Sunday, August 16, 2020

Cyrano de Bergerac in Translation

I first read Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand in August 2015, and absolutely fell in love with it. I had seen the José Ferrer film of it back around high school age or so, and had always wanted to read it. But I’m very skeptical of reading poetry in translation and I’d always put it off, for fear of disappointment. Then finally one day I did some investigation, heard good things about the Brian Hooker translation, and went for it. And I was sorry I had waited so long.

Having Cyrano be both a brilliant poet and a master swordsman could have been enough for a good story right there. But what truly makes it great is how he so completely accepts and owns everything that life brings him. Whether his own brilliance and skill, or his poverty or ugly appearance, or the fact that the way to make the woman he loved happy was to give his words and assistance to her chosen suitor—everything, up to and including facing his own death, he met with all his energy, creativity, and even humor. That is what transforms the plot from merely heartbreaking to upliftingly cathartic. He made everything his own choice before it could be forced on him, and so earned de Guiche’s comment towards the end: “I say, do not / Pity him overmuch. He lives his life, / His own life, his own way—thought, word, and deed / Free!”

Given that it’s such a short book and I wanted to reread it anyway, I started trying other translations, and started recording them in what has since become a rather ungainly GoodReads review. By now, I figure it’s time to promote this to something a bit more formal and organized.

The translations are listed first here, in approximate order of my personal recommendation of them. More will be added as I get around to reading them. You can skip down to the films section for my notes on the (sadly few) video adaptations available. If you know of others, please tell me! I have not yet had the privilege of seeing a live performance, but I hope to some day.

[Last updated: Jun 11, 2021]   

Translations

Brian Hooker (1923)
There’s a danger of a first-read bias here, but the more translations I read, the more I really do think this version stands alone. The poetry is elegant and unforced, only using rhyme where it works appropriately, without wrenching it out of a sense of obligation to the original French (which rhymes much more easily than English). If you manage to get an edition with Clayton Hamilton’s original preface, it describes Hooker’s approach—optimizing for the beautiful flow of words from voice to ear, and limiting alterations to the changing of various classical allusions to ones more recognizable to American audiences. My favorite lines and passages are all at their best in this version. Here’s a short one: 

I—I am going to be a storm—a flame—
I need to fight whole armies all alone;
I have ten hearts; I have a hundred arms; I feel
too strong to war with mortals—BRING ME GIANTS!
(Act 1, Scene 7, though scenes unnumbered in this edition)

Louis Untermeyer (1954)
Untermeyer’s translation is quite good, the first I’ve found to rival Brian Hooker’s. My favorite parts from Hooker are still unmatched, but Untermeyer picks up the slack admirably in other areas. The balcony scene, for instance, is much improved, I think. And this was also excellent:
Don’t scorn the point, my friend. When I must die
I hope to meet death ’neath some rosy sky,
With a good-ringing word for some good cause.
No bed of sickness, no slow failing flesh,
But a quick end—a worthy foeman’s steel—
A pointed laughing word upon my lips
And the sword’s pointed answer in my heart.
(Act 4, Scene 3, though scenes unnumbered in this edition)
The edition I found in the library also includes a few illustrations by Pierre Brissaud, which is a nice touch. 
 

Anthony Burgess (1985, new edition 1991)
The preface here indicates helpfully that Brian Hooker’s translation sticks very close to the French, so that it “can very nearly be used as a key to the original,” which is nice to know. But he then goes on to detail all the many changes he (Burgess) made, to adapt it for modern American stage productions, and I’m not at all keen on his editing or removing of certain scenes. In particular, I think it was a very poor choice to allow Christian to die without being reassured that Roxane loved him, but it would have been hard to fix it, having removed the entirety of the scene in which she visits the army camp. To be fair, of course, it does say on the cover that this is not only a translation but an adaptation. Sigh.

Burgess claims that Hooker “rarely raises a laugh,” and though I disagree with that, I do admit that Burgess’ rhyming worked to good effect in many of the comic lines. And there are even many finer details throughout the play that he brings forward into greater clarity, which I appreciated. However, all of my favorite speeches from Hooker’s version came out more clumsily and less clearly in Burgess’, so I have to say the balance was not in his favor.

I’ll leave it there, but if you want a second opinion that agrees with me, here’s a much longer rant about it. I’ve placed this translation so relatively high on the list mostly because it’s so commonly used for performances now. (Though the ones I’ve seen have replaced the missing scenes, thankfully. Maybe this is what happened in the revised 1991 edition—I’m not sure now which one it was that I read.)


Carol Clark (2005)
This edition from Penguin Classics has an interesting introduction at the beginning and “Historical Note” at the end that are worth reading. There were one or two good lines, but most of the best bits were underdone, and a various moments of foreshadowing felt heavy-handed. I gotta hand it to her for these lines, though:
Your hair was my sunlight, and after I looked away
There were patches of blonde light all over the world.
(Act 3, Scene 7)

John Murrell (1994)
This translation, created specifically for performance, is mostly prose, but more freely adapted and better than Hall’s version (see below). I felt it resulted in some fairly clever lines but no gorgeous ones. I also thought it odd that for no apparent reason he cropped the ending of Act 3, when Cyrano promises that Christian will write to Roxane every day. It was a great end to the scene, and it’s even referred to in Scene 4, so why cut it?

Props to him for managing the entire Cadets’ song as a 32-line monorhyme, though. And here’s a good line that I liked:
It is my pleasure to offer you distinction, or extinction.
(Act 4, scenes unnumbered) 

Howard Thayer Kingsbury (1898)
The Pocket Books “Enriched Classic” edition has a lot of supplementary materials, including historical and biographical notes, excerpts from different critics over the course of a century, and footnotes on various classical allusions. So some of that was interesting (I didn’t realize Cyrano was based on a historical figure until I read this version, for instance). But it never said anything about the translation it uses. Turns out (thank you, internet) that it was the first English translation, in 1898. It’s in unrhymed blank verse, similar to Hooker’s, but I found it considerably less clear, and the poems much weaker. There were only a few places where I noticed a turn of phrase that was particularly nicely done, but for the most part it doesn’t have much to recommend it. Here’s one bit that I liked, though:
The letter I have thought out to myself
A hundred times, so that it now is ready;
And if I put my soul beside the paper
I shall need only to recopy it.
(Act 2, Scene 3)
There is one thing in the “discussion notes” I have to emphatically disagree with (and this is more the fault of Pocket Books than Kingsbury): they assume that in wooing Roxane for Christian, Cyrano is actually attempting to win her for himself. No. Just… no. First of all, Cyrano would never stoop to such betrayal. Second, even if he did believe she could love his ugliness, I don’t think he would want to forcibly or deceitfully wrest her heart from where she’s freely bestowed it. In fact, this translation puts it rather more clearly than many of the others: 
Ah, for your joy I’d gladly give my own,
even if you should never know.
(Act 3, Scene 6)

Christopher Fry (1975)
I read this just after reading Bolt’s translation (see below) so my main reaction was that Fry does a better job of rhyming throughout, though that’s a rather low bar to clear. He gets points, though, for managing a solid ending to the entire play on the word “panache,” which I feel is important but which is rarely done since it’s difficult to rhyme with well. I appreciate having the additional meaning of “panache” available to the reading, beyond just the literal “white plume.”

Here’s one of his rhymes that I particularly liked:
But there’s one crumb of comfort I can savour:
She kisses on his mouth the words I gave her.
(Act 3, Scene 10, though scenes unnumbered in this edition)

Gladys Thomas and Mary F. Guillemard (1898)
This is another one of the earliest translations. It’s in archaic and awkward blank verse, with not much to recommend it. I thought it was particularly bad form to have a line in the duel ballade that basically said “what rhymes with ‘o’?” Especially since it came before the line it needed to rhyme with.


Gertrude Hall (1898)
These last two on the list are completely different from each other except in the dubious shared distinction of being the least recommendable. Hall doesn’t attempt even blank verse, but leaves everything (aside from the explicit poems) as chunks of prose, and not even good prose at that. I don’t know if she was trying to go for a literal, word-by-word translation from French, or if she was just rushing in an attempt to beat Kingsbury to the first English edition, but it’s clunky, unclear, archaic, and studded with footnotes that could have been avoided.


Ranjit Bolt (2007)
The ebook version I bought from Kobo contains no introduction or other potentially interesting information about this version, and it isn’t even formatted properly, so I don’t know what the deal is here. Google tells me Bolt has translated a number of plays into English, and has even written a book titled, The Art of Translation, which would seem to bode well. Unfortunately, I can’t say I care much for his take on Cyrano. I admit I’m impressed at how thoroughly he stuck to rhyming verse throughout. But it gets to be just too much after a while. And he often uses rather crude language, or modern-sounding slang, sometimes clearly just to get a rhyme to work (e.g. saying “yup” for “yes” just so it could rhyme with “up”). So I don’t like the feel of it overall, and nothing comes out particularly lovely. Most versions have at least a few exquisite lines, but not this one. He also significantly abridged the “man from the moon” scene, which is too bad. I’ll acknowledge that he does manage a very solid ending on “panache,” but I’m afraid it’s not enough to redeem the whole book. So overall, not recommended.

Film Adaptations

(These are ranked rather less precisely than the translations.)

José Ferrer (1950)
This is the first version I ever saw, and I’m very fond of it, though I wish it had stuck more precisely to the original text. The screenplay was based on Brian Hooker’s translation (definitely a point in its favor), but was extremely adapted by Carl Foreman. Some cuts I think were fairly reasonable (e.g. speeding up the opening), some were probably just for the sake of getting in more fight scenes, and some just disappointed me. There were also various small additions, some of which really just covered for something removed, but worked well enough. And I actually liked the added scene in which Roxane says that if she must be relegated to a woman’s role in society, she would be so on her own terms. A nice parallel there with Cyrano himself. I was a little annoyed with a number of the actors’ voices being much too American. (British at least would have been better if they couldn’t have French accents.) But José Ferrer will always be the quintessential image of Cyrano for me and I also liked Mala Powers as Roxanne.

Kevin Kline (2008)
This is a film of a stage production with a live audience, which I always think is decidedly more fun than just a movie. It mostly uses Anthony Burgess’ translation, though I was glad to see they fixed his two most egregious scene alterations (and I don’t know what text they used for that). I can see how well this version works on stage in front of a live audience, especially in how it highlights the humor, as Burgess was explicitly trying to do. But I felt it might actually have gone a bit too far in that direction. Some of the laughter (part of the fun of a having a live audience, of course) seemed to leak over into moments that I would have preferred to remain more romantic or tragic. I thought Kevin Kline was an excellent Cyrano, though I wanted to see a bit more of a difference in him for the final act. Daniel Sunjata would have been the weakest link as Christian, were it not for Jeniffer Garner who, as Roxanne, was just trying way too hard for it to be enjoyable. Everyone else did a perfectly serviceable job.

Derek Jacobi (1985)
I watched this in low resolution on YouTube, which didn’t show it off to its best effect, but it was still a good production. Jacobi was generally excellent, though he gets a bit incoherent when he gets too overwrought. I appreciated the music, particularly at the end of Act IV. The translation is Anthony Burgess’, which I’ve commented on before, though it does include the cut scene of Roxanne visiting the battlefield. The cinematography was an interesting blend of play-like staging and movie-like filming (forgive my awkwardness of the vocabulary, but hopefully that gets the idea across). And Scottish accents were used very effectively in place of Gascon. 

Gérard Depardieu (1990) (French)
I was actually hoping the English subtitles would be a relatively literal translation, without anyone trying to get poetic about it, so I could see what it’s “really” saying. But I think the subtitles are based on Anthony Burgess’ translation, so oh well. And I don’t have enough French (hardly any) to get much out of the actual soundtrack. I also have to say I don’t care for Depardieu so much as Cyrano. I think the first scene soured me on him for the rest of the movie. He seemed less in control of the situation and more carried away by his anger.

Steve Martin (1987)
Okay, so as long as I’m piling in everything I can get my hands on, I might as well include the movie, Roxanne. I remember seeing it ages ago, before I knew the book, but I didn’t remember much about it, so I was able to watch it fresh, but knowing the inspiration behind it now. And as horrible as it sounds to turn Cyrano into a modern-day Steve Martin comedy, I actually very much enjoyed it. The complete change to a happy ending for Cyrano is the biggest difference, obviously, and necessarily cuts out some of the most touching parts, but on the other hand, it’s kind of nice to visit an alternate reality where it works out that way. (And the whole movie is far enough removed from the original that I’m more comfortable letting it be its own thing.) Most of the other classic scenes were recognizably included (even the “fallen from outer space” scene), and I particularly liked the listing of insults, which was very well adapted. Oh, and I loved the line: “I was afraid of WORMS, Roxanne!” That can just keep me laughing for days.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Israel, Part 3: Jordan River, Qumran, Masada, Mount of Temptation

Wrapping up the Israel posts here with the “miscellaneous” category. Most of these sites we visited on the drive from Tiberias back to Jerusalem, though Jericho we did as a day trip out from Jerusalem.

Jordan River
We didn’t go to the actual place Jesus was baptized, but we did have a site that was conveniently set up for dipping and baptizing. We figured it’s all the same river, and the water moves anyway, so no big deal. Though actually, the water didn’t move very much—it was very still and calm. None of this “on Jordan’s stormy banks I stand” nonsense from all the shape note songs I’m used to hearing. The weather was cold and a little drizzly, so only a few people actually did a full immersion, though many more of us dipped and waded a bit. We also held a purification ceremony here, which felt very appropriate. Similar to the Galilee, which is its source, the water here feels very good, and just right somehow, even if cold.

Qumran
Qumran is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and where a community of Essenes lived, probably being the 2,000-years-ago equivalent of Ananda. There was a cliffside cave we could hike to without much difficulty. (Much less difficulty than the Mount of Transfiguration, to pick just a random example.) It was very small, and more likely used by bats rather than people, but it had a beautiful view of the desert and the Dead Sea, which made it a very expansive place to meditate.

Masada
This was less of a spiritual site, except inasmuch as Nivedita and I agreed it would be a fantastic place to take a seclusion if you could get the tourists away. Masada is an immense plateau towering over the desert, where King Herod built a nearly unassailable fortress. It has even more of a top-of-the-world feel to it than the other mountains and cliffs we visited, being so stark and bare. We had to take a cable car up to it because there wasn’t time to hike “The Snake Path,” though I would have liked to do that.

Mount of Temptation
We took another dramatic cable car ride in Jericho, up to the Mount of Temptation, though we still had a considerable hike even after that, to get to the monastery that is apparently just nailed to the side of the sheer cliff face. In a room above the chapel is the rock Jesus stood on when he was tempted by Satan. This is one of the very few rocks that you can’t actually touch, as it’s enclosed in glass. But I ended up having a very nice meditation just down the stairs from it, where the exposed rock of the mountain forms a wall of the chapel, and I figured I really was touching part of the same rock.

There were also tons of visitors from Africa there that day—Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, maybe other places. It added a very colorful and exuberant energy to have them all chanting as they hiked up the mountain in their various designs of ceremonial robes, and with all their kids. Because there were a ton of kids with them, of all ages though it seemed weighted towards toddlers. I don’t know if it was some sort of spiritual “family camp” or what, but good karma for the kids, getting to visit such holy places at such a young age.

* * *

Alright, I think that’ll be it for my pilgrimage posts. For those of you in the area, we’re having a satsang on Friday night at Chela Bhavan, in the Ananda Community, if you want to come hear stories in person from many of the other pilgrims. And if you ever get the chance to go on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, do!


Sunday, January 26, 2020

Israel, Part 2: Galilee Region

With Israel being such a small country, it was very nice and convenient that we didn’t have to do much traveling. We stayed at the same hotel in Jerusalem at the beginning and end of the trip, and for a stretch in the middle we stayed in Tiberias, right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, from which most everything else we wanted to visit was easily accessible.

Church of the Beatitudes
One of the things Asha told us at the beginning of the pilgrimage was to be careful of expectations. If you expect to have a deep experience at a particular site, you may be disappointed, or you may simply try too hard and thwart yourself. And if you write off a particular place as being less interesting, you may miss something. Better to practice being relaxed and open and receptive at all times, and then see what happens. And I did find throughout the pilgrimage that there were times when I felt relatively unmoved compared to what people around me seemed to be experiencing, and there were times when I was very surprised.

The Church of the Beatitudes is a lovely church, located on the site of the Sermon on the Mount, and our group also got to reserve a nice outdoor terrace for an hour of singing and meditation. And that was all fine, but I wouldn’t have had anything particular to remark on about it. The “surprise” I had here was actually just in a 10-foot section of the path the goes along the side of the church and heads towards the terrace. Every time I would walk through it, it felt almost like passing a physical barrier, and I would have a sudden rush of shivers and tears, which would be gone as soon as I moved on. After the first couple times of not expecting it, I deliberately tested it, and it was consistent. I spent a while at the end of our visit just meditating there on the path, and while I still don’t know why that particular little spiritual vortex was right there, I hope I absorbed something from it.

Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter and the Sea of Galilee
The Church of the Primacy contains—as we are becoming used to—a rock, and specifically the rock on which Jesus was frying fish when he appeared to his disciples at Galilee after his resurrection. This visit was also the first time we got to actually visit the lake directly, since the church is literally right on the shore. The water was so completely calm and still that it was easy to imagine walking on it, though none of us did, that I know of.

Tzfat
We spent an afternoon in Tzfat, a city that is a center for Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and art of all types. The highlight here was visiting the studio of Avraham Loewenthal, a Kabbalah-inspired artist that we all felt and instant and mutual kinship with. I think true mystics everywhere will always recognize each other as spiritual siblings. Many of us bought pieces of his artwork to take home with us. I think it was very interesting also for Rami, our Jewish Israeli guide, to see this interaction, since it gave him a new perspective on what we’re all about to suddenly see such a relatively explicit link between us and a branch of his own religion.

Mount of Transfiguration
Mount Tabor is a much more serious mountain than any others we visited. The bus can’t go all the way to the top, so we had to wait for shuttles to take us the last mile or so. The shuttles were considerably delayed, so someone suggested that a group of us just walk. That sounded nice and reasonable, and then when someone else mentioned that there was a “shortcut” trail we could take instead of the road, we thought why not? Well, that trail turned out to be muddy, rocky, and nearly vertical in places. Luckily the weather and the landscape were both beautiful, but I should definitely not have been making the trek with a guitar strapped to my back. After about 40 minutes, we made a wrong turn and ended up having to climb a wall only to end up at the wrong church (I wasn’t expecting more than one up there!) but eventually we made it. This picture is from the very beginning of the hike, before we knew what we were in for. We don’t know how the light came out so magically, but the apparent source in the upper left corner is approximately where the top of the mountain would be. Transfigured in light!

View from the top of the Mount of Transfiguration

Nazareth
Our time in Nazareth was quite a bit shortened due to our escapades on Mount Tabor. When we got to the Church of the Annunciation, I saw a long line of people waiting to go and see the grotto that was Mary’s home, and I just didn’t want to spend my hour waiting in line. So I went to the neighboring Church of St. Joseph. And this was another case of having a “surprise” experience somewhere that you’re not looking for it. The church was perfectly nice, and the caves beneath it were unremarkable, but when I sat in one of the pews to meditate, I got such a clear sense of Joseph’s presence that it was almost like being introduced to him in person. Joseph mostly just has a supporting role in a story that focuses most dramatically on Mary and Jesus, but it couldn’t have happened without him, and the feeling that I started with was one simply of gratitude to him. And then the feeling I felt coming back from that was of an enormous heart just radiating selfless love and support and strength. I ended up spending most of that hour just basking in that. James came and sat next to me for just a few minutes at one point, but said later that he immediately felt a very strong presence there as well.

When I returned to the Church of the Annunciation, a few minutes before we had to leave, I found it empty and I was able to just walk right up to Mary’s grotto, though you aren’t able to go inside there. I was actually more moved by the statue of Mary outside. He has her arms outspread, as in many of the statues one sees of her. But she’s large enough that you can hold her hands and look up at her face as if she were your own mother and you still a child. Her hands have had the paint worn off of them by many pilgrims doing just that.

Final post coming up next....

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Israel, Part 1: Jerusalem and Bethlehem

I recently returned from two weeks in the Holy Land. This was actually the first time I’ve ever been on a major, dedicated pilgrimage with an Ananda group, and it was glorious. I’m not going to even try to touch on everything here, but I’ll at least aim for all the highlights (which, honestly, is still most of it). For photos, I’m going to piggyback on sharing Karen’s album, which is larger and better curated than my still-unsorted pile of photos.

But first, a word about rocks.
Israel is full of rocks. Everything is built out of stone. It’s incredible. I can’t imagine building a single wall out of stone, much less a city or a country. And this is true of all the ancient, holy sites we visited. It became almost a joke: “And today we’re going to see... another rock!” And if it wasn’t a rock, it was a cave. But I soon realized that this is absolutely perfect. How many holy relics will last for 2,000 years intact the way a rock or a cave does? It’s an immense blessing to still be able to have such a direct physical connection, to be able to touch the very same stone that Jesus, Mary, and others did all those years ago. So if my writings seem to develop and overly petrological focus, that’s why. It’s hard to convey when you’re not actually there, but these are all much more than “just” rocks.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre
I’m starting this post here because this is where I started my first morning in Israel, pre-dawn, on no sleep. And it’s also the place that felt the most like my spiritual home base for the entire trip. Every morning that we were in Jerusalem I would get up, usually around 4am, make the 20-minute walk over, and spend an hour or two meditating there.

The Rock of Anointing, where Jesus’s body was prepared for burial, was perhaps the most powerful place for me in the conglomeration of sites that make up this giant combo-church. I never cease to be amazed that it is just right out there in the open, in the entryway no less, for all the thousands of pilgrims to touch, and I never went past it without touching it, or sitting with it for a while. There’s a feeling of awe and sanctity there that’s different from anywhere else we visited.

It was hard to actually get in to the tomb itself, due to masses in the early mornings and crowds in the afternoons, but I did manage a few times. My other favorite places were the hole that the cross stood in, and the Chapel of the Apparition. The latter has a portion of the column Jesus was tied to when he was scourged, and which you can also touch. It sounds macabre, but this was also a beautiful spot to meditate.

The lowest level contains the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross by Saint Helena. For the first week of our trip, a group called Harpa Dei was in there each morning singing, and it was an absolutely exquisite experience to listen to them.

On two separate mornings we walked the Stations of the Cross, which of course leads up to and has its final stations in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The first time we did it, it was early and dark and rainy, which was really just perfect, because you can really be in a different reality then, compared to the hustle and bustle of the daytime. I’ve never “done” the stations elsewhere, as many people have, but it was still stunning to realize that these are actually THE stations. Station V includes a rock, supposedly with Jesus’ handprint in it from when he fell. It’s now worn beyond any recognition as an actual handprint, but the feeling of it is strong enough to be true.

Church of the Pater Noster
On the Mount of Olives is the Church of the Pater Noster, which is famous for having large, beautiful plaques throughout the grounds with the text of the Lord’s Prayer in 140 different languages. (I even found a few different varieties of Braille, though disappointingly no sign language.) This, I realized later, is kind of a theme around the Holy Land. Many churches have similar displays of many different countries and languages representing their own particular themes, though this one was perhaps the most extensive. It’s sweet to see such a coming together of the whole world in these holy places.

Ein Kerem
Ein Kerem is a suburb of Jerusalem and has several sites related to John the Baptist. The Church of the Visitation is where Mary and Elizabeth met while both were pregnant, and I always thought the “belly bump” statue was kind of cute.

The upper church here has a huge painting on the back wall of Mary as the Lady of the Apocalypse, which isn’t a term I’d ever heard before, and which I still need to learn more about. But it’s a beautiful piece of art, and strikingly modern, especially facing the more traditional depictions over the altar.

We also got to visit the Monastery of Saint John in the Wilderness (it’s called a monastery, not a convent, though I believe it’s all nuns living there). The main road was washed out, so the bus took us up a winding village road to a place from which we could hike down to the monastery, which made it feel even more remote. The grounds are beautiful, and I would have loved to have more of a tour of monastic life there. But we did get to spend some time in Saint John’s cave, where he spent years in seclusion and meditation. “Long years he spoke only with God,” as Swamiji puts it in the Oratorio.

Bethlehem
Bethlehem is also very close to Jerusalem, but feels farther away, since it’s in the Palestinian territory. Our fantastic Israeli guide Rami couldn’t actually come with us because of this, so we went on Shabbat when he wouldn’t be working anyway.

The Church of the Nativity had probably the longest line of anything we went to, and it wasn’t even a big day for them. Passing through the cave and bustling past the official marker of the spot was a little too busy for me to get much of a feel for it. Though I do like how this photo shows us all looking down into the cave, with a light coming up out of it. But we got to explore some adjacent caves at more leisure, and do a bit of singing there. And we were told that the caves were actually artificially separated a few centuries A.D., and the exact spot of Jesus’ birth could have been anywhere in them because no one is certain.

After that we went to Shepherds’ Field, which surprised me because I’d had no idea that there was a specific, known field we could actually visit. It’s a park now, and there’s a church on it, of course, and some caves where the shepherds would sleep at night. And most dramatically, you can turn around from the top of the hill and see the Church of the Nativity on its own hilltop across the way, and realize that that was exactly where the angel pointed them on that very night. Wow.

We also made friends there with a big group of Nigerian pilgrims who liked our singing, and we ended up singing a bunch of Christmas carols together and having a fun time.

The Western Wall
On our first Friday evening in Jerusalem we visited the Western Wall. It’s just heartbreaking to see so many hundreds of people coming together to pray there, but being unable to go all the way to their holiest site on the Temple Mount. But simultaneously there was also such a joyous feeling of celebration. At one point I was standing at the edge of a group listening to the song they were singing, when it suddenly just exploded into an exuberant, bouncing, spinning dance that spread out like a nuclear chain reaction, pulling more and more people into it and sweeping aside tables and chairs as it went. Very fun.

It seems a little ironic given that this was a Christian-focused pilgrimage, and a little silly in its obviousness, but I just loved how Jewish Israel is. I love that everything shuts down on Shabbat so that people can actually observe and celebrate it. I love seeing the ultra-orthodox in their garb that just proclaims their religious dedication, like seeing brahmacharis and nayaswamis around Ananda. As David G put it, for the Jews, this is their Ananda, their spiritual home and family, and for all the difficulties and conflicts and politics, it’s still beautiful.

Further posts to come, as I manage to get them written....

Saturday, June 22, 2019

War and Peace

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
This is a long book so I’m going to let myself indulge in a long review. Consider yourself warned: you can either settle in or skip out.

First, how did I decide to take this particular plunge? Well, basically it all started because I didn’t read (or watch) Game of Thrones. With the show recently wrapping up, it’s been on my mind, because I had really wanted to get into it, just for the huge, complex, sweeping expanse of epic fantasy. But I read the first couple books years ago and, while yes, they were completely engrossing and addictive, they also just felt horrible and made me feel horrible. There are still icky images burned in my mind that I wish I could get rid of. So anyway, I was again wishing it could have been something I liked, and it occurred to me that if I was in the mood for something sprawling and epic, I could finally tackle War and Peace. I didn’t expect there to be any dragons, but still….

The biggest hurdle, aside from the mere decision to read this at all, was deciding on a translation. I picked up the Maude translation first, because the Maudes were friends with Tolstoy who liked their work (though he didn’t live to see this particular translation). But honestly, the anglicization of names really annoyed me, and so I moved on to my other top contenders: Dunnigan, Briggs, and Pevear & Volokhonsky.

P&V are very clear about their approach to translation, in which they really try to nail the word-by-word meaning, and maintain as much of the original sentence structure as possible, even if it seems unusual or awkward. Many translators try to even everything out into what they generically think of as “good writing,” thus losing the original author’s peculiar style (which, in Tolstoy’s case, includes more convoluted sentences and more repetitions than some people are comfortable with). The downside often attributed to P&V is that their translations aren’t as “readable.” Dunnigan seems like a good balance in that respect, being a more traditional translation but maybe not as archaic as Maude, and somewhat more accurate. Briggs is much more modern and takes many more liberties with the text.

So… I started reading all three. Yeah. I would literally read Chapter 1 in each version in turn, then rotate through them all again for Chapter 2, etc. Thank goodness for ebooks, and luckily the chapters are very short. I actually went about 10% of the way through the book like this before I decided to jettison the Briggs. It felt like he was taking too many liberties and I didn’t feel I’d miss him.

At about 25% through, I decided I finally needed to narrow it down, largely because I was becoming so engrossed in the book that I didn’t want to reread chapters anymore but just wanted to keep going (even though it was interesting to see how I would notice different details in the different versions). I dithered a lot, but finally stuck with P&V. I had found by then that I like their style perfectly well, and I can only assume it’s closer to Tolstoy’s. Plus, they have some helpful footnotes. I also found it was relaxing to finally settle into one style and not switch back and forth.

Okay! So I actually read the book! What did I think?

I loved it. I was rather surprised, really, because I thought it would be the sort of book that we all know has merit but is still a bit of a slog. Instead, I found it to flow along beautifully. If you had just told me the subject matter, I would have expected it to be boring, but the actual experience of it was as an absolute page-turner. I can’t even say precisely why, maybe because I didn’t want to analyze it as I went along. But it was great, and I continually wanted to know what happened to everybody.

Speaking of “everybody,” I’ve heard the complaint that there are too many characters to keep track of. I didn’t feel that at all. Though there are lots of people, the core, primary characters are kept to a perfectly reasonable number. Also, Tolstoy uses a leitmotif sort of technique, having short, characteristic descriptions for many of the characters that are repeated many times, e.g. referring to someone’s “small, white hands,” or “downy upper lip,” etc. Far from being tediously repetitive, this actually feels completely natural, and instantly conjures up the right person in your mind, even if it’s been many chapters since you saw them last.

(I also enjoyed all the variations on people’s names—formal name, intimate or family name, French name, patronymics, etc. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not confusing. Makes me wonder what all my names would be.)

Also along the lines of describing people, Tolstoy takes a very expansive, non-judgmental view, throwing in positive and negative qualities alike for everybody, with seeming disregard to leading us to a particular opinion. Because, of course, everybody is a complete mix of qualities in real life. He will often describe thoughts and behaviors very sweepingly, in terms of someone manifesting something that “everybody” does. Again, if I just try to say what he’s doing, it sounds bad, overly generalizing or stereotyping, but that’s not how it comes across. I find these are always statements, as broad and sweeping as they are, that I can actually relate to, and therefore they ring true not just to the person described, but to humanity.

I’ve heard Tolstoy described as a “miniaturist,” which sounds ridiculous in the context of such an enormous book, but it’s true. He has so much ground to cover that in every moment he has to zero in on just the exact right details to make a character, event, or image “click.” In that sense, it’s a good study for poetry—how to notice the perfect individual details and focus on them.

Historically, it was interesting to read. I thought I had a general understanding of Napoleon’s march to Moscow, but it turned out I really didn’t, so I learned a lot about that. Tolstoy also gets into a lot of what you might call the “theory” of history—analyzing what historians typically take as cause and effect and why it’s inaccurate, and offering his own take on it, which the whole book is really an attempt to embody (though with the understanding that nothing finite could really do so).

Often these sections begin to sound rather fatalistic. But I find that they don’t feel that way, perhaps because his viewpoint just feels so expansive. It’s really the cosmic interweaving of karmic cause and effect that he’s describing, which we are each subject to but also an integral part of. And it’s good to understand our place in it all.

I’m going to say a few more specific things about the story here, so if you care about spoilers for a 150-year-old book, here they are. In particular, I’m going to talk about deaths and marriages.

First of all, not everybody dies. Yay! And those who do die don’t have gratuitous, GoT-style, kill-off-everyone-you-like deaths (I think I was subconsciously worried about that). Of the major characters who die, I think all of them have some sort of transcendent, uplifting experience shortly before their death. This is beautiful, because of course we know that everyone ultimately dies, but Tolstoy always shows us how it can be a positive transition, with everyone heading in the right direction. The next step in that direction is different and appropriate for everyone. (So some might not necessarily seem “transcendent,” but relative to where they are, it’s uplifting to some degree.) I also noticed that Tolstoy never lets us see the actual moment of death directly, as if death itself isn’t as significant as the personal transformation he does describe. Let’s look at the primary examples.

  • Prince Andrei Bolkonsky: After having been so focused on achieving worldly glory earlier in the book, he has a period of a few days before his death in which he is explicitly detaching from the world. From a yogic standpoint, this is very good. Then he has his dream in which he experiences death as an “awakening from life.” (Again, very yogic!) (This is a death which we almost observe, but at the last moment, Tolstoy simply tells us that Marya and Natasha “were there” when it happened.)
  • Old Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky: After having been such a horrible jerk to his daughter all her life, he is able to finally be kind and loving to her after his stroke and just before he dies.
  • Petya Rostov: Petya was completely gung-ho to go to war and kill Frenchmen, but the night before his final battle he has that transcendent experience of a symphony of oneness in the forest. He still goes into battle, and we sort of observe his death, but at that moment we’re removed to someone else’s vantage point, and don’t realize at first what has happened until the almost casual statement that he had been shot. (As explicit as that final statement was, I had to go back and reread the whole paragraph to believe it.)
  • Platon Karataev: A relatively minor character in terms of page time, but very significant to Pierre’s personal transformation. All we ever see of him, really, is a figure of sweet, simplistic enlightenment, but the night before he gets shot we get to hear him tell his story that ends with “God had already forgiven him—he was dead.”
  • General Kutuzov: The commanding general died after “Russia was delivered and placed at the highest degree of her glory,” as he saw it. “And so he died.”
  • Countess Helene Bezukhova: She’s a little trickier, but one could make the argument that her conversion to Catholicism was a positive step in spite of it being done cynically, to forward her own agenda. I’m thinking here of all the ancient Vedas of India that give prayers and rituals for every situation in life, even the fulfilling of selfish ends, on the theory that people should at least get used to turning to God for help, even if they aren’t ready to lead an otherwise more spiritual life.
  • “Little Princess” Lise Bolkonskaya: Again, somewhat tricky, in this case because she died in childbirth, and it’s not clear that she herself had any sort of transcendent experience here. But the birth itself is received by the whole household in a spirit of awe in the presence of a sacred, miraculous event, so that’s the context in which we the readers experience her death. (If you wanted to make more of an effort, you might also say that, for someone consistently described as so childlike, giving birth was a particular rite of passage into womanhood for her.)

As for the marriages, Natasha and Nikolai are the ones we’re following the most in this respect over the course of the whole book. Honestly, I was a bit annoyed with them much of the time, with Natasha for so easily falling in love with everybody, and for Nikolai for so easily falling out of love (especially, repeatedly, with Sonya). I was really worried when he started getting interested in Marya, who I felt deserved much better (as did Sonya, but at least she knew what she was involved in). So I was actually pleasantly surprised when Tolstoy managed to bring us to the final pairings with everybody matured enough to be believable and to leave me content and satisfied in both their cases. Sonya is the only one I’m really sad about, and I wish things could have worked out better for her. I guess she was never enough of a “main” character to get more of her own arc, but I always felt she should have been.

Other beautiful things:

  • Natasha’s singing, gorgeously described in several different scenes. “She did not think of anyone or anything at that moment, and from her lips composed into a smile sounds poured forth, sounds that anyone can produce for the same lengths of time, at the same intervals, but which leave one cold a thousand times, then for the thousand and first time make one tremble and weep.”
  • The chapter describing the results of Pierre’s spiritual transformation—his inner state of consciousness, other people’s reactions to him, and even how it manifests in practical matters. “[H]e did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.”
  • The nearly divine rapture with which the army receives their emperor. “He stopped, looked about, and illuminated everything around him with his gaze.”
  • Denisov dancing the mazurka. And in spurs, no less! “Only on horseback and in the mazurka did Denisov’s small stature not show, and he looked like the fine fellow he felt himself to be….”
  • The simple elegance of the shortest sentence in the book: “Drops dripped.”

Swami Kriyananda talks about having an impression of the spiritual light emanating from the works of great authors. He never mentioned Tolstoy in that context, but in reading War and Peace I feel for the first time that I’ve experienced a bit of what he’s referring to. Throughout the book I very often had a sense of a sort of white-blue glow behind everything, which I feel is perhaps Tolstoy’s consciousness guiding the whole experience. This book is truly remarkable.