Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Music of Poetry

Collected Poems 1934-1952
Collected Poems 1934-1952 



My favorite is "Poem in October" but I love to read and reread them all. I guess it is the music that is alive in Thomas' poetry that makes it come alive for me. Here is an example:




Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honored among wagons I was prince of the apple towns,
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.


And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams...


There is no other way to describe the sounds, the feeling, the being that is his poetry than to speak and listen to it. This is the "sabbath" of my life - the spirit of life in the music of poetry.


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Misguided Ambition

An American Tragedy (Signet Classics)
An American Tragedy 


"Indeed, it was now as though from the depths of some lower or higher world never before guessed or plumbed by him... a region other where than in life or death and peopled by creatures otherwise than himself... there had now suddenly appeared, as the genie at the accidental rubbing of Aladdin’s lamp - as the spirit emerging as smoke from the mystic jar in the net of the fisherman - the very substance of some leering and diabolic wish or wisdom concealed in his own nature, and that now abhorrent and yet compelling, leering and yet intriguing, friendly and yet cruel, offered him a choice between an evil which threatened to destroy him (and against his deepest opposition) and a second evil which, however it might disgust or sear or terrify, still provided for freedom and success and love." (482-483)


- Clyde Griffiths is a young man with ambition. From the start of this novel when he is a young boy from a poor but devout family he is both on the run and doomed. In over his head with problems that stick to him like  honey he leaves Kansas City and arrives in New York, and before long he is in love with a rich girl, but it's a poor girl he has gotten pregnant, Roberta Alden, who works with him at his uncle's factory. One day he takes Roberta canoeing on a lake with the intention of killing her. From there his fate is sealed and doom is once again on the horizon. But by then Dreiser has made plain that Clyde's fate was long before sealed by a brutal and cynical society.


- The usual criticism of Dreiser is that, line for line, he's the weakest of the great American novelists. And it's true that he takes a journalist's approach to writing, joining workmanlike sentences one to the other. His prose is repetitive at times, but he slowly builds a powerful network of words, sentences and paragraphs with a natural vitality flowing through them. The first time I read this novel I was still in high school during my Dreiser and Hardy phase. Hardy wears better over the years, but both remain powerful for the attentive reader.


It was only later that I saw the famous film made from the novel.  There's nothing quite like young, tragic love. And George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun" understands this perfectly. By adapting Theodore Dreiser's masterful novel "An American Tragedy" with two of the most heart-stoppingly beautiful people in cinema (Montgomery Clift and Taylor), Stevens immediately puts the viewer in the lovers' corner, no matter what they do. But it isn't just their looks that make you swoon; it's the chemistry and fragile performances. The film is pure Hollywood romance with the rough edges of doom softened a bit, but still present.


A GoodReads Update

Friday, April 29, 2011

Literary Blog Hop: April 28-May 1



Literary Blog Hop


To me the Literary Book Blog Hop is a chance to reflect on my reading life.    This week's question is a both confounding and challenging.


Discuss your thoughts on sentimentality in literature. When is emotion in literature effective and when is it superfluous? Use examples.


When I think of on reflection about sentimentality in literature I am taken back to my reading of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  You may ask what this novel has to do with the question, but if you bear with me and journey into that story you will find a literate monster at the heart of the story.  Shelley's  Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster who transcends the modern cinematic view  of the monster (James Whale's version comes closest to the original).  Shelley's monster finds a copy of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther in a leather portmanteau, along with two others—Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, and Milton's Paradise Lost. He sees Werther's case as similar to his own. He, like Werther, was rejected by those he loved. It is Goethe whom I think of as did the monster and his elegiac Sorrows of Young Werther whose sturm und drang context was, if not sentimental a close relative of sentimentality, epitomized by young Werther.  Goethe's novel itself looked back to more sentimental novels and influenced a generation of European readers.  


Of modern sentimentality I have little use, but the example of Werther I find haunting in its extreme of suicide -- seen as the solution to his problem of love and life.  The passions once aroused are not to be trusted.  One further example, more benign in its outcome, perhaps because the author maintained more control or has a different relationship with her subject. 
 I am thinking of Mary Garth in George Eliot's masterpiece, Middlemarch.  
While I see little sentimentality in the portrayal of the primary protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, Garth's life including her family exhibits a loving version of the sentimental in literature and has always seemed a counterbalance to the turbulence in the lives of many of the other characters in that novel.  One conclusion I can draw from the above is that sentimentality takes many forms and can be effective when used well by an attentive author.  It may be superfluous, but I leave that discussion for others on another day. Admittedly, these musings on sentimentality are personal and not necessarily a popular expression of the subject, but the literary world  is large and I am both confounded and challenged when I consider some of its many rooms.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Classical Romance

A Suitable Boy
A Suitable Boy 


"But I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they're bad they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they're good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch."  — Vikram Seth


I have just reached page 700 in this very long novel and I am (almost) half way through the book. A novel of India set in the early 1950s just after the partition, A Suitable Boy provides a window into the culture and history of India at that juncture in its history through a romance about a young girl, Lata, whose mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, is searching for a "suitable boy" for her to marry. The novel's opening section succeeded in getting my attention. Some of the most notable aspects of the novel include the subtle ways that the author suggests the continuing cultural influence of England, from the impact of literary awards to the reading habits of several of the characters. Moreover the novel successfully includes all aspects of Indian life and nationality from the caste system to religious differences between Hindus and Muslims to the impact of changes in business and government life on the four families at the center of the novel. Seth's novel is a tour de force that demonstrates his skill in writing, knowledge of India, and his ability to marry the charms of a classical romance novel within the broad reach of a realistic family and nationalistic saga.


A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Canopy of Stars

Firmament*

"Many wonders there be, but none more wondrous than man."
- Sophocles, Antigone



The firmament as superstition is tried and true it seems,
But it's a shaky foundation based on what it means.

For stars above are moving as some exploding wonders,
Further from us than our imagination's  doors.

Where do we search for the fixed, the immutable for
our lives in this chaotic world?  The source may be

Ourselves, the ones who think and reason, for we
Are the wondrous ones and the firmament is ours.




* The firmament is the sky, the canopy of stars (as people once envisioned it). It was "firm" because it was thought to be a fixed and immutable dome. Today the word is often used in a metaphorical sense to mean the constellation of "stars" (celebrities or key people) in a certain field. (Garner's Modern American Usage)




from  Geography Lessons, 2011   -   James Henderson

Sunday, April 24, 2011




Diary, 1928-1957 






Reading is a form of laziness in so far as one allows the book to think for the reader.  The reader reads and imagines that he thinks; hence a pleasure that flatters vanity with a delicate illusion." (p 285)




Julian Green is one of the great novelists and diarists of the Twentieth Century. But sadly like Gertrude Stein or Marcel Proust, he is talked about, but seldom read. In this diary Julian Green records his reactions to people, places and to the events of his life, both external and internal, with a shattering sincerity. 
 The literary references, discussions and digressions on his reading are aspects of the diary that, as a reader, I find most interesting. While I do not share his obsession with sin, I can still feel his passions as he describes their hold over his life. His discussions with friends, including Andre Gide and others, are illuminating as is descriptions of the places that he loves -- Paris, the American South. 
The diary also chronicles changes in his emotional life as it flows and ebbs.  This can be seen in many ways, but I find his views and reactions to music, a passion of his which I share, to be indicative of these changes.  Near the eve of the Second World War in 1939 his despair at the thought of the coming "great European upheaval" led him to write the following:
" There comes a time in life when you can't listen to music any longer, particularly if you have known years of great happiness and that the future darkens gradually.  . . I don't ever wish to hear Don Juan again, for it reminds me too precisely of the time when I listened to it in the charming Residenz Theater at Munich; or Schumann's Faust, or his Second Symphony, and certainly not a single note of Schubert's. There may come a day when I may recover all this once more, but at present, music can only embitter a sadness I am ashamed of." (p 93)


Another example, later in his life when discussing changes in his life he notes his lost love of Beethoven's music as he writes the following on July 3, 1955:
"Beethoven, whom I no longer care for as much as I did, except his chamber music which is quite obviously the peak of his genius. . . his symphonies I simply cannot listen to, and this holds good for his overtures. Why? Alas, something in me no longer echoes these heroic aspirations. This juvenile enthusiasm wearies me." (p 278)
 With all the emotion and passions, vicissitudes abounding this is a sincere chronicle of one writer's life and a fascinating perspective on twentieth century culture.  Above all the diary is his confessional, written with deftness and beauty that brings wonder and joy to those who share his journey.




Julian Green: Diary 1928 - 1957. Anne Green, trans. Harcourt, Brace & World, New York. 1964

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Tiger for Malgudi (Twentieth-Century Classics)
A Tiger for Malgudi 






Whom next shall I meet in Malgudi? That is the thought that comes to me when I close a novel of Mr Narayan's. I do not wait for another novel. I wait to go out of my door into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a certainty of pleasure a stranger approaching, past the bank, the cinema, the haircutting saloon, a stranger who will greet me I know with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door on to yet another human existence.     — Graham Greene




Once more the great story-teller R. K. Narayan mesmerizes the reader with a tale from his humane corner of the world. It is a corner of his own creation and like other fictional worlds its stories are a delight to read. In this, short novel. we find a narrative for those who like their stories told from the animal's point of view. In this case, a Tiger for the small town of Malgudi; a tiger who is trapped first for a Circus and later sold for use in films. You will be cheering for him as he seeks his freedom. While I have read several stories about Malgudi and its denizens from the pen of R. K. Narayan this one is unique in its perspective and wit.


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Friday, April 22, 2011

Classical Confessions

Confessions
Confessions 


"What then is time?"  -  Augustine


I have read this book several times, both as part of the Basic Program of Liberal Education at the University of Chicago and most recently as one of the monthly selections of a reading group in which I participate. Like all classics it bears rereading and yields new insights each time I read it. But it also is unchanging in ways that struck me when I first read it; for Augustine's Confessions seem almost modern in the telling with a psychological perspective that brings his emotional growth alive across the centuries. From the carnality of his youth to the moment in the Milanese Garden when a spiritual epiphany changes his perspective forever, the story is an earnest and sincere exposition of his personal growth. You do not have to be a Catholic or even a believer to appreciate the impact of events in the life of the young Augustine. His relations with his mother, Monica, are among those that still have impact on the modern reader. The additional philosophical musings, such as his discussion of the nature of time, make this even more compelling to those who appreciate philosophical contemplation. Psychology, philosophy and spirituality combine to make this one of the "Great" books that remind you that true insight into the human condition transcends time and place.


Confessions by Augustine of Hippo. Oxford University Press, New York. 1991




A Goodreads update review

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

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

Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano 



"From the start of his career, Gould adhered to a strongly held personal credo: Of you have nothing new to say about a piece of music, don't play it, and certainly don't record it." (p 152)




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.


A Romance on Three Legs by Katie Hafner. Bloomsbury USA, New York. 2008






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Civilizations : Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

Civilizations : Culture, Ambition, 
and the Transformation of Nature 





"Many the wonders but nothing walks stranger than man.
The thing crosses the sea in the winter's storm,
Making his path through the roaring waves,
And she, the greatest of gods, the Earth--
Ageless she is and unwearied -- he wears her away
As the ploughs go up and down from year to year
And his mules turn up the soil." (Antigone, 332-8)


The subtitle for Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's amazing book references culture, ambition and nature. These ideas are all central to his history of civilizations, but as he states near the end of the book it is a "book of places". That is an overriding theme that is underscored by the many diverse civilizations that he discusses. Thus the book is a history of civilizations, not one civilization; and it is also about the power and ambition of mankind that he uses to tame geography, ecology, climate and other animals to form cities. Although, the author argues in his introduction that cities are not a necessary condition of civilization no matter how frequently they have been associated with the rise of civilization in history. Like all history the book presents an empirical argument with examples of civilizations from grasslands and forests, arid and rain-filled climates, highlands and ocean-based areas. It is a tribute to the intelligence and adaptability of man that civilizations can be found in places as disparate as the Andes and the Aegean; the Euphrates and post-glacial European forests; the Indus, Yellow, and Yangtze rivers of Asia; and other places. The result of Civilizations wide-ranging, through time and geography, ruminations and revelations is a book that is informative and thoughtful. Undoubtedly controversial at times, it is an exciting read for anyone interested in the ability of man to create and mold the world into civilizations.


Civilizations by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. Simon & Schuster, New York. 2001




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Monday, April 18, 2011

The Odyssey 
by Homer

further comments

""If only, my friend," reserved Penelope exclaimed, "everything you say would come to pass!" (p 400)


My reading of The Odyssey of Homer is continuing and with more than two-thirds of the poem completed we are in the home stretch. Last Sunday we discussed Book Nineteen which is titled "Penelope and Her Guest" by Robert Fagles in his recent translation, but more appropriately, I think, "Recognitions and a Dream" by Robert Fitzgerald in his classic translation from 1961. I say that because the book climaxes with first, Odysseus' old nurse's recognition of the scar he received during a a hunt for wild boars as a youth. The story is told of the great hunt, the boy Odysseus with his Father and Uncles - sons of Grandfather Autolycus who had named Odysseus (the Son of Pain), where Odysseus rashly runs ahead and is gouged by the Boar leaving the tell-tale scar. The incident reminds one of Faulkner's great story, The Bear, which narrates a similar rite of passage.
Second, we have Penelope, with the beggar (Odysseus still disguised and protected by Athena), sharing her dream  about the Eagle and the geese. The geese, representing the suitors, of course, and the Eagle, well we know the story. Yet, with all the dreaming and confrontations and discussion Penelope has doubt and cannot see the beggar as her long lost husband Odysseus. So she proposes a contest for the suitors to decide on which she will accept and hesitates at the insistence of the beggar that Odysseus will still return in time. The book ends with Penelope in pain seeing the solace of sleep:


                                                       With that                     
the queen went up to her lofty well-lit room
and not alone: her women followed close behind.
Penelope, once they reached the upper story,
fell to weeping for Odysseus, her beloved husband,
till watchful Athena sealed her eyes with welcome sleep.(p 408)


The Odyssey by Homer. Robert Fagles, trans. Viking Penguin, New York. 1996

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Sunday Commonplace Entry








The entry this week is from Letters: Summer 1926 by Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Rainer Maria Rilke.






PASTERNAK TO TSVETAEVA


March 27, 1926
"You are an objective phenomenon, above all you are talented, you are a genius.  Please underscore this last word.  In daily parlance it is a cheap word, a hairdresser's word.  I am infuriated every time I meet it, as no doubt you are, too.  One of these days it will be thrown at you--or perhaps not.  Be that as it may, it is not a negative hypothetical rating but a positive and inescapable word that hovers above you like a roof in the air, beneath which you ply your alchemy year after year."
"The Main thing is what you are engaged in.  The main thing is that you are building a world crowned by the mystery of genius.  In your time, in your life, this crown, this dome, merges with the sky, the live blue sky above the city where you live, or which you see in your imagination as you ply your alchemy.  At another time other people will walk beneath it and the world will see other epochs.  The soil of the cities is roofed over by the mysterious genius of other centuries." (pp 57-8)

School Friendship

Good Times, Bad Times
Good Times/Bad Times 





I remember being tremendously moved by this novel, so much that I looked for more works by James Kirkwood and acquired and read them. The story is told in the form of a letter from Peter Kilburn who is in jail for the murder of his school headmaster. This, however, is not a typical tale of murder and I found it unique in its deep melancholy and sadness of the memory shared in its pages.  In this aspect it is very different than Kirkwood's lighter, more humorous work. Good Times / Bad Times presents two young men at a New England prep school who are threatened when the disturbed headmaster develops a homoerotic fixation on Peter. His friend Jordan is the novel's voice of wisdom; he tells Peter that what makes the headmaster's attraction so dangerous is the fact that he cannot acknowledge it.
The story is one of friendship that only can be experienced by youth of a certain age, but even that aspect is unique in this telling and that with all the unsureness of young men coming of age, still acting and thinking like boys, makes it more compelling. The novel is suffused with homoeroticism, but homosexuality is nervously (and unconvincingly) disavowed by the narrator, who says at one point, "We threw our arms around one another and we kissed. It was a real kiss, and no matter what anybody might think, a perfectly right and fitting expression of our friendship for that time and place and for us."
The questions of perception and distance between the boys and the headmaster also weigh heavily in the story which is not without lighter moments. However, the tension that pervades the work and the seriousness of the feelings that are not always capable of being expressed overcome these lighter moments. Ultimately it is the adept handling of themes of friendship in a school setting and coming-of-age that stay with your memory and made this book special for me.


Good Time/ Bad Times by James Kirkwood.  Simon & Schuster, 1968

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Selected Poems (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)
Selected Poems 






"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold I know no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry." - Marina Tsvetaeva


Weariness and beauty permeate the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva. She struggled with life and love, but endured, supported in part by fellow artists, most notably Mandelstam, Rilke and Pasternak. The poetry in this selection is arrayed in chronological order and ranges from the "starry nights, in the apple orchards of Paradise"(p 5) to the "muffled blow" of Epitaph (p 106). Inspiration from fellow poets Mayakovsky, Blok and Akhmatova impress upon the reader her poetic muse and mystery. I like the poetry infused with literary references, Shakespeare and others, as this is a type that I share with her - in my own humble way. She has a way of making the simplest image seem to embody meaning beyond the possibilities of a finite world. She suggests this and more in lines like:
"a manifestly yellow, decidedly
rusty leaf--has been left behind on the tree." (p 120)
Poetic beauty that transcends my ability to describe the feelings it embodies.


And here is one of her poems:



Little World by Marina Tsvetaeva

Children - are staring of eyes so frightful, 
Mischievous legs on a wooden floor, 
Children - is sun in the gloomy motives, 
Hypotheses' of happy sciences world. 

Eternal disorder in the ring's gold, 
Tender word's whispers in semi-sleep, 
On the wall in a cozy child's room, the dreaming 
Peaceful pictures of birds and sheep. 

Children - is evening, evening on the couch, 
In the fog, through the window, glimmer street lamps, 
A measured voice of the tale of King Saltan, 
Mermaid-sisters of seas from tales. 

Children - is rest, brief moment of respite, 
A trembling vow before God's eyes, 
Children - are the world's tender riddles, 
Where in the riddle the answer hides!


Selected Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva. Penguin Books, New York. 1994

Friday, April 15, 2011

Readings: Essays & Literary Entertainments
Readings: Essays & Literary 
Entertainments 


"It's hard to think of another writer who loves books so passionately, who has such broad tastes and impeccably high standards--and who writes about literature with such intelligence, generosity and enthusiasm." Francine Prose

“Every man who knows how to read has it in his power to magnify himself, to multiply the ways in which he exists, to make his life full, significant and interesting”  Aldous Huxley 



How many book recommendations can one fit into a slim book of only 216 pages? I don't know for sure, but while I did not count them I believe that Michael Dirda may have the record with this book. It is a collection of his essays for the Washington Post from 1993 through 1999 that he delightfully calls "literary entertainments". I say delightfully because that is the emotion I experienced reading the essays. I would catalog the literary references but that is beyond the limits of my own reviewing skills. You can obtain an idea of the breadth of the essays when the first two essays include references to Clifton Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan and one of my favorite fantasy novels, The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. All this and more is blended into two very personal essays about the author's reading life and habits with comparisons of reading Paul Auster, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Williams, and Felix Salten -- all of which are in an essay purportedly about an obscure work of supernatural fiction called I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton. The result of the forty-six essays, which may be read in any order and at any speed, is a great introduction to a wonderful essayist and a reference compendium that is guaranteed to expand your reading horizon. 


Readings by Michael Dirda. Indiana University Press, Bloomington. 2000

Thursday, April 14, 2011

In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Rising Tyranny of Ecology
In a Dark Wood: The Fight 
over Forests and the 
Rising Tyranny of Ecology 


"Ideas have consequences." - Richard M. Weaver


With his book, In a Dark Wood, Alston Chase has written a story about the ecological struggle over the forests, but in doing so he has also developed the history of an idea. The idea is really many ideas, incorporating questions about the definition of nature, the science of ecology and the question of eco-systems -- just what are they and what should we do about them.


"It is a tale without heroes or villains, in which the bad guy isn't a person at all but an idea"(p xi)


His story begins with people, from John Muir and Henry David Thoreau to the eco-revolutionaries of the seventies and eighties. But the story also begins with the question: What is Nature? For it is the battle over nature that guides the narrative and the history of the ecological movement. His focus is primarily on the forests of Northwestern United States, and the battles to protect "endangered" species like the Spotted Owl. In doing so he provides a tremendous amount of detail about incidents that, like a mosaic of tiles, fit together to create a story. But the battle is also philosophical and political. Alston points out the unintended consequences of ideas that are not fully understood, of actions that are based on questionable science or faulty and limited studies, and the irrational passions that drove many of the people in the story, both good and bad, to take unreasonable actions. Ultimately it becomes a story about those who insist on determining the one way that all must follow to do what is good for man, forgetting the folly that has occurred throughout history when that has been attempted in the past.


For Chase his ne plus ultra was a focus on people and ideas, devising a book interesting to all who are stimulated by the history of ideas and the actions men take. It also allowed him to be balanced in his approach, emphasizing science and carefully pointing out what we do know and, more importantly, what we do not know.


In a Dark Wood by Alston Chase. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York. 1995

Monday, April 11, 2011


Sandor Marai


"No, the secret is that there's no reward and we have to endure our characters and our natures as best we can, because no amount of experience or insight is going to rectify our deficiencies, our self-regard, or our cupidity. We have to learn that our desires do not find any real echo in the world. We have to accept that the people we love do not love us, or not in the way we hope. We have to accept betrayal and disloyalty, and, hardest of all, that someone is finer than we are in character or intelligence."   
—  Sándor Márai (Embers)


One of my favorite novelists in recent years is the Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai who was born on this day in 1900. Márai’s books have been reissued and become bestsellers recently, after having been nearly forgotten for decades. Fiercely anti-Nazi and anti-Communist, Márai fled Hungary in 1948 and refused to allow his work to be published there under any Communist regime. He eventually settled in San Diego, continued to write, and published forty-six books before his suicide in 1989. Perhaps because of Christopher Hampton’s 2006 play adaptation produced by Portobello Productions and starring Jeremy Irons, the best known of Márai’s novels to reappear is Embers. The story is a smoldering fireside chat in which two former friends recall the Vienna of Emperor Franz Joseph, an aristocratic-military world of high boots and brightly-lit ballrooms and deeper desires held at bay. Only brief excerpts from Márai’s actual memoirs have been translated to English as yet (by Tim Wilkinson in the Hungarian Quarterly) but they promise another bestseller. The journal entries from his last years are a riveting historical and personal document, ranging from his dying wife’s daybreak declaration of love to his target practice with his suicide revolver to his memories of his life-journey. The following is taken from his March 18, 1984 entry, Márai three weeks away from his eighty-fifth birthday:


A dinner in the Mikó utca apartment, 40 years ago today. Everything was, at that point, still in its place, two maids, the big apartment. The table setting as in the good old days: silver ware, china, everything just as it should be. Of the family members around the table, sharing in that supper on my name-day, my mother, Aunt Julie, brother-in-law Gyula, sister-in-law Tessie, and Alice Madách have all passed away. My brothers are still alive, so am I, and L. too, though only just. That night German Nazi troops occupied Budapest. Everything was dislocated- life, work, Hungary, the old order and disorder. A total break.
I was 44 and just recovering from a severe illness. Two weeks later came the move out to Leányfalu, into exile, with the dog and a maid. The bombardment of Budapest began, with our own house being hit by 36 shells and bombs on the last day of the siege; everything was destroyed. I left half my life there. Then came the second round, the roaming across continents. It was 40 years ago today that the self I was until then perished, and that other self who I am today took shape- and now even that is in the process of disintegration. (The Hungarian Quarterly)

A Sunday Commonplace Entry




This weeks entry on Monday morning is from The Joy of Reading by Charles Van Doren.




"If I go to a museum to study a painting in order to write a paper about it, or to answer questions on an examination, or to refresh my memory of it prior to a lecture I am scheduled to give, I am doing one thing. If I go to a museum to look at a painting because of the joy this gives me and the enhanced appreciation of the capabilities and powers of the species to which I have the honor of belonging, I am doing another. I go to museums to do the second thing.


Something like that is also the main reason why I read what I read. To read a book merely to discover what it says about its subject is to read it for a narrow purpose. Beyond that, one can try to read a book for what it reveals about its author, about its time, about mankind, and about oneself---one's mind and memory and imagination." (pp 15-16)

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Personal Connections

Polio: An American Story
Polio: An American Story 


"The feud between Salk and Sabin would outlive them both. There is still an ongoing debate over which man produced the better vaccine and which vaccine should be used today. What is certain, however, is that the polio crusade that consumed them remains one of the most significant and culturally revealing triumphs in American medical history."(p 7)


In the middle of the Nineteen-fifties when I was in grade school one of the more momentous events in my life was experiencing the first round of vaccinations for polio. This meant trips to the doctor to receive "shots" of Polio vaccine (subsequently the vaccines would move to the grade school and continue for several years). It is this event and the crusade that led to it that is detailed in David Oshinsky's book, Polio: An American Story. He takes a comprehensive approach to the story including the history of polio epidemics, Roosevelt's story and the "March of Dimes", and the battle between Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin over the best approach to take regarding the vaccine. The actual trials of the Salk vaccine held in 1954 were a huge event in an era of history-making events ("Brown v. Board of Education, the Army-McCarthy hearings and the fall of Dien Bien Phu", p 188). The narrative is suspenseful, and made all the more compelling by my having lived through part of the story. Even as my generation was spared the ravages of the disease I was reminded of it by friends, family and teachers who had survived and bore the scars of it throughout the rest of their lives. Oshinsky's history won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 and is worth reading for anyone who is interested in the impact of disease and medicine on the history of America.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011


A film by Martin Koolhoven





Martin Koolhoven's film, Winter in Wartime is set in Nazi-occupied Holland, 1945. In a snow-covered village, thirteen-year-old Michiel, son of the local mayor, is drawn into the Resistance when he aids a wounded British paratrooper. Michiel‘s boyish sense of defiance and adventure soon turns to danger and desperation, as he is forced to act without knowing whom to trust among the adults and townspeople around him.  The film generally succeeds in depicting the precarious position of the young boy as the situations he faces become more and more difficult to handle.  The best aspect of the film is the setting,:  the small village, and the foreboding forest that Michiel knows well.  But the forest grows sinister as the danger from Nazi occupiers seems omnipresent.
  The acting, especially by Martijn Lakemeier as Michiel, is excellent and the suspense believable for the most part; although the final section has a few too many close calls.  This does not detract from the overall enjoyment of a dramatic moment in one boys life -- his "winter in wartime".

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?
By Edward Albee

“One must let the play happen to one; one must let the mind loose to respond as it will, to receive impressions, to sense rather than know, to gather rather than immediately understand.”  -  Edward Albee

The Remy Bumppo Theatre Company calls itself "Think Theater" and I can think of no better way for it to demonstrate the resolve that suggests than with their current production of The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee.  There is no playwright who has been better at  challenging his audiences to do just that - think - about his plays and the nature of theater than Edward Albee over the past fifty years.  Ever since The Zoo Story in the early sixties he has been stretching the bounds of theater;  all the while both honoring tradition and reinventing it.  Nowhere is that better seen than in this play.


The current Remy Bumppo production, under the direction of James Bohnen, is up to the challenge and, I hope, will draw audiences that are as well.  The cast includes strong  performances from Annabel Armour and Nick Sandys, whom I have seen on the Remy Bumppo stage before, but also from Michael Joseph Mitchell and Will Allan.  I was impressed with the ability of the ensemble to maintain the tensions and emotions that are on display from the moment that Stevie and Martin have their opening conversation.  The attention to detail of this production is noteworthy as the apparent order present at the opening is slowly turned to chaos by the tragic action of the players.  This play is tragic in a classic sense and I was reminded of this by the notion of a fall -- for in this play the characters, especially Martin, have the hubris to think they have a perfect life until, literally with a glance and a look, the perfection comes undone and they realize in some tempest-tossed scenes that it may have never been there.  Seemingly shocking, the reactions to Martin are among the most thought-provoking parts of the play.  And that is what is so great about this production, for Albee's play is brought alive on the stage and I will not be able to stop thinking about what it all means for a very long time.  

Monday, April 04, 2011

Edward Albee: A Singular Journey
Edward Albee: A Singular Journey 




"Like many artists, he is a figure of contradictions." (from the Prologue)




Mel Gussow's abilities as a journalist and his personal friendship with Edward Albee allow him to make this the definitive biography of a great American playwright. I came to read this as I prepared for attending a performance of The Goat or Who is Sylvia?. The theater company had recommended this as the best biography they had found.


Chronicling the life of someone who has become an icon of the American theater is difficult, but Mel Gussow is able to combine the personal, literary, and show business details in a dramatic narrative that does justice to Edward Albee. I was intrigued to discover that among Albee's partners was one of my other favorite playwrights, Terence McNally, but the biography highlights all of Albee's relationships and the importance of each to him and his friends. The difficulties Albee encountered as an adopted child were keen and exacerbated by parents who combined a daunting distance from their son with an attitude that was colder than most New England winters.


His precocity and early development of an inscrutable individuality did not serve him well in the several schools that he more visited than occupied in his youth and it took the combination of Greenwich Village in the fifties and some tentative literary efforts with friends including William Flanagan and McNally among others to bring him to the point of his first success, The Zoo Story. He never looked back and within what would be an amazingly short time for a dramatist of lesser genius he was conquering Broadway with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The rest of the story includes successful dramas (A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women and others);  yet there was not always the appreciation his work warranted or he deserved. Published in 1999, Gussow's biography does not include the past decade and  Albee's most recent successes as he has achieved the status of America's greatest living playwright, but it provides a rich and rewarding panorama of Albee's ascent to the apex of American literature.


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