Monday, January 14, 2019

Novel as a Journal

Any Human Heart 


Any Human Heart




“Those were the years when I was truly happy. Knowing that is both a blessing and a curse. It's good to acknowledge that you found true happiness in your life - in that sense your life has not been wasted. But to admit that you will never be happy like that again is hard.”   ― William Boyd, Any Human Heart






William Boyd' s novel is presented in the form of journal entries; thus the subtitle, "The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart". The "journals" which the author has created, complete with footnotes and an index of all the people whom Logan meets (including Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, and countless others), brilliantly evoke a past era - or rather eras; for the journals span Logan Mountstuart's life from 1923, when he was a precocious schoolboy, through his early success as a biographer and novelist, his marriages, a war spent in Military Intelligence under Ian Fleming, life as an art dealer in New York, and poverty in London in his old age, until his death in France on October 5, 1991. The breadth of the story reminded me of Boyd's earlier novel, The New Confessions, which took the form of the autobiography of John James Todd, chronicling his uncanny and exhilarating life as one of the most unappreciated geniuses of the twentieth century

Much of the technical brilliance of this book results from the shifts in Logan's style as he, and the times through which he lives, ever so subtly evolve. Because of this it is sometimes difficult to appreciate Boyd's art as one ought, for one finds oneself almost reading the journals as genuine. The most dazzling vignettes, perhaps, are those of the self-regarding diaries of the young writers and aesthetes of the Twenties and Thirties, where Cyril Connolly (who appears as a character) is a likely influence. But if the early sections are the closest to parody, they are never mere caricature.

Boyd manages a rather touching, as well as extremely funny, portrait of a pretentious, arrogant, clever 17-year-old ("wrote a Spenserian ode on loss of faith"), who writes with flourishes of self-conscious pomposity ("we regained the purlieus of school without further incident"), is striving for superiority ("the Xmas tree is surely the saddest and most vulgar object invented by mankind"), yet does not know how to go about kissing his cousin Lucy, or deal with the discovery that his father does not have long to live.

Almost every section of the journals is nearly as good: Logan's moment with his baby son: "Lionel has croup. He seems a sickly baby. I sat him on my knee the other day and he stared at me with a baleful, sullen, and unknowing eye." is reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh. But the novel is not a simple criticism of many diarists of the period. Logan is capable of real and generous feeling, as well as of self-regarding depression; though to reveal the circumstances in which he finds (and loses) his truest love, as he moves from early critical acclaim to poverty and obscurity, would spoil an immensely readable story.

One remembers that this is a novel, indeed, by the way it holds your interest - which is quite a feat, because Boyd has also skillfully mimicked the "artless" and random qualities of the typical diary. As Logan remarks in his opening preamble, one should not expect coherence from journals: they merely "entrap that collection of selves that forms us"; unshaped by retrospection, their reality is "riotous and disorganized." Boyd's novel deliberately appears sprawling and inclusive; but it reads like a distillation of a real journal. He displays an unobtrusive artistry that transforms the potentially confusing "disorganized" diary-form into a novel which demonstrates the confusions and randomness of human life.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Two Women, Centuries Apart

The Weight of Ink 


The Weight of Ink




“Nowhere in the known world, it seemed to her, could she live as she'd been created: at once a creature of body and of mind. It was a precept so universal as to seem a law of nature: one aspect of a woman's existence must dominate the other. And a woman like Ester must choose, always, between desires: between fealty to her own self, or to the lives she might bring forth and nurture.”   ― Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink




Two stories, centuries apart, are told in this engaging historical romance. The stories are linked by documents created in the seventeenth century, hidden away in a British country house, and ultimately discovered in the twenty-first century. In many ways a book about books, The Weight of Ink surprises with delights that are gradually revealed.

Part of the story's charm is in the variety of its milieus and sensibilities. Following two female protagonists of both centuries—Ester Velasquez and Helen Watt, respectively—we also witness the goings-on of a venerable and drafty house of a rabbi in 1660s London, and glimpse the modern life of a young American academic, Aaron Levy, with heartrending troubles of his own. Perhaps most pivotally, we see an English girl’s time volunteering abroad on a kibbutz in Israel in the years after the war of independence. In spite of a gulf of over 300 years, these characters depend on each other each for their own reasons, any of which can provide parallels in the present day.

The images of these different times and places, brought to life at once through painstaking detail and accessible prose, are startlingly clear, even cinematic. Supporting roles, too, are far from dull. Much more than mere foils, even minor characters are fascinating in their own right. The Rabbi and others around Ester are fascinating -- Rivka, a servant and survivor of Polish pogroms, is not simply loyal, but also intrigues with a timeless intellect and will. The men in Ester Velasquez’s and Helen Watts’ lives wholly determine the courses of their universes. Indeed, perhaps too much for comfort, but believable nevertheless.

The book includes explorations into philosophy as Ester corresponds with Spinoza and others. Ester focuses on the pursuit of philosophy, including its relationship with both her mind and heart as can be seen in this passage:

“How wrong she'd been, to believe a mind could reign over anything. For it did not reign even over itself...and despite all the arguments of all the philosophers, Ester now saw that thought proved nothing. Had Descartes, near his own death, come at last to see his folly? The mind was only an apparatus within the mechanism of the body - and it took little more than a fever to jostle a cog, so that the gear of thought could no longer turn. Philosophy could be severed from life. Blood overmastered ink. And every thin breath she drew told her which ruled her.” 

There are also interesting historical details of the Spanish Inquisition that led the Jewish toward flight into Holland; this suggested to this reader a certain irony when those same Jews ostracized Spinoza for his heretical pantheistic views. The issue of what it is to be Jewish and to enter interfaith relationships in multiple time periods are integral to each of these stories. Is there merit to keeping within the tribe? Are there, regardless of time, place, or commitment, bridges that those who would willingly enter the Jewish community from the outside can never truly cross? Crucially, what does it mean to choose survival over martyrdom? These questions play out in the characters’ personal lives concurrently with Ester’s philosophical forays into the nature of God.

The author's prose is elegant and she takes her time to slowly build the two different narratives until the suspense in both centuries keeps the reader turning the pages. All of the stories yield mysteries and personal travails that made this a deeply moving novel.


Monday, January 07, 2019

Notes on a Former Moon

The Rings of Saturn 


The Rings of Saturn




“Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life.”   ― W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn




The novel as walking tour, but it is more than that being a voyage of the imagination into both the presence and history of one's own interior spaces. Inspired by writers from Thomas Brown to Conrad and Borges, Sebald narrates a journey outward through Eastern England and inward into his mind. The book brings Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker to my mind - part reminiscence, part meditation, as Rousseau seeks to come to terms with his isolation and find happiness in solitude and nature. Sebald also ventures into themes of nature and isolation, but even more important is the theme of desolation and the quest itself.

The book consists of ten chapters that seem to document a meandering journey, yet really provide a wide variety of thoughts, references, and experiences that all are connected with the major themes of desolation, interiority, and nature. The beginning reminded me of Dante as the author sets off on a journey into the countryside of Suffolk. He feels a joyous sense of freedom while he is traversing the countryside, even as he feels a disabling sense of horror when he encounters past events of destruction there with his own focus on "traces of destruction" so intense that he finds himself in hospital. There he looks out on the world from a small window and finds it difficult to judge reality from illusion; he thinks of himself as Gregor Samsa, the young man in Kafka’s story Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936).

Images of dust, sand, ashes, fog, and mist pervade The Rings of Saturn. The ashes contained in the burial urn are much like the particles of sand on a beach or the dust particles that ring Saturn; they are particles of matter that remain after some form of destruction or transformation of organic matter. One of the epigraphs to the novel recalls that the rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and meteorite particles that are fragments of a former moon that was destroyed. The narrator concludes that human civilization, from its earliest times, is little more than a strange luminescence whose waning and fading no one can predict.

His journey is not only physical but mental as he shares his thoughts about the author Thomas Browne whose work was inspirational for him. More connections of this kind are described and even though they seem unrelated, upon reflection there are connections between disparate authors and divergent moments from history. These moments range from the Renaissance to Bergen Belsen to the cause of the Irish Nationalist Roger Casement. The connections are curiously frequent as when the author Joseph Conrad meets Casement early in his career. References from the art of Durer and Rembrandt are cited to demonstrate the desolation that exists in a reality that we know through the artistic genius of men like these.

Using a beautiful prose style the novel presents the borders between illusion and reality, fact and fiction, and dreams and life as porous and permeable. The novel does not contain a specific plot that can be followed from beginning to end. Much like Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), The Rings of Saturn records the narrator’s thoughts in stream-of-consciousness-like fashion as he moves from one topic to another, with various images or events sending him into associative reveries. The result is mesmerizing.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

I Did Not Die

Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep 


Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep


This poem was reportedly inspired by the story of a young Jewish girl, Margaret Schwarzkopf, who had been staying with the Frye household and had been unable to visit her dying mother in Germany because of anti-Semitic unrest.







Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Two Poems for December


Two Poems





"In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Long ago."

- Christina Rossetti




"I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.

'We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,'
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December."

- Oliver Herford, "I Heard a Bird Sing"



The first poem above is the verse to one of my favorite carols of the season.  With the music of Gustave Holst  it captures a sense of nature and the season. 
The second poem provides words of endurance and encouragement that help us through the 'bleak' days of midwinter.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Looking Back at an Education

The Education of Henry Adams 


The Education of Henry Adams

"Except in the abandoned sphere of the dead languages, no one has discussed what part of education has, in his personal experience, turned out to be useful, and what not. This volume attempts to discuss it." (from the Preface - The Education of Henry Adams)


I have read several great confessional autobiographies over the years, Augustine and Rousseau come to mind, but my favorite is Henry Adams' narrative, The Education of Henry Adams. The Preface and four opening chapters provide a solid foundation for the entire book. They focus on his youth in Massachusetts and time spent in Washington, D. C. and at Harvard College through his twentieth year.

His attention points to the nature of his own education growing up in a family whose very name was synonymous with the Presidency of the United States. Born in 1838, both his Great Grandfather and Grandfather had been presidents, while his father looked forward to an Ambassadorship to England during the Civil War. Henry's education would be continued during that period as secretary to his father. But first he narrates the experience of growing up torn by family connections between the small town of Quincy and the metropolis of Boston.

The two towns provide just one of the contrasts that concern young Henry; contrasts that include town (Boston) versus country (Quincy), Winter versus Summer, and his own family ties between the Brooks of Boston on his mother's side and the Adams on his father's side. It was the interstices between these and other contrasting experiences that provided young Henry with the "seeds of moral education". Even this early in his life, as he reflects from the view of the twentieth century, he questioned what and who he was and where he was going with his life.

The community and culture that formed Henry's mind and being included family friends that would become historical figures for those of us born in the latter half of the succeeding century; figures that included, in addition to his family, Ellery Channing, Waldo Emerson, Richard Henry Dana, and above all for Henry, his hero, Charles Sumner. Henry worshiped the Senator and Orator and looked up to New England statesmen like him that expressed "the old Ciceronian idea of government by the best". People like Daniel Webster and Edward Everett who governed Massachusetts. Henry, however, was destined to move on to Washington with his father as the Adams family had for decades been a part of the national stage.

Henry did not like school and rather preferred the free play with his peers. In spite of his opinion of school it is clear that he was continuing his education at home and was soon to move back north to enter Harvard College in his sixteenth hear. His thoughts on his education at that time rang true to this reader as he described his travel to Washington, not as what happened but as what he remembered. And this was "what struck him most, to remain fresh in his mind all his life-time, . . the sudden change that came over the world on entering a slave State. He took education politically."  His time in Washington ended with a remark that "he had no education", a continuing contradiction that stemmed from his own reaction to the "official" education he was undergoing in schools that contrasted (once more see above) with the true education in which his experience was creating memories.

Harvard does not suit his taste either - the curriculum had no particular quality that could impress the man that Henry was becoming; a man who was not only a reader but a writer. He was impressed by Russell Lowell who "had brought back from Germany the only new and valuable part of its Universities, the habit of allowing students to read with him privately in his study. Adams asked the privilege, and used it to read a little, and to talk a great deal."  His friendship with Lowell led him to connections with the transcendentalists although he never became one. He also became friends with one Robert E. Lee at Harvard and enjoyed a coterie of Virginian friends despite their Southern ways.  At the end of his formal education he was able to conclude that "As yet he knew nothing."  A bit of harsh judgment for the Senior Class Orator, but great minds are sometimes hardest on themselves.

The remainder of the autobiography takes him on a journey through Darwin and Chicago and "The Dynamo and the Virgin" into the beginning of the twentieth century.  His story is always interesting and his prose is some of the best I have encountered. I may comment further on it as I continue to read and reread about his thoughts on a very particular education.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Reading Good Books

How to Read a Book: 
The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading 



How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading



“....a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable - books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.”   ― Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading





This book is a handbook for reading books, what the Greeks would call an Enchiridion. The handbook is divided into four parts that cover all aspects of reading from the dimensions of the subject to ultimate goals one may expiscate from reading books.

Part one begins with a discussion of reading as both an activity and an art. It is an activity in the sense that it is something that you do to, according to the authors, become an "active" reader. But it is also an art in the sense that the reader is as much an artist in his recognition of the beauty of the book as was the author who created it. I believe this applies to all works whether they are fiction or non-fiction.

The remainder of parts one and two provide detailed discussions of both the levels of reading with a concentration on analytical reading and determining a book's message. The authors provide a lot of detailed rules and "how to" suggestions, yielding an ideal structure for reading books. In creating this ideal approach to reading books I believe they leave sufficient room for each reader to develop their own personal methods appropriating the guidelines provided.

The book concludes with a discussion of different kinds or genres of reading matter followed by the introduction of the idea of syntopical reading or reading books with other relevant books in mind. This provides a way to focus on ideas presented in different ways and manners across different texts. Finally, the ultimate goal of serious reading is to improve your mind. This process is analogous to strength training for the muscles in your body. This reader was impressed with the text and the ideas presented and when applied along with a focus on the enjoyment of reading they provide a useful approach to reading great books.


Monday, November 26, 2018

Hockey Town

Beartown 

Beartown (Beartown, #1)



“One of the plainest truths about both towns and individuals is that they usually don't turn into what we tell them to be, but what they are told they are.”  
― Fredrik Backman, Beartown











Having not read any of Fredrik Backman's previous novels I did not know what to expect with this story. Set in a small Swedish town called Beartown, the story centers around the local juniors' hockey team and their preparation for their semifinal game. The hockey team is the pride of the town, which is otherwise suffering a decline. People are out of work and local businesses are shuttering. The plot involves a small group of people associated with the hockey team and the importance of it to the town. After the team wins the semifinal game there is a terrible event that affects everyone directly or indirectly leading to decisions that must be made by the individuals involved.

Backman focuses on the human experience and provides insights into the difficulties surrounding the individuals' abilities to deal with their feelings. The author captures some of these feelings when he comments:
"All adults have days when we feel completely drained. When we no longer know quite what we spend so much tie fighting for, when reality and everyday worries overwhelm us and we wonder how much longer we're going to be able to carry on."

The author uses the theme of community to demonstrate how an identity based on belonging to a group can have both positive and negative effects. Beartown is a small community that is centered around a successful hockey team. The people of Beartown are very devoted to both the team and the town, but this ultimately causes many to dismiss the importance and impact of the event that interrupts their regular activities.

How each of them carry on is demonstrated in their actions as the novel moves toward a denouement. The conclusion is not necessarily a happy one, but it is portrayed in a true and realistic way. The author did tend to emphasize the points he was trying to make a little too hard, but overall I found the book suspenseful and excellent.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Experience and Reflection

Open City 


Open City


"For Paracelsus, the light of nature functioned intuitively, but it was also sharpened by experience. . .  it informed us what the inner reality of a thing was by means of its form, so that the appearance of a man gave some valid reflection of the person he really was."  (p 237)

“To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.”   ― Teju Cole, Open City



Some books have opening lines that are immediately moving for the reader. This is one of those books. This uncommon novel begins with the narrator commenting on on his daily walks: "And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall. . . "
While this line may seem unassuming, and the whole book contains vignettes that, taken individually, may seem unassuming, the entirety of this memoir-like narrative is powerful indeed. What is it that makes the individual parts come together in such a fashion that they had such an impact on this reader?

There are two parts containing short chapters. In Part One the story follows the main character, Julius, who is a Nigerian doctor doing his psychiatric residency in New York City. Julius takes up walking as a way to diminish the pressures of his job working with his patients. Julius even uses the walks to clear his mind of personal matters, such as a recent breakup with his girlfriend, Nadege. Throughout the novel, the narration of the story does not include any dialogue among the characters, but is told in exposition - in short chapters. He is an observer of humanity and as he walks he shares his experiences in a somewhat random manner. What we learn from this is not just the experiences but his ruminations on history, literature, art, and eventually his own family. He starts to recognize what a true melting pot New York is as far as cultures and ethnicities are concerned. In the face of living in such a diverse city, however, Julius also notices that stark separation that still draws an imaginary line segregating one ethnic group from another.

As Julius walks, he also thinks back to his childhood in Nigeria. His father died when Julius was 14. He is now estranged from his mother. while his father was of Nigerian descent, Julius's mother is white and of German descent, making Julius a mixed race. Due to his mixed race, and light colored skin, Julius feels out of place, even in the worlds where he belongs. As he wanders around the city, black people seem to connect with him, recognizing his African roots.
One of his run-ins with someone he grew up with in Nigeria even reveals that Julius raped her. Subsequently, Julius blocked out the memory of this event and never reveals if he recalls it when his Moji tells him what he did to her.

Near the end of Part One of the novel Julius visits Brussels. He is only just visiting Brussels, but it has a similar impact on him as Manhattan. He is impressed by the feeling of history from the ancient buildings, since Brussels was an "Open City" in WWII and was thus exempt from bombing. But beyond the history and his own internal meditations he feels just as impermanent in Brussels as he had in New York. It was like he being awestruck by it for the first time despite being world-weary restless. He is a perpetual tourist, stopping in his steps to gawk, never in a hurry but always moving somewhere—if not forward or backward, still somewhere.

By the end of the novel, Julius finishes his residency and moves into private practice. It seems as if he has come to terms with some of the events in his life. On the other hand, he never fully addresses some of the other issues to reveal to the reader as to whether the issues are ongoing or resolved. The lack of resolution did not diminish the cumulative power of the stories shared by the narrator.

Open City is the debut novel by author Teju Cole. the story of narrator Julius’ wandering through New York, and, briefly, Brussels. It gains power and presence through his contemplation of immigration and nationality in the U.S., his fleetingly depicted but often strong friendships, the way we manufacture brotherhood as a way to both unite and distance ourselves from humanity.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Where is Home, and can we Return?

Ignorance 

Ignorance



"The same moviemaker of the subconscious who, by day, was sending her bits of the home landscape as images of happiness, by night would set up terrifying returns to that same land. The day was lit with the beauty of the land forsaken, the night by the horror of returning to it. The day would show her the paradise she had lost; the night, the hell she had fled."  - Milan Kundera, Ignorance





When Odysseus returned to Ithaka after twenty years of travel and travail he was welcomed home; but was his return to the place he remembered and to the wife that he remembered? With Ignorance Milan Kundera gives the reader a meditation on this theme and others. Ignorance raises the question of where home is anymore in the modern world, not only for émigrés but for anyone who moves around. The place of one’s birth no longer seems to qualify, as one grows away from it, moves to more attractive places, or becomes cosmopolitan in tastes. For people in and from formerly communist countries, sudden opportunities to travel and migrate, after decades of restricted opportunities, seem to have raised the question afresh.

Irena, the novel’s main character, who lives in Paris, has enjoyed the status of émigré for two decades: Parisians feel sorry for the poor Czech woman and after the fall of Czech communism in 1989, they begin to wonder why she is not hurrying back home to help out. Her Parisian friends seem to consider it her patriotic duty. Yet Irena has worked hard to become settled in Paris, where she buried her Czech husband and raised their two daughters, who for all practical matters are French. Now Irena has a job, an apartment, and a boyfriend in Paris, not a bad city in which to make one’s home. Only a visit from her mother, who still lives in Prague, persuades Irena to make a return visit to the city of her birth.

Josef, the novel’s other main character, likewise fled Czechoslovakia in 1969. He settled in Denmark, where he married a Danish woman, and they lived happily together until she died. Josef, still mourning her death and attached to their home in Denmark, where he keeps everything just as it was when she was alive, is also very slow to return to the land of his birth. Now he is returning for a visit only because he had promised his dying wife that he would.

On their way to Czechoslovakia, Irena and Josef meet by chance in the Paris airport. Irena remembers Josef from another chance encounter many years before in Prague, before she married. There had been some chemistry between the two, but after their meeting they had never seen each other again: “Their love story stopped before it could start.” Now Irena introduces herself again, and they agree to get together in Prague. Actually, Josef cannot remember her, but now he sees no reason to turn down an opportunity for friendship with a warm, good-looking woman.

Before they rendezvous in Prague, they both have certain rounds to make and this is where Kundera begins to raise doubts about the idea of the Great Return. Both Irena and Josef are struck by the strangeness of the spoken Czech language, which seems to have developed an ugly nasal drawl since their departure. They also both notice the hometown diminution effect: Landscapes and city scenes that once seemed impressive have shrunk into insignificance, if they have not disappeared altogether. Worst of all, the whole country has been inundated by tasteless popular culture and crass commercialism; for example, the music on the radio is described as “noise” and “sewage-water music,” and the tubercular face of writer Franz Kafka adorns a T-shirt for tourists.

Both Irena and Josef get a glimpse of what they might have become if they had stayed in Czechoslovakia. When the weather turns hot, Irena buys a dowdy Czech dress that makes her look “naïve, provincial, inelegant” and “pitiable, poor, weak, downtrodden.” In his high school diary that his brother had saved for him, Josef is able to contemplate the “little snot” he used to be, back in the days of his virginity, when he obsessed about girls but could express his feelings only by torturing his girlfriends emotionally. Both Irena and Josef also get an eyeful of their potential selves in the friends and relatives that they meet, who form a kind of gauntlet for the two visitors but who otherwise have not missed them for twenty years.

Irena tries to socialize with some Prague friends, but after an awkward moment, her friends declare their “plain-and-simple” preference for beer rather than the wine she offers them. Then, beer in hand, they stand around chatting to each other about local matters, pretty much ignoring Irena. They are totally uninterested in what she has been doing during the twenty years she was away. Irena realizes that they have “amputated twenty years from her life” and no longer have much in common with her. She already misses her Parisian friend Sylvie.

In the provincial hometown that he visits, Josef has to run an even worse gauntlet formed by his sister-in-law, his Czech former wife (to whom he was married for only a few months), and his stepdaughter. Josef’s brother is happy enough to see him again, though the brother is somewhat embarrassed because he has taken over the family home and Josef’s old belongings. Although she also enjoys his goods, Josef’s sister-in-law has not forgiven him for running off and causing them to suffer under the Communist regime. Worse, she calls up his former wife and tells her he is in town. Then his stepdaughter calls him to say she has to see him right away to discuss certain important matters that she cannot talk about on the phone, but when he calls back to break their appointment, the stepdaughter says her mother warned her about what “a filthy little egotist” he is.

By the time Irena and Josef meet in Prague, they are ready for some relief and consolation. They share each other’s stories over lunch and wine, then head up to his hotel room. Before long, they are making love, but it does not end well and he leaves to catch his plane back to Denmark.

Thus, the ending of the novel is immensely sad. For both Irena and Josef, the Great Return to their homeland fizzles out and so does their brief romance. Even though Josef realizes that Irena is in love with him, he is still emotionally committed to his dead wife. Irena and Josef have crossed paths again, but again their paths do not match. Another possibility, however, is that Irena will find the encounter with Josef liberating. Until this encounter, Irena has tended to be dependent in her relationships with other people—first with her mother, then with her husband, Martin, and even with her married boyfriend, Gustaf.

Throughout the novel, Kundera also draws parallels to and meditates on the ur-myth of the Great Return—the story of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.), which is at the center of Ignorance just as the story of Oedipus’s sense of moral responsibility is at the center of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Here Kundera seems to draw on the myth of Odysseus’s return primarily to show that it no longer applies to the modern world but is a romantic hangover from another time. For Odysseus, the return had tremendous validity, as he struggled to get back to his beloved homeland and wife. Around the time of the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote a stirring poem about Odysseus’s restlessness after his return, the myth started going downhill. Now the myth seems totally meaningless.

Where is home anymore? Where is love? In Ignorance Kundera seems to say that in the modern world neither of these is easy to find. Kundera destroys the idea that the place of one’s birth has any special significance. Instead, life is full of possibilities. Home and love are out there somewhere, but they have to be compatible with one’s identity, which in the modern world is a shifting, developing concept, dependent not just on one’s origins but on one’s experiences, memories, ideals, and ignorance.


Friday, October 19, 2018

Keeping Ourselves Human

Anything Is Possible 


Anything Is Possible





“And so there’s a struggle, or a contest, I guess you could say, all the time, it seems to me. And remorse, well, to be able to show remorse—to be able to be sorry about what we’ve done that’s hurt other people—that keeps us human.” Tommy”   ― Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible





Elizabeth Strout is not a new novelist to me. I previously read Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys; however I did not read My Name is Lucy Barton, the novel that immediately preceded Anything Is Possible. It is not exactly a sequel, but it does feature Lucy Barton as one of the characters. Set in and around Barton’s home town of Amgash, Illinois (somewhere between Chicago and Rockford, Illinois), it is a novel told in a series of interconnected stories, each featuring a tale of small-town life that often illuminates a profound truth.

I could especially relate to the opening chapter as it begins with the description of a dairy farm and I grew up in a small town surrounded by dairy farms. The chapter tells of Tommy Guptill, who had once owned a dairy farm that burned to the ground, possibly as a result of arson. Instead of being shattered by the loss of his home and livelihood, Guptill sees the fire as a spiritual omen: “It was not in Tommy’s nature to regret things and on the night of the fire – in the midst of his galloping fear – he understood that all that mattered in the world were his wife and children and he thought that people lived their whole lives not knowing this as sharp and constantly as he did.”

Strout is often able to convey both the detail of individual character and that character’s broader understanding of life all while still maintaining an easy rhythm and economy of expression. Her style is all the more powerful for its understatement, and reminded me of both John Steinbeck and Anne Tyler – two other great observers of the interaction between internal and external landscapes, who also appreciate the value of simplicity over self-conscious florid prose.
But there are echoes of Tolstoy here, too, most notably the Russian novelist’s oft-quoted maxim that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. The characters in Anything Is Possible are shaped and sometimes haunted by their past, or trapped by the difficulties of present relationships and their inability to say how they feel.

Often there is a wrenching, beautiful dissonance between private desires and public obligations: for example, Linda, who stays with her rich, distant husband in their soulless, art-filled mansion, despite his creepy predilections; and Charlie, the Vietnam vet tortured by his wartime experiences, who has fallen in love with a prostitute and out of love with his wife; and the father who keeps his sexuality a secret from his family until his death, when the truth emerges. The prose demonstrates compassion for the characters, but never sentimentality. Their stories are told with respect, nuance and an ability to present realistic dialogue.

One of my favorite chapters was Mississippi Mary. In it a woman goes to visit her mother, Mary, now living in an Italian village with her younger lover. The daughter tells Mary that other people they pass on the street mistakenly believe that, because of the visible age difference, her romantic partner is actually her son.
“Mary considered this. ‘Except why would they think I was his mother? I’m American, he’s Italian. They probably didn’t think that.’
“‘You’re my mother!’ Angelina burst out, and this caused Mary to almost weep again, because she had a searing glimpse of all the damage she must have done.”
Strout writes people who talk as people actually talk and not one line of dialogue is wasted. It all does something: advancing the story in some way or elucidating an inner feeling, in this case, a daughter’s sense of rejection and possession and the impetuosity she knows she should have outgrown. All this in a couple of sentences.

Lucy Barton herself does make an appearance in Sister where she is shown struggling with her own feeling of not belonging. In spite of her difficult childhood, Lucy has become a published author and her success is referred to by other characters throughout the book with a mixture of pride and resentment. But when she returns to Amgash, Lucy is caught between two worlds – simultaneously comforted by the familiarity of her one-time home and panicked by the memories it contains. She has been away so long that she is now a visitor to this town.

This short novel displays the skills of a brilliant chronicler of the ambiguity and delicacy of the human condition. If you like novels that comprise stories with differing sets of characters who demonstrate humanity in spite of occasional bitterness you will enjoy Anything Is Possible. It is an unusually good novel whose stories share a theme of the longing to be understood.


Wednesday, October 03, 2018

A Spectre in Armour

The Canterville Ghost 


The Canterville Ghost

"The vulgarity of the twins, and the gross materialism of Mrs. Otis, were naturally extremely annoying, but what really distressed him most was, that he had been unable to wear the suit of mail. He had hoped that even modern Americans would be thrilled by the sight of a Spectre in Amour," - Oscar Wilde



This is a story by one of the greatest humorists of his or any age, so one should not be surprised when it turns out that the titular Ghost is not very scary. At least he is not scary to the American Minister to Great Britain and his family who bought Canterville Chase in spite of severe warnings that it was "haunted".


The ghost who haunts Canterville had died a hundred years ago and ever since had managed to scare the subsequent residents. That all changes when Mr.Hiram B. Otis, his wife, and four children take residence. Hiram is emphatic when he says, "I come from a modern country . . . I reckon that if there were such a thing as a ghost in Europe, we'd have it at home in a very short time in one of our public museums, or on the road as a show."

Needless to say, Wilde has fun with his parody of the hicks from America, but also pokes fun at the British lords with their cultural snobbery. What ensues is a topsy-turvy plot with the Ghost being flummoxed by the refusal of the Otis's to believe in him along with the mischievous activities of the youngest children, twins, who pester him on an almost daily basis.

The story is subtitled "A Hylo-Idealistic Romance" and as a romance it does have a sweet ending. Virginia, the only daughter in the family and a kind-hearted girl, becomes friends with the ghost. She gradually learns his background, appropriately sordid, and the story takes the reader on a supernatural journey befitting a "haunted house" tale. The result is one that benefits both the Ghost and Virginia, but you will have to read the story to learn the details. Let me say, however, that it was a delightful and satisfying story from the comic beginning to the romantic ending. It almost left me wanting to believe in ghosts, at least those that are as sympathetic as this creation of Oscar Wilde.



Sunday, September 23, 2018

Blinded by Her Vanity

Roxana
or The Fortunate Mistress 

Roxana


“Thus blinded by my own vanity, I threw away the only opportunity I then had to have effectually settled my fortunes, and secured them for this world; and I am a memorial to all that shall read my story, a standing monument of the madness and distraction which pride and infatuations from hell run us into, how ill our passions guide us, and how dangerously we act when we follow the dictates of an ambitious mind.”  ― Daniel Defoe, Roxana




Daniel Defoe published all of the great works of fiction that he is remembered for today in a span of a half decade between 1719 and 1724. Prior to this he was a noted journalist. This period began with the famous Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and ended with his final novel, Roxana or The Fortunate Mistress, in 1724. It is supposed to be a biography of one Madamoselle Beleau, the lovely daughter of French Protestant refugees, brought up in England and married to a good-for-nothing son of an English brewer.

Roxana's husband squanders his property and abandons his wife and five children. She enters upon a career of a mistress, first to the landlord in whose house she and her husband were renting, and then to a series of wealthy aristocrats and businessmen in three countries, England, France and Holland. She acquires her name of "Roxana," traditionally given to stage actresses, after she had returned to London from Europe, having become a famous courtesan.

She is accompanied in her adventures by a faithful maid, Amy, a very lively, attractive and intelligent woman. After many adventures with many men and women, most of whom amazingly, are good decent people who do not take advantage of a beautiful abandoned woman in distress (hence the title of the story—"The Fortunate Mistress"), she finally marries a Dutch merchant who has been her long time lover and friend and even the father to one of her sons. However, in a rather a hurried end to the story, the husband discovers the deceitful and immoral life his wife has led and dies shortly after leaving a her a small sum of money.

Interestingly, the ending of Roxana is shrouded in dispute. In Defoe's original version the protagonist does not die, but repents for the life she has lived, and that too—according to Roxana herself—only because she comes to an unhappy end after the death of her husband. However, the book, because it was published anonymously (as was often the case with fictitious histories in those days) and then went through several questionable editions, later interpolators gave the story various endings, all of which has the protagonist die repenting her life full of sins.

Even more interesting, and important for the future of fiction, is Defoe's focus upon the interior drama of Roxana's moral decay, the psychological turmoil of a woman who willfully chooses the glamorous life of a courtesan over the duller, but honorable, life of a married woman. The result of her decision leads to a downward spiral from which she is unable to escape. Thus Defoe's last novel is his one and only tragedy.


Thursday, September 20, 2018

"Harmless" History

The Plot Against America 


The Plot Against America



“And as Lindbergh's election couldn't have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as "History," harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”   ― Philip Roth, The Plot Against America



In 2004 Philip Roth, having twice won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer among many other awards, published an alternative historical novel starring none other than himself and his family. Set in Newark, New Jersey as were several of his earlier novels, including American Pastoral, this genre was a departure for the author. It is an alternative history in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh. The novel follows the fortunes of the Roth family during the Lindbergh presidency, as antisemitism becomes more accepted in American life and Jewish-American families like the Roths are persecuted on various levels. Roth based his novel on the isolationist ideas espoused by Lindbergh in real life as a spokesman for the America First Committee, and on his own experiences growing up in Newark, New Jersey.

In Roth's story, as the decade of the thirties nears its end, many Americans are so afraid that President Franklin D. Roosevelt is leading the country into the war in Europe that, rather than Wendell Wilkie, the Republican Party nominates Charles A. Lindbergh, the hero who was the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean solo. Surprising many, especially concerning American Jews, Lindbergh wins the election. Jews are concerned because Lindbergh not only has admired the German Luftwaffe but also has accepted a medal from Adolf Hitler himself, a clear sign of his pro-German sympathies.

A nine-year-old Philip Roth narrates events centering on the Roth family -- his father and mother, Herman and Besse, and his older brother, Sandy. They and their friends in the Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey, are terribly upset by the election and fear the worst. They suspect that the kinds of anti-Semitism that Hitler has propounded and is rapidly carrying out in Germany and in the parts of Europe that he has conquered will, under Lindbergh’s administration, begin to happen in the United States. The first experience that they have of this intolerance comes during a trip to Washington, D.C., where they are expelled from their hotel despite their confirmed reservations. They are instead sent to a hotel that will accept Jews. This outrage is followed by a scene in a cafeteria where the family experiences anti-Semitic slurs.

Not all Jews believe as Herman Roth believes in the growing danger. A rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf, supports the new administration and soon becomes head of the Office of American Absorption. This new office is established to promote Lindbergh’s plan to disperse Jews from enclaves, such as the one in which the Roths live in Newark, to other parts of the country, presumably promoting their assimilation into the American mainstream. After years of working for an insurance company in Newark, Herman Roth is reassigned to Danville, Kentucky under this plan, but rather than accept the assignment, he resigns and goes to work instead for his brother’s produce business. Sandy Roth, meanwhile, is enticed into a program called “Just Folks,” another attempt to foster Jewish assimilation, and spends the summer on a farm in Kentucky with a typical “American” family. He comes back with a southern accent and views quite opposed to those of his father. A neighbor’s family, the Wishnows, is forced to accept the reassignment and also goes to Danville, Kentucky. Later, Mrs. Wishnow is killed in a violent attack against Jews as she tries to drive home one night.

The novel includes several noted historical characters: Father Coughlin, the extremist Catholic priest who fulminates against Jews; Walter Winchell, the Jewish newspaper reporter and media celebrity whose Sunday night radio broadcasts the Roth family and their friends dutifully listen to each week, and who at one point runs for president against Lindbergh, only to be assassinated for his efforts; the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who is honored by a state dinner at the White House by President and Mrs. Lindbergh; Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, who is an eloquent spokesperson and a champion of civil rights; and many others. The picture of the United States under the Lindbergh administration is a very grim, even terrifying one. Although Roth insists he intended no allusion to politics in the twenty-first century, his novel clearly posts a warning for what might happen should American civil liberties suffer increased depredations.

Roth even brings into The Plot Against America the notorious kidnapping case of the 1930’s, in which the Lindberghs’ infant son was stolen. In his imagined reconstruction of events, the baby is not killed (as he was in actual fact) but taken by the Nazis and brought up in Germany as a good member of the Hitler Jugend. Events at the end of the novel culminate with the disappearance of Lindbergh himself and subsequent anti-Jewish riots in many cities across the United States in which 122 Jews lose their lives. Lindbergh, however, has not been kidnapped but has fled to Germany, using the Spirit of St. Louis for his escape, and is never seen again. Eventually, law and order are restored (thanks in part to the efforts of Mrs. Lindbergh), the Democrats take over Congress, and Roosevelt wins his unprecedented third term as president.

Using young Philip as narrator and central character in the novel gives it a compelling perspective. The care with which his confusion and terror are rendered makes the novel as much about the mysteries of growing up as about American politics. I thought the narrative presented a realistic portrayal of the fears, both psychological and physical, of the close-knit Jewish community. However the themes of confusion and a fear in the face of the growing evil in Europe heightened by the isolation and change within America are universal as they mirrored similar feelings during our own very real history of Cold War and subsequent events. This is a very good novel from the pen of one of the great literary lions of our lifetime.


Friday, September 07, 2018

Dreamer and Healer

The Hummingbird's Daughter 

The Hummingbird's Daughter



"Dreamers, Huila said, held great knowledge, and much medicine was worked in dream time. But it was hard to learn to dream, or at least to dream beyond the confines of the peasant's dreams. . .  Huila was talking about something wholly other, some dream that no one could explain. Where you could walk into tomorrow, or visit far cities." Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird's Daughter





This compulsively readable novel buzzed with family drama based on memorable characters and engaging historic events. The author has an expansive style that I found reminiscent of the larger novels of John Steinbeck, like East of Eden, based on detailed depiction of character and family juxtaposed with adventures that were sometimes brutally realistic augmented by a lyrical depiction of nature.

The author uses the historical information he gathered over years of research to form the framework for a beautiful and lyrical story of a young girl’s coming-of-age and self-discovery during the politically unstable period in Mexican history preceding the revolution of 1910. Urrea fleshes out the characters, the period, the locations, and the trials and tribulations of daily life. He vividly depicts a time and place that was unfamiliar to this reader.

The novel is filled with beautiful lyricism, particularly in the first half, as in this passage describing the journey from Sinaloa to Sonora: "And in the trunks of the oldest trees, among the stones in the creek beds, buried in the soil, lying among the chips of stone kicked aside by the horses, the arrowheads of long-forgotten hunters, arrowheads misshot on a hot morning, arrowheads that passed through the breast of a raiding Guasave, gone to dust now like the bowman and scattered, arrowheads that brought down deer that fed wives and children and all of them gone, into the dirt, blowing into the eyes and raising tears that tumbled down the cheeks of Teresita."

Passages such as this one reveals Urrea’s background as a poet, as well as the extent of his research. The narrative is filled with descriptions of scenery and plant life: “Desert marigold. Threadleaf groundsel. Paleface flower. Texas silverleaf. Sage. Desert calico. Purple mat.” Food also figures prominently; many meals are described in full, such as the following: “[Don Tomás] ate chorizo and eggs, calabaza and papaya, a bowl of arroz cooked in tomato sauce with red onions sprinkled over it, coffee and boiled milk, and three sweet rolls.” To enhance the ambiance, Urrea throws in a mix of Spanish words and phrases: Don Tomás calls the men such uncomplimentary names as pinches cabrones and pendejos. There are exclamations of Por Dios! and lamentations such as Qué barbaridad! When a swarm of bees descends on a local cantina, the people cry Muchas abejas! When Don Tomás flirts with a local girl, he utters piropos, or compliments to flatter her.

Through Teresita’s eyes, the simple, traditional lifestyle of the Indians is contrasted with the more modern lifestyle of the wealthy whites. As a little girl, she is amazed by the grandeur of Don Tomás’s house; she gingerly climbs the steps, something she has never seen before leading up to the front door, then she tries the porcelain doorknob that allows her to enter into the equally amazing interior: the floors of polished wood (not dirt), the beautiful furnishings, a library full of books that only the educated white men (Don Tomás and Aguirre) can read, the grandfather clock, which she thinks is a tree with a heartbeat. This unauthorized first venture, like Alice’s into Wonderland, is what leads her aunt to beat her. Nevertheless, Teresita is eventually welcomed into the house permanently once her father realizes that she is his daughter.

Teresita, who adopted the name because she admired the Catholic Saint Teresa, blossoms into a beautiful young woman, sympathetic, kind, and with a unique sensibility which is the result of her dual upbringing. Don Tomás allows her to continue her apprenticeship with Huila as a curandera at the same time that he indoctrinates her in the ways of the Europeans. What Teresita learns about plants and other natural cures is combined with a peculiar dose of Catholicism as practiced by Huila and the rest of the native population, who still offer up a glass of tequila or a bolillo to God as their ancestors had done for their native gods. As with Saint Teresa, Teresita wishes to “ease suffering.” Hence, even before her miraculous arising from the dead, she has entered onto the pathway of her life’s work.

The narrative is an intriguing mix of horrific tragedy and Magical Realism. The brutality of the era figures constantly in the background, where whites slaughter Indians and Indians slaughter whites. There are mutilations, tortures, kidnappings. The People are starving, working under grueling conditions for their white masters, yet there is hope.

The book’s title derives from a nickname for Teresita’s mother. Cayetana was known as the hummingbird. The hummingbird was believed by the People to be a messenger of God. As with other messengers of God, Teresita is persecuted and driven from her home. The initial move of Don Tomás from Sinaloa to Sonora foreshadows their last and final move, from Mexico to the United States. The whole of the book blends historical fiction, family saga, and magical realism, all blended with a lyrical style that made this a great read.