Sunday, February 21, 2021

A Literary Journey

I Meant to Kill Ye: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (...Afterwords)
I Meant to Kill Ye: 
Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian 

"If only I could discover some crucial piece of information about the kid, my thinking went, then maybe I could finally figure out Blood Meridian and its disturbing grip on me." - Stephanie Reents

This little book of only 159 pages is literally small, measuring only four by six inches. Within this small container is a work of literary criticism that is different from any other that I have ever studied. The author, a college English teacher, decided to delve into Cormac McCarthy's most heralded work, Blood Meridian, by journeying into the sources of the novel.

When I say journeying, again literally, she went to the archives of McCarthy's papers at Texas State University-San Marcos, where in her pursuit of information about the background of "the Kid", one of the main characters in the novel, she perused the papers for some of the drafts of the novel that McCarthy rejected or heavily edited. She continued on her journey to follow the trail of the Glanton Gang from the novel through the southwest. In addition to this tour of some of the actual sources for the novel she also commented on the narrative voice with particular reference to the ideas of James Wood in his book, How Fiction Works.

With a journey bracketed by questions about who "the Kid" from the novel may have really been, this work of criticism works on two primary levels: that of traditional literary criticism and that of the critic as literary detective on a road trip. Sometimes personal reminiscences interrupted the criticism, but on the whole the journey of reading the book was one that provided both some interesting ideas about McCarthy's literary style and a bit of enjoyment from the journey to the archives and beyond.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Lectures on Proust

The Essential Proustian: The Collected Lectures of Joel Rich
The Essential Proustian: 
The Collected Lectures of Joel Rich 

“Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader's recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book's truth.”  ― Marcel Proust, Time Regained

These are the thoughts of a Proust enthusiast presented in a series of lectures. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust encompasses the world and this set of lectures presents reasons why. The lectures comprise topics including women, time, sleep, and reading; also ranging into weather, war, animals, and death. I was fortunate to have been present at most of these lectures when the were presented as "First Friday Lectures" presented by the Basic Program of Liberal Education at The University of Chicago

A good example of the content of these lectures as well as a demonstration of the effect reading Proust's work may have on the reader is found in the following quote from Swann's Way, the first book of In Search of Lost Time:

"When I had found , one day, in a book by Bergotte, some joke about an old family servant . . . which was in principle what I had often said to my grandmother about Francoise . . . then it was suddenly revealed to me that my own humble existence and the Realms of Truth were less widely separated than I had supposed, that at certain points they were actually in contact; and in my new-found confidence and joy I wept upon his printed page, as in the arms of a long-lost father."

Joel Rich had a long association with this program leading Basic Program Alumni seminars on Proust as well as presenting these lectures. They provide a great introduction to anyone new to Proust's writing; but they can be enjoyed by those who already have experienced the world of Proust.

Friday, February 05, 2021

The Classics and Black Folk

Martin Luther King and W. E. B. DuBois

We know of Martin Luther King’s indebtedness to the thought of Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, and of his theological education. He was also steeped in the political philosophy of the West, from Plato to John Stuart Mill. In his graduate work at Boston University and Harvard in the 50s, he read and wrote on Hegel, Kant, Marx, and other philosophers. And as a visiting professor at Morehouse College—one year before his arrest in Birmingham and the composition of his letter—King taught a seminar in “Social Philosophy,” examining the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Bentham, and Mill.

Here are the thoughts of W. E. B. DuBois:

"I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?"

the last paragraph from The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois, "Chapter VII".  

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Tribute to Melville

White Buildings: Poems
White Buildings: Poems 

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,
The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends
As her demeanors motion well or ill,
All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.  -  from "Voyages", Hart Crane

Hart Crane loved Melville and read Moby-Dick several times along with his other tales of the sea. This was in the early decades of the twentieth century before Melville was renowned as one of America's greatest authors. Crane had a difficult time getting his trbute, "At Melville's Tomb", published. Harriet Monroe rejected it when he submitted it to her Poetry Magazine and Marianne Moore wanted to change it before publication in the Dial, which she edited. Crane withdrew it, but it was included in White Buildings, his first collection of poetry to be published. When Eugene O'Neill agreed to write a foreward to the collection Boni & Liveright chose to publish it. Ultimately O'Neill backed out, but Allen Tate provided a foreward and Crane's first collection of poetry was printed in book form.

At Melville’s Tomb

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides ... High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Cicero's Republic

The Republic and The Laws
The Republic and 
The Laws 

". . . law in the proper sense is right reason in harmony with nature. It is spread through the whole human community, unchanging and eternal, calling people to their duty by its commands and deterring tham from wrong-doing by its prohibitions." (p 68)

Cicero wrote his dialogue, The Republic, just before the civil war that ended the Roman Republic. In it he discusses the history of Rome and its constitution. The Republic of Cicero is in one sense modeled after Plato's Republic, but it is different as well. Cicero presents a more realistic view of the state based on the Roman Republic that was in its last stages during Cicero's lifetime. He assimilates the philosophy of Plato, but also Aristotle's Politics and others.

In it he discusses the nature of different political organizations including Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, among others. His discussion of the best states and his comparison of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy is thoughtful --- highlighting the differences and weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each; he concludes that the best regime may be one that is a blend of all three. 

In the sequel essay entitled The Laws he promulgates a doctrine of Natural Law, which he then applies to all mankind. His code of law is developed for a reformed Roman Republic that, unfortunately, he never lived to see -- and after his death was preempted by the imposition of the Empire under the leadership of Augustus Caesar.

The following remarks give some indication of the best of his thinking: "The aim of a ship's captain is a successful voyage; a doctor's, health; a general's, victory. So the aim of our ideal statesman is the citizen's happy life---that is, a life secure in wealth, rich in resources, abundant in renown, and honorable in its moral character. That is the task which I wish him to accomplish---the greatest and best that any man can have."

The Virtue of Friendship

How to Be a Friend: An Ancient Guide to True Friendship
How to Be a Friend: 
An Ancient Guide to 
True Friendship 
"It seems to me that friendship arises from nature itself rather than from any need, along with an inclination of the soul joined with a sense of love rather than a calculation of how useful the relationship might be." (p 55)

Cicero's dialogue on friendship demonstrates his approach to philosophy, drawing on the work of the Greeks that preceded him, especially Plato and Aristotle. While set in the Rome of his day, he harkens back to those thinkers who defined such concepts as virtue and the Good. A notable example being Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

Cicero states that "the very essence of friendship" is "a common set of beliefs, aspirations, and opinions." (p 31). He further states that friendship is only possible between those who "act and live so that their lives give proof of faithfulness, integrity, fairness, and generosity; and who are free from any low passion, greed, or violence; and are of great strength of character," (p 37). Most important for true friendship, however, is virtue and "virtue, too, loves itself," (p 165); in conclusion he states, "I say it is virtue that creates and preserves friendships. Virtue is the source of compatibility, stability, and permanence." (p 169)

Cicero's stance would seem to be one that in most respects is consistent with some modern views as it prominently does not depend on "service above self", but is consistent with integrity and treating others with respect while acting virtuously. This translation by Philip Freeman is felicitous in making Cicero's beautiful Latin prose read as fluently in contemporary English. The result is a demonstration that we can still learn from the classical thinkers of Rome and Greece.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Dangerous Journey

The River
The River 

“There was something satisfying in a cessation of paddling on smooth water. It was like watching a flock of ducks all stop beating at once and sail over a bank of trees on extended wings.”  ― Peter Heller, The River

My introduction
to Peter Heller was a dystopian thriller called The Dog Stars. That was reason enough for me to turn to his recent (2019) adventure novel, The River. In it he introduces two young men, Jack and Wynn are best friends taking some time off from there terms at Dartmouth, sharing a love of books and the outdoors. Jack is compact and pragmatic. Wynn is a big guy with a big heart, always eager to see the good in everyone. They’ve taken countless canoeing and outdoor trips together, so a canoe journey down the Maskwa River in northern Canada seems just like heaven.

Despite their strong wilderness skills, their adventure is put to the test when they discover a massive wildfire threatens to overtake them. Even worse, while paddling through the fog, they overhear a heated argument between a husband and wife camped on the riverside, only to find a man paddling alone the next day. What starts off as a fun-filled retreat into nature becomes a race against time that pits them against the very river they meant to savor.

"They had paddled many rivers together in the two years they’d known each other and climbed a lot of peaks. Sometimes one had more appetite for danger, sometimes the other. There was a delicate but strong balance of risk versus caution in their team thinking, with the roles often fluid, and it’s what made them such good partners." (p 15)

One is provided with the appearance of a wildfire that seems unstoppable. Add a damsel in distress and her dangerous husband and you have the right mix for excitement. But that would be of little interest if there was nothing else to sustain your interest. Fortunately, Heller intersperses the adventure with flashbacks that provide context to the friendship of Jack and Wynn. Heller's narration shifts in intensity, one moment supremely focused on his characters, the next at a distance from them. Initially, the third person point-of-view focuses on Jack and Wynn's surroundings, the vast Canadian wilderness; pages of description occur before either character is named. Jack's interior life given the most space. The novel mirrors the river; just as it widens and narrows, languidly drifts or rushes through rapids, perspective and tone shift to further the story.

They're both supremely well-read college students, and they (Wynn especially) have a love for philosophy. The conflicts in the novel are ultimately human-driven, despite the wilderness survival backdrop, and the clashes that Jack and Wynn have about human nature are in direct conversation with the plot points. From the outset, Wynn wants to see the best in the lone man they find canoeing, but Jack is certain the man is a killer. Heller also uses religious language, suggesting that Jack and Wynn are on a pilgrimage of sorts—reinforcing the idea that this is a morality play about the concepts of good and evil.

While the opening section of the novel acts as a prelude, the story moves along more and more quickly as does both the river and the fire. Ultimately, The River offers both a literal and figurative journey; it is a thrilling and contemplative page-turner with sharp insight into the human condition.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Playing With Mystery

The School of Night

The School of Night 

“What is a holy mass, Tom, if not a play? A wedding? A coronation? do you wish to know why I am a playmaker? Because I know that, at every moment, we are in the midst of some play. Only in an arena that calls itself theater may we stand outside the real theater - our lives - and we see them in all their truth, Tom. By which, if course, I mean their tragedy.”  ― Louis Bayard, The School of Night

I enjoy historical novels especially when they involve mystery and intrigue. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears comes to mind as a particular favorite. Bayard's novel is similar while adding a contemporary mystery with its counterpart set at the end of the Elizabethan era.

Henry Cavendish is a disgraced Elizabethan scholar, fooled by a forgery of a poem supposedly written by Walter Raleigh. As a result, Henry has chosen to turn to tutoring and odd jobs in Washington, D.C. As the story begins he has reconnected with Alonzo Wax, a college friend and a book collector. The eccentric Wax, perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, has purloined part of a letter that sheds light on the fabled "School of Night", a secret congregation of illustrious Elizabethan-era intellects like Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and a brilliant but little-known scientist named Thomas Harriot. The school delved into theology, philosophy and science perhaps bordering on alchemy, in a manner thought traitorous and blasphemous. Wax apparently commits suicide, but he also reveals his discovery to Cavendish, and to Clarissa Dale, a woman Wax met at a lecture who claims psychic visions of Harriot, and to another antique book collector.

At Wax's memorial service, Henry is approached by the supposed owner of the letter, an English antiquities collector named Bernard Styles, and offered a handsome sum to find and return the letter. No sooner than he starts to inquire about this Wax's devoted assistant is murdered and Wax's collection is stolen. Henry and Clarissa uncover clues that lead them to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, near where Harriot studied Native Americans during the failed attempt to establish an English colony. There they find Wax in hiding, claiming the letter points to a treasure. Clues then lead the trio to Syon House in England, the ancestral seat of the Earl of Northumberland, where Harriot once lived.

Through all of the contemporary adventures there are flashbacks provided in interpolated chapters set in the historical Elizabethan era featuring Thomas Harriot and his love, Margaret Crookshanks. The combination of the ancient mystery, lost treasure, and suspenseful intrigue, make this an historical novel that I can recommend to all.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Poem for Today


Poetry for a Winter Day 

from The Collected Poems of  Conrad Aiken

Winter for a moment takes the mind; the snow

Falls past the arclight; icicles guard a wall;

The wind moans through a crack in the window;

A keen sparkle of frost is on the sill.

Only for a moment; as spring too might engage it,

With a single crocus in the loam, or a pair of birds;

Or summer with hot grass; or autumn with a yellow leaf.

Winter is there, outside, is here in me:

Drapes the planets with snow, deepens the ice on the moon,

Darkens the darkness that was already darkness.

The mind too has its snows, its slippery paths,

Walls bayonetted with ice, leaves ice-encased.

Here is the in-drawn room, to which you return

When the wind blows from Arcturus: here is the fire

At which you warm your hands and glaze your eyes;

The piano, on which you touch the cold treble;

Five notes like breaking icicles; and then silence.

The alarm-clock ticks, the pulse keeps time with it,

Night and the mind are full of sounds. I walk

From the fire-place, with its imaginary fire,

To the window, with its imaginary view.

Darkness, and snow ticking the window: silence,

And the knocking of chains on a motor-car, the tolling

Of a bronze bell, dedicated to Christ.

And then the uprush of angelic wings, the beating

Of wings demonic, from the abyss of the mind:

The darkness filled with a feathery whistling, wings

Numberless as the flakes of angelic snow,

The deep void swarming with wings and sound of wings,

The winnowing of chaos, the aliveness

Of depth and depth and depth dedicated to death.

Here are bickerings of the inconsequential,

The chatterings of the ridiculous, the iterations

Of the meaningless. Memory, like a juggler,

Tosses its colored balls into the light, and again

Receives them into darkness. Here is the absurd,

Grinning like an idiot, and the omnivorous quotidian,

Which will have its day. A handful of coins,

Tickets, items from the news, a soiled handerchief,

A letter to be answered, notice of a telephone call,

The petal of a flower in a volume of Shakespeare,

The program of a concert. The photograph, too,

Propped on the mantel, and beneath it a dry rosebud;

The laundry bill, matches, and ash-tray, Utamaro's

Pearl-fishers. And the rug, on which are still the crumbs

Of yesterday's feast. These are the void, the night,

And the angelic wings that make it sound.

What is the flower? It is not a sigh of color,

Suspiration of purple, sibilation of saffron,

Nor aureate exhalation from the tomb.

Yet it is these because you think of these,

An emanation of emanations, fragile

As light, or glisten, or gleam, or coruscation,

Creature of brightness, and as brightness brief.

What is the frost? It is not the sparkle of death,

The flash of time's wing, seeds of eternity;

Yet it is these because you think of these.

And you, because you think of these, are both

Frost and flower, the bright ambiguous syllable

Of which the meaning is both no and yes.

Here is the tragic, the distorting mirror

In which your gesture becomes grandiose;

Tears form and fall from your magnificent eyes,

The brow is noble, and the mouth is God's.

Here is the God who seeks his mother, Chaos, –

Confusion seeking solution, and life seeking death.

Here is the rose that woos the icicle; the icicle

That woos the rose. Here is the silence of silences

Which dreams of becoming a sound, and the sound

Which will perfect itself in silence. And all

These things are only the uprush from the void,

The wings angelic and demonic, the sound of the abyss

Dedicated to death. And this is you.

Stanza I from "Preludes for Memnon" by Conrad Aiken

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Annual Top Ten List

 Top Ten Books I Read In 2020

These are my favorite ten of the books I have read since January 1, 2020.  The listing  includes classics, fiction, non-fiction, and critical essays.  It was a very rich year for reading and there were others that could have made my list if I were to expand it.  Of those good books that I read these are the ten that I felt will stay with me over the years; in fact a couple of them were rereads.  There is no particular order to the list and  I highly recommend all of the following:

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: 

An Experiment in Literary Investigation

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

What kind of a book is The Gulag Archipelago? While it is encyclopedic in its breadth it also demonstrates the characteristics of autobiography, history, and the epic while using a novelistic literary style – and what else? A personal report on Twentieth Century Russia.

History of the Peloponnesian War

by Thucydides

The first history in the modern sense (apologies to Herodotus who invented the genre). Thucydides, and Athenian general, wrote this history of the Peloponnesian Wars; admirable in its objectivity in discussing contemporary events, in its direct and descriptive style, and the author's grasp of cause and effect.

Wise Blood

by Flannery O'Connor

Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor’s astonishing and haunting first novel, is a classic of twentieth-century literature. It is a story of Hazel Motes, a twenty-two-year-old caught in an unending struggle against his innate, desperate faith. He falls under the spell of a "blind" street preacher named Asa Hawks and his degenerate fifteen-year-old daughter, Lily Sabbath.


by Fyodor Dostoevsky

What is a “true” Russian? Why is “the real truth” always implausible. Is belief only ironic or is it real or both? These are just a few of the questions dealt with by Dostoevsky in Demons, his great novel that is predecessor to The Brothers Karamazov.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

by Olga Tokarczuk

In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans.

The Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans

by Plutarch

Plutarch's Parallel Lives is a series of biographies, arranged in pairs illuminating virtues & vices. Surviving Lives contain 23 pairs, each with a Greek & a Roman Life, & 4 unpaired Lives. As explained in the opening of his Life of Alexander, he wasn't concerned with history so much as the influence of character on life & destiny. 

Blood Meridian 

or The Evening Redness in the West

by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy's prose has the character of the landscape it describes: Harsh and pure, as if it had been sculpted by wind and sand, like a naturally occurring phenomenon. In Blood Meridian McCarthy uses it to spin a yarn of gothic violence.

The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

by Carl Jung

What kind of a book is this? I considered several categories from spiritual to supernatural, but decided that it was a sort of mythology of human archetypes and the psyche. It includes essays which state the fundamentals of Jung's psychological system: On the Psychology of the Unconscious and The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious.


by Paul Harding

George Washington Crosby died. That, in summary, is the plot of this short novel, but within that death there is told a story of a life, a family, and a world made interesting through the beautiful prose of Paul Harding. The book could have been called As I Lay Dying, but that title has already been used; it could have been called Clocks, or Timepieces, for that is one motif that recurs again and again in the story of George and his family, especially his father.

Washington Black

by Esi Edugyan

The story of George Washington Black is one of the odyssey of a young boy through his growth to manhood. In this case the young boy is a slave on a plantation in Barbados. Born on that plantation and raised by his mother Big Kitt, young Wash, as he is called, is presented with a unique opportunity when Christopher Wilde, the brother of the Master of the Plantation, chooses Wash to be his assistant in his ventures exploring the natural world.

Other books from the past year that almost made the list included: Mystery and Manners by Flannery O'Connor, Lakota America by Pekka Hämäläinen, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, The History by Herodotus, and Degrees of Difficulty by Julie E. Justicz.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Quote for Today

 I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone.

- H.L. Mencken

Saturday, December 19, 2020

An Intelligent Woman

The Puttermesser Papers
The Puttermesser Papers 

“She was an attachment trailing along - an impediment - but it seemed to Puttermesser there was another purpose to this clumsy caravan. A kind of mental heat ran through the rod that linked them. He had decided to clip the two of them together for a little time. She understood that she had happened on an original. A mimic with a philosophy! A philosophy that denied mimicry! And he wasn't mistaken, he wasn't a lunatic. He was, just as he said, someone with a new idea.”  ―  Cynthia Ozick

While The Puttermesser Papers is considered a novel, it could also be considered a collection of short stories, as each of the five "chapters" were published previously in various magazines before being brought together in the form of a single novel. What could have been a straightforward biographical novel becomes, as Ozick creates a complex, many-layered tale, a fantastic exploration both of literary genres and of a single woman’s life in late 20th-century New York. Because this one fundamental “fact” is challenged, the reader realizes they cannot take any single item at face value.

The story chronicles the life of the imaginary Ruth Puttermesser, through her adult life and into her death and afterlife. She is an intelligent Jewish woman who lives in New York City. Ruth grew up in the Bronx, New York, in a Jewish family. Ruth was a very smart, bookish girl who apparently became interested in the law through studying Hebrew with her uncle—or so the reader thinks, until another voice intrudes into the narrative to tell the reader that Ruth never knew this uncle.

Each chapter chronicles the fulfillment of a desire, whether on earth or in Paradise, but each seems in the end to bring new pain. In one chapter the book takes on the quality of a traditional Jewish fable when Ruth, in her sleep, creates a golem. 
In another her interest in 19th-century novelist George Eliot turns into an obsession; moreover, the salient part of that obsession is imagining that she will find her perfect soulmate, as Eliot had in George Lewes. But the golem and soul mates betray our Puttermesser. Edenic love fades away. 

Ruth Puttermesser embodies several themes.  She is an apparently successful, single career woman who decides she needs more in her life than her work as an attorney can provide.  In an attempt to balance the romantic and the pragmatic aspects of life Ruth veers over to the romantic, and even fantastic, side.  Ruth believes that one obstacle to finding true love is the shallowness of the New York social milieu in which she travels. The beauty of the prose and the challenges facing the heroine merge to maintain the reader's interest.  Cynthia Ozick's prose style displays an intelligent writer who is fun to read.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Love is Like a Test

Stay with Me
Stay with Me 

“So love is like a test, but in what sense? To what end? Who was carrying out the test? But I think I did believe that love had immense power to unearth all that was good in us, refine us and reveal to us the better versions of ourselves.”  ― Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, Stay with Me

When I was very young and just beginning
to read some of my favorite stories were fairy tales, mostly from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. I mention this because at two points in this novel by the Nigerian author, Ayobami Adebayo, there are tales told by two of the characters that are important to the story as a whole; in a sense connecting two halves of the novel.

Told in the first person by Yejide and Akin (they narrate separate chapters, a choice that provides insight into their differing views of many situations), a married couple living in Nigeria, the novel explores their marriage and family relationships in a culture that seems very different from that in which I was raised (although the presence of the Anglican Church does provide one familiar institution while leading to a bit of cognitive dissonance when set beside the acceptability of polygamy in their culture). The two marriage partners are very much in love with one another. Yejide's mother is dead and her father’s other wives do not regard her with affection. Meeting Akin changes her life and she becomes happier as she is courted and marries him. In spite of trying for some time the couple fail to conceive a child, and Akin is forced into marrying another girl named Funmi to continue his bloodline. A major theme is the pressure to have children, primarily emanating from Moomi, Akin's mother. Above all, however, there are the different views of marriage and love that are held by Yejide and Akin, but also by the other family members.

Stay With Me presents the emotional trauma of the characters while, subtly in the background, there is political unrest in the country (most of the story takes place in the last two decades of the twentieth century when Nigeria was roiled with civil unrest under the leadership of a military junta). However, ever present is the expectation of having offspring. For Akin this seems to be the only way in which he will be accepted as a man by the society. Major themes include the experience of being childless, the guilt of not fulfilling societal obligations and the psychological impact of not getting pregnant; these are complicated by the deaths of two of Yejide's children. Through it all, the author also presents the question of the society’s expectation of a man. The husband, Akin, is under pressure to provide babies and he makes choices that raise questions about the nature and importance of the members of his extended family. Funmi, while acceptable in a culture that approves of polygamy, can still be seen as a shadowy figure whose very presence is disruptive from Yejide's point of view. One of the best parts of the novel was the relationship between Akin and his brother Dotun. Their difficulties and the impact on Yejide provided some of the best moments in the story.

Overall, Stay With Me was a moving and thought-provoking look at the challenges of married life and family relationships. The presence of cultural differences between generations added to the realism and beauty of the novel. I enjoyed the way that the author was able to balance disappointment with joy leading to a satisfying ending.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Message of the Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation
The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: 
An Experiment in Literary Investigation 

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

What kind of a book is The Gulag Archipelago? While it is encyclopedic in its breadth it also demonstrates the characteristics of autobiography, history, and the epic while using a novelistic literary style – and what else? In a certain sense Solzhenitsyn’s writings may be classified in many ways. The Gulag Archipelago is important for its relationship with each type of work the author has undertaken, and thus it should be considered as central to his literary endeavors. 

The abridged version is divided into Seven “Parts” (The original was three separate volumes of more than a thousand pages in total). There are many events, issues, and ideas covered in the book. Here I only mention selected topics, while there are many more that could be noted. He opens with “And those who, like you and me, dear reader, go there to die, must get there solely and compulsorily via arrest.” (p 3) Somehow I was reminded of Kafka's The Trial.

The selection process was political but there was a sort of classification process – noting such issues as quotas, the bureaucratic inconsistencies, propagandists, and the war against the bourgeoisie. He discussed the nature of Interrogations: including the inquisition, investigation, and psychological torture/games. And in most cases one could not be prepared for the departure:
“So what is the answer? How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared?” (p 63)

The were the guards - the “Blue Caps” - which reminded me of “The Guardians” from Plato's The Republic. And there was a reference to Socrates: “Socrates taught us: Know thyself! Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren't.” (p 75)

Somehow it was possible for Solzhenitsyn to develop thoughts that prison “was not an abyss for me” and how it was a turning point in his life. In every person and place one would encounter Orwellian moments like trying to discern the difference between a "sentence" and "an imposed administrative penalty." From time to time the author would talk directly to the “compassionate reader”. These comments, usually personal notes, were not really significantly different than the rest of the text. The voice of the author was often personal and while the text as a whole read like history, it could have been some other type of literature?

Forgetting and remembering: “We forget everything. What we remember is not what actually happened, not history, but merely that hackneyed dotted line they have chosen to drive into our memories by incessant hammering.” (p 120) There was Stalin and the Show Trials: “Even if Stalin had killed no others, I believe he deserved to be drawn and quartered just for the lives of those six Tsarskoye Selo peasants! . . . 'The peoples of all the world remember him as a friend.' But not those on whose backs he rode, whom he slashed with his knout.” (p 132)

He wondered - does the person behind bars have a soul, or is it hidden or purged by the rigors of confinement? And yet the catalog continued: The Ports: “this is after all a whole epic, another ten volumes of Remembrance of Things Past: to describe the perturbation of a human soul placed in a cell filled to twenty times its capacity and with no latrine bucket,” (p 161)
The Caravans: “the red trains can go into emptiness: and wherever one does go, there immediately rises right next to it, out of the sea of the steppe or the sea of the taiga, a new island of the Archipelago.” (p 167)

The camps were like a malignant cancer, spreading across the steppes, forming an “Archipelago”. Yet, the story of the camps was hidden. How was that possible – and who was complicit in hiding? This was a conundrum. The Archipelago “metastasizes”, it “hardens”. And there was a comparison to Serfdom: “And we agree with that: there are more differences. But what is surprising that all the differences are to the credit of serfdom!” (p 216)

What was worse? The monotony or the deadly daily struggle and the life of work without end. Then there were the “dogs”, the “camp keepers” where he provided insight into the camp bureaucracy. Even satire appears in the book. The discussion of the profitability of the camps was one such topic; also I was moved by a comment about the beauty of the lack of meetings.
One Dostoevsky reference was fascinating: “Our teachers, who had never served time themselves, felt for prisoners only the natural sympathy of the outsider. Dostoyevsky, however, who served time himself, was a proponent of punishment! And this is something worth thinking about.” (p 304)

Yet Solzhenitsyn would go on to discuss the nature of katorga, penal servitude – as if they needed special camps for the “traitors”. Ultimately there was release, but did it have any meaning? “But there is a curse on those “released” under the joyless sky of the Archipelago, and as they move into freedom the clouds will grow darker.” (p 444)

There was even some political history when he described the connections between the camps and the changes in the political regimes from Lenin and Stalin to Beria and Khrushchev. “Nikita had only just allowed the screws of his very own system to be turned no less tight. . . Rulers change, the Archipelago remains.” (p 457)

Monday, November 16, 2020

A New Land

The Secret River
The Secret River 

“This place had been here long before him. It would go on sighing and breathing and being itself after he had gone, the land lapping on and on, watching, waiting, getting on with its own life.”   ― Kate Grenville, The Secret River

On the last day of the previous century I was concerned as to what might happen when the new century began. There were warnings that computer systems might fail and "Y2K" plans had been underway for months to deal with this issue. As I started to work on that day, I turned on my computer and pulled up the website for Sydney, Australia, which booming city was already celebrating the new century with fireworks. All was well as I returned to my work in Chicago. 

I note this episode because the Sydney in Kate Grenville's novel, The Secret River, is set at the beginning of the nineteenth century and it is a city of ramshackle buildings and tents, more like our old west than the metropolis it has since become. “It was a sad scrabbling place, this town of Sydney.” (p 75) This contrast highlights the changes that were started in large part by the prisoners, like William Thornhill and his family, who were exiled to Australia and formed the beginnings of that country.

Sent to Australia because he tried to steal from his boss in London, William Thornhill became one of the first settlers in the Australian wilderness. The novel describes the conflict between the earliest settlers of the country and the natives of Australia as they clashed for ownership of the land. Themes include ownership, racism, social class and hope.

Thornhill grew up poor in London but dreamed of a better future. He thought he was on his way to this better future when Mr. Middleton took him on as an apprentice as a waterman. He completed his apprenticeship successfully and married Sarah “Sal” Middleton, his childhood sweetheart. His father-in-law gave Thornhill his own boat as a wedding gift. Things were going well for the new couple until both Mr. and Mrs. Middleton got sick and died. Their care used up all of the money the two had in savings. Their property, including the boat Mr. Middleton had given Thornhill, had to be sold to pay their remaining debts. As a result Thornhill had to go back to working for others and was unable to make a living for his family. He was caught stealing in an attempt to feed his family and was sentenced to death by hanging.

Thornhill received a pardon for his crime and was allowed to go to Australia to serve his sentence. The place was described as something “out of a dream, a fierce landscape of chasms and glowering cliffs and a vast unpredictable sky.” After one year of service with his wife as an overseer, Thornhill earned his ticket of leave allowing him to work for whoever he wanted. He eventually partnered up with Thomas Blackwood an old friend from London who transported crops and supplies to and from the settlers along the Hawkesbury River. Thornhill fell in love with a piece of property he saw along the river during his first trip. He convinced Sal they could earn enough money to return to England if they claimed a plot of land and farmed it. Eventually, though, Thornhill “saw what he had never seen before: that there could be no future for the Thornhills back in London.” (p 175) With this came the sad realization that he could not share this feeling with his wife who continued to dream of their eventual return.

Once they were on the land in the wilderness, the Thornhills were regularly threatened by the natives who once had freely roamed the land. Although other settlers abused and even killed the natives, Thornhill just wanted to be left alone. Even though he wasn’t purposefully cruel to the natives, they came and stole most of his corn one day. After he and his workers ran them off, they returned that night and set fire to what was left. The author portrays the differences between the aborigines and the settlers in a way that reminded me of the contrast between the image of Rousseau's natural man and the Weberian concept of the Protestant work ethic. The two views of life did not mix well at all.

When he was asked to assist a group of men going to ambush a camp of natives Thornhill agreed to go along and help. He knew his life would never be the same after he stooped to the level where he would help kill other human beings. After the natives were cleared from the area Thornhill and his family became successful on their land in Australia. They became the gentry they’d always dreamed of being in London. Even with his prosperity, Thornhill still used his telescope to scan the woods looking for the natives that once called that land their home.

The book conveys the emotions of those transported to New South Wales with a sensitivity that is transcendent. As they determine to make their place livable Thornhill thinks: “How had his life funnelled down to this corner, in which he had so little choice?” But, in this new land, he did have a choice and in choosing to defend his land and live he and his family became one of the founders of a new country.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020




Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late;
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.
(Epilogue to Beaumont and Fletcher's Honest Man's Fortune.)

Emerson urges his readers to follow their individual will instead of conforming to social expectations.
This requires belief in your own thought in decision-making and identification of the truth, for your truth is the truth for all. This means thinking for yourself and trusting your own thoughts. You should realize that imitation is false. You have no obligation to others except for those with whom you have a "spiritual affinity". Conformity in a few particulars is the same as in all - to be self-reliant requires non-conformity.

Emerson draws on examples of historical geniuses—such as Plato and Milton—in arguing for the importance of individualism.
The great thinkers of the ages thought for themselves. For each individual there is no need to fear consistency unless it is a foolish consistency - trust your own emotion. This includes obedience to "the eternal law" namely, be yourself.

Emerson posits the effects of self-reliance: altering religious practices, encouraging Americans to stay at home rather than looking toward Europe and the old world and developing their own culture -  focusing on individual rather than societal progress.

This means living life for yourself, focusing on what concerns you and not others. One should remember the value of maintaining solitude for oneself even when in the midst of a crowd. It is being genuine in your actions for then they will not require any explanation. The essence of virtue and the life of spontaneity is found in your intuition. The emphasis is on the importance of going alone - in a spiritual sense – and in relying on one's own soul. Trusting one's own self is difficult, but necessary to avoid the failings of ordinary society.

Concluding he observes the necessity of an American culture of self-reliance. Noting that “Contemplation of life from the highest view” and rejection of regret is the essence of prayer.

Monday, October 26, 2020

A Tale of Miracles

Peace Like a River
Peace Like a River 

“Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It's true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave - now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of the earth.”  ― Leif Enger, Peace Like a River

Once upon a time
there was a young boy who was born with asthma. That is, he  almost died, as his birth was something like a miracle; maybe it was one. Thus the story of Reuben Land, as narrated by himself, begins. His story and that of his family is one filled with miracles and stories within the story. It is both the story of the rite of passage of the young boy and his journey from young life through adventures that are in many ways as magical as a fairy tale.

Peace Like a River is a strange but pleasing book, containing echoes of the picaresque novel and the archetypal quest, with passing references to Homer, the Bible, and historical figures of the American West. The author immediately establishes a winning voice for his eleven-year-old narrator, Reuben Land, which alternates with the adult Reuben’s omniscient but equally relaxed voice. He is a perceptive character, although admittedly self-critical, “beyond my depth and knowing it, yet unable to shut up.” He reminded me of one of my favorite literary narrators, David Copperfield.

To begin with, Reuben was born “a little clay boy” with ominously swampy lungs, unable to draw breath until his father, Jeremiah, rushed into the hospital room and commanded him to breathe. Even though the infant was without oxygen for twelve minutes, he miraculously suffered no brain damage; but his lungs remain weak into adolescence. Ironically, while Reuben has watched his father walk on air and heal a man’s raw face with a single touch, his own asthma remains uncured. Jeremiah can only steam him with salt and baking soda or thump his back to loosen the congestion. Reuben fully believes he has survived such an inauspicious beginning in order to bear witness to his father’s unexplainable miracles, since “no miracle happens without a witness.” He does not use the word “miracle” lightly, for real miracles bother people. He is never certain whether his father prays for miracles or whether they just happen. 

His father works as a school janitor in the small town of Roofing, Minnesota, and is plagued by frequent headaches. A mild man of conscience, he reads his Bible daily, silently, and without ostentation. A man of prayer and intense conversation with God, he at one point literally wrestles with the Almighty. Davy, Jeremiah’s older son, is in some respects already an adult at sixteen, but unfortunately he is hot-tempered and unlike his father, he prefers to act rather than wait. He is very protective of their little sister, known only as Swede, a precocious and endearing young girl. She is a widely read and literate child but blunt with the artlessness of childhood. A passionate fan of Western novels, Swede is in love with the legendary Old West. Her real-life hero is the young Teddy Roosevelt, who ranched in North Dakota before becoming president. Reuben, too, admires and envies Roosevelt for his triumph over asthma.

Two young thugs attack Swede and later provoke Davy, and when they break into his home with a baseball bat, Davy shoots them both. Although he is arrested and jailed for murder, he refuses to plead self-defense, insisting that he intended to shoot. Reacting to the scandal, the school superintendent decides to “scour that janitor’s teeth” by first humiliating Jeremiah and then publicly firing him in in front of a lunchroom full of children. At Davy’s trial, a reluctant Reuben testifies as an eyewitness to the shootings until, carried away by self-importance, he unintentionally strengthens the case against his brother. There is little hope that the jury will release Davy, who promptly breaks out of jail, escaping with a horse and a revolver. No one knows where he has gone.

On Christmas Eve they receive a mixed blessing—word that an acquaintance has died, bequeathing his brand new Airstream trailer to Jeremiah. After a friend in North Dakota reports that Davy has been seen, the Lands determine to find him. The rest of the story becomes a modern odyssey. They tow the shiny Airstream trailer with their old station wagon and the novel expands its mythic dimensions. A detective follows them across the Great Plains in bitter winter weather to a small city park, where a severe headache forces Jeremiah to camp overnight. . Well into the Badlands, a notorious area of bleak buttes and mesas in the western part of the state, they come to a farmhouse with two gasoline pumps in front and a propane tank. The self-reliant owner, Roxanna Cawley, greets them with a newborn goat in her arms. Earth mother and impressive cook, she soon offers them a place to stay the night. As it turns out Davy is holed up with another fugitive, Jape Waltzer, not too far away. The denouement of the story, however, yields some twists that were surprising for this reader.

Enger’s vivid imagery is an attractive feature of Peace Like a River. There are also Reuben's dreams and mythic legends. The book describes some of literature’ s most accurate and claustrophobic descriptions of severe asthma. As Reuben explains, “Sometimes when the breathing goes it goes like that—like smoke filling a closet. . . Your breaths are sips, couldn’t blow out the candle on a baby’s cake.” In lyrical passages, Enger evokes autumn and winter on the Great Plains (“skies so cold frost paisleyed the gunbarrels”). Here the land itself is always a presence, a sharp reminder of a power far beyond human limitations—immense sky, sweeping prairie, the cold, clean Dakota wind—even the boundless desolation of the fabled Badlands, where the ground is eternally on fire.

One might be tempted to allegorize this novel, for it could easily slide into abstraction: Jeremiah as the good Christian, a saint; Davy as the archetypal rebel, beloved even as he sins; the fugitive Jape Waltzer, who is always accompanied by the odor of sulfur, as the Devil. To limit the book in this way would be doing it a disservice, for its very human characters are beautifully drawn. While there are many motifs in Leif Enger's Peace like a River, three of them are consistent, unmistakable, and connected. The first motif is breathing, and the other two—miracles and dreams—At its center it revolves around the nature and power of love—divine, human, and brotherly love, perfect and imperfect—the love that binds this small family together.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Enchanting Poetry

Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments
Stung with Love: 
Poems and Fragments 

“Some call ships, infantry or horsemen
The greatest beauty earth can offer;
I say it is whatever a person
Most lusts after."

While the title of this collection highlights the erotic attitude of the poems of Sappho, there is a wonderful fragment of a poem entitled "Troy" that presents a mythic narrative. In doing so she veers away from the emphasis of the Homeric epic and focuses on a conventionally 'feminine' theme, a wedding scene. She elevates the wedding to epic magnitude, all the while featuring excellence rather than the morality of good and evil.

Other poems and fragments present themes of goddesses, desire, girls and their family, and marriage. The result in an excellent translation is a delightful selection. Here is a typical quatrain:

Untainted Graces
With wrists like roses,
Please come close,
You daughters of Zeus.

Sappho lived in a time of transition for Greece, after the Homeric era but before the more famous Golden Age of Athens. I, like others, find her language enchanting, and the gathering of poems and fragments by subject lends an order to this collection. Her passion shines through both the millennia and the translation to charm the reader while leaving a bit of sadness that we do not have more of her oeuvre.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

The Framework of Literature

The Educated ImaginationThe Educated Imagination 
by Northrop Frye

“I feel separated and cut off from the world around me, but occasionally I've felt that it was really a part of me, and I hope I'll have that feeling again, and that next time it won't go away. That's a dim, misty outline of the story that's told so often, of how man once lived in a golden age or a garden of Eden or the Hesperides ... how that world was lost, and how we some day may be able to get it back again. ... This story of the loss and regaining of identity is, I think, the framework of all literature.”   ― Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination