Pharsalia / De Bello Civile

maxresdefaultMost of us, when we think of the classics, think of Homer — the Iliad and they Odyssey — and sometimes of the Aeneid. Greek and Latin literature aren’t as important nowadays as they used to be, when during e.g. John Milton’s time they formed as core a part of the curriculum as the Bible. Even Aristophanes — without a doubt, the funniest man on Earth — is half forgotten. Which is a shame, because not only was the literature of the Greeks and Romans fundamental to the whole of Western culture, but it’s pretty darn good as well.

Take this Lucan guy. Here was a poet who loved the Stoic ideal yet was rashly ruled by his own intemperate emotions. An early friendship with Nero burned out for Reasons and Lucan ultimately championed a conspiracy to depose him. Something which ended, unsurprisingly, in his arrest. Suddenly realizing the consequences of his rashness, Lucan begged for a pardon, but Nero allowed him only the choice of his death. He was just 25.

Which is a pity, because the half-finished epic he left behind — what is known today as the Pharsalia and in the Roman world most likely as De Bello Civile (“On the Civil War”) — is absolutely wonderful. Did Lucan have the technical mastery of a mature Virgil? Of course not! But instead Lucan’s work is charged with an absolutely frenetic pace, a sense of gloomy realism yet with an almost Lovecraftian supernatural lurking in the shadows, and an almost addictive affection for lost causes.

Pharsalia endeavors to tell the tale of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar (the first phase of a series of civil wars that would only end with the deaths of Cleopatra and Marc Antony), with the text breaking off abruptly after Cato’s march through treacherous Libya to reach Leptis (Magna?) and Cleopatra’s seduction of Caesar. It builds on a pair of epic similes — Pompey compared to a dying oak tree, and Caesar to a bolt of lightning — turning them into conceits he draws entire characterizations from. Pompey’s ill-fated wife stands with Virgil’s Dido as one of the most richly-drawn-out characters of the Roman period, and under Lucan’s hands the setting develops a raw, emotionally-charged energy.

Even Cato — the closest thing this epic seems to have to a hero — has his tragic flaw; he is strict and wooden beyond all reason, a character trait we see from him early on. Pharsalia is rather like Madame Bovary in this respect: a great tale woven wholly from unsavory heroes, and proof against the idea that you need personable characters to weave a great story, as long as the story itself offers that dramatic power, that emotional charge, all good narratives need to run. Indeed, both Pharsalia and Madame Bovary seem to be using their characters’ unsavoriness as a theme, making a point: Flaubert about bourgeoisie ennui; Lucan about Nero’s infamous den of iniquity.

For this is really the epic’s beating heart: it is one extended, sustained invective against Nero, an allegory clothed in a historical novel’s garb. And what a heart! We’re more than willing to excuse the weaknesses of our tragic heroes, Pompey and Cato, for in them we see our own weaknesses, especially against somebody like Caesar (or Nero) who seems to think — and have confirmed for them either by the world itself or sycophants — that they’re well and truly beyond anybody else.

One can just as easily read the Czech intellectual into our heroes, or Reinhold Niebuhr, and in Lucan’s Nero Caesar we can see too well the Francisco Francos, Pol Pots, Benito Mussolinis, and other orange-skinned dictatorial assholes of our day … and see ourselves as La résistance, partisans, the gallant opposition. Truly does Lucan speak when he says

Victrix causa deis placuit sed victa Catoni
“The conquering cause pleased the gods; the conquered’s, Cato.”

Is it any wonder, then, that when times get tough and we find ourselves implacably opposed to our fellow countryman, Pharsalia always seems to wax in importance?

If you read: Pharsalia badly needs a new verse translation, one fit for our times. The most current verse translation seems to be Susanna Braund’s 1992 effort, whose free verse frankly rather spoils the effect of Lucan’s almost monotonous hexameter; beyond that, Sir Edward Ridley’s 1896 blank verse effort is the easiest to obtain (being the one in the Gutenberg database), while a 1718 effort by one Nicholas Rowe into heroic couplets most accurately matches the original’s sense of overweening regularity, although at the cost of losing much of its emotive charge.

As far as prose translations go, if you have to read them, Riley’s Bohn’s and Duff’s Loeb editions are decent enough (Riley offers a literal translation of the Latin). Avoid, however, at all costs, Robert Grave’s 1957 prose translation: Graves is as giddy in  denigrating Lucan and absolutely destroying his ornament and anything remotely resembling poetic character as Lucan himself is in denigrating Nero, yielding a first three books so poorly translated as to be almost unreadable. (His notes, as insufferable and tone-deaf as they are, are, however, occasionally useful.)

A hypothesis: Much Lucan scholarship rages around the question of how he wanted Pharsalia to end, with one side arguing that its natural end would come with Caesar’s death, and the other, Cato’s. I tend to side with the Catonists here, because this is clearly a tale that grew in the telling, and I want to add an extra idea: Sulpicia’s vision at the end of Book I clearly extends well beyond the events of Pharsalia proper and suggests enough material for a trilogy, to match the three phases of the Civil War, one which a less outspoken and more dedicated Lucan would have likely been finishing up in his early 30s.

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The Name of the Rose

51qakol63al-_sx324_bo1204203200_Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is his first, longest, and most seminal novel. Eco himself is likewise one of the most important writers in 20th century Italian literature after, perhaps, only Italo Calvino. It is, in a word, engrossing.

On the surface level it doesn’t seem so much. Our deuterotagonists, the hapless novice Adso and his master, the Franciscan William of Baskerville, are an obvious expy of a certain well-known detective duo copy-pasted into an early 14th century medieval monastery where a major summit looking to mend a worsening feud between Pope John XXII and the Franscican Order (backed by the Holy Roman Empire) is about to take place …

… which has, unfortunately, been plagued by a recent spate of murders. Their star illuminator was recently found at the base of a cliff marking the edge of the abbey, with some odd signs linking it to the Book of Revelation, and our intrepid detective duo must go about solving it (or trying to) before the Papal and Imperial delegations arrive, in which case the ongoing crime spree becomes public knowledge to the abbey’s embarrassment.

This, however, is only the surface-level plot. In fact, the basic plot of the novel is an expansion of Borges’ “Death and the Compass”. So if not the plot, what drives the tale?

Themes of Borges — the abbey’s labyrinthine library should immediately call to mind “The Library of Babel” and references to Averroes his eponymous Borgesian “Search” — abound in the text. Indeed, the novel’s whole primary thrust as a text is so richly steeped in Borges (one of its characters is the rather suggestively-named Jorge de Burgos) that one of the easiest ways to read it is as an extension of his Labyrinths. But there’s more, still; perhaps the richer, second-order thematic allusions operating beneath the text. These are primarily to Aristotle and his Poetics (which, coincidentally enough, also links to “Averroes’ Search”), and moreso to Poe and The Fall of the House of Usher (where the architecture of the abbey and the state of its community are inextricably intertwined) and one of the character’s fates is a direct allusion to The Cask of Amontillado.

It is because of this layering, the elusive allusiveness created by a professor of semiotics, that The Name of the Rose is widely considered one of the canonical postmodern texts. And even then, it doesn’t really feel at home with more self-evidently postmodern works such as Shea and Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Underworld, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, or even Eco’s own Foucault’s Pendulum, most of which tend to be much more playful with and subversive of reader expectations than The Name of the Rose is.

In fact, between William of Baskerville’s ultimate disillusionment and the great character arc of the abbey itself hewing to the Poetics’ Romantic-era interpretation, I would argue that, if anything, this novel is a throwback, one that would be praised as a masterpiece of Modernism if it were written, say, around the same time Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (a Modernist work with a more Postmodernist feel) was. Expect me to develop this hypothesis (or not) sooner or later, though it will be spoileriffic.

So … was it a good read? Of course! Umberto Eco is a master writer, and nothing he adds into this text is random. There are layers and layers and layers of meaning to unpack here. If you find yourself unable to read past Adso’s description of the abbey door, give up, this work’s not for you; but if, on the other hand, you clear that chapter then you’re not going to be able to put it down, like, at all.

Gilgamesh

maxresdefaultIf you’re looking for an old story, you can’t get much older than this. Dating back to the Bronze Age, it is part of literature’s earliest stratum, along with the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Indian Rig Veda. Not only that, but the oldest parts of the Gilgamesh story were a Sumerian epic cycle, which would continue to be added on to for a millennium or more until the scholar-priest Sîn-leqi-uninni came along and codified the Akkadian form of the epic into what is today considered the Standard Text: some 3,000 lines (of which 2,000 are well-understood today) distributed across eleven (or twelve, though the twelfth is often considered an unrelated appendage due to being part of the Sumerian cycle, but not the unified Akkadian tale later known).

Gilgamesh isn’t quite “the oldest story on Earth” — first, because it’s written, and some oral literatures, such as those of the Australian Aborigines or British Columbia’s Haida people, are believed to be older — and second, because other Sumerian epic cycles (e.g. the tales of Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and the faraway land of Aratta — or Inanna’s descent into the Underworld) are, at the very least, of an age with Gilgamesh’s earliest substrates.* But it’s close.

Despite its age, it has what reteller Stephen Mitchell calls a “weirdly postmodern” vibe to it. Unlike Beowulf, Gilgamesh doesn’t just glorify a warrior society’s heroic ethos. Instead, the Old Babylonians who recast the Sumerian cycle into the progenitor of Sîn-leqi-uninni’s Akkadian epic actually identified Gilgamesh’s character flaws and used those flaws to drive the story forward. Like Apollonius’ Jason, Gilgamesh is a subversion of the archetypal hero — but here, more akin to Aristotle’s treatment of tragedy, Gilgamesh’s plot drives forward precisely because of its eponymous hero’s tragic flaw. It is a tale quite literally a millennium ahead of its time (at least, from a Mediterranean perspective).

What is this flaw? Like Orestes, Gilgamesh’s whole character arc derives from him upsetting the balance of the gods (in this case, killing Humbaba). A bit shorthanded in the brains department, neither he nor Enkidu realize that the latter’s death is the inevitable consequence of the his egging Gilgamesh on to strike that final, fatal blow; with Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh despairs of his own onrushing mortality — the same mortality he boasts of an adversarial relationship with in Book III, where he sets out to win fame and glory by killing Humbaba — and so sets out seeking the only human ever granted immortality (not noticing his own father’s apotheosis and divinity?).

Gilgamesh is everything Aristotle could have hoped for in a tragic hero. His flaw is characteristic and consistent. He’s fun to read because even though he’s so self-evidently short-handed in the brains department, he makes up for it with his achievements of brawn. In this, he is not unlike the Biblical hero Samson, who likewise is granted immense physical strength at the cost of intellectual wherewithal.

And it’s not just Gilgamesh. Despite it being the accretion of millennia on top of a Sumerian substrate, all three major characters in Gilgamesh — he, Enkidu, and Utnapishtim are richly and convincingly drawn out.** The writers have been able to take the core elements of any scene in the text drawn them out to communicate the whole of the scene. It is a masterpiece, and easily the greatest masterpiece of its era.

To read: Due to its antiquity, the strangeness of Akkadian poetry to modern ears, and the incomplete nature of the text itself, there are two (equally valid) approaches to tackling the text. The first is, of course, a literal translation, one which preserves its many lacunae intact; the standard version of this variant is Andrew George’s scholarly Gilgamesh. The second is a verse rendition or retelling of the story with more creative freedom taken, often by poets who have no scholarly experience in the source language. Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh is currently the preferred literary variant, but I also recommend David Ferry’s, which preserves the couplet style of Akkadian poetry.


* In fact, the oldest story for which we have a definite author is Enheduanna’s Inanna and Ebih, wherein the goddess curses a mountain for being more beautiful than she, alluded to in Gilgamesh’s Tablet VI. Of no particular note here, Enheduanna was a daughter of Sargon of Akkad and priestess of Ishtar (Inanna).

** That said, Gilgamesh’s Utnapishtim is just a copy-pasted Atrahasis, hero of his own three-tablet epic. Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, and the Enuma Elish (a seven-tablet epic to Marduk) seem to have been the Akkadian world’s primary literary works.

Song of my Cid

solar_corona_above_statue_of_el_cid_sf_caWhile the idea of a “national epic” had historic antecedents — Virgil’s Aeneid was one for Rome, for example, as was Camões’ Lusiads for Portugal, and (less well recognized in Europe) Ferdowsi’s massive tome Shahnameh in Persia — its popularization was very much a Romantic phenomenon. This was the period that saw either the rediscovery, collation, or composition of most of Europe’s “national epics”: Beowulf in England, Song of Roland in France, the Nibelungenlied in Germany, Kalevala in Finland, Kalevipoeg in Estonia, Sir Thaddeus in Poland, Ossian in Scotland, and so forth.

Spain was no exception. The Romantic obsession with the medieval ran deep, and just as deep dives of European archives resulted in the rediscovery of Beowulf, Song of Roland, and the Nibelungenlied, so too the Cantar de mio Cid (“Song of my Cid“) was unearthed in Spain, and — just as elsewhere on the continent — its popularization was part of the nationalist-medievalist Romantic wave. It has, over the ensuing years, become known as the epic of Spain, bringing along with it a host of nationalistic sentiments.

Let us step back, though, and consider the poem and the world it inhabits. Like Beowulf, El Cid’s world is a wholly foreign one long gone by. His Spain looked nothing like our Spain. (For one thing, Spain was the name of the peninsula at the time, not a country.) It was a land in turmoil, with Andalusia having fallen due to internal turmoil nearly a century prior; the Reconquista having begun but nowhere near over; and Christian kingdoms coalescing and fragmenting quite as easily as the Muslim taifas (small kingdoms or city-states, broadly analogous to Mesoamerican altepetls). It was a world, in short, constantly at war, and where a warrior — as El Cid did — could well win fame.

Much like Beowulf, the Song of my Cid follows its hero’s exploits; only this time they are not against supernatural foes but rather against taifas, where, in the poem, El Cid defeats several of them and eventually conquers Valencia. But unlike Beowulf, an epic whose primary emotional thrust seems to be a lament over the fall of the Geatish nation, Song of my Cid develops a deeper and more personal drama, namely that of family.

As El Cid’s deeds filter back to the Castilian court, king and nobility alike have a change of heart over exiling him. In particular, the lords of Carrión send their sons south, with the king’s sanction, to marry Cid’s daughters — unions destined to end tragically, as these sons assault and abandon them in the forest on the way back to their home in the Castilian highlands. Song of my Cid’s third canto is largely dedicated to this story — and El Cid’s seeking legal recourse for the wrongs the Carrión heirs perpetuated on him.

This is … quite different, needless to say.

Much of this is doubtless recency. Recency plays a role in Lucan’s Pharsalia (or De Bellum Civile) as well, where the gods have little, if any, active role — a contrast to the mythologization of Beowulf’s deeds or the Battle of Roncevalles Pass (or, really, of the Arthurian and Charlemagne cycles as a whole during the Middle Ages). El Cid was not long in the ground when his Song was composed, and as a consequence, the world he lived in — though wildly separate from ours — would have been quite familiar to the poet’s reading* public. (More mythologized tales of El Cid became popular a century or two later, as he became increasingly identified as Castile’s national hero.) But it is also a very different take on the epic as a genre, one that helped catapault it into the more modern idea of a verse novel.

Finally, El Cid is very much set in an inclusive world. Cid himself worked for kingdom and taifa alike; the man was a mercenary. Cid’s cult romanticized this mercenary activity, and the Song of my Cid even has, as a key theme, the idea of his loyalty to Alfonso VI (suggesting that the poem in hand may be pro-Cid propaganda in an era when we was deemed either “famous” or “infamous” with little in-between). His company welcomed Christian and Muslim (and presumably Jew) alike; his interest was more earning a livelihood than it was fighting some holy war.

In this, El Cid — person and poem alike — is perhaps the most modern of the medieval epics. It speaks not to any larger-than-life deeds but rather to the sensibility of needing to do what one needs to do in order to get by in this world. The Song tends to elide moments of grandeur and expand on those of intimacy; it is, at the end of the day, a poem about a man just trying to find his way.

Translations — I read Burton Raffel’s version. It is parallel text (good), but Raffel’s age is showing. The rhythm is there but there but the published version really needed more editing. There are lines that run a hemistich too long and others that are just dangling hemistichs too. Raffel’s translation really could have done with some more spit and polish, especially since El Cid’s written in a hemistich-based meter that tends to weight both sides of the caesura equally. I suggest reading somebody else’s rendition (as long as it has parallel text).


* Perhaps best thought of in the Greco-Roman sense of “reading”, which is more accurately recitation.

Beowulf

s2-e1499395917940Ahh, Beowulf. That great alliterative Anglo-Saxon poem. We all know it and love it. We’ve probably all read — in some translation or another — the scene where he defeats Grendel, and some more interested consumers have also likely read the harrowing underwater battle where he defeats Grendel’s mother. Some of us may even remember that he got himself killed by a dragon at the end.

Beowulf is a poem unlike any other. Cast in the alliterative tetrameter that was characteristic of Germanic lay verse, its heartbeat remains very much a pagan Germanic poem. Set in southern Scandinavia, it speaks of an era of small petty kings, when Danes, Frisians, Swedes, and Geats all stood on equal footing with one another. Yet, at the same time, while it’s about that time, it’s hardly of that time.

Beowulf’s poet was a newly Christian man in a newly Christian land. Times have changed, and the poem is an extended dirge looking back at that pre-Christian past, at a society that demanded noteworthiness via physical and mental prowess. Beowulf, the poem intimates, was the Geats’ last great king before their land was absorbed by the Swedes, and by so choosing such a character as his hero, the poet casts on his work — then as now — an air of deep melancholia.

These legends are dying, just as the Geats as a people have died, absorbed into the Swedish mien — they need to be written down before they’re forgotten. Too many, tragically, were.

And so, despite the fast pace of the poem’s action scenes — sailing from Geat-land to Denmark, Grendel’s wrath, and the three great battles that define modern readings of the poem, it is still a leisurely composition that has Beowulf recount his feats (more than once!) and digresses into a welter of other legends surrounding the early Danes and Geats, a poem that develops not just Beowulf’s character, but those of the Danish king, Hrothgar; his own, Hygelac; and later, his Swedish thane, Wiglaf. It digresses into tales involving Danish-Frisian wars and even tales developing the theme of the proper use — and abuse — of power.

But most of all, it is a fragment of an otherwise-lost legendarium, the one known by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. It is one we can see the impetus of Anglo migration in: their homeland is squeezed between these larger and more centralized powers, Denmark and Frisia, and in the Geats’ fall (the one Beowulf forebodes) the Angles likely saw their own inevitable fate if they stayed where they were. It’s a fragment, perhaps, of a poet’s attempt to write down the longest-lasting stories — stories that lasted so long because they are, in part, fairy tale — before these, too, are lost forever.

Beowulf, in short, takes some of Tolkien’s themes — the idea of a lost legendarium, for example — and recasts them in a space where they aren’t just lost, they’re being lost, and from that it drives its deep and profound melancholia. It is a dirge; it hurts, at the end.

Seamus Heaney’s translation has been the standard poetic version for just shy of the last twenty years. (Tolkien’s estate also recently released his prose translation, a text that’s inarguably more of interest for Tolkien and Beowulf scholars than those who want to read the epic as an epic — that is, as a poem.) It will likely remain so for the next hundred or more.*

And yet, another example of Beowulf’s profound melancholia: Heaney won the Nobel Prize before he completed the translation that’s perhaps his best-known work today. He was hailed as “Ireland’s most important poet since Yeats” and the British press, on his 2013 death, thought him “the most famous poet in the world”. How many of us have actually ever read anything of his beyond his Beowulf? Is this the fate of the modern poet, to be beloved only as a translator, not a creator of original art? Or — perhaps more tellingly — is it an indictment of poetry’s loss of place in the modern literary world, to the point where even the most successful poet of the last fifty year’s work’s already half-forgotten, relevant to the humanities academe but hardly the plebes?


* Stephen Mitchell also recently — as in this year (2017) — released his own poetic translation. Burton Raffel’s was the most prominent poetic version before Heaney’s. But Heaney’s “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by” is frankly impossible to top.

Jason and the Argonauts / The Argonautica

cebacf89cf80ceb7cebbceb1cf84ceb1-cf80cebbcebfceb9ceb1When one thinks of Greek literature, one generally thinks of Homer and the tragedians, of Herodotus’ Histories and of Plato and Aristotle, and then, if one has an appreciation for good comedy, Aristophanes. Then you have writers like Thucydides or Xenophon, whose histories tend to draw a niche readership. It takes a while to get to Apollonius of Rhodes, whose Argonautica is perhaps the most esoteric extant text of the Ancient Greek canon.

There’s no reason why, either! The Argonautica (also called “Jason and the Argonauts” in English) is one of the most complex and weirdly postmodern texts the period offers up. It is an epic poem, composed in four books of dactylic hexameter, that — at the same time — responds to aesthetic theory put forth by Aristotle (suggesting that good poetry — Homer aside — should be enjoyed in a sitting; the Argonautica takes about as much time to read as tragic cycles, such as Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’ take to perform) as well as the lyric mode, such as Pindar and Sappho’s offerings. It is a tale that responds to a Hellenic obsession with aetiology (mythological origins of commonplace settlements and phenomena), and balances the darkly realistic world of the Iliad with the fairy-tale feel of Perseus’ cycle. It is contemporary with and responds to Callimachus’ (tragically-incomplete) Aetia, or “On the Causes of Things”, and, on top of all of that, it’s a fairly gripping read.

“Jason and the Argonauts” centers on, as one would surmise, the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. In the beginning, Jason gathers all the great heroes of his generation (with one exception) — heroes such as Orpheus and Peleus and Hercules — together to go on a Hobbit-like adventure, there and back again to Colchis, where he seeks to win a One Ring-esque artifact, to wit, the legendary Golden Fleece, from powerful and somewhat mad king Aeëtes.

It is a tale about the opening of the Pontic (Black) Sea, which even as late as the Greek Dark Age remained relatively unexplored, and had as much imaginative power over the Achaeans as Rhovanion exuded over the Men of Dale, but it is also a tale written nearly 700 years after the events described. (Interestingly, there’s an offhand reference to Hittite texts referring to exploration of the Black Sea that may be the progenitor of the Argo story.) Not only that, but Apollonius, in his time, had access to increasingly sophisticated narrative techniques and brought them to bear in his tale.

Hercules is abandoned at the end of the first book, but his presence continues to haunt the rest of the epic, with constant complaints of “X would be easier if he were here!”, culminating in a just-missed moment in the Libyan desert, where he passes through an oasis just a day or two ahead of the Argo crew — a narrative effect heretofore wholly unseen. The idea of a character’s absence affecting events just as much as their presence doesn’t seem to occur in similar period literature (e.g. Sumero-Akkadian and Hebrew literature, not to mention Homer!), yet it is one of the Argonautica‘s defining themes and motifs.

This plays into one of Apollonius’ other themes — Jason himself. Heroes in Homer, Gilgamesh, and Beowulf are all cut from the same cloth, so to speak; they’re all from Bronze (in Gilgamesh’s case) and Iron Age warrior societies,* and Homer’s audience would have been members of this society. But Argonautica is different: warrior heroes are of secondary importance in a post-Alexandrian Hellenic world of major dynasties and geopolitics stretching across much of the known world. By problematizing Jason’s heroism — contrasting him with heroic exemplars of the previous age such as Hercules — Apollonius is making a subtle assertion: heroes such as those who occupy most of Greek mythology aren’t the kinds of heroes the world needs in this day and age.

By Book IV, this has gone full circle with Medea assuming the role of epic hero. Jason almost gets demoted to sidekick in his own tale, even as the adventures transition from the somewhat-realistic of Books I and II to the fantastical (Apollonius has the Po, Rhine, and Rhône as distributaries — somehow — of the same stream, for example.) Time and again in this book, it’s Medea who saves the Argonauts’ collective asses, from eluding her father’s soldiers in the Adriatic basin to supplicating herself before her aunt Circe on faraway Aeaea to killing a bronze giant on Crete.

Apollonius seems to be telling us something here, namely not only that Beowulf-ish conceptions of heroism (as embodied in Hercules) belong to an age dead and gone, but that more modern heroes need to be less, ah, chauvinist to get ahead in this world. Medea’s increasingly active role towards Argonautica’s end is surprisingly feminist — and exceedingly modern as well. The question remains, though, what the message is he wants to send here; his Medea can be cast in both positive and negative lights …

But enough idle academic speculation!** If you want a good quick read, a poem whose modernity shines through despite being some 2300 years old, a plot as old as time yet as fresh as A Wizard of Earthsea, then go do yourself a favor, hunt this beauty down, and kill a few hours reading it. It’s not long and worth every femtosecond.


* Gilgamesh’s boast near the beginning of Tablet III, when he and Enkidu set out to kill Humbaba, reads almost word-for-word identical to Beowulf’s statement of the heroic code to Hrothgar before returning home to Geat-land, despite the poems being some three millennia and three thousand miles apart from one another.

** One more item of idle speculation!: Argonautica’s portrayal of gods. Homer’s gods have a sort of distance to them which also yields a sort of omnipresence; Apollonius’ do not. Given other works he (a Librarian of Alexandria) would have been exposed to, I’m inclined to think this is a comment on the Hellenic cult’s becoming decreasingly, well, divine in the sense of commanding belief and becoming more like stock characters in the mythological tradition. This accords well with the development of mystery cults that began around that era (and seems roughly contemporary with the rise of Vishnu, Krishna, etc. worship in favor of Agni, Indra, etc. in India).

House of Leaves

810pcxb2bl3lPicture that. In your dreams.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is, without a doubt, a titanic achievement of experimental literature. Its main conceit is a critical exegesis, of the same name, written by the blind retiree Zampanò, on a documentary film known as The Navidson Record, which records award-winning photojournalist Will Navidson’s purchase of a very singular house in the Virginia countryside (geographically, it appears to be on the outskirts of the Hampton Roads conurbation). Zampanò dies without completing his work, and by salvage rights, his papers land in the possession of one Johnny Truant, currently an apprentice at a tattoo shop, and a somewhat unsavory hanger-on in the Los Angeles club scene.

Written on two levels — Zampanò’s own unscholarly attempt at scholarship, overlain with Truant’s own comments, which just as often spin into digressions and anecdotes about his life, House of Leaves develops in a very singular way, as it recounts its collator’s increasing obsession with the text and increasing sense that not all is as it appears to be. About a fifth of the way in by page count (but a third by reading time), the increasingly unsettling double-layer narrative takes a turn for the weird — the very weird.

I would argue that House of Leaves’ ninth chapter, “Labyrinth”, is one of the most difficult chapters in all of English literature — certainly the most difficult one not written by James Joyce — and one of the most brilliant, too. Cunningly structured like a labyrinth, the reader is confronted with a maze of footnotes that occur every which where in the text, as well as linkbacks to the hundred-and-fifty pages plus of endnotes, and a sense that the only way to find your way out is to grope your way forward, not unlike a blind man in a maze. Eventually you reach the end, and the end yields triumph.

After “Labyrinth,” your life gets easier, though no less experimental. Danielewski’s continuing experiments with concrete form develop into the white space-rich chapters that dominate the novel’s page count, as well as other incidents in the text that mess with the reader — House of Leaves is a book that feels singularly alive, like an animal writhing in a trap, a book that is actively rebuffing your attempts to read it, and so by reading it you tame the text and bend it to your will.

If it was just that, however, House of Leaves would be — other than “Labyrinth” — wholly forgettable. No, what makes it truly memorable and such a classic is its subtle and insistent thematic development, both in terms of the obvious outward plot of Johnny Truant’s obsession with Zampanò’s manuscript spiraling out of control, and of complex internal theme hinting at a closer and more complex relationship between writer and collator. Most of all, though, is the horror of House of Leaves, for it is, at heart, a horror novel.

It is no accident that “Labyrinth” is its most involved chapter: its driving theme is the labyrinth. For that is Navidson’s house‘s secret, that it is alive, and connected to a vast inky labyrinth that may or may not even occupy physical space as we understand it. Just as this labyrinth, with its incredible power over people’s minds, eludes the ability of homeowner and academic alike to understand it, so too does the novel elude the reader’s ability to fully grasp it. Perhaps that’s the point. Early in the text, Zampanò offers a subtle allusion to Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“, a joke that completely sails over Johnny Truant’s head in what is, without a doubt, the book’s funniest passage.

And perhaps that really is — ultimately — the point of the book, that we will never understand everything and that any quest to try is a doomed obsession that will forever haunt us, like the haunting image of the labyrinth’s inky blackness or its strange — and quite deadly — genius loci.

House of Leaves is a rich book. It is deep and learned, complex and challenging, but most of all, very, very rewarding. It is irreverently self-referential to the point of parody, a humorous antidote to its creeping horror. It speaks to the postmodern novel, and its kin are works like the hilarious Illuminatus! Trilogy and Eco’s multilayered Foucault’s Pendulum, while at the same time displaying the Modernist zest of experimentation and love of pretension (without, strangely enough, coming across as overly pretentious in its own right). It is — sui generis. Its own thing. A classic worth reading and rereading.

Annoyances: Danielewski hoards punctuation like precious gems. Also that “of” for “have” really needs to be killed with fire. It just looks weird as fuck.