Friends for a reason, friends for a season

I have just read the Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning (1908-1980), first published in 1987, based on her experiences in Romania and Greece between 1939 and 1941 (i.e. during the Second World War).  It is a story of war, seen from the point of view of numerous civilians caught up in it.

Native Romanians and Greeks feature in the pages; but most of the characters are British – people who have either chosen to live abroad or have been posted there to work for the British Government.

At the very end of the story, Harriet Pringle (principal character) and Guy (her husband) are obliged to flee from Greece as the Germans invade (1941).  Harriet thinks about the scattering of the people they have got to know:

Harriet thought of Charles left behind with the retreating army, of David taken by the enemy, of Sasha become a stranger, of Clarence lost in Salonika, of Alan who would share the fate of the Greeks, and of Yakimov in his grave. Not one of their friends remained except Ben Phipps; the ‘vainest and the emptiest’.

Note that Harriet is a woman in a man’s world; and the above-named are all men.

One conclusion I draw from my reading is that the people named (and others described in the trilogy) are acquaintances and temporary colleagues rather than genuine friends – friends only for a “reason” (e.g. work) and a “season” (the period 1939-41).  Moreover, there are many squabbles among them – they are not united in the face of adversity.

The British exiles go through various emotions as the war continues and the territories of allies and neutrals are lost to the “Axis” – ranging from hope (which turns out to be ill founded) to ironic humour and to worry (even panic).  Finally they get to grips with the practicalities of getting away (or even staying put).  Their predicament is exacerbated by the fact that, while troops can be evacuated from Dunkirk as France falls in 1940, they find themselves on the “wrong” side of Europe – beyond the easy reach of Allied forces that might keep the enemy at bay or rescue them.

The Brits tend to be unrealistic about the true nature of their plight.  (Make some allowance for hindsight, here.)  One can read signs, between the lines, of the gradual but steady decline of the Britain as a world power.

The air of unreality that hangs over the Brits is reinforced by Guy Pringle’s enthusiastic putting on, in Bucharest, Romania, in 1940, of an amateur production of William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, a play set in the context of the legendary Trojan War.   It is performed to raise the morale of the British residents and to impress the Romanians.  The casting is inspired, and the performances are widely regarded as a success.  But what an incongruous choice!  Shakespeare’s language is difficult in places, especially in this play, even for people whose first language is not English.  Indeed, it is seldom performed.

One characteristic of Troilus and Cressida is the squabbles among the Trojans (whether to keep Helen or to hand her over to the Greeks), balanced with the squabbles among the Greeks (as to how best to restore the authority of Agamemnon while persuading Achilles to return to the front line) – quite apart from the actual war itself.  (See too Homer’s Iliad, while noticing the major differences in plot, characterisation and tone.)

A second feature of Troilus and Cressida is the evidence displayed that both Helen and the eponymous Cressida are women in a man’s world: they can be reduced to the status of bargaining counters – in other words, “articles of trade….weak and oppressed” (see Prof R A Foakes’s  Introduction to the 1987 Penguin edition of the play).  At the same time, none of the male characters can be taken seriously as a hero (with the possible exception of Hector), either in matters of war or in those of love – they are proud and self-serving.  The end of the play is neither tragic nor comic (certainly, it’s not funny).

At the end of Troilus, the war is still going on.  But (outside the framework of the play) Troy will eventually fall.  One Part of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy is itself called ‘The Fall of Troy’ – a clear allusion made to the momentous Fall of France in 1940.

It so happens that, earlier this year, I had re-read Troilus and Cressida, before reading the Balkan Trilogy for the first time.  The reference to the former, within the body of the latter, came as a pleasant surprise.

Returning to the Trilogy: Harriet Pringle has a mind of her own, intelligence, perception and sensitivity.  However, by virtue of her married status (Britain, 20th century style), and the roles that both she as an individual accepts and that societies as a whole ascribe to her, she trails behind her husband Guy, in his wake; and she makes a series of concessions to his wishes and needs, in order to keep him happy – swallowing her pride but feeling resentment.

The 21st century reader may see things differently from Harriet intellectually while sympathising with her predicament emotionally.  (Make up your own mind.)

The Balkan Trilogy is an excellent read.  You feel you’re there, in time and place.

Troilus and Cressida is an excellent read too.  (You may never get the chance to see it performed.)

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30 Years of Troubles, 20 Years of (some) Peace

In 1969, as a young single man, I spent four weeks in Northern Ireland, based first in Derry and then in Belfast as a participant in volunteer work camps (the volunteers all being outsiders).  It was a learning experience.  I saw burnt out houses in Belfast.  I saw the “no go area” of the Bogside part of Derry.  I felt the warmth of the hospitality of the people.  I saw the sectarian divide.  And I was there when British troops moved into Belfast.

Quietly, in the background, Quakers (Irish and British) worked for reconciliation, in the following years.

I have not been back to N Ireland since.  This summer, my wife and I are thinking seriously of going to the area as visitors – tourists, if you like.

Since 1969, I have been an onlooker of events and changes in N Ireland.  I note that today (10 April) is being marked as the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Any agreement in such a fraught situation is hard to achieve and to maintain, as it represents an awkward trade-off between “peace” (well, an absence (or reduction) of armed conflict) and “justice” (the prosecution of offenders and the granting of some satisfaction to victims).  However, on the whole, the Good Friday Agreement appears to have stood the test of time.

Let’s be frank.  The idea of “Brexit” – the departure of the UK from the European Union – represents the undermining of the Good Friday Agreement and a threat to peace.

The customs border between Northern Ireland and the Free State (later, the Republic) was established in the 1920s, as the South broke away from the UK.  The customs arrangements were doubtless part of the South’s new-found sovereignty.  But I suspect that the trade barriers hindered the development of the South in the subsequent years: it remained relatively poor and suffered from continuing emigration (eg to the UK).  The South prospered once it joined the EU (together with Britain) in 1973 and in particular with the creation of the Single Market.

The prospect of a “hard” border between North and South is unappetising, to say the least.

 

Exiles and lift boys – Karl Rossmann and Felix Krull – Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann and Frank Kafka are two of the great 20th century writers in German.  I draw some comparisons, below.

Kafka: the lift and the downward drift

Kafka had a knack of opening his longer works – I am thinking of his novels and The Metamorphosis – with arresting sentences that point to the whole development of the ensuing story, like an omen.

The Castle:

It was late evening when K arrived.  The village lay in deep snow. The castle hill was invisible; it was enveloped in fog and darkness; from the great castle not even the faintest light shone through.

The Trial:

Somebody must have told lies about Josef K, for although he had done nothing wrong, he was arrested one morning.

The Metamorphosis:

As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from disturbing dreams, he found himself transformed into a monstrous insect.

Amerika:

As the sixteen-year-old Karl Rossmann, sent to America by his poor parents because a maid had seduced him and had had a child by him, was sailing into New York Harbour on board the gradually slowing ship, he caught sight again of the Statue of the Goddess of Liberty, which appeared to be lit up by a burst of sunshine.   Clutching her sword, her arm towered above him….

(All the translations are my own.)

“Now read on!”

Kafka’s prose is very precise; and I would not wish any sentence or clause to be taken away.

The last named novel concerns a very young man and his career in exile in the USA.  On his way, he suffers further insults and further losses – precarious friendships are broken, repeatedly, as he lands in difficulties and is obliged to keep moving on.  He works for a short time as a hotel lift boy, at the bottom of the staff hierarchy, happy in his relationship with two women on the hotel staff.   He ends up being reprimanded by his superiors, over an act of kindness to an acquaintance, and he is dismissed.  Things cannot get worse — but indeed they do.  (However, this verdict depends on how one construes the ending, or endings, that have come down to us.)  (See my blog post of September 2013.)

As I have said before, Kafka succeeds in creating pathos, in the context of a credible, albeit nightmarish, world of his own devising.

Mann: the lift and the uplift

The last novel of Thomas Mann was called Die Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull – The Confessions of the Confidence Trickster Felix Krull.  I have just re-read it.

Note that the novel is unfinished; only the First Part exists; Thomas Mann died before he could continue it.

Felix Krull is affected by the collapse of his father’s business and his father’s suicide; and he has to make his own way in the world.  This he does – via Frankfurt am Main, Paris and Lisbon.

Felix is a pícaro – the novel is picaresque and comic.  The hero makes the most of the opportunities offered him; and he goes from strength to strength.  In Paris, he commences work as a hotel lift boy.  He is promoted to waiter.  He is befriended by several hotel guests; and (to cut a long story short) he exchanges places with an aristocrat (at the latter’s request), assuming his identity, and starts out on the nobleman’s planned world tour in his place, so that the aristocrat can remain in Paris with his girlfriend.  So, Felix goes up in the world, whether he deserves to or not.  And he makes the most of it.

Many of Felix’s adventures have to do with sexual relationships – all short term, as he keeps moving on (onwards and upwards).  He is befriended by a Lisbon family, and he chooses to linger in the city, lost in admiration, as he is, for both mother and daughter.  Which one (if either) will he seduce, or be seduced by?

To my mind, one of the jokes of the book is the surname of the father/husband, which is “Kuckuck”, i.e. “cuckoo”.  Will Felix cuckold him?

Thomas Mann’s irony, and his allusions to (and parodies of) previous writers, can be found, if you look for them.  His prose is sophisticated.  Kafka’s, by contrast, remains, at root, plain.  Mann’s style, moreover, is difficult: his prose is characterised by very long sentences, with subordinate clauses, a very wide vocabulary, numerous adjectives; and it has a rather old-fashioned air.  Mann works hard to create local colour, especially in the Lisbon scenes, and he succeeds.  But I still prefer Kafka’s prose; and it is easier to translate.

Finally, I’ll quote the opening sentence of the Confessions, in a free translation, in order to compare it with Kafka’s (above).  (One should make allowances for the first person nature of the narrative and the self-congratulatory nature of the narrator himself.)

As I take up my pen, at my leisure and in privacy, while still healthy, though tired, very tired (so that I can proceed only in short stages and with frequent rests in between) – as I prepare, then, to commit my confessions, in my distinctively clear and felicitous handwriting, to the paper that waits patiently for me, I have fleeting doubts as to whether I am really equal to the mental effort required, given my patchy education and training.

And so the novel goes on, in this vein.

To compensate somewhat for my criticism, I’ll quote the ending.  Here it is (very freely translated):

“Holé!  Heho!  Ahé!” she cried, in great jubilation.  A whirlwind of primitive forces transported me into a state of rapture.  And, amid my ardent caresses, I could see her truly regal bosom rise, to greater heights, with greater passion, than at today’s bull fight.

I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to guess which lady ends up in the protagonist’s arms (unless, of course, you already know).

 

a brief skylight on Portugal

In the course of our married life (forty years plus) my wife Jane and I have had a series of holidays at the western edge of Europe – from the Orkneys in the north, southward through Sky, Mull and Iona (but not Lewis and Harris, and little of Ireland), the Highlands, Galloway, the Lake District, Formby, the Llŷn Peninsula and West Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Galicia – and in 2017, Portugal (continental and Madeira).  Variety but also similarities – the pounding waves and the prevailing south west winds, often bearing rain.

So, Portugal, albeit visited in its own right, fitted into this life story.  It did not disappoint.

One of the striking things about Portugal is the fact (going back several hundred years) is that it is not Spain.  (Small countries endeavour to retain their identity vis-à-vis big neighbours.)  Similarly, Portuguese is not the same as Spanish.  (Jane and I love Spanish.)  A second truism is that one can try to read written Portuguese but to speak it and to understand the spoken language require much knowledge and practice.

We went around an informative museum in Funchal about the history of Madeira.  The exhibits were well labelled – in four languages – Portuguese, English, French and German – but not Spanish.

I learnt some basic phrases, in order to communicate with the people we met, and to show respect, but I was reluctant to use Spanish.

In the Middle Ages, the Portuguese and Galician languages were similar – “o” for masculine “the” and “a” for feminine “the” – and they still retain this feature (contrast Spanish “el” and “la”).  But a superficial look (mine) inclines one (me) to think that they have drifted apart, because of the longstanding political division.

To fortify my appreciation of Portugal, I dipped into its literature – in particular, the epic of Luís de Camões, Os Lusíados, based upon early Portuguese explorations of Africa and India (read in translation), and also the early novel of José Saramago, Claraboia [Skylight], about the residents (ordinary people) of a block of flats in Lisbon in the early 1950s.  (Recommended.)  (We visited the Saramago Foundation in Lisbon.)

Saramago’s characters are distinct and clearly drawn.  They are human, and they suffer the ups and downs (especially downs) of life.  Happy and unhappy couples feature, and poor widows, and hopeful young women; one woman is “kept” as the mistress of a businessman; another is abused by her husband.

One wife (Carmen) is from Galicia in Spain, and she has not fully mastered Portuguese, after many years of residence in Portugal.  She regrets her marriage to her husband and thinks back to a better offer she had back home.  (At the end of the novel, Carmen returns to Galicia to see her family (with her husband’s permission, as required!); and the reader is let into her thoughts about taking advantage of the opportunity not to return to her husband.)

Silvestre, the shoemaker (usually portrayed in a positive light), describes Carmen, unflatteringly, in these terms:

Ela é que é uma víbora.  E galega, aind por cima….Mas bem conhece o ditado: “De Espanha, nem bom vento, nem bom casamento.”

[Chapter XII]

She’s a real viper, though, and Spanish too boot…You know what they say: “From Spain expect only cold winds and cold wives.”

[translated by M J Costa, Vintage, 2015]

Do European countries (and regions) remain both friends and rivals to this day?

 

 

“One small victory for women”

Deborah Orr writes  in the “i” newspaper, today, 29 March 2018, about the ramifications of a legal case (England and Wales) to do with keeping a serial rapist (considered for release) behind bars, especially as there remain outstanding complaints by women against him.  (I won’t name him here – why pay him more attention?)

Ms Orr puts the issue in context.  The thinking behind the proposal to release the prisoner is:

quite staggeringly literal-minded and repulsively clueless about what it is like to live as a woman in a culture that does not understand or acknowledge the extreme and dangerous gender inequality that rape creates and promulgates.

Ms Orr writes movingly about her own experiences of abuse by men.  And for the benefit of her male readers (I am one), she outlines the precautions women feel obliged to take against being raped, “as a matter of course as we go about our daily lives” – precautions that infringe upon their freedom of choice – things that do not apply to men.

I can only try to grasp this intellectually.  (At least, in social work, I have met female victims of sexual abuse; and I have believed their story.)

Now, I read a lot of good literature that deals with powerful emotions and bad experiences; and my own opinion is that female writers are worth reading (partly but not solely) for their take on these.  But sometimes a man can have a go.  Wm Shakespeare himself did, in his long poem, The Rape of Lucrece, of 1594.

Lucrece is a tough read, for various reasons.  Arguably, it is over-long and includes too many rhetorical flourishes and paradoxes.  Rightly, more attention is paid to the victim (Lucrece) than the rapist.

To cut a very long story short: it is plain that Lucrece is guiltless but nevertheless she feels such guilt and shame and contamination, allied to concern for the implications for her marriage and her husband, that she takes her own life.  A tragedy, indeed.  Credit to Shakespeare, then, for delving into the depths of Lucrece’s plight.

History and Tragedy

                  Here I and my sorrows sit;

Here is my throne, bid kings come to it.

 

(Constance, King John, Act 1, Scene 3)

I have been re-reading some of William Shakespeare’s history plays plus Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.  The “biopics” and “All the President’s Men” of their day!

There are many by Shakespeare.  In chronological order – the order in which the fictionalised events happened – they comprise: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra; Macbeth (it has some relationship with Scottish history); King John, Edward III (perhaps a part), Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II and III (perhaps Shakespeare was a contributor to Part I), Richard III, Thomas More (perhaps Shakespeare contributed a small part), and finally Henry VIII (together with John Fletcher).

So, the history plays form a large part of his output.

The plays are about politics and display examples of good and bad leadership.  Who (if anyone) is best?  Who is the legitimate ruler?  How is legitimacy determined?

If you had happened to live in Ancient Rome (for example), would you have preferred Julius Caesar or Antony or Brutus or Cassius or Octavian (Augustus)?  (Apply this to medieval history and modern history too.)  Some have leadership qualities but all are flawed.  The second lesson is that human nature has not changed at heart, and we all have emotional drives – will, power, lust, love – which can take over our lives and which can ruin those of others.

It is interesting (at least to me) to compare recorded history (told by chroniclers) with dramatisations (eg those by Shakespeare and his contemporaries).  Good critical studies and well written academic editions of the works give the reader an insight into the variations.  (Retain some scepticism, as (surely?) there is no such thing as absolute historical truth.)  But at least we can say (can’t we?) that an effective drama has psychological and sociological truth – which takes us back to political battles and human desires.

For some readers, doubtless, and viewers of dramas, it is preferable to enjoy a play without engaging, actively or passively, in literary criticism.  The latter forms another world, a different world.  I like it.

This year already I have worked my way through a version of Richard III based on the First Quarto (1597), with minimal editing and notes.  (John Drakakis, ‘Shakespeare Originals’, 1996.)  (I note that, in history, Edward IV is deemed to be responsible for the death of George Duke of Clarence, but in the play the blame is shared between Edward and Richard.)

This year too I got hold of the new ‘Arden 3’ (Lander & Tobin, Bloomsbury, 2018) edition of King John, as I admire this play.  I looked for new insights.  However, I was somewhat disappointed by the depth of the editors’ background writing.  On looking again into the 1974 Penguin, edited by R L Smallwood, I find that he is strong on all the essentials:

  • the historical background
  • Shakespeare’s use of sources (see in particular the anonymous Troublesome Reign of King John)
  • his selection and telescoping of historical events
  • textual issues, too.

I went back to my own copy of The Troublesome Reign, edited by Charles R Forker (‘Revels Plays’, Manchester, 2011).  (The Reign is anonymous, but Forker attributes it to George Peele.)  This edition succeeds in throwing light on the historical background of both the Reign and Shakespeare’s John, and the influence of the former on the latter; so it fills a gap arguably left by the Arden 3 book.

I was tempted to seek out versions of other plays, edited by Forker, and bought both his Edward II (Revels, 1994) and his (Richard II) (Arden 3, 2002).  I found them illuminating – for example, about the influence of Marlowe’s play on Richard II. 

Kings die in these plays (some of them after being deposed) – that is their tragedy.  But, if their country does not unite behind the successor, all are affected and many suffer.

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings.

 

[Richard himself, Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2]

 

 

 

 

Games of the English Throne, Shakespeare style

In several of his plays, from the very early ones, Wm Shakespeare addresses issues of power and politics – politics often carried out through war.  See, for example, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, from the history of Ancient RomeSee too the tetralogy Henry VI Parts 1-3 plus King Richard III, and King John, set in the Middle Ages of England and Wales, which were composed in the early 1590s.

The Henry VI plays paint a bleak picture of a country at war with itself, while also losing territory in France, at the hands of the resurgent French.  The powerful wreak vengeance on their enemies, in cycles of violence.  The continual debates, battles and killings are (arguably) rather repetitive for the reader (or the viewer).  After many battles and murders, Edward Duke of York becomes King Edward IV, displacing Henry VI.  His brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, awaits his opportunity to seize the crown for himself.  And in the sequel, Richard III, Richard stays his coup d’état and becomes king himself, till supplanted in turn by Richmond (Henry VII).

Richard III has a long history of success in performance.  Shakespeare’s Richard fascinates because of his ambition and single-mindedness and his ability to deceive and to manipulate.  (“Conscience is but a word that cowards use,/Devised at first to keep the strong in awe” [Act 5 Scene 3].)  Some of his wickedness rubs off on his co-conspirators (some discarded by Richard when they oppose him) but they do not match him in intellect and drive, with the possible exception of King Henry VI’s widow, Margaret.

Richard III then gives us a story in black and white colours.  Richard himself – the main character – is a “baddie”.  He gets, though, his “come-uppance”.

Shakespeare lays more murders at Richard’s door than can be fairly blamed on him: the play is not an accurate reflection of history, but it is fun – a guilty pleasure, perhaps.

Like the Henry VI plays, King John is not a popular play – it is seldom performed.  In my opinion, this is a pity, as I see great merit in it.

In King John, there are (I would argue) many important characters, apart from the King himself.  King John is no match for Richard III, in interest.  He is devious and self-serving; he plots against his nephew, Arthur (a rival claimant to the throne); but he ends up being ineffectual and a follower of his counsellors rather than a leader.  As King John declines, in health and in power, the reins of leadership are taken up by others, including a cardinal, who comes close to matching Richard III for deviousness and specious arguments.  The play could be said to end on an anti-climax, in contrast with the climax of Richard III.

The wider distribution of power and influence, among the characters in King John, is, for me a strength rather than a weakness.  Richard III implies that, with the dethronement of one man, all is well that ends well, whereas John ends on a note of ambiguity (albeit coupled with some hope placed in the young King Henry III).

Shakespeare’s early history plays reflect aristocratic societies, where warrior lords are continually engaged in combat – in civil wars in England or in battles in France.  The loyalty of powerful lords has to be won by a king or claimant to the throne and cannot be taken for granted.  Rhetoric is a powerful tool to persuade people to co-operate or even to compel them.

These societies are patriarchal.  Certain female characters in Henry VI assert themselves, particularly, Joan of Arc, Queen Margaret (wife of Henry VI) and Eleanor Duchess of Gloucester; but Joan is executed and Margaret and Eleanor are exiled.  In King John, Blanche is married to the Dauphin, in order to seal an alliance between England and France – apparently with her consent.  But more typically, the ladies use their allotted speeches to express deep grief at their loss of loved ones.  In King John, Constance laments the capture of her son Arthur by King John’s forces, foreseeing his gruesome end; in Richard III, the Duchess of Gloucester (Richard’s mother), Queen Elizabeth (widow of Edward IV) and Queen Anne (Richard’s wife) mourn the grim fate of Edward IV’s young sons (the ‘Princes in the Tower’).

In both King John and in Richard III, there is a dramatic episode where a major character deploys rhetoric to defend his life (or his eyesight) – George Duke of Clarence in Richard III, Prince Arthur in King John.  The Clarence episode (Act 1 Scene 4) is a bravura piece of writing: its length may not be strictly justifiable, in dramatic terms; and Clarence’s dialogue with his murderers is often cut in performance (as the play as a whole is one of Shakespeare’s longest).

To conclude: Richard III is entertaining, because of the brilliance of the title character and because of the “happy ending”.  The merits of the King Henry VI plays and King John lie in their analysis of the exercise of power and the conduct of politics – in the case of John, a particularly cool and ironical examination.

 

Studying Ezra and Nehemiah

I have been looking again at the joint books in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), Ezra-Nehemiah.  Scholars disagree about the chronology and order of the passages.  Some even accuse the compiler/chronicler of creating a jumble.  The text presents a challenge.

The books cover the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem and the new order created – the laying down of the Law, and the rebuilding of the Temple and the city walls (6th and 5th centuries BCE).

Much emphasis is put upon the banning of mixed (Jewish-non-Jewish marriages).  The fear of dilution of the Jewish family and its belief system is expressed, firmly and repeatedly.  This tension is a common theme of the nations throughout the ages: it applies to Israel today, but not uniquely.  Is there more benefit in multi-culturalism than in isolation?  Myself, I try to embrace essential aspects of my native Wales and Britain with together with Europeanism and world citizenship.

By contrast, other books contained in the “Writings” – Ruth and Esther – convey a different view: Esther is married to the Persian emperor; Ruth (from Moab) marries Boaz.  Mixed marriages, here, are tolerated or promoted.

According to the Bible text that has come down to us, the scribe/expert on the Law Ezra first arrived before the governor/organiser Nehemiah; but their periods of service overlapped.

An alternative view, based on a critical study of the text, is that Nehemiah preceded Ezra.  Then, they may or not have overlapped.

The fun starts when one considers how to re-order the text to make sense – in chronological/historical terms and/or theological terms.  Scholars disagree over how to do the re-ordering.  A quick check on the World Wide Web re Ezra-Nehemiah will confirm this.

There is common agreement, though, that Ezra Chapter 4, verses 6-23 are misplaced, chronologically, and that verse 24 follows neatly on from verse 5. The surrounding text describes the rebuilding of the Temple, whereas the short section mentions the Jews’ attempt to rebuild the city walls (regarded as taking place at a later date).

In his own study (1982), the respected scholar F C Fensham wonders where Nehemiah Chapters 8-10 best fit – after Ezra 10? Or after Ezra 8? Or after Nehemiah 13?  Should Nehemiah 9 be placed after Ezra 10?   This provides a good example of the re-ordering challenge.

I have come to a tentative conclusion that it is best to take Ezra-Nehemiah as it stands, while reading the above-mentioned short passage at the end of Ezra.  Nehemiah (the book) then commences with the concern of Nehemiah (the governor) about the dilapidated state of the city walls and his determination to go to the city and repair them.

Reading the Bible requires a critical attitude – critical, in the best sense of the word.

The ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Ulysses’

 

Reading challenges

Having re-read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, I thought I’d take another look at James Joyce’s (in)famous Ulysses (read and re-read years ago).  Homer is readable in translation – Joyce is barely readable, and lots of explanatory notes are required, even for a re-reading.  (I now draw upon the “1922 text” version, put out by OUP and edited by Dr Jeri Jones [1998].)  At least one can pick one chapter at random and concentrate on that.

 

Take for example Chapter 9, called ‘Scylla and Charybdis’.  This  consists of a philosophical discussion (set in a library) and centres largely on Stephen’s putting forward his hypotheses concerning Shakespeare (based on his works rather than recorded facts about his life) to a few friends.  The underlying (barely perceptible) conflict has been said (by commentators) to be between dogma and mysticism, through which a latter-day Odysseus (the reader?) should steer.

 

By contrast, the roughly corresponding passage in Book 12 of the Odyssey describes vividly and concisely Scylla, the man-eating, cave-dwelling monster, and Charybdis, the powerful, sucking whirlpool, which use every opportunity to kill sailors trying to steer the narrow course between them.  (In the event, six of Odysseus’s men are taken and eaten).  Nothing as clear and exciting as this appears in Ulysses.

 

Comparisons

Both the Odyssey and Ulysses are about the return of a hero or heroes (a protagonist or protagonists) to their home.  Homer’s Odysseus has been away from home at the legendary Trojan War and needs to return to his family in Ithaca; and his family want him back.  His fellow soldier Menelaus suffered his own delays on his way home (see Book 4).

James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is inspired by the city of Dublin, his love for his wife, and by his admiration for Odysseus, also known as Ulysses.  His protagonists (Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom) are all searching for an improved home life.

The Odyssey is dynamic and action-packed –with the constant thrust of the hero’s return home and his drive for revenge upon his wife’s gluttonous, proud suitors.  By contrast, Ulysses is static.  Nothing much happens.  Stephen may stay in touch with Leopold.  The state of the Blooms’ marriage may improve.

 

In the Odyssey, actors reveal their character through their stories.  (Some of Oysseus’s are lies!)  Notable are Books 9-12, where Odyssey tells the story of his adventures (the Cyclops etc) to his hosts.  In Ulysses, actors reveal their character through their internal monologues – the extreme case being Molly’s long monologue, in the final chapter, about her life, her courtship and her marriage.

 

Marriages

Leopold is an ordinary 20th century man, very loosely based on the mythical warrior and hero, Odysseus; and his unfaithful Molly = Odysseus’s faithful Penelope (rather ironically, perhaps).  (Stephen Dedalus = Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope.)

In the Odyssey, there are three relationships – not only Odysseus and Penelope but also two others.  Menelaus has accepted back Helen as his consort, after the end of the Trojan War, as Telemachus discovers (see Book 4) – number 2.  In Book 11, the ghost of Agamemnon informs Odysseus how his unfaithful wife Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus murdered him on his return home from Troy – number 3.  Perhaps Leopold and Molly Bloom can also be compared with   Menelaus and Helen, insofar as they are contemplating a reconciliation.

Endings

 

The climax of the Odyssey (albeit before the very end) may be said to come in Chapter 23 when Odysseus reveals his true identity to Penelope and they exchange their stories (their trials and tribulations).

 

Ulysses ends, aptly, with Molly’s fond recollection of Leopold’s marriage proposal, years before:

 

and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.