Posts from April 2010

April 12th, 2010

A Garden of Roman Verses!

Our book today is a pretty little volume the J. Paul Getty Museum put out in 1998 – it’s called A Garden of Roman Verse, and it features snippets from dozens of different Roman translations, each set in attractive typeface and accompanied by full-color reproductions of ancient Roman paintings or mosaics recovered from the entombed cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The book’s title guarantees that you’ll be meeting Virgil, Horace, Catullus, Ovid and the rest inside, but nevertheless the title is a bit misleading. This isn’t really a garden of Roman verse so much as it’s a garden of English verse.

It’s no less pretty for all that, as even a casual dabbler into the vast translation-literature of English poetry could attest. First flowering in the Age of Elizabeth and continuing in an unbroken tradition to the 19th century (it limped into the 20th and has died almost utterly in the Twittering 21st), the efforts of English poets and classicists to render the ancient greats in contemporary verse were unrelenting. It was the favorite pastime of procrastinating dons, the most predictable route to publication for aspiring poetasters, and a sublime alternate voice for the greatest masters of the various British eras.

The singular charm of this little volume is that it touches on all of those various exponents. This isn’t just Alexander Pope’s Greatest Hits, although of course he’s in here, hilariously letting his ‘numbers’ get the better of him, as in this rather verbose rendering of a mere two lines from Virgil’s 7th ecologue:

Some god conducts you to these blissful seats,
The mossy fountains and the green retreats!
Where-e’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade,
Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade,
Where-e’er you tread, the blushing flowers shall rise,
And all things flourish where you turn your eyes.

And in an undertaking such as this one, where there’s Pope, there must be Dryden! Here’s here a few times, never more felicitous than in this bit from Virgil’s Georgics:

Wet weather seldom hurts the most unwise,
So plain the signs, such prophets are the skies:
The wary crane foresees it first, and sails
Above the storm, and leaves the lowly vales:
The cow looks up, and from afar can find
The change of heaven, and snuffs it in the wind.
The swallow skims the river’s watery face,
The frogs renew the croaks of their loquacious race.

I love that almost tactile use of ‘snuffs,’ and the subtle echo of ‘croaks’ in the first syllable of ‘loquaious’ accurately but not pedantically reflects the ‘veteram’ and ‘querelam’ of the original. Dryden was never better than when he was quietly trying to match wits with somebody this way – it’s when he has the poetic stage to himself that he sometimes gets into long-winded trouble.

Long-windedness isn’t a problem for the famous adventurer Sir Walter Ralegh, who here gives us a portion of the soles occidere of Catullus very nearly as taut and pointed as the original:

The sun may set and rise:
But we contrariwise
Sleep after our short light
One everlasting night.

But it’s not just the mighty and famous you’ll find in this volume (if you can find this volume at all – I presume it’s available online, like everything else) – the editors have seen fit, charmingly, to include a small sample from “the young gentlemen of Mr. Rule’s Academy at Islington.” This is a bit of the parcius iunctas of Horace, published in 1766:

The bloods and bucks of this lewd town
No longer shake your windows down
With knocking;
Your door stands still, no more you hear
‘I die for you, O Lydia dear’,
Love’s god your slumbers rocking.

Horace is also represented by the volume’s only selection from a woman, this portion of the solvitur acris done by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:

Sharp winter now dissolved, the linnets sing,
The grateful breath of pleasing Zephyrs bring
The welcome joys of long desired spring.

The galleys now for open sea prepare,
The herds forsake their stalls for balmy air,
The fields adorned with green approaching sun declare.

In shining nights the charming Venus leads
Her troops of Graces, and her lovely maids
Who gaily trip the ground in myrtle shades

And sadly, there are names here that lack the glitter of either Lady Mary or her arch-nemesis (every writer should have one) Pope, though not from wanting it badly. Foremost here must be our sad old acquaintance Branwell Bronte, the alcoholic failure dreamboat brother of those super-talented Bronte sisters. There’s a snippet of his work on the sunt quos curriculo of Horace – showing, it must be admitted, a bit of strain:

Many there are whose pleasure lies
In striving for the victor’s prize,
Whom dust clouds, drifting o’er the throng
As whirls the Olympic car along,
And kindling wheels, and close shunned goal
Amid the highest gods enroll

And naturally no such anthology would be complete without that most Romanesque of all the Romantics, Lord Byron. His translations form the Romans were, you should pardon the expression, legion – we’ll never known how many he consigned to the fireplace, but what we have is almost universally choice. And really, could there readily be a better latter-day candidate to do justice to the passionate mood-swings of Catullus? We’ll let them both have the last word here:

Equal to Jove, that youth must be,
Greater than Jove, he seems to me,
Who, free from jealousy’s alarms,
Securely, views thy matchless charms;
That cheek, which ever dimpling grows,
That mouth, from which such music flows,
To him, alike, are always known,
Reserved for him, and him alone.
Ah! Lesbia! though ‘tis death to me,
I cannot choose but look on thee.

April 11th, 2010

The Battle of the Frontiers: Ardennes 1914

Our book today is The Battle of the Frontiers: Ardennes 1914 by Terence Zuber (The History Press, 2009 – first published in 2007), and as Zuber points out on his first page, “From 20 to 24 August 1914 the French and German armies, each some seventy divisions strong, met head-on in Belgium and Lorraine in the Battle of the Frontiers, one of the most hard-fought, most important and most interesting battles in military history.”

The popular conception of that battle is simple and heartbreaking: the folly of antiquated military tactics crashing rudely and ruthlessly into modern military hardware – gallant French troops, bayonets fixed, marching en masse into lethal German machine gun emplacements only to get mowed down in horrifying numbers. The French, under the mistaken impression that their advance armies in Belgium would be facing minimal German forces, made no preparations for what actually ended up happening – massive German counter-attacks – and so, over the course of three days, the French lost dozens of thousands of men and great heaps of equipment and were forced to surrender all the ground their advances had so quickly gained.

Zuber’s publishers bill his book as the first fully realized history of both the Battle of the Ardennes and the larger Battle of the Frontiers of which it was a critical part, and maybe this is so: certainly Zuber’s book is incredibly, dauntingly detailed. The battle maps require a stint at West Point to readily decipher, and the action descriptions are often an alphabet soup of troop designations:

At 1030 on 23 August 4th Army sent a sobering report to GQG. In II CA the 3 DI was in good shape at Meix devant Virton, but the 4 DI had been thrown out of Bellefontaine and had been ‘sorely tried’. The 3 DIC and 5h Colonial Brigade had also been ‘sorely tried’. XII CA was in good shape and had not even engaged its corps artillery, but was falling back. XVII CA was in poor condition, 33 DI had lost its artillery, 34 DI had been thrown back. XI CA had pulled back to the Semois.

This book’s 300 pages of eye-strainingly tiny type contain innumerable passages like that one – this is no lazily derivative account – which is great news to all future historians, who must of necessity not only include this Zuber’s book in their researches but begin with it, but perhaps a bit more ominous news for general readers, since the author clearly isn’t interested in presenting a narrative account of the events he’s researching.

This isn’t to say he doesn’t have lots of opinions – far from it. One of the persistent myths of World War I’s beginnings is that the German command, forged in the recent exhilarations of the Franco-Prussian War only 40 years earlier, had an institutional aptitude for the military calling, and that this aptitude accounted for a great deal of the successes the Germans enjoyed in the last week of August 1914. Zuber doesn’t believe a word of it:

In the Battle of the Frontiers the argument that the German General Staff had a ‘genius for war’ falls flat on its face. German operational planning in the Ardennes came far closer to military malpractice than to genius. Moltke demonstrated his inability to reach a decision and impose it on his subordinates. The 5th Army attack had no possible operational justification; in fact, the attack was premature and an operational liability.

Still, regardless of the paucity of German planning, the French are the ones who’ve always been excoriated for their idiocy during those pivotal two days, for the foolishness of thinking elan and bravery would win out against rapid-fire artillery. Later generations – indeed, later fighters in that same conflict – would look at illustrations of such 20th century cavalry charges and laugh in contempt. Zuber never allows himself to express anything so clouding as contempt, but his evaluations are remorseless.

And they turn up little details that surprise – as when he’s discussing the key French advance into the woods outside the town of Ethe:

This may be the first time in modern warfare that a major manoeuvre unit would be cut off and destroyed solely by firepower, without an infantry assault. Ethe demonstrated that the German army had drawn the appropriate conclusions from the technological progress – smokeless gunpowder, the magazine-fed rifle, the machine gun and quick-firing artillery – that had led to an exponential increase in the effectiveness of firepower and expanded the depth of the battlefield, while the French were still essentially thinking in terms of the smaller Napoleonic battlefield.

(Other little details, equally fascinating, are far more disruptive to the standard misremembering of the Great War, such as the fully-documented fact that many French soldiers would ‘play dead’ among the fallen in order to get the chance to shoot the advancing Germans in the back – and that they often shot down German ambulance workers coming to tend to the wounded from both sides)

Zuber knows better than anybody the gamut of popular simplifications of his subject (he at one point makes a withering aside about armchair generals studying “little maps with big arrows”), but in his account, the truth is simpler and less dramatic:

The fascination, common to almost all French soldiers and historians, with German trenches and French bayonet charges has nothing to do with actual combat. It was a means of explaining French defeat that emphasized French heroism and avoided confronting German tactical superiority. For modern historians, German trenches and French bayonet charges provide exactly the correct explanation for French defeat, one that corresponds with the popular ‘heroes led by donkeys’ thesis, as well as the experience of the next four years of trench warfare.

“That the French plan did not succeed, while the German plan did,” he tells us, summarizing the Ardennes disaster dispassionately and with no dramatic satisfaction at all, “had nothing to do with strategy, but was solely the product of German superiority at the tactical level.”

That tactical superiority – ground-troop coordination, better utilization of improved communication technology to forge increasingly larger units into coherent fighting forces, and if not the mythical German aptitude for warmaking then certainly the noted German willingness toward comprehensive situational thinking – dealt the French an undreamt-of bloody nose right at the opening of the First World War and changed the nature of the whole struggle, or rather, revealed the true face of that struggle. After those tumultuous, doomed bayonet charges, the war would largely settle into different shapes altogether – trenches and bombardments that Napoleon would scarcely have recognized as warfare at all, interspersed with slaughter on scale perhaps only a Napoleon could want to dream. Killing-technology was the thing that brought such warfare into being, and in 1914 the Germans were the first to embrace that fact.

On both the customary levels, Zuber’s book makes for some unpleasant reading: its dispatch-terse and annalistic approach won’t make any reader forget John Keegan or A. J. P. Taylor, and the events he has to relate – the violence, the stupid waste of life – will perhaps prompt the reader to reach for the night’s scotch a bit earlier than usual. But this is a necessary book, an indispensable one, and in its own grim and steadfast way, a perfect one. Certainly no World War I library can respectably be without a copy.

April 10th, 2010

Under Heaven!

Our book today is Under Heaven, the new fantasy novel (ROC, 2010) by fan favorite author Guy Gavriel Kay, and one of my main consolations in saying it deserves a wider audience than its built-in fan base is the fact that it seems to know that. The book has been given a gorgeous, evocative cover that is entirely free from the ‘weird guy shooting lasers at dragons’ motif that adorns most fantasy novels in some variation and that’s guaranteed to keep readers of mainstream fiction well away. But it’s more than just the cover: the book itself, unless I’m very much mistaken, was written with that mainstream audience in mind.

That’s usually bad news. Kay is a fantasy author (his 1990 Tigana is quite good), and when genre authors stray from their chosen fields into mainstream fiction, the results are seldom worth reading – it’s almost as if the restrictions of the sub-genre, like the corset of haiku, impart both limitation and inspiration. Mary Higgins Clark’s George Washington historical novel makes you long for a dropped cell phone call or a cut brake-line. Even so talented an author as Robert Silverberg lost his way and spent 500 pages pointlessly hacking through historical fiction in Lord of Darkness (and the less said about Alan Dean Foster’s Maori, the better).

Perhaps the trick here is that although the setting of Under Heaven is heavily reminiscent of the 8th century Tang Dynasty, there are still slight traces of fantasy interwoven throughout the book. Slight but ‘real’ nonetheless: fans will be pleased when ghosts are really ghosts, but mainstream readers will find here nothing much that they wouldn’t find in the actual literature of the Tang period, when science had yet to banish the unbelievable from everyday life.

The book begins with the kind epic scenario designed to hook fantasy readers: our still-young hero Shen Tai is in self-imposed exile far from Xinan, the glittering capital of Kitai – he’s in the barren mountains, burying the dead in their thousands left behind in a battle between Kitai and their enemies the Taguran Empire. The spirits of these abandoned dead are angry and active, and Tai is alone in his task, although he’s visited occasionally by a detachment of Taguran border guard, who clandestinely keep watch on him while bringing him supplies and the occasional message. One such encounter early in the book displays an amazing thing about Kay, a thing he shares with very, very few of his fantasy peers – as his career continues, his writing gets more assured, more relaxed. Exchanges like this would be unbearably wooden in the hands of almost any other FantasiCon honoree:

Bytsan said, after a moment, “I was instructed that you were not to be killed.”

Tai snorted. “I am grateful to hear it.”

Bytsan cleared his throat. He seemed awkward suddenly. “There is a gift, instead, a recognition.”

Tai stared again. “A gift? From the Taguran court?”

“No, from the rabbit in the moon.” Bytsan grimaced. “Yes, of course, from the court. Well, from one person there, with persmission.”

“Permission?”

The grimace became a grin. The Taguran was sunburned, square-jawed, had one missing lower tooth. “You are slow this morning.”

The gift in question here ends up being so immense, so astonishing, that Tai has no choice but to abandon his self-imposed task and begin the long journey down from the mountains to Xinan. The classic ‘good man tangled in intrigue against his will’ plot is worked here to excellent advantage, as is Kay’s decision to use Tai’s memories of Xinan to whet our appetite for the capital (which is so fully realized it often seems to function as a separate character in the drama) long before the journey takes us there:

Small shops in each ward, open all night long. The Night Soil Gatherers passing with their plaintive warning cry. Logs bumping and rolling through Xinan’s outer walls into the huge pond by the East Market where they were bought and sold at sunrise. Morning beatings and executions in two market squares. More street performers after the decapitations, while good crowds were still gathered. Bells tolling the watch-hours by day and through the night, and the long roll of drums that locked the walls and all the ward gates at sundown and opened them at dawn. Spring flower in the parks, summer fruit, autumn leaves, the yellow dust that was everywhere, blowing down from the steps. The dust of the world. Jade-and-gold. Xinan.

The plot unfolds with masterly precision and a great alteration of types of scenes. There’s hardly a misstep in the whole length of Under Heaven (even one persistent two-person sub-plot that at first irritated me ended up hooking me long before it was woven back into the main plot), and there’s a philosophical bent to much of the proceedings. I don’t remember this tendency being as strong in any of Kay’s previous novels (could our author be getting … old?), and I like it: it enhances the mythic feel of the narrative:

No man could say for certain how the river of time would have flowed, cresting or receding, bringing floods or gently watering fields, had a single event, or even many, unfolded differently.

It is in the nature of existence under heaven, the dissenting scholars wrote, that we cannot know these things with clarity. We cannot live twice, or watch as moments of the past unfurl, like a courtesan’s silk fan. The river flows, the dancers finish their dance. If the music starts again, it is starting anew, not repeating itself.

I won’t need to recommend Under Heaven to Kay’s many fans, but I heartily recommend it to all those mainstream fiction readers out there who’re always looking for a touch of the exotic. This book has exotic by the bucket, and it’s a rousing high adventure story as well (and there are funny bits – Kay is surprisingly adept at dry humor). It’s no substitute for a good hearty reading of Li Po or Tu Fu, mind you, but it reads very nicely alongside them.

April 9th, 2010

The Perils of Pessmissism in the Penny Press!

Two things of note in last week’s issue of New York magazine, but the first – a horrifically deceitful and self-serving article by Roger Lathbury on how he almost published J.D. Salinger’s short story “Hapworth, 1924” as a stand-alone book – is simply too harrowing to discuss at any length. It perfectly embodies the hypocrisy and outright lying that drove Salinger into seclusion (the capper is the photo accompanying the article – Lathbury and everybody associated with approving this article should be ashamed of themselves, but that emotion seems to be unknown in publishing these days).

No, it’s the second that prompts brief comment. The thing is a little squib by Lane Brown titled “The Action Figure Method Actor: Must Be Able to Run Fast. Talent Not Essential,” and it’s basically a wiseass little lament about the one-note interchangeability of today’s mega-action-movie heroes. Brown singles out Taylor Lautner from Twilight, Sam Worthington from Avatar (and now Clash of the Titans), and Shia LaBeouf from the Transformers movies and the latest Indiana Jones – three young stars who could spark wiseass little New York squibs in a nunnery, I’m thinking; like Salinger (the only time such a simile will ever apply to these three), they make a lazy freelancer’s job so much easier.

Brown claims that action movies have become so expensive, so big, so bent on sensory overload, that they’ve effectively made their action-hero stars irrelevant. “The days when audiences went to see an FX-filled action movie because of the carbon-based actor at its center (Willis, Schwarzenegger, Stallone) are ending,” Brown tells us. “Today’s moviegoers don’t really care who stars in these films.” Movie studios have handed these huge franchises to actors like Lautner, Worthington, and LaBeouf specifically because “they don’t threaten to overwhelm the effects with big personalities or a crazy need to be respected for their craft.”

New York's graphics, obviously

Lazy indeed, and it puts the cart before the horse: movie studios being what they are, these ‘FX’ extravaganzas are going to get made anyway – does Brown really believe casting executives wouldn’t add the screen magnetism of a young Schwarzenegger to box office draw, if they had such an actor just sitting there? Blaming moviegoers for the lack of such young action stars is like blaming the passengers on the Titanic for the lack of life boats, and picking these three particular actors just adds to the problem: Lautner is physically pretty, but he has no screen presence whatsoever; Worthington (as every single movie critic in the entire known universe has pointed out, and as every single person who’s seen Avatar has pointed out) has no business being in front of a camera at all and seems weirdly, arrogantly aware of that fact; and although LaBeouf’s obnoxious off-screen antics have prompted all but his most die-hard Even Stevens fans to forget that he possesses an extremely acute ear for dialogue and near-perfect comic timing, his presence in two mega-loud Transformers movies is just poor casting, not a slur on his entire demographic.

What’s missing from this picture isn’t discernment on the part of the American movie-goer: it’s the right action heroes. The ones who actually can compete with the green-screen and the motion-capture and the ‘FX’ outlay – the ones who can take the movie back from such gadgetry with a confidence and a panache that movie-going audiences want to see. The rule here ought not to be zombified sleepwalkers like Christian Bale as Batman or Brandon Routh as Superman (or the worst offender in all the worst ways, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man) – the rule should be Robert Downey as Iron Man. Would the studio have made that movie without him? Certainly. Would it have been nearly as big a hit without his utterly winning performance at its heart? Certainly not.

Warm bodies like Lautner and Worhtington aren’t the problem, and they aren’t the answer: we just need different heroes. And who knows what electrifying young (pre-derangement) Mel Gibson is even now slouching toward Central Casting to be born?

April 8th, 2010

Penguins on Parade: The Complete Poems of Thomas Wyatt!

Some Penguin Classics feel almost like consolation prizes, and the lovely, rock-solid R. A. Rebholz edition of the complete poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt must certainly be considered one of those. This is no slight to Rebholz, who’s as creepily thorough and methodical an editor as only the tepid undergrowth of academia could produce. His clarifications leave one breathless:

In this edition, I have divided the poems into two sections: those in Wyatt’s hand, with revisions in his hand, or attributed to him in the sixteenth century, and those attributed to him after the sixteenth century. While I do not know with precision the dates in which manuscripts containing ‘sections’ of Wyatt’s poems were compiled, his poems were certainly written in them before 1600. In effect, then, I am distinguishing between poems for which there is external evidence of authorship in the form of Tudor attributions and poems ascribed to Wyatt by modern editors and critics on grounds of attitude, style, or presence in a manuscript that contains poems attributed to him. The different degrees of reliability of the external evidence render impossible any absolute certainty that all the poems in the fist section are in fact by Wyatt; and it is indeed possible that some or many of the poems in the second section are his: readers acquainted with Wyatt and the criticism of his poems may well think that CCXI and CCXVI are by him. The second item in the note on each poem presents the external evidence for his authorship, if any; I do not bother to call attention to the absence of such evidence unless the attribution seems particularly far-fetched.

And it isn’t for the sake of Wyatt’s verse itself that he would in all likelihood breathe a little second-best sigh at the sight of this volume. Wyatt wrote poems his whole life, from his early teens to his distracted prime of life, and that verse was pollinated by the sweet bees of the Renaissance a-borning. Wyatt was born in 1503 (in a castle purchased in 1492 by his parvenu father, who had bet his and his family’s entire future on picking the right horse in the Lancastrian sweepstakes – he picked Henry VII, suffered some for it, and was subsequently richly rewarded when his horse won), and by the time he was in his mid-twenties, he’d traveled to much of Europe and Italy and met many of its leading intellectuals and poets. Even a dense, witless man, having supped with Machiavelli and emptied wine bottles with Ariosto, would have felt the rush of new literary airs in his nostrils, and Thomas Wyatt (unlike his castle-buying father) was not at all a dense, witless man.

In Italy and France, he found a creative world bursting with new ideas and new interpretations of old ideas, and all of it mixed with his own poet’s soul (and the natural Tudor-era pigheaded English competitiveness) and made him long to make something new in English verse. Terza rima runs headlong into iambic tetrameter, and behind the veil we can almost see a charmingly incongruous picture of the fleshy-faced, eagle-eyed, hard-handed young Wyatt bent over his candlelight, parsing styles and indifferently counting out syllables. His verses are free of outright scholarship (thank the lord – only poetic genius a couple of orders of magnitude greater than Wyatt’s can render scholarship into art, and the failures are gruesome to look upon), but oh, they still whiff of the sheer work that went into them – work and passion:

If amorous faith in heart unfeigned,
A sweet languor, a great lovely desire,
If honest will kindled in gentle fire,
If long error in a blind maze chained,
If in my visage each thought depainted,
Or else in my sparkling voice lower or higher
Which now fear, now shame, woefully doth tire,
If a pale colour which love hath stained,
If to have another than myself more dear,
If wailing or sighing continually,
With sorrowful anger feeding busily,
If burning afar off and freezing near
Are case that by love myself I destroy,
Yours is the fault and mine the great annoy.

Wyatt was writing in the full flood of a tradition even while he tried his best to English that tradition. Incongruities, as a result, crop up repeatedly (hence Gerald Bullett’s oft-repeated characterization of Wyatt – and his friend the Earl of Surrey – as ‘silver’ poets of the age rather than ‘gold’). But when Wyatt managed to match the lovely verse-precision he found in Italy with the particularly angry little snarl that animates so much Tudor writing (even civil court records often seem to spit off the page), he is unstoppable, the first clear clarion in English verse since Chaucer:

Hate whom ye list for I care not.
Love whom ye list and spare not.
Do what ye list and dread not.
Think what ye list and fear not.
For as for me I am not
But even as one that recketh not
Whether ye hate or hate not,
For in your love I dote not.
Wherefore I pray you forget not
But love whom ye list and spare not.

These and other verses (Rebholz’s edition is by far the greatest one-volume, common reader-friendly one there is or is ever likely to be: its acquisition by Penguin in 1978 was a typically decisive coup on their part) are the things that warrant Wyatt a Penguin Classic, and they’re the things that make it a Classic worth multiple bookmarks, worth tape-reinforcing, worth carrying into the sunny recesses of a nearby park on a warm day in order to proclaim these verses aloud as they demand.

But it’s a consolation prize anyway. Writing these poems, powerful and moving as so many of them are, was a pastime for Wyatt, as he would have been the first to admit. He was a vain man (as indeed is any man worth his spit, although the object of that vanity differs from person to person), so he wouldn’t disavow remembrance 500 years after his llifetime. But he’d hold his greatest achievement to be not literary but actuary: he survived.

Wyatt first entered Henry VIII’s court as an ewer at the age of 13 in 1516. At age 17 he married Elizabeth Brooke, the daughter of Lord Cobham, and his son Thomas was born rather hastily after that. All through the early 1520s, he and a coterie of other young bucks were always with the King, hunting, hawking, wrestling, jesting, composing music and riddles and poems, jesting loudly at late hours, jousting in elaborate tournaments (whose sheer violence would astound even faithful viewers of HBO’s The Tudors) – being boys together, and with that one inescapable feature of boyhood gangs: a magnetic, capricious leader.

Henry had been raised in the stiff formality of his father’s court, groomed for some high calling (ironists like to point to the Church) while his older brother Arthur studied kingship. The rarefied air of pomp was always bad for the Tudor brain (which had been programmed from time immemorial with more pragmatic data, like the smell of well-groomed horseflesh or the little gasp your man makes just as your dagger goes into his ear), breeding suspicion and false bonhomie in unhealthy tandem. Henry had it worse than any other Tudor, but in the early 1520s, it was possible for his boon companions , blinded by the genuine joy the young king could be, to miss the crucial fact that they were playing, as it were, with fire.

Wyatt more than any of them, because his aforementioned fleshy face and hard eyes were, in his 20s, matched with a lithe, muscular body and a lancing quick wit – he seemed every inch the king that Henry was, and around 1525 that fact caught the eye of a young lady-in-waiting named Anne Boleyn. She was fresh returned from the glittering court of France and thought she was free to have young men catch her eye, but in the 1520s she was beginning to conceive a bigger game at hand. True, courtiers like Wyatt were more or less openly besotted with her – but so was Henry himself, and his every nerve-ending was hyper-sensitive to any hint of competition.

In 1525, Wyatt divorced his wife, claiming she was unfaithful to him. In early 1526 he was sent on an embassy to France, and in 1527 he went on another embassy, this time to Italy. When he returned, in May of 1527, the fruits of his absence were in full bloom: Henry’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn, for two years unrivalled, was now the world’s most open secret.

Poor humiliated Queen Katherine asked the newly-returned poet to make her a translation of Petrarch’s Of the Remedies of Hard Fortune, and he set to work immediately. At a strong, growled word from Henry, he instead presented the Queen with a translation of Plutarch’s Peace of Mind. At his presentation, Wyatt was forced to plead that Petrarch’s verse was beyond him, and the King hoped his stubbornly righteous Queen got the point of her new text.

Wyatt was at the court again for a little over a year, making jokes at banquets, bantering word-play with other courtiers (only seldom now with the King, who less and less liked being shown up even in the friendliest of rivalries, not that he’d ever liked it much), and naturally conversing often with Anne Boleyn. Often enough that in 1528 he was ‘awarded’ the High Marshalship of Calais and required to stay there for two years. Upon his return, he was given some friendly advice by his new friend Thomas Cromwell, “go well they who go easy,” and some more pointed advice by his old friend the Royal kennel-keeper, that a lead dog will often castrate a rival before killing him.

He minded himself, and he was the picture of outward decorum when he – and the usual gaggle of courtiers – accompanied Henry and Anne to Calais in 1532. The next year he served at Anne’s coronation. There could scarcely be a clearer indication of the royal favor in which he stood, but in 1534 he got it: in May of that year, during a half-drunken fracas with the Sergeants of London, Wyatt managed to kill one of those worthies and was hauled off to Fleet prison in shame. And fifteen days later he was ordered released, pardoned, and granted the lifetime military command of Kent, plus the very pretty permission to fit out twenty men with his personal livery (he even asked the old kennel-keeper to be one of his twenty).

Honors continued to accrue (High Steward of the Abbey of West Malling, owner of Aryngden Park on let from the King, knighted, etc.), even while the sky darkened for all of his former fellow boon-companions. In 1536, Anne miscarried, and the last vestiges of the spell she’d cast over Henry slipped away. Into the void of his infatuation now rushed ice-cold vengeance, and a commission was placed in Cromwell’s hands to bring down Queen Anne. The method was to manufacture adulteries – and adulterers: William Brereton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston … even Thomas Boleyn, Anne’s brother … all were arrested and charged with having been her lovers. Anyone who had ever shared a wink or a knowing smile with Henry over this woman was now a galling reminder to him that he had once hoped for sons from her.

Nobody had smiled more on this point than Wyatt (they were smiles of pure self-defence), and he was arrested too – although separate from the others and never quite charged with them), parked in a Tower cell with an unobstructed view of Anne’s head getting sheared off, easy to hear the anguished cries of Brereton, Norris, Weston and the others as they were brought to their slaughter.

But he was freed. Freed, and given more honors – stewardships, livings, titles, and missions: in 1537 he was sent to court of the emperor Charles V and spent two years in Spain trying to keep Charles out of any alliance that might be harmful to England. He failed: Charles and the French king signed a ten-year peace treaty that completely excludes England, and Wyatt was accused by fellow commissioners of uttering treasonous quips about Henry during negotiations. Cromwell was again charged with trying the whole business, and in 1538 he found Wyatt innocent and dropped all the charges. In 1538 Wyatt was sent as ambassador to Charles again, again producing no positive results. That Henry’s foreign hopes were being frustrated at every turn is clear; his personal hopes were also, more famously, going nowhere: Jane Seymour had died giving him his sought-after heir, and in 1540 Henry was repulsed by the physical appearance of Anne of Cleves into hastily annulling their marriage.

Cromwell had championed that marriage and much of that foreign policy, and he was made to pay for the failure of all of it with his head. He was executed on 28 July (the day Henry married Catherine Howard), and before he died he cried out to his friend Wyatt in the crowd – legend has it that Wyatt’s tears prevented him from answering, although it’s difficult to imagine what answer he could have given that wouldn’t have been either a lie or a stupid lie.

Half a year later, Wyatt was arrested again, at Hampton Court, on the same charges that had been brought against him in 1538. This was a pattern as clear as any that ever involved Henry – and as deadly: the obviously vacated charges followed by the vicious charade of a trial, and then the axe. This pattern was not surprising to any at court, because all knew the angry, tactile, hungrily vindictive thing Henry had become. One by one, virtually every single person who’d ever been close to Henry in any capacity had been caught in the jaws of that pattern and utterly destroyed. As Wyatt sat in chains awaiting his trial, he could see the initials carved into the stone walls of his chamber – carved with desperate workings hour after hour by all who had preceded him in thinking themselves out of danger with this King.

And yet, he was acquitted. Acquitted, and showered with more honors. When Henry executed Catherine Howard, he gave Wyatt many of the livings and positions that had been held by Thomas Culpeper, her accused lover. He was given royal manors in many counties. And when the emperor sent an envoy to Falmouth, Wyatt was given the embassy to ride out in haste and greet the man.

He fell ill during that ride and died on 11 October of 1542, thick in the King’s business to the end, but it isn’t even that service he’d likely call his life’s great achievement: no, the neatest trick of his entire life was the sheer tenacity of managing to get through it. Time and again, bad luck and royal suspicion brought him right to the precipice. Time and again, he watched men and women more powerful than he fall off that lethal edge. But somehow, every time, a weird and loyal luck saw him through. Brought alive today and presented with this lovely Penguin Classic of his verses, he would likely grunt and say, “Yes, but mainly I lived.” He’d mean it in all senses of the word, and he’d count that his best monument, and he sometimes risked its mention:

Lucks, my fair falcon, and your fellows all,
How well pleasant it were your liberty!
Ye not forsake me that fair might ye befall.
But they that sometime liked my company
Like lice away from dead bodies they crawl.
Lo, what a proof in light adversity!
But ye, my birds, I swear by all your bells,
Ye be my friends and so be but few else.

April 5th, 2010

Safe As Houses!

Our book today is Alex Jeffers’ 1995 gay novel Safe as Houses, here given a very nice reprint by the good folks at Lethe Press, who are smart enough to know a novel worth preserving when they see one and brave enough to reprint a ten-year-old work of fiction in these perilous publishing times. Lethe Press is to be congratulated for the venture, and Safe as Houses can be savored all over again.

It’s a melancholy kind of savoring, as so many gay novels feel compelled to be. This is the love story of Allen and Jeremy, but Allen is dying of AIDS, and the illness – and the sad innovations and adaptations it eventually forces on everybody around Allen – gradually envelopes the book. Jeffers is excellent at portraying this slow process, but still, I can’t help but wish it weren’t a skill so many gay novelists felt compelled to master.

In flashbacks and pages from imaginary journals, Allen paints a kaleidoscopic portrait of his life, and he freely moves his imagination into the interior lives of other people, most especially Jeremy (tall, gentle Jeremy is by far the book’s most fully realized character, even thought it’s poor dying Allen who’s onstage front and center the whole time), whose boyhood experimentations with gay sex (and gay love) are drawn in vivid, honest colors:

Jerry had not questioned the necessity of being homosexual – queer, a fruit, a faggot, a fairy. He resigned himself to it the way he resigned himself to being an artist or freakishly tall and skinny. Relatively certain that Andy was queer too, he thought that they might be in love with each other in a way, a romantic friendship that did not encompass desire. Sex with George [an art class model] – if it had been sex, necking, frottage, mutual masturbation – hadn’t been especially illuminating. He felt no strong urge to repeat the experiment, not with George, not with Andy, but in the dry hot shade of the almond orchard he regarded his friend with a tender, veiled curiosity. “Andy,” he said, “sit still for a while. I want to draw a picture of you.”

The love story of Allen and Jeremy is at the heart of Safe as Houses (yet another deplorable book-title to add to the heap, an already-outdated British idiom that will require its own footnote in another fifty years), and although Jeffers isn’t shy about complicating that love story, he’s fairly scrupulous about throwing only respectable obstacles in its path. There’s family drama (Jeremy’s trouble marriage to the mother of his son Toby, for instance, and Allen’s equally troubled relationships with his own people), there’s job-and-friend drama, there’s the over-arching drama of serious illness, but the standard-issue pan-shallow cattiness that’s so common in contemporary gay fiction is entirely absent, replaced by a developing quite touching depiction of love as it grows older:

If I disengage myself, get up out of bed to pad, naked, across the bedroom and the living room to piss, he [Jeremy] will groan and shift in his sleep; when I return I’ll find him sprawled on his back snoring lightly. I will draw the sheet off him and kneel beside him, this man, this man of thirty-six with his long hair tangled around his head in the white puddle of the pillows, hair that is still mostly back but whose texture has changed over the last few years so that it reflects more light; the neat beard with its thing white stroke, like the stroke of a paintbrush, at the left corner of his mouth, the stubble rising on his cheeks and on the neck; his chest, so broad and deep, so hairy, that beside him I appear an adolescent; his taut, expansive belly. He has thickened since I’ve known him, solidified, become more substantial; underneath the beard his jaw is soft, the hard wee of bone masked by flesh as well as beard; he buys trousers a size larger now. He is a man, fully a man, a man who says hello whenever he notices me as though I were still a surprise to him, says Hello, Allen, with a kind of savor and delight and astonishment, or, sweetly, Hello, boy.

The echo here is a rather oft-used one from the 1991 Robin Williams movie “Hook,” and of course there should be a moratorium on the use of ‘pad’ as a verb, but the passage nonetheless shows Jeffers’ persistent device with Allen: he’s a watcher, a natural observer (this makes the gradual loss of his eyesight to AIDS all the more poignant). Time and again in this wonderful, sad novel, Jeffers will effortlessly take the reader past the flat surfaces of things, into the past contained in every kind of present. At one point late in the book Allen is talking on the phone with Jeremy’s son Toby as he idly fingers an old framed photograph of happier days – and although Allen himself can no longer see the picture clearly, we can:

While Toby worked on that conundrum, I picked up the silver frame. Although the photograph was no more than a blur I knew it by heart, Jeremy’s portrait of me on an earlier trip … My back was to the sea and my head turned to the side so that Jeremy had had to tell me he’d snapped the picture. I remembered Jeremy in his leather jacket, a burgundy so deep it was nearly black. His turned-up collar slapped his cheeks in the stiff Pacific wind, raising a flush. He lowered the camera and came over to me. This was California, not Rhode Island, I was young an in that period when infatuation veers giddily into something else: I put my arm around his waist and leaned into his side, smelling the leather smell of his jacket, the musty, physical, sudden smell of his sweat, the salt and kelp smell from the beach below the cliff. I suppose it’s odd that I should first realize how much I loved Jeremy while visiting his ex-wife.

I’m glad to see this paperback of Safe as Houses, glad Lethe Press had the smarts and the courage to reprint it. Needless to say, there’s a long, long list of such reprints of gay fiction that could be made, not only to save imagination-starved young gay men from prowling poorly-lit back shelves in used bookstores (unless of course they have reason to like those back aisles, although I can’t imagine what such a reason would be), but because so many of those older novels deserve to stay in the sun.

April 5th, 2010

Braddock’s March!

Our book today is Braddock’s March by Thomas Crocker, and despite the author’s fondest high hopes, the title is likely to be an utter mystery to most Americans. Those who received a meat-and-potatoes Catholic school education might perhaps know the name Braddock and hazily recall that it signifies pre-Revolution America, but even those few nun-tormented souls will be hard-pressed to put any details to the memory – only the few lucky ones who somehow latched onto a great history aficionado, somebody who can really make history come alive (Thom Daly of our own Open Letters comes to mind, especially in his latest piece), will have been made aware of how charged Braddock’s March – and the resulting Battle of the Monongahela – really was.

It started in late February of 1755 when British Major General Edward Braddock and his two regiments (about 2000 men when half of them weren’t sick) arrived in the New World and met straightway with the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie – “two imperiums of colonial power thrown together by fate,” as Crocker aptly put it – to assess the best ways to disrupt the military operations of the French in America. Braddock’s orders were to strike overland in the direction of the French stronghold of Fort Duquesne and capture it, and toward this end he assembled on his general staff a military ‘family’ he hoped could get this job done (among this ‘family’ was the ambitious young ‘captain’ Robert Orme, whose image rather mysteriously fills this book’s cover, despite the fact that the book’s nominal subject didn’t end up liking Orme all that much).

Crocker does an excellent job at telling this story, this is mainly due to the fact that despite his formidable reading on the time period, he somehow never lost sight of what telling history is all about. “But,” he tells us, “the first word on a key to help unlock the mystery of the Braddock campaign: it is a profoundly human story.”

That story is rife with bragging and doomed heroism, rife with double-crosses and double-dealings, and of course it has a tragic ending for Braddock himself, the hard-drinking hard-swearing blustery-yet-capable martinet in charge of what Crocker calls “one of the most important military engagements in the American colonial period.”

It was important, and it was big news – it’s refreshing that Crocker never loses sight of this. Nothing like the size or official capacity of Braddock’s two regiments of trained, drilled, experienced soldiers had ever been seen in the American colonies, and those colonies reacted with suitable awe and an entirely American nerve, as Crocker insightfully points out:

Just as Braddock arrived with orders and an agenda on how to deal with the American colonies, he would have been naïve to think that individual Americans did not have their own agendas for dealing with him. What is remarkable about the Americans’ reaction to the arrival of the expedition is now they viewed it as a grand opportunity to improve their own prospects for advancement.

One of these scheming Americans was George Washington, who’d seen his prospects of military glory – or much of a military career at all – evaporate after the debacle of Great Plains and Fort Necessity (recounted in all its debacle-ness here), and for a few months that summer of 1755, Braddock, Washington, et al pursued an agenda of typically British grandiosity, as Crocker summarizes:

Their aim was to oust the French, win over hostile Indians, and claim a continent. The British troops who made the march were the finest that England had ever sent to America in force. Their route of march slashed like a scar across the center of the American colonies. They blazed a road where only wilderness had existed. They hauled dozens of cannon across mountains that are formidable even now. They faced an enemy whom they did not know. And they were all but wiped out in one of the most humiliating defeats British arms was ever to suffer.

That defeat waits at the end of Braddock’s March – he was killed and his men were routed, driven to ignominious retreat, the whole campaign brought to a summary and pathetic ending on what Crocker calls “the day America grew up.” But there’s one final delight in this book full of delights: Crocker gives us quick thumbnail glimpses of the lives of all his principal characters after the pivotal events covered by his book – and it turns out he’s quite good at thumbnail sketches too:

Commodore Augustus Keppel (1725-1786). Keppel rose to become an admiral and had a highly distinguished career. However, in 1778, he led the Channel Fleet in an indecisive battle with the French off Ushant, Brittany, allowing the French fleet to slip off to America and to challenge British forces fighting the Americans in the Revolution. Keppel was court-martialed as a result of this action, but he alleged that his second-in-command, Sir Hugh Palliser, gave him inadequate support. Keppel was acquitted, but not before the resulting squabble divided the Navy. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has several portraits of Keppel at various stages of his life, including one that features his flagship Centurion in the background. Keppel died in 1786 without issue. However, his collateral family has given us Camilla Parker Bowles, the duchess of Cornwall and the present day wife of Prince Charles.

Naturally, Crocker a bit overstates both the military and the political significance of Braddock’s March – even novices will be able to spot the more egregious locations of his overreaching, and my bet is their reaction will be the same as mine: instant forgiveness, in the face of the enormous conviction and overriding narrative energy of the book as a whole. Braddock’s March is history written exactly as history should be: meticulous in terms of facts, impassioned and argumentative in terms of interpretation, and masterful in terms of presentation. A baker’s dozen iconic American figures – from Daniel Boone to Benjamin Franklin – make spirited appearances in these pages, and the portraits of Braddock and Washington will stick with you for a long time. Don’t miss this book.

April 4th, 2010

Nine Lives – from the North Plutarch!

Our nine lives this time around come from Plutarch, that revered first-century bestseller whose inexhaustible masterwork, the Parallel Lives, survives as one of the greatest literary wonders of the ancient world. As some of you will know, Plutarch’s Lives is one of my favorite books, one of that small shelf of volumes that, though not always of the first rank in terms of literary merit, have been indispensable companions to me in good times and bad; I suspect all readers have such a group of books, and Plutarch has been in mine since its beginning. I was recently given a pretty paperback of an abbreviated edition that set me re-reading with merry abandon.

It’s the current Wordsworth trade paperback, and although I don’t usually approve of abridgements, Plutarch is a bit of an exception. Read the whole thing, by all means, but the fact remains: in being fiercely nationalistic, Plutarch ends up spending too much time and effort on the lives of ancient Greeks to ballast out his lives of ancient Romans. For good or ill, Dion, Themistocles, and Agesilaus simply haven’t retained their general cultural interest in the way that Pompey, Caesar, and Cicero have – or at least, they haven’t for me. An edition of Plutarch that leans towards the Romans is therefore more congenial, although such a volume can’t omit the Greeks – lives like those of Theseus, Alcibiades, and of course Alexander the Great are too good not to include. But I usually end up concentrating on the Roman lives, and that’s what we’re doing today.

One life before the others, though, and neither a Roman nor a Greek: Thomas North, our Elizabethan translator! Because our source book today is, wonderfully enough, the North translation of Plutarch, which is far more often cited – chiefly because North’s was the Plutarch Shakespeare used and knew so well – than read. This is a great shame, because even among the Elizabethans (whose prose tends to tower rather embarrassingly over other eras), North was a master prose stylist. Even so mighty a wordsmith as Shakespeare can often find no better way of phrasing something than North’s way – time and again in the plays, Shakespeare pays North the ultimate compliment of word-for-word copying.

Our translator wasn’t originally intended for the literary life, and it’s possible he didn’t intend it himself. He was born around 1535, the second son of Lord North, and he was probably educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where his imperious father intended him to study the law (some form of employment being of course necessary for a second son, let alone the second son of a notoriously impecunious family, newly tacked-on ‘Lord’ or no). Young Thomas discovered in himself a facility for language, which is a not inconsiderable benefit in the study of law – but he also found some part of his pith that was alive to the beauty of language, and that part is anathema to legal studies. So Thomas gave up the law and turned to verse-making (none survive, thank the good lord) and translating: his version of The Morall Philosophie of Doni (a loose Spanish version of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius) was a modest surprise hit with its tiny publisher, although it made poor Thomas no less poor.

The Elizabethan smart set was acutely conscious of the fact (or at least the conceit) that they were living in a new golden age, and they were consequently hungry for manuals and guidebooks on how to do that. Knowing no other golden ages but one, they turned their eyes to the classics of ancient Greece and Rome, and suddenly a market for translations opened up. Thomas would become a major entrant in that market, and the avenue he took to get there brings him past the orbit of our old friend Marguerite of Navarre. She had a favorite at her court in France, a dissolute half-talent named Jacques Amyot, who in the late 1550s had the inspired idea of making a popular translation (into French, naturally) of Plutarch’s Lives. It was this translation Thomas came upon in the bookstalls when he accompanied his brother Roger (by then Lord North) to France on an embassy in 1574.

Thomas saw the commercial potentials as well as Amyot had, so he didn’t bother at first even to avail himself of a Greek text of the work (he was rusty anyway, although languages flowed for him like water) – he just set about translating Amyot’s translation. It proved a mighty task – Plutarch wrote a long book, and his prose is a labyrinth of unending sentences (his famed ‘periods’) that have to be seen to be believed. It’s not the sort of thing you can work on for long stretches of time if you value your sanity, and Thomas was often distracted (by romance, illicit and otherwise, by disastrous get-rich-quick schemes, once by poor health, etc.). But five years later, in 1579, he brought forth his Englished Plutarch and it was immediately successful not only with the literary set (by 1590, there was hardly a schoolroom or library in England that didn’t own either a copy or a knock-off) but with the great and influential of the land – including the lady at the top.

The book bore a dedicatory epistle to Queen Elizabeth, and in some ways it’s more remarkable than anything in the long book it precedes. Oh, it contains the usual fulsome fawning –there was a form for these things, after all, and it had taken a little work for Thomas’ friend-of-a-friend Lord Leicester to get him covert permission to make the dedication in the first place. Thomas assures the Queen that she’s more fit to be written up by Plutarch than read by him, and he hopes that the ‘common sort’ of her subjects will learn from the book how better to serve her, etc. But there are lines scattered throughout the dedication that read much more like one seasoned linguist speaking directly to another (Elizabeth had translated Plutarch, although not any of the Lives, and knew the tangle he could be). He reminds her of the simple truth, that she “can better understand it in Greek, than any man can make it English.”

Elizabeth could be a tricky dedicatee (her wit was barbed), but she must have liked receiving an almost professional compliment among the dross flattery of her day. She smiled upon the book, and sales soared.

In 1591 Thomas was knighted. In 1595 he brought out a second edition of his Lives. In 1601 he was made Justice of the Peace and, more importantly by far, granted forty-pound annual pension by the Queen. In 1603 he published a third, much expanded, edition of his Lives. Until Dryden and the Dryden Industry came along, the North Plutarch stood as the English Plutarch, and it still resounds with that particular swash and swagger that the prose of Dryden (and my love for my three John-poets is well known) can’t match on its best day, and there’s always that tell-tale Elizabethan twinkle in the eye, as when he relates the drastic measures the Trojan women took to cure their sea-sickness in the life of Romulus:

Other say, that after the taking and destruction of Troya, there were certain Troyans which saving themselves from the sword, took such vessels as they found at adventure in the haven, and were by winds put with the Thuscane shore, where they anchored near unto the river of Tyber. There their wives being so sore sea sick, that possibly they could not any more endure the boisterous surges of the seas, it happened one of them among the rest (the noblest and wisest of the company) called Roma, to counsel the other women her companions to set their ships afire, which they did accordingly. Wherewith their husbands at first were marvellously offended.

Puckish humor can also be found glinting through the life of famed Roman financier Crassus – some of this humor is Plutarch’s, but North gives it an end-line bounce found neither in the master nor in Amyot:

Licinia had a goodly pleasant garden hard by the suburbs of the city, wherewith Crassus was marvellously in love, and would fain have had it good cheap: an upon this only occasion was often seen in speech with her, which made the people suspect him. But for as much as it seemed to the judges that his covetousness was the cause that made him follow her, he was cleared of the incest suspected, but he never left following of the nun, till he had got the garden of her.

And just as North sometimes accentuates Plutarch’s dry humor, he always expands a little on his author’s not-infrequent philosophical digressions on the nature of fortune and man. These digressions are the blood that pump through the factwork of the Parallel Lives – they’re what keeps the book immortal, as North must have known as well as anybody, and he’s always alive to the rhetorical possibilities involved, as in his life of Coriolanus:

… he was so carried away with the vehemence of anger, and desire of revenge, that he had no sense nor feeling of the hard state he was in, which the common people judge not to be sorrow, although indeed it be the very same. For when sorrow (as you would say) is set afire, then it is converted into spite and malice, and driveth away for that time all faintness of heart and natural fear. And this is the cause why the choleric man is so altered, and mad in his actions, as a man set afire with a burning ague: for when a man’s heart is troubled, his pulse will beat marvellous strongly.

Or the a sidelong glance at the too-temporary nature of any ‘good hap,’ as in the life of Marius:

But that which never suffereth men quietly to enjoy the good hap of any victory clearly, but in this mortal life doth ever mingle the ill with the good, be it either fortune or spite of fatal destiny, or else the necessity of the natural causes of earthly things, did shortly after this great joy bring news unto Marius, of his companion Catulus Luctatius the other consul, who was like a cloud in a fair bright day, and brought the city of Rome again into new fear and trouble.

As in the original, so in North: it’s often possible (indeed, thrilling) to follow the thread of great stories as that thread winds through different lives, as when a scene in the life of Cicero about the willful and soon-to-be-renegade senator Catiline shows us the beginnings of his public downfall:

In the end Cicero coming out of his house, called the senate to the temple of Jupiter Stator (as much to say, stayer), which standeth at the upper end of the holy street as they go to the Mount Palatine. There was Catiline with others, as though he meant to clear himself of the suspicion that went of him: howbeit there was not a senator that would sit down by him, but they did all rise from the bench where Catiline had taken his place. And further, when he began to speak, he could have no audience for the great noise they made against him.

And a scene in the life of Julius Caesar shows us the beginnings of that downfall’s aftermath, when two of Catiline’s cohorts in crime, Lentulus and Cethegus, are being tried after Catiline himself had “scaped out of the hands of justice.” Cicero wants them put to death (illegal and virtually unprecedented, but Cicero kept claiming the survival of the Republic depended on it), and Julius Caesar alone stand to defend them and the laws that are supposed to protect them (Plutarch hints and North echoes that Caesar was bribed; goading Cicero might have been sufficient reward):

…when they were convinced in open senate, Cicero being at that time consul, asking every man’s opinion in the senate, what punishment they should have, and every one of them till it came to Caesar, gave sentence they should die, Caesar then rising up to speak, made an oration (penned and premeditated before) and said, that it was neither lawful nor yet their custom did bear it, to put men of such nobility to death (but in an extremity) without lawful indictment and condemnation. And therefore, that if they were put in prison in some city of Italy, where Cicero thought best, until that Catiline were overthrown, the senate might then at their pleasure quietly take such order therein, as might best appear unto their wisdoms.

The greatest of these background-stories is of course the shattering of that Republic Cicero was so eager to commit murder to preserve, and in the shadow of that great drama, every Roman character is likewise brought to life by Plutarch’s fantastic combination of fact, rumor, and those aforementioned philosophical expansions. We see Brutus making his peace with Pompey in a cold-blooded calculation of who was likely to win in that great struggle:

Afterwards when the empire of Rome was divided into factions, and that Caesar and Pompey both were in arms one against the other, and that all the empire of Rome was in garboyle and uproar, it was thought then that Brutus would take part with Caesar, because Pompey not long before had put his father unto death. But Brutus preferring the respect of his country and commonwealth, before private affection, and persuading himself that Pompey had juster cause to enter into arms than Caesar, he then took part with Pompey, though oftentimes meeting him before, he thought scorn to the murderer of his father.

And we see poor befuddled Marc Antony! Plutarch usually has no hesitation in letting his readers know which historical figures he considers worthy and otherwise, but he – like all sensible historians before and after him – has categorical trouble with Antony. The man could be so charming, after all, and yet he birthed conflicting reports before he got out of bed in the morning, sometimes quite literally:

Then was Antonius straight marvellously commended and beloved of the soldiers, because he commonly exercised himself among them, and would oftentimes eat and drink with them, and also be liberal unto them, according to his nobility. But then in contrary manner, he purchased divers other men’s evil wills, because that through negligence he would not do them justice when they were injured, and dealt very churlishly with them that had suit unto him: and besides all this, he had an ill name to entice other men’s wives.

All these details and countless others Amyot squeezed out of the recondite, twisting, turning, breathless Greek of Plutarch and rendered in workaday French prose, and that result Thomas North then worked into one of the greatest extended virtuoso epics of Elizabethan prose ever written. Thank God for this Wordsworth paperback, but the truth remains: North’s Plutarch has been almost entirely forgotten, except perhaps as the inspiration for some of Shakespeare. It deserves a universal readership – not as a translation (although North often manages to massage Amyot closer to the ancient Greek) but as an almost unrivalled adventure story about the roles that courage and luck play in the lives of great men. In my perfect library, there’s a fat, gorgeous Penguin Classic titled The North Plutarch and lavished with footnotes, endnotes, an enthusiastic Introduction, and perhaps even a twenty-page profile of the dear brave translator, who led a sometimes happy but often beleaguered life but managed nevertheless to accomplish two miracles: to create a great book and to win the approval of history’s pickiest patron.

Make the acquaintance of this darling book and learn its ways. You won’t be sorry; it’s good for your garboyles.

April 4th, 2010

Comics! The Conclusion of “Blackest Night”!

Last week’s big four-color superhero comics event was the conclusion of DC’s “Blackest Night” mini-series, and the fallout of that conclusion was never going to please every single fan completely. The broilsome plot of this thing was an opera buffa of DC’s trademark vagueness – a bad guy ‘dark’ character resurrects a bunch of dead superheroes – including such iconic figures as Aquaman, the Martian Manhunter, and what looked like Batman – and turns them against their still-living comrades. These zombie-superheroes spend the first few issues of the miniseries ripping the beating hearts out of some of those still-living superheroes (including Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and Aqualad), thus instantly recruiting them for evil. Big battles ensue, the Green Lantern Corps is involved, there’s a great deal of cosmic doubletalk, and the whole time, DC fans are wondering just one thing: when the ‘dark’ bad guy is eventually defeated by the forces of light, how many of those zombie-superheroes will be restored to life, and who will the lucky ones be?

The actual plot – involving ‘black lanterns’ and their desire to kill, kill, kill (and the lame-ass Crisis villain Anti-Monitor is mixed in there too, don’t ask me how) – was never viewed as anything but the slightest of McGuffins (except perhaps by those benighted individuals who are actually fans of the whole Green Lantern concept – geez … what’s the color-code for tedious?), just a necessary means to an end, and that end was restoring to life several of the major characters DC’s own gimmick-hungry writers had stupidly killed off over the last few years.

That end has now been achieved, and like I said, not everybody is smiling. Of course the rationale behind who got resurrected and who didn’t was entirely editorial, not narrative – so the choices make very little sense in terms of the wobbly, talky plot of “Blackest Night.” What would make sense would be this: if every character killed off either by the main bad guy or his superhero-zombies to restored to life when the bad guy was beaten. But that doesn’t happen; Hawkman and Hawkgirl come back to life, yes, but poor Aqualad stays dead. Alternately, it might have made sense if the ‘white lantern’ energies released in such a torrent at the conclusion of this final issue (written by Geoff Johns, drawn by Ivan Reis, and fantastically colored by Alex Sinclair) had simply restored everybody to life, regardless of what originally killed them. But that doesn’t happen either; there are still plenty of dead heroes and villains.

Instead, we get a weird mish-mash of resurrectees. There’s Hawkman and Hawkgirl, as mentioned, and Aquaman, which got a little cheer out of me since it’s the ‘classic’ version of the character, sans scraggly beard, sans effing metal Hook for a hand. There’s the Martian Manhunter, and those four make sense. It’s with everybody else that the weird comes in.

Maxwell Lord. The Reverse-Flash. Captain Boomerang. Osiris. Jade. Hawk. Looking at each one of them, I was struck over and over by what great opportunities were here being utterly wasted because some writer at some story-conference swore he had great ideas for how to ‘develop’ such do-nothing go-nowhere characters as most of these are. Jade is brought back to life but not the original Superman, whose final appearance in a DC comic is therefore as a bloodthirsty rotting zombie? That’s the treatment the company gives to its founding icon? Jade? Hawk is resurrected but not Batman (we get some additional doubletalk about how Batman isn’t really dead – and it all gets very neo-Platonic very quickly, since just a year ago readers saw Batman get fried by energy-beams, saw Superman very clearly holding the charred body … again, somebody’s ‘great’ plot-idea notwithstanding, this would have been an ideal moment to simplify things and simply restore the character now, without subjecting readers to eight more months of that ‘great’ idea unraveling)?

There’s of course a second, parallel agenda in operation here, and the more I see of it, the less I like of it. Maxwell Lord died when Wonder Woman snapped his neck (because he told her point-blank it was the only way she could stop him from mind-controlling Superman, and she took him at his word); the Reverse-Flash was killed by the Flash for a similar reason. Osiris died a gruesome death in a moment that for many rang in the era of graphic, gratuitous superhero violence that’s infested the lineups of both DC and Marvel for the last few years (an era that reached its indisputable high – or is it low? – point in Siege #2, which I wrote about earlier) (just follow the ‘comics’ thread to re-live it all!). Hawk metamorphosed into a timeline-destroying bad guy. By restoring these characters to life, DC almost seems to want to pass around some after-the-fact absolution (if this isn’t the motivation behind the resurrection of Maxwell Lord, I’ll print out this entry and eat it). If true, this is the bad kind of slate-wiping, and it bodes poorly for the ‘Brightest Day’ storylines that are promised to follow this issue.

Still, the issue had lots of great moments. Reis’ artwork is astonishingly detailed. Although it’s very unlike the pencils of George Perez, it has this in common: you can go back to his big two-page splash panels and find dozens of carefully thought out details you missed the first time. And Johns, for all his ham-handedness, provides some nice reunions (the one between Aquaman and his long-grieving wife is particularly well done) and one longed-for twist: Hawkgirl now remembers all her past lives – and therefore remembers that she’s always been passionately in love with Hawkman (the device of having her resist that love because she couldn’t access those memories had been played out for years and won’t be missed). And the surprise moment of having the great DC superhero Deadman (a ghost who possesses people’s bodies to fight crime and solve mysteries) get restored to life was boffo – That part of the writer-conference really did pay off (although again, it makes no sense whatsoever in terms of the actual plot of ‘Blackest Night’).

So I don’t get my original Kal-L Superman back, but I do get Aquaman, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and the Martian Manhunter. And I have to wait for a moronic plot-line to restore Batman. Still, this is mostly a win for Steve – and for comics. Now if we could just pass into law a moratorium on all superhero-killing for the foreseeable future ….

April 2nd, 2010

April 2010 in Open Letters!

It’s a new month, the sun is shining (for now), and a brand new issue of Open Letters Monthly is on display for all the world to see! As usual, we have a huge variety of stuff for you to read – and a huge amount of it too, enough to last you the entire month. Highlights this month include Ingrid Norton’s continuing look at short novels (this time it’s George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil), Krista Ingebretson’s look at the complex issues involved in translating literature, Megan Kearns’ contentious look at the ‘riot grrrl’ bands of the late 1990s, and Sam Sacks’ review of Andre Aciman’s Eight White Nights (Sam approves of the book but seems almost appalled to do so – it’s an illuminating, hilarious piece). We have Kristin Walker covering the Young Adult fiction beat, Phillip Lobo reporting from the front lines of the video gaming world, and Irma Heldmann’s latest “It’s a Mystery” column, plus original interviews, poetry, artwork, and much more.

So click on over and give it a read! And as always, feel free to leave comments on what pleases or irritates you (even card-carrying members of the Silent Majority are encouraged to pipe up)!