Review of Ismail Kadare’s Essays on World Literature

Essays on World Literature: Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare. By Ismail Kadare, Translation by Ani Kokobobo. New York: Restless Books. 

Ismail Kadare, Man Booker Prize winner, has written and published over twenty novels since the mid-20th century. The prominent Albanian author of the 20th century, Kadare’s works have been translated into multiple languages, including Spanish, German, French, and English. Despite the availability of his fiction novels in English, Kadare’s various essays were all written in his native Albanian. For the first time, however, a collection of them has been translated into English and published.

Essays on World Literature combines three of Kadare’s essays: “Aeschylus, the Lost,” published in 1985; “Dante, the Inevitable,” published in 2005; and “Hamlet, the Difficult Prince,” published in 2006. The book is separated into four parts: a brief preface, by translator Ani Kokobobo, and the three essays. Within these essays, Kadare explores the importance of literary and dramatic tragedy on Balkan, particularly Albanian, culture and history. Within the “Translator’s Preface,” Kokobobo introduces the essays and the important role they play in connecting Albanian culture, Kadare’s literary oeuvre, and traditional world literature, claiming, “These essays treat world literature as a system of interconnected networks that extends beyond national boundaries . . . As Kadare reveals by connecting Albania and the Albanian culture to the tradition of world literature, no cultures or literatures are ever fully isolated” (location 57). With a brief explanation of Albania during Hoxha’s regime and an introduction to the essays and their impact, Kokobobo effectively leads readers into a clear understanding of the organization and the content of Essays on World Literature.

By writing Essays, Kadare provides readers with a map of Albanian history, going back through the Ottoman occupation to the culturally rich Illyrians. This history lesson, however, is delivered through the lens of literary masterpieces by historically acclaimed authors. In every connection Kadare makes, he illustrates the importance and interconnectedness of world literature with Albanian culture, and vice-versa. Whether tracing the birth of tragedy or the relationship between The Divine Comedy and communist Albania, Kadare uses respected authors, philosophers, and literary works to defend every claim and opinion.

In the first essay presented, “Aeschylus, The Lost,” Kadare delves into the mastery of the Greek tragedian Aeschylus. While reviewing the role Aeschylus played in developing and establishing tragedy as a genre, Kadare explores the ways in which Aeschylus’s contributions to literature have dwindled from the many dramatic tragedies written during his life in ancient Athens to the mere seven that survived throughout history. Without Aeschylus, Kadare claims that “[d]ramaturges would have had to devise other means for expressing the despair of human consciousness” (location 160). His focus on the importance of Aeschylus for the growth and development of tragedy is a key element in Essays. Throughout the rest of “Aeschylus, The Lost,” Kadare examines the evolution of tragedy and Aeschylus’s role in developing the genre. In doing so, Kadare draws parallels between Dionysian parties as a possible origin of tragedy and the marital and funerary celebrations of Balkan people.

Perhaps the most important parallel Kadare draws in Essays comes in the form of explaining the censorship of the Greek tragedians. While exploring the possible reasons for the loss of much of Aeschylus’s literary contributions, Kadare describes the decline in approval for dramatic tragedies and the desire for comedy and satire. He also examines the role of totalitarian rule over artistic expression. He effectively connects dots from Ancient Greece to modern day Europe, showing an interconnectedness in world history, world literature, and Albanian literature and culture, despite the isolation of Albania throughout much of the twentieth century.

In “Dante, The Inevitable,” Kadare examines Dante’s The Divine Comedy in relationship to Albania. In examining Dante’s banishment and difficulties, Kadare brings light to the experiences and cruelties experienced by Ezra Pound and Ernest Koliqi. He then describes how, although many other literary masterpieces were censored or outlawed, Dante’s work was more accessible in Hoxha’s regime. According to Kadare, “In the midst of Albanian communism, the most vicious regime, the most faithless and alien to Dante, the poet’s work was being translated more fully and more masterfully than ever” (location 1604-1608). He continues that the reason for this is because “his translators, like the rest of Albania, were experiencing one of his three states, that of hell” (location 1608). In this essay, Kadare masterfully connects the work of Dante, while continuing to refer to Aeschylus’s tragedy, with the political and cultural reality of Albania. Kadare makes the connection most clear when stating “The Divine Comedy is the only work of literature in the world that simultaneously, and with the same intensity, reflected both the darkness and the light of communist Albania” (location 1793).

Perhaps the most relevant connections Kadare makes in “Hamlet, The Difficult Prince” is the cultural connection between Balkan blood feuds and vengeance with the revenge tragedy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Throughout Essays, Kadare draws attention to the blood feud tradition that has existed for most of Albania’s history. In detailing the many iterations of the drama throughout history, Kadare claims that “The story of Hamlet is about how mediocrity is bred, which leads us to realize that mediocrity has its share of import in either the destruction or the immortalization of great art” (location 2930).

In Essays, Kadare provides a path for exploring the connection between Albanian history and culture in conversation with world literature. He ultimately reflects on the Balkan tropes and themes present throughout the literary canon, making connections that vary from clear and concise to slightly tenuous. What Kadare does provide, masterfully, is an alternate view of the importance of world literature to Albanian culture and Albanian culture to world literature. Essays on World Literature is an informative and thought-provoking collection that encourages readers to see the works of Aeschylus, Dante, and Shakespeare in conversation with the obscure and poorly recognized historically significant Illyrian civilization that became modern Albania.

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Raising Adolescents

Raising adolescent girls in today’s society feels like walking a tightwire without a net. Every expert has different advice on how to do it right and one expert’s advice is guaranteed to contradict another’s. I’ve read, heard, and seen all of it over the past few years:

  • Don’t focus on looks.
  • Make your daughter happy with her appearance.
  • Don’t call your daughter pretty.
  • Point out your daughter’s good features.
  • Focus on accomplishments.
  • Know your daughter’s limitations.
  • Compliment your daughter often.
  • Be specific with praise and compliments.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t focus on weight in our house. I’ve never been one to call myself fat or harp on my need to lose 10 lbs. I’ve never told my daughters anything about their weight. That didn’t stop my eldest from feeling self-conscious and developing a negative body image in middle school when confronted with the athletic or super skinny girls in her class. And she’s always been in a healthy weight range.

We’ve always complimented our children’s achievements and been their biggest supporters. That hasn’t stopped them from doubting themselves. Our girls have both struggled with low self-esteem and social anxiety.

You can be the most loving and supportive parent one can imagine and that doesn’t guarantee that your children will grow to be entirely happy and confident. Adolescence is hard and studies have proven that self-esteem plummets in teen and pre-teen girls. As parents, it is so important that we keep trying to promote good mental and physical health in our children. It isn’t enough to encourage them to eat right and sleep right; we have to teach them to think right to be their healthiest selves.

When one of my kids says or thinks something negative about themselves, they have to counter the negative thought with three positives. They have to think about where the thought came from so they can challenge it. It’s so easy to put yourself down and so much harder to pull yourself up. We have to start teaching our kids not to put themselves down. I always tell my kids, “Never call yourself something that you wouldn’t let someone else call you.” And when I slip up and call myself “stupid” because I forgot to do something that day or because I made a mistake, they are quick to remind me of the lesson I try to instill. Which brings me to my last point. We have to be willing to show our kids how we struggle with our own insecurities in order to help them overcome their own.

We can provide a safe home with a loving family; but, the world can be cruel and unforgiving. It is so important to teach our children how to mentally prepare for the harshness of reality by providing a strong sense of self.

Food

Isn’t it interesting how many family functions are centered around food? Unless one is participating in a religious holiday that involves fasting, food is served at just about any event one can imagine. If one attends a birthday party, there is usually food. New Year’s parties, food. A wedding without food is practically unheard of. Even wakes are associated with food. The dictionary defines a wake as “a watch or vigil held beside the body of someone who has died, sometimes accompanied by ritual observances including eating and drinking.”

Why is it that people cannot seem to celebrate without food?

They say that food brings people together. Young women used to be taught that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. Young men were told that women love a man who knows his way around the kitchen.

I think we rely far too much on food for family and community. My family eats dinner together at the table. This is something I find important. However, I think we as humans ought to be able to spend time together without a plate or platter in between. Can you imagine a Fourth of July without a BBQ? A Thanksgiving without a turkey? How crazy would it be if we ate just enough to be healthy and satisfied and then gathered to spend time together? What would we do?

 

Dancing

I had, a few months ago, introduced my daughter to The Breakfast Club.

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I have loved The Breakfast Club since the first time I watched it and now share my love of the film with my own adolescent daughter. Since the first time we sat together viewing these high school students learn that they have more in common than they’d ever imagined, my daughter and I have watched it at least three more times when homework and responsibilities were completed. The most recent viewing was Sunday evening.

On Sunday, while cooking dinner, my 13-year-old was seated at the computer and we were talking about something; I cannot even remember what. She started quoting Bender’s lines while discussing clubs and organizations with Brian and Claire, “So it’s sorta social, demented and sad, but social.” Naturally, once the quoting began, the film inevitably had to be put on the television.

Toward the end of the movie, after the confessions scene and the majority of the conflict, the five “teenagers” play music and start dancing like mad. Bender is up on a statue, Claire is on the stairs, and then a montage of them all dancing in groups and individually commences. My daughter looked at me as she watched Claire dancing and asked, “How does she dance like that?” Which of course, led to this conversation:

Me: It’s not that hard.

Daughter: Can you dance like that?

Me: I grew up in the 80s and 90s. Of course I can because it isn’t hard to dance like that.

Daughter: Show me.

Me: No. You try it first.

Daughter: I can’t do that.

Me: Sure you can. All she’s doing is kicking her legs, stepping in place, and throwing her arms and hair around.

Daughter: Show me.

So of course I got up and started dancing like a child straight out of the 80s.

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Naturally, my darling girl promptly joined in. The two of us started dancing like crazy to Karla DeVito’s “We Are Not Alone.”

Sometimes after spending so much of our time dedicated to homework, parenting, cooking, cleaning, reading, and writing, we need to take the time to jump up and start dancing.

Although, I never have been able to pull of Bender and Allison’s dance moves. Anyone master that one?

Bender and Allison.gif

The Vessel

Today’s writing prompt is titled, “The Vessel.” The directions are simple, “Write about a ship or other vehicle that can take you somewhere other than where you are right now.” My response may be somewhat unorthodox for some.

Many people might be expecting me to write about a car, a plane, a boat, or a train. Some truly imaginative may be expecting me to write about a spacecraft of some kind. I could write about a helicopter. But these are not the vessels I use to take me somewhere other than where I am. The vessels that release me from the world, that take me outside of myself are books. Books are rockets for the mind. A really good book will remove me from this time and space and transport me to some fictional realm where I can experience the thoughts and feelings of some other being.

I’d recently read an article that solidified my views on fiction and put them into words better than I ever could. In “This is How Literary Fiction Teaches Us to Be Human,” Tom Blunt writes about how literary fiction lends itself to promote empathy in readers. Prolific readers often spend a great deal of time within the diverse worlds provided in the many books we read. Each world offers a different set of successes, struggles, triumphs, tragedies, and values. As we experience the feelings of the characters and read their thoughts, we incorporate a piece of them into our own identities without realizing it. We learn to be more open to others’ thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Blunt explored this concept and the growing science around it. If you have time, it’s well worth a read. It’s also so closely aligned with my own view on the value of reading.

I’ve often  said that what I love most about fiction is what we can learn from it. If you want to know about a specific event in the past, the date it occurred, the events leading up to it, and the effects of it, you look in a history book. If you want to know what it was like for the common man in that time period, you look in a novel, a poem, or some other literary work. Authors seek to show the world the inner makings of the mind. We can teach our children about the Holocaust in a history lesson, but they can understand the tragedy and pain experienced if you read Elie Wiesel’s Night. One can know the history of racism in the United States of America, but one can see just how damaging prejudice and racism are by reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

I have been fortunate to have a happy and love-filled life. Some might even say that, outside of a lifetime struggle with narcolepsy, my life has been easy. However, I have traveled to times and places with pain and anguish, violence and abuse, happiness and joy, success, triumph, death, life, disease, madness, miracles, love, loss, unity, division, and so many more experiences than can be listed here. I travel to these times and places frequently and the vessels that take me are books.

The Unrequited Love Poem

I once took a class built solely around sonnets. I remember many a sonnet by Sir Philip Sidney being laden with unrequited love. One such sonnet would be from Astrophil and Stella. In Sonnet 31, Sidney expresses longing and despair over his unrequited love:

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!
How silently, and with how wan a face!
What, may it be that even in heav’nly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries!
Sure, if that long-with love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case,
I read it in thy looks; thy languish’d grace
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, ev’n of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deem’d there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be lov’d, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?

 
I have never experienced the agonies of hopeless longing that are associated with unrequited love. I was fortunate enough to fall in love with one who loves me quite passionately in return. Unlike my own experience, Astrophil’s love for Stella is fruitless, being that Stella is married to another. In this particular poem, Astrophil speaks to the moon, viewing the moon as a fellow sufferer of unrequited love. While personally unfamiliar with the feeling, I have seen so many men and women dedicated to one individual who does not share their affections.

Why do people maintain such devotion without reciprocation? In many instances, the object of the unrequited lover’s affections are often proud and disdainful toward the lover, while at the same time maintaining some desire to keep his or her lonely worshiper tied to him or her by a string of half-hearted affections, forever feeding crumbs of fruitless hope. I’ve often decided this results from a degree of low self-esteem, in which the proud beloveds need the boost of affection from the unrequited lovers to make them feel good about themselves. I find it infuriating, however, because we are all worthy of equal love.

Outside the Window

My computer sits right next to the living room window. The blinds are open and there is a quiet breeze blowing. The trees are gently swaying and bobbing to the gentle pressure of the easy wind. It’s a peaceful vision. It also remind me of how often I fail to sit and watch nature just to enjoy the beauty of our planet. I cannot remember when was the last time I looked out the window just to see the world rather than to see if someone had arrived or who was honking their horn.

We get so busy sometimes that we fail to simply enjoy existing in a moment of peace. It’s as though we should feel guilty for not filling every moment of the day with some kind of productive activity. And when we do have time to sit back, many of us resort to some electronic vista over the natural beauty of the world. What would we do if all electronics became inaccessible for one day. Imagine that on a weekly basis! If every Wednesday phones, computers, iPads, tablets, Kindles, televisions, video games, or whatever other battery-operated or electrically powered digital device which holds our attention would become completely useless and powerless, what would we do? How would we react? Would we take the time for meaningful face-to-face connections? Would we enjoy a moment soaking in the sun and watching the trees blow in the wind? Would we just find another way to fill the time with mundane busy work?

I’ve decided on something while sitting here looking out my window. I’m going to have my morning cup of coffee or tea with nothing electronic in front of me. I’m going to sit on my porch and start my day watching the sun climb and the trees dance.

Daily Writing Challenge

When I created this blog, it was my intent to write regularly about whatever came to mind. I also planned to include reviews to books I’d been reading. I think it is obvious that I failed miserably at keeping with those goals. However, I find myself wishing to return to my blog and try again. I am a busy person, but one must find time to write for pleasure.

To kickstart my blog, I’ve decided to implement a daily writing challenge. I will adhere to Think Written’s “365 Creative Writing Prompts.” My goal is to start in order until I’ve reached number 365. While my objective is to write daily, I will forgive myself if I skip a weekend every once in a while. I do, after all, have a family and responsibilities. In the course of this 365 blog prompt challenge, I will likely intersperse other posts about life and the world. One of the primary reason that I’ve shied away from writing here was because I felt myself becoming increasingly political and didn’t want to turn into another politic-laden blog.  Despite the desire to avoid this outcome, readers may come across posts that are, in fact, reflective of my political views.

I don’t know that anyone will read this, as it is primarily to keep me motivated and writing. However, if someone should perchance come across my humble posts, I hope you enjoy a glimpse into the life of a voracious reader, lifelong learner, aspiring educator, loving wife, adoring mother, and sleepy woman.

A Life Plugged In

We live in a digital age. Every person in my life above the age of 11 owns a smartphone. Many people own portable gaming devices, tablets, or laptops. In my immediate family, we have 4 Kindles, 2 Nintendo 2DSs, 2 Nintendo 3DSs, and 3 smartphones. And that’s just the portable entertainment.

I used to watch people go to dinner with their families and see kids with portable DVD players or a DS while parents were looking at their smartphones. I couldn’t understand why a family bothered to go out to eat together just to be so separate.

One of the recent times my family went out to dinner, my husband and I played Yahtzee on my phone, pass and play, while my children played Life on a gaming device supplied by the restaurant. I realized that we had become “that family.” The one I didn’t understand before. The odd part is that when we have dinner at home, I have a strict no electronics or toys at the table. Dinner around the table is a time for discussions and family connection.

I feel like so much of our time with friends and family is spent looking down at a screen instead of in another’s eyes. As a society, we now have a way to remain connected to friends and family and yet we’re becoming more disconnected from each other all of the time…

Wouldn’t it be nice if people started to recharge their relationships instead of their electronics?

Made of Stars

One of my favorite shirts is a long sleeve purple shirt printed with golden words: “We are made of stars.” I also have it in light lavender thermal with white letters.

Evolution tells us that we all come from a common ancestor. By “we all,” I am not referring to human beings. I’m referring to all life on Earth. Genomic studies have shown that human beings share DNA with every living thing on the planet. Humans have DNA that is 85% similar to that of mice and 41% similar to bananas. BANANAS! That means that 41% of your genetic code is the same as a banana. How crazy is that?

It isn’t just that all life comes from a common ancestor either. All matter is a combination of atoms. In the early days of our universe, more like the early seconds after the big bang, it started cooling to a state that allowed subatomic particles to assemble into atoms. The atoms, namely hydrogen and helium, fused together over millions of years into stars. Through a long process that I won’t explain (I’m no Physicist), a star ages and goes supernova. It explodes. That exploded star travels through the universe and binds together in a new location, creating new stars and elements.

The human body is largely made up of water. Water is a combination of 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom. The atoms that make up every human being, every everything, come from stardust that traveled over billions of years through billions of light-years of space.

So, next time you look in the mirror and frown at some imperfection reflected back at you, remember a time when you stood beneath the night sky and marveled in awe as the stars twinkled in the universe’s inky black depths. Then tell yourself that those incredible celestial giants are the building blocks of all life on this crazy planet. If those stars can twinkle and shine with such awe-inspiring beauty, so can you.