Sunday, October 31, 2021

Notebook: Home Fires

Sir James George Frazer:
Not only among the Celts but throughout Europe, Hallowe’en, the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter, seems to have been of old the time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire and to comfort themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinsfolk. It was, perhaps, a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the poor shivering hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside. Did not the lowing kine then troop back from the summer pastures in the forests and on the hills to be fed and cared for in the stalls, while the bleak winds whistled among the swaying boughs and the snow-drifts deepened in the hollows? and could the good-man and the good-wife deny to the spirits of their dead the welcome which they gave to the cows?

The Golden Bough

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Old Country

It's a frightening thought that I've reached an age where there are now books that I first read almost fifty years ago, and I'm not talking about The Cat in the Hat. A case in point is this Signet Classics edition of Turgenev's The Hunting Sketches, which I first read so long ago that I remembered only that it had about as much to do with hunting as Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America had to do with angling. But I did know that I enjoyed it at the time, and some vague recollection of its mood, coupled with a desire for an antidote after suffering through The Idiot, led me back to it.

I had long ago discarded my old copy. There are newer translations that for all I know may be better than Bernard Guilbert Guerney's, but nostalgia drew me back to this edition and I found a second-hand but still sturdy replacement copy easily enough.

The Hunting Sketches was Turgenev's first book, and its narrator, a member of the Russian landed gentry who seems to have unlimited time on his hands, is thought to have much in common with the author. Not much actual hunting takes place, just the odd game bird or two, but the narrator's travels in search of sport lead him to various encounters with the peasants and gentlefolk of the Russian countryside, a cast of characters that, for a Westernized Russian like Turgenev, must have seemed intriguingly exotic. The individual sketches range widely in tone and subject, encompassing "tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral...," and so on. Here and there the descriptive passages get a bit florid (at least in this translation), but overall the tone is dispassionate, even anthropological; at times I was reminded of that other meticulous explorer of foreign lands, Lafcadio Hearn. The most memorable tale is probably "Bezhin Meadow," in which the narrator, having become lost, stumbles onto a night encampment of five adolescent boys, who exchange eerie tales of local ghosts and horrors once they think that the narrator has fallen asleep. It's a wonderful piece of writing.

The book was published in the 1850s, and the Russia it describes has been transformed and transformed again since then, but Turgenev seems like our contemporary, or the kind of contemporary we would have if we deserved him. Within the limits of his class and his background and the inevitable constraints of literary creation he described life as he found it. Naturally the authorities were displeased.

In addition to extensive work as translator, Bernard Guilbert Guerney, who died in 1979, had a second career as the proprietor of the Blue Faun Bookshop in New York City, which was in existence from 1922 into the '70s. (There is a Walker Evans photograph of the shop's exterior.) He was born near Odessa as Bernard Abramovich Bronstein or Bronshtein, and one source indicates that he may have been related to Trotsky. Walter Goldwater, a fellow bookseller, had this to say of him:
He was a great talker and one of the ones who was very resentful about the way things were going: things always used to be better; people are now illiterate; he can't stand people coming in; they don’t know anything, and so on. He was very difficult to do business with, but we got along quite well because we used to talk in Russian or talk about Russia.
Vladimir Nabokov called Guerney's translation of Gogol's Dead Souls "an extraordinarily fine piece of work."

Thursday, October 21, 2021


A posh tour bus pulls up outside our house and discharges a group of North Koreans and American supporters, who barge in through our front door carrying books and brightly-colored papier-mâché animals as gifts. Some of the North Koreans carry automatic weapons; there are also some children. I round everybody up and make them leave, then call the police. The police already know about it; they say the tour bus is going all around the country like that and not to worry. When I look at some paperwork tucked into the books I realize that they were bought from a former employer.

Monday, October 04, 2021


Charles Dickens:
The passengers were landing from the packet on the pier at Calais. A low-lying place and a low-spirited place Calais was, with the tide ebbing out towards low water-mark. There had been no more water on the bar than had sufficed to float the packet in; and now the bar itself, with a shallow break of sea over it, looked like a lazy marine monster just risen to the surface, whose form was indistinctly shown as it lay asleep. The meagre lighthouse all in white, haunting the seaboard as if it were the ghost of an edifice that had once had colour and rotundity, dropped melancholy tears after its late buffeting by the waves. The long rows of gaunt black piles, slimy and wet and weather-worn, with funeral garlands of seaweed twisted about them by the late tide, might have represented an unsightly marine cemetery. Every wave-dashed, storm-beaten object, was so low and so little, under the broad grey sky, in the noise of the wind and sea, and before the curling lines of surf, making at it ferociously, that the wonder was there was any Calais left, and that its low gates and low wall and low roofs and low ditches and low sand-hills and low ramparts and flat streets, had not yielded long ago to the undermining and besieging sea, like the fortifications children make on the sea-shore.

Little Dorrit