Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Quest for the Holy Grail

One of the main purposes of a multi-year reading list is to assure getting to those things “that I need to read Someday.” My plan is a way of making sure Someday comes. April showers brought with them a couple of long books that had been waiting for Someday a long time indeed.

The first “biography” of King Arthur appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth, ca. 1136. Not much of the familiar legend is there: Geoffrey puts Arthur in his list of regum Brittaniæ, but he concentrates in this section of his chronicle on a long prophecy by Merlin. A fellow named Wace added the Round Table to the picture around 1155. Between 1170 and 1190, Chrétien de Troyes added the Grail (which he called simply a “holy object”), Camelot, and Lancelot. Robert de Boron made the Grail a vessel of the Last Supper and put it in the hands of Joseph of Arimathea. In the early thirteenth century, the lengthy Lancelot-Grail cycle, a collection of stories in the French language by multiple writers, first puts everything together. In April, I read the Lancelot-Grail Reader, a collection (and translation) of the main stories from this collection.

I’ve been on my own quest the last few years: to read the Arthurian sources written before Malory and try to find some missing information. The biggest question in my mind is this: What is the purpose of the Grail Quest? The Grail appears above the Round Table one Pentecost, and Arthur and all the knights accept the apparition as an invitation to a quest. So how do they know the event announces a quest? All vow to “achieve” the quest. What does that mean? How do they intend to do it? What is their goal? It can’t be that they simply want to see the actual Grail: several knights have been to the castle of Corbenic and seen it before this time, so the fellowship of knights doesn’t need a vision to know what to see and where to go. We have to assume that God has brought this quest; what is his purpose? To get Galahad to Corbenic so that he can heal the Fisher King? Apparently the knights don’t understand this since every last one of them wants to try. Talk about your riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas! (Poor Arthur. He knows that the Grail is the best and most holy object in the world, yet he also knows that the unavoidable quest means the end of the Round Table. Don’t let it be forgot that there was once a spot . . . .)

Sadly, the Lancelot-Grail Cycle doesn’t explain any of this conundrum. At some point in history – possibly in the history of French religious thought in the thirteenth century or possibly even in what little of actual history makes its way into the Arthurian legend – a connection existed that made sense to people. If the Holy Grail appeared to me and filled my plate with food, I would be amazed and grateful and frightened and suspicious and a hundred other things, but I don’t think it would ever spontaneously occur to me that the phenomenon was an invitation to get up from my table and look for the original of the shadow I’d just seen. So my quest continues.

Almost a thousand years and a full thousand figurative miles separate the medieval tales of King Arthur and the science-fiction tales of Isaac Asimov. But both represent quests. The Complete Robot collects all of Asimov’s stories about robots (rather obvious, no?) and sets the reader off on a journey into a future that Asimov spins out over more than a dozen novels in three interwoven series. The robot collection has few weak members and no duds. My favorite involves a computer programmed to search (Asimov’s prescient view of) the internet for the programmer’s perfect woman. The crafty machine, though, made to think like its maker after all, naturally sees the woman it locates as perfect for itself, gets its programmer fired, and then waits for the arrival of its new mistress. Oh, the stroke of her fingers on my keyboard!

Here we find a third quest: the Quest for the Future. And I have as many questions about this quest as I do about the Grail. What is the future that Asimov, readers, tech gurus, and computer users are seeking? It now seems that Asimov was exactly right in predicting that it has something to do with computers and robots. But who will use them and to what end? And what are we to think of the ultimate potential of computers and robots? Will they be beneficent aids to a world of progressing happiness? Will they simply take (and help tyrants take) our freedom to pursue happiness away? Or is the digital future like the Grail: something so good it will break society apart forever?

Friday, March 31, 2017

Things Start to Get Good Right About Now

In the previous post, I explained that I worried through most of February that my new ten-year reading plan needed to be pared down, my ambitions tamed, my expectations leveled. By the end of March, though, the book list had started to do what it was supposed to do and felt exactly right.

What was it supposed to do? Make me eager to pick up my books every day without thinking that I’d have to make myself get through a certain number of pages in order to keep up. And the books of March did exactly that.

We’ll start with C. S. Lewis: as Sister Maria says, “A very good place to start.” Obviously, a book called Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature will only feel fun to someone who enjoys medieval and Renaissance literature. As it happens, I do. I first read The Canterbury Tales and The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy only prompted by a drive to check boxes on a mental list. But self-imposed duty quickly turned into externally prompted devotion. I love every one of these classics and have read some parts three and four and five times. And now the wise professor tells me how to understand and enjoy them even more. Check this sample of nifty points from Lewis:

• How far do you go in studying background to understand old literature? It's up to you. Just as there are two ways to visit a foreign country – staying at the British hotels or immersion into local culture – there are two ways of enjoying an old book.

• It doesn't help, however, to learn about some prior myth that supposedly shapes the story. The only way of understanding the myth is to get inside what it feels like to believe it, and that means reading the poetry. “The poem is illuminating the myth; the myth is not illuminating the poem.”

• A medieval book is the product of several people, rather like a cathedral.

• Medieval scholars loved and revered books, sacred or profane, and accepted the contradictions, assuming that there was some truth in every stated view.

• The interweaving of stories in Faerie Queene is a “polyphonic narrative.” Such a convoluted structure may not be to modern taste and may make it hard to remember who’s where doing what with whom (what a relief to find that Lewis couldn’t always keep track of everything, either!), but (1) this way of writing stories lasted longer than our narrative style has, so a lot of readers over the centuries have found it completely suiting, and (2) no one complained about it then, so they must have had superior powers of memory that our technologies have impaired.

Yeah, I didn’t have to keep checking the calendar and doing math in order to turn enough pages every day to keep on track with this one.

While I read these and other fascinating and helpful lessons about medieval and Renaissance literature, I also enjoyed rereading my adolescent self’s favorite Jules Verne novel: Hector Servadac. As a teen, I knew it as Off on a Comet. (It’s the only title I know of that includes two opposite prepositions in a row!) That American title change is the tip of an iceberg of weird problems caused by translators trying to make Verne acceptable to English readers’ expectations. According to certain Verne fans with internet presence (such as this guy), all those wonderful science-fiction novels that have inspired generations of Doc Browns have come to us in bad translations that actually cut a lot of the scientific descriptions! To read the most complete translation, I had to stitch together two documents (the Wikipedia article explains it) and suffer through the ham-fisted work of translators who believe that good renditions copy every French turn of phrase word for word. (For example, the Gallic propensity for inserting ce after a perfectly good subject has already been stated makes sonic sense in French but just adds a weird redundancy in English. “This spheroid we are on, it is a comet.” C'est une comète.)

Still, with all its stilted language and absurd plot (a comet grazes the Earth and picks up some of the land formations, buildings, and living creatures without harming them?!), I ate up every last crumb of Verne’s hearty meal of bizarre metallic cliffs, British soldiers who will never abandon their post even though that post be sailing through the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and cavern-apartments inside a volcano complete with central heating provided by streams of lava.

And then there’s Arundel, which occupied a prominent place on my dad’s bookshelf as I was growing up. I looked at that spine practically every day for eighteen years and then fairly often for another twelve, all that while believing it held something really good before discovering that I could indeed, in this case at least, judge a book by its cover. Kenneth Roberts dared to suggest in his historical fiction that the Sons of Liberty were mostly unruly hotheads and that Benedict Arnold had many virtues – and won a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for doing it. He has unjustly been forgotten, but I can’t imagine a resurgence of interest in anything so subversive in today’s America. Americans would have to know accepted 1750s history in order to appreciate the subversion of it.

Oh, but I can point out my own blind spots, too. Let’s just say that this second reading of the novel showed me that at the time of my first trip through its pages, I was just as stupid about the women in the book as protagonist Steven Nason was. Every time I tried to shout at him, “Why can’t you see what she’s doing?” I ended up scolding myself as well: “Why didn’t I see what she was doing?”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Shortest Month (updated)

The shortest month – and some of the longest readings. I spent most of February thinking I had overstuffed this new ten-year plan and would never make it through it all. Looking back at the time now from July, I can see the problem: some of the first books on the schedule were surprisingly long, and I had three jobs at the time. But my goal is to have zero jobs sometime in just the next year or two, which should leave me plenty of time to pursue my weird OCD-driven geekdom. And anyway, with a little extra effort, I made it through February: three jobs and all. At this point, it feels like I have a viable plan and that I have a fine chance of once more getting through a decade-long reading list.

The enormous length of The History of Victorian Literature stunned me when I opened it (you can’t tell the size of a Kindle book just by looking at the cover). But every page was interesting and helpful, starting right from the introduction, which showed the liberal politics of even the most heart-warming domestic novel: to show that middle-class, working-class, and rural people had dignity, interesting problems, and interior lives came as a shock to the old guard, and the characters’ counterparts in the real world took advantage of new educational opportunities partly just so they could read all this new literature. I learned a lot about things I’d read alredy, and I got a great start on a list of books for a fourth decade of planned reading starting in 2027!

Much, much shorter was the Greek Epic Fragments from the Loeb Classical Library. I was hoping to enjoy an ancient account of the Trojan War leading up to the events in the Iliad. But I hadn’t realized just how fragmentary the fragments were. I’d read it all in Apollodorus anyway.

One of my three jobs happened once a week at a home-school co-op an hour away. Part of my method for getting through the reading I had assigned myself during this busy time was listening to books on the drive there and back, and my favorite during those busiest weeks was Charles Dickens’s third novel, Nicholas Nickleby. I can’t recommend highly enough Mil Nicholson’s readings of Dickens. A professional actress who donates her skills to Librivox, Ms. Nicholson reads it all with a proper British cadence and lots of love. She gives every character a distinct voice, and when she reads the lines, modulating her pitch, rhythm, and accent, the characters appear in my mind with bright colors and crisp edges, like the ghosts David Copperfield envisions as he writes his memoir. Wackford Squeers, Kate Nickleby, Sir Mulberry Hawk, Mr. and Mrs. Crummles, Smike, Mr. Mantalini, Newman Noggs, Peg Sliderskew – these and all the other unforgettable creations of the Great Novelist’s mind become three-dimensional, palpable, living humans under the care of this talented performer.

The History of Victorian Literature points out a problem with Nicholas that Dickens himself seems to acknowledge in his narration: the good people that fill the pages have such uniformly pure thoughts, only the villains can become truly interesting, novelistic characters. But Dickens figures it out soon enough in his career and gives us David and Pip and Bella Wilfer. In the meantime, Nicholas Nickleby offers adventure to thrill at, scoundrels to hiss at, and lots and lots of laughs. If you want to try one chapter of Dickens, read chapter 2, regarding the foundation of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company. Try not to laugh! Or if you want something shorter, read Fanny Squeers’s letter; Douglas McGrath, director of the 2002 screen adaptation, calls it one of the funniest pages in all literature. I may have packed too many pages into this short month, but when they’re as good as that page, the extra effort makes me very happy.

But above all this, Nicholas Nickleby inspires me. Dickens wrote at a time when a hero in a novel could be taken seriously. And a good thing it was; that era needed heroes. Not that Nicholas is some kind of Aristotelian ideal of character: his heroism comes from youthful impetuosity as much as it does from courage. But whatever the fillip of emotion or inclination, Nicholas’s heroism finds its foundation in knowledge – knowledge that public schools need to be cleansed of their ignorant, anti-educational masters, knowledge that riches do not give their possessor the right to assault women or to brag about it, knowledge that those privileged with health and strength have a duty to care for the poor, the feeble, the aged, and the sick.
Squeers caught the boy firmly in his grip; one desperate cut had fallen on his body—he was wincing from the lash and uttering a scream of pain—it was raised again, and again about to fall—when Nicholas Nickleby, suddenly starting up, cried ‘Stop!’ in a voice that made the rafters ring.

‘Who cried stop?’ said Squeers, turning savagely round.

‘I,’ said Nicholas, stepping forward. ‘This must not go on.’
Dickens’s era was not the only time in need of heroes like Nicholas Nickleby.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Every Book Tells a Story

I cannot tell a lie. It’s actually July as I write this. After composing a mini-essay more than once a week for about six years, I took a long break from blogging. But I wanted to start out 2017’s entries with a word about some reading I did in January, so I’m retrodating this post to that month.

Every book tells a story. Of course, each one has a story inside, whether it’s a fictional arc, an historical narrative, or a descriptive and analytical thread. But I’m talking about the story of my relationship with each book. My Plan for the Third Decade (in my interior life, these entities cast imaginational shadows large enough to deserve capital letters) includes a lot less mental exercise than my previous book lists and a lot more fun, less philosophy and more adventure. I’m reverting from a self-created graduate school to junior high. Many of the books on my schedule, in fact, I first read in junior high. Others I’ve been meaning to read ever since that formative age but have just never gotten around to it.

The Count of Monte Cristo sits in that first group: I first read it when I was about sixteen. I had seen a couple of made-for-TV movie adaptations (one did such things in the ’70s) and liked them enough to read the original. And I loved it! Very few books start with a setup as exciting as Edmond Dantès being falsely accused and imprisoned, meeting a man with a treasure when he mistakenly tunnels into Dantès’s cell, escaping by sewing himself into a shroud and being tossed over a cliff into the sea, and then becoming the richest man in the world. One bit at the end bothered me: Dantès seemed to me to arrogate divine powers when he tells a young woman to trust him even if she wakes up in a coffin buried alive. But my adolescence clung to every thrilling episode Dumas created.

Or apparently not every episode, as I found out soon afterwards. Cut to 1976, when I enter the University of Illinois as a matriculating freshman. Before classes even start, I head to the library, assuming it will be my favorite hang-out spot on campus. I walk up and down the aisles of the undergraduate library. (Awe, ambition, and frustration commingle in my soul as I ponder the existence of a graduate library unavailable to me. Rumor is it’s actually underground where the riffraff can’t even see it.) I consider which books I’ll check out first. My eye lands on a title very interesting to a guy who makes lists of books to read: My 100 Favorite Books. I pull the volume silently and carefully from its shelf and turn to the table of contents. No. 46: The Count of Monte Cristo! What has this obviously wise compiler of titles said about one of my favorite novels? Little, as it turns out. After a sentence or two of praise, he moves straight to an excerpt, chosen to demonstrate the virtues of Dumas’s great adventure. And I proceed to read . . . an incident I am sure I have never seen before.

Of course I turned to the back cover of My 100 Favorite Books to see if there had been some mistake. Maybe the author had rewritten his hundred favorites. Or maybe there was a switch to flip that would make the thing work right. But no. There it was. Somehow, this fellow’s Count of Monte Cristo was not my Count of Monte Cristo.

So I returned to my paperback copy of The Count and found a note on the title page I had not seen before: Abridged. I recovered from a long illness bought on by the appearance of this outrageous word. Determined to set right a wrong that had been perpetrated on my universe, I then went to the B. Dalton bookstore at the mall (another quaint thing we did in the ‘70s) and looked on the shelf. No luck. I asked the clerk. No luck. At last I perused Books in Print. (I’ll stop pointing out every weird ritual of the previous millennium now.) And in the end I had to admit the horrifying truth: in 1976 America, there existed no unabridged English-language translation of The Count of Monte Cristo.

Well, friends, now there is. The sun has risen. Justice has prevailed. And in January of this year, unable to wait a day longer than forty years and four months, I started off my third ten-year reading plan taking in every word on each one of the 1243 pages of the unabridged translation of The Count of Monte Cristo. And, yes, I definitely read the excerpt I found out about that day in Champaign: 14,730 days though it may have been, I had not forgotten that in the actual classic previously denied to me by a vicious publishing industry, Edmond Dantès bribes a signalman at a telegraph office to change a message, and I won’t forget it until my mind goes senile.

So what did I finally think? To tell the truth, I thought the book was too long: the first version I read, about 700 pages shorter, kept the plot moving in a straight line without allowing for any tedium. As for Dantès, he’s even more sacrilegious than I remember, although now I think his bit about resurrecting the girl was just meant as a way of passing on his own experience of rising from a grave. Did Dumas know how crazy Dantès sounds claiming to be God’s only instrument of justice and revenge? Did he approve? I couldn’t tell.

So I have some disappointments and some nagging questions. But now a story has come to a close. And although this year, Year One in Decade Three, is obviously a year of beginnings, it is also a year of endings. As I’ve scripted the plot, resolution will come to many more stories this year.

In fact, it already has: after all, I’m writing this in July.