Monday, October 05, 2015

Magical Realism and Satire

The Master and MargaritaThe Master and Margarita 

by Mikhail Bulgakov

“Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no true, faithful, eternal love in this world! May the liar's vile tongue be cut out! Follow me, my reader, and me alone, and I will show you such a love!”  ― Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

I have read this novel several times, most recently with our Thursday evening book group. With its complex construction including three major story lines and fantastic elements including the presence of Satan and a large black cat as two major characters it certainly warrants rereading. And it rewards that rereading with a wonderful depth of meaning. The story is set in Moscow in the nineteen thirties when literature is controlled by the state. The reality of Soviet state suppression is one of the primary story lines and this is displayed with a flair for satire. The major state literary association is chaired by a bureaucrat named Berlioz. One of the main reasons I liked the book was its fundamental literary foundation with strong influence of the Faust story and the work of Russians, particularly Gogol and Pushkin.

The style seems dreamlike one moment and yet suddenly becomes very realistic. For example at one point Ivan Ponyrev, the "homeless" poet, is involved in a fantastic chase with the large black cat by his side as they jump from street to street until, with the beginning of a new paragraph, he is in a very dingy apartment building that is described in realistic detail. There is also the whimsy of naming several of the characters after famous composers, Berlioz and Rimsky [Korsakoff] for two examples. This appealed to my musical interests while the literary references abound as seen by this excerpt:
“You're not Dostoevsky,' said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev. Well, who knows, who knows,' he replied.
'Dostoevsky's dead,' said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.
'I protest!' Behemoth exclaimed hotly. 'Dostoevsky is immortal!”

Satan, referred to as Woland and appearing as an old professor, with his familiar, a cat called Behemoth, prepares a fantastic ball (compare to Walpurgisnacht).  At the ball the cat with the help of demons creates a scene of mayhem and ferocious comedy. I came to appreciate the humor even more after seeing a dramatic adaptation of it performed by a small theater company some time ago. The imagination displayed by the adaptation expanded my own horizons upon a subsequent rereading.

The satire becomes more apparent after rereading the novel while other humor includes slapstick episodes and the sheer insanity of the story. Another primary story line is religious as it is depicted through an inserted tale of Pontius Pilate and Christ as written by the poet known as the Master. With his mistress, Margarita, the Master leads the novel into a final phase that continues the fantastic elements of the story. I found the new translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky excellent as all their Russian translations have been. For those readers interested in magic and supernaturalism, Satan and Pontius Pilate with a beauty and a poet, this is the novel for you. This is certainly a twentieth century masterpiece.

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Friday, September 25, 2015

Traces of the Past

The Search Warrant: Dora BruderThe Search Warrant: Dora Bruder 
by Patrick Modiano

"It takes time for what has been erased to surface.  Traces survive in registers, and nobody knows where these registers are hidden, and who has custody of them, and whether or not their custodians are willing to let you see them.  Or perhaps they have simply forgotten that such registers exist." (p 9)

I had not heard of Patrick Modiano before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year. He was born outside Paris in 1945 to a Sephardic Jewish family with roots originally in Italy, although his ancestors, longtime inhabitants of Thessaloniki, Greece, included eminent rabbis. While he is apparently quite popular in France he is not well-known in the United States. Our Thursday evening reading group chose to read his novel, The Search Warrant (also known as Dora Bruder), this month.

At the core of this poignant novel, published in 1997, is Modiano's real-life investigation into the disappearance of a young Jewish girl-Dora Bruder, announced in a newspaper—back in 1941. Struck by this discovery, haunted by the legacy of this mysterious teenager, the author seeks out any tiny scraps of information in an effort to finally come to terms with his own lost adolescence.
What first impressed me was the economical, straightforward, journalistic style of the narrator; basically a stand-in for the author. Yet this was not journalism but rather a sort of fictional historical memoir. The narrative blends both the search for information about Dora with reminiscences of the narrator's own youthful memories. There is so little true information about Dora that the narrator tries to compensate with details about the events and places of the time that Dora was alive.  Searching for documents, he describes those that may still exist, that may be remembered or may yield memories of her life and his own.  The result is the gradual recreation of the world as it was then with fascinating details that bring the narrative to life.

Among the few specifics about Dora the narrator scatters speculation like this moment:
"My father had barely mentioned this young girl when, for the first and only time in his life, one night in June 1863, he told me about his narrow escape as we were dining in a restaurant off the Champs Elysees almost opposite the one where he had been arrested twenty years before. He gave me no details about her looks or clothes, and I had all but forgotten her until the day I learned of Dor Bruder's existence. Then, suddenly remembering the presence of this young girl among the other unknowns with my father in the Black Maria on that February night, it occurred to me that she might have been Dora Bruder, that she too had just been arrested and was about to be sent to Tourelles."(pp 57-8)

This is noted more than one third of the way through the novel following tidbits from documents, gleanings of register entries, and a brief history of her family. One of the pieces of data is the presence of her name on a list of Jews deported to Auschwitz in September 1942.  The book is part meditation on this loss and the greater loss of humans, their stories and their history. There were further moments in the narrative where the subjunctive is suggested with events that could have taken place but about which we do not know anything. Thus we have another theme of this work, the problem of knowledge, that is demonstrated with the blending of bits of historical data with suggestions about what or where Dora fits into the story.

There is also the narrator's own story exemplified by his own youthful episode of running away from boarding school; the intensity about which he writes:
"I remember the intensity of my feelings while I was on the run in January 1960 -- an intensity such as I have seldom known." (p 71).  He goes on to compare this personal episode to Dora's experience suggesting that it must have been harder for her in a world dominated by Nazi occupation and the war. The fate of Dora is thus intertwined with that of French Jews as well. Sometimes a whole chapter is spun out of a speculation on the simple question of what happened to Dora at such and such a time. Somehow the speculation, the bits of data, the mix of authorial reflection with Dora's story all combine to create a fascinating and inexplicably suspenseful novel.

It is short and intense and rewards the reader with the urge to start rereading it almost immediately to see if the intensity of the experience might be heightened by doing so. Alice Kaplan, who teaches Patrick Modiano's work at Yale, said that after her first experience of reading him she "devoured all of his books." (Alice Kaplan on Patrick Modiano) This was my first excursion in the writing of Patrick Modiano. It will not be my last.

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Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Detritus from Alien Visitors

Roadside PicnicRoadside Picnic 
by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

"'Imagine a picnic----'
Noonan jumped. 'What did you say?'
'A picnic.  Imagine: a forest, a country road, a meadow. . .

'I get it,'  said Noonan.  'A roadside picnic.'
'Exactly.  A picnic by the side of some space road.  And you ask me whether they'll come back . . .'" (pp 129-30)

When we meet Redrick Schuhart, the protagonist of this story, he is working as a laboratory assistant at the Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures. But he is also a "stalker", only twenty-three when the book begins, and already an expert in the dangers and possibilities of The Zone. The Zone is one of several areas created from the remains of a brief alien visitation. Now gone, the aliens left in their wake both advanced items of technology and areas where the laws of physics no longer apply, or where strange substances and forms instantly kill or disable any human that comes into contact with them.

We learn in the prologue through an interview with the Nobel laureate who discovered the source of the zones. humans have set up an institute that delves into the Zone in order to extract technology. It is the Zone that also attracts illegal Stalkers who venture into the Zone without the technological safeguards offered by the institute but for whom the potential rewards on the black market are far greater. As the story continues we follow Red as he first gets lured into the world of illegal Stalking and then, after a period in prison, as he prepares to venture deep into the Zone in search of a golden ball that is said to grant wishes.
The main setting of the novel is in Harmont, a town near one of the zones in an unnamed country. The setting seems contemporary but, lacking veridical landmarks it takes on a dream-like quality. Red describes Harmont:
"Our little town is a hole. Always was and always will be. Except right now, it's a hole into the future. And the stuff we fish out of this hole will change your whole stinking world. Life will be different, the way it should be, and no one will want for anything. That's our hole for you. There's knowledge pouring through this hole. And when we figure it out, we'll make everyone rich, and we'll fly to the stars, and we'll go wherever we want. That's the kind of hole we have here . . ." (p 42)

These thoughts provide a somewhat idealistic patina for the dangers Red and his cohorts face. About a quarter of the way into the story the narration shifts from first to third person. This transition occurs smoothly and allows for a type of objectivity for the reader after having been inside the head of Redrick Schuhart. It also allows the author to present scenes that Red is not aware of and to discuss ideas that are raised by the events in the story. I found the questions raised thought-provoking. What were the aliens doing on Earth and why did they stop here? Did they notice the existence of human life or were they oblivious to it?
"'what if I turn out to be completely superfluous in their society?' He became more animated. 'What if we're all superfluous? . . . your question falls under the umbrella of a pseudoscience called xenology. Xenology is an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. At its core is a flawed assumption---that an alien race would be psychologically human.'" (p 129)

There is implicit criticism of the scientific bureaucracy that rings true, but is not identified with a specific terrestrial culture. Along with this the issue of technological change is raised. One wonders what effect dramatic overnight changes in technology might have on our culture. Should we be protected from those changes? Entry to the zones is prohibited to all but a few.

Red has his entire life determined by the Zone. As the book begins, he is defined by his superior knowledge of the Zone's dangers; later he acquires a wife and a daughter as a result of the affairs that he has while living the Stalker's life. Red and his fellow "stalkers" choose to ignore the prohibition risking incarceration at the least and, more importantly, the possibility of death. The denouement of this short novel leaves the reader wondering if this choice is worth the risk.  

Roadside Picnic is a thrilling and beautifully written novel. In the opening part Red Schuhart almost comes across as a hard-boiled narrator but less cynical; later, he remains a curious protagonist throughout the narrative. This is a surreal, tense story that threw out the rules found in a ‘first contact’ novel and ended up redefining the genre. It is an exciting science fiction adventure that blends cultural criticism and philosophical speculation.

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Northwest Family Saga

Sometimes a Great NotionSometimes a Great Notion 
by Ken Kesey

“Look...Reality is greater than the sum of its parts, also a damn sight holier. And the lives of such stuff as dreams are made of may be rounded with a sleep but they are not tied neatly with a red bow. Truth doesn't run on time like a commuter train, though time may run on truth. And the Scenes Gone By and the Scenes to Come flow blending together in the sea-green deep while Now spreads in circles on the surface. So don't sweat it. For focus simply move a few inches back or forward. And once more...look.”   ― Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion

It's the birthday of Ken Kesey who was born in La Junta, Colorado  in 1935.  He grew up in Oregon - swimming, fishing, and riding the rapids on the Willamette River with his brother, Chuck.  Kesey went to Stanford University, where he studied creative writing and when you mention his name most people respond with a reference to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, especially after the Academy Award-winning film version directed by Milos Forman and starring Jack Nicholson enhanced its fame. But Sometimes a Great Notion, with its portrayal of family and labor discord in waterlogged Oregon timber country, resonated with many readers in the Northwestern United States and elsewhere.  I read it several years ago as example of literature about business and it is an admirable example of a genre that has produced Norris's The Octopus, Dreiser's The Financier, and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities.

Sometimes a Great Notion has Shakespearean themes played out against a natural rugged Oregon backdrop. Considered by many to be the heavyweight champion of Northwest novels, it is a huge, bold, sprawling, and brilliant narrative of one family's drive to survive and succeed. I found Kesey's style was reminiscent of Faulkner with his use of a 'stream of consciousness' approach in telling the family saga of the Stamper family. "Never give an inch" was their motto. No Northwest novel may have a more Northwest opening passage than Sometimes a Great Notion, which begins with a passage that tracks the birth of a river:

"Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range ... come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River. ... The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting ... forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creek, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce -- and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir -- the actual river falls 500 feet ... and look: opens out upon the fields."

Kesey does not only bring the Northwest alive, but his themes are those that humanity has pondered for centuries. Consider time:
“Time overlaps itself. A breath breathed from a passing breeze is not the whole wind, neither is it just the last of what has passed and the first of what will come, but is more--let me see--more like a single point plucked on a single strand of a vast spider web of winds, setting the whole scene atingle. That way; it overlaps...As prehistoric ferns grow from bathtub planters. As a shiny new ax, taking a swing at somebody's next year's split-level pinewood pad, bites all the way to the Civil War. As proposed highways break down through the stacked strata of centuries.”
And of course the importance of reading:
“He couldn't seem to get his teeth into anything. Except books. The things in books was darn near more real to him than the things breathing and eating.”

All of the ideas are distilled into a saga that blends Nature and the Stamper family into a story that is unforgettable. By the way, in 1970 there was film version of Sometimes a Great Notion. It starred Paul Newman and Henry Fonda, and like the book it is not nearly as popular as the 1975 film version of "Cuckoo's Nest" mentioned above. But I would encourage readers who enjoy big bold novels to check out the less-well-known novel by Ken Kesey and judge for themselves.

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Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Presence of Ghosts

Dead Authors

"The older I get, the more convinced I am that the best books
 are by dead writers.  Even if they are not yet dead, to sense 
 their presence is to sense a ghost."
- Orhan Pamuk, Other Colors, p 4

For more than two decades I have adhered, in part, to the view of Orhan Pamuk in my choice of which books to read.  I have found that many of the best books are by dead authors.  When I first started to read books by dead authors I was not surprised by the quality, but I was surprised by the not infrequent discovery of 'new' dead writers - at least new to my experience.  Some of the great books that I have enjoyed while traveling with the ghosts of these new dead writers include The Dwarf by Par Lagerkvist, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, and Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar.  This reading has also led me to great historical fiction like The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa or The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell,  and crime fiction like The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. 

I have long been enamored of the great writers of the past who have been my reading companions from an early age.  My favorites among these include the Brontes, Dickens, Hardy, Dostoevsky, Dumas, and Maugham.  There is little need to look for great living writers (except for Nobel prize winners like Coetzee, Pamuk, and Modiano) when you can savour the work dead writers like Naguib Mafouz or Albert Camus, also a Nobel prize authors.  Literature that has passed on beyond the life of the author begins to attain the patina of transcendence and with this the imprimatur of greatness.  These books are worth putting on the top of your reading list - setting aside the latest best-sellers for the day, whether tomorrow or next year, when their author may join the ghosts of other dead authors.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Writers on Reading

The Essays

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. 

from Of Studies By Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator and author. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England. After his death, he remained extremely influential through his works, especially as philosophical advocate and practitioner of the scientific method during the scientific revolution.
He is considered the creator of empiricism.  His works established and popularized inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method.  His demand for a planned procedure of investigating all things natural marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, much of which still surrounds conceptions of proper methodology today.
Bacon was knighted in 1603, and created both Baron Verulam in 1618 and Viscount St. Alban in 1621;  as he died without heirs, both peerages became extinct upon his death. He famously died by contracting pneumonia while studying the effects of freezing on the preservation of meat.

The Essays by Francis Bacon. Penguin Classics, 1986 (1597) 

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Byzantine in the Best Way

The LuminariesThe Luminaries 
by Eleanor Catton

“There is a great deal of difference between keeping one’s own secret and keeping a secret for another soul; so much so that I wish we had two worlds, that is a word for a secret of one’s own making and a word for a secret that on did not make, and perhaps did not wish for, but has chosen to keep, all the same.” (p 788)

This is a complicated novel that rewards the reader who can stay the course. You know that a novel is going to have some complications when it begins with, not only a "Note to the Reader" about the use of "stellar and planetary positions" in the story, but there follows a "Character Chart" on the subsequent page. With twenty listed characters, twelve of whom are the "luminaries" mentioned in the first sentence of the opening chapter and one of whom is dead, you quickly perceive both the value of this chart and its importance for your sanity as a reader.

Needless to say, due to the complications of the plot I will not be able to recount all of the events that occur in the twelve parts into which the story is divided. No risk of any plot spoilers here. However some of the highlights of the story that were impressed on my memory include:  Five dresses filled with gold, more gold discovered in a dead hermit’s cottage, a lovely young prostitute who nearly overdosed on opium, questions about the ownership of a boat named the Godspeed, and the motivations of the dozen “luminaries” who have gathered together in the smoking room of a second-rate New Zealand hotel when the novel opens to discuss a few of these curiosities.

Catton's prose style is engaging, which helps when the first part is a mere 360 pages (and even this number is significant). The narration starts with one of the twelve, Thomas Balfour, but an omniscient narrator takes over to "impose a regimental order upon the impatient chronicle of the shipping agent’s roving mind". Thank goodness. Otherwise the novel might have run on for another 800 pages. The first part ends with a neat little summary of some of the high points so far and the remaining eleven parts gradually shorten so much that the final four parts average less than three pages each.

The various story lines do come together (I believe) and there are more notable events including an evil ship’s captain with a C-shaped scar, a brothel madam who conducts a seance, a blackmailed politician and a riveting courtroom scene, and a phantom aboard the Godspeed, “the dead man rising, his bloody throat, his cry,” that greets Walter Moody (whom we also met back on the first page) on his way to New Zealand. It is the New Zealand of 1865 and 1866 that is the setting for this novel that proves you do not have to cover a great many years to produce a long (830 pp) novel. It reminded me of Vikram Seth's skill in portraying about two years of Indian history over a span of more than 1400 pages in his delightful novel, A Suitable Boy.

Eleanor Catton succeeds in creating an historical mystery(s) with a byzantine plot that manages to entertain on almost every page. She was so successful that she was awarded the 2013 Mann Booker Prize;  a prize that usually goes to short, dense, self-consciously literary novels.  The entertainment was sufficient for this reader to recommend the book to all who enjoy big novels that are both complicated and satisfying.

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Friday, September 04, 2015

Symphony of a Novel

Body and SoulBody and Soul 
by Frank Conroy

 "Musique, nourriture et femmes. Tels sont les grands plaisirs de la vie. Les plaisirs durables. Vous apprendrez cela, jeune moine. 
- J'ajouterais les livres, fit Claude, quelque peu embarassé. Vous savez, de bons livres. - Bien entendu! Vous êtes un amateur de livres! C'est parfait. - Ils ne vous laissent pas tomber." *  — Frank Conroy

This was Frank Conroy's debut novel, although he was already well-known for his brilliant memoir Stop-Time, Body and Soul is the exploration of the life of a child prodigy, raised in poverty and neglect but achieving fame and fortune through his incredible musical gift. The saga chronicles his struggles with himself, his environment, his family, his ambition, and ultimately with the talent that has given him everything. In part it is a bildungsroman and reminded me of favorites like Great Expectations and Of Human Bondage. It is, as Conroy himself put it, “a real old-fashioned novel—a big fat book with a lot of people and a lot of plot.” Body and Soul encompasses not only the hopes and dreams of its protagonist, but of readers who are Frank Conroy fans as well.

It tells the story of Claude Rawlings’ passage in life from the age of six, when he discovers an old console piano in the rear room of the Manhattan tenement he occupies with his 6-foot, 300-pound taxi-driving mother, to fulfillment as a piano virtuoso. Claude Rawlings, at six, is a voracious reader. He lives in the less nice part of the Upper East Side, and strikes up a friendship with Mr. Weisfeld, the owner of a music store on Third Avenue. Claude wants to learn how to play the piano. Mr. Weisfeld hands him a book of lessons for beginners. “Can you read?” Weisfeld asks. “Words, I mean.” “I can read. I read all the time,” Claude answers. “The newspaper. Sometimes she [his mother] brings home Life magazine or Reader’s Digest. I read books, too… . I could read when I was four.”

He introduces Claude to “the maestro,” a mysterious and rich man in a big apartment on Park Avenue, who allows Claude to practice on his fancy piano. Claude is spoken of as “the wunderkind.” After the maestro dies, leaving Claude his piano and enough money to cover lessons with the most brilliant piano teachers in the metropolitan area, Claude’s powers increase. He gains entry into an exclusive East Side prep school, where he gets to be pals with another genius, a British boy with a photographic memory.

Conroy parallels Claude’s professional growth with his spiritual growth. Claude uses his absorption in music to deaden the shock of personal crises. This long novel opens in 1945, with the end of World War II, and concludes at some indeterminate point in the 1970’s, with Claude about to perform his first piano concerto in London. It is a beautiful symphony of a novel that had me under its spell.

*"Music, food and women. These are the great pleasures of life. The lasting pleasures. You will learn this young monk.
- I would say the books, said Claude, somewhat puzzled. You know, good books.
- Of course! You are a book lover! That's perfect.

- They do not let you down. "

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Novel of Ancient Greece

The Mask of ApolloThe Mask of Apollo 
by Mary Renault

""There is a book of Plato's I read once--yes, truly, I read the whole of it.  It was a supper party where they made speeches in praise of love.  I dare say you know it?'
'Yes,' said Speusippos.  'Yes, I have read The Symposion once or twice.  I reread it yesterday.'" (p 236)

Historical novelist Mary Renault was  born Eileen Challans in Forest Gate, England, on this day in 1905.  She is best known for her novels of Ancient Greece and studied at Oxford, where J.R.R. Tolkien was one of her tutors. 

I love her historical fiction and this is the first of her novels that I read. At the time I already had begun to acquire a passion for ancient Greece from a wonderful Latin teacher in high school. Luckily for us in addition to teaching us Latin our teacher imbued in us an interest in learning about everything classical that grew for me into more reading and led me to the discovery of Mary Renault and her historical fiction set in ancient Greece. The story of The Mask of Apollo involves the world of live theater and political intrigue in the Mediterranean at the time.

The narrator, Nikeratos is a successful professional actor, and Renault vividly evokes the technologies and traditions of classic Greek Tragedy. With detailed recreations of what might have been involved in the staging of a theatrical production of the time, she describes the music, scenery, mechanical special effects devices, and especially the practice of the three principal actors sharing the various roles in a performance, along with authentic gossip involved in these casting decisions.

Nikeratos, is an invented character, but real historical figures such as Dion of Syracuse and Plato make appearances. It is Renault's seamless blend of real historical characters within her fictional stories that makes her novels come alive for me. I even sometimes think, being an inveterate play-goer, what would it be like to pray or prepare a sacrifice for the success of the play before-hand. Some plays could use the help. I would recommend Mary Renault's novels of Ancient Greece to anyone who has an interest in our classical Greek heritage.

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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Writers on Reading

from Poetry of the Second World War

Reading in Wartime

by Edwin Muir

Boswell by my bed, 
Tolstoy on my table; 
Thought the world has bled 
For four and a half years, 
And wives' and mothers' tears 
Collected would be able 
To water a little field 
Untouched by anger and blood, 
A penitential yield 
Somewhere in the world; 
Though in each latitude 
Armies like forest fall, 
The iniquitous and the good 
Head over heels hurled, 
And confusion over all: 
Boswell's turbulent friend 
And his deafening verbal strife, 
Ivan Ilych's death 
Tell me more about life, 
The meaning and the end 
Of our familiar breath, 
Both being personal, 
Than all the carnage can, 
Retrieve the shape of man, 
Lost and anonymous, 
Tell me wherever I look 
That not one soul can die 
Of this or any clan 
Who is not one of us 
And has a personal tie 
Perhaps to someone now 
Searching an ancient book, 
Folk-tale or country song 
In many and many a tongue, 
To find the original face, 
The individual soul, 
The eye, the lip, the brow 
For ever gone from their place, 
And gather an image whole.

Edwin Muir (15 May 1887 – 3 January 1959) was an Orcadian poet, novelist and translator, born on a farm in Deerness, a parish and peninsula in Mainland, Orkney. He is remembered for his deeply felt and vivid poetry in plain language with few stylistic preoccupations.  He moved to Glasgow but was not satisfied as this extract from his diary suggests:
"I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two-days' journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time." (Extract from Diary 1937–39.)

Poetry of the Second World War: An International Anthology, Desmond Graham, ed. Chatto & Windus, Lond, 1995.

Friday, August 28, 2015

American Dynasty

America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918 
by Richard Brookhiser

“So Henry Adams, well aware that he could not succeed as a scholar, and finding his social position beyond improvement or need of effort, betook himself to the single ambition which otherwise would scarcely have seemed a true outcome of the college, though it was the last remnant of the old Unitarian supremacy. He took to the pen. He wrote.”   ― Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

Richard Brookhiser has written biographies of Presidents Madison and Washington, revolutionary statesmen Hamilton and Gouvernor Morris, and most recently a book on Lincoln, but my favorite of his biographies that I have read is America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918. The dates alone, spanning three centuries, suggest the significance of this family on the history of the United States.

The first two of the dynasty, John and his son John Quincy both became President. The father was one of the leaders of the American Revolution while the son was both President and, later, member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts. John's grandson Charles Francis also had a brilliant political career that included a term as Minister to England in the Lincoln Administration. The fourth Adams of this dynasty, John's great grandson Henry Adams, found his greatness in literature both as an academic historian and with the publication of his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, a classic that is read to this day.

Their story begins with John Adams, a self-taught lawyer who rode horseback to meet clients, and ends with Henry Adams in France as World War I begins and he returns to Washington, D. C. This is a well told overview of a family dynasty that more than any other helped make the United States the great nation it is today.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Lighter Side of Death

Mort (Discworld, #4; Death, #1)Mort 
by Terry Pratchett

"WE'VE GOT A FEW MINUTES, said Death, taking a drink from a passing tray.  LET'S MINGLE.

'They can't see me either!' said Mort.  'But I'm real!'


'Mort,' said Mort automatically." (p 40)

From time to time my brother-in-law has recommended to me the work of Terry Pratchett. I believe he has read many if not all of the Discworld novels by fantasy author Terry Pratchett. I recently had the opportunity to read a Pratchett novel when our SF Reading Group chose Mort, the fourth in the Discworld series, as our monthly book. I was not disappointed by this choice.

Death is an unlikely object of humor, but Terry Pratchett's imagination is more than sufficient to provide a narrative with amusing (an understatement) situations that literally puts death in a whole new light. When Death came to Mort, he offered him a job. After being assured that being dead was not compulsory, Mort accepted. However, he soon found that romantic longings did not mix easily with the responsibilities of being Death's apprentice.

Mort is told in third-person narrative and contains both dry humor and witty social observations. Death plays the supporting role to Mort (short for Mortimer), a typical awkward, gangly male teenager. Ysabell and Albert complete Death’s “family”, and I would not mind reading a novel based on their lives together. However Mort is introduced thus:
"It was also acutely embarrassing to Mort’s family that the youngest son was not at all serious and had about the same talent for horticulture that you would find in a dead starfish. It wasn’t that he was unhelpful, but he had the kind of vague, cheerful helpfulness that serious men soon learn to dread. There was something infectious, possibly even fatal, about it. He was tall, red-haired and freckled, with the sort of body that seems to be only marginally under its owner’s control; it appeared to have been built out of knees."

The witty narrative flows effortlessly, with Death speaking in capital letters, a stroke of genius; you are able to hear the coffins creak and the bells toll in your mind every time he speaks. The irony, ambiguity and puns abound, especially the puns. None are overdone and I found myself often laughing out loud when I wasn't simply grinning. It is difficult to avoid developing some sympathy for Death as he succumbs to a mid-life crisis and attempts to seek alternative employment. One of the most hilarious scenes was when he sought out an employment agency and found that his skills, while honed over millennia, were not well-suited for any typical job. One of the reasons that Pratchett has managed to turn the reaper of souls into a sympathetic character is that he shows Death’s caring side. Early in the book Death exudes barely suppressed fury at the needless death of a bagful of kittens.

The novel is not only about the intersection of the life of young Mort and Death, but is also about the coming-of-age of young Mort.  It was encouraging when the narrator (who interjects his opinions from time to time) noted how Mort had changed:
"It might be worth taking another look at Mort, because he's changed a lot in the last few chapters.  For example, while he still has plenty of knees and elbows about his person, they seem to have migrated to their normal places and he no longer moves as though his joints were loosely fastened together with elastic bands.  He used to look as if he knew nothing at all;  now he looks as though he knew too much.  Something about his eyes suggests that he has seen things that ordinary people never see, or at least never see more than once." (p 122)

Discworld itself is unique and some of its characteristics are described, such as the elusive nature of time; enough background is shared to heighten your interest in reading further in the series. If the other Discworld novels are half as good as this one they are worth checking out. In the meantime Mort was a delightful dish of fantasy from the pen of Terry Pratchett. To take a theme such as death and turn it into a story that is this amusing and warm-hearted is a remarkable achievement.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

An Epic that Challenges Humanity

Notes on Paradise Lost, II

"The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.    
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:         
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." 
(Paradise Lost, Book I, ll 254-263)

This week saw the anniversary of the day in 1667, when John Milton's Paradise Lost was entered in the Stationers' Register. The fifty-eight-year-old Milton was totally blind (probably from glaucoma) throughout the decade it took to write his epic; his habit was to compose at night and then present himself to a scribe each morning to be, as he put it, "milked." 

The epic was based on the earliest Hebrew creation myth, which opens the first book of the Torah.   That is the story of Adam and Eve as found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the King James version which had been published only fifty-five years earlier in 1612.   This story of creation and Adam and Eve does not mention the fall, nor does it explain where the serpent came from when, in chapter three, he suddenly appears and whispers in Eve's ear.  One wonders what moved John Milton,  in the middle of the seventeenth century, to take this story and with it create an epic poem that rivals those of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Reading the poem one senses an attempt to educate the reader, to provide an awareness of the distance that separates man from God and from the innocence that once, however briefly, was his.  It uses the grandest terms to account for the key events:  the original rebellion of Satan and his followers against God, the creation of the human race to replace the fallen angels, the temptation of Eve by Satan, the sin of Adam and Eve and their resulting expulsion from Paradise, and the promise of eventual redemption for the now fallen human race by means of the Incarnation and sacrifice of the Son of God.  This in outline form is the story that the epic poem tells. 

Milton's poetic telling has been controversial in its depiction of Satan as a compelling character.  He is intelligent, active and charming.  He is a true leader in the rebellion against God and when that fails he devises a brilliant plan to attack God's favorite's, Adam and Eve. And in this he succeeds; he shares his disobedience and deceit with man.   In all of this he is active with energy struggling to be free.  His opponent, the representative of goodness is passive.  Satan in his grandeur is sublime, yet we should not forget that he is also part of God's creation.  In a way this is a cosmic paradox, and that is another of the many themes that are found in Milton's epic poem.  Throughout the reader is presented with questions about the nature of God's creation and his knowledge, about the possibility of free will, about the nature of time and its relation to God and his creation.  In all of this paradoxes abound.   The Son was created by God, but he is present from the beginning.  Man is given a warning that he must not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil but he does so anyway.  And it is only after doing so that he gains knowledge of the meaning of what he had done, even as he is driven from Paradise.  Must we trade innocence for knowledge?  Is our life determined and our free will a chimera?  

Like all great works of literature Paradise Lost raises these questions and many more.  But it does not provide answers.  The reader must provide them for himself, or rather must consider the these issues in light of his own life.  If he is willing it will be part of his search for wisdom, his own attempt to examine what it means to be human.  I believe this last thought, what it means to be human, is the most important idea that Paradise Lost brings forth in its own epic way.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Principled Life of Language

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard RodriguezHunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez 
by Richard Rodriguez

“The boy who first entered a classroom barely able to speak English, twenty years later concluded his studies in the stately quiet of the reading room in the British Museum. Thus with one sentence I can summarize my academic career. It will be harder to summarize what sort of life connects the boy to the man.”  ― Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory

Richard Rodriguez is a man whose education bifurcated his life into a private life and a public life. In the public sphere he was driven to obtain an education that has led him to become one of the most interesting essayists of our time. His description of his inner life, especially his reading life is one of many exceptional aspects of this book. His liberation from the private sphere into the public, where he has become a literary light for others, was made possible in part by this reading life; a life driven by a compulsion to become part of the "public sphere" that was centered in the culture apart from his family. This was a part of his life that I personally identified with and believe that many individuals who love the reading life will also.

In this memoir he explores his own coming-of-age in an America that challenged him to understand what it is to be a Mexican American and what it is to be a Catholic in America. At the heart of the memoir is Rodríguez’s recognition that his is a position of alienation, a position that he accepts with resignation and regret. As the title of this collection of autobiographical pieces suggests, he remembers his early childhood with nostalgia, while acknowledging that his coming-of-age has resulted in his displacement from that simple, secure life.

Another center for his autobiography is language and the importance of it in his life. He did not speak English until he started to go to school and even then it was difficult for him to learn the language for it was not spoken at home. One exciting moment in his education occurred when three nuns from his grade school visited his home and encouraged his parents to support their children's English language skills. Although they were indifferent speakers of English, his parents from that point forward asked their children, Richard and his brother and sisters, to speak English each evening. Richard, through this practice and his own diligence in reading and writing, would go on to major in English in college eventually doing postgraduate work in Renaissance Studies.

He shares the hard work that all this entailed and his critical reaction to the growth of bi-lingual education. His courage in developing and maintaining an independent voice for his beliefs in this regard also help to make his story unique. In his view bilingual education prevents children from learning the public language that will be their passport to success in the public world, and he uses his own experience—being a bilingual child who was educated without bilingual education as it was introduced into the American school system in the 1960’s—as an example.

Rodríguez offers himself as another example in criticizing affirmative action programs. Turning down offers to teach at various post secondary educational institutions that he believed wanted to hire him simply because he was Latino, Rodríguez began what has been his persistent criticism of affirmative action policies in America. His uncompromising position in this matter led him to leave academia and pursue his writing skills as a journalist and essayist.  His devotion to education in language and life helped him develop the voice that he shares in his journalistic and readable prose style.

I first encountered his voice while watching the News Hour on PBS where he was an essayist for many years. The style he demonstrated there is present on every page of his autobiography. I would highly recommend this for anyone interested in the development of a humane intellectual.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

Most Read Authors

Top Ten Authors I've Read the Most Of

This week the folks at The Broke and the Bookish are asking people who their most-read authors are.  The following list are the tops for me but with my wide-ranging and somewhat eclectic reading habits over the years these authors represent less than five percent of all the books that I have read (at least of those I have kept records of).

1.  William Shakespeare

Over the years, since my introduction to Shakespeare with Rome and Juliet in High School, I have read most of the plays and the sonnets.  Some of my favorites are As You Like It, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Coriolanus, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet.

2.  Plato

I began reading Plato in the early nineteen seventies in College, but my reading of his dialogues increased significantly in the nineteen nineties through my participation in The Basic Program of Liberal Education (see also Aristotle below).  My favorite dialogues include The Symposium, Phaedrus, Cratylus, and Gorgias.

3.  Leo Tolstoy

I have read and reread War and Peace several times, but also enjoyed his other novels, novellas, and short stories.  The Death of Ivan Ilych,  The Kreutzer Sonata, and The Cossacks are three of the more memorable of his shorter works.

4.  William Faulkner

William Faulkner entered my life in High School when I first attempted to read The Sound and the Fury.  Decades later after several more readings of this great novel I began to connect with the voices in it.  Over the last couple of decades I have gradually read almost all of his novels and some of his short stories.  Among my favorites, in addition to The Sound and the Fury, I count The Snopes Trilogy, The Reivers, and Go Down, Moses.

5.  Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens is the author who has the distinction of being the first that I read of those included in my top ten.  I still remember carrying my paperback copy of Oliver Twist with me when I attended Boy Scout Summer Camp in 1962.  My reading of Dickens (and about Dickens) has never stopped and I have read several of his novels more than once.  My favorite of all of them is David Copperfield;  while Great Expectations, Bleak House, and Nicholas Nickleby are also near the top of my list.  I believe The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the most underrated of his novels and it should be read by anyone who enjoys mysteries and good writing.

6.  Henry James

The writing of  Henry James is an acquired taste.  It is one to which I have gradually succumbed as my delight as grown with each novel and story that I have read.  Having read almost all of his fiction (and some non-fiction) I would include The Turn of the Screw, Washington Square, and Daisy Miller among my favorites.

7.  Iris Murdoch

I came to the novels of Iris Murdoch while I was in High School reading A Fairly Honourable Defeat when it was first published.  I have continued to traverse her novels and hope to read them all some day.  Some of my favorites include The Black Prince and A Word Child.

8.  Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand came into my reading life when I was in High School and I read The Fountainhead which became my favorite of her novels.  I have read them all including her masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged.  In addition to her novels I have read most of her non-fiction including The Romantic Manifesto, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and Philosophy: Who Needs It.

9.  Aristotle

Aristotle, like Plato, was a discovery of my college years.  My reading of his works continued and grew into a major project when I began studying in The Basic Program of Liberal Education.  The power of his intellect is evident in all of his writings, but those that I found the most profound include The Metaphysics, The Nicomachean Ethics, On Rhetoric, Poetics, the Posterior Analytics, and De Anima.

10.  Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann is, perhaps, my favorite author, with the appeal of his writing spanning short stories, short novels, and massive novels like Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain.  My favorite novel is his last, unfinished work, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man.  I also particularly enjoy reading and rereading Death in Venice, Tristan, and Tonio Kroger.

Other Significant Authors

Some of the authors who just missed my top ten but whom I have read extensively and enjoy reading include:  Fyodor Dostoevsky,  Joseph Conrad,  Philip K. Dick,  Marcel Proust,  Virginia Woolf, Theodore Sturgeon, Friedrich Nietzsche, and H. G. Wells.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Scottish Noir

Laidlaw (Jack Laidlaw, #1)Laidlaw 
by William McIlvanney

"In that careful balance between pessimism, the assumed defeat of contrived expectations, and hope, the discovery of unexpected possibilities, Harkness recognised Laidlaw."

Several years ago I read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and became an ardent fan of his writing.  Laidlaw by William McIlvanney was first published almost forty years ago, almost four decades after The Big Sleep. It deserves to be considered alongside Chandler's great work.  McIlvanney did for Glasgow what Chandler had done for Los Angeles, giving the city a fictional identity. Hemingway used to say that all American literature came out of Huckleberry Finn; it is similarly thought by some that modern Scottish crime writing — ‘tartan noir’ — comes out of Laidlaw.

In one sense Laidlaw is unconventional. There is a chase — the whole novel is a chase, or at least a search for an elusive, even in some sense a shadowy quarry — but there is no mystery. The theme of the chase is introduced in the prologue of the novel with these almost poetic words:

"Running was a strange thing.  The sound was your feet slapping the pavement.  The lights of passing cars battered your eyeballs.  Your arms came up unevenly in front of you, reaching from nowhere, separate from you and from each other.  It was like the hands of a lot of people drowning.  And it was useless to notice these things.  It was as if a car had crashed, the driver was dead, and this was the radio still playing to him."

We know who the killer is from the first chapter in which a frightened bloodstained boy is running in terror and guilt from his own act. He is a boy of uncertain sexuality, shattered by what he has done. The questions are: who can identify him, and will the police reach him before other vengeful pursuers?

Jack Laidlaw himself is a romanticized figure, like most of the best fictional policemen. He appeals to those with a philosophic turn of mind, for he keeps ‘Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno’ in a locked drawer of his desk, ‘like caches of alcohol’, and he believes in doubt. A murder to his mind is often the consequence of a series of unrelated acts and the uncertainties and tensions they provoke. His habit is to immerse himself, not unlike Simenon's famous detective Maigret, in the atmosphere of a case. He becomes what he calls ‘a traveler in the city’, moving out of his family home and into a hotel that has seen better days for the duration of the case. He can play the hard man, and even meet criminal godfathers on equal terms, but he despises the macho attitudes and narrow sympathies of fellow policemen who are rivals as much as colleagues.

The other main character in the novel is Glasgow itself. McIlvanney demonstrates his love for the city with passages like this: "Sunday in the park--it was a nice day. A Glasgow sun was out, dully luminous, an eye with a cataract." He describes it as a place that is always talking to itself, one where even the derelicts and social failures realize, and reveal themselves, in conversation that is often a monologue. There are also bit players, characters who may have only walk-on parts that have little or nothing to do with the plot, but whose appearance, movement and talk contribute to the vitality of the novel. One of the supporting characters who is developed in somewhat more depth is a young detective named Harkness who is assigned to assist Detective Inspector Laidlaw. He gradually becomes more comfortable with Laidlaw over the course of the investigation and the author uses him to give the reader a more complete picture of Laidlaw himself, as he does in the quotation above and elsewhere: "Harkness felt the evening go off again. Gratified at having brought in Alan MacInnes, he was dismayed at Laidlaw's aloofness about it. Looking after him, he reflected that he was the kind of policeman his father might like."

The search is told in mosaic fashion with the pieces of the story and the characters involved slowly coming into better view as the pieces are laid. The emotions and motivations of characters are demonstrated through actions that build inexorably toward an inevitable denouement. In many ways it is a satisfying tale. Even though the novel was written almost four decades ago it retains the freshness of all good crime novels.

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