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?”

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