Thursday, September 20, 2018

"Harmless" History

The Plot Against America 


The Plot Against America



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, September 07, 2018

Dreamer and Healer

The Hummingbird's Daughter 

The Hummingbird's Daughter



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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Scheherazade and Her Tales

The Arabian Nights 
translated by
Sir Richard Francis Burton 



The Arabian Nights


“Scheherazade had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of bygone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.”  ― Richard Francis Burton, The Book of a Thousand Nights and One Night 




This is the selection of tales of The Arabian Nights as translated by Sir Richard F. Burton and published by The Modern Library. The story of Scheherazade's ingenuity is of Persian origin and its origin has been traced back to 944 AD. However the tales are more Arabian than Persian in flavor. Over the centuries the tales multiplied and eventually comprised an convoluted form that has been a source of admiration as a miracle of narrative architecture. While Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are similar to them in construction, in that they are collections of stories within stories, the Arabian tales is infinitely more complicated.

The frame of the work consists of a whimsical plot arrangement that depends upon the jealousy of Shahriyar, King of India, for his wife and her wanton ways; after executing her he vows to take his revenge on wall woman-ways. Night after night he marries some beautiful girl, only to order her beheaded the next morning. That is until he meets Scheherazade whose wile and intelligence is more than a match for the King. She manages to spin a bewildering number of yarns and, by suspending the ending of each, eludes the executioner. The tales she tells include such stories as "Aladdin's Lamp" and "Sinbad the Sailor" and many more that, while less famous, are equally entertaining. 
"the most marvelous article in this Enchanted Treasure was a wonderful Lamp with its might of magical means." (p 712, "Alaeddin; or, The Wonderful Lamp")

The resulting compendium of stories has been popular ever since inspiring many translations and different forms. This translation by Richard F. Burton may be the most entertaining of all. In 1888 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composed "Scheherazade", a tone poem in four movements, capturing the elemental emotions on display in the original collection of stories. The composition is a brilliant demonstration of Rimsky-Korsakov's superior skills of orchestration resulting in wonderful listening; it has been a favorite of mine since I was a child (Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev).

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Conspiracy in the Near Future

Lock In 

Lock In (Lock In, #1)




“Heads could be heavily customized, and a lot of younger Hadens did that. But for adults with serious jobs, that was déclassé, which was another clue to Schwartz’s likely social standing.”   ― John Scalzi, Lock In





Reading Lock In was a comfortable experience as it had many of the hallmarks of a John Scalzi novel and it was the fourth of his novels I have read - hopefully not my last. Lock In relates the consequences of an incurable disease; however the cause of the virus or as it is known in Lock In “Haden Syndrome” is irrelevant. Lock In is a futuristic conspiracy thriller. The pandemic that led to the spread of this virus killed many millions, but also left many with "locked in" bodies that could be maintained even while immobilized.

The main character in Lock In is Agent Chris Shane, who is starting his first week as a full agent for the FBI. Agent Shane is one of the Locked In, he gets around by using a Threep, an artificial body that connects to his mind so he can interact with people that are still able-bodied. Agent Shane’s first week also coincides with a strike being held by the Haden community, as a bill has recently been passed by the government that will cut funding significantly from subsidies and programs that support Haden sufferers.

Through Agent Shane and his partner Agent Vann - whose work specifically deals with those who have Haden Syndrome - different perspectives are demonstrated between the people affected with Haden’s and the people who do not understand them. In their daily routine, as they're called to the scene of a murder, we instantly see that there is misunderstanding and discrimination between Haden’s and normal humans which is escalates throughout the story. Scalzi develops his characters well - though Agent’s Shane and Vann at the beginning of the book have only just met there is a good camaraderie between them, it feels like an odd couple pairing, but you can see the trust building between a veteran agent and the rookie.

This book also focuses on the differences between the rich and poor in society. John Scalzi poses the question - what makes us human? When a virus has rewired 5 million people’s brains in the US alone, allowing them to do things that the un-afflicted are unable to do, does this make you more or less human? With access to Threeps, for some travel is now instantaneous, while for others race and gender are no longer an issue. This has a concomitant affect by also causing tensions where previously there were none. I felt that this sociological aspect really grounded the characters in their reality. They also became real as Agent Shane demonstrates emotions that one would not expect from a machine.

This is an inventive sci-fi story, with so many ideas floating around (another Scalzi specialty) that you should feel disorientated and yet it is so well written that you never feel frustrated or lost by what has not yet been revealed. This reader felt the technology levels were not beyond my comprehension; they appeared to be reasonable given the current direction of technical progress. The political and business aspects that are based on power struggles work really well in this context. If you have never read anything by John Scalzi, this is a good place to start; and if you have read some Scalzi I can reassure you that he is on top of his game in this novel.


Friday, August 31, 2018

A Young Man's Hunger for the World

Of Time and the River 

Of Time and the River



“The thought of these vast stacks of books would drive him mad: the more he read, the less he seemed to know — the greater the number of the books he read, the greater the immense uncountable number of those which he could never read would seem to be…. The thought that other books were waiting for him tore at his heart forever.”   ― Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth



This is the sequel to Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe's massive first novel. It is a sequel that almost doubles the first novel's length. In much of Wolfe’s writing, lengthy descriptions of train journeys impart a sense of movement and change. In Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man’s Hunger in His Youth, his hero, Eugene, embarks upon a trip northward. Having left college in his native state, Eugene believes that he has become a witness to a vast and panoramic series of images which, taken together, reveal the many faces of America itself. He feels a sense of escape from the dark and mournful mystery of the South to the freedom and bright promise of the North, with its shining cities and extravagant hopes. The plains, peaks, and valleys that shape the landscape over which he passes, as well as the innumerable towns and cities along the way, suggest to him the limitless diversity of the United States.

Other images, mainly from the past, are called up within Eugene when he stops in Baltimore to visit the hospital where, in his fatal illness, his father is being treated. The old man seems yellow, wan, and exhausted, and only the stonecutter’s hands, of a massive size and grace, seem still to suggest the strength and dignity with which he had once carried out his chosen calling; even appearing to have wasted away, and with only hints of his once vibrant spirit. Somewhat later dies in the midst of numerous relatives and friends who have come by during his last days.

Wolfe’s second novel is divided into parts bearing allegorical allusions; the figure most readily identified with his fictional hero is portrayed in the second section as “young Faustus.” Just as Goethe's Faust is noted for his striving for knowledge that marks him as the first modern man, Eugene Gant is propelled by an immense and boundless striving to read anything and everything he can and to encompass all known learning and literature in a self-imposed regimen that goes well beyond the limits of formal study. At Harvard’s library he prowls about in the stacks, taking down volumes he has not seen before and timing with a watch how many seconds it takes to finish one page and read the next before moving on. Eugene also walks the streets alone, mainly for the sake of gathering in sights and sounds that are still new and not entirely familiar to him. He marvels at the lonely, tragic beauty of New England, which he has come to believe differs from his native South.

Eugene, like Wolfe himself, for a time devotes unstinting energies to writing plays for a workshop which absorbs his energies, but later he turns away from these efforts as constraining and imposing limits upon his creative self. At times he expresses his disdain for productions that he thinks are overly fashionable or artistic. Wolfe often was given to expressing his hero’s observations and aspirations quantitatively, in large numbers, to suggest some great and unrealized vision of the nation and of human culture, in its immeasurable richness: While at Harvard, Eugene yearns to read one million books, to possess ten thousand women, and to know something about fifty million of the American people. Such strivings seem idealistic and elemental yearnings of and young man whose very being seems set upon not the satisfaction but the pursuit of his unending quest.

For a time, however, he must provide for himself by teaching college-level English courses in New York. All the while, the growing discontent fed by this routine breeds in him wants of another sort. Eugene yearns to travel and experience new vistas on several levels. One autumn he sets forth to see the great cities of the Old World.

In England, Eugene feels some affinity with a people who share with him a common language and literature. Though England seems drab and colorless in some ways, and the cuisine for the most part bland and disappointing, he ultimately senses a bond of affection which transcends any outward differences. On the other hand Eugene is moved by the atmosphere and attitudes which contrast with those of his own country. In France he feels overwhelmed by the Faustian urges that had beset him earlier; he wants to learn and read everything about Paris and its people. Not quite attracted or repelled, he becomes fascinated and at times awestruck by his surroundings.

Some episodes having less to do with cultural matters prove diverting and at times distressing. When he encounters a man he had known from his Harvard days and two American women, their brief camaraderie turns to bitterness and recrimination when Eugene, somewhat put out by what he regards as their affected Boston ways, becomes involved in a fight with his erstwhile friends. After some spirited quarrels, he leaves the others. Once out of Paris, he is befriended by some odd older women from noble families; in the end, as he has chronically been on the verge of exhausting his money altogether, his travels on the Continent must be brought to a close. Having traveled about at length, more and more he has become beset with a longing for home, and indeed he is eager for the sight of anything that might hint of America. When the journey of this modern Faust has been completed, he also—in a state of some wonderment—comes upon a woman for whom he has been longing, on the return voyage home.

"Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave; the coals therof are coals of fire, which have a most behement flame." (p 922)


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Quote for Today



"To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written." —Thoreau

Friday, August 17, 2018

Running for Life

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner 

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner




"As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner. I suppose they thought I was just the build for it because I was long and skinny for my age (and still am) and in any case I didn't mind it much, to tell you the truth, because running had always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police."  - Alan Sillitoe





The story of a young "Borstal" boy told almost entirely from the boy's point of view is a riveting novella about overcoming both your heritage and your self through courage and persistence. The long-distance runner - we learn eventually that his name is Smith - is at war with the governor of the Borstal to which he has been sent as a result of the "bakery job". His conflict with the warden is a matter of honesty; that is whether the 'outlaw' brand of it is more valid that the governor's 'in-law' brand.

The Governor, who treats the boy like a prize race horse, is counting on him winning the long-distance 'All England' running cup for his Borstal. The boy seems to go along with this although we are privy to his inner thoughts which contradict his responses to the Governor. " And I swear under my breath: . . . No, I won't get them that cup, even though the stupid tash-twitching bastard has all his hopes on me." He goes out every morning 'frozen stiff with nothing to get me warm except a couple of hours' long-distance running before breakfast' and feels 'like the first bloke in the world . . . fifty times better than when I'm cooped up in the dormitory with three hundred others'. What is more, he has a plan. 'Cunning is what counts in this life,' he tells us at the outset, 'and even that you've got to use in the sliest way you can.'

When the day of the race comes we are there with him on the run, with his thoughts of his plan, his situation, memories of his deceased father (also an outlaw), and hints of his future. It is as if his short life is going on there in his head and before our eyes. The result of the race is not really the important thing in this gripping story. Rather; it is the presence of the mind of a teenage rebel who ruminates on his life and his self. The result is profoundly thought-provoking and utterly readable. Three years after it was published the author penned the screenplay for a film version that won several awards.


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Adventures of a Gaviero

The Adventures of Maqroll: Four Novellas : 
Amirbar/the Tramp Steamer's Last Port of Call/
Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships/
Triptych on Sea and Land 


The Adventures of Maqroll: Four Novellas : Amirbar/the Tramp Steamer's Last Port of Call/Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships/Triptych on Sea and Land



"the Gaviero was an insatiable reader, a tireless and lifelong consumer of books. This was his only pastime, not for literary reasons but because of a need to stove off somehow the tireless rhythm of his wandering and the unpredictable outcome of his voyages."




The Adventures of Maqroll is difficult to categorize. It’s a collection of novellas that include adventure stories populated by men and women who live where and how they must; these are the people who work near shipyards and the banks of unexplored river tributaries, people who value candor and honesty but for whom strict adherence to the law is often inconvenient. The book is a philosophical rumination on friendship and creation, romance and deception, obstinance and poverty.

The book isn’t a novel, but a collection of four novellas (there are three additional novellas in the collection entitle simply Maqroll) about Maqroll the Gaviero, written by Álvaro Mutis, who is, according to the introduction and the book jacket, one of Latin America’s finest poets and best friend of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A gaviero is the ship’s lookout, the sailor tasked with sitting atop the masts scanning the horizon. His eyes must always be active. He must be alert to the nuances of the sea and the capabilities of his vessel. It was not lost on this reader that Melville's Ishmael, too, was a topman, feeling himself, "a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts," and revolving within himself "the problem of the universe."

Mutis is present in these stories, but in a passive role, as reporter of the Gaviero’s adventures. Narrated in no particular order, selected so as to highlight Maqroll’s insatiable desire for experience, each story alludes to many imagined but unwritten characters, places, and events. We’re left with an incomplete impression of a rogue’s beautiful life—Mutis’s ode to his notion of the romantic seafaring gypsy.

The Gaviero is part of a group of wanderers who fascinate those who task themselves with creating whatever literature might be: the heirs of Odysseus and Jason, spies, pirates, and cowboys who abide the outrageous and rely as much on apathy as on strength in order to avoid the nooses and axes wielded by their enemies.

The Gaviero is not a symbol. He is a fleshed-out character, as well as the embodiment of an ideal: the knife fighters and Viking poets idolized by Borges, a mixture of Robinson Crusoe, Odysseus, and Don Quixote. He indulges fantasy but prepares for disappointment. He lives between lawlessness and acceptability. Barkeeps lose a new friend and a good source of business when he leaves town, and one woman always sits in the main room of her home, wondering whether anything she has given will supplement his resolve. He enjoys good food, uncomplicated wine, and the company of interesting friends. The Gaviero is who we all dream of being when we contemplate throwing everything away.

Among the novellas in this collection I particularly enjoyed "the Tramp Steamer's Last Port of Call" and "Abdul Bashar, Dreamer of Ships". Bashar was as interesting a character as Maqroll himself, described as having "strong, bony hands [that] moved with a singular elegance that has nothing to do with affectation, although these movements never corresponded to his words. It was vaguely disconcerting, as if his double, crouching there inside him and obeying an indecipherable code, had decided to express himself on his own. For this reason, Abdul Bashar's presence always aroused disquiet combined with sympathetic feelings for the captive who could make his presence felt only in gestures of a rare distinction, which were not those of the real person talking to us."

The first novella in the collection, "Amirbar", concludes with an appendix: "The Gaviero's Reading". I mentioned in my review of Maqroll that he was a great reader and this appendix provides detail about some of his favorite books. They are all antique, recondite works that I had never heard of (however upon researching the names and authors I found they were real and not fictional creations). They are among the books mentioned in passing in the other novellas, however the appendix provided not only the names but some details about the nature of each book.

This is a delightful book, but not necessarily a happy one. The Gaviero symbolizes the difficulty of attempting to internalize the good while accepting the inevitability of the bad, the chance to create the type of death we envision for ourselves, one with as many or as few regrets as our daily lives will tolerate. He seems to lead a life of adventure that would be possible only for a fantastic twentieth century romantic.

Mutis, himself a thorough Romantic, compels his readers, through the Gaviero, to examine our reasons for despondency, and instructs us to cherish our innate ability to fall in love with the world and with each other. This collection is an exhortation, a reminder that circumstances change but that innocent pleasures are abundant, available, and free.


Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Adventurer Extraordinaire

Maqroll: Three Novellas  
The Snow of the Admiral/
Ilona Comes With the Rain/Un Bel Morir 


Maqroll: Three Novellas : The Snow of the Admiral/Ilona Comes With the Rain/Un Bel Morir



“Life always holds in store surprises that are more complex and unforeseeable than any dream, and the secret is to let them come and not block them with castles in the air.”  - Alvaro Mutis



If ever there was an original and charismatic hero it's Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout). In this book over the course of three novellas he is introduced as an adventurer, sailor, lover, friend, and entrepreneur. Like the famous Odysseus he is a man of many sides and ways. In fact his character seems born of the lineage of Odysseus or Don Quixote or any of the sailors that inhabit the novels of Joseph Conrad. As with many a hero, one of Maqroll's strengths is simple knowledge: he's been everywhere, met everyone, has a memory or story for every occasion. Maqroll seems to be from the mold of characters created by B. Traven; Maqroll takes the world as known and thus no one's, with nothing to offer but memories of what's been lost and anticipations of the losses to come. He's much more Marlow than Indiana Jones, more fatalist than flaneur.

These three novellas describe his ventures that range from smuggling rugs in Alicante, to managing a brothel in Panama, to involvement, unintentional as it may be, with guerillas in South America. What makes these adventures stand out is not only the character and actions of Maqroll but the background of these episodes that benefit from the prose of Alvaro Mutis. He brings the rivers and the jungles to life along with the indigenous characters that inhabit them. The impressions of places including a coastal town and a decaying jungle settlement are inhabited by fascinating characters like the captains of the ships on which Maqroll sails or the beautiful and enigmatic Larissa who provides the intrigue for one of the novellas.

In "The Snow of the Admiral", after a brief introduction by the author, the story is told through entries in Maqroll's diary describing a trip up a river in some unnamed country. Maqroll is unique in the wealth of knowledge and experience he displays, especially the breadth of his reading; he reads every chance he gets, and in his very first entry he makes an offhand reference to Dicken's Little Dorrit. He ends his first diary entry with the following curious remark:
"It's all absurd, and I'll never understand why I set out on this enterprise. It's always the same at the start of a journey. Then comes a soothing indifference that makes everything all right. I can't wait for it to arrive."

Through the diary entries we see more aspects of his character. He attended a Jesuit Academy which tells you a lot about his education and his seemingly unorthodox discipline. In addition to his reading I liked his philosophical or thoughtful side as seen in this example of what he calls a "precept":
"Thinking about time, trying to find out if past and future are valid and, in fact, exist, leads us into a labyrinth that is no less incomprehensible for being familiar."
Moments later, after several more examples, he calls them all "fake pearls born of idleness and the obligatory wait for the current to change its mood". They are all the more fascinating nonetheless.

Weeks into the trip he speaks with a Major who tells him, "There's no mystery in the jungle, regardless of what some people think. That's its greatest danger. It's just what you've seen, no more, no less. Just what you see now. Simple, direct, uniform, malevolent. Intelligence is blunted here and time is confused, laws are forgotten, joy is unknown, and sadness has no place."

Following the diary entries the novella concludes with four appendix-like sections, one of which gives the novella its name, all introduced with the simple line, "Further information concerning Maqroll the Gaviero". In one of these sections he visits the Aracuriare Canyon where he builds a hut and stays for a time. "the Gaviero began an examination of his life, a catalogue of his miseries, his mistakes, his precarious joys and confused passions. He resolved to go deep into this task, and his success was so thorough and devastating that he rid himself completely of the self who had accompanied him all his life, the one who has suffered all the pain and difficulty. . . .
But as he faced that absolute witness of himself, he also felt the serene, ameliorating acceptance he had spent so many years searching for in the fruitless symbols of adventure."

There are two further novellas in this collection, and a second volume by Mutis that contains four additional novellas about Maqroll the Gaviero, an astonishingly unique adventurer.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Life in Bucharest

Life Begins on Friday 

Life Begins on Friday




"The people of Bucharest were having a bad day. It had snowed , there were still twelve days till the end of the year, and twelve hours till the end of the day."





This is a feel good novel busy with everyday life as lived by a large cast of singular individuals. It all takes place with seasonal aplomb during the final 13 days of 1897.
A young aristocrat is discovered lying in the snow, mortally wounded. He takes a while to die, uttering something mysterious as he expires. Nearby another man is also found. He is not injured, only confused, certain only that his name is Dan. He is briefly suspected of the shooting. His mildness helps confirm his innocence, while his strange footwear suggests he has come from afar. Life moves on, very quickly.

There is also a generous amount of snow: “there were still twelve days till the end of the year . . . the whiteness, which stretched from one end of the city to the other, from the Cotroceni Palace to the Obor district . . . was melting in the afternoon sun.
“The icicles looked as if they were coated in oil and were beginning to drip onto the heads of the passers-by. The streets were quite busy, as they always were on the days before Christmas.”

Into the chaos stumbles little Nicu the messenger boy and he really does trip in the snow. He is eight years old and as lively as he should be at his age – free to run around a bustling metropolis mixing with grown ups who, with one dastardly exception, are kindly to him. The boy is also bothered with the troubles of his mother, a washerwoman who suffers from mental illness. His life is precarious and much sadder since the death of his grandmother. But Nicu, the heart of the novel, is reliable and is trusted to run errands. He has many friendships, including those with the family of Dr Margulis, that lead him into complicated and interesting escapades.

All the characters, if not quite connected, run parallel to each other. Nicu’s daily chores bring him to the quaintly atmospheric newspaper office, and Parvulescu revels in recalling the glory days of journalism. The office, dominated by two very different brothers, is busy and the staff is engaged, eccentric and dedicated. Various stories are doing the rounds. It is a different world, the world of yesteryear.

Hapless mystery man Dan is given a job on the paper as he claims to be a journalist and, having been presented with a test story, proves his competence. Dan is a present-day journalist who has somehow stepped back in time. Exactly how is not explained but no one should apply a literal reading to this incidental, episodic narrative. Dan’s plight causes him to open his eyes and begin to live. He looks about him and notices: “ . . . carriages to which were harnessed pairs of glossy horses, an ox cart creaking under a gigantic barrel, hansoms, irritable coachmen . . . the people were seemingly all dressed in the same fashion, one matching the other. The ladies wore hats swathed in scarves tied beneath the chin; their waists were unnaturally slender and their heavy garments reached to the ground. The men all had bowler hats and canes.” Dan feels happier. “It was as if I found myself in the world of a young and active God, having lived in an increasingly ruinous world that had lost its God or which had been lost by God.”

Life Begins on Friday was first published in Romania in 2009. Within the pages of this delightful and surprising novel these stories and others are interwoven with each other - while the most significant character of all turns out to be the city of Bucharest itself. The prose is descriptive and the tone formal yet conversation. Translator Alistair Ian Blyth skillfully negotiates the shifts between first and third person, and contrasting voices. Parvulescu’s engaging characterization drives a narrative of loose ends which is far more about human responses to events, major and routine, than to story. Old world charm, a sense of period and the very human individuals who populate it makes this novel a rare delight to be enjoyed, whether or not it is snowing outside.


Monday, July 16, 2018

Education in the Art of Love

The Art of Love 
by Ovid


The Art of Love



"If anyone among this people know not the art of loving, let him read my poem, and having read be skilled in love. By skill swift ships are sailed and rowed, by skill nimble chariots are driven: by skill love must be guided."
- The Art of Love, Book I, 1-4.




The art of love encompasses three books by Ovid. Using an elegiac verse style he expounds the varieties of amorous and erotic adventure in graceful language. Originally written for the sophisticated society of Augustan Rome, his poetry has continued to entertain and entrance readers ever since.


The first two books contain advice for the predatory male, but the third Ovid devotes to the opposite sex, to avoid, as he affects to say, any charge of partiality. The whole is in the mode of the erotic Alexandrian elegy, but leavened with Ovid's wit. The tradition appears to be rooted in Asia Minor due to the nature of the diction. While the elegy was originally primarily made of laments there were erotic elegies before Ovid. Among the Greeks Mimnermus and Theognis were considered great elegiasts.


The book is filled with stories and advice, here is a sample: 

“You ask perhaps if one should take the maid herself? Such a plan brings the greatest risk with it. In one case, fresh from bed, she’ll get busy, in another be tardy, in one case you’re a prize for her mistress, in the other herself. There’s chance in it: even if it favors the idea, my advice nevertheless is to abstain. I don’t pick my way over sharp peaks and precipices, no youth will be caught out being lead by me. Still, while she’s giving and taking messages, if her body pleases you as much as her zeal, make the lady your first priority, her companion the next: Love should never be begun with a servant.” 

Ovid gives a sympathetic insight into a society that was becoming consumed with a moral laxity. By contrast Horace provided a more moralistic tone of censure in his Satires. The work has enjoyed a continuing popularity ; Ovid's knowledge of human, particularly of feminine, nature, the brilliant picture of the social life of Rome, the studied artlessness of the comparisons he draws from animals and from pursuits such as hunting, farming, or sailing, the narratives that he cannot resist interweaving with his teaching---all these elements, together with a considerable degree of humor and irresistible wit, have combined to give the work a unique attractiveness. However the result of Ovid's sympathetic eroticism was the arousal of the disfavor of Augustus; Ovid was exiled for life to the coast of the Black Sea, and felt that his poetry was at least partially responsible for his misfortune. We are fortunate that the text has endured.


"But avoid men who profess elegance and good looks, and who arrange their hair in its proper place. What they tell you they have told a thousand women; their fancy wanders, and has no fixed abode." - The Art of Love, Book III, 433-36.


Monday, July 09, 2018

A Hieroglyphic World

The Age of Innocence 


The Age of Innocence



“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.”   ― Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence




The Age of Innocence is the twelfth novel published by Edith Wharton, winning for her the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The story is set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s. It centers on the impending marriage of an upper-class couple, Newland Archer and May Welland. And the introduction of a woman, Ellen Olenska, plagued by scandal whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and morals of 1870s' New York society, it never devolves into an outright condemnation of the institution. In fact, Wharton considered this novel an "apology" for her earlier, more brutal and critical novel, The House of Mirth.

Apology it may be, but it still has biting passages and moments of silent despair for the primary characters of Newland and Ellen. And there is the sacrifice of artistic, romantic impulses for family duty and societal respectability. Newland Archer, a young lawyer from one of New York's best families, thinks he is in love with the exotic Countess Ellen Olenska and even entertains the thought of leaving his wife for her, but when he learns that his wife May is pregnant, he abandons all hope of love and happiness and decides to stay with May.

The difficulty of genuine human communication in the upper strata of society is an important theme in the Archer plot. Newland Archer lives in what Wharton calls "a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs." Most of the important personal communications between Archer and his wife are left unsaid. Many times Archer imagines what she is saying to him (or more complicated yet what she thinks he is saying to her), but of course Archer may be reading the hieroglyphics wrong. Because so little that is felt is actually expressed, Archer at times appears to be having an internal dialogue with himself.

Wharton's attention to the mores of the upper class includes details based on her own experience. But her insights into the psychology of the characters, especially Newland and Ellen as noted above, were what I found most interesting. The regrets of an aging man for what might have been have seldom been limned as well as in Miss Wharton's story.

Critics praised her novel The Age of Innocence most highly among all her works. Set in New York of the 1870s, it displays the sometimes rigid customs of New York’s wealthy elite and the difficulties that its members sometimes have in departing from these customs in order to pursue desire that is outside their bounds. It was lauded for its accurate portrayal of how the 19th-century East Coast American upper class lived, and this, combined with the social tragedy, earned Wharton a Pulitzer Prize — the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman. Edith Wharton was 58 years old at publication; she lived in that world, and saw it change dramatically by the end of World War I. The title may be read as an ironic comment on the polished outward manners of New York society, when compared to its inward machinations. This is the best of her novels in my estimation, although the bittersweet The House of Mirth is my personal favorite.


Thursday, July 05, 2018

Poet for an Age

The Collected Poems
 of W.B. Yeats 


The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats


"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart;"
- "The Second Coming"



I have enjoyed the poetry of William Butler Yeats for many years as evidenced by my well-worn copy of his Complete Poems. But there is more to enjoy when considering this protean author for throughout his long life, William Butler Yeats produced important works in every literary genre, works of astonishing range, energy, erudition, beauty, and skill. His early poetry is memorable and moving. His poems and plays of middle age address the human condition with language that has entered our vocabulary for cataclysmic personal and world events.

"O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?"
("Among School Children", p 105)

The writings of his final years offer wisdom, courage, humor, and sheer technical virtuosity. T. S. Eliot pronounced Yeats "the greatest poet of our time -- certainly the greatest in this language, and so far as I am able to judge, in any language" and "one of the few whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them."
He was also a great poetic chronicler of his homeland as can be seen in these lines:

"The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans."
("The Wild Swans at Coole", p 131)

There are always new things to be learned, new sounds to sing to, and new beauty by which to be possessed, when reading and meditating on the poetry of this masterful author.




Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Parallel Universes

The Gods Themselves 


The Gods Themselves

“Schiller. A German dramatist of three centuries ago. In a play about Joan of Arc, he said, ‘Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.’ I’m no god and I’ll contend no longer. Let it go, Pete, and go your way. Maybe the world will last our time and, if not, there’s nothing that can be done anyway. I’m sorry, Pete. You fought the good fight, but you lost, and I’m through.”   ― Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves



The Gods Themselves is a story of two worlds that are struggling for power and survival, although they have never met. One world, the human's world, is so consumed with the need for free energy they are unwilling to give up their source of power, even though it may destroy all life in their Universe. The other world needs the energy pulled from the Earth's Universe because their own Sun is about to die. The scientists struggle against an unseen time clock to save their world.

The story is an ingenious and prescient yarn that touches on the issue of our civilization’s insatiable need for cheap, plentiful energy and our inability to accept the environmental consequences of that dependence. It is told across multiple parallel universes and has a description of a para-race of beings that is staggering in its complexity;  the novel is also a cautionary tale of scientific hubris and ego run amok and the cross-dimensional dissidents who try desperately to avert a crisis. With echoes of our own world’s current global energy crises and the environmental impact of our reliance on dirty energy sources, the book is an eerie reminder of the trade-offs we make in the name of progress and civilization.

Frederick Hallam, a scientist, discovers a substance, plutonium-186, that should not exist under the physical laws in the universe. It becomes more radioactive over time, shooting out positrons. This substance is transmitted to Earth from a para-universe in which physical laws are much different. This substance provides cheap, seemingly endless, and nonpolluting energy. Increasing amounts of it can be attracted by use of a device called the Inter-Universe Electron Pump. In exchange for plutonium-186, Earth provides tungsten; in the para-universe, tungsten emits electrons and thus provides energy.

The first section, “Against Stupidity,” details the Pump’s discovery from the point of view of Peter Lamont, who is writing a history of this scientific development. He decides that the Pump may transfer some of the physical laws of the para-universe to Earth’s universe (and vice versa), with the result that nuclear reactions in the Sun will grow stronger and the Sun will turn into a nova, wiping out all life on Earth. At the same time, suns in the para-universe will cool down.

Lamont warns about the possible dangers, but his warnings are paid little heed. He attempts to communicate with the para-universe aliens, aided by linguistic expert Myron Bronowski. Ultimately, they succeed, receiving a message that appears to warn that the Pump is dangerous but also appearing to suggest that authorities in the para-universe will not stop the process. It is up to humanity to do so.

The best part for this reader was the second section, “. . . The Gods Themselves,” where the locale shifts to the para-universe. The inhabitants include three types of alien children with different characteristics: Rationals, Parentals, and Emotionals. The Parentals give birth to the other two types, and one of each of the three types constitute a triad who occasionally melt together in a sexual process, experiencing pleasure but later not remembering all that took place during merger.

There are also Hard Ones, other aliens who do not melt. A Hard One is the adult form of a Rational-Parental-Emotional triad, constituting a permanent melding of the mature triad. A Hard One named Estwald began the energy interchange with Earth’s universe because of a winding down of the energy sources in theirs. The Hard Ones know that this may cause Earth’s sun to explode, but they still will not stop the process because that explosion would result in emission of a huge source of energy for them. An Emotional (Dua) is troubled by this and warns the people of Earth’s universe of the dangers of the Pump. It is then revealed that Dua is part of the triad that makes up Estwald.

In the third section, “. . . Contend in Vain?,” Benjamin Allan Denison, a scientist and past colleague of Hallam, becomes involved with a female Lunar tour guide named Selene. The Moons inhabitants have been unable to use the Pump there, but they wish to as a means of becoming more independent from Earth. Denison confirms that the Pump is a danger to the Sun’s stability but suggests that if there are two parallel universes, there must be more. The denouement of the story follows providing an adequate if not inspiring finish to this fine tale. Asimov's imaginative aliens and the suspense created by the scientists made this another classic from the prolific pen of Isaac Asimov.


Monday, June 18, 2018

Dante Notes, I

Dante and the Aeneid


The Portable Dante



The Aeneid was read by Dante and others and the first part of the epic poem can be read as an allegory for the journey of one's life. The surface meaning of the Virgil's poem is the travels and travails of Aeneas between the time he leaves Troy and arrives in Latium, where he will found the city that one day becomes Rome. But the allegorical reading is one which can be applied to any man including Dante. Aeneas demonstrates self-control in resisting the attractions of Dido while persisting in his mission and in doing so overcoming many obstacles demonstrating courage and fortitude. Most importantly for comparison with the Dante's poem, in Book 6 of the Aeneid, Aeneas goes down to the underworld.

The visit to the underworld in the Aeneid also parallels a similar visit made by Ulysses (Odysseus) in Homer's Odyssey. Dante knew the story of Ulysses from Ovid who recounts it in his Metamorphoses (like Dante, Ovid suffered the fate of exile and expulsion from the city he loved and died without returning to it). It is this recounting that inspired the tale narrated by Ulysses in Canto 26 of The Inferno.

Robert Fagles points out in his introduction to The Aeneid that Dante's reaction when he recogizes Virgil ("Are you then that Virgil", Inferno 1.77) is a recall of Dido's question when she realizes who her visitor must be ("Are you that Aeneas . . ., Aeneid 1.738). There are other borrowings from the Aeneid, notably the same Charon ferries spirits across the same river and refuses to take a living passenger at first (Inferno 3.80). Further comparison between the sea voyage of Aeneas in The Aeneid with Dante's epic can be seen in the use of the sea-voyage image at the beginning of both the Purgatorio and the Paridiso.

In the twentieth century Hermann Broch began his novel of Virgil's last days, The Death of Virgil, with a similar motif of the ending of a sea-voyage with Virgil lying on his death bed in the entourage of Augustus. Beside Virgil in a small trunk was the manuscript for the Aeneid. And Primo Levi, in his autobiographical Survival in Auschwitz, recounts how he kept himself sane by attempting to reconstruct Ulysses' great speech in the Comedy from memory. These words provided a touchstone of humanity and civilization even that modern version of Dante's hell.