Thursday, October 31, 2013

Poem in October

Dylan Thomas' poetry is filled with music and movement - evocative of nature and nostalgia. This poem by Dylan Thomas is one of my favorites among the many wonderful poems by this amazing poet.  I have shared it before, but with October waning I thought it was time to share it again.
Marcel Proust's narrator for In Search of Lost Time said, "A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves anew." I hope you will find similar thoughts expressed by Dylan Thomas in his Poem in October.


        It was my thirtieth year to heaven
     Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
        And the mussel pooled and the heron
                Priested shore
           The morning beckon
     With water praying and call of seagull and rook
     And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
           Myself to set foot
                That second
        In the still sleeping town and set forth.

        My birthday began with the water-
     Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
        Above the farms and the white horses
                And I rose
            In a rainy autumn
     And walked abroad in shower of all my days
     High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
            Over the border
                And the gates
        Of the town closed as the town awoke.

        A springful of larks in a rolling
     Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
        Blackbirds and the sun of October
            On the hill's shoulder,
     Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
     Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
            To the rain wringing
                Wind blow cold
        In the wood faraway under me.

        Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
     And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
        With its horns through mist and the castle
                Brown as owls
             But all the gardens
     Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
     Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
             There could I marvel
                My birthday
        Away but the weather turned around.

        It turned away from the blithe country
     And down the other air and the blue altered sky
        Streamed again a wonder of summer
                With apples
             Pears and red currants
     And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
     Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
             Through the parables
                Of sunlight
        And the legends of the green chapels

        And the twice told fields of infancy
     That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
        These were the woods the river and the sea
                Where a boy
             In the listening
     Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
     To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
             And the mystery
                Sang alive
        Still in the water and singing birds.

        And there could I marvel my birthday
     Away but the weather turned around. And the true
        Joy of the long dead child sang burning
                In the sun.
             It was my thirtieth
        Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
        Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
             O may my heart's truth
                Still be sung
        On this high hill in a year's turning.

Collected Poems 1934-1952 by Dylan Thomas. New Directions, New York. 1953.

Flame-Out in Pennsylvania

Appointment in SamarraAppointment in Samarra 
by John O'Hara

“When Caroline Walker fell in love with Julian English she was a little tired of him. That was in the summer of 1926, one of the most unimportant years in the history of the United States, and the year in which Caroline Walker was sure her life had reached a pinnacle of uselessness.”   ― John O'Hara, Appointment in Samarra

The title for John O'Hara's first novel was taken from a short parable related by W. Somerset Maugham and which O'Hara used as the epigraph for his novel. While it is a parable of death the novel is more of a slice of life as O'Hara does for fictional Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, what William Faulkner did for Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi: surveyed its social life and drew its psychic outlines. O'Hara does it in a realistic and worldly fashion, without Faulkner's taste for mythic inference or the poetry of his prose. I can sometimes see signs of O'Hara in the novels of Updike or Roth.

The first chapter of Appointment in Samarra puts you into the head of Luther (Lute) Fliegler, an employee of the Cadillac dealership that is owned by the protagonist, Julian English. Lute is a regular guy with a wife and three kids and is, along with his wife, basically happy. Julian is a man who is perpetually hungover, who has squandered what fate gave him. He lives on the right side of the tracks, with a country club membership and a wife who loves him, but he would rather spend his time drinking and philandering. This short novel outlines his decline and fall, over the course of just 72 hours around Christmas Day , showing him in the throes of too much spending, too much liquor compounded by three calamitous missteps. Each calamity is all the more powerful due to its extremely petty and preventable nature. In Faulkner the tragedies all seem to be comparable to Greek tragedy, even when they're happening among the lowlifes. In O'Hara's novels the commoners get there come-uppance and it is as if they could be you.

O'Hara is very clever. He subtly lets his characters talk about Julian's actions while Julian worries about them to a point; all the while they are never described in any detail resulting in their assuming an even more potent power over his existence. But with all of his worrying I found it difficult to understand his reaction to the events of three short days. During a holiday party at his country club, one filled with people Julian did not like and girls he describes simply as "sad birds", Julian has  an unexpected chat with the local Monsignor.  In it he sums up his life with these words:

"I never was meant to be a Cadillac dealer or any other kind of dealer, Father," said Julian. "That sounded to me as though--you're not a frustrated literary man, by any chance, are you? God forbid."
"Oh, no," said Julian. "I'm not anything. I guess I should have been a doctor."(p 92)

Perhaps this interchange should not be unexpected because Julian could never be that honest with anyone he really knew well, least of all his own Father, the doctor.

O'Hara captures the town and its people with his prose and with a few essential details makes their place in the small town society transparent. His style is very readable and I found this similar to other of his novels, even the long ones like From the Terrace, it was  difficult to put down.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Flourishing Shepherd

Further Notes on
Joseph and His Brothers

"Jacob was truly in his element as a breeder of sheep, as a master of the sheepfold . . ." (p 223)

With this line Thomas Mann begins a paean to Jacob's fruitfulness as a shepherd.  His success and the bounteous beauty of his herds of sheep reminded me of my early years growing up in the farm country of southern Wisconsin.  I was not a shepherd or even a farmer or, at that early age, one in training.  I was a city boy but one experience with the fruits of the orchard gave me a chance to experience something like that of Jacob and it gave me a memory that I find echoed in these lines from a famous poem of Robert Frost:

"My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough."

My experience was something memorable and fruitful in both the literal and metaphorical sense, but not nearly as meaningful and deep as that of Jacob or that of which Frost goes on to speak.  In Frost's poem apple-picking leads to dreams and the sleep that is brought with age; while Mann, too, will soon be narrating the aging of Jacob.  But as shepherd working for Laban and for himself he is a man in the strength of young adulthood with the blessing of god multiplying his flocks.

  "For it was not merely that Jacob improved the breed and produced splendid sheep valuable for both their meat and wool, but the sheer growth in numbers, the constant fecundity of his herd exceeded all common standards, became extraordinary in his hands." (p 224)

More than that we see Jacob's expectation, dreams, thoughts of the fruitfulness to come, for as an "expectant lover" waiting for union with his bride to be he found his energies directed toward great deeds that presaged a flourishing life with many children to come.

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman's Library, 2005 (1933-43)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Three by Waugh

Evelyn Waugh 

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Evelyn Waugh who was born in London on this day in 1903.  He is one of my favorite authors.  I have selected reviews of three of his novels including my favorite, Brideshead Revisited.  His humor is nothing less than delightful.

Brideshead RevisitedBrideshead Revisited

In his letter of 7 January 1945 Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford that (regarding Lady Marchmain) "no I am not on her side; but God is, who suffers fools gladly; and the book is about God." Nancy, in a subsequent letter (17 January 1945) commented that she was "immune from" the "subtle" Catholic propaganda supposedly in the novel. Well, I guess that I am in Nancy's camp, recognizing the excellence of this G.E.C. (Great English Classic) and in my own way fascinated by the role of God in it, I remain unmoved by any hidden proselytizing (perhaps too harsh a word). Brideshead Revisited is possibly Evelyn Waugh's greatest novel and certainly one of the best English novels of the twentieth century. The demonstration of the battle between the culture of a civilization dying in the aftermath of World War I and the modern "hollow" culture of the the twentieth century plays out in this drama of a family and their estate, Brideshead. The journey of Charles Ryder, who guides us through this story, from his first encounter with Sebastian Flyte and his first visit to Brideshead keeps the reader rapt until the final pages, when under the shadow of the Second World War Charles returns to Brideshead for a final visit. His growth through encounters with the Flyte children and their mother and father plays out against the background of the Brideshead and all that for which it stands. Waugh uses comic relief in a judicious manner to lighten the way for the reader in a way that keeps the serious themes of the novel from becoming overwhelming. This classic novel also provides a beautiful depiction of the experience of going up to Oxford during the 1920s.

Further thoughts: In his letters Waugh claims that the theme of the novel is death, but I am not sure we should trust the author to be completely accurate in that sweeping summary of what appears, upon reading, to be a complicated and thoroughly multi-layered meditation on, yes death, but also memory and loss and the source of spiritual nurturing for human beings. Charles finds his passion in art and is as successful in that endeavor as he is unsuccessful in love. The sadness that surrounds his relationships with the various members of the Marchmain clan mirrors the sadness of their decline. I am reminded of Mann's Buddenbrooks from the turn of the century which limned a not dissimilar family decline. In Brideshead a significant question is whether Charles can overcome his two lost loves--both of whom moved away from him more than he from them--with the love of life that he acquires through art. His journey involves a tumult of emotion and imagery told in such a compelling and magnificent way that it is easy to lose ones self in the prose. Rather than bias the reader I will not provide a conclusion or even hint where I come out with regard to Charles' life other than to suggest that, as T. S. Eliot once said with poetic grace, the end is there in the beginning.

If you like magnificent writing, biting wit, England (Oxford in particular) or Venice, or the serene beauty of traditional manners you will love this book.

 Decline and FallDecline and Fall 

Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall, is a delightful satiric comedy. It is based in part on Waugh's undergraduate years at Hertford College, Oxford, and his experience as a teacher in Wales. In it I encountered the author's not so subtle satire and characteristic black humor in lampooning various features of British society in the 1920s.
The novel's title is a contraction of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But it also alludes to the German philosopher Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918–1922), which first appeared in an English translation in 1926 and which argued, among other things, that the rise of nations and cultures is inevitably followed by their eclipse. Waugh read both Gibbon and Spengler while writing his first novel.
I tremendously enjoyed the picaresque adventures of its hero, Paul Pennyfeather, as he encountered barely believable difficulties in "getting along". Waugh's characterization is superb while his satire is unambiguously hostile to much that was in vogue in the late 1920s, and themes of cultural change and confusion, moral disintegration and social decay all drive the novel forward and fuel its humor. This book was a joy to read even if you do not participate in all of Mr. Waugh's inside references. It is a worthy introduction to the novels of one of the finest authors of our century.

A Handful of DustA Handful of Dust 

Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, on several end-of-century Top 100 lists,was published on September 3, 1934. Waugh took the title for his novel from a line in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh returned to the same poem, sending Anthony Blanche out on an Oxford balcony to stutter a few lines from it. Waugh’s biographers have noted a particular connection to Eliot. Early in life, Waugh liked to associate himself with Eliot’s avant-garde style; in his late twenties, Waugh became a Catholic, as Eliot in his late twenties became Anglican; and later in life, both authors grew more conservative and wrote in support of preserving and improving the crumbling class system in Great Britain.
In this novel we have a comedy that contains tragic events, but still manages to entertain the reader with Waugh's brilliant satire and wit. The protagonist, Tony Last, is an ossified country squire. As one of that system’s most doomed representatives when we first meet him, Last is living in blinkered bliss at Hetton Abbey, a rambling Victorian mansion renovated in tasteless neo-Gothic style. He is blithely unaware of his wife's peccadilloes. When the battle over divorce heats up Tony goes on an expedition to South America with a con man. Whether the trip is made because he is merely fooled by the con man or as a reaction to the divorce proceedings it does not work out quite as he expects. Eventually he falls under the spell of a madman named Todd who has a beloved set of Dickens novels; it is his passion to hear them read aloud, and it is Tony's personal hell to be the one required to do this.
This is Waugh at his satirical best and I can forgive his use of Dickens as torture (even though reading him may be felt thusly to some people anyway). While I had trouble understanding the foibles of most of the characters I understood enough of the story to become mesmerized by his brilliant satire and witty prose.

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Technological Transformation

GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to SmartphonesGPS Declassified: 
From Smart Bombs to Smartphones 
by Richard D Easton

"From the vantage point of 2100 A.D., the year 1957 will most certainly stand in history as the year of man's progression from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional geography.  It may well stand also, as the point in time at which intellectual achievement forged ahead of weapons and national wealth as instruments of national policy." - Lloyd V. Berkner, epigram to chapter one, p.7.

Where were you in 1958? I was in grade school in a small town in southern Wisconsin but elsewhere things were popping in the world of space science. Russia had sent Sputnik into orbit the previous October and scientists in the United States, in secret in the Armed Services, were working on a response. Part of that response led to the development of what was to become known simply as "GPS" in the vernacular of practically everyone on the planet. I know that this avid reader of science fiction, who thought his new transistor radio was really neat in 1958, did not imagine that cars and phones and everyday life of his adult future would be shaped in part by this ubiquitous invention.
In GPS Declassified Richard D. Easton and Eric F. Frazier tell the story of how this happened in an fascinating and readable way. The technological difficulties, bureaucratic roadblocks, and breathtaking breakthroughs are shared through several narratives that lead to the future we live in today. These narratives include background of both a brief history of navigation and the development of satellites; but also delve into the how and why of GPS leading the reader from the military beginnings to the civilian uses that have since proliferated. There is the exciting success story of GPS use in the Persian Gulf War and the birth of a new industry providing GPS for the millions of consumers that use it today. A concluding section looks forward to the future of GPS. History of Science is seldom told better than this story of the development of a technology that has in no small way transformed our world.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Actions Becoming Destinies

White TeethWhite Teeth 
by Zadie Smith

“Our children will be born of our actions. Our accidents will become their destinies. Oh, the actions will remain. It is a simple matter of what you will do when the chips are down, my friend. When the fat lady is singing. When the walls are falling in, and the sky is dark, and the ground is rumbling. In that moment our actions will define us. And it makes no difference whether you are being watched by Allah, Jesus, Buddah, or whether you are not. On cold days a man can see his breath, on a hot day he can't. On both occasions, the man breathes.”  ― Zadie Smith, White Teeth 
I read Zadie Smith's novel with my Sunday book group several years ago and have picked it up again for our Thursday night group. I'm glad I was introduced to this author whose narrative technique mixes pathos and humor, all the while illustrating the dilemmas of immigrants and their offspring as they are confronted by a new, and very different, society. The reader encounters certain qualities and negativeness about certain non-British cultures while they are contrasted in the setting of an altogether different host culture. Middle-and working-class British cultures are also satirized through the characters of the Chalfens and Archie.
As part of the characters' experience as immigrants, they are confronted with conflicts between assimilating and preserving their cultures. The novel depicts the lives of a wide range of backgrounds, including Afro-Caribbean, Muslim, and Jewish. Just as the quote at the beginning of the novel states, “What is past is prologue.” Smith uses the characters and their various cultural backgrounds to show the complexity involved in immigration and replanting one’s roots. The multiple viewpoints allow for Smith to approach the idea of multiculturalism and the racial undercurrents of Western society considering the attitudes of many different characters. And among those characters some, like Alsana, deal with the prejudices of London society, and also subscribe to similar prejudices.
The novel is episodic in character and with my second reading filled with more humor than I remembered. That humor and the many flamboyant, if not just plain odd characters, made the experiences described by the author memorable enough to enrich my reading life.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Moonlight as Leitmotif

Further Notes on  

Joseph and His Brothers

"As they spoke the moon, its shimmering light so pure that it transfigured its own materiality, had continued it high journey; the position of the stars had changed according to the law of hours.  Night wove peace, mystery,  and the future out into far expanses" -  Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, p 92.

Imagine you are there in the midst of the arid countryside with Jacob and Joseph under the moon.  The mysteries of the night are broken only by the light of the moon.  What would you be thinking about?  Peace and the future of your family?  The importance of the moon's light for the culture within which Jacob and his family moved cannot be overemphasized.  This importance is brought home over and over in "The Stories of Jacob", the first book in the tetralogy.  The phrase "A World Lit Only By Fire" comes to my mind.  It is the title of a luminous work of history by William Manchester about the beginnings of the sixteenth century more than two millenia after the time of Jacob and Esau, yet the world he described still depended very much on the moon in the dark sky of the night.  

It is the moonlight with its "magically ambiguous precision" that mirrors the way the traditions of the children and grandchildren of Abraham are "spun out over generations and solidified as a chronicle only much later--".  The moon as leitmotif serves two main functions. One aspect is the beautiful orb as the goddess of love, Ishtar or Astarte.  Although either of these ladies are also the planet Venus; remembering that Mann's "moon grammar" ignores logical contradictions (even as Mann maintains a sort of narrative logic as he weaves the tales).  Pagan in its eroticism the moon, represents a threat to Jacob's personal standards of sexual behavior; but we see Joseph at the well under the moonlit sky sitting half-naked, flirting with the moon, as it were.  Yet another aspect of the moon is one of mediator between the sun and the earth; feminine to one and masculine to the other. As the story goes forward we see this mirroring Joseph's mediation between Pharaoh and Egyptian Society and an anticipation of Jesus' mediation between god and man.

Mann himself spins out his story weaving themes like tradition, culture, and moonlight into a mesmerizing mosaic of tales of individuals within the whole of the tribes from which Joseph emerges.  Moreover, just as Mann interweaves the themes he also plays loose with time weaving backward and forward as he builds the mosaic-like narrative.  Just as many of the stories yet to be told were foreshadowed in the Prelude: Descent into Hell, the stories of Jacob are related out of order; for example, the rape of Dinah narrative is related before returning to the story of the trials of Laban that occurred almost two decades earlier.  This method suggests some of Thomas Mann's personal approach to modernism that was still at its height in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Most of all the first book of the tetralogy is Jacob's story.  It is the story of a man whose "soul was moved and exalted by thoughts of emulation, recurrence, the past made present."  Throughout the long narrative these ideas, especially recurrence, will blend with questions of identity, unity, and tradition to limn this distant world and challenge our idea of the world today;  Mann as always tells it better when he lectures the reader:

"And here, to be sure, what we have to say flows into a mystery in which our own information gets lost--the mystery, that is, of an endless past in which every origin proves to be just an illusory stopping place, never the final goal of the journey, and its mystery is based on the fact that by its very nature the past is not a straight line, but a sphere.  The line knows no mystery.  Mystery lies in the sphere.  But a sphere consists of compliments and correspondences, a doubled half that closes to a unity;" (p 151)

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman's Library, 2005 (1933-43)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Charlatanism and Comedy

The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early YearsThe Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years 
by Thomas Mann

"What a glorious gift is imagination, and what satisfaction it affords!"  - Thomas Mann

This is Thomas Mann's last novel and his comic masterpiece. The story of Felix Krull is filled with humorous episodes worthy of the Mann's story-telling mastery. Mann based the novel on an expanded version of a story he had written in 1911 and he managed to finish, and publish part one of the Confessions of Felix Krull, but due to his death in 1955 the saga of the morally flexible and irresistible conman, Felix, remained unfinished. In spite of that it is still one of the best novels dealing with the question of identity.
Early in the story Felix learns to deal with circumstances by changing his character as needed and he continues to shift identities becoming whomever he needs to be in all the ensuing predicaments that he encounters. The expression of a latent admiration for a human being who can metamorphose himself into multiple identities reminds me of The Confidence Man by Herman Melville. That earlier novel is a precursor to the modernity of Mann's unfinished opus. Felix Krull seems to view the world like a chessboard on which he can take pleasure in manipulating the pieces at will and cultivate his ambition and his knowledge of the ways of the world by spending whole days peering into shop windows. His own calm demeanor throughout his escapades did not transfer to this reader who found his episodic life in different identities full of nervous suspense in a strangely vicarious way. It seems that Mann still had more story-telling magic left at the end of his life after World War II and decades after his great beginnings with Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice. The only regret is that Mann was unable to finish the novel; yet, the "early years" of Felix Krull still amounts to a small masterpiece.

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The Secret World of Magicians

The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus Trilogy, #1)The Amulet of Samarkand 
by Jonathan Stroud

“That did it. I'd gone through a lot in the past few days. Everyone I met seemed to want a piece of me: djinn, magicians, made no difference.I'd been summoned, manhandled, shot at, captured, constricted, bossed about and generally taken for granted. And now, to cap it all, this bloke is joining in too, when all I'd been doing was quietly trying to kill him.”   ― Jonathan Stroud, The Amulet of Samarkand

Fantasy is a small portion of my reading life and over the years I have read only a few, generally high quality, fantasy novels.  I belong to a book group dedicated to reading Science Fiction and over the past year and a half we have read both classics of the genre like Ringworld and The Stars My Destination and newer entries like Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and Robert Sawyer's Calculating God.  However we have expanded our reading into the realm of fantasy with books like Neil Gaiman's American Gods and, most recently, this first volume in Jonathan Stroud's trilogy about a genie named Bartimaeus.  This quickly became a fantasy which I truly enjoyed reading.
 Jonathan Stroud, in this the first novel of a trilogy, succeeds in creating interesting characters, a plot that avoids expected or cliche-driven events as the narrative moves forward, and provides a satisfying conclusion to this first part of the trilogy while leaving some intriguing questions unanswered; thus preparing the way for the reader to engage in the next volume (which I am likely to do). The titular character for whom the trilogy is named is a genie (or Djinn) with attitude and a comic sense that relieves the growing suspense. It is a suspense that increases through the interaction between the ten-year-old Nathaniel who calls forth Bartimaeus at the beginning of the story and sets in motion a plot that leads inexorably to an exciting denouement. Nathaniel, while of above-average intelligence, is lacking in wisdom due mainly to his immaturity. Unlike similar characters in other young adult fantasies (think Harry Potter) Nathaniel has no friends of his own age and is taught by a shambles of a Magician named Arthur Underwood who is somewhat clueless as to the goings on of his young student.  Nathaniel, in his youthful exuberance (which some would call hubris in someone slightly older) manages to enrage Simon Lovelace, an evil and powerful magician who threatens anyone who stands in the way of his plans.
Leavened with footnotes that expanded this reader's knowledge of magicians, sorcerers, genies, and their assorted henchlings this novel was an attractive book that I looked forward to reading so much that I sped through it. I would recommend this to all lovers of fantasy, both young and old.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Master of Italian Opera

Joan of Arc
an opera by Guiseppe Verdi

Presented by Chicago Opera Theater

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the first production ever in Chicago of Giuseppe Verdi's opera, Joan of Arc (1845).   It was presented by Chicago Opera Theater which has a reputation for producing operas that are unique or rarely performed.  This was his seventh opera and, while he already had success with Nabucco in 1842 and Ernani the previous year Joan was not well-received by the critics and Verdi would not see another of his operas at La Scala for thirty-six years.  It is not clear why this opera is not performed more often, but the director, David Schweizer, suggested that it may be because its' libretto is not historical but is rather like a "fantasia" based loosely on the historical Joan of Arc and her relationship with the French King.  Putting aside any difficulties with the libretto the music is still Verdi.  It is early Verdi but the lyrical melodies and marvelous choruses for which he is famous are still present, at least in nascent form.  The opera is presented in three acts with a prologue.  The director's approach to the story was modern, but true to the spirit of the composer.  The music in the first half of the opera was somewhat derivative with overtones of Rossini, but the last half of the opera was filled with bold choruses and beautiful arias that left the audience, including myself, cheering  bravo by the finale.  
It seems appropriate to share this commentary today as it is the anniversary of Verdi's birth in Le Roncole, Lombardy in 1813.  He was Italy's greatest opera composer for the last half of the nineteenth century and was rivalled only by Germany's Richard Wagner on the world stage.  My personal favorites  include Rigoletto (Venice, 1851), Il trovatore (Rome, 1853), and La traviata (Venice 1853), which were produced in a period of prolific composition by Verdi.   He also spent some years outside Italy producing his operas: in Paris, for his French grand operas, Les vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian vespers, 1854-55) and Don Carlos (1866-67), and in Russia on two trips for the premiere of La forza del destino (The force of destiny, 1861). In 1871 Aida, one of his most popular operas, was given a simultaneous premiere in Milan and in Egypt, whose ruler had commissioned it.
In 1874 after the death of Rossini, Verdi organized a composite setting of the Requiem Mass in his honor, but it was never performed. Instead, Verdi expanded his contribution (a setting of the Libera Me text) into a complete Requiem in honor of a writer and Risorgimento icon, Alessandro Manzoni. He toured with the work, in 1875, to Paris, London, and Vienna. To this day, it remains a pillar of the choral and orchestral repertory and a specialty of Ricardo Muti, the Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is streaming on-line a live performance of the Requiem this evening.
Finally with his talented librettist Arrigo Boito, Verdi completed his two last operas, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). His long composing career came to a close with the collection of religious works titled Quattro pezzi sacri (Four sacred pieces).  He had an amazing ability to create music that mirrors the emotions of the characters in his operas whether they be anticipation or love, anger or jealousy.  Celebration is another and it is often presented by his famous choruses as in Aida.  This is what endears his music to me personally and I look forward to the next production of a Verdi opera so that I may experience his musical genius once more. 

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Prelude to a Tetralogy

Notes on Joseph and His Brothers, I

"Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?"

With these words Thomas Mann begins his magisterial tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers.  The opening "Prelude", "Descent into Hell", is an exploration of the mythology of time.  Much as Augustine asks, "What, then, is time?" in his Confessions (Chapter 14 of Book 11), Mann's narrator asks us if the past is not inscrutable in the sense that it "offers us only illusory stations and goals, behind which, once we reach them, we discover new stretches of the past opening up--".  This meditation on the past in the Prelude is not unlike a prelude by Wagner for one of his operas where the motifs and themes for the whole opera are explored.  We experience this as Mann's narrator moves on to Jacob and Joseph and a vision of the godhead in the abstract--in effect imagining the idea of a god in the Platonic philosophic sense.  

It is into this abstract vision of the world on the edge of time that the story is presented as a mythos that explores the relationships of specific Biblical personages, like Joseph and his father Jacob, with their traditions and history.  They become the focal point for a personal monotheistic god in a culture that is surrounded by Mesopotamian gods on the east and Egyptian gods on the west and, at least referentially Greek gods to the north or in the mythological mysts of time.  These mysts are as deep and distant as can be measured by the extravagant lengths of an imagined "temporal plumb line".
As the prelude wanes the myth of the past and the traditions of Jacob suggest a god who looks to the future--plans that are far reaching for a culture that shared an unease and desire for a god of problems and movement and mystery.

The novel proper begins with the stories of Jacob the father of Joseph.  Here we see a beautiful young Joseph and an anxious father who is proud of his precocious son, even as his voice is "charged with emotion" as he states in a questioning way, "My child is sitting beside the depths of the well?" 
While Joseph, the bookish child of beauty and brains, asks for a story from his father to entertain him, his father begins a reverie, "pondering" in his own serious way; so much so that he is eventually described as "brooding" over his past life of stolen name and stolen wife and more; yet, through all his pondering in the section called "Names" he ultimately receives from "an extraordinary voice" the name of "Yizrael " . . . "God goes to war".  Thus the first novel of the four that comprise the totality of Joseph and His Brothers begins with mythos, an account, a narrative, yes a story of a man of god and his sons.

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman's Library, 2005 (1933-43)

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Lifelong Favorite

Jane EyreJane Eyre 
by Charlotte Brontë

“I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”  ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

This novel is one of my lifetime favorites. I have read and reread it starting when I was in junior high and again in college and since.  I am not sure why I have not written about it here before but this seems like a propitious moment since it was on this day in 1847 that Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was published.  The reviews were mixed.  William Thackeray, who wrote Vanity Fair, called it "the masterwork of a great genius." One reviewer said: "This is not merely a work of great promise; it is one of absolute performance. It is one of the most powerful domestic romances which have been published for many years."  However, many reviews were negative and some were focused on trying to figure out who had written Jane Eyre, and especially whether the author was a man or a woman. Charlotte Brontë had published the book under the androgynous pseudonym Currer Bell, the same one she had used a year earlier when she published poems by her and her sisters, Emily and Anne. She changed Charlotte to Currer Bell, Emily to Ellis Bell, and Anne to Acton Bell.
Charlotte decided to publish the poems after she accidentally found some poems that Emily had written, and the three sisters realized that they had all been writing poems secretly for years. When she published Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell in 1846, only two copies sold. But she submitted Jane Eyre for publication the next year. It was rejected five times, and then she sent it to Smith, Elder, and Co., her eventual publishers. She sent it with a note that said: It is better in future to address Mr. Currer Bell, under cover to Miss Brontë, Haworth, Bradford, Yorkshire, as there is a risk of letters otherwise directed not reaching me at present.
They agreed to publish it, and it became a huge success, and, a little more than a century later it became one of my earliest favorites, a novel that I would read and reread my whole life.  I am not sure what my original fascination was although the mystery and sinister nature of the boarding school Jane attended was riveting - a different world.  
 The story is of Jane's suffering, first under Mrs. Reed who treats her poorly and then at Lowood the boarding school she is sent to. Jane develops a strong character and excels in her studies. This novel as all the aspects of the traditional bildungsroman and that is one of the reasons I enjoyed reading it. Jane eventually takes position as governess and it is at this point that the novel develops into a romance for she finds a job working for Mr. Rochester teaching a young French girl named Adele at Thornfield. As she teaches there a while, she falls in love with Mr. Rochester, and he falls in love with her. Needless to say there are several more changes in her life before the novel ends, but it never grows old as Bronte's tale seems to inhabit my being more closely than most others.  Perhaps it is the complexity of what seems to be a simple romance; the way Bronte is able to combine the story of the growth of a young girl with a love story that has Gothic overtones.  This was my introduction to classic British literature.

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Saturday, October 05, 2013

A Modern Victorian

The Sweet Dove DiedThe Sweet Dove Died 
by Barbara Pym

"How absurd and delicious it is to be in love with somebody younger than yourself. Everybody should try it." -- Barbara Pym

Only three years before her death by cancer at age sixty-six Barbara Pym was rediscovered and achieved international fame. The loci of the rediscovery was a survey of famous British writers in the January 21, 1977 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, in which two of the famous writers asked to nominate the most underrated book of the previous seventy-five years picked novels by Pym. Philip Larkin, one of the surveyed writers, put Pym in Jane Austen’s league for her ability to keep her reader “always on the verge of smiling.” Recently Alexander McCall Smith echoed this comparison when he singled out Pym’s Excellent Women as “one of the most endearingly amusing English novels of the twentieth century.” 
Among Pym's oeuvre The Sweet Dove Died is my personal favorite with its richly drawn characters including Leonora Eyre, an attractive and elegant, but essentially selfish, middle-aged woman.  Leonora is very much the Victorian trying to live in a post-Victorian world. She surrounds herself with Victoriana, even to the point of replacing her parents’ picture with that of her grandparents because she thinks that they, in their late Victorian dress, are more distinguished looking.  The plot involves her with an antique dealer, Humphrey Boyce, and his nephew James. Both men are attracted to Leonora, but Leonora prefers the young, good-looking James to the more "suitable" Humphrey. Who she will choose to be with and whether they will accept her becomes more and more complicated as the novel progresses. Pym's prose style is felicitous, while her story line is as classically sound as one out of Jane Austen. As with all Pym's fiction, the novel contains many literary references, notably to works by Keats, John Milton and Henry James. And all of her stories are a delight to read for any who enjoy a good English novel.

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Thursday, October 03, 2013

Speculative Satire

City of TruthCity of Truth 
by James K. Morrow

"Every religious and political system has a dark side—or a blind spot. It would be a better world if people were up front about that. And that’s the positive side of what the Veritasians in City of Truth are trying to achieve. If Deepak Chopra lived in Veritas, he would get up there and say, “Let me tell you how much money I’m making. They pay me a lot. They pay me more than you think. And in fact I make all kinds of demands, you know, and I’m actually sort of a prima donna when I come to a university. I expect to be treated really well. Now let me tell you about the humble spiritual life.”"  - James Morrow

According to Kant, human beings occupy a special place in creation, and morality can be summed up in one ultimate commandment of reason, or imperative, from which all duties and obligations derive. Known as the categorical imperative, it denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself. It is best known in its first formulation: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. Based on this Kant asserted that lying, or deception of any kind, would be forbidden under any interpretation and in any circumstance.
Imagine a city, let us call it Veritas, where all human adults are conditioned so that they cannot tell a lie.  This is the premise of James Morrow's novel City of Truth, otherwise known as Veritas.  In it he explores the implications of this for Veritas society. Some of the results are very funny, as any kind of dishonesty or unsubstantiated claims are impossible. So you have cars with such names as the "Ford Sufficient" and "Plymouth Adequate", a restaurant offering "Murdered Cow Sandwich with Wilted Hearts Lettuce and High-Cholesterol Fries", a morning TV programme called "Enduring Another Day", a "Camp Ditch-The-Kids" summer camp, the "Centre for Palliative Treatment of Hopeless Diseases" and (my favourite) an illuminated sign on the cathedral: "Assuming God Exists, Jesus May Have Been His Son".  The effect on interpersonal relationships is indicated by the vow at a traditional wedding ceremony: "To have and to hold, to love and to cherish, to the degree that these mischievous and sentimental abstractions possess any meaning." All those little "white lies" and "lies by omission" which lubricate relationships in our world are impossible, so a degree of frankness which we would consider brutally rude is the norm.  
 The protagonist of this novella, Jack Sperry, leads a simple straightforward life as a "deconstructionist", one who destroys works of art (all basically lies) for his living. His daily life in Veritas is one which is based only on the truth: "There are no metaphors in Veritas"(p 5). He takes his adequate car to his job "at the Wittgenstein Museum in Plato Borough, giving illusion its due."(p 2) When his son Toby, who is away for the summer at "Camp Ditch-the-Kids", is bit by a Rabbit and contracts a fatal disease Jack's life is turned upside-down in more ways than one. His story is a more a fable, a satirical view of the unintended consequences of being unable to lie and the way that humans who can lie deal with the accidents of living. Filled with humorous notions, phrases, and moments that create mental double-takes for the reader this novella is a delight in both its lightness and heaviness (apologies to Milan Kundera). There are lies that we tell ourselves to help us deal with the world, but this story imagines a city where you cannot do that. It is unpleasant and humorous at the same time, but, like a philosophic thought experiment, sometimes it is the best way to illustrate a complicated philosophical concept in the context of a story or situation.
James Morrow has a reputation of presenting big ideas in clever ways (for an example read his Towing Jehovah).   Morrow's style has been likened to Vonnegut's, but this wry little story reminded me of Swift.  City of Truth is clever in ways that will leave you thinking about the meaning of life and the nature of truth for a long time after you finish reading the book.

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Nineteenth Century Globalism

River of SmokeRiver of Smoke 
by Amitav Ghosh

“(...) an instance when Fate had conspired with Nature to give them a sign that theirs was no ordinary journey.”   ― Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke

This is the second novel in a planned trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, set in the late 1830s, on the eve of the first opium war between Britain and China. I read the first, Sea of Poppies, three years ago and enjoyed Amitav's deft use of language as he wove several tales set in the heat of the north Indian plains where the poppies grew; processed in the British opium factories and stored in the wharves of the Hooghly River. River of Smoke continues the story moving the center of the action from Calcutta to the Chinese port-city of Canton (today's Guangzhou).

The story is Dickensian in its sweep of characters who represent different classes and interests that intermingle on the edge of China each linked together by the power of Opium. The book is linked to the first novel by the Ibis, a former slave ship carrying convicts and indentured workers to Mauritius. A storm overtakes the Ibis and the Anahita, an opium carrier out of Bombay owned by Bahram, a Parsi merchant, and the Redruth, outfitted by a Cornish plantsman for botanical exploration. The storm links the destinies of the characters on these three ships. The story is filled with details about the place and time in which you, as reader, are immersed by this novel so much so that you sometimes feel that you are present in Canton, or any of the many other places that Ghosh imagines. While the book focuses on three primary ships and their clan the central characters represent high- and low-life intermingling . Through it all Ghosh conjures up a thrilling sense of place.
Suspense builds as the interests of the British, Indian and other foreign opium traders collide with growing resistance from the Chinese rulers. The conflict is brought to a climax by the appointment of a new commissioner by the Emperor whose primary aim is to put a stop to the quantities of ruinous opium being smuggled into the country. Neither side has completely clean hands and opium, like other drugs in our own era, seemed to have an irresistible power. As Bahram told Napoleon (yes, he and his aide meet the General), opium was like the wind or the tides: "A man is neither good nor evil because he sails his ship upon the wind. It is his conduct towards those around him--his friends, his family, his servants--by which he must be judges." (p 166) In the end, Bahram finds himself wanting.
Canton in the first half of the nineteenth century was one center of globalism of the age. Ghosh's use of language continues to impress the reader as it spans English, Hindi, Parsi, Malay, and Chinese; perhaps at times it becomes overwhelming. Nonetheless the stories and characters who populate them entrance the reader. The metaphors and allusions reach from the West to the East . At one point near the middle of the book there is a reference to Gericault's masterpiece, "The Raft of the Medusa". The plight of these castaways strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for the players in the Opium trade as the events in the book take their toll as the story ends.

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