His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Archive for the tag “books”

An epistolary request for reading suggestions

I’ve been reading through parts of the correspondence of Fronto (c. 100-170), and among his letters are some to Emperor-Philosopher Marcus Aurelius (or, Richard Harris for those whose concerns with Roman history do not reach far beyond Gladiator), and in one such letter,[1] he requests of his teacher:

Mitte mihi aliquid quod tibi disertissimum videatur, quod legam, vel tuum aut Catonis aut Ciceronis aut Sallustii aut Gracchi aut poetae alicuius, χρῄζω γὰρ ἀναπαύλης, et maxime hoc genus, quae me lectio extollat et diffundat ἐκ τῶν καταλειφυιῶν φροντίδων; etiam si qua Lucretii aut Ennii excerpta habes εὐφωνότατα, ἁδρά et sicubi ἤθους ἐμφάσεις.

An English rendering:

Send me something to read that seems most eloquent to you, either something of yours, Cato’s, Cicero’s, Sallust’s, Gracchus’, or some poet’s, for I need a break, and especially that kind the reading of which gives me a lift and cheers me up from confining cares. Also, if you have some bits from Lucretius or Ennius that sound the best, are extraordinary, and anywhere show their character, send those.

Fronto’s letters are littered with Greek phrases, as we see even in this short excerpt, and in the English translation, I’ve put the Greek phrases in bold.

[1] Epistulae, IV.1 (ed. M. van den Hout, Teubner, 1988, 105). Find more of Fronto’s letters here:

  • Latin text here
  • another text (Lat. and Fr.) here
  • LCL edition, with an older text and an Eng. tr. here from archive.org

From Conan Doyle’s “Lot № 249”

https://i1.wp.com/img1.fantasticfiction.co.uk/images/t0/t534.jpgI recently got a used copy of Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural, ed. Henry Mazzeo, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (1968). I’m about a third of the way through it and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s “Lot № 249” (pp. 61-93), first published in 1892, is so far, and will probably remain, a favorite. (Text online here.) Here are a few especially fine lines:

  • “Yet when we think how narrow and how devious this path of nature is, how dimly we can trace it, for all our lamps of science, and how from the darkness which girds it round great and terrible possibilities loom ever shadowly upwards, it is a bold and confident man who will put a limit to the strange by-paths into which the human spirit may wander.” (62)
  • “…but apart from their dress no one could look at their hard-cut, alert faces without seeing that they were open-air men — men whose minds and tastes turned naturally to all that was manly and robust.” (63)
  • “They knew each other very well–so well that they could sit now in that soothing silence which is the very highest development of companionship.” (63)
  • “There’s something damnable about him — something reptilian. My gorge always rises at him. I should put him down as a man with secret vices — an evil liver.” (64)
  • Of a textbook of anatomy: “…plunged into a formidable, green-covered volume, adorned with great, colored maps of that strange, internal kingdom of which we are the hapless and helpless monarchs.” (65)
  • “With his firm mouth, broad forehead, and clear-cut, somewhat hard-featured face, he was a man who, if he had no brilliant talent, was yet so dogged, so patient, and so strong that he might in the end overtop a more showy genius.” (66)
  • “What a chap you are to stew! I believe an earthquake might come and knock Oxford into a cocked hat, and you would sit perfectly placid with your books among the ruins.” (75)
  • “He has spoiled my night’s reading, and that’s reason enough, if there were no other, why I should steer clear of him in the future.” (77)
  • “Bellingham’s face when he was in a passion was not pleasant to look upon.” (77)
  • “…as he was a bachelor, fairly well-to-do, with a good cellar and a better library, his house was a pleasant goal for a man who was in need of a brisk walk.” (80)
  • “With his fat, evil face he was like some bloated spider fresh from the weaving of his poisonous web.” (84)
  • The story’s closing line: “But the wisdom of men is small, and the ways of nature are strange, and who shall put a bound to the dark things which may be found by those who seek for them?” (93)

In addition, on p. 63 is the usage of “liquor” as a verb (= to drink liquor): “I don’t liquor when I’m training.” (For some other examples, see the OED s.v., mng. 6, where it is said to be slang.)

Conan Doyle is known, of course, especially for the Sherlock Holmes stories, but there’s more to his œuvre than that, and this story merits Mazzeo’s selection and reprinting in Hauntings, as well as, perhaps, your reading.

Mark the music

From an enquiry in the OED on the word “savage” I was led to a line from The Merchant of Venice, which in turn led me to the broader context in Act V of the play. Here is a delightful part of Act V, sc. i about the effects of music.

Screen Shot 2013-04-15 at 1.31.56 PM

The image above is from this edition, which exhibits such fine typography that I thought it worth giving as such, rather than retyping it; the same text can be found in the original-spelling edition from Oxford, p. 506, and here it is in modernized orthography (from here):


I am never merry when I hear sweet music.


The reason is, your spirits are attentive:
For do but note a wild and wanton herd,
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood;
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turn’d to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music: therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones and floods;
Since nought so stockish, hard and full of rage,
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

I don’t know that this is one of the better known parts of the play, but it deserves to be.


Orpheus mosaic from Edessa (dated 194 CE)

Recent photos, mostly snow

This is on a very frozen lake. I like it because there is a focus on the children (all on the left side), but that it also gives a hint as to how huge the sky can seem in Minnesota.


Pre-de-corking of some French wine. Nothing particularly meaningful about 2006 as opposed to its neighboring years, but I thought it would make a cool shot.


I took this a few days ago for my mother, who lives in a place where snow rarely falls. It doesn’t quite show how the snow sparkled like glitter, both in the air and on the ground, but there is some of it. The morning sun is just peeking in at the top of the photo, and the tree casts its spreading shadow all the way to the viewer’s feet.


This ice-hole — be careful how you pronounce that — forms several times every winter at a place where melting snow and ice from the roof drip onto the inches of snow on the ground, itself too thick to be easily erased. This one, here full deep and reaching to the rocks below, even shows the no-longer-frozen snow giving in to gravity, a drop at a time.


A couple of large books, so large that they must rest supinely. If this doesn’t make you love old-style numerals, I don’t know what will.


This is one of my favorite photos that I’ve taken in the past year or so. Again on the frozen lake. He has stopped and seems to look at the chapel ahead, and he’s surrounded by snow, ice, cold. He stands out in his yellow mantle. No one else is near. Is he wondering what’s in the chapel, why it’s there, whether to go on ahead? Is he tired, glad, surprised, disappointed? Is he on a pilgrimage to this place, or does the planned end of his road lie elsewhere, this building in the woods an unexpected find? Is he the first one to come to it, or does he know there are others there?


A little Proust’ll do you

There are sites or blogs for daily Talmud reading (see a consideration of the practice here), daily Bible, etc., and the reasoning, of course, is that a cycle of daily (or even weekly) readings will give you in relatively small snippets, not so large as to be indigestible, the whole of this or that text after a given period of time, assuming you possess and practice our all too absent quality of consistency. Whether you’re looking for spiritual direction, memory polishing, or simply a structured way to get through books, it works, assuming you can muster the discipline to keep at it. It’s also good for language practice: exposure to new words and forms along with frequent reinforcing of the commonest words, phrases, and forms. And for most people, “language in action” is rather more fun than looking at vocabulary lists and paradigms of nominal and verbal morphology. So how about a little Proust for French practice?

The obligatory and ubiquitous photograph of a mustachioed Proust

The obligatory and ubiquitous photograph of a mustachioed Proust

Marcel Proust (1871-1922; ici en français) is most well known for his long and unfinished novel À la recherche du temps perdu, published in seven parts from 1913-1927 (first English translation 1922-1930). There are websites (for example, here and here) on Proust and the novel, and I heartily recommend Patrick Alexander’s Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to the Remembrance of Things Past — I’ve not read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change your Life nor Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time. — and for an early estimation, see Edmund Wilson’s here. The French text, either in HTML or PDF, will be found here hosted by the University of Adelaide, and also here; it is from the latter that the text below has been taken. Some readers may also be interested to know that Proust’s manuscripts have fueled a notable amount of study (see, for example, here [abstract only], here, and here).

I’m hardly ambitious enough to start calling this series “Daily Proust” or the like, but I do want to make it a regular appearance here. Each reading will only be a paragraph or two in length. It will be immediately obvious that I am not beginning with the novel’s first part, Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way). The outline of the narrative, such as it is, of the novel can be had from the books mentioned above and some of the websites, but that is not really the point of these serial reading selections. Here the goal is simply getting to know and savoring Proust’s French and stimulating (in French) some philosophical reflection.

Here is the text, the beginning of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur:

Première partieAutour de Mme Swann

Ma mère, quand il fut question d’avoir pour la première fois M. de Norpois à dîner, ayant exprimé le regret que le professeur Cottard fût en voyage et qu’elle-même eût entièrement cessé de fréquenter Swann, car l’un et l’autre eussent sans doute intéressé l’ancien ambassadeur, mon père répondit qu’un convive éminent, un savant illustre, comme Cottard, ne pouvait jamais mal faire dans un dîner, mais que Swann, avec son ostentation, avec sa manière de crier sur les toits ses moindres relations, était un vulgaire esbrouffeur que le marquis de Norpois eût sans doute trouvé, selon son expression, « puant ». Or cette réponse de mon père demande quelques mots d’explication, certaines personnes se souvenant peut-être d’un Cottard bien médiocre et d’un Swann poussant jusqu’à la plus extrême délicatesse, en matière mondaine, la modestie et la discrétion. Mais pour ce qui regarde celui-ci, il était arrivé qu’au « fils Swann » et aussi au Swann du Jockey, l’ancien ami de mes parents avait ajouté une personnalité nouvelle (et qui ne devait pas être la dernière), celle de mari d’Odette. Adaptant aux humbles ambitions de cette femme, l’instinct, le désir, l’industrie, qu’il avait toujours eus, il s’était ingénié à se bâtir, fort au-dessous de l’ancienne, une position nouvelle et appropriée à la compagne qui l’occuperait avec lui. Or il s’y montrait un autre homme. Puisque (tout en continuant à fréquenter seul ses amis personnels, à qui il ne voulait pas imposer Odette quand ils ne lui demandaient pas spontanément à la connaître) c’était une seconde vie qu’il commençait, en commun avec sa femme, au milieu d’êtres nouveaux, on eût encore compris que pour mesurer le rang de ceux-ci, et par conséquent le plaisir d’amour-propre qu’il pouvait éprouver à les recevoir, il se fût servi, comme un point de comparaison, non pas des gens les plus brillants qui formaient sa société avant son mariage, mais des relations antérieures d’Odette. Mais, même quand on savait que c’était avec d’inélégants fonctionnaires, avec des femmes tarées, parure des bals de ministères, qu’il désirait de se lier, on était étonné de l’entendre, lui qui autrefois et même encore aujourd’hui dissimulait si gracieusement une invitation de Twickenham ou de Buckingham Palace, faire sonner bien haut que la femme d’un sous-chef de cabinet était venue rendre sa visite à Mme Swann. On dira peut-être que cela tenait à ce que la simplicité du Swann élégant n’avait été chez lui qu’une forme plus raffinée de la vanité et que, comme certains israélites, l’ancien ami de mes parents avait pu présenter tour à tour les états successifs par où avaient passé ceux de sa race, depuis le snobisme le plus naïf et la plus grossière goujaterie, jusqu’à la plus fine politesse. Mais la principale raison, et celle-là applicable à l’humanité en général, était que nos vertus elles-mêmes ne sont pas quelque chose de libre, de flottant, de quoi nous gardions la disponibilité permanente ; elles finissent par s’associer si étroitement dans notre esprit avec les actions à l’occasion desquelles nous nous sommes fait un devoir de les exercer, que si surgit pour nous une activité d’un autre ordre, elle nous prend au dépourvu et sans que nous ayons seulement l’idée qu’elle pourrait comporter la mise en oeuvre de ces mêmes vertus. Swann empressé avec ces nouvelles relations et les citant avec fierté, était comme ces grands artistes modestes ou généreux qui, s’ils se mettent à la fin de leur vie à se mêler de cuisine ou de jardinage, étalent une satisfaction naïve des louanges qu’on donne à leurs plats ou à leurs plates-bandes pour lesquels ils n’admettent pas la critique qu’ils acceptent aisément s’il s’agit de leurs chefs-d’oeuvre ; ou bien qui, donnant une de leurs toiles pour rien, ne peuvent en revanche sans mauvaise humeur perdre quarante sous aux dominos.

Reactions to the passage here are especially welcome, so please post them in the comments below!

On epigrams

I love gargantuan books, especially after I’ve finished reading them. It’s a unique feeling to look up on the bookshelf and see several inches of the wood occupied by a single title, whether in one or more volumes, and to remember from that sight, taking up so much of one’s vision with its many-paged mass, the myriad characters, spans of years involved, lands visited and perhaps fled, verbose and colorful description of at first seemingly irrelevant matter, &c. But there’s also a pleasure in reading-material that doesn’t take so many months (or years) to first taste — although it may take that long to really digest. I mean here short stories, plays, shorter novels, and poetry, of course, but more specifically I have in mind here the literary form of the epigram.

Epigrams take various forms in various languages, and are sometimes poetic (for example, in Greek and Latin), sometimes not. They are a convenient way for authors to give meaningful statements without full essays or treatises, although, of course, subsequent readers may be thereby inspired (or irritated!) to pen their own interpretation of the theme, in which case the little epigram will have engendered a larger progeny. While they are not the exclusive members of the club, epigrams are the quintessentially quotable bits of an author, being ready-made for such separate employment divorced from their original context (which may be more or less disjointed to begin with).

The word epigram itself is Greek — the word first meant “inscription” — and we have a huge collection of epigrams in that language in the later collection known as the Greek Anthology. (That is not to say that Greek is the earliest language in which epigrams were uttered.) These are in meter and are often somewhat longer than that which we we typically consider to be epigrams nowadays. Latin, too, has verse epigrams, notably those of Catullus and Martial, both of whom are as much a delight to read today as they always have been and always will be by appreciators of language and observers of society.

The epigram in later European literary history is not without some shining examples. I have lately been especially enjoying Nietzsche’s in Jenseits von Gut und Böse (“Sprüche und Zwischenspiele,” the fourth part = §§63-185), Wilde’s (see here for the privately printed Oscariana), and Ambrose Bierce’s printed at the end of the eighth volume of his Collected Works.

It’s worth noting, too, that the lyrics of some modern music — say, from the mid-1960s — might well be classified as at least partly epigrammatic. Examples that leap to the forefront of my mind now are “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (if you’ve not yet heard the forceful and charging version from Before the Flood, do yourself a favor and get it in addition to the one on Bringing It All Back Home) and (maybe?) “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Epigrams can sound very ex cathedra, and I suppose they are; not really more so than any opinionated piece of writing, that is writing that expresses some view on a subject, but epigrams are more poignantly punchy in that they’re so brief compared to a twenty- or thirty-page treatise and generally very clear in meaning (but Nietzsche’s not always so). Anybody who has a problem with the assumed authority of this or that epigrammarian is free, of course, to write his or her own epigrams in response!

Finally, epigrams composed in languages other than one’s own are veritably useful when learning the language(s) in question: they’re fodder for both cultural and linguistic enquiry, and a good exercise for the memory, not to mention suitable for addition to one’s arsenal of conversation for cocktail parties and other settings.

Any favorite epigrams or collections thereof? Please say so in the comments!

On applejack

I’ve recently finished reading The Sun also Rises. There are a great many references to drinking, mostly wine in prodigious amounts, but also beer and Pernod. At least twice someone drinks a Jack Rose cocktail, which was unknown to me, so like a worthy explorer I looked around and found that the recipe’s main (in fact, only) alcohol is applejack, the old American colonial concoction made by freeze-distilling (hard) cider, that is, in wintertime gradually removing the chunks of ice that form in it, thus reducing its water component and strengthening everything else, including, of course, the alcoholic content. (I recall from Botany of Desire the observation that apples have not always had the predominant flavors they now have, and cider then and cider now, and by extension any applejack transmogrified therefrom, wouldn’t necessarily taste the same.) While I live in Minnesota, and could conceivably make my own applejack the old-fashioned way — assuming we actually have a proper winter next season — using some good natural hard cider (such as Crispin), it’s good to know that liquor stores also carry it already made, but given its comparative unknownness, it might take some hunting around to find. I don’t know how many brands produce applejack, but Laird’s seems to be the most widely available. According to the bottle’s label, William Laird first made a batch of it in 1698 in Monmouth, New Jersey. Laird & Co. is now in Scobeyville of the same state. Their product is said to have the residuum of six pounds of apples in every bottle, and it’s eighty proof. I’ve not tried it in any cocktail yet, or on ice, only a few sips neat. The first encounter is, of course, olfactory, one vaguely of American whiskey but with an unmistakeable overtone (not undertone) of apples. The taste, in my limited experience with it so far, at least, has sweetness, to be sure, but not too much, and its ease of potation belies, I suspect, its alcoholic strength.

Since applejack has some history to it, I thought it might be worthwhile to make a foray into some possible witnesses to its history. I’m somewhat surprised to find no reference to the libation in two dipsological books I have to hand, Kingsley Amis’ Everyday Drinking and Iain Gately’s Drink. Thanks, though, to Archive.org and Google Books, we all have impossibly voluminous libraries at our ready disposal, so I went to the latter to plunder it. The potion was known also by the names of Dew of the Orchard and Jersey Lightning, as we learn from History of the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers Corn Exchange Regiment from their Engagement at Antietam to Appomattox (1905), p. 543. There are several other mentions of applejack in Civil War memoirs and stories. As soldiers traveled to parts of the country they’d never visited before, they learned of new local drinks, and in some places that meant applejack. One can easily imagine some folk song about applejack — along the the lines of the ecumenical (“Throw away your pills; it’ll cure all ills // Of pagan or Christian or Jew”) “Mountain Dew” for poitín; there’s another song of the same name on an analogous drink with a wholly different melody and lyrics performed by Flatt & Scruggs and perhaps others — but I’ve not come across one yet. George Arnold wrote a several-versed poem in approval of the drink (in Poems Grave and Gay, 1867, see here). Jerome Watrous’ little story “That Applejack Raid”, in Richard Epps and Other Stories (1906), pp. 138-141, has a bit on the drink. Information with an official air include a lengthy letter sent to the New York Times on applejack that was reprinted in the Internal Revenue Record and Customs Journal 25 (1879), pp. 314-315, and in journal published in London we see that the drink attracted attention not only in America: The Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry 12 (1893), pp. 169-170. Into the 20th century, St. Louis mixologist Thomas Bullock’s Ideal Bartender (1917) has at least three cocktails with applejack (I’ll certainly try the Applejack Sour).

There’s a nice post on applejack at the Cocktail Chronicles, complete with an excellent old advertisement and a sensational warning on the madness sure to consume anyone whose palate the beguiling drink bathes, and at least one of the currently available books for cider-making has some information on applejack: Anne Proulx and Lew Nichols, Cider. It’s clear from these resources, nineteenth-century to recent, that applejack was once an often drunk American drink, at least in some regions of the country. There’s no indication that it will any time soon return to its former notoriety, but the odd tippler may find it a worthwhile diversion or accompaniment.

Orlando Furioso and the Hulk

I recently had the opportunity to look through a 1584 Venetian edition of Ludovico Ariosto’s (1474-1533) Orlando Furioso, a classic of Italian and European literature, and a really long poem: it is written in ottava rima, an eight-line rhyming stanza with the pattern abababcc and goes for 38,736 lines, noticeably longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Continuing Matteo Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato of 1495, the poem is set among the Frankish-Saracen wars with Charlemagne, with elements of the Arthurian and Carolingian cycles (“the Matter of Britain” and “the Matter of France”) fused together. This edition by Francesco Franceschi that I examined has decorative engravings (from metal) at the beginning of each of the poem’s forty-six cantos, and very brief annotationi end each one. The book is almost entirely in italic. In the copy I saw, a commentary is bound with the text of the poem itself: Alberto Lavezvola’s Osservationi sopra il Furioso, also from Venice in the same year. The annotations to the edition of the poem, Lavezvola’s Osservationi, and another book I also perused, the almost 800-page La spositione sopra l’Orlando Furioso di M. Ludovico Ariosto (Florence, 1549/50; 1549 is on the title page, June 1550 in the colophon) of Simon Fornari da Rheggio, bear witness to the close attention readers devoted to Ariosto’s work. The first English translation of the poem (also in verse), the work of John Harrington, was published in 1591; there have been a number of subsequent translations, including John Hoole’s in rhyming couplets, an excerpt of which appears below.

Orlando’s madness, which gives the poem its name — remember, too, how Achilles’ wrath, a kind of madness, is the very first thing we meet in the Iliad — is born in the wake of his learning that the beautiful Angelica, whom he’s been chasing, has run off in marriage to the Saracen knight Medoro, whom she’s healed (see the end of Canto 23). Upon seeing their joined names inscribed in trees, mountains, etc. (“Infelice quell’antro, ed ogni stelo // In cui Medoro e Angelica si legge!”), he goes mad. While it does not include, I think, many other elements of the Hulk mythology, the scene of Orlando’s entering his raging madness makes a close parallel of the Bruce Banner-Hulk metamorphosis, and when I read Ariosto’s account of Orlando’s unhinged response to Angelica’s marriage with Medoro, the Hulk is just what I thought of. Here are some lines from the event in Hoole’s rendering:

The fourth dire morn, with frantic rage possest,
He rends the armour from his back and breast:
Here lies the helmet, there the bossy shield,
Cuishes and cuirass further spread the field;
And all his other arms, at random strow’d,
In divers parts he scatters through the wood;
Then from his body strips the covering vest,
And bares his sinewy limbs and hairy chest;
And now begins such feats of boundless rage,
As far and near th’ astonished world engage.

His sword he left, else had his dreadful hand
With blood and horror fill’d each wasted land:
But little pole-axe, sword, or mace he needs
T’ assist his strength, that every strength exceeds.
First his huge grasp a lofty pine up-tears
Sheer by the roots; the like another fares
Of equal growth; as easy round him strow’d,
As lowly weeds, or shrubs, or dwarfish wood.
Vast oaks and elms before his fury fall;
The stately fir, tough ash, and cedar tall.
As when a fowler for the field prepares
His sylvan warfare; ere he spreads his snares,
From stubble, reeds, and furze, th’ obstructed land
Around he clears: no less Orlando’s hand
Levels the trees that long had tower’d above,
For rolling years the glory of the grove!
The rustic swains that ‘mid the woodland shade
Heard the loud crash, forsook their flocks that stray’d
Without a shepherd, while their masters flew
To learn the tumult and the wonder view.

Ariosto’s fantastical poem — it includes hippogriffs, for example, and a trip, not only to Ethiopia (surely fantastic at the time), but even to the moon (this was not the first trip to the moon in European literature, though: the 2nd-cent. CE author Lucian had already described such a voyage in his Greek True Story) — seems, while certainly known to and cherished by some littérateurs, generally to be on the further end of literary ken, a position undeserved. Maybe this little highlight will go some small way toward rectifying that state.

In my next “Italian with the Poets” post I’ll go through this passage with a little commentary. Till then, happy metamorphoses, into and out of madness.

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