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Too Late the Wednesdaymeme

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What I've Finished Reading

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene. I don't know why I liked this little book so much when the other two Greenes left me cold. Maybe because the main character's sexual relationships are all in the past, so I can't hypocritically turn up my nose at his Human Weakness (TM). Maybe because he isn't self-pitying and is instead beset by irritating neighbors who keep trying, against his wishes and despite his efforts, to make him a figure of sympathy, or worse, of veneration. Querry used to be an architect, but it was no good; he used to design new churches but people kept spoiling them by dragging in all the tacky old Catholic paraphernalia he was trying to bypass, and anyway he doesn't believe in God anymore. He came to this leper colony to try to make himself useful, now that he doesn't believe in anything, but no one believes in his disbelief and it all ends badly. It's probably some kind of stealth Greene trick to make me look at my failings that whether or not I like his books depends so heavily on how much I "like" or "can relate to" his central sinner, buy that's all right, it's all part of the game. You got me, Graham Greene! Thumbs up to you.

Lions and Shadows - Christopher Isherwood's autobiography with made-up names, because autobiographies are necessarily fictional so you might as well own it. It's completely delightful. Isherwood spends a tremendous amount of time embroidering a private fantasy world with his particular friend, then decides to get himself expelled from Cambridge: it's easier and more interesting than studying for the first big round of exams, besides which his particular friend is leaving and he'll be miserable and bored. His plan is to burn out spectacularly by writing inflammatory joke essays, which turns out to be just as much effort as doing the exams for real. No satisfying infamy results; it just makes his tutor confused and disappointed. Then he lucks into one of those exploitative and familial art-world jobs (secretary to a musician) and spends even more time trying to figure out a way to turn the folie a deux that has occupied so much of his mental energy into a book that other people might want to read. Eventually he gives up and writes a different book instead, which is panned and forgotten and later remembered vaguely as having shown some promise.

What I'm Reading Now

A Girl of the Limberlost, by special request of osprey_archer - I will post something about it Friday or Saturday.

Gaius Valerius Catullus: The Complete Poetry (translated by Frank O. Copley) and The Poems of Catullus translated by Peter Green. I can't tell you how much I love this asshole Catullus. He's a first century BCE Roman poet with nothing better to do than hurl insults at everyone who ever slept with his girlfriend or said his poems were garbage. He flails wildly between painful tenderness and pitiful self-centered petulance, he mocks his friends for sending him bad poems and threatens to send them worse poems in retaliation, he knocks the furniture around like Citizen Kane, he makes jokes about dudes sucking their own dicks.

If Catullus were a contemporary of mine there is a good chance I might not love him as much. Maybe I would read a few pages of his shit-flinging and think, "Dude, you are talented but you are not for me," and go read a nice cozy murder story instead. Certainly if he were transported into the present with his first-century Roman sexual politics intact, he would be a nuisance at best. But he wrote all these poems two thousand years ago, and thanks to a long series of choices and accidents they still exist, and they are startlingly, hilariously alive.

Frank Copley's translation is beautifully weird and very loose; he totally ignores the original line breaks, throws in contemporary (1954) references and generally strives to create a hip beatnik lounge atmosphere. At first I just thought it was funny, but it grew on me fast. Green's translation is more of a translation in the traditional sense, and includes the original Latin on a facing page. Copley would like us to feel that Catullus is one of us, despite the centuries and the language barrier; Green wants to make sure we don't forget how alien he is, and to prevent us from being fooled by superficial points of common interest like sex and insults. Probably they are both right.

What I Plan to Read Next

Lots of book recs from other books! I recently bought Travels With My Aunt, which was recommended to me last year as The Graham Greene You Will Like If You Didn't Like Any of the Other Ones. I hope it will still work given that I liked A Burnt-Out Case. When I saw A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood at the bookstore, I immediately bought it on the strength of Lions and Shadows, and came home to find that it was one of my 99 Novels.

I learned from Among Others that Mary Renault wrote a novel about Alcibiades called The Last of the Wine. Alcibiades is either my favorite or my second favorite Plutarch's Life (so far), so I should probably read this soon. There may be some other Alcibiades-related reading in the near future.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 20th, 2017 12:17 am (UTC)
Catullus was a favorite of mine. I have a BA in Classical Civilization and nothing could cheer me up like translating some bawdy Catullus poems into English. My favorite was about how nobody could tell this one dishonest fellow's lips from his asshole, except that his lips had more teeth.
Apr. 20th, 2017 05:38 pm (UTC)
That's our Catullus! :D
Apr. 20th, 2017 01:14 am (UTC)
The Last of the Wine is a wonderful sunlit recreation of The Athens That Never Was, based on swallowing Plato and Xenophon's versions whole. Yes it deals with the some of the nastier aspects of the Peloponnesian War but in a distant hands-off fashion. And who knows- maybe well-born youths of the period were equally as unaware of the dirty side of their city as the protagonist is?
Apr. 20th, 2017 05:24 pm (UTC)
That's good to know! My knowledge of the ancient world is pretty nonexistent, so I might not even notice.

And who knows- maybe well-born youths of the period were equally as unaware of the dirty side of their city as the protagonist is?

This seems plausible to me, but only because I'm carelessly extrapolating from the present.

How is it as a novel? I've never read Mary Renault, though I've had The Charioteer in my house for a couple of months now.

Apr. 20th, 2017 08:52 pm (UTC)
Renault carelessly extrapolates from the present too, especially in her presentation of Greek actors ((The Mask of Apollo), but in that case it becomes marvellous fun.

Tastes varying etc etc, I must say I find her compulsively readable and rereadable- as long as she's writing in first person. That takes in all her ancient Greek books except the tedious Alexander ones- Fire from Heaven and Funeral Games. (The Persian Boy is first person, so though it's also about Alexander, it's a grand read.)

But because of that and for a few other reasons- her antsiness about gayness in a modern setting, the tendency of her CofE types to tie themselves into moral knots- I've never wanted to reread her modern works. The characters' attitudes may be far more historically accurate than that of her Athenians, but it doesn't make for a fun read. OTOH ambivalence and moral dilemmas are some people's meat, so...

Note also that though Alcibiades appears often enough in Last of the Wine, he's not a main character. But he is a well-fleshed out one, and a bit of a corrective to the tendency of scholars in *my* youth to dismiss him as a lightweight.
Apr. 23rd, 2017 04:02 am (UTC)
Thanks! I'll have to see how I feel about The Charioteer whenever I get around to reading it - sometimes I am all for moral knots and sometimes I'm not, and I'm not really sure what makes the difference.

We've also got The Persian Boy around here somewhere. . . I should open it and see if it becomes compulsively readable.
Apr. 20th, 2017 03:38 pm (UTC)
I'd like a character who is battling off characters trying to make him a pity piece more than a novel of self pity (which is prob the author's self indulgence, yawn)!

\o/ for happy 99 Novels accident.

The new series of 'The Durrells' starts on Sunday so I will be being amused by Lawrence, thanks to you:)
Apr. 20th, 2017 05:14 pm (UTC)
Greene's got some bones to worry, and I don't think it's any failing of his that I don't always feel like worrying them with him. But it was a nice change for sure.

:D I need to read My Family and Other Animals! Or watch The Durrells, but reading a book is probably easier for me than finding time to watch a show.
Apr. 21st, 2017 02:13 pm (UTC)
I suspect that 'The Durrells' is more cartoony than the book, but, hey, enjoy the lovely scenery!
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )


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