Category Archives: classic

Little Women

I am in Sheffield. Or we are, if you count the cat (which I really should). This is the 4th time she’s moved with me in six years. Oh, Puss! What a role model you are to me, with your curiosity and courage! Sure, you are hiding under the bed right now, but you did sniff around and meet a few of the new housemates! You just understand the proper balance between “me time” and “exploration!”

I have been finding Knausgaard tough going in these tough days. Para decirlo de simple… el man me esta aburriendo. I’ve found solace in googling reviews online and discovering that no, it’s not just me finding the EXTREMELY CLOSE READING of the Celan poem slow going. Reader, I skipped to part three, which is focusing more on the Knausgaardian stuff I enjoy (i.e. incredibly long descriptive passages about making coffee and smoking). But I will go back and finish reading part two. Especially since he apparently, at one point, compares Instagram users to Nazi Youths.

What I’ve REALLY been enjoying reading (other than texts in preparation for this year’s courses) is none other than Little Women, by Louis May Alcott. Man, what a book this is! I can’t believe I’d never read it before! As a child I did read a “babyish” version of it, i.e. Little Women redux, with an illustration on every page. Let me tell you, that illustrated kids’ series is basically responsible for me reading ALL of the classics! So many books I can have “claimed” to have “read!” David Copperfield… The Three Musketeers… A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court …. (to be fair I did end up reading this for real in high school…). If I have kids, I’m definitely tracking them down again. And if I don’t have kids I probably will anyway.

I wanted to read Little Women because a while back, Anne Tyler (one of my all-time favorite writers) said in an interview that she tries to reread Little Women once a year, and has probably read it at least 27 times. This made me think of that Mary Ruefle quip, in her essay about reading new books vs. re-reading – how at some point, when your time on earth is becoming more, um, limited, you are faced with the decision of reading new fiction or just re-reading the ones you know you already love. I was recently confronted with this issue when reading a recently published book that I just plain did not GET. Reader, I skimmed the last half. Which is something I normally NEVER do. But life is too short. And besides, Little Women was waiting for me.

There’s something especially lovely about reading Little Women – a decidedly old-fashioned, untrendy book – during these troubling times. Gosh, am I going to turn to classic fiction to help soothe my mind? It helps the classics tend to be a) very affordable b) easily accessed in libraries (not that I’ve sorted out my library card yet; it’s on the list). In Little Women,I can definitely see the Anne Tyler-ish influences – the big families, the urgent chatty energy, the humour. Oh man, the humour! This book is FUNNY – I had no idea!

Meg’s high-heeled slippers were very tight and hurt her, though she would not own it, and Jo’s nineteen hairpins all seemed stuck straight into her head, which was not exactly comfortable, but, dear me, let us be elegant or die. (29)

“Don’t use such dreadful expression,” replied Meg from the depths of the veil in which she had shrouded herself like a nun sick of the world. (41) — SICK OF THE WORLD! How often have I felt this!

“Go and eat your dinner, you’ll feel better after it. Men always croak when they are hungry.” (135) — SO TRUE.

And when Beth is crying over her dead canary, and Amy says hopefully, “Put him in the oven, and maybe he will get warm and revive” – I CACKLED. Oh, and Aunt March’s parrot, that keeps viciously attacking Amy? Comedy gold!

Jo, as many have clearly and accurately attested, is the most interesting character – artistic, clumsy, outspoken. “Jo’s ambition was to do something very splendid. What it was, she had no idea as yet, but left it for time to tell her, and meanwhile found her greatest affliction in the fact that she couldn’t read, read, and ride as much as she liked.” (44)

Gosh, who could not relate to her? What I found VERY interesting is how often she wishes she could have been a boy, a man – “If I was a boy,” she tells Laurie, “we’d run away together, and have a capital time, but as I’m a miserable girl, I must be proper and stop at home. Don’t tempt me, Teddy, it’s a crazy plan.” (248) And Wikipedia (obviously the prime source of any background info) says that the author herself frequently declared this as well – that she was a “man’s soul” in a woman’s body. Que interesting, no? I remember that Jo gets married in Part II to someone who’s not Teddy, which already feels like a pretty daring move on the part of the author, considering how well they get along in Part I.

I could do without the frequent Christian moralising about “Him above”… and Beth really is quite wishy washy, isn’t she? But there is something to be said for the book’s value system – about appreciating what you have, rather than wishing you were someone else, and where somewhere else, and had something else. There’s also some good-ole fashioned Protestant work ethic thrown in as well, with frequent quips about the values of “a useful life” – “go on with your work as usual, for work is a blessed solace,” etc. And you know what? There is some truth to that. I know that when I’ve been REALLY depressed or down in the dumps, having something to focus on can really help!

All in all I’m astonished at how modern and readable the language in this is, if not the morals (it pretty much is a “marriage plot” novel, isn’t it?). I’ll be sad when it ends, but then again, Knausgaard’s The End is still calling my name…

‘If only we had this,’ or ‘If we could only do that,’ quite forgetting how much they already had, and how many things they could actually do. (50)

It does seem as if the more one gets the more one wants, doesn’t it? (97)

He was in one of his moods, for the day had been both unprofitable and unsatisfactory, and he was wishing he could live it over again. (163)

“If life is often as hard as this, I don’t see how we ever shall get through it.” (220)

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Beowulf

I’m at N’s family house for a few days while he gets his car fixed, a sort of mini-retreat, mini-vacation. N’s grant is taking him to Japan for three months in the fall, to research Soseki’s archives and eat lots of omurice. I’ve rented a room in Sheffield for that same period because I spent so much of last academic year being sick (did I have the Australian flu? Was it spending so much time on the train?) – I need a break from the commute, and without N in Norwich I want/need a change of scene. If someone had told me in 2012 that I would still be in Norwich, six years later, my jaw would have slowly but surely dropped open. I like Norwich a lot, though. Am I staying in England, now that my PhD is finally finished? I miss my parents – they’re getting older (my mom has a milestone b-day coming up), and I want to spend time with them. I don’t know how they do it – travelin’ round the world like a couple of youngsters. I guess it helps that they don’t buy plane tickets that involve two stops!

One of the nicest things about staying at N’s house is the opportunity to examine his bookshelves (not a childhood bookshelf, unfortunately, more like university era). The antique book his grandfather bought in Japan in the 1950’s. The 2005 Lonely Planet Thailand guidebook he bought when he was trying to decide between teaching English there or in Japan. And his Oxford MA books. So many editions of Chaucer! So many Icelandic tales! (I had no idea Iceland had such a rich literary history *embarrassed shrug*) And the Beowulf translation by Seamus Heaney, which I pulled from the shelf since it seemed like a nice follow-up to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, one of the most pleasant reading experiences I’ve had this year (though it was technically auditory, as it was an audio book – God, does Neil Gaiman have the most soothing voice!). As a bonus connection, Gaiman was apparently involved in writing the screenplay for that weird Beowulf movie in which Angelina Jolie is kinda (digitally) naked but kinda not.

I read the Introduction first which immediately spoiled the “plot” in the second paragraph. Fine by me! I’m the kind of person who still googles movie spoilers (but only of films I plan on NEVER seeing, such as the new Star Wars, which I tend to end up watching on airplanes anyway). N. tells me about how in his Oxford class on Beowulf, he was the only non-Oxford alumni, and thus the only student who hadn’t already read it in the original Old English. He had to teach himself Old English! (It sounds very strange when read aloud) He also tells me about how the only copy of Beowulf was almost destroyed in an 18th-century fire (how many other works of literature have been lost in such random ways? A truly Bolaño-esque question), and how a lot of Beowulf critics sneer at Heaney’s translation for taking “liberties” to be “accessible” to the “layman.” To this I say: Thank you very much, Seamus! And a big, big thank you to whoever wrote the line notes in the margins, helpfully providing clarifying explanations of the text (the ones about genealogy were especially helpful: The Danes have legends about their warrior kings. The most famous was Shield Sheafson, who ruled the founding house.)

As an absolute novice with no knowledge about epic poetry whatsoever (um… is this an epic poem? :O), I thought this translation was absolutely fantastic. Very readable and stark and lovely. In the introduction Heamey talks about how he was inspired by the men of his Irish family, how a simple sentence like “We cut the corn today” could feel incredibly solemn and weighted with meaning. And hence his decision to translate the first word of the poem as “So,” as opposed to “lo,” “hark,” “behold,” “attend,” “listen,” etc. God, isn’t translation nuts? N. told me that the original Old English word for “ocean” is technically “whale road,” which I think is so beautiful! But not exactly layman speak, so makes sense that Heaney didn’t include it.

What a strange ass story this is! Here’s a list of things I found strange (contains spoilers):

  1. Grendel is killed REALLY quickly. Like… in the first third of the story!! I thought Beowulf was ABOUT Beowulf vs. Grendel! What on earth is going to happen next, I wondered.
  2.  Answer: stories within stories! Isn’t it nuts how this is such a common theme of ancient poetry? And yet in contemporary fiction it’s like “lol u r so experimental.” Reading the Introduction first was very helpful in this regard, as it helped me be prepared.
  3. Beowulf is… kind of a dick? He brags about swimming through the ocean with his sword and armour (UM, not possible, she says snarkily). And after killing Grendel’s mother, he CHOPS OFF Grendel’s head when Grendel is already dead, just to bring a trophy back. Not very sportsmanlike!
  4. Beowulf is basically the story of a life – the contrast between a young warrior, and then a warrior past his prime, at the end of his days. Did not expect this!
  5.  The balance between warrior heroic culture and Christian morality. OK, I sort of stole this observation from N., who wrote an essay about it for his Oxford degree (ermagod, so smart rite). Basically… there is this weird juxtaposition throughout the poem between Beowulf being obsessed with his honour, his legacy, his name, with dying a “good” death as a hero, and between characters jumping in and saying “Oh it’s all thanks to the Lord that this was able to happen!” The written version we have of Beowulf was transcribed just as Christianity was an up and coming religion, but the ORIGINAL version of Beowulf was almost certainly pagan. So it’s almost like the story can’t decide what it wants to be. Because if you believe in Jesus… why would you care so much about your name existing with honour, when going to chill with J.C. in Heaven is supposed to be the most important eternal reward? It is… weird. But as Heaney says in the introduction, it is this contradiction, ambiguity, uncertainty, that helps make Beowulf a work of art. I like this idea, that something is more artful when it ISN’T cohesive, when it has these jagged, rough edges.
  6. Parts of this poem are really very beautiful! Especially the parts about death. There’s a big theme of “money and power will not make you happy.” This makes me feel better about my churchmouse income bracket.

All in all, I feel richer for having read this. Ancient stories, man. Why does everything always have to happen in three’s? Can’t wait fo Elon Musk to write an algorithm that explains THAT :/

I also feel incredibly grateful for my university education, and the background it gave me in the classics, even though I certainly wasn’t the best student at the time.

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