22 March 2018

A Short Study about Celestina

Tragicomedy and Novelistic Discourse in Celestina
Dorothy Sherman Severin
Cambridge University Press, 1989
142 pages

After reading the classic "Celestina", I looked around for a book that might enlighten me about what I'd just read. I did enjoy the story, but any book written in Spanish over 500 years ago would certainly have references and themes unfamiliar to me. My translation of "Celestina" did have some footnotes, which helped a lot, especially with obscure words, but I wanted a discussion of the book's overall importance and themes. Things that had been hinted at in other reading on the web and comments made during a lecture in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) about "Don Quixote" that I've been taking.

The first one I got from the library was too erudite and required too much thinking to understand. It was one of those where I would read a sentence, and I knew the meaning of every word in it, but when they were put together like that, I didn't have a clue! As this isn't my life's work, I looked for another book.


Then Dorothy Severin's small book with a big title, "Tragicomedy and Novelistic Discourse in Celestina", arrived from a university library. (I just love Ohio's free interlibrary book loan networks!) And this is what I was wishing for, a slim book of essays on various topics, all in English I could understand. Bonus points for quoting not only the original Spanish text like the first book I got, but the English translations, too.

Here is the summary from the publisher:

The late fifteenth-century Spanish masterpiece Celestina is one of the world's most neglected classics. In this important study one of the most recent editors of the text, Dorothy Sherman Severin, investigates how Fernando de Rojas' work in dialogue, which parodies earlier genres, is a precursor of the modern novel.

In Celestina, the hero Calisto parodies the courtly lover, the heroine Melibea lives through classical examples and popular song, Calisto's servants Sempronio and Pármeno parody students' knowledge, the bawd and go-between Celestina deals a blow to the world of wisdom literature, and Melibea's father Pleberio gives his own gloss on the lament. There is also a fatal clash between two literary worlds, that one of the self-styled courtly lover (the fool) and the prototype picaresque world of the Spanish Bawd and her mentors (the rogues). The voices of Celestina are parodic, satiric, ironic and occasionally tragic, and it is in their discourse that the dialogue world of the modern novel is born.

I learned quite a bit from this book; it helped me understand "Celestina" more in the way that someone would have understood it back in 1499, by letting me in on some of the jokes and on what common types of literature were being satirized.

If you are at all interested in "Celestina" and the earliest forms of the novel, I do recommend this book. It might be hard to find in a public library, but try a university library if you can.

20 March 2018

New Worlds, Ancient Texts

New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery
Anthony Grafton with April Shelford and Nancy Siraisi
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992
282 pages

Anthony Grafton wrote this book to accompany an exhibition at the New York Public Library on the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World. It is an in-depth look at how Europeans dealt with the discovery of the new lands and the people living there, which weren't mentioned in the Bible and therefore could not exist. I had never before realized just how literally they took the Bible in the Middle Ages, and what a big disruption the New World was at the time.


Many wonderful images of engravings from 15th- and 16th-century texts are included on the oversized pages (8" x 9.5"). The text is not dry, difficult, or overly academic, despite the fact that Professor Grafton is quite an influential scholar from Yale University, with lots of weighty books to his name.

The scope of the book is so large, that I find it hard to summarize, so I am copying in the text from the book flaps:
On encountering what he called "the Indies," the Jesuit José de Acosta wrote, "Having read what poets and philosophers write of the Torrid Zone, I persuaded myself that when I came to the Equator, I would not be able to endure the violent heat, but it turned out to be otherwise... What could I do then but laugh at Aristotle's Meteorology and his philosophy?" Acosta's experience echoes that of his fellow travellers to the New World, and it is this experience, with its profound effect on Western culture, that Anthony Grafton charts. Describing an era of exploration that went far beyond geographic bounds, this book shows how the evidence of the New World shook the foundations of the old, upsetting the authority of the ancient texts that had guided Europeans so far afield.

The intellectual shift mapped out here, a movement from book learning to empirical knowledge, did not take place easily or quickly, and Grafton presents it in all its drama and complexity. What he recounts is in effect a war of ideas fought, sometimes unwittingly, by mariners, scientists, publishers, and rulers over one hundred fifty years. He shows us explorers from Cortes and Columbus to Scaliger and Münster, laden with ideas gathered from ancient and medieval texts, in their encounters with the world at large. In colorful vignettes, firsthand accounts, published debates, and copious illustrations, we see these men and their contemporaries trying to make sense of their discoveries as they sometimes confirm, sometimes contest, and finally displace traditional notions of the world beyond Europe.

The fundamental cultural revolution that Grafton documents still reverberates in our time. By taking us into this battle of books versus facts, a conflict that has shaped global views for centuries, Grafton allows us to re-experience and understand the Renaissance as it continues to this day.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I learned a lot from it, but I'm sure I could absorb even more from a second reading. Highly recommended!

18 March 2018

Back to the Classics 2018: A classic with a single-word title

Fernando de Rojas
Penguin, 2009, translation by Peter Bush
Spanish original "Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea", 1499
219 pages

"Celestina", also known as the "Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea" or "The Spanish Bawd", is quite a book. Still in print after 519 years, it trails a small army of students, critics, and professors of Spanish literature in its wake, producing piles of scholarly articles and books! This translation by Peter Bush is in easily-read modern English.



An engaging tale of lust and love, the story is funny, bawdy, and crude. Calisto is a wealthy young man who falls violently in love with a chaste maiden, Melibea, after meeting her once. The plot is about his attempts to woo her using the local bawd (madam, pimp, procuress) and possible witch, Celestina. Calisto's servants are always mocking him behind his back, when they aren't with some of Celestina's girls. Most of the characters are rogues and scoundrels, yet they keep invoking God's name and praying. Basically the book is a parody of the Courtly Love found in the popular romances of the day, but with a tragic ending instead of the typical weddings of the romances.

I read this book more for its historical importance than for the quality of story itself. I'm taking an online course about "Don Quixote" by Miguel Cervantes, written one hundred years after "Celestina". In the course readings and lectures, "Celestina" has been mentioned frequently. Plus many lists of "100 best novels" include it, so I thought I should check it out.


Its unique, wholly original feature is that the entire book is written in dialogue. There is no narrator to set the scene or explain the action, which can make it tricky to keep straight who's talking. However the translator has added some narrative phrases here and there, such as "suggested Celestina" or "Sempronio grunted to himself", and this does help keep the reader on track.

Some call "Celestina" the first European novel, considered second in importance only to Don Quixote in Spanish literary heritage. I discovered that the word "celestina" is even listed in the Spanish dictionary as a "go-between" or "procuress", proving the lasting effect the book has had on Spanish culture over the centuries. In 1904 Pablo Picasso painted this portrait called "Celestina":

There is a long article about the book online at the LA Times website, written by one of the all-time great Spanish authors, Juan Goytisolo, who also wrote the introduction to the book I read.
"Celebrating the 500th Anniversary of Spanish Literature's Most Audacious and Subversive Work", Juan Goytisolo, 1999.

I enjoyed "Celestina" and found parts of it quite funny.

14 March 2018

Joining the Classics Club

I'm jumping into another book-reading challenge, after discovering the Classics Club. Although I do read novels published in this century, as well as quite a bit of non-fiction, I have always loved reading classic novels, books that have been favorites of readers for generation after generation. So, finding a club of fellow classics enthusiasts was a thrill!

My list has 90+ books so far, but I will be updating it now and then, as I find other intriguing titles, or give up on some. The publication dates range from 1024 (!) to 1979, so I'll have quite a good range of styles and types to dive into. I don't have any strict criteria for what is a classic novel, but they tend to be more than 50 years old and I am trying to read a lot of the big prize winners, e.g. the Man Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Women's Prize/Orange Prize. Reviews will be linked to the titles below as I post them.

Classics Club: On your blog, post a list of 50 or more classics that you agree to read within 5 years. Write about each one, post it on your blog, and link that post to your list.

My Start Date: 1 March 2018
My Finishing Goal: 1 March 2023

My List

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1920)
Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis (1925)
At Swim-two-birds, Flann O'Brien (1939)
The Autobiographiy of Alice B Toklas, Gertrude Stein (1933)

A Bend in the River, VS Naipaul (1979)
Bill the Conqueror, P. G. Wodehouse (1924)
Billy Budd and other Tales, Herman Melville (~1891)
The Blue Castle, Lucy Maud Montgomery (1926)

Cairo Trilogy, Naguib Mahfouz
    Palace Walk (1956) (Cairo Trilogy, Part 1)
    Palace of Desire (1957) (Cairo Trilogy, Part 2)
    Sugar Street (1957) (Cairo Trilogy, Part 3)
Can You Forgive Her?, Anthony Trollope (1865)
Candide, Voltaire (1759)
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (1387-1400)
Celestina, Fernando de Rojas (1499)
Children of the Alley, Naguib Mahfouz (1959)
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas (1884)

Daisey Miller, Henry James (1879)
The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio (1353) [trans. J. G. Nichols]
Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol (1842)
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
Dubliners, James Joyce (1914)

Elizabeth Gaskell, May Barton (1848)
Emma, Jane Austen (1815)
Enemies, A Love Story, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1966)
Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton (1911)
Eugénie Grandet, Honoré de Balzac (1833)
Every Frenchman Has One, Olivia de Havilland (1961)
Excellent Women, Barbara Pym (1952)

The Flowering Thorn, Margery Sharp (1933)
Four Gardens, Margery Sharp (1935)

Giants in the Earth, O. E. Rölvaag, (1925)
Giles Goat Boy, John Barth (1966)
The Glimpses of the Moon, Edith Wharton (1922)
The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (1962)
The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford (1915)
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (1861)

Howards End, E. M. Forster (1910)
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (1884)

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, Italo Calvino (1979)
Independent People, Halldór Laxness (1935)
The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain (1869)

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (1847)
A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe (1722)

Lazarillo de Tormes, anonymous (1554)
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne (1759)
The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1943)
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (1869)
Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark (1981)
Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis (1954)

Main Street, Sinclair Lewis (1920)
The Man in the Brown Suit, Agatha Christie (1924)
Marvelous Land of Oz, L. Frank Baum  (1904)
The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1940)
The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins (1868)
Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez (1967)
Orlando, Virginia Woolf (1928)
Oroonoko, The Rover and Other Works, Aphra Behn (<1689)

A Passage to India, E. M. Forster (1924)
Portrait of a Lady, Henry James (1881)
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (1813)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (1961)
The Pursuit Of Love, Nancy Mitford (1945)

Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym (1977)

The Rainbow, D. H. Lawrence (1915)
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)
The Reef, Edith Wharton (1912)
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe (1719)
The Romance of Tristan & Iseult, Joseph Bédier (1900)
A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf (1929)

Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)
The Setons, O. Douglas (1917)
Silas Marner, George Eliot (1861)
Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence (1913)
The Sound of the Mountain, Yasunari Kawabata (1949)

The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (Before 1021)
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859)
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (1958)
This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)
Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome (1889)
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (1927)
Tom Jones, Henry Fielding (1749)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943)
Typee, Herman Melville (1846)

Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)
The Vicar of Bullhampton, Anthony Trollope (1870)

Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell (1864)
The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope (1875)
The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins (1859)

Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)

Wish me luck!!