polutrope: (in ur troy!)
Because I'm a sucker for anything set before 1500 and written before 1990, I read Miranda Seymour's The Goddess, which is about Helen of Troy. It was kind of a letdown: I was picturing awesomely bad, and it gave me mediocre. Also I have realized that I probably shouldn't read anything with Homeric characters because I will probably nitpick it TO DEATH.

The main problem was that her characterization was all over the place. It was really hard to tell if Seymour knew that her main characters were kind of unpleasant people or not, which is always annoying. Like, Paris sleeps with everyone (and so does Helen) and by everyone I mean everyone. For Paris it's Penthesilea, for Helen Odysseus. And neither of those makes much sense, especially Odysseus. I MEAN. This is not the place to go into My Ideal Odysseus (ok, it's basically Homer's minus the infidelity), but I think it's a big deal that he turned down Helen.* And I'm pretty sure that the deal with Penthesilea is that, well, she doesn't really have a point, but whatever. Not sleeping with Paris.

So anyway, she sort of reinvents Paris as this great warrior, in the face of all Homeric characterization. Remember that time* when Paris destroyed Menelaus in a duel and Menelaus had to be saved by Aphrodite? I don't either, because exactly the opposite happened. Also evidently Paris is the first to think of using archery from horseback, which I am pretty sure would be difficult with no stirrups. Also remember when Helen gets sick of Paris and doesn't want to sleep with him? Yeah, that doesn't happen.

Which brings us to oddities in the storyline. It starts out with Helen's childhood, and a poor man's Renault/Graves female vs male cult. Seymour can't seem to decided between Helen being basically nice but inhumanly beautiful or actually a bad person. She may or may not have gotten Castor and Pollux killed by encouraging them to go out on a raid (but really Menelaus killed them. or something). Skipping the oath Odysseus makes everyone take to go to war if Helen is ever kidnapped, which you might think would be kind of important, Helen marries Menelaus but he humiliates her and is really upset when she turns out to be barren and then he sleeps with a slave girl and Helen is miserable.

And then Paris comes and, you know, is kind of a douche (actually we get a taste of his douchitude when he's growing up and then when he actually goes to Troy. And I really can't tell if she knows he's a douche or not.) and Takes Her Away From All This. So they go to Troy and chill there for a while. The start of the war isn't actually in Homer so I don't really care, but then she decides to condense the ten years of the war into about two, which bothered me in the movie and bothers me now. And she skips Diomedes and Odysseus' night raid, which is quite important to the fall of Troy. And Helen doesn't fall out of love with Paris.

I know I'm harping on that a bit, but it's a fairly important part of her Homeric character that she feels bad about going (Many men have been slain for the sake of bitch-face me) and that she doesn't love Paris anymore.

Also I really hate her Hector and Andromache. Actually I just hate her characters in general. To really follow Homeric characterization, you'd have to have everyone be basically good: Hector is especially good, Agamemnon sometimes less than good. But Homer doesn't do villains (except Thersites) or just nasty people, which Seymour does a lot of.*

In any case, Helen helps Odysseus come up with the Trojan Horse idea, when she meets him disguised as a beggar (and then sleeps with him). This episode, if not the conceiving of the Horse, is purely Homeric and show a thing that happens very often: Seymour mixing good Homeric events and weird things that didn't happen. So then Helen goes home with Menelaus, his slave girl kills him, Helen gets exiled and then hanged as an offering to the Goddess by her old childhood friend. Really.

The end is basically a whirlwind tour through all the myths about Helen's return: Odysseus and Menelaus make up the Helen in Egypt story to save face, the Helen Dendritis thing is her being sacrificed by the friend.

So I didn't hate it, but it wasn't very good at all, and not even entertainingly bad. But it did make me think about characterization in Homeric novels. You, the generic Bronze Age listener, wouldn't raise your hand, in the circle around the fire, listening to the bard, and say "Excuse me, honored bard, but last week we had a guy here who insisted that Odysseus was faithful to Penelope. And clearly he is righter than you." So why do we hold modern writers, who are essentially carrying on the bardic tradition in written form, to higher standards? Except that Paris' unmanliness probably would have been constant.*

Indulging a bit here, I've always been Team Menelaus at least a little bit, and I don't know why. But really, is there anything wrong with her liking him? Menelaus is not a bad guy in Homer, really. He's a typical warrior, but he doesn't do anything actively douchey, unlike pretty much anything else.

IN SUM: I don't know if I'd recommend it. Maybe if you had free time and wanted to take my copy off my hands.*

*Actually quite a bit of what I'm complaining about isn't Homeric and I'm not sure of the sources for it (it was in d'Aulaire's!) Like, did you know that the thing about Thetis dipping Achilles in the Styx was a 1st century AD thing? I did not.
*Iliad 3, 1-37
*Especially women, which is a whole other story. Look, I understand your point that all the women hate Helen for her beauty, but it's still kind of awful that none of your women have characters outside Helen or their husbands.
*Seymour has him fighting with a bow, and being praised for it. People. The Greeks thought that bow-fighting was unmanly for, like, ever.
*This is me steadfastly not mentioning that kind of embarrassing and pointless scene in which Chinese people and Nubians show up to be Trojan allies. Yeah, I dunno either.
polutrope: (sleep is for pussies)
I'm currently reading selections from the de Goncourt journals, which are, well, often casually misogynistic, but also a fascinating look into the literary world of 1850s Paris. The de Goncourt brothers are fairly clearly mediocre talents who hang out with better writers, like Flaubert, and the journals are full of clear attempts to be aphoristic, which often miss the mark. But then sometimes they come out with something like this:

I feel convinced that every political argument boils down to this: I am better than you are, every literary argument to this: "I have more taste than you," every argument about art to this: "I have better eyes than you," every argument about music to this: I have a finer ear than you."

all of which is very true and very depressing. It's a chestnut that it's easier to critique than to praise, but one that's always held very true for me. It's very easy to be dismissive of things that you don't like, and wonder how anyone could ever like them. Personally, I love tearing things down, especially when they're hilariously bad (see also: my post on the guy who was really into the Real Historical Merlin and really this whole tag) but I do try to stay with things that are objectively bad. And yes, I do believe in the concept of "objectively bad." The Merlin book, for example, has shoddy research and is clearly written from a parti pris.

"Objectively bad" is harder in fiction, obviously, and the distinction needs to be made between "I don't like it, but it's good," "I don't like it because it's bad," "I like it but it is bad (guilty pleasures)" and "I like it because it is good." The first category is the hardest to fit things into, I think, because it's easier to find faults in a work than in yourself. I think for me at least Kazantzakis' The Odyssey: a Modern Sequel falls into this category. It's beautifully written, or at least translated, and it's a pretty good imitation of Homer, but I couldn't finish it because I detested his characterization of Odysseus. I also have trouble with "I like it but it is bad" - I suppose Sword of Attila works, but I am willing to lower my standards for things that aren't supposed to be Great Works of Fiction. The prose is readable, the characters are decent (no heroes you want to shake out of frustration, no cardboard cutout villains), so I don't think you can legitimately call it "bad," just "not literature" - but it had no pretensions to being literature, so you can't fault it for that.

In fact, I think most of my guilty pleasures are just things that are low culture and not trying to be high: operetta, trashy fantasy novels, trashy historical fiction. Of course, it's possible to be bad even admitting lower standards: The Blending series, despite some gorgeous cover art is truly awful. The first sentence is "Lorand stood in the farmyard just at dawn, watching the sun rise like the great ball of Fire magic it was," and it just gets worse from there. The characters are awful, the world makes no sense, and the prose is terrible. It also shades into "so awful I like it," but that's another story.

On another note, it really makes me wonder when people praise the worldbuilding in "Europe with fantasy names!" books. Not when it's like, Generic Medieval Setting, which is annoying but can be tweaked to make it interesting (and to be quite honest, I don't really mind medieval fantasy, as long as you make an effort), but when it's actually, literally Europe but with different names. Like the Kushiel series, or Guy Gavriel Kay's Sailing to Sarantium. I liked Sailing to Sarantium, I really did (although not enough to read the second one, but that's partly because I was broke), but you can only really praise the worldbuilding if you don't know the first thing about Byzantine history. Like, the fact that there was a Byzantium. And I know people are, you know, less into Byzantine history than me, and don't know about the who Amalsuntha thing, but really, Kay takes most of his plot points whole from history. I'm not saying I hate the idea, although it does make me wonder why you can't just write a historical novel with magic, but it's not good worldbuilding.

So to be completely elitist, because I believe that is the whole point of this post, I do have more taste than you. Or well, not "you" you, but the general person.
polutrope: (sleep is for pussies)
Oh, look! It's my favorite things in one place: Phèdre and theory of translation!
so of course I did a long analysis of it. )
polutrope: (ET TU PENIS)
So, I was stumbling, as you do on a boring Friday night when you have no school and thus no homework, and I came upon this. And it's fine - well, mostly fine: Point 2, Better Editing includes this sentence: And if a hefty book isn't super popular, its length can easily overwhelm many young readers," which may be true, but I trust kids more than she seems to - until Point 5: More Boy Books.

I'm afraid this won't be popular, she starts, and she's damn right it won't.

I've noticed that lots of books with female characters aren't really about being female. In fact, in many cases, the main characters could just as easily have been males—and that would make my job a lot easier.

Which is simply infuriating. Take Sabriel, a book whose heroine really could just as well have been a hero. First, that's one of the reasons it's great. As a female reader, I enjoy heroines, especially of SF/fantasy novels who don't think about being female all the time, and who are just as competent as heroes. And boys like Sabriel. I know multiple boys who do, even now, at least ten years after publication. Why? Because it's well-written. That's the problem, not books with icky girls in. There's a lot of junk out there.

But a novel like Ann Halam's Siberia could have included a male protagonist. And Gloria Whelan's The Impossible Journey could have featured an older brother and a younger sister—instead of 13-year-old Marya and her younger brother, Georgi.

Right. Because competent girls are such a threat to men that their penises will fall off just from reading about them. No, if you want to include a girl (and why would you do that? girls can read about boys, so why would you bother having a heroine?), she has to be younger so that she can be protected by her brother and so that he can do the interesting stuff.

Am I being silly? Probably, but some of our boys have never read a complete book in their lives. It's important to offer them good, appealing stories, and, sad to say, that means stories with prominent male characters.

Yeah, the first part is not even close to the problem of the evil publishing industry for printing too many books with female protagonists. It's a cultural attitude, a mistrust and incomprehension of reading (e.g., the guy who tried to hit on me outside of Strand, who told a girl who obviously loves books that he can only read for ten minutes at a time and doesn't understand people who like reading).

And the second part is the worst sentence in the whole thing. "Good, appealing stories" = "Stories with prominent male characters"? If there's a prominent female character, it's automatically unappealing and bad? Men are, of course, the default. Girls should read about boys, because male characters are what makes a story appealing. The same story, the author of this article tells us, is bad for boys with a female character, but would be great with a male one.

On the bright side, I guess some progress has been made, if people complain about too many strong female protagonists!
polutrope: (fooood)
So yeah I'm kind of miserable, and Sonnambula didn't do much to beguile my cares - but then it's Sonnambula, and really I doubt that if one were picking operas to soothe one's troubled spirits, Sonnambula would be at the top of one's list. In any case I was there for Dessay, and to a lesser extent Florez; I didn't expect all that much, since I knew about the production. Maury's thoughts are most likely more coherent than mine will be, filtered as they are though the lateness of the night and the depth of my sorrow, but here goes.

As has been discussed before, I sort of hate the idea of modern productions in general; I feel that they insult both the audience and the work. This one put emphasis, pace d'Annato, on insulting the work. Certainly it has a terrible libretto, both in terms of plot and words; but I feel that if one is willing to take the trouble of putting a work on, one should have at least some affection for it.

All questions of theory aside, the concept made no sense. Alright, it's set during a rehearsal of Sonnambula; it's at once silly and over-done, but I suppose you could make something of it. Of course, it then asks the viewer to suspend disbelief from a far thinner thread than the original opera does; I'd believe that Amina can sleepwalk over a mill far sooner than a. the lead singers of the production are named Amina and Elvino; b. either everyone lives in the theater itself or in walking distance; and c. that modern people would behave like 19th century peasants. I suppose there are places where being alone in a man's room would be enough to break off a wedding, but not...wherever this was set.

Right, because the events of the opera spill out into "real life," and the performance of the opera is somehow equated with the "real" marriage of the leads. Which, I would like to note, makes no goddamned sense. Dessay's, or Dessay's character's entrance is during a "rehearsal" of the chorus the townspeople sing to Amina, but Dessay acts as though it's to her, which makes sense if she's related that much to her character, or if she's just that much of a diva. Everything's ¹ like that - you can make it make sense if you try hard enough, but it's really not worth it.

Sonnambula's a sweet piece of fluff; it doesn't make all that much sense, and it doesn't have to - but doing something like this doesn't make it deeper or more interesting.

(a couple of quick notes: writing on a blackboard in front of a couple of thousand people, as a poor man has to in the first act, will now be included in the tissue of my nightmares; Florez seems to have fixed that nasal thing he'd picked up; Alessio was very cute.)
¹Everything, that is, except the last scene, where they're in full Tyrolean dress. And I suppose that makes sense, it's just dumb.
polutrope: (in ur troy!)
Paul Veyne's "Did the Greeks believe in their Myths" is one of the better books I've read lately,¹ although it didn't quite speak to what I wanted to know. Unfortunately, I think what I want to know is unknowable: that is, if you went up to the average 5th century Athenian and asked him "do you believe in Zeus? and if so, is the Zeus you believe in the same one who seduced Leda and Semele?" would he say yes.²

Since that's pretty much impossible to figure out, Veyne writes about the attitude of historians to myth - for example, Herodotus' essentially uncritical acceptance of the historicity of the Trojan War or Heracles. On the way, he hits some points that were really more interesting than his main idea (which was, I think, that the Greek or Roman historians could believe and not believe in the myths). For example, he notes that we as modern readers tend to think of the Athenians as a monolithic "cultured populace," which, if you think about it for more than a second, can't have been entirely the case.

I think we're using different definitions of "believe;" he speaks of "believing in" Madame Bovary³; I wouldn't use believe about a work that was created to be a fiction. I might believe that such characters might exist, but I hardly believe that Madame Bovary herself once existed in whatever miserable provincial town that novel's set in. For me, one believes in a god or a cause (but of course, "believe in" and "believe" are different). That is to say, I believe that the earth is round; I don't believe in God or studying for tests.

There is one point I disagree with him on, and it's not really central to his argument - that the Greek myths have no chronology. His analogy is "asking whether Zeus seduced Danaë before he ravished Leda is like asking whether Tom Thumb's adventures took place before or after Cinderella's wedding." That's hardly accurate: fairytales take place in what may in fact be the same world - surely its stock characters are the same - but they have no interconnectivity.

Homer, most likely drawing upon tradition, has Odysseus meet heroes in the underworld and Nestor speak of his time fighting alongside the great heroes of yesterday; thus, Oedipus and Theseus must have had their existence before the Trojan War. As he mentions often, the Greeks made little distinction between history and myth (and if verifiable history was missing, a myth would do nicely); therefore, myth is a history, and as such has its own (mostly) internally consistent timeline.

¹OK, it didn't have much competition; Nagy may be an expert in the field, but Pindar's Homer is bloated and uninteresting.
²He would probably say "what? and can I have five drachma?"
³He is also amazingly and adorably French the whole way through. He also talks about the "voluntary blindness of husbands and parents."*
*Speaking of "adorable," he quotes his child as saying "Papa, so all the houses aren't already built?"
polutrope: (Default)
I saw La damnation de Faust last night at the Met. As one would know if one read the Times arts section all the time, they have a new production, with video screens. Unsurprisingly enough, I was against this idea when I first heard about it.
Hurrah! )
polutrope: (academia)
When I saw Eugene Onegin at the Met last year, the nice old lady with whom I was sharing a box said "What a bastard," in reference to Onegin. Well, he is, of course he is, it's 99% of the point of the opera (this is not exactly true; it's 99% of the novel, but only ~70% of the opera, the other 30% being "Tatiana is Noble and Incorruptible"). So, it wasn't her saying that that struck me, but rather the point at which she said it.

It was during "Vi mne pisali," which, thanks to my second semester Russian skills, I know means "You (formal) wrote to me," which Tanya, amid much melodrama, did. He tells her that he can't take advantage of her, and that he was not meant to be someone's husband, sitting with children on his knee, but if his fate had been different, he could have loved her. It's a bit patronizing, of course - but then, he is practically old enough to be her father. (I don't know if their ages are specified, but she can't be older than twenty, or maybe even eighteen, and I put him in his early thirties.) So, overall, not that bad, on the bastard front. Mantova or Don Giovanni would have taken advantage of her in a second.

And this is why he's, to some extent, worse than either of them to me. He waits until Tatiana has a husband and a reputation before she's interesting, worth pursuing. Both of the above womanizers are certainly despicable, but neither of them delights in ruining a woman more than her physical charms.

of course it doesn't stop me from having a crush on him.


polutrope: (Default)

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