"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Friday, April 29, 2016

Poem, “The One Who Calls Us Friends” by St. Catherine of Siena

Today is St. Catherine of Siena’s feast day.  She is the patron saint of this blog.  I came across this poem in the April 2016 edition of the devotional magazine Magnificat, supposedly written by St. Catherine herself.  The poem was translated by Dr. Lisa M. Vitale of Southern Connecticut University and published in 2012. I hope she doesn’t mind me posting it.

I’m not actually sure where St. Catherine wrote this.  It looks like it’s one of her prayers, which you can read in translation by Suzzane Nofke in The Prayers of Catherine of Siena.  Magnificat credits the work in something called Magliabechiano-Strozziana XXXVIII.  I just don’t know what that is. 

Here is the poem:

The One Who Calls Us Friends

Oh transformed love
  Of Lord God servant and Creator created
  Too much of a dark thing it appears
  Seeing God so humbled
Thinking of your greatness oh my Lord
  The heart lowers itself in the body I shake so
  Seeing you mortal man being God
  Enclosed in the womb of a poor young girl
  My faith turns to nothing
  Thinking of your greatness so removed
  If not it appears that ease opposed
  Crying out God, God, you are crazy
And with enflamed desire
  You go searching for who the young woman is
  Who in herself enclosed this true Word
  With the eyes of the mind of a girl
  I see she is closed in a cell
  Alone worthy of having him
  Such a humble daughter
  Who joined the lover to the loved
And I looking at this holy Virgin
  In whom I see no flaw
  Looking at her from her head down to her feet
  So the more I look at her the more she gives me delight
  Pregnant in appearance
  She shows me and is always with eyes lowered
  And I her servant she makes
  And I find myself bound by her love.
I see well what commodity and the cost of you
  The price that cost you when
  The good Jesus was put on the cross for you
  In order that he pay for you the infernal banishment
  To the heart goes sighing
  Looking up at Jesus on the cross and strongly languishing
  She looks at the shed blood
  With which you were repurchased from death.

It’s interesting that St. Catherine sees the young Virgin “closed in a cell” (l. 17).  Catherine herself was closed in a cell for a number of years as a young woman, partly self-imposed but partly because she refused to marry and that is where her parents forced her to live.

Keep St. Catherine of Siena in mind on her feast day.  And do look up some of her wonderful works.  And kudos to Dr. Vitale for this.  It’s not easy to translate poetry.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

St. Catherine of Siena on TV

As readers of this blog should know, St. Catherine of Siena has become my personal patron saint and is the patron saint of this blog.  I try to promote this wonderful woman wherever I can.  April 29th is her feast day, and I’ll hope to post something of her wisdom for that day.

 EWTN, the Catholic TV station, will be airing a special on her Sunday night, with a couple of rebroadcasts throughout the week.  I have not seen it nor could I find a trailer, but it’s only an hour and if you have the interest to learn something about this brilliant woman I urge you to see it.  Scheduled broadcasts are the following:   

Date                            Time
Sunday, 04/24             10:00 PM
Thursday, 04/28          05:00 AM
Friday, 04/29               10:00 AM
Saturday, 04/30           01:00 AM

Reenactments and dramatized recitations of St. Catherine of Siena’s most influential works and writings. An EWTN original docu-drama, filmed on location in Italy

That’s Sunday night. If you live outside the United States, then it may be on at a different day and time.  

Some of St. Catherine’s honors include, Doctor of the Church, Co-Patron Saint of Rome and Italy and Europe.  One of the earliest female writer to be published, convinced Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome after the Papacy had moved to Avignon for 68 years, received the stigmata, and was a Dominican Tertiary.  She wrote a mystical work on theology called The Dialogue, nearly 400 letters, and a collection of prayers.  She really is one of the giants of Catholicism.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Literature in the News: English Teacher Finds 200 Year Old Jane Austen Book

My mother-in-law used to hunt for antiques and hope for unrealized “treasure.”  How about being given an original publication of a Jane Austen novel by a stranger?  And how about such a book being mailed to the English department at a local high school?  That’s exactly what happened.  From the Boston Globe article, “Teacher seeks to solve mystery of 200-year-old Jane Austen book”:  ml 

The tattered book with the small golden stag embossed on its cover, bearing the initials “JA” underneath, arrived in March in an envelope that read, “Ayer High School. ATTN: English Department.”

Along with the musty leatherbound book there was a letter. It had a picture of a rose in the bottom righthand-corner, and was addressed to “anyone who cares.”

Eleanor Capasso, once she realized what she might have in her possession, cared deeply.

As a rare book collector and head of the English department at Ayer-Shirley Regional High School, Capasso said that being sent what she believes could be a first edition of a Jane Austen novel felt a lot like winning the golden ticket to visit Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

“This is what English teachers live for,” said Capasso. “This — and being published as novelists.”

As it turned out, it was a 200 year first edition printing of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  Ayer High School is the high school in Ayer, Massachusetts, a town in the north central part of the sate with a population of less than 7,500. 

The article continues with the littleknown history of the book’s ownership.

Capasso said the book was sent to the school by Alice B. Bantle of Pawleys Island, S.C.

Bantle explained in the letter that she had found the book in a box of “junk” in her mother’s garage. She said her mother had lived in Dudley, Mass., and used to go to auctions to bid on “boxes of various items” for fifty cents, or $1.

“Even though ‘Persuasion’ is in very bad shape,” Bantle wrote, “It might be of interest to someone in your English Department, or traced back to its original family.”

Bantle wanted to find the book a new home.

According to an inscription on the inside of the book, the original owner was a woman named Lillian M. Flood. Flood had won the book as a prize in May 1900, at Ayer High School.

Capasso plans to honor Bantle’s request to find the book’s rightful owners.

“I want to see if there is a family in town who can claim it,” said Capasso. “In my opinion, it’s an heirloom. I want to see if I can find its family.”

Fascinating and amazing.  Somehow I doubt anyone will have enough of a connection to the Lillian M. Flood to lay claim to the book.  But I could be wrong. 

Though my wife gets on my case because of all the books I’ve accumulated and store, now I have plenty of justification to saving all my old books.  ;) 

So don’t throw books out!

Here’s a picture of the found book.

One more thing, as the article states Persuasion is Jane Austen’s last of her six published novels and of the four novels I’ve read my least favorite.  It lacks the complexity of the other works, but still it’s a charming read.  You can never go wrong with a Austen novel.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Short Story Analysis: Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy, Part 1

I was searching for a short story to break up a few of the reads I have going on, and since this blizzard (which I posted on here) hit I longed for a story about winter and I recalled a famous Leo Tolstoy story about two men being trapped in a blizzard.  Now I had read “Master and Man” many years ago—over twenty years, if not thirty—and it has always stuck with me.  It really is a great short story.  Actually it’s on the longer side of a short story.  My edition ran for forty pages, which makes it close to a novella, and I had remembered it as a short novel.  But Wikipedia, that ever pervasive corpus of knowledge, categorizes it as a short story.  I also noticed while reading the Wikipedia entry that it was published in 1895, which makes it a relatively late story in Tolstoy’s body of work, and squarely in his most religiously inspired works.

First off, you can read it on line, and I believe this is the same translation I read.

The story is about a merchant who has this immediate opportunity to purchase a grove at a bargain price, and goes off to complete the deal before someone else takes it. Faced with impending bad weather, he brings along his servant.  It’s winter and he misjudges the weather, and they are caught in a blizzard, and it becomes a question of survival. 

The story is told in ten chapters, and I’m going to summarize it for you by providing the kernel action of each chapter.  Here:

I.  We are introduced to Vasili Andreevich, a merchant and church elder, and his laborer, Nikita.  Vasili has to go to purchase a grove at what he sees as a huge bargain.  It is very cold and Vasili against his wishes takes Nikita with him.

II. The depart and after a while with the wind blowing harder than they anticipated and it starting to snow they realized for the first time they were lost.

III.  They come upon a village and come across three peasants, where they ask for directions and are pointed out.  Suddenly they realize they are off the road are now lost for the second time, and now a full blizzard is coming down.

IV.  They come to another village and they stop at a rich household where they warm up and are offered to spend the night.  But Vasili afraid he will lose his bargain insists that they can make it to their destination.  One of the sons of the household sets out with them as a guide.

V. After the son leaves them at a turning point, the two continue but the blizzard has so intensified that they can’t see a few feet in front.  Shortly they are lost now for the third time, and they just miss driving over a ravine.  The circle around but the horse has reached a point of exhaustion and refuses to go on.

VI. Nikita unharnesses the horse and decides to hunker down for the night.  They try to sleep but Vasili unable and now in a panic decides it’s best to search for a house rather than freeze to death.  He mounts the horse and goes off into the blizzard.

VII.  Nikita, too tired to go with Vasili allows sleep to overcome him, all with the thought that it will be his death.

VIII. Vasili stumbles about in the blizzard, the horse escapes from under him, so that now he is horseless and lost.

IX.  In a panic he circles about and finds where he started, the sled with Nikita.  He finds Nikita near death and he realizes it has all been his fault.  This sting of conscience rises to an epiphany of his inconsideration and selfishness and opens Nikita’s coat and his and presses his body against Nikita’s to warm him.  In this position Vasili has a dream of someone calling him.

X. In the morning we find that it is Nikita who is alive and Vasili who has died.  The peasants rescue Nikita.

The story hinges on the term “master.”  It is set “in the seventies,” which means 1870s, and this is important given it was published in 1895, a full twenty years after the setting.  Tolstoy sets the story at a time when serfdom was abolished in Russia.  From Wikipedia: 

In 1861 Alexander II freed all serfs in a major agrarian reform, stimulated in part by his view that "it is better to liberate the peasants from above" than to wait until they won their freedom by risings "from below".

Serfdom was abolished in 1861, but its abolition was achieved on terms not always favorable to the peasants and served to increase revolutionary pressures. Between 1864 to 1871 serfdom was abolished in Georgia. In Kalmykia serfdom was only abolished in 1892.

Though Nikita, the peasant, is no longer a serf, he has lived as a dependent serf for most of his life.  Not only is he indebted to Vasili, but Nikita has a psychological and relational mentality of a subordinate.  But the relationship is even more than that; it’s a class structure of lower rank.  And with that comes a responsibility for Vasili to protect and care for Nikita.  Now that the serfs are free, will Vasili still feel this obligation?  To some degree he does.  We learn in the first chapter that Vasili had recently given Martha, Nikita’s wife, “wheat flour, tea, sugar, and a quart of vodka, the lot costing three rubles, and also five rubles in cash, for which she thanked him as for a special favour.”  There is an implied serf/master arrangement that has continued, of which Vasili points out:

‘What agreement did we ever draw up with you?' said Vasili Andreevich to Nikita. 'If you need anything, take it; you will work it off. I'm not like others to keep you waiting, and making up accounts and reckoning fines. We deal straight-forwardly. You serve me and I don't neglect you.'

And when saying this Vasili Andreevich was honestly convinced that he was Nikita's benefactor, and he knew how to put it so plausibly that all those who depended on him for their money, beginning with Nikita, confirmed him in the conviction that he was their benefactor and did not overreach them.

'Yes, I understand, Vasili Andreevich. You know that I serve you and take as much pains as I would for my own father. I understand very well!' Nikita would reply. He was quite aware that Vasili Andreevich was cheating him, but at the same time he felt that it was useless to try to clear up his accounts with him or explain his side of the matter, and that as long as he had nowhere to go he must accept what he could get.

This master and servant relationship cannot be minimized.  “You serve me and I don’t neglect you,” Vasili says.  You know that I serve you.”  It is critical to their relationship owing to a feudal construct, and it points to a social hierarchy.  Does Vasili really take care of Nikita?  Yes, but he also cheats him.

This hierarchy is further established in that Nikita is also a master, not of a people but of the domestic animals.  Also from the first chapter we see Nikita hitching up the horse.

Now, having heard his master's order to harness, he went as usual cheerfully and willingly to the shed, stepping briskly and easily on his rather turned-in feet; took down from a nail the heavy tasselled leather bridle, and jingling the rings of the bit went to the closed stable where the horse he was to harness was standing by himself.

'What, feeling lonely, feeling lonely, little silly?' said Nikita in answer to the low whinny with which he was greeted by the good-tempered, medium-sized bay stallion, with a rather slanting crupper, who stood alone in the shed. 'Now then, now then, there's time enough. Let me water you first,' he went on, speaking to the horse just as to someone who understood the words he was using, and having whisked the dusty, grooved back of the well-fed young stallion with the skirt of his coat, he put a bridle on his handsome head, straightened his ears and forelock, and having taken off his halter led him out to water.

Picking his way out of the dung-strewn stable, Mukhorty frisked, and making play with his hind leg pretended that he meant to kick Nikita, who was running at a trot beside him to the pump.

'Now then, now then, you rascal!' Nikita called out, well knowing how carefully Mukhorty threw out his hind leg just to touch his greasy sheepskin coat but not to strike him--a trick Nikita much appreciated.

After a drink of the cold water the horse sighed, moving his strong wet lips, from the hairs of which transparent drops fell into the trough; then standing still as if in thought, he suddenly gave a loud snort.

'If you don't want any more, you needn't. But don't go asking for any later,' said Nikita quite seriously and fully explaining his conduct to Mukhorty. Then he ran back to the shed pulling the playful young horse, who wanted to gambol all over the yard, by the rein.

The horse Mukhorty is there throughout the story as they lose their way through the blizzard.  Nikita is his master, also with an obligation for his wellbeing.  Notice the contrast in personality.  For Vasili it is a social obligation, and only that.  There is no love or benevolence in it.  Nikita is tender and kind even to the domesticated beasts.  He speaks to the horse as if they are equals.  Vasili on the other hand speaks to Nikita in the language of exchange, of commerce.  Vasili undergoes a dramatic realization that Nikita is a man of equal standing before God at the story’s climax.

Stay tune for the story’s dramatic conclusion in a Part 2 post.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Music Tuesday: Merle Haggard, In Memoriam

I have to say that Merle Haggard, who passed away on April 6th, was my favorite country musician.  The LA Times had a really fine obituary:  

Through it all, the songs still flowed.

Over decades of trouble, fame, and more trouble, Merle Haggard never stopped making up songs. The country-music star seemed afflicted with a song-writing compulsion, much as Woody Guthrie was.

He penned his first ballads as a child. By later life, he claimed to have written 10,000 of them.

He composed wherever he went, all day long. He was inspired by snippets of conversation, flashes of memory. He drew lyrics from a flower, from the view out a bus window.

Even after Haggard's fame dimmed, and audiences shrank, he kept writing, kept singing. He said “the best songs feel like they've always been here.” He seemed to never tire of unearthing them.

The musician, who sang of his law-breaking Bakersfield youth and whose natural, storytelling lyrics won him a vast following — more than 100 of his songs made the Billboard charts — died Wednesday — his birthday — at his home near Redding. He was 79.

What’s there to say about him?  In his early days he was counter to the counter culture, which sort of made him traditional, but I don’t know if that’s entirely true.  He was homespun, yes, but he had already been in jail.  I do love his counter the counter culture songs.  Those certainly endeared him to conservatives.  Basically he was American, with all our warts and petulances.  From the La Times:

His biggest years stretched from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, during which he once had nine consecutive country No. 1 singles. But Haggard's inborn, relentless creativity never flagged.

He owed some of his fame to conservative anthems, including the combative 1969 release “Okie from Muskogee” which seemed to mock San Francisco's anti-war hippies.

But patriotic pride and political songs made up only a portion of the vast and diverse Haggard portfolio, which included autobiographical laments, odes to working men and women, drinking songs and love songs. A Times critic described his ballads as “caked with the dust of hard-won experiences.”

In life Haggard was by no means the clean-cut square of the Muskogee song, about which he expressed mixed feelings (though after a hiatus, he eventually resumed singing it).

He had grown up a troublemaker — a teenage runaway who rode the rails and turned petty criminal. Sent to prison after a botched burglary attempt, he was among the inmates who watched [Johnny] Cash perform at San Quentin in 1958.

The experience famously helped turn his life around. But it didn't exactly straighten him out. Drugs, divorce and bankruptcy dogged his path, long after success came his way.

In later years he would consider himself more of a Democrat than Conservative.  And when you look at his youth, you can understand why.  His father died when he was a boy and experienced a good deal of the poorer side of life.  Again from the obituary:

Merle Ronald Haggard was born April 6, 1937, in Oildale, near Bakersfield, the youngest of three children of James Frances and Flossie Mae Haggard. His parents were Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma who set up house in a converted boxcar. But Haggard fared better than many fellow migrants because his father had regular work with the railroads.

Haggard described his mother as socially ambitious. His early life contains a telling hint of middle-class aspiration: He took violin lessons as a child. Later, he would play an able fiddle.

Otherwise, young Haggard claimed that he was not encouraged in music. He had always composed, he said. He described his childhood self staring out of classroom windows, making up songs. Haggard recalled an uncle telling his mother, “if you want that boy to amount to anything, you better take that guitar out of his hands.”

After his father died suddenly when he was 9, Haggard ran away. He jumped on freight cars, and spent time in a home for delinquent boys. By 13, he was singing in bars. By 17, he had married a waitress, Leona Hobbs. But he was in jail for auto theft at the birth of their child, the first of four.

Then Haggard broke into a bar, wound up in jail and tried to escape, and in 1958 was sentenced to six to 15 years in San Quentin, where Cash's performance prompted him to form a prison band.

This real-life narrative would become a classic trope of country music. “Mama Tried,” considered by some critics to be Haggard's greatest song, is a fairly straight autobiographical account of his road to San Quentin.

It’s really worth reading that entire obituary.  Why is he my favorite country musician?  He could play the guitar really well, he understood song writing completely and perfected it, and he was a wonderful story teller.  Country music story telling can be outrageous and over the top.  Not Merle Haggard’s.  They all seem real to me.  Add to his music that combination gravelly and nasally voice, a voice which fits perfectly with the story lines, and you have the greatest country singer song writer.

Let’s start with a couple of his counter the counter culture songs.  His most famous first.

And then there’s “Fightin’ Side of Me.”

“Mama Tried” rings so true because it is true.

I really want to get some of his later works in as well.  I just adore “That’s the Way Love Goes.”  He had a great touch with his voice.

Hag, or sometimes in third person was referred to as “the Hag,” did not have a crooner’s voice by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not that of an opera singer.  But I love his singing.  There’s a term for singing by resonating through the nasal passages, nasality.  However, according to this, voice teachers try to train out the nasality.  It seems to me that Hag’s nasality is absolutely precious.  Thank God he nurtured it.  If you listen to any of his songs you can hear how he manipulates it for effect, and it’s the primary quality of his voice that projects honesty.

Notice how he here varies a nasally resonance with a deep resonance in the lungs.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include a live song.  Here’s a song that’s almost the complement of “Mama Tried,” this called “The Roots of My Raising.” 

The family story in that one touches me every time.  What’s a country singer without having a drinking song, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”

“Ain't no woman gonna change the way I think/I think I'll just stay here and drink.”  What a line.  That’s one my all-time favorites. 

And finally you can’t have a country music song collection without one complaining about city life and heading out for the hills.  “Big City.”

Hag, you’re finally free.  Enjoy the hills and country where you are now, and rest in peace.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

2016 Reads, Update #1

We are now passed our first quarter of the year and I’m roughly on track having completed three books, four short stories, and started a couple of others and made progress in books that are long term projects.  

You can view my reading plans for 2016 here.  

Of the books read, the one novel was the excellent To Kill a Mockingbird by the recently deceased Harper Lee.  I know there are people who disparage this work—it doesn’t have a broad scope and it does rely on some stereotypical characterizations.  Well, Jane Austen never had a broad scope; perhaps women in general don’t write with a broad vision.  That doesn’t make them any less artistic.  As to the stereotypical characterizations such as the southern white trash, the sexually repressed woman, and sexually vibrant black man, they ring true in the novel.  Perhaps they have become overused for a reason.  I came away from To Kill a Mockingbird as having read a great American novel.  I provided one post on it and hopefully I’ll have a second in the near future.

The other two books were Lenten reads.  The first is the classic work on devotion and meditation, St. Teresa of Avila’s, Interior Castle.  This was a more difficult read than I anticipated.  Interior Castle was a late work by the saint and doctor of the church, and so there were a number of references to previous writings she had published which it assumed the reader had read.  It’s probably not the ideal work of hers to read first.  Nonetheless there is great wisdom in it and some beautiful passages.  This was a work that had been selected and discussed in my Goodreads Catholic Thoughts Book Club.  I’ve been posting on the blog my comments from the book club discussion, and you can read Part 1 and Part 2 I anticipate a few more posted parts since I contributed quite a bit in the discussion.

The other Lenten read was Peter Kreeft’s Prayer for Beginners.  Someone in the Amazon Reviews for this book stated that the book was incorrectly titled.  It should have been titled Why We Pray instead of the implied How We Pray.  That strikes me as half correct.  Peter Kreeft is a philosopher, and this book spends about the half its length toward the reasons for prayer and half on building a prayer life.  Nonetheless, there were many insightful thoughts throughout the book and well worth a read.  If I may summarize the book, since I don’t intend to post on it, the overarching purpose of prayer is to reach a point where one experiences the immediate and constant presence of God. 

The four short stories were all interesting.  I posted an analysis of Wharton’s “A Cup of Cold Water”   and Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” is a true classic.  I intend to post an analysis of that as well.  Tobias Wolff is one of the leading living American short story writers, and I had never read one before.  “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” is an admirably well written story about college professors and needing to be politically correct.  It was an early story of Wolff’s, so I may try another from his collection, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories.  The “Saint Dymphna” story is by Mary O’Connell, a writer I had never heard of before, but I bought her collection Living with Saints based on its premise.  Each story has in some way a connection to a female saint.  This story deals with Dymphna Malone, Catholic high schooler, who struggles with a decision to have an abortion, has the abortion, and is revealed to her entire school to her great shame.  Her shame is supposed to endow her with a sort of martyrdom, in line with that of her namesake, which, in my opinion, falls flat given the death of the unborn child who really was martyred.

I’ve already added an extra work that I didn't plan.  The Catholic Thoughts Book Club has selected what strikes me as an obscure book by a Benedictine abbot, Dom Jean-Charles Nault, The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times.  The book description says, “The noonday devil is the demon of acedia, the vice also known as sloth. The word “sloth”, however, can be misleading, for acedia is not laziness; in fact it can manifest as busyness or activism. Rather, acedia is a gloomy combination of weariness, sadness, and a lack of purposefulness. It robs a person of his capacity for joy and leaves him feeling empty, or void of meaning.”  That weariness and lack of purpose is “the unnamed evil of our times” sounds fascinating and perhaps insightful.  If you’re interested in reading along with us, come join the Bookreads Catholic Thoughts Book Club.  

I’ve also started one of my poetry reads for the year, a book on the famous poets of World War I, Max Egremount’s Some Desperate Glory.  This book combines the historical background, the poet’s biography, and a sampling of their poems. 

Upcoming reading plans includes the German novel Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, the novella White Fang by Jack London, and “Marius,” the third part of Victor Hugo’s classic work which I’ve been reading one volume at a time.  I’ll be reading the middle 50 psalms for my Biblical read, both in the KJV and a modern translations.  I’ll also be reading the next few Hemingway short stories as I continue my sequential read through them, four or five per year.  Last year I started the same type of sequential read through Vladimir Nabakov’s short stories, and I’ll be reading a few of them.  And then I’ll just randomly pick other stories as occasion and impulse dictate. 


“Master and Man,” a short story by Leo Tolstoy.
Interior Castle, a non-fiction book on spirituality by St. Theresa of Avila.
“A Cup of Cold Water,” a short story by Edith Wharton.
“In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” a short story by Tobias Wolff.
To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel by Harper Lee.
Prayer for Beginners, a non-fiction book of devotion by Peter Kreeft.
“Saint Dymphna,” a short story by Mary O’Connell.

Currently Reading:

Julius Caesar: Life of a Colossus, a biography by Adrian Goldsworthy.
The Book of Psalms, a book of the Old Testament, KJV and Ignatius RSV Translations.
Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, a non-fiction book on writing by Virginia Tufte.
“A House of Gentlefolks,” a short story by Evelyn
The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times, a non-fiction book on Acedia by Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B.
Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew, a book of history and collected poetry by Max Egremont.

Upcoming Plans:

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, a novel by Thomas Mann.
White Fang, a novella by Jack London.
 “Gods,” a short story by Vladimir Nabokov.
“Wingstroke,” a short story by Vladimir Nabokov.
“After the Storm,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway.
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway.
“The Light of the World,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway.
“Marius,” Volume III of Les Misérables, a novel by Victor Hugo.

If there is anything in this list you particularly want me to write a post on, please ask, and I’ll see if I can accommodate.  

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Lines I Wished I’d Written: The Panic in the Blizzard from Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”

When we had our one big snow storm earlier this winter, I decided I wanted to read a story set in a snow storm.  I had read Leo Tolstoy’s story “Master and Man” many years ago, and decided it would be perfect.  It’s a story of a rich land owner, Vasili Andreevich, and his servant Nikita, who get lost in a snowstorm.  I’m in the middle of a short story analysis of this great story, and will post it when I’m done.  But in the meantime I wanted to post this great section.  It’s chapter VIII of the story.  Nikita has given up trying to find his way out of the blizzard and resolved that he will die.  Vasili is in a panic and is making a vain attempt to find his way.  He pushes the horse, Mukhorty, through the forest only to come back to the same place he started.  

Meanwhile Vasili Andreevich, with his feet and the ends of the reins, urged the horse on in the direction in which for some reason he expected the forest and forester's hut to be. The snow covered his eyes and the wind seemed intent on stopping him, but bending forward and constantly lapping his coat over and pushing it between himself and the cold harness pad which prevented him from sitting properly, he kept urging the horse on. Mukhorty ambled on obediently though with difficulty, in the direction in which he was driven.

Vasili Andreevich rode for about five minutes straight ahead, as he thought, seeing nothing but the horse's head and the white waste, and hearing only the whistle of the wind about the horse's ears and his coat collar.

Suddenly a dark patch showed up in front of him. His heart beat with joy, and he rode towards the object, already seeing in imagination the walls of village houses. But the dark patch was not stationary, it kept moving; and it was not a village but some tall stalks of wormwood sticking up through the snow on the boundary between two fields, and desperately tossing about under the pressure of the wind which beat it all to one side and whistled through it. The sight of that wormwood tormented by the pitiless wind made Vasili Andreevich shudder, he knew not why, and he hurriedly began urging the horse on, not noticing that when riding up to the wormwood he had quite changed his direction and was now heading the opposite way, though still imagining that he was riding towards where the hut should be. But the horse kept making towards the right, and Vasili Andreevich kept guiding it to the left.

Again something dark appeared in front of him. Again he rejoiced, convinced that now it was certainly a village. But once more it was the same boundary line overgrown with wormwood, once more the same wormwood desperately tossed by the wind and carrying unreasoning terror to his heart. But its being the same wormwood was not all, for beside is there was a horse's track partly snowed over. Vasili Andreevich stopped, stooped down and looked carefully. It was a horse-track only partially covered with snow, and could be none but his own horse's hoofprints. He had evidently gone round in a small circle. 'I shall perish like that!' he thought, and not to give way to his terror he urged on the horse still more, peering into the snowy darkness in which he saw only flitting and fitful points of light. Once he thought he heard the barking of dogs or the howling of wolves, but the sounds were so faint and indistinct that he did not know whether he heard them or merely imagined them, and he stopped and began to listen intently.

Suddenly some terrible, deafening cry resounded near his ears, and everything shivered and shook under him. He seized Mukhorty's neck, but that too was shaking all over and the terrible cry grew still more frightful. For some seconds Vasili Andreevich could not collect himself or understand what was happening. It was only that Mukhorty, whether to encourage himself or to call for help, had neighed loudly and resonantly. 'Ugh, you wretch! How you frightened me, damn you!' thought Vasili Andreevich. But even when he understood the cause of his terror he could not shake it off.

'I must calm myself and think things over,' he said to himself, but yet he could not stop, and continued to urge the horse on, without noticing that he was now going with the wind instead of against it. His body, especially between his legs where it touched the pad of the harness and was not covered by his overcoats, was getting painfully cold, especially when the horse walked slowly. His legs and arms trembled and his breathing came fast. He saw himself perishing amid this dreadful snowy waste, and could see no means of escape.

Suddenly the horse under him tumbled into something and, sinking into a snow-drift, began to plunge and fell on his side. Vasili Andreevich jumped off, and in so doing dragged to one side the breechband on which his foot was resting, and twisted round the pad to which he held as he dismounted. As soon as he had jumped off, the horse struggled to his feet, plunged forward, gave one leap and another, neighed again, and dragging the drugget and the breechband after him, disappeared, leaving Vasili Andreevich alone on the snow-drift.

The latter pressed on after the horse, but the snow lay so deep and his coats were so heavy that, sinking above his knees at each step, he stopped breathless after taking not more than twenty steps. 'The copse, the oxen, the lease-hold, the shop, the tavern, the house with the iron-roofed barn, and my heir,' thought he. 'How can I leave all that? What does this mean? It cannot be!' These thoughts flashed through his mind. Then he thought of the wormwood tossed by the wind, which he had twice ridden past, and he was seized with such terror that he did not believe in the reality of what was happening to him. 'Can this be a dream?' he thought, and tried to wake up but could not. It was real snow that lashed his face and covered him and chilled his right hand from which he had lost the glove, and this was a real desert in which he was now left alone like that wormwood, awaiting an inevitable, speedy, and meaningless death.

'Queen of Heaven! Holy Father Nicholas, teacher of temperance!' he thought, recalling the service of the day before and the holy icon with its black face and gilt frame, and the tapers which he sold to be set before that icon and which were almost immediately brought back to him scarcely burnt at all, and which he put away in the store-chest. He began to pray to that same Nicholas the Wonder-Worker to save him, promising him a thanksgiving service and some candles. But he clearly and indubitably realized that the icon, its frame, the candles, the priest, and the thanksgiving service, though very important and necessary in church, could do nothing for him here, and that there was and could be no connexion between those candles and services and his present disastrous plight. 'I must not despair,' he thought. 'I must follow the horse's track before it is snowed under. He will lead me out, or I may even catch him. Only I must not hurry, or I shall stick fast and be more lost than ever.'

But in spite of his resolution to go quietly, he rushed forward and even ran, continually falling, getting up and falling again. The horse's track was already hardly visible in places where the snow did not lie deep. 'I am lost!' thought Vasili Andreevich. 'I shall lose the track and not catch the horse.' But at that moment he saw something black. It was Mukhorty, and not only Mukhorty, but the sledge with the shafts and the kerchief. Mukhorty, with the sacking and the breechband twisted round to one side, was standing not in his former place but nearer to the shafts, shaking his head which the reins he was stepping on drew downwards. It turned out that Vasili Andreevich had sunk in the same ravine Nikita had previously fallen into, and that Mukhorty had been bringing him back to the sledge and he had got off his back no more than fifty paces from where the sledge was.

This is such great writing.  One feels the panic and desperation.  The horse brings Vasili back to Nikita where the story’s climax will occur.  You can read the story on line, here.  I found the story even greater in this reading than when I read it many years ago.  Stay tuned for my analysis.