An adolescence spent running all over Europe

Note: This is edited down from a 1,774-word book review I originally wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2004–06.

This memoir by Maia Wojciechowska is the story of how she, her mother, and her two brothers spent the first half of WWII going from country to country, while her father was with the Army as a pilot and waiting for the safest moment to join them. Several scenes inspired things in my books, like their escape on the train on the first day of the invasion of Poland, and when they’re smuggled over a border in potato sacks in a truck.

On 1 September 1939, Maia hears and sees planes flying overhead, and thinks one of them may be her father. She’s happily running along with her new Doberman puppy and is heartbroken when her dog is suddenly felled by a bomb. This makes her very angry at the Nazis, a hatred which lasts the entire rest of the war.

Maia’s mother decides to leave for France (where her husband has already left for) with her three children—Zbyszek (Zbigniew), Maia, and obnoxious little Krzys (Kryzsztof). But the train, one of the last few allowed to leave Poland, is constantly being stopped because of the incessant bombs. Outside, large groups of people are fleeing on foot. Zbyszek and Maia laugh about how much the train will stink if it’s hit by a bomb, since the last thing a person does before dying is defecate.

Eventually, they have to get out and start walking too, since the tracks are destroyed by bombs. During one air raid, Maia gets in a lot of trouble because she stands right out in the open as a plane drops bullets and smaller bombs, and keeps flying right over her as she stands there calmly. After this, they board another train which also eventually gets stopped because of more bombed-out tracks, but when they reach Łódż on foot, they’re able to board a train that takes them to France, where they previously lived for a year.

They live in several places in France, both before and during the Nazi occupation. For awhile, the children play war with their new friends, also refugees from Poland, including twin boys. They have stockpiles of weapons, which they found abandoned by the French army, and pretend to die from being shot at, after they spend the more important parts of their meetings discussing how they’re going to exact revenge on Germany and France and how they’re going to save Poland. The twins like to pretend to die in one another’s arms.

When all the other Polish families are evacuated, Maia and Zbyszek sneak a machine gun and ammunition into their apartment to shoot the oncoming Germans and the traitorous French who are hugging them and giving them flowers, but their mother sees the gun and wrestles it away from them. Maia also gets into trouble at school, once when she beats a boy who tried to lift her dress and another time when she pretends to not understand French, till she gets the principal as her teacher, who knows from her mother that Maia knows and understands French quite well.

Maia barely goes to school at all, since she’s constantly playing hooky, staying home with colds, or being punished by being made to stand behind the blackboard or outside because she won’t talk. Several schools throw her out because she’s absent so much, and because she refuses to participate. Maia and Zbyszek swore an oath to never speak to a French person for the duration of the war, nor to speak French, and they’re keeping to it. Maia only breaks it when their mother is briefly arrested after they arrive in Vichy France, and she asks how long she’ll be in there.

During the time in France, they also live in the same hotel as a mysterious and somewhat creepy older woman, who tries to seduce the confused Zbyszek.

Maia has her share of unthinking moments too, like when they’re going to Spain and she’s entrusted with a hatbox containing a teddybear stuffed with money and jewels, totalling more than $4,000. The money and jewels are from fellow Poles in Lisbon, who want to send packages to their relatives back home. Everything is going according to plan, until she loses sight of her family at a train station and gets on the wrong train. It’s going to Madrid too, but won’t arrive at the same time, as Zbyszek tells her as he runs alongside the departing train. Maia begins talking to a man sitting next to her during the ride, and when she gets off and rejoins her family, her mother is angry and horrified that Maia somehow let him make off with the teddybear without her realising it. He opened the window so she could exit faster, and when she turned around to introduce this handsome stranger to them, he was gone.

Eventually, the family are leave France for Portugal. However, this is only temporary, and they soon fly to London. The father joins them at this point, and it’s hard getting used to him being back in their lives and to living in a strange new place, with new schools, new people, and a new language. Maia proudly tells anyone who tries to speak to her that she’s Polish and doesn’t wish to learn English. The moment she left France, Maia went back to speaking French. There’s no more reason to keep the pact outside of France, and she’s not speaking French to actual French citizens. However, she still doesn’t want to speak English, and settles on a Catholic boarding school where everything is taught in French.

On the ship to America, which takes off in November 1942 after a lengthy delay, Maia gets the idea to commit suicide romantically, since she’s in the midst of unrequited love, and decides she’ll die by the cold winds. She desperately loves a handsome young soldier, and the night before they’re to reach America, where her father has been assigned a post in Washington at the Polish Embassy, she goes on deck and ties herself to a post with her scarf. She would’ve taken her clothes off to be even more romantic, but she doesn’t like her body.

Zbyszek comes upon her standing on deck at dawn, having read her suicide note, and laughs at her plan. “Are you going to freeze your ass off?” Maia abandons the freezing to death suicide after he laughs at her and volunteers some information which deeply shocks her, and she goes back down to her private cabin. It’s coming up on five in the morning, when they’re due to dock, but she doesn’t want to be among all the other people coming up to see New York as they slowly come in for their landing. Just like everything else she’s done over the past three years, and her entire life before that, she wants to be different.

I really love Maia because she’s her own person and a tomboy, not a docile girly-girl who stays out of trouble. Like many tomboys through the ages, Maia wishes she were a boy, because of the freedom and increased opportunities available to boys. She doesn’t get along well with her mother either, which I also relate to.

The perfect conclusion to a classic Bildungsroman series

Betsy has just returned home from her interrupted Grand Tour, which her dad sent her on to get inspiration for her writing. (If only everyone had that kind of class privilege!) Before she left London (due to the outbreak of WWI), she and her ex Joe arranged to meet in New York Harbor on 7 September and make another go of their relationship.

Betsy and Joe were practically engaged as university students, but broke up when she sort-of cheated on him. During Betsy’s entire Grand Tour, she frequently found herself thinking about Joe, and when they meet again, they immediately decide to marry.

Since most of their relationship happened between books, though, and Joe was always more of a secondary character, the lightning speed of their reconciliation and their intense feelings don’t feel entirely believable. I wish Mrs. Lovelace had written a few books about the years between Betsy and Joe and Betsy and the Great World. The infodumpy backstory in Chapter 2 of Great World and Betsy’s appearances in spinoff books don’t have the same impact.

Betsy and the Great World/Betsy's Wedding: Lovelace, Maud Hart: 9780061795138: Books: Amazon.com

Betsy and Joe have a grand time in NYC, though Betsy keeps pressing Joe for a formal proposal. She sensibly doesn’t want Joe to waste money on an engagement ring, but he buys her a wedding ring at Tiffany’s. Soon after their reunion, Betsy journeys home to Minnesota.

Since the Rays are joined at the hip, Betsy’s parents are convinced she’ll stay at home for many years. When she breaks the news about her engagement, they’re stunned. Particularly because she and Joe want to be married in a week, and Joe lives in Boston.

But Betsy reassures them she’ll still be nearby, since Joe quit his job in Boston. Without having a new job in Minneapolis lined up! And he didn’t even ask Mr. Ray for permission. (An unthinkable horror!)

Betsy's Wedding (Betsy-Tacy): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: 9780064405447: Books: Amazon.com

Since there are no truly black clouds in Betsy’s idyllic life, her parents’ objections are quickly overcome, and Joe finds a newspaper job after going to several offices (racking up a huge cab fare in the process). Tacy and her husband Harry (whom I will never see as anything but a creepy groomer) loan them a cottage by the lake for their honeymoon, and there’s a lovely wedding at the Rays’ house.

After an idyllic honeymoon, Betsy’s little sister Margaret finds them a great apartment. The landlady is the mother of her BFF Louisa, whom Margaret calls Boogie. Louisa in turn calls her Bogie, and Mrs. Ray and Betsy can’t believe these high school girls aren’t boy-crazy yet.

Betsy is determined to be the perfect housewife, though she’s never been domestically inclined. She puts her mind to learning how to cook, clean, bake, budget, and iron, having many funny failures along the way. Betsy even refuses a job offer from Joe’s boss, saying her only job is being Joe’s little wifey. (A complete departure from her well-established character!)

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the character Anna Quindlen thinks is such an incredible, unsung feminist! A few books earlier, Betsy and Tib lamented how Tacy would be an old maid because she wasn’t interested in dating at the ripe old age of seventeen.

Betsy and Tacy’s schemes to marry off Tib backfire, and Betsy eventually realizes how wrong it was to try to choose a husband for another woman. You can’t force a relationship on anyone, and it’s better to marry for love. I was very happy when Tib found her perfect match all by herself.

A monkey wrench is thrown into Betsy and Joe’s lives when Joe’s aunt Ruth comes to live with them. They’re forced to buy a house and give up their lovely apartment. More challenges come when Joe starts working the night shift

But through all these ups and downs, Betsy emerges as a mature adult in her own right, and still finds time for her old friends. These things become very useful when the U.S. joins WWI and Joe enlists in the Army.

Betsy's Wedding - Lovelace, Maud Hart/ Neville, Vera (ILT) - 9780606141635 | HPB

Classic novels do not need modern retellings!

Maybe I feel this way because I’m over 40 and not down with what makes the younger generation tick, but I just don’t get the appeal of the retellings craze of the last decade or so. Fairytales, folktales, and myths adapt themselves well to a wide variety of settings, since the stories are so universal and frequently found across multiple diverse cultures. Shakespeare’s plays have also been well-adapted to different eras and settings; e.g., Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (King Lear) and Throne of Blood (MacBeth), the original West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew).

But now we have a whole industry of writers point-blank retelling and “rebooting” not just fairytales, folktales, and plays, but novels written by other people. I roll my eyes so hard when a 35-year-old woman who’s going on 16 squees, “ZOMG, give me all the Pride and Prejudice retellings!” or “A modern-day Anne of Green Gables in Philadelphia? YES YES YES!” I hate to stereotype my own sex, but I only see women fawning over and writing these books.

Here’s a groundbreaking idea: If you like the general concept of a book, just make your own original story with a similar premise. Don’t steal someone else’s hard work and just change a few details. E.g., you can easily craft a good story about four sisters coming of age in any era and city, and give them whatever ethnic or religious background you’d like. You don’t need to name them Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy and do a close play-by-play of the events in Little Women! I guarantee people will love your book if you write that story well instead of lazily copying Louisa May Alcott’s classic story.

I absolutely hated Anne with an E, because it forces 21st century views onto late 19th century characters. So many of these old novels simply don’t work with modern settings because the characters and storylines are the product of the era they were created in. Values, expectations, duties, education, politics, religion, beliefs, etc., were entirely different. E.g., I hate when an old film or book ends with a happy couple being forced to break up and marry other people for the sake of duty, but most people in the past accepted that as something they just had to do and couldn’t fight against, no matter how heartbreaking it was.

One of the recent graphic novel adaptations of Little Women features a freaking pronoun circle in Jo’s eighth grade journalism club. The one time I was at an event where this creepy woke ritual was forced on us, I felt so dirty and trapped for going along with it. I felt like snapping, “Do I look like a man or someone of indeterminate sex to you?” Louisa May Alcott would whirl in her grave if she knew someone did that to her characters!

So many of these retellings shoehorn in wokeness, like they think they’re “correcting” “problematic” aspects of the original. Like it or not, most books written 100+ years ago aren’t populated by Rainbow Tribes. People lived what they knew, which meant not associating with different socioeconomic classes, religions, or ethnicities, unless they were servants. Gays and lesbians were deep in the closet. Even white people tended to live in their own ethnic enclaves; e.g., Irish, German, Norwegian, Italian, Greek, Polish, Scottish. It wasn’t until the rise of postwar suburbia that all these boxes and walls started to fade away.

Guess what, if you write a story about four sisters named Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy in a multiracial stepfamily in Queens in 2005 with the dad serving in Iraq, make Jo a lesbian, and have the sisters look at porn on the Internet, that’s NOT Little Women. That’s a story of your own creation with the flimsiest of relations. And did I mention this woke graphic novel has a Jewish landlord depicted in a very antisemitic way?

All about contrapasso, Part I (Inferno)

As I’ve mentioned many times, there were many important details, nuances, and themes about The Divine Comedy which completely sailed over my head the first time around at age 24 because of the speed at which I read, the trying task of mentally translating the anachronistic, annoying Elizabethan English into modern English, and the fact that my cognitive development wasn’t quite complete. One of those things I didn’t notice at all was contrapasso.

Contrapasso, which means “suffer the opposite” in Latin (formed from the roots contra and patior), is a punishment contrasting with or reminding souls in Hell and Purgatory of their sins. As great of an imagination as he had, Dante didn’t create all these tortures and penances willy-nily. They all directly relate to the sins committed. Everything else is just literary enhancement.

The very first contrapasso is in Ante-Inferno, outside the gates of Hell. Here are punished the souls of people who took no sides in life, either for good or evil. They just passively drifted whichever way the wind took them, only caring about their own self-interests. Thus, they’re condemned to forever run after a banner to nowhere, and they’re continually stung by horseflies and wasps.

Hell proper begins in the Second Circle, for the lustful. These souls are constantly blown about by a whirlwind, symbolic of how they let themselves be carried away by their passions. Of everyone in Hell, their punishment is by far the lightest.

Gluttons are in the Third Circle, stuck in freezing muck and mire kept fresh by endless icy, foul rain, hail, and snow. They wallow in this disgusting slop which is indirectly compared to feces. In life, they couldn’t gorge themselves enough on food and drink. Now they have to feast on the exact opposite of fine cuisine for eternity.

The Fourth Circle is for misers, hoarders, spendthrifts, and the greedy. They have huge weights strapped to their chests and constantly crash into one another. Though wasting and hoarding are opposites, they’re punished together because these sins are mirrors of one another. Hence the regular collisions from which these souls never learn.

In the Fifth Circle are the wrathful. Actively wrathful souls fight in the slimy River Styx, while passively wrathful souls are beneath the water. Some scholars translate the word “slothful” (accidiosi in Italian) as “sullen,” and thus believe the unifying category of the Fifth Circle is tristitia (grief, sorrow), since its effects can include envy, pride, wrath, and sloth.

The Sixth Circle punishes heretics in flaming tombs, which some scholars believe was based on the Latin Vulgate translation of a line in Psalm 49, “Their sepulchres shall be their houses forever.” In the original Hebrew, however, it’s clear that this isn’t talking specifically about religious heresy, but people who boast of their wealth, glory, and houses lasting forever and think they’ll never see the grave.

The first ring of the Seventh Circle punishes violence against others. Because anger and greed were traditionally seen as the primary motives for violence, here we find metaphors for cooking and horses in the form of fire, heat, and spurs. Punishments in the first ring are a boiling river of blood and centaurs shooting arrows.

The second ring punishes violence against oneself (i.e., suicide). This is the only place in Hell with vegetation, a forest haunted by Harpies (half-human, half-bird creatures) who eat the leaves of oak trees in which suicides are entombed. These souls can only speak and mourn when their trees are damaged or broken. Because they destroyed the unity of body and soul, the soul’s complex powers are reduced and dispersed in this very painful, distorted way.

The third ring punishes violence against God, Nature, and art with flaming rain upon a burning, sterile plain. This parallels the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Blasphemers, usurers, and gay men are found here. (I’m obligated to point out that the traditional Jewish view is that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of lack of hospitality, not sexual behaviour.)

Malebolge (Evil Ditches), the Eighth Circle, contains ten circular trenches for various types of fraud. It’s compared to an inverted, perverted castle; the cliff surrounding it is a castle keep (a fortified tower of refuge within a castle); and the central pit is the world outside. Its ambiguous futility is emphasized by the pit gathering in and truncating the ridges.

The first bolgia punishes seducers, pimps, and panderers with whipping, perhaps a reminder of how their associates urged them on to keep sinning. In the second bolgia are flatterers immersed in feces, a substitution of lower for upper products of the body.

Simony (selling Church positions and indulgences) is punished in the third bolgia by head-down burial. Many of these people were clergy, even popes. They inverted Church values in life, and now invert baptismal iconography in death.

Sorcerers and fortunetellers are in the fourth bolgia. Because their faces are twisted around, they’re forced to walk backwards. They tried to see into the future without a Divine gift of prophecy, and now can only see in reverse.

Barrators (i.e., corrupt politicians) are in the fifth bolgia, thrown into a river of boiling pitch by devils. If the sinners emerge, they’re poked with pitchforks. The devils taunt them by saying if they must grab something, grab the pitch, which refers to the secret grabbing they did in life. There’s also a parallel between the ship of state and the pitch used to seal Noach’s Ark (seen as a symbol of the Church), which signified the bond of love holding it together.

Hypocrites are in the sixth bolgia, wearing heavy leaden robes. Though the word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek hypokrites, which officially means “to judge” and was used in the context of theatre to mean “interpreter, actor, one who gives an answer, simulator,” Dante followed a notoriously fanciful 13th century etymology book by Uguccione of Pisa, Magnae Derivationes. This book claimed the word either derived from roots hyper (above) and chrysos (gold) (i.e., “gilt over”) or hypo (below) and chrysos (having something else beneath gold).

Thieves are in the seventh bolgia, tormented by snakes. Besides having obvious symbolism with the Bible, Satan is also seen as the archetypal thief. Counsellors of fraud are in the eighth bolgia, hidden in flames representing the fire of intellect, the malice that motivated their counsels, and the power of their rhetoric.

Sowers of discord (i.e., schismatics) are in the ninth bolgia, their bodies gruesomely mutilated to symbolize how they rent the Church asunder. Unfortunately, due to a widespread Medieval misunderstanding of history, Prophet Mohammad was believed to have originally been a Nestorian Christian and is therefore depicted here.

Alchemists are in the tenth bolgia, tormented by scaly, itchy, foul-smelling scabs they keep pulling off of themselves. In the Middle Ages, base metals were seen as diseases of gold, and lead as the leprosy of gold. Also in this bolgia are falsifiers, impersonators, and counterfeiters, who suffer from rabies and a form of dropsy which causes intense thirst.

The Ninth Circle is for betrayers. Ring One, Caïna, punishes betrayers of kin; Ring Two, Antenora, punishes treason; Ring Three, Ptolomaea, punishes betrayers of guests; and Ring Four, Giudecca, punishes betrayers of masters and benefactors. Giudecca, named for Judas, is eerily silent, as all the souls are trapped in ice. The ice represents the coldness of grief, and the sinners’ downturned faces symbolize shame

The history of English translations of The Divine Comedy

Though Dante’s magnum opus made him a celebrity in his own lifetime, and lectures and classes were widespread almost immediately after its completion, it took quite some time for the poem to be translated into English. In fact, it wasn’t until 1782 that the first known partial translation was published. Meanwhile, full translations in Latin, French, Spanish, and a few other European languages had existed for years.

Dante’s obscurity in the Anglophone world continued into the late 18th century. He was also barely known in Germany, and there was a general dearth of translations beyond the original standards.

And why might that be?

Though much of Dante’s poem can be read in a universalist way, with lessons people of all faiths or of no faith can relate to in their own way, there’s no getting around the fact that he was a devout Catholic, and thus heavily featured Catholic theology, particularly in Paradiso. The countries where his poem languished in obscurity were primarily Protestant.

Thus, Dante was seen as distasteful, heretical, and uninteresting. His frequent incorporation of Classical Antiquity didn’t help his reputation either.

In 1782, British art collector Charles Rogers anonymously published a blank verse translation of Inferno. A full translation in rhymed six-line stanzas was done by Irish cleric Henry Boyd between 1785–1802, with essays, notes, and illustrations.

Probably the best-known early translation, which is still in print, was done by Rev. Henry Francis Cary from 1805–14. Rev. Cary was a British writer who studied French and Italian literature at Oxford. Because his version of Inferno had been a failure, he had to publish the entire poem at his own expense.

Irish poet Thomas More alerted poet Samuel Rogers to the translation, and Mr. Rogers made some additions to an Edinburgh Review article written by Italian writer Ugo Foscolo, who was then living in London. Samuel Taylor Coleridge also praised the translation in a Royal Institution lecture.

From that point on, Rev. Cary’s work shot to popularity and went through four editions in his lifetime.

Seventeen more translations followed, both full and partial, including the first by a woman, Claudia Hamilton Ramsay. The only U.S. translation, by poet and dentist Thomas William Parsons starting in 1843, consisted of Inferno, two-thirds of Purgatorio, and fragments of Paradiso.

Then came the 1867 version by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the first full U.S. translation, which is still considered by many to be one of the very best. Longfellow, the most popular poet of his era, was a hyperpolyglot who taught modern languages including Italian at Harvard.

To make his translation as perfect as possible, Longfellow hosted a Dante Club at his house every Wednesday starting in 1864. Among the regular guests was Charles Eliot Norton, who later did his own translation. This club later became the Dante Society of America.

Longfellow also made pilgrimage Dante’s tomb in Ravenna during the 1865 celebration of his 600th birthday.

Twenty more translations followed during the remainder of the 19th century. This revived interest in Dante in the Anglophone world included a great many artworks, primarily by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Whereas statues and paintings had traditionally depicted him with a stern, hatchet face and aquiline nose, these new artistic treatments gave him a warm, even romantic look.

Scores of translations were published during the 20th century, with at least five in every decade. The only exception was during WWII, when production of everything not war-related entirely ceased or crawled along at a snail’s pace. In 1948, the translation industry sprang back to life.

In 1966, Gilbert Cunningham published a two-volume critical biography of all known English translations up to that time. He singled out Joseph Hume’s 1812 blank verse Inferno and Patrick Bannerman’s 1850 complete translation in irregular rhyme as the absolute worst.

The bulk of all these translations have been done by poets, English professors, literary critics, clergy, and people who studied languages. The devoted Dante scholars and Medievalists have been few and far between. Barely any of them had any Italian heritage or expertise in Italian studies either.

Thus, most translations were done in terza rima, irregular rhymes, Spenserian stanzas, quatrains, rhymed six-line stanzas, and several other poetic styles. And until at least the 1930s, many of these editions also featured dated poetic contractions (e’er, o’er, e’en, lov’d, ne’er, to’ards), poetic diction putting words in a nonintuitive order, and Elizabethan English trying to make Dante sound like Shakespeare.

Today the consensus among Dante scholars has completely shifted, and terza rima is seen as too complex to accurately reproduce in English without taking significant linguistic liberties. Translations of all premodern works are also now done in modern standard English instead of forcing an old form of English on languages that never had equivalent grammar and pronouns.

Shakespeare might be a bit difficult to read because he used a different form of our language, but I don’t mind those challenges, since that’s how he actually wrote. Dante wrote in the vernacular, the language of the common people. Rendering his work with words like wouldst, thou, havest, doth, wert, wast, shalt, e’er, o’er, saith, and thy not only misrepresents him, it’s also very distracting and annoying to the average modern reader.

Another thing to keep in mind with old translations is the handling of coarse language. Many times they indicate vulgar words or sentences with long dashes, or leave it out entirely. Others dance around it with euphemisms like “make wind,” “rump,” and “filthy.” That kind of misses the point, since Dante deliberately uses worse and worse language the lower we get in Hell. And who expects Hell to be a place of beautiful poetry?

The only antique translations still in print I’m aware of are Longfellow and Rev. Cary. Not even the average used bookstore is likely to have the others, though a good antiquarian bookseller might have a few in stock. Many 20th century translations are also now out of print.

The most popular and easy to find currently seem to be Mark Musa, John Ciardi, Dorothy Sayers, Allen Mandelbaum, Robert and Jean Hollander, Robin Kirkpatrick, Robert Durling, C.H. Sisson, and Anthony Esolen. There are also popular standalones like Robert Pinsky’s Inferno and W.S. Merwin’s Purgatorio.

Today there are more translations than you can shake a stick at, and the volume grows each year. Perhaps someday we’ll find the elusive unicorn, a terza rima translation that manages to be both linguistically accurate and true to the poetic original without taking any liberties.

And always keep in mind that not all translations are created equal. You don’t want to just grab the first or cheapest one you see. Take some time comparing and contrasting, and make sure your edition has lots of good supplemental material. If you’re building a collection, you also don’t want to mindlessly buy every translation you find either. Quality over quantity.

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