Thursday, August 11, 2011

Reading Three

Reading by Numbers


This is the third in a series of entries highlighting some of the books from my library based on the existence of a number in the title. Here are some of my favorite books with Three in the title. They include fiction and an unusual memoir.

The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare

The year: 1377. The place: the Balkan peninsula. Here an Albanian monk chronicles the events surrounding the construction of a bridge across a great river known as Ujana e Keqe, or "Wicked Waters". If successful in their endeavor, the bridge-builders will challenge a monopoly on water transportation. The story itself parallels developments in modern-day Eastern Europe, with the bridge emblematic of a disintegrating economic and political order: just as mysterious cracks in the span's masonry endanger the structure and cast the local community into a morass of uncertainty, superstition and murder, so the fast-changing conditions in the 14th-century Balkan peninsula threaten to overwhelm the stability of life there. Dark as the story itself is, Mr. Kadare's prose, skilfully translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson, is elegant, witty and deft. And with so many twists and turns in its carefully constructed plot, this political parable keeps the reader's interest to the very end.

Proofs and Three Parables by George Steiner

George Steiner, an eminent critic whose fictions include "Anno Domini" and The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H., has called his fiction "allegories for argument" or "scripts for thought." In "Proofs" he centers his story on an Italian proofreader so devoted to his craft that "if the winds blew a piece" of wastepaper "towards his feet, he would pick it up, smooth it, read closely and make any correction needed." Then: "He would deposit it in the garbage receptacle, feeling obscurely rewarded and saddened. Any witness to this rite would have thought him deranged." But there are signs of problems with his eyes, pains, and he goes to an ophthalmologist: "Had you come to me in good time, it would have been worth operating on the left eye. To remove those cataracts. To implant a lens. As matters stand now . . ." 

The proofreader is in a Marxist study group, but each evening he sees the news of the crumbling of the Communist edifice throughout Eastern Europe and Russia - the doubts begin. Into the story is added an eloquent debate that the proofreader carries on with Carlo, a priest and friend from his study group, over the relative merits of Communism, capitalism and Christianity. In this discussion neither side seems to fare well but the proofreader, in spite of the news and debate, will not give up his belief in Marxism. This suggests that the blindness is two-fold -- a Dante-esque prescription for a man who devoted his life to getting texts right. In a fiction written with as meticulous and spare a style as the protagonist proofreader himself exhibits we have a thoroughly Steineresque commentary on the twentieth century, the power of belief and the nature of the humane. 

Ninety-three  by Victor Hugo

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo is a glorious romantic imagining of an episode from the year 1793, during the French Revolution and the year of the Great Terror. The setting is Brittany where counter-revolutionary forces have risen up to oppose the Revolutionary leaders. The leader of this group, the aged Marquise de Lantenac, is a romantic hero in the grandest sense. His fate is seems to be determined, however the Revolutionary forces are led by his grand-nephew, Gauvain, who at the last provides the way for Lantenac to escape. The grandeur of this novel is superb, while Hugo builds suspense in every section. Some scenes are so vivid that you are unlikely to forget them, eg. the great cannon episode. The whole of the novel is one astonishing experience that kept this reader spellbound. 

A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano by Katie Hafner

A most unusual biographical study, this is a book about a musician and his music, but even more it is about his search for perfection. The author writes of a search for a piano that is more intense than anything I have experienced in my piano-playing life. While I have encountered several different pianos, from the old upright of my youth to the local public library grand and sturdy spinets at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, I have never obsessed the way Glenn Gould did. 

Katie Hafner makes the story interesting with details of the life of the piano, its caretaker and the marriage of artist and piano in the studio. The piano is a Steinway grand piano known as CD318. The caretaker, an almost completely blind piano tuner, reminded me of a piano tuner who maintained my own spinet for several years. The marriage meant that this piano became part of the history of music performances by one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. While the marriage of piano and pianist was not fated to last forever, that part of the story is best left for the reader to discover for himself. It is a story that this music lover found exceptional. And it is a unique perspective on the life of an artist notorious for his personal eccentricities.

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