Sunday, June 29, 2014

More Themes in Shakespeare and Carroll

Alice and Hamlet

What is Alice's problem?  I previously noted two thematic similarities between Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Hamlet.  Reflecting on part of my "Summer" reading that includes Hamlet and Carroll's masterpieces I have noted areas where the different works share themes in common.  Even though, one is a tragic drama and the others are flights of fancy.  So let's go underneath the veneer of comedy in one and tragedy in the other and we may, in fact we will, find some more shared themes.

Hamlet is famous for, among other things, the "play within the play".   A touring group of players arrives and Hamlet arranges for them to perform a play "The Murder of Gonzaga" and add a few lines that he will prepare.  Thus his plan is set and in the soliloquy that ends Act 2 Hamlet declaims:

"Out of my weakness and my melancholy, 
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.  I'll have grounds
More relative than this.  The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King." (II, 2, 630-634)

The insertion of stories, plays, or tales is not uncommon in literary works so is it not surprising that we find the same thing happening in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  In chapter three Alice becomes engaged in an argument over the meaning of it;  "'I know what "it" means well enough, when I find a thing,' said the Duck: 'it's generally a frog, or a worm."  This leads after a bit of a race to the Mouse recounting his sad tale in answer as to why "it is you hate C and D,".  This tale is not amended by Alice nor is it directed, but through her offensive remarks to the mouse (about C and D) she surely causes the tale.  And it is a tale that is delightfully displayed on the page in the shape of a tail!  Later in the story Alice's inquisitiveness once again leads to the relation of a story, this time from the Mock Turtle.  Thus we have yet another common area for these different works with the interpolation of literary works within them in furtherance of the plot. 

While different in scope than the particulars of plot,  a thematic similarity that is just as important for both of these works is the status of words.  We need only go as far as the Second Act of Hamlet in our search to find these famous words from Hamlet to Polonius:  "Words, words, words", (II, 2, 210).
This is an unnecessary reminder that Hamlet is filled with words, many of them new to the English language, from Hamlet's several soliloquies to the famous remarks from the verbose dissembler Polonius to the various discussions of the King and Queen with the court.  Hamlet's comments are the most famous whether it is his "rogue and peasant slave am I" comment or the more famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy.  We find Hamlet orating all the way to the grave where he intones to his friend, "Alas, poor Yorick!  I knew him, Horatio." (V, 1, 190-1)

Alice, while not as verbally adept as Hamlet, has many episodes where words play a significant role during her journeys both in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.  It is the latter that has a moment that has captured my fancy over the years when she meets Humpty Dumpty.  After unsuccessfully attempting  to engage Humpty in conversation, she is asked for "your name and your business".

"'My name is Alice, but----'
'It's a stupid name enough!' Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently.  'What does it mean?'
'Must a name mean something?' Alice asked doubtfully.
'Of course it must,' Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: 'my name means the shape I am--and a good handsome shape it is, too.  With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.'" (p 186)
This leads Alice and Humpty Dumpty into a lengthy discussion about words and age (Alice's) and birthdays, but leading back to words, whereupon we have this wonderful passage:
"'I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously.  'Of course you don't--till I tell you.  I meant "there's a knock-down argument for you!"'
'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be the master---that's all.'" (p 190)

Alice is puzzled by this and you may be as well, but Humpty Dumpty has a point that is worth considering, for just as names may be natural (like Humpty Dumpty's) or conventional (like Alice's) our words have meanings that sometimes seem to have a life of their own, unless we take control.

In conclusion I would suggest that both Hamlet and Carroll's classics take on a different appearance when considered in light of each other.  They both share differences and similarities and at the bottom raise questions that keep readers returning to ponder the delights of them as living works of literature that speak to us today and will still do so tomorrow.  

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. Oxford World Classics, 1971 (1866, 1872)
The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare. Folger Shakespeare Library, 1992 (1603).

Two Novels by John Fowles

The Magus
by John Fowles

“It came to me…that I didn't want to be anywhere else in the world at that moment, that what I was feeling at that moment justified all I had been through, because all I had been through was my being there. I was experiencing…a new self-acceptance, a sense that I had to be this mind and this body, its vices and its virtues, and that I had no other chance or choice.”   ― John Fowles, The Magus

While his novel The Collector was my introduction to the work of John Fowles I was not nearly as impressed with that novel than I was with The Magus. In it I found an intense, engrossing novel that maintained my interest in several ways.

The plot of the novel is a story of a young unhappy man who considers himself a poet and a philosopher. He takes a job at an English boarding school on a Greek island to escape what could become a complicated situation after a young woman with whom he is involved falls in love with him. Having used up his "charm with women," as one of the characters puts it, he sees this a better alternative. On this Greek island, he meets a millionaire named "Conchis" who tells the young man, Nicholas, stories of his life. To Nicholas' surprise, the characters in the stories begin to appear on the estate in what Fowles (in the prologue to the revised edition) describes as a kind of magical realism. While the novel seems to explore the ideas of conflict in mythology and philosophy, it rapidly turns into a kind of psychological mystery as Nicholas becomes more and more enmeshed in Conchis' mind games and it becomes more difficult for him--and the reader--to tell the difference between reality and fiction.

While, I found a certain resonance with Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier, in the showing of a secret hidden world to be explored along with reference to Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, the novel seems as much about the idea of "freedom" in the twentieth century. It also explores the definition of meaningful experiences, both inter-personal and intra-personal. While always artistic even while it sometimes seemed a bit bewildering it was ultimately a great read due to the uniqueness of its structure and its exploration of ideas. Combined with Fowles' beautiful prose that proved to be the right potion for a great novel.

The French Lieutenant's Woman 
by John Fowles

“The supposed great misery of our century is the lack of time; our sense of that, not a disinterested love of science, and certainly not wisdom, is why we devote such a huge proportion of the ingenuity and income of our societies to finding faster ways of doing things - as if the final aim of mankind was to grow closer not to a perfect humanity, but to a perfect lightning-flash.”   ― John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman

In John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman a mid-20th-century author sets out to write a Victorian novel but finds himself beset by his own modern epiphanies, risibility with the Victorians, and characters who resist his pen, insisting upon their own free will, as they refuse to do what the novelist purportedly wants them to. The writer, while trying to mimic Hardy, is too aware of Victorian (and modern) foibles to let himself really write a strictly historical work of fiction.

The plot involves a fairly intelligent Victorian gentleman engaged to marry a respectable young woman, and who becomes fascinated by a dark-haired beauty who stands on a breakwater and stares out to sea (imagine a Caspar David Friedrich painting). Thinking perhaps to help her out of her misery, he falls deeply into her secrets and mystery. I have described him as protagonist and her as antagonist mainly because we see things mostly from his point of view, though she is the center of the narrative. This is a classic Victorian love story. That it is couched within a post-modern, self-conscious meditation on authentic existence, evolution, and Marxism is the twist that Fowles, who also takes brief essay-like excursions into Victorian sex mores, the wonders of wild nature, and other historical topics, gives the reader. The ideas never overwhelm the plot, but merely offer themselves as extra cream for the discriminating reader to enjoy. It is a delight for the aficionado of Victorian literature and one of the easiest to digest of any post-modern novel that I have encountered.

A Modern Parmenides

by Philip K. Dick

“The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Parmenides taught that the only things that are real are things which never change... and the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught that everything changes. If you superimpose their two views, you get this result: Nothing is real.”  ― Philip K. Dick

The novel Ubik is dazzling and complex as Philip K. Dick takes you on a journey through levels of both time and consciousness.  Written in 1969, this science-fiction novel is set in in the future, in 1992, in what is known as the "North American Confederation". In this era, technology has advanced to the extent that normal citizens can take regular outings to space and parapsychology ("psi phenomena": telepathy, precognition, reincarnation and others) are common traits of the people. As well as this, the human life cycle has been extended with people having the ability to sink into the state of "half-life", a phase following death, which allows fully living humans to communicate with their seemingly deceased loved ones.

The hero, Joe Chip, is an everyman who is caught up between other characters and within this world of discontinuities.  Joe along with other main characters are the employees of the Runciter Organization that is owned jointly by Glen and Ella Runciter.  However Ella is dead, or rather being maintained in a "half-life" state and may be consulted when important decisions are required for the business.  A successful company, Runciter specialises in anti-psi talents, for example an anti-precog prevents a precog from seeing the future. After Glen Runciter receives a request to stop psi activity on Luna, another planet, he quickly organizes a group of the best anti-psi agents, including the new and mysterious Pat Conley, who has the rare ability to change events in the past.
But then the team arrives on Luna, discovers it is a trap, seemingly set up by the company's rival, Ray Hollis. Before they know it, a bomb explodes, apparently only killing Runciter. The rest of the team, now led by the protagonist Joe Chip, fly back to Earth to set Runciter in the half-life state.
Upon arriving at Earth, the team begins to experience strange morphs in reality, with food and drinks beginning to "deteriorate". The currency begins to feature Runciter on it, and Joe Chip begins to receive messages from him, suggesting that Glen Runciter must be alive. Soon after, members of the group begin to die in gruesome ways, suggesting time is running out- if it hasn't already - to figure out what is happening, and why the planet is regressing back into time, at an alarming rate.  They come across a strange product called Ubik which is advertised in every time period in the book, implying perhaps this product will be answer to the strange occurrences happening.  

"The primitive forms must carry a residual, invisible, in every object, mused Joe. The past is latent, submerged, but still there and can come to the surface as soon disappear, for whatever unfortunate reason and against what daily experience teaches us the characteristics of the ultimate object, later. The man does not contain the boy, but the men who preceded him. The story began long ago. "  

Even as he goes on a journey backward through time; as objects morph into different forms changing their identities the novel raises questions about the nature of identity of the world and the place of one's self in that world.   There is a fine line between full life and half life, always leaving the reader in doubt as to what is an illusion and what is truly real. There are twists and turns in every chapter which throw the reader off track.  In my own analytical way I assumed that the story must hang together, but perhaps part of Dick's approach includes discontinuities in the narrative that preclude the sort of straightforward analysis that I am used to. This approach leads to some discomfort, but also adds to the appeal of the story.  Epigraphical humor helps lighten the tension that builds in the narrative providing a form of comic relief. This is a novel that truly demonstrates its themes through its structure as well as its characters and plot.   Ubik is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read - and I am certain you will think the same when you read it!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Enigmatic Portuguese Poet

Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected PoemsFernando Pessoa & Co.: 
Selected Poems 
by Fernando Pessoa

“I am nothing.
I'll never be anything.
I couldn't want to be something.
Apart from that, I have in me all the dreams in the world.” 

― Fernando Pessoa

This poem demonstrates Pessoa's art better than any words I may conjure.

Where There Are Roses
We Plant Doubt

Where there are roses we plant doubt.
Most of the meaning we glean is our own,
And forever not knowing, we ponder.
Foreign to us, capacious nature
Unrolls fields, open flowers, ripens
Fruits, and death arrives.
I'll only be right, if anyone is right,
When death at last confounds my mind
And I no longer see,
For we cannot find and should not find
The remote and profound explanation
For why it is we live.

from the Odes

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Underrated Musical Gem


 book by Joseph Stein,  music and lyrics by Marc Blitzstein
 based on the play Juno and the Paycock by Sean O'Casey

Twenty years ago Dublin's Gate Theatre came to Chicago for the International Theatre Festival.  I still remember attending their production of Juno and the Paycock.
  It was one of the high points of the festival which entertained Chicago several times during the 1990s.

Yesterday I was fortunate to attend the musical Juno directed by Nick Bowling and produced by TimeLine Theatre Company in Chicago.  The musical is based on O'Casey's play with music and lyrics by Marc Blitzstein.  While the musical was first produced on Broadway in 1959 this was the first production in Chicago.  This may be due to the poor reception the musical received on its debut when it lasted a mere sixteen performances.  The recording of the original score (see photo) survived and is considered some of Blitzstein's best music.

The TimeLine production was superb with particularly good performances by Marya Grandy and Emily Glick as Juno and Mary Boyle, respectively.  The book followed the original play closely and it was perhaps the darkness of the ending that may have contributed to the poor response from audiences in 1959 (It was also up against a little play from Lerner and Loewe called "My Fair Lady").  It is a very Irish play and the music benefits from reference to Irish melodies.  In all the romance was touching, the comedy uproarious, while the tragic events and overtones of Irish troubles brought a touch of realism that made the action of the musical, like the play it was based upon, universal in character.
The result was a wonderful afternoon of musical theater.

Tragicomedy in Dublin

Juno and the Paycock 
by Seán O'Casey

 “Laughter is wine for the soul - laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness - the hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living.”  ― Seán O'Casey

Juno and the Paycock is the second in his "Dublin Trilogy" that also includes The Shadow of a Gunman and The Plough and the Stars

Juno is the goddess of household in Greek mythology. She has been presented on riding a chariot driven by peacocks. Juno’s husband was Jove, also known as Jupiter or Zeus, chief of Olympian gods. In O'Casey's play he stands for Paycock i.e. showy and vain. And as Juno’s husband Captain Boyle is a very irresponsible and an idle person. This is example of O’Casey’s brilliant ability to create caricature. On the other hand, Juno is called “Juno” because she was born in June, married in June and begot a child in June. Juno’s husband, Captain Boyle, has aristocratic airs about him. He hates manual work. He enjoys the company of courtiers like companion and of some sycophant who adores him in flattery and always praises him.

In the play Boyle’s family consists of four persons; Captain Boyle, Juno Boyle, their son “Johnny” and their daughter “Mary”. The son has been crippled in the war. The daughter works in a factory and the factory workers are on strike. She is very much active in trade union. The arc of the story sees the fortunes of Juno and her family soar with anticipation of an unexpected inheritance only to return to earth in the last half of the play when the inheritance disappears along with the crafty lawyer who duped them and also beguiled Mary. Mary's character has a depth that I enjoyed that was demonstrated by her interest in literature. She always had a book in her hand and was cleverly shown reading Ibsen, whom I am sure likely influenced O'Casey's art.

The background of this tragicomedy is based in the impact of the political strife in Ireland following the Easter Rising of 1916, the Irish War of Independence from 1919-1921, followed by the Irish Civil War. As the play opens son Johnny has already lost an arm in the struggles and he has betrayed Robbie Tancred, a neighbor and fellow comrade in the IRA, who was subsequently killed by Free State supporters; Johnny is afraid that he will be executed as punishment. In spite of this turmoil there were impressive comic moments carefully integrated to lighten the combined impact of poverty and war on the family. One typical moment has Mr. Boyle and his friend Joxer Daly discussing books and history. But their mock-intellectual discussion is interrupted by the voice of a coal vendor. Joxer flies out of the window at hearing the voice of Juno. But in this fun and ludicrous description there is a tinge of pathos as well. For example, at one place, Juno says to Boyle:
“Here, sit down an’ take your breakfast – it may be the last you’ll get, for I don’t know where the next is going to come from.”
Then when there is knocking at the door and Boyle asks Joxer to tuck this head out of the window and see who is there, Joxer replies:
“An, mebbe get a bullet in the kisser?”
Apparently, this remark may be funny but underneath there is a grim tragedy in it … the tragedy of Ireland destroyed and wasted by civil war. Boyle’s remark that:
“… the clergy always had too much power over the people in this unfortunate country.”
This again shows the grim situation of Ireland.
People like Captain Boyle think that if they work under them, they will be promoting the interest of the foreign exploiters. That’s why they degenerate even more.  Thus, the whole burden is on Juno. Juno runs the house. She also symbolizes “Juno” the goddess of household. She is a conventional wife. She has an interesting relationship with her husband. Since she is the earning hand of the family, she dominates and scolds her husband but as a good wife, she also considers her husband as a lord and wishes to serve him. All this creates a very interesting situation. In a way this is a feminist play that Juno struggles evenhandedly to serve her family. She suffers most of all. So, women are weakest of the weak and exploited of the exploits. One very great feature of the play is the realistic depiction of the slum life in Dublin.

I enjoyed The realistic presentation of tragic events leavened by comic moments. The play is considered one of the most effective plays in English literature. O'Casey's handling of both mythic and contemporary themes is matchless. This has heightened the tragic effects and made trivial family story a great tragedy. The play is very humorous and very tragic at same time. O’Casey is the master of creating humour in tragedy and tragedy in humour. In this art, he is very close to Shakespeare. and caricature make this a great play that has been popular in Ireland and elsewhere since its first production.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Quote for Today

What a Chimera is man! What a novelty, a monster, a chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy! Judge of all things, and imbecile norm of the earth; depository of truth, and sewer of error and doubt; the glory and refuse of the universe. Who shall unravel this confusion?

—from the Pensées of Blaise Pascal, born on this day in 1623  

Themes in Shakespeare and Carroll

Hamlet and Alice

Gertrude. Why seems it so particular with thee? 
Hamlet. "Seems," madam? Nay, it is; I know not "seems."
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black, 
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, 
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, 
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem, 
For they are actions that a man might play: 
But I have that within which passeth show; 

These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (75-90)

What is Hamlet's problem?  Almost fifty years since my first reading of Hamlet I am once again reading this tragedy that is nothing if not pregnant with questions worthy of my personal pondering and group discussions.  At the same time as part of my "Summer" reading I am rereading a personal favorite that I have known even longer than Hamlet--Lewis Carroll's twin delights: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.  You may wonder what these apparently different works of literature have in common.  After all, one is a tragic drama and the others are flights of fancy.  Yet peering underneath the veneer of comedy in one and tragedy in the other we may, in fact we will, find some shared themes.

Let us consider a couple of possible common themes.  One that is important to these works is the question of knowledge.  What is the status of knowledge: who knows what and, more importantly, how do we know anything?  In the opening paragraph of Wonderland Alice thinks, "what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?"  One possibility is the book as a source of knowledge and Alice almost immediately demonstrates her interest in knowledge and learning as she is described as "bursting with curiosity" as she runs after the White Rabbit.  As she follows him down the rabbit-hole she is reminded of knowledge and learning from the book-shelves and maps to her memory of school lessons and the thought that this might be an opportunity for her to practice "showing off her knowledge", even though she thinks to herself it is not the most opportune moment for doing so.  Thus knowledge is present as a motif at the beginning of Carroll's story;  at least knowledge of the book-learning sort, and its corollary  curiosity, without which humans might not gain much knowledge.  
Turning to Hamlet, and again focusing on the beginning of the play, we also are presented with questions of knowledge as the soldiers are determined to show Horatio that their knowledge of the presence of a ghost is not merely "our fantasy" but a very real apparition that he may "approve our eyes" with his own knowledge of it.  The reference to their eyes reminds me of the famous opening line of Aristotle's Metaphysics where he states:  "ALL men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; " (Metaphysics, I, 1).

Before we have exited the first chapter of Wonderland we find Alice thinking again (she does quite a lot of this early on because there is no one with whom to converse) about pretending to be two people:  "But it's no use no to pretend to be two people!  Why there's hardly enough left of me to make one respectable person."  I mention this moment (when she had shrunk to the size of a mouse) because it seems to presage the theme of identity that flourishes in the next chapter where we encounter a larger-than-life Alice who  is bemoaning that dilemma when she wonders herself into the ultimate question:  "Who in the world am I?"  This puzzle will continue to haunt her throughout Wonderland and into the Looking-Glass while she carries with her that pesky curiosity which led her down the rabbit-hole in the first place.
But is Hamlet so different from Alice? In scene two of the second act we have the first of Hamlet's great soliloquies where he bemoans his ability to act for he "can say nothing".  He wonders if he is a coward.  In his doubt  he begins to question who he is and will soon be seen by Claudius and Gertrude as confused and possibly mad and certainly unlike the Hamlet they know.  Questions of identity will arise again and again intertwined with self-doubt.  Perhaps in his intelligence Hamlet's identity questions will be much deeper and darker than those of poor Alice, but as humans adrift in worlds turned upside down they both are experiencing aspects of the same issue of identity.

Here we see two important themes begun that are shared by both Hamlet and Alice.  There will undoubtedly be others, but for now I will return to my reading and promise more commentary on these works in the near future.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Dreamer

The AtticThe Attic 
by Danilo Kiš

"Some heavy blue autumn plums dropped onto the path from a shadowy tree whose branches jutted over a fence.  I had never believed that such firm blue plums could exist in autumn.  But back then we were so preoccupied with our embraces that we didn't pay any attention to things like that." (5)

This is a story about a young man in Belgrade named Orpheus. His name alone resonates both in a literary and in a mythical way, creating an interest in his story from the opening pages. It also helped that, as the translator wrote, he is "a writer and a lute-player," and "a philosopher, a dreamer and--probably--a perpetual student". Thus he is a man after my own heart. What followed the opening was a dream-like, somewhat picaresque tale of his experiences in Belgrade with his friends, neighbors and a young girl named Eurydice. He describes that he first met her during a period when "I was feverishly demanding answers from life, so I was caught up in myself". (10) One of the list of philosophical questions (Orpheus liked to make lists, not unlike a literary predecessor named Rabelais) that he was contemplating was, conveniently, "the question of love", which leads him into an attempt to describe Eurydice. Here is his attempt to describe her voice:
"The voice of a silver harp, of a viola with a mute, of a Renaissance lute, the voice of a Swedish guitar with thirteen strings, of Gothic organs or a miniature harpsichord, of a violin staccato or a guitar arpeggio in a minor key." (12) Did I mention the dream-like quality of the story?

Orpheus lives in an attic with his friend Igor and the episodes in his life are strikingly imaginative, providing a contrast with his encounters with other people who seem reality-bound in contrast.  Early in the book he describes his attempts to protect his books from rats, but this episode like so many others could easily be a dream.  It is not that he does not notice the world around him, for at one point he decides to meet the world as it really is; but this does not deter him from his primary aim.  He plans with his friend Igor (also known as Billy Wiseass) to "dedicate ourselves to our studies" at a rented tavern in a small country town.  ""Books are an invention. . . But we will gather around us all kinds of desperados (we especially like this word in those days) and listen to authentic stories, authentic life experiences.  Only that will constitute the true school of life," Billy explained excitedly." (74)

Orpheus is writing a book called The Attic, as he tells his neighbor one morning. The neighbor replies that Orpheus should be careful not to ruin his eyesight with writing by candlelight. Rather he should write by daylight or at least accept the light bulb offered to him.  Orpheus replies that "I write by candlelight . . . So that I create the right atmosphere." (108)
This is a novel written by candlelight and it is in the shadows that the world creeps into the life of young Orpheus. His real life is in his mind and it is as interesting and beautiful as any imagined world could ever be. His life is the artist's life and his world is the writer's world with lists of qualities, learned digressions, and a touch of irony. In all of this the literary allusions seem fitting, just as the book naturally becomes a bit of a miniature bildungsroman.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Further Notes on Samuel Beckett

Collected Shorter PlaysCollected Shorter Plays 


"That sound you hear is the sea. [Pause. Louder.]  I say that sound you hear is the sea, we are sitting on the strand. [Pause.]  I mention it because the sound is so strange, so unlike the sound of the sea, that if you didn't see what it was you wouldn't know what it was." (87)

My recent reading of Beckett's plays included Happy Days, Embers, and Not I, the last two of which are included in this excellent collection of his shorter plays. The length of these plays does not diminish their brilliance or depth of meaning.
In these short plays Beckett focused even more tightly on the inner experience of humanity. In Embers, a play written for the radio Beckett presents a man named Henry who shares his thoughts, both through attempting to tell a story and through memories of his past. With creation of characters his imagination presents these others, including his family, with an intensity that makes them seem alive. Yet it is their ghostly and ephemeral character that takes precedence. In the background the sound of the sea provides an ostinato that is haunting. Henry's imagination, however, weakens over the course of the short play. We first experience this as his story is interrupted more than once, yet he returns to it only with more and more difficulty. 
The memories of his past include scenes with his daughter and his wife, who may be present although her weak monotone voice suggests otherwise. "Not a sound" is a recurring phrase; but more important is the sound of dying embers. Henry tries to make us hear this but cannot project it:
"not a sound, only the fire, no flames now, embers. (Pause.) Embers. (Pause.) Shifting, lapsing, furtive like, a dreadful sound" (90). It is a sound (the title of the play) that we are denied. It represents death and extinction and to give it sound would be to give it life.
Beckett's prose has a serene, almost poetic quality and must have been extremely effective on a radio broadcast.

Happy DaysHappy Days 

"Oh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day!  (Pause. Joy off.)  Another happy day." (23)

Happy Days presents a bleak landscape that is severed from anything like the real world. A woman, Winnie, is buried up to her waist in a mound at center stage. There is one other character, Willie, who for most of the play is hidden behind the mound, burrowing head first into it. However unrealistic this sounds there is a certain realism from  her handbag that contains some of the detritus of everyday life that plays an important role for Winnie. She is a seemingly irrepressibly cheerful woman whose incessant optimistic prattle provides a counterpoint to her situation. She tells a story of a man and woman (Shower or Cooker) who, passing by, speculate as to why she is there and why Willie does not dig her out. This emphasizes the oddness of her situation but does not explain it. The situation is particularly perplexing because the cause of her confinement is indeterminate. It is just as indeterminate as the situation of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. In fact this indeterminacy is one of the overriding themes in the plays of Beckett.
The second act begins with her buried further up to her neck and, combined with her memories that suggest a previous life when she was not buried, present a degenerative condition that is inevitable.
The play is one of contrasts with the chief one being that between Winnie's optimism and the gravity of her situation. In other plays Beckett's characters have recognised the bleakness of their situation and while they do not always strive to face their existence they do not deny its awfulness. Winnie's cheerfulness includes maintaining normal daily rituals like brushing her teeth and cleaning her glasses. The contrast with these rituals and the abnormality of her situation may represent the essence of her need to distract herself from her terminal helplessness. In the second act she has even less to be cheerful about yet still refers to life as "a mercy". She says to Willie, who is trying to crawl up to her level, "Have another go, Willie, I'll cheer you on." (63) It reminds me of the famous quote from the end of Beckett's novel, The Unnamable, "You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on,"

Each of these plays further the poetic and comic world of Samuel Beckett though each present a bleak horizon that is delimited by indeterminacy.  Perhaps this is the indeterminacy of the post-modern world or rather, it is the nature of our home in the universe.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Eerie Encounters

An Autumn StoryAn Autumn Story 
by Tommaso Landolfi

"I looked forward to nightfall, which might possibly enlighten me.  Meanwhile, I made a firm and nasty decision to pay no attention whatsoever to the old man's threats, and to pursue my investigation." (72)

The narrator of this war-time tale is a fugitive. As the novella opens the narrator is being chased and after going further and further into forest clad ravines that are foreign and strange to him he encounters an eerie mansion in the woods. He explores around the grounds and almost immediately encounters two ferocious wolfhounds. Ultimately an old man appears and lets him enter. The strangeness of the place grows slowly with the fugitive narrator soon feeling that the house itself was alive:
"Climbing over a mountain, the sun had finally reached the window. But the window seemed, if I may put it this way, surprised and annoyed by that torrent of light. Every single object appeared virtually stupefied--I might almost say: bewildered." (36)
The fugitive is allowed to stay by the old man and later he has a chance to explore "every nook and cranny of the place." His exploration leads him to a room with a large portrait of a woman that almost instantly mesmerizes him. He describes the portrait in detail but finds "the most vivid and disturbing element was her huge, dark eyes. Their deep gaze seemed to have the same character as the old man's gaze and, hence, that of the dogs: It was animated by the same gloom, indeed a more imperious one, and, simultaneously, by the same remote and pitiable bewilderment,if not desperation. The common character, therefore had to be due to a more subtle kinship than that of blood, if man and beast were on a par here. And yet her gaze spoke on infinity of other languages to the senses and the heart! Her eyes seemed intensely magnetic, and I was unable to look away."(45-46)

This is only one third of the way into the story, and the mysteries continue to build as the fugitive has further encounters with the presence of this eldritch place at the edge of the world. The motifs of eyes, gazes, gloom, and disturbance abound as the enigmatic experiences of the fugitive heighten the tension.  We gradually learn more about the background of the old man, and more about his strange mansion, and the discovery of a woman in the mansion:  
"Curling, twisting, thickening, the smoke gave way to a large female figure emerging from the brazier.  Hovering in mid-air, the figure still vaguely undulated all over, but then coagulated, rapidly fixing into a precise image, with alternate streams of light, or rather smoke, pouring through it.  As if the smoke were the figure's visible blood." (103)
Whether this is a dream or reality the women of this strange place become just another piece of the mystery.  For just as the fugitive searches following paths are compared to the "thread of Ariadne", the reality of the place and its inhabitant(s) come into question. The catastatis of the narrative provides complexities sufficient to make this one of the most competent novellas of its kind. That is a story of adventure, Eros, and mystery combined with a deeper sense of the spirit of the unknown.
The author, Tommaso Landolfi has justly been compared to Poe, but I found the eeriness of the story more subtle than most tales by Poe. This story was tinged with the aura of Kafka and Borges making it a rich reading experience that rewards those who love the unusual in literature.

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Friday, June 06, 2014

Compassion for the Combatants

Regeneration (Regeneration, #1)Regeneration 
by Pat Barker

“In her novel Regeneration, Pat Barker writes of a doctor who 'knew only too well how often the early stages of change or cure may mimic deterioration. Cut a chrysalis open, and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly, a fit emblem of the human soul, for those whose cast of mind leads them to seek such emblems. No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay.”   ― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Regeneration was a Booker Prize nominee described by the New York Times Book Review as one of the four best novels of the year in its year of publication. It is the first of three novels in the Regeneration Trilogy of novels on the First World War, the other two being The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, which won the Booker Prize in 1995. The novel is loosely based on the history of psychology and the real-life experiences of British army officers like Siegfried Sassoon being treated for shell shock during World War I at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Barker attributed the immediate inspiration for Regeneration to her husband, a neurologist familiar with the writings of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers and his experiments with nerve regeneration.

Some of the themes in the novel include madness, homosexuality, loss of masculinity and the idea of regeneration itself. Madness is exhibited through symptoms such as mutism, fear of blood, and Sassoon's angry anti-war declaration.  “I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”  Because such behavior is deemed unacceptable Sassoon is given the label "shell-shocked" to discredit his views. Rivers eventually questions whether it is "mad" for these soldiers to have broken down in war or to blindly follow the orders which they are given. Rivers also questions whether it is right to treat this "madness" only to send soldiers back to the war which made them mad in the first place. 

“This reinforced Rivers’s view that it was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were inclined to point to as the explanation for their condition. That would help to account for the greater prevalence of anxiety neuroses and hysterical disorders in women in peacetime, since their relatively more confined lives gave them fewer opportunities of reacting to stress in active and constructive ways. Any explanation of war neurosis must account for the fact that this apparently intensely masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace.” 

 Love between men is another theme explored as in war the bond between men is a desired quality, and Sassoon is condemned for the love that he shows towards his fellow men. The idea of a loss of masculinity runs throughout the novel. Anderson has dreams where he wears female corsets; Rivers contemplates the feminine qualities needed for his caring profession. Sassoon describes a male soldier who loses his genitals in a war accident and also contemplates the idea of an "intermediate sex"; the boundaries between the two traditional genders are becoming increasingly blurred as soldiers begin to lose the qualities which are, for them, essential in their identity as 'men'. Rivers also remarks on the fact that soldiers serving in the trenches – confined, powerless, forced to do nothing for long stretches despite intense stress – suffer similar symptoms as do women during peace-time.

“Sometimes, in the trenches, you get the sense of something, ancient. One trench we held, it had skulls in the side, embedded, like mushrooms. It was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough's army, than to think they'd been alive a year ago. It was as if all the other wars had distilled themselves into this war, and that made it something you almost can't challenge. It's like a very deep voice, saying; 'Run along, little man, be glad you've survived” 

Many patients also refer to Rivers as a father figure; one of River's former patients, Layard, refers to Rivers as a "male mother". It is through this compassion that the soldiers are able to "regenerate" – the motif of the novel from which the title is taken. Rivers explores the fact that his role in helping the soldiers to express their painful experiences means that he requires the skills and traits typical of a woman. He dislikes the idea that nurturing is a uniquely female trait. Rivers also throughout the novel is constantly trying to be a 'fatherly figure' to his patients. This is emphasized by the job that he does. The combined effect of the thematic material and the lucid style of Barker make this a superior historical novel.

Update of GoodReads Review

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Nest of Vipers

Bring Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell, #2)Bring Up the Bodies 
by Hilary Mantel

What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”   ― Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

I began reading this book with trepidation because I was dissatisfied with her earlier novel, Wolf Hall. Fortunately I was quickly disabused of this notion and found myself truly enjoying the narrative and style of this second volume of a planned trilogy, although I could not find any characters that I really liked.
The novel spans the death of one spurned Queen (Katherine) and the execution of another. It displays an Anne Boleyn reduced in power—“her dark glitter, now rubbed a little, flaking in places” (36)—to one encircled, tried, and eventually executed, flattened to a “puddle of gore”(397). This is not a novel about Queen Anne, however, so much as a continuation of Mantel’s thorough and interesting portrait of the man in charge of underwriting her doom, Thomas Cromwell. Mantel portrays a Cromwell as a penetrating and unsettling man who “has a way of getting his way . . . [who] will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and . . . introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed” (6).

Later in the novel this passage sums up Cromwell's mission:
“Rafe asks him, could the king's freedom be obtained, sir, with more economy of means? Less bloodshed?
Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.”

After the death of Thomas More (in the previous novel) the Church and State are one under the mastery of Henry VIII. And immediately under Henry is Thomas Cromwell, a Machiavellian who finds Machiavelli’s book “trite,” a statesman who can crush a man’s life with a single word (71). He is also brilliant, untiring, and capable of deep loyalty and surprising acts of kindness and charity. Mantel presents through Cromwell's eyes an England teeming with beauty as well as with cruelty and death: a landscape where “each leaf of a tree, the sun behind it, [hangs] like a golden pear” (8). Cromwell is, like many of Mantel’s fictional characters, an outsider—in this case, one that cannot forget his own history, retaining empathy for the maltreated, the poor and ill-bred. His is the oblique gaze of a modern: even as he carries out the King’s dark orders, Cromwell imagines an England with better roads built from taxes levied on the wealthy (43). The court may scorn him as “a blacksmith’s boy,” but Cromwell is convinced a man can rise from humble origins: “In a generation everything can change” (43). However, I am not sure he is completely convinced of this as he is continually under pressure to carry out Henry's wishes. Thinking about writing a book about Henry Cromwell imagines a faux Henry in his mind as he remembers Erasmus's words: "you should praise a ruler even for the qualities he does not have. For the flattery gives him to think. And the qualities he presently lacks, he might go to work on them." (67) This is a dream for the lies abound and the deeds are often bloody, but the nobles and courtiers who are affected are not a sympathetic lot. The whole crowd of primary players resemble nothing better than a nest of vipers.
As the novel winds its way to the expected denouement Thomas Cromwell plays families against one another and uses the fear of Henry as a trump card. The result are indictments of the Queen and her "conspirators".
"When the indictments come to his hand, he see at once that, though the script is a clerk's the king has been at work. He can hear the king's voice in every line: his outrage, jealousy, fear." (346) They are filled with details about kisses, touchings, gifts, and multiple dates of offences, so "if there is specific denial of one date, one place, it will not be enough to injure the whole." (347)

There are some warm moments between Cromwell and his son Gregory, but by the end of the novel he is preparing Gregory for the realities of adulthood by bringing him to witness, albeit kneeling and bowed, the beheading of Anne Boleyn. In spite of the bloody politics of state among mostly detestable characters the tautly-written narrative was appealing and presented the events in a more understandable manner than the first volume. This is a historical novel worth reading for its insights into events that most will be familiar with before they open page one.

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