Showing posts with label literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label literature. Show all posts

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Nikolai Leskov: New Collection

One of nineteenth century Russia's most interesting and idiosyncratic writers, Nikolai Leskov, is newly available in an English language translation of seventeen or so of his stories. A review of the book is in today's Sunday Book Review Section of the New York Times.

I was pleased to learn that the collection includes a translation of Leskov's most famous story, "Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District."

The story, a somewhat lurid love story that turns out badly, is best known from its adaptation to opera form by the composer Dmitri Shostakovitch and first performed in Leningrad in 1934. It played to rave critical reviews until Stalin attended in early 1936, whereupon the opera became loudly condemned by the Communist Party and denounced in the party's newspaper Pravda.

Not only was the opera withdrawn, not to be performed again for some three decades, Shostakovitch's Fourth Symphony, then in final rehearsals, was also withdrawn. This controversy nearly destroyed Shostakovitch's career.

I have a copy of Leskov's collected works in Russian, and once attempted a translation of Lady Macbeth.

I put it in the "too hard" file.

I look forward to reading it in someone else's translation.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Good Guys And Bad Guys

I'm always a little uneasy when I hear young soldiers talking about "good guys" and "bad guys." How, I wonder, do they tell the difference, especially in someone else's civil war. Our guys weren't very good at it in Viet Nam, though I remember the time an airborne spotter called off a gunfire mission. He could tell the villagers weren't acting like bad guys.

All of us who grew up watching cowboy movies could easily tell the good guys from the bad guys. Good guys wore white hats and light-colored clothing. They were straight talkers.

Bad guys not only wore black hats, they sneered and bullied people.

Back in the 1950's, John Steinbeck wrote an essay about good guys and bad guys. He described the conventions of the cowboy movie in great detail. It was his young son who decoded the art form for him.

During the Army-McCarthy hearings, he asked his son if he had watched the hearings on television. He had. Could the son tell who was the bad guy? Yes. McCarthy was the bad guy. He wasn't clean-shaven and he sneered at people and bullied them.

Watching Congressional Republicans on TV, I think they didn't get Steinbeck's memo. Most of them seem clean-shaven enough, but they haven't dropped the sneering and bullying.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Notable Passing

I never know how to react when I learn that a contemporary has passed on.

Dean Faulkner was William Faulkner's niece and stepdaughter. I knew who she was when we were both students at Ole Miss. I don't know if she knew me. A friend of mine dated her from time to time.

She was the last living Faulkner. Last year she published a memoir of the Faulkner family. I need to read it.

I'm sorry I'll never have the chance to discuss it with her.

She was a literary figure in her own right.

The end of an era.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Boat Names

Who would name a boat Yoknapatawpha? And why? A good brief essay on boat naming, history and literature explains.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Poem For The General Assemby

I think that I shall never see,
A billboard lovely as a tree.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Billy Goats Gruff

Yesterday I asked in passing whether ferries have trolls. I now realize some readers may not recognize the reference.

It has been about seventy years since I first read the story about the Billy Goats Gruff. Since then, I have always associated trolls with bridges. So, since our ferries play the role of bridges, I naturally wondered if they could have trolls.

Since, in the story of the Billy Goats Gruff, the troll was attempting to exact a particularly high toll (the life of a goat), I thought there might be a connection.

The story ends with the troll's demise, done in by his excessive greed.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Let Us Now Praise Eccentrics

My recent comments on eccentrics has drawn a response. Just to avoid misunderstanding, I am not opposed to eccentrics. The late Mr. Faulkner himself (who I used to encounter strolling the streets of Oxford, MS.) might be described as eccentric. At least unconventional. In some circles, my own status as a non eccentric is at least in dispute. By the way, I am impressed at the picture of Mr. Faulkner's sailboat on Sardis Lake, gliding along above the former wildlife habitat of the Tallahatchie bottom, where William Faulkner once hunted bears.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Eccentricities, Etc.

I popped into Town and Country not long ago to buy some essential item and was delighted to run into one of our long-time residents, Tony Tharp.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will reveal that Tony hails from Leland, Mississippi, where Highway 61 of blues fame crosses Highway 82, about a dozen miles from Greenville, where my family lived when I attended Ole Miss. He also once worked for a friend of mine, Hodding Carter, editor and publisher of the Delta Democrat-Times, affectionately known as the DDT. Leland is not very far from where the Southern meets the Yellow Dog.

Tony arrived in Oriental not long before I did, but unlike me (though some may disagree), he is a bit eccentric. This characteristic is not unknown among Oriental residents, I believe.

I learned that Tony is once again expressing his eccentricities in a web site,

Check it out. You may be alternately amazed, amused and enlightened. Perhaps even occasionally enraged.

He posts his entries from his sailboat, Yoknapatawpha. Those of a literary bent will recognize the name. Few know, though, that the late William Faulkner kept a sailboat on Sardis Lake near Oxford, Mississippi. In the 1950's, the sailboat was maintained by another Mississippi eccentric, V.P. Ferguson.

I'll bet even Tony doesn't know that.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011

A great man died today.

Vaclav [pronounced "Vatslav"] Havel had been a literary figure and dissident under the Czechoslovak communist regime. He spent four years in communist prisons, but managed to inspire a large following through his plays and other writings. He was an eloquent advocate of democracy.

Havel was one of the first spokesmen for the Charter 77 human rights movement (after the abortive "Prague Spring" of 1968), a leading figure in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the last president of the state of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. He died Sunday night  at the age of 75 at his country place in North Bohemia. He was one of the greatest Czechs of modern history.

Despite his international prominence and popularity, Havel had become something of a controversial figure in  his own country. Radio Prague has published a detailed obituary, describing Havel's accomplishments and related controversies.

The New York Times has a slightly different take.

A curious feature of most biographies of Havel is that while mentioning that the Havel family was wealthy, that Havel's father founded the Barrandov subdivision and movie studio near Prague, and that the family's property was confiscated in 1948 by the communists, no mention is made of the Havels' activities during the Nazi occupation. In fact, the elder Havel collaborated with the Nazi regime, including producing Nazi propaganda films at Barrandov. Here is one account of that period.

It would be unfair to brand the younger Havel with his family's collaboration (he was only three years old when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939), and it is hard to imagine Havel himself as a collaborator. Still, it is curious that Czechs still avert their eyes from some details of that period.

Havel himself, during the communist period, referred to Czechoslovakia as "Absurdistan."

Havel's grandfather developed a Prague landmark, the Lucerna ballroom and theater, near Wenceslas square. One hall is decorated with an ironic sculpture of Wenceslas astride a dead horse dangling from the ceiling.

It's a Czech thing.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Aristocratic Anarchists

“The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn’t; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all. Aristocrats were always anarchists.”

(G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday)

Twisted Blogs

One of the delights of reading other people's blogs is the occasional encounter with a telling, humorous phrase. This may even happen in blogs devoted to the dismal science or, worse, to literature.

One such blog is "Making Light." I especially like the column of bon mots at the left hand column of the home page.

The blog's readers contribute some of the most interesting comments I have seen on blogs.

Today's winner (in response to a blog post about Newt Gingrich, Aasimov's Foundation trilogy and Paul Krugman):

"Ein Volk, ein Reich, Ayn Rand."
- Antonia T. Tiger

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Intimations of Mortality

Some say that modern Americans don't deal well with death and dying. We avoid the subject, they say, and do our best to deny that it will come.

In an earlier time, death was an immanent reality, appearing in children's fairy tales, in childhood prayers, in ghost stories.

When I was three years old, I learned to say my prayers every night as follows:

"Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake;
I pray the Lord my soul to take."

When you think about it, it's a pretty gruesome prayer. It taught children that death might be at hand at any time.

And think about traditional fairy tales. How many featured a wicked stepmother? Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel and many others. Remember the Miller's beautiful daughter who had to spin straw into gold in the story of Rumpelstiltskin? Where was her mother? She was apparently deceased.

There are also stories in which the father is absent and the mother is widowed. Jack and the beanstalk, for example.

Not only do these stories deal with death, they deal with danger and peril.

Do we still tell such stories to children?

We should.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc Or: The Rooster

V.P. Ferguson was, to say the least, an unconventional student.

He arrived at the University of Mississippi from Columbus in the early 1950's and became a legend in his own time. He was especially renowned for a touch of irreverence. He was said to have hung a copy of Sallman's Head of Christ on the wall in his dormitory room, but replaced the eyes with a doll's glass eyes that were wired to follow a visitor as he moved about the room.

A talented musician, V.P. organized a dance band, whose jazz repertoire included a version of "The Little Brown Church" and other jazzed up hymns, arousing disapproval in some circles.

One year, V.P. was upset that the University increased dormitory rent. He refused to pay the rent, instead pitching a tent nearby. One morning, he arose just before official sunrise and put his trumpet to his lips. Just as the sun peeked above the horizon, he played a rousing fanfare, and announced to the gathered audience: "and now, courtesy of V.P. Ferguson, I present - the Sun!"

I just learned that V.P. Ferguson passed away last year in Paris, where he had lived on the Left Bank for many years as a science fiction writer.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bastille Day

Happy Bastille Day!

Historian David McCullough puts our ties with France in perspective in today's New York Times.

He gets one thing wrong, though. What we call "French fries," (originally "frenched fries" for the way they were sliced or "frenched") are actually Belgian. Belgians become very agitated when pommes de terre frites are ascribed to France. You can read all about it in Asterix and Obelisk cartoons.Link

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Orwellian Political Economy

I am not an economist, though I once stayed at a Holiday Inn Express.

Joking aside, I did study International Economics as a part of my studies in International Law and Diplomacy in the late 1960's. But the core of my academic background was political science and history.

It was a time when public disputes centered around issues of war and peace, civil rights, women's rights, not about economics. Among academic economists there were some eccentric scholars calling for a return to the gold standard and some calling for flexible exchange rates. But in general, there was a widespread Keynesian consensus.

At that time, we had fixed exchange rates under the international payments system established at Bretton Woods near the end of World War II and designed (by Keynes) mainly to ensure economic recovery of both winners and losers of that conflict. Internationally, we had a gold-exchange standard and issues of "balance of payments" were described in terms of gold flow among nations.

It was a period of economic prosperity for both management and labor, with CEO's earning about 30 to 40 times the wages of the lowest paid employees. Pension benefits were fixed. Workers were responsible for doing their jobs and management took care of pensions and other benefits.

That all changed in the 1970's. Nixon abolished the gold exchange standard and the US adopted flexible exchange rates. Companies switched to "defined contribution" pensions rather than "defined benefit" pensions. After Nixon, the Federal Government began stripping away the financial controls that had maintained financial stability for more than three decades.

I recently decided to read up on current economic thinking. In the days of the internet, there is no better way to follow the discourse than to read economist's blogs.

I have had to learn or relearn such things as liquidity preference, propensity to consume, propensity to save, the problems of the zero bound, and IS and LM curves.

I also have learned the difference between "saltwater economists" [a school to which I adhere] and "freshwater economists." And it has become clear that when communicating with each other, economists can be a very sarcastic bunch of scholars.

Mark Thoma, a professor of economics at University of Oregon, recently started a thread on his blog dealing with Investment Saving/Liquidity preference Money supply issues. The discussion veered into the issue of "confidence" and the lack of clarity as to what the term means.

One participant, identified as "stunney," contributed the following:

I think that among not just billionaires, but multimillionaires in general, confidence is pretty high right now. In particular, they're confident that the financial crisis will be borne by the lower echelons, and that capitalism is being made safer and safer for unbridled rapacity.

They're also confident a large reserve army of unemployed labor will persist for a long time, ensuring that downward pressure on wages will not be relieved by any silly jobs program or other needed public investment

Their confidence that the massive military/industrial/national security expenditures of recent decades will continue is high.

Plutocratic confidence that trade agreements will be focused on making it as easy as possible to ruthlessly exploit cheap labor oversees without having to worry about workplace safety or environmental nonsense, while cracking down on foreign competitors via enforcement of intellectual property claims, whining about state subsidies, or whining about competitors' non-compliance with US regulatory standards.

Finally, they're confident that the socialistic insanity of Social Security, Medicare, and other forms of coddling US citizens will be progressively dismantled so that the richest can slave-drive the rest with utter abandon and, indeed, get them to vote for ever more savage forms of their own enslavement, abasement, degradation, and pauperization.

"Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future...


Reply Sunday, June 19, 2011 at 11:36 A

The reference, of course, is to George Orwell's novel 1984.

Monday, June 20, 2011


There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged.
One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession
with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted,
socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The
other, of course, involves orcs.

John Rogers