From Brisbane to Byzantium

In a heroic, even titanic effort, a team of editors led by Nicholas Jose have brought us a great trove of riches: the 1464-page Literature of Australia: An Anthology.  Jose, who has recently assumed the position of Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard, has put together a collection that Thomas Kenneally (who provides the  book’s Foreword) deems “unprecedented in the breadth of what it offers from both the ancient and the recent literature of my country.”

As perhaps the most ethnically diverse society on earth, Australia has an appropriately diverse literary heritage, but the vast majority of its authors are unknown outside of its borders.  Jose’s editorial team has combined the familiar — Patrick White, Les Murray, David Malouf, Germaine Greer, Shirley Hazzard, Christina Stead, even Barry Humphries (a.k.a. Dame Edna) — with much that will be new to almost all of us, including Aboriginal voices, folk songs, convict poetry, explorers’ journals, and settlers’ tales.  As Kenneally remarks, this extraordinary volume provides readers with a sense “that one of the benefits of a literature such as Australia’s is that, despite a massive accomplishment, the room for expansion, or more accurately for freshness, seems unlimited.  The definitive word has not yet been fully spoken, the canon is not set in place but open-ended.  Wrongly interpreted, this could seem an excuse for what has gone before.  It is not that.  It is a celebration of what has happened and an excitement for what is still possible.”

Two recent books on Roman themes have caught my interest.  The first is Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000.  Wickham, a professor at Oxford University, contends that “early medieval Europe has, over and over, been misunderstood.  It has fallen victim above all to two grand narratives…, both of which have led to a false image of this period: the narrative of nationalism and the narrative of modernity.”  Indeed, how could ages that produced the sophisticated Byzantine, Carolingian, and Ottonian empires be easily dismissed as “dark”?  Wickham seeks to examine the period on its own terms, not in comparison with what came before or after it, and he does so with commendable thoroughness.  Beginning with their roots in Roman legal and social traditions, he explores the different trajectories of the various regions that were to make up medieval Christendom, and unlike many traditional historians he does not make the mistake of omitting Islam and the early caliphate.  The Inheritance of Rome is an important addition to an area of study that has been most unfairly neglected.

Empires of Trust: How Rome Built — and America Is Building — a New World, by Thomas F. Madden  is something rather different from all those other books that have appeared over the course of the last decade or so, books that compare newly-imperial America with Rome, George W. Bush with the Emperor Augustus, and so forth.  Historian Thomas F. Madden found plenty to argue with in these theses, and set out to demonstrate that such comparisons were misleading.  But as he writes, “the most I looked into the question, the more I began to see that in some very important respects the dynamics that led the Romans toward hegemony seem also to be at work in the growth of American power today.  More importantly, I saw that the confluence of those dynamics is exceedingly rare in human history — so much so that they have escaped our notice.”

Rome, Madden says, acquired an empire she never wanted; the United States is going through the same process today.  What shared characteristics, assumptions, and ideas brought two such different civilizations to a similar impasse?  Madden, whose academic specialization is in ancient and early modern history, swings easily back and forth through the centuries, highlighting pertinent and often surprising and unexpected correspondences between the Roman and American experiences.  Empires of Trust is not only informative; it is fun.

On a recent weekend visit to Lake George I was diverted by a large collection, amassed by my hostess, of Penguin “60s Classics.”  These are not classics from the 1960s, as one might suppose, but miniature books that are priced at 60 pence in the U.K.  I remember that when these first appeared they attracted a bit of mockery — classics you can read in just one sitting! — and it is true that some of the titles are rather ridiculous: how much of St. Augustine’s Confessions or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire could anyone squeeze into these tiny volumes?  But some works are naturals for the format, like Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, which I devoured in — yes — one sitting. 

I hadn’t read it since college, and at that time I felt, like most young people, immortal and superior; surely I had nothing in common with Tolstoy’s self-important, middle-aged, bourgeois protagonist.  To re-read it thirty years later, thirty years closer to my own death, was an entirely different experience.  It is true that Ivan Ilych’s little vanities and pretensions are peculiar to his era and his class, but every culture has their equivalents, and in the end most of us, like the hapless Ilych, waste most of our precious lives chasing after worthless and evanescent goals.  Tolstoy’s pure, crystalline prose reflects the simplicity of his message, and every word of Rosemary Edmonds’ translation is a joy.

I was naturally inspired to continue with Tolstoy’s novellas and short stories and was just about to launch into “The Kreutzer Sonata,” but my Russian friends insisted that I go directly to “Master and Man” and “Strider,” both of which they felt to be the equal of Ivan Ilych.  So I picked up Master and Man and Other Stories (translated by Ronald Wilks and Paul Foote, with an Introduction by Hugh McLean).  One again the power and the simplicity of Tolstoy’s theme, his peculiar brand of religion without religiosity, and the pellucidity of his prose were beautifully rendered by the translators.  Along with the title story and “Strider,” this volume contains gems like “Two Hussars,” “What Men Live By,” “A Prisoner of the Caucasus,” and several others.  As the nineteenth century recedes into the distant past, Tolstoy’s masterworks War and Peace and Anna Karenina are now nearly all the general reader knows well.  These stories remind us that he was as adept with brevity and allusion as he was with the large-scale canvases for which he is now so famous.