Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Road Trip with Three Voices

Talking to Ourselves: A NovelTalking to Ourselves: A Novel 
by Andrés Neuman

"'Writing about illness,' I underlined last night in an essay by Roberto Bolano, 'especially if one is seriously ill oneself, can be an ordeal.  But it is also a liberating act,'  I hope this applies to us caregivers too, 'exercising the tyranny of illness,' this is something we never talk about," (p 81)

I was impressed with the mastery the author had over the voices of the three characters who tell the story in this small but profound novel. As the title suggests, the story is told by each of the characters in turn through a narrative of what they are telling themselves. This is accomplished through successive chapters devoted to each of the characters.

The father, Mario is dying of cancer. His decision to share a last few meaningful days with his 10-year-son Lito, results in a road trip in his brother’s truck. His wife Elena remains at home, seeking solace in books. Elena keeps a journal of her life, Mario records his thoughts on a series of tapes to leave for his son, and the son Lito, unaware of his father’s true illness, recounts the road trip in glorious detail. Lito’s humorous observations sounded very true to me with references to video games and dreams of riding in convertibles. They demonstrate the skill of the author as he lightens the darker material and provides a vivid sense of a 10-year-old’s voice and preoccupations.
In an attempt to make sense of her husband's impending death and her own turbulent emotions, Elena devours books and notes quotations from the authors she reads. These include John Banville, Roberto Bolaño, Javíer Marias and Virginia Woolf. In On Being Ill, Woolf declares “let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry”. Woolf’s question, why “illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature,” is just as relevant today.
After entering an intense sexual relationship with her husband’s doctor, Elena experiences shame and guilt but cannot stop herself. As Neuman suggests, grief has its own, often impenetrable, logic. When Mario is finally hospitalized Elena remarks “[p]ity has its own way of destroying”. She contemplates the horror of having lost all desire for Mario, feeling disgust, and yet still loving him: “He has shadows under his eyes, drawn features, no belly. There is a paleness about him that doesn't seem to come from a lack of sunshine, but from somewhere deeper. A sort of white glow beneath the skin. There, between his ribs.”

The multitude of emotions experienced on the death of a loved one are difficult if not impossible to describe. The right words seldom come to you and the result is a form of emotional isolation. The feelings consume you suddenly--on a moments notice.
I was drawn to this novel by Andrés Neuman because I enjoyed his previous award-winning Traveller of the Century. Talking to Ourselves, while a miniature by comparison, is articulate and profound, providing a meditation on illness, death and bereavement. It suggests ways that one may use literature to confront and understand mortality. As a reader I enjoyed it as much as his first novel and look forward to more from his pen.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Characters and Ideas

by Milan Kundera

"Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?  Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear?  Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of fold song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars?" (p 3)

What has become of "slowness" in a world that is growing smaller and moving ever faster? In this short novel Milan Kundera ties slowness to the act of remembering, and speed to the act of forgetting. When one wants to savor, remember, or prolong a moment, one moves and acts slowly. On the other hand, one travels fast in order to forget a past experience. For example, after Vincent's disastrous night at the chateau, he gets on his motorcycle and drives home as fast as he can in order to leave behind the site of his failed romantic endeavor.
Kundera shows the contrast between older and newer ways of thinking and feeling--specifically with the now devalued ideal of hedonism in a culture whose embrace of "speed" as the measure of all things denies us the possibility of having experiences at leisure and recollecting them in tranquility (or, as his unnamed narrator complains, ``Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?'').

The novel is also a meditation on the effects of modernity upon the individual's perception of the world. It is told through a number of plot lines that slowly weave together until they are all united at the end of the book. The narrator visits a chateau on vacation and tells a story that seems to be a combination of fiction and fact. A Chevalier from eighteenth-century France visits the chateau and experiences a night of carefully orchestrated sensual pleasure with its owner, Madame de T. The narrator's friend Vincent visits the hotel and pursues a romance with a girl met in a bar. Berck, a "dancer", meets a woman who once scorned him at the same conference and shows his emptiness to her. Immaculata, the woman who scorned Berck, must deal with her disappointment at learning Berck's apparent perfection is actually a facade.

The story develops as the different perspectives of these characters portrays the impact on the world of modernity, memory and sensuality. Gradually all of the stories come together in a single location and the characters interact, showing how the ideals they represent interact in the world. For example. the modern is connected to the past by having Vincent meet the Chevalier as they both depart. The ideas of sensuality and pleasure have changed as technology provides humanity with tools that speed us to our destination and demand our attention. There is also the suggestion that speed creates vulgarity, as suggested by the parallel seductions held at the chateau. Vincent's seduction of Julie is misguided and ultimately fails. Madame de T's seduction of the Chevalier is deliberate and provides them with a night of pleasure. Speed is associated with failure and the result is that serious consideration requires slowness; speed encourages rash decisions and ultimately failure.
Ideas abound in this Kunderian probe into characters' minds as seen when the concept of the dancer early in the book. The dancer, defined in the story, is a person who constantly seeks the infinite and invisible audience that modern media offers. This fame has a dramatic effect on the life of the dancer and upon people who seek him out.

This novel is typical Kundera in a story where characters and ideas merge inventive and amusing ways, especially with a delicious sensitivity to the convolutions of contemporary self-consciousness. As an aficionado of novels of ideas I appreciate this approach. It is best portrayed in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Slowness may be seen as a postscript or an introduction to the thoughtful world of Milan Kundera.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Growing Up With Books

An Open Book: Coming of Age in the HeartlandAn Open Book: Coming of Age 
in the Heartland 
by Michael Dirda

"Mine, it now seems, may be the last generation to value the traditional bound book as the engine of education, culture, and personal advancement. . . what follows may often appear a kind of memorial, a monument to a time of softly turned pages, when the young entered libraries hungry for books to devour rather than information to download,"  -  Michael Dirda, An Open Book, p 14.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World who has written several books in addition to this one;  a great book and a challenge to readers based on his memories of his reading life.  It is not only an interesting read but also a source for books to read and reread.  Dirda shares the typical stories of how friends and family shaped his life;  and he shares the impact of his reading. This is what I enjoyed the most. When he describes his encounter with Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo as a boy I remembered the same experience that I had discovering that great adventure story. By the time he arrived at Oberlin College he was a veteran reader. Again I could identify with his love affair with the college library. In my own case it was the Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin, where I would get lost in the stacks and find myself reading for hours. The only downside of this passion was that often the book I was reading was not required for my current courses. Somehow I still graduated with honors. Michael Dirda's adventures with books continually brought back fond memories of different yet not too dissimilar personal experiences.

His reading was both wide and deep. He did not discriminate among books with the Green Lantern and Tarzan just as welcome as Raskolnikov and Hamlet.  The result is a book that is not only challenging, but also inspirational. One among many positive aspects of this memoir is a listing of books he read in his teen years -- I'm always looking for suggestions for reading even as my own to-read list already seems to be overflowing. Whatever your personal experience, and it's likely that it differs from both mine and Dirda's in the details, I am sure that you will find this memoir a delight and one more reason to read the work of Michael Dirda, one of my favorite literary commentators.

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Monday, March 09, 2015

Great Works and Great Minds: Great Discourses

Thoughts of a Student 

As a longtime student in the Basic Program of Liberal Education and a frequent participant in Great Books discussions I was both interested and excited at the news of a new approach to discussing and analyzing the works of great minds.  It is with this in my mind that I welcome the Great Discourses as an on-line approach to providing a venue for the discussion of seminal works of the mind. 

My personal experience as a student of the Great Books has provided benefits beyond my original expectations with both practical and theoretical applications in my life;  more importantly, it allowed me to explore and examine what it means to be a human being and a citizen.  The examined life experienced through discussions of these works is enhanced by the contributions of diverse experiences and the unique perceptions of other participants in discussions.  

Further, the discussions are enlivened through the direction and encouragement of discussion leaders such as those offered by the Great Discourses.  I share this opinion based on personal experience with several of those involved with whom I have had the good fortune to participate as a student in Great Books discussions.  The contributions of these and other students inquiring and sharing observations on the readings have enriched my own life. 

How else could you describe the enjoyment of discourse with fellow students inquiring into the thoughts from great works of the ages as anything but fun?  I would consider it a form of happiness--one that may not be obtained anywhere else.  For all of the above and for the expectation of further growth through sharing in thoughts from the Great Books, I heartily recommend the Great Discourses to all interested in participating in life-long learning on-line.

Apropos of this I share these thoughts of Socrates from Plato's Meno:

"I do not insist that my argument is right in all other respects, but I would contend at all costs both in word and deed as far as I could that we will be better humans, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must not look for it."

Sunday, March 08, 2015

A Man and Nature

Hadji MuratHadji Murat 
by Leo Tolstoy

“What energy!' I thought. 'Man has conquered everything, and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won't submit.”   ― Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murat

Hadji Murat is a remembered story: "an old story from the Caucasus, part of which I saw, part of which I heard from witnesses, and part of which I imagined to myself." The story depicts the life of soldiers, of nobility, of family life, of the politics of war and the larger-than-life character of Hadji Murat.

Hadji Murat was a real Chechen leader and Tolstoy probably first heard of him while he was serving in the Caucasus, based on his own letters home to his brother. Although it is historical the story reads like a myth in spite of its realism. The primary theme is Murat's struggle to resist his enemies while remaining faithful to himself and his family. But there are many other ideas that can be found in the novel, such as determinism, the struggle between a Christian Russia and Muslim Chechnya, and the classic West versus East theme.
The story is told in short chapters or vignettes that ultimately introduce dozens of characters from all levels of Russian and Chechen society.  The first two pages of the story are like an overture that depicts the discovery of a thistle bloom in the field that will not "submit" and that reminds the narrator of his memory of the hero, Hadji Murat.  The story as remembered begins with Murat and two of his followers fleeing from Shamil, the commander of the Caucasian separatists, who is at war with the Russians. They find refuge at the house of Sado, a loyal supporter of Murat. However, the local people learn of his presence and chase him out of the village.

Murat decides to make contact with the Russians and sends his aide to them eliciting a promise to meet Murat. Arriving at the fortress of Vozdvizhenskaya, he joins the Russian forces, in hopes of drawing their support in order to overthrow Shamil and save his family. Before his arrival, a small skirmish occurs with some Chechens outside the fortress, and Petrukha Avdeyev, a young Russian soldier bleeds out in a local military hospital after being shot. There is a chapter-length aside about the childless Petrukha who volunteered as a conscript in place of his brother who had a family of his own. Petrukha's father regrets this because he was a dutiful worker compared to his complacent brother.

While at Vozdvizhenskaya, Murat befriends Prince Semyon Vorontsov, his wife Maria and his son, and wins over the good will of the soldiers stationed there. They are at once in awe of his physique and reputation, and enjoy his company and find him honest and upright. The Vorontsovs give him a present of a watch which fascinates him.
On the fifth day of Murat's stay, the governor-general's adjutant, Mikhail Loris-Melikov arrives with orders to write down Murat's story, and through this some of his history is told. He was born in the village of Tselmes and early on became close to the local khans due to his mother being the royal family's wet nurse. When he was fifteen some followers of Muridism came into his village calling for a holy war (ghazavat) against Russia. Murat declines at first but after a learned man is sent to explain how it will be run, he tentatively agrees. However, in their first confrontation, Shamil—then a lieutenant for the Muslims hostile to the Russians—embarrasses Murat when he goes to speak with the leader Gamzat. Gamzat eventually launches an attack on the capital of Khunzakh and kills the pro-Russian khans, taking control of this part of Dagestan. The slaughter of the khans throws Hadji and his brother against Gamzat, and they eventually succeed in tricking and killing him, causing his followers to flee. Unfortunately, Murat's brother is killed in the attempt and Shamil replaces Gazmat as leader. He calls on Murat to join his struggle, but Murat refuses because the blood of his brother and the khans are on Shamil.

Once Murat has joined the Russians, who are aware of his position and bargaining ability, they find him the perfect tool for getting to Shamil. However, Vorontsov's plans are ruined by the War Minister, Chernyshov. A rival prince who is jealous of him, and Murat has to remain in the fortress because the Tsar is told he is possibly a spy. The story digresses into a depiction of the Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, which reveals his lethargic and bitter nature and his egotistical complacency, as well as his contempt towards women, his brother-in-law, Frederick William IV of Prussia, and Russian students.
The Tsar orders an attack on the Chechens and Murat's remains in the fortress. Meanwhile, Murat's mother, wife and eldest son Yusuf, whom Shamil hold captive, are moved to a more defensible location. Realizing his position (neither trusted by the Russians to lead an army against Shamil, nor able to return to Shamil because he will be killed), Hadji Murat decides to flee the fortress to gather men to save his family.

At this point the narrative jumps forward in time, to the arrival of a group of soldiers at the fortress bearing Murat's severed head. While Maria Dimitriyevna—the companion of one of the officers and a friend of Murat—comments on the cruelty of men during times of war calling them 'butchers', the soldiers then tell the story of Murat's death. The nightingales, which stopped singing during the battle, begin again and the narrator ends by recalling the thistle that had been the catalyst for his original remembrance of Hadji Murat.

The story is filled with realistic details that bring the family of Murat and his comrades to life. His original decision to go over to the Russian side, while understandable, ultimately puts Murat in an untenable position. A scene between his son and Shamil, who his holding him captive, is both poignant and terrifying when Shamil tells the boy that he will slice off his head. The two cultures seem to be both very different yet similar. For example, the Tsar demonstrates condescension and enmity for his peers but this is also true of Shamil. The literary style of Tolstoy where every detail is important and the structure is held together by the mystical union of man and nature makes this short novel a major masterpiece.

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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Satire and Music

Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories
The Blood of the Volsungs

by Thomas Mann

Music and Literature, Part Two

Among the several stories included in this volume The Blood of the Volsungs is one that stands out in its differences and its use of music as a foundation.

This little drama begins at the dining-room table where both the theme of generational conflict between the parents and children of the Aarenhold family and 'racial' conflict between the family and an outsider, a government bureaucrat named Beckerath who is engaged to Sieglinde, the elder of two daughters in the family. In this story music is intertwined with the plot beginning with the twin brother, Siegmund, who with his sister mirror the siblings in Act One of Wagner's opera Die Valkyrie. But the musical influence goes beyond this as when, for example, one of the children taps out Hunding's motif (Sieglinde's husband from Valkyrie) when Beckerath appears for lunch; through the musical interlude at the opera which the siblings attend;   and the ensuing incestuous behavior of the same upon returning home.

These themes are played out over a single day in the life of this family. We see the children, turning away from the valetudinarianism of their father and mother, focusing on their own interests. These interests do not include the sort of hard work that Beckerath represented and they looked down on him as well. And from his perspective "they contradicted everything--as though they found it impossible, discreditable, lamentable, not to contradict."
The importance of race is most intense for Siegmund whom is presented as contemplating his racial characteristics as he prepares for the evening with Sieglinde. But also he is depicted as completely lacking in any interest in creating anything with his life; instead he is consumed with a passion for maintaining his toilette, for preparing himself for the day, as the day passes away quickly with no actual happenings. This was no surprise to the family for they exhibited a "lack of expectations" that conspired to rob him of any "actuality".

This may sound like a strange story. Perhaps it is, but Mann succeeds in presenting high tragedy in the form of melodrama. His satire seems well-suited to critique the superficial nature of the bourgeoisie at the end of the nineteenth century (Mann wrote the story in 1905). The strength of the story comes in great part from the high art of the operatic drama that underlies it. It may be that Mann in an indirect way was indicating how powerful Wagner's genius really could be.

 Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories by Thomas Mann.  Vintage Books, 1989.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Music and Literature

Part One

Opera in Literature

“They played at hearts as other children might play at ball; only, as it was really their two hearts that they flung to and fro, they had to be very, very handy to catch them, each time, without hurting them.”   ― Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera

I have always loved music as well as literature.  These two art forms intersect in many ways, two of which I would like to discuss.  First is the presence of music in novels.  A notable example  can be found in the opening pages of Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence.  This is heralded by the first sentence of the novel:
"On an January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York."  This setting is used to introduce the protagonist of the novel, Newland Archer, and provides the narrator with a way to highlight his dilettantism since "thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realization."   
Also important to the story is the Opera itself and the aria that is being sung which foreshadows themes that will be important as the novel develops.  It is this use of music, Gounod's opera in particular, that provides some of the depth of meaning for which, in this case, Edith Wharton is known.

This is merely one example of which many can be found.  Two of my favorite authors, Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust, use music effectively in their novels.   In Mann's case his novel Doctor Faustus is imbued with and depends upon the immersion in music and its effect on Adrian Leverkuhn.  One of Proust's many characters  from In Search of Lost Time is Vinteuil, a composer and violinist of note whose famous sonata takes on the importance of a character unto itself.

The Age of Innocence  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. 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, especial Newland and Ellen were what I found most interesting.  The attitudes of society towards Ellen and the regrets of an aging man for what might have been have seldom been limned as well as in Miss Wharton's story.   The novel 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.

(To be continued)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Story of a Prince

Father SergiusFather Sergius 
by Leo Tolstoy

"I lived for men on the pretext of living for God."  -  Leo Tolstoy, Father Sergius

This story is about a man with a problem. As the story opens you may not immediately realize what the problem is for he is described as "a handsome prince who everyone predicted would become aide-de-camp to the Emperor Nicholas I and have a brilliant career,". What could be better than that?  For young Prince Stepan Kasatsky apparently there was something better, for he "left the service, broke off his engagement to a beautiful maid of honor, a favorite of the Empress's, gave his small estate to his sister, and retired to a monastery to become a monk".

After a flashback to his youth and his success in all his efforts the narrator shares his decision to throw all of that over for the monastery. Yet, he did not change his personality and his primary motive of pride. For in becoming a Monk he was aiming to "be above those who considered themselves his superiors". Most of all he was consumed with "contempt with all that seemed most important to others and had seemed so to him while he was in the service". But is that really what the life of a monk is all about? He finds that it is not and his journey toward his own unique form of spirituality is just beginning at this point. It has a long way to go with many temptations for he has a great deal of difficulty dealing with his all-consuming pride and vanity.  Despite his being removed from the world, he is still remembered for having so remarkably transformed his life. One winter night, a group of merry-makers decide to visit him, and one of them, a divorced woman named Makovkina, spends the night in his cell, with the intention to seduce him.  She inflames Sergius to the point where he resorts to personal physical mutilation.  It is a painful and dramatic moment, but the effect wears off making the episode seem pointless in retrospect.

This tale, while differing in details from others from Tolstoy's pen, seems to adhere to a pattern of presenting a protagonist living a problem-filled life which ends in a miraculous reversal of character. For Sergius his ultimate conversion (some might say redemption) comes in a dream. But several pages before his dream he has a moment alone under an elm tree that seems to foreshadow his ultimate change. The narrator described the landscape at this moment at the cusp of the end of the day in terms of such natural beauty that it seemed to be touched with the ghost of St. Francis of Assisi.

One thing missing from Sergius's life is happiness. He first has worldly success followed by weariness, vanity, striving, and ultimately acceptance of what he claimed to be the feeling of god within him. He seemed to be fulfilling what was revealed to him to be god's plan, but some might question the nature of his revelation. Could it have been yet another form of the hubris that afflicted him his whole life? Possibly one might say, that once a Prince - always a Prince.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Virginia Woolf: An Introduction

Virginia Woolf ReaderThe Virginia Woolf Reader 
by Virginia Woolf , edited by Mitchell A. Leaska

"a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction;"(p 170)

This is a great introduction to the writings of Virginia Woolf. It spans her oeuvre with selected short stories and essays; there are also excerpts from several novels, her diary and letters, and her autobiographical writings. Especially welcome is a twenty-page long excerpt from her famous essay A Room of One's Own, but the selections from novels also demonstrate her mature fiction writing style.

The editor, Mitchell A. Leaska, provides a thoughtful preface detailing the choices he made in compiling these selections. The result is a representative collection of her writings that demonstrates with the breadth of her interests and her inimitable style of writing. Readers who are new to Virginia Woolf and those who are familiar with her works should welcome this anthology.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Complicated Tale

The Death of Ivan Ilyich/Master and Man Master and Man 
by Leo Tolstoy

"He, like all people who live with nature and know want, was patient and could wait calmly for hours, even days, without feeling either alarm or vexation”  ― Leo Tolstoy, Master and Man

Reading the tale, Master and Man, seems appropriate in the midst of winter. Tolstoy wrote this tale about a decade after The Death of Ivan Ilych and Winter cold is so important in the story that it becomes yet another character by the end of this sophisticated parable. Snow and biting winds gust from its pages. Its climactic event, the transferal of heat from one body to another, has a resonance that cannot be denied, but my question would be: can it be believed?

The story begins just following the attendance of a merchant, Vasily Andreich Brekhunov, at the winter festival of St. Nicholas. Brekhunov immediately turns his attention to an opportunity to become richer. On a dark afternoon, despite the threat of a storm, he sets out to secure the purchase of a wood at a bargain price. He takes his "kind, pleasant" servant Nikita with him, a man Brekhunov values but insensitively exploits. He pays him half what he should, and then "mostly not in money but in high-priced goods from [his] shop."

The main arc of the story is the passage from life to death, one of Tolstoy's frequent concerns (as was dramatized in Ivan Ilych). There are plenty of symbols in the narrative and the tension almost immediately begins as Brekhunov and Nikita leave the village of Kresti ("The Crosses"). The narrator describes the breaking of limits in this passage:
"As soon as they passed the last [building], they noticed at once that the wind was much stronger than they had thought. The road could hardly be seen...The fields were all in a whirl, and the limit where sky and earth met could not be seen."
Nikita drowses and they become lost, riding across bleak fields "with clumps of wormwood and straw sticking up from under the snow." They come to the village of Grishkino, receive directions and set off again. The snowstorm has intensified. Again Nikita drowses, again they get lost in "the slanting net of wind-driven snow". Night is falling. They travel in a circle. 
They come again to Grishkino.
This time they seek shelter at a wealthy household of the Taras family in the village. The contrast created between the cold loneliness of the wilderness and the cozy warmth of human habitation is striking. Nikita, icicles melting from his beard, drinks "glass after glass" of tea and feels "warmer and warmer, pleasanter and pleasanter". They could safely stay with the Taras family but Brekhunov again insists they must resume their journey.

They get lost a third time, in darkness this time, and the horse Mukhorty is too tired to carry on. Nikita prepares for a night outdoors, with Brekhunov in the sleigh and himself in a straw-lined hollow. Brekhunov smokes and thinks about "the sole aim, meaning, joy, and pride of his life – of how much money he had made and might still make". But these thoughts fade into the "whistling of the wind, the fluttering and snapping of the kerchief in the shafts, and the lashing of the falling snow against the bast of the sleigh."
Over the next few pages Tolstoy tracks Brekhunov's shift from discomfort and irritation to panic. He decides to take Mukhorty and abandon Nikita – "'it's all the same if he dies. What kind of life has he got!'" – who is losing his toes to frostbite, and realizes he is probably going to die. "This thought did not seem especially unpleasant to him, because his whole life was not a continuous feast, but, on the contrary, a ceaseless servitude, which was beginning to weary him."
On a floundering Mukhorty, Brekhunov travels in smaller circles across a hostile, almost alien landscape, coming twice to a clump of wormwood – "growing on a boundary … desperately tossing about under the pressure of the wind" – that appears to mark the grim border of existence. He "sees he is perishing in the middle of this dreadful snowy waste" and realizes the horse has brought him back to the sleigh (and to the one man whom the horse loves). Then, amazingly, he scrapes the snow from Nikita and lies on top of him. In the morning Nikita is alive and Brekhunov is dead, frozen as if crucified, "his open mouth...packed with snow."

There is something strange about Brekhunov's sudden and unlikely transformation from exploiter to saviour, which Tolstoy outlines but does not precisely describe. Brekhunov's thought that "'Nikita's alive, which means I'm alive, too,'" does not comport with the unmistakably Christian symbolism of the story. There are many instances of the number three in the story, but the most insistently repeated symbol is that of the circle. This is a traditional symbol of the unity of life and death, the Chain of Being. In spite of this the moment of transformation seems at best coincidental and more likely forced. Does it represent a new form of interconnection for Brekhunov that did not exist previously, or is it a form of redemption or absolution for a life of greed and insensitivity?

"Master and Man" is a complicated tale. Do we really know these two characters who are identified primarily by a couple of essential characteristics? To paraphrase a popular song: "Is that all there is, my friend?" Nikita is kind and pleasant, but he's also a drunk who chopped up his wife's most treasured clothes. Brekhunov is odious but he sees himself as a "benefactor" (although this may merely be relative to his forebears who owned Russian "souls"). In the end these two along with the horse Mukhorty are trapped in a hostile world in a bitter and blinding snowstorm. The story only becomes a classic with the stroke of Tolstoy's pen whose clarity and simplicity of style is peerless.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Honor's Duty

On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington, #1)On Basilisk Station 
by David Weber

“My duty is not affected by what others may or may not do to discharge their own.”  -  Honor Harrington

The first novel in David Weber's Honor Harrington series, On Basilisk Station, follows Commander Honor Harrington and Her Majesty’s light cruiser Fearless during their assignment to the Basilisk system. Though Basilisk Station and the planet of Medusa have become a dumping ground for misfits and rejects from her home star system of Manticore, Honor is determined to discharge her duty regardless of the circumstances.

The story follows Honor and her crew as they deal with the responsibilities of their assignment. When their duty leads them to discover events that would lead to an invasion of Medusa, they have no choice but to act.
I was impressed with the details presented in this novel, although doing so made the first hundred or so pages slow-going. The action picks up as Commander Harrington demonstrates her skill and courage, first improving the organization of the station post and then preparing for more serious action against what turns out to be an attempted invasion of the planet Medusa.

The obvious intelligence of Commander Harrington made her both plausible and likable as a heroine.  She has a remarkable way of instilling confidence in her followers - leading by example.  The long introduction provided a good foundation for the later action.  There are political  maneuverings, tactics, battle strategies, fight scenes, and chase scenes which by the last section of the novel could be described a spectacular.  This is a bold space opera that delivers both setting and story in fine fashion.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Picaresque Social History

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil WarConfederates in the Attic: 
Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

by Tony Horwitz

“There are people one knows and people one doesn't. One shouldn't cheapen the former by feigning intimacy with the latter.”   ― Tony Horwitz

While I read this book more than a decade ago I still remember it vividly, if for no other reason than the cover art, which I consider to be one of the most hideous  of any book that I have read. 
Fortunately I did not let that stop me and inside I found a delicious mix of cultural history, personal reminiscence and odd, but true (I believe) miscellany about people who are fixated on the Civil War era.  One of the strangest episodes was the discussion of the fascination the Japanese have for Gone With the Wind. It borders on obsession such that it leads them to visit Atlanta, Georgia where they are known to inquire about the location of Tara, seeming to think there must be a real Tara behind the novel.  It is reminiscent of  Louis Theroux's The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures in that much of the book has a similar eccentricity.  Horwitz certainly seeks out some of the more peculiar and sometimes unsavory elements to interview including the crazy biker bar.  An enlightening interview with Shelby Foote was included, and I actually gained appreciation for a certain pro-south view (even if I disagree with it). The book may have lost something with time, since the memories of people interviewed are fading and times continue to change.

The book almost reads like a picaresque novel or collection of stories which makes it even more fun. You might consider it a snapshot of the zeitgeist of the 1990s in relation to the Civil War.  The Civil War re-enactors are truly a strange breed, but endlessly interesting in their passion for the era. It was a delight to read.

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Monday, February 09, 2015

Rhetoric as an Art

Persuasion, Seduction, and Con-jobs:
Rhetoric and Propaganda

a lecture by Michaelangelo Allocca

"The broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily," is chilling, even if you don't know that Hitler said it in Mein Kampf, about the efficacy of the "big lie."  Yet the nature of rhetoric as an art which sways audiences through emotional seduction, at least as much as through rational persuasion, has been recognized as far back as Socrates. (from the introduction to the lecture)

George Orwell wrote in 1944 that "Only a few exceptionally gifted speakers can achieve the simplicity and intelligibility which even the most tongue-tied person achieves in ordinary conversation." ("Propaganda and Demotic Speech").  While his point was that most speakers are unable to produce a speech in reasonably conversational English, his argument suggests to me a question:  what makes powerful speeches effective, above and beyond simplicity and intelligibility?

Last Friday Michaelangelo Allocca, Staff Chair and Instructor, Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults , the University of Chicago, presented a lecture that provided an answer to that question.  The lecturer opened with a quote from William Penn on the potential for misuse of rhetoric:  "There is a truth and beauty in rhetoric; but it oftener serves ill turns than good ones.”  Throughout the lecture he used references to thinkers from the age of Socrates and Aristotle to the present one, thus providing a tour guide to the basics of rhetoric and propaganda with examples from "a few exceptionally gifted speakers". 
The lecture continued with the quote from Hitler (above) and a definition of propaganda proposed by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian linguist, sociologist, and Marxist theoretician.  He equated propaganda with the world view of a power structure.  In Gramsci's terms use of the media as propaganda enable a certain world view.  A popular example provided in the lecture was the Super Bowl as a cultural event.  

We can trace the origins of speech and rhetoric back to Classical Greece with in the dialogues of Plato.  For example, in the Phaedrus he describes speech as a type of seduction, an instance of the power of Eros in human lives.( Phaedrus, 258d)  The discussion in this dialogue highlights the connection between speech making and love.  Plato's student Aristotle defined rhetoric based on his observations in his book entitled On Rhetoric.  Here Aristotle categorized rhetoric into three types of persuasion, namely:  those derived from the character (ethos) of the speaker, when speaking he shows himself fair minded and trustworthy;  those derived from emotion (pathos) aroused by a speaker in an audience;  and those derived from true or likely argument (logos).  Rhetoric is seen as a sort of offshoot of, or counterpart to, dialectic.    Further, Aristotle identified types of rhetoric by the purpose for which it was used.  There are also three of these:  parliamentary  or deliberative regarding an action in the future;  judicial regarding an action in the past;  and praise or blame without judgement of a past or future action (epideictic).  

The lecture continued with examples from literature and history.  In Shakespeare's drama Julius Caesar we see Brutus followed by Mark Antony both making effective speeches demonstrating these principles.  Yet, there are modern examples in the speeches of Adolf Hitler (as documented in the film Triumph of the Will and elsewhere) and John F. Kennedy's inaugural address.  Perhaps the best examples of great rhetoric can be found in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln.  This was an enlightening and rhetorically pleasing lecture that truly demonstrated its subject.

All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays,  George Orwell.  Harcourt, 2008.
On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse,  Aristotle, George A. Kennedy, trans.  Oxford University, 1991.
Selections from the Prison Notebooks,  Antonio Gramsci.  International Publishers, 1971.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Power of Music

The Kreutzer Sonata The Kreutzer Sonata 
by Leo Tolstoy

"music, at once, transports me directly into the inner state of the one who wrote the music.  I merge with him in my soul and, together with him, am transported from one state to another, but why I do that I don't know."  - Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata.

The opening of this novella takes place during a train ride. Passengers are discussing the news of the day, Pozdnyshev overhears a conversation concerning marriage, divorce and love. When one rider alludes to news about a man who killed his wife Pozdnyshev speaks up:
"'I'm Pozdnyshev, the one to whom that critical episode occurred which you alluded to, that episode in which he killed his wife,' he said, quickly glancing at each of us.

Pozdnyshev begins to tell his story, he asks "what is love?" and points out that, if understood as an exclusive preference for one person, it often passes quickly. Convention dictates that two married people stay together, and initial love can quickly turn into hatred. He then relates how he used to visit prostitutes when he was young, and complains that women's dresses are designed to arouse men's desires. He further states that women will never enjoy equal rights to men as long as men view them as objects of desire, but yet describes their situation as a form of power over men, mentioning how much of society is geared towards their pleasure and well-being and how much sway they have over men's actions. His commentary becomes both repetitive and disturbing.

After he meets and marries his wife, periods of passionate love and vicious fights alternate. She bears several children, and then receives contraceptives: "The last excuse for our swinish life -- children -- was then taken away, and life became viler than ever."
His wife takes a liking to a violinist, Trukhachevsky, whom Pozdnyshev immediately dislikes, but with whom he feels a strange connection that leads him to invite the violinist to perform with his wife, who had become the violinist's student. The two perform Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata (Sonata No. 9 in A Major for piano and violin, Op. 47) together. Pozdnyshev is overcome by the hypnotic effect of the music.  While he goes away for a few days when he returns and finds his wife "making music" with the violinist he loses control.  Taking a dagger from the wall above the sofa he kills his wife with it. The violinist escapes: "I wanted to run after him, but remembered that it is ridiculous to run after one's wife's lover in one's socks; and I did not wish to be ridiculous but terrible."
Afterwards he rationalizes: "So he and his music were the cause of everything." His marriage as presented by Pozdnyshev was a shambles already, but beyond the surface Tolstoy uses this case as an argument against the goodness of beautiful art. Pozdnyshev questions the nature of the Good and what is moral echoing the divide between external Good and internal values that can be seen in the ideas of Rousseau and Kant.

Later acquitted of murder in light of his wife's apparent adultery, Pozdnyshev rides the trains seeking forgiveness from fellow passengers. After the work had been forbidden in Russia by the censors, a mimeographed version was widely circulated. It was eventually printed in Tolstoy's collected works. It is powerful even today for the questions it raises are still with us.

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Russian Poetry

The Selected Poems
The Selected Poems 
by Osip Mandelstam

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia: here, God himself decreed
Nations and kings to stop! As witness eyes
In words, your ancient cupola is indeed,
As if on a chain, suspended from the skies.

Across the centuries, Justinian’s example
Shines: Diana of Ephesus abets 
The theft of 107 columns in green marble
For the benefit of those alien gods.

In lofty thought, your magnanimous architect,
Noble of spirit, arranged the nave, exedrae,
Semi-domes, apses, pillars, et cetera,
Once he had indicated east and west.

The lovely temple is bathing in the world,
Its forty windows hold a triumph of light.
Under the dome, with sails of wings bedight,
The four archangels are the most beautiful.

This wise and spherical construction
Will outlive many a loud age and nation.
Echoes of choirs of cherubim weeping
Will fail to warp the darkened gilding.*

Osip Mandelstam was born in 1891.  After surviving the revolution in 1922 Mandelstam married Madezhda Iokovlevna Khazin, who accompanied him throughout his years of exile and imprisonment. In the 1920s Mandelstam supported himself by writing children's books and translating works by Upton Sinclair, Jules Romains, Charles de Coster and others. He did not compose poems from 1925 to 1930 but turned to prose. In 1930 he made a trip to Armenia. Mandelstam saw his role as an outsider and drew parallels with his fate and Pushkin's. The importance of preserving the cultural tradition became for the poet a central concern. The Soviet cultural authorities were rightly suspicious of his loyalty to the Bolshevik rule. To escape his influential enemies Mandelstam traveled as a journalist in the distant provinces. Mandelstam's Journey to Armenia (1933) became his last major work published during his life time. 
'We live, deaf to the land beneath us, 
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches, 
But where there's so much as a half a conversation 
The Kremlin's mountaineer will get his mention.' 
(from 'Stalin' 1934) 
Mandelstam was arrested for 'counter-revolutionary' activities in May 1938 and sentenced to five years in a labour camp. Interrogated by Nikolay Shivarov, he confessed that he had written a counter-revolutionary a poem which started with the lines: 'We live without sensing the country beneath us, At ten paces, our speech has no sound and when there's the will to half-open our mouths the Kremlin crag-dweller bars the way.' 
In the transit camp, Mandelstam was already so weak that he couldn't stand. He died in the Gulag Archipelago in Vtoraia rechka, near Vladivostok, on December 27, 1938.His body was taken to a common grave.  

*Translated by Philip Nikolayev

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Snow in the City

Of Snowflakes and Perfect Lawns

“Snowflakes are one of nature's most fragile things, but just look at what they can do when they stick together." (author unknown)

The sun was just rising as I finished putting the final touches on my attempt to clean our front sidewalk of snow one morning earlier this week.  It was rather whitish stuff that had turned into a mushy muddled mess under the incessant trampling of many footsteps into a greyish cover over the concrete that is our front sidewalk.

As I laid down a layer of salt I thought back to my youth in southern Wisconsin.  My thoughts were not of the wintry whiteness  that we enjoyed but of summertime and the feelings of futility and, perhaps, a bit of resentment over the perfect lawn of our neighbors across the street.  They had a well-maintained bungalow and a small front lawn that was always kept in pristine, if not perfect, order.  While I struggled with our much larger lawn that stretched over the equivalent of at  least three city lots my neighbor's yard was always laying there, in its crisp, pristine, weed-free form, mocking all my feeble attempts to keep our lawn under control.  Forget about eliminating weeds -- as long as the ground was covered with green it did not matter what the source of that greenery was.  Did I mention that my neighbor was retired?  Thus he had most every day available to touch-up his lawn and make sure it was just right.  So, the battle was lost before it had begun and the perfect image of that lawn has grown in my mind into a memory that augments the lingering disgust I have for even the idea of mowing and trimming a lawn. 

Call me a Jeremiah for my memory of that time is surely Pirandellian and the feelings of futility were merely chimerical.  But, here I am in the seventh decade of my life making sure that the sidewalk in front of the six-flat in which I live is perfectly clear of snow (at least when the snowfall is somewhat less than the almost two feet we had yesterday).  What will the neighbors think?

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Great Mutiny

The Siege of Krishnapur (Empire Trilogy, #2)The Siege of Krishnapur 
by J.G. Farrell

“Things are not yet perfect, of course,’ sighed the Collector. ‘All the same, I should go so far as to say that in the long run a superior civilization such as ours is irresistible. By combining our advances in science and in morality we have so obviously found the best way of doing things. Truth cannot be resisted! Er, that’s to say, not successfully,’ the Collector added as a round shot struck the corner of the roof and toppled one of the pillars of the verandah”   ― J.G. Farrell

Set in India, 1857, during the Great Mutiny, this novel by J. G. Farrell is both a mighty work of historical fiction and a humane study of man. Farrell has the ability to create a world filled with flawed but often sympathetic characters and that sets this novel apart from typical historical fare. He also underlays the action both subtly and with irony depicting the contrast between the civilization of science and rationality, represented by the Great Exhibition of 1851 and its' Crystal Palace, with the culture of India as seen through the eyes of their British overlords; who at this time are from the British East India Company. It is this presentation of the attitudes of the British in India that makes this as much a challenging novel of ideas as it is an historical drama.

The action takes place during the period of unrest that leads to the end of the control of the Company with battle sequences during the siege by the Sepoys that are riveting, but do not detract from more abstract discussions of theology, philosophy and medicine. Ultimately the British in Krishnapur are faced with a battle for their lives against multiple attackers; disease in the form of Cholera, starvation and the Sepoys. All the while, the novel seems to overflow with wit, tenderness, satire and the whole of humanity. As told in a very readable style with both irony and humor by J. G. Farrell this is one of the best historical novels I have had the pleasure to read.

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The Romantic Discovery of Science

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of ScienceThe Age of Wonder: 
How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science 
by Richard Holmes

Two things fill my mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the more often and persistently I reflect upon them:  the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me...I see them in front of me an unite them immediately with the consciousness of my own existence.  - Immanuel Kant (1788)

My interest in the History of Science began with reading biographies of famous scientists like Faraday and Edison when I was not yet a teenager. This interest was intensified by college reading of Arthur Koestler, Loren Eiseley and others, and has continued to this day. Richard Holmes fine volume, The Age of Wonder, brings that interest together with my love of literature. In his prologue he describes the book as "a relay race of scientific stories". That it is and more, combining the literary milieu of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the increasingly wonderful scientific discoveries and enterprises from the voyages of Captain James Cook through the crossing of the English Channel by balloon through excursions into the study of gases and electricity, ending with the first voyage of Charles Darwin.

The cast of characters is too numerous to list, but includes geniuses of science from William Herschel to Humphrey Davy and on to Michael Faraday and other discoverers. The episodes include the discovery of the planet Uranus by Herschel and his sister, the study of Tahitian culture by Joseph Banks, the "vitalist" movement that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, the practical development of safe lamps for coal miners by Davy, and other momentous moments of wonder that are still of  importance to us today. Making his stories more interesting is the influence and intersection of science with literature as evidenced by the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, and others including Davy himself. He does not ignore the interaction with scientists from the continent like Lavoisier, Ritter, Baron Cuvier, and Goethe. Also present is the importance of the influence of philosophers, especially the Germans like Kant, both via the writings of Coleridge and through the readings of the scientists themselves.

It was an age when scientists were still considered philosophers, even masters of the humanities. This is seen in the musical creations of Herschel and the poetic charms of Davy; not to mention the writing abilities of all of them including explorers like Captain Cook with his journals of Pacific voyages, and Mungo Park whose journal of his explorations in Africa are a great read to this day.  It was also an age when the foundations of some of our greatest twentieth century scientific developments were laid by men like Charles Babbage, the mathematician who invented "difference engines" (we call them computers today).

The combination of Holmes' superb writing style with fascinating stories, many unfamiliar even to a reader like myself, and with the suspense of voyages and scientific advances that seem to happen an increasing pace makes it understandable why this book was the recipient of multiple awards. I would recommend this to all readers who look at the night sky and wonder about the mysteries of nature and the universe.

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The Music of Schubert

Schubert: The Music and the ManSchubert: The Music 
and the Man

by Brian Newbould

My love for Schubert is a very serious one, probably just because it is not a fleeting fancy. Where is genius like his, which soars aloft so boldly and surely, where we then see the first few enthroned? To me he is like a child of the gods, who plays with Jupiter's thunder, albeit also occasionally handling it oddly. But he plays in such a region, at such a height, to which the others are far short of raising themselves... [Letter from Brahms to Schubring, June 1863] 

Today is the anniversary of Franz Schubert's birth.  Schubert's short life was filled with music and his legacy to us is a wealth of melody and exceptional music spanning most of the forms of classical music. In Brian Newbould's comprehensive biography he explores the context for this beautiful music that was so rapidly created over less than three decades. Schubert seems an intuitive composer whose technique continued to grow into his final year. The biography is divided into two sections with the first focused on Schubert's life and the second surveying in more detail his compositions by genre. The compulsion of Schubert's genius and the resulting music is evident on every page.

Schubert attempted to write music of all types and only Opera eluded him. While his symphonies, piano and chamber music are appealing, the form in which he made his greatest contribution was the song. Within his hundreds of lieder are some of the best ever written. In the last year of his life, 1828, he wrote the fourteen lieder subsequently known as the Schwanengesang in addition to five others. Listening to these songs one wonders what was lost in Schubert's passing, but we can take joy in the songs and all the other fine music he bequeathed to us.

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Library Nightmares

The LibraryThe Library 
by Zoran Živković

"Perhaps the email that started it all would have ended up in the recycle bin along with the others, if it had not been so brief that I inadvertently read it.  Against a black background,  devoid of decoration, the first line annouced:  VIRTUAL LIBRARY in large, yellow letters, while under it the slogan 'We have everything!' ---written in considerably smaller blue letters---did not exactly assume the aggressive tone typical of this type of message." (p 3)

What would you do if you took a book off the shelf, read it, and then replaced it on the shelf only to find that after a few minutes of sitting in your chair or writing at your desk that the book had somehow reappeared by your side?
If you were a reader like the anonymous narrator of The Library you would not be surprised; not that your active mind would not be filled with questions about what is happening. As he says in the second of the six stories that comprise this small but eventful and exciting collection:
"I, however, wasn't surprised at all. I didn't let any of these annoying questions upset me. Long ago, I realized that the world is full of inexplicable wonders. It's no use even trying to explain them." (p 18)
Do not think that our narrator, a writer by trade, takes the inexplicable lying down. No, he attempts to deal with the issues he faces, all dealing with books, and his experiences are alternately hilarious and horrifying; especially the "Infernal Library", a story that takes him . . . well you know where.
His world does not include the book that jumps off the shelf described above (that is from my own imagination), but he does have a mailbox in which the library volume entitled simply "World Literature" appears and reappears for what may seems like an infinite number of times. The narrator takes this in stride, always remembering to keep his mailbox neat and clean.

Zoran Zivkovic has six tales for the bibliophile that bring the reader in to a twenty-first century Kafkaesque world;  one that reminds me of Borges' famous The Library of Babel. Whether dealing with an on-line "virtual library" of everything he, the narrator, had written and would (perhaps) ever write, or trying to comprehend what kind of a library exists only at night inside a locked library. The challenge for the reader is to get beyond the apparent absurdity of the situations and discover the deeper questions that each eerie episode raises. It is only by trying to understand what each of these stories mean for both narrator and reader that you will be able to enjoy the further surprise and delight in store for you as you attempt to make your way through to the final story.

Having finished reading this I found myself with the feeling that I would never forget the libraries created by Zoran Zivkovic in this extraordinary collection. But just in case I do there is always the chance the book will miraculously appear beside me silently enticing me with its simple presence.

(If you are interested in more information about this author I recommend you visit The Parrish Lantern, to whom I give a sincere thank you for introducing me to this exciting and engaging writer.)

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