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Archive for the tag “Marguerite Yourcenar”

What I Read in 2015

Reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.     J.L. Borges

Near the end of 2014 I made a spur of the moment decision to publish a list and commentary on all the books I had read the past year (which you can read here). This had a couple of unplanned benefits: it led me to posting more essays on my blog again after a two-year hiatus; and it helped me to better plan and maximize my reading time. For example, after making the 2014 list I noticed that there was only one female author, and that this was shamefully not out of the ordinary for me. I decided my first goal for 2015 would be to read many more books by women. I think you will see from the following list that I succeeded. This also led me to other unexpected avenues, such as many books by African authors, and also African-American authors. One of the many benefits of reading is that it can help you learn about, and empathize with, people from different backgrounds than yourself. For other benefits and a much longer reading list, take a look at this great article I came across by a librarian who read 164 books in 2015. I started 61 books this year, and finished all but six of them. That is nearly double the 33 or so books from the previous year, and still almost shocking how I even got this far considering my busy teaching schedule and my two-year-old twins that take up most of my time.

I have already reviewed some of the books on this list at length, and I would like to comment much more extensively on most of them, but that will have to be done individually in future posts. I tried to keep any comments here as short as possible for brevity’s sake. Unfinished books are marked with *, and sometimes reasons are given. My reading list for 2016 is already quite long and each book I encounter usually leads to several other books by the same or similar authors, all in the pursuit of what Nabokov termed the “Orphic thirst” of reading and rereading. I hope if you are reading this far you, too, will find some recommendations, and I would welcome any comments or other suggestions you have in the comments section. Without further ado, the list:

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Post-Apartheid South Africa, economical and unpredictable plot, typically precise writing from the 2003 Nobel Laureate

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

Important metaphorical novel about the relationship between Whites, Blacks, and land in Apartheid-era South Africa from the 1991 Nobel Laureate.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Out of AfricaSeven Gothic Tales* by Karen Blixen

Started my growing interest in reading more African-themed books this year.

The Sea, The SeaUnder the Net by Iris Murdoch

Very entertaining, philosophical, and memorable books in both cases by a prolific author and philosopher. The Sea, The Sea is one of my favorite books from this year; the setting itself was so evocative that it was almost a central character.

High Lonesome* by Joyce Carol Oates

Chosen nearly at random as my first entry into her endless works, read a good portion, technically well-written, but laid aside due to lack of interest in the characters and settings.

On Violence by Hannah Arendt

Very important perspective on political philosophy that I will write about more at a later date.

The Handmaid’s TaleThe PenelopiadThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

All three great, though the second is little more than a trifle. The Handmaid’s Tale is another of my favorites from this year and, as Harold Bloom comments in the preface, every bit as good and important a dystopian vision as 1984 and Brave New World.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Very long and ambitious, but perhaps too much so by the 2007 Nobel Laureate. Difficult to finish. I most enjoyed the sections set in pre- and post-war Rhodesia, but not so much the section about Communist Party struggles in 50’s Britain.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Excellent all-around novel for its time and place, as it should be considering the near universal praise it always receives these days (Salman Rushdie being the sole exception). Great psychological depth to characters, and even the language was very stimulating for formal Victorian prose.

TypeeWhite-JacketMoby-DickThe Piazza Tales by Herman Melville

Looking back now it was a crime that I had never read Melville, and the recommendations by two separate people whose taste in literature I trust set me to remedying my omission. I quickly become a firmly convinced believer in Melville as the greatest American writer. Moby-Dick was the best book I read this year.

Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Herman Melville by Harold Bloom (editor)

He holds that Moby-Dick is the darkest of America’s three national epics (the other of which are Huckleberry Finn and Leaves of Grass). He also notes how fully four out of the six short novellas of The Piazza Tales are veritable masterpieces.

The White CastleMy Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Already written a review of these books here.

Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell

The second part of the Alexandria Quartet, filling in the gaps from where the first novel Justine, which I read last year, left off. I suspect I will read the third volume in the coming year and possibly the fourth.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Julian by Gore Vidal

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves

I already reviewed the three above novels of Ancient Rome here.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

After Memoirs of Hadrian, I chose this one randomly hoping that another French female writer named Marguerite would also be as good. I was disappointed, and if this one were not so short I would not have finished it.

Half of a Yellow SunAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I already reviewed these novels here.

Things Fall ApartNo Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe

This and the following seven authors all connect with the running African theme I followed this year.

Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka

Excellent play, especially appreciated the litany of Yoruba proverbs.

Weep Not, ChildWizard of the Crow* by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

The second of these, a funny and important satire on African dictators, is unfinished only due to its length, but I’ll come back to it next year.

The Sultan’s Dilemma by Tawfiq al-Hakim

Wonderful play, a sort of comedy of errors set in Mamluk-era Egypt.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Incredibly dream-like story of a desperately impoverished family in the slums of Nigeria, won the 1991 Booker Prize.

Song of SolomonBeloved by Toni Morrison

This and the following three authors were all mentioned in my essay “Why Black Literature Matters

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Still incredible that the person who wrote this excellent and thoughtful memoirs became president; even a bit disappointing that he hasn’t been a better president considering this book.

Go Tell it on the MountainGiovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Roman Near East by Fergus Millar

A History of the Later Roman Empire: AD 284-641* by Stephen Mitchell

After finishing the three novels of Rome above, I wanted to catch up on a couple of pieces of academic historiography I had overlooked during my Master’s study in Ancient History.

Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281 by Reuven Amitai-Preiss

Research inspired by The Sultan’s Dilemma above.

Climbing: Philosophy for Everyone by Stephen Schmid (editor)

Light-weight philosophical essays discussing various ethical issues surrounding my favorite hobby–rock climbing.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Very good and very funny social satire on 19th century Russian society; the first part is a masterpiece and much better than the second, which tends to repeat itself and lose narrative focus.

Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

Three well-wrought and captivating novellas about tough everyman characters seeking revenge and getting the most out of their lives.

A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew Hefti

Debut novel to be published in January 2016 by my colleague at www.wrath-bearingtree.com; deeply-felt story about how two men’s lives changed after fighting in Iraq.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton

Another Iraq veteran discusses the consequences of climate change on the human species and how we can possibly preserve some of our culture; my review of it will appear soon either here or on another website.

Daisy Miller; The Turn of the ScrewThe Aspern PapersThe Ambassadors*The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

All audiobooks during my commute; the first three are slow but rewarding novellas with precise subtlety of characterization and plot; The Ambassadors I could not finish due to lack of readily available plot; The Portrait of a Lady kept me interested just by its rich psychological character studies.

Pragmatism by William James

Not a particularly readable or convincing case from Henry’s older brother; I think Dewey and then Rorty is probably the better way to go with the “American” philosophy of Pragmatism.

Howard’s End by E.M. Forster

Great novel, a slightly better version of all of the Henry James above, but after all these (along with Middlemarch and Dead Souls), I will probably take a break in 2016 from 19th century or turn of the century dramas of the social and class divide, scheming matchmaking, and invisible servants.

Gilead* by Marilynne Robinson

Became interested after reading Obama’s interview with the author (and because of the shared name with the country in The Handmaid’s Tale); alas, it was too slow and uninteresting for me, which I’m sure is my fault more than the author’s.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Great example of how to use literature to mock dictators (the monstrous Trujillo, in this case) and learn about people from different backgrounds.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

More like a connected series of short stories than a novel; the first couple chapters were the best, but I began to lose interest by the second half due to generally unlikeable characters and more superficiality than I like in my books.

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Three Novels of Ancient Rome: Memoirs of Hadrian, Julian, and Count Belisarius

One of the reasons I decided to do a Master’s degree in Ancient History came from my interest in seeing the ruins around Greece and Italy during my travels there. Another reason was my chance reading of Robert Graves’ novel I, Claudius, which I picked up in a hostel in France two days before starting the Camino de Santiago and had already finished before starting the walk. Obviously I learned quite a lot about Ancient History doing an advanced degree, but the reading and studying was exclusively of an academic and historical nature. Readers of my blog will have noticed that I enjoy literature as well, for its own sake. When history meets literature it is classified as the genre of historical fiction–a creative reimagining of historical events into a fictional narrative. Recently I had the pleasure of reading several more examples, like I, Claudius, of historical fiction centered on ancient Rome that I had not had time enough or interest in while formerly focusing on pure historical research. They are, in chronological order of their protagonists’ lives, Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar; Julian, by Gore Vidal; and Count Belisarius, by Robert Graves.

Swarthy, bearded, Spanish-accented Hadrian

Swarthy, bearded, Spanish-accented Hadrian

Hadrian is known by most people as the builder of a wall in northern England. In fact, he was arguably the most successful of all Roman emperors, as well as one of the most fascinating, in my opinion. He presided over the Empire for a brief period in which it was at its political and cultural apex, and almost completely at peace at home and abroad. Such a description obviously pays homage to Gibbon’s famous opening of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in which he claimed that the happiest period in history, until his own time of course, was during the reign of the so-called Five Good Emperors, of whom Hadrian was the third. Hadrian was a deeply committed philhellene who completed the synthesis of Roman and Greek culture. He was the only emperor to visit every part of the Empire, this while it was at its greatest geographical extent. He climbed Mt. Snowdon in northern Wales, crossed the Tigris River, and rode into the deserts of Algeria and Morocco. He was an architect, whose Pantheon, still standing proudly in Rome, used cutting edge dome technology, and whose villa at Tivoli is still evocative today; a poet, whose sole surviving poem is called “Animula vagula blandula” and has generated dozens of different translations (here is the novel’s version, and perhaps my favorite: “Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again…Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes”); and a philosopher. We know that he also composed an autobiography, though unfortunately it is lost to us. Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman to be elected to the French Academy, made it her decades long life project to create her own version of this lost autobiography. The result, Memoirs of Hadrian, is a profound masterpiece.

The book takes the form of a letter from the dying Hadrian to his young adopted grandson, Marcus Aurelius, who was destined to rule as the last of the aforementioned Five Good Emperors. This format has the wise and experienced Emperor giving advice to his future heir to the throne whilst at the same time recounting his life story. Hadrian came from a noble landowning family with deep roots in colonial Spain, like his predecessor and adoptive father, Trajan (in antiquity known as the so-called “Best Emperor”, which this book disputes–”He had reached that moment in life, different for each one of us, when a man abandons himself to his demon or to his genius, following a mysterious law which bids him either to destroy or outdo himself.”). Hadrian, a somewhat late bloomer, spent the first forty years of his life in civil and military service to the Empire, where he became known as a highly capable general, manager, and administrator (“Nothing is slower than the true birth of a man.”). The tale of his succession to the throne is gripping and well-told, and then we follow him in his constant travels around the Empire for the rest of his reign and life. His biggest occupation was shoring up the defenses and military capabilities of the Empire, maintaining peace through strength, and increasing general welfare and prosperity and spreading culture as widely as possible. This Hadrian, probably much like the historical one, is a refined and enlightened humanist who can be seen as far ahead of his times. The book portrays with taste and circumspection the tragic event of this emperor’s life, which was the death by drowning in the Nile of his 20-year-old Greek companion Antinoös. Hadrian reacted by building a new city on the site and founding a new cult in his honor which was one of the most widespread and well-attested in Roman antiquity (“Meditation upon death does not teach one how to die; it does not make the departure more easy, but ease is not what I seek. Beloved boy, so willful and brooding, your sacrifice will have enriched not my life but my death…Centuries as yet unborn within the dark womb of time would pass by thousands over that tomb without restoring life to him, but likewise without adding to his death, and without changing the fact that he had been.”).

Busts of Hadrian and Antinoös from the British Museum

Busts of Hadrian and Antinoös from the British Museum

Besides the narrative itself, which flows nicely due to the constant action of the life of the protagonist, the book’s strength include its poetic and lyrical passages combined with its philosophical introspection that comes from the life of an experienced and wise author channelling a like-minded Emperor. Indeed, choosing just a few representative quotes from so many worthy ones is a difficult task, and I am certain this will earn a rare rereading by me. (“For my part I have sought liberty more than power, and power only because it can lead to freedom. What interested me was not a philosophy of the free man (all who try that have proved tiresome), but a technique: I hoped to discover the hinge where our will meets and moves with destiny, and where discipline strengthens, instead of restraining, our nature.”).

Gore Vidal (1925-2012) was a quite famous public figure in his day, and especially known as a writer of historical fiction like Burr and Lincoln. Julian, about the life of the eponymous Roman emperor, is considered one of the very best from Vidal’s long career; it is the only book I have read by him so far but I would easily imagine that to be the case. Julian, who earned the later sobriquet “the Apostate” from Christian writers, is the second Roman emperor I personally consider most fascinating, despite his short reign of only four years. Indeed, I did quite a bit of research about his life and times and almost focused my thesis on him. Julian (330-363), was a nephew of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, and was destined to be the last heir of that dynasty before dying prematurely at the age of 33 (incidentally also the age of Jesus, Alexander, and me as I am writing this) under dubious circumstances during the retreat from a Persian campaign (the narrative tension at the end of this novel, and the most obviously invented fiction of the novel, involves a conspiracy over the death of the emperor).

Julian and his brother were raised in seclusion in Cappadocia after the sons of Constantine murdered the rest of his family in a paranoid pre-emptive strike against his familial rivals. Julian was very bookish and philosophically oriented; it would not be a stretch to say he was among the most educated and intellectual emperors in Roman history whose only real competitors would be Marcus Aurelius and the aforementioned Hadrian (and perhaps also Claudius, who was an antiquarian and the last known reader of the Etruscan language). Julian was also a deeply religious Christian whose study companions included two future Fathers of the Church, Saint Basil “the Great” of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, as well as another influential Christian writer, Gregory of Nazianzus. Julian also received philosophical training in Athens, where he listened to well-known orators and philosophers like Libanius and Priscus. At some point, Julian secretly renounced Christianity, the new state religion of his family, and adopted Hellenist paganism and sun worship.

A coin of long-bearded Julian with an obverse of a bull, symbolizing the enormous scale of his ritual sacrifice to Helios

A coin of long-bearded Julian with an obverse of a bull, symbolizing the enormous scale of his ritual sacrifice to Helios

The novel is written as a series of letters between the two previously mentioned philosophers years after Julian’s death. These letters form the frame story of Julian’s life, which is revealed in the chapters of his secret autobiography owned by Priscus and lent to Libanius with his own notes, to which Libanius adds his own comments. The events of the mid-4th century around which the story turns are interesting on their own account, and the retelling by Vidal makes them even richer and more alive. The characters are fully fleshed, from the false piety of the kin-slaying villain Constantius, Julian’s predecessor, to the fat, obsequious, and powerful eunuch Eusebius who ruled the huge court of the former. Julian is portrayed by the two story-tellers as an overly idealistic hero, whose goal of restoring the old Roman gods was always doomed to fail.

Most of Julian’s reign was spent in the second city of the Eastern empire, Antioch, preparing for a Persian campaign to follow in the footsteps of that always out-of-reach model of ambitious Romans, Alexander the Great. Despite Julian’s short reign, there is probably more extant writing from his own hand than any other emperor, as well as a myriad of other primary sources about his life. This was because of the literary circles Julian moved in no less than the caliber of his enemies, such as the previously mentioned Cappadocian Fathers. Julian wore an apparently ragged beard for most of his adult life, and, uniquely among all Roman emperors, wrote a satire disparaging himself in order to castigate the intolerable citizens of Antioch–Misopogon (Beard Hater). He also wrote a surviving satire on other Roman emperors in the style of Lucian of Samosata’s works and modeled and named after Plato’s Symposium. In this dialogue, Julian portrays a contest in front of the Olympian gods by all the Roman emperors to see who was the best among them. Julian takes this opportunity to make fun of them all, especially his uncle Constantine, and–Spoiler Alert–ultimately names Marcus Aurelius as the winner, but only because he didn’t stoop to the level of the other strivers, or even bother to respond.

Despite obvious fictional creations that historical fiction narrative requires, Julian is a very well-researched and historically accurate picture of the beginning of the Late Roman Empire. It is also a very entertaining novel in its own right with a certain amount of philosophical perspective that go well beyond commonplace, though not to the high standard of the profound and nuanced Memoirs of Hadrian. (“The rhetoric of hate is often most effective when couched in the idiom of love.” “Nothing human is finally calculable; even to ourselves we are strange.”) Though I have little interest in reading his American-centered historical fiction, I have already added Vidal’s Creation, his other foray into ancient Greek historical fiction, to my list.

First in order of composition but last in order of historical sequence comes Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius. Graves (whose World War I memoirs, Goodbye to All That, I already discussed at length in an earlier essay Goodbye to Christmas Truces) basically invented the genre of ancient Roman historical fiction with his 1934 I, Claudius, followed the following year by the sequel Claudius the God (an entertaining 1976 miniseries starring Derek Jacobi also featured a young and non-baldheaded Patrick Stewart as Sejanus). Count Belisarius (1938) was Graves’ next endeavor which moved the setting fully five centuries ahead to the height of the early Byzantine empire.

Mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna, thought to represent the black-haired Belisarius

Mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna, thought to represent the black-haired Belisarius

Belisarius was a military commander who rose through the ranks to become the right-hand man of the emperor Justinian. Belisarius was an extremely capable leader and innovator who developed and trained a new hybrid unit of heavy cavalry archers. His character was honorable and virtuous to a fault, and he possessed every quality desired in the best emperors save one: personal ambition. Throughout his amazing career he never failed to follow orders and defer power back to the emperor, Justinian. This came at great cost, as Justinian was portrayed in this novel as a counterpart to the earlier villainous Constantius in Julian: weak, cowardly, venal, jealous, petty, and hypocritical. Justinian’s goal, in the novel, was to earn for himself the appellation “the Great”, and to further this aim he focused on reforming the law code, building great monuments (the magnificent Haghia Sophia stands as one positive testament to his reign), and spreading largesse to churches and monasteries. The great military successes of Belisarius were little regarded by Justinian, who would always recall him to the capital at inopportune times and always failed to send enough resources to ever truly win wars or hold new territory.

The deeds of Belisarius can be reckoned among the greatest of the ancient world along with Alexander, Caesar, and Hannibal. He won every kind of battle under any conditions, and his reputation was such that even the revanchist Persian empire sued for peace immediately when it was reported that he was returning to campaign there. He reclaimed the entire Roman coast of Africa which had been held by the Germanic tribe of Vandals for over a century. Then, in a long a destructive war he reclaimed all of the Italian peninsula from the Germanic Ostrogoths, who fielded a much larger army. Much of the damage to ancient Roman sites in Italy first occurred during these campaigns. Belisarius twice held the city of Rome from a besieging army 10 times larger, but the population dropped to just a few hundred for the next few centuries (after boasting one million residents during the height of the Empire). The novel recounts success after success by Belisarius in the face of adversity not only from enemies but from his own Emperor. There is also much narrative space devoted to the court intrigues between the great Byzantine women Theodora, the empress, and Antonina, Belisarius’ wife, as well as the chariot racing factions which ruled the politics of Constantinople. The novel is very well-written and very entertaining, and draws much of its historical framework from the gossipy account of Procopius, the court historian with an ax to grind, called The Secret History. Belisarius holds the honor of being the last person to receive a Roman triumph (and possibly the only person outside the Imperial family to receive such an honor since the last days of the Roman Republic fully seven centuries earlier).

"Belisarius begging for alms" by Jacques-Louis David

“Belisarius begging for alms” by Jacques-Louis David

The legend has it that Belisarius ended his days as a blind beggar after the unjust vengeance of Justinian for a non-existent treason against the throne. Ironically, the two men died within months of each other in the same year of 565. For a variety of reasons, Belisarius is one of the most compelling figures of late antiquity and Byzantine history, and, as I stated earlier, unequivocally one of the very best military commanders in history. Count Belisarius does justice to such a character, and its narrative force is at least as strong as Vidal’s Julian, though neither are ultimately as well-rounded and thoughtful as Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian.

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