Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Search

Man's Search for MeaningMan's Search for Meaning 
by Viktor E. Frankl

“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose ones attitude in any given circumstance.” - Victor Frankl

I first encountered Frankl's book as a reading assignment for a seminar led by Stephen Covey. I will never forget the first time I read it. It was exciting for its lessons and its inspiration. It was and continues to be one of the most inspirational books that I have ever read. That first reading led to subsequent readings which cemented its place in my own personal reading pantheon. Along with the works of Aristotle, Plato, Thoreau and others I have drawn support for my personal philosophy for living. It is an unlikely combination of one part personal memoir and one part psychology. But the two parts complement each other, producing an impressive argument for living your life with freedom through strength of mind and character.

I was impressed with the ability of Frankl to describe his experience in the concentration camps as one in which he was free. That is his mind was free because the guards could not control his thoughts and in that sense he saw himself with more freedom than they had. He concluded from these experiences “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” He goes on to say:
"We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life--daily and hourly. Our talk must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual." (p 85)
This is a deeply important paragraph with many lessons for Victor and his fellow prisoners as well as his readers. One aspect reminded me of the lessons I learned studying Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics where he also emphasized the importance of right action, right conduct, and taking individual responsibility. In Book Two he discusses the nature of virtue as it is concerned with feelings and actions. For Aristotle it is necessary to have the right feelings at the right times for the right things and for the right purposes. He goes on to discuss the actions of individuals and the nature of virtue but through all of this there is an aim towards the good and as Frankl says "the responsibility to find the right answer to life's problems.

Victor Frankl's personal experience through all the difficulties of immurement and physical deprivation make his story all the more powerful. He subsequently developed logotherapy (considered the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy" after Freud's psychoanalysis and Adler's individual psychology) which suggests an approach to life that is both positive and life-enhancing. I would recommend this book to all who are looking for guidance in finding direction in life.

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Monday, June 29, 2015

Poem for Today

The Caged Skylark

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage,
    Man's mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells —
    That bird beyond the remembering his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life's age.
Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage
    Both sing sometímes the sweetest, sweetest spells,
    Yet both droop deadly sómetimes in their cells
Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.

Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest —
Why, hear him, hear him babble & drop down to his nest,
    But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.

Man's spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best,
But uncumberèd: meadow-down is not distressed
    For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bónes rísen.

GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS, from Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Folio Society, 1974.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Notes on John Donne, I

 John Donne's Poetry 

Song: Go and catch a falling star

Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
    Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
            And find
            What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
    Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
    Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
            And swear,
            No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
    Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
            Yet she
            Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

John Donne, born in 1572,  is probably generally familiar for quotations from his writings. Perhaps his best-known line, from Meditation 17 in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, a prose work, is often quoted as poetic: "No man is an island."
Donne is often considered a difficult poet. Other metaphysical poets, such as Andrew Marvell, have enjoyed a steadier, if less glamorous, regard, since much of their poetry is more accessible. Donne, who almost never seems completely accessible even at his most seemingly transparent, requires great dedication on the part of the reader--and, perhaps, gives more lasting rewards.
A division in Donne's poetry can be drawn between his early, sensual love poetry (often full of Christian imagery but carnal in tone) and his later, largely sacred poetry.   Many of his love poems, however , are considered from early in his career.  While publication dates may be available for some poems during Donne's lifetime, many of his poems were often circulated for many years in manuscript before publication was sought. Therefore, the dates of printing are meaningless as origination dates except as the latest possible date for any particular poem.  His hardships as an adult would eventually change him from the young spendthrift and sometime soldier who wrote "The Sun Rising" to the somber, almost death-obsessed writer of the Holy Sonnets and the Meditations of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.  In 1615, he became an Anglican priest, although he did not want to take Anglican orders. He did so because King James I persistently ordered it. In 1621 at the age of forty-nine, he was appointed the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London.  The importance of religion in his later writing does not mean that there were not religious references in his early love poetry.  For example in the song above, "Go and catch a falling star",  where he rejects the possibility of a "true and fair" woman.  The poem begins with rather brilliant lines declaiming the ephemeral and nigh impossibility of finding such a woman, but later  he suggests there may be hope:
"If thou find'st one, let me know,
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;"
While not necessarily a Catholic reference one does not have to dwell to long on the line to think of holy pilgrimages, even poetic ones like that made famous by Chaucer.  The insertion of this does not lead the poet to believe that a true woman could be found for him as the poem ends:

"Yet do not, I would not go,
    Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
            Yet she
            Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three."

Another love poem has the poet battling with nature, the Sun in particular:

The Sun Rising

 Busy old fool, unruly sun,
               Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
               Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
               Late school boys and sour prentices,
         Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
         Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

               Thy beams, so reverend and strong
               Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
               If her eyes have not blinded thine,
               Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
         Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
         Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

               She's all states, and all princes, I,
               Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
               Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
               In that the world's contracted thus.
         Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
         To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

The poem begins with a bit of rant against the intrusion of the sun into the lover's bedroom lives.  It goes on to suggest their love is like an Arcadian ideal with lines like:  
"Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
         Call country ants to harvest offices,"
And it continues with the suggestion that love is not bound by the artificiality of the linearity of time as measured by more civilized selves.  
The lover's have banished those bounds, and consider wealth mere alchemy, but cannot ignore the sun.  So instead the poet chides the sun with the news that the center of the world that the sun warms is that bed of the lovers whose happiness is indeed more than that of nature.

In these poems and others including "The Bait" and "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" Donne demonstrates unique metaphors and a wit that is intellectually pleasing with its contrariness.  For example his arguments against the Romantic idealism of Christopher Marlowe's lyrical "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love"  prove as delicious as the fishes swimming after the bait proffered by the poet's beloved:
"When thou wilt swim in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channel hath,
Will amorously to thee swim,
Gladder to catch thee, than thou him. "
The poem ends with an ironic line suggesting the fishes that do not succumb to the bait are wiser than the poet.  It is complexity like this that might leave the reader with the feelings of a twentieth century man who is "bewitched, bothered, and bewildered".   This is a far cry from the Romantic ideal of love.  The poem follows:

The Bait

Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
With silken lines, and silver hooks.

There will the river whispering run
Warm'd by thy eyes, more than the sun;
And there the 'enamour'd fish will stay,
Begging themselves they may betray.

When thou wilt swim in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channel hath,
Will amorously to thee swim,
Gladder to catch thee, than thou him.

If thou, to be so seen, be'st loth,
By sun or moon, thou dark'nest both,
And if myself have leave to see,
I need not their light having thee.

Let others freeze with angling reeds,
And cut their legs with shells and weeds,
Or treacherously poor fish beset,
With strangling snare, or windowy net.

Let coarse bold hands from slimy nest
The bedded fish in banks out-wrest;
Or curious traitors, sleeve-silk flies,
Bewitch poor fishes' wand'ring eyes.

For thee, thou need'st no such deceit,
For thou thyself art thine own bait:
That fish, that is not catch'd thereby,
Alas, is wiser far than I.

Useful generalizations about so large and varied a body of work as Donne's are not easy. He was a profoundly religious poet, with a peculiarly strong hold on and interest in the physical things of life. He used a unique lens to view his world, creating spectacularly unlikely comparisons that enlightened the reader on the nature of both of the things compared, sometimes in surprising ways. He continues to be read and discussed today, four hundred years after he lived.  I will continue my comments on his poetry and prose in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Poetry Collection with Variety and Excitement

Teaching a Man to Unstick His TailTeaching a Man to Unstick His Tail 
by Ralph Hamilton

"In the deep laws of space, other
realities are harder to avoid than
find---thus somewere the one
I love is loving me back" 

from "Stephen Hawking in Love" by Ralph Hamilton

The poet is a magician who creates what at first glance may seem like strange creatures - these poems. But upon closer, deeper examination, savoring each word, one discovers the familiar: the meanings, behind the sounds, that relate to your life. That is what I experienced in reading the poems in Ralph Hamilton's collection Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail.

I told myself: Concentrate. Concentrate really hard and turn off all the sounds. Then listen to the sound as you speak the words. Gradually the meaning rises from the page within and without the sounds--a part, and apart, as I thought about the poems like "The Mother, Broken". This poem has words that briefly built emotional depth as I read them. I could feel the depth inside me with each passing stanza. The moments that struck hardest were lines like "The heart is a clock" and later "The heart is a cloak". The movement of the poem grew within me to a point when the glass in the last stanza held "this dark wine". Moving moments occur in this and the other poems. Yet, there is a diversity among them and in some of the poems the words subtly grace the page strewn in patterns that have yet to yield to my analysis. In others the sound of the words bursts forth;  and the words demand a stentorian reading as in "Exultate". In this poem the words exude an effervescence that justifies the title.

There are poems which require a meditative approach and these, perhaps, are those that I savored the most enjoying the words and the silence of thought that followed. One of these. "Idyll" is seemingly delicate in its approach to desire, yet the the words break into a rougher mode with the line "savage in those primal woods". What woods are these toward which the desire on the "cloudless night" draws the reader toward "the thing desired" yielding both a caress and the harshness of Nature? Further meditation is warranted.

The poet demonstrates the control that I admire in truly good poetry. In the penultimate poem of the collection, "What Sappho Knew", the two line stanzas mimic the fragmentary nature of Sappho's poetry (that we have). But the poem also is held together by a water motif that appears in the first stanza and is repeated with words like "glided, floating, spilling, coursed," and "oceans". With water appearing only after more than a third of the poem has floated by. Would Sappho know life as well as water? The appearance of a child and infant near the end suggests that she does.

This is a collection of poems that vary in shape and style, sonnets and a prose poem, some with words that crawl about the page and others with words that jump off the page. It is thus a collection that was both exciting and enjoyable. I enjoyed the music of the poetry and found the challenge exciting even when poems did not share their meaning immediately. I look forward to returning to see what more these poems have to share.

Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail by Ralph Hamilton.  Sibling Rivalry Press, Little Rock.  2015

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Future Brain Networking

Nexus (Nexus, #1)Nexus 
by Ramez Naam

“We think of ourselves as individuals, but all that we have accomplished, and all that we will accomplish, is the result of groups of humans cooperating. Those groups are organisms in their own rights.”   ― Ramez Naam, Nexus

This novel reminded me of the science fiction that I used to enjoy, but no longer find nearly as interesting. The main idea, an experimental nano-drug, Nexus, which allows the brain to be programmed and networked, connecting human minds together, is interesting. But that is not enough to hold my interest for a whole novel. The story involves secret Government agencies, drug dealers, foreign agents, corrupt corporations and more.

There are multiple scenes of action and some suspense, though this did not create a reason for me to turn the pages. The action scenes were one of the aspects that impressed me the least while the scene of the action moves into southeast Asia. I've had my fill of mediocre science fiction set in the not too distant future in that part of the world.
The book raises some critical philosophical questions about emerging technologies and whether it is good to develop technologies that can be used for both good and evil. What are scientists' moral responsibilities regarding how their technology is used? The author is somewhat heavy-handed in his treatment of these questions (characters sit around debating these things a lot), but nevertheless they are important and difficult questions.

While many have found this novel exciting and well-written I was unimpressed by the writing and disinterested in the action. The best part of the novel was the appendix "The Science of Nexus" that lucidly explained the scientific genesis of the concepts upon which the "nano-drug Nexus" was based.  That was too late for this reader, however, those who like action scenes and a novel way of connecting human minds for communication may enjoy this more than I did.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Small Masterpiece

Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early YearsConfessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man 
(The Early Years)
by Thomas Mann

"How inventive life is!  Lending substance to airy nothings, it brings our childhood dreams to pass.  Had not I in boyhood tasted in imagination those delights of incognito I fully savoured now, as I continued to go about my menial occupations for a while, keeping my new estate as secret as my princedom had once been?  Then it had been a merry and delightful game, now it had become a reality" (p 253)

I recently reread Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (The Early Years), Thomas Mann's last novel and a comic masterpiece. Felix Krull's confessions are filled with humorous episodes worthy of the Mann's story-telling mastery. Mann based the novel on an expanded version of a story he had written in 1911 and he managed to finish, and publish part one of the Confessions of Felix Krull, but due to his death in 1955 the saga of the morally flexible and irresistible conman, Felix, remained unfinished. In spite of that it is still one of the best novels I have read dealing with the question of identity.  It is that and much more.

Early in the story Felix learns to deal with circumstances by changing his character as needed and he continues to shift identities becoming whomever he needs to be in all the ensuing predicaments that he encounters. The expression of a latent admiration for a human being who can metamorphose himself into multiple identities reminds me of The Confidence Man by Herman Melville. That earlier novel is in a way a precursor to the modernity of Mann's unfinished opus. Felix Krull seems to view the world like a chessboard on which he can take pleasure in manipulating the pieces at will and cultivate his ambition and his knowledge of the ways of the world by spending whole days peering into shop windows.

There are three moments in the Confessions that exemplify the merging of identity and destiny of young Felix Krull. Early in the story Felix encounters an actor, Muller -Rose, whose extravagant operetta performance makes an indelible impression on him. The contrast between his stage character and his backstage repulsive self is a vision that impresses the young boy. The second moment occurs in Paris when Felix attends the circus. The performance of the acrobats and the high wire equilibrist Andromache were mesmerizing to Felix. "Andromache! Her vision, painful and uplifting at once, lingered in my mind long after her act was over and others had replaced it." (p 194)
The third moment occurs after Felix has settled into his identity as Venosta and is established in Lisbon. There is a bullfight which combines the flamboyance of the toreador costumes with the ravishing sensation of the duel to the death with the bull. Felix describes his impressions:
"the atmosphere that lay over all, at once oppressive and solemnly joyous, a unique mingling of jest, blood, and dedication, primitive holiday-making combined with the profound ceremonial of death." (p 375)
Each of these moments capture the sensation of Eros and Thanatos, pleasure and death, and form a counterpart to the often light-hearted way that Felix led his life as a confidence man.

He fools Venosta's parents with a lengthy letter that mimics the style of the man whose identity he has assumed and goes on to impress his contacts in Lisbon.  Yet, he maintains a calm demeanor throughout his escapades filled with confidence in his ability. The reader eventually succumbs to his charm in spite of an episodic life in different identities that was full of nervous suspense. It seems that Mann still had more story-telling magic left at the end of his life after World War II and decades after his great beginnings with Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice. The only regret is that Mann was unable to finish the novel; yet, the "early years" of Felix Krull still amounts to a small masterpiece.

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Monday, June 08, 2015

Changing Course a Bit

Summer Reading Plans:  updated

About a month ago I published a reading list that projected the books I planned to read over the Summer months.  I have finished four of those books:  The Cossacks, The Martian,   and Felix Krull: Confidence Man,  and Look Homeward, Angel;  I am in the process of reading My Name is Asher Lev
However my plans for the remainder of the Summer have changed somewhat so I thought I would update my list.  As it is now the second week of June the following is my revised list for the remainder of the Summer through the beginning of September.

1.  Selected Poems and Prose of John Donne:  This is for a class at the University of Chicago (Eula Snopes will have to wait until next year).

2. Nexus by Ramez Naam:  This is the June book for our Science Fiction book group.  In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link humans together, mind to mind.

3. The Nibelungenlied:  This is an epic by anonymous about heroes (following my reading of  Thomas Carlyle earlier this year) and I was inspired to read it by the review at The Consolation of Reading.

4. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok:  This is  for our Thursday evening book group.

5. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton:  This novel won the Booker Prize and is a lively parody of a 19th-century novel.  

6. Mussorgsky and His Circle by Stephen Walsh:  I love music and this book should expand my familiarity with all the Russian composers of the nineteenth century who aren't named Tchaikovsky.

7.  Biographies of both John Donne and John Milton:   I am reading these in conjunction with the works by these authors.

8. Paradise Lost by John Milton:  This is scheduled for our study group discussion in August.  I have begun to reread this amazing epic for the first time in more than two decades.

9. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan:  I recently acquired the paperback edition of this Booker Prize winner and hope that it is as good as his Gould's Book of Fish.  It may help me stay cool during the heat of the Summer.

10. The Little Hotel by Christina Stead:  A friend recommended this book and it will be my introduction to yet another Australian author.

Some other tbr books that are not in the top ten may include:  The Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan,  Tristana by Benito Perez Galdos, Theophilus North by Thornton Wilder, and  Europa by Tim Parks.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

A Young Man's Destiny

Look Homeward, AngelLook Homeward, Angel 
by Thomas Wolfe

"That we are born alone—all of us who ever lived or will live—that we live alone, and die alone, and that we are strangers to one another, and never come to know one another." (p 32)

Alone. This is a difficult concept to consider when thinking about the greatness both in size and content of Thomas Wolfe's first novel, Look Homeward Angel. The inclusion of so much of the world and so many other voices almost drowns out the voice of Eugene Gant, the narrator of this immense and impressive novel. But perhaps we should begin a consideration of this novel with the question of destiny. This is what we read in the first paragraph:
"A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world."

Is this destiny that of Eugene as well? And is it mere chance or will Eugene have a will to make his way in this world? This shows the direction of the story and, as it expands to take in the Gant family of Father, Mother, and siblings in Altamont, I was impressed with the translation of a country's manifest destiny into a town's and into a family's and beyond that the personal story and destiny of one Eugene Gant.

This translation of destiny is a story of coming of age told in what we today might call a "mash-up" of styles that leave the reader looking for structure among the historical commentaries, classical allusions, family rows, and soaring beauty of many more lyrical passages. The last of these alone made the book worth reading. Yes, it is worth persevering the Whitmanesque size of the narrative for some further passages of the beauty in the world that destiny had bequeathed to young Eugene Gant. While he is young and pursuing an education that seems unconventional, in spite of his attendance at the traditional schools, he is living a life of isolation from most of the world around him. There are exceptions, his relationship with his brother Ben is particularly poignant; yet there is a yearning for escape, from family and from Altamont to a world where Eugene may not feel quite so alone.

His estrangement from his own family is both exacerbated and caused by unlikable qualities from his father's boorish drunkenness to Steve's abusive behavior to his mother Eliza's self-centeredness. She is focused on a miserliness that builds a material fortune but does nothing for Eugene. With all his struggles Eugene remains detached from family and home; he seeks some solace with another family, the Leonards, and finds an "angel" in Margaret Leonard. But the stone angels outside his home remain a symbol that has warmth only in an ironical sense.

Wolfe writes near the end of the book that Eugene "stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch . . . like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say 'The town is near,' but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges" (p 508). This is where his true destiny lies. This, perhaps, is a place where he will no longer feel the pangs of isolation or, perhaps, it is merely a dream of a destiny denied as yet. For this reader it is not unlike the statement of another young man, Stephen Dedalus, who at the end of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man says, "I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."

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Saturday, June 06, 2015

Commonplace Entry

Speaking About Music

I firmly believe that it is impossible to speak about music.  There have been many definitions of music which have, in fact, merely described a subjective reaction to it.  The only really precise and objective definition for me is by Ferrucio Busoni, the great Italian pianist and composer, who said that music is sonorous air.  It says everything and nothing at the same time.  Schopenhauer, on the other hand, saw in music an idea of the world.  In music, as in life, it is really only possible to speak about our own reactions and perceptions.  If I attempt to speak about music, it is because the impossible has always attracted me more than the difficult.  If there is some sense behind this, to attempt the impossible is, by definition, an adventure and gives me a feeling of activity, which I find highly attractive.  It has the added advantage that failure is not only tolerated but expected.

from Music Quickens Time by Daniel Barenboim

Stranger in England

The Enigma of Arrival 
by V.S. Naipaul

"I also bought a copy of The New York Times, the previous day's issue of which I had seen the previous day in Puerto Rico. I was interested in newspapers and knew this paper to be one of the foremost in the world. But to read a newspaper for the first time is like coming into a film that has been on for an hour. Newspapers are like serials. To understand them you have to take knowledge to them; the knowledge that serves best is the knowledge provided by the newspaper itself. It made me feel a stranger, that paper." 

The Enigma of Arrival is one of V. S. Naipaul's masterpieces. In this autobiographical novel he successfully conveys to the reader the atmosphere of the English countryside through the meditations of the narrator on his original journey from Trinidad to England. Through the mind of the narrator we experience the fictional reality of the world-a world of Naipaul's making. Echoes from both James Joyce and Marcel Proust are visible in the narration of the novel. This seems a quiet book, but it is a powerful one. The book is composed of five sections that reflect the growing familiarity and changing perceptions of Naipaul upon his arrival in various countries after leaving his native Trinidad and Tobago.

Most of the action of the novel takes place in England where Naipaul has rented a cottage in the countryside. The feeling of the place is palpable and the evocation of place is underlined by the physical effects and the history of the people and their artifacts. On first arriving, he sees the area surrounding his cottage as a frozen piece of history, unchanged for hundreds of years. However, as his stay at the cottage where he is working on another book becomes extended, he begins to see the area for what it is: a constantly changing place with ordinary people simply living lives away from the rest of the world. This causes Naipaul to reflect upon the nature of our perceptions of our surroundings and how much these perceptions are affected by our own preconceptions of a place.

As he re-examines his own emigration from Trinidad to New York, and his subsequent removal to England and Oxford Naipaul's narration illustrates the growing understanding of his place in this new environment and the intricate relations of the people and the land around them. The result is a magnificent read that is encouragement to savor other novels by this Nobel laureate author.

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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Romance in the Mountains

The CossacksThe Cossacks 
by Leo Tolstoy

"When he compared these people to himself, they seemed so strong, wonderful, and free that he felt ashamed and unhappy.  He often considered throwing everything to the wind and registering as a Cossack . . . But an inner voice told him to wait. . . He was held back by the thought that happiness lay in selflessness." (p 110)

This is the story of Olenin, a Romance in the mountains. Olenin, young, naive, and wealthy Russian goes to the Caucasus to fight with the Cossacks. Just as he leaves his home he leaves civilization behind for the romance in the mountains under the infinite and interesting sky. "The further Olenin traveled from the heart of Russia, the more distant all his memories seemed, and the nearer he drew to the Caucasus, the lighter his heart became." (p 13)

Olenin is a searcher, in one sense a distant relative of Pierre Bezukov and in another a stand-in for Tolstoy himself. In the story his identity becomes an issue for him to deal with as he tries unsuccessfully to become like the Cossacks as he joins their battle against the Chechens. Another young noble, Beletsky, joined them and lived a more carefree, even licentious, lifestyle. Yet the Cossacks "got used to him, and even liked him better than Olenin, who remained a mystery to them." (p 98)

Olenin would go off alone in the countryside to ponder life, and even has an epiphany that leads him to conclude, "I still have to live, have to be happy. Because there is only one thing I want--happiness . . . I still need to live the best way I can." (p 83) Even after this epiphany Olenin has difficulty acting in a way that truly leads him toward this "happiness" that he desires.  He also becomes enamored of a young girl, Maryanka, but is unsure of how to approach her and is unsuccessful in that pursuit.

As the Cossacks battle the Chechens with Olenin joining in the reader begins to wonder if he is really naive or simply superior (even if he is unwilling to admit that to himself). He demonstrates a sort of stoical selflessness that carries him on his journey; but he remains a class apart, out of his element and unable to reach his ultimate goal. He remains solitary, watching the others with a bemused air regarding everything around him. The story ends with Olenin still a Russian, unable to become a Cossack, yet unwilling to give up his dreams.

Tolstoy's writing in this novella is comparable to his great novels, in fact he began writing War and Peace immediately following this story. He achieves a feeling for the Cossacks that reminds me of that demonstrated by Gogol in his novella Taras Bulba. Finally, he explores the themes of love and death and the search for identity and meaning in one's life that the reader is accustomed to encounter in his novels and stories.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Two Sisters

Sense and Sensibility

A New Musical
book, music and lyrics by Paul Gordon
directed by Barbara Gaines

“Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience- or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope.”   ― Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

On last Wednesday I had the good fortune to attend a production of a new musical with some friends.  The production was by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the musical, based on a two hundred year-old novel, was Sense and Sensibility based on the novel by Jane Austen.
Austen wrote romantic novels and this is one of her best and the first with several to follow.  The musical followed the plot closely thus capturing the essence of the novel.  The story concerns two sisters:  Marianne Dashwood, the young, beautiful, passionate, and unreserved romantic;  and her older sister Elinor, prudent, pretty, and proper, with all the restraint of feelings of which Marianne had none. Their father dead, the sisters and their mother were about to be displaced from their childhood home of Norland by their half brother John, and his wife, Fanny.   He might have allowed the Dashwood sisters to remain at Norland, if only grudgingly, but his wife was determined to send them packing, especially once Elinor had begun a friendship with her brother Edward.  These characters are well-portrayed with music and songs by Paul Gordon (who has also written a musical based on Austen's novel Emma), somewhat reminiscent in tone to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber (a bit derivative to my mind, but no matter).  

The story continues with their removal to a cottage in Devonshire where Marianne falls in love with a young man named Willoughby.  On the other hand she is also pursued by a dashing young officer, Colonel Brandon.  The remainder of the story concerns the relationships of the two sisters and how the complexities of love that develop are resolved (if you haven't already, read the novel).
The singers were superb, the staging was delightfully minimalist (a rare treat for a Chicago Shakespeare production), and the direction was brisk and straightforward.  In other words, you could not ask for a more entertaining afternoon of musical theater.  

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Stalin and the Cinematographer

The Commissariat of Enlightenment: A NovelThe Commissariat of Enlightenment: 
A Novel 
by Ken Kalfus

"Gribshin considered what he had just seen.  He knew it was important.  It belonged to the future, he was sure, but was it his future.  He too was pleased by the sound the lock made as it closed:  it was something predictive.  In the echoing tintinnabulation of the lock's components colliding hard against each other were conjured the sonances of rifle shots and beyond them smoky images of milling crowds.  The sounds and images vanished without revealing to Gribshin exactly what they promised." (p 10)

Tolstoy's demise in 1910 presents a career-launching opportunity for a young cinematographer who's beginning to understand the power of film to change or create political reality. The author of this novel, Ken Kalfus, links this death with that of Lenin - by imagining that three men attended both: an embalmer, a filmmaker and Stalin. The film maker's  knowledge comes in handy as Russia moves unsteadily from post revolution chaos toward the bureaucratic nightmare of the Soviet state.

Stalin promises that "the camera does not lie", but in a beautifully constructed scene, Kalfus demonstrates the opposite. Tolstoy has refused to see his wife. Gribshin knows that the public will demand a deathbed reconciliation between the great artist and the woman who bore his 13 children. So he films the countess entering the house where her husband is dying. There's a blackout. Then she leaves, her face contorted with sorrow. European, cinema audiences will be sophisticated enough to understand the blackout's implication: she has said her final farewell. In fact, she entered the house, turned on her heel and walked out again. Celebrity, propaganda, the mass media - it's all here in 1910.

The Commissariat of Enlightenment is one of the most powerful as the agency responsible for propaganda. The cinematographer's fate merges with that of Comrade Astapov, director of a massive Red agitprop campaign. People who choose to resist the commissariat include a church congregation that refuses to give up its faith, an experimental theater director, and a resilient young woman who makes an abstract, pornographic film in the name of sexual education for women. Kalfus recreates unforgettably the embalmer and scientist Vladimir Vorobev (who mummified Lenin), Joseph Stalin and Countess Tolstoy  who anchor the plethora of plot developments. 
This was a delightful surprise to read.  From the opening scenes at Leo Tolstoy's deathbed (and the surrounding media circus) to the rise of Stalin, Kalfus's blends carefully researched history, subtle social commentary and imaginative storytelling.  While the book required patience to read, it paid for that patience with a fascinating historical narrative of early twentieth-century Russia.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Stranded on Mars

The MartianThe Martian 
by Andy Weir

"'They'll be happy to hear that their son's alive,'  Annie said.  'Yes, he's alive,' Teddy said.  'But if my math is right, he's doomed to starve to death before we can possible help him.  I'm not looking forward to the conversation.'" (p 58)

It has been almost three hundred years since Daniel Defoe's classic Robinson Crusoe was first published. And it has been almost sixty years since I first read and fell in love with that novel. Robinson Crusoe marked the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre. Its success led to many imitators, and castaway novels became quite popular in Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Most of these have fallen into obscurity, but some became established, including The Swiss Family Robinson.

Andy Weir's entertaining novel, The Martian, belongs, I believe, to this tradition. It is a story set in the not too distant future about an era of manned exploration of Mars by Americans. As the book opens one of the expeditions has just left Mars due to a severe dust storm, but they leave one astronaut behind presuming he is dead. It happens that he survives the accident and Mark Watney, botanist and mechanical engineer, is left stranded on Mars.

The remainder of the novel consists of Watney's journal where he shares his experiences trying to survive. Watney must rely on his scientific and technical skills, engaged in such tasks as growing potatoes in the crew's Martian habitat (or Hab) and burning hydrazine to make water. His log of experiences is originally intended for some future archaeologist who might discover it long after his death. Soon after he begins moving on Mars NASA discovers that Watney is alive through satellite images of the landing site that show evidence of his activities; they begin working on ways to rescue him, but withhold the news of his survival from the rest of the Ares 3 crew, on their way back to Earth aboard the Hermes spacecraft, so as not to distract them.

Watney undergoes many setbacks over the course of several months. The possibility of rescue creates suspense and makes the book more readable than the average space adventure. There are difficulties between NASA staff on Earth that also make the story more interesting. Ultimately, for this reader, there were one too many "cliff-hanger" type of episodes. However the book was entertaining science fiction and I heartily recommend it to all. 
There is also an interesting story in the publication history of the book. It was originally published serially for free on the author's website and then offered as a self-published ebook at Amazon. It was only after it became a best seller there that it was picked up by a mainline publisher for a substantial fee.

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Links of Fate

The Forged CouponThe Forged Coupon 
by Leo Tolstoy

"Lying in the ditch, Stepan constantly saw before him the meek, thin, frightened face of Marya Semyonovna and heard her voice:  'Can it be?'--she said in her peculiar, he lisping, pitiful voice.  And Stepan would again live through all he had done to her.  And he became frightened, and closed his eyes and wagged his hairy head, so as to shake these thoughts and memories out of it."  -  Leo Tolstoy, "The Forged Coupon"

The stories of Leo Tolstoy are linked by what the French scholar and translator Michel Aucouturier calls Tolstoy's "gift of concrete realisation", and an ever-restless breed of philosophical inquiry – a combination that could produce works of an intensity that surprises even after repeated readings.
Tolstoy's greatest short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich revolves around the eponymous judge discovering, as he slowly, painfully expires, that his entire life has been a sham, built on bourgeois trivialities and bereft of love. Even at his end his family cannot comfort him – "he saw that no one would feel sorry for him, because no one even wanted to understand his situation" – leaving him to receive succor from Gerasim, the butler's helper. Tolstoy himself often contemplated suicide throughout the latter half of his life, but his fear of death was greater even than his suspicion of the meaninglessness of existence. It has been suggested that Tolstoy calmed himself by reading the Scriptures. Apprehending this adds another layer to the terrifyingly powerful climax of Ivan Ilyich, in which Ivan's rapture ("There was no more fear because there was no more death") does not convince, but jars against his earlier, terrible description of death as "that black sack into which an invisible, invincible force was pushing him".

Tolstoy's understanding of death, informed by his wartime experiences in Silistria and Crimea, seems to me unique in literature. Both visceral and meditative, it attains a sort of frozen horror when he describes the thought processes of serial killer Stepan in The Forged Coupon. This story is divided into two parts. In Part I, schoolboy Mitya is in desperate need of money to repay a debt, but his father angrily denies him assistance. Dejected, under the instigation of a friend Makhin, Mitya simply changes a 2.50 rouble bond coupon to read 12.50 roubles, but this one evil deed sets off a chain of events that affects the lives of dozens of others, when his one falsehood indirectly causes a man to murder a woman at the end of Part I, and then seek redemption through religion in Part II.

Having written the novella in his dying years, after his excommunication, Tolstoy relishes the chance to unveil the "pseudo-piety and hypocrisy of organized religion." Yet, he maintains an unwavering belief in man's capacity to find truth, so the story remains hopeful, especially in Part II, which shows that good works can affect another as in a domino effect, just as evil does in Part I. The depiction of Stepan is particularly fascinating as his character reminds the reader of other Tolstoyan characters who are changed by the power of scripture. His story and the fate of Mitya are keen moments in this set of chain-like stories.
The novella is sometimes translated with the title "The Counterfeit Note" or "The Forged Banknote." Whatever its name this is a powerful tale that features fascinating characters, each given a brief moment in the story, and a thought-provoking depiction of the power of fate.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015


Pelleas and Melisande

"The score of Pelleas and Melisande by Debussy, heralds that which will lift man from the earthly to the celestial, from the mortal to the immortal. Once again the ways of the artist and healer are merging."   -   Corinne Heline

Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80 is a suite derived from incidental music by Gabriel Fauré for Maurice Maeterlinck's play of the same name. 
Fauré wrote this music for the London production of the original drama by Maurice Maeterlinck in 1898. To meet the tight deadline of the production, Fauré reused some earlier music from incomplete works and enlisted the help of his pupil Charles Koechlin, who orchestrated the music. Fauré later constructed a four-movement suite from the original theatre music, orchestrating the concert version himself.  My favorite movement is the "Sicilienne" with its haunting melody that evokes the romantic mystery of music.  The movement although in the traditionally sad key of G minor, represents the one moment of happiness shared by Pelléas and Mélisande. 

The play that inspired Faure, Pelléas and Mélisande by Maurice Maeterlinck, is about the forbidden, doomed love of the title characters. It was first performed in 1893.  The work was very popular. It was adapted as an opera by the composer Claude Debussy, and in addition to Faure it inspired both Arnold Schoenberg and Jean Sibelius.  Faure was the first of the four composers to write music inspired by Maeterlinck's drama. Debussy, Schoenberg and Sibelius followed in the first decade of the 20th century.

Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande contains five acts.  The French libretto was adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck's play and it premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 30 April 1902 with Jean Périer as Pelléas and Mary Garden as Mélisande in a performance conducted by André Messager, who was instrumental in getting the Opéra-Comique to stage the work. The only opera Debussy ever completed, it is considered a landmark in 20th-century music.  About the same time Arnold Schoenberg was composing a symphonic poem, Pelleas and Melisande, Op. 5, that he completed in February 1903. It was premiered on 25 January 1905 at the Musikverein in Vienna under the composer's direction .  The subject was suggested to him by Richard Strauss. When he began composing the work in 1902, Schoenberg was unaware that Claude Debussy's opera, also based on Maeterlinck's play, was about to premiere in Paris.

Jean Sibelius also wrote incidental music in ten parts in 1905 , for Maurice Maeterlinck's 1893 drama Pelléas et Mélisande. Sibelius later on slightly rearranged the music into a nine movement suite, published as Op. 46, which became one of his most popular concert works.
While Maeterlink won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911 his symbolist plays are not as popular today.  His masterpiece Pelleas and Melisande lives on more through the music it inspired. 

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Dreams and Reality

Night Games: And Other Stories and NovellasNight Games: And Other Stories and Novellas 
by Arthur Schnitzler

"Dream and waking, truth and lie flow into one another.  Safety is nowhere."  - Arthur Schnitzler, Paracelsus

A fairy tale, a dream, a nightmare. The opening of Dream Story begins with the innocence of a young girl reading a fairy tale.  However, the narrative almost immediately drifts into a not so innocent glance (look) between the girl's parents. Suddenly they are remembering a masquerade ball and the reader is drawn into the parents' world where reality is like a dream and "truth and lie flow into one another".

Dream Story narrates the emotional life of a a couple, Fridolin and Albertine, who are living banal lives where the hours fly "by soberly in predetermined daily routines and work"; he as a doctor and she as a mother with "household and motherly duties" that prevent her from staying in bed any longer than her husband. They have just attended the first masquerade ball of the season (it is just before the end of the Carnival season) and they even found that strangely unexciting, that is until their return home when they were oddly moved to "lovemaking more ardent than they had experienced for a long time."

As the story continues, Albertine confesses that the previous summer, while they were on vacation in Denmark, she had had a sexual fantasy about a young Danish military officer. Fridolin then admits that during that same vacation he had been attracted to a young girl on the beach. Later that night, Fridolin is called to the deathbed of an important patient. Finding the man dead, he is shocked when the man’s daughter, Marianne, professes her love to him. The scene grows darker as a restless Fridolin leaves and begins to walk the streets. Although tempted, he refuses the offer of a young prostitute named Mizzi; however he meets an old friend Nachtigall, who tells him that he will be playing piano at a secret high-society sex orgy that night. Intrigued, Fridolin procures a mask and costume and follows Nachtigall to the party at a private residence. Inside, Fridolin is shocked as several men in masks and costumes and naked women with only masks are engaged in various sexual activities. When a young woman surreptitiously warns him to leave, Fridolin ignores her plea and is soon exposed as an interloper. The woman then announces to the gathering that she will sacrifice herself for Fridolin, thus he is allowed to leave.

Upon his return home, Albertine awakens and describes to him a dream she has had: while making love to the Danish officer from her sexual fantasies, she had watched without sympathy as Fridolin was tortured and crucified before her eyes. Fridolin is outraged, as he believes that this proves his wife wants to betray him. He decides to continue own sexual temptations. The next day, Fridolin learns that Nachtigall has been taken away by two mysterious men. He then goes to the costume shop to return his costume and discovers that the shop-owner is prostituting his teenage daughter to various men. He finds his way back to where he had been the night before; but is handed a note addressed to him by name that warns him to not pursue the matter. He then visits Marianne, but she is no longer interested in him. He also searches for Mizzi, the prostitute, but is unable to find her.
He reads that a young woman has been poisoned. Suspecting that she is the woman who sacrificed herself for him, he views the woman’s corpse in the morgue but is unable to identify it. Returning home that night, Fridolin finds his wife asleep, with his mask from the previous night set on the pillow on his side of the bed. When she wakes, Fridolin confesses all of his activities. After listening quietly, Albertine comforts him and they greet the new day with their daughter.

This story, psychological in nature, focuses on the inner desires and fantasies of a married couple. Themes of fidelity and infidelity, jealousy, and guilt are depicted while the couple copes with feelings of insecurity, betrayal, and resentment. More important in my estimation is the blurring of dream and reality. Fridolin's "real" adventure seems to become more unreal once he leaves and returns, while Albertine's dream has both connections with and an impact upon reality that transcends her irrational dream world. Schnitzler effectively blurs the line between reality and fantasy in the story; at the end, Fridolin and Albertina agree that no dream is ever entirely unreal, and that reality does not encompass the entirety of an individual life. It is not surprising that Arthur Schnitzler was considered one of the best portrayers of the Freudian point of view in literature.

Some critics also suggest that the novella underscores the tensions between duty and desire through both Fridolin and Albertine’s temptation to sacrifice family and marital stability in pursuit of sexual fantasies. One cannot escape the image of death as a theme of Dream Story, with the scene of the dead woman who may have sacrificed her life for Fridolin. Finally, I was impressed with the tautness of this novella as its themes were integrated within the story both symbolically and structurally.  I should add that Schnitzler's novella was the source of Stanley Kubrick's 1999 film, "Eyes Wide Shut".

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