Sunday, December 30, 2007

Dual Lives

Arthur and George
by Julian Barnes
“If a man cannot tell what he wants to do, then he must find out what he ought to do. If desire has become complicated, then hold fast to duty.”  ― Julian Barnes, Arthur and George
Julian Barnes uses an elegant and readable writing style to create the dual fictional lives of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji in this his tenth novel. The result is a compelling narrative that at once is both interesting as fictional biography and as a detective story. Personally, I found the mystery and Doyle's investigation into its' source was more interesting, but the rest of the novel was well enough told to almost keep up with the suspense created by the mystery. The combination was one of the best novels I have read all year and would certainly make any ten-best list I might create, if I were so inclined. The author uses an interesting narrative technique switching back and forth between the two protagonists as they grow up completely unaware of each other until the moment when their lives become inextricably intertwined, in no small part due to the fame of Doyle's most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. What happens subsequently as their lives continue to their unique personal conclusions is summed up in the final sections of the novel. Certainly this is a more than satisfying read for several winter nights.

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2006.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Mesmerizing Cinema

Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon

"Hold fast to the human inside of you, and you'll survive."

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly 
is a mesmerizing film by Julian Schnabel. The images are rapturous from the beginning when you see with the eyes (eye) of Jean-Dominique Bauby only what he can see in his hospital room till later in the film when you see with the mind of Jean-Dominique. Brilliant direction and cinematography combined with excellent use of sound and a great musical score make this one of the best films I have seen this year. The movement from hospital to scenes of tender moments with his family was extraordinary. Add to that a stunning cameo appearance by Max von Sydow as his father and you have further embellishment that enhances an already fine film. The story of a man who, while almost completely paralyzed, can imagine and dictate his story is one of beauty and inspiration. The cinema becomes an unusually moving art form in the hands of Julian Schnabel.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Mahogany Tree

This Christmas, as has been my practice for the past few years, I use my mahogany dining room table as my "Christmas Tree" with decoration and gifts adorning its mien. Thinking on this reminded me of similar traditions expressed by William Makepeace Thackery (1811-1863) in the following poem:

The Mahogany Tree

Christmas is here:
Winds whistle shrill,
Icy and chill,
Little care we:
Little we fear
Weather without,
Shelter about
The Mahogany Tree.

Once on the boughs
Birds of rare plume
Sang, in its bloom;
Night-birds are we:
Here we carouse,
Singing like them,
Perched round the stem
Of the jolly old tree.

Here let us sport,
Boys, as we sit;
Laughter and wit
Flashing so free.
Life is but short --
When we are gone,
Let them sing on
Round the old tree.

Evenings we knew,
Happy as this;
Faces we miss,
Pleasant to see.
Kind hearts and true,
Gentle and just,
31Peace to your dust!
We sing round the tree.

Care, like a dun,
Lurks at the gate:
Let the dog wait;
Happy we'll be!
Drink, every one;
Pile up the coals,
Fill the red bowls,
Round the old tree!

Drain we the cup. --
Friend, art afraid?
Spirits are laid
In the Red Sea.
Mantle it up;
Empty it yet;
Let us forget,
Round the old tree.

Sorrows, begone!
Life and its ills,
Duns and their bills,
Bid we to flee.
Come with the dawn,
Blue-devil sprite,
Leave us to-night,
Round the old tree.

In their notes on this poem, the commentators at RPO, the University of Toronto's on-line poetry site, tell us that "Mahogany, a wood imported to England from the Americas, was used for fine furniture, especially the dining table, which became known popularly as 'the Mahogany tree.' Mahogany was also the name of an alcoholic drink, such as gin and treacle, or brandy and water." William Makepeace Thackery died on December 24, 1863.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

George Eliot

I was reminded yesterday by a correspondent of our mutual admiration for the novels of George Eliot. He mentioned he was rereading some of them, he did not mention which, and I reflected on the last one I had read - Silas Marner - about a year ago. While I remember this reading reminded me of those aspects of Eliot that I enjoy and admire, I also thought that, for me, this was not one of her best works at the head of which I would put Middlemarch. It is set apart for me in the stratosphere of truly "great" works of literature and I love to read again of the travails of Dorothea Brooke, Will Ladislaw and the society they inhabit in 19th century England. One of the primary characteristics of George Eliot that pervades her novels is her intelligence, much the same way that Tolstoy does in his novels. It is this and her love for her heros and heroines in novels like Adam Bede and Felix Holt as well as Middlemarch that demand my admiration and reward it with good reading.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


I have begun a traversal of Naguib Mahfouz's great set of novels, The Cairo Trilogy. This is a story to savor and Mahfouz, who was born in Cairo in 1911, begins it slowly introducing each character through their individual actions and thoughts so the reader gradually becomes acquainted with the family of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. It is almost two hundred pages into the novel when, suddenly, there is an explosion of sorts as the plot "thickens" as has often been said. Luxuriating in the life of this family, learning the culture and the particular eccentricities of its patriarch, this reader is finding Mahfouz a subtle creator and novelist in the tradition of Dickens, Mann and Tolstoy. The life of the al-Jawad family with mother Amina, her daughters Khadija and Aisha, sons Fahmy and Kamal and stepson Yasin, becomes a living force as their personalities emerge from the pages of the novel. Behind it all is the great city of Cairo. I am looking forward to the events to come as I continue reading this fascinating trilogy.
The Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street) by Naguib Mahfouz. Everyman's Library, New York. 2001.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Nikola Tesla

Tesla's Letters
by Jeffrey Stanley

The TimeLine Theatre Company's current production is Tesla's Letters by Jeffrey Stanley. The play focuses not so much on Nikola Tesla, although the idea of Tesla is important to the drama, as on the dreams and desires and misperceptions of the primary characters. One character, Daisy, is an American student studying the life of Nikola Tesla and the other is the Director of the Nikola Tesla museum who has his own dreams for the future of Serbia. The interaction of these characters, along with the Director's mother and cousin, forms the content of the play. I found the sincerity and spirit of the production laudable, but was disappointed both in the simplistic approach to the ideas being considered and in some inexplicable lapses in the presentation. The characterization of the American student, Daisy, at times came across more as "Daisy Mae"; sometimes she demonstrated an ignorance of details of Tesla's life that was inconsistent with having spent three years devoted to studying that life; and, at other times she was merely annoying. The Director of the Museum seemed to vacillate between an almost cloying sweetness and bouts of anger. Through all this the acting was adequate, with the exception of Janet Ulrich Brooks, as the Director's mother, who stood out in this small cast and left this theater-goer wishing she had a larger role in the drama. Finally, Tesla was used as a metaphor for the main action of the play; however, as a true scientific genius he deserves more.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Crane and Johns

In 1932 on his return from Mexico, off the coast of Cuba, Hart Crane was "lost at sea". At least that is what is inscribed on the tombstone of his father, Clarence A. Crane. Last night I attended a lecture by Langdon Hammer, Yale University Professor, on the nexus between Hart Crane and Jasper Johns. He opened the lecture with the portrait of Crane by Walker Evans (seen at the left) in the background as he surveyed Crane's brief life. He then moved to a detailed analysis of the influence of Crane on Johns' work as shown in the explicit and implicit references to Crane in some of his "Gray" period works now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. He noted the apparent differences between the two artists in that Crane is considered an emotional artist while Jasper Johns is usually thought of as more cerebral. In spite of that, or perhaps because, there is a connection that can be seen, by studying Johns' paintings and words as Professor Hammer has, as editor of the Library of America collection of Crane's Poetry and Letters as well as other publications.

The best part of the lecture for me was meditating on some of Crane's moving poetry, such as this excerpt, selected by Prof. Hammer:

yes, Walt,

Afoot again, and onward without halt,--

Not soon, nor suddenly,--no, never to let go

My hand

in yours,

Walt Whitman--


--Hart Crane, "Cape Hatteras" (from The Bridge, 1930)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Memorial Service

H. L. Mencken

Where is the grave-yard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a day when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter to-day? And what of Huitzilopochtli? In one year--and it is no more than five hundred years ago--50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried on with the sun. When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was watered with 10,000 gallons of human blood. But today [in 1921] Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Allen G. Thurman. Once the peer of Allah, Buddha, and Wotan, he is now the peer of General Coxey, Richmond P. Hobson, Nan Petterson, Alton B. Parker, Adelina Patti, General Weyler, and Tom Sharkey.

Speaking of Huitzilopochtli recalls his brother, Tezcatilpoca. Tezcatilpoca was almost as powerful: He consumed 25,000 virgins a year. Lead me to his tomb: I would weep, and hang a couronne des perles. But who knows where it is? Or where the grave of Quitzalcontl is? Or Tialoc? Or Chalchihuitlicue? Or Xiehtecutli? Or Centeotl, that sweet one? Or Tlazolteotl, the goddess of love? Or Mictlan? Or Ixtlilton? Or Omacatl? Or Yacatecutli? Or Mixcoatl? Or Xipe? Or all the host of Tzitzimitles? Where are their bones? Where is the willow on which they hung their harps? In what forlorn and unheard of hell do they await the resurrection morn? Who enjoys their residuary estates? Or that of Dis, whom Caesar found to be the chief god of the Celts? Or that of Tarves, the bull? Or that of Moccos, the pig? Or that of Epona, the mare? Or that of Mullo, the celestial jack-ass? There was a time when the Irish revered all these gods as violently as they now hate the English. But today even the drunkest Irishman laughs at them.

But they have company in oblivion: The hell of dead gods is as crowded as the Presbyterian hell for babies. Damona is there, and Esus, and Drunemeton, and Silvana, and Dervones, and Adsalluta, and Deva, and Belisama, and Axona, and Vintios, and Taranuous, and Sulis, and Cocidius, and Adsmerius, and Dumiatis, and Caletos, and Moccus, and Ollovidius, and Albiorix, and Leucitius, and Vitucadrus, and Ogmios, and Uxellimus, and Borvo, and Grannos, and Mogons. All mighty gods in their day, worshiped by millions, full of demands and impositions, able to bind and loose--all gods of the first class, not dilettanti. Men labored for generations to build vast temples to them--temples with stones as large as hay-wagons. The business of interpreting their whims occupied thousands of priests, wizards, archdeacons, evangelists, haruspices, bishops, archbishops. To doubt them was to die, usually at the stake. Armies took to the field to defend them against infidels: Villages were burned, women and children were butchered, cattle were driven off. Yet in the end they all withered and died, and today there is none so poor to do them reverence. Worse, the very tombs in which they lie are lost, and so even a respectful stranger is debarred from paying them the slightest and politest homage.

What has become of Sutekh, once the high god of the whole Nile Valley? What has become of:


All these were once gods of the highest eminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament. They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Jahveh himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor. Yet they have all gone down the chute, and with them the following:

Dea Dia
Iuno Lucina
Gasan lil
Abil Addu
Nuada Argetlam
Llaw Gyffes
Diana of Ephesus

You may think I spoof. That I invent the names. I do not. Ask the rector to lend you any good treatise on comparative religion: You will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest standing and dignity--gods of civilized peoples--worshiped and believed in by millions. All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal. And all are dead.

(1922) Reprinted from A Mencken Crestomathy.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Cape of Good Hope

When blue meets blue and green appears to intercede,
And a waft of breeze dusts one's cheeks with mild
Chastisement -- a wind that offers a hint of more to come.
What do we realize in the appearance of the endless sea?

We realize we have reached the limit of land.
The idea of infinity is objectified in one color --
Or is it two? This we only discover by trying
To understand what our human nature must be.

A truce with ourselves betrays the need
To learn and discover our self in our actions.
Trying to become the end we only imagined
In the breeze -- we create hope for our future.

from Geography Lessons

February 1994 (2004)

I went on a journey to the tip of South Africa in 1978. This poem is in part inspired by that experience.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Brothers Karamazov

Yesterday I experienced an enlightening and enriching lecture entitled "Hell and Devils: Responding to Human Perversity in The Brothers Karamazov" given by Clare Pearson, both Chairperson and Instructor in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago. Her lecture featured the "mythological and mystical core" of the novel with a focus on the nature of hell and the many examples of devils found in it. What I found enlightening in the lecture was the expansion of my conception of The Brothers Karamazov through this approach to the novel. I am currently in the midst of a year-long (at least) reading of the novel with a bi-weekly study group, and have read it previously several times. Over the course of those readings I have explored the novel as mystery, as philosophy, as christian spirituality, and even as a psychoanalytic text in my study of the novel, but here was yet another approach to reading it.
That is just one of the reasons it is considered a "classic"; because you can read it again and again, continuing to discover new ideas and meanings in this rich and transcendent text. Ms. Pearson described her lecture as a "rough" unfinished approach to the novel, but it was polished enough to inspire this listener to continue with his current reading with new vigor and search for ever more meaning and enrichment in the text bequeathed to us by Dostoevsky.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Christmas Memory

Nostalgia and sentimentality are woven together beautifully in this brief memoir by Truman Capote. Written in the mid-fifties before the peak of his acclaim and subsequent dissolution, this is a touching story of friendship and the memories of youth. In a simpler time and place the young Capote shares the essence of Christmas with his elder cousin. A moving memoir for those willing to believe.

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Modern Library, New York. 1996 (1956).

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

An Adult Fairy Tale

Last night I attended the Lyric Opera production of Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. The production was astonishing in the use of light and movement while the singing was excellent. The center of the opera for me is Strauss's music, as it is with all his many works. His use of motifs move the drama along ever onward and, at times, were almost magical in evoking the mysterious moods of the opera. Rather than summarize the whole story, let me just say that it is one that juxtaposes this world (the Dyer's wife and her husband Barak) with the supernatural (the Empress and her Nurse) and leads to an ultimate decision for the Empress. The journey to that decision takes the singers and music into ethereal realms and charmed this opera lover.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren wrote: ". . . I was going to write a war novel. But it turned out to be this Golden Arm thing. I mean, the war kind of slipped away, and those people with the hypos came along and that was it."
This suggests that Algren was overcome by his own creation, and I suppose that can happen sometimes, when you create such real gritty characters. This novel, The Man With the Golden Arm, is certainly gritty, and real, and a fascinating read. The characters literally jump out at you from the page and you realize that the author knows these people and has the skill to impart that knowledge. While sometimes both harrowing and grim, the novel grips the reader and does not let him go. My reaction, as it was with Camus' The Stranger, is that this is not a world I would want to live in but it makes me think. If you enjoy this book you might want to explore Never Come Morning and other works by Nelson Algren.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Disaster Books

The Circus Fire
by Stewart O'Nan

Last year I read an excellent account of the 1918 Influenza pandemic by John Barry entitled The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history. This was a well-written account not only of the pandemic but also the rise of the medical establishment and the aftermath of the event. My sister had recommended this and recently she recommended another very good disaster book which I read over the recent holiday weekend. The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy by Stewart O'Nan is an account of the great Hartford circus fire of 1944. This event was unknown to me prior to reading this book.  However, it was nevertheless a great tragedy as 167 people died in the fire, including many children. O'Nan's account is very well-written as he brings the disaster alive with a detailed minute-by-minute narrative that never lags despite the attention to detail. The psychological insight and focus on particular families makes this an exceptionally good read.