“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter”

Iphigenia as a priestess of Artemis in Tauris sets out to greet prisoners, amongst which are her brother Orestes and his friend Pylades; a Roman fresco from Pompeii, 1st century AD

We can lose ourselves in reverie of how Aeschylus might have staged his Oresteia in 458 BC; how his four hypokrites performed the four plays that constituted this journey from mythological darkness to Athenian radiance (originally the trilogy ended with a satyr-play called Proteus); of the dances Aesychlus is said to have taught his choruses, from the Argive elders in Agamemnon, to the captured slave-women of The Libation Bearers, those haunting furies in Eumenides, and the supposed randy satyrs that brought the tragedy to a close in Proteus.

My Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robert Fagles, includes an essay, The Serpent and the Eagle, written by Fagles and the classicist William Stanford. They correctly say little of the performance but what they say is agreeable:

“The words alone may hold the life of the thing itself. The music they create, the scenery, the acting, the complete consort dancing together in the theatre of our minds may well be all we need. Perhaps – but this may be too daring – a performance of the Oresteia in the mind of a twentieth-century reader may be even more moving than it was in the crowded, often restive Theatre of Dionysus at the first performance. At least we can do with the written words what no Athenian could do when they were spoken on the stage; we can stop and wonder and look back and tease apart the subtleties and pregnancies of Aeschylus’ style, so that while we lose theatrically we gain in imaginative power. As Keats has said about a different genre of Greek art, ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.’ And perhaps with Greek drama, richer, too.”

Agamemnon

There is the sea and who shall drain it dry?
It breeds the purple stain, the dark red dye
       we use to color our garments,
costly as silver.
This house has an abundance. Thanks
      be to gods, no poverty here.
Oh I would have vowed the trampling of
      many cloths
if an oracle had ordered it, to ransom this
      man’s life.
For when the root is alive the leaves come
      back
and shade the house against white dogstar
      heat.
Your homecoming is warmth in winter.
Or when Zeus makes wine from bitter
      grapes
and coolness fills the house
as the master walks his halls,
righteous, perfect.
Zeus, Zeus, god of things perfect,
accomplish my prayers.
Concern yourself here.
Perfect this.

Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, (trans. Anne Carson from An Oresteia)

Christa Wolf’s Cassandra

Cassandra, most beautiful daughter of Priam and Hecuba, Trojan royalty, is punished with the fate of seeing truthful prophecies and never being believed. Cassandra who foresaw not only the fall of Troy but also the means and time of her death (and that of her children) at the hands of vengeful Clytemnestra.

But this is evil, see!
Now once again the pain of grim, true prophecy
shivers my whirling brain in a storm of things foreseen.

Cassandra who long haunted my thoughts after first reading Aeschylus (first Richard Lattimore’s and then Anne Carson’s Agamemnon) for her divination of the fearful death of her children and herself.

Christa Wolf deconstructs the fall of Troy in Cassandra, using the epic as a framework to scrutinise violence, patriarchy and repression. Artfully written, Cassandra substitutes  the heroic, Homeric perspective of the Trojan War with a heroine’s perspective that allows one to read a familiar story from a revitalised critical direction. Though Wolf’s novel can be read as connecting ancient times with the contemporary, it wears its allegorical nature delicately, and with rational distribution of culpability across gender lines.

Once again I wish to thank flowerville for leading me to read Christa Wolf. Next I intend to read Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood, the author’s account of growing up in Nazi Germany.

A Year of Reading: 2011

I have read so many exceptional books this year. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) left me breathless, as did the first two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life). My most recurrent author was Geoff Dyer as I read and reread to complete his oeuvre to date (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, The Missing of the SommeWorking the RoomParis, Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), all works of great wit and sensitivity. And there were J. M. Coetzee’s essays (Inner Workings and Stranger Shores), both examples of criticism as works of art in their own right. I finally got around to Thomas Bernhard (Old Masters) and Peter Handke’s work (The Weight of the World and Across), every bit as intoxicating as I’d hoped. Anne Carson’s  translation of An Oresteia was memorable, and only confirmed my wonder for everything she does.

My surprising fiction discoveries (I am always happily surprised to enjoy a new author’s work) were Teju Cole’s exceptionally exquisite Open CityJ. M. Ledgard’s thrilling Submergence (thanks, Nicole), Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy (thanks Michelle) and Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation.

Of the non-fiction, Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia was charming and thought-provoking (to this day), Michael Levenson’s Modernism was the comprehensive history I was seeking. Stach’s Kafka biography leaves me starving for the next volume. My current book, Helen Small’s The Long Life is (so far) brilliant and a superb way to end the year.

I’m not able or willing to pick out a single favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction categories. I read a few books this year I loathed. Given the author is not living I will give Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels my coveted ‘I Wish I Could Get That Time Back Award’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 58% of the books I read were fiction, up 14% from last year.

Other literary highlights of my year were attending John Berger’s angry and passionate reading of Bento’s Sketchbook and Geoff Dyer’s enlightening talk about Camus.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

Thanks to my book blogging friends, particularly Emily (Beckett, de Beauvoir) and Nicole (Goethe) with whom I shared reading explorations this year, and Frances whom I joined in a crazed attempt to read all 42 in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, abandoning the attempt after thirteen novellas. I don’t participate in many read-a-longs but made an exception and had fun during German Literature month, organised by Caroline and Lizzy.

Anne Carson’s Translation of An Oresteia

Absent Presence 2004, by Ken Currie

Traditionalists beware. An Oresteia is not a fusty, complex translation of Aiskhylos’s (Aeschylus to most of us, but I’ll run with Carson’s version for consistency) trilogy. On another plane, Robert Fagles and Richmond Lattimore can be heard thunderously grumbling.

Carson’s adaptation takes Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and matches it with Sophocle’s Elektra and Euripedes’s Orestes.  In doing so, she offers a very different reading of the trilogy that begins with Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan war and ends, surprisingly happily, with Apollo’s intervention to prevent a continuation of the tragic cycle of events. In a brief notes section, Carson quotes the director that persuaded her of the merits of this perspective:

I always think of these three tragedians as being associated with different times of a metaphoric day. Aiskhylos is dawnlike, with iconic ideas, images, and action emerging into the light of consciousness. Euripides presents a twilight where everything is susceptible to tricks of a fading light, where tonalities are hard to grasp, where one moment is an azure sunset, the next a starless night. Between them, Sophokles, under the glare of a noon sun that leaves nothing exposed.

With a limited background of Greek tragedy, I am not certain whether presenting an Oresteia combining the work of three playwrights is a fresh perspective, but it is remarkably potent.

Dramatic events aside, it is not possible to ignore Carson’s translation. Her language mutations are almost Joycean (“blackmouthing bitch”). Just occasionally I thought the translation into modern idiom went too far: the slave talking of “real bad shit happening” (though Carson qualifies this as “another quaint barbarian idiom”). That aside, the language is exhilarating, showing the continued importance and brilliance of these tragedies.

Inevitably, translations of this exuberance send me not only to Carson’s other Greek translations ( Euripides in Grief Lessons), but also to other Greek plays, even if I will have to settle for Lattimore’s less newfangled translations.

I recommend Emily’s detailed review of this translation.

Folio Greek Tragedies

Though I have mixed feelings about Folio Society editions, these are tempting. All the Greek tragedies in five volumes:

In five volumes, the extant works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are gathered, with newly commissioned prefaces for each volume: Ruth Padel on Aeschylus, Simon Goldhill on Sophocles, and Peter Stothard, Lawrence Norfolk and Germaine Greer each introducing one of the Euripides volumes. The translations used, from the University of Chicago editions, have become the standard texts. A total of 33 great works of art are included, such as Pallas Athene attributed to Rembrandt and The Bacchae by Luca Giordano, with each plate tipped in, facing the title page of the play in question.