Mar. 19, 2010
Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet,
she can ill afford the chances she must take
in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.
Her track is graceless, like dragging
a packing case places, and almost any slope
defeats her modest hopes. Even being practical,
she's often stuck up to the axle on her way
to something edible. With everything optimal,
she skirts the ditch which would convert
her shell into a serving dish. She lives
below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
will change her load of pottery to wings.
Her only levity is patience,
the sport of truly chastened things.
It was on this day in 1842 that Honoré de Balzac's play Les ressources de Quinola opened at the Odéon Theater in Paris. Balzac (books by this author) was a prolific novelist and playwright who drank 50 cups of coffee each day, which he said was like "sparks shooting all the way up to the brain." He was also a well-known literary celebrity, and for this play, he attempted a publicity stunt that totally failed. He started a rumor that tickets for the play were completely sold out, assuming that people would turn out en masse to see what all the excitement was about. Instead, assuming that they couldn't get tickets, no one came, and the theater was almost empty for opening night.
It was on this day in 2003 that President Bush announced the beginning of the Iraq War.
It's the birthday of novelist Philip Roth, (books by this author) born in Newark, New Jersey (1933). His father was an insurance salesman, and both his parents were the children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He majored in English and taught it, and he became friends with Saul Bellow, who told him that he was talented and should keep writing. In 1959, when he was 26 years old and teaching at the University of Chicago, he published his first book, a novella and short stories titled Goodbye, Columbus,and it won the National Book Award. He wrote two novels, which got mixed reviews, and then for five years he didn't publish anything at all, but lived in New York City and did a lot of analysis. Then he published Portnoy's Complaint (1969), which is entirely made up of a monologue delivered by a patient, Alexander Portnoy, to his analyst. It got rave reviews from critics, and its sexual content made it controversial and also extremely popular — it was the best-selling book of 1969.
And Roth has continued to be a prolific and popular novelist. Last year he published his 30th book, The Humbling (2009), and his 31st, Nemesis, is due out this year.
It's the birthday of Russian writer Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, (books by this author) (March 31st according to the Old Calendar), born in Great Sorochintsy, Ukraine (1809). His mother was extremely devout, and his father was a bureaucrat who owned a vodka distillery on 3,000 acres and had more than 300 serfs working for him.
After graduating from school, he went off to St. Petersburg, ready to take on the world. First he tried acting, but he failed at his audition. So he wrote an idyllic poem glorifying Germany, and self-published it at his own expense. It got nasty reviews, and he was so ashamed that he bought all the copies, burned them, and decided never to write poetry again.
But eventually he tried writing prose, short stories rooted in the folklore and culture of rural Ukraine, and his first book, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831), was a big success. A few years later, he produced a comic play, The Government Inspector (1836). The satirical play mocked the ineptitude of the Russian bureaucracy, but it was extremely popular, and even Czar Nicholas loved it — he is reported to have said, "Everyone gets the business here. Me most of all."
Gogol produced several more books of short stories; his most famous stories include "The Nose," about a nose that takes off on its own, dressed in uniform and acting like any other human being; and "The Overcoat," which has been endlessly interpreted. Dostoevsky is rumored to have said, about himself and his contemporaries: "We all emerged from Gogol's overcoat."
But Gogol became a religious fanatic, the follower of a Russian Orthodox priest who convinced him that all art was sinful. He fasted so severely in his attempt to overcome the Devil that he destroyed his health, and the doctors tried to treat him with leeches, which only further weakened him, and he died at the age of 43.
It's the birthday of translator, writer, soldier, and all-around adventurer Richard Francis Burton, (books by this author) born in Torquay, England (1821). Growing up, he loved languages, and he learned French, Italian, and Latin, and local dialects as his family traveled around Europe — his father was an officer in the British army. He hated Oxford, but he learned Arabic there and went on to fight in the East India Company and learn Hindi, Persian, and quite a few local Indian languages. He wrote about his travels in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and he often disguised himself in local clothing. He became famous when he published A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855), about his experience disguising himself to make the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, which is forbidden for non-Muslims.
He wrote the definitive English translation of A Thousand Nights and a Night, (usually referred to as The Arabian Nights), and it was he who introduced The Kama Sutra to Western audiences.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®