Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien

When I heard about a previously unpublished story by J.R.R. Tolkien, I could not wait to read it.  Of course, most listeners know something of Tolkien’s masterpieces, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit – if not directly from the books, then from at least the films.  I first encountered Tolkien while an undergraduate in the late 60s.  I stumbled upon a copy of Diplomat Magazine.  According to its website, “Diplomat is a foreign affairs magazine that provokes intelligent discussion from the heart of the Diplomatic community in London.  This 65 year old magazine provides a unique insight into the minds of the most prominent world leaders and governments.”  The October 1966 issue – which I still have -- features a picture of a Hobbit on the cover.  It has been quite a while since I looked at the magazine, and it seems like a version of The New Yorker for those interested in world politics and diplomacy.  A large portion of the magazine is devoted to Tolkien, and what it called “Hobbitmania.”  I immediately went to a bookstore and purchased the four books.  Yes, my book addiction is at least that old.

I devoured the four volumes and fell in love with Tolkien and the amazing worlds he created.  I also loved the films, which are as close to the books as any films I have ever seen.  Right now, I am anxiously awaiting parts two and three of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.

The Fall of Arthur combines several interests of mine: Tolkien, Anglo-Saxon, alliterative literature, and the legends surrounding King Arthur and the knights of the round table.  The provenance of this unfinished tale is covered in great detail in an introduction by Christopher Tolkien, third son of J.R.R.  He found scant mention of the manuscript in his father’s letters, and only a mention or two about wanting to finish the story.  The poem itself is rather short, and a great deal of space is reserved for discussions of the history of Arthurian literature, the parts of the poem which Tolkien never finished, the evolution of the existing manuscript, and an extended appendix on Anglo-Saxon verse.  Christopher places all this after the introduction and the essay, and freely admits that specialists can dig into the appended material, while casual readers can limit themselves to the poem.  I found this material fascinating.

Unfortunately, not so much the poem itself.  Parts of the narrative seemed forced and pasted together.  I read several passages and encountered a stumble or two over attempts at alliteration that were nothing less than awkward.  I believe Tolkien abandoned the manuscript for a reason.  In much of his work, he was a perfectionist, and in my humble opinion, he had a difficult time making the entire poem flow as smoothly as does Beowulf, “The Wanderer,” or “The Battle of Maldon.”  For example, he wrote, “Grief knew Arthur / in his heart’s secret, … and his house him seemed / in mirth diminished” (40).  I also gritted my teeth when he blamed Lancelot for the fall of the “Table Rounde.”  Tolkien wrote, “Strong oaths they broke” (37).  But that is a tangled subject for another time.  Anglo-Saxon alliteration and King Arthur do not feel right to me.  This poem was interesting but only worth  3 stars.

--Chiron, 7/16/13

Athena by John Banville

We have all had experiences of entering a dream-like state.  We wander and take in the scenery and the people, while we think about the day behind and the day ahead.  The state seems vivid, but it also seems strangely “other.”  I frequently have these while taking my early morning walks, and suddenly, I am on the last leg of the route home.  This matched exactly the sensation I felt when reading John Banville’s 1995 novel, Athena.

Banville won the Booker Prize in 2005 for his novel The Sea.  I collect this outstanding series of novels, and I first encountered Banville while working my way through the 46 winners of the prize first awarded in 1969. 

Mr. Morrow seems a lost soul.  He has a mysterious past involving the police, prison, and some artwork.  His Aunt Corky is at death’s door – and has been for a few years.  He reluctantly visits her from time to time.  A shady character approaches him and asks him to examine some paintings and determine whether or not they are genuine.  He also meets a beautiful young woman and begins a rather torrid affair.  In fact he begins to obsess over this woman, and visits her at every opportunity.  In the backdrop of this novel are a series of brutal murders in London, and some other mysterious characters that seem to follow Morrow.

Banville describes one visit to his aunt in hospital:

“The bed, the chair, the little table, the lino[leum] on the floor, how sad it all seemed suddenly, I don’t know why, I mean why at just that moment.  I rose and walked to the window and looked down over the tilted lawn to the sea far below.  A freshening wind was smacking the smoke-blue water, leaving great slow-moving prints, like the whorls of a burnisher’s rag on metal.  Behind me Aunt Corky was talking of the summer coming on and how much she was looking forward to getting out and about.  I had not the heart to remind her that it was September” (30-31).

The seven paintings Morrow is asked to authenticate are described and all seem to involve mythological creatures chasing women.  Each chapter after the first, begins with a short essay on one of the paintings, and these essays gradually devolve into self-reflections by Morrow on the connection between the figures in the painting and his lover.

The more of Banville I read the more convinced I become that he is a great Irish writer and deserves a place at the table with Joyce, Becket, Shaw, and Wilde.  Athena is rated R for a few explicit scenes and some mild violence, but it is an absorbing and enchanting thriller/love story.  5 stars

--Chiron, 7/9/13

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth

A friend told me I must drop what I was reading and take up Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March.  Words like tremendous, a masterpiece, and unbelievably beautiful were tossed around like confetti.  I hate to be cynical about my friends, so I concealed all but the tiniest bit of skepticism.  Then I read the first page and any doubt I had evaporated in an instant. 

In 2009, I wrote, “[The Radetsky March details] three generations, who revered and served Emperor Franz Joseph, [it] encompasses not only the politics of the era but the relationships among fathers, sons, and even the memory of a deceased grandfather.  The prose sparkles, and I am hard pressed to recall more than a few novels with prose so consistently beautiful, lyrical, and engrossing.”  Truly this is one of the finest, most beautiful novels I have ever read.

According to the cover notes, Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in a small town on the Eastern border of the Habsburg Empire.  After serving in Austro-Hungarian army from 1916 to 1918, he worked as a journalist in Vienna and in Berlin.  He died in Paris in 1939.  He authored 13 novels as well as numerous stories and essays.  I see a large collection on Roth’s works in my future.

It took some time to get to the sequel, The Emperor’s Tomb, because I feared a sophomore jinx.

The young Trotta makes connections with members of his ancestral village.  He reacquaints himself with some of the customs and habits of his grand uncle’s family.  Then, Emperor Franz Joseph is assassinated, and World War I begins.  He receives a commission and joins a unit headed to the Russian front.  He becomes separated from his unit, and is quickly captured and sent to Siberia, where he lives on a farm and works the land.  When the war is over, he begins the trek home.  By the time he arrives, he finds the Austro-Hungarian Empire has collapsed, and many of the wealthy families have been stripped of their fortunes.

The interesting aspect of this wonderfully written novel is the in-depth character studies Roth provides of the nobles and the peasants, men and women.  Young Trotta falls in love with Elizabeth, they marry, and he takes off for the Russian front without a wedding night.  Trotta's circle of friends are particularly interesting in their views on the war, the empire, and their lives.  All are changed from their experiences in the military.

Roth’s prose lulls the reader into a world foreign and difficult to imagine.  He writes: “In midsummer of 1914 I … set off for Zlotogrod.  I put up at a the Hotel zum Goldenen Bären, the only hotel in the little town, I was told, which was acceptable to a European.

“The railway station was tiny, like the station at Sipolje, of which I had retained a certain memory.  All little stations in all little provincial towns looked alike throughout the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Small and painted yellow, they were like lazy cats lying in the snow in winter and in the sun in summer, protected by the glass roof over the platform, and watched by the black double eagle on its yellow background.  The porter was the same everywhere, in Sipolje as in Zlotogrod, his paunch stuffed into his in offensive dark blue uniform, and across his chest the black belt into which was tucked his bell, whose prescribed treble peal announced the departure of a train” (35).

I find it most easy to imagine standing on the platform watching the ebb and flow of passengers!  Joseph Roth has also captured the voice of the period.  All this makes The Emperor’s Tomb a thoroughly enjoyable read.  5 stars

--Chiron, 6/17/13