Showing posts with label Dante. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dante. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Boccaccio's "Decameron" (Norton Critical Edition): Book Review

The first baby steps in Italian prose, away from the mystical, the ascetic, the heavenly, the Papacy towards the sensuous, the sexual, the clever, and the bourgeoisie, were taken by Boccaccio in his hundred tales, Decameron. These lively (if sometimes awkward or hesitantly told) stories reveal everyday men--and many women, at last--keeping up appearances, fooling priests and potentates, and striving to express their fleshly, calculating, and grasping desires. Narrated by seven young ladies and three gentlemen fleeing Florence during the Black Plague of 1348, these clever schemers may succeed or fail, but their ambitions energize these tales. They promote the Renaissance humanist, eager to hear from his peers.

Twenty-one representative novelle were chosen for a 1977 Norton Critical Edition; the somewhat ironically surnamed Francisco De Sanctis sums up their appeal as human comedy: "The flesh entertains itself at the expense of the spirit." Considered in the triad if below Dante, we get the next two conversing, via the letters of Petrarch, who chides his old friend Boccaccio for recanting (I wonder if Chaucer knew this when he abandoned his frame-tale scheme for his Canterbury project?) and threatening in a state of guilt to burn his manuscripts. Colleagues tended in their biographical accounts to admire not these "new" tales so much as his more edifying ones, inspired by the classics.

Later, scholars weigh in. Seeing this was issued in 1977, I'd reckon as with other Norton Critical Editions (yes, this has a few footnotes if not many), that a revision with some newer scholarship might enhance its value. As to what's in this version, I sympathize intuitively with literary historian Ugo Foscolo, who advances the idea of Boccaccio separating his concerns from Church and urging the expression of the female, the mercantile, even the roguish voices, along with those of the elite and the clerics who had long dominated the conversation of who should act how, in fact as well as fable. Erich Auerbach follows with an excerpt from Mimesis analyzing stylistic variety, and Aldo Scaglione takes on nature and love as the concerns supplanting those of piety and renunciation. Wayne Booth explains how Boccaccio tries out both telling and showing as a narrator early in the evolution of a longer set of fictional tales. Even if he did not meet our expectations, yet he tried to show, not tell.

Similarly, Tzvetan Todorov as to structure and Robert Clements as to collections illustrate the sorting process within stories and among them. Marga Cottino-Jones argues how patient Griselda's account uses the Christian figurative mode to elevate her status, and how despite however moderns react, for the audience of Boccaccio, such a presence resonated with Christ-like ideals of endurance and sacrifice. Ben Lawton defends Pasolini's 1971 film as true to some of the spirit of the source, even as it skips from a medieval time and place to a jarringly modern one, if but two-thirds of a bold triptych.

Translators Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella, who later published a Signet edition of all hundred stories, conclude by pointing to the meaning of them all. Beyond the purported audience of "idle ladies," the impact of the Decameron reverberates in themes of love, intelligence, and fortune. Instead of God's will governing this universe, men and women seek to procure not heavenly but earthly fame.
(Part of this is on a List Inconsequential: Late Summer Reading List, 7-31-14, Spectrum Culture.)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A.N. Wilson's "Dante in Love": Book Review

This English academic turned journalist-novelist combines an explication of Dante's political milieu with an overview of his life and times. While it ranges sometimes so deeply into the endless Guelf-Ghibelline contentions that non-historians may find their attention flagging, Wilson's "Dante in Love" fulfills Wilson's wish: a primer for those needing help before taking on Dante.

Wilson does take some liberty, given that much in Dante's crafting of his Commedia eludes precise documentation. For instance, on pg. 35 Wilson points to Pope Boniface's conniving to literally rake in cash at the altar of St. Peter's at the 1300 Jubilee as a way to profit from the newly formulated doctrine of Purgatory as a place as well as a state, where the souls of the dead might be assisted by donations as well as sacrifices by the living. Wilson then claims this set in Dante's "brain a sequence of inspirations which would create a literary masterpiece, the beginnings of modern literature with human singularity and self-consciousness at the center of it." But where is the proof?

His title repeats that of Harriet Rubin's 2004 attempt in similar fashion to provide an introduction full of guidance and ideas for the doughty reader of Dante, and Wilson wanders from the straight path similarly. It's difficult to follow a chronological presentation integrating Dante's formation as a Papal backer turned imperial supporter, and how this gets embedded into the poem and his earlier texts. So, Wilson in 2011 like Rubin goes on tangents and down byways, like Dante the pilgrim, to indulge his curiosity. Along with the political allegiances and the "allegorical autobiography" Wilson notes in the poem a third concentration, unlike that of Chaucer or Shakespeare: Dante's ambition to further his professional credentials as a poet, given the competition such as Guido Cavalcanti, around Florence.

While Wilson's title promises love, Dante also is "the poet of hate, the poet of vengeance, of implacable resentment and everlasting feuds." (40) Hell fills from "hard cases"; those who binge, addicts who choose desires or ambitions rather than God's plan. While the infernal realm itself gains less evocation in Wilson than one may expect (lots of politics, lots of papal intrigue dominate this narrative), he does show the careful reader how Dante used the text to integrate bits of his own life, a confession of sorts aimed at, as the epic unfolds, "universal application" rather than the Rousseau model of self-promotion. Even as Dante filled Hell with Italians and post-dated it to settle his scores.

Wilson finds Dante veering between tenderness and "Tourette's Syndrome" (280) on his quest, and suddenly lurching from one register to the other; at least it stays animated. As in Rubin, Wilson wisely varies the translations to show the variety of ways English voices try to echo the propulsive line of Dante. Certainly terza rima cannot be duplicated, meaning any word-for-word cadences of the language must give way to English sentence structure and can turn stilted or clunky. Wilson cites how the Commedia increased the stock of written Italian from 60% to 90% with its inventive vocabulary.

As one who had left Christianity as an adult and later returned to an Anglican observance, Wilson discerns hints of proto-Reformation unease in Dante's critiques of the Catholic Church, however hidden for understandable caution. Wilson finds a Catholic innovation of purgatory guided by the Aeneid's example in its sixth section of how souls were hung up on the winds or purged by fire, but he does not elaborate this intriguing claim. While endnotes often do point to sources, not all his readings or assertions are grounded, but the list of works consulted does attest as he says to a life spent studying Dante since his teens and a visit to Florence, as well as learning Italian early on there.

One advantage of this study is while Wilson eschews the step-by-step commentary through the poem, he does spend more time in Paradise than, say, Rubin or many readers. They tend to lose steam after the Inferno, bogging down as they hike up Mount Purgatory. The lack of a single translation of the last cantica by a poet to set along Robert Pinsky, Ciaran Carson, or many other versifiers of Inferno, or the elegant W.S. Merwin rendering of Purgatorio, speaks perhaps to this lack of interest for us. Wilson does not say this straight out. But he recommends that "months" spent in the last section may reward, as the verses can be pondered a very few at a time per day, slowing the pace to allow insight.

"Heaven is crowded, but it draws its citizens one by one." (303) Wilson finds beauty in Dante's difficulty, as he moves from observer in Hell to participant in Purgatory to guest in Heaven. By then, we readers find we have entered the allegory, to join Dante "to be unclothed before the searchlight of heaven." In his chapter on Paradise, Wilson reaches his own heights, and this portion merits acclaim.

He follows with "Dante's Afterlife," a fine tour through the ways mainly how Europeans since have kept Dante's memory buried or alive. We glimpse how Henry Francis Cary's 1814 version excited the Romantics; Gladstone himself immersed himself in Dante, as did many Victorians and Edwardians, later in a Temple Classics bilingual edition. From the troubadours to Ezra Pound, Wilson avers the "great European mainstream" endured in its canon, but that this died with T.S. Eliot and Pound's generation. We are walled off from Pound's "common Kulchur" and in that poet's fumbled attempts, Wilson finds "danger" in how moderns might interpret Dante's obsessions. Wilson rightly regards the attempts of today's readers to tackle the Comedy as a classic akin to starting the Bhagavad-Gita. A classic, but a remote one from Western secular mentality, and full of references we lack nowadays.

Still, Wilson leaves us with two suggestions as to its appeal for our century. Outrage at corrupt institutions, and a quest for a "Good Place" animate the poem. Dante continues to anticipate and to articulate our own unease at the past and the present, and tells us our dreams for a better future. This narrative straddles the Christian tradition and the post-Christian attitude many of us inherit whatever our allegiance, and Wilson fairly strives to show Dante's relevance as each century reinterprets this. (Amazon US 10-12-14; see also Prue Shaw's invaluable thematic 2014 study, Reading Dante)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Harriet Rubin's "Dante in Love": Book Review

This popular take on the appeal of the Divine Comedy has been criticized for errors, but it also conveys what Harriet Rubin calls herself in the afterward: an "impressionable reader" ready to learn. Yes, she fumbles on pp. 8-9 the Guelf-Ghibelline definition (although the endnote tries to explain), and she gets wrong T.S. Eliot's tutelage at Harvard, long before he could ever have been taught by the Dantista Charles Singleton. Lord Peter "Whimsey" by translator Dorothy Sayers is another unfortunate blunder. She elsewhere claims--contrary to the norm that suggests 1269-1289, usually 1284/5 by Salvino D'Armate in Italy-that corrective lenses were invented around 1300 but not put into frames until much later for fear of altering nature; this is left as so many of her references dangling or vague, but it does show her diligent passion in recording every fact or literary snippet she comes across that may enliven what after all remains a spirited presentation of the High Middle Ages.

Rubin appears to be as interested in this period, 1290-1322 or so, as Dante. Like Henry Adams, whom she channels in a detailed evocation of Abbot Suger in Paris squaring off against St. Bernard, much of the contents here demonstrate a keen desire to organize a lot of impressions around an aesthetic theme. But like Adams (for all his splendid prose), Rubin can rely on dated sources (Will Durant is cited often) and she seems like Dante the pilgrim himself (whom she elides with the author, against critical common sense) to wander from a direct way. But as with the digressions put into the mouths of many in the afterlife, so in Dante in Love: The World's Greatest Poem and How It Made History (2004, not to be confused with A.N. Wilson's own popular account, from 2013, titled Dante in Love with no grand subtitle): much of the adventure comes off on the byways from the high way.

From early on, Rubin makes claims that don't always get backed up. "There is nothing else like it in literature: a work of genius that explains how it was created." (25) She asserts that troubadours invented the language of love between two people, and that the Romans named Paris as Lutetia which she translates from "lux/light" rather than the usual hunches which find a Celtic root from mice or one from Latin as to a swamp or a marsh. The Romans themselves may have garbled the etymology, confusing it with "lux," but the reality appears to favor, given Paris's location, a far muddier origin.

Back to the main theme, "Dante shows how to turn loss into salvation" (29), but Rubin does not to her credit wander off into making this a self-help book for today as some do. But neither does she ground Dante's poem in its time enough, despite this historical emphasis. She reckons that we enter the realm as does an ant on a Moebius strip, and we see Dante use his medieval memory palace conception to conjure up an interior space turned textual place, through his consciousness. This eludes facile explanation, but "we are in Dante's world as thoroughly as he is in God's." (94)  Rubin strives to get at this core achievement, but at least in summing up Purgatorio, she reminds us of a key factor in its shift away from the Inferno and Paradiso. Dante is no longer an observer but in stage two of his quest, he participates in the process. For, between the eternal states, "time, change, and hope" transform souls undergoing cleansing, and day and night alternate, as in our own earthly world. (187)

She tries to cram in a lot about purgatory's evolution, as she cites Jacques Le Goff, who argued for its "intermediacy" as mathematically consistent, economically sensible (as mercantile interests and a middle class expanded clerical-lay dichotomies) and logically as a second chance by 1300. But this had arguably, as Georges Duby in his own tripartite scheme had suggested, been emerging already. She does, as many commentators do, rush past much of the second and third segments of the Comedy. Like many readers, she finds the first part the most engaging, although her close reading of it is scattered and diffused, for she makes so many detours. And she fumbles how, for instance, the Zohar and the feminine presence of the Shekinah have direct bearing on Beatrice, much as Rubin may wish to connect such suggestive influences. She keeps raising provocative or curious points, but then she drifts away from them. The book needed a stronger editor and another round of revision.

On a brighter note, Rubin varies verse translations, and these, often paired with the Italian text, allow readers to glimpse Dante's craft. I liked Philip Wicksteed's slightly more old-fashioned versions, and W.S. Merwin's from Purgatorio show as do John Ciardi's and Allen Mandelbaum's overall the translator's inability to stick to a word-for-word echo, given compression Dante exerts on his lines. 

By Paradise, which Rubin claims as not the Persian word for "garden", but "par-dheigh" for dough--this again shows her wandering, for in her wish to tie this to manna and famine, she omits the PIE etymology for the latter choice (233). This derivation is much more distant and possibly in medieval times unknown, compared to the Edenic concept which appears more relevant to Dante's conception. But at least Rubin stays on task in medieval terms, to compare Dante as a palimpsest to God as text (226) by the end of the vision, and as in her earlier excitement over Bologna's grey streets and lively university in this period, Pope Boniface's humiliation, Guido Cavalcanti's boasts, and Primo Levi's powerful attempt to recall--so as to teach a French guard some Italian at Auschwitz-- the cantos when Ulysses met Dante, Rubin shares ideas and their origins with energy and enthusiasm.

She even tells how ascetic diverged from athlete by medieval times, and how infant expresses a lack of speech in its meaning, and how company emerged from the corporate entities who boasted bread. In such asides, this book educates. Critics of it may be slightly chastened by the circumstances in which it was completed, for in the acknowledgements, Rubin dedicates it to her late partner, who the year before died of a brain tumor, revealing to them both the infernal, purgatorial, and heavenly nature of the same sort of suffering undergone by mortals whom Dante characterizes so vividly (Amazon US 10-11-14; see also Prue Shaw's invaluable thematic 2014 study, Reading Dante)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

George Holmes' "Dante": Book Review

Although only a hundred pages, like its counterparts in the Past Masters series from Oxford UP, this contribution by a professor at Oxford is pitched at an elevated level. It introduces Dante Alighieri and covers his life, but it emphasizes his works. Not only his most famous, but the predecessors, the Vita Nuova, the unfinished Convivio, and the crucial Monarchy prepare the reader for La Commedia.

For, Holmes stresses the tension between the younger Dante, pre-exile, debating the issues of his time, and the man who after the pivotal year of 1300 soon found himself cast out from Florence and in danger. From Ravenna, he wrote his supreme work, one which Holmes ties to earlier texts by the author's increasing immersion into a novel combination of Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic lore. Out of this ethical and cosmological concoction, Dante went from score-settling and digressive debates that enlivened Inferno to a more extended depiction of otherworldly concerns beyond the circles of hell, ones that invited Dante as pilgrim to participate.

As Holmes sums it up: "Hell is a tour conducted by Virgil; Purgatory is a purification from which Dante emerges changed and able to understand what he had not understood before." (74) That is, how the secular and the spiritual occupy their own principalities, how Dante's backing of both a divine plan and a Roman Empire open to non-Christian influences might endure in an era where the popes battled princes and the Italians had to choose allegiances, and how Thomistic theology and Franciscan controversies over poverty and millennial messages infused Dante's own mindset as well as his work.

By the end, with Paradiso, Holmes notes how the quest compelled Dante in its lines to carry back the reminder to his fellow humans about not only here "what he wished to say, but what he had 'seen.'" (92) Emboldened by divine authority, Holmes reads Dante as commissioning himself to condemn corruption and promise "imperial salvation." Despite the poem's poetic power, which can be glimpsed best in the Italian verse sometimes placed before the English snippets throughout, this book works best in conveying the way Dante took pieces of learning from classical commentaries and combined them into his idiosyncratic epic, as it evolved over decades. You don't find in such a brief study much depth about much of the vision or the verse, but you will learn how the epic unfolded and altered as it served to record and to respond to Dante's fate, his faith, and his particularly personal concerns.

Many facile readers forget how long the 100 cantos took to emerge, and Holmes places their evolution within the longer cycle of Dante's obsessions and preoccupations which flavored his sprawling work so markedly, so it lacked imitators. What it did best was merge, Holmes concludes, the emerging vision of a European mind akin to Michelangelo or Shakespeare, with a fusion of the Northern scholastic thinking and the Italian city-state mentality, for a new way of perception. The 1980 book ends with some reading recommendations, which may be updated by consulting recent translations, but the overview remains helpful, if rather austere--perhaps like its subject himself. (10-10-14 to Amazon US)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Dianne Hales' "La Bella Figura": Book Review

Dianne Hales blends her personal story of her love affair with Italian into an engaging, informative presentation. A quarter-century of studying it and traveling to its homeland combines with her efforts in Marin County and San Francisco to learn more, and to practice, and to finally start to think and act her way into a language that ranks fourth worldwide in foreign study. Not for its numbers, for it is only spoken by 65 million natives, but for its impact upon so much that makes life worth living, it has value.

She makes her point early on. "English, like a big black Magic Marker, declares itself in bold statements and blunt talk. Italian's sleek, fine-pointed quill twirls into delicate curlicues and dramatic flourishes." She advances her claims for its impressive impact. "While other tongues do little more than speak, this lyrical language thrills the ear, beguiles the mind, captivates the heart, enraptures the soul, and comes closer than any other idiom to expressing the essence of what it means to be human." (15-16)

Her chapters range widely, yet share a common theme. While Dante's elevation of his Tuscan dialect to national fame ensured its prominence as the literary criterion, Hales reminds us that other factors also helped promote a shared Italian lingo in a nation unable, for centuries, to unite politically. The academy of La Crusca, the "three crowns" of not only Dante but his comrades Boccaccio and Petrarch, the civilizing mission of Italian itself all gain credit in engaging discussions. Hales tells a clever anecdote about George Eliot on her honeymoon, to show Dante's power, and she has an eye for the telling vignette throughout her book, as she integrates scholarship into a popularized presentation.

Renaissance art gains a cogent look, and Hales sums up a lot of names and productions without falling into lecture mode. Similarly, as someone with near total ignorance of opera, I learned about its ability (as with Dante's verse) to enter into the popular register so intimately, within daily conversation. Cuisine also helps bring Italians closer, and the many linguistic decorations from food and its varieties enter into small talk intricately. Film also brought together the postwar nation as New Wave; Hales celebrates the legacy of Marcello Mastrioanni. So does love, and sex, and the chapter on "la parolacce" delves into the more vulgar, subtle versions of conversation as insult, boasts, or both.

Near the end of this lively 2009 narrative, Hales cites Ernst Pulgram, who in "The Tongues of Italy" argued that the Romans and their descendents ruled the Western world three times: in law and government, in religion, and in art. The fourth, Pulgram and Hales agree, remains a triumph today: the language. This book satisfies, although if Hales had provided an index and suggestions for beginners, these might have enhanced its utility. I wanted a book complementing my studies in French and how one man struggled with it, William Alexander's "Flirting With French" (2014). This introduction to the contexts in which Italian began and thrives was exactly the one I needed, to nudge me towards Italian's charm. While the hard work of learning it awaits, and this is a guide to its social aspects and cultural formation rather than a how-to reference, you will glean what a textbook omits. (Author's website. 10-2-14: my review #2000 at Amazon US)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Curzio Malaparte's "The Skin": Book Review

Born Kurt Eric Suchert, this half-German writer castigates his losing side, as the Allies "liberate" Naples in 1943. Their new Italian allies take up the uniforms of the dead British they have recently killed in the defense of their Fascist nation. Italians now resolve to fight against the deposed Mussolini and the Germans. How the Napolitan natives feel about this has been rarely acknowledged by many who dramatize WWII. Malaparte, as his nom-de-plume indicates, takes the "bad side"; he shows the physical and moral costs of capitulation when one's own loyalties insist one was never defeated, and cannot surrender one's liberty unless once a slave. 

Such complex questions drive this 1949 novel. A work of fiction, but in its headlong prose rush and its tendency to indulge in set-pieces and tirades, I suspect this is better understood as thinly disguised or ambitiously elaborated vignettes from Malaparte's own experiences. The results fit better not as a sustained narrative but as episodic depictions of encounters between the Italians and those who now occupy their territory as erstwhile comrades, but also as avengers, judges, juries, and executioners.

Like Céline, Malaparte brings a complicated and shifty set of his own alliances into play, as he survives the shifts in regimes and ideologies. Similarly, this also needed an editor, for parts lapse into opprobrium, and the long conversations untranslated in David Moore's English version from French, between Malaparte's mouthpiece and his charge, Colonel Jack Hamilton, may slow the pace or dissuade a less cosmopolitan reader. But in the central section, "The Black Wind," one glimpses, finally, the power Malaparte can summon.  He had traveled to the steppes and witnessed the barbarities of the elite Germans (in this novel he appears slightly anachronistically already as "the author of 'Kaputt'"); he transforms this into a nightmare of crucified victims of the Nazis appealing for his assistance, before this segues into a tribute to his beloved greyhound Febo, and then a moving scene set in the last hour of a wounded American soldier. These three scenes, at first disparate, cohere as a meditation on death, and how we come to it ready or not. Malaparte takes dramatic license here, but the chapter works, as the central pivot in an otherwise metropolitan setting, to free the narrative from its concentration on the the demi-monde of Naples, of satire against the Allies, and lurid excess.

Rachel Kushner introduces the New York Review Classics 2013 reprint (with added passages expurgated from previous English printings) by calling Malaparte a plague or a pest, taking down all with him, and this fittingly finds an echo in the first chapter. On pg. 34, Boccaccio is cited appropriately, as compassion is felt for the afflicted of a great disaster, but this time, also by the Americans for themselves, as Christian benefactors. The trouble Malaparte finds is that such largesse cannot be reconciled with Naples' more pagan heritage, and the fact that Italian suffering predates Christian concepts. The last virgin in the city is shown intact, admission required for gawkers, and this emphasis on the grotesque (dwarf prostitutes, "Negro" soldiers hoodwinked by local "brides" and their scheming, black-market connected families despite smiles, merkins, "inverts" galore) may delight some, even if it soon gets tiresome. I get the point; Malaparte for 330 pages keeps making it.

He avers, in more provocative mood, that "capitalist society is founded on the conviction that in the absence of beings who suffer a man cannot enjoy to the full his possessions and his happiness; and that without the alibi of Christianity capitalism could not prevail." (63) Malaparte distrusts the civilizing mission of the Allies, he dislikes the craven bargaining of his false nation, and he seeks to distance himself from a Fascist past which despite partisans and reprisals does not recede so rapidly.

As with many European mid-century intellectuals, Communism hovers as a possible alternative. But Malaparte, true to his contrary nature, wonders if "pederasts" and "inverts" flocked to the red flag as if some pawns in a "Five Year Plan" hatched for easy marks among those who sought to deny their bourgeois nature and pretend to be proles, or to seek rough trade and fresh conquests among such who were driven by desperation and hunger to sell themselves to the "international community" of opportunistic coquettes and dilettante poseurs. A horrible interlude of the aftermath of phosphorus bombs in Hamburg conjures up a Dantean diorama, and innocents suffer horribly, cant and ideology aside. Children are sold to Moroccan soldiers, the Church connives, and the author speculates that this is not the inevitable outcome of moral breakdown so much as a sly campaign via Marxists to undermine the standards of a West they despise. Malaparte's suppositions may anger us, but he forces us to consider how popular or romanticized ideas generate unexpected, ugly impacts. People do not try to save their souls. all labor for good or bad only "to save their skins, and their skins alone." (129)

The rest of the book continues in the same mood. A bizarre birthing scene, a banquet of "fried Spam and boiled corn" for the Allies, a girl's death and her posthumous transformation, the eruption of Vesuvius, the entrance of the Allies into Rome--where a man welcoming the troops is run down by a Sherman tank, and a "flag of human skin" seems the appropriate icon for the Europe thus freed, reprisals against teenaged boys who fought for the losing side, and a recognition that it is a "shameful thing to win a war" (343) wrap up this journey into the rotten core of a continent as it is conquered.
(Amazon US 9-27-14)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Kenneth Pople's "Stanley Spencer: A Biography": Book Review

With the attention given the First World War a century later, a look back at one of its greatest if most unpredictable artists, Stanley Spencer, rewards renewed examination. Published in 1991 on the centenary of his birth, drawing on interviews with his two daughters, family and friends, and the Tate Gallery archived writings, Spencer in his first in-depth biography emerges not as the subject of dull critique, but of respect through a diligent effort by Kenneth Pople to let the artist's words speak for themselves. They channel Spencer's interior struggle, evoked and expressed by slow craft or long difficulty. 

While very congenial towards Spencer, Pople provides a skilled interpretation of the rational and genesis for what can often be initially baffling or perplexing art. Painstaking in his observations, he charts Spencer's professional and personal growth in chronological chapters documenting his self-awareness which emerges on canvas, as he sketched and painted from an early age. Pople pauses to offer "suggestions as to their emotional origins" of his art, supported by Spencer's mostly unpublished writings, supplemented by testimony of those who knew him. The sympathy between biographer and subject proves powerful.

Although a readable five-hundred-plus-pages, detail may overwhelm those seeking a précis. Pople doggedly pursues his subject, but rarely distances himself from him. Duncan Robinson's overview rewards readers with enough illustrations and descriptions to begin. After Kitty Hauser's and Fiona MacCarthy's respective monographs, if preceding Pam Gems' pithy play, the still-curious may plunge into Pople for immersion into the steady or turbulent flow between the life and the works. Keith Bell catalogued a necessary survey of hundreds of Spencer's works, but inevitably despite the heft of Bell's contribution, individual paintings cannot all earn the scrutiny that this prolific artist merits.

Therefore, Pople's effort aligns the places and faces of Spencer's beloved village with their spiritual equivalents. As he put it, he walked around Cookham as if he saw heaven. Not that he strolled in heaven, but that he compared what he envisioned there with what he witnessed daily around him. A subtle but necessary distinction, for as Pople explains, Spencer's works attempted to record his own ecstasies, or terrors. "The places are not meant as symbolic or universal. They have no meaning outside of his experience of them. He presumes we all have such places in our memories which evoke similar feelings for us, and that we are able to recognize those that he shows in his painting are but signposts to personal feeling. It is that feeling which he is trying to capture and to universalize." (26) 

He treasured sensory elements of those he knew and settings he passed. Minutes or years later, his prodigious memory, sharp ear, and photographic eye could reproduce the scene or moment he wanted on paper or as a painting. The results may or may not match Cookham, but they usually emanate from it. Pople distinguishes the "observed" landscapes (often considerably sharper in technical execution, if removed of people) or portraits, by which Spencer made a living, from the "visionary" paintings he claims to have preferred, those conflating preternatural events into Cookham's domain. 

The process, Pople extrapolates from Spencer's accounts and art, depends on what that artist called "memory-feeling" as his imagined experiences became transfigured into the biblical inspirations he then interpreted. For instance, "The Centurion's Servant" (1913-14) halts in freeze-frame, as we see the before and the after of a miracle juxtaposed. Pople avers that Spencer sought to release his own delights or confusions (here he prepares that work as war and his call to duty looms) by setting down scenes which "redeem some bewilderments". (64) By shifting his own catharsis onto a biblical event or spiritual backdrop, he purged himself of confusion by a vivid creation as his, and our, memento.
"Christ Carrying the Cross" (1920) illustrates the maturation of his vision. Chastened by the Great War, back in Cookham he puts Christ on a village street, as workmen pass with their own ladders held aloft in a similar pose to that of the titular figure. All are doing their job, as Spencer observed. Villagers go about their duties, too, and few notice Christ's action. Neighbors who do stretch their necks out from the upper sills of an adjoining house. "The lace curtains blown out by the draught from the open windows on that sultry summer day have been transformed into wings. The onlookers in their silent commiseration have taken on the protectiveness of angels." (90) Neatly if suggestively, the painting's English residents pass by or peer out as if on sunny spring streets of ancient Jerusalem. 

In many of Spencer's works, if ignorant of his title to alert, a spectator may puzzle over a canvas without understanding who the main figure is, as so often a bustling, oddly elongated, or foreshortened depiction of a crowd challenges a facile comprehension of the theme. Instead, a viewer roams about his visionary work by eye, and becomes swept along in the crowd or gathering. Thus, the viewer shares Spencer's perspective, however skewed or off-kilter. Through such an unsettling immersion, an early twentieth-century modernist obsession with meticulous detail mixes with earlier depictions, drawn from Giotto as much as Gauguin, suggesting how faith then or indifference now contend within a contemporary participant, who examines Spencer and encounters his ambiguity. 

Off to war, Spencer followed three of his brothers. He did his job. Small of stature and not allowed into the fighting ranks until mass slaughter had eased entry requirements, he labored as a hospital orderly and with the ambulance corps in Salonika and Macedonia, followed by parched months in the trenches in 1918, Spencer toughed it out, with detachment from the humiliation he suffered and commitment to outlast his tormenters, until malaria sent him home. Only then did he learn, about six weeks before armistice, one brother had died. Spencer's mystical beliefs appear to have altered given the shocks he encountered during his enlistment. Commissioned as a war artist but with little to show for it, Spencer recorded more memorably he routines he followed in a series of post-war murals at the privately endowed Sandham Memorial Chapel, built for his display. He chose not to commemorate the battles but the behind-the-lines chores. He chose in the vast Resurrection painting at Sandham to depict a dramatic scene. Christ is rising, from beneath a heap of plain white crosses, pulled off of Him by soldiers, from both sides, who all climb out from tombs and trenches. This spectacle stretches to the horizon, as crosses pile up and, nightmare over and heaven at hand, bodies shake graves free.

His other great painting of the 1920s shares the theme of resurrection. Placing its imminence in the Cookham churchyard, this also features repetition. But whereas the Sandham murals portray duties as a human necessity, the 1926 Cookham Resurrection duplicates figures of Spencer and his villagers, with a significant addition. Not until his thirties did he experience sexual fulfillment, and his delayed marriage in 1925 to Hilda Carline fueled his belated integration of the erotic and the ethereal which had hovered in his paintings recently and restlessly. The joy of a humanistic scene of revelation, where his early sketches as Pople includes of an austere God give way to the embraces of a triumphant Hilda cradling their firstborn daughter testify to the invigorated perspective of the roused and redeemed male artist. Pople notes, however, how the idealized Hilda in the many archetypes her husband rushed her into, in person and in paint, early on complicated the messier reality of marriage. 

Pople draws deeply upon Spencer's writings, while he cautions that at times "a hurt overcoloured Stanley's reflections" (187). That is, he sharpened slights or smoothed out memories to fit his own recollections, which in turn filtered into his paintings. These grew in his mind into a whole, even if for practical reasons he had to sell of some of their renderings, while as with the Resurrection series he returned to themes again, or as in his larger murals spun off details as their own paintings to market. The totality of his work from the later 1920s on combines the real and the imaginary, the fabled and the factual, inextricably. In ink and by brush, Cookham, his friends, and his lovers recur.

When Patricia Preece entered his life, at first casually as a near-neighbor returned (in 1927 with her companion Dorothy Hepworth) to a place she had known in childhood, her erotic and emotional appeal for Stanley grew. Both she and her partner (Dorothy denied after Patricia's death any "physical relationship"; Patricia called her a "sister") painted; Patricia when seeking patronage or display of her art subsumed Dorothy's art under her own name. Placed as she was, Patricia manipulated a besotted Spencer to gain finery and dress herself in the manner she saw fit, as his reputation brought him a steady income, by requests for landscapes which kept him distracted from his visionary work. Eager for him to earn more, Patricia urged him to produce still lifes and landscapes steadily, instead. Pople estimates that Spencer spent about $60,000 in today's currency attending to her whims during this unstable period when, married to Hilda, he contemplated a ménage à trois. This led to complications.

Class tension between the humbly-born Spencer and genteel Preece has been exaggerated perhaps by some biographers, but the disparity of their perspectives arose early on. Pople cites her 1932 diary: "Now that he has decided to live here, I wish we had not chosen to come, for he is such a nuisance to us, and so jealous and quarrelsome unless one is continually praising his painting." (283) His compulsive energy increased. Pople propounds that for Spencer, Hilda remained his God-image while Patricia became his Cookham-image. He channeled these impulses into his art and his relationships, to join erotic with spiritual searches towards a fulfilled identity, his fundamental quest in the 1930s.

Hilda and he both painted Patricia; Spencer's wife (who "had heard it all before" as Preece recorded at the onset of finding herself the recipient of Spencer's conversation, evidently a constant chatter) found herself playing uneasy go-between. The going deepened, or detoured as Preece maneuvered it, by Preece's ambiguous-or-not relationship with Hepworth. Enticed, Spencer let his fancies loose. 

Pople explains that Spencer longed to break free of what he phrased as the "prison-wall-tapping" keeping people apart. His visionary series (e.g., "Love on the Moor," "Love Among the Nations," "Adoration of Old Men," "Sunflower and Dog Worship") reveled in unbounded lovemaking. His biographer explains the tumult. "He was in the strict sense of the adjective a 'pure' artist--one who in wonder interpreted the mystery of his own experience." Instead of asking our empathy or sympathy, Spencer forces us in the roiling and rotund depictions of freed bodies caught up in passion to accept the awesome miracle of life. In nudes, he painted Patricia unflinchingly as he would along her dimpled, mottled flesh the perspective, in his simile, as if an ant crawled over it. He stared down skin.

For good reason, Pople titles part six of this biography "The Marital Disasters: 1936-1939". Spencer acted boldly under Patricia's spell. He signed over his home to her, to fund her lifestyle. Unable to cope, Hilda and their two daughters left that home, and she filed for divorce. During the aftermath, Patricia continued to influence Stanley. Pople phrases this muddle as clearly as anyone might: "By an astute balancing act, she could arrange affairs to benefit her materially while freeing her from the sexual obligations of marriage, for which Hilda would be available." (361) Assuming marriage to Patricia would be but a "legal formality", Spencer married Patricia as soon as the law permitted. 

The triple arrangement proved stillborn. He importuned his patrons; neither wife wanted him.  Doubling his feminine inspirations for art, he included Elsie, his Cookham maid, and Daphne, a generous friend. Another war drafted Spencer as a commissioned artist. He illustrated Port Glasgow shipyard. He envisioned typically a larger platform for his murals than even that war's duration could fulfill. Meanwhile, he tried to woo faltering Hilda. A devout Christian Scientist, her views never jibed with Stanley's eclecticism. As Patricia pithily put it when Hilda was institutionalized: "God talked to her. It is just that he talked a little more inconveniently than usual." (432) 

He painted two more resurrections, as the end of the war found here a touching depiction in joyful reunions, and in one, a portrayal of Hilda as needing support getting up after her own return from the dead, it seems. In Glasgow, he had met what Pople calls the "last of his major handholders", Charlotte. A married psychiatrist, a German émigré who had studied with Jung, she found Stanley a congenial sort given his mystical bent. After the war, he tried to keep all of his women content, as they came and went in his bachelor life then. He divorced Patricia on grounds of non-consummation, and while he continued to pine for female companionship, unstinting devotion to his art took precedence over his desires. He pursued Hilda, but slowly he convinced himself at last of the futility. 

After her death in 1950, the last nine years of Spencer's life found him feted. For a measure of how far he had progressed, yet how closely he had kept his focus, compare his 1914 self-portrait that graces the cover with the one near its closing pages, painted a few months before he died in 1959. He fixes his eyes upon himself, and he records his features in a direct, composed, and confident manner. 

He continued to work on enormous canvases, leaving as with his last giant epic, "Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta" some of the best unfinished. While Pople regards the posture of Jesus as encouraging His listeners, on seeing this depiction for myself recently at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in the converted Methodist chapel in Cookham, I regarded the pose as frightening, as if the Redeemer cowed the little ones, unable to resist His imposing posture or power. Ambiguity accompanies any interpretation of Spencer. Pople, despite his patience, attests to the difficulty of reconciling the underlying philosophy the artist formulated in his heap of largely unexamined and verbose letters and journals with the art itself to full satisfaction. "So personal are the associations that is impossible to follow him with his own degree of excitement into such territories of the imagination." (485)
All the same, this biography stands as the best introduction so far to these territories. Like Dante, Spencer fused a visionary element illuminated by a startling faith, a political critique, a disgust with contemporary cant, and a daring use of analogy. He made it all recognizable by fresh analogies and surprising juxtapositions of people at their best and worst. Spencer tolerated little opposition and his prickly ethics, and his own long battles with conformity, led to his insistence upon integrity. Pople interviewed many who were still alive and their memories of Spencer, along with careful archival research from him and many of his colleagues and teachers and friends, establishes this as essential. 
(Amazon US 2-1-14; Author's website)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Prue Shaw's "Reading Dante": Book Review

This veteran expert on Dante guides us through thematic chapters rather than a chronological commentary through the Commedia or a critical biography introducing us to the highlights of his life. The results can be challenging, but if you can keep the Guelphs from the Ghibellines straight--and this Cambridge professor makes sure we do--this study may reward those new to Dante, or those, like myself, looking for a broader overview of his career, and his influences, than a footnoted edition of The Divine Comedy might provide.

Dr. Shaw appears to have spent half a century examining Dante. Therefore, she knows every facet of the poet's considerable erudition, his complicated political entanglements (we are reminded he faced torture and death for his allegiance), and the dramatic achievement that made the vernacular, after the poet had his way with Tuscan dialect and his own nimble invention of so many more words that he recorded in his verse, the standard for the emerging language of Italian, from an era when regional variations proliferated. None, as Shaw shows, as good as Dante's own, as he agrees in a show-off comparison he set down to display his own Florentine expertise. This type of confidence, growing as Dante took on more challenging models after 1300, resulted in those famed hundred masterful cantos.

Reading Dante progresses by chapters on friendship, power, his life, love, time, numbers, and words. I found to my surprise those on time and numbers as engrossing as those on love and words. For, Shaw sharpens her gaze when delving into the textual acumen that displays Dante's talents at their best. You come away convinced that the more Dante took on--the journey down to hell, up past purgatory, and to the Beatific Vision and that surpassing expression itself on a human plane--the more he rose to the occasion and found language worthy of the subject, certainly one to humble any one.

A few highlights from Shaw's take on Dante: he's a "good Catholic but an independent thinker," and humanity's place in the cosmos and the individual's place in society occupy his center stage. His journey downward and upward is also "the story of becoming capable of writing the poem about the journey." In examining for me the unexpected presence of public non-believers in medieval Florence, condemned to suffer infernally, we note Dante's typical symmetry, the punishments he often invents that match or invert the crime perpetrated above on earth. "Those who thought life ended in the grave are destined to spend eternity in a tomb."

However, the Commedia isn't a political tract any more than it is a sermon, for Shaw promotes Dante's primary concern within the "power of words" to chastise his contemporaries and to correct the many flaws of his troubled city and a compromised Church. The vanity of Pope Boniface VIII gains special note, for his massive statue as a memorial--shown in one of the helpful illustrations throughout this volume (although on a Kindle I had to enlarge many to make out their detail, as in the delicate Botticelli line drawings of the cantos)--finds few admirers today, certainly. Shaw contrasts this with a statue of Dante she glimpsed in New York City behind shrubbery. Elsewhere she brings in Catholic schoolgirls in 1950s Australia, UN sanctions, and Siena-Florence soccer rivalries as apropos. She connects the controversies of Dante's era, often in the political realm ones that feel very distant from our own, by revealing a poet who strives to fix his society's woes by honest poetic craft.

While his masterpiece may also appear arcane, Shaw notes how it's "not an account of a dream" as were other visions of the time, "but of something that happened when the poet woke up" at the start of the cantos, intriguingly. We are charmed by some of those whom Dante and Virgil meet in hell, but the moral scrutiny persists. Ulysses or Francesca may inspire our sympathy, but we must keep our guard, for Dante presents an ethical strategy that keeps ambiguity alive along with dispassionate judgment, reflecting after all divine justice as well as human frailty.

The epic spirals down into earth, where Satan burrowed after he fell from heaven, only to claw itself up the slope of the soil displaces from the center of the earth, as purgatory carries Dante to its summit. And, since the cantos end with the heavenly light, and language must stop trying to capture this scene, it's a poignant "dream that one cannot recall on waking" which "leaves a trace of the emotions experienced in it. Snow melting in sunlight retains a faint tracing of an imprint on it. The oracles of the Sibyl are lost on the winds that blow away the pages they were written on."

Thus, referring to dazzling images employed by Dante in his writings, Shaw leaves us with our own wonder at Dante's bold ambition and the courage taken to put down honestly his revulsion against so much corruption clerical, personal, and political around him. He also undertakes a redemptive task, to make his everyday language, enhanced by his talent and coinages, capable of taking on the next world, not to mention this one. From Here to Eternity is her aptly chosen subtitle for this study.

Supplemented by notes and a very extensive bibliography, told in scholarly but engaging language, Shaw's survey of Dante should reward anyone wanting to learn more about him and his times. She makes a strong case for his linguistic range and his dogged ambition, and one will close her own book more convinced than ever, most likely, that Dante's legacy deserves to sustain its lofty power.
(Amazon US 2-6-14)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Russ + Blyth Carpenter's "The Blessings of Bhutan": Book Review

Previous reviews (Amazon) have been brief if enthusiastic; here's mine with more detail. Russ and Blyth Carpenter offer short "sketches" about eight cultural aspects of this Himalayan kingdom. Coming in 1996 to visit and then do community improvement work there, this 1999 book comes quickly given their recent immersion. However, as with Martin Uitz's similarly pitched Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon (reviewed by me Dec. 2012) from a decade later in this rapidly modernizing nation, the Carpenters provide a thoughtful Western p-o-v that avoids romanticizing or ethnocentrism. This rural Oregonian couple diminishes the personal touch and entertaining or dramatic anecdote common to others who report from this realm often seen from afar and close in soft focus. Instead, they accentuate the mindset that Bhutan tries to perpetuate by Gross National Happiness and its nuanced adaptation of global technologies and expectations. They remind readers of wisdom, in balanced, ecological perspectives.

They begin with a geographical and historical overview, then move into archery (in more depth than any other book I've read on Bhutan); Tantric Buddhism (more commonsense and demystifying, refreshingly); art and medicine (same applied to a more agnostic, balanced East-West perspective on traditional Tibetan remedies and the attitudes that they instill); reincarnation's impact on environmental policy (subtle: how does "you only live once" clash with "what goes around, comes around"?); Drukpa Kunley (given the rarity of this source material available in English, welcome excerpts from the "Divine Madman"); sexuality and women (an honest appraisal of the cost-benefit of matriarchal inheritance of the land vs. education and careers for girls); and the GNH policy (with comments from its proponent Karma Ura--see Mary Peck's
Bhutan: Between Heaven and Earth photo collection with Ura's essay, reviewed by me Dec. 2012).

Just a couple of highlights of this unpretentious, casually presented but accessible essay collection: comparing and contrasting Dante's "Inferno" with the Buddhist Wheel of Life to show the differences between a linear and cyclical, ends-based and care-based, eternal vs. reincarnated worldview. Distinguishing the left-right brain with the folk Bon practices and the "intellectual polish" of formal Buddhism to show how Bhutanese beliefs integrate these approaches sensibly.

Commonsense is crucial. Ice can break, water can flow; colors in a rainbow or prism show the evanescence of what appears so tangible: this is the teaching transmitted by Khyentse Rinpoche (see reviews Dec. 2012 of the films
Brilliant Moon and Words of My Perfect Teacher for more). The book in earlier sections can feel uneven--probably as it's a joint effort--and tonal shifts and sudden transitions in some portions slow the pace. The Carpenters deepen their appreciation of the circularity of life, as the book progresses. The study of Bhutan's attempts to live in a delicate, harsh, and rugged "Southern Land of Medicinal Herbs" (to use an old Chinese placename) ethically and spiritually, while moving towards more justice and equality, gains traction.

The Carpenters show how in a fir forest in Oregon, lessons learned in Bhutan reverberate, and how stewardship within the ecosystem can challenge those in Bhutan as they try to protect their fragile heartland while accepting--in an overly bureaucratic and civil-servant dominated system--the need for progress, however controlled and gradual. "Sacred paint" can show sexual liberation and psychological understanding; they look at a depiction of "yab-yum" male-female union with fresh eyes and find meanings that work for themselves, not what a prominent if over-indulgent scholar or New Age website might peddle. This honesty speaks well for this unassuming, but well-illustrated (snapshots try to express some of the colors that can overload the senses) and welcome introduction to this too-often idealized, but still appealingly idealistic, realm that few of us will be able to afford to explore outside the pages of such books. (Amazon US 1-11-13)

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ag dul isteach na coillte dorcha

Sílim go mbeadh uaireanta crua liomsa go minic. Tá brón orm go leor, ach deánaim iarracht chun nascadh le dóchas, a cháirde. Léigh mé an oiread sin: "Faoi láthair ghlacann tú le trioblóidí tú gur tógadh, beidh an dorais oscailte...Rumi."

Is cuimhne liom ag leamh na línte chéad le Dante fós. Scríobh mé dhá bhliain ó faoi shin aistriúcháin éagsúla seo oscailt drámatúil. Bhí meas í gcónaí mé ar na véarsaí scáthfhoglaimaí, ar ndóigh.

Mairfeadh siad dom i mo lár aois. Níl fhíos agam an slí ar fud na fírinne. Tá me ag cuardach ar an cosán caol i mo shaol. 

Dá bhrí sin, iarraim ag éisteacht taobh istigh orm. Mhian liom freisin ag foghlaim le duine eile níos mó. B'fhéidir, tógann sé tamall fada dom a aibí.

Mar sin féin, féidir liom teacht solas agus sonas go lag. D'fhoglaim an ceacht doimhin seo Dante agus Rumi fadó, tar éis gach. Bealtaine na bliana nua a thabhairt daoibh áthas go leor.

Entering the dark woods.

I think that hard times may be mine often. Sadness has come upon me a lot, but I make an attempt to connect with hope, friends. I read a short time ago that: "The moment you accept what troubles you've been given, the door will open...Rumi."

Reading the first lines of Dante comes to mind too. I wrote two years ago about the various translations of this dramatic opening. I've always admired these shadow-like verses, of course.

They endure for me in my middle age. I don't know the wide way of truth. I'm searching on the narrow path in my life.

Therefore, I seek to listen inside of me. I also desire to learn from other people more. Perhaps, it takes a long time for me to mature. 

All the same, it may be for me that light and happiness come slowly. Dante and Rumi learned this profound lesson long ago, after all. May this new year bring you all joy galore.

Greanadh: Ag dul isteach Dante na Coillte Dorcha le/ Engraving: Dante entering the Dark Wood by Gustave Doré.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sandow Birk & Marcus Sanders' "Dante's Purgatorio: Book Review

This follows the pair's illustrated, surfer-Californian speak, pop culture-enriched version of Dante's inferno. That dragged us downscale into a strip-mall, back-alley, gang-tagged, trashed and hellish inner-city if still palm-fringed Los Angeles. The sequel's much more pleasant, befitting the hope that energizes those who work of their sentences and in free verse express their determination to overcome their failings and climb the purgatorial heights that rise in San Francisco.

While St Francis will not appear until Paradiso, an angel or two does. Birk's drawings again evoke a contemporary take on the medieval underworld. I liked the strip club of the Garden of Eden in SF placed here as the entrance into the Earthly Paradise that crowns the mountain, and the three lovely ecsdysiasts who as Faith, Hope, and Charity grace the floor. Added to this, of course, is a zaftig, multiethnic brunette Beatrice in a short black dress, talking to Dante. He's abandoned the backward baseball cap that he wore in the Inferno, and now with his hoodie looks more monkish as well as more relaxed. Virgil still drapes himself in flags as well as mantles, but he guides Dante this time only so far. The rest of the vista will await the finale.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere here, so full of fogs and inclines, fits this NoCal locale. "I felt lighter and looser,/ like I had done some yoga and was ready for a hike." (76) There's a relaxed, optimistic undertone to the whole journey, and enhanced by Brother Michael Meister's preface that explains the odd pageant and mystical references atop the Mount, readers will appreciate this infernal sequel. We get a barefoot Imelda Marcos, an envious Tonya Harding, and Oprah and Elvis among the gluttonous, but the pop culture figures somehow appear less noticeable than those sinners in Birk and Marcus Sanders' hellhole.

Dante's part two-- as with part three-- is often far less read than that raw, wrenching otherworldly predecessor (compare the number of translations, reviews, and ratings!), but I found this Purgatorio stimulating and satisfying as a contemporary rendering of this venerable, very Christian call to repentance and reformation. Birk and Sanders appear at ease as they climb to the summit, and they capture the humanism as well as the dogmatism smoothly. As with their Inferno (also reviewed by me), the notes may have to be accessed from another, more scholarly translation and footnoted edition, but especially for newcomers to Dante, this is a welcome excursion. (Posted to Amazon US 10-24-10 & 10-28-10.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sandow Birk & Marcus Sanders' "Dante's Inferno": Book Review.

As a native Angeleno, reading about my hometown depicted as hell the week the temperature in my neighborhood hit 118 (the municipal thermometer broke at 113 downtown) made for some poetic justice. The tag of the gang that dominated my neighborhood graces a wall in one of the many illustrations that recall Dore as well as graphic art that Birk's known for, as in his witty SF vs. LA "war"-- it figures SF gets to be Purgatorio by comparison.

I have ten translations of the Inferno, and I like to compare their opening lines to judge the fidelity or flexibility of each version. "About halfway through the course of my pathetic life,/ I woke up and found myself in a stupor in some dark place./ I'm not sure how I ended up there; I guess I had taken a few wrong turns." This shows the casual prose and the matter-of-fact reporting that characterizes the mood of Dante's quest.

Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders offer a surfer's translation, and while this may feel as dated as, say, the Beats' hip slang in a half century from now if not sooner, it does ring true as the vernacular I hear around me now. The placement of such as Slobodan Milosevic, Jim Bakker (misspelled in the text), and Anna Nicole Smith, as well as Porta Potties, Duraflames, and Fred Flintstone's inflated figure in the subway may lead to puzzled readers soon enough, but for now, pop culture references may hook an audience on the original, many translations graced by excellent renderings often side-by-side with the Italian.

The most harrowing scene for me has always been Canto XXXIII, Count Ugolino having to eat his sons. The simple plaint: "'Why don't you help me, Dad?' were his very last words" combines contemporary tone and eloquent power.

The liberties taken with the text, as with the illustrations, naturally are the reason this version's published, so the carping with the freedoms by some reviewers appears beside the point. Birk and Sanders love their wretched city, show compassion for those trapped here, and give voice to the outraged and the outrages in 1300 or 2000.

Many sections rely on digression to incorporate recent references, and then cut medieval ones, and the summaries before each canto do compress a lot, making likely any reader having to go back to a more comprehensive edition for footnotes and commentary. Brother Michael Meister's accessible introduction does assist us, however, and the illustrated map of Hell is clearly drawn. While this may not be the end of one's Dantean adventure, it may be for some readers put off by more scholarly or fussy texts an ideal enticement to descend into classic terror and enduringly moral, and very Christian and ethical, drama. (Posted to & Amazon US 10-13-10)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Fur Coat, No Knickers

This title comes from a phrase used by my host and her friend about one of the guests at their forthcoming ex-pat Thanksgiving celebration. She would appear along with Gay West, The Frump, and others to whom I was not privy. Due to the sensitive nature of their identities, not alone of said female so monikered who I haven't the foggiest about but anyone else mentioned who I do heretofore, today's cast of characters are identified if necessary by simple if sometimes capitalized Common Nouns. Don't feel left out if despite a favorable nod I have not named you, dear Reader, as a Proper Noun; I like you(se) all. I've blurred a few identifiers and specifics; to be fair, I avoided what used to be called Christian names, so as not to herd the sheep with the goats. No witty or catty sobriquets, however, as energy fails me. I am still sort of jet-lagged. Mine left hand verily knoweth not what my right hand doeth, on this very keyboard, I say unto thee.

My latest Irish excursion left me only four nights there, none of them restful. The red-eye over on Delta more than lived up to its name. I'll revert to my family's tradition lapsed with me of novenas to the Little Flower if it frees me from ever using this airline again, but I must book through an agent approved (or outsourced) by My Employer and verify I have chosen the lowest fare. The program sets up a red flag if you do not do this. At least on the way back, if not the wretched flight over showing only "GI Joe 2" as the sole channel, I found the video-audio delights on a brand-new plane via Aer Lingus a great comfort last time, but they flew out of O'Hare and I figured two days prior to Thanksgiving, the conjunction of weather and crowds might be fatal that far north, or mid-west, so I avoided it and the second choice of Newark for Atlanta, the vast hub of un-Southern inhospitality.

Not much of interest. The dreaded TSA full-body scan machines apparently have not been installed at least at any terminal I traversed, nor did the pat-downs transpire. I did notice respectable-looking men of a certain age getting their luggage opened more than once. On the way back into Atlanta, a veganish backpacked waif tried to go to the left of dog and handler, a hefty lass in a green vest as ugly as that strapped on the compact canine Cerberus, snarled at Miss Rainbow Brite to turn to the right. She meekly did, but the dog stayed alert. Asked what she carried, she compliantly responded "brown rice." I hurried on. On the way in, I had bags full of home-made, hand-wrapped (if not many by me, given my lack of dexterity) caramels and brownies, not the magic kind, which disappointed My Host. Those olfactorily enhanced beagles spook me.

I read on the plane a couple of the sale books I'd bought at the Cal State L.A. bookstand the week before, to raise funds for a Critical Thinking course's students as their project. I'd been there as My Second Son wants to apply to the prestigious county high school for the performing arts that shares the campus. I chatted a bit with the silver-haired, granny-esque, petite overseer of paperbacked wares, which were of markedly higher intellectual quality than the usual dreck at such tables. She explained that she was selling off books to raise funds for the re-opening of the radical bookstore that once was down on 8th Street in the Pico-Union barrio, a hotbed, if one store's worth, of the truly far-left. Now they will move to Hollywood. Howard Zinn's icon graced flyers, and homage to an agitator farther tilted than even Zinn, whose name and affiliation remain tacit to avoid web-trolls, also appeared. It was like discovering the Queen Mother's a Maoist.

Anyway, I carefully sifted the stock, as I rarely buy any books no matter how cheap now, to a fine anthology about the philosophy of religion from the mid-60s "God, Man, and the Thinker," a 1963 reprint of an 1896 collection of Buddhist texts, and an old primer I'd wanted anyhow, "What the Buddha Taught," by Walpola (reminds me of Andy Warhol[a]) Rahula. Added to this, a serendipity, a Mercier Press paperback of the bilingual stories of Padraig Pearse. I had this in a newer reprint, of course, but I felt sorry for it and feared it'd be relegated to the trash, so I rescued it. I expected to pay $8 for the lot, but she let me have them for $5, a bargain. She and I discussed teaching the course we both did a bit, and she recommended I do what all the sections at Cal State's Northridge campus show to their freshmen, as "Lies My Teacher Told Me." I demurred, if intrigued, telling her where I taught and of its own hegemony. (They busted their union long ago.)

So, with Pearse's Conamara Irish simply eloquent for me to try to fall asleep to (it did not work) and Rahula's patient explication of Noble Truths (that did not do the trick of trance either), I played the online audio tracks for the flight, at least the LAX-ATL leg. Oddly, the more "modern" plane's the domestic one. Under "retro rockers" classified, the music CDs called up The Clash, who wanted to be retro anyway. I listened instead to the Cure's "Disintegration," full of long instrumental intros before moody tunes, and Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks," full of skipping and wavering, about as close as I'll ever get to jazz or grooves.

The movies were $6 and even t.v. episodes $2, which disgusted me. I was saving my phone with its own music files for the longer flight, as I knew I could not recharge it and feared I'd need it on arrival. In my naivete, I still hoped I'd be able to get internet access and e-mail over there. I munched the salmon sandwiches thoughtfully provided by my wife and drank their club soda as the alternative to no mineral water. I could not believe how many people bought the $3 chips and $6 snacks peddled on board.

The young woman next to me had tattooed on one thumb-wrist web (what do you call that?) "I'm tired." Her other one had "Me too." I reflected on this but could only come up with an off-color association. She asked the "customer service representative on-board" for aspirin, and slouched over the tray table with her red blanket over her head and another riding hood over her body. She did play with her iPhone underneath. She had a cosmetology test bank prep booklet as her in-flight reading, but she only read a page or so.

Atlanta's a big airport. The train shuttle underneath the concourse was broken in the direction needed to go but one of the six or so terminal extensions. If I'd had to go E backwards D-C-B-A to T, it'd be a marathon. The one stretch, A to T, was long enough to take me--a fast walker--nearly half an hour, as we all were funnelled into a side passage not meant for hundreds of us, and we had to then wait in an labyrinthine layout to go back in to security as we'd been dumped out into the regular throng again at the front of the terminal. People kept glaring at me and I was not cheery, but sweaty, tired, and already weary with the Dublin part of the trip still looming. I made it to that gate past the usual smells of whirring coffee machines and manufactured baked buns as the flight was already boarding. In the corner, young folks with very heavy Norn Iron accents regaled a duskier and differently accented fellow about being in the wrong Belfast place at the wrong pub.

I closed my eyes a lot, but seeing the flight filled with Racquetball Ireland teenagers and their families, or chaperones, I did not get much rest. The previous flight had blue polo-shirted rugby teens from New South Wales, all husky and very British in jaw and haircut, but they were surprisingly demure. Stocky Mrs. P.R. (her initials, but her name was nearly as common an Irish one if not more than my own) from Thurles or Clonmel (the teams had jerseys from these locales) sat next to me, who was at the window. But her charges were across the aisle, so Kate and Megan and Matthew had to be hectored constantly. This did not increase my susceptibility to slumber. I had finally, thinking of Warhol[a] Rahula, relaxed my body, against all odds, and may have had a moment of nirvana, when I heard "duty free, duty free" summoning me. I never returned, and two rows away, the back-of-the-plane's bathroom door and the galley's metallic clash, slamming on and off served as my metronomic alarm against any sleep. The crew chattered away, and so did the racqueteers.

However, arrival in Dublin proved magical. The plane seemed to coast in, silently, as we circled at the southern end of the city, glowing amber lights on velvet. I'm no real fan of the place, but it looked enchanted in the pitch-black clarity of 7 a.m. I'd never seen the city like this before; previous flights had the usual clouds. We sailed in softly, over the Swords roundabout and even its garish shopping-mall glow could not dim the gentler necklaces of what outlined quiet seconds before the Hill of Howth and its invisible mansionettes.

The plane landed, and the passengers burst into applause. Not sure why, but it was deserved. I left the plane happy, even if I left it, as I would three out of four sections of the jaunt, all but dead last.

Customs had been remodelled since last autumn's visit, but it still seemed boxy. At one point I nearly ducked, as if entering a Bunratty Folk Park's recreated cabeen's threshhold, into a small corridor, before emerging. We were shunted via a small passageway, and as with many airports, it never looked fully finished.

I'd just missed the 100 bus to Drogheda. The air was in the mid-30s, so I bundled up. I'd taken my trench coat that I'd worn but twice ever, when I went to NYC in the beginning of the '90s. I had layered, and bought gloves along with a backpack from Patagonia, an investment I figure at the rate of necessity in L.A. will last the rest of my life. The man hunched over the timetable and I struck up a brief chat, the kind you do. He sounded Nigerian, and we agreed it was cold indeed. Talk about fur coat and knickers.

On the bus, I again marvelled at the inanity of pop music on Irish radio. If My Older Son was here, I'd have asked him: how does musical talent come out of an island so poorly served by this medium? As expected, the transmitted chat was full of austerity cuts, tottering coalitions, and IMF bailouts.

I like the announced stops on Bus Éireann in Irish for the placenames. The town of the knight sounds better in the original; Baile an Ridire, than Balrothry. I watched what had become familiar signs from last year's itinerary, to Lusk, Balbriggan, Julianstown, Laytown, Bettystown, on the hour-plus ride into Drogheda.

Its Southgate shopping center still languished, only its Dunne's store open and another office, all other sites as empty as last year when I noticed this ambitious edifice on the city's border. A sign promised a development second to none for investment. I was not sure if I missed, when gawking at it, the woebegone, yellow, deserted motel across the road where once the INLA had convened, or if that eyesore had been razed. A symbol of what this county had meant once, and perhaps still did for a few, as Gerry Adams had announced he'd contest for Sinn Féin the Dáil seat vacated in Louth only last month. 

The traffic on the Dublin road as the declivity to the Boyne that divides the medieval town from its suburbs clogged the route. I could have disembarked and walked to my destination twice over in the time it took to crawl a few blocks. But, I waited. I bade farewell to the affable driver, watched the last of the schoolchildren who seemed to be half the occupants of the morning's cargo, and wished the Nigerian best of luck as he and I fiddled with our luggage, and he waited for yet another bus. I went off, around Millmount rumored to be the burial mound of Amergin-- first bard of Ireland who landed on its shores five thousand or some years in myth ago-- and up Pilcher's Hill steps towards my host's home.

Cleo, a doggie simulacrum of my own Oprah, a puppy younger than her but just as lovably evil, welcomed me. I would soon listen to my host and her haircutting comrade about their views, as seasoned ex-pats, on the Irish. They had both lived there long enough for me to hear as their American accents morphed in and out of Irish inflections picked up from spouses, new friends, their own children. About their neighbors turned intimates: "They tell you what they want you to hear, and then when you leave, they tell their friends what they really think of you." I responded, "we're their entertainment. They get tired of talking to each other."

I thought of similar opinions in this novel, recommended by my wife, "The Bleeding Heart" ("Ordinary Decent Criminals" in its British title: both sum it up well); the Philly ex-pat Lionel Shriver and her fictional alter ego Estrin Lancaster share a mordant, post-feminist, bitterly unromantic account from late-80s Belfast that explores and excoriates the Troubles and those "conflict junkies" who come and go to dabble in them as comedy and tragedy. While I found her broad targets hit-and-miss (and only one rating for my review over at Amazon US, that a negative, to date), any participant-observer of the Irish scene, especially transatlantic transplants, will find its morning-after, mirror-shattering looks unblinkingly reflecting, perhaps, their own bleary gaze. Fictional or real, we all agree that we Americans represented our own stereotype, as enduring, as unfair, and as recognizable as that of the country we all loved, admired, put up with, and put down.

I wished I could have stayed for the feast of my less vicious nationals. It's my favorite holiday, even if this would have been my first without turkey. I gave up eating meat after it last year. But I crave cranberries.

After my host's egg-and-potato burrito (closer to home, with chipotle sauce) and a nap I felt better. We had fish and chips, another favorite of mine, for supper, and I regaled the lad and lass in residence with gift t-shirts and brownies and caramels. My politically astute host watched six times, it seemed, the RTÉ newscast with Fianna Fáil's Brian Cowan defending patiently, I thought as an unbiased observer, his party's role in the bailout. Despite the effigies of him paraded on O'Connell Street the Saturday I was there, up the road at my conference, I felt he defended his role manfully, and took responsibility for his party's debacle in a brave manner. I am not sure if FF will survive the election, but given the namby-pamby response of a handful of SF activists who stormed the capital's barricades to overwhelm one harried Garda, and what looked like all of three placard-brandishing SWP allies, I was reminded of what happened the day the Rising started. The rebels broke into Dublin Castle, shot to death a guard, a fellow Irishman, but then stood around, not sure what to do next.

I am jaded, but compared to my situation back home in a state billions in the hole, in a city Third World more every day, the imposition of such as a 100 euro property tax, paying for the first time for water, and a reduction of a minimum wage by a euro from an amount far higher than the dollar equivalent in my home state did not seem draconian. The generosity of the dole outweighs that of the U.S., and the support for housing childcare, medicine, and education reminds me again of why I sympathize with benevolent social welfare as opposed to heartless bottom-line mentalities that dominate my native land's mindset.

California's facing similar cutbacks. Three years of hardship in my household itself has inured me, I confess, to tales of financial woe. It sounds hard-hearted, but teaching so many who have been laid off, downsized, outsourced, and in my own job working faster and harder than ever as I do the tasks of my departed colleagues, while facing heavier courseloads, I betray compassion fatigue. Meanwhile, we're told to spend on Black Fridays (what a term to contrast in the U.S. post-Thanksgiving to the Irish usage) as our patriotic duty, as if to increase our own credit card balance outweighs any lessons forced upon us by the current (it's not over yet) dep-recession.

I had feared the extravagances of the past decade, here and there, would not last. I watched on RTÉ the high dudgeon in which such reports of austerity have been met in Ireland. I calculated in my mind how much even with the lower minimum wage the workers earned compared to my own nation, and the come-down while not welcome did not seem as outrageous as those interviewed made it out to be. Yet, I understood their collective outrage and personal helplessness, when we all feel like decisions are made in purported democracies that none of us as voters and citizens have any say in. What I can agree with? That the leaders who profiteer and the bankers who collude deserve the real contempt. They get that from us, sure. But they will as always suffer less if at all, compared to the rest of us.

The tension between those who control the pursestrings and those who come, cap in hand, never ends. I viewed a billboard on the way in to Drogheda from St. Vincent de Paul Society: "I used to build homes. Then I lost mine." A young man, haggard. Television ads, well-produced, featured related appeals by this venerable charity. They keep dignity for the benefactor and the recipient, and avoid sentiment or self-aggrandizing.

The RTÉ Angelus always moves even hard-hearted me, and the spot I saw this time took in villagers cleaning grave markers by the river at Sixmilebridge. There's tender grace in these aired meditations that I think can be valued by anyone in Ireland or anywhere else, and I find it a powerful reminder of the best that the island has encouraged within its inhabitants, of all or no creeds. Despite the slippery slide to sudden secularism, for better and worse, in recent Irish culture, the tug to give more than take I do pray remains with the ethos instilled over centuries.

With the transition nearly everywhere to capitalism, at its most rapacious, the few countries such as Ireland who still possess a modicum of social consciousness-- despite the temptations to greed the past twenty years that have weakened the communal constraints on avarice-- themselves now face the results of too much speculation, too much flip-flopping, too much debt, too much trust in corporations and politicians. Not to mention what has ravaged so much of the landscape, so many villages made ugly, so many roadsides and ridges scarred, thanks to landowners cashing in and selling out, aided and abetted by developers (a class that for me deserves to languish in Dante's ninth circle, frozen and upended in excrement).

That leads me to the link here: Is there a future for socialism in Ireland? This is a three-hour panel discussion held November 25th at the Holiday Inn, Belfast. I could not attend as my bus headed that night south, so I am doubly glad to have had the chance to hear it online. My host's husband spoke as one of the panelists, along with Daithí Mac An Mhaistír (éirígí); Eoin O’Broin (Sinn Féin); Dr Brian Hanley (Author of The Lost Revolution – The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party). He served as the Critic, with such lines as "Left unity's like a black Klan. It won't happen," but also as the Activist, who told how long it took him with twenty euro coins, to distribute them to the beggars he passed in Dublin's streets: 12 minutes, 37 seconds. "Every paper cup tells a story."

When I arrived in Dublin that same night, the air bit and chilled. On the rumbling ride down in the early dark, I thought about lunch, with my host and the Novelist. He had graciously presented me with a signed copy of his novel Ecopunks which had appeared two days before and he heroically (his car being "scuppered," a fine word) made it down from the North to see us, at the same table in the same restaurant where we had all met a year before. I think this restaurant rivals the best of those (at least on my own austerity budget, for we rarely eat out anymore) in my home city. While the service was unaccountably slow, the fact it was Happy Thanksgiving there, as the cook is American, gave me cheer, and more time to talk with my friends.

They discussed the common pursuit of journalism and its vagaries, in this age of electronic archiving which opens the profession up to all sorts of difficulties in platforms, storage, retrieval, and display. Access can be limited rather than expanded, and researchers such as my host and myself find the barriers placed by the press as frustrating as, for me, using as I still have had to do once in a while a microfiche machine at the library! We discussed "emerald noir," the ironies of the American complaints against the TSA compared to the usual searches and seizures once a daily part of Belfast life, and the challenges of getting the word out about what one has invested so much effort in, as in his contribution to Requiems for the Departed of modern crime fiction based on ancient Irish myth. He and I chatted about the changes one editor may request, and how they may embed themselves, better or worse, into the story forever. I look forward to his novel, especially as a character appears to be based on one real-life figure who I link to in my blogroll at the right-hand here.

I had to leave soon, as both the Novelist and my host's husband had to go north. My visits, with the Novelist and the Host and the Activist, were all too short. Before departing, I did take the picture above on our walk with the dog, and the three yappiers in the window could be heard even from my distance beyond the gate. I guess it fits sort of with the blog entry's title, if you're Cruella de Ville.

The schoolchildren again filled many seats on the bus. I watched the lights pass, the line of cars northward creeping along as commuters edged back from the city I approached. The Skylon Hotel is certainly convenient, the same bus route that took me from the airport to Drogheda now passing the airport into the city. It was next door to St. Patrick's College where I'd give my paper at this conference on Purgatory in Irish literature and culture. Esoteric to all, indeed, but for me, a conjunction of two topics I'd labored over in my dissertation and despite that decade of effort have loved long, and an opportunity I could not miss.

My repast that night, as the delicious mackerel and fries and Smithwick's repast earlier still filled me up, was tea and cookies, and I sat reading the old USA Today paper discarded that I picked up as I'd left the plane. I actually got some sleep, a few hours at least, but as my pattern now, before I left, during my trip, and since then, I have been largely and fitfully awake since two or three each morning. I thought about nothing much and everything in the darkness.

When I woke up, it was in the thirties, for me colder than it ever gets, as it's never this low back home. I figured I'd better load up on carbs to warm me. The breakfast voucher let me down, as muesli, toast, yogurt while I like them all allowed me no portables to take away for later noshing--a strategy often advised by budget travelers. Best Western chain has its own austerity plan. I longed for fruit, not stewed prunes or canned pears in a plastic tray, all that could be found on the buffet not made of caffeine, dairy, or bulk.

The five-minute walk to the conference got me there early, as I could see the school building immediately over the wall of the hotel, but I had to stroll way down the block and back again to get to it. No signs were up yet to guide me to the room for the event, and being a very punctual type, I'd again over-estimated the tendency of other cultures to take their time. I paced the halls, circling the corridor around a courtyard, the one elegant trace of what this teacher-training college might have once looked like, with its old tiles set in the floor and remnants of a Gothic-ish study hall, in the mid-Fifties austerity era of John McGahern, who wrote about being practically immured here in his All Will Be Well (US title) Memoir (Irish title).

His portrait as not a young man faced us as we spoke in D-115. Two days spent looking out at a window where the legs of tall men and lissome women rushed about on the grass above our classroom left me feeling a bit incarcerated myself. Many at least of the younger Irish do seem leaner and more fit than Americans, still. But at 2/3 of my countrymen as overweight or obese, that may not be setting the bar very high. I stretched my cramped legs on a piano bench and sat at the back of the room, given my bad knee propped up. I took notes on all the speakers, who can be found listed via the Conference Schedule of the link above. Discretion rules. Many talks were harbingers of heavenly hope; a few--less than average--proved, well, grimly penitential.

I reflected on return this week to my speech students, despite my wooziness, about how international characteristics may be seen in speakers. Early on, the renowned French expert read off of her own seminal article on the subject to us from a photocopy. While essential research, it went longer than the twenty minute limit. This meant the time skewed. Luckily, the skillful organizer helped us recover the pace, but at conferences, as in my own speech class, if one or two speakers don't follow the timetable, it sets up a domino effect that no Einsteinish quirk or quark (the latter word from Finnegans Wake) of relativity can recover.

A Japanese presenter delivered a talk as if robotically, every word enunciated identically. An Italian effusively joked and played with her material that she projected for us to view. She later carried on conversations with fellow listeners during other presentations, and took out her cellphone to call sub voce during my own talk.

A Central European grad student never looked up his whole speil, as he gripped each end of the lectern. French students varied: one gave a superb talk, another drifted off. Professors from the Sorbonne joined the St. Pat's faculty as conveners, and they impressed me by their questions and comments. A Balkan lecturer never seemed to get to the point and remained mired in generalizations. Irish students as a whole shone, and appeared in their preparation of their talks to stay focused, diligent, and controlled. While they too varied in the way they connected or did not with the audience, they managed to convey a concentration on the material that credited them well, and their professorial colleagues who also gave strong presentations.

I don't mean to be (too) hard on my peers. This is the process by which we learn from one another, and step up the plate, whether two years into our studies or forty years accumulated. As an outlier, I attend conferences once or at most twice a year, to stay in the game for which I was trained even if where I teach, it's as if semi-pro minors sub-class A baseball compared to the majors. Graduate students and independent scholars need fora to share ideas and influences, and those of us like myself on the academic margins gain degrees granted long past our own matriculations of imposed, voluntarily humility, necessary for purgatorial improvement and chastising progress, in our own efforts to scale academic heights.

My own talk went well, considering the next morning it had iced over and I walked over gingerly, never having really had to tread on such a surface before, fearful of black ice and invisible gloss. My own path, however short, reminded me of the fire-ice, hot-cold, boiling-freezing alternations of which I'd speak, Beckett's texts of agnostic afterlife rather than what I'd adapted (nods to Hugh Kenner and Vivian Mercier) as "Protestant hells" and "Catholic purgatories." Being 9 a.m., and with one of our three panelists unable to drive in from the county whose name I can never pronounce, Offaly, we had time for tea and conviviality in the staff room as a handful of us trickled in. I was glad to have come in the previous night, rather than take the early bus down, given the freezing dawn that made for so many a treacherous journey.

I counted a dozen brave listeners. My fellow presenter gave a great overview taken from his UCD doctoral work on Sam Johnson's influence on Beckett's salvific perspectives, as Sam junior had contemplated a drama circa 1937 on Sam senior. Our papers overlapped neatly with Joyce's 1929 essay on "Dante," more about Beckett than Joyce. The follow-up questions weren't as nerve-racking as I'd anticipated, even if I had to betray ignorance given the hour and my condition on entropic exegesis in the works I'd discussed.

The rest of the conference, as such events do once you have spoken, went smoothly. The arc started Friday morning with Origen and Lough Derg, and rose to Yeats and Joyce the first day; it continued with Beckett and passed refugee camps for asylum seekers, Travellers, and still more Protestants as it traversed literary and anthropological terrain the second day. At any conference, nervousness never for me quite goes away until I have delivered my talk, but I enjoyed the remaining papers even as fatigue did dull me to some nuances. A vividly narrated near-closing one on the film "In Bruges" and its purgatorial plot for me proved a personal highlight. Then, I had to rush back to my hotel to try to log on to get a boarding pass, in vain. Their only (coin-operated!) public computer now broken, the staff let me use the one at the front desk but it showed no record for me of a reservation. Panicky, I wondered what to do. I had no access to the net, remember, myself, on my phone. "This is Ireland." Back from years in NYC, Ma soeur Gaeilgeoir's wry admonition echoed in my ear.

By the time I darted back across the evening's ice, Barry McGovern's recitation of Beckett's early (written when he was about twenty-one, in 1927) story Dante and the Lobster had commenced. I waited in my own Ante-Purgatory outside the room where he dramatically related its wonderful, painful tragedy. I could barely hear him if I edged near the window, hiding behind a paper poster so as not to have my head looming over the proceedings. Snatches of his oratory floated through the classroom's pane, but I gave up, a contorted position because or in spite of my height. I sat, as if meditating--resisting the posture of Belacqua's namesake who slouched indolently in Ante-Purgatory in Inferno IV--on the well-worn bench where McGahern might have long lounged. I waited patiently for the applause that could signal my dash into the room.

That being heard, I entered rapidly and added my own applause. McGovern had to run off to the Gate, and his half-hour reading was appended by an intriguing tidbit I record for myself and posterity. Beckett had sent him a postcard about an alternative ending to passage ending with its shattering last sentence.

In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman's cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.
   Belacqua looked at the old parchment of her face, grey in the dim kitchen.
   “You make a fuss” she said angrily “and upset me and then lash into it for your dinner.”
   She lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty seconds to live.
   Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death, God help us all.
   It is not.
McGovern, one of Beckett's most renowned interpreters, elaborated he asked the author, long after the story had been published, for an alternative ending. Beckett had written on the card: "Like hell it is." And: "What do you think? Yes? No? Yours, Sam" A fine and typically terse, ambiguous, demotic, yet philosophical resolution, so typical of his style and soul.

This ended the conference perfectly. The more I read Beckett, the more I admire him, as much if not more than Joyce, for Beckett lived the courage of his convictions by his bravery and generosity to those far less fortunate than he. Joyce tended to spend his money on white wine and lavish blow-outs for his friends whenever he got a check; Beckett gave out many checks to those who sought his assistance large and small.

Speaking of assistance being at my own loose ends far from home, I still had my own fretting, so the friendly organizer let me use her office computer as she tidied up. The single Irish customer service number for Delta apparently keeps only normal business hours, not much help for travellers without the net.  The organizer typed in an alternative, somehow, that led to a fourth (!) version of the booking site that then allowed me, mirabile dictu, to confirm my flight and print the boarding pass. She'd been briefly locked in a corridor as the college was closing late Saturday night, as the security guard had already checked my bonafides up there, typing away and praying I'd get a flight confirmation. They were on edge as there'd been break-ins recently. It was that kind of evening. I feared the weather worsening, and that I'd be snowed in. Fatigue wore me down, and I needed rest.

I'd talked to my Irish friends then as before who assured me that all would be well, and I trusted them. Even though my own plans had been scuppered, I'd relished a chance to get out the nippy night previous to trek down to Temple Bar, a good forty-minute hike down Drumcondra Road to Dorset to Capel Streets into what was now, speaking of lobsters boiled for dinner, Dublin's Chinatown and a bit of Polish or Slovenia-burb to add. I'd needed the exercise after being cooped up far too long that week.

The collisions of car trouble, work schedules, emergency intrusions, parlous roads had left attendees at the conference and comrades for my own optimistic arrangements unable to fulfill them, so I was on my own. So addled I forgot to stop and linger. I realized on coming home (when my students asked me if I'd done the usual tourist pub crawl) that only twice have I ever downed a Guinness within a mile of its brewery. I'm not much of a drinker, anyway, and introverted, so I don't gravitate towards bars.

Instead, I paced about and watched the strollers along Eustace Street. I peered at the old House of Meetings for Quakers, next to the place where a tavern had once been the meeting place for the United Irishmen in the failed uprising of 1798. Speaking of the Year of the French, a French Film Festival attracted ticket-goers, and I wondered about one film, perhaps not French, called "Leap Year" that looked steamy-- if in Spanish. Those in line talked about it and gestured at the poster, which reminded me of "Y Tu Mamá También."

Polish and Italian and passersby of even native extraction shouted and muttered. I was intrigued by how much or how little Europeans compared to me might dress in such weather, and I was glad for my purchase and donning of thermal underwear along with backpack and gloves. I watched misses in miniskirts (were they from Ukraine or Uzbekistan, I wondered, having read lots of such heroin-snorting, packet-shuffling, brawling scenarios in that collection of crime-Irish myth stories) traipse through the cold that at one point had me in the Irish Film Institute (the site of the old Friends Assembly House) sitting on a radiator to keep warm.

On the sidewalk, an teenish urchin passed me brusquely with his mates as I stood outside. "Hey Mr Mac gargle slash garble" I'd worn my khaki-colored, clunky if efficiently lined mac, me as the man in the macintosh; I thought again of Joyce. I think Anthony Burgess commented on what the late John Devitt of Mater Dei Institute told me on meeting him by chance at a lunch at another conference, back in Galway in 2004. It's in the middle of "Cyclops," its anti-semitic tirade, when, recalled by the narrator, "a slut shouts out of her: 'Eh mister! Your fly is open, mister.'" This referred not to me, for once, but to the ear Devitt admired that Joyce had for his city's cadences, exactly rendered in such repetition as they were naturally conveyed. Repetition, as we learned at the conference, leads in purgatory to redemption, if not in reality. For the Irish, the boom and bust pattern familiar from a generation ago appeared to be repeating, as all pointed elsewhere at truer sinners.

For my own budgetary measures, the temperature dropping led me to take a taxi back. It had me repeatedly counting out two-euro coins in the dark, as I tried to reduce my change and watch my remaining stash. To my chagrin, cabs there do not take credit cards. The fare had gone way up it being Nighttown, and I was not used to how much it cost to go the couple of miles back from Temple Bar to Drumcondra. I tried to sleep, but did poorly. I watched television, TG4 the Irish-language channel as is my habit over there, but except for a few phrases subtitled by Gaeilgoir gals winning the All-Ireland teen Gaelic football slots on the pageant I watched groggily, that was that. I'd earlier enjoyed the mellifluous 'blas' of the enigmatic Biddy Jenkinson (not her real name), one of the leading Irish-language poets, on RTÉ, but that show ended too soon, as I tried to pick out word and meaning from the natural flow 'as Gaeilge' broadcast. She spoke of Eve, and maybe Adam, or else my mind was on paradise and the Fall after a weekend's immersion in the metaphorical state Ireland kept returning to, post-lapsarian, post-Catholic but still feeling guilty after last night's or last decade's fun. Before the lights went out, in the spirit of Gabriel Conroy, I found myself finally viewing the weather report in Irish, which seemed foolhardy given my fluency. The island rimmed in frost, the interior white, clouds hovering: even this amadán could tell what was up, or down. In purgatory as in Beckett's The Lost Ones, I'd lectured that dawn, fires and ice alternate.

I was unsure if I'd be stuck at the airport, if there'd be a mass run on the ATM's, if I'd be holed up for days as you see the pictures in the papers, of bedraggled backpackers from Australia trying to get home, rolled out with their tarp on the linoleum at some terminal sixty-eight hours straight. And me with no working phone, damned US incompatibility even as I passed on the way to work "Droid does global" as a boastful billboard.

The final morning had me jittery, for the sleep rarely came. The second morning straight, I opened the curtains to see The Dead's "snow general over all of Ireland," at least from my vantage point over the district where young Dedalus had joshed: "It is called a tundish in Lower Drumcondra — said Stephen, laughing — where they speak the best English."

I'd packed and obsessed the night before, so not much to do at 6 a.m., but, it not being even time for breakfast yet, a munched scone from under a cake server on the counter, and asking the porter, when he finally showed up, for a taxi. The air rushed in the side door. He left it open. English guests sat in the lobby under a display of flights departing, and Heathrow was closed.

My taxi driver, the fare being twice the distance to Temple Bar, cost twice as much, but I learned from him a tale he must tell a dozen times daily, of how he courted his Balinese-born wife first by e-mail and then by a generous portion of cake with her first coffee upon their meeting. The airport was crowded, but no more really than any other time I'd arrived before dawn. I was checked six times total with passport and pass-- which had to be turned in at one point and reissued, for apparently they suspected now me logging in online and having no bags to check.

I lacked even the time to get my wife her beloved packets of Wine Gums, for it took a while to get through so many lines. Descending the circle, not quite hellish, that draws those American-bound downward around the 300-numbered gates of the terminal, I remembered past summers when the line up the stairs filled every corner while we inched past eloquent wall panels about American wakes and Statues of Liberty. Lately, the wait for the passport clearance has been but seconds, and again the central-casting, burly New Yorkish officer I recalled from earlier interrogations stamped my clearance.

A young woman wore a green knit pixie hat that stood straight up. Her hair red, not sure if bottled or by birth, her eyes green, her skin fair but at least not as paper-white as mine. She reminded me of the first girl I ever kissed, I admit. But she was prettier than the girl I first kissed, me being me. She wore only an above-the-knee black knit dress and I had no idea how she kept warm. She sat in front of me the flight to Atlanta and slept. The woman next to me also did, and even my contorted leap over her after I closed her empty tray table to use the facilities failed to wake her. But, I did not sleep. A movie with Drew Barrymore and somebody who the magazine told me was Justin Long filled the screens. I closed my eyes, with my souvenir Virgin Atlantic first class (we got upgraded long ago twice in a row as a miracle akin to lightning twice striking) eyeshade, superior to the cheaper kinds even if the strap keeping it in place was wonky, attempting to bring me into a Beckettian state of repose like Murphy in his rocking chair in his garret.

At least the train worked back in Atlanta. This was the one out of four flights where I was not near the bathrooms and at the tail-end of the plane, so I got off quickly and walked past customs and the girl with the brown rice. "Welcome back," said the central-casting official as I handed my declaration to him.

There's not much else to report. I changed out of my thermal gear in the bathroom, which took forever. I had an hour to wait. I heard the pitch over and over of the woman enticing walkers into her lair by a pleasant entreaty to sign them up for credit cards with SkyMiles. I circled a "Simply Books" shop where the employees glared at my every move. The Delta kiosk for recharging devices is configured so you cannot use a plug with a side-USB slot, so I perched near a football game blaring above. I pecked out a few messages on my phone, finally in Wi-Fi land.

The flight was jammed, being filled with babies and luggage and families. This time I sat at the back where an "unpleasant odor," as the attendant phrased it on the intercom, permeated the plane. A toilet was broken. We waited ninety minutes on the runway for a starter mechanism to be repaired. Due to the holiday weekend, the passengers had no way to get another flight as all were full. I leafed through SkyMall magazine and reflected on how many products there were not only for dogs but to recharge iPhones on the go, and none for Droids. I used mine carefully, and listened to a calming set of songs, however depressing at times, me being me, that I had put on it: albums by the well-named Bedhead that were rather narcotizing, and the only Belle & Sebastian LP I found consistently listenable, "If You're Feeling Sinister."

Both hefty men between me and the aisle drank beers and played video games non-stop and watched football but never budged. I did once, in desperation to use that darned bathroom. I tried the Delta audio selections, the device being on this flight again, but the interference to the Mozart from perhaps the movie channel drove me back to the narcotic files stored on my phone.Despite all my grousing, my habitual fears, I do love going over there to see old friends and to meet new ones. I was lonely, even if I am a loner, and I welcome the graciousness with which so many met me and looked after me in ways large and small, humbly and quietly. I hope I repaid them with sufficient warmth despite my off-kilter presence of body and mind. I went over the conversations I'd had in Ireland, and the cadences I'd heard, and I sought comfort, wisdom, and peace.

So, back to my own city's inferno, bottom row of the stacked lanes that circle Dantean LAX endlessly. I was the last one off the plane, and I passed a beaming woman who pushed her pallet of trash cans past the dwindling bands of those still waiting to depart. The couple at the last row of the aircraft had been bound for Honolulu, and that flight had been kept waiting for them. I was glad to be at the terminus of my terminal.

A Russian-ish middle-aged jowly blocky man, smoking in a leather jacket and flowered shirt even as the temperature was quite cutting by Angeleno standards, blocked the loading zone in a black Mercedes. He stood on the passenger side, slouched by a young, fair-haired, thinly-clad (I thought of the miniskirted femmes marching in heels down frigid Eustace Street) girl, maybe his daughter. (I hope so given the central-casting alternative.) He refused to move. To my delight, he was being written up by the officer as My Younger Son and My Wife pulled up to fetch me.

Justice rarely comes in this exile in this vale of tears compared to the purgatorial afterlife, but I took it as a good omen to end upon.