Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Mulk Raj Anand : Private Life of an Indian Prince

Portrait of a Rajah
Rajastan, c 1800

Though recommended on Wikipedia as "one of Anand's most impressive and important works", this has to be one of the worst books I've ever read (or, at least, finished)

It's just a lurid jaunt through class warfare, with the Rajput Indian Prince of this story as the standard bearer for a ruling class that is predatory, self-centered, cruel, and ultimately self-destructive.

Presumably the author, and his intended readership, took some pleasure in following his relentless descent through depravity into raving madness,  in that period immediately following the British Raj when the hundreds of small kingdoms were being incorporated into the new nation of India.

None of the details ring true and none of the characters emerge beyond stereotype.

So why did I keep on reading it, all the way to the bitter end ?

I suppose it was just a fascination with watching a train wreck - the life of the prince as well as the novel itself.

Virgil : The Aeneid (Fagles translation)

Aeneas and the Cumean Sybil 

This is my third go at the Aeneid, having begun with the original Latin text at Walnut Hills High School. That experience was not very positive - it being such a challenge to wrap my mind around another language - and after all that tedious line-by-line effort, whatever dramatic or poetic effects might have been in the original had thoroughly been beaten into dust.

Then I read a translation in college, and was repulsed this time by the relentless carnage of all the battles in Italy. What happened to the romance in Carthage? That seems to have been a completely different story, properly removed, and then given a life of its own in the great opera by Berlioz.

But this time around I embraced the carnage, having been acclimated to it by HBO's Rome that seems to have convinced me that an appetite for carnage was as typically Roman as an aqueduct or the cult of Mithros.

And Fagles enhances that gory pleasure with an obvious attempt to make the text as lively as possible.

It's a bit chilling to realize that this was what Rome's greatest emperor, Augustus, the patron of the poet, Virgil, found entertaining. Aeneas is not presented as intelligent, creative, or compassionate. He's basically a big, strong goon who is loyal to his family (which happily for him includes a Goddess), and they return the favor. He breaks Dido's heart - but it's hard to see how anything but divine mischief would have made him attractive to her.

One of the histories that I recently read suggested that the tragedy of Islam is how quickly it's caliphates abandoned spiritual idealism and reverted into typical Roman monarchies. (as still found throughout the Middle East)

I'll bet Syria's Assad would completely identify with this ancient Roman epic.