Monday, June 18, 2018

Dante Notes, I

Dante and the Aeneid

The Portable Dante

The Aeneid was read by Dante and others and the first part of the epic poem can be read as an allegory for the journey of one's life. The surface meaning of the Virgil's poem is the travels and travails of Aeneas between the time he leaves Troy and arrives in Latium, where he will found the city that one day becomes Rome. But the allegorical reading is one which can be applied to any man including Dante. Aeneas demonstrates self-control in resisting the attractions of Dido while persisting in his mission and in doing so overcoming many obstacles demonstrating courage and fortitude. Most importantly for comparison with the Dante's poem, in Book 6 of the Aeneid, Aeneas goes down to the underworld.

The visit to the underworld in the Aeneid also parallels a similar visit made by Ulysses (Odysseus) in Homer's Odyssey. Dante knew the story of Ulysses from Ovid who recounts it in his Metamorphoses (like Dante, Ovid suffered the fate of exile and expulsion from the city he loved and died without returning to it). It is this recounting that inspired the tale narrated by Ulysses in Canto 26 of The Inferno.

Robert Fagles points out in his introduction to The Aeneid that Dante's reaction when he recogizes Virgil ("Are you then that Virgil", Inferno 1.77) is a recall of Dido's question when she realizes who her visitor must be ("Are you that Aeneas . . ., Aeneid 1.738). There are other borrowings from the Aeneid, notably the same Charon ferries spirits across the same river and refuses to take a living passenger at first (Inferno 3.80). Further comparison between the sea voyage of Aeneas in The Aeneid with Dante's epic can be seen in the use of the sea-voyage image at the beginning of both the Purgatorio and the Paridiso.

In the twentieth century Hermann Broch began his novel of Virgil's last days, The Death of Virgil, with a similar motif of the ending of a sea-voyage with Virgil lying on his death bed in the entourage of Augustus. Beside Virgil in a small trunk was the manuscript for the Aeneid. And Primo Levi, in his autobiographical Survival in Auschwitz, recounts how he kept himself sane by attempting to reconstruct Ulysses' great speech in the Comedy from memory. These words provided a touchstone of humanity and civilization even that modern version of Dante's hell.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Imagination and Reality in Love



"Words meant such a very great deal to her --- and more than that, information conveyed by means of words --- that she wanted than to mean a great deal to everyone else."  Providence, p 113-14, Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner was an English art historian and author who presented a bleak view of life in her fiction, much of which deals with the loneliness experienced by middle-aged women who meet romantically unsuitable men and feel a growing sense of alienation from society.

If you have not read Anita Brookner Providence is a wonderful novel with which to start. I daresay you will not look back as you traverse some of her many (too numerous to count) novels of romance and the social difficulties of young women - and sometimes not so young - in love. In this one the protagonist, Kitty Maule, longs to be "totally unreasonable, totally unfair, very demanding, and very beautiful." She is instead clever, reticent, self-possessed, and striking. For years Kitty has been tactfully courting her colleague Maurice Bishop, a detached, elegant English professor.

Brookner uses Kitty's specialty of Romantic literature, the novel Adolphe by Benjamin Constant in particular, as a centerpiece of her interaction with her students. But this novel also reflects on Kitty's imagined relationship with Maurice. Kitty has a lively imagination; at one point while reading a novel her mind wanders to the famous story of Paolo and Francesca from Dante's Divine Comedy and she ponders their apotheosis of a kiss followed by death. As she slowly runs out of patience, Kitty's amorous pursuit takes her from rancorous academic committee rooms and lecture halls to French cathedrals and Parisian rooming houses, from sittings with her dress-making grandmother to seances with a grandmotherly psychic. About two thirds through the novel she sees Maurice praying to the Virgin and has an epiphany: "I am alone, and she leaned against a pillar, her throat aching." Her imagination could carry her only so far and her relationship of Maurice begins to seem ephemeral at best.

Brookner demonstrates her mastery of character and of the telling of detail in Providence. Touching, funny, and stylistically breathtaking, the novel is a brightly polished gem of romantic comedy tinged with regret. My favorite moments are the many literary references which warm the heart of this inveterate bibliophile. The best of Brookner that I have read is Hotel du Lac for which she was awarded the Booker Prize. However, if you do not want to start at the deep end you should try reading Providence first.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Commonplace Entry


From "Self-Reliance"

"What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

(Emerson's Essays, p. 38)

Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Family Odyssey

Sing, Unburied, Sing 

Sing, Unburied, Sing

"The memory is a living thing---it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives---the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead." - from One Writer's Beginnings, by Eudora Welty

This was my first foray into the literary world of Jesmyn Ward. Her first novel, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award. So I had high expectations for Sing, Unburied, Sing, her second novel. I was not disappointed. In this novel she demonstrates her skills as a unique American writer by bringing the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Welty, Morrison, and Faulkner---The Odyssey and the Old Testament, she provides an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi's past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle.

Ward succeeds in this by sharing the story of the members of an extended family that includes thirteen-year-old Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, who live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop. Added to these family members is the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she's high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie's children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Ward's poetically lyrical writing style is present throughout the novel with the story told primarily from the point of view of Jojo and his mother Leonie. Meanwhile, the ghost of a youth who had been killed while escaping the Parchman Farm, who joins them on their visit there, and who can only be seen and heard by young Jojo, adds to the bleak story a poignancy that is almost breathtaking.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with some of the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward's distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a wonderful new contribution to the literature of the American South. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel by a relatively new author at the height of her powers.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Humor in the Silence

Waiting for Godot 
by Samuel Beckett

“We wait. We are bored. (He throws up his hand.) No, don't protest, we are bored to death, there's no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. Come, let's get to work! (He advances towards the heap, stops in his stride.) In an instant all will vanish and we'll be alone more, in the midst of nothingness!”   ― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot is set nowhere, but in a place that is somewhere we know not.  The set is spare: a tree, a rock, the backdrop and the foreground. At the end of each act night falls and a full moon appears. The setting is in reality the stage. It is a stage that characters inhabit, walk on and off, look to the distance where they see no more than the audience which is nothing.  Estragon and Vladimir spend two days waiting, waiting for Godot to come. He does not come but instead sends a small boy with a message that Mr. Godot will surely come tomorrow. In each act there is an interlude with a visit by two itinerants, Lucky and his boss Pozzo.

The production of Waiting for Godot by the Druid Theatre Company of Ireland that I saw last week was a revelation.  Having read and studied the play I knew what words to expect, but the actors, through their movement and reactions, brought out the humor that is one aspect of the essence of this great drama.  When they used the silences to bracket their words and demonstrated a camaraderie that was visceral and transcendent made this an exceptional afternoon of theater.

There is deep meaning in the happening of the words and actions of this play. It views thinking as a strange, ludicrous activity; the actors pass the time in activity - dancing, talking or saying nothing at all, exchanging hats and meditating on the nature of their boots.  The beauty and feeling that the actors display is difficult to put into words.  You may read the play as I have before and will likely again, but to see it on the stage provides a perspective that cannot be achieved by reading.  My afternoon was one where I could delight in the beauty of the magic of theater thanks to a handful of actors and one Samuel Beckett.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Mad Love and Words

A Word Child 

A Word Child

“I have always attributed a great importance to eyes. How mysteriously expressive those damp orbs can be; the eyeball does not change and yet it is the window of the soul. And colour in eyes is, in its nature and inherence, quite unlike colour in any other substance. Mr Osmand had grey eyes, but his eyes were hard and speckled like Aberdeen granite, while Tommy’s were clear and empty like light smoke.”   ― Iris Murdoch, A Word Child

One of my favorites by by Ms. Murdoch, a great place to start if you've never read her fiction, very darkly funny, also about mad love. The ‘word child’ of the title is Hilary Burde, the narrator. Using one of her rare first person narratives, the book has an interesting structure, with each chapter headed by a day of the week. This is based on the order and routine Hilary has attempted to establish for his life by having certain things that he always does on certain days of the week and the novel follows him as this routine is gradually upended.

From childhood he escaped into his own world through a talent for languages, partly due to the inexpiable horror of having caused the death of another man's wife--an event which ended his promising Oxford career and sent him into a decade of self-flagellation. Gunnar, the wronged widower, reappears remarried but as paralyzed as Hilary by the events of twenty years ago. Through the agency of an unfathomable half-Indian servant, Gunnar's second wife begins an equivocal intrigue with Hilary on the pretext of getting Gunnar to come to terms with his feelings about Hilary and Anne's death. The moral imperatives of the developing situation are perceived in contradictory terms by Hilary and his small circle of confederates: a persistent, half-wanted mistress; a placid co-worker and his effusively solicitous wife; a rancorous homosexual friend; the beautiful and mysterious servant; his unpresentable but adored sister and her humbly devoted fiance. Murdoch gives us all the machinery, and then some, for a cause of conscience of the most perverse, contradictory, and surreal complexity--in a subjectively perceived, post-Christian universe where moral impasses obstinately continue to exist and to have consequences, but no canon law can help us predict them.

The result of the events is a resounding triumph. One can see themes develop and abound; the first person narrative keeps you riveted in spite of the limits of this point of view. Essentially it is a Gothic tale whose atmosphere concerns fall and redemption. The author's use of stylistic effects is outstanding. I enjoyed the neat, obvious, and effective structure of the book which kept the events within reasonable limits. Some may find Murdoch somewhat challenging, but but I relish the feeling that the in this case, as with her best novels, goods have been delivered.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Failed Fantasy

The Fifth Season 

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)

“After all, a person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one's being. I am me, and you.”   ― N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season

Sometimes award winners are not the books that appeal to my reading tastes. This is one of those instances when the book does not live up to the hype that surrounds it. I am not sure where to start. I guess the best place is with the language used by the narrator; a language which told me that there were tremendous dramatic things happening in this world, but did not effectively demonstrate the drama. The story was a mystery hidden among the multiple characters that were not very realistic. Frankly, I never got used to the use of the second person narrative which begins on the first page with the narrator talking to the reader (you) and trying to bring you in to the story by saying things like "Let's start with the end of the world, why don't we." The protagonist is she and she has a son, but that will soon change, not that I cared after several hundred pages of fantastic mish-mash.

As opposed to what some reviews seem to suggest, there is nothing resembling science-fiction here - it is pure fantasy. In that fantasy I found nothing that compelled me to keep reading - most of the time I was baffled at what was happening and by the time I figured it out I did not care any more. There is a sort of heroism occurring here, but it was really only a not so cleverly masked instance of deus ex machina.

I seldom recommend alternative books to read, but in this case, if this particular topic is of interest to you, your time would be better spent on something like Never Let Me Go from Kazuo Ishiguro. As a final note, the book presents a very specific set of moral values, but you have to look through the lens of our current political debates to see it. As soon as our talking points change this impact too will be lost.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Do you Remember What Really Happened?

The Sense of an Ending 

The Sense of an Ending

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”   ― Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

At the end of Part One of this short novel the narrator, Anthony (Tony) Webster, says "I survived. 'He survived to tell the tale' --that's what people say.". In this novel one learns to be skeptical about the tale that Tony tells about his life. Slowly, inexorably one begins to realize that events that Tony relates may not have happened quite the way he remembers. This makes the novel more interesting, and more frustrating, than it might otherwise have been.

This is a short novel; on that everyone seems to agree. Beyond that it is a compelling read that is written well, owing its brevity to the paucity of details about Tony and his life. Part One tells of his school years wherein he and his two pals, Colin and Alex, are augmented by the arrival of Adrian Finn. Adrian becomes an important part of the story and in Part Two his importance grows. However, in the preface to Tony's schooldays he warns the reader that he will share "a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can't be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That's the best I can manage."(p 2)  Do these impressions provide any real sense of the reality of Tony's life? I will let other readers answer that for themselves.

Tony's story becomes a tale about memory, aging, time, and remorse. But the remorse is based on what Tony believes happened and that, unfortunately, is based on the story that he tells himself which has gaps that come back to haunt him. I hesitate to share many details of the plot for this is where the book is most interesting. It is so because of the unreliability of the narrator and the mysteries that ensue; mysteries that Tony pursues in part two only to be rebuffed by his first love and by his own blindness to the details and facts that his memory has somehow elided from his impressions.

For the reader this story can be comforting, for who has not forgotten the details of past events that once important have long ago faded into ineffable impressions? But it is also disturbing because you are carried along with Tony and only late in the book begin to discover his shortcomings as a truth-teller, or the difference between what may have really happened and the impressions to which he claims to be true. Tony alternatively claims to envy the "clarity" of the life of his friend Adrian while apologizing to his first love, Veronica, all the while oblivious to the reality which leads her to claim that "he just does not get it".  That idea pervades most of Part Two and leads the reader to question the sense of the ending of The Sense of An Ending.

In spite of the brevity of this novel, or perhaps because of it, the reader may appreciate the situations that suggest the vagaries of memory and the devilish disappointments that may result. Tony admits as much when he says:
"What had Old Joe Hunt answered when I knowingly claimed that history was the lies of the victors? 'As long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.' Do we remember that enough when it comes to our private lives?"(p 133)

Julian Barnes is the author of Flaubert's Parrot and other novels. He received the Mann Booker prize in 2011 for The Sense of An Ending.

Monday, April 30, 2018

A Composer's Life: Genius and the Devil

Doctor Faustus 

Doctor Faustus

“Disease, and most specially opprobrious, suppressed, secret disease, creates a certain critical opposition to the world, to mediocre life, disposes a man to be obstinate and ironical toward civil order, so that he seeks refuge in free thought, in books, in study.”   ― Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus

This novel was written between 1943 and 1947 by Thomas Mann. The full title is Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend. The narrator/biographer is Serenus Zeitblom who becomes the best friend of Adrian as a boy, a relationship that continues throughout Adrian's life. Serenus, with asides commenting on his work, details the life and career of Adrian Leverkühn, a preternaturally gifted man who is born into the Germany of the Second Reich in the generation following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The novel follows Leverkühn’s life and career until his death in 1943. Leverkühn is born into a provincial middle-class farming family and has conventional parents, though his father harbors some eccentric scientific interests. Originally attracted to both mathematics and music, Leverkühn goes to college to study theology, a course of study that he eventually abandons in favor of music. Leverkühn’s musical ability is evident from the first and he becomes an accomplished composer.

The most significant aspect of the novel is the use of the Faust legend of a man who sells his soul to the Devil, best known in the dramatic versions by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe. This is portrayed through a dialogue between Leverkühn and the Devil, which occurs in chapter 25. Central to the Faust legend is the contract, the quid pro quo, between the Devil and Faust. The Faustian contract for Leverkühn involves his contracting syphilis from a prostitute. At the price of the loss of his physical and mental health, the syphilis unleashes untold powers of creativity within Leverkühn. One might question whether all artistic geniuses enter into a similar bargain if only metaphorically. Most importantly the Devil requires that Adrian give up the ability to love anyone. This intensifies a solitary life that was already present with Adrian.
The syphilis from which he suffers is, in turn, can also be seen a symbol of the “disease” of extreme nationalism and ethnic chauvinism that eventually led the Germans to embrace Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In both cases—Leverkühn’s contraction of syphilis and the coming to power of Hitler—Mann makes it clear that the parties involved have entered into their “agreements” by their own volition, just as the original Faust entered into his demoniac pact of his own free will. Significantly, Leverkühn’s final composition of his creative career is a cantata titled “The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus.”

Disease was a theme that ran through all of Mann's great works of fiction. Examples include the fate of the author Gustave von Aschenbach in Death in Venice; while in The Magic Mountain, Mann uses physical disease as a symbol for spiritual and cultural decline. Another reference suggested by the presence of syphilis is to Friedrich Nietzsche who contracted the disease and whose life in many ways is mirrored by that of Adrian Leverkuhn. Mann also uses syphilis symbolically to suggest the inevitability of the decline of German civilization. Another connection to Nietzsche is the presence of the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy (Both the sons of Zeus, Nietzsche distinguished the two as opposites: Apollo the god of reason and order, and Dionysus the god of irrationality and chaos.) with Adrian's austerely hyper-rational music symbolizing the rejection of the Dionysian passion of Eros in which he cannot participate.

The narrative relayed by Zeitblom intersperses Adrian'slife events with historical events occurring simultaneously in German politics and society. Leverkühn’s lifetime roughly approximates that of Hitler, the suggesting that the same historical forces that brought the Nazis to the fore had a similar effect on Leverkühn’s art. Leverkühn’s final physical and mental collapse occurs in 1933, the year in which the Nazis came to power in Germany. Leverkühn dies in 1943, a year in which the war in Europe turned decidedly against the Axis Powers, leading to their eventual defeat.

The selection of a composer as the symbol of Germany’s moral and cultural decline is significant in that music is generally regarded as the most German of the arts. One composer, Richard Wagner, held a particular fascination for Mann. Mann had an ambivalent attitude toward Wagner; he greatly admired the composer’s music but was repelled by the man himself. It was Mann’s essay “The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner” that ultimately led to Mann’s public denunciation and eventual exile to America.

Adrian Leverkühn’s daemon, the catalyst whose function it is to see that the protagonist’s fate is fulfilled, appears in many guises, but perhaps never more significantly than in the being of Wendell Kretzschmar, the American expatriate music master and Leverkühn’s only real teacher of composition. Kretzschmar’s significance as a daemon extends not only to Leverkühn’s choice of a career as a composer—it is Kretzschmar who ultimately supplies Leverkühn with the justification to abandon theological studies and return to music—but also to the course that Leverkühn’s musical career will follow.

Leverkühn’s years of theological study at the University of Halle led him to be influenced by several other characters. Professor Kolonat Nonnenmacher instructs Leverkühn in Pythagorean philosophy and reinforces Leverkühn’s long-held fascination with an ordered cosmos, particularly one susceptible to mathematical reduction. Nonnenmacher’s lectures also deal with Aristotelian philosophy and stress the philosopher’s views on the inherent drive to the fulfillment of organic forms—in other words, the urge toward the unfolding of destiny. These lectures have a profound impact on Leverkühn, who comes to the realization that his personal destiny is not necessarily of his own making. Leverkühn finds a different and more subtle version in the form of Ehrenfried Kumpf, Mann’s caricature of Martin Luther. Kumpf’s theology rejects humanism and reason and embraces a rather lusty appreciation of life, including its sensual pleasures, of which music is but one facet. Although Kumpf is a minor figure in the novel, his influence is long-lasting on Leverkühn, who adopts the former’s archaic German phraseology and syntax and who eventually abandons the rationality and “coldness” of theology for the “warmth” of music. Of all Leverkühn’s professors at Halle, none leaves a more permanent impression on Leverkühn’s than Eberhard Schleppfuss, the mysterious theologian whose very difficult lectures combine the tenets of Christianity with a blatant Manichaeanism. Schleppfuss views evil as a necessary concomitant to good and posits a sinister interpretation of the nature of creativity.

Leverkühn’s involvement with music is made permanent, however, only after the liaison with a prostitute named Esmeralda, which, interestingly enough, occurs after Leverkühn has witnessed the Austrian premiere of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (based on Oscar Wilde’s visionary Decadent drama). This liaison is a curious phenomenon in that neither lust nor intellectual curiosity appears to be its root cause. In many ways, Leverkühn is as irresistibly drawn to the prostitute Esmeralda as the symbolic butterfly hetaera esmeralda  (chapter 2) is susceptible to visual or olfactory stimuli. There is a certain inevitability in both cases in which moral laws and the individual will are transcended by reflex actions firmly based in the instinctive domain. Additionally, Leverkühn’s brief sexual encounter permits the appearance in rapid succession of two other influences, namely Dr. Erasmi and Dr. Zimbalist, both of whom are thwarted from treating Leverkühn’s syphilis in its incipient stage.

Leverkühn’s fall is akin to the fall of Adam; both are terrible yet necessary for the evolution of the human condition. One can no more imagine a Christian view of history without Adam’s transgression than a continuation of musical evolution beyond Wagner without the imposition of a seminal figure such as Leverkühn. The connection between Leverkühn and Adam is further strengthened by the fact that one of Leverkühn’s first mature works is a setting of William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree,” with its references to the poisoned fruit and the serpent who despoils an altar. In the end, however, as Mann always makes clear in his writings, untempered creativity ultimately consumes its creator. All knowledge, all fruits of artistic genius carry with them a terrible price in the imaginary world of Mann’s fiction.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Apocalyptic Background

The Last Policeman 

The Last Policeman (The Last Policeman, #1)

“tune out the terror and the dread, in a world where the idea of long-term consequences had magically disappeared.”   ― Ben H. Winters, The Last Policeman

Sometimes a book spans genres. This is one example where what is primarily a mystery, and an award-winning one, is also a science fiction tale. The setting is in New Hampshire about six months before a large asteroid will collide with the earth. The expectation is that human civilization will be wiped out. Given this background the narrative is told in the first person by rookie Detective Henry (Hank) Palace.

Hank is presented with a case that looks like a suicide, and suicides have begun to occur with some regularity in response to the imminent demise of civilization. But Hank has his doubts and these doubts fuel his determined search for evidence that the subject, and insurance actuary named Peter Zell, was not a suicide but rather the victim of murder. The District Attorney is skeptical but Hank is given a green light to pursue the case wherever is leads. The narrative is fueled by people motivated by the impending disaster, including Hank's sister in a sub-plot, and enough potential suspects to maintain the readers interest. It doesn't hurt that Hank is a reasonable and friendly guy who the reader, this one at least, develops a liking for.

The mystery is well-drawn with plenty of unexpected moments that lead Hank in different directions until his determination leads him to a final answer to his quest. The author's version of a pre-apocalyptic world, one where laws are both absolute and irrelevant, is believable. In it even minor players have major control over what could be a new future. The imminent end of the world doesn’t mean that everyone has shown their hands—just that there’s a lot more at stake if they lose. The result is a satisfying mystery with the added plus (for those like myself) of a science fiction context.  

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Emergence Like a Dream


"And that is close enough to forgiveness, to find that any character in the dream of your life might be you.  But you don't know that until you tell the story; caught in the narrative yourself, how could you see from that height?

Though the firebird can; that's the business of birds, to see from the correcting perspective of above. All along, the firebird watches, patient in ashes, smoldering till the hour to flame.  Just one dance teaches it to believe in the brightness to come.  All it ever needed was a practice run, in preparation for someday's full emblazoning." (p 194)

How well do we know others? Our family, our friends, ourselves? How do we perceive each of these? Through a glass, darkly, or through a perspective box, in a way like an artist. From the opening page of Mark Doty's poetic memoir, Firebird, the theme of art is present.
First it appears in a description of the famous "perspective box" of the Seventeenth-century Dutch painter Samuel Van Hoogstraten. Then as the narrative continues the artistic view and way of life is a theme that provides a way to understand the many colors of Mark's life from his early years to his middle age. He says that "I believe that art saved my life." Whether this happened in his fourth-grade art class or when his poetry first received professional recognition from the surrealist poet who gives of himself to a shy young teenage poet; his introduction to the world of poetry and to an artistic family that, like Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera provides a haunting image of what a family could be but his is not.

It is his family that provides much of the drama of this portrait of a young artist.  This includes a passive/aggressive father who cannot hold on to a job and insists on denuding a teenage Mark's head of its long hair and his mother whose addictive personality leads to storms of emotion so harsh and frequent that Mark "can feel when the storms are brewing" and makes himself scarce.  He copes by exploring various methods of easing his tension from hashish to transcendental meditation. With these and his art he survives the turbulence of such a volatile family life.

I was moved by his gradual recognition and acceptance of his sexuality and the blooming of the artist that would eventually win prizes for his poetry. He withstood the fire of the pressures from his family and grew into a successful artist and firebird who watches his own life emerge like a dream from the elements that made it his own.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Lost Child

Lincoln in the Bardo 

Lincoln in the Bardo

“When a child is lost there is no end to the self-torment a parent may inflict. When we love, and the object of our love is small, weak, and vulnerable, and has looked to us and us alone for protection; and when such protection, for whatever reason, has failed, what consolation (what justification, what defense) may there possibly be?”   
― George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

A couple of decades ago I read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, a book that I still remember as being an strikingly funny collection of short stories linked by the titular worn out amusement park. George Saunders wrote that book, but I had not read any of his not unsubstantial writing since then until his latest book and first novel won the Man Booker Prize.

This book, his first true novel, is memorable as well. It depicts a Lincoln trapped in the Bardo (a Tibetan Buddhist concept of the afterlife), namely Willie, the dear 11-year-old son of the great civil war president. As his parents host a lavish state reception, their boy is upstairs in the throes of typhoid fever. Saunders quotes contemporary observers on the magnificence of the feast, trailing the terrible family tragedy that is unfolding. Willie dies and is taken to Oak Hill cemetery, where he is interred in a marble crypt. On at least two occasions – and this is the germ of historical fact from which Saunders has spun his extraordinary story – the president visits the crypt at night, where he sits over the body and mourns.

Saunders tells his tale through use of a polyphonic narrative of the spirits who are trapped in the cemetery that is interleaved with constellations of artfully arranged quotations from primary and secondary sources about Lincoln’s life, which are used to show that observers can be unreliable about the motivations and mental state of the president, and that even such questions as whether the moon shone or not on a particular night can be distorted by memory.

The torrent of quotation, set against the torrent of spirit voices, gives Lincoln in the Bardo the feel of the parts of the Book of the Dead where the soul is beset by wrathful demonic hordes. This cacophony, and the grotesquerie of the deformed spirits, lends the novel a texture that is superficially unlike the work that has made Saunders popular, stories that often play off the tension between a casual vernacular voice and a surreal situation. Lincoln in the Bardo in some ways seemed to have lot in common with the theme park and office space I remember from the author of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.

In The Tibetan Book of the Dead waking life, dreams, meditation and in particular the period between death and rebirth are all “bardos”, states of consciousness sandwiched between other states of consciousness. We are always in transition, from dreams to wakefulness, from life to death. When someone dies, Tibetan Buddhists believe that they enter the bardo of the time of death, in which they will either ascend towards nirvana, and be able to escape the cycle of action and suffering that characterizes human life on earth, or gradually fall back, through increasingly wild and scary hallucinations, until they are born again into a new body. The Book of the Dead is intended to be read to them during this journey, an instruction manual to assist them on their way.

Some of the characters stand out more than others and there are memorable moments; however the presentation sometimes seems contrived and at times becomes a bit tedious. These moments aside, the brevity of the book and the interesting historical aspects of the story carried this reader forward through a text that was briefer than expected due to the prevalence of white space. The interchange among the "residents" in the cemetery took on the feel of a play, perhaps one like Our Town, although entertaining more for its oddities than its plain wholesomeness.

The combination of a unique authorial style along with a multitude of historical details made this a historical novel that I would recommend to all interested in the history of this era. It is certainly a presentation of a moment from Abraham Lincoln's life that is different than any I have ever previously encountered.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Poem for Today

Selected Poetry
by Emily Dickinson

This poem seems an appropriate, if simple, reminder for our current times.  Would we not be better if we only stray from the Truth in a "slant", so it's "dazzle" doesn't blind us to that which is truly important?

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind--

- Emily Dickinson

Mythic Expectations

The Last Station:
A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year 

“It is not an easy thing to alter the trajectory of your life. People have expectations on your behalf. You come to believe them yourself.”   ― Jay Parini, The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year

This is a wonderful evocation of Tolstoy's last days, the people surrounding him and the aura created by the event. He was considered not only Russia's greatest living writer, but a powerful religious figure---more revered and beloved than the Tsar. Disciples sought him out on almost a daily basis, yet Tolstoy himself was torn between his aspirations to religious asceticism and his enormous wealth.

Parini captures all the excitement and intrigue of the last days for this literary icon wealthy man who, ironically, had no interest in the very wealth that he had amassed. The story tells of a battle for control of his soul, heart, and money. A battle between his wife and chief adviser, Chertkov. Each chapter in the book is written as if in the first person by six different voices, including Tolstoy himself, Sophia, Vladmir Chertkov (Tolstoy’s companion and promoter of his work) and Tolstoy’s secretary, Valentin Bulgakov. His wife, Sophia, is portrayed showing signs of hysteria and paranoia as she tried to protect her families inheritance from the group of Tolstoyans formed around Vladmir Chertkov, who felt that the great man’s legacy belonged to the world.

The story is based on the real diary of Tolstoy's secretary, Bulgakov, and it reads like a thriller with a denouement when Tolstoy flees toward the Caucasus to, hopefully, die alone. He only gets as far as a stationmaster's house in the small town of Astapovo. There the public gawkers and the press wait for him to die. While it helps to have some familiarity with Tolstoy's earlier years this is still a great read for those who do not. Just as Tolstoy was larger than life as a writer, he becomes, in death, a mythic figure.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Commonplace Entry

Natural Man

   Man, bone by bone, flint by flint, has been traced backward into the night of time more successfully than even Darwin dreamed. He has been traced to a creature with an almost gorilloid head on the light, fast body of a still completely upright, plains-dwelling creature. In the end he partakes both of Darwinian toughness, resilience, and something else, a humanity---if this story is true---that runs well nigh as deep as time itself.

   Man has, in scientific terms, become natural, but the nature of his "naturalness" escapes him. Perhaps his human freedom has left him the difficult choice of determining what it is in his nature to be. Perhaps the two sides of the dark question Darwin speculated upon were only an evolutionary version of man's ancient warfare with himself---a drama as great in its hidden fashion as the story of the Garden and the Fall. (pp 113-114, The Firmament of Time)

The Firmament of Time by Loren Eiseley. Atheneum, 1969 (1960)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Poet of Conscience

Selected Poems 

Selected Poems

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

Weariness and beauty permeate the poetry of Maria Tsvetaeva. She struggled with life and love over the course of her short existence, but endured, supported in part by fellow artists, most notably Mandelstam, Rilke and Pasternak. The poetry in this selection is arrayed in chronological order and ranges from the "starry nights, in the apple orchards of Paradise"(p 5) to the "muffled blow" of Epitaph (p 106). 

Inspiration from fellow poets Mayakovsky, Blok and Akhmatova impress upon the reader her poetic muse and mystery. I like the poetry infused with literary references, Shakespeare and others, as this is a type that I share with her - in my own humble way. She has a way of making the simplest image seem to embody meaning beyond the possibilities of a finite world. She suggests this and more in lines like:

"a manifestly yellow, decidedly
rusty leaf--has been left behind on the tree." (p 120)

Her poetry exhibits an aesthetic beauty that transcends my ability to describe the feelings it embodies.  Along with Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva stands as one of the four great Russian poets of the Twentieth Century and is one of the most important Women writers in the Western Canon.

Here is an example:

Little World 

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

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

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

Children - is rest, brief moment of respite, 
A trembling vow before God's eyes, 
Children - are the world's tender riddles, 

Where in the riddle the answer hides!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Enigmatic Portrait

A Lost Lady 

A Lost Lady

“He came to be very glad that he had known her, and that she had had a hand in breaking him in to life. He has known pretty women and clever ones since then,-- but never one like her, as she was in her best days. Her eyes, when they laughed for a moment into one`s own, seemed to promise a wild delight that he has not found in life. "I know where it is," they seemed to say, "I could show you!”   ― Willa Cather, A Lost Lady

This novella is barely more than a character sketch. The brilliance of Cather’s prose is demonstrated in her portrayal of Marian Forrester, the high-spirited wife of one of the great pioneers and railroad builders. There are also historical implications of Cather’s fable. These are enhanced by the enigmatic and ambiguous elements in Mrs. Forrester’s portrait. On the surface, Marian Forrester belongs to Cather’s long line of restless, magnetic, intelligent women, like Alexandra Bergson, who grows wealthy farming the virgin land in O Pioneers! (1913), Thea Kronborg, the Swedish girl who becomes a famous opera singer in The Song of the Lark (1915), and Ãntonia Shimerda, the heroine of My Ãntonia (1918), who survives tragedy and abandonment to become the mother of many children, “a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.”

One may view A Lost Lady as a brilliant epilogue to Cather’s famous pioneer novels; however, it has a different tone, not heroic and optimistic like the Whitmanesque O Pioneers! but bittersweet and retrospective like Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. As one who loves Cather's beautiful writing style I found this a touching taste from her pen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Life of Integrity



"That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."
William Shakespeare

John Williams's Stoner is that rare novel which is almost perfect in every way, from its plain prose style to its subtle portrayal of themes and evocative descriptions of events that are common enough for all adults to have experienced them - in ways that make the narration a pleasure - and which makes you stop and reflect in wonder at the marvels around you, past and present. 

I found the story often took my breath away as I intently pondered the beautiful telling of a story of love and loss. The pain and pleasure were so pronounced that the reality of the images created by the author had an effect that few books ever do. I found the prose style reminiscent of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, but with more hope present even as Stoner deals unsuccessfully with the vicissitudes of life.

This is a Midwestern book, set on the plains, about a young man who is schooled in the hardships of farm life but who flowers in an academic setting - up to a point. His taciturn being and stoicism both help him survive and contribute to his downfall in love and learning. In each he fails, even though he does experience small moments of triumph; yet even in failure his determination shines through the pages of the novel and makes this drama somehow less tragic than it might have been otherwise. The difficulty which Stoner has in communicating his feelings is palpable throughout compounding the inevitability of defeat for our hero. 

This novel in all its detailing of the life of William Stoner captures some of the passion and loss that is suggested by Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 (quoted above) that plays a pivotal role in Stoner's education. This is a story of integrity and persistence in living through adversity and loss.