Leo Jokester

I wonder if, as a reader, you’ve ever found yourself in a particularly serendipitous or mimetic reading spot?  That is to say, that wherever you happen to be reading your book has a particular resonance with what it is you’re reading.  By way of example, about six years ago, I was sitting on the first floor of Notre Dame’s library in the “Byzantine Reading Room” (actually just a shelf by a window, but sunny and secluded enough), translating the story of poor Arachne for my Ovid class, when a spider who was big enough to be noticeable clambered along the tile floor near my foot.  Whether it was proud of its muckraking heritage or just looking for sympathy, it waited patiently as I finished the story before high-stepping away to brag or lament elsewhere.

I thought I was very clever when I planned to finish my months of reading Anna Karenina on the Caltrain after work on Friday.  I’d been building up to Anna’s desperate and messy end for some time, and it seemed like there’d be some sort of synergy bonus for my rattling and rumbling along on steel wheels when I got there.  Plus I’d be able to boast and look smart on Facebook.  The funny thing was that the book was smarter than I.  For Anna did off herself, but I didn’t quite manage to finish the couple of dozen remaining pages which bring the Levin (who’s jumped into contention for my favorite literary character) plot to a close.

I’ve been toting AK around with me all weekend, but hadn’t found a good moment to sit down with it, between The Forbidden Window, an Indonesian horror film (didn’t love it), and sessions of Heroscape and Imperial 2030 (did love those).  Wandering back home from friend Max’s apartment this afternoon, warm sun and cool breeze conspired to lure me into Dolores Park to sit for a spell.  I reclined on a hillside, dug in my bag, and drew out the volume, only a ludicrously thin slice of pulp separating my wrinkled bookmark from the back cover.

I was rather staggered to find out that in the final scenes, Levin, whose desire for religious faith grapples with his mind’s inability to believe, lies down in a lushly and lovingly described field not at all unlike where I found myself.  Indeed, the field’s beauty and teeming life helps Kostya come to some sort of resolution.  I couldn’t help but think that God and Tolstoy were tweaking my nose a bit and having a laugh, and I can’t think of a place I’d rather have been to polish off such an incredible book.

HA! Good one, buddy.

Of course, now that I’m done, I have to figure out what’s next on the list.  A few candidates: the Finnish epic the Kalevala, Njal’s Saga (which I might be able to take at a more leisurely pace than when I read it for school), War Music (a loose poetic translation of the Iliad which friend Mordicai recommends and which seems right  up my particular alley)?  Max, who’s reading just a barrowload of Young Adult literature in preparation for writing his own novelization, passed along Octavian Nothing, which he found really impressive.  And on my walk home from the park, I stopped in Dog-Eared Books on Valencia to see about War Music (no luck) and wound up leaving with Anne Carson’s Grief Lessons and Dustin Cook’s Icelander, which seems like more of a hoot than the former.   In reality, I’ll probably end up hooked on whatever winds up closest to the bathroom door, but recommend away!

Briefly, let me sum up the crux that’s got me stuck in the Witch’s Spell project.  Iðavöllr, the plain on which the gods settle, is translated bunches of different ways, and looking at the roots, it’s hard to really know what’s right.  The translators and experts are all over the place.  Is it the Shining Field?  the Field of Deeds?  the Field Eternally-renewing?  On a quite different note, the Whirling, Changing Field?  There’s a reasonable chance the name is punny, meaning to encapsulate many of these valences.  Interpretations like “Shining” and “of Deeds” make rather obvious sense, given the paradisiacal setting.  But think of Beowulf, why don’tcha?  When the grandest of halls, Heorot, is built, the poet immediately introduces the theme of its destruction many years down the road.  Here too, perhaps, a reminder of doom and instability is present.  So, I’ve been trying to imagine what a field like that might look like.  Best I have so far is a lambent grassland swept by breezes — inviting and pleasant enough to be a home for the gods, but viewed from above, constantly shifting and swirling.  Now to find a way to squeeze all that into four beats.



  1. mordicai said,

    March 15, 2010 at 4:27 am

    Sounds like the field is ripe for some pun on “reap the whirlwind.” Like– the whirring changing field of deeds? Sounds like you gotta go over the rainbow on the tornado, Dorothy.

    • March 17, 2010 at 7:56 pm

      Yeah, I think you’re right. Now the issue’s just getting it alliterative. I might end up breaking it up into two lines rather than one, then making the space up by condensing the description of the gods’ smithing.

  2. Meggy said,

    March 15, 2010 at 10:54 am

    I love this post, and I love the story about Anna K and that you’d hoped to finish it on the CalTrain, and I’d never heard the story about the spider before. And I love that you love Levin.

    • March 17, 2010 at 7:56 pm

      It baffles me that anyone could not like Levin. How is it even a question?

      • March 17, 2010 at 7:57 pm

        Oh, and you have heard the story about the spider, but I guess you forgot it.

  3. Andy said,

    March 18, 2010 at 9:50 am

    That picture of Tolstoy reminds me of Noelle the sloth. (Sorry to lower the level of discourse.)

    • April 9, 2010 at 1:49 pm

      Little-known fact about Tolstoy: he loved hanging out upside down and never going outside for anything.

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