Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Maugham's Bondage

Of Human BondageOf Human Bondage 
by W. Somerset Maugham

“Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.”   ― W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

W. Somerset Maugham was born on January 25, 1874. While I've enjoyed reading many of his novels and stories, Of Human Bondage stands alone among them as one of my favorite novels. Yet, strangely, I have difficulty understanding the mind and actions of Philip Carey, the hero (anti-hero?) of this novel.  If for nothing else, his habit of reading, referred to in the above quote, endeared him to this reader early in his story.

 Philip, like the author himself, is orphaned and brought up by his uncle. Harshly treated, he is burdened with liabilities, both physical, a clubfoot, and intellectual, a habit of making the least of his opportunities through bad choices and/or lack of talent.  The first half of the novel begins with the death of Philip's mother and his harsh treatment by his selfish and hypocritical uncle while undergoing the tortures of his classmates and masters at King's School in Tercanbury.  This early part of the novel is in a Victorian style somewhat reminiscent of Dickens's Great Expectations.

The novel is written as a sort of bildungsroman and, as it continues, it traces the protagonist's education and travels to Germany, Paris, and London, while exploring both his intellectual and emotional growth. In this it somewhat reminds me of Flaubert's novel, A Sentimental Education , which possibly influenced Maugham. As Philip matures he settles into a sort of life in London, but continues to make the wrong choices. In so doing he enters a destructive relationship with a self-centered, crude Cockney waitress named Mildred. In spite of all the bad choices and ensuing difficulties Philip eventually finds a woman who is right for him.  While Maugham exhibits a Schopenhaurian philosophic view of man in bondage to his will, the novel, with it's pleasant conclusion and lucid prose style, succeeds - just as Philip overcomes his passions.  Maugham's story is beautifully told and as a result I have been drawn back to it again and again over the years.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Man of Two Faces

The SympathizerThe Sympathizer 
by Viet Thanh Nguyen

"I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.  I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such.  I am simply able to see any issue from both sides." (p 1)

I do not always enjoy reading prize-winning books but this is one that is not only enjoyable but also suspenseful and historical. It is a unique mix of realistic action and superb emotional detail. The author also filled it with literary references beginning with the opening lines -- a clever allusion to the great novel, Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.

The novel has an anonymous narrator who lives a complicated and fascinating life as a double agent, publicly serving as an aide to a South Viet Namese general while secretly being a spy for North Viet Nam. He is conflicted about where he stands within his political beliefs and in the world itself. His efforts to survive in two worlds at once lead him into complicated and exciting situations as the novel progresses.

When the story begins, the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is being held captive and forced to write his confession for the commandant. He begins his confession at a point in time when he is still in Vietnam and Saigon is about to fall. This leads to one of the most suspenseful sections of the story as he and the General's entourage attempt to escape from Saigon during the last days before the city succumbs to the North Viet Namese troops. They succeed and he returns to Los Angeles where he had previously attended school.

The theme of Betrayal pervades the novel. From the beginning the narrator is a man whose life is filled with moments of betrayal. His first betrayal is in that he keeps his identity as a communist a secret from one of his best friends, Bon. He and Man lie to Bon about their political views and even lie to him by saying that Man will be following them to America as they leave Vietnam because they know Bon will not go otherwise. The narrator really lives a life in which he must betray someone on a daily basis while he is a spy.

There is also a theme of doubling as the narrator is a double agent. But the narrator is “double” in another significant sense that frames this work: He’s biracial, with a Vietnamese mother and a French father, a mixed-race “bastard” who is bullied and ostracized his whole life.

As the story unfolds, the narrator is increasingly hard to figure. He has a few friends in L.A. and an American girlfriend, but he seems perpetually unmoored. Even though he is writing a confession, he often straddles the two opposing sides, sympathizing with “the enemy,” so that he operates from a murky morality. He is a communist but not a particularly ideological or zealous one.

The novel contains comic moments to offset the suspense of the action and the emotional tension of maintaining a double life. While it turns darker in the final section when the narrator returns to Viet Nam with the General to assist the resistance, the fine writing carries you through to the end. The totality of the story provides a new and interesting perspective on a moment in American history that many like myself lived through. This inventive tale is above all a great read that I would recommend to anyone interested in the history of our not too distant past.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Story of Atonal Mortality

Death in RomeDeath in Rome 
by Wolfgang Koeppen

The Council of Trent has accepted Palestrina's music.  The congress of Rome would reject Siegfried's.  That too depressed Siegfried, depressed him while still rehearsing, depressed him even though he'd come to Rome expecting to be rejected, telling himself he didn't care." (p 9)

Wolfgang Koeppen is one of the least well known literary giants of the twentieth century. While his output consists of only five novels they all are at least minor masterpieces and his final novel, Death in Rome, ranks as a major one. In this subtle and spare novel Koeppen creates a vision of the German postwar experience that is at once bleak and devastating. The four main characters of the novel meet in Rome and in small pieces of their thoughts and their lives the anxiety and sordidness of their world is laid bare for the reader. The death motif is perhaps the strongest from title through to the end of the book, but Koeppen also uses symbolism and unique metaphors, particularly animals and insects, to heighten the impact of his story. None of the characters are likable, but like a Kafka novel I found myself fascinated with them and the world inside their heads.

Of particular interest to me was the use of music and the representation of the composer, Siegfried Pfaffrath, as a modern serial composer in the mold of Schoenberg. His music is described as like the "degenerate art" that the Nazis rejected while in its modernism it is not approved by the Catholic Church either. Some readers have made the comparison of the structure of the novel itself with a twelve tone musical composition. Perhaps--but whether the comparison is apt the novel certainly seems surrealistic, especially in the use of time in the movement and activities of the characters. I am impressed even more, as I reread it, with the way Koeppen uses every line and page to build the tension that explodes at the end of the novel. Death permeates this book in a way that few other novels rival. I think of Death in Venice, another twentieth century masterpiece, but Mann's enterprise is more Nietzschean than Koeppen's. While Tolstoy comes to mind also, in The Death of Ivan Ilych he seems a nineteenth-century precursor to the existentialism that would blossom a few decades later.

No, Koeppen is more at home in the post-war dilemma of Europe and Germany in particular. And the world he depicts is brutal and dark. It is as if, at least for some of the characters, the war has not ended. This is particularly true of Gottlieb "Gotz" Judejahn who is at the center of the novel. Having disappeared he is tried in abstentia at Nuremberg and is effectively a ghost (as is his wife Eva) who haunts Germany, not directly but from a distance - in Rome. The other haunting theme mentioned above is the 'new' music of Siegfried Pfaffrath--best described as a latecomer to the atonal style whose priest was Arnold Schoenberg. Late in the novel Siegfried meditates on the nature of music:

"Music was an enigmatic construction to which there was no longer any access, or just a narrow gate that admits only a few people. Whoever sat inside couldn't communicate to those on the outside, and yet they felt that this enigmatic, invisible construction, built by magic formulae, was important to them."

The structure of this novel and the thoughts of the characters, their communication or lack thereof, seems to mirror this image of music and its relation to those who hear and do not understand. Perhaps the only answer is to act out your lack of understanding--to end the dark, unbearable world with death.

Overall the effect is impressive with the result being a novel that challenges the reader with its taut presence. I found the challenge invigorating and it encouraged further meditation on the ideas raised by the author.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Unique Cultural Journey

A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea 
by Claudio Magris

“What the History is really about lies behind this: man, giant-sized, seen against the background of the entire world, universalized in his conflict with destiny, the gods, and the cosmic order. The medium that is most fertile in showing the true nature of reality is the human mind, remembering, reflective, and fertile most of all when its memory and reflection are put at the service of its dreaming and fantastic side.”  ― Herodotus, The Histories

There are certain books that are sui generis and this is one of those books.  In part, it reminded me of the cultural stories that the first historian, Herodotus, included in his original work , The Histories, that provides the foundation for the idea of written history.  While he focuses on the mind of men who have lived and ruled and dreamed on and about the Danube, ultimately Magris's work is different and as a result unique in its aspect. Danube is both a catalog of histories and myths about a place over time. The place is a river that begins in a geographic region but also begins in a time and continues to exist through generations of changes to this day.

Included in the journey down the Danube through history are stories of people and places and times; stories that are both historical and fictional, mythical and real. These stories complement a travelogue that highlights places and times and people and more. Most interesting and important for this reader were the stories of literature that derives from the residents and the being of the river. The names are familiar and include: Kafka, Freud, Wittgenstein, Marcus Aurelius, Musil, Ovid, Celine, Von Rezzori, and others, some of whom I encountered for the first time in this work.

The book begins with a discussion of the sources of the Danube -- sources of the river which "were the object of investigations, conjectures or information of Herodotus, Strabo, Caesar, Pliny, Ptolemy, the Pseudo-Scymnus, Seneca, Mela and Eratosthenes." These sources and the river that they feed have been the subject of history, politics, philosophy, mythology, and geography for millennia during which the Roman and the Holy Roman Empires rose and fell along with subsequent cities and countries into the twentieth century.

Early in the book the Danube is described as "a sinuous master of irony, of that irony which created the greatness of Central European culture," and as such it is the central conduit of Mitteleuropa and all that it implies. The river encompasses many great cities such as Ulm "of the old Germany of the Holy Roman Empire", yet also the birthplace of Albert Einstein. And of course there is Vienna which is in some ways at the center of the Danube journey if for no other reason than its cultural impact that extends to the new world and to this day, decades after the documentation of the journey of the Danube.

Another highlight on the journey is Passau where we are reminded of the literature and art inspired by the Danube. The author narrates the story of Siegfried from the Song of the Niebelungs ( a story also found in the Nordic saga the Edda) and shares the love and loyalty that is rendered there. Yet it is also a region that inspired the twentieth-century literature of Kafka. The juxtaposition of Kafka with the ancient legends leads to an even stranger one when moving on to Linz one finds the journey progressing (regressing?) through a city that Hitler once planned to recreate into a "refuge of his old age, the place he yearned to retire to after consolidating the Reich that was to last a thousand years". Yet, fortunately for lovers of literature Linz was also the home of the novelist Adalbert Stifter who, even if you have not heard of him (and I had not), was capable of prose comparable to that of Flaubert's Education Sentimentale. It is this same river that also inspired works by Musil and Svevo. It is this literature that inspires Magris to comment as follows:

"Men without qualities, those landlocked armchair explorers, have their contraceptives always in their pockets, and Mitteleuropean culture taken as a whole is also a large-scale process of intellectual contraception. Whereas on the epic sea is Aphrodite born, and there--as Conrad writes -- we conquer forgiveness for our sins and the salvation of our immortal souls; we remember that once we were gods."(p 137)

The stories of the Danube continue to abound in this epic work. Included are the names like Hegel and Canetti and Roth; the historical figures like Eichmann and Princess Elisabeth and Vlad the Impaler; the music of Schubert and Mozart and Strauss. All are epitomized for this reader by Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy and Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz.  Even the geography of the river itself begins and ends in myth.  

There is more and it flows from the richness, the depth, and the historical grandeur of this book.  It is one whose deepness reaches realms that make the challenge of reading it (it is not an "easy read") worthwhile. Finally it is one of the most erudite and intelligent books I have read and that makes it also one of the most enjoyable and interesting.

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