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.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Unique Cultural Journey

Danube: 
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.


View all my reviews

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

DublinersDubliners 
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.


View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews

Friday, December 23, 2016

Notes on Proust, Combray

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

Combray

"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.





Monday, December 19, 2016

Alternative World

Camp ConcentrationCamp Concentration 
by Thomas M. Disch



“Much that is terrible we do not know. Much that is beautiful we shall still discover. Let's sail till we come to the edge.”   ― Thomas M. Disch



The most notable thing about the dystopic view of an alternative America in Thomas Disch's novel is the status of the narrator. This topic is important to me in part because of my familiarity with Vladimir Nabokov's postmodern novel Pale Fire for which the issue is paramount, but while thinking about that book my view of the status of other narratives was called into question. I mention this because Camp Concentration is told in the first person as the journal of Louis Sacchetti, poet and draft resistor (this is the 1970s), and the question of its reliability is just as important as in Nabokov's meta-fictional work. The story is somewhat reminiscent of Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon, but with a Dostoevskian twist.

Adding to the complexities of the narrative are many literary references, most important of which are references to the fictional poetry of Sacchetti himself and those to the Faust legend as reimagined by Goethe and Marlowe. There is the character of Mordecai Washington who plays Mephistofeles to Sacchetti's Faust. As another inmate undergoing the drug treatment that enhances intelligence, Mordecai has become obsessed with alchemy to the bewilderment of Sachetti. Unfortunately, the drug is based on a bug that is related to syphilis and results in the untimely death of the test subject. The parallels in this book abound, but with the notion of poisoned minds, whether by the State which is engaged in perpetual war) or through the experiments in Camp Archimedes, where Sacchetti has been sent to participate in tests of a new mind-expanding drug, one is reminded that this book was written during the middle of the Viet Nam War era. The prisoners in the book appear to be fascinated by alchemy, which they used as an elaborate cover for their escape plans. Sacchetti, who is obese, has a number of ironic visions involving other obese historical and intellectual figures, such as Thomas Aquinas.  In addition to the staging of Marlowe's play, the book references the Thomas Mann novel Doctor Faustus, which is about a composer named Adrian Leverkühn who intentionally contracts syphilis. Disch's book mentions a female composer named Adrienne Leverkuhn.

Sacchetti's journal tells a horrific story, but how much can we believe when it (apparently) has been through the prison censors. Is Sacchetti like one of Plato's banished artists? Is he a revolutionary, in spite of his claims to the contrary? Or is his story a figment of his imagination? The reader will have to decide for himself and this book has more depth than most I have read leading me to recommend it to all. The reviewer who called it "exciting, allegorical, suspenseful, disturbing. Superb prose and [a} novelist's integrity." (Amazing) was close to describing the feelings I had while reading Camp Concentration. Reading it was a journey into an alternative world that, unfortunately, was all too believable.

View all my reviews

Friday, December 16, 2016

Old Memory

The SeaThe Sea 
by John Banville


“Life, authentic life, is supposed to be all struggle, unflagging action and affirmation, the will butting its blunt head against the world's wall, suchlike, but when I look back I see that the greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit it, for cosiness. This is a surprising, not to say shocking, realisation."  -  John Banville, The Sea



The Sea is old memory made newly vivid. Art historian Max Morden returns to the Irish seaside village in County Wexford where he spent his childhood summers more than fifty years earlier. He has retreated there ostensibly to write the definitive book on the French painter, Pierre Bonnard. Settling into the former house of the Graces, a family that held claim to his adolescent heart, he reconnects with his innocence, with his first glimpse of love, but also with a profound experience of sorrow.

Banville's brilliant, but flawed novel, which won the 2005 Man Booker Prize, presents a man, Max Morden -- an Irishman, mourning his wife's recent death —and his blemished life. "The past beats inside me like a second heart," observes Max early on, and his return to a town by the sea where he lost his innocence gradually yields the objects of his nostalgia. Max's thoughts oscillate between the events of his wife's final illness and the evocative summer, many years past, when the Grace family—father, mother and twins Chloe and Myles, a strange young lad who has never spoken — lived in a villa in the seaside town where Max and his quarreling parents rented a dreary "chalet." It was there he fell under their spell. In a style reminiscent of Proust or Thomas Mann, Banville seamlessly juxtaposes Max's youth and age. Each scene is rendered with the intense scenic specificity of a painting ("the mud shone blue as a new bruise"); the theme of painting is reinforced by references to paintings and painters, especially Bonnard whose noted sketchiness is apropos. As in much of Banville's oeuvre, things are not what they seem. Max's cruelly capricious complicity in the sad history that unfolds, and the facts kept hidden from the reader until the shocking denouement, brilliantly dramatize the unpredictability of life and the incomprehensibility of death. Like the strange high tide that figures into Max's visions and remembrances, this novel sweeps the reader into the inexorable waxing and waning of life.

You can open the book to almost any page and read beautiful, poetic language. As the narrator remembers a storm: "At last , I thought, the elements have achieved a pitch of magnificence to match my inner turmoil! I felt transfigured, I felt like on of Wagner's demi-gods, aloft on a thunder-cloud. . ." Or as he describes the sea: "Down here, by the sea, there is a special quality to the silence at night. I do not know if this is my doing, I mean if this quality is something I bring to the silence of my room, and even of the whole house, or if it is a local effect, due to the salt in the air, perhaps, or the seaside climate in general." Unfortunately the prose can also tend to be overwhelming in its gratuitous pretentiousness.
Inexorably the novel courses its way to the moment of climax and the explosion rocks the reader. The magnificence of memory juxtaposed with sometimes evocative prose makes this a wonderful book to read.


View all my reviews

Reflections in the Garden

The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the GardenThe Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden 
by Stanley Kunitz


In a murderous time
     the heart breaks and breaks
          and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
     through dark and deeper dark 
          and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
     Where is my testing-tree?
          Give me back my stones!   

          from "The Testing-Tree" 


This is a unique collection of scintillating poems intertwined with conversations. The poems alone are worth the price of the book. The addition of the conversations is what makes this collection so special. With gardening as the starting point the reflections touch on many topics including personal history, poetry, the creative process, and the cycle of life. The garden was, for Stanley Kunitz, a source of solace and renewal as he dealt with personal health issues and the death of his wife in the spring of 2004.

For Kunitz "a garden holds infinite possibilities. What sense of its nature, or its kingdom, is it going to convey? It represents a selection, not only of whatever individual plants we consider to be beautiful, but also a synthesis that creates a new kind of beauty, that of a complex and multiple world. What you plant in your garden reflects your own sensibility, your concept of beauty, your sense of form. Every true garden is an imaginative construct, after all."

It is similar for poetry in that the creative process yields via the imagination a work of art, a poem, a thing of beauty. Yet for Kunitz " a poem seems to have no maker at all. Poems gather their own momentum and you feel they're moving on their own. You are part of the world in which they are born and come to maturity, but they have an identity beyond the person to whom they are confiding because the poem doesn't really belong to anyone, it belongs to a great tradition. The great tradition includes what I think of as the essential spirit of the poem which belongs to centuries, not to any single moment in time."  This is finally a collection of beautiful poetry, deep thoughts, and moving moments of conversation filled with meaning.



View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Humane Maxims

The Art of Worldly WisdomThe Art of Worldly Wisdom 
by Baltasar Gracián



“Three things make a marvel, and are at the acme of true nobility:  fertile intelligence, deep powers of judgement, and a pleasant, relevant taste.”   ― Baltasar Gracián, The Art of Worldly Wisdom



This collection of aphorisms rivals the wisdom found in Machiavelli's The Prince or Sun-Tzu's The Art of War. However this is significantly less well-known than the other two. 
Gracian was a Spanish Jesuit scholar and baroque prose writer and philosopher. He wrote down his observations of those in power. His study of statesmen and potentates demonstrates examples of their ethical behavior and worldly effectiveness. Collected as The Art of Worldly Wisdom, it is almost entirely composed of three hundred maxims with commentary. He constantly plays with words: each phrase becomes a puzzle, using the most diverse rhetorical devices.

Gracián is the most representative writer of the Spanish Baroque literary style known as Conceptism, of which he was the most important theoretician; his Wit and the Art of Inventiveness is at once a poetic, a rhetoric and an anthology of the conceptist style. I found many of the maxims in this collection useful insights into a humane way of living and achieving a flourishing life.


View all my reviews

Amorous Adventures

The RoverThe Rover 
by Aphra Behn


"All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she -- shady and amorous as she was -- who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits."
  -  Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own  



Carnival is the background for one of Aphra Behn's best known plays. Behn was a British playwright, poet, translator and fiction writer from the Restoration era. She was one of the first English women to earn her living by her writing, breaking cultural barriers and serving as a literary role model for later generations of women authors. Charles II employed her as a spy in Antwerp, but she returned to London and after a brief stay in debtors' prison, she began writing for the stage. She belonged to a coterie of poets that included John Wilmot, Lord Rochester. She wrote under the pastoral pseudonym Astrea.

Based on Thomas Killigrew's play Thomaso, or The Wanderer (1664), The Rover features multiple plot lines, dealing with the amorous adventures of a group of Englishmen in Naples at Carnival time. The titular "rover" of the is Willmore, a rakish naval captain, who falls in love with a young woman named Hellena, who has set out to experience love before her brother sends her to a convent. Complications arise when Angellica Bianca, a famous courtesan, falls in love with Willmore and swears revenge on him for his betrayal.

Meanwhile, Hellena's sister Florinda attempts to marry her true love, Colonel Belvile, rather than the man her brother has selected. The third major plot of the play deals with the provincial Blunt, who becomes convinced that a girl has fallen in love with him but is humiliated when she turns out to be a prostitute and a thief. The play, while entertaining, is more interesting both as an exemplar of authorial Feminism and as an model of the state of drama as it was recovering during the Restoration era.


View all my reviews

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Writer's Story

In the WakeIn the Wake 
by Per Petterson




I have never complained about anything except badly written books and the world situation, and you don't get your money back when little Nepalese girls are sold by their families to brothels in Bangkok, or because the World Bank refuses to waive cruel loans to Uganda. On the contrary. And lousy books; they just look at you and say: "Why don't you write one yourself, then?  ― Per Petterson, In the Wake




In the Wake is the third of Per Petterson's novels that I have read, yet it is the first of his novels translated into English. I previously read Out Stealing Horses and I Curse the River of Time. Each of these books has increased my esteem for this award-winning Norwegian author.

In the Wake tells the story of Arvid, a writer in his early forties. It is a Proustian tale in the sense that the bulk of the story is built on Arvid's memories of events that have shaped his life. The actual timespan of the novel is relatively short. In it Arvid's loneliness is intense, his grief has settled in to the point where his sanity is not guaranteed. He has lost his father, mother and two younger brothers in a ferry accident. (Petterson lost his parents and a brother in a ferry accident, too, but prefers to leave this out of his publicity material.)

Arvid's life as a writer has slowed to a standstill and yet he keeps moving, driving his beaten-up Mazda through wintry Norwegian landscapes and we keep him company, waiting for a thaw. The novel is startling, especially its opening. It takes a while to adjust to it, like a plunge into icy water, after which the body temperature must revert to normal. It is in prose passages like this describing a moment with his brother that the book comes alive: "We got out of the van, not slamming the doors but pushing them shut, because of the silence around us, not a sound but the sea sighing as it always does behind the trees but the shore when I realize that is what I can hear and stop thinking it is silence itself." His brother is sometimes a mirror for Arvid as is the memories of his father.  The action of the book is muted but Arvid's willingness to keep moving and his interaction with real living people provides hope for the reader that he will survive his grief and loneliness.

It seems appropriate that many of the scenes in the book occur in doorways or on actual thresholds, for it seems that this is where Arvid is in a psychological sense. One night, locked out, he stands outside his neighbor's house - and wakes her up. Thus begins a chapter about admission in many senses - Arvid tells his neighbor things about his dead father he has never told anyone. And it is clear that it is the confession that leads him to her bed.

Arvid is a reader as he explains, "On Sundays I sit at home reading whether it's sunny or raining or snowing."  And like Per Petterson himself, Arvid used to work in a bookshop and refers to favorite books, as if reading might accomplish what life could not. He describes one author's work like this: "Full of landscape and air and you can smell the pine needles and the heather a long way off."  Petterson's own novel is like this, too. It is prose you can almost inhale - the atmosphere is clear and overwhelming.

Hemingway is one persistent influence on Petterson, and so is Knut Hamsun—the protagonists of two early Hamsun novels, “Mysteries” and “Pan,” could be models for Petterson’s unmoored people, especially in the way that Hamsun, like Petterson, at once reveals and obscures rational motivation. Trying to separate fact from fiction with his memories flowing through his mind Arvid shares this thought: "It must have been a dream, of course, because I do not remember what that house looked like from outside or what he saw from the windows or why we were actually there. I remember a lot of dreams. Sometimes they are hard to distinguish from what has really happened. That is not so terrible. It is the same with books."

In the end Arvid's story and he himself are memorable because of his ability to become someone like the reader of his book. He rereads books, and he makes lists of favorite books. They help him deal with the the pain of the world and find a way to go on living and writing. In the end he shares a real life Hemingway moment with his brother. The reality of living in the present overcomes all the memories of the painful past.


View all my reviews

Monday, November 14, 2016

Small Town Life

A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William MembershipA Place in Time: 
Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership 
by Wendell Berry


“But love, sooner or later, forces us out of time...of all that we feel and do, all the virtues and all the sins, love alone crowds us at last over the edge of the world. For love is always more than a little strange here...It is in the world, but is not altogether of it. It is of eternity. It takes us there when it most holds us here.”   ― Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow


Wendell Berry has been writing poetry and essays on farming life for more than half a century. But he has also written fiction set in Port William, Ky., which rivals William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in terms of its breadth of imagined historical detail. A Place in Time includes 20 stories that feature familiar characters from earlier novels and stories, but it is not necessary to have read those to get pleasure out of these.

This is a good introduction to many of the families that inhabit Port William. The Catletts and Feltners are prominent in several stories. While individual characters like Burley Coulter, Elton Penn, and Andy Catlett stand out. The stories span more than a century and a half of history from the opening story, set in the Civil War era to the titular tale that ends the book during the first decade of the new millennium.

The stories are not plot driven but focus on character, including the character of Port William itself. The relationships of characters are as important as their actions in these beautiful vignettes of small town life. As someone who was raised in a small town I found moments that resonated with my own experience. "Andy Catlett: Early Education" reminded me of my own schooldays while also bringing my reading of books like Tom Sawyer to mind. One of the most potent stories, for instance, is markedly subtle: “A Desirable Woman” tracks the intersection of a pastor’s wife and a young farmhand shortly before the start of World War II, and the story turns on the young man’s unrequited crush on the woman shortly before he’s sent off to war. “Sold” has a similarly soft-focus, nostalgic cast, narrated by an elderly woman recalling the accumulations that are about to be sold at auction before she enters a nursing home. Some of the stories are suggestive of homespun tales or Twain (again), as in “A New Day,” which climaxes in a competition between two horse teams dragging bricks, or “A Burden,” about the antics of a drunk relation.

Throughout the collection Berry's writing style is poetic as he shares episodes of loss and love, achievement and angst; all set against the backdrop of the evolution of Port William through time. The historic context was omnipresent but not overwhelming. It intruded with tales of soldiers returning or not returning from war and notes of other events, although the focus was continually on the families -- their follies, their foibles, and their faith. Berry is a writer whose beautiful sentences are imbued with an agrarian spirit. That and a concern for both time past and time future make this a fine collection.


View all my reviews

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Libraries and Ray Bradbury

While I am not self-educated in the same way as Ray Bradbury I do have a love for libraries based on my experiences that resonate with his.  From an early age I had a special relationship with libraries.  First it was spending summers visiting my hometown library for reading program books and others (I loved the history of British kings and retain an interest in history).  Later it was the High School library and memories of driving to other towns and the Whitewater College library for research papers.  When I entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison, from my Freshman year thru Graduate School, I often was ensconced in the Memorial Library stacks reading, even if not always for a class.  Since then my personal library which I began with my parents help at an early age has expanded every year.  With this in mind you may better understand why I was moved by the following excerpt from The Paris Review's interview with Ray Bradbury.


"I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. 

I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school." 

The Paris Review, Spring 2010

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Postmodern Shadows

The Lazarus ProjectThe Lazarus Project 
by Aleksandar Hemon



The morning sun was coddling the window, the mists were crawling up the slopes of Trebevic.  I could see Marin-dvor spreading toward the invisible river, and in an absurd flash I fully perceived it as the neighborhood I had been born and had grown up in." (p 280) 



The Lazarus Project is the second book by Aleksandar Hemon that I have read.  The previous one, his first novel Nowhere Man, I considered a flawed attempt at novel-writing.  This was due both to Hemon's inexperience and his attempt to relate an immigrant's experience in a postmodern way that did not appeal to me; neither his characterizations nor his style helped.

The Lazarus Project is narrated by a young Chicagoan named Vladimir Brik.  Like Hemon himself, he grew up in Sarajevo, came to Chicago on a visit and was forced to stay in the United States when war broke out in what was then Yugoslavia. While the new novel is in some ways a continuation of Hemon’s vision of an immigrant’s slanted, postmodern world, its narrator, Vladimir Brik, is also a departure from the ironic yet naïve young man of his earlier book. This is a mature novel about a grown man who is animated by and indeed savors the nuances of disappointment. In one scene, Brik tiptoes into his Chicago kitchen to make coffee before his wife wakes up. “I spotted a can in the corner whose red label read SADNESS. Was there so much of it they could can it and sell it? A bolt of pain went through my intestines before I realized that it was not SADNESS but SARDINES.”(p 73)

Brik is married to a successful American neurosurgeon who saves lives from “her high position of surgically American decency.” He, on the other hand, struggles “through permanent confusion.” Living with an acute sense of the loss of his homeland and, so, the loss of his identity, Brik has become intrigued with another immigrant: Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jew who escaped the 1903 Kishinev pogrom in what is now Moldova and came to Chicago. This Averbuch is a historical figure whose story is still something of a mystery; but it is known that he arrived at the house of the Chicago chief of police on March 2, 1908; there was some kind of scuffle, and the young man was shot and killed. Still haunted by the anarchist Haymarket riots, in which seven police officers died, and fearing a violent reaction to the mayor’s cancellation of a speech by Emma Goldman, Chicago moved into a state of turmoil.

When Brik gets a research grant and takes off for Eastern Europe, following in Lazarus’s footsteps, he brings an old friend along, a photographer and fellow Sarajevan named Rora. Rora and Brik’s road trip is an Eastern European nightmare. They are driven to Bucharest by a somnolent pimp with a terrified young girl held captive in the back seat. In one chapter, set at a bordello hotel called Business Center Bukovina, Hemon constructs a delicate, beautifully rendered fable of ugliness, desolation and heartlessness. They pass a mangy dog as they enter. The window looks out on a huge garbage bin “brimming with glass bottles,” their sparkle providing a brief moment of pleasure: “I always like to see a full garbage container, because I relish the thought of emptying it, the complete unburdening implicit in it.” At the end of the chapter, Brik hears a drunken couple shouting, then laughter, a dog howling and the shattering of glass. “The man and woman had thrown the dog in the garbage container full of bottles and then must have watched it writhing, shredding and slicing itself, trying to escape.”

There is to be no escape, no “complete unburdening” for Brik, no emptying of the life he has known and tried both to remember and forget. “Your nightmares follow you like a shadow, forever,” he notes. He also made this remark:
"There are moments in life when it is all turned inside out--what is real becomes unreal, what is unreal becomes tangible;  and all your level-headed efforts to keep a tight ontological control are rendered silly and indulgent."(pp 47-8)  These sound like a Kafkaesque sort of life as does much of the novel.

 I note that this is yet another novel that attempts two different stories, connected at several different levels, but not always successfully. I am reminded of Louis de Berniere's Birds Without Wings which was a similar attempt to interlink two related stories, also unsuccessfully in my estimation. Hemon's attempt is more concise and retains its ability to capture the reader's attention with mystery and intrigue, along with some humor, that propel both stories. The novel's short chapters interspersed with introductory historical photographs (does he think that the readers' imaginations need help?) also keep the narrative from flagging. The result is a satisfying read but one that for me was not quite as "stunning" as opined by some critics.


View all my reviews