Moby Dick: The Picture Book

‘Of course’, said Queequeg. ‘Man want to die, nothing can save him. Man want to live, only God can kill him – or whale or storm, maybe’.

Recently, while shelving books in my library’s children’s section, I noticed a picture book with an especially striking cover and was somewhat surprised to see the title, Moby Dick. Herman Melville’s Great American Novel is hardly something I expected to find on the kid’s fiction shelves, but I was curious about how it would be adapted so I checked it out.

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Dante: The Story of his Life

I like to style myself a literary omnivore, but one genre I’ll admit I seldom touch is biography. I’ve read one on Robert E. Lee, and back in high school and college I read some biographies of various rock bands, but I preferred those that focused primarily on their music and secondarily on the musicians’ personal lives. A recent review, of The Printed Homer, included some biographical speculation, but ultimately one can’t really write a biography of a man about whom we know so little for certain that we’re not even sure if he was one dude or multiple dudes.

Marco Santagata stands on firmer ground in his biography of Dante Alighieri (translated from Italian by Richard Dixon), titled simply Dante: The Story of His Life, though he did run into some difficulties of his own. Typically I like to start reviews on a positive note, but any biography of Dante will have two significant problems to deal with, and though Santagata’s book is quite good overall one does need to be aware of them.

First, Dante’s life is inextricably tied up with Florentine politics. Readers of his Divine Comedy will undoubtedly have noticed how many contemporary political figures appear, and multiple works after La Vita Nuova, such as Convivio and Monarchia, at least touch on political theory or practice in some way. This means that a huge portion of Santagata’s book is spent discussing the ins and outs of Florentine political theatre and that of Italy more broadly. For those keenly interested in Italian history or who are just political junkies this won’t be a problem at all, but anyone expecting a sort of “real life novel” style of biography will find themselves skimming pages at a time of explanations of shifting alliances, ideologies, and political manoeuvring.

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Go Nagai’s Devilman

Go Nagai has long been an artist I’ve been aware of and was interested in perhaps checking out someday, but I only got around to doing so recently. My interest was piqued last year when I watched Yuasa Masaaki’s anime adaptation of Nagai’s comic Devilman, titled Devilman Crybaby. Yuasa is always excellent and this anime was no exception, and as soon as I saw that Seven Seas had published the first half of the original in an omnibus edition I picked it up right away. They released the second and final omnibus late last year and I recently finished it and, though it’s been a while since I last reviewed a comic, I figured I’d share a few thoughts about it.

The protagonist is high schooler Fudo Akira, who isn’t exactly a wimp but definitely doesn’t have much backbone. His friend, rich genius Ryo, asks for his help with something and takes him to a rave crazier than a Chick tract, where crap happens and he ends up merging with a demon, making him part-devil and part-man, Devilman. So, now that he has awesome powers (and a far more aggressive personality) Ryo explains that demons are roaming the earth seeking to destroy humanity, and asks for his help in stopping them. Those who’ve seen Crybaby will know what’s up, and those who are new to Devilman are in for a hell of a ride. As one may expect from only two omnibus volumes, the story is short and keeps up a brisk pace throughout. The first 2/3 or so is more-or-less episodic, with most chapters using action scenes to nudge the plot forward, though a handful of time-travel themed chapters are, frankly, just filler and Crybaby was right to exclude them. The last third is by far the most intense, with betrayals, characters dying left-and-right, and leading up to a contender for the bleakest ending I’ve ever seen in a work of fiction.…

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The Printed Homer: A 3000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey

Philip H. Young’s The Printed Homer: A 3000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey is an odd book to recommend to laymen because about half of it will be useful only to a very focused class of specialists. The other half, though, is of interest to any Classicist, professional or amateur, and is enough to justify buying the whole package.

The specialist half can be dealt with very briefly. Young has compiled a comprehensive list of every known printing of Homer’s works (including those spuriously attributed to him, such as the Hymns) from the first example in 1470 to 2000. It’s an impressive undertaking and I’m sure it’s very helpful for historians who specifically study historical interest in and treatment of the Homeric texts. For laymen such as myself, though, I find it hard to imagine a plausible scenario where this part of the book might be useful.

The rest of the book, though, discusses a range of material that I found fascinating and enlightening as an introduction to the Homeric Question, how the texts were created and transmitted, and how Homer was received, interpreted, and admired from ancient Greece to modernity, as well as Young’s own defense of why Homer is worth studying. I’ll just give a sample of each chapter.…

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The Bowl of Tears and Solace

Not that long ago the common complaint around the Right (broadly defined) was that we needed more dissident artists and authors. Over the past year or two, though, that situation has been reversing itself and it feels like everyone who’s anyone now has a novel coming out. I’ve reviewed Neovictorian’s book Sanity previously, and Neovictorian himself has reviewed Sanction and The Brave and the Bold, while in short fiction there’s enough material for Logos Club to offer a weekly overview of it all. Now, to call all of this “Right-wing” is to sell it short; most of it is not explicitly ideological, and in general these authors are most interested in being artists first, philosophers second, if at all. Despite that, though, given Leftist dominance of traditional publishers the people most likely to be drawn to independent outlets and self-publishing are disproportionately going to be Right-of-Centre, whether that means Right-Libertarian, Throne and Altar Monarchist, or someone in between.

So, let’s take a look at a recent entry in this unexpectedly crowded field, Garth Ogle’s science fiction novel The Bowl of Tears and Solace, published late last year by Saints Edward Media. In short, it was the best graphic novel I’ve read in a long time.

“Wait,” you might be thinking, “isn’t this a regular prose novel?” Yes. That’s the novel’s strength and weakness. I like Ogle’s style, the ideas are intriguing, and the book is full of strong individual scenes. I also found the plot very difficult to follow, and the many action scenes in particular would have been better served in a visual medium like film or comics. To take an example from early in the book:

“It’s private,” I say. “Can we get to – ” but I am cut off by a sudden –

THUD

I rush to the door. This being a back street in the middle of the afternoon, I wonder how a tram accident could have happened. But then I see it.

In the middle of the road, just aside from the rail on the left, is a massive, gray– bug. It is, as best as I can tell, on top of a man, who does not seem to be benefiting from the exercise.

The handful of pedestrians just watch, as in a dream, seeming to me, perhaps, to wonder if it is real. Then I see something happen very quickly.

Across the street, on the right side of the road, I see a woman, with her hair up in a ponytail and dark glasses on. In a moment she is in shadow and there is a bright halo around her. With a motion too quick for me to see, she has drawn a rod and leaping, struck the insect on the back. The air itself shudders oddly with the blow, as if gravity itself were disrupted by the end of her rod. The insect collapses, bloodless and crumpled, and she, returning to normal begins doing something furtively with her handheld computer.

As I watch, in a matter of minutes, a golden man descends from the sky, and the woman throws off her glasses and unbinds her hair.

“CONGRATULATIONS!” he bellows, to the passersby. “YOU’VE BEEN VISITED BY THE DEFENDERS OF G-1! LET ME TELL YOU WHAT YOU’VE WON!”

I blink and turn back to the proprietor, who is idly dusting a glass case.

“I think a man just died out there.”

“No, it’s all a show. They keep it interesting here,” he replies impatiently.

It’s a striking scene, but one that loses most of its force in print. The novel is full of scenes along these lines, and if you have a stronger imagination than I do and can fully visualise them you’ll probably enjoy the book. Again, even I enjoyed most of the novel in spite of the action coming up short for me, because following the threads of what exactly this “show” is all about, as well as the plot of our protagonist discovering an almost miraculous cure and its consequences, was enough to hold my interest the whole way through. Even some of the action stands up; there are a few points where a character has a prophetic dream of the near-future, and Ogle successfully builds and maintains a lot of tension as he prepares to deal with the upcoming event.

If I’m being vague about the plot, it’s largely because the mystery is part of the appeal and I don’t want to spoil anything. Also, I struggled somewhat to follow it, especially at the rather abstract climax. I suppose I could talk about the themes, which I’ve seen the author mention on Twitter, but since I had to read the book over a longer period of time than usual for me I must have missed the connecting threads and didn’t get it.

So, do I recommend The Bowl of Tears and Solace? If you’re a voracious reader and are looking for something contemporary, sure, it’s worth a shot. If you’re a more casual reader and need to really pick your shots, I think there’s enough here that it’s definitely worth looking forward to Ogle’s next novel.…

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Twenty-Second Friend: François Villon, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”

In ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound wrote that a man can’t fully understand poetry if he reads only one language. Later on, when listing authors important to the development of English poetry he also included a few Frenchman. With both those points in mind, I thought it would be appropriate to include a few French poets even though the focus of this list is on English authors. So, today we’ll meet M. François Villon.

M. Villon is a pseudonym for François de Montcorbier or François des Loges, who was born in Paris in 1431. He led such an eventful life that it’s worth reading at least an article about him, but in short he spent much of his life in prison and banishment, for such crimes as robbery and killing a priest during a fight between them and some drinking friends, and traveling around France. The last we hear of him, he was on death row for his part in a brawl, but that sentence was commuted to ten years banishment from Paris by the Parlement in January 1563. What happened to him next is unkown.

As for his poetry, I’m not familiar enough with French verse to offer HSOs of my own so I’ll have to lean on others’ accounts. His poetry is technically impressive with difficult metres and rhyme schemes, and he was quite knowledgeable of the world of poetry past and present. It seems that his medieval university education did indeed take hold, despite his raucous lifestyle. His best-known work is the long poem Le Testament, which expresses his fears and laments his wasted youth. Let’s take a look at a selection from Le Testament, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” (“Ballade of Ladies of Time Gone By”).

Dictes moy où, n’en quel pays,
Est Flora, la belle Romaine ;
Archipiada, ne Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine;
Echo, parlant quand bruyt on maine
Dessus rivière ou sus estan,
Qui beauté eut trop plus qu’humaine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Où est la très sage Heloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Sainct-Denys?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

La royne Blanche comme ung lys,
Qui chantoit à voix de sereine;
Berthe au grand pied, Bietris, Allys;
Harembourges qui tint le Mayne,
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu’Anglois bruslerent à Rouen;
Où sont-ilz, Vierge souveraine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine
Où elles sont, ne de cest an,
Qu’à ce refrain ne vous remaine:
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!…

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Vingt-et-deuxième Ami: François Villon, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”

Dans ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound a écrit qu’un homme ne peut pas comprendre la poésie s’il ne lit qu’une seule langue. Il a énuméré des auteurs importants pour le développement de la poésie anglaise et il a inclus quelques Français. En gardant ce point à l’esprit, j’ai pensé qu’il serait approprié de discuter d’un des poètes mentionnés par Pound comme étant importants pour la poésie anglaise. Nous allons donc rencontrer aujourd’hui François Villon.

François Villon c’est un pseudonyme de François de Montcorbier ou François des Loges, qui est né à Paris en 1431. Sa vie était très intéressante, alors il vaut la peine de lire au moins un article à son sujet, mais, brièvement, il passa une grande partie de sa vie en prison et au bannissement pour des crimes comme le brigandage et l’assassinat d’un prêtre lors d’une bagarre.  La dernière chose que nous savons de lui, en janvier 1463, il a était condamnés à mort pour sa part dans une bagarre, mais cette peine a été commuée en bannissement à Paris par le Parlement. Le reste de sa vie est inconnu.

Quant à sa poésie, je ne connais pas très bien le vers français, je devrai donc me fier aux descriptions des autres. Sa poésie est techniquement impressionnante, avec des compteurs et des schémas de rimes difficiles. Il semble que ses études universitaires médiévales se soient effectivement établies malgré sa vie de bohème. Son œuvre la plus connue est le long poème Le Testament, qui exprime ses peurs et déplore sa jeunesse perdue. Jetons un coup d’oeil à une sélection du Testament, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”.

Dictes moy où, n’en quel pays,
Est Flora, la belle Romaine ;
Archipiada, ne Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine;
Echo, parlant quand bruyt on maine
Dessus rivière ou sus estan,
Qui beauté eut trop plus qu’humaine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Où est la très sage Heloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Sainct-Denys?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

La royne Blanche comme ung lys,
Qui chantoit à voix de sereine;
Berthe au grand pied, Bietris, Allys;
Harembourges qui tint le Mayne,
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu’Anglois bruslerent à Rouen;
Où sont-ilz, Vierge souveraine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine
Où elles sont, ne de cest an,
Qu’à ce refrain ne vous remaine:
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

C’est excellent et j’aime beaucoup la ligne “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!” L’image de la neige fonctionne bien car elle est belle tant qu’elle dure, mais bien sûr, elle ne dure pas très longtemps. La ligne “La royne blanche comme un lys” est astucieux. Ce poème est aussi une longueur parfaite, assez long pour qu’il cite plusieurs exemples de femmes célèbres du passé (et gardez à l’esprit, un thème du Le Testament est la mort et la vieillesse) et donne son point être ennuyeux.…

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Twenty-First Friend: Sir John Denham, “A Song”

Our next friend is another one of our good ol’ Cavalier buddies. Sir John Denham was born in Dublin in 1615 and lived to 1669, a lawyer and the son of the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in Ireland. That sounds like an impressive title, and when his father died Sir John did inherit a great deal of property. During the English Civil War he was sheriff of Surrey and made a brief attempt to defend Farnham Castle against Parliamentary forces; after the war his estates were confiscated and he lived abroad with Charles II, though Cromwell did give him permission to live in Suffolk in 1658.

In literature, he’s best-known for two works, a blank verse tragedy called The Sophy, and a pastoral poem called “Cooper’s Hill.” Fans of the latter include no lesser figure than Dr. Samuel Johnson, who, despite a few criticisms, said that it “is the work that confers upon him the rank and dignity of an original author.” He adds:

To trace a new scheme of poetry has in itself a very high claim to praise, and its praise is yet more when it is apparently copied by [Samuel] Garth and [Alexander] Pope; after whose names little will be gained by an enumeration of smaller poets, that have left scarce a corner of the island not dignified either by rhyme or blank verse.

He also has good things to say about Sir John’s poem written on the death of Abraham Cowley, whom we’ve met previously.

Today I’ll share a shorter poem, simply titled “A Song” and which is taken from The Sophy.

Somnus, the humble god, that dwells
In cottages and smoky cells,
Hates gilded roofs and beds of down,
And, though he fears no prince’s frown,
Flies from the circle of a crown.

Come, I say, thou powerful god,
And thy leaden charming rod
Dipped in the Lethean lake,
O’er his wakeful temples shake,
Lest he should sleep and never wake.

Nature, alas, why art thou so
Obligéd to thy greatest foe?
Sleep, that is thy best repast,
Yet of death it bears a taste,
And both are the same thing at last.

“Somnus,” as you may guess, is the god of sleep. “Charming” is meant in the sense of spellbinding.

Though overall a solid poem, I’m not a big fan of the conclusion since the comparison of sleep to death has been done multiple times elsewhere, and done better. I also prefer John Donne’s more take optimistic take on the subject with this same analogy. That said, this is taken from a play so I’m obviously missing some context here, so I won’t judge it too harshly.…

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The Poetry of Guido Cavalcanti, That Other Great Florentine Poet

My primary reading goal for 2019, if I can find time to read at all, is to greatly deepen my knowledge of Dante Alighieri. I’ve written briefly of La Vita Nuova and extensively of Monarchia, and have previously read the Divine Comedy, but this constitutes the mere highlight reel of his career. Though not terribly prolific, Dante did write more than many people realise and besides, the Comedy itself has such depths that it deserves careful study even on its own. That said, I’d like to begin with by setting the stage with a friend of Dante’s, fellow Florentine and poet Guido Cavalcanti.

It’s a testament to Dante’s excellence that a poet of Cavalcanti’s calibre is only the second-greatest poet of his era. Though obscure to Americans, he is an important figure in Italian poetry and well-respected among those who study Italian and Medieval literature. Some readers may be aware that among his admirers were Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ezra Pound, who each translated a volume of Cavalcanti’s poems. Let’s take a look at one of them, numbered 45 in Marc Cirigliano’s edition, “Se non ti caggia la tua santalena.”

may you not drop your little jewel
between the plowed clumps
so it is picked up by a farmer
who fondles and keeps it

tell me if the earth’s fruit
is born from dryness, heat, or moisture
and which wind blows it
and what fog fills the storm

and if you like the morning
that hears the workman’s voice
and family cacophany

i certainly know that if Bettina’s
heart has a sweet spirit
you’ll get rid of your young acquisition…

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John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors

For Christmas I was given a copy of John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors. Apparently my family thinks I really like books or something, though I don’t know where they may have gotten that impression. In any case, it’s a popular reference work for collectors, so I thought it would be worth a brief discussion here.

First, I specifically have the ninth edition, revised by Nicolas Barker and Simran Thadani. Though ABC is essentially a dictionary of book collecting and could have included terms from related fields, Carter was careful to limit the book’s scope to collecting, so he excludes terms from bibliography, printing, and so on unless they’re relevant to collectors. What makes ABC useful not only as a reference work but also pleasant to thumb through is that besides giving straightforward definitions he also offers some advice and personal observations here-and-there. Not enough to get in the way of the book’s main purpose, but enough to give it some added value. This is also where later editors’ revisions to recent editions become interesting. Obviously, a book first published in 1952 requires some added entries and a few revisions to older ones. Carter’s commentary, though, is part of the book’s appeal, and so Barker and Thadani are careful to preserve that as much as possible. See, for example, the entry for “Issue-Mongers.”

The issue-monger is one of the worst pests of the collecting world, and the more dangerous because many humble and well-intentioned collectors think him a hero to whom they should be grateful. He may be a bibliographer (usually of the self-styled type), or a bookseller, or a collector, and his power for harm may be rated in that order. He is an honours graduate of what Lathrop Harper called ‘the fly-spot school of bibliography’. He is the man who, if he cannot construct a bogus point out of some minute variation he himself has discovered between two copies of a book, will pervert the observations of others to the same purpose. Show him a misprint or a dropped numeral, and he will whip you up an ‘issue-point’ in no time. Show him a difference of a month between two sets of inserted publisher’s catalogues and he will be good for a whole paragraph of dubious inferences. Show him a wrappered proof copy of a book which he happens not to have seen in that state before, and his cry of ‘trial issue’ or ‘pre-first edition’ will turn Pollard or McKerrow in the grave.

His natural and unlamented prey are the point-maniacs. But unfortunately his more numerous victims are those collectors credulous enough to accept anything they see in print or hear declaimed with sufficient assurance about priority. Every difference has its significance and, properly regarded, its place in the history of a book’s production and as such is worthy of a collector’s attention; but it does not have to prove a point.

It is fair to say that issue-mongers are now not as numerous, as confident, or as influential as they were in 1952 when the preceding salvo was fired; which suggests that collectors and booksellers are more sensible – or perhaps that books once common enough to demand differentiation are now too rare to need it.

For comparison, here’s the more typical entry for “Grooves.”

The space between the boards and the spine must be pressed well in to make good hinges. These depressions are called grooves, French if the spine is flush with the boards, English if it protrudes from them.

The ninth edition is the first to be illustrated. Though the lack of illustrations isn’t a major problem if you have an older edition, I think they do justify getting the Ninth, especially since it’s not an expensive book to begin with. Though the text explanations of each entry are clear, it’s still a little easier to understand what, say, gauffred edges or volvelles are with an accompanying photo or drawing.

One final point worth mentioning is that there are a number of small touches that add a little charm to the book, even if they aren’t strictly necessary. For instance, certain entries are illustrated by the way the entry itself is written, so the definition for “Guide Letters” begins with a guide letter, and the entry on “Misprints” includes a few intentional misprints. Also, there are small tags here-and-there, like on the free endpaper noting that “[This is the free endpaper],” a hand pointing to the fore-edge labelled “[FORE-EDGE],” etc.

So, who should buy a copy of ABC for Book Collectors? It certainly fulfils its purpose for the target audience of beginning collectors and it will likely come in handy for experienced collectors, as well. For people like me who buy a lot of books but don’t seriously collect them, it’s not necessary but can be helpful. When buying used books I occasionally see some of the technical terms defined here, so it is occasionally useful. Also, it’s just fun to flip through occasionally to learn a new term or get an H.S.O. on the heroes and pests of the book-collecting world.…

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