Sunday, December 27, 2009

Buck's Mahabharata

In 1955 22-year-old William Buck was in the state library at Carson City, Nevada one day when he came across an old illustrated edition of "The Sacred Song of the Lord, the Bhagavad-Gita of Lord Krishna." The enthusiastic young scholar followed his sources upstream. In the earlier, English-language phase, he started what would be a long involvement with Indian publishers when he helped one to complete a reissue of an eleven-volume translation of the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic in which the Bhagavad-Gita is embedded (more on the text in a moment). Somewhere along the line he came to believe that a new English version of the Hindu epics was needed, a vernacular rendering abridged for story.

Sanskrit studies came next, but Buck is an autodidact and there is no clear line between collations of English versions and collations of Sanskrit and Hindi editions. We may be sure that he eagerly examined each and every edition that passed through his hands, regardless. In his case the accomplishment is stark enough: after fifteen years of work, he died in 1970 at the age of 37. He left behind completed versions ("rewrites" was his own preferred term) of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and an uncompleted Harivamsa. There continue to be remarkably few alternatives to this text, and it is a fine work of literature that creates a persuasive, phantasmagoric atmosphere to convey the experience of beings who are half human, half god.

As to gods: these medieval Indian epics date back to the older, classical Vedic period (as early as 9th century BC). As the literature of the Hindu culture moved from the classical Vedic Sanskrit to the vernacular Hindu Sanskrit these epic stories became vehicles for transmitting information of historical, philosophical and religious importance. Upanishads were originally reflective commentaries attached to classical Vedas. Sometime during the centuries-long process of accretion and insertion someone took an upanishad and wove it into the Mahabharata as a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, on the occasion of Arjuna's emotional turmoil on the eve of a battle in which he will face beloved cousins, uncles and even brothers.

It is an artful insertion and the one that first entranced him but William Buck in time left it behind. He found what all explorers of this sort of philological territory discover: the most important and authentic texts are also often the ones encrusted and encumbered with scholarly apparatus, annotations, translation issues, ritual technologies like repeated mantras, genealogies and lists of names. The Indian epics are doubly difficult this way as the text itself includes additions and commentaries. Buck wanted to dig a good story out of this Swiftian obscurity.

His cause was the story of the Kurukshetra War, a dynastic struggle between the related clans of Kauravas and Pandaras, that is the original scaffolding of the now densely-layered text. The Mahabharata is to Indian literature what Homer is to European literature. Both offer popular accounts of wars that probably have some basis in fact, although dates and geography have always been debated (both the Kurukshetra War and the Siege of Troy are reasonably dated as late Second Millennium). Both provided subsequent centuries with gods and heroes, who mix and intermarry (well interbreed at least) in both. Mythologized heroes are avatars (Sanskrit word) of various virtues and fatal flaws. There is a constant tension between the pull of worldly entanglements and the path of honor.

There is also to be found here a great deal of macho swagger and warrior virtue. The scenes of battle, with individual kings pushing into the battle under their own colorful banners and painted chariots and armor, are some of the best in the book. There is also a good sense of the interplay of magic and human causes. That enlightenment entails that one lose one's fear of death, in favor of embracing one's role in the larger process of passing away and coming to be, is basic Hindu ethos that comes ringing through during climactic battles when the higher beings fight each other to the death with comradely good humor and respect, earthly motives of revenge and ambition mixed in well throughout. That Buck was working during the golden age of the American cowboy genre doesn't feel coincidental.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Journal of Jules Renard

This month is the third anniversary of my starting this blog, and so it's fitting that the book I'm discussing today (I'm not sure I actually "review" them) is the first book sent to me gratis by a publisher. I get offers for free books regularly these days, most of which I'm not interested in, but I don't have any rules about such things. I still read only those books that I think I would like. This one sounded interesting: a reissue, by Tin House Books, of a one-volume abridgement, translated into English, of the journal of Jules Renard, a novelist and playwright of fin de siecle France who has long enjoyed a strong reputation in France but who has never been well-known to English-speaking readers (this text was originally published in 1964 by George Braziller).

The Journal covers 23 years, from 1887 to the year of Renard's death in 1910 at the age of 47. Renard achieved fame in his early thirties with the publication of L'Ecornifleur (The Ear of Corn)) in 1892 and Poil de Carotte (Carrot-Top) in 1894, and had steady work as a popular playwright after that. He is very clear on what is probably true, that "genius" is mostly a product of hard work, but somewhere along the line he becomes most interested in writing his journal, which came to be regarded as his masterpiece after its publication in stages culminating in an edition of 1935 that was issued in a Pleiades edition in 1960. This choice to become a private memoirist parallels his choice to spend much of his life in his ancestral village of Chitry, where he succeeded his father as mayor. The best parts of the journal are reflections on village life. There are amusing stories of the bohemian scene in Paris in the early years of the journal, but in his forties he did not conceal his discomfort when in the city.

Renard shows no interest in either the Symbolist movement of the time or what would become known as Modernism, despite personal acquaintance with Andre Gide, Alphonse Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt, Auguste Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, J. K. Huysmans, Anatole France, Stephane Mallarme, and everyone else of note in literary Paris in the Gay Nineties. He reports feeling awkward when complimented by them, and for his own part he finds he has little to say (but don't miss his snarky take on the funeral of Verlaine). He spends quite a bit of time with Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps the biggest star of the age. She performs several of his plays and tries mightily to charm him into her entourage, but although he is in some awe of her charisma ("It looks as though she were standing still, while the staircase turns around her") he sees right through her schtick and ultimately finds her ordinary. Maurice Ravel composes an interpretive score for Renard's Histoires Naturelles and personally urges Renard to attend the premier; Renard sends his wife instead.

What makes this conservative country gentleman, who wears the ribbon of the Academie Francaise on his lapel every day of his life (much to the confusion of the locals at Chitry, who have no idea what the decoration denotes) significant for his time is in fact his realism, particularly his psychological realism, which is of a piece with his deeply autobiographical inspiration. His relationship with Chitry has everything to do with his conflicted relationship with his awful parents. His father, heartbroken after the death in childhood of his oldest child, a daughter, has little interest in his remaining two sons and daughter but worse refuses to speak to his wife for thirty years until finally he commits suicide in their home. Renard and a servant are the ones who find the body.

Meanwhile Renard hates his mother. His mother, according to him, is a histrionic actor devoid of any real feeling. It's impossible to know to what extent this is true, since her every display of emotion is written off as so much transparent manipulation. She dies some months before Renard himself passes away. She falls into a well, but Renard does not believe it is suicide. Quite a bit of his work revolves around the character of "Mme. Lepic," a transparent and unflattering caricature of his mother. This, after all, is what makes him a significant writer.

"Maman talking about 'sin'! 'I had my faults, I still have my faults, but I've always had the right to walk with my head held high.' Yes, but papa cuckolded might have been happier."

This edition is an attempt at an accessible version of the Journal. It is basically aphoristic, and one can only assume that the original is aphoristic as well, although that is unclear. He is not a bad aphorist, not a great one (I would recommend La Rochefoucauld). He has a good sense of politics: "The voter believes himself to be the master. There's a confusion there. Why, no, my good man! You must vote in order to do right by yourself, not by me. It is I who am doing you a favor." He is a Socratic defender of common sense: "Ah, what beautiful things we should write if we were without taste! But voila - taste is French literature entire."

This is a book of great interest to any student of the period, and it is not bad, as I said, for one who enjoys aphorisms. There is another attraction, one that is contrary to our stereotypes of French sensibilities: Renard is an optimist, a man with a great deal of inner peace, a bemused lover of humanity and an ecstatic lover of nature (he writes one-line descriptions of the moon regularly throughout his life). His preference for Chitry, and for the privacy of his journal, is the choice of a man who is too satisfied to rage with the heathens, who knows nature as so many tragically do not. "I, I, not an enthusiast? A few notes of music, the sound of flowing water, the wind in the leaves, and my poor heart runs over with tears, with real tears - yes, yes!"