Sunday, May 24, 2015

Two Sisters

Sense and Sensibility

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Stalin and the Cinematographer

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Stranded on Mars

The MartianThe Martian 
by Andy Weir

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Links of Fate

The Forged CouponThe Forged Coupon 
by Leo Tolstoy

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 14, 2015


Pelleas and Melisande

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Dreams and Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Friday, May 08, 2015

An Officer's Mistake

Beware of PityBeware of Pity 
by Stefan Zweig

"One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart's impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another's unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one's own soul against the sufferings of another;  and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond." (p 192)

This is a curious novel from the pen of Stefan Zweig who tells the story of a young Austrian cavalry officer, Anton Hofmiller, who befriends a local millionaire, Kekesfalva, and his family, but in particular the old man's crippled daughter, Edith, with terrible consequences.  Stefan Zweig was a prolific biographer, short story writer, and is noted today mainly for his autobiography, The World of Yesterday.

Before the First World War, Anton Hofmiller, a young Austrian officer from a modest background, finds himself stationed in a town where he knows few people. He obtains an invitation to the home of the richest local family and, at the end of the evening, realizes he has not spent time with their attractive daughter, Edith. He invites her to dance, but realizes – to everyone’s horror – that she is sitting in a wheelchair and can’t even stand. This, he believes, is the worst faux pas imaginable, and he flees. But he is given another chance, which he eagerly accepts. To be nice he starts spending more and more time with the family, focusing on Edith, keeping her company – keeping himself company too. The relationship between them seems almost balanced at first. She’s sweet, if a bit over-eager for his attention. It is the father, though, who compels Hofmiller to involve himself more, to help find treatment for her condition, to lie to her about its effectiveness, to let her believe she has a chance of recovery. It’s all, of course, in the name of keeping her happy. Hofmiller’s eagerness to please, Edith’s father’s eagerness to please – beyond what is practical or real – subtly becomes a ticking bomb of anxiety. Where it naturally leads is to Hofmiller’s proposal of marriage. A good soldier, he will do everything he can but the denouement is devastating for Edith and Hofmiller goes off to war.

The message of the book is not only the ostensible one – that pity is an emotion that can cause great ruin – but also that we must not judge things by appearances. This is a lesson that the narrator has learned and the reader can appreciate from his experience reading this magnificent novel.

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Idea of Hero-Worship

On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in HistoryOn Heroes, Hero-Worship, 
and the Heroic in History 
by Thomas Carlyle

“There needs not a great soul to make a hero; there needs a god-created soul which will be true to its origin; that will be a great soul!”   ― Thomas Carlyle

In May, 1840, Thomas Carlyle gave a series of six lectures on Heroes in History. These lectures were subsequently published under the title On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. In these lectures Carlyle discusses and defends his concept of the great man, or the divinely inspired, unpredictable hero. The breadth of his examples from Odin and Mahomet (Mohammed) to Shakespeare and Dante, and Napoleon among others provides an idea of the scope of his presentation. These are not all heroes in the sense that the concept of hero, if it exists at all, is considered today. But that is one of the best aspects of these lectures for they challenge the twenty-first century reader to think about the nature of the hero and heroism and what it might mean to worship a hero.

Certainly Carlyle's heroes seem arbitrary and perhaps a bit odd: Odin, Mahomet, Dante, Shakespeare, Luther, John Knox, Samuel Johnson, Rousseau, Robert Burns, Cromwell, and Napoleon. In my reading I found no philosophic basis that linked these men together and while divinity links several, that idea does not explain the poets or military leaders. Most are presented as men who rose from humble beginnings to reach great achievements; but they do not all share this characteristic. Certainly they all had a great impact on the history of mankind, but even here it is hard to compare a Napoleon with a Knox or a Shakespeare with Mahomet. Carlyle does claim that a sort of sincerity and originality are components of the actions and thoughts of all of these men.
"But of a Great Man especially, of him I will venture to assert that it is incredible that he should have been other than true. . . what I call a sincere man. I should say sincerity, a deep, great, genuine sincerity, is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic. . . Such sincerity, as we named it, has in very truth something of divine. The word of such a man is a Voice direct from Nature's own Heart. Men do and must listen to that as to nothing else;" (The Hero as Prophet)

But is Sincerity enough? Not for the Poet, for he is also "a heroic figure belonging to all ages; whom all ages possess, when once he is produced, whom the newest age as the oldest may produce;"
In our culture hero-worshiping has declined, seemingly replaced with the pursuit of mentors, leaders, and role-models. The heroes that Carlyle describes may be these things, but they are larger than life idols whose thought and actions span across the ages. Carlyle relies on a degree of divine inspiration that also has declined since Nietzsche's declaration of the death of god. Carlyle may have anticipated this in his declaration that no new religions would be formed. Unfortunately he did not anticipate secular religions like Communism and Fascism.

Choosing political leaders like Cromwell and Napoleon, Carlyle raises questions about his idea of goodness. He seems carried away with his enthusiasm for these heroes and all too willing to brush over their flaws. His hero had to be absolute; or rather, if Carlyle found him "sincere" he forgave him everything. It is thinking like this that has given Carlyle a bad name in an era that has seen absolute power lead to the death of millions. Carlyle was not a philosopher, he rather relied on a sort of common sense. This included a belief that in our hearts we know what is good. But good men may disagree, and the struggle between good and evil requires more rigorous thinking.
In our era where egalitarianism is worshiped to excess, or at least to the extent that it can inhibit individual thought, Carlyle's views on the heroic and its worship seem out of date at best. Reading his lectures, however, provides an opportunity to think about the issues of heroism and the goodness (or lack thereof) of great men. He challenges some of the ideas that are accepted as truths in our culture and I found my thinking strengthened by the challenge.

View all my reviews

Monday, May 04, 2015

Reading Plans

A Forward Look:  Summer Reading

Last November I listed the books I planned to read over the Winter months.  I believe Winter may have ended, it was almost 80 degrees yesterday, and it is time to look backward and forward over my reading list.  It is difficult to predict everything I am going to read beyond the current week or two, but I did a pretty good job in November.  Of the top ten books I planned to read I read all but three.  Of those three I read most of two of them;  both were longish biographies and I may finish them someday.  In the meantime I read two of the books that were on my supplemental list and several others that were not on my tbr radar in November.  It is now the first week of May and I have some ideas about the Summer that will surely change over the next few months, but in spite of that I will attempt a list of planned books to read over the coming months.

1. The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy:  I am still reading Tolstoy after a winter filled with his stories long and short.

2. The Martian by Andy Weir:  This is for my SF book group and since the Martian is really an American stuck on Mars  I'm pretty sure I am going to enjoy it.

3. The Nibelungenlied:  This is an epic by anonymous about heroes (see the note about Thomas Carlyle below) and I was inspired to read it by the review at The Consolation of Reading.

4. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok and Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe:  These are both for our Thursday evening book group.

5. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka:  I discovered this book listening to NPR and I should have read it last summer, so it is now on this year's list.

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

7. Snopes by William Faulkner.  I plan to reread this for a class at the University of Chicago.  I can't wait to revisit Eula Snopes and her clan.

8. Paradise Lost by John Milton:  This is scheduled for our study group discussion in August.  I am just finishing Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (read for the same group)  and expect to publish my comments about it in the near future.

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

10. The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man by Thomas Mann:   Along with Tolstoy I have been reading many of Mann's short novels and stories and this is a final dolop for early Summer. 

Some other tbr books that are not in the top ten may include:  A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan,  Tristana by Benito Perez Galdos, Theophilus North by Thornton Wilder, and  Europa by Tim Parks.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Quantity with Quality

The Ten Long Novels

The following list contains the ten longest novels that I have read over my lifetime.  Starting in the Nineteen-sixties and continuing to this day I have read an average of about seventy books per year.  This has included books of many sizes but the ten longest books I have read range from 981 to 2,281 pages in length.  Some of these I have read multiple times, including Proust, Mann, Tolstoy, Rand , and Dickens.  There were another half dozen books that just missed the list ranging from 825 to 980 pages.  I have excluded "genre" novels thus you will not find The Lord of the Rings or The Foundation Trilogy.

There are two qualities that all of these novels have in common in addition to length:  They are all very good (even great) books and I enjoyed reading all of them (or I would not have finished them).  Among these novels there are additional aspects worth mentioning:  Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy has the distinction of being the longest novel that is not partitioned into separate volumes.  I believe that is a distinction that it still holds.  Robert Musil's novel has an additional 600 hundred pages of unfinished material that are not included in the three published volumes.  Writing the novel literally killed him.
I am not sure if length is an important measure of the worth of a novel, but I would recommend all of these and hope that you do not hold their length against them.

In Search of Lost Time by  Marcel Proust (two volumes, 1913-1927),  2281 pp.

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann (four volumes, 1933-1943), 1492 pp.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (1993), 1474 pp.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869), 1386 pp.

The Cairo Trilogy  by Naguib Mahfouz (three volumes, 1957),  1313 pp.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1862), 1194 pp.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957), 1168 pp.

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (three volumes, 1951),  1130 pp.

Snopes by William Faulkner (three volumes, 1931-1957), 1065 pp.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853),  989 pp.

(Novels that came close, but did not make the top ten included From the Terrace,  Don Quixote, Middlemarch, David Copperfield, An American Tragedy, Tom Jones, and The Way We Live Now.)


Death in Venice and Other Tales
Music and Literature

by Thomas Mann

“But the boredom of Frau Spatz had by now reached that pitch where it distorts the countenance of man, makes the eyes protrude from the head, and lends the features a corpselike and terrifying aspect. More than that, this music acted on the nerves that controlled her digestion, producing in her dyspeptic organism such malaise that she was really afraid she would have an attack.”  -  Thomas Mann, Tristan

Richard Wagner saw the premier of his revolutionary opera Tristan und Isolde at the Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater in Munich on 10 June 1865 with Hans von Bülow conducting. It was revolutionary for the music was unlike any the audience had heard before; specifically the "Tristan chord" with which the opera begins and which remains unresolved until the final moments of the opera, and marked the beginning of a new age of music that would see the rise of composers from Mahler to Debussy, and Schoenberg with the second Viennese circle.

But this music, and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer with which it is imbued, influenced the artistic world beyond music. One of those influenced was a young author from northern Germany who, at the age of twenty-six in 1901, had just published a major family saga and a handful of short stories. This author, Thomas Mann, would write a novella entitled Tristan, setting it in a sanatorium called Einfried, "Enclosure", beside which "the mountains, massive, fir green, and softly rugged, tower toward the heavens."
Mann uses music as an integral part of this short story about a middle-class woman, Gabrielle Kloterjahn, who comes under the spell of a writer, Detlev Spinell, who in addition to his writing (he had published one book) was an affable, affectionate, and even enthusiastic aesthete. He was often "carried away in sheer admiration for something beautiful: the harmony of two colors, a vase with a noble shape, the mountains illuminated by the sunset." His response would be simply "How beautiful!" While he is a vain and pompous man, he is capable of great influence with is intense pursuit of his own aesthetic purity.

Gabrielle found herself alone in the sanatorium as her burger husband had departed and she was interested to find that there was a "writer" present for she "had never before met a writer face-to-face." It was not long before Herr Spinell was socializing with her and moved quickly from being merely "helpful" to being "devoted" to her. For Gabrielle was an artist herself, as a amateur musician who played the piano. She is at Einfried to rest and recover from a general malaise and weakness following giving birth to a child. She was prescribed a rest cure as part of her potential return to health. While this precluded playing the piano she could not resist the insistence of the charming Spinell to play the piano for him. What harm could there be in yielding to the enjoyment of a simple, yet beautiful, nocturne by Frederic Chopin.

This moment that seems so innocent is ironically the moment when the story turns; when the yearning of Gabrielle for something beyond reality, beyond "mere appearances", that has been suggested by her conversations with Her Spinell, becomes something much darker. Mann is not subtle with the coming of sunset yielding phrases like "darkness is already setting in." And Gabrielle observing that "yesterday we still had broad daylight at this time; and now it's already dusk." Thus playing a nocturne is quite appropriate, but she moves on to play another and another. Then Spinell offers her a piano transcription of Wagner's liebestod music from Tristan und Isolde.
"the yearning motif, a lonesome and wandering voice in the night, softly utters its anxious question. A stillness and a waiting. And lo, a response: the same timid and lonesome strain, only clearer, only more delicate. Another hush. And now, with that muted and wonderful sforzando, which is like passion rousing itself and blissfully flaring up, the love motif emerged, ascended, rapturously struggled upward to sweet interlacing, sank back, dissolving, and, with their deep crooning of grave and painful ecstasy, the cellos came to the fore and carried the melody away . . . ."

This moment, this music, is the signal that Gabrielle will not recover, that the love she and Spinell have will only last till her death. Her husband is asked to return and, is presented with a strange letter written by Spinell to Herr Kloterjahn, a letter in which Spinell describes his vision of beauty as experienced in and with Gabrielle, but also condemns Herr Kloterjahn as the enemy, the antithesis of true beauty and love. Herr Kloterjahn really has no idea what Spinell means, yet Spinell is also a sickly example, a pale imitation of the true aesthete. The beauty of Wagner's magnificent motif merging Eros and Thanatos is wasted on the merely melodramatic and overwrought pair. The novella ends not just with the death of Gabrielle, but also with Spinell trying to mentally escape from the aesthetic moment he had experienced at Einfried.

This is the second in a series on Music and Literature.  For the first part go here: Opera and Literature.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Moral Fable

The Devil
by Leo Tolstoy

"But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."   -  (Matthew 5:28, RSV)

The Devil is a fable-like short story from the from the latter period of Tolstoy's fiction writing career, almost thirty years after his own marriage. In it two young men, Eugene Irtenev and his brother, are left a large inheritance after the death of their father. In spite of the debts associated with the inheritance, Eugene accepts it and buys off his brother's portion, thinking that he can sell off large tracts of land while making improvements to the rest. Living alone with his mother while working on the farm, Eugene misses the relations he had with women while living in St. Petersburg. After inquiring in the village, he is introduced to a young peasant named Stepanida whose husband lives away in the city. For several months Eugene and Stepanida have intimate encounters, with Eugene paying her each time. Eventually, Eugene's mother thinks it is time for him to get married, preferably to an heiress who will help them with their debts. However her plan is foiled when Eugene falls in love with Liza Annenskaya, a charming middle-class girl, and they are married after Eugene breaks off relations with Stepanida.

After a year of marriage, Liza employs two peasant women to help with cleaning the estate. One of them is Stepanida (quelle surprise).  When Eugene notices her, all the passion for her that he thought was forgotten comes rushing back (Surprise redux). He can't stop thinking about her and decides that she must be sent away. Liza later suffers a harmful fall while pregnant, and Eugene takes her for a rest cure to the Crimea for two months on doctor's orders. She gives birth to a daughter, and Eugene's financial prospects are starting to look promising. His estate is described as being in the best working condition it has ever been, and he thinks he is finally happy.

At a village festival, Eugene notices Stepanida dancing, and their glances re-awaken his desire (no longer surprising). Tormented by lust, he thinks of resuming relations with her, but realizes that the affair would cause too much of a scandal. Eugene says of Stepanida,
"She's a devil. An outright devil. She's taken possession of me against my will. Kill? yes. Only two ways out: kill my wife or her. Because to live like this is impossible." (p 204)
(Following this there are two versions of the ending presented by the translators, Pevear and Volokhonsky) Each version of the ending is fundamentally similar for while in the original version Eugene commits suicide with a revolver, in the revised version he kills Stepanida followed by prison and a return home where he drowns himself with drink.

This story seems like a straightforward cautionary tale with Eugene refusing to take responsibility for his own lack of moral fiber or will. Tolstoy is suggesting we should be responsible for our actions, but are we ever really able to control our will? Is there instead an "Imp of the Perverse" who takes control out of our hands and minds? That was an idea suggested by Edgar Allan Poe and it may be the reason why we sometimes lose our mind. If we are luckier than Eugene we may be able to keep our life (if not our mistress).

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Reverend's Wife

Lila (Gilead, #3)

by Marilynne Robinson

“She said, “I don’t know why I come here. That’s a fact.” He shrugged. “Since you are here, maybe you could tell me a little about yourself?” She shook her head. “I don’t talk about that. I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do.” “Oh!” he said. “Then I’m glad you have some time to spare. I’ve been wondering about that more or less my whole life.”   ― Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Marilynne Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, which appeared in 1980, is my favorite of her now four published novels. I read the next two, Gilead and Home, shortly after they were published and enjoyed them as well. They are stories of an elderly preacher, the Reverend John Ames, pastor of a Congregationalist church in a small Iowa prairie town, father of a young boy and husband to a surprisingly young wife. In that first novel set in the hamlet of Gilead, as well as the second (Home), Lila Ames was an elusive figure, a mystery always in the background: Who was she and how did she come to marry the Reverend Ames? In Lila, Robinson’s new novel, her story is told through an unusual love story, one shaped in no small amount by the questions Robinson has asked for her entire career: What is the meaning of suffering? Do any of us have hope of redemption?

The novel traces the life of the indigent Lila from about the age of five in 1920 through her marriage to the elderly Reverend Ames and the birth of their son 30 years later. As she prepares for the child’s arrival, her thoughts tell us of her distant past as an itinerant farm worker during the great dust storms of the Depression and her subsequent years in a St. Louis brothel, but returning always to the woman, called Doll, who raised her. The opening of the novel is brutal in its realistic depiction through Lila’s memory of herself as a girl shivering outside a backwoods cabin at night. Will it do her more harm or good if she howls to be let back in? “She couldn’t holler anymore and they didn’t hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse. Somebody had shouted, Shut that thing up or I’ll do it!” Treated worse than a stray dog, the girl doesn’t know who her family is, or even her own name. The same night she is rescued and carried off by Doll, a poor drifter who becomes like a mother to the girl, and names her Lila.

Lila is a novel of no small questions. “I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do,” Lila observes to Reverend Ames, when, as a newcomer to Gilead she stops by the widower’s house unannounced, to his alternating delight and embarrassment. He doesn’t handle her question except to offer the tautological reply that life is a “very deep mystery, and that finally the grace of God is all that can resolve it. And the grace of God is also a very deep mystery.” These awkward, searching conversations between them continue, composing a unique courtship during which they discuss her somewhat-accidental theological questions and she spontaneously suggests they get married. She is so uncomfortable with herself, consumed with a loneliness she both reveres and regrets, that she can barely stand to look other people in the eye. But in the Reverend she sees a similar aloneness and a kindness she cannot quite comprehend. The book is punctuated by their earnest dialogues, in which they fumble toward better understanding themselves, each other, and how they feel about hoary doctrinal concepts like salvation and damnation. Quotes from the Bible, primarily the prophet Ezekiel, are interspersed with references to Calvin--heady stuff.

The book is dialectical in this way, these halting conversations akin to hinges, each one representing a moment when Lila opens just a bit in a new direction. Even when she’s alone, she carries on devising questions for the man she’ll always call “the Reverend,” like “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something?” Her candor and perseverance help move him away from the rote complacency he’s allowed to take root during decades of pastoral work.

To see what she can remember from her brief time in school, Lila buys a pencil and writing tablet and begins copying from the Bible she stole from Reverend Ames’s church. One verse from Ezekiel catches her eye:
"In the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee ... No eye pitied thee."
She begins to see her infant and child self as others would have seen her, taking up the tools of language and metaphor to re-imagine her own story, developing compassion for herself. From copying and thinking about Bible verses and talking with the Reverend, she finds she is thinking about “existence” in place of “why things happen the way they do.” When Lila Ames finishes her reading and copying out of Ezekiel, she moves on to Job, and finds its language not so off-putting, its themes of displacement and loss not unfamiliar. “She never expected to find so many things she already knew about written down in a book,” Robinson writes. Lila is not entirely sure what to make of the change that’s come over her, but she finds she may be willing to leave behind past loneliness and suffering, opening herself to love’s simple grace and kindness:
"She kept thinking, What happens when somebody isn’t herself anymore? I seem to be getting used to things I never even knew about just a few months ago. ... Maybe it’ll be something the old man liked about me that will be gone sometime, and I won’t even know what it was. She found herself thinking she might stay around anyway. She thought she’d always like the feel of him, she’d probably always like to creep into bed beside him. He didn’t seem to mind it."

In spite of the intensity of the story and its serious message, or perhaps because of it, I was not as impressed with this further tale of the residents of Gilead as the earlier novels. Robinson is effective in depicting the simple nature of Lila and she does very effectively demonstrate the trust that is established between Lila and the Reverend.  However, she does not convince me that such a simple person could maintain her personality while delving into the theological issues that she raises. On the other hand, Reverend Ames seems incapable of providing answers with his responses frustratingly brief and platitudinous. They were not convincing for this reader, but Lila seemed not to mind. There are also unusual details that do not seem to fit with the story. For example, there is a knife that is extremely important to Lila from her early difficult years, yet unlike Chekhov's gun it's use is memorial and no future action of import comes of the knife in the story. Robinson writes with a beautiful prose style, but the content of this book made its average length seem too long for the story that it contained.

(The title of this review is an indirect reference to one of my favorite films, The Bishop's Wife.)

View all my reviews

Art and Chess

The Flanders PanelThe Flanders Panel 
by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

“Chess is all about getting the king into check, you see. It's about killing the father. I would say that chess has more to do with the art of murder than it does with the art of war.”    ― Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Flanders Panel

This was the first of Arturo Perez-Reverte's books that I read and it was a great beginning.  While he is a popular author in Spain he was not as well known in the United States prior to the success of this novel.  At the center of the story is Julia, an art restorer who discovers a strange inscription on a Flemish painting and becomes drawn into a solving the mystery that is poses. While restoring "The Game of Chess", a painting by the fifteenth century Flemish master Pieter Van Huys, she uncovers the hidden inscription: "Who killed the knight?" Intrigued, she goes to her ex-lover, art historian Alvaro, for background information. Alvaro dies soon afterward under suspicious circumstances.

To solve the mystery of Alvaro's death Julia must first unravel the enigma of the painting and the complicated relations of the lives of the people depicted in the painting. The narrative effectively covers her struggles with this mystery as Spanish author Perez-Reverte analyzes the painting in great detail. Many questions are raised in this process. What were the chess moves that led to the position depicted in the painting? How will the game play out? The murderer taunts her by dropping notes to Julia, and each new move is reflected in threatening events around her. I was held in suspense as the narrative kept me oriented with diagrams of the board as positions changed and pieces were taken. There is the challenge of the chess problem as well as the murder mystery.

The milieu of museum curators and experts and auctioneers provides a convincing setting; the historical background is informative and entertaining. There is a marvelous intertwining of symbol with reality that makes The Flanders Panel a unique and intelligent mystery. It creates a sense of mystery that evokes John Fowles' The Magus or Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 from my reading memory. It was well-researched and suspenseful and my enjoyment of it led me to seek out other books by this author, among which I would recommend The Club Dumas.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Widow's Passion

The Black SwanThe Black Swan 
by Thomas Mann

"The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing."  - Blaise Pascal

In the early 1950s, near the end of his life, Thomas Mann wrote a novella about a widow, Frau Rosalie von Tummler, and her two children, Anna and Eduard. This story, The Black Swan, was based, like many of Mann's stories, on his observations and experiences of his own life. In a way the story mirrors Death in Venice written four decades earlier. That story told of the love of an older man, Gustav von Aschenbach, for a young boy. In the Black Swan we have an older woman, Rosalie, falling in love with young twenty-four year old American.

The story describes the American, Ken Keaton, as having "nothing in particular to offer except his fine physique". In one of her lengthy discussions with her daughter Anna, Rosalie idealistically describes Ken as "an absolutely exceptional human being, with a life that touches one's heart." Her daughter tries to counter this idealism with her own voice of realism to no avail. Just as in the earlier novel Eros has overtaken Rosalie to such a degree that she believes her body is defying nature by becoming more youthful. The tragedy in this story is the reality that Eros is accompanied by disease and, ultimately, death. This is signaled not only by the title of the story, The Black Swan, but from the first page when the death of her husband a decade earlier is highlighted with the poignant detail that it was due to a senseless accident while he was experiencing "superabundant vitality".

Throughout the novella Mann uses nature to provide a contrast with the artificial nature of Rosalie's idealistic aspirations. His depiction of two women who both have strong views is effective although rare in his fiction. In this story they know each other well, yet continue to approach the events from opposite views that seemed to allow no compromise. However Rosalie does think about what Anna has said "about 'living in contradiction to herself,' she remembered and pondered over, and she strove in her soul to associate the idea of renunciation with the idea of happiness. Yes, could not renunciation itself be happiness, if it were not a miserable necessity but were practiced in freedom and in conscious equality? Rosalie reached the conclusion that it could be."(p 105) Even here Rosalie is still idealistic and not ready for the denouement that will involve changes to her body that she can neither ignore nor control.

This is an unusual story, but if considered as I suggested above,  in light of Mann's portrayal of Aschenbach in Death in Venice, it is consistent with Mann's concern with life and death in light of classic themes of reason and passion. Even at the end of his brilliant career Thomas Mann was powerful and insightful in his exploration of the nature of humanity.

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spiritual Journey

Peter CamenzindPeter Camenzind 
by Hermann Hesse

"That dream of mine which had shown me the splendor of life and intellect came true each day and warmed my heart with ambition, joy, and youthful vanity."(p 58)

Peter Camenzind is usually classified as a novel of education or bildungsroman. However I see two different fictional strands woven into this narrative: the story of a spiritual journey and a picaresque nature. Thus a simple and even mythic poetical story is filled with complexity that welcomes the reader willing and interested in exploring the meaning of Camenzind's education. Beginning with the myths of his childhood and continuing for about two hundred pages over eight chapters Peter narrates his experiences. It is a narrative style that is familiar to any who have read Demian or Steppenwolf.

The novel opens with the phrase, "In the beginning was the myth. God, in his search for self-expression, invested the souls of Hindus, Greeks, and Germans with poetic shapes and continues to invest each child's soul with poetry every day."(p 1) The novel is purely poetical, and its protagonist in time aspires to become a poet who invests the lives of men with reality in its most beautiful of forms. I found the story reminiscent of those of Siddhartha, Goldmund, and Harry Haller. Like them, Peter suffers deeply and undergoes many intellectual, physical, and spiritual journeys. Through these journeys he experiences the diverse landscapes of Germany, Italy, France, and Switzerland, as well as the breadth of emotions that humans experience during their lives. In a later stage of his life, he even embodies the ideal of St. Francis as he cares for a cripple.

Peter Camenzind, as a youth, leaves his mountain village with a great ambition to experience the world. I was reminded of Stephen Dedalus setting out for life at the end of The Portrait on an Artist as a Young Man. He heads to the university to escape his earlier life and eventually meets and falls in love with the painter, Erminia Aglietti and becomes a close friend to a young pianist named Richard. Greatly saddened because of the latter's death, he takes up wandering to soak up the diverse experiences of life.

Ever faced with the vicissitudes of life, Peer continually takes up alcohol as a means to confront the harshness and inexplicable strangeness that he encounters. He also meets and falls in love with another woman, Elizabeth, even though she will later marry someone else. Nevertheless his continuing journey through Italy changes him in many respects and changes his ability to love life and see beauty within all things. It is a new friendship with Boppi, an invalid, that helps him truly experience what it means to love other human beings. It seems that he comes to see a wonderful reflection of humanity in its best and noblest forms in Boppi, and the two forge an unbreakable friendship.
This is a novel that begins to explore some of the great themes of Hermann Hesse's later work. It is interesting to see these early stirrings and look forward to reading and rereading his later work with a deeper perspective.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Romance or Happiness?

Family HappinessFamily Happiness 
by Leo Tolstoy

"He said little to me throughout the evening, but in every word he said to Katya and Sonya and in every look and movement of his I saw love and felt no doubt of it." (p 28)

This is a story that begins as a fairy tale romance and ends in maternal happiness or sadness depending on your point of view.

Narrated by Masha, a teenage girl, the story tells of a courtship that has the trappings of a mere family friendship. Masha falls in love with an older family friend, Sergey Mikhaylych who is in his mid-thirties. Eros grips Masha and her love develops until she must reveal it to Sergey Mikhaylych and discovers that he also is deeply in love. If he has resisted her it was because of his fear that the age difference between them would lead the very young Masha to tire of him. He likes to be still and quiet, he tells her, while she will want to explore and discover more and more about life. Is Masha naive? Perhaps, but she may merely be willful. Her view of their "love" is idealized and she is unsure about her own consciousness of the world she has entered at such a young age. Nonetheless the couple are apparently passionately happy, so they engage to be married and move to Mikhaylych's home.
Masha soon feels impatient with the quiet order of life on the estate, notwithstanding the powerful understanding and love that remains between the two. She thinks to herself, "I began to feel lonely, that life was repeating itself, that there was nothing new either in him or myself, and that we were merely going back to what had been before."(p 62) To assuage her anxiety, they decide to spend a few weeks in St. Petersburg. Sergey Mikhaylych agrees to take Masha to an aristocratic ball. He hates "society" but she is enchanted with it and She becomes a regular, the darling of the countesses and princes, with her rural charm and her beauty. Sergey Mikhaylych, at first very pleased with Petersburg society's enthusiasm for his wife, frowns on her passion for "society"; but he does not try to influence Masha. She is not unaware of his feelings but tells herself that "If the relation between us has become a little different, everything will be the same again in summer, when we shall be alone in our house at Nikolskoe with Tatyana Semenovna."(p 74)

Out of respect for her, Sergey Mikhaylych allows his young wife to discover the truth about the emptiness and ugliness of "society" on her own. But his trust in her is damaged as he watches how dazzled she is by this world. Finally they confront each other about their differences. They argue but do not treat their conflict as something that can be resolved through negotiation. Both are shocked and mortified that their intense love has suddenly been called into question. She notices, "His face seemed to me to have grown suddenly old and disagreeable".(p 80) Her idealism has faded and with it the romance of her relationship. Because of pride, they both refuse to talk about it. The trust and the closeness are gone. Only courteous friendship remains. Masha yearns to return to the passionate closeness they had known before Petersburg. They go back to the country. Though she gives birth to children and the couple has a good life, she despairs. They can barely be together by themselves. Finally she asks him to explain why he did not try to guide and direct her away from the balls and the parties in Petersburg. The novella ends with a suggestion that she has accepted maternal happiness. Will this carry them forward together? And at what price--the loss of Romance?

Tolstoy deftly depicts nature throughout the story and uses music as a motif as well. Masha loves to play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata", especially the darkly romantic first movement. But there is a chilling scene near the end of the story when she plays the sonata:
"At the end of the first movement I looked round instinctively to the corner where he used once to sit and listen to my playing. He was not there: his chair, long unmoved, was still in its place: through the window I could see a lilac-bush against the light of the setting sun: the freshness of evening streamed through the open windows . . . I recalled with pain the irrevocable past, and timidly imagined the future. But for me there seemed to be no future, no desires at all and no hopes."(p 97)
While this seems bleak, there is hope by the end of the story with the suggestion that maternal love could be the foundation for a different kind of "Family Happiness".

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Sucking the Marrow of Life

Gargantua and Pantagruel 
by François Rabelais

"It becomes you to be wise to smell, feel, and have in estimation these fair books, de haulte gresse, light in the pursuit, and bold at the encounter. Then you must, by a curious reading and frequent meditation, break the bone and suck out the substantific marrow, — that is what I mean by these Pythagorean symbols, — with assured hope of becoming well-advised and valiant by the said reading; for in it you shall find another kind of taste, and a doctrine more profound, which will disclose unto you deep doctrines and dreadful mysteries, as well in what concerneth our religion as matters of the public state and life economical."  - Rabelais, Prologue to Garganua and Pantagruel

On this day in 1553 the French monk and writer Francois Rabelais died.  He was a major French Renaissance writer, doctor, Renaissance humanist, monk and Greek scholar. He has historically been regarded as a writer of fantasy, satire, the grotesque, bawdy jokes and songs.  Because of his literary power and historical importance, Western literary critics considered him one of the great writers of world literature and among the creators of modern European writing.  Here is an updated version of my notes on Rabelais's novel:
In 1532 Francois Rabelais wrote a story about the giant Gargantua. For the following twenty years he would continue to write producing Gargantua and Pantagruel, the first great novel in French literature. This novel, in five parts chronicles the adventures of the giant Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. While many consider Rabelais a difficult writer, he is in many senses a modern novelist, rejecting the rules for the novel, if for no other reason than they had yet to be established. His translator, Burton Raffel, in preface to his 1994 edition, describes Rabelais as "something like a cross between James Joyce and Laurence Sterne (the latter, like Rabelais, an ordained clergyman)". Having read both Sterne and Joyce I would agree that Rabelais ' prose is like theirs, difficult but worth persevering. The bawdy humor helps make the reading a little easier, but I most enjoyed the many lists that Rabelais interjected including lists of fools, animals and food, among others. 
While the first two books focus on the lives of the two giants, the rest of the series is mostly devoted to the adventures of Pantagruel's friends - such as Panurge, a roguish erudite maverick, and Brother Jean, a bold, voracious and boozing ex-monk - and others on a collective naval journey in search of the Divine Bottle.
Even though most chapters are humorous, wildly fantastic and sometimes absurd, a few relatively serious passages have become famous for descriptions of humanistic ideals of the time. In particular, the letter of Gargantua to Pantagruel and the chapters on Gargantua's boyhood present a rather detailed vision of education.

With its bawdy and bold examination of life--from satire on education to descriptions of bodily functions--Gargantua and Pantagruel is a comic masterpiece. His style is best described in Mimesis, where Erich Auerbach writes:

"The coarse jokes, the creatural concept of the human body, the lack of modesty and reserve in sexual matters, the mixture of such a realism with a satiric or didactic content, the immense fund of unwieldy and sometimes abstruse erudition, the employment of allegorical figures in the later books---all these and much else are to be found in the later Middle Ages. . . But Rabelais' entire effort is directed toward playing with things and with the mutiplicity of their possible aspects; upon tempting the reader out of his customary and definite way of regarding things, by showing him phenomena in utter confusion;"

Rabelais demonstrates a freedom of vision, feeling, and thought that has led to his book being banned by some ever since it was first published. Remember "Marian, the librarian" from The Music Man? She was chastised by the town in part because she included Rabelais on the town library shelves. Many other towns, states and countries over the years have banned this book. For both this reason and for the vigorous humaneness demonstrated by Rabelais this is worth reading. If you are a reader like me you may share some vicarious pleasure in a romp through the middle ages with Rabelais.