Friday, September 25, 2015

Traces of the Past

The Search Warrant: Dora BruderThe Search Warrant: Dora Bruder 
by Patrick Modiano

"It takes time for what has been erased to surface.  Traces survive in registers, and nobody knows where these registers are hidden, and who has custody of them, and whether or not their custodians are willing to let you see them.  Or perhaps they have simply forgotten that such registers exist." (p 9)

I had not heard of Patrick Modiano before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year. He was born outside Paris in 1945 to a Sephardic Jewish family with roots originally in Italy, although his ancestors, longtime inhabitants of Thessaloniki, Greece, included eminent rabbis. While he is apparently quite popular in France he is not well-known in the United States. Our Thursday evening reading group chose to read his novel, The Search Warrant (also known as Dora Bruder), this month.

At the core of this poignant novel, published in 1997, is Modiano's real-life investigation into the disappearance of a young Jewish girl-Dora Bruder, announced in a newspaper—back in 1941. Struck by this discovery, haunted by the legacy of this mysterious teenager, the author seeks out any tiny scraps of information in an effort to finally come to terms with his own lost adolescence.
What first impressed me was the economical, straightforward, journalistic style of the narrator; basically a stand-in for the author. Yet this was not journalism but rather a sort of fictional historical memoir. The narrative blends both the search for information about Dora with reminiscences of the narrator's own youthful memories. There is so little true information about Dora that the narrator tries to compensate with details about the events and places of the time that Dora was alive.  Searching for documents, he describes those that may still exist, that may be remembered or may yield memories of her life and his own.  The result is the gradual recreation of the world as it was then with fascinating details that bring the narrative to life.

Among the few specifics about Dora the narrator scatters speculation like this moment:
"My father had barely mentioned this young girl when, for the first and only time in his life, one night in June 1863, he told me about his narrow escape as we were dining in a restaurant off the Champs Elysees almost opposite the one where he had been arrested twenty years before. He gave me no details about her looks or clothes, and I had all but forgotten her until the day I learned of Dor Bruder's existence. Then, suddenly remembering the presence of this young girl among the other unknowns with my father in the Black Maria on that February night, it occurred to me that she might have been Dora Bruder, that she too had just been arrested and was about to be sent to Tourelles."(pp 57-8)

This is noted more than one third of the way through the novel following tidbits from documents, gleanings of register entries, and a brief history of her family. One of the pieces of data is the presence of her name on a list of Jews deported to Auschwitz in September 1942.  The book is part meditation on this loss and the greater loss of humans, their stories and their history. There were further moments in the narrative where the subjunctive is suggested with events that could have taken place but about which we do not know anything. Thus we have another theme of this work, the problem of knowledge, that is demonstrated with the blending of bits of historical data with suggestions about what or where Dora fits into the story.

There is also the narrator's own story exemplified by his own youthful episode of running away from boarding school; the intensity about which he writes:
"I remember the intensity of my feelings while I was on the run in January 1960 -- an intensity such as I have seldom known." (p 71).  He goes on to compare this personal episode to Dora's experience suggesting that it must have been harder for her in a world dominated by Nazi occupation and the war. The fate of Dora is thus intertwined with that of French Jews as well. Sometimes a whole chapter is spun out of a speculation on the simple question of what happened to Dora at such and such a time. Somehow the speculation, the bits of data, the mix of authorial reflection with Dora's story all combine to create a fascinating and inexplicably suspenseful novel.

It is short and intense and rewards the reader with the urge to start rereading it almost immediately to see if the intensity of the experience might be heightened by doing so. Alice Kaplan, who teaches Patrick Modiano's work at Yale, said that after her first experience of reading him she "devoured all of his books." (Alice Kaplan on Patrick Modiano) This was my first excursion in the writing of Patrick Modiano. It will not be my last.

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Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Detritus from Alien Visitors

Roadside PicnicRoadside Picnic 
by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

"'Imagine a picnic----'
Noonan jumped. 'What did you say?'
'A picnic.  Imagine: a forest, a country road, a meadow. . .

'I get it,'  said Noonan.  'A roadside picnic.'
'Exactly.  A picnic by the side of some space road.  And you ask me whether they'll come back . . .'" (pp 129-30)

When we meet Redrick Schuhart, the protagonist of this story, he is working as a laboratory assistant at the Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures. But he is also a "stalker", only twenty-three when the book begins, and already an expert in the dangers and possibilities of The Zone. The Zone is one of several areas created from the remains of a brief alien visitation. Now gone, the aliens left in their wake both advanced items of technology and areas where the laws of physics no longer apply, or where strange substances and forms instantly kill or disable any human that comes into contact with them.

We learn in the prologue through an interview with the Nobel laureate who discovered the source of the zones. humans have set up an institute that delves into the Zone in order to extract technology. It is the Zone that also attracts illegal Stalkers who venture into the Zone without the technological safeguards offered by the institute but for whom the potential rewards on the black market are far greater. As the story continues we follow Red as he first gets lured into the world of illegal Stalking and then, after a period in prison, as he prepares to venture deep into the Zone in search of a golden ball that is said to grant wishes.
The main setting of the novel is in Harmont, a town near one of the zones in an unnamed country. The setting seems contemporary but, lacking veridical landmarks it takes on a dream-like quality. Red describes Harmont:
"Our little town is a hole. Always was and always will be. Except right now, it's a hole into the future. And the stuff we fish out of this hole will change your whole stinking world. Life will be different, the way it should be, and no one will want for anything. That's our hole for you. There's knowledge pouring through this hole. And when we figure it out, we'll make everyone rich, and we'll fly to the stars, and we'll go wherever we want. That's the kind of hole we have here . . ." (p 42)

These thoughts provide a somewhat idealistic patina for the dangers Red and his cohorts face. About a quarter of the way into the story the narration shifts from first to third person. This transition occurs smoothly and allows for a type of objectivity for the reader after having been inside the head of Redrick Schuhart. It also allows the author to present scenes that Red is not aware of and to discuss ideas that are raised by the events in the story. I found the questions raised thought-provoking. What were the aliens doing on Earth and why did they stop here? Did they notice the existence of human life or were they oblivious to it?
"'what if I turn out to be completely superfluous in their society?' He became more animated. 'What if we're all superfluous? . . . your question falls under the umbrella of a pseudoscience called xenology. Xenology is an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. At its core is a flawed assumption---that an alien race would be psychologically human.'" (p 129)

There is implicit criticism of the scientific bureaucracy that rings true, but is not identified with a specific terrestrial culture. Along with this the issue of technological change is raised. One wonders what effect dramatic overnight changes in technology might have on our culture. Should we be protected from those changes? Entry to the zones is prohibited to all but a few.

Red has his entire life determined by the Zone. As the book begins, he is defined by his superior knowledge of the Zone's dangers; later he acquires a wife and a daughter as a result of the affairs that he has while living the Stalker's life. Red and his fellow "stalkers" choose to ignore the prohibition risking incarceration at the least and, more importantly, the possibility of death. The denouement of this short novel leaves the reader wondering if this choice is worth the risk.  

Roadside Picnic is a thrilling and beautifully written novel. In the opening part Red Schuhart almost comes across as a hard-boiled narrator but less cynical; later, he remains a curious protagonist throughout the narrative. This is a surreal, tense story that threw out the rules found in a ‘first contact’ novel and ended up redefining the genre. It is an exciting science fiction adventure that blends cultural criticism and philosophical speculation.

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Northwest Family Saga

Sometimes a Great NotionSometimes a Great Notion 
by Ken Kesey

“Look...Reality is greater than the sum of its parts, also a damn sight holier. And the lives of such stuff as dreams are made of may be rounded with a sleep but they are not tied neatly with a red bow. Truth doesn't run on time like a commuter train, though time may run on truth. And the Scenes Gone By and the Scenes to Come flow blending together in the sea-green deep while Now spreads in circles on the surface. So don't sweat it. For focus simply move a few inches back or forward. And once more...look.”   ― Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion

It's the birthday of Ken Kesey who was born in La Junta, Colorado  in 1935.  He grew up in Oregon - swimming, fishing, and riding the rapids on the Willamette River with his brother, Chuck.  Kesey went to Stanford University, where he studied creative writing and when you mention his name most people respond with a reference to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, especially after the Academy Award-winning film version directed by Milos Forman and starring Jack Nicholson enhanced its fame. But Sometimes a Great Notion, with its portrayal of family and labor discord in waterlogged Oregon timber country, resonated with many readers in the Northwestern United States and elsewhere.  I read it several years ago as example of literature about business and it is an admirable example of a genre that has produced Norris's The Octopus, Dreiser's The Financier, and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities.

Sometimes a Great Notion has Shakespearean themes played out against a natural rugged Oregon backdrop. Considered by many to be the heavyweight champion of Northwest novels, it is a huge, bold, sprawling, and brilliant narrative of one family's drive to survive and succeed. I found Kesey's style was reminiscent of Faulkner with his use of a 'stream of consciousness' approach in telling the family saga of the Stamper family. "Never give an inch" was their motto. No Northwest novel may have a more Northwest opening passage than Sometimes a Great Notion, which begins with a passage that tracks the birth of a river:

"Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range ... come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River. ... The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting ... forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creek, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce -- and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir -- the actual river falls 500 feet ... and look: opens out upon the fields."

Kesey does not only bring the Northwest alive, but his themes are those that humanity has pondered for centuries. Consider time:
“Time overlaps itself. A breath breathed from a passing breeze is not the whole wind, neither is it just the last of what has passed and the first of what will come, but is more--let me see--more like a single point plucked on a single strand of a vast spider web of winds, setting the whole scene atingle. That way; it overlaps...As prehistoric ferns grow from bathtub planters. As a shiny new ax, taking a swing at somebody's next year's split-level pinewood pad, bites all the way to the Civil War. As proposed highways break down through the stacked strata of centuries.”
And of course the importance of reading:
“He couldn't seem to get his teeth into anything. Except books. The things in books was darn near more real to him than the things breathing and eating.”

All of the ideas are distilled into a saga that blends Nature and the Stamper family into a story that is unforgettable. By the way, in 1970 there was film version of Sometimes a Great Notion. It starred Paul Newman and Henry Fonda, and like the book it is not nearly as popular as the 1975 film version of "Cuckoo's Nest" mentioned above. But I would encourage readers who enjoy big bold novels to check out the less-well-known novel by Ken Kesey and judge for themselves.

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Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Presence of Ghosts

Dead Authors

"The older I get, the more convinced I am that the best books
 are by dead writers.  Even if they are not yet dead, to sense 
 their presence is to sense a ghost."
- Orhan Pamuk, Other Colors, p 4

For more than two decades I have adhered, in part, to the view of Orhan Pamuk in my choice of which books to read.  I have found that many of the best books are by dead authors.  When I first started to read books by dead authors I was not surprised by the quality, but I was surprised by the not infrequent discovery of 'new' dead writers - at least new to my experience.  Some of the great books that I have enjoyed while traveling with the ghosts of these new dead writers include The Dwarf by Par Lagerkvist, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, and Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar.  This reading has also led me to great historical fiction like The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa or The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell,  and crime fiction like The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. 

I have long been enamored of the great writers of the past who have been my reading companions from an early age.  My favorites among these include the Brontes, Dickens, Hardy, Dostoevsky, Dumas, and Maugham.  There is little need to look for great living writers (except for Nobel prize winners like Coetzee, Pamuk, and Modiano) when you can savour the work dead writers like Naguib Mafouz or Albert Camus, also a Nobel prize authors.  Literature that has passed on beyond the life of the author begins to attain the patina of transcendence and with this the imprimatur of greatness.  These books are worth putting on the top of your reading list - setting aside the latest best-sellers for the day, whether tomorrow or next year, when their author may join the ghosts of other dead authors.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Writers on Reading

The Essays

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. 

from Of Studies By Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator and author. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England. After his death, he remained extremely influential through his works, especially as philosophical advocate and practitioner of the scientific method during the scientific revolution.
He is considered the creator of empiricism.  His works established and popularized inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method.  His demand for a planned procedure of investigating all things natural marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, much of which still surrounds conceptions of proper methodology today.
Bacon was knighted in 1603, and created both Baron Verulam in 1618 and Viscount St. Alban in 1621;  as he died without heirs, both peerages became extinct upon his death. He famously died by contracting pneumonia while studying the effects of freezing on the preservation of meat.

The Essays by Francis Bacon. Penguin Classics, 1986 (1597) 

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Byzantine in the Best Way

The LuminariesThe Luminaries 
by Eleanor Catton

“There is a great deal of difference between keeping one’s own secret and keeping a secret for another soul; so much so that I wish we had two worlds, that is a word for a secret of one’s own making and a word for a secret that on did not make, and perhaps did not wish for, but has chosen to keep, all the same.” (p 788)

This is a complicated novel that rewards the reader who can stay the course. You know that a novel is going to have some complications when it begins with, not only a "Note to the Reader" about the use of "stellar and planetary positions" in the story, but there follows a "Character Chart" on the subsequent page. With twenty listed characters, twelve of whom are the "luminaries" mentioned in the first sentence of the opening chapter and one of whom is dead, you quickly perceive both the value of this chart and its importance for your sanity as a reader.

Needless to say, due to the complications of the plot I will not be able to recount all of the events that occur in the twelve parts into which the story is divided. No risk of any plot spoilers here. However some of the highlights of the story that were impressed on my memory include:  Five dresses filled with gold, more gold discovered in a dead hermit’s cottage, a lovely young prostitute who nearly overdosed on opium, questions about the ownership of a boat named the Godspeed, and the motivations of the dozen “luminaries” who have gathered together in the smoking room of a second-rate New Zealand hotel when the novel opens to discuss a few of these curiosities.

Catton's prose style is engaging, which helps when the first part is a mere 360 pages (and even this number is significant). The narration starts with one of the twelve, Thomas Balfour, but an omniscient narrator takes over to "impose a regimental order upon the impatient chronicle of the shipping agent’s roving mind". Thank goodness. Otherwise the novel might have run on for another 800 pages. The first part ends with a neat little summary of some of the high points so far and the remaining eleven parts gradually shorten so much that the final four parts average less than three pages each.

The various story lines do come together (I believe) and there are more notable events including an evil ship’s captain with a C-shaped scar, a brothel madam who conducts a seance, a blackmailed politician and a riveting courtroom scene, and a phantom aboard the Godspeed, “the dead man rising, his bloody throat, his cry,” that greets Walter Moody (whom we also met back on the first page) on his way to New Zealand. It is the New Zealand of 1865 and 1866 that is the setting for this novel that proves you do not have to cover a great many years to produce a long (830 pp) novel. It reminded me of Vikram Seth's skill in portraying about two years of Indian history over a span of more than 1400 pages in his delightful novel, A Suitable Boy.

Eleanor Catton succeeds in creating an historical mystery(s) with a byzantine plot that manages to entertain on almost every page. She was so successful that she was awarded the 2013 Mann Booker Prize;  a prize that usually goes to short, dense, self-consciously literary novels.  The entertainment was sufficient for this reader to recommend the book to all who enjoy big novels that are both complicated and satisfying.

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Friday, September 04, 2015

Symphony of a Novel

Body and SoulBody and Soul 
by Frank Conroy

 "Musique, nourriture et femmes. Tels sont les grands plaisirs de la vie. Les plaisirs durables. Vous apprendrez cela, jeune moine. 
- J'ajouterais les livres, fit Claude, quelque peu embarassé. Vous savez, de bons livres. - Bien entendu! Vous êtes un amateur de livres! C'est parfait. - Ils ne vous laissent pas tomber." *  — Frank Conroy

This was Frank Conroy's debut novel, although he was already well-known for his brilliant memoir Stop-Time, Body and Soul is the exploration of the life of a child prodigy, raised in poverty and neglect but achieving fame and fortune through his incredible musical gift. The saga chronicles his struggles with himself, his environment, his family, his ambition, and ultimately with the talent that has given him everything. In part it is a bildungsroman and reminded me of favorites like Great Expectations and Of Human Bondage. It is, as Conroy himself put it, “a real old-fashioned novel—a big fat book with a lot of people and a lot of plot.” Body and Soul encompasses not only the hopes and dreams of its protagonist, but of readers who are Frank Conroy fans as well.

It tells the story of Claude Rawlings’ passage in life from the age of six, when he discovers an old console piano in the rear room of the Manhattan tenement he occupies with his 6-foot, 300-pound taxi-driving mother, to fulfillment as a piano virtuoso. Claude Rawlings, at six, is a voracious reader. He lives in the less nice part of the Upper East Side, and strikes up a friendship with Mr. Weisfeld, the owner of a music store on Third Avenue. Claude wants to learn how to play the piano. Mr. Weisfeld hands him a book of lessons for beginners. “Can you read?” Weisfeld asks. “Words, I mean.” “I can read. I read all the time,” Claude answers. “The newspaper. Sometimes she [his mother] brings home Life magazine or Reader’s Digest. I read books, too… . I could read when I was four.”

He introduces Claude to “the maestro,” a mysterious and rich man in a big apartment on Park Avenue, who allows Claude to practice on his fancy piano. Claude is spoken of as “the wunderkind.” After the maestro dies, leaving Claude his piano and enough money to cover lessons with the most brilliant piano teachers in the metropolitan area, Claude’s powers increase. He gains entry into an exclusive East Side prep school, where he gets to be pals with another genius, a British boy with a photographic memory.

Conroy parallels Claude’s professional growth with his spiritual growth. Claude uses his absorption in music to deaden the shock of personal crises. This long novel opens in 1945, with the end of World War II, and concludes at some indeterminate point in the 1970’s, with Claude about to perform his first piano concerto in London. It is a beautiful symphony of a novel that had me under its spell.

*"Music, food and women. These are the great pleasures of life. The lasting pleasures. You will learn this young monk.
- I would say the books, said Claude, somewhat puzzled. You know, good books.
- Of course! You are a book lover! That's perfect.

- They do not let you down. "

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Novel of Ancient Greece

The Mask of ApolloThe Mask of Apollo 
by Mary Renault

""There is a book of Plato's I read once--yes, truly, I read the whole of it.  It was a supper party where they made speeches in praise of love.  I dare say you know it?'
'Yes,' said Speusippos.  'Yes, I have read The Symposion once or twice.  I reread it yesterday.'" (p 236)

Historical novelist Mary Renault was  born Eileen Challans in Forest Gate, England, on this day in 1905.  She is best known for her novels of Ancient Greece and studied at Oxford, where J.R.R. Tolkien was one of her tutors. 

I love her historical fiction and this is the first of her novels that I read. At the time I already had begun to acquire a passion for ancient Greece from a wonderful Latin teacher in high school. Luckily for us in addition to teaching us Latin our teacher imbued in us an interest in learning about everything classical that grew for me into more reading and led me to the discovery of Mary Renault and her historical fiction set in ancient Greece. The story of The Mask of Apollo involves the world of live theater and political intrigue in the Mediterranean at the time.

The narrator, Nikeratos is a successful professional actor, and Renault vividly evokes the technologies and traditions of classic Greek Tragedy. With detailed recreations of what might have been involved in the staging of a theatrical production of the time, she describes the music, scenery, mechanical special effects devices, and especially the practice of the three principal actors sharing the various roles in a performance, along with authentic gossip involved in these casting decisions.

Nikeratos, is an invented character, but real historical figures such as Dion of Syracuse and Plato make appearances. It is Renault's seamless blend of real historical characters within her fictional stories that makes her novels come alive for me. I even sometimes think, being an inveterate play-goer, what would it be like to pray or prepare a sacrifice for the success of the play before-hand. Some plays could use the help. I would recommend Mary Renault's novels of Ancient Greece to anyone who has an interest in our classical Greek heritage.

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