Monday, November 16, 2009

George Lewis’ A Power Strong Than Itself combines academic discourse, intellectual biography, oral history and other normally segregated genres in its extraordinary story of a long-lived self-help organization created by black Chicago avant-garde musicians.

Carlo Emilio Gadda’s That Awful Mess on Via Merulana is a witty treatment of the mystery genre. Cesar Pavese’s The Moon and the Bonfires and The Beach are like Antonioni movies magically translated to the printed page: beautiful, frustrating, intermittently but perhaps meaninglessly eventful, puzzling and seductive.

Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate is a profound novel of the battle of Stalingrad and the lives of Russians elsewhere in that period.

The Plum in the Golden Vase (Chin Ping Mei) is an anonymous Ming Dynasty classic replete with literary allusion, occasional pornography, and an amazing variety of villainous or put-upon characters. The Scholars, by the Qing Dynasty writer Wu Jingzi, is a series of linked tales, gentle satires describing the attractive or vicious characteristics of quite a few from the class of literati with office.

Jorge Amado’s Gabriella Clove and Cinnamon and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands are marvelous works of overflowing humor and humanity, with particular sympathy for women in their oppression, set in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia and very particular in their treatment of local society, customs, nightlife, and so on.

R. K. Narayan’s Swami and His Friends; Mr. Sampath: the Printer of Malgudi; The Financial Expert, The Painter of Signs; The Bachelor of Arts; The Guide are as particular as Amado, in their treatment of a small southern Indian city, peopled with a marvelous set of characters and sparkling flashes of wit. I find that Narayan has difficulty bringing a plot line to a satisfactory conclusion but this is not a great fault in his short and highly entertaining novels.

Confucius Analects, translated by Slingerland, is both readable and precise, and includes much supplementary material, in particular material on each saying drawn from the long Chinese tradition of commentary.

Casanova’s History of My Life, in twelve volumes combined into six books in an excellent contemporary translation, is full of thrills and details about life in post-Renaissance Italy and France. Casanova played out many roles in a very eventful lifelong attempt at material and social success and I tend to believe his claim that remorse over a particular bad deed (described in some detail) compels him to perfect honesty. True or not, many fascinating stories.

V. S. Pritchett’s A Cab at the Door and Midnight Oil are entertaining memoirs of his childhood, youth and apprenticeship as a writer. The first of these two has wonderful descriptions of the older people in his life.

Although The Life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq, translated and introduced by Guillaume, is overlong, excessively credulous, replete with tedious martial lyrics, yet contains much material that is so full of another actual world, the world of sixth-century Arabia, as to provide intermittent fascination.

David Shapiro's New and Selected Poems is by turns (or often, simultaneously) enthralling and bewildering.

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