I’m playing a fun game hosted by The Classics Club. https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/2020/11/16/cc-spin-25/ I have to list twenty books of my choice that I have yet to read on my classics list. On Sunday, the 22nd of November ( yes, I wait till the last minute to do anything!), they will pick a number from my spin list and I have to read whatever book falls under that number by 30th January 2021. The books can include favorites and re-reads but also books you find daunting and have been putting off. The idea is to challenge yourself.
So here’s my list in no particular order:
The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Le Deuxième Sexe ( The Second Sex) by Simone de Beauvoir
The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Beowulf- Translated by Maria Dahvana Headley
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Vanity Fair by William Makepiece Thackeray
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Thorn Birds, Lolita,Gone with the Wind and Madame Bovary are among the books I have read already but decades ago when I was in college. It would be interesting to revisit any of them from the perspective of an older and wiser person. 🙂 I have read parts of Simone de Beauvoir’s book but at a much younger age and I think I would appreciate it a lot better now. Song of Solomon and Midnight’s Children are relatively recent publications and I suppose they would fall in the category of modern classics. A HundredYears of Solitude is a book that I have started once or twice but abandoned. It would be worth trying to pick it up again. The third time could be the charm. I included the new translation of Beowulf as my background is in medieval literature and there has to be at least one book from that period that shows up on my list. This translation seems interesting as it is supposedly rendered from a feminist perspective of the work. All the rest are books that I have been meaning to read for a long time and I would be happy wherever the number lands.
What do you think of my list? Are there any on it that you have read and enjoyed? I love classics and at some point I hope to finish reading everything on my list but for now I’m excited to see what I get tomorrow.
I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth to experience autumn. So embedded is the season in the local psyche that over time I have become an autumn person. Not only do I revel in the glorious hues of changing foliage and savor the textures, sounds and smells of the season, I also experience the melancholy that goes with the time of the year. I slow down to contemplate and see my own fate and the fate of everyone else around me in the transience of leaves. Autumn is after all the season of melancholia and introspection, a mood captured so poignantly by poets.
As I was walking in the woods around my home in southern New Hampshire the other day, I noticed a pile of dead leaves. It was late autumn and the leaves were a sodden mess, withered, bleached of color, and in a state of decay, considerably different from the vibrant palette on the tree tops just a few weeks ago. I was face to face with my mortality as I picked up a ‘feuille morte’ and thought instinctively of the poem “Chanson d’automne” or ”Autumn Song” by Paul Verlaine, one of the leading French poets associated with the Symbolist movement.
I had first studied ” Chanson d’automne” in college and I can still recite it by heart. I had always loved the poem but now with the passing of the years the symbolism resonates more than ever and living in New England makes me understand autumn better. The poem is included in Verlaine’s first collection, Poèmes saturniens, published in 1866 and is part of the “Paysages tristes” or ” Sad landscapes” section of the collection. One interesting fact about this poem is that the BBC used a song recording of it to send secret messages to the French Resistance about the timing of the forthcoming invasion of Normandy during World War 2.
” Chanson d’automne” also happens to be one of the most translated poems of all time. Although it is written in simple French, it is difficult to translate it in English as it is a musical poem. “ De la musique avant toute chose’’ or ” Music before everything else” was after all Verlaine’s mantra and to retain the musicality of the poem along with conveying its melancholy is of utmost importance when rendering it from French into another language. But it is also such a brief and simple poem that it is best to keep the translation almost literal. You can see that translating the poem is no mean task. A lot of the translations extant stray too far from the meaning of the original in order to make the poem lyrical but I didn’t want to dilute the impact made by the French poem. I have tried my best to reconcile the two. So here is the original followed by my humble attempt at translation:
Les sanglots longs Des violons De l’automne Blessent mon cœur D’une langueur Monotone.
Tout suffocant Et blême, quand Sonne l’heure, Je me souviens Des jours anciens Et je pleure;
Et je m’en vais Au vent mauvais Qui m’emporte Deçà, delà, Pareil à la Feuille morte.
The long sobs Of autumn violins Make my heart throb With chagrin And a monotonous Languor.
All choked up And pale, when The hour sounds, I remember with a sigh Days long gone And I cry.
And I let myself go With the ill winds that blow Which carry me Hither, thither Similar To a dead leaf.
( Translated by Jayshree – Literary Gitane) *
My translation is pretty literal but I have made some accommodations to recreate the plodding rhythm of the original which follows the effect of a violin playing slowly with the use of stylistic techniques like rhymes, internal rhymes, alliteration and consonance. I could have translated ‘blessent mon coeur’ as ‘hurt my heart’ but I thought rhyming the word ‘violin’ with a word like ‘chagrin’ along with the use of the rhymes ‘long’, ‘sob’ and ‘throb’ would convey the effect of the pulsating sound of a heart beat and the rhythmic sound of a violin that I was looking for to accentuate the monotony and the melancholy of the lines. Similarly in the second verse I added ‘with a sigh’ to rhyme with ‘cry’ and the words ‘long gone’ to create the musicality with the internal rhyme and consonance. Throughout my translation, I have attempted the techniques of consonance and assonance to make the experience of the poem more auditory. In the concluding lines I was playing with ‘to and fro’ to rhyme with ‘blow’ but settled on ‘hither thither’ as I thought these two consonant sounds would best replace the words “Deçà, delà”.
This poem beautifully illustrates how an interior landscape corresponds with the exterior one. It employs the metaphor of autumn to bemoan a past that is irretrievably lost. It is interesting how it starts with the first person but by the end of the poem, the poet/ speaker becomes a dead object, one with the dead leaf, one with the season. “Autumn Dirge” would have been a more apt title to this poem, in my opinion, than “Autumn Song” but perhaps the poet either wished to be ironical or simply to emphasize the paradox of the sorrow triggered by the desolation of the season along with the calm of resignation and acceptance.
I hope you enjoyed the poem and my translation. 🙂
Translation cannot be used without the permission of the author- Copyright- Literary Gitane
It is believed that much of the nostalgia that a book evokes in us is due to the memory of reading it during our childhood or youth- that innocent or seemingly innocent stage of life. When I look back upon my college days, one of my cherished memories is reading Colette and especially her ‘Claudine’ books. My lackluster life is a far cry from the colorful and scandalous life the writer led. Yet I have felt a kinship with her and something about the lyrical and lush sensuousness of her writing has always resonated with me. I seized the opportunity during the pandemic to re-read a comforting Colette from my early years.
La Maison de Claudine published in 1922 and translated as My Mother’s House is not about the fictitious Claudine. Claudine doesn’t even make an appearance in the book despite the French title but as the protagonist- author duo of Claudine-Colette are virtually the same, even their names, interestingly, have become interchangeable. La Maison de Claudine is an autobiographical book about Colette’s childhood in the countryside with a warm and loving family that consisted of her mother and father, her brother, a half brother and a half sister and a host of cats and dogs who are as much a part of the family as the two legged creatures. Colette herself was Minet- Chéri or ‘Little Darling’,the youngest of the brood.
There is no story as such. The book is a series of vignettes in the form of sentimental musings of Colette’s childhood and picturesque evocations of provincial life in Burgundy. The episodes are not in chronological order. Some are very short episodes and are barely a page or two long. Some of the chapters describe a later stage in her life when she was living in Paris with her second husband and daughter Bel- Gazou.
But most of the episodes are a charming and sensuous depiction of an idyllic childhood in a house overflowing with pets and books. Her father, the captain who lost a leg during the war, is an absent-minded and amusing man who adores his wife and flirts harmlessly with his neighbor saying that he would teach her the meaning of love for six pence and a packet of tobacco. Then there is Juliette, her recluse of a sister lost in her books and daydreams and her quirky and fun loving brothers- Achille the older brother who loves puttering with pieces of cloth and wire and glass tubes and who eventually becomes a doctor, and Leo, the amazing musician who plays by ear the tunes he hears on the street and has a morbid fascination with creating epitaphs for fun. This eccentric domestic domain is presided over imperiously by a formidable woman- – tender and kind yet resolute, strong willed and assertive- her beloved mother Sido. The entire book can be said to be a tribute to this strong and compassionate lady.
Sido is unconventional in many ways. She is far from religious and her irreverence is charming. She insists that the dog attend mass where she herself reads plays of Corneille hidden in the prayer book and dies of boredom if the sermon lasts longer than ten minutes. She retains her maid who is pregnant out of wedlock, ignoring the gossip of her neighbors. Above all she is this nurturing maternal figure, who, on hearing stories of kidnapping in the news, fears that her little Minet- Chéri will be a victim and sneaks her out of her bedroom at night and brings her close to her own bed, prompting the confused little one to shriek in the morning,” Maman! Come quick! I’ve been abducted.” When her estranged daughter Juliette goes into labor next door, she literally feels the pangs of pain as she hears her wail in agony. Even when age takes a toll on her, she is stubbornly independent and is caught chopping wood on a frosty morning in the backyard dressed only in a nightgown or moving a heavy walnut cupboard from the upper story to the ground floor.
I was amused by all the stories of Sido brushing her daughters’ long hair. Both girls had hair that nearly fell to their feet. Minet Chéri had to be woken up half an hour earlier than her schoolmates every morning just to get her hair ready for school. Her two long plaits were like horse whips. And Juliette needs four plaits – two springing from her temples and two from above the nape of her neck. It’s hilarious how Sido complains that her legs hurt just by standing to comb Juliette’s hair. Ah, braiding a daughter’s hair or getting a hair braided by a mother is one of those quotidian activities filled with pain and pleasure at the same time!
The animals are part of the daily domestic dramas and their feline and canine adventures are as delightful as their names- Toutouque, Pati-Pati, Bâ-tou, Bellaude and Kamaralzaman aka Moumou. Their stories cracked me up although I suspect Colette may have slightly embellished the details for effect. A cat relishes the best strawberries in the garden with all the good taste of a gourmet, and a spider descends from the ceiling in the middle of the night, dangling from a thread to take sips of Sido’s hot chocolate simmering over a little oil lamp on the bedside table. Nonoche, the cat and her daughter Bijou are pregnant at the same time and deliver a day within each other. The daughter cat has a few kittens attached to her breasts but goes to suckle from her mother who has her own set to nurse. There are sad stories too. The neighbor’s cat is grieving her dead kittens and has a lot of milk and the Colette family kitten seeks her abandoning his own distraught mother whose milk dries up. You can tell that Colette has observed animals very closely like many countryside children. These minute details captured so vividly remind me of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.
A qui vit aux champs et se sert de ses yeux, tout devient miraculeux et simple. Il y a beau temps que nous trouvions naturel qu’une lice nourrît un jeune chat, qu’une chatte choisît, pour dormir, le dessus de la cage où chantaient des serins verts confiants et qui, parfois, tiraient du bec, au profit de leur nid, quelques poils soyeux de la dormeuse.
“To anyone who lives in the fields and uses his or her eyes, everything becomes miraculous and simple.We had long since felt that it was quite natural that a she-hound would feed a kitten, that a female cat would choose as her sleeping place the top of a cage where trusting green canaries sang, and who sometimes with their beaks pulled out a few silky hairs from the sleeping animal to build their nests.“
Beneath this tranquil surface, there is something simmering that threatens to disturb the harmony. There is a sense of melancholy pervading the air although Colette doesn’t allude to it explicitly. There are hints of financial trouble. I was especially intrigued by the mysterious Juliette and her crowning glory- the girl who is such a bookworm that even when she is sick with typhoid and forbidden to read, she lights matchsticks at night or strains to read clandestinely with nothing but the help of moonlight. Her in laws are not satisfied with her dowry and forbid her from visiting her parents. What secret sorrows lurk behind the thick and dark veil of hair! Who will rescue this Rapunzel from her tower? And why is she referred to repeatedly as an ‘ingrate’ when she is avoiding her parents only because she is afraid of her in laws’ ire? When we write a memoir with the distance of years between us, it affects our objectivity and we tend to gloss over unpleasant or uncomfortable details. Colette doesn’t want to break the spell of those halcyon days of childhood.
We don’t want the spell to break either. Colette summons up a childhood paradise imbued with delight and magic. Yet from the beginning, we are aware of the transience of the house, the garden and the inhabitants. From the very first chapter entitled,” Where are the children?” where Sido is frantically trying to round up the children who are in the garden playing games or hiding on tree tops with their books, we know that they will be leaving the maternal Eden behind. And that eventually their mother will leave them too and they would be left wondering where their mother was just as she was anxious about them.
Maison et jardin vivent encore, je le sais, mais qu’importe si la magie les a quittés, si le secret est perdu qui ouvrait — lumière, odeurs, harmonie d’arbres et d’oiseaux, murmure de voix humaines qu’a déjà suspendu la mort — un monde dont j’ai cessé d’être digne?…
“The house and garden still exist, I know it, but of what use is that if their magic has left them and if their secret has been lost- the secret that once opened up a whole world to me- light, scents, the harmony of trees and birds, the murmur of human voices that death has already stilled…a world of which I have ceased to be worthy?”
The book describes three generations of people who even share names and nicknames. Colette’s full name has her mother’s name Sidonie in it and she took her father’s last name as her first name and passed it on to her own daughter along with her nickname Bel-Gazou. Even though homes and people vanish out of their lives, there is this continuity in retaining the names along with the memories through the generations of this particular family.
And yet, the most amazing part of the book is its universality: it transported me to my own childhood ,which, strangely, was nothing like Colette’s; it made me nostalgic for a place or state of mind that wasn’t even there or perhaps was there in fragments. I used to relate to Minet- Chéri, or the young Colette; now on re-reading the book, I wonder if I have been a mother like Sido to my children in some small way and if I have provided them with enough experiences for sweet reminiscences. All I know is that as they take wing, I am left to lament like her: ” Where are the children?”