Monday, November 30, 2009

Epidemic in London


The Ghost Map
by Steven Johnson


But however secure and well-regulated civilized life may become, bacteria, Protozoa, viruses, infected fleas, lice, ticks, mosquitoes, and bedbugs will always lurk in the shadows ready to pounce when neglect, poverty, famine, or war lets down the defenses.
- Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice & History


Where do you find the conjunction of epidemiology, mathematics, anthropology, and Victorian history? You do in this enlightening book, The Ghost Map, subtitled "The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World". The subtitle is not an overstatement for this is one of the best books about the history of science that I have read. Steven Johnson provides the details of an episode in the improvement of scientific understanding that makes you wonder that such improvement ever occurs. Just as important as the scientific story are the connections the author makes between it and the history of the growth of cities with the impact of disease and its control on the possibilities for further growth.



"Cities are tremendous engines of wealth creation and culture, but the political stereotype is that they're leeching off the mainstream and the countryside," Johnson said. "Actually, the opposite is true."


The background of certain key contributors, both medical and political, along with such contextual information as the history and literature of the times, 1850's London, adds to the wealth of information that makes the story of this Cholera epidemic worth reading. I enjoyed each chapter as I learned about an important chapter in the history of science.




The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. Riverhead Books, New York. 2006.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Today's Shakespeare


Sonnet #103


CIII.

Alack, what poverty my Muse brings forth,
That having such a scope to show her pride,
The argument all bare is of more worth
Than when it hath my added praise beside!
O, blame me not, if I no more can write!
Look in your glass, and there appears a face
That over-goes my blunt invention quite,
Dulling my lines and doing me disgrace.
Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?
For to no other pass my verses tend
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell;
And more, much more, than in my verse can sit
Your own glass shows you when you look in it.

Friday, November 27, 2009



The Moons of Jupiter


On Thanksgiving eve I had the opportunity to view the moons of Jupiter. Ed, my brother-in-law, set up his high powered astronomical binoculars on the deck of the house that he and my Sister, Robbie, built here in Spring Creek, Nevada. With the aid of these binoculars we were able to view Jupiter in the southeastern sky along with its four largest moons: Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. The view was stunning as was the view of the half-moon presence of Earth's own moon, with detail of craters galore on its surface. These images have stayed in my mind over the days since we viewed them along with other objects in the night sky, including the "Seven Sisters" and Orion's "belt" which was just above the horizon to the northeast on that early evening.
The juxtaposition of seeing the moons first identified by Galileo with the recent anniversary of Darwin's great work, The Origin of Species, reminded me of the importance of scientific accomplishments for our lives today. This was reinforced yesterday as we ate our Thanksgiving meal and watched a football game on the wide screen high-definition television. We continue to evolve and explore the reach of our minds as humans. It is a wonder both to behold and to be part of.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pastoral Poem



Milton



Il Penseroso is a pastoral poem by John Milton published in 1645. Invoking "divinest Melancholy", the poem is in praise of the contemplative, withdrawn life of study, philosophy, thought and meditation, and is a counterpiece to L'Allegro, which praises the more cheerful sides of life and literature. Both pieces detail the passing of a day in the countryside according to both philosophies.


Il Penseroso


Hence vain deluding joyes,
The brood of folly without father bred,
How little you bested,
Or fill the fixed mind with all your toyes;
Dwell in som idle brain,
And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
As thick and numberless
As the gay motes that people the Sun Beams,
Or likest hovering dreams
The fickle Pensioners of Morpheus train.

But hail thou Goddes, sage and holy,
Hail divinest Melancholy,
Whose Saintly visage is too bright
To hit the Sense of human sight;
And therfore to our weaker view,
Ore laid with black staid Wisdoms hue.
Black, but such as in esteem,
Prince Memnons sister might beseem,
Or that Starr'd Ethiope Queen that strove
To set her beauties praise above
The Sea Nymphs, and their powers offended.
Yet thou art higher far descended,
Thee bright- hair'd Vesta long of yore,
To solitary Saturn bore;
His daughter she (in Saturns raign,
Such mixture was not held a stain).
Oft in glimmering Bowres, and glades
He met her, and in secret shades
Of woody Ida's inmost grove,
While yet there was no fear of Jove.
Com pensive Nun, devout and pure,
Sober, stedfast, and demure,
All in a robe of darkest grain,
Flowing with majestick train,
And sable stole of Cipres Lawn,
Over thy decent shoulders drawn.
Com, but keep thy wonted state,
With eev'n step, and musing gate,
And looks commercing with the skies,
Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes:
There held in holy passion still,
Forget thy self to Marble, till
With a sad Leaden downward cast,
Thou fix them on the earth as fast.
And joyn with thee calm Peace, and Quiet,
Spare Fast, that oft with gods doth diet,
And hears the Muses in a ring,
Ay round about Joves Altar sing.
And adde to these retired leasure,
That in trim Gardens takes his pleasure;
But first, and chiefest, with thee bring,
Him that yon soars on golden wing,
Guiding the fiery-wheeled throne,
The Cherub Contemplation,
And the mute Silence hist along,
'Less Philomel will daign a Song,
In her sweetest, saddest plight,
Smoothing the rugged brow of night,
While Cynthia checks her Dragon yoke,
Gently o're th' accustom'd Oke;
Sweet Bird that shunn'st the noise of folly,
Most musicall, most melancholy!
Thee Chauntress oft the Woods among,
I woo to hear thy eeven-Song;
And missing thee, I walk unseen
On the dry smooth-shaven Green,
To behold the wandring Moon,
Riding neer her highest noon,
Like one that had bin led astray
Through the Heav'ns wide pathles way;
And oft, as if her head she bow'd,
Stooping through a fleecy cloud.
Oft on a Plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off Curfeu sound,
Over som wide-water'd shoar,
Swinging slow with sullen roar;
Or if the Ayr will not permit,
Som still removed place will fit,
Where glowing Embers through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom,
Far from all resort of mirth,
Save the Cricket on the hearth,
Or the Belmans drousie charm,
To bless the dores from nightly harm:
Or let my Lamp at midnight hour,
Be seen in som high lonely Towr,
Where I may oft out-watch the Bear,
With thrice great Hermes, or unsphear
The spirit of Plato to unfold
What Worlds, or what vast Regions hold
The immortal mind that hath forsook
Her mansion in this fleshly nook:
And of those Dæmons that are found
In fire, air, flood, or under ground,
Whose power hath a true consent
With Planet, or with Element.
Som time let Gorgeous Tragedy
In Scepter'd Pall com sweeping by,
Presenting Thebs, or Pelops line,
Or the tale of Troy divine.
Or what (though rare) of later age,
Ennobled hath the Buskind stage.
But, O sad Virgin, that thy power
Might raise Musæus from his bower,
Or bid the soul of Orpheus sing
Such notes as warbled to the string,
Drew Iron tears down Pluto's cheek,
And made Hell grant what Love did seek.
Or call up him that left half told
The story of Cambuscan bold,
Of Camball, and of Algarsife,
And who had Canace to wife,
That own'd the vertuous Ring and Glass,
And of the wondrous Hors of Brass,
On which the Tartar King did ride;
And if ought els, great Bards beside,
In sage and solemn tunes have sung,
Of Turneys and of Trophies hung;
Of Forests, and inchantments drear,
Where more is meant then meets the ear.
Thus night oft see me in thy pale career,
Till civil-suited Morn appeer,
Not trickt and frounc't as she was wont,
With the Attick Boy to hunt,
But Cherchef't in a comly Cloud,
While rocking Winds are Piping loud,
Or usher'd with a shower still,
When the gust hath blown his fill,
Ending on the russling Leaves,
With minute drops from off the Eaves.
And when the Sun begins to fling
His flaring beams, me Goddes bring
To arched walks of twilight groves,
And shadows brown that Sylvan loves
Of Pine, or monumental Oake,
Where the rude Ax with heaved stroke,
Was never heard the Nymphs to daunt,
Or fright them from their hallow'd haunt.
There in close covert by som Brook,
Where no profaner eye may look,
Hide me from Day's garish eie,
While the Bee with Honied thie,
That at her flowry work doth sing,
And the Waters murmuring
With such consort as they keep,
Entice the dewy-feather'd Sleep;
And let som strange mysterious dream,
Wave at his Wings in Airy stream,
Of lively portrature display'd,
Softly on my eye-lids laid.
And as I wake, sweet musick breath
Above, about, or underneath,
Sent by som spirit to mortals good,
Or th' unseen Genius of the Wood.
But let my due feet never fail,
To walk the studious Cloysters pale,
And love the high embowed Roof,
With antick Pillars massy proof,
And storied Windows richly dight,
Casting a dimm religious light.
There let the pealing Organ blow,
To the full voic'd Quire below,
In Service high, and Anthems cleer,
As may with sweetnes, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into extasies,
And bring all Heav'n before mine eyes.
And may at last my weary age
Find out the peacefull hermitage,
The Hairy Gown and Mossy Cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell,
Of every Star that Heav'n doth shew,
And every Herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To somthing like Prophetic strain.
These pleasures Melancholy give,
And I with thee will choose to live.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009



Today's Shakespeare



Sonnet #102


CII.

My love is strengthen'd, though more weak in seeming;
I love not less, though less the show appear:
That love is merchandized whose rich esteeming
The owner's tongue doth publish every where.
Our love was new and then but in the spring
When I was wont to greet it with my lays,
As Philomel in summer's front doth sing
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days:
Not that the summer is less pleasant now
Than when her mournful hymns did hush the night,
But that wild music burthens every bough
And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.
Therefore like her I sometime hold my tongue,
Because I would not dull you with my song.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Darwin


“Doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life, as one can in any likelihood pursue.”
- Charles Darwin



Today marks the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published on this day in 1859 (and this year is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth). Intensely aware of its implications, Darwin prefaced his book with two quotations which suggested that God was part of, and friendly towards, good science. One quotation was by William Whewell, a noted contemporary scientist, and the other was by Sir Francis Bacon:

To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both. (The Advancement of Learning, 1605)

After studying, somewhat erratically, to be a medical doctor Darwin had settled on a career in religion and received a degree from Cambridge University. This played a role in getting Darwin on the Beagle in the first place. Faced with his father’s reluctance to let him go, Darwin appealed to his Uncle Josiah Wedgewood (of the china company) for support. Prominent on Wedgewood’s list of persuasions was his belief that “the pursuit of Natural History...is very suitable to a clergyman” — the career which Darwin, before going, envisioned for himself.

Monday, November 23, 2009


A Victorian Mystery

Beauty deprived of its proper foils and adjuncts ceases to be enjoyed as beauty, just as light deprived of all shadows ceases to be enjoyed as light.
- John Ruskin


Charles Finch's novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, is a well-researched debut novel. A mystery, it is set in mid-Victorian London, and introduces gentleman detective Charles Lennox, whose ambitious travel plans are continually disrupted by crimes in need of investigation. I enjoyed the portrayal of this somewhat laid back and congenial detective and appreciated his fondness for books and relaxation with literary tomes. With the addition of friend Lady Jane Grey he investigates the murder of her former former maid, now working for a director of the Royal Mint. We find that the crime is more complicated than it initially seems and is further complicated by the author with the addition of a second murder. The solution to the murders and how they are connected fills the novel with suspense while avoiding the unnecessary gore often associated with novels about crime. Both the period detail and cast of secondary characters, especially Charles' relationship with his butler, enhanced this reader's enjoyment. This was an intricate and well-written Victorian mystery novel that gave me reason to explore more stories of literary detective Lennox from the pen of Charles Finch.


A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch. St. Martin's Griffin Edition. 2008


Today's Shakespeare



Sonnet #101


CI.

O truant Muse, what shall be thy amends
For thy neglect of truth in beauty dyed?
Both truth and beauty on my love depends;
So dost thou too, and therein dignified.
Make answer, Muse: wilt thou not haply say
'Truth needs no colour, with his colour fix'd;
Beauty no pencil, beauty's truth to lay;
But best is best, if never intermix'd?'
Because he needs no praise, wilt thou be dumb?
Excuse not silence so; for't lies in thee
To make him much outlive a gilded tomb,
And to be praised of ages yet to be.
Then do thy office, Muse; I teach thee how
To make him seem long hence as he shows now.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Today's Shakespeare


Sonnet #100


C.

Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget'st so long
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend'st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?
Return, forgetful Muse, and straight redeem
In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem
And gives thy pen both skill and argument.
Rise, resty Muse, my love's sweet face survey,
If Time have any wrinkle graven there;
If any, be a satire to decay,
And make Time's spoils despised every where.
Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life;
So thou prevent'st his scythe and crooked knife.

Thursday, November 19, 2009




Today's Shakespeare



Sonnet #99



XCIX.


The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love's veins thou hast too grossly dyed.
The lily I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stol'n thy hair:
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stol'n of both
And to his robbery had annex'd thy breath;
But, for his theft, in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker eat him up to death.
More flowers I noted, yet I none could see
But sweet or colour it had stol'n from thee.

In Search of Lost Time

Sodom and Gomorrah, the Final Chapter

I absolutely must -- and let's settle the matter at once, because I'm quite clear about it now, because I won't change my mind again, because I couldn't live without it -- I absolutely must marry Albertine. (p. 724)


With these words of the narrator Marcel Proust ends the final chapter of Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume in his monumental In Search of Lost Time. Whether the narrator is sincere or not, any lack of sincerity is more than supplanted by his passion, if not love, for Albertine. Throughout this volume and especially in the final chapters the narrator has had a tempestuous relationship with Albertine both in his mind and in his life in Balbec and its environs.

Last night we discussed this aspect of the novel along with other themes while engaging in a sumptuous repast at Bistro Zinc, a delightful French restaurant (which I would highly recommend to all readers who venture out into the near north side of Chicago) not far from our normal class location at The Newberry Library.

Some of the other themes that are prominent in the final sections of this volume are the passion of both Baron Charlus and the Prince for young 'Charlie' Morel. Morel, a reprobate and a cad who is made somewhat appealing (at least for this reader) by virtue of being a talented pianist, plays with both men without the other knowing about his liaisons much as a mouse plays with a cat. The ruling word throughout for both the narrator and other characters is passion, if not lust, in the erotic sense which pervades several relationships. The issue of the Dreyfus case is also prominent and Proust is able to convey the complicated views of both sides through the seeming necessity that most prominent characters be identified as either "Dreyfusards" or not. The overall feeling I retain from this reading is one of the cumulative effect of the layers of themes, many of which have appeared in the previous three volumes and will, undoubtedly, appear again in the final volumes of In Search of Lost Time. To some extent this is due to the influence of Wagner and the use of literary "liet motifs" by Proust and the technique of the search, in this case the search for love. That the search for love seems to devolve into an impasse of passion for the sake of sanity if not love itself is a wonder -- one of the many wonders of this continuously engaging novel.

In search of Lost Time, Volume IV: Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust. Modern Library, New York. 2003 (1922)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Play Reading


A Picasso
by Jeffrey Hatcher




Last night I attended a reading of the play A Picasso by Jeffrey Hatcher at Timeline Theatre. This was the first in a series of three play readings as part of the current play reading series by Timeline entitled "Timepieces". If the others (later in the Spring of 2010) are as good as this one we are all in for a great treat; for the reading last night was a riveting piece of theater that blended history and art in a brief one-act play.


This 2003 award-winning play from the author of "Tuesdays with Morrie" is set in Paris during the height of the German Occupation. Pablo Picasso is interrogated by the beautiful and mysterious Miss Fischer who has been hired by the Gestapo. In this cat-and-mouse game of intrigue, Picasso is forced to authenticate three paintings, each assumed to be "a Picasso." In this timeless collision between art and politics, an enticing tension begins to mount with art, sex, and the lure of power at its core. David Parkes played the role of Picasso and Kathy Logelin was Miss Fischer, during the play the dialogue develops several high points of tension as the discussion goes back and forth, presumable with Nazi soldiers in a room nearby. The play builds to a clever twist of an ending - and ending which occurs quite suddenly as a relief to the tension of the evening. The direction by Rachel Walshe was excellent and the evening was ended with a brief discussion led by P. J. Powers, Timeline Artistic Director, and included the cast, director and the dramaturg, Joshua Altman. It was an delightful evening of theater, art and learning for us all.

L'enfance du Christ



The last section of Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time Part IV) has a passing reference to L'enfance du Christ (English: The Childhood of Christ). This is the Opus 25, an oratorio (choral work) by Hector Berlioz, based on the story of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. Berlioz wrote his own words for the piece. Most of it was composed in 1853 and 1854, but it also incorporates an earlier work La fuite en Egypte (1850). It was first performed at the Salle Herz, Paris on 10 December 1855, with Berlioz conducting and soloists from the Opéra-Comique.

Berlioz described L'enfance as a sacred trilogy. The first of its three sections depicts King Herod ordering the massacre of all newborn children in Judaea; the second shows the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus setting out for Egypt to avoid the slaughter, having been warned by angels; and the final section portrays their arrival in the Egyptian town of Sais where they are given refuge by a family of Ishmaelites. It's worth noting that Berlioz himself was by no means a religious believer, though he was a great admirer of Catholic church music.

The idea for L'enfance went back to 1850 when Berlioz composed an organ piece for his friend Joseph-Louis Duc, called L'adieu des bergers (The Shepherds' Farewell). He soon turned it into a choral movement for the shepherds saying goodbye to the baby Jesus as he leaves Bethlehem for Egypt. He then added a piece for tenor, Le repos de la sainte famille (The Repose of the Holy Family) and preceded both movements with an overture to form a work he called La fuite en Egypte. It was published in 1852 and first performed in Leipzig in December, 1853. The premiere was so successful, Berlioz's friends urged him to expand the piece and he added a new section, L'arrivée à Sais (The Arrival at Sais), which included parts for Mary and Joseph. Berlioz, perhaps feeling the result was still unbalanced, then composed a third section to precede the other two, Le songe d'Hérode (Herod's Dream).

Even though today we view Berlioz's music as the epitome of Romanticism, it was typically received with hostility by Parisian audiences and critics, usually accusing it of being bizarre and discordant. Yet L'enfance du Christ was an immediate success and was praised by all but two critics in the Paris newspapers. Some attributed its favourable reception to a new, gentler style, a claim Berlioz vigorously rejected:

In that work many people imagined they could detect a radical change in my style and manner. This opinion is entirely without foundation. The subject naturally lent itself to a gentle and simple style of music, and for that reason alone was more in accordance with their taste and intelligence. Time would probably have developed these qualities, but I should have written L'enfance du Christ in the same manner twenty years ago. (Hector Berlioz, Memoirs)

The work has maintained its popularity - it is often performed around Christmas.

Monday, November 16, 2009



Today's Shakespeare






Sonnet #98


From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April dress'd in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh'd and leap'd with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seem'd it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play:

Isadora Duncan




When She Danced

by Martin Sherman



Nick Bowling has achieved another directing triumph with the TimeLine Theatre Company production of Martin Sherman's play, When She Danced, about one day in the later life of Isadora Duncan. The entire production was outstanding from the Belle Epoque set and exquisite musical selections to the cast and, of course, the direction.
The play is set over the course of a single day and as it opens Isadora (played by Jennifer Engstrom) is on the couch with her Russian husband Sergei Esenin (Patrick Mulvey). Throughout the play we are entertained by a large palette of different languages including Russian, Greek, Italian, and French in addition to English. This does not seem to make the play difficult to understand as it is very visual and the physical action is choreographed so well that it is always clear what is happening. Director Nick Bowling has crafted an immensely watchable and lavishly beautiful production. We meet Isadora in her 40s. She claims to be past her prime, but in Engstrom’s both regal and sensual performance, Duncan is every inch magnificent. Her Paris flat is in a state of exuberant and sophisticated chaos. Among the larger-than-life personalities coming and going: Duncan’s much younger Russian husband Sergei (who it seems knows only two languages, Russian and Love); Alexandros Eliopolos, an adoring 19-year-old Greek prodigy pianist (Alejandro Cordoba, a major talent who delivers a concert-level Chopin etude midway through the production); and Miss Hanna Belzer (Janet Ulrich Brooks), a Russian translator whose underwritten role nonetheless becomes an emotional cornerstone thanks to Brooks’ quietly galvanizing performance. The languages – Greek, Russian, English French and Italian – fly fast and thick with several in the ensemble never speaking a word of English. Bowling succeeds in making dialogue flow like music. And it’s to the cast’s great credit that even when the words are foreign, the meaning within them shines through. Miss Brooks is outstanding in her role as Miss Belzer who, in addition to providing translation and some of the comic relief, stands in as it were for the audience with her marvelous reactions to some of the activities with which she is surrounded. This play is a thoughtful meditation on the difficulty of communicating art, dance in particular, but you do get some perspective on what it meant for Isadora even though she does not dance a single step. Once again TimeLine Theatre Company has brought history and great art to the Chicago theater stage.

Saturday, November 14, 2009



Stoner




Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang,
In me though see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest,
- Shakespeare




John Williams's Stoner is that rare novel which is almost perfect in every way, from its plain prose style to its subtle portrayal of themes and evocative descriptions of events that are common enough for all adults to have experienced them in ways that make the narration a pleasure - one which makes you stop and reflect in wonder at the marvels around you, past and present. I found the story often took my breath away as I intently pondered the beautiful telling of a story of love and loss. The pain and pleasure were so pronounced that the reality of the images created by the author had an effect that few books ever do. I found the prose style reminiscent of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, but with more hope present even as Stoner deals unsuccessfully with the vicissitudes of life.

This is a Midwestern book, set on the plains, about a young man who is schooled in the hardships of farm life but who flowers in an academic setting - up to a point. His taciturn being and stoicism both help him survive and contribute to his downfall in love and learning. In each he fails, even though he does experience small moments of triumph; yet even in failure his determination shines through the pages of the novel and makes this drama somehow less tragic than it might have been otherwise. The difficulty which Stoner has in communicating his feelings is palpable throughout compounding the inevitability of defeat for our hero. This novel in all its detailing of the life of William Stoner captures some of the passion and loss that is suggested by Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 (quoted above) that plays a pivotal role in Stoner's education. This is a story of integrity and persistency in living through adversity and loss.


Stoner by John Williams. NYRB Classics, New York. 2003 (1965)

Friday, November 13, 2009




Proust and Music



All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”
- Walter H. Pater


Last night I attended a lecture at The Art Institute of Chicago, "The Vinteuil Sonata: Where Music and Literature Collide", given by John Adams. John Adams is particularly qualified to lecture on this subject as he is one of the most respected of contemporary composers having written several operas including Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, as well as important symphonic works including On The Transmigration of Souls for which he was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music and three Grammys. In his lecture he discussed the ability of authors to describe both music and the act of listening to music.

Beginning with Walter Pater's idea regarding the musicalization of literature, Mr. Adams discussed the impact of music on the novels of Thomas Mann through his use of thematic integration and adaptation of Wagner's emphasis on leitmotifs. For Mann this culminated in his magisterial novel Doctor Faustus where his protagonist, Adrian Leverkuhn, was a composer who sold his soul to Mephistopheles just as Faust does in Goethe's drama. Moving on to Proust's discussion of artists he focused on the examples of Bergotte (the author), Elstir (the painter), and above all Vinteuil (the composer). With Vinteuil we see the height of Proust's ability to express in words the impact of music through his "aesthetic sensibility". For Proust, an author with little or no formal training in music, this is impressive and another example of Proust's genius. We find Proust, in Swann's Way, describing a particularly moving passage from the Vinteuil Violin sonata as the "essence of emotion" in its musical expression. John Adams commented that Swann was an "active listener" and through Proust's ability to describe the effect of music upon him we as readers have an example of the listening process. Overall the lecture was a beautiful portrayal of Proust's art and a great introduction to one aspect of his literary accomplishment.

Monday, November 09, 2009



Snow




Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of very ugly matters.
- Stendahl, The Charterhouse of Parma





Orhan Pamuk' s novel is set in the winter of 1992 in the city of Kars in the north-eastern part of Turkey.
The story is narrated by Pamuk himself as he tells of the poet journalist Kerim Alakusoglu, known as Ka, who has traveled to this remote town to write about the events surrounding a group of young women who are committing suicide rather than give up their headscarves. This is a very contemporary story of the clash between devout Islamists and the secular state that controls Turkey. Isolating the action in the snowbound town of Kars we learn of the tensions through Ka's interviews with various citizens. Pamuk's narrative style presents a pastiche of events that blend together to form the story with both love and politics coming to the fore. The many surprises and shocks of the story kept me interested and I found new fascination for the contemporary history of Turkey. The translation by Maureen Freely, who has translated several of Pamuk's novels, is excellent.

Snow: a novel by Orhan Pamuk. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2005 (2002)



Sinclair Lewis




"What Mr. Lewis has done for myself and thousands of others is to lodge a piece of a continent in our imagination."
- E. M. Forster




Sinclair Lewis is perhaps best known for his many novels: including Main Street, Babbit, Arrowsmith and others. But he wrote many stories throughout his career of which he personally selected his favorites for the collection: Selected Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis. Some of these stories mirror the themes that inhabit his novels. They are all vivid with colorful and concrete detail that reminds this Midwestern boy of his roots. The stories range widely from a satiric piece about a boy movie star that reminds me of Twain's The Prince and the Pauper to romantic trysts and tales of isolation and loneliness. All the stories are fun to read and remind me of the best of Lewis.


Selected Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis by Sinclair Lewis. Ivan R. Dee, Chicago. 1990 (1935)

Sunday, November 08, 2009


Wilhelm Tell


When on Alpine heights
The beacons all are kindled and shine forth
And tyrants' strongholds fall in smoking ruins,
Then shall the Switzers to your cottage come
And bear the joyous tidings to your ear:
So, bright in your dark night, shall freedom dawn.
- Wilhelm Tell, Schiller (lines 745-750)



Seldom does a play include fewer scenes or lines for the title character, yet Wilhelm Tell is in few scenes and has relatively little to say in this great play, the last completed, by Friedrich Schiller. Yes, there is the famous scene where Tell refuses to bow to the "hat", the symbol of repressive Habsburg power, and is in turn forced to shoot the apple off his son's head. And there is the ultimate act which makes him a patriotic hero when he kills the Governor Gessler, the imperial representative hated by Tell's fellow countrymen and women. Beyond that the scenes in this play demonstrate the importance of those countrymen and their closeness to the land and traditions of their forefathers. This is a powerful romantic drama about the desire for freedom, but it is also an Arcadian idyll that presents the best of nature. It seems almost Rousseauian in the opening scenes that are set in a seeming "state of nature". Eden like as the country may be it is also beset by tyranny from the dreaded imperial Hapsburg empire. We see the attraction this life has for Ulrich von Rudenz, the nephew of Baron von Attinghausen. While Attinghausen is a patriot his nephew is attracted to the other side and is brought back to support his countrymen only through the intervention of his love for young Berta. The importance of Berta and Lady Gertrud in their influence over the men closest to them is worth noting. Schiller's play, the culmination of his dramatic art, is a joy to read. Over the years it, along with other plays by Schiller, has found its way to the operatic stage, in this case through the pen of Rossini, while Verdi was attracted to other of Schiller's works. While the large cast and number of different scenic locations make this a difficult work to stage I could not help thinking that we are overdue for a cinematic traversal of this tremendous literary resource.


Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich Schiller. William Mainland, trans. University of Chicago Press. 1972 (1792)

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Panoply of Themes



In Search of Lost Time

by Marcel Proust


For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say to myself: "I'm falling asleep." (Swann's Way, p. 3)

The search goes on and with it the panoply of themes that Proust weaves together like threads of a giant quilt or comforter. One of these themes, sleep, is the catalyst for one of Proust's wonderful meditations as Chapter Three of Part Two of Sodom and Gomorrah begins. On his return from the Verdurins he is "very sleepy". Suddenly his life is fading into sleep just as the "daylight when night falls" and the fire when the blaze dies.

I entered the realm of sleep, which is like a second dwelling into which we move for that one purpose. It has noises of its own, ...It has servants, its special visitors who call to take us out, so that we are ready to get up when we are compelled to realise, by our almost immediate transmigration into the other dwelling, our waking one, that the room is empty, that nobody has called. (p. 516)

For Proust sleep is inextricably linked with memory and with the all-encompassing passage of life and death, but a death that is conquered as we are awakened and reborn. From the opening lines of Swann's Way where we are introduced to the narrator sleep is preeminent of the many self-reflexive experiences that trigger the author's meditative passages. It is passages like these that I find moving and memorable. The literary art of Proust surpasses that of almost all others placing him in a heavenly realm, beyond sleep.


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

Monday, November 02, 2009



Late Bloomer



Exeter and Harvard would be part of my life like my one tweed jacket that Bob had worn before me. Now it was my turn.
- Nathaniel Bickford, Late Bloomer, p. 41



Late in his life a lawyer with a distinguished career looks back on his schooling and in doing so uncovers two incidences that shaped his college and early career and perhaps his whole life. The son of a lawyer with one older brother Nathaniel Bickford was an average student who was privileged to attend private schools. He spent his days playing tennis and idolizing his hero, Gil Hodges, but he was also a serious reader. He would eventually shine as a writer for the school paper in his Junior and Senior years at Williston Academy. His experiences at two private college prep schools included incidences that he shares in both intimate and dramatic fashion. In some respects this memoir can be compared with the fictional account in A Separate Peace, but it is different in many ways and it is a very personal story. Bickford's memoir is well-written and a seemingly honest reflection on the impact of school masters who went beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior. That he survived and flourished in the remainder of his life is a testament to his determination and values. I found his story both interesting and moving.

Late Bloomer by Nathaniel Bickford. Tidepool Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2008

Sunday, November 01, 2009

London Fantasy



The Man Who Was Thursday

by G. K. Chesterton




Chesterton restrained himself from being Edgar Allan Poe of Franz Kafka, but something in the makeup of his personality leaded toward the nightmarish, something secret, and blind, and central.
- Borges, Other Inquisitions


More than one hundred years ago in 1908 Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote a mysterious fantasy called The Man Who Was Thursday. Sixty years later while I was a student at The University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin I discovered this wonderful book.
Part metaphysical, part philosophical, Chesterton's creation fascinates me as the policeman from Scotland Yard, Gabriel Syme, poet extraordinaire, battles with "anarchists". The conspiracy he discovers and the way that Chesterton tells the story is both mysterious and profound. While the story is at times dreamlike, even nightmarish, it also is filled with humor. A great chase closes the book, as if Chesterton were using the Keystone cops to make philosophical points. The novel must have seemed daring in 1908 and it remains fresh and compelling.


Now, in the twenty-first century, the playwright Bilal Dardai has adapted this story for the stage and done so very successfully. I attended a performance of this adaptation last night as performed by the New Leaf Theatre company directed by Jessica Hutchinson. The cast of ten players (all men) performed exceedingly well navigating a complicated plot and a challenging choreography as the story moves from place to place in Edwardian London. Among the performers Dan Granata as Syme, Nick Mikula as Lucien Gregory and Sean Patrick Fawcett as Sunday were outstanding in their individual portrayals. The direction and ensemble performance was also excellent. This tale presents challenges that were met as the characters came to life and the overall production succeeded in communicating the tone of the original novel. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and was not disappointed by this adaption of an "old favorite" from my years of reading.




The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. Sheed & Ward, New York. 1975 (1908)