king kong in literature

“The Auxiliary on guard with him had been in the Navy. Some time ago this man had seen ‘King Kong,’ the film of an outsize in apes that was twenty foot tall. Roe’s explanation was that the experience had had a lasting effect on his adjectives. One in particular, ‘conga,’ he used to cover almost everything.

‘A conga night,’ he said. He called each Rescue man ‘cock.’ He remarked that their whisky was dodgy. He went by the name of ‘Shiner,’ because his surname was Wright.”

(Henry Green, Caught (1943), p. 41.)

homer, “the odyssey” (redux)

The Odyssey
(trans. Samuel Butler)

While on a visit home, looking for something to read, I picked up the Great Books edition of Homer, volume IV in that series. This edition of the Great Books of the Western World, edited by Robert Maynard Hutchins and published by the Encyclopæedia Britannica in 1952, was my family’s one real pretension to intellectualism. I am not entirely sure how it got into the house; it was never really read, as, my mother explained, the type was too small to read. It was also vexingly incomplete, as some religion-crazed relative had made off with Volume II of Thomas Aquinas; this bothered me as a youth. I don’t think anyone actually read any of these; I’d periodically pick up one volume or another (“Darwin” or “Swift/Sterne”) with intent, but I don’t remember how far I would get. Looking at the list of authors now, it seems decidedly weird: Plotinus gets a whole volume? Is it really worth reading Lavoisier or Fourier or Faraday now? The English-language novelists are the aforementioned Swift & Sterne, followed by Fielding, then a big jump to land on Melville. The ending sequence, volumes 49 through 54, seems particularly ominous: Darwin, Marx & Engels, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, William James, Freud. Presumably there’s a good history of the Great Books project, though I haven’t seen anything other than Wikipedia’s entry, which points out that ours was the first edition of the em>Great Books of the Western World, and that Sterne and Fielding were dropped in the second.

But picking up Homer, it turned out that the translations are by Samuel Butler, which translation I am interested in because it’s the one Joyce used. It’s a decidedly idiosyncratic translation: most prominently, names are given their Roman rather than Greek version, so Odysseus is Ulysses. It’s also prose. It’s an odd choice for a version to include as one of the Great Books: while it’s eminently readable, Butler’s ideas about Homer and how he should be translated were very much his own, and his introduction and footnotes explain his view that the Odyssey was written by a woman (probably Nausicaa) and point out details in the text that support this view; Butler had first advanced this view in The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897), and came at his translation with an argument, albeit one argued in a way that leaves much to be desired. (This note on III.266 might be taken as typical: “The writer – ever jealous for the honour of women – extenuates Clytemnestra’s guilt as far as possible, and explains it as due to her having been left unprotected, and fallen into the hands of a wicked man.” What’s weirdly interesting about the Great Books edition, however, is that the editors have swept away Butler’s introduction and notes. (An online edition of his translation of the Odyssey is available at the Internet Archive; that edition is undated, but includes the original illustrations.) Not, however, particularly well: consider the start of Book IV, which starts, in Butler’s original, in mid-sentence, the sentence having been started at the end of Book III. While the Great Books Book III ends in a comma (“Now when the sun had set and darkness was over the land,”), Book IV starts, in house style, with a drop-cap, capitalized, of course: “They reached the low lying city of Lacedæmon, where they drove straight to the abode of Menelaus”. The next phrase starts with a bracket: “[and found him in his own house, feasting with his many clansmen”; at the end of the next paragraph, we find the end bracket. No explanation, in the Great Books edition, is given for these brackets; however, turning to the scan in the Internet Archive, we find an interesting note:

The lines which I have enclosed in brackets are evidently an afterthought – added probably by the writer herself – for they evince the same instinctively greater interest in anything that may concern a woman, which is so noticeable throughout the poem. There is no further sign of any special festivities nor of any other guests than Telemachus and Pisistratus . . .

One wonders, really, how many people ever actually read Homer in the Great Books edition: did the editor? (This is also, for what it’s worth, a poorly designed book for reading: so that both the Iliad and the Odyssey can fit in 322 pages, they’re laid out in two columns, and the type is rather small.) Butler’s ghost brackets, for what it’s worth, don’t end in 1952; the online edition at MIT’s Internet Classics Archives also has them and no notes; the Project Gutenberg edition, from 1999, includes Butler’s notes, but in unwieldy fashion (they are numbered, at the end), and, inevitably, a huge number of people have issued cheap print-on-demand & Kindle versions of Butler’s Odyssey; looking inside one revealed it to be lacking notes though it did have brackets, and one assumes that the rest are similar. (My favorite of Amazon’s lot is the nicely titled The Odyssey B utler – one hopes the extra space is significant – a new work by Samuel Butler, unknown, presumably, to him.) One knows, of course, that the people creating these POD and Kindle editions are hacks, if they’re even people at all and not a batch script running on the Gutenberg library; but it’s odd to realize that the editors of the Great Books seem to have also had their hackish tendencies. The reason for the choice of the Butler translation for inclusion is almost certainly not because they thought Butler’s was the best (or because they realized the importance of this translation to Ulysses); rather, Butler’s was probably the most recent translation out of copyright in 1952. I wonder again about the ending sequence of the Great Books: did the Great Books series come to that conclusion because copyright gets in the way? In this edition, Freud is presumably the only author that they would have had to pay for.

What I like about the Butler translation is precisely how idiosyncratic it is: his Nabokovian concern for how Ulysses’ house was laid out led him to include his photographs of houses in Sicily which, he supposed, might be similar to the Greeks’; in his introduction, he apologizes that a man and a dog appear in one of the pictures; this, he says, was “accidental, and was not observed by me till I developed the negative”. Looking at the illustration in question, one notes that there’s also a person in the lower illustration; this person is not apologized for, and one wonders who he might be. But the reader is reassured that they are safely in the hands of a man at least slightly crazy; academic rigor is clearly not what Butler was interested in, which is what makes it more interesting that his would be the translation selected to go into the Great Books. Maybe that’s why Joyce liked him; presumably Butler’s notes had not yet been swept away by the time Joyce read him.

And there is something to be said for Butler’s phrasing, which, while it may not be exact (and may well be distorted) is euphonious, and bits feel familiar to those who know Ulysses. Here, Telemachus explains things to Minerva in Book I:

“My mother,” answered Telemachus, “tells me I am son to Ulysses, but it is a wise child that knows his own father. Would that I were son to one who had grown old upon his own estates, for, since you ask me, there is no more ill-starred man under heaven than he who they tell me is my father.”

No one speaks this way, of course; but it feels right and properly fictional: in Butler’s Odyssey, everyone talks this way. It’s a pre-Raphaelite Homer.

butler’s odyssey

“Then Minerva said, ‘Father, son of Saturn, King of kinds, it served Ægisthus right, and so it would any one else who does as he did; but Ægisthus is neither here nor there; it is for Ulysses that my heart bleeds, when I think of his sufferings in that lonely sea-girt island, far away, poor man, from all his friends. It is an island covered with forest, in the very middle of the sea, and a goddess lives there, daughter of the magician Atlas, who looks after the bottom of the ocean, and carries the great columns that keep heaven and earth asunder. This daughter of Atlas had got hold of poor unhappy Ulysses, and keeps trying by every kind of blandishment to make him forget his home, so that he is tired of life, and thinks of nothing but how he may once more see the smoke of his own chimneys.’ ”

(Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Samuel Butler, book I, lines 44–60.)

people cringe

“For many years I have worked in film production and seen more than once how the directors, during the screenings before public release, said that these were just sketches, something that would have to be reworked in the future.

People cringe when showing something that’s most precious to them.”

(Viktor Shklovsky, Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot, trans. Shushan Avagyan, p. 7.)

render what is supposed to be a revelation a transaction

“Even the snottiest young artiste, of course, probably isn’t going to beat personal ill will toward writers of trash; just as, while everybody agrees that prostitution is a bad thing for everyone involved, few are apt to blame prostitutes themselves, or wish them harm. If this seems like a non sequitur, I’m going to claim the analogy is all too apt. A prostitute is someone who, in exchange for money, affords someone else the form and sensation of sexual intimacy without any of the complex emotions or responsibilities that make intimacy between two people a valuable or meaningful human enterprise. The prostitute ‘gives,’ but – demanding nothing of comparable value in return – perverts the giving, helps render what is supposed to be a revelation a transaction. The writer of trash fiction, often with admirable craft, affords his customer a narrative structure and movement that engages the reader – titillates, repulses, excites, transports him – without demanding of him any of the intellectual or spiritual or artistic responses that render verbal intercourse between writer and reader an important or even real activity.”

(David Foster Wallace, “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction Fall 1988: Novelist as Critic, p. 45)

thomas frank, “what’s the matter with kansas?”

Thomas Frank
What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
(Metropolitan Books, 2004)

Our building has bookshelves down in the laundry room in the basement, and among the books was this one, which I didn’t read when it came out, in no small part because I was deeply depressed by where the country was going – 2004, it doesn’t need to be said, was a bad year – & I was afraid of sinking deeper into that. I was familiar with Frank’s argument, of course, from his writing in The Baffler; he was right, I thought, but to me he’d be preaching to the choir. So I put off reading the book, assuming that a copy would show up sooner or later: now one has. (Similarly, I have assumed for most of the past decade that sooner or later I will wind up staying the weekend in a house with a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, upon which point I will read that book; that has not happened yet.)

I am in Champaign-Urbana for work, a place that I have not been, as far as I remember, for fifteen years. One finds, browsing the local paper, that the mayor of Champaign just announced at a Tea Party rally that he doesn’t believe the President was born in this country; local residents write letters for and against. It’s not entirely surprising, as Champaign was never the Madison of Illinois, but it’s still a touch disappointing. Champaign was mildly exciting in my youth; now it seems like a college town, with the same shops and chain-story eateries as any other college town, plus a couple of sad and decrepit non-chains. It’s hard to know if the town’s changed or if I’ve changed: probably both, but I don’t remember things feeling quite so generic the last time I was here. Would I have been excited by a Panera Bread in high school? Caribou Coffees? Probably not, though it’s hard to know.

This is by way of saying that I do have something of a personal stake in Frank’s book, being very much someone shaped by the middle of the country, anguished and distanced as that relationship might be. The landscape where I grew up in looked almost identical to where I am now (though of course it didn’t have the benefit of a major state university). And there’s a similarity to the Kansas that Frank describes in this book: it’s the same sort of country with the same sort of people, mutatis mutandis.

There are sober, sociological explanations for Kansas’s penchant for martyrdom . . . . I personally prefer the more romantic notion that the extremity of the land itself accounts for the bumper crops of martyrdom-minded folks that Kansas so reliably produces. Most of the state is an empty place, a featureless landscape capable of quickly convincing anyone of their own cosmic insignificance. For this reason it has often been compared to the Holy Land, where a similarly blank vista generated an endless stream of prophets who descended on the cities to preach “world-worthlessness,” as T. E. Lawrence once summarized the creed of the desert: “bareness, renunciation, poverty.” (p. 215)

There’s an odd, if not necessarily surprising, similarity between this book and Harold Bloom’s The American Religion, the book in which Bloom inspects the history of American Christianity – particularly the evangelical movements and Mormonism – and comes to the conclusion that American Christianity is fundamentally gnostic in character, in the sense that it’s fixated on declaring the real world as an error which must be destroyed to achieve the kingdom of God. Gnostics, for Bloom, are revolutionary; he seems chagrined in that he’d like to see himself as likewise being a Gnostic but doesn’t like his bedfellows. This is also the book, written in the early nineties, where Bloom despairs of ever seeing a Democratic president again in his lifetime; reading it in the late nineties, it was easy to sneer at that, but now I wonder if he wasn’t right.

Frank’s thesis is familiar right now, and it still seems operational. The players have changed slightly in the six years since this book, of course: Ann Coulter’s inanities have been replaced by those of Glenn Beck; George Tiller was murdered, as everyone must have known would happen. Sam Brownback is leaving Washington for Kansas to run for governor. David Brooks is still an idiot. Frank divides Kansan Republicans into “Mods” (the traditional upper class Republicans, now presumably being damned as RINOS à la Charlie Crist) and “Cons” (the conservative rabble-rousers): it’s easy to forget when surveying the doings of the Cons that what the Mods were up to wasn’t, in the end, that much better; with the Democrats moving further and further to the right, we see this playing out on a national scale.

What’s most valuable about Frank’s work, I think, is how he points out that economic arguments have largely been driven out of American political life: we argue endlessly (ceremonially, almost) about taxes, but nobody says anything about class. This is a problem, of course, because class exists whether or not we acknowledge it. At the heart of Frank’s book is a core of autobiography: growing up as a Young Republican in the affluent Kansas City suburbs, he’s generally unaware of class until he arrives at university and is confronted with those much wealthier. It’s a familiar enough story, though not one that’s usually talked about: Frank moved to the left when confronted with the upper class (as did I), though that’s not the usual response. Frank, to his credit, stayed engaged, despite moving to Chicago and then D.C.; I left. Real life happens elsewhere; there’s not a lot of future to be found in the rural Midwest. But Frank can still talk to Kansans, and there’s value in that: he can make sense of those who might be written off as lunatics. But as much of the problem that he’s pointing out is one of discourse: what we talk about and what we don’t talk about.

alexander pushkin, “the tales of belkin”

Alexander Pushkin
The Tales of Belkin
(trans. Hugh Aplin)
(Hesperus Classics, 2009)

My knowledge of nineteenth-century Russians is embarrassingly bad: most of Dostoyevsky, a reasonable amount of Tolstoy, Oblomov, some Chekhov, a handful of others. Eugene Onegin, in a translation that I’m sure is lacking in some way, is sitting on the shelf yet unread, awaiting a project. In the mean time, here’s Pushkin’s The Tales of Belkin, a collection of early short stories. The book belongs to that familiar subject: how people in the provinces live who have gain their knowledge of the outside world through books. A problem invariably arises: how can a literate and knowing narrator tell their stories from within? A variety of frames of narration are constructed around the stories to permit this: as much as anything, The Tales of Belkin is an investigation of how storytelling works.

The central image of “The Shot” is a painting with two shots fired through it. The narrator marvels at the closeness of the shots; the second turns out to be the work of Silvio, an officer the narrator once knew, and is the occasion for the telling of the story of how those shots came to be there. In a duel, the painting was shot the first time by accident; the second time, it was not an accident, but rather a demonstration by Silvio of how he could kill if he chose to do so. The painting is the occasion for the telling of the story: the narrator meets both parties of the duel, but separately, and if he had not remarked upon the two shots in the painting, he would never have been able to put the two parts of the story together. The painting is thus a plot device; the content (described offhandedly as “some scene from Switzerland”) is not important, but its existence is, because without it the story couldn’t be told. Coincidence makes the story possible; it grabs the reader’s attention, but coincidence by itself is not enough to serve as a plot. It maneuvers the narrator into place so that he can tell the two halves of the story of Silvio; but coincidence in fiction is a very different thing from coincidence in life. The narrator comes off, as he must, as blithely oblivious of the forces moving him about.

This is complicated by layers of narration: “The Shot” is told in the first person by a narrator, who we learn in a quoted letter in the publisher’s note which serves as introduction, is “Lieutenant-Colonel I.L.P.” who ostensibly told it to Ivan Belkin, who wrote down the story; Pushkin (if we may assume that Pushkin is the “A.P.” of the publisher’s note) ostensibly only edited these stories into a volume. We have then a story retold several times; presumably it merited retelling because of its use of coincidence. Coincidence grabs a listener; does it grab a reader in the same way? It’s worth looking back at the twice-shot Swiss landscape: it might be taken as a representation of realism, what the artist sees in nature. What makes interesting fiction isn’t realism: the painting only appears in the story because of the bullet holes the author added to it.

Coincidence also features heavily in the next story, “The Blizzard”; here, we are told the story of a girl who “had been raised on French novels, and consequently was in love”. A secret marriage is arranged; a blizzard fortuitously arrives, and the marriage doesn’t happen. Years pass, a second suitor turns up, the girl sits in the garden “like a true heroine from a novel”. Rousseau’s Julie is imagined. The new suitor turns out to be known to the girl; earlier gaps in the narrative are explained. Re-reading the story, the reader sees how the author has carefully left out events to build suspense, which is held when the story ends, unresolved. With this story, what Pushkin is doing becomes more clear: this is a systematic investigation of how fiction works and what can be believed. The reader is advised of this again near the start of “The Undertaker”:

The enlightened reader is aware that Shakespeare and Walter Scott both represented their gravediggers as cheerful and humorous people so as to strike our imaginations the more powerfully with this contrast. Out of respect for the truth, we cannot follow their example and are forced to admit that our undertaker’s disposition corresponded perfectly to his sombre trade. (p. 31)

This is straight-up metafiction; the first person plural of the narrator suggests the unreliability of the multiple narrators behind this: unreliable in the sense that we know full well that they are twisting the truth to suit narrative needs. When the reader then finds the titular undertaker confronted by his late charges, we don’t know if this is a tale of the supernatural – as we know the narrator is unafraid to play with reality – or if it’s all a drunken dream, as it turns out to be. In his forward, Adam Thirlwell presents Pushkin’s work is an analogue to Sterne’s, an unacknowledged elaboration on a passage in Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose; I think the Tales of Belkin suffer in this comparison, but one senses that these stories are intended to be slight. They’re still pleasant. The other material tacked on to the end of the book – two fragments that Pushkin wrote in the voice of Belkin – feel extraneous.

I like how Hesperus Classics look: I like that they’re marketing small books, and they tend to pick up things that other’s don’t. That said: there’s a lot of marketing evident on this book. Adam Thirlwell’s name appears as many times as Pushkin’s on the covers; Hugh Aplin, the translator, is nowhere to be found, though he also contributes a useful historical introduction. Maybe Thirlwell’s name goes further in Britain than it does here. And I presume Pushkin won’t sell himself. The cover – crows on a snowy landscape – has a solemnity that suggests that the designer never read the book. Aplin’s translation is unobtrusive, though this isn’t the case with his annotations: they are necessary because of Pushkin’s heavy use of references, but generally not particularly revealing.