Some Books I Read in 2015
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Elena Ferrante’s Naples Quartet.
I’ve read only the first two books. Found the first absorbing, fascinating, and a terrific study of urban class and gender structure – the social anthropology novel at its best. The second somewhat more predictable but still satisfying, especially the last half. But at the very end of it, the Worthless Prick suddenly pops up again. Oh, no! Is all the interest, all the promise of the protagonists – of the novel itself – to be thrown away on the women-adoring-a-jerk story, the love-as-addiction story? Again? I’ve gone on that nowhere trip with a novel way too often. I’m not signing on for this one. Maybe I’ll come back to the third and fourth volumes after a while. Maybe not.
Meanwhile I keep wondering why the mysteriously elusive Elena Ferrante is so mysteriously elusive. Because being mysteriously elusive is great PR, well, sure. But there’s another possibility. The psychological study of two minds, a relationship between two girls growing into women, while brilliant, is entirely in terms originated by and therefore acceptable to men (the central focus of a woman’s life is a man; women can’t and don’t trust other women). The intense competitiveness of the two girls is perfectly plausible, but as the main element of a friendship between women it ceased to convince me; mere rivalry seldom plays the part in women’s lives that it does in many men’s. And then, Lina is such a classic male-dream-woman, the eternal Carmen, magnetically sexy, fiery, holding herself apart from other women but eagerly abasing herself to the male animal…. Women of course write about such women, and often, but seldom at this level of sophistication.
Anyhow, for what it‘s worth, I’m laying no bets on the gender of the coy author.
Jane Smiley’s Trilogy of Novels, The Last Hundred Years
A year per chapter, for a century, starting in 1920 on an Iowa farm. I started the first volume, Some Luck, directly after reading Ferrante. The culture shock was awful – an old cart horse after a Maserati. Plod, plod, plod, a chapter a year…. Queer insights into the mind of a baby. Discussions of the problems of running a farm. Prose of the “transparent” kind that it’s easier and trendier to dismiss than to write. All very ordinary. Yet the wit flashes; the humor is as dry and subversive as that of a Native American. By about 1932, I’d plodded on into pure enjoyment, and a growing admiration sometimes bordering on awe.
Smiley’s courage is as great as her ambition. She flouts the mandarin demands of post-modernity and cares nothing for the limitations and snobberies of literary sophistication. She doesn’t need another Pulitzer, after all. She has a story to tell, and tells it the way it has to be told. It’s Realism, and all it implies – “ordinary” people and occupations and preoccupations – but it’s something else, too, undefinable implications that reach beyond the evidence of realism and beyond the past and present into pure imagination. The scope of the three volumes, as they follow the fortunes of the children on and off the farm, from coast to coast and on into the twenty-first century, is enormous, but the emotional intensities and depths of the story are entirely, often heart-breakingly, personal.
I have never read a book like this.
Yet I long to make comparisons. Jane Austen, for fair-minded, acute, and funny representation of the minds and manners of a certain period in a certain country. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for the handling of those two subjects, and for understanding family relationships. Mark Twain and H.L. Davis, for genial acceptance of the endless variety of weirdness of character that flourishes in all Western America. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, for an ultimately tragic vision of a country determined to destroy its very earth and all the life and hope that can be born of it.
I’ve written sarcastically about the search for “The Great American Novel.” As far as I’m concerned, the search is over. This one will do just fine.
I read a review in the TLS, with some quotations, of this translation by Peter Green, and immediately ordered a copy.
Green doesn’t try to reproduce the Homeric hexameter in English (impossible for several reasons) but approximates it with a line of 12 to 17 syllables, 5 or 6 of them stressed. To my ear this works very well as narrative poetry, with excellent flexibility, an unforced music, and a long, rolling beat that carries the story relentlessly forward. It begs to be read and heard aloud.
He’s trying to give us the meaning through the sound, writing for the ear as the way to the mind. The result is uneven, but for me it carries far more power, authority, and beauty than any of the current standard translations (Lattimore, Fitzgerald, Fagles). I feel that I’m hearing Homer, at last, for the first time.
At least half of the Iliad is simply boring to me – the endless battle scenes, the killer boys with their killer toys. Bang bang you’re dead. Homer’s skill is peerless at giving us at least an illusion of variety while telling the same damn thing over and over and over; but it’s no use. I‘m up there on the walls of Troy with the Trojan women, praying to the gods to let the men finish the slaughter, be done, get over it, STOP IT! And all go home/come home safe and sound! Knowing all along that poor crazy Cassandra is right, and they never will.
I’m also unable to like or admire the hero of the epic, Achilles. I’ve tried and tried, but can’t see much but a spoilt, sullen, adolescent bully. I’m sorry for the kid, because there are clear signs that he could grow out of it, grow up into a man, and he won’t get time to. But that lack of time, after all, was his own choice.
My hero is the big loser, the husband and father, the grown-up. Hector is a mensch.
I always detested Helen, but either she comes out quite differently in this translation or my viewpoint has changed with age. Of course she’s as trustworthy as a rattlesnake; but she’s not a babe, not an airhead. She’s a woman getting passed around by men and making the best of it. She knows how fragile her glamor is. And so what she really thinks, and really wants, and really is, nobody is ever going to know. Not even Homer.
Peter Green teaches in the United States; his Iliad is published by the University of California Press. (If you’re interested, please order it from U.C. or an independent bookseller, not from amazon dot com.) I just hope he is working very hard and fast on translating the Odyssey so that I can live to read it.
11 January 2016