Book Review

Solitudes by Luis de Góngora

leave this book where it belongs - 400 years ago!

I don’t know if this is a “me” thing, due to errant or misfiring algorithms, but I have recently seen the Penguin Classics edition of Las Soledades (The Solitudes) in lots of places, both online and offline. The conspicuous – and, to my memory, unique for Penguin – printed-on sticker style “new translation” label on the cover also led me to believe there was something new or fresh or zeitgeisty about the book, too.

I did buy a copy, tho, so I suppose the algorithms did their job, even if the book itself didn’t touch me or thrill me or in any other way affect me, like I’d hoped it would.

There’s a reason why most people – myself included – leave school with an idea that poetry is impenetrable, is boring, is categorically not for plebeians like us.

This ends up manifesting as, at best, an awed disinterest slash a Ben Lerner-esque hatred, but more commonly results in people who will not only never pick up a book of poetry ever again in their life, but don’t think of poetry at all.

I’m thinking of that meme from Mad Men: i.e. poetry pities those without poems, but those without poems don’t miss them or feel their absence, and are definitely happier for it!

Relatedly, I would be interested in seeing a correlation between poets and mental illness diagnoses in comparison with mental illness in the general public. Certainly all of the poets I read and don’t think are shit are full of people basically as [insert currently in-vogue adjective] as I am, y’know?

Buuuuuuut poetry hundreds of years ago – certainly lots of the poetry that has survived in manuscript form and translation etc – was all (mostly) written by the kinda dull poshboy cunts who never had anything interesting to say and certainly – with a tiny handful of rare exceptions much tinier than the “English canon” would have you believe* – didn’t have an interesting way of saying it.

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The Penguin Classics Solitudes is a dual language edition, containing Góngora’s early seventeenth century Spanish alongside a “new translation” from around fifteen years ago – Penguin Classics please update that cover! – and I read the original text with a growing terror that my Spanish comprehension had collapsed, as I basically understood next to nothing.

Jarring images and ideas sit next to each other with blunt disconnectedness; an implication of plot and development but no real, readable, one; many people but constant characterlessness; references to places and narratives that I didn’t recognise… but then I read the English translation, complete with its woefully half-arsed set of annotations that may as well have not been there, and I had the same experience.

Maybe this epic poem is important in the history of Spanish (and Spanish language) literature, just as maybe Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen is important in the history of English (and English language) literature, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth reading.

Solitudes is old, and it’s boring. It is not vibrant, it is crap elitist drivel that presumes an encyclopedic knowledge of Greek, Roman and Arab myth as well as a passing knowledge of (for Góngora) recent Spanish history and then-contemporary international politics.

It seems to be critical of colonialism and colonial violence, but Góngora was like working in the Spanish court so who knows if I’m just reading critique when there is, in fact, celebration?

The English translation also eshews the rhyme and rhythm of the original, which is about the only thing in Góngora’s writing that is fun (and that is the word I’ve chosen), so what you end up with is a text that offers no pleasures at all, and instead feels like a set text made to be annotated by distracted students who may end up believing that all poetry is this empty of joy, this fucking pleasureless, this obtuse and gatekeepy and this – let’s be blunt – fucking boring.

There’s a reason why most people don’t read Renaissance texts for fun: because most of them aren’t.

Maybe a better translation could liven this up, or at least keep the pacing and tone of Góngora’s Spanish, but I finished the pleasureless read of this book feeling like I’d gained very little, and lost a couple more hours of my empty little life.

If the world is also pushing Góngora at you, then trust your instinct and don’t be fooled: this is exactly the kind of dull as shit early modern garbage that it sounds like it is.

Best left on the shelf and, unless the stock gets pulped, expect to see brand new copies toting the “new translation” gathering dust in remainder bookstores for several decades yet…

No thank you!!!!


* I was chatting (ikr!!!!) last week with someone who had studied English Lit at an unnamed top British university and they told me that their syllabus only slightly touched the 20th century and every single one of the writers they studied was – get ready to vomit – literally English. Since then, I’ve been trying to work out what possible texts they could have looked at that wouldn’t have been desperately dull, especially if you don’t count Irish people as English, which maybe they did???? In the bluntest way possible, most old texts are boring as well as small and/or massive-c conservative, so tho it makes sense that said unnamed top British university, a factory for Tories, should keep them reading badly and blandly, it’s sad that this remains the case.

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