Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Age of Genius Machines

Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great StagnationAverage Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation 
by Tyler Cowen

"It might be called the age of genius machines, and it will be the people who work with them that will rise.  One day soon we will look back and see that we produced two nations, a fantastically successful nation, working in the technologically dynamic sectors, and everyone else.  Average is over." (p 259)

Tyler Cowen is a writer, blogger, and an economist. It is in the latter role that he is foremost although his influential blog, Marginal Revolution, is renowned and I would certainly recommend it. He has written five books, not counting textbooks, and his latest is Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. While the title tells you about the main theme of the book I found that, beyond the economics of our current snail-like recovery from the depths of the recession, this book is a cornucopia of ideas about a diverse number of aspects of our life both now and in the future.

There are three Parts to the book which focus on first, the growing divide between those who earn more, much more than average and those who are below-average earners; second, the importance of machines and, in particular, games in our future; and third, the changing nature of work.
The opening chapters establish some of the important themes for the book by describing the current environment of stagnation and making the claim, that will be supported by examples throughout the book, that "new technologies already emerging will lead us out of" the current stagnant economy. In fact the economy is not stagnant for everyone, for those who have already adapted and are involved in the "right" sectors of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), in particular the growth in computers, the Internet, and most importantly intelligent machines. Cowen also introduces the metaphor of Chess that returns again and again throughout the book. You do not need to be an expert in the game to understand the power of intelligent machines that can 'crunch' the data necessary to defeat grandmasters every, every time they are challenged.

"As intelligent analysis machines become more powerful and more commonplace, the most obvious and direct beneficiaries will be the humans who are adept at working with computers and with related devices for communication and information processing. If a laborer can augment the value of a major tech improvement by even a small bit, she will likely earn well. (p 21)
He supports this with examples from areas like the growth of cell phones in both quantity and quality, the changes brought about by super-computers that play chess and for several years have been significantly better than the best grandmasters, and the changing nature of work with examples from companies at the forefront of the new age like Google and Amazon. The tests given prospective employees at Google are described and they seem like something out of a trial for Mensa. Are they easy?
"There's a whole book titled Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? by William Poundstone. A few minutes reading it will make the answer clear to most readers, even if the word smart is not exactly the right word (Picasso was a genius but I doubt he could have landed a job at Google's Mountain View headquarters)." (p 35)
The days when you could just show up, role up your sleeves and start selling or doing any job are dwindling.

The changes discussed, documented, and commented upon in the first part of the book carry over into the latter two parts. There are and will be more changes to the nature of how you obtain a job --note the impact of social networking websites like Facebook or LinkedIn-- and your workplace whether it is an office, a factory or a sales counter. That the days of the lone scientist are over seems even more true as the complexity of machines as tools grows exponentially. Education faces changes as well due to the impact of the world of new machines. Cowen discusses the rise of MOOCS (massive online courses), information blogs, and the ubiquity of avenues for online education. But there is more.
"It is not just formal online education and blogs. Apps. TED lectures on YouTube, Twitter, reading Wikipedia, or just learning how to work and set up your iPad are all manifestations of this new world of competitive education, based on interaction with machine intelligence. These new methods of learning are all based on the principles of time-shifting (watch and listen when you want), user control, direct feedback, the construction of online communities, and the packaging of information into much smaller bits than the traditional lecture or textbook chapter." (p 181)

Late in the book Cowen discusses the potential changes for his own profession, the 'dismal science' of Economics. He anticipates that theoretical models will be challenged by more and more data-driven approaches. He says (and as someone with an Economics degree I read with interest) it will go as follows:
"(a) much better data, (b) higher standards for empirical tests, and (c) lots of growth in complex theory but not matched by a corresponding growth in impact. Mathematical economics, computational economics, complexity economics, and game theory continue to grow, as we would expect of a diverse and specialized discipline, but they are if anything losing relative ground in terms of influence. Economics is becoming less like Einstein or Euclid, and more like studying the digestive system of a starfish." (p 222)

The economics profession is like other social sciences and, like the economy as a whole, will be changing in ways that both take advantage and depend upon ever more powerful and complex computing and communication devices. There is much more in this challenging compendium of facts and ideas that will change our world. The direction of this change will determine where you and I will be and what we will do in the age of intelligent machines. In Average is Over you get one very knowledgeable economist's glimpse into that future.

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Clash of Cultures

The Mandelbaum GateThe Mandelbaum Gate 
by Muriel Spark

"He walked round the city until at last, fumbling in his picket for his diplomatic pass, he came to the Mandelbaum Gate, hardly a gate at all, but a piece of street between Jerusalem and Jerusalem, flanked by two huts, and called by that name because a house at the other end once belonged to a Mr. Mandelbaum." (p 369)

My introduction to the writing of Muriel Spark came through reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (after having enjoyed the film version). While I enjoyed this read I had not read any other novels by her recently so I was not sure what to expect upon picking up The Mandelbaum Gate. I am told that it is in some ways not typical, though her books do cover a variety of geographical locations and types of character. It is longer than most, if not all, of her other books as she tends to write quite short novels, and the economy of her prose must in part account for that.

The book is set in 1961 in Jerusalem but it is a 'historical novel' only in the sense that like that genre it is firmly set in a particular time and place. It was published in 1965, so Spark was writing only shortly after the events take place, and was therefore discussing relatively current events. The Mandelbaum Gate divides Israel, or Occupied Palestine, depending on your political viewpoint, from Jordan. The political divide takes no account of the sites holy to Christians, and so pilgrims - such as Barbara Vaughan, one of the main characters in the book - are hampered by having to pass through the gate (and needing proof of baptism to do so) if they are to see some of the locations associated with the life and miracles of Christ. Barbara's situation is complicated by the fact that she is half Roman Catholic and half Jewish - the latter being reason enough not to mean that she would be in danger of being arrested as an Israeli spy should she be found on the Jordanian side of the Gate.

Barbara is staying on the Israeli side, in a hotel which is also the residence of a British diplomat Freddy Hamilton. Freddy's job at the Embassy is unclear, though he does describe himself at one point as a filing clerk. He seems to be more than this, but he doesn't seem to do very much work at all in fact, and appears remarkably naive and ineffective in his understanding of the difficulties Barbara will face if she pursues her desire to see the holy sites on the other side of the Gate. Most importantly, for this reader, Freddy is a poet with an artistic turn to his mind as evidenced by the opening of the novel where we are introduced to him in the first paragraph:
"Sometimes, instead of a letter to thank his hostess, Freddy Hamilton would compose a set of formal verses - rondeaux, redoubles, villanelles, rondels or Sicilian octaves - to express his thanks neatly. It was part of his modest nature to do this. He always felt he had perhaps been boring during his stay, and it was one's duty in life to be agreeable. Not so much at the time as afterwards, he felt it keenly on his conscience that he had said no word between the soup and the fish when the bright talk began; he felt at fault in retrospect of the cocktail hours when he had contributed nothing but the smile for which he had been renowned in his pram and, in the following fifty years, elsewhere." (p 3)

Alongside these two main characters are a number of dependent players on both sides of the Gate, including the Cartwrights, Freddy's British friends on the Jordan side with whom he regularly stays; the Ramdez family - ostensibly running a travel agency, but using this as a cover for various other activities - Abdul, the son, teaching Freddy Arabic on the Israeli side, Joe, the father, a rather uninviting character running a brothel on the Jordanian side, where Suzi, his daughter, eventually takes Barbara when they smuggle her through to Jordan. Freddy seems at first attracted to Abdul, but transfers his affection to Suzi, who resembles her brother closely - they are described as beautiful, dark skinned but blue-eyed. It is Suzi's resemblance to Abdul that seems at first to attract Freddy to her. There is also Alexandros, lover of Suzi and owner of a gift shop; Saul Ephraim, archaeologist and unofficial tour guide for Barbara; Rupert Gardnor, colleague of Freddy, and his wife Ruth; and hardly appearing and yet important to the whole thing, Ricky (Miss Rickward), headmistress of the school in which Barbara teaches in England, and Harry Clegg, Barbara's fiance, and archaeologist working in the Dead Sea area.

The story is primarily about Barbara's attempt to gain access to the biblical sites on the other side - the Arab side - of the Mandelbaum Gate, but of course it is really about religion, politics, faith and the complexity of life. No character is entirely clear to us, no one's motivations are entirely certain, no one is entirely virtuous or unvirtuous, with the possible exception of Joe Ramdez. The story is firmly set in a specific place and time with the Eichmann trial occurring in the background indirectly connected through a relation of Barbara. There is also Nasser's Post Office, Jewish cousins in Golders Green, and Freddy's amnesia among the many events that transpire in this detailed but not too busy book.

What is typical of Spark in this book is her style of writing, which is precise yet comfortable. It invites the reader to relax and enjoy details that, while not inconsiderable all of which seem to move the story forward, fill in details that help make sense of the plot without impeding any suspense that has built up. There is also a sense of humor and wit amid the very serious issues, a wonderful use of repetition and of moving the narrative backwards and forwards in time, a sort of helix effect of strands spiraling around each other, with the author in complete control - this is often enough to make me laugh at its cleverness, as well as the witty elements in the writing. She always seems to invest much vigor in her writing which is taut but with a sort of panache. Through a solid foundation--the structure allows the novel to grow slowly but not too slow--the story gradually comes to a satisfying denouement.

There are motifs such as Freddy's attitude (such as it is, it takes some of the edge off any sense of danger), and biblical references like this phrase from the Book of Revelation - "Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou wilt make me vomit thee out of my mouth." Both Freddy and Barbara independently decide that people should really not quote the Scriptures at one, and yet that phrase keeps coming back. It seems what the novel is all about - the clash of British culture, where one's religion is no one else's business and yet of vital importance in various ways, with Middle Eastern culture, where it is a matter of life and death, and one cannot afford to be lukewarm. One moment that this becomes more clear is when Freddy and Suzi are taking Barbara, wrapped in the clothes of an Arab servant and lying low in the car, through part of Jordan, and Freddy thinks they will all feel better if they stop for a pink gin before lunch. That is typical of Freddy, but also indicative of the overall theme of the novel.
The novel ends, wonderfully, with Freddy exploring Old Jerusalem and describing, for the first time in the novel, the actual Mandelbaum Gate--a fitting conclusion for this fine story.

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Second Act, Same Result

Waiting for Godot
by Samuel Beckett

-   further notes

As the second act of Waiting for Godot begins Vladimir and Estragon are in the same place they were at the beginning of the play.  That is it seems to be the same, a country road, a rock to sit upon, a tree.  But the tree has leaves that it did not have in the first act.  The pair enter into a discussion about several things but soon turn to examine the tree, and its leaves.  They cannot agree whether the leaves were there the day before or not.  Is it the same tree?  Are they in the same place?  Where were they the day before?  The play seems once again frozen in a world of bewilderment.  But perhaps this is a variation of what was called the "imponderable" by Ludwig Wittgenstein.  That is the discussion verges on what might be called imponderable evidence.  That is the notion discussed by Wittgenstein near the the end of the second part of his Philosophical Investigations when he talks about "imponderable evidence" as that which is not "documentary" and represents those things for which language has no words.  How can we tell if that tree was genuinely the same tree as yesterday or even that our memory of what happened yesterday is genuine?

This episode in the play is merely one example of the continuing aporia of existence for our hapless heroes.  They are lost in a world that, for moments, appears to be real and not unlike our own; but it quickly diverges into a different world where memory plays tricks or ceases to exist and words cross paths in ways that suggest the dramatis personae are unaware of each other.  Is Estragon beaten every night?  He says he is but Vladimir cannot make any sense out of it.  The upshot of these moments is summed up by Vladimir when he says:
"We wait.  We are bored.  No, don't protest, we are bored to death, there's no denying it.  Good.  A diversion comes along and what do we do?  We let it go to waste.  Come let's get to work!  In an instant all will vanish and we'll be alone once more in the midst of nothingness! [He broods.]" (p 71)

Pozzo and Lucky, a pair that visited in the first act, return.  But now, unlike his appearance in the first act,  Pozzo is blind and does not seem to recognize Vladimir and Estragon.  The discussion between them, Lucky is dumb (again unlike the first act when he had a soliloquy), is strange when it turns upon the question of time--as Vladimir asks Pozzo, "Since when?" (was Lucky dumb).  Pozzo responds furiously:  

"Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time!"  Upon reflection this seems not to be an unreasonable question.  Don't we all, at times, torment or at least frustrate ourselves with unnecessary concerns about time?  Pozzo continues, "It's abominable!  When!  When!  One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? [Calmer.] They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more." (p 80)

Pozzo and Lucky exit and, after a bit of dialogue with Estragon about whether Pozzo was  really blind or not (another imponderable), Vladimir seems to respond to Pozzo's remark,  "Astride of a grave and a difficult birth.  Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps.  We have time to grow old.  The air is full of our cries.  But habit is a great deadener." (p 81)
The play ends the same way the first act ended with the visit of an unnamed boy with the message from Mr. Godot that he will not be coming today, but he will be coming tomorrow.  Vladimir and Estragon agree to wait for another day.  Estragon has the last words, "Yes, let's go. [They do not move.]" 

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.  Grove Press, 1954 (1952).

Friday, April 18, 2014

An American Poet

The Poetry of Robert Frost
- an introductory note

My introduction to the poetry of Robert Frost came in  a class in American Literature which was the focus of my Junior year of high school English.  It is there that I began to truly enjoy poetry while reading the major American poets like Bryant, Emerson, Robinson, Masters, Lindsay and others.  My favorite was Emily Dickinson, but it was in that class that I also began to appreciate another truly American poet, Robert Frost.  Imagine my surprise upon reading his biography and learning that his first collection of poetry, A Boy's Will, was first published in England.  Ezra Pound (who I had not discovered yet) read a pre-release copy of the book and proclaimed (to Harriet Monroe); "Have just discovered another Amur'k'n.  VURRY Amur'k'n with, I think, the seeds of grace."

The seeds of grace--while I did not have that opinion I began to realize, at least in a superficial way, the importance of the best of the poetry of Robert Frost in that class almost fifty years ago.  Currently I have begun to reread both in depth and more broadly through his poetry in an attempt to add more understanding to my enjoyment of his verse.  I hope to share some of my thoughts in the near future.  In the meantime here is one of the poems that impressed Ezra Pound and others back in 1913.  The poem's persistent exhibition of onomatopoeia is almost mesmerizing. The internal rhymes and constant alliteration seems to bring out the very sounds of mowing.


There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

-  Robert Frost  (from A Boy's Will, 1915)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fun with Verse

How to Be Well-Versed in PoetryHow to Be Well-Versed in Poetry 
by E.O. Parrott

"Wake from out my midnight ramble.
Life is just a massive gambol."
-  Bill Greenwell (after Dylan Thomas)

This wonderful book is both an anthology of poetry and an introduction to poetic forms. Apparently it is one of a series of similar literary compilations, all edited by Mr. Parrot. He spent many years as a teacher of English and General Studies, and reminds me of the character Hector in Alan Bennett's play, The History Boys, because of his eclectic taste as demonstrated in this book (and presumably his other collections).

Useful as a reference through the inclusion of all known poetic forms and not a few unknown (to me), it is a review for those, like myself, that are rusty on the details of the form of poetry if not the substance. While rhyming and meter and stanzas are encountered there are sections of poetic fancies, light verse, terse verse and more.  The forms are demonstrated in all manner of ways, one being the parody like that in the epigraph above that mocks the famous "Fern Hill" of Dylan Thomas.  
The chapters begin with a selection of poems whose subject is poetry itself, with verses like:

"Poetry the pleasure
Madness and treasure."
"So remember: the poetic Muse
It is a sure-fire cure for the blues;
A verse a day
Keeps the hearse away."

This should provide brief evidence that poetry can be fun for all who love words or at least wonder about them. The delight is in learning about the form and being of poetry while experiencing rhymes from a gathering of contemporary poets who provide exceptionally entertaining evidence of the magic of verse.  Often with tongue-in-cheek he gathers poems and poetic bits of verse with both demonstration and entertainment in mind. The result is a book of poetry presented in its most entertaining form. For that and for the inspirational value to encourage me to expand my poetry horizons I am grateful.

If you like the classics or Proust you may find the following "Distichs" delightful:

"A tea-soaked madeleine consumed by Proust,
Mon Dieu! What recollections that unloosed."

"She launched a thousand ships, no less, from little craft to whalers;
You'd say that Helen must have got on very well with sailors."
- Stanley Sharpless

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Man's Spiritual Dilemma

Every Man a Murderer (Sun & Moon Classics)Every Man a Murderer 
by Heimito von Doderer

"I've always thought how dreadful it must have been to live in such a time, in Spain, I mean, when the Inquisition was active there," Conrad said. "The slightest suspicion, or a denunciation, was enough to put a man in line for horrible tortures.  How could anyone have enjoyed his life or taken up any interests . . ." (203-204)

Every Man a Murderer, published in 1938 even while the author was working on his larger work-The Demons, is a story of personal and political crisis. The political crisis is exemplified by the rise of National Socialism while the personal crisis has its roots in Doderer's relationships, especially his marriage and divorce.
The novel is set in Germany and is monographic in that it is focused on a single figure and his fate, character, love, and death. The narrative is leisurely and thoughtful concerning one Conrad Castiletz, a young man, who becomes fascinated with the story of his sister-in-law who was murdered on a train eight years before he met and married his wife; also how he discovers his own personal connections with this event. It is almost Sophoclean in its exploration of the protagonist's own guilt. The first third, which deals with the hero’s childhood, schooling, sexual initiation, and so on, is fascinating though seemingly not necessary for the rest of the story. It is only upon the accidental death of Conrad and the way it links to the recovery of his youthful world that the themes of accident, fate , and character link together to make the connection. For the author the task of humanization begins with overcoming character.  This may be seen in the opening lines of the novel. "Everyone's childhood is plumped down over his head like a bucket.  The contents of this bucket are at first unknown.  But throughout life, the stuff drips down on him slowly--and there's no sense changing clothes or costume, for the dripping will continue." (p 3)
Only when Conrad begins to respect this is he able to become a person by overcoming his fate.  The oppressive atmosphere of the Gestapo-like society provides a surreal and sinister background for Conrad's story.

The novel is one of ideas, spiritual linkages, and metaphysical drama, reminiscent of Hesse and Conrad or perhaps of Thomas Mann which for some readers is enough to recommend it.
"The man who lay beside the pile of lumber was no longer sick. He was, in a manner of speaking, far healthier than anyone else, for he was dead.” Or: “If anyone says, ‘Nonsense!’ in regard to something, it generally shows that he has not dealt inwardly with the matter."
This is a novel for those interested in ideas and man's spiritual dilemma.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Anthology of Fear

The Penguin Book of Horror StoriesThe Penguin Book of Horror Stories 
by J.A. Cuddon

“Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made.”   ― Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death

According to the OED the word horror was used in the sense of a "loathing fear, feeling terror or repugnance", as early as the fourteenth century with one example cited from no less than Chaucer in "The Parson's Tale" from his inestimable Canterbury Tales. So the notion has been around a long time and in use by a broad range of authors.

This anthology provides just such a broad range of writers both famous and those not so well-known. Writers include expected representatives like Poe, Henry James, Balzac, Maupassant, Stevenson, and Bierce, among others. But there are those unexpected and unknown to this reader like Percival Landon D. K. Broster, and Monica Dickens. Those authors are surprisingly few and those who are famous also include twentieth century contributors like Bradbury, William Faulkner, Patricia Highsmith and Roald Dahl. This is a quality collection of some of the best examples of the horror story genre that I would recommend to both beginners and experienced readers of terror-filled and haunting tales.

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Sunday, April 06, 2014

Comparative Philosophy

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly FalseMind and Cosmos: 
Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False 
by Thomas Nagel

Philosophy has to proceed comparatively.  The best we can do is to develop the rival alternative conceptions in each important domain as fully an carefully as possible, depending on our antecedent sympathies, and see how they measure up.  That is a more credible form of progress than decisive proof or refutation. (p127)

This is a very small book about some big issues; namely the "relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms" and its relation to the cosmos.  Thomas Nagel has written a provocative book aimed at both serious readers and other philosophers. Whether he succeeds in his goal of explaining the implausibility of materialist theories is in doubt, but there is no doubt that he provides some challenging ideas about the way we can philosophize about the nature of mind.

The book starts sort of in midstream discussing modern materialist theories;  with a focus on the "failure of psychophysical reductionism." This is the position in the philosophy of mind that proposes that the physical sciences will be ultimately capable of providing a theory of everything.   It is known as as reductionism. In addition to attacking this he proposes that the development of mind raises questions that the evolutionary theory of the development of life forms can explain the complexity that is evident today.  He also criticizes the idea that consciousness is merely a side-effect.  In this he is successful at least from this reader's perspective.  It seems evident that life is more than just an accident that keeps happening.

After a discussion of anti-reductionism and the natural order the book follows with chapters on consciousness, cognition, and values. In his discussion of cognition he proposes a teleological, or goal-oriented, development of "biological possibilities". This is presented as an alternative to the alternatives: chance, creationism, or directionless physical law. He does not recognize that evolutionary theory suggests that certain developments might be inevitable, or at least predictable.  His proposals are made as reasonable alternatives to theories that he suggests have reached a dead end.  In presenting them he does not argue from proof, but rather suggests his alternatives provide what may be considered a new paradigm that will allow progress in areas like the relationship of consciousness and the brain and evolutionary development.

He concludes that the best alternative is a naturalistic, though non-materialist, alternative. Thus Mind is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy.   Some questions that were raised in our discussion of this book included whether there is life or consciousness elsewhere in the universe, if the ability to create life in the laboratory would have any bearing, and if we could create consciousness in computers would this make a difference?  Unfortunately the author does not explore these and many other issues in this short book.  While Nagel is an atheist, he adds that even some theists might find his proposed views acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics.

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

Memories of the Prairie

A Son of the Middle BorderA Son of the Middle Border 
by Hamlin Garland

“I remember a hundred lovely lakes, and recall the fragrant breath of pine and fir and cedar and poplar trees. The trail has strung upon it, as upon a thread of silk, opalescent dawns and saffron sunsets. It has given me blessed release from care and worry and the troubled thinking of our modern day. It has been a return to the primitive and the peaceful. Whenever the pressure of our complex city life thins my blood and benumbs my brain, I seek relief in the trail; and when I hear the coyote wailing to the yellow dawn, my cares fall from me - I am happy."  -   Hamlin Garland, McClure's, February 1899

My fond memories of growing up in Wisconsin create a warm place in my heart for this memoir about growing up in a Wisconsin of the previous century; then as the mid-western frontier. Hamlin Garland captures the essence of the place and time that was already a distant memory during my boyhood. He does this through advocacy of a form of realism that blended the realist's insistence upon verisimilitude of detail with the impressionist's tendency to paint objects as they appear to his individual eye.

He begins in a tremendously moving fashion with the first time he met his father who was returning home from the Civil War in 1864, as he was a baby when his father went off to war.
""Come here , my little man," my father said.--"My little man!" Across the space of a half-a-century I can still hear the sad reproach in his voice. "Won't you come and see your poor old father when he comes home from the war?"
"My little man!" How significant that phrase seems to me now! The war had in very truth come between this patriot and his sons. I had forgotten him--the baby had never known him."(p 6)

Garland narrates his memoir in chronological fashion tracing the events of his boyhood, first in Wisconsin and later in Iowa, and continuing into adulthood with his own travels and development as a writer. He uses a first person narrator but, he has two different "I"s telling the story. Using a "double angle of vision" Garland frequently shifts from telling his story from a youthful perspective to viewing the events and commenting on their significance as an adult. It is a very personal narrative where he does not claim to be telling the literal truth but only his personal or interior truth. The story is shaped by his own reminiscences and recollections of the past forming a sort of literary impressionism that Garland called "veritism". The veritist differed from the realist, Garland claimed, in his insistence upon the centrality of the artist's individual vision: the artist should paint life as he sees it. In doing this he brings his world alive for the reader.

The stories of his family life, with his brother on the farm and in school, his uncle David playing the fiddle, and the life of the prairie with its flora and fauna were the sections that I enjoyed the most. In later life he would go on to write short stories that were gathered in the collection Main-Travelled Roads and, four years after Son of the Middle Border he wrote Daughter of the Middle Border for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. I think the depiction of a warm family life on the prairie, a region's characters, customs, and textures of life creates an interesting read even for those who do not share a personal connection with the beauty of Midwestern life.

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Search while Waiting

Waiting for GodotWaiting for Godot 
by Samuel Beckett

“Vladimir: I don't understand. 
Estragon: Use your intelligence, can't you? 
Vladimir uses his intelligence. 
Vladimir: (finally) I remain in the dark.” 

― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am", is a philosophical proposition by the French philosopher René Descartes. The simple meaning of the Latin phrase is that thinking about one’s existence proves—in and of itself—that an "I" exists to do the thinking; or, as Descartes explains, "[W]e cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt … ." While other knowledge could be a figment of imagination, deception or mistake, the very act of doubting one's own existence arguably serves as proof of the reality of one's own existence, or at least of one's thought. It is the one thing of which one could be certain.

In Samuel Beckett's play, Waiting for Godot, there is one thing that is certain as well. It is that the characters, Estragon and Vladimir, are waiting for Godot. Estragon opens the play with the statement, "Nothing to be done." This is a sign that there will be little action in the traditional sense in the play. It is also a metaphysical statement about life, Estragon's life and life in general. As the play opens the dialogue between Estragon and Vladimir sometimes seems like parallel monologues. As often as they answer one another they also veer off on seemingly absurd tangents only to circle around to what seems like similar topics as the dialogue continues. I use the word continue because there seems to be a lack of progress. The setting is "A country road. A tree."; the time, "Evening." And it could be any country road with a lifeless, leafless tree at any time in the past, although from the dialogue one may infer that they are a significant number of years beyond the "90s", which may refer to the previous century. And they refer to the Eiffel Tower; thus they may be in France near the end of the nineteen-forties which is when Beckett began writing his "tragicomedy".

Beckett’s first serious dramatic work has become a landmark in modern theater. It was published in French as "En attendant Godot". According to the publisher, “the story line evolves around two seemingly homeless men waiting for someone – or something – named Godot. Vladimir and Estragon wait near a tree on a barren stretch of road, inhabiting a drama spun from their own consciousness. The result is a comical wordplay of poetry, dreamscapes, and nonsense, which has been interpreted as a somber summation of mankind’s inexhaustible search for meaning. Beckett’s language pioneered an expressionistic minimalism that captured the existentialism of post-World War II Europe. " The play is presented in two acts in both of which nothing happens.

Some moments from the opening pages of the first act serve to define the characters and their (imaginary? or not.) world. Estragon seems beaten down as he spent the night in a "ditch" and when asked by Vladimir, "And they didn't beat you?" Estragon replies, "Beat me? Certainly they beat me." Thus confirming that he is not only figuratively, but literally beaten down. Vladimir has a more upbeat tone to his commentary, more voluble yet still spare with words, and sometimes, however briefly, betrays doubts only to quickly move on to a more positive tone of thought. Thought is something that is clearly evident in the manner and words of Vladimir while Estragon is so terse in his remarks, often in the form of questions, that he seems to lack the ability to think. That is, until you pause to meditate on his remarks and they begin to assume metaphysical importance, or perhaps not. Slowly topics emerge from the dialogue: the thieves who were crucified with Christ, the barren tree beside the road, suicide, and others. Yet, the dialogue seems to drift off in directions that one would never expect when discussing these, or any ideas. The unexpected becomes what you expect and the absurd becomes the norm in this play whose characters search for meaning in the nothingness of their presumed existence.

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

American Modern Classic

Manhattan TransferManhattan Transfer 
by John Dos Passos

“But you’re out of another world old kid … You ought to live on top of the Woolworth Building in an apartment made of cutglass and cherry blossoms.”   ― John Dos Passos

The ferry-slip. A ferry, and a newborn baby. A young man comes to the metropolis and the story begins. It is a story of that metropolis: "The world's second metropolis." But it is really the latest in a line that extends backward in time to "Nineveh . . Athens . . . Rome . . . Constantinople . ." and others since.

John Dos Passos presents stories of some of the people who call this metropolis, Manhattan, home near the beginning of the twentieth century. The novel is about New Yorkers and their stories -- numerous characters whose commonality is only their status as New Yorkers brought them together, impersonally and randomly. He does so with an engaging style that encompasses the sights, sounds, feelings, and excitement encountered by those who peopled this island metropolis. Each chapter begins with passages comprising observations of city life, newspaper headlines, bits and pieces of dialogue, and phrases from advertisements. All these passages emphasize that "Manhattan Transfer" is a collective novel about the city of New York, about its shallowness, immorality, and grinds of the urban life. The characters' lives only depict some of them.

There are the dreams of new parents whose daughter, Ellen, is born at the opening of the novel. Her life and career will be one of two that span the course of the novel. But there are also young lovers, young men, down-and-outers, immigrants, swells, and others on the make with little but their dreams to keep them going. Some stories are about dreams shattered or those whose lives are stillborn,limited by poverty or lack of vision. The angry rebels are present as well -- those found on the street corner protesting for better treatment, better pay, or mimicking the ideas of radicals and anarchists of the day.

Among the many stories some stand out. There is James Merivale who is born to wealth and a prosperous future and John Harland who has seen better days and lives on the verge of losing it all. There is the family man Ed Thatcher with his wife and newborn daughter Ellen (mentioned above). There is also the other character whose story will span the novel, Jimmy Herf, whose path will cross that of Ellen. Jimmy Herf works with the "Times" in a job that he finds unfulfilling eventually leaving this job. Jimmy's search for his dream will form another arc that provides a link for all the stories bringing the reader ultimately back to the ferry with which the book began. This arc is not unfamiliar in the sense it is similar to the arc of young Nicholas Rostov in War and Peace and many other young men since.

Dos Passos' style is mesmerizing and fits perfectly with the story he tells. The characters form a mosaic that blends with the sights and sounds of Manhattan to create a world that is alive with all the possibilities, both successes and defeats, that humanity may experience. 
British novelist D. H. Lawrence wrote Manhattan Transfer is "the best modern book about New York" because it "becomes what life is, a stream of different things and different faces rushing along in the consciousness, with no apparent direction save that of time".
The historical references include discussion of the "bonus marchers" of veterans requesting their military bonuses, references to Sarajevo, and other events;  all of which provide a background that provides context for these peoples' lives. I found this book an exciting read that gripped my attention and did not let it go. I would highly recommend this modern classic.

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Romantic Masterpieces

Schubert   and   Schumann

Last night I attended a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that included two great romantic works, Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in a minor and Franz Schubert's Great Symphony in C Major.  Sometimes considered his greatest work, the Great C Major, his  9th Symphony,  was never heard by the composer, because the Viennese musicians considered it unplayable; rather, it was premiered in a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert in 1839 under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn.

Schubert's Symphony No. 9 begins with a noble, reflective theme that reappears throughout the first movement. Well after Schubert's death, the theme's grandeur and sense of space, together with the sheer length of the Symphony, helped to earn it the nickname the "Great C Major".  Robert Schumann, who brought it to the attention of Mendelssohn, referred to its length as "heavenly" in the critical music revue which he edited.  In fact, the nickname was first applied by a music publisher to distinguish the work from Schubert's shorter and less ambitious 6th Symphony, the "Little C Major." But the name aptly describes both Schubert's evident intent in writing the work, and the stature of the final composition.

Schubert profoundly revered Beethoven. He may have paid the older composer a single visit, but generally he kept a humble distance, content with attending Beethoven's concerts including most probably the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth "Choral" Symphony in 1824. He served as one of Beethoven's pallbearers at the great man's funeral. Perhaps his greatest tribute to Beethoven was his resolve to write a grand symphony with the breadth and profundity of his predecessor's; and his Symphony No. 9 was the result.

It was a perfect vehicle to show off the strengths of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Music Director Riccardo Muti, and their success was rewarded by the enthusiastic response of the audience.  Earlier in the evening the reknowned pianist Mitsuko Uchida played the Schumann concerto with sublime style.  Her experience in this repetoire, she first played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra almost thirty years ago, provided her with the ability to share deep insights into this familiar concerto.  The concert was another triumph for one of the great orchestras of the world.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Versailles in 1919

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the WorldParis 1919: 
Six Months That Changed the World 
by Margaret MacMillan

“We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.” ― Margaret MacMillan

It was 1919 and the Great War had ended the previous year when, from January to June, the leaders of Britain, France, Italy and the United States met in Paris to decide the outcome of the war they had just won against the Central Powers. This would be difficult,  for the Great War of 1914-18 had seen the disappearance of four old multinational empires: the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman. The fate of people from places as disparate as Strasburg to Baghdad--hundreds of millions--was to be decided. What should this peace conference consider? A Congress of nations had convened in Vienna in 1815 to reorder Europe after the defeat of Napoleon , but confined itself, like others before it, to adjusting the fates of dynasties and states. The peacemakers of 1919 had also paid attention to principles, promises, public opinion and a fast-changing and unstable political scene. It was a current question whether much of central Europe would follow the direction of the Russian revolution.

The making of the Versailles treaty had early on been written about by two young English participants in the Paris negotiations, who wrote their own accounts of the events. In ''Peacemaking 1919,'' Harold Nicolson sketched caustic vignettes of elderly statesmen adrift in a world they couldn't comprehend. And John Maynard Keynes, in ''The Economic Consequences of the Peace,'' demolished the credibility of the settlement itself, eviscerated the case for war reparations and predicted the disaster that must follow. These accounts are still worth reading.

Margaret MacMillan with her ''Paris 1919'' has written a very good history of the negotiations, full of detail and fairly comprehensive. While the organization of the book is sometimes confusing, for example discussing the 1919 creation of Yugoslavia without first explaining what happened in the Balkan wars of 1912-13. And the author's decision to tell the story of the breakup of the Hapsburg empire after her account of the little states that succeeded may confuse those not already familiar with that story. But the many national narratives were well told and constitute parts of the book that I enjoyed the most.

MacMillan has a good focus on the characterization of individuals, both leading figures like Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, and peripheral actors like Queen Marie of Romania and many other hapless supplicants from Beijing to Budapest. Wilson is treated fairly and realistically. Despite his good intentions, perhaps because of them, he was widely viewed as petulant, petty and vain. Lloyd George and Clemenceau, while growing tolerant of his obsessions never got used to his peculiarly American brand of idealism. Wilson, just as would prove to be the case upon his return to face the Senate, was unable to adapt and compromise, demurring the requisite political trading that might achieve some of his goals. His obsession with achieving his new League of Nations was not shared by the many Europeans.
Nevertheless, the American president was the key figure in Paris. The French were understandably concerned with keeping Germany down for the indefinite future. The Italians wanted the territorial pound of flesh they had been secretly promised in return for switching sides in 1915. The British sought above all to stabilize the periphery of Europe and protect access to their imperial possessions farther south and east. Only the Americans had a Big Idea -- self-determination. The peoples and nations now released from imperial captivity were each to receive their own spaces, assigned after careful specialist attention to history, geography, language and other relevant considerations. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Serbs, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Armenians, even Kurds were to have a place in the sun. Only Germans, and to a lesser extent Turks, were not free to determine where and with whom they would live -- the price of defeat.
The unintended consequences of this "Big Idea" are still haunting the world today almost a century later. The idea of self-determination was a chimera leading to a disastrous reality. As Robert Lansing, Wilson's secretary of state, predicted: ''It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until it was too late to check those who attempt to put the principle into force.'' He was right. The peoples of central Europe and the old Ottoman empire could not be divided into conveniently distinct communities. They were mixed up together then and we have seen the results in the Balkans at the end of the twentieth century and are seeing a continuation of sorts both in the Middle East and the old Soviet Empire today.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

What is Real?

by Nicholas Mosley

"I was standing in the hall, the dead time, four o'clock in the morning.  Nothing at the centre, not even pain.  If only I could cease.  Listen to the clock.  A wind.  The wind stops.  I hear a noise like a breath expelled through a dry throat.  Then nothing.  I wait for it to be repeated.  Nothing.  Nothing about death." (p 164)

This is an obsessive short novel that opens with an accident. The narrator, Stephen Jervis - a don at Oxford, has come upon two of his students, Anna and William, who have just crashed their car. The story flashes back to the moment when Anna has just met Stephen, as he has become her Philosophy tutor. As a tutor in Philosophy Stephen seems conflicted. In order to hide from his emotions he focuses on his work. "The consolations of work are that you come from it tired at the end of a long day. A robot, with men working inside you. They pull levers; switch. You watch and move. At the end you have something to look forward to. You go home. To rest. The mechanism sleeps. The men open doors, windows. Look out into the air."(p 18)

In the first meeting with Anna he gives her a brief introduction to the nature of philosophy and how much she must learn about it - existence and persons. What makes a person an enduring entity? What is the real substance of existence and what is an "accident." In his discussion with her it comes to the point where "Now we've got a choice. Before it was Just accident."(p 31)
With this introductory moment we have the theme of the novel. There is the real and the accidents of our existence. These will be played out through the lives of Stephen and his wife Rosalind, lives that include infidelity and the games that Stephen plays with the lives of others; both his student Anna and, in London, Francesca. As he thinks about the events leading up to the accident he wonders: "At what point did the course of events go wrong?" He thinks, "An accident is different from reality."(p 61)  But what is reality?  Is it the truth or an accident?  The novel provides questions, not answers.

The culmination of his affairs comes in the relation of various incidents to the accident of the title, one that is on more physical grounds and one where, another one of Stephen's students, a young man he really doesn't like, William, is killed. What role does Stephen play in all of this? Should he feel guilt or is he even guilty? During the course of the book Anna has exercised quite an influence not only on William, but on Stephen and his colleague, Charlie. And at the close of what has been a demonstration and a defense of free will, worrying about the questions of guilt versus responsibility, Stephen (and Charlie) are left to determine their own conduct. Mosley writes in a style that commands attention. It is allusive, controlled, and with ideas that are implicit. For those who love novels of ideas and their relation to human emotions this is a perfect short novel.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Personal Favorite

David CopperfieldDavid Copperfield 
by Charles Dickens

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”   ― Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

This was the first time Dickens made extended use of the first person and he was effective, particularly expressing both the innocence of youth and wonder of the young David while subtly signifying the older David's narrative voice as he looked back on the events. I was impressed with the relationships David develops in his youth, especially his friendship with Steerforth who is portrayed as a charismatic character with a portent of darkness in his demeanor. As a reader I am not as trusting as the narrator. We are also introduced to the Micawbers, with Mr. Micawber's famous dictum on the nature of happiness and misery:  
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”   Mr. Micawber is merely one of the many memorable characters in David's story - what fun he is!

What is the identity of David Copperfield? David, through the first two dozen chapters of the novel, is called by various names: David by his family; Daisy by Steerforth; Trotwood by his Aunt Betsey; Davey by Mr. McCawber; the list goes on and will be continued and expanded. What is interesting is that David assumes these names as his own. He does this not only in the company of the person who names him but, in the case of Trotwood, in the school he attends as well. The question of David's identity is one theme of this novel that I believe deserves further exploration and attention. For the moment I wonder at the connection, if any, with all of these names and the opening paragraph of the book where David meditates about whether he will be the hero of his own life. As for the question - who is the hero of the novel? - that is another major issue. I should also note the importance of the sea and nature, for example when Steerforth was staying in Yarmouth at the Pegotty’s we see him in meditation by the fire, where he expresses his wish that he “had had a judicious father”. . . “to better guide him”. It is moments like this that also provide a deepening of our understanding of Steerforth’s character.

Continuing on his journey, David completes his schooling and with the financial backing of his Aunt Betsey becomes an apprentice "proctor" (a sort of agent). When David was 10 or 11 years old he seemed old for his years, but he has kept much of his child-like innocence and naivete as he enters his late teens and now seems young for his age. His maturation will have to wait for much more experience and a deepening of his thought much later in the novel. He is able to avoid being taken advantage of by his friend Micawber, but he does not avoid Cupid's arrow and he falls in love with Dora Spenlow. This event with other complications provides growing suspense for the reader. In addition, Dickens continues to provide for David's intermittent commentary from the perspective of his older self. This provides the reader with curious suggestions of the action that will ensue in the rest of the novel.

I find Dicken's notion of marriage somewhat strange. David continues to dote on Dora after his marriage and a first year where they discover their inability to maintain there household. Dora , whose complete lack of common sense is irritating (at least to this reader), provokes David with her innumeracy. The situation does provide Dickens with an opportunity for a humorous set-piece when David tries to "form" Dora's mind by reading Shakespeare to her. Needless to say the project flounders on the rock that is located where her mind should be. In a book that is Dickens's best to date (greater novels loom on the horizon) it does disappoint in the use of coincidence and just a bit of melodrama in the saga of L'il Emily who returns to Mr. Peggoty with the help of mysterious Martha. That aside, David does seem to be maturing just in time to become a successful writer just like the author of his story.

As the novel closes David's story ends and his new journey, with Agnes by his side, begins. Dickens deftly brings the novel to a climax, as David narrates the resolution of each of the novels main characters' fates. But I was most impressed by Dickens's use of the theme of nature and how it signals the final true maturation of David. While nature and the sea have been recurring motifs throughout the novel (see above), in the final section we have nature brought home to David as he meditates on his life (following the deaths of Dora and Steerforth). We get the first intimation of this in Chapter LII:
"Early in the morning, I sauntered through the dear old tranquil streets . . . The rooks were sailing about the cathedral towers ; and the towers themselves , overlooking many a long unaltered mile of the rich country and its pleasant streams, were cutting the bright morning air, as if there were no such thing as change on earth."(p. 747)

Then in Chapter LV, Tempest, natures brews a storm leading to the shipwreck and discovery of Steerforth's dead body. But it is three chapters later while David is travelling in Switzerland that he narrates:
"I think some long-unwonted sense of beauty and tranquillity, some softening influence awakened by its peace, moved faintly in my breast."(p. 821)

I believe David's feeling here which is followed swiftly by a reassuring letter from Agnes, allows him to regain his artistic vigor leading him to write once again after a hiatus. It also signals his final maturation; and the reader delights in his return to England and the ultimate moment when he and Agnes share their long delayed testaments of love for each other.  Thus ends one of Dickens' most famous and my personal favorite of all his delightful novels.

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Poems by Frost

New HampshireNew Hampshire 
by Robert Frost

"It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can.  The figure a poem makes.  It begins in delight and ends in wisdom."  -  Robert Frost, "The Figure a Poem Makes"

In 1923 Robert Frost published his Selected Poems in the spring followed by this collection in November. The following year he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for it. In addition to the titular poem this collection includes the famous "Fire and Ice", a short poem with resonance from Dante and others. 
  One of my favorites is "The Onset" that seems an appropriate poem to meditate upon as spring approaches.  I think we can see a hint of Dante again in this poem with "the dark woods", and there is also the symbolism of winter coming, of snow falling, a beautiful imagery that a time will descend upon us where our lives are dull, tragic, painful or lonely.  Yet in the second stanza hope appears with the recognition that "winter death has never tried the earth but it has failed:".  By the end of the poem the transition from death to life is complete when one contrasts the white of "the gathered snow" at night to the living white of the birch tree and hope in family life symbolized by "a clump of houses" and the spiritual life of the church.

The Onset                                                                    

Always the same, when on a fated night
At last the gathered snow lets down as white
As may be in dark woods, and with a song
It shall not make again all winter long
Of hissing on the yet uncovered ground,
I almost stumble looking up and round,
As one who overtaken by the end
Gives up his errand, and lets death descend
Upon him where he is, with nothing done
To evil, no important triumph won,
More than if life had never been begun.

Yet all the precedent is on my side:
I know that winter death has never tried
The earth but it has failed: the snow may heap
In long storms an undrifted four feet deep
As measured again maple, birch, and oak,
It cannot check the peeper's silver croak;
And I shall see the snow all go down hill
In water of a slender April rill
That flashes tail through last year's withered brake
And dead weeds, like a disappearing snake.
Nothing will be left white but here a birch,
And there a clump of houses with a church.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Two Comedies by Two Waughs

Decline and Fall Decline and Fall 
by Evelyn Waugh

“...any one who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul destroying.”  ― Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall 

Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall, is a delightful satiric comedy. It is based in part on Waugh's undergraduate years at Hertford College, Oxford, and his experience as a teacher in Wales. He is sent down from Oxford and as a result takes a position at the Llanabba school in Wales.  The school itself is dingy, depressing, and seems always on the verge of coming apart at the seams. The masters, Captain Grimes, Mr. Prendergast, and Paul, are all unqualified for their positions, the students are frightfully undisciplined, and little or no learning ever takes place within Llanabba Castle's walls.  In this episode and others I encountered the author's not so subtle satire and characteristic black humor in lampooning various features of British schools and society in the 1920s. 

The novel's title is a contraction of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But it also alludes to the German philosopher Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918–1922), which first appeared in an English translation in 1926 and which argued, among other things, that the rise of nations and cultures is inevitably followed by their eclipse. Waugh read both Gibbon and Spengler while writing his first novel.
I tremendously enjoyed the picaresque adventures of its hero, Paul Pennyfeather, as he encountered barely believable difficulties in "getting along". Waugh's characterization is superb while his satire is unambiguously hostile to much that was in vogue in the late 1920s, and themes of cultural change and confusion, moral disintegration and social decay all drive the novel forward and fuel its humor. This book was a joy to read even if you do not participate in all of Mr. Waugh's inside references. It is a worthy introduction to the novels of one of the finest authors of our century. 

 The Foxglove SagaThe Foxglove Saga 
by Auberon Waugh

“There is an old story about the boy at Eton who committed suicide. The other boys in his house were gathered together and asked if any of them could suggest a reason for the tragedy. After a long silence a small boy in the front put up his hand: 'Could it have been the food, sir?”  ― Auberon Waugh

Auberon Waugh's first novel, The Foxglove Saga, is a comic novel very much in the style of his father's earlier books and the result is very successful. Its hero, Martin Foxglove, is an abominably flawless paragon. While at school Martin chooses a set of friends considered inappropriate by his family and he abandons his Christian faith. His story and that of his friends, particularly the ugly, middle-class Kenneth Stoat and the unfortunate Martin O'Connor, makes for a slyly humorous and sometimes sadly funny novel. 
The plot is intentionally absurd, built around the central character's desire to implement the seven corporal Works of Mercy. The catholic Lady Foxglove parades them one by one, treating the list as if it provided some definitive road map to saintliness, while liberally reinterpreting her own self-interested actions as charitable ones, in order to cross another required work from the list. The irony here is that while the list provides some guidance as to how the merciful should act in advancing the welfare of others, Lady Foxglove's interventions always reduce the happiness of her intended beneficiaries.

I do not claim to have understood all of the sardonic details that Waugh includes but the story has plenty of references that are clear to anyone familiar with twentieth century British literature, especially if the name Waugh is below the title. The comic attitude of the book seems to be that any official machinery—the school, the hospital, the Army—can be made to go wrong by individual determination and lying. I would suggest that it is not Mr. Waugh who is amoral and cruel, but the machinery in which his characters are caught. Anarchism of this sort is viable, if not as a basis for life, at least for a comic novel and in his creation Auberon compares well with his more famous father as his first novel continues the family tradition of irreverent humor.

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