Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

“The Eemis Stane” reconsidered, 1/26/18, via Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Without a complete translation, there can be no complete interpretation. This I realized after re-reading yesterday my post on Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Eemis Stane,” featured January 9 on my blog.

Although I knew the picture was incomplete, I attempted to analyze it anyway. And although I understood much of the poem’s message without full decoding, it is only after making a firm choice of translation between two possibilities originally left in competition, and, thus, better understanding the concepts behind the words, that I see how much difference a complete, more accurate translation makes, especially in poetry.

Accuracy of interpretation suffers when the meaning of individual words remains in doubt, even one or two words. In such a short poem, so economically constructed, indeed every word counts.

By reading again, and by further considering through logic and deduction the context of a certain passage’s uncertain meaning to me, I was able to insert the last major puzzle piece. As I believe I have now come closer to understanding the nature and significance of the poem’s message as a whole, I’d like to share these new revelations with you.

For reference, here’s the original poem and my first translation:

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

And this is the essence of what I said about meaning:

Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. . . .

Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

There are several reasons why definitively selecting “moss of fame” makes the most sense, and why both “fog/smoky atmosphere” and “foam” do not.

1. Poetically, the translation would have to be very close to “moss of fame” to establish parallelism with the concept and metaphor of “lichen of history.” Each provides a concrete living thing paired with an abstract societal concept. Each image produced is similar to the other in that this concrete living thing obscures in a similar manner to the other, growing on rocks, spreading itself over their surfaces.

Use of connectors: The fact that both moss and lichen are “of” their paired abstract ideas means that those things, fame and history, inherently bring with them these ironically polluting elements. The poet’s choice to join these metaphors so closely in proximity using the word “and” signifies that the distorting natures, or by-products, of fame and history necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, when one considers it further, they are interdependent.

2. The second reason why “fame” is the correct choice is that the words “cut oot i’ the stane” refer to remembrance, part of the point of memorializing being to preserve a legacy, to obtain or solidify some form of fame in the eyes of observers.

3. Crucially, the key reason that unlocked the meaning for me is that the alternative translation creates a conflict in imagery between an active blizzard and lingering fog or smokiness. Physically, such a thing as fog, mist, haze, or smoke would have to be blasted away by the blizzard. They cannot exist in nature in the same space at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. So process of elimination comes in handy here.

4. Finally, combining these pieces of evidence results in a more robust interpretation of message. Look more closely at the behavior of fame and history as depicted in this poem’s parallel metaphors. They not only obscure the truth but also grow continuously like powerful adhesive upon the “unsteady stone,” further destabilizing it, as moss and lichen both grow on a literal headstone or memorial monument.

A distinct tone of cynicism emerges as these negative sides of fame and history appear. The suggestion is that their “growths” continue uninhibited and uninterrupted, with no one and nothing successfully clearing them away to improve the reputation of fame or history and, by extension, of man. They are natural processes but stubborn nuisances as well, insidious and marring or tainting in how they creep in and take over gradually, almost imperceptibly.

At poem’s end, aided by the described effects of fame and history, the final impression the reader receives is quite clear. The speaker condemns the hubris and vanity of a human race that worships and perpetuates both this “moss” and this “lichen,” implying the absence of the opposite qualities because of mankind’s failure to prevent these incursions. Humanity’s alternate course would be to seek and uphold simple, honest, humble truths—the bedrock, as it were, of goodness, integrity, and justice.

Therefore, the poem is an undoubted lament of those particularly incorrigible, wretched human habits that make the world such a precarious, dangerous place for the individual, and its future such a dismal one for all.

What is left to further interpretation is whether the speaker primarily lays blame and scolds the cause or simply reels from and mourns the effects. In other words, is the final question “Can’t you see what you have done?” or “What have you done to me?”?

The former cries out for change while the latter shows a man incapable of finding the words, the power to move beyond suffering–a man whose “eerie memories,” perhaps even of learned language, scatter into fragments on the wind. He forgets how to read at all. The feeling behind the first question is a sense of urgency and some small hope, whereas the second descends into a confused, frightened, and irrevocable despair.

What do you think MacDiarmid is saying?

Are the layers of obscurity, deception, and confusion just too thick after all?

Or, by revealing them, does the speaker become a catalyst for removing them and restoring what lies beneath?

Either way, my question remains, “What then?” Will we like what we find? Do we need it regardless of how we feel about it? Will it matter?

The speaker makes clear that he cannot say. He cannot make out the words, let alone discover their import. He not only cannot provide an answer; he cannot even see to look for it. His impotence blocks even the consideration of possibility.

For that reason, I see the message as one of despair. The speaker describes the fixed laws of the universe—gravity, inertia, the physics of vibration and spinning—as well as the forces of more intimate natures. The blackness, the cold, the blinding weather, the isolation from fellow humans, and the sticky coverings over our past efforts—together they inevitably overpower man, unsteadying the stone on which he lives and making it impossible to see rightly the things around him, one way and another.

So, yes, I think I get it now.

What do you think?

To view or review the original part 6 post, go here.

For all posts in this series, visit my page under the menu tab “Writing Pool,” then “Poetry,” or under “Wild”: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Perhaps it is only when we are released from the stranglehold of the deep freeze that we can once again celebrate cold, snowy art. Today between Hogmanay (New Year’s) and Burns Night (Jan. 25), I bring you a Scottish, though autumnal, chill–the blizzard, the wind, the land, and their combined efforts to confound. Still, may your eyes and heart be open wide to the imagery, the sounds, and the impact that only poetry can deliver.

Recently, I rediscovered the work of a famous poet I was vaguely familiar with: Hugh MacDiarmid, celebrated Scottish poet of the 20th century (1892-1978). Again, I became so fascinated with the Scots language he used to effect his art that I started trying to translate the Scots of one of his poems into standard English. A bit more challenging than “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, the poem is also more somber and contemplative. A novice in translation for personal interest alone, I am unsure of how well it came out and some of it I couldn’t parse, but I thought the poem interesting enough to share with you.

The poem’s title “The Eemis Stane” translates roughly as “The Unsteady Stone.” If you’ve been following my series on nature poetry, you may have realized by now that sometimes there is a fine line between nature poetry and poetry that uses nature imagery but operates through a different primary theme or mode. Although MacDiarmid’s poem also uses nature imagery, as with many poems, its true subject is more abstract and societal. I believe, though, that all nature poetry need not just celebrate nature; it can also lament it. In that sense, “The Eemis Stane” could legitimately bear the tag “nature poetry.” It would simply need other tags as well.

Following is a bit about Hugh MacDiarmid with a link to more information about the poet, and then the poem in full with my translation and analysis.

According to the Poetry Foundation,

“C. M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, is credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution which restored an indigenous Scots literature and has been acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns.”

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

Message of the poem

More about perhaps the nature of history and understanding than about nature itself, here is my interpretation: Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. Alternatively, though less likely, it could mean that only history’s obfuscation of events allows the observant man to see things clearly, as if transgression alone, however unintended, is what urges one’s keen attention to matters. Compounded by this confusion, or perhaps contributing to it, is the timing of the attempt: the darkest point of the night, a metaphor for the hardest moment in life, when you are shaken to your core and too discombobulated to make sense of it.

Means of the message

We can trust the reputable MacDiarmid to use the Scots language precisely, but ambiguity is the primary theme echoed by method across the poem. With compound images and multiple word meanings (fog/smoke/moss, fame/foam), unclear things masked in layers (darkness, fog, eerie memories, blizzard, lichen), and unexpected shifts in visual perspective (in total darkness, harvest night’s earth wobbling in the sky as seen from what vantage point?), the reader feels the speaker’s disorientation.

One example of a mysterious reference, the idea of the “words” cut out in the stone literally suggests either gravestone, monument, or ancient language, but figuratively calls to mind efforts to make one’s mark, the tantalizing nature of age-old mysteries, or a foundation marred or eroded by words and time. Then, stanza 2’s double negative (“couldna” plus “No’”) raises further questions of interpretation.

The speaker’s reaction to the confusion is a lament, with the consistent choice of words that collectively mourn: “how-dumb-deid” (darkest point), “cold,” “nicht” (night), “eemis” (unsteady, unstable, untethered, precarious, tenuous, unreliable), “wags” (wobbles, shakes, waggles, jars, dislocates, disorients), “eerie,” “fa'” (fall), “couldna” (could not), “cut oot” (cut out), “fug” (smoke, haze, fog, moss), and, most obviously, “yirdit” (buried). These account for our mood of sadness, solemnity, and empathetic bereavement.

Unlike the poem’s subject, with the help of such words, its overall impression proves firm, immutable by poem’s end. Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

Read more Hugh MacDiarmid, aloud for the music or for the challenge of deciphering, but always for the artfulness of poetry:

For more from my collection of famous nature poetry, see:


Lichen grows on a rock at the base of a Nether Largie standing stone in Kilmartin Glen, at the heart of Argyll & Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Image © 2016 C. L. Tangenberg

Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

book-cover_The-Good-EarthA fictional portrayal of the full life of a Chinese man from his start as a farmer to his death as a townsman still clinging to his farmland and its place in his heart, The Good Earth rarely wavers from the perspective of Wang Lung. Written in third-person point of view, the narration makes Wang Lung the central character from beginning to end. In so doing, the author delivers an unwashed, complex depiction of a human being who is very much a product of his time, his country, and his land while still being unique in his blend of naiveté, instinctual wisdom, hot temper, and abiding affections.

There is no happy ending, no comeuppance for moral wrongs done, no neat destruction or spectacular triumph. Just the steady, everyday hopes, aspirations, worries, resentments, choices, goodness, mistakes, successes, failures, moral decay, and general imperfections of a man making a living and raising a family in late 19th- and early 20th-century China.

The plot is less a plot than a complete time line of a life, but the story shares the journey through that life as lived by the main character Wang Lung. Although that journey may seem to lag in places, I interpreted those parts to be necessary components of the full picture of this character study, and the vast majority of the text never strays into tangents and never dwells on anything that is not relevant to the development of the character and his story. There is always something happening, something brewing, or something being reflected upon, but none if it feels indulgent on the author’s part. Nothing felt particularly extraneous; much of it felt very essential to a full portrayal.

The issue I take with the lagging parts is that the writing is not strong enough to support them properly. Overall, Buck is a great writer. The diction, rhythm and flow of the text keep the preponderance of pages turning. In part, the meandering quality of the prose effectively reflects the stream-of-consciousness thinking of our protagonist Wang Lung, which associates the book with other modernist literature. Written in the 1930s, The Good Earth, too, is recognizably a product of its literary moment. Still, despite these considerations, the applied technique does not escape tedium in its repetitiveness, which drags the novel down a bit.

Characters, even minor ones, never felt over-simplified. Buck had a knack for revealing personality in the sparest of gestures and shortest of lines. Some readers may disagree with this appraisal in light of Wang Lung’s sexist viewpoint, but his attitude is a reasonable revelation of context-bound character—true to both history and fictional integrity—not any kind of misogyny in the author.

Even the best of men in Wang Lung’s midst held the same foolish and limiting judgments of girls, women, and their places in Chinese society. A very strong current of Chinese culture is the favoring of male over female offspring, which persisted well into the late 20th century, with echoes even today through, for instance, high numbers of unwanted Chinese girls adopted outside of China.

Foot binding, seen in Western cultures as a barbaric form of female bodily mutilation and crippling, was common practice in making women attractive to male Chinese sensibilities. As in too many other societies of centuries past, girls and women were seen and used primarily as socioeconomic commodities and objects of male control and pleasure. To follow some misguided moral instinct of shame-based concealment into the erasure of these cultural imprints on Chinese history would have been not only false rewriting of history but also dangerous hindrance to modern efforts toward equality. How can the past be improved upon if it is not fully represented?

Yes, this is a thread in the depicted culture that reveals Wang Lung’s and his fellow men’s flaws and failings, but even a main character need not be morally superior to be worth writing and reading. The fact that their fates do not reflect a karmic meting out of justice does not make their characters any less flawed, but such neat justice might have made their lives less fascinating. The flaws make them human, and the getting away with it makes life unfair, which is eminently realistic. If reader ennui is the necessary result, I say so be it.

Furthermore, this is the story of Wang Lung, not the story of O-lan, his first wife, which means that Wang Lung’s perspective is uppermost in telling his story. Readers are free to take on the fan-fiction project of telling the same or similar period of fictional existence from O-lan’s or Lotus’ or Cuckoo’s or one of the daughters-in-law’s perspectives.

The question of whether any of the characters was likable is irrelevant to the evaluation of the book as a whole. I never need to love a character absolutely to follow his or her journey with curiosity and absorption. The need for a moral hero to champion is, in my view, a sign of unreached intellectual and emotional maturity in a reader. Such a reader either has not read enough traditional heroic tales to have outgrown or assimilated their appeal, or the reader utterly resists all semblance of the sharp, rough edges of realism, or both. This reader seeks literature to enjoy in an escapist, fantasist quality only. The trouble is that classic literature, often categorized as such through a solid foundation of many readers of balanced wisdom, is rarely, if ever, fodder for escapism.

The more pertinent literary question for me is how does any character relate to his environment? How does he express himself as a product of his environment, how does he navigate that environment, and how if at all does he transcend his upbringing and environment? By environment I mean all those people, places, and things that make up a character’s immediate sphere of influence and being influenced. On the other hand, too, how does a character relate to himself, transcend himself, or not?

Wang Lung is no great hero, but he is no great villain either. Yet this does not make his story a bland one at all. I found moments of great sympathy for him and moments of gritting my teeth and shaking my head at him. Perhaps it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but when a reader spends this much time with a character, a rising affection is understandable, regardless of the character’s goodness score. I found myself rooting for Wang Lung even as I waited for his punishments for wrongdoing, for there are worse moral actors than he in Buck’s story, just as there are better ones.

Moreover, Buck’s drawing of Wang Lung is wonderfully consistent and unapologetic in its nuanced results for plot and character. Although not a completely static character, Wang Lung possesses a frank incorrigibility and pervading tenderness worth loving.

There is relativism, and there is “it is what it is” and “que sera sera,” but The Good Earth never descends into this pit of simplistic judgment. In the end, the reader is free to wonder at the great changes that have occurred in Wang Lung’s life, family, and society by the time he comes to his passing. Glimmers of the wider cultural changes, in the words and actions primarily of his sons, peek through the closed curtains of Wang Lung’s singular, personal focus. At the same time, the proliferation of his family and his accumulation of wealth greatly change the needs and aspirations of that family.

The earth has been good and it has been bad for their livelihoods, but Wang Lung’s connection to the land is what is dying most with him. Even to him, however, the ground lost some of its sacredness well before he decides to move to town. The cultural and economic tides are turning under his nose and far from his sight almost his entire life. Perhaps it is the gradual nature of this change that makes the letting go less bitter and its long embrace less sweet in the reader’s eyes.

Ultimately, like so many, Wang Lung is a creature of habit and tradition. He rides the plow of these principles until there are none left anymore to work such an implement. New conveyances for new habits and traditions plant new roots for these transplanted people. While the fates of his family do not appear to be all bad in the end, Wang Lung sees the ceasing of earth works, or at least earth ownership, as the great tragedy of his legacy. However, there are worse things a family can come to, and they were coming long before the land’s primacy was ending.

In The Good Earth, the land begins and remains a powerful symbol of a simpler time of simpler pleasures, but like all things, the purity of the land’s beauty and the centrality of its importance throughout the story are always both real and illusory.

Reader Rating for The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
4.2 stars overall: 5 stars for consistent, unflinching characterization; 4 stars for vivid description and atmospheric setting; 3.5 stars for story and plot; 4 stars for prose; 4.5 stars for cultural, including literary, resonance

Book Review: War and Peace

I wrote the bulk of this book review in September, but I wasn’t happy with it, so I set it aside. Despite its retaining some flaws, I decided it has enough going for it to make it worth sharing, so here it is: my review of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace.

The Nature of War and History

Leo Tolstoy was a better storyteller than philosopher in his classic work War and Peace. More frequently and for longer sections than in other classic novels I’ve read, the author strays from storytelling into open rhetoric. Tolstoy gives himself ample space for this focus with a book of 587,287 words. Then, he lingers on pontification, unfortunately, through the second and final epilogue.

I can’t say how he does compared to other Russian authors such as Dostoyevsky because I haven’t yet read enough of those, but I can compare him to professional philosophers and myself as a philosophy graduate and self-directed student. Mainly, I’m interested in considering Tolstoy’s efforts within this single volume of writing.

From my post Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

What is war, after all, but a stamp of failure, the failure of people–clans, nations, and their leaders–to solve problems fairly, honestly, and peaceably? At best, it’s a self-serving grab for power and land, glory and good standing. At worst, fratricide, genocide, evil. Occasionally, it is a pure demand for deserved freedom, but that purity is never uniform across the hearts of those who fight. Generally, war is far less romantic than either fiction or history or current events media portrays, though some things do remain worth fighting for. . . .

To paraphrase Tolstoy from War and Peace, history is the habit of focusing on great leaders’ military conflicts as defining lands and their peoples, whereas it is the individual person going about everyday life, both in waging war and in tending to private affairs, that has most influence on a country’s fate. It is discrete human consciousness and conscience that matter most, not the “hive mind” of collectivism, of self-sacrificing glory and patriotic heroism.

In solemn honor, reverent pride, and moist-eyed commemoration of great public figures, military commanders, and extraordinary patriots credited with ingenious tactics, singular vision or instinct, and pivotal acts of bravery and skill, we write books, erect monuments, fill museums, name streets, and conduct ceremonies.

Yet the greatness of great leaders lies not in their human empathy, but in their ruthlessness, singular focus, and emotionless problem-solving skills. Commanders of armies, Tolstoy claims, cannot allow compassion, mercy—in short, human conscience—to cloud their tactical judgment if they are to be effective warriors. His example is Emperor Napoleon, but the principle applies equally to queens, colonels, dukes, generals, and princes.

It is regular people instead, Tolstoy argues, the common man and woman toiling anonymously and focused on their own lives and families—those who fight, suffer, bleed, and die not for a cause but as a matter of course—who deserve greatest praise and emulation. Better that each does for himself than for the public good; as a result, the public is better served.

Based on direct narrative arguments, characterization, and plot in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy’s belief in the importance of these actions lies in how they preserve people’s lives, loves, and souls. Let your life be a beacon so that others avoid the grandiose, power-hungry, cruel, machine-like, nationalistic, and imperialistic ambitions that only ever result in countless acts of evil.

His arguments are not without merit; most of them I found to be novel (no pun intended), therefore intriguing, extremely well developed, and frequently persuasive. Tolstoy is better at this in the earlier books and chapters of War and Peace than toward its end. Yet, for all its careful argumentation, War and Peace proves its most remarkable illustration of those arguments, and its best outright craft, in the fictional story itself.

People in 19th-Century Russia

All the main characters become highly complex, dynamic, real human creations by the time their epilogue, the first of two, ends. Whether the reader focuses on Andrew, Natasha, Pierre, Nicholas, or Mary, the shocking rises and falls they experience lay the groundwork, in at least three cases, for an immense depth and breadth of change that defies reader expectation and imagination.

One character’s girlish exuberance brings her readily to love, but then inexperience makes her prey to shameless seduction, which plunges her into mournful ruination, and thence to physical illness. With medical intervention, she recovers. Her spirit’s plunder gives rise to austere devotion in the midst of war, and she returns to deepest mourning. Renewed connection to a reformed friend at last allows her to live in her element with unapologetic womanly vitality that saturates her large, happy brood.

Another’s troubled soul, as heir to the fortune of an estranged parent, becomes trapped in external corruption, seeks spiritual solace, and commits to religious renewal. Though he marries sloth and gluttony, he cannot escape his palpable conscience, which compels him into mission-bound patriotism and thence to a purified, liberated spirit as he escapes from war imprisonment and suffering. Thus cleansed by conflict, robbed of legal freedom, and reduced to attending only his basic human needs, he emerges like a phoenix into spiritual freedom, and then into balanced, happy, duty-bound marriage and fatherhood.

His friend, who begins as a spiritual foil to him, in embittered, cynical not-quite-youth caught in an unwanted marriage, allies his atheism with devoted military service and advancement. Shackled by his sense of family duty, his extended courtship as a widower with a son jeopardizes his future happiness. Transformed by falling under the oppressive weight of disappointed hopes and twice into near-death experiences, he is temporarily re-embittered, then fully embraces forgiveness, transcendence, and God.

A subservient daughter with unshakable religious fervor endures hateful, long-extended parentage and, despite having effectively adopted a child from within the family, discovers freedom in her parent’s death. After slowly treading the gauntlet of requisite postmortem guilt for feeling a natural sense of freedom after wishing for the parent’s suffering to end, she finally asserts her natural leadership in estate affairs. She then falls in love with a strikingly earth-bound admirer but retains her faith in God and her strong moral center to the end.

A spoiled playboy with childhood sweetheart matures gradually through a series of experiences the reader might think should have greater impact on his character. Following a false start in his native high society, he seeks glory in war but discovers the shame of false recognition. He gradually detaches himself from the girl he still loves as he devotes himself to Russia, even as libertine tendencies persist.

He later surprises himself by falling in love with a woman very unlike him, takes his time accepting it, then ages painfully under the austerity of inherited debt and dedication to his mother’s unfettered expenditures. Though eventually happy in his new worker’s role, he struggles to reshape his pugilistic instincts with a much more scrupulous, cerebral wife who loves him fully without even remotely understanding him.

Each character’s capacity for completely loving others takes a form as unique as each individual, but that fully proven capacity testifies to their humanity more than anything can which they experience directly or live through nationally.

Natasha effuses love her entire life, a selfish love until scandal and tragedy humble her into contrite devotion. Then, though better balanced and more giving, with a live mind but an even more indomitable spirit, she returns to a naturally selfish state, in her unexpected renunciation of society, so as to embrace vigorous investment in marriage and motherhood.

Pierre most loves his intellect until he meets Andrew and Natasha, both of whom he loves unconditionally despite not understanding them, learns to love life after the shackles of war imprisonment, witnessed atrocities, and famine that ironically free him from his former self of decadence, social imprisonment, and eternal questioning.

Andrew has trouble showing his love to close family, even his son, until he meets Natasha, gives himself to her, then suffers the pain and humiliation of their break-up. His war experiences and severe wounds teach him a pure love of God, transcendence, and death.

Mary loves God and servitude to a fault in allowing her father’s constant abuses of her, loves her brother Andrew deeply, loves her nephew, whom she raises, learns with surprise to love Natasha as a sister in their shared love of Andrew, and loves Nicholas so deeply that she ignores or forgives all his transgressions, while also alerting him to his path of improvement.

Nicholas is the only character in the top tier that seems superficial in all his loves, first wearing the ease of beloved childhood, then the delights of wealth, followed by the steady hum of enjoyed military service, and then the application of that same sense of duty to managing his family’s debt, until he practically falls into marriage with a rich woman he has gradually grown to love without needing to love her for her money. If he seems to love superficially, perhaps it is only that he suffers by contrast with the more absolute loving in the likes of sister Natasha, would-be brother-in-law Andrew, brother-in-law Pierre, and wife Mary.

It is these distinctly different journeys through love that best convince the reader of Tolstoy’s impassioned message that history is misleading if not wholly false, that great leaders prove time and again to be inhuman hypocrites and surprisingly powerless fools, that the imperial government’s transitory and useless nature robs it of meaning, and that only love and humanity in the individual lives of common citizens really matter.

With protagonists whose motivations, experiences, and shifting outlooks testify to the depth and vividness of their simple forms of love, Tolstoy has convinced me that self-absorbed, mutually invested individuals will always be the thing that makes a nation’s shared history and collective identity great.

Tolstoy argues explicitly that the highest, purest form of patriotism is the keen attention and investment in the good of one’s own particular personal life, and he proves his claim in the storytelling. As the reader follows the lives and deaths in this microcosm of Russian society, she learns that to value individual people—siblings, cousins, friends, parents, and children, fellow citizens caught in the snares of war and punishment—is truly the best one can do.

The “Patriotic War of 1812,” a.k.a. the French Invasion of Russia

Yet, if the title were “Love Conquers All” instead of War and Peace, somehow it would lose its impact. By viewing particular humanity through the lens of society’s struggle for international survival, the contrast between killing and loving comes through more sharply. And the book is as much about abhorring war as it is about loving people.

In other respects, like similarly interminable books, War and Peace does tend to lag even in the fictional chapters, especially in the latter third of the book, which focuses heavily on portraying the military machinations of Napoleon’s and Alexander’s respective armies. In so doing, Tolstoy also gives flesh to his particular claims about the characters of Napoleon, his generals, Alexander, his generals, and the different component parts of each army’s skeletal structure.

The extent of these portrayals on the one hand feels fitting as a representation of war in action, fulfilling a promise made by the book’s title. On the other hand, I personally found myself yawning as I searched for a point in the storytelling that the author had not already made in the rhetorical sections before and after the fictionalized histories.

An unsettling, perhaps intended, irony of Tolstoy’s choice to deplore so thoroughly Napoleon and the French on one side and to expose as fools many of the Russian patriots on the other side is that the reader who deigns to believe Tolstoy’s claims about the falsehoods of history must then necessarily doubt the author’s own historical portrayals.

While his direct claims matching his fictional characterizations of the same historical figures pique reader curiosity to learn what really happened, both his highly personal insights, which history tends to omit or avoid, and the fervent broadcasting of his views ensure that the reader who does conduct individual research will meet only disappointment.

This disappointment will be twofold: You can’t verify the fictionalized accounts, and it will be extremely difficult and therefore time-intensive to find texts whose historians agree with Tolstoy’s overt perspective on historical fact. If Tolstoy’s perspective had been as revolutionary as he no doubt ardently hoped, my experience of history class in grade school would have been very, very different.

If it were one of Tolstoy’s key points to profess that history is subjective and the facts of historical events impossible to know in their truthful essence, then this juxtaposition would work in his favor. But since Tolstoy’s real point is that the typical historians are wrong and he himself is right about what really happened during the French invasion of Russia in 1812, that in fact, the truth is knowable and he knows best how to know it, his political rhetoric and war storytelling undermine his purposes to a noticeable extent.

These elements do diminish the novel’s effectiveness as a cohesive work of art, dulling its beauty that resulted from wholly admirable craft, especially in characterization of invented figures. However, what’s most remarkable to me is that, after all the toggling between philosophy, pontificating, and storytelling, I am nonetheless left with such intense admiration for the fiction in its own right.

Conclusions and Recommendations

War and Peace is a book for many different people from all walks of life. Those not educated past, say, high school may have difficulty understanding any of it—fiction or philosophy—without guidance. The rest will naturally take away things as diverse as their individual perspectives, given the real estate Tolstoy provides for readers to get lost in.

The work as a whole suffers under the weight of its author’s bifurcated ambitions, but simultaneously, a quick scan will tell the story lover or the history lover which parts to focus most on reading. There is much to learn, admire, and discuss about the massive cultural deposit that is War and Peace.

It would be nothing short of astonishing if the admiration, learning, and discussion-worthy content covered a contiguous string of pages from start to finish; as it is, while the whole picture is less complete without a complete read, its quality sinks with a forced reading of every last word.

I agree with my friends who gave me permission, a tacit recommendation, to skip the second, last epilogue. It’s largely extraneous, but I couldn’t skip it myself; I’d come too far not to finish absolutely. The second epilogue’s repetitive, obfuscating philosophy with extended metaphors confuses earlier points when it doesn’t directly contradict them.

In short, Tolstoy could have benefited from either a more insistent editor or a more flexible approach to details for the sake of a publishable whole. But as a text of many volumes, books, and chapters examining in depth the nature of individual humanity and embattled society, War and Peace will always offer something readers can find worth exploring.

War and Peace makes you think, it makes you feel, and it makes the budding writer want to abandon the enterprise. It can also drive natural thinkers a little crazy and lessen the positive effects of thought and feeling by too forcefully insisting upon explicitly intertwining the two. The book would have been a better novel if Tolstoy had simply told the story, and it might have been a better rhetorical treatise without muddling the rhetoric with fictionalization.

In the end, the imperfect, blended product proves to be an intriguing, if sometimes puzzling, exercise and a fascinating cultural artifact for multifaceted study and discussion. While not the best book club selection or high school text, War and Peace may be particularly fruitful in certain specialized college courses in history, Western civilization, world literature, and other fields.

Although I read it over a long summer that lasted from early May to late September, I wouldn’t recommend this for summer reading unless you dislike looking up in the sunshine. And while I started by repeating the diverse-medium approach that I applied to finishing The Count of Monte Cristo, Librivox’s volunteers for War and Peace proved too tedious to stick with and the book itself too long to finish with five library book renewal periods. I resorted to reading most of it on my phone using an epub file, and that worked fine.

To close, again, from Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

If we accept that history is as subjective as fiction, questions about how and how well [Outlander or Tolstoy or anyone] portrays history in fictional form pale in importance to other questions focused separately on history and on fiction. We may be tempted to ask whether something has been misrepresented and how that alteration matters, [but this questioning can only ultimately be] literary criticism.

Art is for everyone to make of what they will. As long as, and to the extent that, history’s facts, to say nothing of its general aura, remain incompletely known and in dispute by the descendants and scholars of opposing sides in a conflict (as well as of purportedly neutral persuasion), the question of accurate representation proves rather subjective, if not altogether moot.


edition I recommend for print reading

Outlander STARZ: “Faith” and Patience

As anticipation of Season 3 of Outlander STARZ intensifies, allow me to quote myself from my last reblog of eps 201 and 202 review, published last month to coincide with the start of Season 2’s re-runs this summer:

The ensemble acting, Murtagh’s continued character development and greater centrality than in the books, the Battle of Prestonpans, the use of WWII flashbacks for Claire in “Je Suis Prest” (a great episode), and Rosie Day’s delightfully funny portrayal of Mary Hawkins are just a few of the many treasures to uncover. Then there’s Caitriona Balfe’s performance in ep207 . . . nothing short of phenomenal.

Keep watching Outlander, season 2, Fridays, 9pm EST, on STARZ. But I definitely recommend reading the books, too. 😉

In recent episodes, we’ve met “La Dame Blanche” and a resurrected ghost while “gang a-gley” the “Best-Laid Schemes” of our heroes. It’s time for the second half of Season 2 and some of the best episodes of the season: ep207 “Faith,” ep209 “Je Suis Prest,” ep210 “Prestonpans,” ep211 “Vengeance Is Mine,” ep212 “The Hail Mary,” and the season finale, ep213 “Dragonfly in Amber,” named for the second book on which Season 2 is based.

In ep208 “The Fox’s Lair,” Clive Russell brought excellence as Simon Fraser (“the Old Fox”), Lord Lovat, and Gary Lewis his usual nuance in reprising Colum Mackenzie. However, pacing, structure, and the Laoghaire element dragged it down just enough to remove the episode from top-tier classification. 

But there is plenty more to look forward to in the second half. Simon Callow’s return as the Duke of Sandringham and Lawrence Dobiesz’s performance as Alex Randall prove to be true highlights. Then, there are the intrigues of the war effort led by Bonnie Prince Charlie as Jamie tries to influence its course, some gruesome surgeries Claire must perform, a generally more resolute and strong leader in Jamie Fraser, the introduction of a young Lord John Gray (important to season 3), and several dramatic deaths that shake our main characters to their cores. A little “Faith” truly changes everything.

The season culminates in a 90-minute finale that introduces adult versions of Roger Mackenzie and Brianna Randall while interlacing 1968 scenes with those from 1746, on the morning of the Battle of Culloden.

In case you missed the announcement (what planet are you on, anyway?), Season 3 of Outlander, based on Voyager, Diana Gabaldon’s third and longest book in the series, premieres Sunday, September 10, 2017, on STARZ.

What better way, besides reading the books, to prepare for the return of the show this fall than to re-watch Season 2’s remaining episodes? See them all again through the Outlander STARZ episodes page, if you happened not to purchase the Season 2 DVD set or save the series on your DVR (tsk tsk).

Happy August, Sassenachs. The Droughtlander ends next month!


Claire and Frank Randall, Boston, 1948. Season 3 image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television


Book Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Although this one wasn’t for my classics book club, I have wanted to read it for years. As a play, it’s a relatively quick read, so I was able to tuck it in among other readings.

Spoilers possible.

A Streetcar Named Desire may be a better, more entertaining play than The Glass Menagerie, but together they suggest a pattern of playwright fixation on the destruction of fragile, helpless women at the hands of hapless or hostile men. Yet, although critics claim that Stanley is the catalyst for Blanche’ s tragedy, I see undeniable, culpable shades in the sorrows of sister Stella and would-be husband Mitch. Besides these influences, a case can be made that Blanche needs little nudging by anyone to plunge her into her ultimate abyss, a place she seems headed for from the start. Either way, the question is posed clearly before the tragedy is complete: Who is to blame?

The tragic arc is a twisted tree root. Plunging through the rich soil of clever, careful staging, eerie overlays of music and echoed sounds, and crisp, character-making dialogue, the reader (not just the playgoer) falls irrevocably into the suffocating depths of a taut, primal, sensual plot. With his usually detailed stage directions, Williams also leaves nothing in the production plan to chance, while his storytelling strikes a delicate balance by revealing just enough both to engage and to mystify his audience.

The emotional effects of these elements for Blanche are a haunting by the past that cannot be shaken and a shackling by her imagination that stunts her growth. Her character is static in the course of the play as the distance between the danger and the fall proves all too short. Stanley, likewise, is static, and so they come together like immovable object and unstoppable force. The intriguing question for me is what change must occur in Stella beyond the play’s ending as a result of this close family tragedy, with one member the victim and the other, the perpetrator. Stella, at least, has dynamic potential as collateral damage.


Penguin Modern Classics edition book cover

Still, none of the main characters reads as a monotone stereotype; they themselves get to play with those concepts as they size each other up. The tension permeating the play stems from perceptions of class differences, ethnic backgrounds, sexual attraction, and affectations brought into sharp relief by the visit of Blanche DuBois to her sister and brother-in-law’s small apartment during a typically oppressive New Orleans summer.

The result is a smoldering tragedy without a clear path as to how it might have been avoided. Remarkable paradox comes through Williams’ writing: Stella, Stanley, and Blanche all prove to be decent people even as their inflexible selfishness, by turns, renders them on many levels indecent–and ultimately inhumane–to one another.

Raw, obvious character flaws, especially Stanley’s, do contribute to the mess, however. His inherent roughness of manner, speech, action, and mere presence directly feed and elicit Blanche’s carefully constructed delicacies, charms, snobbery, and veneer of the victim. They could hardly be more different, and as foils, these opposites both attract and repulse.

Like the down-to-earth Stanley, the reader knows upon meeting her not to take Blanche at face value, but as we get to know her, we begin to empathize with, if not believe in, Blanche DuBois. When Stanley finally exposes her past sins, the whole truth of them is doubtful, they are inextricable from her suffering, and we see that both Stanley and Stella can be right about her sister in their opposing views.

Blanche is a menace being treated unfairly.

An emotional atmosphere of steamy New Orleans chaos reigns over the play. Ripples of racist overtones, sexism, raw sensuality, crime, vice, and class prejudice collide and reinforce one another to disrupt the characters’ moral compasses. Danger vibrates constantly just beneath the surface, and I kept expecting brawl, beating, or suicide around the next corner. Peripheral scenes foreshadow ultimate conflict as violence escalates, but it’s all very restrained, held in check for the bulk of the story, which makes each scene all the more intriguing.

The shock of the penultimate act of violence, committed between active scenes, can resolve into either the satisfaction of poetic justice or an indignation against grave injustice, a verdict that rings loudly through the end. The ensuing resolution is also unequivocally sad, and we even get a moral from the perfect, trembling lips of Blanche DuBois. Coming from her, the line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is both ironic caution and sad testament to a frail psyche.

This is one of the few plays I’ve read besides Shakespeare that so strongly compels me to seek out a production to watch this very minute. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams exposes seedy corners of mid-twentieth-century American society and equally dark corners of its minds and hearts. First, he is the realistic, impartial painter of human coarseness, failure, beauty and love. Then, in affecting lyrical form, he hints at judgment of all these through their close, unflinching examination. In his complex process, Williams has crafted a true literary and theatrical treasure.

Five out of five stars.

Learn about the 1951 film version at A Streetcar Named Desire.

Book Review: In Cold Blood

I gotta give a shout-out to my book club–I probably never would have picked up this book otherwise. Thanks very much, S.

In Cold Blood

by Truman Capote

Gush, gush, gush! No blood but my praise for this amazing book spills freely forth.

Murder mysteries, thrillers, and dark novels I have read in sufficient number to have a base of experience for this book’s fair assessment. Fitting into, indeed creating, a genre that has come to be known as true crime, this story of the 1959 mass murder of the Clutter family in a small, quiet Kansas town is a definite, though perhaps surprising, page-turner. It may aid reader enjoyment (is that the word?) not to be a seasoned reader of true crime or crime fiction, as I am not. I am confident the book will satisfy the hungers of realists and the detail oriented, which I am.

The content isn’t nearly as gory as I anticipated, which I suppose is understandable for the dulling effect of the countless atrocities and violent entertainments our culture and I have consumed since 1959. (Vainly, I must add, no, I’m not quite that old.) Still, I expected greater emphasis on and more pages devoted to the details of the killings themselves. Perhaps the resistance to reading it that a close relative who lived through that time expressed—recalling her upset from seeing it in the news—fuelled that impression before my reading. I’m more than glad my expectations were not met. The writer understood that other details matter more.

Author Truman Capote presents in engaging style the fruits of what must have been dozens of incisive interviews and extensive research: an unflinching, comprehensive portrayal, seemingly bias free, of the paths and minds of two murderers and all the people they made relevant to the nation. Situated at the fulcrum of a truly horrible crime—angering, saddening, dumbfounding—the book is more about the killers than the killed. The backgrounds, personalities, and peculiar psychologies of the perpetrators and the victims are all made flesh, as Capote is meticulous and masterful with character detail. Reinforcing the injustice of it all, however, the only available hindsight on this apparently motiveless extinguishing of four human beings inevitably comes from the two death bringers. They claim the real fame, and it is profound infamy.

Capote’s impartial journalism lies at the root of some of the story’s most disturbing effects; he spends pages and pages portraying events through the eyes of the murderers themselves. Such intimacy with his subjects actually made mInColdBlood_covere wonder uncomfortably about Capote’s own moral compass. Maybe I’ll watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the author in the 2005 film Capote to gain more insight on that. Be reassured: Many sections and closing sentences do frame the story from the moral high ground, and at least a dozen community voices help the non-homicidal reader relate, including those of the case’s lead detective Alvin Dewey and of the family’s closest friends.

Another remarkable literary aspect is the discernible, suspenseful plot that emerges for a story you may be predisposed to know in distillation from start to finish before picking up the text. A chronological time line of events begins with character backgrounds and the discovery of the victims. Then, the story continues with a period of investigation and the adventures of the perpetrators after the murders, which lasts for most of the book. At last, we flash back to the crime’s detail from the two murderers’ viewpoints and learn what becomes of them. I experienced the added suspense of not knowing the killers’ fates in advance. The reader partners with Detective Dewey, discovering the facts as he does.

I admit the prolonged suspense in the last twenty pages or so became irritating where Capote digresses in telling the stories of other famous murderers of the surrounding years. This section read as extraneous humanizing of the Clutters’ killers after so much of that appeared earlier in the book. I can see the interest, if not the modern-day necessity, of imparting that perspective, though: These were not the era’s only sociopaths who didn’t need motive to kill or remorse to move on. This type of person belongs to a breed. Having become partially desensitized from repeatedly viewing multiple seasons of Law & Order: SVU, my personal response to this education was dismissive.

The shock value hardly lessens, even so. Divided into four parts titled “The Last to See Them Alive,” “Persons Unknown,” “Answer,” and “The Corner,” the book has impressive fluidity and depth. With the jarring content, its vastness and detail, superb storytelling, and the narrator’s subtle wit, I barely noticed the underlying structure. Third-person omniscient narration dominates the text, and the author’s distant, objective position contributes to its smoothness. The reader remains immersed within the story from start to finish. As a writer, my jealousy and admiration of great storytellers arises when I read books like this one.

Equal parts psychosocial (and sociological) study and compelling artwork, the rendering of In Cold Blood seats it squarely in the category of “classic.” The intricacies of several members of the immediate and surrounding areas of Holcomb County and Garden City, Kansas, emerge in the spirit of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, another literary work I deeply love. Engrossing, fascinating, frightening, and vivid are just a few of the adjectives suitable to describe both stories’ effects on this reader, though in different ways. The common denominator is the way the lesson of life’s preciousness echoes achingly from the pages.

So, I’m on the bandwagon. From concept to print, a model for novel, memoir, and biographical writing, In Cold Blood proves Truman Capote to have been a praiseworthy observer, investigator, journalist, and “non-fiction novelist.” As emotionally draining and psychologically disturbing as it is, I would read the book again. To try again to understand the incomprehensible, to hold onto the endearing Clutter family, and to behold the artistry their deaths made possible. Here come the tears . . . .

I told you: Gush, gush, gush. Five out of five stars.