For Two Thousand Years

You can find my review of Mihail Sebastian’s beautiful novel For Two Thousand Years in Issue 9 of Shiny New Books! out today. Please do go and have a look!

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

30 September, 2015

Spring Snow

The Shinkawas were both irritated and flattered by the Matsugae’s invitation to the blossom viewing. Irritated because they realized how bored they would be. Flattered because it would give them an opportunity to display their authentically European manners in public. The Shinkawas were an old and wealthy merchant family and while it was, of course, essential to maintain the mutually profitable relationship established with the men from Satsuma and Choshu who had riesen to such power within the government, the Baron and his wife held them in secret contempt because of their peasant origins. This was an attitude inherited from their parents, and one that was at the very heart of their newly acquired but unshakable elegance.

Reading a novel by Yukio Mishima is rather a daunting prospect as he comes with a lot of baggage, from his highly sensationalised life and death to very divided opinions on his work amongst his Japanese readers. However, what can’t be disputed is his place in Japanese literature. He missed getting the Nobel Prize to Yasunari Kawabata, one he felt was unfair but perhaps inevitable in Japan’s strict hierarchical society even in literary circles, and some say this may have led to his inevitable foray into nationalism and death. But my mother told me many years ago that Mishima’s writing was beautiful and that I must read him. And so I chose him for my book group this summer.

Spring Snow is the first volume in Mishima’s Sea of Fertility quartet detailing the bittersweet love story between Kiyoaki Matsugae, son of a recently elevated Marquis at the Emperor’s court and coming from a long line of Satsuma samurai, and Satoko Ayakura, daughter of a waning aristocratic family, and how it reflects the seismic changes within Japanese society at the beginning of the 20th century. Following the Meiji Restoration, the power structure shifted from the samurai families back to the aristocracy once peace was established. The Marquis Matsugae had sent Kiyoaki to be educated in the Ayakura household and as a result, they no longer have anything in common, Kiyoaki having grown into a rarefied and refined gentleman studying at the Peers School until he is given a position at Court unlike his friend Honda, who has no privileged family connections and is studying to become a lawyer like his father. Into this friendship comes Satoko, Kiyoaki’s childhood friend, a beautiful and self-assured young woman, a few years older than Kiyoaki, who is in love with him. But Kiyoaki has been trained to contain all displays of emotions, fooling everyone around him and ultimately himself.

When Satoko’s engagement to an Imperial Prince is announced, Kiyoaki suddenly realises his love for her and is desperate to see her. With the help of Iinuma, his servant, and Tadeshina, Satoko’s maid who has worked for the Ayakuras since before Satoko’s birth, Kiyoaki sets in motion events which will have severe repercussions for both families.

This sounds rather grim and there are echoes of Romeo and Juliet here, however, it is Mishima’s style and his beautiful writing that elevates and transforms this tale into something so much more. Here is a microcosm of aristocratic Japanese society, still reverberating from the Meiji Restoration. Satoko, however spirited and intelligent and emotionally so much more mature that Kiyoaki is nevertheless bound by her family and society’s rules and makes the only choice available to her. We see her living, loving and finally realising the true metal of her lover, and although harsh, the choices she makes are the only ones which will set her free. Apart from Satoko, whose only flaw is to fall in love with Kiyoaki, most of the other characters are ineffectual and don’t realise their mistakes until the end. Kiyoaki’s parents are weak and blind to his faults and believe money will solve everything; Honda, Kiyoaki’s friend, tries to help but is too in awe of him; the Ayakuras are living off others and are consequently in a bubble; Iinuma, fanatical and unable to fit into Tokyo life; and Tadeshina, supposedly loyal with a cruel streak inside.

Mishima brilliantly depicts the subtle undercurrents within Satoko and Kiyoaki’s circle. The importance of keeping face as opposed to the often ugly side of reality, the obsession with strict rules and manners when real communication between people are lacking and most importantly, intent over-ridden by duty. Both Satoko and Kiyoaki try to break free from their restraints but their methods differ and ultimately fail. There is a tragic sense of miscommunication leaving the reader feeling, ‘if only he had’ or ‘why didn’t he just say something?’ This puts the onus on Kiyoaki, but it’s by no means only his fault. Satoko, who should have known him best failed too. All in all, it’s a glorious piece of tragic storytelling mixed in with cultural and historical detail. Mishima’s knowledge of history and his curiosity of other cultures are evident too. But what really strikes the reader is his mastery of language. His prose is light, whimsical and exquisite. And yet he delves into such dark themes. I loved this book which is so beautifully translated by Michael Gallagher and am looking forward to reading the other novels in the quartet, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 9. Do also check out the reviews by Kim and Tony.

Master and Margarita 2

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is one of the books I purchased from what used to be Dillons on Gower Street, now Waterstone’s, when I was an earnest student trying to broaden my knowledge of literature. As a science undergrad, I spent hours in the bookshop perusing books to read rather than face my sums. With one aborted attempt many years ago, I assumed it would be one of those novels I would get to at some point, even though so many of you have told me how much you loved it. So I was really happy when Polly decided it’ll be our next choice for our book group. It seems many of us had it tucked away on our shelves too.

At the beginning of the novel when the writers Berlioz and Bezdomny meet Woland, a suspicious individual claiming to be a magician, little do they know that this will throw Moscow into an upheaval leading up to Easter. Having been subjected to a vision of Pontius Pilate, they are naturally spooked and escape but this sets off a series of unfortunate events from Berlioz’s death to the sectioning of Bezdomny, the disappearance of his flatmate, the seizure of his prized Moscow flat and so on until everyone connected to each other has been randomly traumatised in some way. All orchestrated by Woland, who may or may not be the Devil, and his familiars, Azazel, the witch, the choirmaster and a humongous cat named Behemoth, they wreak havoc all over the city beginning with a huge magic show which throws the audience into hysteria when wads of cash appear and all the ladies are left disrobed. Bulgakov leads us on a merry chase through the absurdities of Moscow life from the privileged status of the literati to the paranoia aimed at foreigners, the shortage of good housing and food to the forbidden love that springs from unhappiness and ennui.

At the psychiatric hospital, Bezdomny meets the Master who has had his novel rejected and in his despair succumbed to madness and abandoned his lover. The Master had written about Pilate, the very same tale told by Woland, where we are again transported two thousand years back when the flawed Roman procurator of Yershalaim meets the one man who will change him but isn’t strong enough to save him.

In the second half of the book, we meet the Master’s lover Margarita, desperate to find him and wreak revenge on his critics. When Woland promises her whatever she wants, she agrees to do his bidding and becomes a witch, presiding over a spectacular ball where all the evil characters throughout history file through and are given their just desserts. But will she get what she deserves?

Reading the book, it struck me, as I am sure it did others, on the odd choice of the title. Both the Master and Margarita don’t appear in the novel until several chapters in, and even then, I’m not even sure whether they are the main protagonists, perhaps just vehicles to push through Bulgakov’s agenda. It’s a curiously difficult novel to characterise; from one angle, it is a comedy so like many Russian and European novels of the period with its nod to romanticism and artistic angst. And yet, there is always the spectre of violence which you cannot escape, Bulgakov’s present seeping into the fiction. Written between 1929 and 1940, The Master and Margarita was meant to be Bulgakov’s magnum opus even though he didn’t expect it to be published, what with his experiences with censorship and the tightening of freedom of expression which characterised Stalin’s rise to power. It’s at once a novel bridging the gap between the pre- and mid-Soviet eras, the former using only allusions to the present political state while maintaining some of the frivolity of an earlier age and the latter, the violence and paranoia revealed in full in the Master’s tale of Pontius Pilate.

The first half is much more sombre and complex than the second, possibly because it was more heavily edited. Bulgakov passed away soon after he finished his manuscript but without completing the editing. The Picador edition I read had notes and a detailed afterword which set the novel in context and gave a richer understanding of the novel. There is so much symbolism in The Master and Margarita and anyone who has read Goethe’s Faust would be in no doubt of the similarity although Bulgakov has made it his own and set it in the world he knows best. There are allusions to literary and musical figures throughout the novel and I particularly enjoyed Satan’s Grand Ball where Bulgakov introduces a slew of evil characters from history. However, what is with all the women being naked and men in tails? I just found it increasingly annoying that the female characters were either hags or witches, who are naked, naturally, although none of the men were drawn sympathetically either.

Bulgakov’s style is light and deft, his prose vibrant, colourful and visual. Woland’s visit to Moscow is just like a little break where they thoroughly enjoy themselves. And I really loved the bit at the end when Woland and his troupe return to their original forms, much more sombre and darker than what they exhibited on their holiday.

Although The Master and Margarita would benefit from a second reading once you realise the political and social implications of what Bulgakov is trying to convey, I really enjoyed reading this brilliantly bonkers novel. That satire is taken so seriously preventing publication for 26 years says much about the political regime. Even though the chapters set in Moscow may not come across as heavily Stalinesque, his reign of terror had already begun with arrests and disappearances and we see this in the increasingly crazy turn the novel takes as Bulgakov’s tale spins out of control.

Elective Affinities

I confess I’ve only read one book by Goethe which was Faust because who didn’t try that one as a student? But I don’t remember much of it and I probably raced through it without really thinking about it much. So although I’ve been wanting to try more of Goethe’s novels, I only retain memories of something dark and heavy. So what a revelation Elective Affinities turned out to be. Chosen as my October/November’s book group read, the novel showcased Goethe’s lightness of touch and acute sensibilities which are so finely tuned that you really feel you are in the presence of a master. What could so easily have turned into a heavy, dank romantic tragedy was saved by the relentless self questioning of his characters and their wish to do the right thing.

Elective Affinities begins with Charlotte and Eduard who has been given a second chance at love. No longer in their first flush of youth and having overcome previous life events that were orchestrated by others, they are now happily enjoying the freedom of their simple coupledom. Charlotte’s daughter is away at school and so they spend their days organising and designing their house and land at their pleasure. In fact all their time is taken with pleasure. Happy but getting a little bored of their monotonous life, a visit from a scandalous aristocratic couple embeds ideas of love and affairs which slowly take root in their minds. Their fidelity is tested when Eduard’s close friend, the Captain, and Charlotte’s niece, Ottilie who is unhappy at school, come to stay.

Goethe melds his views on romanticism with the scientific ideals and advances from the Age of Enlightenment that was fashionable in 19th century Europe to create a story which mirrors science. Elective affinities, a concept in chemistry where elements naturally gravitate towards their optimal counterpart, is used here to illustrate the romantic leanings of the four main characters.

Eduard, a dynamic man, begins to feel an affinity for Ottilie who is equally smitten, and succumbs to temptation, albeit platonic. However Charlotte and the Captain are a bit more reserved, battling with their morals even though their feelings for each other are as fierce. The main focus of the novel is the love affair between Eduard and Ottilie, a reflection and dissection of the ideals and reality of what love is.

However there were a few things that perplexed me. For example, why did everyone love Ottilie so much? Because she is young and innocent? Eduard who is actually married sees nothing wrong in his feelings and nor does Ottilie until towards the end of the tale. Only Charlotte and the Captain seem commendable but Goethe seems more sympathetic towards Eduard and Ottilie as though he holds them much higher up as his romantic ideal, that theirs is the great love story with so many obstacles when in fact they could have really gotten together at any point. Ottilie’s refusal of Eduard doesn’t seem to have a moral aspect to it, more as a whim and feels self-indulgent. And personally I felt Eduard comes very close to being the villain of the piece, acting as though his marriage to Charlotte meant nothing. It seems as though he was going through a mid-life crisis and as a result I found it very difficult to sympathise with him. In fact, all the characters felt a little flat, especially the female characters, except for Charlotte’s aristocratic friends who revel in their scandalous lives. At least they don’t pretend to be good. And although there are tragic consequences to the choices these characters make, Goethe’s light touch stops short of making Elective Affinities a tragedy or even a moral tale, leaving the reader feeling rather confused.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve finished the book but I’m still wondering about the characters in Elective Affinities, especially Ottilie and Eduard. I wonder whether Goethe was drawing a parallel to himself and his own choices in life. However, the novella certainly made for an interesting discussion and I most certainly would like to read more by Goethe.

I read this as part of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

Three Fat Men

Published in the very early years of the new Soviet regime and before the horror of Stalin’s rise to power, Yuri Olesha’s The Three Fat Men is considered one of the most important pedagogic books for young communists and an instrument of state propaganda and is controversial even now.

The Three Fat Men
is a satirical allegory, a mixture of folktales with names recalling Shakespeare’s Italian comedies. I’m not sure whether that is to make it seem universal, but the setting is a country tightly ruled by the Three Fat Men who are greedy, lazy and gluttons and who take all the grain, coal and iron from their people and give back nothing. When Prospero the armourer and Tibullus the tightrope walker incite revolution, the Three Fat Men’s soldiers set out to capture them and throw Prospero in jail. Tibullus manages to escape and is helped by Dr. Gaspar, a highly regarded intellectual, who coincidentally is given the task of bringing the Three Fat Men’s heir, Tutti’s, golden haired doll back to life or face death. When the doll is lost, Gaspar despairs until he meets Tibullus’ young friend Suok, a dancing girl at the circus, who is the spitting image of the doll. And so they concoct a plan to get Suok into the palace, save Gaspar and set Prospero free.

Olesha’s tale reminded me strongly of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (even though it is from a completely opposite ideology) and Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy with their clear demarcation of right and wrong, good and evil. The Three Fat Men and their soldiers are evil as opposed to the common folk who are being robbed of what is rightfully theirs. Its strong and simple ethical message is hard to ignore and is actually a good tool for teaching children. However, as with many stories in this vein, children would probably miss the communist subtext which for many adults will be hard to separate with actual events and the violent history of Soviet Russia.

Although a very short book, I confess that I found it rather difficult to get into and it only became interesting once Suok was smuggled into the palace when things begin to move quickly. However, there were some very funny moments, such as the reaction of the Three Fat Men and important court officials to little Tutti’s tantrums and, even more bizarre, the balloon seller being dressed up as cake and worried he would be eaten before escaping through a bottomless pot and ending up in a cabbage patch. The message of the book itself is one I rather agree with but I’m not entirely sure I understand why it’s such a popular book when there are more interesting fairy tales around unless you grew up reading it, which seems the case in many Eastern European and post-Soviet countries. I have a copy of the illustrated Soviet version which made me see it more as a children’s book and I will be passing it on to my nephews and niece to polish their moral compass.

As this was a book group choice, we had an interesting discussion regarding the purpose of this book and its construction as propaganda for communism. And it seems especially pertinent regarding recent events between Russia and the Ukraine. I probably liked it the least but most of my book group found it highly enjoyable and it sparked an interesting discussion.

Making of a Marchioness

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy was one of my favourite books in childhood. How I yearned to be a little lost orphan boy with golden ringlets and an immense fortune. Not to be on all three levels.

I’m rather wary of revisiting childhood favourites because my reading pace has changed as much as my taste in fiction (i.e. I am no longer a child). But when I heard that Persephone Books have re-issued a couple of Burnett’s adult novels, I was very curious indeed.

I decided to start with The Making of a Marchioness purely because there was going to be a tv adaptation during Christmas. I prefer to read the book before seeing an adaptation only because I tend to be rather lazy afterwards and not bother. I didn’t really know anything about it, which was a good thing.

Emily Fox-Seton is a spinster of 30. Originally from aristocratic stock, her family have gone down in the world and now orphaned, she lives in a boarding house for ladies and runs errands for wealthy society patrons. She’s a keen, engaging woman, not too bright but always looking on the bright side of things. It is because of her efficiency that Lady Maria Bayne has taken an interest and asked her to come up to her country seat to help with her house party. Amongst the guests is her nephew Lord Walderhurst, a middle-aged widower whom she is determined to matchmake with a suitably connected young lady. At the house party, Emily is in limbo, not fully a guest and yet not quite the help, but she quickly makes friends with the others and is a great help to Lady Mary who soon abuses her power over Emily. But it is because of this that Emily’s life suddenly takes an unexpected turn and she finds herself in a situation in which both marriage and love may be hers.

I don’t want to spoil anything as I want you to feel the surprises and hopes that welled up in me as I read this book. However, I will mention that Lord Walderhurst has a dodgy nephew, Captain Alec Osborne, who is married to an Anglo-Indian lady named Hester who is considered wild and eccentric with an even more sinister Indian ayah, Ameerah. It’s rather heavy on the colonial stereotypes which had me rolling my eyes on occasion.

I was also initially irritated by Burnett’s descriptions of Emily, how good she was, how grateful, how doe-eyed. It just went on and on and made me want to scream. However, as Emily’s circumstances change, so did the story and I began to like her a lot more. I think the novel was initally two books to begin with, The Making of a Marchioness and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst, and then they lumped it into one. It certainly reads as two different stories, the first part being a drawing-room story and the second a sensation novel a la Wilkie Collins. Evil comes primarily from bad blood and drink which seems à la mode in stories from this era. I didn’t mind that so much except that it was pretty one dimensional. However, the latter half of the novel certainly made up for the first part and I read on breathlessly until the end, not knowing whether everything would turn out alright. Burnett certainly knows how to crank up the tension. And it dealt with issues much darker than I expected too. There’s domestic violence and poverty contrasting sharply with the rose-tinted lives of the richest strata of society.

I enjoyed this book immensely, especially as I read it straight after Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding which was a bit of a disappointment. And I’m going to search out Burnett’s other book, The Shuttle, which, rumour has it, is even more brilliant.

However, I wouldn’t bother with the tv adaptation, Making of a Lady, which mutilated the story and turned it into something completely different. It’s ok if you don’t mind that sort of thing but there was a lot more emphasis on sex, madness and murder which wasn’t there in the book.

And so I come to the end of my brief foray into myths beginning with Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and going on to Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Winterson’s Weight and ending somewhat appropriately with Karen Armstrong’s A Short History Of Myth. I like to tie things together and Armstrong’s book is like an afterword to my mini reading project.

It’s a short non-fiction account of the place of myth in literature and society and inevitably this touches upon belief as myths are often the basis of both history and religion. I wasn’t sure how Armstrong would manage it as going back into proto-history, before the written and oral traditions flourished, is like treading on water.

Although a little tedious and overwhelming at times, there were several fascinating strands in Armstrong’s short history. From the early stone age, bronze age, the Assyrian, Mesoptamian and Egyptian civilisations to the Green, Roman and Judeo-Christian world, it’s an absorbing study into how early priests and scholars assimilated and incorporated their basic understanding of nature and the world into their daily cosmology. These evolved into ideologies and structures of government and social rule simultaneously transforming the myths themselves as people’s understanding and needs changed.

Although I was expecting a more western-centric history, that is a failing on my part as Armstrong shows just how diverse and rich our literary tradition is. And in turn, it shows that however admirable her attempt is, this is a huge undertaking and probably needed a more extensive study. But it certainly opened my eyes to the wealth of stories out there and I will be sure to delve further into mythologies, and not just the Greek myths.

Why does a girl like Gerti have to go falling in love with a banned person of mixed race, for goodness’ sake, when there are plenty of men around the authorities would let her love? … Before you know it, you may find yourself castrated or in prison, which is not pleasant.

Set in 1930s Frankfurt on the eve of World War II, nineteen year old Sanna is desperately trying to understand her dramatically changing world. Caught between adulthood, love and ever-growing threat of National Socialism, Irmgard Keun paints a portrait of daily life in Germany in After Midnight as the spectre of Nazi control and war draws near.

What is clever about Keun’s novel is that it is set before Hitler wields total control. This is the period when people are just beginning to realise the severity of their social situation, still toying with the notion on informing on their neighbours, saluting the Nazis and openly voicing dissent. As they begin to realise that their actions may have severe consequences, Sanna and her friends slowly begin to feel the tight stranglehold of the autocratic state.

The thing that tempers this growing fear is Sanna’s naïve and yet piercing observations of the people and situations in which she finds herself. For example,

I’ve often noticed how pleased and proud men are at having to knock in a certain way at the doors of perfectly harmless pubs, in order to get in. I expect there are some men who take to politics just for the sake of the secret signals you have to give.

Still nineteen, her thoughts are occupied by Franz, her lover whom she left behind in her home town with his cold, heartless mother. Sanna is staying with her cousin Algin, a famous novelist who is now blacklisted, and his beautiful wife Liska, who is in love with a jaded journalist named Heini. Their circle of friends is bohemian and mixed, an increasingly dangerous cocktail as stringent racial laws are passed. It is a damning time, and yet Sanna sees the absurd and comic side of life, especially the doomed love affair between her friend Gerti and mixed-race Dieter Aaron whose Jewish father is all for the National Socialists.

And then the pair of them sit in a bar looking at each other, the air around them positively quivering with love-sickness. Everyone in the bar must notice; no good can come of it. They just live for the moment, and cause the air to quiver, and don’t stop to wonder what next…

Sometimes I keep them company, so that the impression they make in the bar won’t be quite so dangerous.

But as things grow more tense, Sanna finds herself in a quandary when Franz turns up a hunted man and must make a decision about her future.

After Midnight is a stark yet comic portrayal of a Germany being devoured by the Nazi ideology. But Keun manages to keep the tone light, the novel itself retaining a dream-like quality in a fin-de-siècle style. With hindsight, the reader can see the ever-growing traps laid out for the people, but the people of Frankfurt are bumbling from one trap to another, denouncing their neighbours and friends in an increasingly vicious cycle, unaware of their own doom. It’s a sad testament to the nature of humanity but the absurdity of it all drives home the very human-ness that is being suppressed.

Take the story of little Berta, chosen to present flowers to the Führer on his visit to Frankfurt. Her parents her decked her out in finery, ordered a bouquet of lilac from Nice and her father has composed a poem especially for the occasion for her to recite. But the parade is mistimed and Berta misses her chance, reciting her poem in the pub afterwards, and promptly falls down dead from an allergic reaction to the flowers or a fever. Amidst the chaos and tragedy is the seed of absurdity and you can’t help but see Keun’s genius.

Although I can’t describe After Midnight as a thrilling read, it’s one filled with succinct observations and humour which, on careful thought, may be a little too mature for a nineteen year old. Not much happens and yet Keun’s beautiful prose and excellent translation by Anthea Bell made me reluctant to put the book down. A small book with a big punch indeed.

And don’t you just love the beautifully simple cover by Melville House?

I read this as part of German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy and Caroline.

Weight by Jeanette Winterson

22 November, 2012


Time had become meaningless to Atlas. He was in a black hole. He was under the event horizon. He was a singularity. He was alone.

After Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, I was wondering how Jeanette Winterson’s Weight would fare. Both are part of the Canongate Myth series and I had high expectations since the books I’ve read from this series have placed the bar pretty high. But we are talking about Winterson and she is as brilliant as ever.

In Weight, Winterson retells the story of the titan Atlas who, after his defeat in the war against the Olympian gods, has been sentenced to carry the cosmos on his shoulders for eternity. There is no one stronger than him and he is left to carry out his penance in solitude. There is only one other person who can lift the cosmos off him and that is Heracles, the demi-god, who happens to stroll by one day looking for a favour. He is in the midst of his twelve tasks, and one of them is to steal three golden apples from the Garden of Hesperides, once Atlas’ private sanctuary. And so they strike a brief friendship, quickly torn by Heracle’s duplicity and Atlas’ naïvete.

Winterson’s retelling of this myth muddles together the stories of Atlas and Heracles, moving back and forth from their past and into their future. She writes about the cosmos using modern scientific jargon and you may think this may jar but it all comes together beautifully. I’m partial to a bit of science and her fusing of myth and science opens up the universe and illustrates the important place of myth within the system of things. There is a playful, experimental handling of the tale, one that elevates simple storytelling to something epic. And all in a slim, poetic tome.

There is comedy in her portrayal of the uncouth Heracles, pumped up with machismo, who, while shouldering Atlas’ burden starts to think, something which worries the gods. It’s a new and uncomfortable sensation for Heracles too and he is relieved when he leaves Atlas.

The thought-wasp hardly stung him at all now. Only sometimes was there that buzzing discontent that made him want to tear his head off and discus it into space.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so put off by Heracles as I was when reading this book. It’s all drinking, fighting and sex with him. On the other hand, Atlas is a thinker, someone who has lived his life fully before having to give it up. His thought processes have become ascetic and enlightened as he sees the cosmos evolve. He is a watcher of time.

I can hear the world beginning. Time plays itself back for me…

As the dinosaurs crawl through my hair and volcanic eruptions pock my face, I find I am become a part of what I must bear. There is no longer Atlas and the world, there is only the World Atlas. Travel me and I am continents. I am the journey you must make.

But my favourite part of this book is the love story between Mother Earth and Poseidon, Atlas’ parents.

When my father wooed my mother she lapped it up. He was playful, he was warm, he waited for her in the bright blue shallows and came a little closer, then drew back, and his pull was to leave a little gift on her shore; a piece of coral, mother of pearl, a shell as spiralled as a dream.

Sometimes he was a long way out and she missed him and the beached fishes gasped for breath. Then he was all over her again…

Winterson inevitably injects a bit of her own now-famous story into this tale. But it fit in with the greater theme of the tale; the loneliness, the nothingness, our smallness in the universe. I liked it.

we are the maids
the ones you killed
the ones you failed

we danced on air
our bare feet twitched
it was not fair

with every goddess, queen, and bitch
from there to here
you scratched your itch

we did much less
than what you did
you judged us bad

It’s a sure sign that a book is working if it makes you want to read more about the subject. That’s exactly what Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles did. As soon as I started reading it, I googled greek myths to death, pondered watching Troy again (you’ll be glad to know I couldn’t force myself however manly Eric Bana is) and then hauled myself to the library to borrow Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad . I think I had borrowed it once before but returned it unread because of the lack of time, but this time, I read it in a day.

And I forgot how wonderful a writer Atwood is. She takes the very famous tale of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and his beloved and faithful wife Penelope and turns it into a vibrant, vital production. In The Penelopiad, she focuses on the terrible fate of Penelope’s twelve maids, strung up by the neck by Odysseus and his son Telemachus once they have butchered Penelope’s 120 suitors who endlessly harassed her in the 20 years of Odysseus’ absence.

I liked the subversive undertones of Atwood’s structure. The tale is told by Penelope interspersed with the maids’ chorus, each chorus taking a different literary form, all the more forceful in what they are trying to put across. They had been wronged. They had only done what was asked by Penelope: raped, loved, conspiring and finally put to death.

Atwood cleverly fuses Homer’s The Odyssey with other variants of the tale (and there are many) to put forward an explanation as to why these twelve maids were killed so cruelly. What had they done wrong?

Another thing I thought was cleverly done was to leave behind the trappings of antiquity. The tale is told in the vernacular, abundant with popular phrases.

Speaking of the underworld from whence Penelope tells her tale:

Then after hundreds, possibly thousands of years – it’s hard to keep track of time here, because we don’t have any of it as such – customs changed. No living people went to the underworld much any more, and our own abode was upstaged by a much more spectacular establishment down the road – fiery pits, wailing and gnashing of teeth, gnawing worms, demons with pitchforks – a great many special effects.

It’s clever and very tongue-in-cheek. The irreverence to the classical sources is refreshing and makes you sympathetic towards Penelope. It is her story after all. And her cousin, Helen of Troy, takes a battering too. Speaking from the underworld where occasionally they’ll be called up by mediums, Penelope says:

Of course she was beautiful. It was claimed she’d come out of an egg, being the daughter of Zeus who’d raped her mother in the form of a swan. She was quite stuck-up about it, was Helen. I wonder how many of us really believed that swan-rape concoction…

It was like a return to the old days to have a lot of men gawping at her. She liked to appear in one of her Trojan outfits, over-decorated to my taste, but chacun à son goût…

Odysseus here is referred to many times as a friend of Hermes, just like his father: sly, a spinner of lies, an expert at coercian. And yet, Penelope loves him for he chose her as his bride and loved her back.

As much as I love the Greek myths, like Atwood, I’m more drawn to the tales of the womenfolk. Their lives are harsher, even more prone to destinies beyond their control and most end up raped, killed, slaves and if they are supposedly lucky, concubines. In a man’s world, their worth is only through their lineage and beauty, as a vessel for their husband’s seed, a mother to his sons. Harsh, indeed.

After Atwood’s The Penelopiad, I’m reading Jeanette Winterson’s Weight and Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth, another title in the Canongate Myth series. I can’t wait to read more!

In the meantime, Danielle has been doing a series of interesting posts as she goes through Edith Hamilton’s Mythology so do go and have a look.

And Alex, Ana, Iris and Yvann are hosting Advent with Atwood in December which you might like to take a look at if you’ve been thinking about reading some Atwood.