Thibble Thursday: Once in Royal David’s City (2 Samuel 6–9)

C’mon. It’s Christmas and I’m writing about King David and the establishment of Jerusalem. When am I going to find a better use for that post title? Also, I totally did not realize this Jethro Tull cover existed.

Short snarky summary: The Ark of the Covenant, released from captivity, rises to kill again. It is offended by being poked at but not by nudity. David is forbidden by God to cage this fearsome beast. In a funk, he goes out and kills some Philistines.

Once again, faces fail to melt. God, I am disappoint.

Truyện Kiều/The Tale of Kiều, by Nguyễn Du

Pretty much all I knew about Truyện Kiều going in is that it was more-or-less the national epic of Vietnam and that it had a female protagonist. It’s actually a peculiar work, simultaneously very much an artifact of its time and somewhat atavistic; at a time when Vietnam was dealing with uniquely Vietnamese problems and trying to rebuild itself, it’s kind of peculiar to see a major poem which is cribbed shamelessly from a Chinese source (the plot is lifted from a forgettable sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Chinese novel). But the tale of Kiều is in some parts also the tale of Nguyễn Du, who was evidently a scholarly figure of a previous court and a previous era, one that looked to the Chinese with far more admiration. Nonetheless, it’s a mite perplexing to see that what is put forward as an extraordinary Vietnamese work is really quite extensively imitative of a foreign culture.

I was reading the annotated Huỳnh Sanh Thông translation, which was excellent: I have no idea to what extent it captured the specific poetic stylings of the original (my edition was a parallel text, but I am really in no position to evaluate the poetry of the Vietnamese text), but it managed to use excellent metaphors which gave me hope that it was, at least, a quite faithful translation, with ample glossing for those metaphors which would be opaque to a Western audience.

The story itself is… well, it’s not what you come to the text for although it’s a pretty surprising one when you get right down to it. Kiều is a character with surprising agency and reserves of character: she shows at turns emotional sensitivity, filial piety, cleverness, and determination, without ever overcoming her fate. The sense that she’s far too smart to keep getting tripped up by these misfortunes reminds me in many ways of Odysseus, but unlike the Odyssey (what with being a nineteenth-century tale), Truyện Kiều is relentlessly a work of realism. I was kept interested and invested in the character for sure (definitely more than in her beloved; and in fact her return to the ineffectual and callow love of her youth seemed to me somewhat a step down from the fiery and ambitious warlord who had been her major love interest in the second half of the text), and the text feels well-constructed. I read in some part as a story rather than as a poem, but I appreciated its poetic mode.

I’m not sure if Truyện Kiều is a work well worth the reading for everyone. I approached it chiefly out of curiosity, and with a disposition to like it. I’m not sure I came out of it really understanding Vietnamese culture or poetic style more than I went in, but I enjoyed it, for its stately and proper approach to what was often a rather sordid tale, and for its well-drawn protagonist. The glossed Huỳnh text appears to actually be an excellent translation, and fortunately the most widely available one.

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Man, I have not written about anything nonbiblical I have read in a long time. I was on a little bit of a George Eliot kick for a while: we read Silas Marner in a course I was taking on 19th-century literature, and then I read Daniel Deronda to be a bit in the loop on my parents’ book group, but the word was that Middlemarch was really her magnum opus, so that ws next on the list.

So: Middlemarch, like Daniel Deronda is a pretty wide story with lots of characters and a bit of indeterminacy about the identity of its protagonist: Dorothea is put forward pretty early as a focus character, but Lydgate emerges pretty early on in the narrative as sharing near-equal prominence; Fred Vincy also gets a pretty hefty pagecount on his own story. Fortunately, in spite of this structural similarity, in this book Eliot manages to maintain a sense of both threads’ relevance much better than in Daniel Deronda. Also, unlike in Daniel Deronda, we’re spared the irritation of having one of our characters be a moral exemplar.

In fact, Dorothea and Lydgate (and to a lesser extent Mary Garth) feel in some ways like inversions of the Voice of Moral Clarity: both have very specific, strong moral views which ultimately lead them to the brink of disaster. Dorothea’s moral absolutism in particular feels tragicomic: from our very first introduction to here she comes across as entirely too high-minded for words, and that’s conveyed in a way that’s played for laughs, but this attitude of hers very quickly becomes the lynchpin of her doomed fidelity towards the equally high-minded Casaubon. Lydgate is a bit harder to suss out, because his tragedy and his ideology are somewhat more distant from each other. His idealism is the cause of his lack of worldly success, but like Dorothea his marriage seems to be the real misfortune (and unlike Dorothea his marriage doesn’t seem to serve his ideals at all).

In spite of all this tragedy, and a fair amount of ribbing of its sillier inhabitants (mostly Dorothea, and some for the luckless Fred Vancy), Middlemarch feels a fundamentally sweet and optimistic story. There’s never too much of a doubt that truth will out and virtue prevail, and there’s a solid core of sympathetic characters who generally keep the reader from ever feeling that this rural society is really as vicious as it sometimes looks.

In the aforementioned 19th-century literature class, Eliot stood out as something of an idiosyncrasy which was identified as “social realism”. It’s easy to lump her in with satirists like Austen, but her observation of society feels both more and less pointed—more pointed because there isn’t nearly as much insulating wit and absurdity between the reader and the horrible things occasionally happening to the characters; less pointed because ultimately there is an overall feel to her work that things will and must come out right and that people are basically good.

Wibble Wednesday: Second Stringers (2 Samuel 3–5)

Fell out of the swing for a while. Hope to be back for good in the new year though.

Short snarky summary: David’s rival, an ineffectual waste of space, is upstaged by his military commander. David is likewise upstaged by his own second-in-command, and the war is fought pretty much entirely by proxy. People die in ways that are surprisingly convenient for David, although he definitely didn’t give the order to kill them. Dunno, sometimes people just get conveniently murdered.

There’s a reason why “Ish-bosheth” never became a popular name for babies.