Friday, November 24, 2017

Euripides's "Hekabe"

On Monday evening we consider Euripides's "Hekabe," a drama concerning the aftermath of the legendary Trojan War.
Euripdes (484 - 407 B.C.)

Hekabe, widow of the Trojan king Priam, is taken hostage to Thrace.  The Tracian king, Polymestor, has murdered Hekabe's son Polydorus.  Her daughter, Polyxena is to be sacrificed on the grave of the Greek hero Achilles.

The Polydorus and Polyxena stories are separate sagas, yet they both flow through Euripides's presentation of their mother.  The British classical scholar H. D. F. Kitto writes, "The play, quite simply, makes its own impression, and that is its 'meaning' .... [Hekabe herself] is a symbol ... and the play derives its unity and power not from the symbol, but from the thing symbolized."*

*Kitto, H.F.D., Greek Tragedy, 3rd edit. (London: Methuen, 1961), p. 222.

Friday, October 20, 2017

O'Brien's "The Things They Carried": Vietnam War Stories

Tim O'Brien (1946-   )
On Monday evening we take up "The Things They Carried," the title story of Tim O'Brien's 1990 story collection based on his tour of duty as an infantryman in Vietnam in 1969-70. O'Brien occasionally interjects himself into the twenty-two stories in the collection, although mostly they are about his fellow soldiers. The book's title page states it is a "work of fiction by Tim O'Brien." The dedication, however, states "This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa," all of whom play roles in the title story and in fact throughout the collection.  O'Brien speaks of a "story truth" that underlies events, and you the reader might find the notion of "story truth" to be an excellent point of departure as you approach this narrative of the human tragedies of war.

Friday, September 22, 2017

"Lava Cameo" of Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland (1944-  )
On Monday our reading is "Lava Cameo," the first chapter of the Irish poet Eavan Boland's memoir Object Lessons.  The piece tells the story of her grandmother, born Mary Ann Sheils, who died in 1909 at the age of 31 in Dublin, leaving behind a husband and five daughters, of whom the youngest was Eavan Boland's mother. Interwoven with Mary Ann's story is the tempestuous history of modern Ireland. Embedded within these narratives is Eavan Boland's own struggle to find her voice as a poet.  She contends women have always been "objects" of poetry. They've been idealizations (for example, "muses"). As a result, Boland writes, "I found my poetry and my sexuality on a collision course." How is she to transcend that tradition to create authentic poetry, made by a real-life contemporary woman?

Friday, August 25, 2017

"The Smallest Woman in the World," by Clarice Lispector

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977)
At this coming Monday's meeting, we'll take a look at Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector's short story "The Smallest Woman in the World."

I've prepared a visual map of the story. In it you see that Lispector gives us two parallel narratives. They are (1) the story of French explorer Marcel Pretre and his amazing find, a 45-cm-tall and pregnant African pygmy woman whom Pretre dubs "Little Flower," and (2) the reactions of multiple readers of a Sunday newspaper supplement in which a photograph of Little Flower has been published.

My map serves as an x-ray of the bones of the story.  To get a feel for the organs, muscles and skin, we must immerse ourselves in Lispector's lush dense prose.

The comment by the final voice in the story, while "folding her newspaper in determination," is a real zinger at the end, and we'll talk about it.

Here is Tom's "Reader's Aid".  You can click on it to get an expanded view:

Friday, July 21, 2017

Poetry of Lisel Mueller

On Monday evening we take up four poems by the modern American poet Lisel Mueller: "Joy," "The Power of Music to Disturb," "Immortality," and "Into Space."

She was born Lisel Neumann in 1924 in Hamburg, Germany, and emigrated with her family to the United States in 1939.  In a PBS interview, Mueller stated, "By the time I started writing, English was almost like a first language for me.  I never wrote in German.  This gave me an advantage .... it made me more conscious."  

Mueller won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for her volume of new and collected poems, Alive Together.  Read the interview she gave the NewsHour after the announcement of the prize here.

Join us on Monday evening!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"

Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" elicited many responses from readers when it was first published in the New Yorker in June of 1948. Jackson received about 150 letters that summer alone, and many more in the years to come. The majority of these letters were neither positive nor negative in tone.  They were instead expressions of bafflement concerning the message Jackson was trying to convey.

According to an excellent new biography of Jackson, Shirley Jackson: a Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin (Liveright Publishing, 2016), a New Yorker staffer named Kipp Orr was charged with replying to these readers. Franklin's book has the following excerpt from the standard letter Orr sent to readers:

"It seems to us that Miss Jackson's story can be interpreted in a half dozen different ways. It's just a fable ... she has chosen a nameless little village to show in microcosm, how the forces of belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness are in mankind, endless and traditional, and that their targets are chosen without reason."

I love both Orr's use of the New Yorker editorial voice, ("it seems to us") and his assertion of "a half dozen" different interpretations. No more and no less?!?  I'm looking forward to hearing how many we can come up with this Monday evening, at the Huntington Public Library.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Coping in Hard Times: Kawabata's "First Snow on Fuji"

19th-c rendering of Noh drama.
Our May 22nd meeting was devoted to Kawabata’s short story “First Snow on Fuji,” in which two former lovers, Jiro and Utako, reunite to take an overnight journey to Hakone, located in an area famous for its mineral baths.

Their relationship years earlier during the Second World War had resulted in the birth of a child, who was put up for adoption and then died.  When Jiro and Utako talk about the child on their journey to Hakone, Utako, the mother of the child, appears to have repressed the memory altogether.  Jiro, on the other hand, is ridden with guilt.  At one point in the conversation he blurts out, “We killed that child,” and immediately afterwards regrets having said it.

One of our participants pointed out a moving passage later in the story. During the war, Jiro fled Tokyo and rented a room in the nearby countryside, in Musashino. A teacher of Noh chanting had also relocated to Musashino, and gave lessons to the priest of the local temple. Noh is an ancient Japanese performance art that combines singing, instrumentation, dance, and drama.  Jiro enjoyed watching their rehearsals. 

He tells Utako, “It struck me as peculiar and also as pretty amazing that they would go on hitting drums and playing flutes even as we were losing the war, you know?  I mean – there probably wasn’t anything else they could do, but still … you and I didn’t even have enough willpower left to think like that – to realize that there was nothing left for us to do but play our flutes.” 

Utako replies, “…you and I should have been playing our flutes together. Things ended up like this because we weren’t.” (Michael Emmerich translation)