Sunday, September 21, 2014

Beyond "The Planets"

Gustav Holst

Gustav Theodore Holst  was born on this day in 1874.  He was an English composer, arranger and teacher best known for his orchestral suite The Planets.  He is also one of my favorite composers since I was in  high school where I learned about his music through playing his first and second suites for military band in our high school wind ensemble.  These melodious works were a wonderful introduction to his art.  Holst composed a large number of other works across a range of genres, although none achieved the relative popularity of The Planets. His distinctive compositional style was the product of many influences, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss being most crucial early in his development, the subsequent inspiration of the English folksong revival of the early 20th century, together with the example of such rising modern composers as Arnold Schoenberg and Maurice Ravel, leading Holst to develop and refine his own individual style.  The influence of folk songs is evident in his compositions for bands including the suites mentioned above, the Saint Paul Suite, and others.

There were professional musicians in the previous three generations of Holst's family, and it was clear from his early years that he would follow the same calling. He hoped to become a pianist, but was prevented by neuritis in his right arm. Despite his father's reservations, he pursued a career as a composer, studying at the Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford. Unable to support himself by his compositions, he played the trombone professionally, and later became a teacher—a great one, according to his colleague Ralph Vaughan Williams. Among other teaching activities he built up a strong tradition of performance at Morley College, where he served as musical director from 1907 until 1924, and pioneered music education for women at St Paul's Girls' School, where he taught from 1905 until his death in 1934, raising standards and so laying the foundation for several professional musicians. He was the founder of a series of Whitsun music festivals, which ran from 1916 for the remainder of his life. Holst's works were played frequently in the early years of the 20th century, but it was not until the international success of The Planets in the years immediately after the First World War that he became a well-known figure. A shy man, he did not welcome this fame, and preferred to be left in peace to compose and teach.

In his later years his uncompromising, personal style of composition struck many music lovers as too austere, and his brief popularity declined. Nevertheless, he was a significant influence on younger English composers, including Edmund Rubbra, Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten. Apart from The Planets and a handful of other works, his music had limited appeal, but has seen a revival in recent decades.  Among my favorites are his music for military band, especially the opening march from the Second Suite in F.   I also love the ballet music for The Perfect Fool, and his songs including his setting for the carol "In the Bleak Midwinter".  It is this carol that in its quiet majesty reminds me of many a Christmas eve carol service.  

Friday, September 19, 2014

Settlers on Mars

The Empress of MarsThe Empress of Mars 
by Kage Baker

"once it was generally known that Mary has both beer and pretty daughters, the Empress of Mars was in business.
For five years now it had stood defiantly on its rocky bit of upland slope, the very picture of what a cozy country tavern on Mars ought to be:  squat low dome grown all over with lichen patches most picturesque, except the weather-wall where the prevailing winds blasted it bald with an unceasing torrent of sand, so it had to be puttied constantly with red stonecast leavings to keep it whole there." (p 31)

Set on Mars in the distant future this enjoyable novel by Kage Baker was written with a style that reminded me a bit of some of the stories of Ray Bradbury. Mars has been settled initially by the equivalent of the British East India Company, who are of course interested in profit above all else. At first, they lure the best scientists in the hope of making Mars fruitful, but when that turns out to be more costly and difficult than expected, they abandon these people with only no support leaving only the hardiest among those who succeed. One of these survivors opens a saloon, The Empress of Mars, which caters to long-distance drovers and accumulates a host of misfits.

The story centers on Mary Griffith and her friends. After being let go as the xenobotanist for British Arean, she makes a new life for her and her daughters on Mars. The story charts the gradual development of the tiny colony into a self-sufficient city. A series of new settlers arrive on Mars over the course of events, each of whom ends up becoming pivotal in the establishment of a new service for the city. Mary and her allies must contend with interference by British Arean Company, resistance from various local collectives and a Neo-Pagan Ephesian Church. There is plenty of scientific background about Mars to hold the interest of all but the most particular hard science fiction fans. The climate, one that seemed at times comparable to Antarctica only with a red tinge, and its impact on the society that has developed on Mars is especially well-drawn. This was brought home effectively early in the novel when a young man succumbs to the incredibly unforgiving climate in a scene that was tremendously emotional.  

Everyone is just barely holding on until like Sutter in nineteenth century California Mary discovers diamonds on Mars. In true Kage Baker style, the Martian misfits have resources undreamed of by the British Arean Corporation. This easy-going writing style, the engaging humor, the fascinating characters, and their interesting story made this an above-average science fiction novel.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Family Mosaic

The Snows of YesteryearThe Snows of Yesteryear 
by Gregor von Rezzori

"I do not tire of urging Cassandra to embellish our entire path with a border of flowering marks, an adornment of our tracks which I wish all the more to be continuous and without gaps, since I know full well that these tracks will soon be blown away by the wind and covered by the next snow, ultimately to be dissolved entirely in spring with the melting of the snow and thus fated to disappear forever."(p 54)

Among the many memoirs I have read this is one of the most beautiful and meaningful. Gregor Von Rezzori has an uncanny ability to create beautiful metaphors that convey a sense of both place and history. It is this that sets his memoir apart from the others. The memoir is subtitled "portraits for an autobiography". Thus Von Rezzori structures the memoir around the members of his family with chapters titled simply "The Mother", "The Father", and "The Sister". These are his portraits and it is only when he wrote two chapters about people close to him as family, but not related, that he gave them names, "Cassandra" and "Bunchy"; these being the childhood appellations by which they were known to him and his family. The result of this organization by family portrait provides a chronological mosaic made up of vignettes melded together by his memory.

The memoir ends with the disappearance of his beloved homeland with the onset of the second world war. Stemming from the aftermath of the Great War this provides a historical context for his personal story. Thus the themes of the memoir are under girded with the sense of a world destroyed, collapsed, and faded into an age that becomes his "yesteryear". Von Rezzori describes them metaphorically in the introduction to "The Mother":
"The mermaid is blind; her world has turned to rubbish. The chest contains the tinsel of a forgotten carnival of long ago. And the mermaid herself is rotting."(p 55)
The expectations that were so vivid and bold when he was young become the "golden mists" of the past. Yet amidst this story of decline there is much humor and lovely details, for the author shared the Rabelaisian exuberance of moments with his father, the pride taken in learning how to hunt, and the sweet, if rare, moments when his Mother showered him with all the love that she had hidden from him through her habitual neglect of her family. He also shares intimate moments with his sister, describing their similarities and differences: "I envied her for being our father's favorite; she despised the blind infatuation my mother showed me, suffered maternal injustices with mute pride and devalued her mother's preference in my own eyes. She was a graceful girl, when I was a small oaf; she was a precociously exemplary young lady while I was still a lout." (p 204)

The memoir ends with a short epilogue where, among other things, the adult Gregor Von Rezzori (who has become an accomplished journalist, media personality, and author) shares his personal return to his birthplace of Czernowitz and found that "it wasn't the Czernowitz whose vision I had carried in me for half a century". He found like so many who grow up and leave their home of birth that you literally cannot go home again for the place you left is different than the myth your mind has created and hidden by the mists of time. The story of this memoir is ultimately one of dissolution of both an idea and an ideal. It is memorable for the beauty and love that was experienced by this often lonely man. It is this that shines through and creates a glowing memoir of a yesterday that will remain forever impressed upon all who read it.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Writers on Reading

Reading Salinger's Characters Reading

"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though." (Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye)

Rereading J. D. Salinger I am impressed with the books that his characters are reading. In the beginning section of Franny and Zooey, Lane Coutell is engaged by his classmate, Ray Sorensen in a brief interchange regarding Rilke's "Duino Elegies" which they both are supposedly reading for a class on modern European literature.  Another example is a moment, merely an aside, when reading and literature intrudes again within a few pages. Franny has arrived on a train and she and Lane settle in to relax at a cafe, one frequented by the "intellectual fringe" of students at the college, to which, apparently, Lane and Franny belong. Soon the conversation includes references to Flaubert and Dostoevsky and the true nature of the "bon mot".   The contrast between Lane, who has written a paper on Gustave Flaubert (a writer whose search for authenticity is his hallmark) and Franny whose search for authenticity in her own life is floundering seems key to this short story. Disappointingly, Franny seeks solace in mysticism (The Way of a Pilgrim).

The presence of literature as a natural part of the background and conversation is not surprising in Franny and Zooey, but it is, if not surprising, certainly interesting in the beginning chapters of The Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist (anti-hero), Holden Caulfield, is not an example of a serious student, in fact he is being asked to leave Pencey Prep because he was flunking most of his subjects and was "not applying" himself to his schoolwork. However, he is clearly not unintelligent, but rather just uninterested in the formal academics as practiced at Pencey Prep, or the several previous schools he had successively been asked to leave. In spite of this lack of interest in his schoolwork Holden is a reader. And quite an eclectic reader in spite of his own somewhat contradictory assessment: "I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot."(p 18). Obviously, before you are one quarter of the way through the book you are aware that he is not 'literally' illiterate, and that you often must be attentive to what Holden does rather than what he says, in spite of his fascinating narrative voice. It is this voice that more than anything brings this reader back to the book again and again. But, regarding his reading and choice of authors, he has good taste in literature, at least for a teenager. For I, too was taken with Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, although I found Clym Yeobright to be just as interesting, if not more, as Eustacia Vye - the heroine who Holden likes enough to want to "call old Thomas Hardy" and have a chat (how interesting that would be).  Now, decades after I first read Catcher, and even more since, at about the same age as Holden I fell in love with the novels of Hardy, I find it fascinating that reading is an important aspect of the characters of J. D. Salinger, both when they are budding intellectuals and when they are merely fascinating "illiterates" on a journey of discovery.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. Bantam Books, New York. 1967 (1951)
Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger. Litlle, Brown & Co., New York. 1989 (1961)

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Life of an Artist

GeniusThe "Genius" 
by Theodore Dreiser

"The city appealed to him, wet or white, particularly the public squares.  He saw Fifth Avenue once in a driving snowstorm and under the sputtering arc lights, and he hurried to his easel next morning to see if he could not put it down in black and white.  It was unsuccessful, or at least he felt so, for after an hour of trying he threw it aside in disgust.  But these spectacles were drawing him.  He was wanting to do them---wanting to see them shown somewhere in color.  Possible success was a solace at a time when all he could pay for a meal was fifteen cents and he had no place to go and not a soul with whom to talk." (108-9)

In November of 1911 Theodore Dreiser sailed for Europe with his English publisher Grant Richards. Dreiser would spend almost six months touring England, with side trips to Florence and Berlin. He returned on 11 April 1912 on the liner Kroonland, having passed up the opportunity to sail on the maiden voyage of the Titanic two days earlier for lack of funds. Having come that close to disaster he would have to continue writing in America to produce the books whose advances had funded his trip abroad. One of those books was his fifth novel, The "Genius", published in 1915.

The "Genius" is a novel dealing with the American Artist and his search for a place in American life. The three sections of the novel narrate the story of an artist who begins his life in a small Midwestern town and eventually reaches the heights of magazine publishing in New York City. The first part, "Youth", contains some of Dreiser's best writing and chronicles the youth of Eugene Witla growing up in a middle-class family in Illinois. He moves to Chicago where he becomes a newspaper illustrator and studies evenings at the Art Institute. His life there includes a variety of jobs and the beginnings of his relationships with women that will become an important theme in the book. He returns home and meets a young girl from Wisconsin, Angela Blue, who will he will eventually marry; but only after having spent time as an illustrator in New York.  Developing his career there he becomes an artist with potential for major success. The first part of the novel concludes with his return to Wisconsin as he is about to marry Angela, a farm girl who is older and much more conservative than Eugene, the eager independent artist. Their differences are never reconciled over the course of a marriage that covers most of the succeeding two sections of the novel. "Youth" is by far the most successful part of the novel as the remaining five hundred-plus pages of parts two and three become somewhat repetitive with Eugene's multiple affairs with women as background to his rise as a painter and ensuing nervous breakdown. His own destructive impulses impair his career and wound his marriage. Some have suggested that Dreiser's attempts to adapt the story too closely to his own biography may account for some of the problems of these sections. Eugene's life seems to drift.  At his peak his genius for painting seemed sui generis and he was becoming recognized in artistic circles, but he made questionable decisions about the direction of his life that took him away from pure art and into the publishing business and investments where, after some apparent success, he ultimately failed.

The epic scope and strength of the novel are marred by unrealistic passages and melodramatic moments and ultimately a failure of the novelist to present a coherent direction for Eugene's life. Dreiser's power as a story-teller holds the novel together in spite of these issues, but he is not able to succeed in bringing it to the level of his earlier successes in Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, and The Financier.  Dreiser's main critical champion, H. L. Mencken, praised its epic panorama while recognizing the "rambling, formless, and chaotic" nature of much of the novel. Other literary critics were less kind. As a fan of Dreiser's work for many years I recognize the flaws but would nonetheless recommend this novel to any who have first enjoyed the best of his novelistic efforts. The greatness within The "Genius" is easier to perceive with that reading as your background.

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Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Persistence of Memory

The AssaultThe Assault 
by Harry Mulisch

“Besides, whoever keeps the future in front of him and the past at his back is doing something else that's hard to imagine. For the image implies that events somehow already exist in the future, reach the present at a determined moment, and finally come to rest in the past. But nothing exists in the future; it is empty; one might die at any minute. Therefore such a person has his face toward the void, whereas it is the past behind him that is visible, stored in the memory.”  ― Harry Mulisch, The Assault

 Harry Mulisch was born in Haarlem, Netherlands and lived in Amsterdam from 1958 until his death in 2010. His father was from Austria-Hungary and emigrated to the Netherlands after the First World War. During the German occupation in World War II his father worked for a German bank, which also dealt with confiscated Jewish assets, while his mother, Alice Schwarz, was Jewish. Mulisch and his mother escaped transportation to a concentration camp thanks to Mulisch's father's collaboration with the Nazis, but his maternal grandmother died in a gas chamber.

His novel, The Assault, opens in Netherlands near the end of World War II. The narrative focuses on the persistence of memory in his protagonist, Anton Steenwijk. Five episodes from Anton Steenwijk's life are described in this novel, representing five stations of his life: from 1945, 1952, 1956, 1966, and 1981. It is the first that is the most significant, describing the assault of the novel's title. It is his memory of this assault, the massacre of his family, that permeates and shapes the rest of his life in ways that he has difficulty comprehending. The narrative presents episodes in Anton's life; each episode overshadowed by his memories of the assault.

At one level, the book can be read as a detective story, reminiscent of Simenon, with intriguing twists and turns and a definite solution. It is also a morality tale (though one that doesn't point out any easy moral), a dark fable about design and accident, strength and weakness, and the ways in which guilt and innocence can overlap and intermingle. What impressed me was the authors ability to convey Anton's feelings of alienation and isolation from others. His struggle, often due to his memories, to overcome these feelings color all of the subsequent episodes.
“The process of putting Haarlem behind him resembled the changes a man goes through when he divorces. He takes a girl friend to forget his wife, but just doing that prolongs the connection with the wife. Possibly things will work out only with the next girl friend - although the third one has the best chance. Boundaries have to be continuously sealed off, but it's a hopeless job, fore everything touches everything else in this world. A beginning never disappears, not even with the ending.” 

Told against the backdrop of shifting Dutch post-war society, centered around significant points in that history -- the reaction to the events in Budapest in 1956, the release of Willy Lages (head of the Gestapo in Holland), anti-nuclear protests in 1981 -- Mulisch paints a canvas of the difficulties of Dutch society in coming to terms with the events of the war. There are no easy answers for Mulisch, no simple blame to assign, even where it first appears there might be. Mulisch, using a taut and subtle style, explores questions of guilt and innocence, heroism and cowardice in this spellbinding and moving novel. While very different in style and tone from Wolfgang Koeppens' Death in Rome, Mulisch's novel is just as effective in portraying the lasting impact of the War on Europe.  The Assault is one of the best novels I have read, in fact it is one of the finest examples of European postwar fiction.
Mulisch also gained international recognition with the film adaptation of The Assault. It received an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best foreign movie in 1986.  

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Friday, September 05, 2014

On My Reading Table

Having recently read Theodore Dreiser's novel The "Genius" (review forthcoming), I have turned to his biography, The Last Titan by Jerome Loving,  for background information and because he is one of my favorite American novelists.  
Also on my table as September begins are:  May Sarton's Faithful are the Wounds: a novel about liberals in academia in the fifties;  Possession: a romance by A. S. Byatt, a Booker Award winner;  The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1 by Robert Musil, my long-term study group project;  and, my next science fiction selection, The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker.  I plan to be reviewing these sometime this month.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Writers on Reading

William Wordsworth

from Personal Talk

          Wings have we,--and as far as we can go,
          We may find pleasure: wilderness and wood,
          Blank ocean and mere sky, support that mood
          Which with the lofty sanctifies the low.
          Dreams, books, are each a world; and books, we know,
          Are a substantial world, both pure and good:
          Round these, with tendrils strong as flesh and blood,
          Our pastime and our happiness will grow.
          There find I personal themes, a plenteous store,
          Matter wherein right voluble I am,
          To which I listen with a ready ear;
          Two shall be named, pre-eminently dear,--
          The gentle Lady married to the Moor;
          And heavenly Una with her milk-white Lamb,

                 -  "Stanza III", from Personal Talk by  William Wordsworth

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

from  Books Unread

The only knowledge that involves no burden is found, it may be justly claimed, in the books that are left unread.  I mean those which remain undisturbed, long and perhaps forever, on a student's bookshelves;  books for which he possible economized, and to obtain which he went without his dinner;  books on whose backs his eyes have rested a thousand times, tenderly and almost lovingly, until he has perhaps forgotten the very language in which they are written.  He has never read them, yet during these years there has never been a day when he would have sold them;  they are a part of his youth.  In dreams he turns to them;  in dreams he reads Hebrew again;  he knows what a Differential Equation is;  "how happy could he be with either."  He awakens, and whole shelves of his library are, as it were, like fair maidens who smiled on him in their youth but once, and then passed away.  Under different circumstances, who knows but one of them might have been his?  As it is, they have grown old apart from him;  yet for him they retain their charms.

        -  from Part of a Man's Life by Thomas Wentworth Higginson 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Reading Begins at Home

Books from my Parents' Library

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! -- When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”   ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Before I was born and continuing after I arrived along with my sister (two years later) my parents had a small library in the home where we were raised.  This library consisted of  bookshelves that spread along one wall of our living room;  shelves that were filled with books from my earliest memory.  These books formed a not insignificant part of my reading from my earliest days - they were the source of such early reads as the Tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and more.  As I grew older and read more I remember my first encounters with Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I became a life-long fan of Stevenson's writing, but above all I still keep and cherish an age-worn copy of  A Child's Garden of Verses because  it was one of my mother's books from when she was a very young girl.   It was from those shelves that I experienced my first taste of horror and speculative fiction with Edgar Allan Poe and dipped my toe into the world of Dante whom I do not claim to have understood on my first encounter.   What I could understand a bit better was the development of Jane Eyre from her terrible days in boarding school to her romantic encounters with Mr. Rochester, or Carol Kennicott and the events on Main Street depicted by Sinclair Lewis.  Along the reading way I acquired my own bookshelves in my bedroom.  It was here I began my own collection of classics like Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Twain,  The Jungle Books of Kipling,  and a collection of biographies of scientists and inventors like Michael Faraday, George Washington Carver, and Thomas Edison.
Later in my teen years I opened a tome that changed my life, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand whose heroic architect, Howard Roark, was among the heroes that I admired in my reading.  Heroes like Roark included Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo.   Dumas' novel was a book I read as part of my school reading which augmented that program of reading that already had a sturdy foundation built at home.  There were other books for school including Willa Cather's My Antonia, Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days,  and the wonderful tale of immigrants, Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag.  These and many more as my reading for school expanded in high school and University.

My sister and I both spent many hours at the local library, The Matheson Memorial Library, in our home town.  It was there that we encountered many other authors and books that we enjoyed reading.  I first met Philip Carey on those shelves as Somerset Maugham's tale Of Human Bondage mesmerized me much as Jane Eyre had some years earlier.  The library books were a luxury that we could afford because they were free for us to read and make our own.  This was all part of a reading life that began in the home and did not stop, but continued during our school years as an independent and important part of our lives.  With all of our reading, in school, in the library, in the park and around town, and the reading that continues to this day, both my Sister and I continue to live in homes that are filled with books.  Because our love of reading had its start in the home of our parents with their library of books that they read and cherished as well.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Story of a Great Artist

My Name Is Asher LevMy Name Is Asher Lev 
by Chaim Potok

“You can do anything you want to do. What is rare is this actual wanting to do a specific thing: wanting it so much that you are practically blind to all other things, that nothing else will satisfy you,.”   ― Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev

What is the source of artistic genius in an individual? Is it a mystery -- of art, the artist, the genius that cannot be taught? This novel is the story of one such individual, Asher Lev, who is one such man. Born with a prodigious artistic ability into a Hasidic Jewish family, Asher is drawn to art from a very early age in a way that mystifies his parents and his community. It is only later after he has been studying for some time with another great artist, Jacob Kahn, that he hears these words from his teacher: "Asher Lev, an artist is a person first. He is an individual. If there is no person there is no artist." (p 257)

Asher's story is one of how he becomes an individual person who is also a great artist. He tells his story in the first person emphasizing on the first page that he is an observant Jew. Yet at the same time confirming that observant Jews are not artists and do not paint at all. The tension between the importance of his cultural traditions and his personal individuality as an artist are present in this beginning and this tension is a presence in his relationships, his development, and even his dreams.
The setting is the 1950s in the time of Joseph Stalin and the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. During Asher's childhood, his budding artistic inclination brings him into conflict with the members of his Jewish community, which values things primarily as they relate to faith and considers art unrelated to religious expression to be at best a waste of time and possibly a sacrilege. Most importantly it brings him into strong conflict with his father, a man who has devoted his life to serving their leader, the Rebbe, by traveling around the world bringing the teachings and practice of their sect to other Jews, and who is by nature incapable of understanding or appreciating art.

Asher's mother is firmly in the midst of this conflict. She has experienced her own trauma from the death of her brother, who was killed while traveling for the Rebbe; she suffers anxiety for her husband's safety during his almost constant traveling. It doesn't just affect her, but it affects her whole family and community. After her anxiety had passed, she decided she wanted to continue her brother’s work.

The Rebbe asks Asher’s father to travel to Vienna, since it would make his work easier. Asher becomes very upset about this and complains that he doesn't want to go to Vienna. His mother decides to stay in Brooklyn with Asher, while his father goes to Vienna. While Asher’s father is away, Asher draws more than ever; "I drew endlessly all those weeks after my father's departure. I drew while I walked; I drew while I ate; I drew while I sat in class; I drew in Yudel Krinsky's store; I drew in the museum." (p 161) His mother brings him a gift of a wooden box oil painting supplies along with an easel and some canvases that December. His first oil painting is of his mother. The conflict with his father continues, however, and it is only through the wisdom of the Rebbe that Asher is allowed to continue and to study with Jacob Kahn, the artist who recognizes in Asher Lev a genius that is even greater than his own. They meet with an exchange of drawings and a recognition that Asher has no choice but to become an artist, and Jacob to become his teacher.

Asher begins to learn by doing, by drawing and painting, by viewing the masters and copying them. His teacher shows him the way by challenging him, but cannot make him an artist. Jacob tells his friend Anna Schaeffer, an art dealer, that Asher's development will take time. "It will be five years. Millions of people can draw. Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way." (p 212) Yet the tension with his tradition remained for Asher. But Jacob would say "As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it. Anything else is what the Communists in Russia call art. I will teach you responsibility to art. Let your Landover Hasidim teach you responsibility to Jews." (p 218)
Asher begins to go to art museums where he studies paintings. He becomes very interested in the paintings, especially the ones of the crucifixions. He starts copying the paintings of the crucifixions and nudes, but this would only get him into trouble. Asher’s father returned home one night after a long trip to Russia for the Rebbe. He then sees Asher’s paintings of the crucifix and nudes and is furious. Asher’s father thinks that his gift is foolish and from the Sitra Achra, or Other Side. Asher’s mother doesn't know whether to support her son or her husband. She is torn between the two of them.
Asher continues to paint and to expand his artistic abilities culminating in several shows and subsequent travel to Europe to study further. He gradually enters a new religion. It is a religion called painting, but never before had a religious Jew been a great painter. 

“I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy. Power to bring pleasure and pain. Power to amuse and horrify. There was in that hand the demonic and the divine at one and the same time. The demonic and the divine were two aspects of the same force. Creation was demonic and divine. Creativity was demonic and divine. I was demonic and divine.”

 He paints and he studies and he broods about his differences with his father. He does not understand even as Jacob tells him "Do not try to understand. Become a great artist." (p278)  Asher's ultimate mastery of his art and his greatest triumph will further test him and demand that he make a choice between his family and his art.

Written in a simple, lucid style, this novel of artistic and personal growth has a power that is difficult to describe. Anyone who has had a passion for living a certain life that may be different than that of your parents or community must be moved by Asher's story. He relates the struggle of individuals everywhere, both those of genius and the rest of us, as we make our own way creating a unique place in the world.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Writers on Reading


from The History of That Ingenious Gentleman 

Don Quijote de la Mancha

In a word, Don Quijote so buried himself in his books that he read all night from sundown to dawn, and all day from sunup to dusk, until with virtually no sleep and so much reading he dried out his brain and lost his sanity.  He filled his imagination full to bursting with everything he read in his books, from witchcraft to duels, battles, challenges, wounds, flirtations, love affairs, anguish, and impossible foolishness, packing it all so firmly into his head that these sensational schemes and dreams become the literal truth and, as far as he was concerned, there were no more certain histories anywhere on  earth.  He'd explained that Cid Ruy Diaz had been a very good knight, but simply couldn't be compared to the Knight of the Flaming Sword, who with one backhand stroke had cut in half two huge, fierce giants.  He liked Bernardo del Carpio even better . . . But the knight he treasured above all others was Renaldo de Montalban, especially when he could be found riding out of his castle and robbing everyone he met, or when he travelled across the ocean to steal the idol of Mohammad,

Indeed, his mind was so tattered and torn that, finally, it produced the strangest notion a madman had ever conceived, and then considered it not just appropriate but inevitable.  As much for the sake of his own greater honor as for his duty to the nation, he decided to turn himself into a knight errant, travelling all over the world with his horse and his weapons, seeking adventures and doing everything that , according to his books, earlier knights had done, righting every manner of wrong, giving himself the opportunity to experience every sort of danger, so that, surmounting them all, he would cover himself with eternal fame and glory.  (p 10)

Don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.  Burton Raffel, trans. W. W. Norton & Company, 1995 (1605)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Eros and Memories of Love

Strait is the GateStrait is the Gate 
by André Gide

"I advanced slowly;  the sky was like my joy---warm, bright, delicately pure.  No doubt she was expecting me by the other path.  I was close to her, behind her, before she heard me;  I stopped . . . and as if time could have stopped with me, "This is the moment," I thought, "the most delicious moment, perhaps, of all, even though it should precede happiness itself---which happiness itself will not equal." (p 96)

"Enter ye in at the strait gate:  for wide is the gate and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction and many there be which go thereat:  Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." (Matthew 7:13-14).

This is the text from which Gide drew the title of his short novel, Strait is the Gate. It is a first person narrative that begins forthrightly with the words:
"Some people might have made a book out of it; but the story I am going to tell is one that it took all my strength to live and over which I have spent all my virtue. So I shall set down my recollections quite simply, and if in places they are ragged I shall have recourse to no invention and neither patch nor connect them; any effort I might make to dress them up would take away from the last pleasure I hope to get in telling them." (p 3)

The author signals in this short paragraph the importance of virtue (of what sort we shall find out) and that these are personal "recollections", subject to the vicissitudes of memory and desire, but not invented. Finally, the narrator claims to have pleasure, or at least hopes to, in telling them. One may see already the potential for the contradiction of truth presented as fiction and fiction telling the truth.

The setting is the Protestant upper-middle-class world of Normandy in the 1880s. The narrator, Jerome Palissier, originally from Le Havre, is eleven when the story begins. His father having died he is living with his mother and a governess. He is surrounded by family including a creole aunt Lucille who alternately fascinates and terrifies him. She has two young daughters, Alissa and Juliette Bucolin, who are devoted to their father. Alissa and Jerome become childhood sweethearts and this gradually develops into a situation such that it becomes assumed, at least unofficially, that they are engaged. Unfortunately Alissa never truly agrees to any such arrangement. Complicating matters further are the feelings of Juliette for Jerome and the entry of Jerome's good friend Abel Vautier who quickly becomes infatuated with Juliette. The relations among these young people are complicated by the strength of youthful Eros, their own growth, and their search for identity.  It is this search that leads Alissa in the direction of religion, in spite of which she professes to love Jerome. But she is no longer her former self and as Jerome is about to leave the country home of Fonguesemare where they have been together she claims that he has been in love with a ghost. Jerome replies that the ghost is not an illusion on his part: "Alissa, you are the woman I loved . . . What have you made yourself become?" Jerome leaves, "full of a vague hatred for what I still called virtue". Strong stuff for teenagers.

Three years later he returns but their relations are never the same;  the strength of her religious convictions has altered Alissa both spiritually and physically. The affairs narrated here are apparently drawn from Gide's own life, however loosely. Their are also parallels with Gide's own work as Alissa may be seen as corresponding to Michel, the protagonist in Gide's novel, The Immoralist, written about a decade earlier. Strait is the Gate presents itself as a small gem of a literary work. With its focus on the passions and desires of young love I am reminded of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther. Gide's biographer, Alan Sheridan, suggests that it is also a meditation on Gide's relationship with his own wife, Madeleine. Whether that is the case or not this short novel is has a beautiful clarity of prose and a haunting style that suggests the memories of young love that, while strong enough to leave permanent impressions, in some way become ghosts of one's youth.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Autumnal Expectations

by Jane Austen

Thanks to Jenna of The Lost Generation Reader for hosting Austen in August reading event. 

"How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been--how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence!  She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older--the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning." (p 33)

In Jane Austen's last novel, Persuasion, which was not published until after her death, Austen created a strong, mature, and independent heroine, Anne Elliot. One might consider this an autumnal work which emphasizes the flow of human sympathy and charity. Austen's attention to the sensibilities of her characters has been honed over the course of her preceding work, notably in Emma which she completed not long before beginning Persuasion.

Anne Elliot is characterized as having "lost her bloom". She is depicted as having a resigned melancholy due to her relations with her family who regard her as a "nobody" and her lack of having someone close to turn to. Her mother was no longer present, having died when Anne was fourteen. Having foolishly broken off an engagement eight years earlier to Frederick Wentworth, a penniless naval officer, Anne at the age of 27 has remained unmarried--and secretly devoted to Wentworth. The novel captures the poignant and seemingly hopeless situation of Anne by sharing the depth and subtleties of her emotional life. This is the essence of the book and its strength. Austen adopts a more metaphorical approach in her story than in preceding novels and, through Anne's feelings and the counterpart of nature, we see Anne coping and perhaps for the optimistic among us there is a possibility of hope in her future.

Major changes in Anne's life result from the move of her father to Bath while she remains behind in Uppercross with her younger sister's family. Thus begins a series of events that bring Wentworth, now a Captain, back into Anne's life. An unfortunate accident leads to Wentworth to begin re-examining his feelings about Anne. The changes that occur over the remainder of the story yield the expected classical ending; however the changes also suggest that the world of Kellynch Hall that Anne was raised in has been left behind for a new life that is not quite as expected.

This novel rivals Emma as my favorite of Jane Austen's novels; along with Pride and Prejudice it forms a trio of novels that I read again and again with growing joy and understanding.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Possibly Immortality?

Strange Bodies: A NovelStrange Bodies: A Novel 
by Marcel Theroux

"He didn't seem conventionally insane in any way that I could understand.  But there was no way of comprehending him.  In some eerie and fundamental way, he didn't appear to belong to our world.  But that didn't seem the same as being mad." (p 157)

The Theroux family has an impressive literary heritage. I first encountered Paul Theroux, an American travel writer and novelist, through reading his popular and mesmerizing travel narrative The Great Railway Bazaar. I also enjoyed his novel, The Mosquito Coast, that won the 1981 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Then there is his brother, Alexander, who is a writer and artist whose Darconville's Cat: A Novel is a Rabelaisian epic both in its words and multiple styles. But there is a new generation of literary members of this family that includes Marcel Theroux, Paul's son.

It is Marcel's most recent novel that I found on the library shelves recently. It is a labyrinthine exploration of identity and mortality, filled with big ideas. That would have carried many for more than the less than three hundred pages of this unique story. It qualifies as what I, adopting the approach of Margaret Atwood, would call speculative fiction; others might go further and call it science fiction. Either way it is a neat combination of literary criticism (the protagonist is a Samuel Johnson scholar, or perhaps he was); a conspiracy about the science of consciousness involving new bodies (sort of neo-Frankenstein); and a love angle or two that may involve some necrotic foreplay.

Dr. Nicholas Slopen—the literary scholar and Johnson expert—has already been declared dead at least once, before the novel presents itself as the testimony found by a former lover on a flash memory stick. The document begins in a mental ward, where the patient is trying to convince his therapists that he is in fact Slopen, whose death has been well-documented. He then relates the tale of how he (Slopen) had been hired to document some newly discovered Johnson letters that he immediately dismissed as fake, before realizing that he was in the midst of something far more extraordinary and sinister. Vera, a woman Nicholas makes friends with after a mysterious Silicon Valley type has hired him to authenticate some unearthed writings by Johnson, wears corrective shoes and acts as a kind of menial for more elite bosses. When Nicholas's examination of the unearthed documents turns up some oddities, he finds himself in communication with the novel's most interesting character, Jack—an initially nonverbal savant who was convinced that he was in fact Johnson and who eventually convinces the scholar that something stranger is afoot than fraud or even madness. “I felt I understood less and less, even as, intuitively, I was drawing closer to the hidden chamber of the infinitely dark truth.”

And within that infinitely dark truth, distinctions between sanity and madness, life and death are not nearly as absolute as they might have initially appeared: “All madness has a touch of death to it....But the finer details of reality—the state of a marriage, artistic merit, a person’s true nature—have something delicate and consensual about them....Each time someone drops out of our collective reality, it weakens a little.” The author interpolates comments from the observers of the supposed Nicholas Slopen and the plot gradually becomes one of strange bodies and stranger activities. The exact way in which the titular strange bodies begin to manifest themselves in the tale at this point makes reading this novel worth your while.

This fictional narrative could be compared to Philip K. Dick or perhaps Borges, but whether it reminds you of them or others you may have read it is unique in the style and marvelous tightness of Theroux's structure, which launches the final part of the story with more than one delicious twist. Twists aside, though, this is a thoughtful book that interrogates the intersection of literature and the self. Why are we drawn to certain works? To what extent are we defined by our literatures? Can books and ideas grant us a kind of immortality? Can great authors really shape our lives or our world? There is also a theme that seems to ask to what extent we can control books and authors—how much of them are "ours" (the rightful property of the public domain) and how much of them should be? These questions keep you wondering—and ensure that Theroux's strange little world will work its way under your skin. Theroux, like his father and uncle, is a master prose-smith; he builds a great, brooding atmosphere of slow-burning dread, splicing bits of Milton into conversations in which characters have "the haunted and knowing eyes of a caged ape" (p. 71). As Nicholas's ordinary life begins to disintegrate, the self-pitying tone in which he narrates the beginning of the novel takes on new meaning and leaves us ultimately moved by his plight.  Often enthralling and occasionally maddening, the novel expands the reader’s sense of possibility even as it strains credulity.

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Love and Silver

Nostromo: A Tale of the SeaboardNostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard 
by Joseph Conrad

"Most dangerous to the wielder, too, this weapon of wealth, double-edged with the cupidity and misery of mankind, steeped in all the vices of self-indulgence as in a concoction of poisonous roots, tainting the very cause for with it is drawn, always ready to turn awkwardly in the hand.  There was nothing for it now but to go on using it."  (p 390)

With Nostromo Conrad plumbs the depths of human frailty, offering an intimate study in psychology and human relations. Unlike his other novels he uses a greater canvas to consider the wider political and economic world. That canvas is constructed from fragmented plots containing fractures and divides that interrupt the narrative to the point that the landscape seems to "vanish into thin air" (p 31).

The story is one of a silver mine in the Occidental Province of “the imaginary (but true)” Latin American country of Costaguana, and the crisis by which the province passes from the chaos of post-colonial misrule to the unquiet prosperity of Anglo-American imperial capitalism. With the country beset by instability and warfare, Senor Gould, the mine's owner, decides to remove the silver and keep it out of the hands of the warlords.
To do so, Gould turns to Nostromo, the top stevedore and the most trusted man in Sulaco. Nostromo is resourceful, daring, loyal and—above all—incorruptible. His illustrious reputation is his most prized possession. Says one character, "the only thing he seems to care to be well spoken of." Well, you can see the potential for a tragic flaw right there.  Even the most incorruptible are, ultimately, corruptible.  In spite of that he continues to enjoy a favorable opinion from most because they see him not as he is but how they believe that he is.  The differing views of Nostromo connect through his own inner strength that makes him ultimately the title character even though there are many more pages expended upon the plethora of other interesting characters in the novel; including, Charles Gould - owner of the mine, his wife Emilia, Martin Decoud, Dr. Monygham, Guzman Bento - a former dictator, and Ribiera - the current head of state.

The book's psychological depth and narrative structure, with its distorted timeline that travels backward and forward in time, were innovative for the era, marking this novel as one of the prime examples of a literary modernism that would within a couple of decades culminate in the works of Proust and Joyce. The huge array of characters and interactions have been compared by some to War and Peace. Irony abounds: the non-chronological plot line tips us off to consequences before we know what led up to them—and results in a sense of inexorable fate pulling characters to their ultimate destiny.
Ultimately the story hinges on the struggle between actions concerning the silver and love interests.  While Gould's marriage succumbs to his passionate interest in the silver mine an even more fascinating turn of events yields a love triangle between Nostromo and two sisters Linda and Giselle.  These events, along with many others, create an entertaining and intriguing novel. Told in Conrad's inimitable prose style this is one of his greatest achievements.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Front Porch Swing

The ChosenThe Chosen 
by Chaim Potok

"I cannot explain it. It do not understand it completely myself. But what I know of it, I dislike. It was practiced in Europe by some few Hasidic families." Then his voice went hard. "There are better ways to teach a child compassion." (p 266)

This was my introduction to the world of Jewish culture. I remember sitting on my Grandmother's front porch swing during August, 1968, mesmerized by this tale of friendship in a culture very different than my own. This novel, the first from the pen of Chaim Potok, is ostensibly about the friendship between two boys, Reuven and Danny, from the time when they are fourteen on opposing yeshiva ball clubs. But it is also a coming of age story and most of all a novel of ideas.
At one point David Malter tells his son:

"Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?" He paused again, his eyes misty now, then went on. "I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something.
He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here."

This search for meaning animates the entire story. Reb Saunders has found meaning in serving God and his followers, but the others seek meaning in reason rather than faith. David Malter has found meaning, and hopes to give the Holocaust itself some meaning, in his political work as a Zionist. Reuven, with the study of logic, and Danny, with the study of psychology, both think that they have found the things that will fill their lives with meaning. The story becomes a sort of gently didactic differentiation between two aspects of the Jewish faith, the Hasidic and the Orthodox. Primarily the Hasidic, the little known mystics with their beards, earlocks and stringently reclusive way of life. According to Reuven's father who is a Zionist, an activist, they are fanatics; according to Danny's, other Jews are apostates and Zionists "goyim." The schisms here are reflected through discussions, between fathers and sons, and through the separation imposed on the two boys for two years which still does not affect their lasting friendship or enduring hopes: Danny goes on to become a psychiatrist refusing his inherited position of "tzaddik"; Reuven a rabbi. 

For me the important aspect was their search, a search that I subsequently found in novels as disparate as The Moviegoer, The Plague, and The Magic Mountain; a search that made this novel memorable for me. That and my Grandmother's front porch swing.

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Friday, August 08, 2014

Soft Rains

The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale (Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems, Helen of Troy and Other Poems, Rivers to the Sea, Love Songs, and Flame and Sha

The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale 
by Sara Teasdale

“look for a lovely thing and you will find it, it is not far, it never will be far” 

“You will recognize your own path when you come upon it because you will suddenly have all the energy and imagination you will ever need.”   ― Sara Teasdale

There Will Come Soft Rains

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Sara Teasdale

Sara Teasdale was born on August 8th in 1884 in St. Louis Missouri. In her short life of only thirty-eight years she published several books of poetry. In 1918 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book of Love Songs. The war referred to in the fourth stanza is, of course, The Great War that was destroying much of Europe when Sara was writing this poem.  For such a short poem there are many literary devices used including imagery, alliteration, personification, and rhyme/rhythm.  Ultimately the message is one that nature is eternal while humanity is ephemeral.

The title of this poem was used by Ray Bradbury as the title for the penultimate short story that he gathered in his book, The Martian Chronicles.  I suggest that you read the book and the story and you will find out why he chose that title.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Literature and Contemporary Life

How Literature Saved My LifeHow Literature Saved My Life 
by David Shields

"My own failure of imagination? Sure, but as Virginia Woolf said in a passage that I reread dozens of times in the fall of 1991, “The test of a book (to a writer) is if it makes a space in which, quite naturally, you can say what you want to say. This proves that a book is alive: because it has not crushed anything I wanted to say, but allowed me to slip it in, without any compression or alteration.”"   - David Shields

David Shields is a contemporary essayist and fiction writer. His first novel, Dead Languages, is notable, as are his collections of essays. I chose to read this book with the expectation that the main focus would be on literature. I was frustrated with some aspects of the book in the early going, but ultimately found Shields personal views on literature and its ability to save (or perhaps not save) his life to be challenging and valuable. Throughout the book he turns quotation, memory, anecdotes and considerations of film, literature, love and death into a collage that enables introspection.

Shields is as concerned with methods of construction and questions of genre as with subject, and in doing so he meters out nuggets of revelation amid explications of both classical and popular subjects, from Prometheus to Spider-Man. He uses a circuitous approach that sometimes frustrated this reader and may do so for others. However, his apparent failure to articulate the ways in which "life and art have always been everything" to him often proved fascinating to contemplate.

David Shields stuttered throughout childhood, and initially regarded writing as an ideal outlet; now, in his mid-50s with more than fifteen books to his credit, he writes “to feel as if, to the degree anyone can know anyone else,” he has connected with his readers. He uses a frequently self-deprecating yet engaging tone, while employing the act of accrual in hopes of guarding against “human loneliness,” and in doing so, creates a type of personal, modern version of a commonplace book. For readers like myself, references to authors such as Ben Lerner, E.M. Cioran, Jonathan Safran Foer, Annie Dillard, Sarah Manguso and David Foster Wallace, among others, may be interesting or even appealing. He mixes references to books while interpolating quotes as voices intersecting on the page. For readers unlike myself who are creative-writing practitioners, how Shield fashions his own anxieties and persona into brief essays provides an alternative model for writing on self-hood, revealing the his struggle in oblique ways.

The book defies easy categorization (as have others of Shields’ works): It is both a paean to the power of language and a confrontation with the knowledge that literature can't, after all, fulfill deeper existential needs. It is a work of contradictions, subversion, depression, humor and singular awareness; Shields is at his best when culling the work of others to arrive at his own well-timed, often heartbreaking lines. His list of "Fifty-five works I swear by:" is one of the most fascinating and useful sections of the book (Part 6, pp140-156). I would recommend this book for those who hope that reading literature may save your life and have the persistence or potvaliance to persevere when the book veers into unknown territory. The author always brings it back to literature.

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Saturday, August 02, 2014

Complexities of Love and Desire

Twelfth NightTwelfth Night 
by William Shakespeare

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
Act 1, 1.1-15

Every major character in Twelfth Night experiences some form of desire or love. Duke Orsino is in love with Olivia. Viola falls in love with Orsino, while disguised as his pageboy, Cesario. Olivia falls in love with Cesario. This love triangle is only resolved when Olivia falls in love with Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, and, at the last minute, Orsino decides that he actually loves Viola. Twelfth Night derives much of its comic force by satirizing these lovers. In the lines that open the play (above), Shakespeare pokes fun at Orsino's flowery love poetry, making it clear that Orsino is more in love with being in love than with his supposed beloveds. At the same time, by showing the details of the intricate rules that govern how nobles engage in courtship, Shakespeare examines how characters play the "game" of love. Viola (as Cesario) has the following lines in Act 1, scene 5:
Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out 'Olivia!' O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me. (251-259)

Twelfth Night further mocks the main characters' romantic ideas about love through the escapades of the servants. Malvolio's idiotic behavior, which he believes will win Olivia's heart, serves to underline Orsino's own only-slightly-less silly romantic ideas. Meanwhile, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch, and Maria, are always cracking crass double entendres that make it clear that while the nobles may spout flowery poetry about romantic love, that love is at least partly motivated by desire and sex. Shakespeare further makes fun of romantic love by showing how the devotion that connects siblings (Viola and Sebastian) and servants to masters (Antonio to Sebastian and Maria to Olivia) actually prove more constant than any of the romantic bonds in the play.

But there is more than love and desire in this amazing comedy. At the opening when Viola is shipwrecked in Illyria she bemoans that she cannot join her lost twin brother Sebastian in Elysium. Illyria is not Elysium however it reminds those familiar with As You Like It of the Arcadian forest of Arden. In both plays the setting is otherworldly--a place apart from the rest of civilization.

There is also melancholy,  for several characters in Twelfth Night suffer from some version of love-melancholy. Orsino exhibits many symptoms of the disease (including lethargy, inactivity, and interest in music and poetry). Dressed up as Cesario, Viola describes herself as dying of melancholy, because she is unable to act on her love for Orsino. Olivia also describes Malvolio as melancholy and blames it on his narcissism. It is this melancholy that represents the painful side of love.

Perhaps more central to this play in particular are the themes of deception, disguise, and performance. With these themes Twelfth Night raises questions about the nature of gender and sexual identity. That Viola has disguised herself as a man, and that her disguise fools Olivia into falling in love with her, is genuinely funny. On a more serious note, however, Viola's transformation into Cesario, and Olivia's impossible love for him/her, also imply that, maybe, distinctions between male/female and heterosexual/homosexual are not as absolutely firm as you might think. When you recall that the players in Shakespeare's Globe were all men and boys these issues become both more humorous and serious at the same time. You may get a more vivid idea of this theme by viewing clips of the recent all-male production of Twelfth Night starring Mark Rylance.*

This play rivals As You Like It for the title of the best of Shakespeare's comedies. While I prefer the former,  there are complexities of love and desire mixed with questions of sexual identity that make this comedy a fine way to experience and enjoy Shakespeare.

*Available on YouTube.

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