A recent television documentary about Dante and The Divine Comedy inspired me to finally read this revered work. Flipping through a copy of Dante in translation, it can sometimes seem that the copious footnotes are going to overwhelm the actual text, and I suppose that’s why I would always place the book back on the shelf and move on. In this 2013 edition the Australian poet Clive James has dispensed with the footnotes entirely, incorporating some of that information into the text on what he feels to be a strict need to know basis. This won’t always be satisfying for any reader not thoroughly versed in classical mythology or European history, but it does make the poem seem more accessible, and I think it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

There’s a major stylistic change as well. Knowing he could never match the musicality of the original Italian, James has replaced the rhyming triplets with quatrains, a form he’s familiar with and more at ease. I’ll leave it to scholars to determine how convincing the translation is and just say that I find this version consistently clever and engaging.

The Divine Comedy is so famous that practically anyone who has even heard of it likely knows the basic setup. I’m not inclined to get into a lengthy discussion of the particulars. The journey through Hell is of course harrowing and gets worse the deeper Dante goes. Where personal growth and narrative tension are concerned, the climb up Mount Purgatory is probably the most meaningful section. Dante is preoccupied with learning the background of every person he meets in order to spread the news back home, or perhaps (where appropriate) to encourage others to intercede through prayer. All very commendable, but it is after all his mission to see to his own salvation, and such distractions get in the way. By the time he meets his idol Beatrice, he is still lacking the necessary level of reflection and self-examination. Beatrice chastises him for his presumption, which raises a few eyebrows amongst the heavenly host. On the final leg of the journey things become more abstract, the imagery more confusing. It’s not so obvious where or on what anyone is standing, which seems likely enough when traveling through the celestial regions. There are more testimonials as before, and quite a few theological discourses that attempt to explain that famous oneness of all things. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself rereading some passages several times. Bearing all this in mind, I would recommend this work to anyone with a taste for poetry and the ability to set all skepticism aside.

By way of a sidenote, I must say I felt badly for Virgil, the great Latin poet who serves as Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory. As a member of the pre-Christian world, he is permanently barred from entering Heaven and must pass the time in the place called Limbo, a subsection of the first circle of Hell. People there are neither rewarded nor punished, existing in a perpetual milling about, apparently without so much as a dartboard or a pot of coffee to divert them. Of all the lingering questions I’ve taken away, probably the most persistent one is whether Virgil would have felt grateful to be released from Limbo, albeit to serve as a tour guide through Hell. It’s been said that variety is the spice of life, but things down there get very spicy indeed.

I’m now reading The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. Existentialist philosophy on the heels of The Divine Comedy. Hopefully my brain won’t suffer from whiplash.

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Finished four books with SF stories & short novels by Christopher Anvil … very funny and clever.

Now reading Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest SF novel, “Alien Clay”.

It’s an amazing read again, as was every single one of his SF books that I’ve read so far (nine or ten meanwhile, I think), one review on the back side of the cover says “unputdownable”, and yes, it is exactly that — highly imaginative and science-based world building, together with convincing characters and intelligent social criticism, all told from the 1st person perspective of a scientist, an exo-biologist and exo-ecologist, who is convicted to a life sentence on an extra-solar prison planet because he stood up against the “Mandate”, the governing body on a dystopian Earth, and this planet harbours many diverse life forms dangerous to humans plus ruins built and left behind by some mysterious alien species that apparently was not native on that planet. The concentration camp was built there for reason of finding out about those ruins and aliens …

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Still Ada Palmer Terra Ignota Series
(I had a different account earlier)

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Still reading Alien Clay by Adrian Tchaikovsky | Goodreads, about ⅔ through i only get to read 5–15 pages per day I think), and GOODNESS is it awesome.

I even invented a new word: to fear-hope (angst-hoffen in German) — because I fear-hope it will be a trilogy again … fear because I might not live to read the next books, and hope because I want to read more of that universe.

I think I have read all of Tchaikovsky’s SF so far, and every single book was amazing. The third book in the “Children of Time” trilogy was quite hard stuff though — but I think that might have been because I had too many specific expectations.
The “Final Architecture” trilogy, also “wow”.

You deserve more than a single like on your Dante post. I’ve been meaning to respond, but it has taken me a while to recover from my 10-day trip.

I am an admirer of Dante, even though I remember very little after 52 years. I first read The Divine Comedy in my tweens, attracted I think by the fabulous illustrations by Gustave Doré. This was in a beautiful Pantheon Books edition (1948), which I rescued from my father’s basement books after his death. It was slightly mildewed, but I was keen on saving it, so I rehabilitated it over several years, and today you would not know there was a problem. The translation was by Lawrence Grant White, in blank verse, with a large number of full-page Doré illustrations (supposedly a selection, but I have never seen any not in this volume). The verse is reasonably well done, but a bit wordy, as the translator stuffs the lines to make the meter work.

By the time I was 18, my father had acquired the John Ciardi translation (3 paperback volumes), long considered the benchmark for this, which I read in my first semester at college. Everyone agrees, I think, that the terza rima is too difficult to artfully reproduce in English. Ciardi chose to do a close approximation using a rhyme scheme of ABA, CDC, etc., instead of the ABA, BCB pattern. I love his translation, which is poetic and, in contrast to the blank verse, is lean and dynamic. Ciardi does have a wealth of notes at the end of each canto, but with my budding interest in mythology, folklore, and history, I delighted in them.

After finishing that, I went on to Dante’s La Vita Nuova, which I found in my college library. I was very taken with that, feeling it had a power similar to some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. However, I may have been in an unduly receptive, sentimental mindset, being recently separated from my high school running friends, musical friends, and girlfriend.

As you know, I am a fan of Camus, and I have read The Myth of Sisyphus twice. It has one of my favorite quotes: “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” I look forward to your thoughts on that book.

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My Iliad rereading/translation-comparison project goes slowly, because the differences in the translations are shockingly large. I am expending a great deal of time and thought trying to understand why different choices were made (very hard because I don’t know the Greek). I’m not complaining, it’s fascinating.

In the meantime, I’m breaking things up with some light reading. For that, I often reach for Hollywood memoirs/biographies. I’m about half done with W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes by Robert Lewis Taylor (1949/1967). I’m a fan of Fields, having seen most of his movies, and also a fan of juggling. He ran away from home at age 11, due to an abusive father, and lived on the streets of Philadelphia and in the fields of rural Pennsylvania for some years. He lived by theft and cadging sandwiches from bars and was often arrested, but he took an interest in juggling and practiced obsessively starting at age 13. He was touring in small stock companies in his late teens and soon became a Vaudevillian, billing himself as the Tramp Juggler (an influence on the younger Chaplin, I believe). For seven years, he was a headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies, beginning in 1915 at the age of 36. This drives home the sad fact that Fields was already in late middle age by the time of his talkie films. It is apparently true that he was widely regarded as the world’s greatest juggler in his youth, after several successful world tours. He was supposedly the first to incorporate a major humorous element into juggling; he often pretended to be near dropping something or would get into some kind to trouble that threatened to wreck the act, but then would pull off phenomenal “saves.”

So far, my two favorite, well-sourced stories are these: While playing the Berlin Wintergarten theater, he was blinded by the new bright lights they had installed in the ceiling. He kept missing his catches of balls, Indian clubs, hats, and cigar boxes. Instead of being booed off the stage, as he would have been in the U.S. or England, the audience laughed hysterically, especially when an Indian club landed on his head. He loved German audiences ever after.

Stage performers in revues in the days of Vaudeville were viciously competitive and often pranked one another in the spirit of sabotage (giving tremendous extra verisimilitude to Nolan’s phenomenal movie, The Prestige [2006]). When he began in the Follies, his enemy was Ed Wynn, soon to be the “king of clowns.” Their rivalry climaxed when Wynn hid under the pool table where Fields was doing his act and stole laughs with comic facial expressions and other antics. After puzzling over the audience’s reactions, Fields finally noticed him. When Wynn stuck his head out a little, Fields gave him a terrific wallop with his cue (using it like a golf club was part of the act). The audience roared with laughter thinking it was part of the act, and laughed every time Wynn moaned while struggling back to consciousness. Afterward, Fields went to Ziegfeld and offered to incorporate Wynn in his act as the stooge. Wynn declined the offer.

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Thanks for your comments. And you are so right about those illustrations. The edition I was reading doesn’t have any, but the library had a gorgeous illustrated copy of Inferno, and I suspect that the next time I’m over there I’ll take a few minutes to look at those pictures again. Already it’s becoming somewhat of a habit with me. I suppose someone will eventually attempt an exhaustive film version of this story, but I doubt that the cgi effects, impressive though they might be, would ever match the magnificence of what’s been achieved by hand.

My thoughts regarding The Myth of Sisyphus are difficult to express in capsule form. I’m tempted to say that I find it reassuring or comforting, as though Camus were offering a mere bromide as opposed to facing a stark reality head on. Some folks of the atheist persuasion (now there’s a problematic phrasing) sometimes declare that there’s really no such thing as an agnostic, that you simply cannot be a fence sitter. Camus obviously begs to differ on that point. For him the fence is everything. He may appear to be leaning more to the atheist side, but it would be a mistake to draw any conclusion from that. His stated goal is not to validate anything, but to outline the nature of the conundrum that the “absurd man” in society grapples with from day to day. To go all-in for one side or the other rejects too much that Camus finds intellectually robust or full of creative potential or both. With this double refusal he was able to work out what appears to be a solid way of life, a way that finds meaning in each particular thing or scenario.

I came to this essay relatively late in life, and so it hasn’t been the formative experience it perhaps might have been earlier. I look back, for instance, at my reaction to Thoreau’s Walden, around age twenty or so, and what I found appealing about it wasn’t so much what Thoreau has to say as the simple fact that there were people out there who felt that way and wouldn’t have thought me a weirdo for feeling the same. The Myth of Sisyphus must have similarly uplifted and bolstered the spirits of many a reader, even if only in the sense that there are many who find themselves in that same proverbial boat. I don’t doubt that thoughts of the absurd man have been their steady companion over the years.

There’s so much more to be said here, but this is what my brain dredges up at the moment. Trying to keep up with Albert Camus can feel like a futile pursuit, but the exercise does seem beneficial.

ps I get what you’re saying about the disparities from one translation to another. In the Clive James translation of the Divine Comedy, the famous “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” has been replaced with (paraphrasing) Forget your hopes, your hopes are what brought you here.

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The last few posts show an interesting evolution in this topic. From mere mentions of “this is what I am reading now” to more elaborate book review-post.
It is getting more a "What non go book are you reading and WHY IS IT FASCINATING? kind of topic.

(Please go on in this way.)

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I like how you express Camus’s position. I think Camus certainly leaned atheist, but he had such a restless, questing mind that he never closed the door to honest discussion. This is something that I greatly admire in him. I have walked the road from pure atheist (age 14) to questing agnostic (aided by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison in my college years), to born-again 25 years ago (age 44). From this experience, I can appreciate his, or anyone’s, struggle in this matter. I have an intriguing book that may add a lot to understanding Camus’s outlook, Albert Camus and the Minister by Howard Mumma (Paraclete Press, 2000). Mumma was a Methodist minister from Ohio, and Camus heard him speak in Paris and invited him to lunch. This began a philosophical conversation and friendship that lasted for several years. However, I have not read the book yet, so I don’t know more.

I too came to Camus late in life, but he has greatly stimulated my mature years. I may have mentioned before that my favorites among his books are The Rebel and The Plague. And I also share with you a great youthful liking for Walden, around age 12. What attracted me to it was his nature writing and the idea of being alone in the woods. I spent a large part of my childhood playing in the woods and going on occasional family hikes in the mountains, so Walden spurred my curiosity.

Thank you for your interest. The danger of being boring is always a gnawing worry whenever I write. It is a writing sin second only to dishonesty in my view.

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A few days ago, I looked up Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone (2006) in the county library catalog and was delighted to find it. I have meant to do that for years, because an indie movie of the same title (2010) is my favorite dramatic film of the last 20+ years. It was commercially and critically successful (Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor), but is unaccountably little known today.

The story is set in the Missouri Ozarks, filmed on location in an area I visited on one of my rock-hunting trips many years ago. Ree Dolly, a 16-year-old girl who is the sole support of her brain-damaged mother and two younger siblings, is searching for her father, a meth cooker under indictment. The family’s house and forest acreage were put up for bond, so if her father fails to show up in court, the family will lose everything. Ree’s search is a realistic nightmare journey through a hardscrabble landscape filled with edgy, gritty people. The tension never lets up, and the writing is super-tight, vivid, and powerful. I’m loving it.

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I’ve seen the film version but remember almost none of the particulars. Which is somewhat strange, because I do recall that it impressed me as a solid production all-round.

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Almost half done with my SF book group’s latest selection, We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen (2021), not to be confused with another modern book by the same title. It tells of a survey ship assessing a planet in another star system for possible colonization. The dysfunctional crew and their android helpers struggle to understand what is happening as they encounter a series of strange events. The story has strong vibes of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. The characterization, however, is tremendous and the suspense is compelling as layers of paranoia and cat-and-mouse intrigue unfold.

On the negative side, the story is significantly contrived. It is unbelievable that a crew this incompatible, and lacking redundancy of their skills, would be entrusted with the mission. Also, it is hard to believe that the protagonist would join such a mismatched crew. Like so many of today’s books that cater to publisher demands, it is padded with unnecessary digressions. Of course, that practice has a long tradition going back to Dickens and his contemporaries. Nevertheless, I pine for the old Ace and Ballantine novels that came in at 200 to 300 pages.

Meanwhile, I am still working away at my Iliad rereading project, now on Book 10. Progress is slow but absorbing, as I spend a great deal of time thinking about such things as narrative structure and researching baffling details (e.g., “single-foot horses”). Not surprisingly, I am enjoying this much more than when I was 14.

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A study of forms of life and thought of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in France and the Low Countries.

Aso translated into English.

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Sue Burke (of “Semiosis” Fame): “Dual Memory”.

Not finished yet, but it is an awesome read, like everything I’ve read so far from this author. Pining for her next book already, hopefully a third book in her “Semiosis” series about intelligent plants.

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