Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Culture Clash in Space

Binti 


Binti (Binti, #1)


“Then there was Heru. I had never spoken to him, but we smiled across the table at each other during mealtimes. He was from one of those cities so far from mine that they seemed like a figment of my imagination, where there was snow and where men rode those enormous gray birds and the women could speak with those birds without moving their mouths.”   ― Nnedi Okorafor, Binti




This is the best science fiction novel (novella) I have read in quite a while. The author, Nnedi Okorafor is new to me, but has already won renown among science fiction fans as attested by the awards she has won.

The story could be called a futuristic coming of age story, as a young girl from the Himba ethnic group on Earth is the first from her group to be accepted into the prestigious intergalactic university, Oomza Uni. Her name is Binti and she leaves home boarding a transport ship to Oomza Uni. While in transit, the ship is hijacked by the Meduse, a jellyfish-like alien species that have previously been at war with the Khoush, another human ethnic group. The action rises as the Meduse murder all other inhabitants of the ship. Binti, however, is protected by a mysterious block of technology called an Edan and escapes destruction. The ensuing events on board involve her interactions with the Meduse as the ship continues toward Oomza Uni. The story becomes one both of Binti (and the reader) learning more about the Edan that protects her and of the developing friendship and understanding (of a sort) between Binti and the Meduse.

The author's style is superb and the story presents intriguing ideas as a familiar formula is played out in new and unconventional ways. The concise style was riveting as the story developed suspense along with surprising events that kept this reader interested. While this novella was short it succeeded in telling a compelling story while leaving the reader with a desire to find out "what happens next" both to Binti and the Meduse. I expect that I will pursue the two additional volumes of what has become a trilogy about the adventures of Binti.


Sunday, May 12, 2019

A Classical Romance

A Suitable Boy 


A Suitable Boy (A Suitable Boy, #1)



"But I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they're bad they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they're good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch."  — Vikram Seth





This is a novel of India set in the early 1950s just after the partition. In it, Vikram Seth provides a window into the culture and history of India at an early critical juncture in its history: the political and cultural climate five years after the country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1947. At the center of the novel is a romance about a young girl, Lata, whose mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, is searching for a "suitable boy" for her to marry.

The novel's opening section succeeded in immediately arresting my attention. Some of the most notable aspects of the novel include the subtle ways that the author suggests the continuing cultural influence of England, from the impact of literary awards to the reading habits of several of the characters. Whether politics, religion, industry, university life, medicine, or law is the subject, each aspect is motivated by a character who is first and foremost a member of a family. The novel stresses loyalty to the extended family and considers this involvement as protection against a harsh world. The thirty or so family members along with an array of supporting characters emerge as memorable individuals. While Seth reveals their comic and absurd sides, he always treats them humanely. The novel is a tour de force that demonstrates his skill in writing, knowledge of India, and his ability to marry the charms of a classical romance novel within the broad reach of an historical family and national saga.

Without disclosing the plot details I can only assure the reader that it is worth all 1400+ pages. The thematic development of the clash between Hindu and Muslim cultures is particularly well portrayed with the impact of historical events on the national level mirrored by dramatic events among the main families whose lives fill the plot and subplots of the novel. It is rare that such a long book is both an entertaining read and an intellectually satisfying challenge. Vikram Seth has more than succeeded in both areas.


Friday, May 10, 2019

Gift of the god

Aeschylus I: Prometheus Bound 
translated by David Grene


Aeschylus I: The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens, Prometheus Bound




“Prometheus: Yes, I stopped mortals from foreseeing their doom.
Chorus: What cure did you discover for that sickness?

Prometheus: I sowed in them blind hopes.”   ― David Grene, Greek Tragedies, Vol. 1: Aeschylus:  Prometheus Bound






Some have compared Prometheus to Jesus Christ. Certainly the opening scene of Aeschylus's play, with Prometheus splayed upon a rock as he is bound by Hephaestus, invites the comparison. I would not go so far and see the interplay between the Greek gods to be the relevant context for this scene. Played out at the "world's limit" in a bleak setting the drama portrays Prometheus suffering punishment for making humans "intelligent and masters of their minds". (line 444)

Prometheus' crime is not the only reason for his punishment for the chorus tells us that there is a war going on between the "Old" gods (Olympians) and the new generation of Gods. Zeus is seeking to maintain his primacy while Prometheus and his brothers are the dangerous new gods on the block. Atlas is suffering as well carrying the weight of the whole world on his back. The scales are not even - their is nothing like fairness or justice in this world. Prometheus is doomed even as he is visited by Io who is also suffering due to Hera's jealous rage over Zeus's attentions.

Being a god does not seem to lead to a completely pleasant life - there is strife and anger at every turn even for the most powerful. The winners in this play seem to be humans who do not have to relinquish the gifts endowed them by Prometheus. However, even these can be seen as a two-edged sword for our ancestors who had to endure hardships of many kinds in the struggle of living in the world. Prometheus cries out "O sky that circling brings light to all, you see how unjustly I suffer!" (lines 1091-2) Could that be our own cry even today?

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Modern "Art"

The Painted Word 

The Painted Word




“All of them, artists and theorists, were talking as if their conscious aim was to create a totally immediate art, lucid, stripped of all the dreadful baggage of history, an art fully revealed, honest, as honest as the flat-out integral picture plane.”   ― Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word









If you abjure the chic and dream of a realist approach to art this may be your book. Written by novelist and essayist Tom Wolfe, this is an extended essay on the current state of art (circa 1975).  In it he extends his social critique into the world of art with not surprising results. Those results are both witty and amusing. More importantly they are thought-provoking while raising the skeptical bar for art criticism. 


Modern art has morphed into postmodernism and beyond since this book was written, but his commentary has not lost its bite.  Moreover, there may be good modern art, but there certainly is a lot of bad modern art to sort through before you find it. This short introduction is one good place to find out where and how to look for it.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Journey to the White House

by 


Becoming




“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”     ― Michelle Obama, Becoming







Michelle Obama has led an interesting life which she reviews in this memoir covering that life up to the point where she and her husband left the White House in January, 2017. The memoir is divided into three parts describing respectively, her youth, her early life with Barack, and her time as the First Lady of the United States.

I could relate best to the first section for several reasons, in spite of the fact that she grew up in one of the largest cities in the United States. Her world was circumscribed by her family and her neighborhood until high school and even then her life continued to center on close friends and family. She studied playing the piano with her Aunt Robbie and spent free time with girl friends in her south side neighborhood. Even though I was raised in a small town in rural Wisconsin my experience was similar in many ways, studying the piano and spending time with friends and family. Her life changed dramatically when she graduated from high school and entered Princeton University.

Her brother Craig, two years her senior,  had preceded her to Princeton and led the way in a sense; much as he had in their earlier years. He was only two years older than Michelle and they had a close family relationship. Michelle was always very intelligent and excelled in academics, progressing to Harvard Law School upon graduation from Princeton. I found the first section of the memoir the most interesting and while her prose was excellent, reading  the subsequent sections I progressively loss interest in the story of her life.

Her career trajectory was intense as she joined a major law firm in Chicago upon completing her law degree. The memoir excels in providing some of the quotidian details of the life of an exceptional black woman in the last decades of the Twentieth Century. However, after she married Barack and they entered into the political arena the book seemed to become somewhat superficial in its discussion of the events of her life. For those interested in the life of a former First Lady this would be an good choice and a pleasant book to read. If you are interested in the history of the years of the woman who stood by Barack Obama's meteoric political career I would suggest you wait for the work of an objective historian.


Thursday, April 18, 2019

Quote for Today

Notre-Dame de Paris


Notre-Dame de Paris




"a vast symphony in stone, so to speak; the colossal work of a man and a people, at the same time one and complex, like its sisters the Iliads and the Romanceros; the prodigious result of contributions made from all the resources of an age, where every stone displays in hundreds of ways the workman's imagination disciplined by the artist's genius; a king f of human creation, in a word, as mighty and fruitful as the divine creation whose dual character it seems to have abstracted: variety, eternity."


(from the opening of Book Three: "Notre Dame")

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Philosophy as a Process

Philosophical Investigations 


Philosophical Investigations



“Our investigation is a grammatical one. Such an investigation sheds light on our problem by clearing misunderstandings away. Misunderstandings concerning the use of words, caused, among other things, by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of language.”   ― Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations



Comments, I



Enter into a philosophy where outside of human thought and speech there are no independent, objective points of support. Meaning and necessity are preserved only by the linguistic practices which embody them. This then is a world that seems not unlike the skeptical realms of those from at least Descartes onward that allow for no objective reality independent of one's mind.
For Wittgenstein it is not quite so simple as that, as he continually asks questions and in doing so creates a philosophy of process much more akin to that of Socrates than Descartes, Kant or any other modern - particularly the camp of the logical positivists where he once dwelt.

His questions center on words and language so we find ourselves asking: is language a real thing? Is there any knowledge of things as they are independent of our language? How can we look at knowing as understanding the nature of things? In this sense there are things (objects) in the world and we can develop an understanding of their nature. This will not necessarily be certain knowledge, but knowledge of a sort nonetheless. "For them after all it is not nonsense" to say that "there are physical objects." (37)

It would seem that statements are only meaningful if they ask questions - Wittgenstein would ask - but there are other points of view out there.


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Notes on Homer

Homer's The Odyssey


"Recognition"


By Book 17 of The Odyssey, Odysseus has finally returned to Ithaca after ten years at war and ten more years in slow return due to Poseidon's wrath.  He has appeared in disguise as an aged beggar (through the aid of Athena) and has been welcomed by his loyal swinherd, Emaeus.  This aspect of the plot may seem strange as Odysseus appears somewhat cold and calculating. Why doesn't he embrace his son and wife, overcome by emotion, after not seeing them for so many years? Odysseus has been shown to be wily and crafty many times in the epic, and his indirect approach is in keeping with this aspect of his character. Also, the text makes reference several times to Agamemnon and his troubles. As Homer's audience would have known, Agamemnon comes home to a wife who has taken up a lover and stealthily kills him. Things change as time passes, and after 20 years, Odysseus can't be too careful. 
One morning as he is out walking with Emaeus the following touching scene occurs:


"Now, as they talked on, a dog that lay there
lifted up his muzzle, pricked his ears . . .
It was Argos, long-enduring Odysseus' dog, 
he trained as a puppy once, but little joy he got
since all too soon he shipped to sacred Troy.
In the old days young hunters loved to set him
coursing after the wild goats and deer and hares.
But now with his master gone he lay there, castaway,
on piles of dung from mules and cattle, heaps collecting
out before the gates till Odysseus' serving-men
could cart it off to manure th eking's estates.
Infested with ticks, half-dead from neglect, 
here lay the hound, old Argos.
But the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by
he thumped his tail, nuzzling low, and his ears dropped, 
though he had no strength to drag himself an inch
toward his master. Odysseus glanced to the side
and flicked away a tear. Hiding it from Eumaeus,
diverting his friend in a hasty, offhand way:
'Strange, Eumaeus, look, a dog like this,
lying here on a ding-hill . . .
what handsome lines!'" 

[as the conversation continues they leave]

"With that he entered the well-constructed palace,
strode through the halls and joined the proud suitors.
But the dark shadow of death closed down on Argos' eyes
the instant he saw Odysseus, twenty years away."

The Odyssey of Homer, trans. by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1996. pp 363-64, lines 317-360.




Thursday, March 14, 2019

An Autumnal Collage

Autumn 

Autumn

“The way we live, in time, is made to appear linear by the chronologies that get applied to our lives by ourselves and others, starting at birth, ending at death, with a middle where we’re meant to comply with some or other of life’s usual expectations, in other words the year to year day to day minute to minute moment to moment fact of time passing. But we’re time-­containers, we hold all our diachrony, our pasts and our futures (and also the pasts and futures of all the people who made us and who in turn we’ll help to make) in every one of our consecutive moments / minutes / days / years, and I wonder if our real energy, our real history, is cyclic in continuance and at core, rather than consecutive.”  -  Ali Smith


I enjoyed reading this novel about Autumn, a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. In Ali Smith's novel two old friends—Daniel, a centenarian, and Elisabeth, born in 1984—look to both the future and the past as the United Kingdom stands divided by a historic, once-in-a-generation summer. Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand-in-hand with hopelessness. The seasons continue to parade on their own way.

The novel proceeds with flashbacks interspersed with the present rather than in a consecutive, chronological narrative. Elisabeth ruminates on her youth and moments earlier in her life that formed her relationship with Daniel. Time becomes a central aspect of the story as highlighted by the following quote:
“Time travel is real. We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.” (p. 175) Of course this is a metaphorical statement with the travel occurring in our mind's eye.

The novel's structure might be compared to a collage and thus similar to the art of Pauline Boty, a founder of the British Pop art movement who is a character in the book. This approach is highlighted by the vagaries of Elisabeth's memory; while there is also a frequent use of contrast as in the moment when immediately following a difficult situation for Elisabeth the narrative shifts to Daniel asleep in his room (p 111).

The story opens with a reference to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, and then there’s a longer reference to a divided country filled with polarities: “All across the country, people felt legitimized. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked”? (p. 60) This is a reference to the impact of the Brexit vote and provides a contemporary context for the novel. The novel suggests a certain view of this event when Daniel tells Elisabeth, “So, always try to welcome people into the home of your story.” (p. 119). Perhaps our stories don’t belong to us alone? This can be seen as a call by the author for inclusion and diversity rather than building fences and keeping people out.

Smith alludes to and mentions many other authors and literary works, including William Shakespeare, John Keats, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell. Overall this was a meditation on the meaning of richness and harvest and worth. Autumn is the first installment of Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet, and shines a light over our own time: Who are we? What are we made of? Shakespearean jeu d’esprit, Keatsian melancholy, the sheer bright energy of 1960s pop art. Wide-ranging in time-scale and light-footed through histories, Autumn is an beautiful story about aging and time and love—and stories themselves.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Savage Satire

The Sellout 


The Sellout

“The wretched of the Earth, he calls us. People too poor to afford cable and too stupid to know that they aren’t missing anything.”   ― Paul Beatty, The Sellout




The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, is an African-American novel of satire on race relations in the United States. The story is told by an unnamed, black narrator who is coming before the Supreme Court on charges of slave holding and re-instituting segregation. The narrator recounts to the Supreme Court the events that brought him to the present time.

Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens - on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles - the narrator resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that have been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident - the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins - he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

After a while the novel began, for this reader, to become extremely tiresome to the point of utter splenetic prose. What plot there was lacked sufficient direction and a sense of purpose. This resulted from repetition of a few basic themes established very early on. At times it even felt like it had degenerated into a series of loosely connected rants and personal grievances in the form of chapters. It became a very trying read.

The writing began with a certain authority; it was compelling and convincing, however as the narrative progressed it did not pick up any momentum but lingered on similar ideas and stayed very stationary. Some of the comic moments seemed forced as the narrator repeated themes over and again. The Sellout won The Man Booker Prize in 2016 and despite my acherontic experience reading the book I can see why. It is a very timely piece, addressing many of the problems blacks face in a country that has supposedly moved on from its original sin of slavery. Segregation has ended, racism is officially at an all-time low, but the issues remain. 

That’s more-or-less the story, but for this reader the best aspect of The Sellout is Beatty’s language, sentence-by-sentence, even word-by-word, instead of the plot. There are literally hundreds of puns, non-sequiturs, and squeaky analogies, sometimes literally piled up on top of one another: “These are the times that fry one’s souls.” “Forty acres and a fool.”  In spite of that, the satirical style in which it was told offset much of what the book attempted to do. The satire in this novel is savage and the black idiom is difficult to follow for someone unfamiliar with it. I can only recommend this novel to those readers who are ready for a difficult reading experience that may or may not be worth the trip. It was not for me.


Friday, February 08, 2019

Poetic Telos and Cartharsis

Poetics 


Poetics






"The most important element is the construction of the plot. Tragedy is a representation not of persons but of action and life, and happiness and unhappiness consist in action."  (1450a, 15ff) 





"What is poetry, how many kinds of it are there, and what are their specific effects?" These are questions that Aristotle’s Poetics, one of his most influential books, attempts to answer. While it has been an important aspect outside philosophical circles it is doubtful that it can be fully appreciated outside Aristotle’s philosophical system as a whole.

A theme common to all Aristotle’s philosophy is the claim that nothing can be understood apart from its end or purpose (telos). This is certainly true for the Poetics which seeks to discover the end or purpose of all the poetic arts, and especially of tragic drama. Aristotle argues that generally, the goal of poetry is to provide pleasure of a particular kind. For comparison the Metaphysics begins, “All men desire to know by nature,” and the Nicomachean Ethics repeatedly says that the satisfaction of natural desires is the greatest source of lasting pleasure. The Poetics combines these two approaches with the idea of imitation. All people by nature enjoy a good imitation (that is, a picture or drama) because they enjoy learning, and imitations help them to learn.

Of particular interest to Aristotle is the pleasure derived from tragic drama, namely, the kind of pleasure that comes from the purging or cleansing (catharsis) of the emotions of fear and pity. Though the emotions of fear and pity are not to be completely eliminated, excessive amounts of these emotions are not characteristic of a flourishing individual. Vicariously experiencing fear and pity in a good tragedy cleanses the soul of ill humors.

Though there are many elements of a good tragedy, the most important, according to Aristotle, is the plot. The centrality of plot once again follows from central doctrines of the Metaphysics and the Nichomachean Ethics. In the former, Aristotle argues that all knowledge is knowledge of universals; in the latter, he states that it is through their own proper activity that humans discover fulfillment.

For a plot to work, it must be both complete and coherent. That means that it must constitute a whole with a beginning, middle, and end, and that the sequence of events must exhibit some sort of necessity. A good dramatic plot is unlike history. History has no beginning, middle, and end, and thus it lacks completeness. Furthermore, it lacks coherence because many events in history happen by accident. In a good dramatic plot, however, everything happens for a reason. This difference makes tragedy philosophically more interesting than history. Tragedy focuses on universal causes and effects and thus provides a kind of knowledge that history, which largely comprises accidental happenings, cannot.

While literary styles have changed over the centuries, the observations of Aristotle still contain value both for writers and readers today.


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Trip to Escape Love

Less 


Less





“Where is the real Less? Less the young man terrified of love? The dead-serious Less of twenty-five years ago? Well, he has not packed him at all. After all these years, Less doesn’t even know where he’s stored.”   ― Andrew Sean Greer, Less






Less, by Andrew Sean Greer, is a funny and engaging picaresque novel. Told by an omniscient narrator and portrayed through a well-structured plot, the humor is sometimes over-the-top, at least for this reader, and the story fascinates with the world of a not quite mainstream writer.

The novel opens when Arthur Less finds Freddy, his much younger, part-time lover of the past nine years—the one Less keeps warning not to become too attached to him—telling Less he’s met somebody else. When the wedding invitation arrives Less, a mediocre but earnest author, opens his desk drawer and fishes his hand through a sea of likewise mediocre professional invitations. If he accepts them all he would have the ingredients for a trip around the world and be out of town for the wedding and his dreaded fiftieth birthday, too. Less thinks, “What could possibly go wrong?”

So begins Greer’s sometimes hilarious ode to travel. From Less’s “Thumbelina bottle of red wine” to the “prison blanket, prison pillow” to which he clings, to his years-long battle to be refunded his VAT, Less is every person who wants to see the world but not deal with the struggle to get there. He’s also every person who’s armored himself against heartache by avoiding serious commitments.

Arthur Less has, for the past decade and a half, remained a bachelor. This came after a long period of living with an older poet, Robert Brownburn, that consumed his life till he suddenly found himself approaching middle age. Now he faced a second stage of life and  swore he would not give it to anyone; he would enjoy it. He would enjoy it alone. But: how to live alone and yet not be alone? His strategy was to “renounce love completely.” He had lovers but did not grow close. Hence his treatment of Freddy. And his impulse to flee.

Following this wonderfully funny-sad introduction, the picaresque stage takes over and we visit several countries with Arthur. The structure of the novel mirrors his round-the-world trip. Each chapter reveals a new country, new obstacles, and a new cast of characters. Less drags along his emotional baggage from place to place, and any random event can trigger a memory from his past with Robert or Freddy or from his childhood; he is never alone. In theory, all this backstory could slow down the plot, but he continually enters new situations. Each of them are fraught with worries and humorous moments like his stop in Germany where he teaches a course he delightfully calls "Read Like a Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein". This is based on "his own notion that writers read other works in order to take their best parts." With this as his set-up the humor is upped by his own less-than-expert knowledge of German which leads his students (behind his back) to label him "Peter Pan" due to his puerile exposition of the language. In this episode as all others, while he may sometimes be uncomfortable, he always survives to continue to another country.

While he doesn't intend as much the journey becomes an inadvertent quest for the meaning of love in his life. At a party in Paris, Less feels like the only single fifty-year-old with no prospects in sight. While sitting at a bar in Morocco on the eve of his birthday, Less’s female friend, also recently dumped, ponders whether love is “walking the fucking dog so the other one can sleep in” or if “it’s this earth-shattering thing. . . . Something I’ve never felt. Have you?” Less can’t answer. Much later while talking to Robert on the phone, he remembers his former partner’s deep longing for him and wonders if he’ll ever be loved that way again. Less finally asks the question he’s been trying to evade: “Am I too old to meet someone?” It is in moments like this, surprising moments of tenderness, when Less’s armor crumbles that he’s forced to face his ache inside.

Greer satirizes much of the writing life, from the agent who tells Less his novel is “too wistful. Too poignant,” to a ceremony for an obscure award, to a writing conference, to discuss not Less’s own books but the work of his long-ago lover, the genius poet Robert Brownburn. Greer reaches beyond satire to give glimpses into the character’s writing process -- moments where he describes the interior act of writing and the working of a creative mind. The humor in the novel's picaresque sections seems subdued compared to the opening sections, and sometimes seems to be merely tired farcical episodes, but the novel as a whole is more than entertaining, With Arthur's meditations on love and its loss it raises serious issues for the reader. The result justifies, in my opinion, the prize-winning status of this contemporary novel.



Monday, January 14, 2019

Novel as a Journal

Any Human Heart 


Any Human Heart




“Those were the years when I was truly happy. Knowing that is both a blessing and a curse. It's good to acknowledge that you found true happiness in your life - in that sense your life has not been wasted. But to admit that you will never be happy like that again is hard.”   ― William Boyd, Any Human Heart






William Boyd' s novel is presented in the form of journal entries; thus the subtitle, "The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart". The "journals" which the author has created, complete with footnotes and an index of all the people whom Logan meets (including Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, and countless others), brilliantly evoke a past era - or rather eras; for the journals span Logan Mountstuart's life from 1923, when he was a precocious schoolboy, through his early success as a biographer and novelist, his marriages, a war spent in Military Intelligence under Ian Fleming, life as an art dealer in New York, and poverty in London in his old age, until his death in France on October 5, 1991. The breadth of the story reminded me of Boyd's earlier novel, The New Confessions, which took the form of the autobiography of John James Todd, chronicling his uncanny and exhilarating life as one of the most unappreciated geniuses of the twentieth century

Much of the technical brilliance of this book results from the shifts in Logan's style as he, and the times through which he lives, ever so subtly evolve. Because of this it is sometimes difficult to appreciate Boyd's art as one ought, for one finds oneself almost reading the journals as genuine. The most dazzling vignettes, perhaps, are those of the self-regarding diaries of the young writers and aesthetes of the Twenties and Thirties, where Cyril Connolly (who appears as a character) is a likely influence. But if the early sections are the closest to parody, they are never mere caricature.

Boyd manages a rather touching, as well as extremely funny, portrait of a pretentious, arrogant, clever 17-year-old ("wrote a Spenserian ode on loss of faith"), who writes with flourishes of self-conscious pomposity ("we regained the purlieus of school without further incident"), is striving for superiority ("the Xmas tree is surely the saddest and most vulgar object invented by mankind"), yet does not know how to go about kissing his cousin Lucy, or deal with the discovery that his father does not have long to live.

Almost every section of the journals is nearly as good: Logan's moment with his baby son: "Lionel has croup. He seems a sickly baby. I sat him on my knee the other day and he stared at me with a baleful, sullen, and unknowing eye." is reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh. But the novel is not a simple criticism of many diarists of the period. Logan is capable of real and generous feeling, as well as of self-regarding depression; though to reveal the circumstances in which he finds (and loses) his truest love, as he moves from early critical acclaim to poverty and obscurity, would spoil an immensely readable story.

One remembers that this is a novel, indeed, by the way it holds your interest - which is quite a feat, because Boyd has also skillfully mimicked the "artless" and random qualities of the typical diary. As Logan remarks in his opening preamble, one should not expect coherence from journals: they merely "entrap that collection of selves that forms us"; unshaped by retrospection, their reality is "riotous and disorganized." Boyd's novel deliberately appears sprawling and inclusive; but it reads like a distillation of a real journal. He displays an unobtrusive artistry that transforms the potentially confusing "disorganized" diary-form into a novel which demonstrates the confusions and randomness of human life.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Two Women, Centuries Apart

The Weight of Ink 


The Weight of Ink




“Nowhere in the known world, it seemed to her, could she live as she'd been created: at once a creature of body and of mind. It was a precept so universal as to seem a law of nature: one aspect of a woman's existence must dominate the other. And a woman like Ester must choose, always, between desires: between fealty to her own self, or to the lives she might bring forth and nurture.”   ― Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink




Two stories, centuries apart, are told in this engaging historical romance. The stories are linked by documents created in the seventeenth century, hidden away in a British country house, and ultimately discovered in the twenty-first century. In many ways a book about books, The Weight of Ink surprises with delights that are gradually revealed.

Part of the story's charm is in the variety of its milieus and sensibilities. Following two female protagonists of both centuries—Ester Velasquez and Helen Watt, respectively—we also witness the goings-on of a venerable and drafty house of a rabbi in 1660s London, and glimpse the modern life of a young American academic, Aaron Levy, with heartrending troubles of his own. Perhaps most pivotally, we see an English girl’s time volunteering abroad on a kibbutz in Israel in the years after the war of independence. In spite of a gulf of over 300 years, these characters depend on each other each for their own reasons, any of which can provide parallels in the present day.

The images of these different times and places, brought to life at once through painstaking detail and accessible prose, are startlingly clear, even cinematic. Supporting roles, too, are far from dull. Much more than mere foils, even minor characters are fascinating in their own right. The Rabbi and others around Ester are fascinating -- Rivka, a servant and survivor of Polish pogroms, is not simply loyal, but also intrigues with a timeless intellect and will. The men in Ester Velasquez’s and Helen Watts’ lives wholly determine the courses of their universes. Indeed, perhaps too much for comfort, but believable nevertheless.

The book includes explorations into philosophy as Ester corresponds with Spinoza and others. Ester focuses on the pursuit of philosophy, including its relationship with both her mind and heart as can be seen in this passage:

“How wrong she'd been, to believe a mind could reign over anything. For it did not reign even over itself...and despite all the arguments of all the philosophers, Ester now saw that thought proved nothing. Had Descartes, near his own death, come at last to see his folly? The mind was only an apparatus within the mechanism of the body - and it took little more than a fever to jostle a cog, so that the gear of thought could no longer turn. Philosophy could be severed from life. Blood overmastered ink. And every thin breath she drew told her which ruled her.” 

There are also interesting historical details of the Spanish Inquisition that led the Jewish toward flight into Holland; this suggested to this reader a certain irony when those same Jews ostracized Spinoza for his heretical pantheistic views. The issue of what it is to be Jewish and to enter interfaith relationships in multiple time periods are integral to each of these stories. Is there merit to keeping within the tribe? Are there, regardless of time, place, or commitment, bridges that those who would willingly enter the Jewish community from the outside can never truly cross? Crucially, what does it mean to choose survival over martyrdom? These questions play out in the characters’ personal lives concurrently with Ester’s philosophical forays into the nature of God.

The author's prose is elegant and she takes her time to slowly build the two different narratives until the suspense in both centuries keeps the reader turning the pages. All of the stories yield mysteries and personal travails that made this a deeply moving novel.


Monday, January 07, 2019

Notes on a Former Moon

The Rings of Saturn 


The Rings of Saturn




“Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life.”   ― W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn




The novel as walking tour, but it is more than that being a voyage of the imagination into both the presence and history of one's own interior spaces. Inspired by writers from Thomas Brown to Conrad and Borges, Sebald narrates a journey outward through Eastern England and inward into his mind. The book brings Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker to my mind - part reminiscence, part meditation, as Rousseau seeks to come to terms with his isolation and find happiness in solitude and nature. Sebald also ventures into themes of nature and isolation, but even more important is the theme of desolation and the quest itself.

The book consists of ten chapters that seem to document a meandering journey, yet really provide a wide variety of thoughts, references, and experiences that all are connected with the major themes of desolation, interiority, and nature. The beginning reminded me of Dante as the author sets off on a journey into the countryside of Suffolk. He feels a joyous sense of freedom while he is traversing the countryside, even as he feels a disabling sense of horror when he encounters past events of destruction there with his own focus on "traces of destruction" so intense that he finds himself in hospital. There he looks out on the world from a small window and finds it difficult to judge reality from illusion; he thinks of himself as Gregor Samsa, the young man in Kafka’s story Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936).

Images of dust, sand, ashes, fog, and mist pervade The Rings of Saturn. The ashes contained in the burial urn are much like the particles of sand on a beach or the dust particles that ring Saturn; they are particles of matter that remain after some form of destruction or transformation of organic matter. One of the epigraphs to the novel recalls that the rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and meteorite particles that are fragments of a former moon that was destroyed. The narrator concludes that human civilization, from its earliest times, is little more than a strange luminescence whose waning and fading no one can predict.

His journey is not only physical but mental as he shares his thoughts about the author Thomas Browne whose work was inspirational for him. More connections of this kind are described and even though they seem unrelated, upon reflection there are connections between disparate authors and divergent moments from history. These moments range from the Renaissance to Bergen Belsen to the cause of the Irish Nationalist Roger Casement. The connections are curiously frequent as when the author Joseph Conrad meets Casement early in his career. References from the art of Durer and Rembrandt are cited to demonstrate the desolation that exists in a reality that we know through the artistic genius of men like these.

Using a beautiful prose style the novel presents the borders between illusion and reality, fact and fiction, and dreams and life as porous and permeable. The novel does not contain a specific plot that can be followed from beginning to end. Much like Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), The Rings of Saturn records the narrator’s thoughts in stream-of-consciousness-like fashion as he moves from one topic to another, with various images or events sending him into associative reveries. The result is mesmerizing.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

I Did Not Die

Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep 


Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep


This poem was reportedly inspired by the story of a young Jewish girl, Margaret Schwarzkopf, who had been staying with the Frye household and had been unable to visit her dying mother in Germany because of anti-Semitic unrest.







Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Two Poems for December


Two Poems





"In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Long ago."

- Christina Rossetti




"I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.

'We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,'
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December."

- Oliver Herford, "I Heard a Bird Sing"



The first poem above is the verse to one of my favorite carols of the season.  With the music of Gustave Holst  it captures a sense of nature and the season. 
The second poem provides words of endurance and encouragement that help us through the 'bleak' days of midwinter.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Looking Back at an Education

The Education of Henry Adams 


The Education of Henry Adams

"Except in the abandoned sphere of the dead languages, no one has discussed what part of education has, in his personal experience, turned out to be useful, and what not. This volume attempts to discuss it." (from the Preface - The Education of Henry Adams)


I have read several great confessional autobiographies over the years, Augustine and Rousseau come to mind, but my favorite is Henry Adams' narrative, The Education of Henry Adams. The Preface and four opening chapters provide a solid foundation for the entire book. They focus on his youth in Massachusetts and time spent in Washington, D. C. and at Harvard College through his twentieth year.

His attention points to the nature of his own education growing up in a family whose very name was synonymous with the Presidency of the United States. Born in 1838, both his Great Grandfather and Grandfather had been presidents, while his father looked forward to an Ambassadorship to England during the Civil War. Henry's education would be continued during that period as secretary to his father. But first he narrates the experience of growing up torn by family connections between the small town of Quincy and the metropolis of Boston.

The two towns provide just one of the contrasts that concern young Henry; contrasts that include town (Boston) versus country (Quincy), Winter versus Summer, and his own family ties between the Brooks of Boston on his mother's side and the Adams on his father's side. It was the interstices between these and other contrasting experiences that provided young Henry with the "seeds of moral education". Even this early in his life, as he reflects from the view of the twentieth century, he questioned what and who he was and where he was going with his life.

The community and culture that formed Henry's mind and being included family friends that would become historical figures for those of us born in the latter half of the succeeding century; figures that included, in addition to his family, Ellery Channing, Waldo Emerson, Richard Henry Dana, and above all for Henry, his hero, Charles Sumner. Henry worshiped the Senator and Orator and looked up to New England statesmen like him that expressed "the old Ciceronian idea of government by the best". People like Daniel Webster and Edward Everett who governed Massachusetts. Henry, however, was destined to move on to Washington with his father as the Adams family had for decades been a part of the national stage.

Henry did not like school and rather preferred the free play with his peers. In spite of his opinion of school it is clear that he was continuing his education at home and was soon to move back north to enter Harvard College in his sixteenth hear. His thoughts on his education at that time rang true to this reader as he described his travel to Washington, not as what happened but as what he remembered. And this was "what struck him most, to remain fresh in his mind all his life-time, . . the sudden change that came over the world on entering a slave State. He took education politically."  His time in Washington ended with a remark that "he had no education", a continuing contradiction that stemmed from his own reaction to the "official" education he was undergoing in schools that contrasted (once more see above) with the true education in which his experience was creating memories.

Harvard does not suit his taste either - the curriculum had no particular quality that could impress the man that Henry was becoming; a man who was not only a reader but a writer. He was impressed by Russell Lowell who "had brought back from Germany the only new and valuable part of its Universities, the habit of allowing students to read with him privately in his study. Adams asked the privilege, and used it to read a little, and to talk a great deal."  His friendship with Lowell led him to connections with the transcendentalists although he never became one. He also became friends with one Robert E. Lee at Harvard and enjoyed a coterie of Virginian friends despite their Southern ways.  At the end of his formal education he was able to conclude that "As yet he knew nothing."  A bit of harsh judgment for the Senior Class Orator, but great minds are sometimes hardest on themselves.

The remainder of the autobiography takes him on a journey through Darwin and Chicago and "The Dynamo and the Virgin" into the beginning of the twentieth century.  His story is always interesting and his prose is some of the best I have encountered. I may comment further on it as I continue to read and reread about his thoughts on a very particular education.