Nightstand I

Book Chair
It’s not really a nightstand, it’s a vintage child’s chair, but it’s usually stacked with books. This week (from bottom to top):

Homeport Collections wholesale catalog. Why is this still here? Never mind.

Michael Wood. The Road to Delphi: The life and afterlife of oracles. What do we know and how do we know it? The ancients, I think, did not so much believe in oracles as they simply understood what they were good for: demonstrating the futility of foreknowledge (because foreknowledge — like any kind of knowledge, only more so — is always incomplete).

Donald D. Hall. Worlds of wonder, days of judgment: Popular religious belief in early New England. The puritans and pilgrims were of course nothing at all like the people we were taught about in grade school.

G.B. Shaw. Complete plays and prefaces, volume III. Rereading Arms and the Man, Caesar and Cleopatra, Man and Superman. All of his plays are funny, especially the serious ones. Nothing is so Terribly Important that it can’t do with a little mockery.

Marianne Moore. The complete poems. I had forgotten how really really good she is!

Kai T. Erikson. Wayward puritans: A study in the sociology of deviance. New England culture was very far from being monolithic. Outsiders thus serve to remind the insiders of who they are, and where no outsiders exist they must be created (much like Voltaire’s God).

John Putnam Demos. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the culture of early New England. A statistical, sociological, and biographical account of the seventeenth-century Connecticut witch prosecutions.

Walter W. Woodward. Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., alchemy, and the creation of New England culture 1606–1676. Our emigrant ancestors were much stranger than we generally give them credit for. But then the past is always strange.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg. The throne of Labdacus. Rereading again. A book-length meditation on Oedipus, free will, guilt, redemption, art. I was reminded of it by Road to Delphi, above.

A case for leisurely literature

Immediately after finishing the Tale of Genji, I read Egil’s Saga. Both take place at roughly the same time (circa 1000 C.E.), and were composed not much later (about a century) and in similar forms (verses embedded in prose narrative); both feature large casts roaming about unfamiliar and long-vanished cultures and landscapes; both stories span multiple generations (in neither is anyone alive at the beginning still around by the end); and both are classics in their respective traditions — still read today after the lapse of a millennium.

Why then did reading Egil, of fewer than 200 pages, seem like so much more work than reading Genji, weighing in at 1120 pages in the Royall Tyler translation?

(Please don’t misunderstood: I strongly recommend both. But reading Egil did seem so effortful.)

I think it might be partly a limitation of the capacity to process narrative. Egil is so compressed it is terse. Decades fall by in sentences, and although there are also more extended sequences, such as the expedition to the north or the court case at the end, the overall impression is of a headlong rush into oblivion. And it is such a strange world! The men are, as a rule, at the same time childish and murderous, prone to bursting into a frenzied rage for no particular reason. And the women — well! The women! And everyone is thoroughly drunk much of the time.

On the other hand, Genji is capacious, it enfolds everything, it takes its time, years slip languorously by like moving from one stage to the next of a casual love affair, perhaps even one never to be consummated. Fifty pages might be devoted to a boating party, then a hundred to how to deal with a willful princess. Nothing ever happens, really, yet it is never dull. And it is such a strange world! Manliness is best expressed by the tendency to burst into tears for no particular reason. The women blacken their teeth and shave their eyebrows, only to paint them on again in green — not that anyone can even see the women most of time (not even each other), so dim and hemmed about with barriers are the spaces they inhabit. And everyone is quite drunk a significant fraction of the time.

What do they have in common? Eruptions of the supernatural, snatches of poetry, intrigue (romantic or political), the melancholy of exile and of frustrated love.

And how do they differ? O worlds unknown and apart! No overlap at all, truly —

Viking Iceland.

Heian Japan.

Sometimes a book is like a desk drawer crammed so full of index cards that it won’t shut, all of them covered all over with tiny, precise handwriting. This is Egil.

Sometimes a book is like a house, a large one, where one might spend the mornings sipping milky coffee on the terrace, in a chair under the leaf-shattered sunlight; the afternoons in the library, shadowy and cool, remote from the doings of the rest of the household; the evenings, after dinner, aloof in a corner of the drawing room, someone at the piano over there plinking away at something resembling Chopin, at one’s elbow a goblet, discreetly renewed, of excellent claret; and at night, in the cool moonlight falling through the windowpanes, in bed, crisp linen sheets pulled up to the chin, one arm thrust out, asleep, athwart, enwrapped in dreams that one has no need to recall. This is Genji.

Is one better than the other? No. Of course not. But one is more leisurely than the other. And in leisure there is pleasure.