Narrative cross-pollination: Harakiri and The Odyssey. (Includes spoilers.)

Have you had the experience of reading two novels at once, so that the two storylines seem to intersect, overlap, or otherwise bear much stronger similarity than they would if you had read them separately?

This also happens to me between films and books: in the present case, between Homer’s Odyssey and the Japanese film Harakiri (1962, dir. Masaki Kobayashi; starring Tatsuya Nakadai), which I just watched for the second time. I recommend it most highly. (See footnote* after all the spoilers.) In fact, go watch the movie immediately so that the point of my rambling will not be lost on you. And besides, SPOILERS FOLLOW!


Harakiri ends (see? SPOILERS! I wasn’t kidding) with its hero, Hanshiro Tsugumo, dealing out a hearty dose of death to the members of House Iyi. Singlehanded against a good thirty or forty swordsmen, he kills four and mortally wounds eight, then plunges his sword into his belly just as riflemen arrive to gun him down.

I think it is only because I just finished reading the Odyssey that I noticed the resemblence to the end of Homer’s poem. Odysseus arrives at his house in disguise and, upon the moment at which he reveals himself–most conveniently with a test involving his own bow, thus ensuring that he is armed–he sets to work slaughtering the two hundred insolent suitors to his wife, Penelope, who has waited twenty years for his return. Odysseus’s fight is not quite singlehanded; he has his son Telemakhos, two hardy servants, and Athena on his side, with the added advantage of being armed, while all the suitors’ gear has been covertly locked away by Telemakhos beforehand.

I don’t imagine that the writers of Harakiri would cite Homer’s Odyssey as one of the sources of inspiration, but even so, look how similar: in the poem, the suitors make a pretense of following custom, courting Odysseus’s wife, while exploiting every opportunity to shame the true heir to the house, Telemakhos, and his lost father, Odysseus. In the film, House Iyi brags of its rigorous adherence to samurai honor, while its highest members act out of cruelty, hypocrisy, and cowardice to maintain the semblence of that honor–which Tsugumo exposes as a facade.

These respective scenes end in a polar opposite fashion: Tsugumo goes down and the whole incident is covered up; House Iyi’s “facade” remains intact. Godlike Odysseus triumphs easily with his son and servants, takes his wife to bed, and lives to die at a ripe old age according to the prophecies of Teiresias.

But in the final implications of these endings, each one leaves me with a very different taste on my tongue than I’d expect. In the most chilling moment of the film, Bennosuke, the lord of house Iyi, sits alone in a wide, empty hall of his house listening to the sounds of his men dying under Tsuguro’s blade. His horror is palpable. Maybe some ghost of his inner samurai is nagging at him to commit harakiri himself and redeem some shred of honor from this debacle he has orchestrated, but then hears the victorious rifles and his cowardly schemer’s instinct kicks in. No one, except the audience, will ever be wise to the corruption of honor in House Iyi. And yet, Bennosuke’s horror is reward in itself. From the first moment of the film we couldn’t hope for any better than we get from Tsuguro–he never had any intention other than to die in House Iyi. Thus, all the heartbreaking tragedy of his young family aside, the end of the film feels like a win for the good guys.

As for Odysseus, I laughed out loud with excited glee when, after watching all of the suitors have no more success stringing his bow than Telemakhos, he strings it effortlessly and immediately puts an arrow in Antinoos’s neck. His entire victory is grand, swift, and complete. In fact, with Athena on his side, he couldn’t lose.

It’s incredible to me that the subtlety of those slow, spare, nearly silent shots of Bennosuke sweating alone in an empty hall are so much more rewarding than the grand heroic victory of Odysseus over his many foes. Maybe it’s because Odysseus’s victory is guaranteed by Athena, whereas Bennosuke’s turmoil comes to him as a horribly unpleasant surprise–he could never in his wildest dreams have been outwitted by a half-starved ronin. Tsuguro gets a bit of bloody satisfaction against all odds. Odysseus gets the same satisfaction, but all odds are on his side–where’s his challenge?

Enough of me! Go watch some samurai films and read epic poems, and see for yourself.

END OF SPOILERS! (just in time for a footnote:)

*It occurs to me that if you’re new to the samurai genre, Harakiri may not be the best film to start with. Many of these films are FUN, featuring large-hearted samurai or ronin with a mean streak, gangs of scumbags being put in their place, violent swordplay, and so on. I would not say that Harakiri is fun–it is a tragedy of poverty, false honor, hypocrisy, and revenge. Although it has a small dose of brilliant swordplay, the film’s true virtues lie in its stunning, crisp camerawork, its complex arrangement of slowly unfolding flashbacks, and a complete set of brilliant performances by its cast (particularly Nakadai–see also Ran [1985, dir. Kurosawa] and The Sword of Doom [1966, dir. Kihachi Okamoto]). The first classic samurai film I ever saw was Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai (1954), upon which The Magnificent Seven starring Steve McQueen is based. This still seems to me the baseline of all samurai films–even at three and a half hours long, it is one of the most entertaining action films I’ve ever seen. But, if you are daunted by the length, try Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) or Yojimbo (1961). If you’re into heavier fare, try Throne of Blood (1957, dir. Kurosawa), which is based on Macbeth.

More on the Kindle

Thanks to Chad Post for sharing this on Facebook. In this article from the New Yorker, Nicholson Baker reviews the Kindle. He pans it, but just the Kindle–not e-books in general. Neither should I, I suppose. I wouldn’t want to be listed in one of those collections of silly quotes from people long-dead who said things like, “The telephone is a passing fad, and people will never give up letter-writing.” Odds are I will have joined the trend sooner or later.

Anyway, it’s a good article. When he quotes some of the Kindle’s raving fans, I’m riled by the person who described her fear of used books: “who knows where they’ve been?” That, in my opinion, is most of the joy of buying used books–they could have been anywhere, owned by anyone. But as Baker points out, “A Kindle book dies with its possessor.”

The O.E.D.

Dear Grammarians,

I shall soon surround myself with shalks, sharing seven shaddocks, and sail shallow shoals in a shackling shallop, or shoddy sailing ship, in search of shalgrams. And should any shabroon among my shalks be slacking, he’ll swiftly be shackled and shamed severely.

This game is called the O.E.D.

I won’t go into detail describing the Oxford English Dictionary. Read about it on its wikipedia page (it has a fascinating history and absolutely staggering numerical attributes) or, better yet, if you are a UR student (or otherwise have access to the online edition), simply go explore it a little. The best part of each entry is the quotations, where it lists the earliest known instances of the word’s use, and subsequent uses of the same word in evolving contexts.

I have been interested in reading this book, which is one man’s account of actually reading the entire O.E.D. from start to finish in a single year.

Professor Longenbach told us that he once heard a lecture by Hugh Kenner, who said that each century had its epic poem: The 17th had Paradise Lost; the 18th, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire; and the 19th, the O.E.D.

See how much fun I had simply going to the section of words that begin with sha-?

Try it. You will never want to use any other dictionary.


Dear Grammarians,

After something of a hiatus (for lack of interesting thoughts in my brain, perhaps), I bring the following ubiquitous discussion to the table.

I just stumbled upon this New York Times blog and I did a little jig. A black mark against the Kindle feels like a point for the good guys. Working for a struggling publishing company only aggravates my feeling, which was already pretty strong, that the Kindle is a sad fact of global digitalization. It’s not simply a matter of preference: I don’t like reading on a screen, even a non-luminescent one; I like the feel of pages; I like to write in the margins, underline, and so on; I love the smell of books, especially old ones; and I like looking at books lined up on shelves. Fine, so I won’t buy a Kindle. But it’s still sad because every Kindle means countless thousands of books that won’t be bought, read, and resold for me to buy used at shops, library sales, et cetera.

Kindles, and Amazon in general, mean the death of bookstores. In the last year or so one of my favorite small shops in Rochester, Brown Bag Bookshop, closed when its owner moved and couldn’t find a buyer. Now my family is dismayed at the imminent closing (if it hasn’t already while I’ve been away) of the Borders in Henrietta where I actually read the entirety of the second and third Harry Potter books when I was 12.

The increasing paperlessness of the world’s systems is great. Paper file archives take up ridiculous amounts of space and take excessive time and energy to search. I know firsthand because I’ve done my share of filing at New Directions. Manual filing is dreadful work. But the New Directions files–the publicity files especially–are a goldmine of beautiful artifacts: old correspondence, crumbling newspaper clippings, grainy black-and-white photographs. New Directions is too underfunded to update their filing technology any time soon. But think about the choice between efficiency and aesthetic value: efficiency is our prerogative. So is the appreciation of minor tragedy. I’d be sad to see the artifacts go, but I’d probably be glad to switch to a database of scanned-in crumbling paper clippings.

Here’s a similar example. My mother is constantly remarking at how times have changed: in her day, at my age, keeping in touch with distant friends and relatives took time, care, the dedication to write and respond to letters. Now we have Facebook, which updates us the instant our cousins in Wisconsin tie their shoes. I have lengthy email correspondences with friends, many of whom have been around the world and back in the last year. The other day, I visited Andy Bragen, the playwright of The Hairy Dutchman, and he told me about his stack of letters the size of an encyclopedia. He asked me if I save my old emails. I only save some, and usually end up deleting them unless they’re really special. Also, I’ve changed email addresses more than once, so I don’t have any of the oldest ones. I envied Andy’s record of many years of relationships. And yet, I know I don’t have the patience to actually write snail-mail. Partly because I know most people wouldn’t have the patience to respond in kind.

So: books leave paper for screens, as do files, as do letters. It feels wrong to libel the first while openly admitting my celebration of the latter two (albiet with a dose of tragic sentimentality). Am I a hypocrite?

On translation, with the help of Mr. Pound

Good evening, Grammarians!

I was reading Pound’s Literary Essays today on the 1 train downtown to 42nd street. Then I walked to the NYPL at Bryant Park to spend a couple hours in the palatial reading room there to write poems and read the Iliad. Anyway, Pound talks about literature in translation: after offering his list of required reading for the beginning student of letters, a list almost entirely of non-English writers–Homer, Ovid, Dante, Stendhal, Rimbaud, and others–he writes:

Some of the best books in English are translations. This is important for two reasons. First, the reader who has been appalled by the preceding parts and said, ‘Oh, but I can’t learn all these languages’, may in some measure be comforted. He can learn the art of writing precisely where so many great local lights learned it; if not from the definite poems I have listed, at least from the men who learned it from those poems in the first place. (“How To Read.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1968. p. 34)

Pound’s essays are really fun to read, so far (I’ve only read two). From reading them, you can see something of where Longenbach gets a great deal of his, how shall I say, pedantic aesthetic. His style (JL’s) is largely borrowed, you know. Not that there’s a thing wrong with borrowing.

I feel that I must learn Spanish. (or, or even and, French and Italian, but Bolaño’s got my desire to learn Spanish elevated to necessity.) I have two bilingual books of poetry in Spanish (one Bolaño and one Neruda) and I’ve been puzzling through them, looking more at the Spanish side than the English. It’s amazingly hard work but doing so I feel like I CAN read Spanish. I almost bought a Spanish dictionary today.

Why must I learn Spanish? As I said to Sam today, at the moment I feel like I would be happy becoming a Bolaño expert. She asked what I meant by “expert.” We discussed what that means or doesn’t mean and I revised myself: I could explore Bolaño’s work to the fullest possible extent, and Spanish is a major roadblock there. Still a good five or six of Bolaño’s books are waiting to be translated. Not that I hope to translate them, but it would be nice not to have to wait around for translations. Besides, it feels like a crime against my own literary well-being that I don’t study a second language. And look! Pound agrees, that brilliant old bastard:

I don’t in the least admit or imply that any man in our time can think with only one language. He may be able to invent a new carburettor, or even work effectively in a biological laboratory, but he probably won’t even try to do the latter without study of at least one foreign tongue. Modern science has always been multilingual. A good scientist simply would not be bothered to limit himself to one language and be held up for news of discoveries. The writer or reader who is content with such ignorance simply admits that his particular mind is of less importance than his kidneys or his automobile. (“How To Read,” p. 36)

I don’t know what Pound knew about “modern science” in 1929 when this essay was published, and I don’t know much about the state of modern science today; for example, I know a lot of bio students who take a language but I wouldn’t have thought that studying natural sciences implies a need for a second language. Still, the point is sound. Someone in the science world is translating those discoveries, and they are a step ahead of those like (me as per my boy Bolaño) waiting for the translations to come out.

Why can’t I just cut my brain down the middle and SHOVE everything in? Save a damn lot of time. Could be done before lunch. Speaking of which, what is for lunch?

Tomorrow at work I’ll scour the office for every bilingual book of poetry in Spanish I can find–I know we publish some Paz, Lorca, Parra, a couple more of Neruda’s, and probably others. (Think it’ll work? Learning Spanish from bilingual poetry books?)

A question for my readers: How would YOU define “expert” or “expertise?” In the O.E.D., things get complicated because the definition of expert (n.) uses the word expert (a.).

“One who is expert or has gained skill from experience.”

two adjective definitions:

“Experienced (in), having experience (of)”


“destitute or devoid of, free from” (obsolete). You have to see the quotations on that one.
I LOVE the O.E.D.!

Before I lose all sense of direction, goodnight.


Reading Roberto Bolaño

Dear Grammarians,

Allow me to tell you about my experience so far of the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. For only the second time in my life, this is an author whose incredible work demands to be read, all of it, as soon as I can get my hands on it (or as soon as it comes out). The first was J.K. Rowling.

I remember how I first encountered the name Roberto Bolaño. In spring 2008, before I interned at Open Letter that summer, I was meeting with the other interns and Chad Post once a week for conversations about the publishing industry. Chad talked about Amazon’s revolutionary system of click-tracking by which it logs what books you view, buy, or add to your wish list, and sends you recommendations based on those histories. Later, he forwarded us an email: “Here’s an example of a recommendation from Amazon.” I get them all the time, so this was nothing new for me. The book was Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. “The book is worth checking out, too,” said Chad.

During my internship that summer, Bolaño’s name kept popping up here and there. The release of his magnum opus, 2666, was due that November, and the “meteoric ascent” of his “reputation and legend” (according to a New York Times review) was already underway on the basis of The Savage Detectives (first published by FSG, 2007) and the four or five of his titles by then already published in the U.S. by New Directions.

Still, I did not read him until after Christmas, 2008, when I received a copy of 2666. It is his last book, finished, more or less, just before his death in 2003 at the age of 50. There is some debate as to whether the book is really finished and the consensus is that while Bolaño may have gone over it a few more times if he’d had more time, the “final” product would not have looked much different than the text we have. The book had been a very long time in the planning and drafting stages.

I started reading the gigantic novel a week after Christmas, and, as too often happens, I was only halfway through when classes started in January. Thus having neither time to read it regularly nor space in my bag to carry it around, 2666 went back on the shelf. But unlike The Brothers Karamazov, the last massive novel I failed to finish before the end of a vacation (and have yet to return to), I was actually eager to start over and read those first 450 pages a second time before having read the rest. Bolaño’s prose is just so much fun to read. An aside: My mom is reading 2666 now, and the other day she called me simply to tell me (gleefully) that she’d just read this paragraph, from page 111:

In Pelletier’s bathroom the toilet bowl was missing a chunk. It wasn’t visible at first glance, but when the toilet seat was lifted, the missing piece suddenly leaped into sight, almost like a bark. How the hell did no one notice this? Wondered Pelletier. Norton had never seen a toilet in such bad shape. Some eight inches were missing. Under the white porcelain was a red substance, like brick wafers spread with plaster. The missing piece was in the shape of a half-moon. It looked as if someone had ripped it off with a hammer. Or as if someone had picked up another person who was already on the floor and smashed that person’s head against the toilet, thought Norton.

In March, I had secured my present internship with New Directions and I traveled to New York City to visit the office and meet my future co-workers. While I was there, the assistant editor Michael Barron took me into the room where they keep the shelves of publicity copies and asked me what I was reading, and what I liked. I told him I had recently become very interested in Bolaño but hadn’t been able to finish 2666 because I was too busy. He gave me a copy of Last Evenings on Earth, a collection of short stories, so that I might find a moment here and there to read a story. I did so throughout the rest of the semester, and finished the collection during finals. Not all of the stories were nearly as good as what I had read of 2666, but some, like “A Literary Adventure,” “Phone Calls,” and “Last Evenings on Earth,” were endlessly gripping and strange. From the latter story:

Then the lull comes to an end, the forty-eight hours of grace in the course of which B and his father have visited various bars in Acapulco, lain on the beach and slept, eaten, even laughed, and an icy phase begins, a phase which appears to be normal but is ruled by deities of ice (who do not, however, offer any relief from the heat that reigns in Acapulco), hours of what, in former days, when he was an adolescent, perhaps, B would have called boredom, although he would certainly not use that word now, disaster he would say, a private disaster whose main effect is to drive a wedge between B and his father: part of the price they must pay for existing.

Bolaño is simultaneously a purely literary writer, writing stories about writers and writing, and a crime or “noir” writer, as well as a war history writer. The fifth section of 2666, for example, follows a WWII private, a German, through the course of the Eastern advance and defeat by the Russians; others of his books, such as By Night in Chile and Amulet, are primarily set during Pinochet’s 1973 military coup to depose Chilean President Salvador Allende. What is most wonderful to me about Bolaño, however, and perhaps most unique, for I’ve never encountered any writer like this, is the way his writing ranges all over the world as a single place. Not to say that he pretends to ideals of world unity and understanding; his characters are usually realistically self-centered and stereotyping, even racist and chauvinist (see Nazi Literature in the Americas) in their attitudes, but his eye is undiscerning and unprejudiced in its views. 2666 especially is a global work of fiction. The many protagonists come from such various lands as Sonora, New York City, Argentina, Texas, Paris, Madrid, Romania, The Black Forest, London, Milan, and others. Bolaño’s knowledge and portrayal of the world, its people, and its history, is astounding.

The other most wonderful thing about Bolaño is the way his stories branch and layer like the multifoliate rose. Characters tell their own stories which contain further stories, on into infinity. Each of his novels is its own compendium of short and long stories that weave off in all directions. It makes each of his short novels—By Night in Chile and Amulet especially—expand in the mind to epic proportions, while 2666, epic to begin with, seems like an infinite novel.

I have read seven of his books: Last Evenings on Earth; the poetry collection The Romantic Dogs; and the novels 2666, By Night in Chile, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Distant Star, and Amulet. I am about to begin The Savage Detectives. If you want to read him and aren’t sure where to start, I would recommend 2666 as one of the best books I’ve ever read. If you are daunted by its sheer weight in pounds, you might try the much lighter (in mass, not tone or subject matter) Amulet or Last Evenings on Earth. Since I haven’t read it yet I can’t justly recommend The Savage Detectives but as far as I know that is where most people start.

This blog is already running to epic proportions itself, so I’ll leave it there. There’s still lots to say about Bolaño’s very interesting life, the story of his first publication in the U.S., and about his books themselves. I’ll save those topics for later.

until tomorrow or the next day,


Fagles or Fitzgerald?; on introductions

Dear Grammarians,

A gaping hole in my reading remains: the classical epics. This summer I aim to read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. I decided this over a month ago, and I’ve finally gotten underway.

Weeks ago I emailed Professor Longenbach to ask which translation of Homer was the best. He recommended the one by Robert Fagles for its ease of reading, pointing out that “as Matthew Arnold said so rightly and so long ago, speed is good for Homer.” He also said he liked Robert Fitzgerald’s, saying it was more difficult but “appropriately hieratic.” I had to look up “hieratic.” According to the O.E.D. (I love the O.E.D. I might write an entire entry on its joys):

Pertaining to or used by the priestly class; used in connexion with sacred subjects. spec. a. Applied to a style of ancient Egyptian writing, which consisted of abridged forms of hieroglyphics.

This distinction doesn’t mean much to me, so I still didn’t know which one to get. Today, however, I was in a (wonderful) store called Book Culture on 112th and Broadway, where I found the Fitzgerald versions of the Iliad and Odyssey greatly discounted. Next to them, less discounted, was the Fagles in a boxed set. I compared the opening lines of the Iliad; Fitzgerald was clearly using a more difficult syntax, and spelling names in “Greek” transliteration rather than Latinate (e.g., Akhilleus instead of Achilles, and some even more obscuring for me–descended myriad-great grandchild of Latin that I am–such as Aias for Ajax). But why would I want something easier?

I was also immediately drawn to Fitzgerald’s fourth line, “and crowded brave souls into the undergloom”.

The clincher was that the Fagles was printed with those rough-cut edges that make it hard to flip through a book. Know what I mean? I can’t stand those.

So I bought the pair of Fitzgeralds and took them home.

I immediately read the Iliad‘s introduction, by Andrew Ford. As introductions go, even at 28 pages it is perhaps the most absorbing and tangibly worthwhile introduction that I’ve ever read. Usually I begin reading an introduction knowing it is intended to enrich my reading, and after a few pages I realize I’m too distracted by my eagerness to read the work to actually pay attention to the intro, and so I ditch the rest. Also, it often seems as though introductions are written assuming that the reader has already read the work, and thus it seems a waste of time to read them first. Ford, however, justifies himself in plainphrased prose as invaluable to be read before reading this version (Fitzgerald’s) of the Iliad, while assuming that the reader might have read others, and even that the reader might be more interested in a different version and a different approach than that which Fitzgerald takes. It was as much an introduction to Fitzgerald as to Homer. It was tightly written, interesting, and enjoyable, especially the last section, “Style and Translation.” When I get to that topic more seriously–literature in translation–I’m sure I’ll have occasion to come back to it.

In any case, so far I am quite pleased with my choice of the Fitzgerald version, and so with that, on with the epics.

Most sincerely,


P.S. I will be getting on to my listed “upcoming topics,” really. It simply seems there will be a few unannounced interludes now and then.

Just to get things off the ground

Greetings, grammarians!

I’ve been struggling with a grammar lesson that Julia has been trying to hammer into my skull the last few times I’ve seen her: every time I say something like “There are less people on this end of the train,” she snaps, “FEWER people.” Take note.

But then, according to Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, people is always singular, as in “A people of short stature inhabit this continent.” They say that “six people” is not to be confused with “six persons.” Points such as this are the target of heated criticism in a Room For Debate blog in the New York Times online (here). According to the writers in this discussion, The Elements of Style is behind the times as a model for “acceptable” English prose style because, whatever that is, good style continues to evolve.

I remember Sam said to me once that she cannot agree with people who say things like, “The great thing about English is that you can make it your own and bend it how you like,” in the manner of slang, dialects, and urban dictionary, I suppose. THERE ARE RULES, she said, AND WE MUST RESPECT THEM, or something to that effect.

This is true, but it’s our job as grammarians to RESIST them. To resist them, first we have to know the rules and understand them intricately.

So go READ SOME MORE. You can start here:


Gloomy grammarians in golden gowns,
Meekly you keep the mortal rendezvous,
Eliciting the still sustaining pomps
Of speech which are like music so profound
They seem an exaltation without sound.
Funest philosophers and ponderers,
Their evocations are the speech of clouds.
So speech of your processionals returns
In the casual evocations of your tread
Across the stale, mysterious seasons. These
Are the music of meet resignation; these
The responsive, still sustaining pomps for you
to magnify, if in that drifting waste
You are to be accompanied by more
Than mute bare splendors of the sun and moon.

–Wallace Stevens (from his Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1990. p. 55)

A final thought: “Funest” in the sixth line does not mean the epitome of fun. On the contrary, it is a now rare adjective meaning “Causing or portending death or evil; fatal, deadly, disastrous; deeply deplorable.” Thanks O.E.D.