Friday, February 24, 2017

A Commonplace Entry

If it were true that eternal laws existed, ruling everything, human in an absolute way and which only required of each human being complete obedience, the freedom would only be a farce. One man’s wisdom would be enough. Human contacts would no longer have any importance, preserved perfect activity alone would matter, operating within the context set up by this wisdom which recognizes the Law. This is not the content of ideologies, but the same logic which totalitarian leaders use which produces this familiar ground and the certainty of the Law without exception.

Logic, that’s to say pure reason without regard for facts and experience, is the real vice of solitude. But the vices of solitude are caused uniquely by the despair associated with isolation. And the isolation which exists in our world, where human contacts have been broken by the collapse of our common home, again following the disastrous consequences of revolutions, themselves a result of previous collapse.

This isolation has stopped being a psychological question to which we can do justice with the help of nice expressions devoid of meaning, like ‘introverted’ and ‘extraverted’. Isolation as a result of absence of friends and of alienation is, from the point of view of man, the sickness which our world is suffering from, even if it is true, we can notice fewer and fewer people than before who cling on to each other without the slightest support. Those people do not benefit from communication methods offered by a world with common interests. These help us escape together, from the curse of inhumanity, in a society where everyone seems superfluous and considered as such by others.

Isolation is not solitude. In solitude, we are never alone with ourselves. In solitude we are always two in one, and we become one, a complete individual with richness and the limits of its exact features, only in relation to the others and in their company. The big metaphysical questions, the search for God, liberty and immortality, relations between man and the world, being and nothingness or again between life and death, are always posed in solitude, when man is alone with himself, therefore, in the virtual company of all. The fact of being, even for a moment, diverted from one’s own individuality allows it to formulate mankind’s eternal questions, which go beyond the questions posed in different ways by each individual.

The risk in solitude is always of losing oneself. It could be said that this is a professional risk for the philosopher. Since he seeks out truth and preoccupies himself with questions, which we describe as metaphysical but which are indeed the only questions to preoccupy everyone. The philosopher’s solution has been to notice that there is apparently in the human mind itself one element capable of compelling the other and thus creating power. Usually we call this faculty Logic, and it intervenes each time that we declare that a principle or an utterance possesses in itself a convincing force, that is to say a quality which really compels the person to subscribe to it.

Recently we realized that the tyranny, not of reason but argumentation, like an immense compulsive force exercised on the mind of men can serve specifically political tyranny. But this truth also remains that every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning. This beginning is the only promise, the only message which the end can ever give. St Augustine said that man was created so that there could be a beginning. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth, it is, in truth, each man.

from The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt.

a reading of this entry by Jean Luc Godard may be found @ OPEN CULTURE

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

If This is a Man

Survival in AuschwitzSurvival in Auschwitz 
by Primo Levi

"Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses:  he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself.  He will be a man whose life or death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of a pure judgement of utility.  It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term 'extermination camp', and it is now clear what we seek to express with the phrase: 'to lie on the bottom'." (p 27)

Captured in December of 1943 by the Fascist Militia, a young twenty-five year old Primo Levi was drawn out of his life as an "Italian citizen of the Jewish race" into a nightmare that could only compare to the depths of Dante's Inferno. This book is his story of the capture, journey to, and life in the Buna section of Auschwitz. This was a "work" camp that provided slave labor for a rubber factory built for the I. G. Farben company.

Levi describes his experiences with vignettes from his period of internment. These vignettes are interspersed with his commentary on his own feelings, relations with other "haftlings" (prisoners), all of whom have become identified with a number tattooed on their arm. Primo Levi was number 174517.

One of the themes of Levi's memoir is language; its meaning and importance for life in the camp. Early on he becomes "aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man." The difficulty of being understood when you do not speak the language of your captors heightens the misery of daily activities making life more tortuous than it already was. At the end of the eighth chapter Levi observes that theft among the prisoners (a daily reality) " is generally punished , but the punishment strikes the thief and the victim with equal gravity." Further, he comments directly to the reader:
"We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words 'good' and 'evil', 'just' and 'unjust'; let everybody judge, on the basis of the picture we have outlined and of the examples given above, how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire." (p 86)

Each chapter is named and these names signal the emphasis and direction of the book, if at times only metaphorically. Thus the descent of Levi includes a discussion of "The Drowned and the Saved" and encompasses "The Work" and "A Good Day". Of course a good day for Levi is one in which he can merely revel in the smile of one other person -- never matter the hunger!

In these moments he considers the meaning of his experiences and asks "if it is necessary or good to retain any memory of this exceptional human state." He replies affirmatively, saying:
"We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular world which we are describing." (p 87)

In the chapter "The Canto of Ulysses" (a reference to Dante's Inferno) he quotes part of the Canto from memory, sharing with his fellow workers in the Chemical hut where he had fortunately been transferred. It is during this episode that "For a moment I forget who I am and where I am." He repeats a few lines for his friend Pikolo, but later bemoans the fact that he cannot remember the whole Canto, claiming he would give up his daily soup to remember the missing lines. His action can be seen as an attempt to maintain his humanity in the face of tremendous difficulties, thinking that:
"I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today . . ." (p 115)

Levi eventually survives the camp and lives to share his story and write even more after returning to his native home. However, it is not until after he has experienced a multitude of tortures and indignities. Not the least of which was the hanging of one inmate who made an unsuccessful attempt to escape. Of this episode Levi writes:
"To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: it has not been easy, nor quick, but you Germans have succeeded. Here we are, docile under your gaze; from our side you have nothing more to fear; no acts of violence, no words of defiance, not even a look of judgement.: (p 150) 
In January, 1945, the Russians arrived and Primo Levi began his journey home.

Quotation of the Day

Modern American Usage: A Guide

"[F]atalism about language cannot be the philosophy of those who care about language; it is the illogical philosophy of their opponents. Surely the notion that, because usage is ultimately what everybody does to words, nobody can or should do anything about them is self-contradictory. Somebody, by definition, does something; and this something is best done by those with convictions and a stake in the outcome, whether the stake of private pleasure or of professional duty does not matter. Resistance always begins with individuals.”

—Wilson Follett,  Modern American Usage: A Guide (1966).

Source:  Garner's Usage Tip of the Day

A Commonplace Entry


“Only a philosopher's mind grows wings, since its memory always keeps it as close as possible to those realities by being close to which the gods are divine.”  ― Plato, Phaedrus

"Phaedrus: . . . But let’s be going, since now even the stifling heat is more gentle.

Socrates: Shouldn’t we pray to the gods here before going?

Phaedrus: Yes, surely.

Socrates: Dear Pan and ye other gods who dwell here, grant that I may become beautiful within and that my worldly belongings be in accord with my inner self. May I consider the wise man rich and have only as much gold as a moderate man can carry and use.

Is there anything else we need, Phaedrus? For me, our prayer was said with due measure.

Phaedrus: Make it a prayer for me, too. Friends have things in common.

Socrates: Let’s be going."

That is ending of the Phaedrus.   Here we find the beauty of a friendship portrayed eloquently. Plato assures us that they have indeed, not just in story, shared “with due measure” an outpouring of divinity together; Socrates offers this noble prayer that the beauty of soul they have turned round and round in their talking may be theirs, but Phaedrus completes, perfects the prayer making it also his own, showing in this small but decisive way that he has accepted Socrates’ offer of love, and will share the poverty and riches of his rhetoric, to guide and stir each other on the way to truth. “ἴωμεν” — “Let’s be going.” They have this way reached an agreement with each other and with themselves; they have arrived where now their conversation something holds in common, something divine. And more talk is no longer needful. “Is there anything else we need Phaedrus?” Nothing else, but to take the double riches of sharing the best things with one you love.

"Phaedrus" from the Dialogues of Plato.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

An Absurd Life

Closely Watched TrainsClosely Watched Trains 
by Bohumil Hrabal

"The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctul to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late." (p 1)

This dramatic and moving tale from the pen of Bohumil Hrabal is almost poetic in its sparse intensity. His story tells the fate of Milos Hrma, an apprentice signalman, who must deal with his own shortcomings even as he faces the onset of the German army. The novel’s young protagonist, Miloš, has just gotten out of an asylum after slashing his wrists and returns to work at the local train station, where that night he ends up taking part in the sabotage of a trainload of Nazi munitions. Through a dazzling array of flashbacks and varying narrative techniques, the reader learns that Miloš tried to kill himself after a sexual tryst that failed because of premature ejaculation, and as Miloš’ first-person thoughts meander through the current day and through his and his family’s and his town’s past, the novel paints a kaleidoscopic picture of a world that’s at turns (and often at once) disgustingly ugly and almost unbearably beautiful.

Much of the impact of Hrabal's writing derives from his juxtaposition of the beauty and cruelty found in everyday life. Vivid depictions of pain human beings casually inflict on animals symbolize the pervasiveness of cruelty among human beings. The adult human world is revealed as terrifying, and, in the end, perhaps the only sane philosophy is a line delivered in Closely Watched Trains: "You should have stayed home on your arse".

One of the great achievements of this novel is that its pathos is balanced with wonderful humor and vitality, its cast of characters revolving around each other with romance, longing, absurdity, vanity, hilarious deviance, and a healthy (and/or perhaps unhealthy) dose of sexuality. Perhaps meant to be comic, the novel’s correlation between virility and political action can be somewhat troubling, though, both to male and female readers—to the former because the idea that men must rise to action is confining and to the latter because serving as ciphers for male ability is insulting. Even though it is compact the narrative displays the fragile nature of the community during wartime. Hrabal conveys the fate of his native Czechoslovakia as represented by the heroism of the protagonist of this beautiful novella.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

An Unconventional Childhood

The Spirit of Prague: And Other EssaysThe Spirit of Prague: And Other Essays 
by Ivan Klíma

"A city is like a person:  if we don't establish a genuine realationship with it, it remains a name, an external form that soon fades from our minds.  To create this relationship, we must be able to observe the city and understand its peculiar personality, its'I', its spirit, its identity, the circumstances of its life as they evolved through space and time." (p 39, "The Spirit of Prague")

I read Ivan Klíma’s wonderful collection of essays The Spirit of Prague, in connection for a Basic Program class on the literature of Prague. Klima has a simple style of writing, with a wonderful clarity and quiet authority. 

The book is divided into five sections of essays.  The first section includes the titular essay but the longest one opens the book.  In this essay, entitled with characteristic understated irony "A Rather Unconventional Childhood", Klima writes of his childhood which coincided, in Eastern Europe, with the triumph of Nazism and his confinement (as a Jew) in the transit camp of Terezin. From an early age he was a reader:

"I read. Of all the books I owned, I was most excited by a prose retelling of Homer's two epics. I read them over and over again, until I knew whole pages by heart."(p. 15)

Later, when he has been transported to the camp he uses a wry, observational tone to devastating effect:

‘I also experienced my first real friendships at this time which , as I later came to understand, were really only prefigurations of the adolescent infatuations that transform every encounter, every casual conversation into an experience of singular importance. All those friendships ended tragically; my friends, boys and girls, went to the gas chamber, all except one, the one I truly loved, Arieh, a son of the chairman of the camp prisoners’ self-management committee, who was shot at the age of twelve.’(p. 20)

His experiences in the camp, and later under the communist regimes of the post-war years, lead him to the conclusion that "if we don't learn from catastrophes and if we don't accept these simple principles, the moment when we might have done something to decide the fate of mankind will pass us by."(p. 27)

Klima's observations in this essay are telling and are reminiscent of other books, including: Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl; Night by Elie Weisel; Fatelessness by  Imre Kertész; Speak You Also by Paul Steinberg; The Long Voyage by Jorge Semprun;  and Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi.

The remainder of the collection includes further excursions into reading and literature, a commentary on Kafka as a source of inspiration, and a discussion of totalitarianism as seen from the perspective of Czech culture.  The erudition and intensity of these essays along with Klima's lucid style made this collection a joy to read.  I would recommend it to fans of Joseph Roth and other astute observers of mitteleuropean culture.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Taking Charge of Her Life

Miss MackenzieMiss Mackenzie 
by Anthony Trollope

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade.”   ― Anthony Trollope

A single woman of a certain age entertains suitors and encounters financial and other interesting issues in this engaging novel by Anthony Trollope. I recently discovered this when our book group selected  Miss Mackenzie as our first novel of the new year.

Margaret Mackenzie has spent her life until the age of 35 nursing her father and brother, both of whom have lived restricted and selfish lives as minor civil servants. The death of her brother leaves her with a comfortable fortune and she decides to use it to live more enjoyably and, if possible, get married. She takes charge of one of her nieces and, leaving London, moves to the spa of Littlebath, thus setting up the one satisfying and useful relationship in the book and escaping her terrible sister-in-law. Littlebath is a typical small community with single ladies with adequate incomes, many of whom she meets at the social events arranged by the evangelical clergyman Mr Stumfold and his domineering wife. Two of the ladies – the genteel and timid Stumfoldian Miss Baker, and the raffish and amusing anti-Stumfoldian Miss Todd – present positive models of single life which nonetheless do not attract Miss Mackenzie.

Three suitors emerge for Margaret and her money, none particularly attractive: her cousin John Ball, an undeniable gentleman but older, dreary, materialistic and attached to a disastrously dire mother (old Lady Ball);  Tom’s partner, Samuel Rubb, who is amusing, good-looking and intelligent, but lower-middle-class and not very scrupulous;  and a Stumfoldian curate, Mr Maguire.  Maguire is one of Trollope’s stereotyped evangelicals -- hypocritical, slimy and physically very off-putting.  In the course of time all three make offers of marriage and Margaret indecisively rejects all three.

Margaret encounters financial setbacks, but her mercenary suitors do not disappear. Rubb has deceived her financially but likes her personally and would stand by her. Maguire is convinced that John Ball has cheated Margaret, and thus destroyed his own chances of wealth, and starts a gutter-press campaign against him. John realizes that he is actually fond of Margaret, and gradually finds the will to resist his mother’s hostility to her. Despite her initial rejection of all three Margaret appears to consider each of them until the denouement when she makes a momentous decision.

She is helped by a rather glamorous upper-class cousin who appears from Scotland and this allows Trollope to introduce a truly appalling bazaar attended by a group of ladies from the Palliser and Barsetshire novels, perhaps to provide an upper-class counterpart to a pretentious middle-class dinner at Tom’s earlier.

While many of the characters are unpleasant and petty-minded Miss Mackenzie has sufficient good humor and common sense to buoy the reader. While she started her new life eager for social contacts and simple pleasures, these modest ambitions are largely disappointed. The novel, thankfully, is not merely a study of the oppressiveness of the conditions of life of women in the eighteen-sixties, and of the restrictiveness of class thinking. Rather it is what for this reader was a typical Trollope novel; filled with interesting characters and delightful prose. It had been too long since I had read a novel by Anthony Trollope and the enjoyment reminded me why I am always glad when I return to his work.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Maugham's Bondage

Of Human BondageOf Human Bondage 
by W. Somerset Maugham

“Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.”   ― W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

W. Somerset Maugham was born on January 25, 1874. While I've enjoyed reading many of his novels and stories, Of Human Bondage stands alone among them as one of my favorite novels. Yet, strangely, I have difficulty understanding the mind and actions of Philip Carey, the hero (anti-hero?) of this novel.  If for nothing else, his habit of reading, referred to in the above quote, endeared him to this reader early in his story.

 Philip, like the author himself, is orphaned and brought up by his uncle. Harshly treated, he is burdened with liabilities, both physical, a clubfoot, and intellectual, a habit of making the least of his opportunities through bad choices and/or lack of talent.  The first half of the novel begins with the death of Philip's mother and his harsh treatment by his selfish and hypocritical uncle while undergoing the tortures of his classmates and masters at King's School in Tercanbury.  This early part of the novel is in a Victorian style somewhat reminiscent of Dickens's Great Expectations.

The novel is written as a sort of bildungsroman and, as it continues, it traces the protagonist's education and travels to Germany, Paris, and London, while exploring both his intellectual and emotional growth. In this it somewhat reminds me of Flaubert's novel, A Sentimental Education , which possibly influenced Maugham. As Philip matures he settles into a sort of life in London, but continues to make the wrong choices. In so doing he enters a destructive relationship with a self-centered, crude Cockney waitress named Mildred. In spite of all the bad choices and ensuing difficulties Philip eventually finds a woman who is right for him.  While Maugham exhibits a Schopenhaurian philosophic view of man in bondage to his will, the novel, with it's pleasant conclusion and lucid prose style, succeeds - just as Philip overcomes his passions.  Maugham's story is beautifully told and as a result I have been drawn back to it again and again over the years.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Man of Two Faces

The SympathizerThe Sympathizer 
by Viet Thanh Nguyen

"I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.  I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such.  I am simply able to see any issue from both sides." (p 1)

I do not always enjoy reading prize-winning books but this is one that is not only enjoyable but also suspenseful and historical. It is a unique mix of realistic action and superb emotional detail. The author also filled it with literary references beginning with the opening lines -- a clever allusion to the great novel, Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.

The novel has an anonymous narrator who lives a complicated and fascinating life as a double agent, publicly serving as an aide to a South Viet Namese general while secretly being a spy for North Viet Nam. He is conflicted about where he stands within his political beliefs and in the world itself. His efforts to survive in two worlds at once lead him into complicated and exciting situations as the novel progresses.

When the story begins, the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is being held captive and forced to write his confession for the commandant. He begins his confession at a point in time when he is still in Vietnam and Saigon is about to fall. This leads to one of the most suspenseful sections of the story as he and the General's entourage attempt to escape from Saigon during the last days before the city succumbs to the North Viet Namese troops. They succeed and he returns to Los Angeles where he had previously attended school.

The theme of Betrayal pervades the novel. From the beginning the narrator is a man whose life is filled with moments of betrayal. His first betrayal is in that he keeps his identity as a communist a secret from one of his best friends, Bon. He and Man lie to Bon about their political views and even lie to him by saying that Man will be following them to America as they leave Vietnam because they know Bon will not go otherwise. The narrator really lives a life in which he must betray someone on a daily basis while he is a spy.

There is also a theme of doubling as the narrator is a double agent. But the narrator is “double” in another significant sense that frames this work: He’s biracial, with a Vietnamese mother and a French father, a mixed-race “bastard” who is bullied and ostracized his whole life.

As the story unfolds, the narrator is increasingly hard to figure. He has a few friends in L.A. and an American girlfriend, but he seems perpetually unmoored. Even though he is writing a confession, he often straddles the two opposing sides, sympathizing with “the enemy,” so that he operates from a murky morality. He is a communist but not a particularly ideological or zealous one.

The novel contains comic moments to offset the suspense of the action and the emotional tension of maintaining a double life. While it turns darker in the final section when the narrator returns to Viet Nam with the General to assist the resistance, the fine writing carries you through to the end. The totality of the story provides a new and interesting perspective on a moment in American history that many like myself lived through. This inventive tale is above all a great read that I would recommend to anyone interested in the history of our not too distant past.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Story of Atonal Mortality

Death in RomeDeath in Rome 
by Wolfgang Koeppen

The Council of Trent has accepted Palestrina's music.  The congress of Rome would reject Siegfried's.  That too depressed Siegfried, depressed him while still rehearsing, depressed him even though he'd come to Rome expecting to be rejected, telling himself he didn't care." (p 9)

Wolfgang Koeppen is one of the least well known literary giants of the twentieth century. While his output consists of only five novels they all are at least minor masterpieces and his final novel, Death in Rome, ranks as a major one. In this subtle and spare novel Koeppen creates a vision of the German postwar experience that is at once bleak and devastating. The four main characters of the novel meet in Rome and in small pieces of their thoughts and their lives the anxiety and sordidness of their world is laid bare for the reader. The death motif is perhaps the strongest from title through to the end of the book, but Koeppen also uses symbolism and unique metaphors, particularly animals and insects, to heighten the impact of his story. None of the characters are likable, but like a Kafka novel I found myself fascinated with them and the world inside their heads.

Of particular interest to me was the use of music and the representation of the composer, Siegfried Pfaffrath, as a modern serial composer in the mold of Schoenberg. His music is described as like the "degenerate art" that the Nazis rejected while in its modernism it is not approved by the Catholic Church either. Some readers have made the comparison of the structure of the novel itself with a twelve tone musical composition. Perhaps--but whether the comparison is apt the novel certainly seems surrealistic, especially in the use of time in the movement and activities of the characters. I am impressed even more, as I reread it, with the way Koeppen uses every line and page to build the tension that explodes at the end of the novel. Death permeates this book in a way that few other novels rival. I think of Death in Venice, another twentieth century masterpiece, but Mann's enterprise is more Nietzschean than Koeppen's. While Tolstoy comes to mind also, in The Death of Ivan Ilych he seems a nineteenth-century precursor to the existentialism that would blossom a few decades later.

No, Koeppen is more at home in the post-war dilemma of Europe and Germany in particular. And the world he depicts is brutal and dark. It is as if, at least for some of the characters, the war has not ended. This is particularly true of Gottlieb "Gotz" Judejahn who is at the center of the novel. Having disappeared he is tried in abstentia at Nuremberg and is effectively a ghost (as is his wife Eva) who haunts Germany, not directly but from a distance - in Rome. The other haunting theme mentioned above is the 'new' music of Siegfried Pfaffrath--best described as a latecomer to the atonal style whose priest was Arnold Schoenberg. Late in the novel Siegfried meditates on the nature of music:

"Music was an enigmatic construction to which there was no longer any access, or just a narrow gate that admits only a few people. Whoever sat inside couldn't communicate to those on the outside, and yet they felt that this enigmatic, invisible construction, built by magic formulae, was important to them."

The structure of this novel and the thoughts of the characters, their communication or lack thereof, seems to mirror this image of music and its relation to those who hear and do not understand. Perhaps the only answer is to act out your lack of understanding--to end the dark, unbearable world with death.

Overall the effect is impressive with the result being a novel that challenges the reader with its taut presence. I found the challenge invigorating and it encouraged further meditation on the ideas raised by the author.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Unique Cultural Journey

A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea 
by Claudio Magris

“What the History is really about lies behind this: man, giant-sized, seen against the background of the entire world, universalized in his conflict with destiny, the gods, and the cosmic order. The medium that is most fertile in showing the true nature of reality is the human mind, remembering, reflective, and fertile most of all when its memory and reflection are put at the service of its dreaming and fantastic side.”  ― Herodotus, The Histories

There are certain books that are sui generis and this is one of those books.  In part, it reminded me of the cultural stories that the first historian, Herodotus, included in his original work , The Histories, that provides the foundation for the idea of written history.  While he focuses on the mind of men who have lived and ruled and dreamed on and about the Danube, ultimately Magris's work is different and as a result unique in its aspect. Danube is both a catalog of histories and myths about a place over time. The place is a river that begins in a geographic region but also begins in a time and continues to exist through generations of changes to this day.

Included in the journey down the Danube through history are stories of people and places and times; stories that are both historical and fictional, mythical and real. These stories complement a travelogue that highlights places and times and people and more. Most interesting and important for this reader were the stories of literature that derives from the residents and the being of the river. The names are familiar and include: Kafka, Freud, Wittgenstein, Marcus Aurelius, Musil, Ovid, Celine, Von Rezzori, and others, some of whom I encountered for the first time in this work.

The book begins with a discussion of the sources of the Danube -- sources of the river which "were the object of investigations, conjectures or information of Herodotus, Strabo, Caesar, Pliny, Ptolemy, the Pseudo-Scymnus, Seneca, Mela and Eratosthenes." These sources and the river that they feed have been the subject of history, politics, philosophy, mythology, and geography for millennia during which the Roman and the Holy Roman Empires rose and fell along with subsequent cities and countries into the twentieth century.

Early in the book the Danube is described as "a sinuous master of irony, of that irony which created the greatness of Central European culture," and as such it is the central conduit of Mitteleuropa and all that it implies. The river encompasses many great cities such as Ulm "of the old Germany of the Holy Roman Empire", yet also the birthplace of Albert Einstein. And of course there is Vienna which is in some ways at the center of the Danube journey if for no other reason than its cultural impact that extends to the new world and to this day, decades after the documentation of the journey of the Danube.

Another highlight on the journey is Passau where we are reminded of the literature and art inspired by the Danube. The author narrates the story of Siegfried from the Song of the Niebelungs ( a story also found in the Nordic saga the Edda) and shares the love and loyalty that is rendered there. Yet it is also a region that inspired the twentieth-century literature of Kafka. The juxtaposition of Kafka with the ancient legends leads to an even stranger one when moving on to Linz one finds the journey progressing (regressing?) through a city that Hitler once planned to recreate into a "refuge of his old age, the place he yearned to retire to after consolidating the Reich that was to last a thousand years". Yet, fortunately for lovers of literature Linz was also the home of the novelist Adalbert Stifter who, even if you have not heard of him (and I had not), was capable of prose comparable to that of Flaubert's Education Sentimentale. It is this same river that also inspired works by Musil and Svevo. It is this literature that inspires Magris to comment as follows:

"Men without qualities, those landlocked armchair explorers, have their contraceptives always in their pockets, and Mitteleuropean culture taken as a whole is also a large-scale process of intellectual contraception. Whereas on the epic sea is Aphrodite born, and there--as Conrad writes -- we conquer forgiveness for our sins and the salvation of our immortal souls; we remember that once we were gods."(p 137)

The stories of the Danube continue to abound in this epic work. Included are the names like Hegel and Canetti and Roth; the historical figures like Eichmann and Princess Elisabeth and Vlad the Impaler; the music of Schubert and Mozart and Strauss. All are epitomized for this reader by Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy and Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz.  Even the geography of the river itself begins and ends in myth.  

There is more and it flows from the richness, the depth, and the historical grandeur of this book.  It is one whose deepness reaches realms that make the challenge of reading it (it is not an "easy read") worthwhile. Finally it is one of the most erudite and intelligent books I have read and that makes it also one of the most enjoyable and interesting.

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Friday, December 30, 2016

Listening to Music

Glenn Gould

“If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.” 
― William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Each day I listen to a little music from one of my collection of Cd's (sometimes more). The delight in revisiting old musical friends or hearing a new composition and finding sounds to accompany my moods is only part of the experience. On this day, near the end of the year, what better way to spend part of the time as the earth spins inevitably toward the new year than with the unique pianistic voice of Glenn Gould. I was moved again by his interpretation of Bach, of course; but also his Brahms, Mendelssohn, Scriabin and others from a collection entitled simply: "Glenn Gould ...And Serenity". The sounds were serene and even in the more familiar works were new again in his hands. Perhaps he said it best:

“I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”  ― Glenn Gould

Tales of Dublin

by James Joyce

“Sometimes he caught himself listening to the sound of his own voice. He thought that in her eyes he would ascent to an angelical stature; and, as he attached the fervent nature of his companion more and more closely to him, he heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognised as his own, insisting on the soul's incurable lonliness. We cannot give ourselves, it said: we are our own.”   ― James Joyce, Dubliners

Dubliners was Joyce’s first publication of prose and the only collection of his short stories published during his lifetime. Arriving two years before A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it contains stories that depict the Irish middle class at the height of the Home Rule period when the island was wrestling with its identity under British rule. Rereading Dubliners is always a real joy, particularly due to Joyce's command of language. The variety within the collection emanates from Joyce's Irish experiences, which constitute an essential element of his writings. Many of the issues faced by the characters in this collection highlight the concerns of many early 20th-century Irish: class, Catholicism, nationalism, modernity vs tradition, and infidelity. It is penetrating in its analysis of the stagnation and paralysis of Dublin society. The stories were written at the time when Irish nationalism was at its peak, and a search for a national identity and purpose was raging; at a crossroads of history and culture, Ireland was jolted by various converging ideas and influences.

Many of the characters in Dubliners later appear in minor roles in Joyce's novel Ulysses. The initial stories in the collection are narrated by children as protagonists, and as the stories continue, they deal with the lives and concerns of progressively older people. They often focus on his idea of an epiphany: a moment when a character experiences a special moment of self-understanding or illumination.

Joyce's writing in Dubliners is neutral; he rarely uses hyperbole or emotive language, relying on simplistic language and close detail to create a realistic setting. This ties the reader's understanding of people to their environments. He does not tell the reader what to think, rather they are left to come to their own conclusions (in stark contrast to the moral judgments displayed by earlier writers such as Charles Dickens). The stories frequently demonstrate a lack of traditional dramatic resolution. It has been argued by some critics that Joyce often allows his narrative voice to gravitate towards the voice of a textual character.
For example, the opening line of 'The Dead' reads "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet." She is not, in this instance, "literally" run off her feet, and neither would Joyce have thought so; rather, the narrative lends itself to a misuse of language typical of the character being described.

Joyce often uses descriptions from the characters' point of view, although he very rarely writes in the first person. This can be seen in 'Eveline', when Joyce writes, "Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne". Here, Joyce employs an empirical perspective in his description of characters and events; an understanding of characters' personalities is often gained through an analysis of their possessions. The first paragraph of 'A Painful Case' is an example of this style, as well as Joyce's use of global to local description of the character's possessions. Joyce also employs parodies of other writing styles; part of 'A Painful Case' is written as a newspaper story, and part of 'Grace' is written as a sermon. This stylistic motif takes a more prominent role in Ulysses (for example, in the Aeolus episode, which is written in a newspaper style).

The collection as a whole displays an overall plan, beginning with stories of youth and progressing in age to culminate in 'The Dead'. This, the longest work in the collection, concerns a university professor who attends an annual party and dinner with his wife. Here he learns that his wife had been in love with a young boy named Michael Furey who had died tragically many years ago. The professor soon begins to realize that he had never, and would never, be as close to his wife as she had been to the dead young man. A short yet powerful tale, The Dead draws parallels between the loss of life and the loss of love, using the desolate backdrop of an Irish winter to emphasize the desolation of the characters. The story was later adapted into an acclaimed film by the legendary director John Huston.

Great emphasis is laid upon the specific geographic details of Dublin, details to which a reader with a knowledge of the area would be able to directly relate. The multiple perspectives presented throughout the collection serve to present a broad view of the social and political contexts of life in Dublin at this time.  The combined effect of Joyce's magic with prose is a wonderful collection of stories that provide, in my estimation, the best introduction to his writing that a reader could wish for.

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Young Man's Muse

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManA Portrait of the Artist 
as a Young Man 
by James Joyce

"I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning." - James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce's autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published on this day in 1916 (after having appeared serially in the literary magazine The Egoist in 1914-15). 
I first read this novel during my participation in the Four-year Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago. I have since read and reread this classic work by James Joyce. It is a portrait in words of the coming-of-age of a young boy in Ireland. As a portrait its words resonate with the ideas of Aristotle and the faith of Roman Catholicism and the spirit of music. Music, especially singing, appears repeatedly throughout A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen's appreciation of music is closely tied to his love for the sounds of language. I remember being told by a close friend that Father Arnall’s sermon on Hell was the same sermon she heard while a youth in a catholic neighborhood in Chicago more than fifty years later. Stephen is attracted to the church for a brief period but ultimately rejects austere Catholicism because he feels that it does not permit him the full experience of being human.

From the opening lines, “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo”, Stephen grows in awareness and towards his artistic destiny through the words that delineate the world around him. Joyce's use of stream of consciousness makes A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a story of the development of Stephen's mind through words as he grows through experience. Stephen's development gives us insight into the development of a literary genius. Stephen's experiences hint at the influences that transformed Joyce himself into the great writer he is considered today. Stephen's obsession with language; his strained relations with religion, family, and culture; and his dedication to forging an aesthetic of his own mirror the ways in which Joyce related to the various tensions in his life during his formative years. In the final moment when he goes "to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience" of his race he raises a banner that seems emblematic of the life of the author of this inspiring novel.

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Notes on Proust, Combray

Swann's Way
by Marcel Proust
a new translation by Lydia Davis


"If my mother was an unfaithful reader she was also, in the case of books in which she found the inflection of true feeling, a wonderul reader for the respect and simplicity of her interpretation, the beauty and gentleness of the sound of her voice." (p 42)

I. Reflection

The opening book of In Search of Lost Time is Swann's Way.  It in turn is divided into three sections, the first being Combray.  We enter the world of the narrator as a young boy when he is trying to sleep while being interrupted by his thoughts.  It is these thoughts, described as "reflections on what I had just read" that engage us on the first page of this first section of the first of many volumes.  The young boy gradually returns to sleep only to find himself dreaming of the origins of woman from the rib of the first man.  It may be that this is one way to view the beginnings of Proust's long tale as the origin of the story of one man's life from the imagination of our narrator as he remembers the events of his life as a young boy at the village of Combray in the house of his Aunt Leonie with his parents.  

Why is it that reading generates in the imagination of the young boy such strong reflections that they interrupt his sleep?  One way to answer this is to look first at the mind from which the imagination emanates.  It is a mind described thusly,
"And wasn't my mind also like another crib in the depths of which I felt I remained ensconced . . . When I saw an external object, my awareness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, lining it with a thin spiritual border that prevented me from ever directly touching its substance; it would volatize in some way before I could make contact with it, just as an incandescent body brought near a wet object never touches its moisture because it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation." (p 85)

Marcel's mind (for Marcel is his name) is invigorated by his reading "from inside to outside, toward the discovery of the truth," reading that aroused his emotions as he experienced the dramatic events in the book.  It is these emotions that bring with them an intensity that makes Marcel feel more alive than any other activity.  He relates,
"And once the novelist has put us in that state, in which, as in all purely internal states, every emotion is multiplied tenfold, in which his book will disturb us as might a dream but a dream more lucid than those we have while sleeping and whose memory will last longer, then see how he provokes us within one hour all possible happiness and all possible unhappiness just a few of which we would spend years of our lives coming to know and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slowness with which they occur prevents us from perceiving them" (p 87)

It is not only reading that defines young Marcel, but also his relationships with people around him, not only his mother and aunt, but others including the faithful servant Francoise, the wealthy Jewish neighbor Swann, also Legrandin and Bloch who are introduced to him at Combray.  Bloch is interesting in part because he introduces Marcel to the writing of Bergotte.  It is Bergotte who above all others entrances the young boy.
"In the first few days, like a melody with which one will become infatuated but which one cannot yet make out, what I was to love so much in his style was not apparent to me.  I could no put down the novel of his that I was reading, but thought I was interested only in the subject, as during that first period of love when you go to meet a woman every day at some gathering, some entertainment, thinking you are drawn to it by its pleasures.  Then I noticed the rare, almost archaic expressions he liked to use at certain moments, when a hidden wave of harmony, an inner prelude, would heighten his style;  and it was also at theses moments that he would speak of the "vain dream of life," the "inexhaustible torrent of beautiful appearance," the "moving effigies that forever ennoble the venerable and charming facades of our cathedrals," that he expressed an entire philosophy, new to me, through marvelous images" (pp 95-96)

Reading Bergotte yields a "joy" within Marcel that allowed him to experience "a deeper, vaster, more unified region" of himself.  It is through such experiences of reading and the resulting flights of imagination that the reader is introduced to the book that to be read and understood must yield similar emotions for the reader.  Yet it is not only reading that thrills Marcel in Proust's story but also, as can be seen from the description of Bergotte's novel, music and its even stronger impact on his imagination.

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust,  trans. by Lydia Davis.  Viking Press, 2003.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Annual Favorite Books

Top Ten Books I Read In 2016

These are the top books I have read since January 1, 2016.  The listing  includes fiction, non-fiction, critical essays, drama, and poetry.  It was a very rich year for reading although the quantity of books I read declined somewhat from my recent experience.  While there were other very good books that I read these are the ten that I rated most highly.  There is no particular order to the list and  I highly recommend all of the following:

Angels in America: 
A Gay Fantasia on National Themes 
by Tony Kushner

In two full-length plays--Millennium Approaches and Perestroika--Kushner tells the story of a handful of people trying to make sense of the world.  The plays display the literary erudition of the author through themes that encapsulate the American experience and the transcendence of love, death, and angels.  Reading these two plays was a deeply emotional experience.

Four Quartets
by T.S. Eliot

The Four Quartets is a series of four poems by T.S. Eliot, published individually from 1936 to 1942, and in book form in 1943. Each of the quartets has five "movements" and each is titled by a place name -- BURNT NORTON (1936), EAST COKER (1940), THE DRY SALVAGES (1941), and LITTLE GIDDING (1942). Eliot's insights into the cyclical nature of life are revealed through themes and images woven throughout the four poems. Spiritual, philosophical, and personal themes emerge through symbolic allusions and literary and religious references from both Eastern and Western thought.

The Death of Virgil 
by Hermann Broch

With the use of third person narrative that often seems like a "stream of consciousness" Hermann Broch is able to put the reader inside the head of Virgil for much of the book. From the opening pages we meet a poet/artist Virgil who is on the edge of life in several different respects. The edge between water and land is explored as Virgil's ship, one among the parade of ships escorting Augustus back to the port of Brundisium in Roman Italy, sails toward land on the first page of the novel.  This is a very difficult novel that rewards reader's perseverance with deep thoughts about creativity, life, and death.

Swann's Way 
by Marcel Proust

This is the first volume of the seven that comprise In Search of Lost Time. Swann's Way tells two related stories, the first of which revolves around Marcel, a younger version of the narrator, and his experiences in, and memories of, the French town Combray. Inspired by the "gusts of memory" that rise up within him as he dips a Madeleine into hot tea, the narrator discusses his fear of going to bed at night.  Rereading this novel reminded why I love the prose of Marcel Proust.

The Origins of Totalitarianism 
by Hannah Arendt

The Origins of Totalitarianism is three books in one. The first part is titled "Antisemitism". The second is "Imperialism", and the third is "Totalitarianism". Moreover, the "new edition" which I read included four prefaces.  It is powerful prose that presents thought-provoking ideas about the source and nature of Twentieth-century totalitarianism.  This is another difficult book to read both due to the complex ideas that are presented and the profound nature of the issue of the nature of evil.

An Unnecessary Woman
by Rabih Alameddine

Sometimes the voice of the narrator enchants the reader with her life and that of those around her. That is what happens in Rabih Alameddine's captivating novel. The narrator is a woman named Aaliya. She is a book-lover in her seventies who runs a book store and translates books.  I found the author's depiction of the importance of books in the life of this woman to mirror my own experience.

The Age of Insight: 
The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present  
by Eric R. Kandel  

A brilliant book by Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel, The Age of Insight takes us to Vienna 1900, where leaders in science, medicine, and art began a revolution that changed forever how we think about the human mind—our conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions—and how mind and brain relate to art.  To some extent this book seemed to contain almost too many ideas, nevertheless I found the presentation invigorating and endlessly engaging.

A Minor Apocalypse 
by Tadeusz Konwicki  

This is a story about the "end of the world" for an aging Polish writer named Konwicki who has built a reputation as a representative of the people in their battle against the oppressive Communist government and its Soviet allies.  The world of Poland before the collapse of Communism is presented in a searingly personal way for the characters in this captivating novel.

Where I'm Reading From: 
The Changing World of Books  
by Tim Parks 

Why do we need fiction? Why do books need to be printed on paper, copyrighted, read to the finish? Why should a group of aging Swedish men determine what “world” literature is best? Do books change anything? Did they use to? Do we read to challenge our vision of the world or to confirm it?  Tim Parks is both a noted translator and award-winning novelist.  In this collection he demonstrates his skill as an essayist as he addresses questions that challenge the serious reader.

The Narrow Road 
to the Deep North 
by Richard Flanagan  

There are good books and there are great books. This book is one of the rare great books that "compels you to reread your soul". There are many reasons for this.  It is such a well-wrought novel that the thought of attempting to write about it is somewhat daunting. A good place to begin is the author's mesmerizing prose; prose that approaches poetry on almost every page.  This is one of the best contemporary novels that I have ever read.