Sunday, January 25, 2015

Library Nightmares

The LibraryThe Library 
by Zoran Živković

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

In Memory of a Literary Man

John Bayley

John Bayley died on 12 January 2015.  He was eighty-nine years old and from 1974 to 1992, was Warton Professor of English at Oxford, and was a Fellow of St. Catherine's College. He was also a novelist and wrote literary criticism for several newspapers. He edited Henry James' The Wings of the Dove and a two-volume selection of James' short stories.  

Elegy for IrisHe had been married to the writer Dame Iris Murdoch from 1956 until her death in 1999.  About a decade ago I read Elegy for Iris, one of  John Bayley's three memoirs of his life with Iris Murdoch,  and was moved by this beautiful but sad story. His love for her led him to create a luminous memoir of her brilliant life and their love for each other. He poignantly describes the dimming of her brilliance due to Alzheimer's disease. Elegy for Iris is a story about the ephemeral beauty of youth and the sobering reality of what it means to grow old; filled with touching moments that seem almost too personal but are beautiful anyway. Most of the memoir is devoted to happier days but in some sense the final weeks and days of her life, while sad, are treated with an even greater beauty and serenity. For those who have enjoyed the novels of Iris Murdoch this is a wonderful testament to her life and career. It is a literary romance of years together.

It was many decades earlier, however, that as a reader I first read the criticism of John Bayley.   Too many years ago when I was  a college student I read the stories of Leo Tolstoy in a collection that Bayley edited and introduced.  It was this connection with Tolstoy that I renewed in the early eighties as I once again read an introduction Bayley had written, this time for The Portable Tolstoy collection from Viking Penguin.

Most recently I have enjoyed dipping into his very "personal anthology" of literary passages entitled simply Hand Luggage.  This appropriate title is a book of literary prose extracts and poetry samplings that he culled from his years of reading.  It impressed me as a sort of "commonplace" book of a type that I have had increasing enjoyment among my readings.  I share his use of books as hand luggage whenever I am traveling around town or to further destinations.

Throughout all the years since I first encountered John Bayley's writing I was continually impressed with his superb writing ability;  it was something that he had shared with his partner,  yet unlike Iris he remained primarily a critic of fiction and literature.  He made an impact on my reading life that I will not forget just as he became a light for readers everywhere with both his writing style and love of literature.

"Almost the best pleasure of anthologies is to find things mislaid from the past, as well as some new thing whose stay in the mind may turn out to be a ephemeral as it is agreeable."  - John Bayley

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Active Shadows of a Writer's Life

My Unwritten BooksMy Unwritten Books 
by George Steiner

"A book unwritten is more than a void.  It accompanies the work one has done like an active shadow, both ironic and sorrowful."  - George Steiner

In Alberto Manguel's wonderful compendium of libraries, The Library at Night, he writes:
"We can imagine the books we'd like to read, even if they have not yet been written, and we can imagine libraries full of books we would like to possess, even if the are well beyond our reach, because we enjoy dreaming up a library that reflects every one of our interests and every one of our foibles--a library that, in its variety and complexity, fully reflects the reader we are."

This idea, and I share his feelings along with the distress of finding books that I would love to have in my library but are too dear for my pocketbook, as expressed in the line "even if they have not yet been written" leads me to a wonderful book that is in my library, My Unwritten Books by George Steiner; described as a "grand master of erudition", he is a both polymath and eclectic as a thinker and writer of prose, both fictional and non-fictional.
In My Unwritten Books he imagines seven books that he did not write, but would have written if only he had not met some insurmountable physical, intellectual or psychological obstacle that prevented him from doing so. The essays describing these books are mini-books in themselves with excursions into such disparate worlds as the multiple languages of sex, the claims of Zionism, the natures of exile and a theology of emptiness.

My favorite among the essays is his personal excursion into the nature of education, "School Terms". Beginning with his own anarchic education that saw the onset of his school life with three languages while studying in Manhattan and France. All this before spending his university years at the University of Chicago and Harvard and completing his graduate work at Oxford. He contrasts the differences between education in France (orderly) and America (anarchic) and moves on to a brief commentary on some of the changes that these systems, especially in Great Britain are currently undergoing. With a flick of his pen, he highlights educational philosophies and movements from Locke and Rousseau through the battle between humanities and science of C. P. Snow whose polemics he decries. But this is used as a catalyst for his own thoughts on education. We must first consider what literacy means in our technological age with the immanent rise of "artificial intelligence" and the ubiquity of the Internet.

Steiner concludes that "the hope of preserving or resuscitating humanistic literacy in any traditional mode" is illusory. Yet, he goes on to suggest a "Utopian" plan or outline of a core curriculum that will provide to arouse the "awareness interactive with the demands and fascination of the world". (p 151)
He calls this plan a new "quadrivium" of mathematics, music, architecture, and the life sciences. Aimed at challenging the senses to "embody an incommensurable potential for fun, play, and aesthetic delight. Homo ludens is enlisted to the turbulent heart of his being." (p 159) 
This is heady stuff as Utopian plans often are. But it is exciting and challenging as George Steiner engages with the reader in sharing ideas in these notes for his "unwritten books". For even greater stimulation I would encourage readers to engage in his written books. His works are part of my own partially realized ideal library. By this I mean the sort of ideal that is characterized best by Alberto Manguel in another of his fascinating books, A Reader on Reading, where he writes:

"The ideal library is meant for one particular reader. Every reader must feel that he or she is the chosen one." "The ideal library (like every library) holds at least one line that has been written exclusively for you."

My Unwritten Books by George Steiner.  New Directions Books, 2006.
The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel.  Yale University Press, 2006.
A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel.  Yale University Press, 2010.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Myth of the Reluctant Warrior

The PostmanThe Postman 
by David Brin

“It’s said that ‘power corrupts,’ but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power. When they do act, they think of it as service, which has limits. The tyrant, though, seeks mastery, for which he is insatiable, implacable”  ― David Brin, The Postman

In this post-apocalyptic tale we meet a survivor, Gordon Krantz, who on one fateful day dons a postman's uniform and goes on his way creating a myth of "The Postman" and "The Restored United States". The country in which he creates this myth is a future Oregon laid to waste like the rest of the United States by a "doomwar" and the attendant disruption of society and crumbling of civilization.

The Postman had been wandering without establishing himself anywhere, and performing scenes from William Shakespeare plays for supplies. Taking shelter in a long-abandoned postal van, he finds a sack of mail and takes it to a nearby community to barter for food and shelter. His initial assertions to be a real postman builds, not because of a deliberate fraud (at least initially), but because people are desperate to believe in him and the Restored United States.

"Gordon smiled. He held up the bundle in his hand and touched his cap with the other.
"Good evening, Mizz Horton. It's a lovely night, yes? By the way, I happen to have a letter here for you, from a Mr. Jim Horton, of Pine View, Oregon....He gave it to me twelve days ago...."
The people on the parapet all seemed to be talking at once. There were sudden motions and excited shouts. Gordon cupped his ear to listen to the woman's amazed exclamation, and had to raise his voice to be heard.
"Yes, ma'am. He seemed to be quite well. I'm afraid that's all I have on this trip. But I'll be glad to carry your reply to your brother on my way back, after I finish my circuit down in the valley."
He stepped forward, closer to the light. "One thing though, ma'am. Mr. Horton didn't have enough postage back in Pine View, so I'm going to have to ask you for ten dollars...C.O.D."
The crowd roared.
Next to the glaring lantern the figure of the Mayor turned left and right, waving his arms and shouting. But nothing he said was heard as the gate swung open and people poured out into the night. They surrounded Gordon, a tight press of hot-faced, excited men, women, children. Some limped. Others bore livid scars or rasped in tuberculin heaviness. And yet at that moment the pain of living seemed as nothing next to a glow of sudden faith." (pp 80-81)

As the story continues he encounters a community, Corvallis, Oregon, which is led by Cyclops, who is apparently a sentient artificial intelligence which miraculously survived the cataclysm. In reality, however, the machine ceased functioning during a battle and a group of scientists merely maintain the pretense of it working to try and keep hope, order, and knowledge alive.

Eventually, as the Postman joins forces with Cyclops' scientists in a war against an influx of "hyper-survivalist militia", he begins to find that the hyper-survivalists are being pressed from Oregon's Rogue River area to the south as well. The hyper-survivalists are more commonly referred to as Holnists, after their founder, Nathan Holn. Nathan Holn was an author who championed both violence and misogyny. Holn himself is said to have been executed sometime before the events in the novel, but in the time following what should have been a brief period of civil disorder.

The denouement includes battles and confrontations between those opposing the Holnists led by The Postman and the bands of Holnist renegades. Through all his adventures and battles Gordon wonders "Who will take responsibility" to defend civilization. Questioning his own motives in creating and maintaining the mythic Postman he realizes that those who believe in it and him depend on his leadership. It is the questions that Gordon asks himself and his bravery in helping those he meets along the way that I found most appealing in this excellent narrative. Brin's story-telling ability shines as he pictures a world that has lost almost all of the accouterments of modern civilization. It makes one ask the question: what would I do to survive when (almost) all is lost?

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Timeless Principles

Free to Choose: A Personal Statement

Free to Choose: 
A Personal Statement 
by Milton and Rose Friedman

“Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficial. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greater dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding." —Justice Louis Brandeis, Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 479 (1928)”   ― Milton Friedman, Free to Choose: A Personal Statement

I bought this book back in the "good old days".  
That was when you could purchase a hardcover book for less than ten dollars. Due to the inflationary policies that Milton Friedman warns about, and that he provides a cure for, a comparable book today carries a price tag more than double the price of the book I purchased. It was a good investment.
In the book, Milton Friedman and his wife discuss the principles of the Free Market. It is this discussion, based on the foundation laid earlier in Capitalism and Freedom, that underscores the tyranny of unlimited government. They discuss lessons that we have not learned and taken to heart, for if we had done so we would not be facing the debt crisis of the Twenty-first century. I would only question the author's optimism. He titled the last chapter "The Tide is Turning" and it may have done so, if only slightly, in some Western European countries. But the level of economic control and bureaucratic bullying has only grown worse in the United States over the last thirty years. Fortunately, the principles discussed in Free to Choose are timeless and we can turn or return to them at any time. We only have to choose freedom.

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Impulse of Eros

Death in Venice 
by Thomas Mann

"Amor, in sooth, is like the mathematician who in order to give children a knowledge of pure form must do so in the language of pictures;  so, too, the god, in order to make visible the spirit, avails himself of the forms and colours of human youth, gilding it with all imaginable beauty that it may serve memory as a tool, the very sight of which then sets us afire with pain and longing." (p 44)

On the second page of this fine short novel the protagonist, Gustave von Aschenbach, goes on a walk to "refresh" himself and soon finds himself in a cemetery whose mortuary is "a structure in the Byzantine style".  Like a wind from the East the place mesmerizes him with mystical symbols until he is "brought back to reality by the sight of a man standing in the portico". This man presents an exotic visage with red hair and represents a motif that will recur several times during the story. The image of this man, perhaps, leads Aschenbach to a simple longing for travel and then a hallucination that suggests the impulse of Eros or the throes of Dionysus. Whichever it is the setting is ominous as we are reminded that "his life was on the wane" and he plans to travel south on a journey.

The narrative takes the writer Gustav von Aschenbach to Venice, where he falls in love with an adolescent boy before subsequently dying in the cholera-stricken city. Mann’s masterly command of language and play with mythology, his psychological profile of the artistic mind, and the novella’s contrast between cold artistic discipline and the power of Eros is magnificent both in its form and substance.

Aschenbach is introduced as an esteemed author who has produced literary works known for their formalism and neo-classical style. He has chosen an ascetic, disciplined life, a life of “noble purity, simplicity and symmetry”, for the sake of his creativity, success and national reputation. At the beginning of Death in Venice, we find the fifty-three year old writer unable to write a perfectly balanced work. The walk he takes at the beginning of the narrative occurs in an unnamed town that can be identified as Munich. The year, presented in the text as “19—”, is actually 1911. Since Mann opted not to provide a precise date, the narrative contains a timeless, ahistorical dimension despite being grounded in contemporary events.

In the figure of a stranger whom Aschenbach sees at the mortuary, Mann alludes to medieval personifications of death, and also to the Greek god Hermes, the guide to the Underworld. But the messenger of death is also a messenger of life. The text links him to the cult of life and the god of Asian origins, Dionysus. Mann's original intention was to write a treatise on the Nietzschean contrast between the god of reason, Apollo, and the god of unreason, Dionysus.  In his description of Aschenbach’s journey into Venice, Mann includes encounters with a Charon-like figure, and an old queen of a man bereft of dignity. These characters echo the original man he met in the cemetery and serve as messengers signalling Aschenbach’s looming fate, and as conspicuous representations of the transience and ugliness of life.

The Venice depicted by Mann is "the fallen queen, flattering and dubious beauty . . . half fairy tale, half tourist trap". It is a vision presented in its sordid reality and in its mythical splendor. At the hotel Aschenbach catches sight of a beautiful, fourteen-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio who is vacationing with his family. Aschenbach is immediately attracted to his idealized perfection, comparing him to a Greek statue and an artistic masterpiece. Although the sultry air of Venice makes him feel unwell, he reverses his intention to leave the city. From now on, his life is controlled by Eros, his desire, as he continues to observe Tadzio.

With references to the Platonic idea that physical attraction inspired by Eros leads to spiritual knowledge, Mann diverts readers from the fact that Aschenbach’s attraction to Tadzio is primarily physical, not metaphysical. The ability of Thomas Mann to weave together character and theme and setting to achieve this perfection is uncanny and I do not believe he achieved any better in his longer fictions, great as they are. This is also one of the few novels that received a superlative treatment on film though, in the end, Visconti's film does not surpass the original.

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Seasonal Poem

The Portable EmersonThe Portable Emerson 
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Amongst all his poetry the following is one of my favorites.

The Snow-Storm

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Elegance of an Equation

The Housekeeper and the ProfessorThe Housekeeper and the Professor 
by Yōko Ogawa

“Solving a problem for which you know there’s an answer is like climbing a mountain with a guide, along a trail someone else has laid. In mathematics, the truth is somewhere out there in a place no one knows, beyond all the beaten paths. And it’s not always at the top of the mountain. It might be in a crack on the smoothest cliff or somewhere deep in the valley.”   ― Yōko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor

This short novel is narrated by the housekeeper of the title, a single mother employed by an agency, who is assigned a new client. He lives in a dingy two-room apartment, and his suit jacket is covered with reminder notes he scribbles to himself. This is the Professor, a brilliant mathematician who suffered brain damage in a car accident in 1975, and since then cannot remember anything for more than an hour and 20 minutes at a time. "It's as if he has a single, 80-minute videotape inside his head," the narrator explains, "and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories."

What the professor can remember is mathematics. It is this mathematics that is presented in an almost poetic form, but also as a dialogue between the professor and his housekeeper, and with her son as well.   The characters remain nameless, except the son who is nicknamed Root by the professor, yielding an allegorical feeling and you read the story. Yet it is also an intimate tale of a family that goes beyond that through an exploration of the experience of memory and the beauty of mathematics.
How do you form a relationship with a person who cannot remember you from day to day? The attempts to overcome the difficulties posed by this situation sometimes seem insurmountable for the dedicated housekeeper. Both she and her son grow and change during the story while the professor seems stuck in a stagnant loop due to his faulty memory.  In spite of this he is able to relate well to Root in his own unique way:
“He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world” 

Eventually it is the housekeeper's dedication that leads to an unforeseen change in her relationship with the professor and provides a moment of suspense in an otherwise very straightforward story. The juxtaposition of mathematics with the personal relationships and situations created by the Professor's memory loss provide a unique metaphorical approach to what would otherwise be a mundane narrative.

This is a surprisingly poignant and emotionally uplifting narrative whose straightforward and lucid presentation masks a much more complex and meaningful tale. The book as a whole is an exercise in delicate understatement, of the careful arrangement into a surprisingly strong structure. The pure mountain air of number theory wafts gently through all its pages leading to pure enjoyment for this reader.

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Thursday, January 08, 2015

Time, Uncertainty, and Desire

The InfatuationsThe Infatuations 
by Javier Marías

“We cannot know what time will do to us with its fine, indistinguishable layers upon layers, we cannot know what it might make of us. It advances stealthily, day by day and hour by hour and step by poisoned step, never drawing attention to its surreptitious labours, so respectful and considerate that it never once gives us a sudden prod or a nasty fright. Every morning, it turns up with its soothing, invariable face and tells us exactly the opposite of what is actually happening: that everything is fine and nothing has changed, that everything is just as it was yesterday--the balance of power--that nothing has been gained and nothing lost, that our face is the same, as is our hair and our shape, that the person who hated us continues to hate us and the person who loved us continues to love us.”   ― Javier Marías, The Infatuations

It is not only time that is a theme of this book but also uncertainty. That is the uncertainty we have in the evidence of our senses due to both our own point of view and lack of evidence. With a dramatic opening, a murder on the first page, the reader is drawn into a mysterious narrative. It is also a personal narrative told from the perspective of Maria Dolz who by happenstance, due to her habit of stopping at the same cafe each day before work, recognizes the newspaper photo of the man who was killed. We are given his name in the first sentence of the book, "Miguel Desvern or Deverne", and we are also introduced to uncertainty for Maria is not entirely sure of his exact name. It seems that her acquaintance with Miguel and his wife began as she shared breakfast each day with them, but only "at a distance". Somewhat voyeuristically she would study them each morning as she sipped her coffee, but had never actually met them. Dolz has “only ever caught fragments of their conversation, or just the odd word or two,” and she is compelled enough by their presence and manner to wish them “all the best in the world, as if they were characters in a novel". Thus the mystery grows and the reader is left wondering, at the end of the first chapter, where do we go from here?

Gradually she comes to know the widow, Luisa, after approaching her months later, at the same café, to offer condolences, albeit as a stranger. As it turns out, the “Perfect Couple” were watching too, perhaps less obsessively, as Luisa welcomes her back to her apartment and reveals they had both referred to the solitary Dolz as the “Prudent Young Woman.” Marías reveals all of this efficiently, then sets it aside in the early pages of his four-part Infatuations. Death is not the spoiler here. The novel’s remaining three acts provide new directions, digressions, and fodder for those readers with patience for Marias' sometimes Jamesian prose.  Introduced on the first page, the idea of death is pervasive throughout, for example:
"not having been born is not the same as having died, because the person who dies always leaves some trace behind him and he knows that." 
These traces of life that are left by the dead play an important role in the narrative, but there are also ruminations on time, truth, memory, envy, and infatuation, especially the last which is what sweeps Maria into an affair of a sort with a friend of Luisa.

There are long expository passages devoted to Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert, whose plot commands almost as much detective work as Miguel’s murder. There are recurring passages from Macbeth, Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers, and some Keats for good measure. There is also a tendency for María to speculate about pages-long scenarios only to yank them away (after the reader’s imagination has been fully invested) with a dismissive, “Not that any of those things would happen,” or, “I didn’t actually think all this.” In fact, for much of The Infatuations,the action doesn’t so much happen as get discussed.

This is not to say that the novel does not have a denouement and resolution. But as one character contends, during a discussion of Balzac’s Chabert: “What happened is the least of it… What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot we recall more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.” As this is true in reading Balzac it is also true in the narrative presented as The Infatuations; a bit of meta fiction. This is done so well that life and fiction seem like inventions often made from the same materials. The prose style plays with time again and again and the uncertainty lasts through the last twist of interaction between the characters. This is a novel that, as I mentioned, requires investing in patience, but for the reader who perseveres its rewards make that investment worthwhile.

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Friday, January 02, 2015

The Power of Words

A Lesson Before DyingA Lesson Before Dying 
by Ernest J. Gaines

"Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?" I asked him. "A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they're better then anyone else on earth -and that's a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer gave justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of stand, they're safe."  -  Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying is an amazing book. Reading it was an emotional experience and I also attended a dramatic reading of a stage adaptation where it did not lose its emotional power. A young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach visits a black youth named Jefferson who is on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting. Each must learn a lot about himself. The teacher, Grant Wiggins, believes that he must get away from that town, that country, as soon as possible.

"I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be..."

But he is coerced into visiting the young prisoner, Jefferson, who is confined by the law to an iron-barred cell. Jefferson's grandmother, Miss Emma, begs Grant for one last favor: to teach her grandson to die like a man. As Grant and Jefferson meet and talk they begin to realize the nature of the bonds that hold them and how, perhaps they can both learn about themselves. This is a book of inspiration for those who read and believe in the power of words. But it is also a testament to the belief that you can choose to cause your own change.
Reading A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines was an inspirational experience. The lesson of the title is both demonstrated by the story and felt by the reader. This is a book that I would recommend to anyone who loves reading and life.

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Music for the New Year

As I carry with my on my search through life it is music that lifts me and helps me along the way.  As I walk toward the exercise arena each morning the tunes flow from and through my mind, following the constant motion and beat of my footsteps.  Music is consolation - yes, and inspiration that moves me forward.

The Kingdom is one of Music,
Meaning for minds melded with those
Able to share the sphere of nature
And being. I live in a world
Real with reason as the fuel
For the spirit of man.

(James Henderson, from The Kingdom of Music, 1992)

Sunday, December 28, 2014

In the Grip of Eros

by J.M. Coetzee

"She does not reply. She would rather hide her face, and he knows why. Because of the disgrace. Because of the shame. That is what their visitors have achieved; that is what they have done to this confident , modern young woman. Like a stain the story is spreading across the district." (p 115)

At the heart of this fine novel set in contemporary South Africa is a man who is self-destructive; a professor of English who cannot communicate and who must face not only the results of his own mistakes but the troubles of others and a world that he is unable to understand. J. M. Coetzee's ability to make this dark story readable is what makes this a great story. As the outset the professor, David Lurie, is medicating himself with weekly visits from a prostitute named Soraya but an incident occurs that ends that relationship.  Then we meet the professor in his school room teaching "Communications 101" to bored students whom he cannot reach:
"Silence again. The very air into which he speaks hangs listless as a sheet. A man looking at a mountain: why does it have to be so complicated, they want to complain? What answer can he give them?" (p 21)

But by this time he has begun to meet one of his students, Melanie, on the side. While she does not respond to Shakespeare she seems to respond to David's erotic advances until. Well this is where the story begins to explore the world of personal self-destruction, dramatic changes in David's life and ultimately, disgrace. If it ended there it would be well-written but not interesting, not challenging. David is let go by the University and he leaves for the countryside. But that will not be the end as we see when he is confronted by Melanie's father:
“‘Professor,’ he begins, laying heavy stress on the word, ‘you may be very educated and all that, but what you have done is not right…We put our children in the hands of you people because we think we can trust you. If we can’t trust the university, who can we trust?…No, Professor Lurie, you may be big and mighty and have all kinds of degrees, but if I was you I’d be very ashamed of myself, so help me God. If I’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick, now is your chance to say, but I don’t think so, I can see it from your face.’” And when Lurie finds the accusation beneath him and turns away, the girl’s father shouts, “‘You can’t just run away like that! You have not heard the last of it, I tell you!’” (p 38)

The challenges, for David, begin when he moves in with his daughter (from an earlier failed marriage) and finds out what fate really has in store for him. He tries to explain his mistake with the student to his daughter Lucy:
"I was a servant of Eros: that is what he wants to say, but does he have the effrontery? It was a god who acted through me. What vanity! Yet not a lie, not entirely."(p 89) He cannot take responsibility to himself or with others. His resulting actions seem out of sync with the world around him. His inability to understand himself fuels his inability to communicate with others.
It is with his daughter in the eastern Cape that we are introduced to Petrus, her black neighbor who is slowly taking advantage of the changed social order to lift himself from a “dog-man” to a substantial land holder. Lucy is nearly alone in her refusal to join the “white-flight” exodus out of such predominantly black areas; in the book’s most dramatic scene she is raped by three black men as her father is locked in a bathroom and set afire. How David and Lucy deal with this event defines the remainder of the story. You can see David's disgrace as a metaphor for the experience of whites in post-apartheid South Africa.

Disgrace is a gripping read, paced, shaped, and developed in a way that gives the narrative an immediacy. Through the embedding of recurring images, like that of fire, the novel slowly builds to an unbearable climax. This is one of the better novels of J. M. Coetzee that I have read; that is it is very good and worthy of the awards. In it he details a story of personal trials and integrates the culture of post-apartheid South Africa effectively into the story. I would have rated it slightly higher, but it is not a pleasant story to read. It is neither as affecting nor as imaginatively fashioned as Coetzee's other Booker winner, Life and Times of Michael K. The characters are so flatly presented that it is difficult to penetrate their mental worlds, yet the sparse prose is eminently readable. After rereading the novel and learning more about these characters I would include this in my list of favorite Coetzee novels.

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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Music and Poetry

Respighi, Britten & Christmas

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Long ago.

- Christina Rosetti

What better way to start Christmas day than listening to the music of Respighi and Benjamin Britten? Ottorino Respighi composed his Trittico botticelliano for small orchestra in 1927, inspired by three of Sandro Botticelli's paintings in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. 
Included in this suite is the L'adorazione dei Magi which represents musically the scene captured by Botticelli of the Magi or kings from the East presenting gifts to the new-born Jesus. Included in this beautiful music is the ancient Advent plainchant 'Veni, Veni, Emmanuel', better known today as the hymn 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Along with other evocative tunes including a section reminiscent of Handel's 'Pastoral Symphony' this music is good listening for the Christmas morning.

Benjamin Britten, whose operas I love, composed the choral showpiece A Boy Was Born in 1932-3, when he was only 19 and a student at the Royal College of Music in London. He revised the work in 1955 and it represents an early example of his achievements in the composition of choral works based on an anthology of texts. The music for this group of texts is written for an eight-part choir and an additional part for unison boys' voices. The effect is brilliant as he weaves the music through a theme and set of variations from Jesus' birth to a final Noel. My favorite part is a setting of the hymn by Christina Rosetti, 'In the Bleak Midwinter'.
While the weather outside my apartment is bleak on this Christmas morning the music inside warmed the both the rooms I live in and my soul within.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top Ten Books I Would Like to See under My Christmas Tree

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish.  The following are the top books I would welcome seeing under the tree on Christmas morning:

1.  THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH. By Richard Flanagan.  A frail humanity survives the unspeakable in this novel of the Burma-­Thailand Railway of World War II.  I still cannot forget reading his wonderful novel, Gould's Book of Fish.

2.  The Grove Centenary Editions of Samuel Beckett Boxed Set.  Need I say more?

3.  THE BONE CLOCKS. By David Mitchell.  In this latest head-­spinning flight into other dimensions from the author of “Cloud Atlas,” all borders between pubby England and the machinations of the undead begin to blur.  A great follow-up to Cloud Atlas which I loved. 

4.  A new edition of The Odyssey to read for the spring weekend retreat planned by the University of Chicago.

5.  COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE. By Haruki Murakami. Translated by Philip Gabriel.  A novel of a man’s traumatic entrance into adulthood and the shadowy passages he must then ­negotiate.  I'm overdue to read more Murakami.

6.  THE DOG. By Joseph O’Neill.  In O’Neill’s disturbing, elegant novel, his first since “Netherland,” a lost and tormented New York lawyer recognizes more darkness within himself than in the iniquitous place he works, Dubai.  Our book group enjoyed Netherland.

7.  NORA WEBSTER. By Colm Toibin.  In Toibin’s luminous, elliptical novel, set in the late 1960s and early ’70s, an Irishwoman struggles toward independence after her husband’s unexpected death.  Having read Brooklyn I expect more of his best.

8.  THE POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013. Selected by Glyn Maxwell.  Stroke by patient stroke, the poems in this largehearted and essential selection from Walcott, now 84, are the work of a painterly hand.  I admired Omeros several years ago and would like to delve further into Walcott's poetry.

9.  NAPOLEON: A Life. By Andrew Roberts.  Roberts brilliantly conveys the sheer energy of this military and organizational whirlwind.  This looks like a good way to explore his life.

10.  THE PARTHENON ENIGMA. By Joan Breton Connelly.  With first-rate scholarship, an archaeologist reinterprets the Parthenon frieze in this exciting and revelatory history.  This combines my interest in the classics with archaeology.  A sure winner.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

An Ordinary Death

The Death of Ivan Ilych And Other StoriesThe Death of Ivan Ilych 
by Leo Tolstoy

"Essentially, though, it was the same as with all people who are not exactly rich, but who want to resemble the rich, and for that reason only resemble each other . . . And in his case the resemblance was such that it was even impossible for it to attract attention;  but to him it all seemed something special."   - Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych

The Death of Ivan Ilych is notable for many things not the least being its focus on the life of Ivan Ilych; for, after introducing the narrative with the announcement of his death the story continues with his life up to and including his last days. This is the story of a very ordinary man, a Russian equivalent of an American John Smith, who is notable by his coworkers as being likable, but not so important that they do not make their first thoughts upon his death an intense discussion about how each might benefit from his passing -- whether through promotion or increase in salary.

A deceptively simple tale, it is admirable in its brevity, succinctness, and even ordinariness. Reading this short novel reminded me of some of the existentialist works that I have read and studied over the years (think of Camus' The Stranger or The Plague). 
Tolstoy's story is a meditation on the death of an every man, a bureaucrat whose life was anything but uncommon. Effortlessly, Tolstoy examines life’s shallow exteriors as well as its inner workings. And in the quotidian details of a life we see pageant of folly. After noting Ivan's rise to apparent success in chapter three, there begins a slow descent into illness and inevitably death. As death approaches there are signs ignored, reality deferred, and only slowly does wisdom emerge not like a dull moral lesson, but heavy, as if from a downpour, with all the weight, shine and freshness of real life. We see, vividly, Ivan Ilych’s errors until one day we realize that someone is looking at us as if we were a character in The Death of Ivan Ilych. This is a small book with a large impact on the reader. It is one that has not lost its power more than a century after its first appearance.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Top Ten Books I Read In 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish.  
The following are the top books I have read since January 1, 2014. They are in no particular order. I highly recommend all of the following:

  1. Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. This novel enthralled me with its chronicle of the lives of two working class Australian families who come to live together at One Cloud Street, in a suburb of Perth, Western Australia, over a period of twenty years, from the nineteen forties to the sixties

  1. Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. I recently reread this classic of Science Fiction that was first published sixty years ago. It gets better with every reading.

  1. Collected Poems of Robert Frost. Reading the poems of Robert Frost reminds me of both his stature as an American poet and his intelligence. Every line has depths of meaning that bear reading and study. Ultimately one of the poets I truly love.

  1. The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary. This prize-winning novel won me over with its passion and beauty. The striving for freedom of its main character and the descriptions of Africa were superb.

  1. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. In this play the unexpected becomes what you expect and the absurd becomes the norm ; the story shows characters search for meaning in the nothingness of their presumed existence. 

  1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. The quintessential novel of ideas with philosophical debates central to the message of the novel raising questions and speculations that mirror our own. The world of Hans Castorp, upon leaving the sanatorium, becomes a mirror for ours. 

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. One of my lifetime favorites that I reread for the first time in the new century. It never grows old as Bronte's tale of Jane Eyre seems to inhabit my being more closely than most others.

  1. The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato. This was a mesmerizing story of a man who has lost touch with reality and his obsessions over a married woman who eludes his grasp. He is an artist who cannot abide this world so he creates a world of his own.

  1. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. What would my reading life be without some Shakespeare? And this is one of his best comedies with questions of identity and more.

  1. Kabloona by Gontran de Poncins. This is an extraordinary adventure of an encounter with the Eskimos.. It is a true example of sui generis writing and it is unlikely that anything quite like it will be written again. 

Some very good books I read this year that came close but did not make the top ten included:  Executive Suite by Cameron Hawley;  Straight is the Gate by Andre Gide;  and, Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Epic of a Cairo Family

The Cairo Trilogy
by Naguib Mahfouz

On this day in 1911 the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was born.

"Voices were blended and intermingled in a tumultuous swirl around which eddied laughter, shouts, the squeaking of doors and windows, piano and accordion music, rollicking handclaps, a policeman's bark, braying, grunts, coughs of hashish addicts and screams of drunkards, anonymous calls for help, raps of a stick, and singing by individuals and groups."  --from PALACE OF DESIRE (1957)

It is hard to overemphasize the beauty and intelligence of this family saga. Of course it is much more than that, being also an historical epic about Cairo and Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century.  The first novel, Palace Walk, introduces the family of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad: his wife Amina, sons Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal, and daughters Khadija and Aisha. This family will be the center of all three novels as Mahfouz chronicles their experiences living within a Cairo neighborhood identified by the street, Palace Walk, home to the family. Prominent among the themes of the first novel is the freedom of the family (or lack of freedom) under the authoritarian rule of the father. Mahfouz slowly develops the relationships within the family and the novel builds upon events that epitomize the growth of each family member. Just as the middle son Fahmy excels in school he begins to seek freedom in the growth of nationalist fervor during the era of the Great War. Amina, who is present on the first page has the temerity to defy her husband and pays a price, yet demonstrates growth in stature within the family. Amina's life and personality is the lifeblood of the home life of the family, bracketed by the scenes of the coffee hour and Amina on the roof overlooking the city. As the first novel ends we find the family's peace and structure threatened portending more change in the novels that follow.

In my continuing traversal of this massive novel I find the pace of events quickening. The narrative, which started slowly as the author introduced Ahmad and his family, gradually picks up speed as the eldest son and daughters are married. The change seems to be a form of familial evolution as the members of the family interact. Just as slowly the world beyond the family's Cairo neighborhood begins to intrude into their lives with the growth of Egyptian nationalist fervor in response to the English protectorate. In addition, Mahfouz's philosophical background can be seen in both the descriptions ("a Platonic world. . ." in chapter five) and the narrative perspective. All of this impresses me as Mahfouz masterfully blends the psychological portraits of the individuals with the society that they encounter in their daily lives. The result is a type of suspense encountered only in the work of the best authors I have read. Mahfouz joins them.

The second novel of Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy is titled Palace of Desire. The family of Ahmad al-Jawad has expanded as the married daughters and son have children. Particularly touching and revelatory is a scene where Ahmad becomes the doting grandfather demonstrating a side of his character that we did not see in the first novel of the trilogy. We also see the permutations of love and desire on display as the family evolves through the maturation of the second generation. There is a particular focus on the development of Kamal, the youngest of the children, who has seen success in school and slowly leaves behind his youthful innocence as he develops into a thinker, a writer, and an admirer of the perfection of beauty as embodied in the young Aida Shaddad. His view of love is doomed to an unsuccessful search for perfection when the one he adores, Aida, rejects him and leaves Egypt with another. Kamal will eventually satisfy his bodily needs with girls from the brothel district while he lives an ascetic life of the philosophic writer and teacher. He also highlights one other theme of the novel with his popularization of western philosophy as Egyptian nationalism grows and the culture of Ahmad's family is buffeted by the new ideas. Perhaps the eldest son, Yasin, best represents the view of love as mere desire. Even in the first novel Yasin had demonstrated his inability to control his natural desire for women and this lack of control continues to complicate his life. Unlike his father, who could discreetly maintain his life with the singers of the night separately from his home life, Yasin blunders about, endangering both his home life and his career. Desire permeates this story even as the world of Ahmad, the father, slowly begins to lose the control that seemed to be his main characteristic as the trilogy began.

The novel Sugar Street ends Naguib Mahfouz's masterpiece bringing the story of Al-Sayyid Ahmad's family to a close. With the death of Al-Sayyid his wife Amina is all alone. In a moving chapter we hear her voice and see the world through her eyes as she feels more alone than ever before. The house and the coffee hour are no longer the same. But the focus has turned to the grandchildren, particularly Ahmad and al-Muni'm, sons of Khadija. Each is seeking new directions, mirroring the political and cultural changes in Egypt as World War II approaches. Kamal continues to pine for his ideal love, Aida, and almost finds it in her younger sister, Budur. His own indecision prevents him from making a commitment to her, turning away when she makes the slightest advance. Superficially his life resembles that of his nephew Ridwan, the beautiful son of his brother Yasin. Kamal meets his old friend Husayn Shaddad one final time, learning of the fate of Aida and the Shaddad family, but not with any sense of encouragement or satisfaction. As the novel ends family change occurs once again with the passing of Amina and the birth of Yasin's first grandchild. There is a hopeful sign as Yasin goes out with Kamal to buy clothes for the new baby.

Mahfouz's trilogy has epic sweep in its depiction of the changes to Cairo over the first half of the twentieth century mirrored in the growth and change of the Ahmad family. He presents ideas and demonstrates them with the actions and interactions of the characters as they love and learn and die. The outside world, first seen in the occupation of the British, grows throughout and looms ever larger as the final novel in the trilogy ends. Twentieth century ideologies are beginning to affect Egypt with the power seen elsewhere in the world and the portent is ominous. Yet with that Mahfouz leaves the reader with the possibility of hope and the encouragement that can only be found in a great literary achievement.

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz.  Published October 16th 2001 by Everyman's Library (first published 1957)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tale of an Outsider

The White TigerThe White Tiger 
by Aravind Adiga

“So I stood around that big square of books. Standing around books, even books in a foreign language, you feel a kind of electricity buzzing up toward you, Your Excellency. It just happens, the way you get erect around girls wearing tight jeans.
"Except here what happens is that your brain starts to hum.”   ― Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger

This first novel by Aravind Adiga reminded me of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. That is to say it is not your traditional Indian novel, but one that presents the hero as the outsider, a man who is both literally and figuratively underground and invisible.

The novel is narrated by Balram Halwai, "The White Tiger" who over seven nights shares his life story in the form of a letter to a Chinese official. In Balram the author has created an anti-hero who, with both charisma and charm, shares a very dark story about corruption, death and escape from the most extreme poverty into the wealth of successful entrepreneurship. The author uses the metaphors of light and dark to help us understand his traversal of a side of India seldom seen in most tales of that country. The theme of naming/identity also plays an important role as Balram takes on different names as he grows and changes from the simple munna to his eventual magisterial identity as "The White Tiger". The author has created a sort of modern journey, much as Ellison did where the hero overcomes his beginnings, and the corruption he finds everywhere, to create a new life for himself. It is, however, a new life that is strangely cut off from society so he remains an outsider to the end. The brilliant conception of the author impressed me as he presented believable characters, the realistic details about the best and worst of Indian society, and a clear depiction of the nature of the hero at the center of the story. There is black humor that is sometimes excruciatingly funny alongside true regret, and underlying it all hints of a fear (of the past) that cannot be completely eradicated. 

The author's voice is original and challenging as he takes you on a journey that, while seemingly straightforward, has many layers of meaning and leaves you with questions to ponder. One of these is why he is writing to a Chinese official; perhaps sixty years ago he would have been writing to a British official? Genuinely deserving of the Man Booker Prize of 2008, The White Tiger is both an engaging enjoyable read and a thought-provoking meditation on life.

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