I write in my notebook with the intention of stimulating good conversation, hoping that it will also be of use to some fellow traveler. But perhaps my notes are mere drunken chatter, the incoherent babbling of a dreamer. If so, read them as such.
—Basho, translated by Sam Hamill, “The Knapsack Notebook” in Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings
AMBIGUOUS, adj. There’s very little unclear or inexact about this word’s journey—a late borrowing from Latin ambiguus, it didn’t follow the fun philological path of Classical Latin into Vulgar Latin into Old French, etc., so there aren’t any cool sound changes or shifts in meaning to discuss. “Ambiguous” has always meant “open to more than one interpretation.” How’s that for irony?
However, we can trace the roots back farther than Latin, which is always a good time. The adjective ambiguus is derived from the verb ambigō (infinitive ambigere), which means “to wander, to go around” and also “to doubt, to hesitate,” and this newsletter has a lot of both of those things. Ambi- is a prefix that means “about” (related to ambō, both) and the verb agō (infinitive agere) means a whole lot of things, notably “act” (like French agir) and “drive, move.” And how lucky are we, both ambi- and agere are linked to Proto-Indo-European roots!
Proto-Indo-European is the hypothetical language that eventually gave rise to Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, among others, making it the common ancestor of every language in the Indo-European family. That’s several hundred languages, including some of the most spoken ones in the world, like English, Spanish, Hindi-Urdu, and Russian. Proto-Indo-European was spoken between 4500 BCE and 2500 BCE, on the Pontic-Caspian steppe.
We don’t have any written records of this language, but linguists have hypothesized its existence by comparing words in Indo-European languages, like how English “mother” is related to German Mutter and Latin māter and Sanskrit मातृ (matr), which is the coolest thing.
Ambi- is connected to *ambhi (PIE for “around”) and agō is connected to *ag (PIE for “to drive, to move”). With no written records, reconstructing Proto-Indo-European is speculative territory. The Online Etymology Dictionary and Wiktionary even use different spellings for the roots, which are always marked with * to indicate that they’re reconstructions, not attested words. Wiktionary writes these two as *h₂m̥bʰi and *h₂éǵeti, respectively. Some ambiguity at last.
SIX HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND WORDS, GIVE OR TAKE
In Capital-R Romance, I continue to read Les Mis. I finished Volume III this week—I’m now 55% of the way through the book, only SIXTEEN HOURS remaining—but the only thing I want to talk about happened in III, 4, i. The translation is my own.
Il y a des hommes qui semblent nés pour être le verso, l’envers, le revers. Ils sont Pollux, Patrocle, Nisus, Eudamidas, Éphestion, Pechméja. Ils ne vivent qu’à la condition d’être adossés à un autre ; leur nom est une suite, et ne s’écrit que précédé de la conjonction et ; leur existence ne leur est pas propre ; elle est l’autre côté d’une destinée qui n’est pas la leur. Grantaire était un de ces hommes. Il était l’envers d’Enjolras.
There are men who seem born to be the verso, the other side, the reverse. They are Pollux, Patroclus, Nisus, Eudamidas, Hephaestion, Pechméja. They live only by being back to back with another; their name is a continuation, and is only written after the conjunction and; their existence does not belong to them; they are the other side of a destiny that is not their own. Grantaire was one of these men. He was the other side of Enjolras.
POINT THE FIRST. Grantaire is a gloomy drunk skeptic who hates everything in the world except Enjolras, an “angelically beautiful” twink virgin who only cares about Revolution, and I think they’re perfect for each other. Grantaire is insufferable, Enjolras is a different kind of insufferable, I want them to be insufferable together. Yes, okay, the internet primed me to seek out Enjolras/Grantaire #content, but there was no seeking. What happened instead was that Victor Hugo shoved Grantaire’s all-consuming crush into my face.
POINT THE SECOND. What’s up with that list of names, and more specifically, who the fuck is Pechméja?
Pollux, of “Castor and” (twin half-brothers from Greek mythology)
Patroclus, of “Achilles and” (friends/lovers/soldiers from Homer’s Iliad)
Nisus, of “Nisus and Euryalus” (argh this one breaks the pattern! Anyway they’re friends/lovers/soldiers in Virgil’s Aeneid)
Hephaestion, of “Alexander the Great and” (friends/lovers/soldiers from history)
Other than a somewhat brief Wiki page in French, my top search results for Pechméja were people discussing this passage in Les Mis. The takeaway seems to be that he was an 18th-century French writer who was real, real close to his male friend Dubreuil, a doctor. They were childhood friends who reunited later in life, then Dubreuil cared for Pechméja during an illness. So we’ve got a list of figures, some modern, some ancient, some real, some mythological, and some who are brothers and some who are capital-F Friends. The connecting thread is male intimacy.
In the first class I ever took in graduate school, one of my professors told us that the defining quality of literature—the thing that distinguishes it from, say, a newspaper article—is deliberate ambiguity. (“Hey, that’s the word of the week!”) I think about that assertion all the time. It certainly feels true. Purposeful ambiguity draws you into the text, making you invest in your own questions and interpretations.
My least favorite type of ambiguity in contemporary media is creators teasingly posing the question “Might these two same-sex characters in a very, very close friendship be… gay?” Please. I’m so tired. Either write some genuine queer representation into your text—using one of the many, many terms for gender identity and sexuality we now have—or leave me alone.
That said, Victor Hugo was writing in nineteenth century France, so this mixed-message, weird-as-hell list is what we have to work with. Brothers, friends, lovers. Ambiguity for days.
I am not a classicist and have no ground to stand on, re: the age-old debate “Did Achilles and Patroclus Bang?” (and its equally ancient corollary, “Who Topped?”), but obviously I still have an opinion. Standard-issue former-academic disclaimer: modern notions of queerness and romance don’t always line up with other cultures and eras, blah blah. The official position of this newsletter is that Achilles and Patroclus were super in love, in a gay way. I do not care who topped.
A few sentences after the passage I quoted from Les Mis, Hugo mentions another pair of classical friends/lovers, Orestes and Pylades. I only know who Pylades is because “Orestes and Pylades” gets used as shorthand for gay male love in other works of French literature and I had to look him up in grad school.
So, Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pylades, Enjolras and Grantaire—this is Victor Hugo waving a lot of flags. Some of them are rainbow.
In small-r romance, I read two books this week, one of which wasn’t for me. Not a bad book, just a book I never clicked with. So here’s one book I read this week and one book I read earlier this year.
This week’s book? CAN’T ESCAPE LOVE (m/f, contemporary) is a novella by Alyssa Cole. I don’t seek out novellas, but the important part of the previous sentence is “Alyssa Cole.” Alyssa Cole is a fucking genius. I plan to work my way through her entire backlist and will read anything she writes in the future. She’s also living the dream: she writes contemporary, she writes historical—interrupting my own list to say holy fuck, she writes astounding historicals—she writes sci-fi, she writes m/f, she writes m/m, she writes f/f, and it’s always good.
Being a genius, Cole has cracked the secret code of writing a novella that feels substantial and satisfying. This one is about Reggie, twin sister of Portia from A Duke by Default, who runs a fan-culture social media empire and has a fleet of high-tech, high-fashion wheelchairs at her disposal. Her only problem is that she can’t sleep. So she contacts Gus Nguyen, autistic designer of escape rooms, who used to livestream himself solving puzzles and speaking in the world’s most soothing voice. As usual for Cole’s Reluctant Royals series, the prose in this just zips along and every joke she slips in fits the point-of-view character perfectly. There’s nothing duller than a laundry list of nerdy pop culture references as a substitute for real feeling, but Cole never lacks for the latter. This is a sweet and immediately engaging read. (But you should start with A Princess in Theory if you’re gonna read this series.)
This week’s newsletter requires an unambiguously queer romance rec, so I’m reaching backward by a few weeks in my reading to tell you that if you are enjoying HBO’s period drama Gentleman Jack and would like to see more historical lesbians falling in love and getting shit done, you will love PROPER ENGLISH (f/f, historical) by KJ Charles. One of the women in this novel is a competent, practical shooting-competition champion; the other is a bubbly, fashionable heiress. The story is set during a weekend party at an isolated country manor home, so you know somebody gets murdered. Don’t worry, though, they solve it and they fall in love.
That’s a joke but also not a joke. The pleasure of genre fiction’s established forms is in watching a skilled author like KJ Charles work within those constraints to produce something gripping, surprising, and moving, as this book is. Every book is a tightrope act, delivering the promised happy ending with just enough swaying and dipping in the middle to make us wonder how on Earth we’re gonna get there.
In books that are neither Romance nor romance, I also finished Basho’s travelogue/poetry collection Narrow Road to the Interior, translated by Sam Hamill, which I mentioned in last week’s newsletter but didn’t discuss. But it’s fantastic, so let’s discuss! Hamill’s introduction is a useful guide to Basho’s life as a wandering poet in Edo-period (specifically, late seventeenth-century) Japan and the poetic traditions he was immersed in. Especially relevant to this newsletter, Basho once had an extremely close male friend. Hamill quotes Basho saving future readers a lot of trouble by saying explicitly, “There was a time when I became fascinated with the ways of homosexual love.” (SEE HOW EASY IT IS TO BE CLEAR ABOUT THAT?)
I got excited about it on twitter:
So anyway, let’s look at the moon with him. Narrow Road to the Interior is written in beautifully clear, simple prose, interspersed with haiku by Basho or quoted poems from friends or Chinese and Japanese masters. It begins like this: “The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” Interior, in the title, describes both the Northern Interior province of Japan where Basho traveled, but also his spiritual state. His prose and poetry are imbued with melancholy and loneliness, but also light and quick, marveling at the natural world.
Best of all, if you are a huge language nerd and a former baby weeb, Hamill includes the transliterated Japanese for some of the haiku, so you can read them aloud (badly, but if I mispronounce Japanese and no one hears, etc, etc) to enjoy the sound and also make connections to the Japanese vocabulary you remember from obsessing over anime as a child. (Japanese, by the way, is part of the Japanese-Ryukyuan language family, a much, much smaller language family than Indo-European. Also, for any Japanese speakers who might be reading: sorry 4 everything, I hope you find this entertaining.)
Unloading its freight,
The camellia blossom bends,
Under a crescent moon
The fields grow hazy with
chi wa oboronari
soba no hana
Soba, like the noodles! And “hana,” that’s flower(s). Also very exciting, since the haiku form means the same phrases often recur in the 5-syllable or 7-syllable line, you can kind of see what Hamill is working with as a translator. Here are two poems with “tsukimi kana” as the final line.
Just a cloud or two—
To rest the weary eyes
Of the moon-viewer
hito wo yasumeru
I slept at a temple—
And now with such seriousness
I watch the moon
Tera ni nete
So in the first poem, Hamill translates the last line as “of the moon-viewer,” and in the second, it’s “I watch the moon.” Even without knowing Japanese, you can tell we’re dealing with a really different structure. Fun fact, I knew tsuki was “moon” because the main character of Sailor Moon has the surname Tsukino, literally “of the moon,” so I was able to guess that tsukimi was related, and apparently Tsukimi is a moon-viewing festival. Kana was more troublesome to track down, but it seems to express something like “I wonder,” which doesn’t really manifest in either translation, so perhaps I’m in need of adult supervision on this one.
Second and final Sailor Moon-related fact of this issue: Sailor Jupiter’s given name is “Makoto,” meaning sincerity or truth. I’m pretty sure it’s related to makotogao in the second poem, so I think that word is the one Hamill translates as “seriousness.”
Basho may treat the moon with seriousness, but his sense of humor shows up elsewhere, and he took the obstacles of his journey—including the possibility of death—in stride. In addition to the moon and the flowers, he wrote about the rain and the bug bites:
The road through the Nambu Plain visible in the distance, we stayed the night in Iwate, then trudged on past Cape Oguro and Mizu Island, both along the river. Beyond Narugo Hot Springs, we crossed Shitomae Barrier and entered Dewa Province. Almost no one comes this way, and the barrier guards were suspicious, slow, and thorough. Delayed, we climbed a steep mountain in falling dark, and took refuge in a guardshack. A heavy storm pounded the shack with wind and rain for three miserable days.
Eaten alive by
lice and fleas—now the horse
beside my pillow pees
I love how easily Basho touches on both wonder and suffering. He’s old and chronically ill, but he chooses to wander. The journey itself is home. Death is present in the travelogue, not as a specter, but simply as something that will happen to him, and might happen imminently.
Traditionally, haiku masters would produce a jisei, a death poem. When Basho’s apprentice asked him about a particular poem that he had written while ill, Basho said, “It was written in my sickness, but it is not my jisei. Still, it can’t be said that it’s not my death poem either.” There you have it: ambiguity, the hallmark of literature.
Irises blooming in the Victor Hugo Memorial Garden AKA my yard
Beside blooming irises—
Joys of life on the road
gkataru mo tabi no