Friday, March 30, 2007

Blazing in Gold

A Poem for Today

Blazing in gold and quenching in purple,
Leaping like leopards to the sky,
Then at the feet of the old horizon
Laying her spotted face, to die;

Stooping as low as the kitchen window,
Touching the roof and tinting the barn,
Kissing her bonnet to the meadow,—
And the juggler of day is gone!

Emily Dickinson’s poem was first published on this day in 1864

Monday, March 26, 2007

A Comic Novel

The Man Without Qualities
by Robert Musil

A comic novel. A modern novel. A novel of ideas and more. This is without a doubt my favorite novel and one that both encapsulates and foreshadows the the development of the modern condition. Robert Musil's scientific mind is able to present a humanistic view of the world of Ulrich and the rest of the characters that inhabit this novel. Continuously inventive and invigorating for the reader.
David Copperfield

As the novel closes David's story has ended and his new journey, with Agnes by his side, has begun. Dickens deftly brings the novel to a climax, as David narrates the resolution of each of the novels main characters' fates. But I was most impressed by Dickens's use of the theme of nature and how it signals the final true maturation of David. While nature and the sea have been recurring motifs throughout the novel, in the final section we have nature brought home to David as he meditates on his life (following the deaths of Dora and Steerforth). We get the first intimation of this in Chapter LII(p. 747):

Early in the morning, I sauntered through the dear old tranquil streets . . . The rooks were sailing about the cathedral towers ; and the towers themselves , overlooking many a long unaltered mile of the rich country and its pleasant streams, were cutting the bright morning air, as if there were no such thing as change on earth.

Then in Chapter LV, Tempest, natures brews a storm leading to the shipwreck and discovery of Steerforth's dead body. But it is three chapters later while David is travelling in Switzerland that he narrates (p. 821):

I think some long-unwonted sense of beauty and tranquillity, some softening influence awakened by its peace, moved faintly in my breast.

I believe David's feeling here which is followed swiftly by a reassuring letter from Agnes, allows him to regain his artistic vigour leading him to write once again after a hiatus. It also signals his final maturation; and the reader delights in his return to England and the ultimate moment when he and Agnes share their long delayed testaments of love for each other.

David Copperfield, Charles Dickens (Penguin Classics, revised edition, 2004, London)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The World of Samuel Beckett

The Samuel Beckett of this fine biographical portrait is an inspiring artist. The author, Lois Gordon, focuses on the world from 1906 to 1946 in which Beckett matured and became the great writer that we know. Through her fascinating depiction of his maturation during these years, including his involvement with the Red Cross and French Resistance, we learn about the life that helped make the man.

The World of Samuel Beckett, by Lois Gordon (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1996)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Barenboim on Beethoven

Last night I enjoyed the performance of Daniel Barenboim on PBS Great Performances. He played five of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas including the great "Appassionata" ("Sonata No. 23 F minor," Op. 57). Other sonatas included in the concert special were "Sonata No. 5 C minor," Op. 10, No. 1; "Sonata No.11 B-flat major," Op. 22; "Sonata No. 19 G minor," Op. 49, No. 1; and "Sonata No. 20 G major," Op. 49, No. 2.. I particularly admired his musicianship and intensity. His selections demonstrated both the classical simplicity evident in the Op. 49 and the heroic and romantic drama of the Appassionata. Overall it was an excellent evening of music.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


When I approached the Newberry Library last night I was surprised to see it surrounded by representatives of the City of Chicago; the streets occupied by the Streets and Sanitation Department with their flotilla of street sweepers, the Fire Department and the Police Department with their command center vans watching over the scene. They would later be joined by the hovering of police helicopters. As I settled into class I glanced up at the window (our class is held in a basement classroom). There I saw the eerie presence of helmeted riot guards standing just outside the building providing a safe perimeter for our discussion of Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Why were we suddenly in an occupied zone? I reflected on the juxtaposition of this reality with the novel I am currently reading, Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, a novel of the fantastic and the surreal. It seemed that reality was sometimes just as fantastic as fiction.

With its location only one block away from the parking lot that was the pre-rally organizing location for a protest rally against the war, the Newberry Library had become a central location for the control apparatus of the City of Chicago. While I can understand this reality, the impact of being there amidst the apparatus of the city-state still seemed a bit surreal.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

David Copperfield

In my continuing journey through Dickens's charming novel I find his notion of marriage somewhat strange. David continues to dote on Dora after his marriage and a first year where they discover their inability to maintain there household. Dora , whose complete lack of common sense is irritating (at least to this reader), provokes David with her innumeracy. The situation does provide Dickens with an opportunity for a humorous set-piece when David tries to "form" Dora's mind by reading Shakespeare to her. Needless to say the project flounders on the rock that is located where her mind should be. In a book that is Dickens's best to date (greater novels loom on the horizon) it does disappoint in the use of coincidence and just a bit of melodrama in the saga of L'il Emily who returns to Mr. Peggoty with the help of mysterious Martha. That aside, David does seem to be maturing just in time to become a successful writer just like the author of his story.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Socratic theme

The following selection is from “The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû el-Yezdî,” a poem Sir Richard Francis Burton wrote in the manner of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, after his return from Mecca in 1854. For me the poem echoes the advice of the Greeks going back to Socrates, far different than the apparent spirit of the Rubaiyat:

…Better the myriad toils and pains that make the man to manhood true,This be the rule that guideth life; these be the laws for me and you:
With Ignorance wage eternal war, to know thy self forever strain,Thine ignorance of thine ignorance is thy fiercest foe, thy deadliest bane...

Sunday, March 18, 2007


I enjoyed viewing this French film noir classic directed by the American, Jules Dassin. The opening section of the film slowly and effectively establishes the players, led by Tony (Jean Servais in a stunning performance). Recently released from prison he joins with some friends to attempt a complex jewel heist. Once their plan unfolds the viewer is treated to the amazing and lengthy scene of the robbery itself with absolutely no dialog. Just when it appears that the plan has succeeded it begins to unravel and the suspense continues to build to the final scene. It is this suspense that permeates the film along with the vivid characters who create a memorable world of their own. The scenes of Paris in the fifties are dark but beautiful and the juxtaposition of innocence of Tony's godson with the evil of his own revenge-filled amorality make this a profoundly moving cinematic achievement.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Namesake

Based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, this film is an drama both of the education of an American boy of Indian heritage and of the story of his family's traditional life. In a sense it is the love story of the parents of the boy, Gogol Ganguli, who is shown growing up. As he matures he discovers his heritage and the importance of his name given to him by his his father. Heartwarming and filled with the contrast between cultures and ages, this film left me with a sense that I knew these people. Both the directing, by Mira Nair, the performances of Irrfan Khan and Kal Penn as the father and son, respectively, and all of the other acting was effective in the family portrayal with touching moments abounding. I would recommend this film highly.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

On Photography

Susan Sontag's original essays on the meaning of photography and the photographic image are challenging. She presents a wide range of ideas and discusses the work of some of the great photographers of the past century.
Whether you agree with her views about the aggressive nature of photography or the essential "nonintervention" of the act of taking a picture, you can savor the intelligent arguments that she presents. I was disappointed, as were others in our study group where we discussed this book, that there were no pictorial examples of the multitude of references made by Sontag. The book was nevertheless an excellent and invigorating read - one to which I shall return.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Crampton Hodnet

This early novel by Barbara Pym, published posthumously, is a comic delight. Filled with misplaced affections between characters whose love lives are fumbled when not being dashed, the novel keeps the reader entertained throughout. While not at the level of a Jane Austen, Pym provides an exquisite rendering of the small Oxford society of an earlier time. This with characters that are timeless yields a wonderful read.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

David Copperfield

Continuing on his journey, David completes his schooling and with the financial backing of his Aunt Betsey becomes an apprentice "proctor" (a sort of agent). When David was 10 or 11 years old he seemed old for his years, but he has kept much of his child-like innocence and naivety as he enters his late teens and now seems young for his age. He is able to avoid being taken advantage of by his friend Micawber, but he does not avoid Cupid's arrow and he falls in love with Dora Spenlow. This event with other complications provides growing suspense for the reader. In addition, Dickens continues to provide for David's intermittent commentary from the perspective of his older self. This provides the reader with curious suggestions of the action that will ensue in the rest of the novel.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Piano Tuner

The Lifeline Theater production of The Piano Tuner is as faithful to the original novel as you can be in two and one half hours. I saw this production yesterday and was satisfied that they captured the feel of the novel. That does not mean that this is great theater any more than the novel was great literature, but it is an interesting story well told. The protagonist is sent from London to Burma ostensibly to tune the piano in question. The ensuing drama includes seduction by the country, by the doctor who requested the piano tuner, and by a beautiful native girl. The result is tragic and provides a dramatic climax that sent most of the audience home satisfied, myself included. Having read the novel written by Daniel Mason I knew the story and feel that, for me, the original book was more satisfying.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Diabelli Variations

In 1819 Anton Diabelli, a composer and prominent music publisher, sent a copy of a waltz theme he had just written to 50 composers. He requested that each of them write one variation on the theme for a composite set, intending to publish this set and to use the profits from sales to benefit orphans and widows of the Napoleonic Wars. The composite set was published, but without a contribution from Beethoven. Nevertheless, the theme must have eventually grabbed his attention, because by 1820, in a letter to Peter Joseph Simrock, of the Bonn publishing house, Beethoven refers to his work on the variations as, "grand variations on a German waltz." The set of 33 variations known as the Diabelli Variations were finally published in 1823.

Martin Cooper, in his book entitled, Beethoven/The Last Decade, states, "Diabelli's waltz revealed an unexpected number of characteristics necessary in a variation theme---a strong if primitive harmonic structure, salient rhythmic traits and a melodic nullity that was itself a kind of virtue." Beethoven's limitless talents took flight with this theme and when he was done the world was 33 variations richer. Cooper goes on to characterize this opus as, "an epitome or microcosm of his musical world. The variety of treatment is almost without parallel, so that the work represents a book of advanced studies in Beethoven's manner of expression and his use of the keyboard, as well as a monumental work in its own right." Earlier, Hans von Bulow, a 19th century piano virtuoso and student of Liszt, referred to the variations as, "a microcosm of Beethoven's art."

My favorite of the variations are the Fughetta (Var 24), the funereal slow March (Var 14), and the Fugue and final Menuetto (Vars 32-33).

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Dialogues des Carmelites

Ethereal spirituality set against the background of the horrifying excesses of the French Revolution provides a basis for great opera. In 1957 Francis Poulenc's opera, Dialogue des Carmelites, premiered with a libretto by the composer. Featuring tonal music, with a seriousness I am unfamiliar with in his music, this opera is among the best that I have seen in some time. The characterization is rich and the tension builds as the Nuns gradually move toward their eventual fate of martyrdom. The production by Lyric Opera, which I attended last night, left me wanting a bit more spectacle from the rather sparse set, but its' simplicity allowed me to contemplate the uniqueness of the music.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Return of the Soldier

This first novel by Rebecca West was published in 1918. It is short but holds tremendous rewards for the attentive reader. Focusing on the return of a shell-shocked soldier suffering from amnesia, the novel presents a world turned upside down by the effect of the soldier's illness on his internal life as well as his relationships with his wife, sister, and former lover (from before his marriage). The author highlights the impact of class differences while she weaves some beautiful prose in descriptions both of the countryside and the characters' feelings. It is an elegant small novel and was a strong start for the career of Dame Rebecca.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


In Tamas, a novel of India the author, Bhisham Sahni, recreates the period in India just before the partition. I especially liked his ability to portray different points of view, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and the British, through his characters as they become involved in the events of the novel. You get a particularly good feel for the relationship between the British administrators and the Indians as well as the tensions between the religious factions. I've read several books about India and this was one of the best

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Last night I viewed the film, Venus, starring Peter O'Toole as Maurice Russell, an aging actor living out his last days with his friends, Ian and Donald, played by Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths. Into Maurice's life comes a young girl whom he names Venus, after the goddess. While early in the film there were some uproarious moments, overall it was uneven and a bit disappointing. Not disappointing was the acting from O'Toole, Vanessa Redgrave (his wife with whom he no longer lived), Griffiths and Phillips. The screenplay was written by Hanif Kureishi who also wrote My Beautiful Laundrette as well as several novels (see my discussion of The Buddha of Suburbia). O'Toole still has it and I'm looking forward to his next film.

Monday, March 05, 2007


This book is a valuable collection of essays and reflections by the German literary and cultural critic Walter Benjamin. The collection is enhanced by the excellent introduction provided by Hannah Arendt. Of the ten essays in the collection by far the most famous is The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In this essay Benjamin discusses the impact of mechanical reproduction through photography and film on the nature of works of art, even so far as to shape the design of new works.
From comments on the "authenticity" of a work of art to the nature of the "masses" views of art this essay encompasses a wide range of ideas. My favorite essay of the collection, however, is Unpacking My Library - a personal excursion into the life of a book collector and how each book intersects with one's life and effects the direction of that life. With other essays on Kafka, Proust and Baudelaire this collection is one of my favorites - one to which I return from time to time.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Cyberpunk 101

Neuromancer (Sprawl Trilogy, #1)
Neuromancer by William Gibson

"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding..."

Written more than twenty years ago, Neuromancer by William Gibson is the classic cyberpunk novel that started a new genre of science fiction. It is also notable in that it one all three awards for science fiction writing, the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick Award. Our book group discussion of this classic work provided some insight, but no consensus as to the overall appeal or success of the book. For me the book was best in its' demonstration of the power of imagination, bringing such concepts as cyberspace and artificial intelligence to the foreground in science fiction that they continue to have to this day.
It is here that the original concept of the Matrix unfolds like neon origami beneath clusters and constellations of data. Constructs, AIs, live here. Somewhere, concealed by ice, Neuromancer is evolving. As entropy goes into reverse, Molly's surgical implants broadcast trouble from the ferro-concrete geodesic of the Sprawl. Maelcum, Rastafarian in space, is her best hope of rescue. But she and Case, computer cowboy, are busy stealing data from the almighty Megacorps. If the Megacorps don't get them both, perhaps Case will fall prey to the cheap treachery of Linda Lee, someone as lost as himself.
While the plot had complexity and maintained a high level of suspense and excitement, I felt the characters lacked depth and often veered toward a flatness of almost machine-like quality. This may be what the author intended, but it did not make the book a better read. Overall I found this a worthwhile book to read, but will not add it to my list of favorites.

View all my reviews


The slow fourth movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony is an adagietto for strings and harp. This movement is often played separately and displays a melancholy and soulful sound that is like a haunting reverie.
It is perhaps this quality that led Luchino Visconti to select it as part of the background music for his film version of Death in Venice, based on the novel by Thomas Mann. It is this music that forever linked Mahler with the character of Gustav Aschenbach as he is so-named in Mann's text. This music is among my favorite within the oeuvre of a composer who bridged the turn of the century and looked forward from the Romanticism of the nineteenth into the modernism of the twentieth.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Brideshead Revisited

In his letter of 7 January 1945 Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford that (regarding Lady Marchmain) "no I am not on her side; but God is, who suffers fools gladly; and the book is about God." Nancy, in a subsequent letter (17 January 1945) commented that she was "immune from" the "subtle" Catholic propaganda supposedly in the novel. Well, I guess that I am in Nancy's camp, recognizing the excellence of this G.E.C. (Great English Classic) and in my own way fascinated by the role of God in it, I remain unmoved by any hidden proselytizing (perhaps too harsh a word). Brideshead Revisited is possibly Evelyn Waugh's greatest novel and certainly one of the best English novels of the twentieth century. The demonstration of the battle between the culture of a civilization dying in the aftermath of World War I and the modern "hollow" culture of the the twentieth century plays out in this drama of a family and their estate, Brideshead. The journey of Charles Ryder, who guides us through this story, from his first encounter with Sebastian Flyte and his first visit to Brideshead keeps the reader rapt until the final pages, when under the shadow of the Second World War Charles returns to Brideshead for a final visit. His growth through encounters with the Flyte children and their mother and father plays out against the background of the Brideshead and all that for which it stands. Waugh uses comic relief in a judicious manner to lighten the way for the reader in a way that keeps the serious themes of the novel from becoming overwhelming. This classic novel also provides a beautiful depiction of the experience of going up to Oxford during the 1920s.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


The Piano Concertos by Maurice Ravel are among my favorite concertos. We discussed them today in the final session of the Graham School class on the music of Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel. Of the two, my favorite is the Concerto in G which has a wonderful opening with a crack of the whip and the main theme introduced by the flute over a glistening accompaniment by the pianist. The concerto is very much in the light spirit of the Saint-Saens piano concerti (also among my favorites).
Ravel's other work for piano and orchestra, Concerto for the Left Hand, was commissioned by and for Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his right arm in WWI. It is a more serious work and in the latter section (it is in one movement) precursors Ravel's Bolero with its repetitious tarantella-like theme.