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The Ancestor Game
The Ancestor Game
by Alex Miller
Edition: Paperback
9 used & new from CDN$ 3.01

3.0 étoiles sur 5 Unrewarding, June 9 2004
Ce commentaire est de: The Ancestor Game (Paperback)
Based on the recommendation by the reviewer below, I had one of my colleagues buy this book for me in Sydney and bring it with her to Singapore. The theme and the setting appeared interesting to me because I am a German who lived in Shanghai for three years and know the area around Melbourne from a recent visit.
While Alex Miller's novel is definitely a well-crafted product, it left me quite cold and disinterested in whatever were its concerns. I am not sure whether this disconnect was intended by the prose style chosen by Miller; my suspicion is it was not.
Michael Ondaatje called this book "a wonderful novel of stunning intricacy and great beauty." I agree that there are moments of true beauty in some of the descriptive parts of the novel, for example when Miller describes the floor in the house of an old Chinese scholar: "The floor was composed of large irregular shaped flagstones the colour of lead. They were worn into smooth undulations from the passage of many generations of slippered feet." That is just a perfect image. And with regard to the intricacy of the novel - yes, it stunned me. It stunned me so much that after the first third of the book I had to disentangle myself by simply putting it back onto the bookshelf.
My main problem with the novel was that I found neither its characters compellingly interesting, nor its narrator particularly spirited. It lacks very much in any sense of humor, and it is (intendedly?) unemotional and dry. In a nutshell: I did not find it rewarding enough to finish it.

Short And Sweet 101 Very Short Stories
Short And Sweet 101 Very Short Stories
by Simon Armitage
Edition: Paperback
16 used & new from CDN$ 0.43

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4.0 étoiles sur 5 short and sweet - indeed, May 6 2004
The definition chosen for a "short" poem by 36-year-old Englishman Simon Armitage is simple. A short poem is shorter than a sonnet. It has less than 14 lines.
Armitage selected almost exclusively English and American authors' poems for his anthology, and most of them wrote in the 20th century. He begins with the short poems of thirteen lines, like Emily Dickinson's "After great pain, a formal feeling comes"; and he ends the book with Don Paterson's "On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him (for A.G.)". The latter consists of nothing but its elaborate title (plus the dedication, of course). Which is not only apt, but also funny.
My personal favorites in this anthology are: "The Winter Palace", Philip Larkin's gruff ode to ageing; Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska's hilarious "Bodybuilders' Contest"; William Carlos Williams' literally sweet and delicious "This is Just to Say"; Mexican poet Octavio Paz's exemplary and witty "Example"; Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice"; and Carol Ann Duffy's "Mrs Darwin."
Some short but sweet quotes from my favorites:
From scalp to sole, all muscles in slow motion.
The ocean of his torso drips with lotion.
The king of all is he who preens and wrestles
with sinews twisted into monstrous pretzels.
(from: Bodybuilders' Contest)
7 April 1852.
Went to the Zoo.
I said to him -
Something about that chimpanzee over there
reminds me of you.
(Mrs Darwin)
The shorter the poems get, the wittier they tend to be:
Siesta of a Hungarian Snake (by Edwin Morgan)
s sz sz SZ sz SZ sz ZS zs ZS zs zs z
To a Friend is Search of Rural Seclusion (by Christopher Logue)
When all else fails,
Try Wales.
As all anthologies, this one, too, is an invitation to read more by the poets that surprised or touched me, or that simply made me chuckle or guffaw. My only complaint in this respect is that Simon Armitage provided only the most basic of information: the year of birth and - should the case be - death of the poets. I found that an anthology gains tremendously from an editor's comments on the poems or the poets. In particular if the editor is an experienced poet himself.

Very Bad Poetry
Very Bad Poetry
by Kathryn Petras
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 10.11
49 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 étoiles sur 5 Harmonious Hog Draw Near!, May 6 2004
Ce commentaire est de: Very Bad Poetry (Paperback)
Great poets have their weak moments, but they tend to produce only the occasional bad line - say, for example, when William Wordsworth, one of England's greatest poets, wrote the unintentionally bawdy "Give me your tool, to him I said."
Very bad poets, however, "are perpetrators of a unique and fascinating kind of writing. Unlike the plainly bad or the merely mediocre, very bad poetry is powerful stuff. Like great literature, it moves us emotionally, but, of course, it often does so in ways the writer never intended: usually we laugh."
This book is dedicated to those writers, mostly from the 19th century, who excelled at very bad poetry with astonishing consistency. Those who were blessed, if that is the word, for their entire career with "a wooden ear for words, a penchant for sinking into a mire of sentimentality, a bullheaded inclination to stuff too many syllables or words into a line or a phrase, and an enviable confidence" that allowed them to write despite absolute appalling incompetence.
Here we find the awful metaphor ("the dew on my heart is undried and unshaken") and the tortured rhyme ("Gooing babies, helpless pygmies,/ Who shall solve your Fate's enigmas?") next to one of the most unappetizing titles for a love poem ever ("I Saw Her in Cabbage Time").
Some of the most hilarious effects are created by the attempt to dramatize the pedestrian, as in the "Ode on the Mammoth Cheese", aptly subtitled "Weighing over 7,000 pounds":
We have seen thee, queen of cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze,
Thy fair form no flies dare seize. (there are five more delicious stanzas)
Not quite as riotously funny, but interesting as a phenomenon of the 19th century, is the preoccupation of very bad poets with death. It produced tasteless marvels of what the editors labeled "tabloid verse" like:
Oh, Heaven! It was a frightful and pitiful sight to see
Seven bodies charred of the Jarvis family;
And Mrs. Jarvis was found with her child, and both carbonized,
And as the searchers gazed thereon they were surprised.
Another favorite of very bad poets is the use of bizarre words in blissful ignorance of their meaning or the common readers' associations. One of the most talented in this respect was one Amanda McKittrick Ros, "a writer with a gift for (as she puts it) 'disturbing the bowels.'" To her we owe the following lines written on the occasion of her visit of Westminster Abbey:
Holy Moses! Have a look!
Flesh decayed in every nook!
Some rare bits of brain lie here
Mortal loads of beef and beer
Some of whom are turned to dust, [only some?]
Every one bids lost to lust.
The editors' favorite worst poem ever written in the English language bears the title "A Tragedy" - which, indeed, it is. But I don't want to spoil the fun by quoting it here. My own favorite is an excerpt from "A Pindaresque on the Grunting of a Hog." Nothing describes the voice of a very bad poet better than the sounds this animal makes:
Harmonious Hog draw near!
No bloody Butchers here,
Thou need'st not fear.
Harmonious Hog draw near, and from thy beauteous Snowt,
Whilst we attend with Ear
Like thine prik't up devout,
To taste thy sugry Voice, which hear, and there,
With wanton Curls, Vibrates around the Circling Air,
Harmonious Hog! Warble some Anthem out!
Pindar, by the way, was the most famous lyric poet of ancient Greece. He lived in the 5th century BC and saw himself as a poet dedicated to preserving and interpreting great deeds and their divine values.
Another famous ancient Greek author ("Sing, o muse, the wrath of Achilles ...") inspired a very bad poet to what is perhaps the worst line of poetry ever written without satiric intent: "Now, Muse, let's sing of rats." In fact, the poet changed the last word from the original "mice" to "rats" because he found "rats" more dignified.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
by Barbara W. Tuchman
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 15.16
68 used & new from CDN$ 1.28

4.0 étoiles sur 5 Polished and Shiny, April 26 2004
"A Distant Mirror" is about as entertaining as a history book can get. Barbara Tuchman is a captivating storyteller, and it speaks for the quality of her narrative history of France in the 14th century that the book remains in print after 25 years.
The red thread that runs through her book is the folly, pride and irrationality of behavior that she sees as characteristically human: "For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is altered," as the quote from John Dryden says on one of the first pages of the book. The title itself reflects this philosophical position: the 14th century as a distant mirror for the 20th century. To be honest, I found this a bit far-fetched. The two centuries do not share that many similarities. Of course, human nature as such has not changed in the course of six centuries, and the madness of the two world wars is comparable to that of the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453). But the 20th century, for example, saw no epidemic like the plague that killed off more than one third of the population; on the contrary, the discovery of penicillin in 1928 and its application as an injectable drug in 1941 improved the chances of surviving a serious illness dramatically. More importantly, the 20th century did not see the first signs of disintegration of an established political order that would later give rise to a new one (the replacement of feudalism by the nation state); on the contrary, democratic states successfully withstood the challenge from totalitarian systems.
Where the book really shines, is the narrative. Barbara Tuchman gives a vivid and detailed picture of life in the 14th century, in particular the life of the nobility. She does not leave out the scandals or the slaughter of battles, the machinations of nobles greedy for power and the suffering of the peasants. Her style is descriptive and detailed. She does not simply tell that, say, realism was the desired effect of miracle plays and mysteries staged for the populace in the 14th century, she shows it in unforgettable detail: "When John the Baptist was decapitated, the actor was whisked away so cunningly in exchange for a fake corpse and fake head spilling ox blood that the audience shrieked in excitement."(311/312) Her style is also not without the occasional wink at the reader. A fine example for her subtle sense of humor is the list of possessions of the Duc de Berry (famous for the illustrated book "Les Tres Riches Heures" he commissioned): "He owned one of Charlemagne's teeth, a piece of Elijah's mantle, Christ's cup from the Last Supper, drops of the Virgin's milk, enough of her hairs and teeth to distribute as gifts, soil from various Biblical sites, a narwhal's teeth, [and some more unique curiosities]"(427).
While I found the story telling absolutely captivating, there are two things about "A Distant Mirror" that made me choose four rather than five stars. One is the lack of analysis, the other Ms. Tuchman's occasional lapses into pop psychology.
The peripheral role of analysis in the book is perhaps a consequence of her narrative style. While Ms. Tuchman feasts on descriptions and details, she does not really want to dwell on the technicalities of changes in technology (other than those in the art of battle), medicine and economics, or on theories that try to put these developments in a broader perspective. At its worst, the reluctance to use analytical tools produces a kind of historical mysticism: "Times were to grow worse over the next fifty-odd years [after 1400] until at some imperceptible moment, by some mysterious chemistry, energies were refreshed, ideas broke out of the mold of the Middle Ages into new realms, and humanity found itself redirected."(581)
The lapses into pop psychology happen when Ms. Tuchman generalizes; for example, when she concludes, "Human beings of any age need to approve of themselves, the bad times in history come when they cannot."(451) Or when "pride and folly" become driving forces of history, because "Vainglory, however, no matter how much medieval Christianity insisted it was a sin, is a motor of mankind, no more eradicable than sex."(577)
On the whole, though, "A Distant Mirror" is a pleasure to read, and I am sure the book will continue to find readers who enjoy the colorful and vivid stories Ms. Tuchman unfolds about the "calamitous" 14th century.

Penguin Classics Song Of Roland
Penguin Classics Song Of Roland
by R Unknown
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 11.69
51 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

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4.0 étoiles sur 5 The slaughter and glory of battle, April 17 2004
The Song of Roland is the most famous of the "chansons de geste" (songs of deeds) of the Middle Ages. It provides a fascinating view into the spirit of warriors of that time and their motivation. The Song of Roland gives an idealized picture, of course, and if we can believe the historians, the medieval knights never lived up to their chivalric ideal.
The Song of Roland is not commonly included in the canon of must-read classics. Except in France, maybe. I assume the reason is that people in our time do not trace back their roots to the feudalism of the Middle Ages, and that they consider the chapter of chivalry closed after Cervantes's satirical portrait of knighthood in "Don Quixote". In one respect, however, this gory tale of slaughter, martyrdom and revenge is very contemporary. It illustrates the mindset of crusaders who see the world in terms of Good and Evil, and the language they use to incite contempt of the other party.
Apart from its historical value, the Song of Roland is also worth reading as literature - as an outstanding example for the heroic epic and as a piece of art whose "simple yet elevated style and tone of high moral purpose" (R. Harrison) is reminiscent of the Old Testament.
The three most easily available translations of the Song of Roland in the market are:
W.S. Merwin's 1963 prose translation with introduction, re-published in paperback by Random House's "Modern Library" in 2001 (ISBN 0375757112). His nine-page introduction is a succinct but sufficient overview of the historical events of AD 778 that became the basis of the Song of Roland. The translation stands out for its readability, and Merwin's choice of modern English makes the descriptions of violence even more direct and graphic: "And Oliver rides through the battle, with his spear shattered to a stump, charges against Malun, a pagan, breaks his gilded shield with the flowers painted on it, knocks the eyes out of his head and brings his brains tumbling down to his feet." (page 43).
Robert Harrison's 1970 translation for Penguin Book's budget line "Mentor Books" (ISBN 0451528573) captures the throbbing, urgent rhythm of the verse form best: "Olivier now gallops through the fray - / his lance has snapped, he only has a stump - / and goes to strike a pagan, Malsaron. / He breaks his gilt, fleuron-emblazoned shield, / bursting both his eyeball from his head - / his brain comes tumbling downward to his feet - " (page 93). "Fleuron-emblazoned" is quite enigmatic compared to Merwin's clear "with the flowers painted on it", but Harrison redeems himself by choosing "bursting" to emphasize the violence of the attack. The big plus of Harrison's book is his 42-page introduction. He explains the logic of medieval chivalry, why cruelty coexisted with sensitivity, and butchery with prayer. One interesting concept is the medieval "ethos of success," or in other words the idea that the outcome justifies the means: When a knight killed another knight it was the will of God that this had happened, no matter by what means. Make the opponent trip and chop off his head - see, God is on your side. Harrison goes to quite some length to introduce the instruments of war, the armor and weapons, which is very helpful since the main body of the Song of Roland is about the glory and slaughter of battle.
Glyn Burgess's 1990 translation for Penguin Classics (ISBN 0140445323) is the most recent translation of the three. He stays closest to the form of the original, which gives his translation a certain wooden inflexibility but also a not entirely unbecoming pathos. His translation of Olivier's attack on Malun is quite telling: "Oliver rides through the thick of the fray; / His lance shaft is broken, only a stump remains. / He goes to strike a pagan, Malun; / He breaks his shield, wrought with gold and flowers, / and smites both his eyes out of his head. / His brains come spilling out over his feet;" (page 72) While the use of "wrought" and "smite" sounds a bit old-fashioned, "spilling" is an excellent choice. Burgess added a 19-page introduction to his translation. It focuses mostly on the literary qualities of the Song of Roland; for the first-time reader of the Song of Roland, Harrison's introduction is more helpful. The additional value of the Penguin Classics edition lies in an Appendix with about one third of the original version of the "Chanson de Roland" - the key passages of the work in Old French.
While all three translations have their pros and cons, I tend to recommend Harrison's book over the two others. It strikes a good balance between the clarity of Merwin's prose translation and the wooden feel of Burgess's more literal verse translation. In addition, it impresses with its useful introduction and its unbeatable value for money.

The Song of Roland
The Song of Roland
by Anonymous
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
32 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 The slaughter and glory of battle, April 17 2004
The Song of Roland is the most famous of the "chansons de geste" (songs of deeds) of the Middle Ages. It provides a fascinating view into the spirit of warriors of that time and their motivation. The Song of Roland gives an idealized picture, of course, and if we can believe the historians, the medieval knights never lived up to their chivalric ideal.
The Song of Roland is not commonly included in the canon of must-read classics. Except in France, maybe. I assume the reason is that people in our time do not trace back their roots to the feudalism of the Middle Ages, and that they consider the chapter of chivalry closed after Cervantes's satirical portrait of knighthood in "Don Quixote". In one respect, however, this gory tale of slaughter, martyrdom and revenge is very contemporary. It illustrates the mindset of crusaders who see the world in terms of Good and Evil, and the language they use to incite contempt of the other party.
Apart from its historical value, the Song of Roland is also worth reading as literature - as an outstanding example for the heroic epic and as a piece of art whose "simple yet elevated style and tone of high moral purpose" (R. Harrison) is reminiscent of the Old Testament.
The three most easily available translations of the Song of Roland in the market are:
W.S. Merwin's 1963 prose translation with introduction, re-published in paperback by Random House's "Modern Library" in 2001 (ISBN 0375757112). His nine-page introduction is a succinct but sufficient overview of the historical events of AD 778 that became the basis of the Song of Roland. The translation stands out for its readability, and Merwin's choice of modern English makes the descriptions of violence even more direct and graphic: "And Oliver rides through the battle, with his spear shattered to a stump, charges against Malun, a pagan, breaks his gilded shield with the flowers painted on it, knocks the eyes out of his head and brings his brains tumbling down to his feet." (page 43).
Robert Harrison's 1970 translation for Penguin Book's budget line "Mentor Books" (ISBN 0451528573) captures the throbbing, urgent rhythm of the verse form best: "Olivier now gallops through the fray - / his lance has snapped, he only has a stump - / and goes to strike a pagan, Malsaron. / He breaks his gilt, fleuron-emblazoned shield, / bursting both his eyeball from his head - / his brain comes tumbling downward to his feet - " (page 93). "Fleuron-emblazoned" is quite enigmatic compared to Merwin's clear "with the flowers painted on it", but Harrison redeems himself by choosing "bursting" to emphasize the violence of the attack. The big plus of Harrison's book is his 42-page introduction. He explains the logic of medieval chivalry, why cruelty coexisted with sensitivity, and butchery with prayer. One interesting concept is the medieval "ethos of success," or in other words the idea that the outcome justifies the means: When a knight killed another knight it was the will of God that this had happened, no matter by what means. Make the opponent trip and chop off his head - see, God is on your side. Harrison goes to quite some length to introduce the instruments of war, the armor and weapons, which is very helpful since the main body of the Song of Roland is about the glory and slaughter of battle.
Glyn Burgess's 1990 translation for Penguin Classics (ISBN 0140445323) is the most recent translation of the three. He stays closest to the form of the original, which gives his translation a certain wooden inflexibility but also a not entirely unbecoming pathos. His translation of Olivier's attack on Malun is quite telling: "Oliver rides through the thick of the fray; / His lance shaft is broken, only a stump remains. / He goes to strike a pagan, Malun; / He breaks his shield, wrought with gold and flowers, / and smites both his eyes out of his head. / His brains come spilling out over his feet;" (page 72) While the use of "wrought" and "smite" sounds a bit old-fashioned, "spilling" is an excellent choice. Burgess added a 19-page introduction to his translation. It focuses mostly on the literary qualities of the Song of Roland; for the first-time reader of the Song of Roland, Harrison's introduction is more helpful. The additional value of the Penguin Classics edition lies in an Appendix with about one third of the original version of the "Chanson de Roland" - the key passages of the work in Old French.
While all three translations have their pros and cons, I tend to recommend Harrison's book over the two others. It strikes a good balance between the clarity of Merwin's prose translation and the wooden feel of Burgess's more literal verse translation. In addition, it impresses with its useful introduction and its unbeatable value for money.

Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects
Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects
by Bertrand Russell
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 12.64
56 used & new from CDN$ 0.08

4 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Confrontational and controversial, March 25 2004
I admit that reading a book with the title "Why I am Not a Christian" on the bus while to my right a fellow traveler studied the New Testament made me feel quite ill at ease. The title seems to suggest that the author is an argumentative dissenter - and the reader by implication too, since he seems to enjoy this kind of literature.
Then, why read a collection of essays that are for the most part over 70 years old?
Firstly, for the clear style and the straightforward logic of Russell. He does not beat about the bush: "My own view on religion is that of Lucretius [a Roman philosopher of the first century BC, author of "On the Nature of the Universe"]. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race."(24). This statement sums it up nicely for Bertrand Russell; and as expected, Russell's answer to the questions in the titles of the essays "Has Religion made useful Contributions to Civilization?" (1930), "Do we survive Death?" (1936), and "Can Religion Cure our Troubles?" (1954) is a resounding NO.
Secondly, as a warning how overly optimistic we tend to be when it comes to improving human beings by scientific means. Today, some people think that humans can be genetically "improved". In the 1930s, some people - including Russell - thought "that hatred and fear can, with our present psychological knowledge and our present industrial technique, be eliminated altogether from human life."(45) Well, three quarters of a century later we still live in a time of hatred and fear.
Thirdly, for the often unusual and surprising angle from which Russell looks at the seemingly familiar. Take the Renaissance and the French writer Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), for example. The common view is that the Renaissance was the first major step on the way to the rationalism and individualism of the Enlightenment, and Montaigne is perceived as the model of the skeptical, questioning, self-reflective intellectual of that time. Russell, however, noticed that "moderns do not always realize to what extent the Renaissance was an anti-intellectual movement. In the Middle Ages it was the custom to prove things; the Renaissance invented the habit of [merely] observing them." (120) The most perfect example for this anti-intellectual type was "Montaigne, who allowed himself also an intellectual holiday in the shape of hostility to systems and deductions."(120)
Fourthly, because Russell is a worthy heir to the tradition of optimistic materialism going back to David Hume (1711-1776), and because, at his best, he displays the common sense and simple wisdom that does not wear off with the years: "To live a good life in the fullest sense a man must have a good education, friends, love, children (if he desires them), a sufficient income to keep him from want and grave anxiety, good health, and work which is not uninteresting. All these things, in varying degrees, depend upon the community and are helped or hindered by political events. The good life must be lived in a good society and is not fully possible otherwise."(75)
Interestingly, the man who wrote these words about the good life, was judicially declared "unfit" to teach philosophy at the College of the City of New York. A 50-page appendix to the book explains how this happened and provides an interesting case study how - already in 1940 - a vocal minority of ideological extremists in the United States used its influence to push its agenda.

Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam
Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam
by Omar Khayyam
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 11.32
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5.0 étoiles sur 5 Omar and the Spice Girls, Jan. 27 2004
Ce commentaire est de: Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam (Paperback)
"The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam" translated by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs is available in two Penguin editions. This edition (ISBN 01400595447) comes in a larger format with 32 beautiful colored illustrations of Persian miniature paintings from the 16th and 17th century, and an essay on the history of the miniatures that points out the influence of Chinese painting on Persian graphic arts (an interesting subject in itself). The other edition is the Penguin Classics edition (ISBN 0140443843), which is identical to this edition but lacks the illustrations and the essay on Persian graphic arts. The illustrated, larger sized edition is definitely worth the slightly higher price, in my opinion.
A reader who is familiar with FitzGerald's classic "re-creation" - "translation" is a term that is too weak in this context - will be surprised at the defiant materialism of Omar Khayyam's quatrains in Avery's literal translation stripped of the poetic spark of FitzGerald's work.
For example, while the Victorian gentleman Edward FitzGerald chose to translate Omar Khayyam's praise of simple joys and poetry in his famous "A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, / A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou / Beside me singing in the Wilderness - / Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!", Peter Avery gives us not only a more literal translation (#98) but also a much more worldly (and spicy) version of the same theme:
If chance supplied a loaf of white bread,
Two casks of wine and a leg of mutton,
In the corner of a garden with a tulip-cheeked girl
There'd be enjoyment no Sultan could outdo. (#234)
In his introduction, Peter Avery points out that the ruba'i (quatrain) was the favorite verse form among intellectuals, "those philosophers and mystics in eleventh- and twelfth-century Persia who were in some degree non-conformists opposed to religious fanatism, so that they have often been called Islam's free-thinkers." And a free-thinker Omar Khayyam was. He did not believe in the cardinal Muslim tenet of the resurrection of the body after death, and he suggested that drinking wine was better than worrying about abstruse religious theories and dogmas. In an instance that must have been particularly enraging for orthodox Muslims he turned the argument for future rewards in paradise on its head by thinking it through to its logical end:
They promise there will be Paradise and the houri-eyed,
Where clear wine and honey will flow:
Should we prefer wine and a lover, what's the harm?
Are not these the final recompense? (#88)
(the "houri-eyed" are beautiful girls, by the way)
In another slyly funny (and self-critical) quatrain, Omar Khayyam pushes his skepticism and blunt honesty even further:
A religious man said to a whore, "You're drunk,
Caught every moment in a different snare."
She replied, "Oh Shaikh, I am what you say,
Are you what you seem?"(#86)
Peter Avery's translations stress the worldly, materialistic side of Omar Khayyam, which is rooted in his conviction that nothing lasts but the joys experienced in the present moment. What I missed in Peter Avery's translations, though, was the joy Omar Khayyam must have felt when he created a new quatrain to remind himself to seize the day, to change his state of mind (that's a polite way of describing "to get drunk") or just to invent a polished metaphor or rhyme. FitzGerald captured this redeeming poetic beauty of Omar Khayyam's work so well that his rendition of the Rubaiyat remains a benchmark true to the spirit if not the letter of the Persian poet:
And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die,
Lift not your hands to It for help - for It
As impotently moves as you or I.
(while Avery translates with the intention "to give as literal an English version of the Persian originals as readability and intelligibility permit":)
The good and evil that are in man's heart,
The joy and sorrow that are our fortune and destiny,
Do not impute them to the wheel of heaven because, in the light of reason,
The wheel is a thousand times more helpless than you. (#34)
Buy this edition for the invaluable introduction, for the contrast to FitzGerald's rendition, and quite simply to get a feeling for Omar Khayyam's blunt honesty; but do buy a book with FitzGerald's version, preferably the out-of-print edition with English novelist A.S. Byatt's introduction ("Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam", ASIN 0965231240).
And lest anyone should think Omar Khayyam was only a frivolous, inebriated hedonist, here are two of my favorite quatrains from Peter Avery's and John Heath-Stubbs's book:
If the heart could grasp the meaning of life,
In death it would know the mystery of God;
Today when you are in possession of yourself, you know nothing.
Tomorrow when you leave yourself behind, what will you know? (#5)
It is we who are the source of our own happiness, the mine of our own sorrow,
The repository of justice and foundation of iniquity;
We who are cast down and exalted, perfect and defective,
At once the rusted mirror and Jamshid's all-seeing cup. (#211)
(Avery explains that to the Persian culture hero Jamshid or Jam was attributed a magic cup in which he could see time past, present and future and all the world, and by which like Joseph with his silver cup, he could divine (Genesis xliv, 4-5).)

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained
by Paramahansa Yogananda
Edition: Hardcover
22 used & new from CDN$ 5.62

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2.0 étoiles sur 5 Was Omar Khayyam a yogi?, Jan. 25 2004
This is a book of rather peculiar interpretations of Omar Khayyam's "Rubaiyat" in the famous translation by Edward FitzGerald. Mr. Yogananda takes the 75 quatrains of the first translation of 1859 and adds to each a paraphrase, an "extended meaning" and what he calls "keys to meaning."
The purpose of this book, however, is to illustrate Mr. Yogananda's beliefs with the poetry of Omar Khayyam, not to explain or comment the quatrains.
Quatrain number 52 is one of the most materialistic, even fatalistic, of Omar Khayyam's poems:
And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop't we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help - for It
Rolls Impotently on as Thou or I.
(in the standard 101 quatrain-edition of Edward FitzGerald this poem is number 72 and reads more correctly: "And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky, / Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die, / Lift not your hands to It for help - for It / As impotently moves as you or I.")
Mr. Yogananda paraphrases it as "Sun, Moon, stars, and planets pass athwart the sky as though in a slow celestial dance. Their movements correspond to the decrees of the Cosmic Law. Their changing configurations are choreographed, like the events in our lives. The stars and planets themselves can no more choose how they will affect us than we can select our own karmic destinies. Look not to the stars, then, for help if you would change your lot. Look to God. He it was who made you and all the stars. He it was who first determined the workings of karmic law."
God and "karmic law" figure prominently in Mr. Yogananda's interpretations of the other quatrains, too. However, the connection between the poems and Mr. Yogananda's interpretation is in all cases very flimsy and arbitrary. In Omar Khayyam's quatrain about the indifference of nature towards human suffering it is definitely far-fetched to claim that he wanted the reader to look to God and remind him of the "karmic law" when he wrote this poem. Rather, it seems the opposite was the case.
Omar Khayyam asks many questions about life and life's meaning in his quatrains. Mr. Yogananda claims to have all the answers. I prefer to stay with the questions and find my own answers. One of which is: no, Omar Khayyam was no yogi.

Penguin Classics Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam
Penguin Classics Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam
by Omar Khayyam
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 10.83
69 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 étoiles sur 5 Raise your glass to the transience of life, Jan. 4 2004
Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) was a Persian mathematician whom we in the West know primarily as the poet of the Rubaiyat (literally: quatrains). In fact most people only know Omar Khayyam for the 101 individual quatrains translated and arranged by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859. Fitzgerald's work was more than an ordinary translation, one critic wrote, it was so inspired that some people believed it was an English poem with Persian allusions.
Omar Khayyam writes about the fragility and transience of life,
Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain - this Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies. (#63)
and about the inspiration to be found in wine and friendship:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow! (#12)
In his best moments he rises above what some critics saw as cynical lament and reaches an appealing state of amused resignation:
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door where in I went. (#27)
The world of Omar Khayyam - Islamic Persia in the eleventh century - demands some explanation to fully appreciate the poetry. Unfortunately, my edition (Peter Pauper Press, White Plains, NY, 1991) did not contain footnotes to the quatrains and only the shortest of introductions. Scholarly comment is often indicated for key words in poetry. Take the word "wine", for example. It is interesting to be reminded that the subject of wine was inflammable because wine and drunkenness were prohibited by the principles of Islamic law. However, "wine" can also be interpreted as a metaphor referring to spiritual or romantic intoxication.
Bottom-line: I recommend to enjoy this book with a glass of full-bodied Italian red wine of the sort the Italians like to call "wine for meditation."

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