What I’m Reading
Posted June 7, 2007on:
The latest Penguin Classics edition of Paradise Lost has a 43 pages introduction. Typically this sort of thing would make me groan out loud, and I did sigh a bit when I flipped through them. But I am happy to say that John Leonard of the University of Western Ontario (imagine Western having anything academic to brag about ) wrote an useful, informative, inviting introduction. He places the work in historical, theological and political context, only mentions the relevant parts of Milton’s life, and familiarizes the reader with the “universe” of Paradise Lost (for eg. what Milton means when he uses the word “universe” vs “world” vs “Chaos” etc.). And he gives a nice run down through some of the poem’s major themes, what critics like C.S. Lewis and William Empson have opined and what he thinks about it all. He is careful to leave a lot of room for the reader.
Throughout this edition I have endeavoured to annotate Milton’s allusions in a way that opens rather than closes a reader’s interpretative choice. I do this not because I am determined on indeterminacy, but because I want to provide readers with the materials that will enable them to determine interpretative matters for themselves.
His intro lacked the stuffy tone of the usual Oxbridge contributors. Not that I mind the tone so much, unless the intro is terrible and then I can’t bear to read another word. What I am finding a little bothersome is that the edition has endnotes instead of footnotes and there is no notation to tell you which word or line has been explained. The latter wouldn’t be such a problem if the notes were on the same page, but when every few lines you have to flipping back and forth to the end of the book….well! not the best reading experience. Does anyone know of a Paradise Lost edition that has the notes on the same page, like the Arden Shakespeare editions (oh, I love them so)? Maybe such a move would ruin the form of the poem or something…
It’s going to take me a very long time to finish The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall. She has a knack for opulent descriptions of just about everything, from a mother’s wearied face, to the bloody phlegm that the tuberculosis patients cough up into buckets at a seaside hotel turned sanatorium. I had to take a break after one description, I thought I could Cory’s imagined sightings of mountains and castles that he saw in said bucket that he had to empty, then I had to stop when he peeked into a room he shouldn’t have, and Hall was going to take eager pen to describe in colourful, lurid detail an amateur surgery. (Have you seen Vera Drake? Then you know to what I’m referring.)
Amanda A. I can see what you mean about the over-writing: in some cases it exasperates, in others it doesn’t but I have not reached very far yet. We’ll see.
I’ve been reading a lot of on-line literary sites in the past few days. Do check out Estella’s Revenge which has a great set of articles this time around, including my favourite, the Book Tour. Stuart Sharp has written an entertaining overview of that most literary of sports: cricket. Open Letters Monthly has a lot of good stuff for this month, including a Peer Review of the critical pages devoted to Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, another review of Hermione Lee’s Wharton bio by Steve Donoghue (probably my favourite contributor right now) and translated goodness with a review of César Vallejo’s “unparalled” poetry. A browse through the archives turned up this gem, a peer review of the critics’ take on Robert Fagles’ “good” translation of Aeneid.
[There is a] deeply ambivalent undertone running through almost all the major reviews of this work. (A notable exception would be Thomas Cahill’s hysterical encomium in the Los Angeles Times, in which he mentions the work’s “inexplicable greatness,” calls it “magnificent,” and says “all I can do is point, like a child watching his first parade, at some of the delights he [Fagles] has bestowed upon us.” Lost in this childlike – more accurately childish? – wonder, Cahill seems unaware of the fact that when he says of Fagles’ Aeneid “classicists may fail to recognize it” he’s not, in fact, paying the book a compliment).
Donoghue’s reaction to the LRB book review mirrored mine.
A searcher for measured, intelligent praise of Fagles might think they’ve found it in Denis Feeney’s review in the London Review of Books. Feeney calls the work “a fitting cap to a distinguished career” (if I were Fagles, I’d be a little dismayed by the obituary tone of so many of these reviews) and goes on to say it’s “powerful,” “moving,” and “strikingly successful.” But the reader would then go on to read that Feeney is mentioned in Fagles’ acknowledgments with, as Feeney says, “characteristic over-generosity.” At which point the entire review goes to the bottom of the birdcage, and the reader continues the quest.
When you’re done cackling with glee — oh, that was only me was it? Maybe Sylvia joined in — trip over to The Quarterly Conversation which has reviews of Chris Abani’s Virgin of Flames, Murakami’s After Dark and three interviews with translators of Latin American works.