Fredman’s epistles

wall paintingI have just spent time in some 18th century Stockholm bars. The drinking was heavy, the clientele disreputable and death only a short step away from the party, as I was reading, listening and singing through the songs of Swedish poet and musician Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795). His songs move quickly from high to low, from romantic or sacral themes and straight into the gutters (much like the man himself), painting a striking and entertaining picture of 18th century Stockholm along the way.

Fredman’s epistles (1790), which I read, is the first of two collections of Bellman’s songs. Bellman is a central figure in Swedish song tradition, and provided plenty of high-class dinner/drinking songs for my student choir, so I was already familiar with his more popular works, but this was the first time I explored some of his less famous songs. It has been a very interesting experience, as it was a song collection I was not satisfied by just reading them but had to listen to as many of them as possible, and occasionally sing along, which allowed me to experience his work on many levels. As many of his characters are recurring the lesser known song also added to my appreciation of his better known works. However, what I really started to appreciate as I read, apart from his musical abilities, was his skill in setting the scenes, allowing me to experience 18th century Stockholm through his texts.

Fredman’s epistles is part of my Classics club reading challenge. Bellman has also been translated into English by Paul Britten Austin, but as I read them in Swedish I can’t vouch for the translation.



The pillow book


On the day after a fierce autumn wind*

On the day after a fierce autumn wind I was looking through my bookshelves, trying to decide on my next read, when my eyes fell on The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon. Sei Shōnagon was a lady in waiting at the court of Heian Japan, and The Pillow Book gives an intriguing view into her life. It is structures as a series of short musings about her life, people she like and dislike, lists of  various things, fashion comments, all in all not unlike a modern blog, if it weren’t for the very high quality of the writing and the largely alien world she describes (it was finished in the year 1002).

Boring things

While it is amusing to see that the temptation to make lists was known already in Heian Japan I must admit that I found some of Sei Shōnagon’s lists boring. I suppose they made sense when they were written, and perhaps they still do if read in Japanese or with a deeper understanding of the context, but when I read a list of e.g. bridges, all I see is a list of names. Fortunately only a small portion of the text is comprised by this type of lists.

How delightful everything is!

Sei Shōnagon has a very keen eye for beauty which makes her descriptions delightful to read. The life she describes is also fascinating, perhaps especially the very high status that poetry had in court life. For example I really enjoyed learning that visiting lovers were supposed to send a poem on the morning after a visit.

Things that are unpleasant to hear

Delightful as the book is in many ways, there is no way around the fact that Sei Shōnagon is a snob. This fact is sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying, and occasionally, when she writes about someone from the lower classes, it can make the text rather unpleasant.

Embarrassing things

There is no doubt that I miss a lot of the allusions and poetry, both by having to read it in translation, and by my near complete ignorance of Heian Japan. However, the introduction by Robin Duke and the excellent footnotes by the translator Ivan Morris in my copy helped make it enjoyable, even though much of the text still clearly went above my head.

*All the headlines have been borrowed directly from chapter headings in The Pillow Book.

I reread The Pillow Book as part of my classics club reading challenge.

Poetry from the deep forests

DSC_1871.JPGI have been a good reader this summer but a worse blogger and I fear that blogging and blog reading will remain slow for the rest of August. However, before I disappear again I want to introduce you to a favorite poet of mine, Dan Andersson.

I guess most readers have some author that transport us back to places we have been to or the people that we were. For me one of those authors is the Swedish poet Dan Andersson (1888-1920). Living abroad I sometimes long for my childhood forests and no-one catches the feeling of those forests like him. Admittedly he wrote about life in the much more impressive nature around the Swedish-Norwegian border, but his texts still feel like home.

I came to think of him as I found a collection of his poetry and ballads while browsing a used bookstore recently, and have been reading it on and off for the last week. Many of the poems depict the nature around his family homes but also the lives of the people around him, especially people on the edges of society. Other poems describe religious doubts and fears. However, what is perhaps most notable about his poetry is their musical properties. Many of his poems have been brilliantly set to music, sometimes by the author himself. I would even argue that some of them only truly shines when sung.
Dan Andersson’s poetry is probably hard to find in a good translation but you may still be able to find and enjoy some of the musical renditions. I especially recommend the ones by Sofia Karlsson!

What about you, do you have any texts that transports you back to a specific time or place?

2 x Pablo Neruda


I recently saw the film “Neruda” which follows poet and politician Pablo Neruda on his escape from Chile in 1948. Interestingly the film choose to use a clearly unreliable and biased narrator in the form of the policeman hunting Neruda. The result was a bit weird but provided some contrast to Neruda’s role as the hero of the story. It allowed me to choose between the heroic tale Neruda might have told himself, the negative story told by his persecutor, or something in-between. It was weird but I mostly liked it.

The film also provided several examples of Neruda’s poetry and I left it with a desire to read some of it for myself. Poetry in translation is of course always a challenge but I did study Spanish many years ago and although I have forgotten almost all of it I selected a bilingual edition of his early collection “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair“. That way I could at least get a glimpse of the original poetry besides the translation. It also forced me to read slowly, alternating between the Spanish and the English translation. Interestingly, I felt that the tone of the poems changed with the language.

I found it easy to like Neruda’s poetry and can see why it is so popular. These are poems that speaks directly on the first read. I particularly enjoyed the striking imagery in many of the poems. “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees” may be one of the most sensual lines I’ve read in a poem.

However, as I kept reading the shadowy nature of the woman/women he described started to bother me. The poems seemed directed more to an idea of a woman than to an actual, living person, and she thus remained a body or an ideal, never an individual. I don’t really mind that in an occasional poem but 21 in a row is too many. I should search for some of his non-love related poetry, I suspect I may enjoy those more. Or perhaps any of his poems written after the age of 19.

I read it in a bilingual translation where the English translation was written by W. S. Merwin.



La Vita Nuova


The latest classic from my classic club reading list was La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri.

I really got myself into deep water with this book. It felt a bit like watching a game where you know none of the rules. One reason for my struggles was the disadvantage of reading it in translation which is always difficult with poetry. However, I believe the greatest barrier was the cultural one. I’m so used to texts were the plot and/or character development are central that I’m apparently lost without them. I eventually found some rhythm in the narration and enjoyed the ending much more than the beginning but it was a challenging read.

La Vita Nuova was first published in 1295, which probably explains my cultural chock. It is centred around the narrator’s impossible love for Beatrice and consists of a series of poems prizing her and describing her influence on the narrator and others. These poems are divided by texts describing the context of the poems and explanations of their structure. Little happens and Beatrice never really takes shape, she remains an idea, a living angel. Instead I felt that Love, both as a concept and its influence on those it touches, was the real focus.

In many ways it reminded me of The Sorrows of Young Werther which I read last year.  In it the story is also centred around an impossible love and I got the impression that the main goal of the text was that it should be beautiful. As in La Vita Nuova the love described in The Sorrows of Young Werther was an idealized romantic love which appeared more like an idea than an actual human emotion.

So did I enjoy it? Not really but I’m glad I have read it. It was different from almost anything else I have read and I could see glimpses of the beauty in it. It was also a rather short read, although it still took me surprisingly long to finish, and it may help me to better understand references to Dante in later works. However, to really appreciate it I would have needed a much better understanding of the context and preferably to be able to read it in its original Italian.

I read it in a translation by Mark Musa but an earlier translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is available for free from Project Gutenberg.

La Vita Nuova is on my reading list for the Classics club and I also count it as my “Classic by an author that’s new to you” for the Back to the classics reading challenge. It also means that I can add another country, Italy, to my 30-20-20-10 reading challenge, only eight more to go.




The Poetic Edda


If I were to define a Classic a key characteristic would be their ability to leave a trace in the reader and/or culture at large. Influencing people, later works or even the language itself in their wake. Rarely is that clearer than when it comes to the classical mythologies. The Norse myths have named the days of the week (in the Scandinavian languages and in English), formed proverbs still in use ( such as “Där ölet går in går vettet ut” roughly “where the beer goes in, sanity leaves”) and continue to influence works through the centuries (Wagner, Tolkien, Marvel, Gaiman).

The Poetic Edda (also called the Elder Edda) is a collection of epical poems about Norse gods and heroes. During the 13th century these myths were collected and written down in Codex Regius. This text now form the primary document for The Poetic Edda but other poems of a similar type and age are often included.

I got the Poetic Edda in Christmas gift last year and have been reading it on and off since then. So it has been another slow read but unlike Metamorphosis and other stories I have mostly enjoyed it. While it is hardly something to read from cover to cover in one setting it was mostly very readable. The poems range from high to low, from funny to bloody to tragic and back again. I might not read the whole again but I will certainly revisit some parts.

I read it in a Swedish translation (Den poetiska Eddan) by Lars Lönnroth which included helpful notes and introductions to the texts. It was on my list of 50 classics to read with the Classics Club.

There is an English translation available for free at Project Gutenberg but I found that it lacked much of the lyrical qualities of the text. So if you want to read it I would suggest looking for a more modern translation. If you want to try just a piece of it I would recommend Völuspá (Prophecy of the Völva) which is reasonably brief, covers (at least in passing) much of the mythological framework and generally is one of the best parts (and probably the most famous).