Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Krapp's Last Tape

On this day in 1958 Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape was first performed. According to the authorized biography (Damned to Fame, James Knowlson, 1996), it was one of the author's favorite works -- a "nicely sad and sentimental" play about which he felt "as an old hen with her last chick,":

It will be like the little heart of an artichoke served before the tripes with excrement of Hamm and Clov. People will say: good gracious, there is blood circulating in the old man's veins after all, one would never have believed it; he must be getting old."
- Samuel Beckett, letters

Samuel Beckett’s work has extended the possibilities of drama and fiction in unprecedented ways, bringing to the theatre and the novel an acute awareness of the absurdity of human existence – our desperate search for meaning, our individual isolation, and the gulf between our desires and the language in which they find expression. Educated in Ireland, North and South, he settled afterwards in Paris and produced his fiction and drama in English and French, translating himself out of the language in which he first wrote each text. Having begun literary life as a modernist and promoter of the reputations of Proust and Joyce, in the years before and after the Second World War he found his own voice (“began to write what I feel”) and continued to develop this voice unstintingly and without compromise until the year of his death.*

Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett. Random House, New York. 1960 (1958)

*Davies, Paul. "Samuel Beckett". The Literary Encyclopedia. 8 January 2001.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Birthdays and Homer

Men grow tired of sleep, love, singing, and dancing sooner than war
- Homer

This afternoon I spent a couple of hours at the birthday celebration of my friend, Susie. I have known her for about a dozen years, mainly through our participation in two book groups. I first met her at the Lincoln Park Book Shop where we shared good times (almost) every third Thursday first at the Book Shop and more recently at the homes of the book group members, especially Susie's since her place was about in the middle of the various locations of the members. She was a founding member of the group going back to the early Nineties when the owner of the Book Store started the book group. More recently, in 1999, we started a Sunday morning group of which both Susie and I are founding members. In this group we tackle some major tomes, starting with James Joyce's Ulysses and continuing through our current reading of Homer's Iliad. Both Susie and I have read Homer before but this is an opportunity to discover the wonder of the Greeks and Trojans, Achilles, Agamemnon and Hector, all over again. It is a delight to wonder at the Gods and mortals and the role of fate in their enterprise. This mythic epic still speaks to us more than twenty-five hundred years after it first began to be recited by the poet Homer.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Memorable Friendship

by Fred Uhlman

He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again. . . I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.
- Fred Uhlman, Reunion, p. 11

Arthur Koestler, one of my favorite authors, described this novella as a "minor masterpiece". I would agree and as such it is a perceptive short novel about friendship. However, set in the 1930s in Stuttgart, it is also a tragedy and a story about love. The narrator , Hans Schwarz, is the son of a Jewish doctor and the grandson of a rabbi, and forms an intense friendship with Konradin von Hohefels, the young aristocrat in his class. A year later everything is over . Nothing remarkable between the two adolescents has happened.  The two boys were attending high school, one was a Jewish intellectual from the middle class while the other was a young aristocratic gentile. The story is as moving as the friendship is unremarkable, yet it lingers in one's memory. It is a literary miniature that is as moving as books more than twice its size. .

Reunion by Fred Uhlman. Collins & Harvill Press, London. 1977

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Mythic World

Go Down, Moses

"No wonder the ruined woods I used to know dont cry for retribution! he thought: The people who have destroyed it will accomplish its revenge."
- William Faulkner, Delta Autumn, p. 347

Go Down, Moses marks the end of William Faulkner's period of greatest creativity. The themes he addresses in this novel built out of interconnected stories connect with and overlap those addressed in other of his works of this period, notably The Hamlet. Throughout the book the presence of time - past, present and future - is connected by the blood; the bloodlines of the family.

to the boy those old times would cease to be old times and would become a part of the boy's present, not only as if they had happened yesterday but as if they were still happening, (p. 165)

The blood of the fathers, their 'curse', becomes one of the themes in the first three stories: Was, The Fire and the Hearth, and Pantaloon in Black.

Then one day the old curse of his fathers, the old haughty ancestral pride based not on any value but on an accident of geography, stemmed not from courage and honor but from wrong and shame, descended to him. (p. 107)

The relations between the races and the nature of the family are presented here by Faulkner. The hearth suggests connections with the Anglo-Irish culture from which the McCaslins originated. After all the McCaslin's heritage is one of tension and guilt. The initiation of the young into this culture is presented in The Old People when Ike becomes a man, and is repeated in The Bear. There is also the theme of man versus nature through the contrast of the natural man with the social man of civilization. I sensed resonance with a Rousseau-like view of the world in the emphasis on getting away from civilization in The Bear. This can also be read in the tradition of Twain's Huckleberry Finn. The image above is of the original book published by Random House in 1942. In spite of the title on the front cover Faulkner himself considered this a novel and objected to the idea that it was a collection of stories.
Ultimately, we see in Go Down, Moses Faulkner's mythic world of Yoknapatawpha County once more with its people, their land, and their ghosts. How they relate to our world today is up to the reader to decide.

Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner. Vintage International Editions, 1990. (1942)

Monday, October 19, 2009


Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's latest production is an intriguing play from France via London. On last Friday night I attended a preview performance of Heroes by Gerald Sibleyras and translated by Tom Stoppard.
This comedy directed by James Bohnen is a small play that touches on friendship and the passing of time through a series of comic and sometimes absurd scenes between three WWI veterans. Isolated on a terrace of a Veterans' home somewhere outside Paris, three men played by David Darlow, Mike Nussbaum and Roderick Peeples exchange their memories and opinions about life inside and outside of the home. In the background of each comic moment is the aura of the end of life although, ironically, it is the oldest, Henri, played by Mike Nussbaum who is the most adventurous with his daily constitution about the grounds and his comic escapade into the girls' school next door. Philippe, with his recurring black outs helps to remind us that death may come at any moment, but even as his blackouts end with a comic moment as he revives, we can't help but think that next time he may not return. The camaraderie among the friends and the bounty of absurd comic moments make this play a pleasure. Remy Bumppo has given us another thoughtful evening of theater.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


I attended the Works of the Mind lecture sponsored by the University of Chicago Basic Program of Liberal Studies this afternoon. The lecture, by Paolo Cherchi, Professor Emeritus, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, and the Committee on Social Thought, the University of Chicago, was entitled Petrarch and the Birth of the Modern Conscience.
The speaker was both insightful and infectious in his presentation as he outlined some of the important concepts of Petrarch's famous poetic cycle know as the Canzoniere.

In the first sonnet of his Canzoniere, the collection inspired by his love for Laura, Petrarch confesses shame for poems suffused with vain hopes and vain sorrows. Pursuing these three themes – shame, vain hope and vain suffering throughout the work, Petrarch abandons the guidance of reason in sentimental matters, and lets conscience take over. Against the classical Stoic belief that reason must dominate his feelings, the poet listens to conscience, the only true judge of what makes him happy. Happiness comes when will and power coincide: this is possible only through Faith, which gives certainty to hopes and meaning to sorrows. Love inspires the search for self, which leads to the discovery of the conscience, and plants the seed for the birth of Humanism. Professor Cherchi effectively conveyed this side of Petrarch but also shared further insights into the very modern project, the search for self. While we can find this project beginning as early as Augustine's Confessions, it is in Petrarch, who influenced Shakespeare and other later poets that this is expressed in a way that we might call modern. The result of his talk was to inspire my further exploration of Petrarch through his poetry.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Baroque Music

On Tuesday evening I attended the Baroque Band concert at Symphony Center. The evening was a delight of beautiful, but unfamiliar, Baroque works highlighted by two Oboe concertos performed by Alex Klein.
The Baroque Band, under the direction of Artistic Director Garry Clarke, assembled a melodious and inspiring selection of pieces ranging from Concerto Grossi by both Arcangelo Corelli and Francesco Geminiani to Concerti a cinque by both Tomaso Albinoni and Antonio Vivaldi. There were also two concertos by Alessandro Scarlatti and one by the lesser known Benedetto Marcello. The highlights of the evening were the two oboe concertos which ended each half of the program. Alex Klein demonstrated his substantial skills with the Baroque Oboe in Albinoni's Concerti a cinque, Op. 9, No. 2 in d minor and Vivaldi's Concerti a cinque, Op. 8, No. 9, RV 454 in d minor. The combined skill of Alex Klein and the Baroque Band made this a memorable evening of Baroque music with a focus on the Italian contributors to the era.

I particularly enjoyed the Geminiani with its second movement Giga that was based on a melody from one of Corelli's Concerto Grossi. It is a famous melody that, many years ago, I played in transcription for oboe solo during my high school years.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Romantic Violin Concerto

Romantic Music at the CSO

It was a tres French weekend for me as I attended the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert on Saturday evening following my cinematic excursion to Paris the previous evening. The Symphony was conducted by Yan Pascal Tortellier who has conducted many leading orchestras throughout the world but hitherto had not conducted the CSO. We were fortunate that lacuna in his resume has been filled and he was both in sync with the orchestra and in full control of the French Romantic compositions that made up the evening's musical fare. In addition the outstanding American Violinist Joshua Bell was present to perform the Bruch Violin Concerto no. 1 in g and the Saint-Saens Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, op. 28. The evening began with Gabriel Faure's Suite from Pelleas & Melisande, op. 80 that was based on his incidental music for the play by Maurice Maeterlink. This suite includes the famous Sicilienne that is often excerpted and played on its own.

The evening concluded with the great Saint-Saens Symphony no. 3 in c (known as the 'Organ' Symphony as the Organ, played by Henry MacDowell, has a prominent role in the piece). The concert was captivating and the finale well-suited to the Brass section of the CSO. An extra treat was a brief encore played by Joshua Bell: Henri Vieuxtemps' Variations on Yankee Doodle. It was an astounding feat of virtuosity from M. Bell who continues to amaze with his musical skill.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
- Hemingway

I viewed the film Paris at the Century Centre Cinema yesterday evening. Cedric Klapisch directed and wrote the film Paris featuring Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris in the two most prominent roles. Paris provides a beautiful overview of both the people and panorama of the city. Romain Duris' character, Pierre, is a dancer who has been diagnosed with a serious heart disease. He must spend his days reasting and from his apartment window he views the city and its people. Klapisch presents some of these people and their stories in this mosaic of a film. With the support of his sister Elise (Binoche) Pierre manages to cope with his deteriorating health. One of the most touching moments in their relationship is a Christmas Eve dinner at his apartment with Elise and her children. Pierre holds the youngest in his arms as they look out at the brightly lit Eiffel Tower and the night lights of Paris.

There were moments in the film when the panoramic views of Paris were reminiscent of similar views of Berlin in Wenders' Wings of Desire; while the enclosed life of Pierre led him briefly to yearn for the possibility of romance with a young woman in a neighboring apartment in a moment that reminded me of Jimmy Stewart's voyeurism in Hitchcock's Rear Window. Those moments aside, the energy and delight of the film came from the experience of the real people and streets of Paris throughout the film. That energy overcame the darkness of Pierre's disease, and culminated in a party scene held with all of his old friends with whom he danced almost to his death. The film ends as it begins with views of people in silhouette staring at the Parisian skyline. It is a tribute to the spirit of Paris that made this film a joy to experience.

Friday, October 09, 2009

In Search of Lost Time

When we are waiting, we suffer so keenly from the absence of the person for whom we are longing that we cannot endure the presence of anyone else.
- Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, p. 175

Waiting plays an important role as Chapter One of Part Two of Sodom and Gomorrah continues. Marcel has returned from the Guermantes' and he shares his feelings as he sits waiting for the telephone to ring expecting a call from Albertine:

When we are waiting, from the ear which takes in sounds to the mind which dissects and analyses them; and from the mind to the heart to which it transmits the results; the double journey is so rapid that we cannot even perceive its duration; and we imagine that we have been listening directly with our heart. (p. 177)

I believe the key word in the above passage is "imagine", for the physical activity of hearing sounds is so automatic and occurs so rapidly that the only way we can understand it is through our imagination that relates the physical activity with our emotional response. Marcel is the epitome of a person who is overflowing with emotional responses, at least he is more capable than most of relating those responses. His waiting is not assuaged, however, by the arrival of Albertine:

The loss of all equanimity that we feel when we are kept waiting, persists after the arrival of the person awaited, and, taking place inside us of the calm spirit in which we had been picturing her coming as so great a pleasure, prevents us from deriving any from it. (p.186)

The kisses of Albertine help calm Marcel for the moment, but the waiting still seems to persist as a motif in the background. Marcel's sensitivities sometimes annoy this reader, but they are a singular aspect of his character and essential for his narrative.

This section of the story is infused with discussions of Dreyfusism, but I found myself more interested in Marcel's comments about women and his difficulty in knowing anything about them. His "ignorance of the real existence of women"(p. 196) is demonstrated again and again. Upon his return to Balbec his fascination with Mme. Putbus's maid leads him to exclaim that "I had long since given up trying to extract from a woman as it were the square root of her unknown quantity,"(p. 208). The strength of this mathematical approximation of the mystery of women is demonstrated by his inexplicable connection with the maid. Perhaps it is an aura or some type of emanation that persuades him to comment thus. As readers of Proust it is to our benefit.

In Search of Lost Time, Volume IV: Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust. Modern Library, New York. 1993 (1921).

Monday, October 05, 2009

Two Cultures

The Bastard of Istanbul

by Elif Shafak

"Literature needs freedom to thrive," she said as she wagged her head. "We didn't have much of that to expand an enlarge Armenian literature, did we?"

- Elif Shafak, The Bastard of Istanbul (p. 177)

This is an entertaining novel and a wonderful story of how the cultures of two families become intertwined with their personal relationships.
Elif Shafak has created two fascinating young women, one a Turk living in Istanbul with her Aunts and one an Armenian living in Arizona with her mother and stepfather. Each girl is intelligent and they both enjoy reading although one is obsessed with existentialist authors while the other is immersed in modern literature. It is clear that the author has read Kundera and others, even though her book is sometimes a bit uneven and some of the large cast of characters are mere shadows.
How the girls, Asya and Armanoush, come to know each other and their lives come together as the history of their families unfolds makes this a fascinating story. With the ghosts of the Armenian genocide in the background and other dark ghosts closer to home you are not surprised when one of the "Aunts" consults her jinns for help with the family mysteries. I enjoyed this novel and would recommend it for those interested in Turkish and Armenian culture as it changes in the current world.

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak. Viking Penguin, New York. 2007.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

In Search of Lost Time

I could distinguish beneath the trees various women with whom I was more or less on friedndly terms, but they seemed transformed because they were at the Princess's and not at her cousin's, and because I saw them seated not in front of Dresden china plates but beneath the boughs of a chestnut tree.(p. 68)

As Part Two of Sodom and Gomorrah opens we find Marcel headed to a party at the Guermantes' even though he apparently is not sure if he was invited. Nonetheless he joins the crowd and we are treated to conversations with Charlus, Vaugoubert, the Prince and others. Multiple themes continue to abound but I am taken with the importance of Marcel's concern for his personal relations with the Baron. This concern, based on his lack of response to the Baron's previous offers to socialize, made Marcel feel that the Baron might be unwilling to introduce him to the Prince de Guermantes. His following comment suggests a Platonic view of the source of knowledge for, although he had only recently confirmed the Baron's inclinations through his observing the meeting with Jupien, he commented:

Sometimes, however, the future is latent in us without our knowing it, and our supposedly lying words foreshadow an imminent reality. (p. 54)

Whatever Marcel previously knew, his subsequent observations are colored by his current knowledge of the Baron and we as readers have our eyes opened as well, looking as it were for signs of this side of the Baron. We are given many opportunities especially later in the evening when the Baron meets Mme de Surgis and he is introduced to her two boys (pp. 127 ff.). On the surface he congratulates them on their knowledge of Balzac, while concealing his true response to their alluring masculinity. The scene also demonstrates the charisma of the Baron whose position within the Guermantes' sphere has Mme de Surgis almost mesmerized. Little does she know that if it were not for her sons the Baron would be unlikely to have deigned to give her any notice. With the introduction of Mme de Vaugoubert we have yet another example of the gender-twisting character: the woman who is "heavily mannish"(p. 61).

An aspect of Proust that is reinforced by my own experience (there are many) is his description of the inner workings of Marcel's memory. When he meets Madame d'Arpajon after dinner he cannot recall her name.

"my attention, concentrated on the inward region in which these memories of her lingered, was unable to discover her name there. It was there none the less." (p. 69)

As I myself have done many times he plays a game with his thoughts trying to grasp the name through search for its initial letter, with some difficulty. But he then makes one of those observations that, for this reader, make the long journey through Proust worth every moment.

Certainly my mind would have been capable of creating the most difficult names. Unfortunately, it had not to create but to reproduce. Any mental activity is easy, if it need not subjected to reality. Here, I was forced to subject myself to it. Finally, in a flash, the name came back to me in its entirety: "Madame d'Arpajon." (p. 69)

With this effort of conscious thought we will leave our comments on reading Volume IV of In Search of Lost Time until another day.

In Search of Lost Time, Volume IV: Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust. Modern Library, New York. 1993 (1921).