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This is a great book. It's taken me almost a year to get around to writing this little review, because I haven't known what to think. I still don't quite know entirely whether it's deeply great or one of those lovely signs of the sorrows and struggles of our sad times. Its author is about as ambitious as a writer can be. He'd like to rival Cervantes - wouldn't we all? - and to his credit he doesn't suggest that he does. That he aspires so high is probably one of the book's chief strengths. It's the opposite of trivial and that is satisfying in itself.
As I re-peruse it, I realize a slower, deeper reading than my initial one is likely to be more rewarding. That's my fault: Don't read this book for plot! Just to read a modern book written in un-rhymed mostly iambic pentameter, with occasional forays into "the feminine ending, an extra half foot of measure...." (I borrow here of course from his scholarship, in his prefatory remarks on the verse structure he - very effectively to my ear - employs throughout.)
But despite all these dazzlements and genuine delights, on first reading I was a bit disappointed, for many reason, One was simply given the context of that hope of coming close to Cervantes. So far, no - but check back in 400 or so years....
Also, somewhere in the verbiage surrounding this book is mention of Mr. Glaysher having read deeply in modern physics - all that great stuff that seems to turn causation upside down, and everything else with it. I imagine he has, with probably more comprehension most of us literature types feel lucky to achieve. But there's - as far as I can recall - nothing in any detail in this poem about those "facts." I continue to wait for a writer who can weave into our reality the notion, for example, that a universe exists for every possible outcome of every possible choice. (Or did I read that wrong?) (Even the biochemistry of guilt and sin would be an interesting place for a well-informed thinker to start....)
The other main area of disappointment was how Mr. Glaysher - shall we say - approaches the female problem. That's an OK way to put it here, as he doesn't get much beyond that. Goddess bless him, it's not for lack of trying or lack of respect, and those two things matter.
The book is a long poem that involves our hero, the writer, in encounters with great thinkers and writers of the ages. This, not incidentally, is where I found the book most satisfying - Mr. Glaysher's depth of knowledge - unless he's making it all up, and I doubt that - is wonderful. He seems to know everyone's name, everyone's era to a T, everyone's geography and history. The man knows more proper nouns than I thought existed.
Just to reel off names would be fun (and yes, I have the book right here; it's been close to hand the whole year since I bought it): "I gazed,/standing with Ta Chak..." "On this, Dostoyevsky and I could agree [says Tolstoy].... "That's about when Lord Tennyson/and Robert Browning strolled around the corner..." "Fazi ended, stepping lightly back, giving way/to a companion by his side, Kabir, met/also once more. 'Oh master, what a blessing,'/I thought, 'to see you again and hear your/words of wisdom...."
By the way, though these examples don't show it, Glaysher seems too to do a lovely job imitating writers' various voices, at least I can say that for the ones (far from the majority!) whose voices I know.
And OK, I was a little wrong in the point I'm trying to get to, the "problem of the female." He does do more than stand in awe of the Universal Feminine (barely). The book opens with a calling upon to the Muse, "O Maid of Heaven, O Circling Moon...." Good. Then a bunch of men, and I'm actually back in about 1975, and I'm wondering, after reading the albeit fascinating names of about 50 men, when do we get to the women?
Queen Mab is the first lady, if my count is right, to stand in person before us the reader/audience: "Together, Merlin and Queen Mab stood/before the crowd, he holding out his staff,/she clothed in Nature's bountiful plenty,/catching the eye of many poets and seers." OK. I can live with that, though I'm starting to long for Sappho (she does show up a few pages later), Jane Austen, and while you're at it, how about a few I've never heard of, since that seems to be your forte?
To his credit - tho if he hadn't I wouldn't be writing this, nor have finished reading the book - he does get to "them." All too often though instead of writers and thinkers (OK, History is the villain) he invokes goddesses and muses, e.g. Calliope, as in the following scene, where Cervantes ends his challenge to our Poet and glances towards the Muse, "all eyes following, her beauty, ever/youthful, in her wisdom, inspiring vision in her small band of devoted ones...."
And while I'm at it, I do have to remark - perhaps a bit nastily but I'm not the one who put this on the page - the "diaphanous gown" she's wearing in this scene is probably one of maybe 20 such that various ladies are said to wear herein.... I'm wondering at least tell me what color those gowns are, and maybe the cut, and how about shoes...?
Yes, I'm in the same construct - born and raised in the American Midwest 1950s - I can't be Donna Reed, so I'll settle for ever-youthful beauty in a diaphanous gown impressing lots of "devoted ones...." I just was disappointed he couldn't get further beyond that sooner. As I don't have that ever-youthful beauty either, I've been trying to find something else for lots of years now, and I wish he could have helped. How about an ugly woman, for a start? (Never mind, if she was "beautiful inside" as we used to say, he'd find her beautiful.)
So upon re-reading, searching through the various diaphanous gowns - I realize, in answer to "what's your problem, reader?" - my problem is his audience seems to be men, not men and women. And thus he's writing to himself and other men about (among other things) women. It's that simple, thus not really offensive at all, just ... I thought we'd ... never mind.
And in the end - his vision tries to encompass what many of us perhaps even more ineptly sense, the impending ascension of a feminine (how limited a word!) vision for our next stage in being...? I can see where one owes Glaysher credit for getting beyond at least that level of thought: he wants to follow the admonition he records/transcribes, the vision he finds, to "hear the voices of guiding elders/grandmothers and mothers/daughters and sisters/ wives and babies/hear the fathers of village traditions/hear their one voice...."
That by the way is the voice of "Sogdolon, King Sundiata's mother, the good sorceress of ancient Mali, from the griot tradition." Or, rather, Mr. Glaysher's hearing of it. But that's a lot, a huge gift. Very nice to make your acquaintance, Madame Sogdolon, the more I think about this the more I feel honored to meet you, and humbled." And thank you, Mr. Glaysher, for effecting the introduction - one of perhaps thousands such (though, OK, mostly to men) he accomplishes in these 290 or so pages. No small gift.
One more tiny cavil - Mr. Glaysher does have a hobby-horse - "the nihilism of Deconstruction..." which he ties, if I understand aright, to origins in the European "Enlightenment" of the 18th century. Really? I thought Voltaire was cool, and as for Deconstruction, it makes me feel lucky, rather than deprived, to sense one learns about that only in graduate college English departments, from which I've been spared ....
So my comment about "Enlightenment" is "Voltaire was cool" - here's where I value and admire Glaysher - he would have a whole lot more to say, and in more detail, and much more precise and intellectually rigorous than anything I could come up with. I hope I'd have the sense to chill on the anti-academia chit-chat and listen.
And yet in his oft-repeated humbleness - which I think is genuine - he is charming too. And I don't think he's been riding the ever-slowing gravy train that was American academia. It feels like he has paid and keeps paying his dues.
Which reminds me of what I felt at the - wait for it - or don't - glorious ending (? well, given the build-up, I dunno...) of this poem: I really look forward to reading the next volume, Mr. Glaysher. There's more to say and I think you are probably already busy finding the words. I shelled out $25 or so for this book, which I almost never do - hurrah for public libraries though they don't have everything - and I don't regret it. As I take up this book again after many months, I realize I'm still thinking about it. And as I page through I find again lots and lots of loveliness.
I think I'll put it by my bed as something to read bits of as I go to sleep, or when I wake up. Can't imagine better book-bound company.