Dec. 19, 2003

New Every Morning

by Susan Coolidge

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Poem: "New Every Morning," by Susan Coolidge

Every morning is a fresh beginning,
Listen my soul to the glad refrain.
   And, spite of old sorrows
   And older sinning,
   Troubles forecasted
   And possible pain,
Take heart with the day and begin again.

Literary and Historical Notes:

This evening is the beginning of Hanukkah, also called the Feast of Lights. In 168 BCE, the Greek king Antiochus IV had conquered the area around Jerusalem, and he demanded that all the people under his rule worship Greek gods. He outlawed Jewish rituals, seized the holy temple of Jerusalem and turned it into a temple for Zeus. Torahs were burned in the streets, and Jews were forced to bow before idols and eat forbidden foods or be tortured to death.

A group of Jewish rebels called the Maccabees fought back, and after three years of guerilla warfare they defeated the Greek soldiers and reclaimed the temple. In order to rededicate the temple to God, they had to relight the holy lamp, which they had traditionally kept burning to symbolize the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people. They could only find enough consecrated oil to burn the lamp for one day, and they knew it would take eight days to make more. They lit the lamp anyway, and according to legend it burned miraculously for eight days.

Hanukkah, which means "dedication," is the eight-day celebration commemorating the reclaiming of the holy temple of Jerusalem. Some historians believe that if the Jews had not fought back and reclaimed their temple, monotheism might have been stamped out, and the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam might not exist today.

It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, whom Dickens described as "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire." In the book, Scrooge learns the Christmas spirit of generosity from three ghosts who show him his past, his present, and his future.

Dickens wrote the novel after his first commercial failure. His previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1842) had flopped, and he was suddenly strapped for cash. Martin Chuzzlewit had been satirical and pessimistic, and Dickens thought he might be more successful if he wrote a heartwarming tale with a holiday theme. He got the idea for the book in late October of 1843 and struggled to finish it in time for Christmas. It finally came out, and it was a huge bestseller.

It's the birthday of novelist Italo Svevo, born Aron Hector Schmitz in Trieste (1861). His novel The Confessions of Zeno (1923) is considered one of the greatest Italian novels of the 20th century. Svevo was a bank clerk who hated his job and wanted to be a writer, but his first two self-published novels were completely ignored. He wrote in his diary, "My real strength always lay in hoping. [Now] I'm even losing my talent for that."

His wife's father got him a more prosperous job at a paint company, and he gave up on literature, settling down to live a comfortable life. Then, ten years after he had stopped writing, he decided to take some English classes for business reasons. The tutor he found was a young, aspiring writer named James Joyce. The two men got to talking about writing, and Svevo suddenly confessed that he had written two novels. He gave copies to Joyce, and Joyce loved them and told Svevo he was a neglected genius.

It took Svevo more than ten years to complete his next novel, a fictional memoir of a patient undergoing psychoanalysis. The Confessions of Zeno was published in 1923, and it was also ignored, but Schmitz sent a copy to Joyce, and Joyce sent it to all his literary friends. They declared it a comic masterpiece, and Schmitz became a literary celebrity in Europe. He only lived for two more years, but they were the best two years of his life. A new translation of his last novel, now called Zeno's Conscience, came out in 2001.

Svevo wrote, "God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December."

It's the birthday of Constance Garnett, born Constance Black in Brighton, England (1861). She's best known for providing the first widely available English translations of the important Russian novels of the 19th century. After marrying the literary critic Edward Garnett, she became friends with some Russian exiles and decided to learn the language. She loved it so much that she traveled to St. Petersburg in 1893 and became friends with many writers and revolutionaries.

When she returned home, she decided to begin translating as much Russian literature as she could. D.H. Lawrence visited her house while she was working on the complete works of Turgenev. Lawrence wrote, "She would finish a page, throw it off on a pile without looking up, then start a new page. The pile would be ... almost up to her knees, and all magical."

Her eyesight grew worse and worse, so she had a Russian friend read the novels aloud to her one sentence at a time, and she dictated her translations. She somehow managed to translate about 5000 words a day. She finished Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in six months, and went on to translate Dostoyevsky's complete works, about two and a half million words long. In many cases, her translations of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and others were the first versions read by English and American writers in the early 20th century.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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