Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Travel Notes

West for the Holiday

I do not enjoy travel, but do love to visit my sister, Robbie, who lives in northeastern Nevada. So last month I booked a trip to visit her for the Christmas holiday.
Having just returned I can report that it was among the best of my many visits with her (and her husband Ed and their menagerie - currently including three dogs and two cats). We spent a quiet week with snow falling outside most days but a fire in the wood stove in the evening kept the house warm overnight. Her place is in a high valley just west of the Ruby mountains with a beautiful vista of snow-capped peaks that range from the south to north just outside the broad living-dining room windows. We had a white Christmas with snowfall much of the day, not unexpected for when spending the holiday in the mountains of Nevada.
I cannot help but mention the wonderful meals I enjoyed sharing with Robbie and Ed due to both the skill and love which my sister puts into her cooking and baking. The result was fresh bread and muffins with alternate meals of savory meat, fish and vegetarian dishes. The best of these during my visit had to be the corn chowder and a delightful chicken and farfel pasta dish with pesto sauce. Only someone with the talent of a writer like M. F. K. Fisher could truly do justice to my sister's cooking with appropriate literary descriptions.
Travel may not be one of my interests, but visits to see my sister are among the best things in my life.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The White Tiger

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is a novel in the tradition of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and Ellison's Invisible Man. That is to say it is not your traditional Indian novel, but one that presents the hero as the outsider, a man who is both literally and figuratively underground and invisible.
The novel is narrated by Balram Halwai, "The White Tiger" who over seven nights shares his life story in the form of a letter to a Chinese official. In Balram the author has created an anti-hero who, with both charisma and charm, shares a very dark story about corruption, death and escape from the most extreme poverty into the wealth of successful entrepreneurship. The author uses the metaphors of light and dark to help us understand his traversal of a side of India seldom seen in most tales of that country. The theme of naming/identity also plays an important role as Balram takes on different names as he grows and changes from the simple munna to his eventual magisterial identity as "The White Tiger". The author has created a sort of modern journey, much as Ellison did where the hero overcomes his beginnings, and the corruption he finds everywhere, to create a new life for himself. It is, however, a new life that is strangely cut off from society so he remains an outsider to the end. The brilliant conception of the author impressed me as he presented believable characters, the realistic details about the best and worst of Indian society, and a clear depiction of the nature of the hero at the center of the story. There is black humor that is sometimes excruciatingly funny alongside true regret, and underlying it all hints of a fear (of the past) that cannot be completely eradicated. The author's voice is original and challenging as he takes you on a journey that, while seemingly straightforward, has many layers of meaning and leaves you with questions to ponder. Genuinely deserving of the Man Booker Prize of 2008, The White Tiger is both an engaging enjoyable read and a thought-provoking meditation on life.

The White Tiger: A Novel by Aravind Adiga. Free Press, New York. 2008

Friday, December 26, 2008

And Yet the Books

I am currently reading The Time of their Lives by Al Silverman which I gratefully received as a Christmas gift yesterday. It is a memoir and paean to the "golden age of great American publishers" and is proving to be a delightful read. I will have further thoughts after I finish reading the book but did not want to wait to share the epigraph for the book which is a poem by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz. It reminds me of why I love his poetry and books as well.


And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
"We are," they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine an earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it's still a strange pageant,
Women's dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

Translated from the Polich by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass (from The Collected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz, 1931-1987. HarperCollins Publishers.

The Time of Their Lives: the golden age of great American book publishers, their editors and authors by Al Silverman. St. Martin's Press, New York. 2008.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Nutcracker Ballet

The Nutcracker, Op. 71, is a fairy tale-ballet in two acts, three scenes, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, composed in 1891–92. Alexandre Dumas père's adaptation of the story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" by E.T.A. Hoffmann was set to music by Tchaikovsky (staged by Marius Petipa and commissioned by the director of the Imperial Theatres Ivan Vsevolozhsky in 1891). The Nutcracker is one of my favorite ballets and it has become perhaps the most popular of all ballets, performed primarily around Christmas time.

The composer made a selection of eight of the numbers from the ballet before the ballet's December 1892 premiere, forming The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a, intended for concert performance. The suite was first performed, under the composer's direction, on 19 March 1892 at an assembly of the St. Petersburg branch of the Musical Society. The suite became instantly popular; the complete ballet did not achieve its great popularity until around the mid-1960s.

Perhaps some of the delight is the combination of fairy-tale- like music from the pen of Tchaikovsky along with the Dumas adaptation ( the original story by Hoffmann was much a much darker tale just as many now famous fairy tales for children have their origins in darker original versions). The music is notable for the eclectic breadth that it exhibits with sweeping romantic waltzes, a pastiche of dances representing different nationalities and miniatures that have a classical flavor (not the least as homage to Mozart whom Tchaikovsky revered). Among other things, the score of The Nutcracker is noted for its use of the celesta, an instrument that the composer had already employed in his much lesser known symphonic ballad The Voyevoda (premiered 1891). Although well-known in The Nutcracker as the featured solo instrument in the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from Act II, it is employed elsewhere in the same act.

The Nutcracker Ballet is a continuing delight for viewing and listening during the holiday season.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ali & Nino

In pre-World War I Azerbaijan the cultural chasms are as deep as the oil wells that surround the city. Muslim Ali Khan, the scion of the wealthy and powerful Shirvanshir family, has fallen in love with Princess Nino Kipiani, the daughter of a rich Christian merchant family. Their courtship, opposed by family and friends, is disrupted by the outbreak of war. A time of great change is coming for Russia and for the Middle East, and the young lovers must decide whether they belong to Europe or Asia. Rich with depictions of the people of the Caucasus and affecting in its portrayal of youthful romance, Ali and Nino has been called “a jewel of a book” by the New York Times Book Review. This is not just a simple love story. But it is a romance, and a journey through the Caucasus, and a love story of operatic proportions. Ali & Nino by Kurban Said is all of these things presented as a somewhat traditional novel by a very nontraditional author. It is a romance in the tradition of great romantic literature. Ali Kahn, the narrator and hero, becomes a hero conquering his enemies in love and in war. As a national hero he is portrayed as growing into the position of national icon, the sort of mythic hero about whom wonderful stories are told. We are fortunate to read his own story. The novel shows us the Caucasus of the early twentieth century as it undergoes tremendous political change and must react to world events of war and revolution that impinge on the life of the local culture. It is a culture for which blood feuds are as important as international news. We see new nations in the process of formation: Georgia, Azerbaijan and modern Iran. At the center of the novel is the love story of Ali Kahn Shirvanshir and Nino Kipiani, one Muslim and one Christian, whose love transcends religion and culture and national borders. The author develops these characters with depth so you know them and share in their feelings. They live in the real world of the Orient but share in Western culture as naturally as they adapt to the change from the rustic village in the Caucasus to the luxurious palace in Muslim Azerbaijan. One reads of Western Opera, Faust & Eugene Onegin, being as much a part of their culture as the great Islamic poets. This made the book more engaging than any simple love story. Kurban Said, who was himself something of a mystery, created a lasting work to read again and again in Ali & Nino.

Ali & Nino: A Love Story by Kurban Said. Trans. by Jenia Graman. Anchor Books, New York. 2000 (1937)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Plague (continued)

We have reached the first sermon of Father Paneloux in our close reading of The Plague. Father Paneloux, who is introduced ironically as a messenger of "truth", "a stalwart champion of Christian doctrine at its most precise and purist." (p 92)
He is presented by the narrator as almost a caricature of Catholic (Jesuit) Priest with his puritanical sermon that blames the congregation for the plague due to their indifference and turning away from god (among other things). The sermon is strikingly traditional and quite unbelievable and we will have further comments about it following Father Paneloux's second sermon, later in the novel. The narrator's description of the effect of the sermon at the beginning of the following chapter is telling in its Kafkaesque description:

"To some the sermon simply brought home the fact that they had been sentenced, for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment." (p 100)

This is the absurdity of the world in which the Father issues his didactic message and which the residents of Oran are experiencing a recrudescence of plague with the real effect of "widespread panic". This reality is not ameliorated by the Priest or the doctors in the prison-like environment in which they are confined.

The Plague by Albert Camus. Trans. by Stuart Gilbert. Vintage Books, New York. 1991 (1948)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Invisible Forms

"Curiouser and curiouser", said Alice and that was my initial response to this unique book. Written by Kevin Jackson, a writer and traveler and somewhat of a mystery, Invisible Forms: A Guide to Literary Curiosities is a book about books. It is specifically about the 'other', the 'invisible' forms or parts of almost every book that are there "in plain sight"; ignored or assumed away when considering the book, but not by Kevin Jackson. He discusses dedications, titles, epigraphs, footnotes, prefaces, afterwords, indexes and even the imaginary: imaginary books and authors. Marginalia is not left out in this delightful compendium of useful and whimsical knowledge and trivia. The epigraphs for the book are worth considering:

There are books in which the footnotes, or the comments scrawled by some reader's hand in the margin, are more interesting than the text. The world is one of those books. (George Santayana, Realms of Being)

Some of the means I use are trivial - and some are quadrivial. (James Joyce, responding to accusations of triviality)

The contents of Invisible Forms exist in that realm somewhere between the trivial and the whole world. It is an interesting place, one that invites the reader in for a dip now and then. Watch out that you are not engulfed by the world of Invisible Forms.

Invisible Forms: A Guide to Literary Curiosities by Kevin Jackson. St. Martin's Press, New York. 2000.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Simply Beethoven. That is all that is needed for he is one of a handful of great composers (Bach, Brahms, Wagner , Handel) whose magnificence and genius is encapsulated in the simple pronouncement of his last name.
But in Beethoven's case we may add Hero to the name, for he will forever be associated with the Heroic style in music. Foremost in evidence we have his Third Symphony, The Eroica Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, along with several of his other greatest compositions, that demonstrates the power of his Heroic style. In his book, Beethoven Hero, Scott Burnham includes Symphony No. 5 in c minor, Op. 67, and the Coriolan Overture, op. 62, as further examples of the Heroic style.
Beethoven's music is one of struggle, the original "sturm und drang" that leads to the eventual triumph of man - the sign of his greatness. Who is Beethoven's hero? Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, commented, "We believe that the greatness of man stems from the fact that he bears his fate as Atlas bore the heavens on his shoulders. Beethoven's hero is a lifter of metaphysical weights."
Beethoven is the Hero of men who love humanity.

Beethoven Hero by Scott Burnham. Princeton University Press. 1995.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Schopenhauer Cure
by Irvin D. Yalom

This is a novel of ideas by Irvin D. Yalom. Given its' title the publisher decided that it would be useful to add the words "a novel" at the top of the front cover; presumably so that it would not be confused with self-help psychology or philosophy texts.

The "novel" portrays the operation of group therapy under the direction of Julius Hertzfeld, an experienced therapist, at the center of the novel. But it also contains contrasting chapters highlighting the life and thought of Arthur Schopenhauer (along with epigraphs from Schopenhauer at the beginning of every chapter). It is moderately successful with this combination; however I was disappointed with the therapy group portion of the novel - particularly the two other main characters, Philip and Pam.

The presentation of ideas provides the reader with plenty of "food for thought". However, if you seriously want to learn about Schopenhauer you should read his work, starting with his essays, for he is one of the most lucid and readable of all philosophers. And he is worth reading, for he had significant influence on subsequent thought, although this was more pronounced in the musical and literary realm than academic philosophy. You cannot listen to late Wagner (Tristan and beyond) or read Thomas Mann's novels without encountering the influence of Schopenhauer. In the philosophic realm his greatest influence was on Friedrich Nietzsche, who even wrote an essay about his debt to Schopenhauer (Schopenhauer as Educator).

The Schopenhauer Cure succeeds as a novel of ideas in its presentation and will appeal to all who enjoy this type of book; but it is best in suggesting a direction for further reading (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Freud) for those who are interested.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Taut Drama

A House With No Walls
by Thomas Gibbons

I attended the Chicago premiere production of A House With No Walls by Thomas Gibbons at the TimeLine Theatre Company.
The play was inspired by real events in Philadelphia surrounding the construction of the new Liberty Bell Center. When the original President's house (from the decade beginning in 1790 when Philadelphia was the capital city) was discovered and the slaves quarters for the house a protest developed to preserve this slaves' quarters as part of the new structure. The play focuses on the tension between the leader of the protest, Salif Camara played by A. C. Smith, and a conservative Black professor, Cadence Lane played by Amber Starr Friendly. Both Friendly and Smith were excellent in their respective roles. While their story is playing out their is a concurrent portrayal of two of the slaves from the original quarters who, near the end of the decade, are faced with the prospect of returning to Mount Vernon. This story of the sister and brother Oney and Austin Judge is contrasted with the modern confrontation and is tied in through the historical research of Cadence and a colleague of hers, Allen Rosen played by Steve O'Connell.
The play was effective and tautly directed by Louis Contey. I found the performances of Friendly and Smith particularly strong along with Leslie Ann Sheppard as the young slave girl. Overall the play raised interesting questions about the appropriate way to commemorate and respect the history of slavery in today's society. Once again TimeLine Theatre Company provid
ed a thoughtful history-based drama with contemporary interest.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hector Berlioz

Today is the birthday of Hector Berlioz, who was born on this day in 1803. He would live for sixty-six years and is considered one of the masters, if not the founder, of musical romanticism. I have enjoyed his music at least since I was in high school and played the English Horn solo in his Overture, Le Carnaval Romain (Roman Carnival). He is best known for his large works including the Symphonie Fantastique, Harold in Italy (Concerto for Viola and Orchestra), Operas (Les Troyens and Beatrice et Benedict), and his works for Chorus and Orchestra including his Requiem and La Damnation de Faust. It was the last of these that was included by the Metropolitan Opera as their opening work for the 2008-9 season of Saturday afternoon broadcasts just the week before last.
Among composers, Berlioz is not alone in his fascination with Goethe's Faust as this drama has served as the source for operas by Gounod, Spohr, Boito and Busoni among others. Berlioz wrote his "legende dramatique" for Orchestra and Chorus; first performed at the Opera-Comique, Paris, December 1846. It did not meet with critical acclaim, perhaps due to its halfway status between opera and cantata; the public was not impressed, and two performances (and a cancelled third) rendered a financial setback for Berlioz: "Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference", he remembered. It was subsequently performed more successfully in Paris after his death (1877). The Metropolitan Opera premiered it first in concert (1896) and then on stage (1906). The Met revived the production on November 7, 2008 directed by Robert LePage, with innovative computer-generated stage imagery that responds to the voices of the performers.
Berlioz is known for the musical excesses of his compositions and some of his harmonies sound almost modern even today. One of the unique aspects of Berlioz compositional style resulted from his lack of piano training. Many of the great classical and romantic composers (think Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms) were also great pianists and composed "at the piano". Of the romantics, Brahms would preview his orchestral compositions in piano versions and Liszt (a friend of Berlioz) would transcribe symphonies and operas for piano. You can hear Berlioz lack of pianism in his abrupt chord changes and harmonics that seem otherworldly (some of this may have been drug-induced as well). It is worthwhile to remember this great Romantic on this day.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Plague (continued)

In his excellent survey of modern French writers, From Proust to Camus, Andre Maurois observes that:

In The Plague Camus is mainly interested in the reactions of men faced with the collapse of everything they had believed to be secure: communications systems, trade, health. It is no longer a single Sisyphus but a city of Sisyphuses who themselves crushed by disaster.(p. 356)

In our continuing reading of this novel our Sunday Morning Group has found this aspect of the novel a rich topic for discussion as we near the end of its second section. The work abounds with Sisyphean metaphors while even the structure demonstrates this theme as Camus has a virtual rebeginning at the start of the second part mirroring the opening of the novel and reminding us of the greater Sisyphean task before us. The failure of communication exists at all levels and we see reminders on almost every other page; for example in chapter 9 (the opening of Section two) we see "all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again, or even communicating with one another."
In some sense the novel becomes one of creating a community within Oran to deal with the Sisyphean task of the ordeal of the Plague and the greater task of living one's life. The city and the people change as they try to deal with the cataclysm that has overtaken them. The community is infected and imprisoned and becomes obsessed with communication and the futility of communication with no response (more Sisyphus or merely the absurd?) Future reading and discussion will follow that change and their lives.

The Plague by Albert Camus. Trans. by Stuart Gilbert. Vintage Books, New York. 1991 (1948).
From Proust to Camus: Profiles of Modern French Writers by Andre Maurois. Trans. by Carl Morse and Renaud Bruce. Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. 1966.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Seasons

Early this morning I listened to the ballet music, The Seasons, by Alexander Glazunov (10 August [O.S. 29 July] 1865 – 21 March 1936) who was a Russian composer, teacher and conductor. He served as director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory (later Leningrad) between 1905 and 1928. He continued heading the Conservatory until 1930, though he had left the Soviet Union in 1928 and did not return. The best known student under his tenure during the early Soviet years was Dimitri Shostakovich. Glazunov reconciled Russian Nationalism and Western influences in his music and generally resisted the more extreme modern tendencies of the early 20th century. He ended his career in exile in Paris.
The Seasons was premiered in St. Petersburg in 1900 and has been recorded several times. The music is highly romantic, reminiscent of the great ballets of Tchaikovsky and Delibes. The ballet opens with scenes depicting Winter and continues through the seasons to an Autumn finale. My favorite selections are the Waltz of the Cornflowers and Poppies (probably the most familiar melody) from the Summer, and the Bacchanal and Finale from the Autumn. Each time I listen to this music I am touched by memories of previous moments of listening with the music touching me deeply. I then spend the rest of the day with melodies from the ballet streaming through my consciousness. It is powerful music with great moments of creative triumph.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Proust on Reading

Yesterday I attended the First Friday Lecture of The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. Joel Rich, Basic Program Instructor, gave a talk titled "Proust on Reading (and On Reading Proust)". The introductory handout for the lecture commented that:

"Towards the end of In Search of Lost Time, the narrator observes that "reading teaches us to take a more exalted view of the value of life, which at the time we didn't know how to appreciate and of whose magnitude we've only become aware through the book.""

In his lecture Joel shared an appreciation of this view and brought us into Proust's text in a way that made this "exalted view" more clear. He opened with the observation that reading was "redolent" in Proust's work and he reiterated this as he progressed through his talk. It is this redolence and the abundance of references to reading in Proust that made this lecture especially interesting (at least to this reader). Several themes impressed me including, passion and reading, time and reading, and the importance of books. Proust described a book as "magic as potent as the deepest slumber", and if you have read Proust you know he was somewhat an expert on slumber. Proust comments on the experience of reading while referring to it as a "strange adventure". Joel went on to discuss Proust's use of reading and the use of metaphors and analogy in this regard. One would think that Proust's novel was merely about reading until you remember that it has more than three thousand pages and covers many other themes as well. The talk was insightful and detailed in its presentation of reading in Proust (I would also encourage you to visit Joel's Proustian website).
Near the end of his lecture Joel asked the question, "Who are Proust's readers", and gave us the answer, "Readers of their own selves." It is with this thought that I certainly concurred and was encouraged to return again to
In Search of Lost Time; to remember, rediscover and inspire my own self.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Die Rebellion

Having recently read Joseph Roth's fine short novel, Job (1930), I decided to turn to an even earlier work by him, Rebellion (Die Rebellion), from 1924. It was originally serialized in the German Socialist newspaper "Vorwarts" (Forward), and published in the same year, 1924. This novel along with The Spider's Web and Hotel Savoy make up what is considered Roth's early period.
Rebellion is the story of young Andreas Pum, a veteran of the Great War who lost a leg but gained a medal for his service. He is a simple man who lives with his friend Willi and plays a hurdy-gurdy. He soon marries the recently widowed Fraulein Blumlich, who, in a scene of melodramatic pathos, deftly elicits his request for her hand in marriage. It is a marriage for which they must wait four weeks to avoid appearing improper; a portent of future disappointments for Andreas. His fortunes take a sudden turn for the worse, set off by a chance altercation with a typical bourgeoisie, Herr Arnold. Andreas soon finds himself facing time in jail. His wife reacts to this by leaving him; he loses his license to perform music, and he even loses his friendly mule(sold by his wife). In jail he experiences a quixotic desire to feed the birds outside his window, but the State, to whom he makes a formal request, will not allow this exception to the rules. The prison doctor who examines him tells him that he should not philosophize: "You should have faith, my friend!"
Things change for the better for his friend Willi whose entrepreneurial instincts awaken and lead him out of poverty; but Andreas is doomed for a bad end. In one of its best moments, the story ends with a dream-like sequence where we experience Andreas' last feelings. He is facing the confusion of the after-life and the wonderment expressed: "Andreas began to cry. He didn't know if he was in Heaven or Hell."
The novel suggests a more radical thinker than Roth would become in his great novels,
Job and The Radetzky March. Yet, there are signs of the later Roth, and having recently read Job I see suggestions of the musings of Mendel Singer in the thoughts of young Andreas. Both men have seemingly been betrayed by their God and are trying to deal with their life in his apparent absence. In Andreas' case the rebellion has a resonance with the rebellion so finely depicted in Dostoevsky (esp. The Brothers Karamazov - see my previous posts on this great novel). The result for the reader is a short novel that is long on provocative ideas that linger in the mind.

Rebellion by Joseph Roth. Transl. by Michael Hofmann. St. Martin's Press, New York. 1999 (1924)

Monday, December 01, 2008


It was on this date in 1956 that the opera (operetta?) by Leonard Bernstein premiered in New York. It was not particularly successful at the time but, largely due to the felicitous melodies of Bernstein, it has remained in the repertory and after several revisions is with us still today. I have been fortunate to see a production of Candide and I have long been fond of its most popular number, the overture, which includes a medley of tunes from the opera itself.
Before there was the opera there was the original, Candide: or, Optimism by Voltaire (nee Francois-Marie Arouet). The important thing to note about the title is the subtitle, optimism, for in all of literature there is hardly another work that argues more strongly for an optimistic approach to life. While Voltaire takes a cynical view of humanity that even denizens of the twenty-first century can appreciate, his cynicism does not lead him, or rather does not lead his character Doctor Pangloss, to reject an optimism that is best know by the phrase; this is "the best of all possible worlds". Yet, it is late in the book that we realize that Voltaire takes a view that man's life is made worth living by the exercise of hope, good nature, and industry. Indeed, the book ends with Candide saying to Doctor Pangloss, "we must cultivate our garden". And our garden, even for the skeptic Voltaire, is the one we inherited from Adam after his unceremonious exit from Eden. Voltaire's Candide is a delight for the reader almost two hundred fifty years after its first appearance from the fiery pen of one of the greatest thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment.

Candide: or, Optimism by Voltaire. Trans. by Peter Constantine. Modern Library, New York. 2005 (1759)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Beethoven and Perahia

Last night I attended the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert with Bernard Haitink, Principle Conductor, conducting. The concert included Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 44 in e (Mourning), Witold Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 4, and Ludwig Van Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58; thus the concert spanned a period of 222 years from the first performance of the Haydn symphony in 1771 (when Beethoven was but one year old) to the first performance of Lutoslawski's symphony in 1993 (one year before his death). While all of the pieces were well-played by the orchestra under the direction of the inimitable Haitink, the most moving and interesting music for me was the Beethoven.

We were fortunate to have Murray Perahia as soloist for the Beethoven concerto. He is most familiar to me through his recordings of Mozart's piano concertos, but his discography includes notable recordings of works by Bach and Beethoven as well, including the concerto he performed last night. Over the years, starting with the Leeds Piano Competition in 1972, he has won many awards and studied with Mieczyslaw Horszowski (one of the great classical piano stylists of the twentieth century and a favorite of mine), while playing with such greats as Rudolph Serkin and Pablo Casals. His performance last night was sublime with a seemingly effortless touch that brought out both the inner tension and heavenly emotion Beethoven imbued in his music. From the uncommon opening of the concerto with the pianist entering before the orchestra, through the meditative yet tense conversation between piano and orchestra that fills the second movement, the concerto is one of the peaks of both Beethoven's oeuvre and the classical concerto literature. The pairing of Perahia's talent with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in performance of one of Beethoven's greatest concertos was simply the ideal that I seek when listening to a concert. I hope the rest of the concert season will hold similar experiences for me.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Allegory and an Era

Job: The Story of a Simple Man
by Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth remains little known outside the German-speaking countries, despite being one of the most prolific and talented writers of the twentieth century. He is best remembered for two novels recreating, respectively, the shtetl of the Eastern Jews (Hiob or Job, 1930), and the vanished world of the Habsburg monarchy (Radetzkymarsch or The Radetzky March, 1932). However, Roth was one of the best-known and highest paid journalists in the Weimar Republic, whose articles and Feuilletons about Berlin (What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933), Paris (Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France 1925-1939), Russia and other places seemed to capture the energy and ambivalence of the Zeitgeist, a culture dazzled by competing ideologies, new technologies, and a burgeoning entertainment industry; and in the case of Berlin the particularly ominous onset of Naziism. His novels from the 1920s, the most famous of which is Die Flucht ohne Ende (Flight without End, 1927), portray a damaged generation of young men and women as vividly as those of Hemingway or Fitzgerald.

I have just read the novel Job and find it to be a moving retelling of the Job story from the perspective of the Jews from the netherland border between Poland and Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. It was published in 1930 and marks a turning point in Roth's career. With this novel, Roth takes a transformation of socio-politically motivated journalism to author as a poet of conservative myths. Roth takes for his presentation of Jewish existence within the elements of traditional storytelling. "Job" for Roth meant his breakthrough as a novelist.
Mendel Singer is a pious, God-fearing and ordinary Jew who lives in the idyllic Schtetl Zuchnow and performs there with his family a modest life as a village teacher. But the rest of his life will not be long because it through a chain of hard blows from the meaninglessness of his existence is torn by fate. Still he believed humbly that misfortune was just a test from God. The first blow hit him when his youngest son Menuchim is born with epilepsy. This was followed by the drafting of his oldest son Jonas into the military, with which his traditional Jewish faith did not agree. His second son Schemariah flees to America. Ultimately, Mendel Singer must discover that his daughter Miriam is with Cossacks, French, and what the strictly devout Jews considered the epitome of depravity. The Singers decide to emigrate to America. This trip can only be bought while leaving his youngest son Menuchim behind. In New York Mendel meets a new fate: He loses both sons in World War I, and his wife dies from grief over it. When his daughter becomes insane, he loses his strength, to tolerate and to believe, leading from humility and piety to rebellion and spite; Mendel loses his faith in God. From now on he no longer prays and lives quietly and inward. But now he learns the grace of the Lord; and the prophesy of a rabbi's wonder that his sick son Menuchim would become healthy is fulfilled. When the gifted composer and conductor Alexei Kossak (really Menuchim) comes to America he introduces himself to his father.
Joseph Roth tells the story of Mendel Singer in a language both allegorical and with biblical directness, whose theme is one of divine visitation and the wonder of God's grace. Roth's answer to the question of the meaning of suffering in the spirit of the Bible is the answer of a skeptic, whose life was visitation, the redeeming grace one fervently longs for, but do not to believe they could find or receive.

Job: The Story of a Simple Man by Joseph Roth, trans. by Dorothy Thompson. Overlook Press, New York. 1982 (1930)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Secret Sharer: An Episode from the Coast

In his essay, "The Condition of Art", Joseph Conrad says of the artist:

He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation--to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity"

His own art of storytelling though his novels and short stories demonstrates this artistic vision repeatedly; nowhere better than in his tale of The Secret Sharer. This is a short episode early in the career of an anonymous Captain of an anonymous ship in Southeast Asia near Siam. Only in his twenties on his first command, the Captain thought he was "somewhat of a stranger to myself", and he "wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly". It is with these thoughts in mind that in the midst of a mysterious black night he is surprised by a naked man climbing aboard the ship. It turns out to me a Mr. Leggatt, mate from the ship Sephora, who has escaped from that ship and his past actions which had culminated in his being responsible for the death of a ship-mate. The remainder of the story builds suspensefully to a climax in which the anonymous Captain finds out if he is capable of command and perhaps living up to some of the "ideal conception" that he has in mind. Leggat functions as a "double" for the Captain, being explicitly referred to as such even as he lives the life of a shadowy, even ghostly, double hidden in the Captains quarters. The tale suggests the internal struggle that comes with the first assumption of leadership and the need to create your own being through the experience of crisis. All this is draped in a story both mysterious and thought-provoking. The captain, in his anonymity, becomes every captain and everyman who has experienced the struggle toward an "ideal conception" of being.

The Secret Sharer: An Episode from the Coast by Joseph Conrad in The Complete Short Fiction of Joseph Conrad: The Stories Volume II edited by Samuel Hynes. The Ecco Press, Hopewell, NJ. 1992 (1910) (pp. 105-143)

The Condition of Art by Joseph Conrad in The Portable Conrad edited by Morton Dauwen Zabel. Penguin Books, New York. 1985 (1969) (pp. 705-716)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Thornton Wilder's short novel ends with the following sentence: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning." This conclusion to his story of the death of five innocents as the title bridge collapses is a clue to some of the meaning that one may glean from this well-written novel.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, this novel certainly qualifies as a classic. In my recent, long overdue, reading I found the style fitting for a tale of Peru with the prose evocative of the setting; however, the individual parts were uneven and only with the the story of Uncle Pio did I find the theme of love emerging in a meaningful way for me. Perhaps the opening story of the Marquesa and her daughter, with its layers of Catholicism, was too foreign for me to appreciate. The doppleganger existence of the twins, Esteban and Manuel, was also a strange interlude. Holding the story together like a thread of beautiful silk was the young Camila Perichole (based on a real person as was the Marquesa). Whatever the reason, the novel unfolded for me slowly and became a better read as I neared the ending with its famous sentence. The question of innocence and guilt and who deserves to die remains in my mind long after I laid the novel down. It is certainly one of the very best first novels that I have read and I will likely return to it.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. In Twelve Short Novels selected & introduced by Thomas B. Costain. Doubleday & Company, New York. 1961 (1927).

Saturday, November 22, 2008


The Marriage of Figaro by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was first produced in 1784. It was his second play featuring the characters of Figaro and Count Almaviva, The Barber of Seville having previously premiered in 1775. Most people know of these plays and Beaumarchais through their experience of the operas of Mozart and Rossini. However the original plays (and adaptations) have been produced over the years and are sturdy farces for the theater even to this day.
Tonight I enjoyed the current production of The Marriage of Figaro by Remy Bumppo think theater. Their production is based on an adaptation by Ranjit Bolt and directed by Jonathan Berry, who directed the recently completed run of On the Shore of the Wide World for the Griffin Theatre Company. The Remy Bumppo update of Beaumarchais, bringing the setting of the play into the era of the 1950s, was a lively and delightfully gay farce that left the audience with smiles. The acting was excellent, but I particularly enjoyed Mary Beth Fisher as the Countess, Greg Matthew Anderson as Cherubin and in the small role of Pedrille, Kevin Viol who absolutely stole his all too brief scenes with impeccable physical comedic timing. The story is familiar to all who have seen the opera, but the choreography of all the actors (especially the servants & maids who acted as a chorus), the timing of all the performances and the delight with which each actor played their role, tongue-in-cheek, made this a fun evening of comedy and joy.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Closers (Harry Bosch, #11)
The Closers by Michael Connelly

"In the hallway he punched the elevator button harder than he needed to.  He had too much excitement and energy and he understood this.  The chorus of forgotten voices.  The chief seemed to know the song they were singing.  And Bosch certainly did, too.  Most of his life had been spent listening to that song." (p 8)

I sometimes take a break from "serious" literature to read some genre fiction. After reading Julia Keller's review of Michael Connelly's most recent novel I decided to try one of his earlier works, The Closers, featuring Detective Harry Bosch.
I was not disappointed as the novel was tightly woven, suspenseful story of crime and detection. In it Detective Harry Bosch is brought out of retirement by a new chief of police and assigned to a new division called "Open-Unsolved"; basically a 'cold case' division that is known as "The Closers". They look into cases that have remained unsolved for many years, and are hoping to close the file after all these years. He is teamed with his old partner, Kiz Rider, and they have the DNA of a man connected to the murder, but quickly discover that there may be more to this case than there seems. It is a seventeen-year-old case whose twists and turns kept this reader turning the pages until the resolution almost four hundred pages later. The book is full of realistic details about police work and references to some of the changes in criminal law, particularly the impact of "hate crimes". The change in the science of detection with the advent of DNA and its' resulting ubiquity is also an important factor in the story. This was a delightful light read, and introduced my to an author to whom I plan to return for more enjoyment in the future.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Two Picture Books

While currently visiting my sister in northeastern Nevada I have had the opportunity to peruse two picture books for children. I was impressed and delighted with both. Each provide lavish and interesting illustrations intertwined with provocative narratives.
One of the books, The Wall by Peter Sis, is a memoir of his childhood growing up behind the Iron Curtain in the former Republic of Czechoslovakia. Line drawings and personal photographs tell the history of the boy's world as he experiences the world. His own passion for drawing is the inspiration that infuses the book with joy and spirit and, in the end, inspires the reader as well.
The other book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, is both fantasy and mystery of a young boy in Paris whose life and search for the meaning of secrets is told through an amazing mixture of text, pictures, and graphics that at times tell the story by themselves. This is an exciting book to read and it was no surprise when I noticed it held a place on the most recent New York Times Book Review children's book bestseller list.
Both of these "children's" books are worth spending time reading and prove thought-provoking for readers of all ages.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Scholastic Press, New York. 2007.
The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis. Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York. 2007.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Novels of Ideas

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by "novels of ideas". They are novels for which the ideas play an important and integral part in the work as a whole. My personal favorites included the following examples that may help as I have found them worth reading and rereading: The Brothers Karamazov, The Magic Mountain, Death in Venice, The Plague, Auto da Fe, Atlas Shrugged, Zorba the Greek and The Man Without Qualities. Each of these has at its core the artistic display of ideas, both explicitly and implicitly. In each characters represent ideas and in some there are sections in which the ideas are directly displayed in essays, letters or other direct comments by the author.

I have most recently been reading The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D. Yalom that, at least in part, is a novel of ideas. In this case, primarily the ideas of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who is presented both through one of the characters and through biographical essays interspersed throughout the novel. This is a method that I have not encountered before in this type of novel, but recently experienced in reading the historical novel, Birds Without Wings. More on this subject will be added to this thread.....

Saturday, November 15, 2008


by Ian McEwen

Reading a book multiple times you begin to spot details and connections that you may have missed on previous reads. That is the case for me with Ian McEwen's fine novel, Atonement.
Having both read it for at least two previous book groups and seen the movie version, my reading this week focused on the structure and some of the details. McEwen's novel has some of the hallmarks of great books in his attention to details, for example the broken vase from the opening that reappears late in the story and is really broken. I was also fascinated by Briony's fixation on order leading to her ordering her world as best she could. This is demonstrated by the orderly attention to detail of her bedroom and her relations with her family that eventually break down and neatly lead in to the crisis of the first section of the novel. The structure of the novel mirrors the importance of order with traditional chapter numbers in the first section and none in the later books of the novel. There are more indications, all of which point to the excellence of the novel. Briony Tallis, at three stages of her life, narrates this searing account of lives ruined and, perhaps, salvaged. Told with an exquisite detail that captures the heat of an English day, the passion of young lovers, the chaos of war and retreat, and a conscience that tries to right past wrongs, McEwan is at his best as he recreates Briony's life and her struggle to tell the truth about a childhood error that ruined many lives. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize, which McEwan won for Amsterdam.I have grown to appreciate and even like this novel, and I would recommend it to all who enjoy history and serious drama portrayed in fine literature.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fictional Characters

One of the joys of reading is the characters who inhabit the fictional worlds of literature. Reflecting on my own reading I remember some of my favorites and find that they may provide me with information about my self. I like people who have traits that I admire. And I do not always like the heroes or heroines of my favorites works; at least not as much as some of the other characters or those from works which I do not value as highly. Some examples follow with brief commentary.

Last night at the monthly Plauche reading group we discussed
Great Expectations, among whose characters I am particularly fond of Joe Gargery, Pip's brother-in-law. He demonstrates many admirable virtues primarily being Pip's friend and support throughout the story, even when Pip treats him unjustly. Also on my list, and this is not in any particular order, are Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch, Howard Roark of The Fountainhead, Bernard Rieux in The Plague, Pierre Bezukhov in War & Peace, and Larry Darrell in The Razor's Edge. This list (which definitely not comprehensive) may seem a strange grouping, but these characters are all memorable for me and demonstrate some characteristics which I admire even as they are also flawed in many ways. Aren't we all?

I think this particular group share in common the trait that they are all seekers; after happiness, knowledge, wisdom, love and a better life. They do not all succeed completely, but they pursue their goals in admiral ways and I find them one of the primary reasons to continue reading, searching for myself.

Monday, November 10, 2008

On the Shore of the Wide World

Simon Stephens' play, which won the prestigious British 'Olivier Award' as the best new play in 2006, is currently receiving its Chicago Premiere produced by the Griffin Theatre Company. I attended yesterday's matinee and concur with the critics' reviews that this is an outstanding production. Jonathan Berry directed with focus and cohesiveness essential for the multi-generational story.
The play tells of three generations of the Holmes family whose lives are touched by tragedy and gradually uncovered during the course of the play until you feel like you are a part of their family. During the first two sections the tension builds and events suggest the potential of dire fates for some of the family, but there are also glimmers of hope and the ultimate outcome is not clear until the last scene. The cast was excellent with Paul D'Addario and Elise Kauzlaric exceptional as the parents, Peter and Alice. Josh Schecter, new to this theater, was a convincing young Christopher Holmes while the grandfather, Charlie, a difficult role, was handled with rough-hewn realism by Norm Woodel. The portrayal of both hesitant young love and unique adult tensions was a key aspect of this thought-provoking drama. I would highly recommend it.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Home Truths about Homer

Yesterday I attended the First Friday Lecture sponsored by the Basic Program of Liberal Studies at The University of Chicago. I was filled with anticipation not so much because of the topic but because the lecturer would be A. P. David, a former instructor in the Basic Program, with whom I had studied in several classes in the early nineties reading Plato and Tolstoy among others. I was fortunate to meet him and say hello before the lecture and find that he he did remember me almost ten years after leaving the program. While obtaining his PhD from the Committee on Social Thought his specialty was Homer so I expected the lecture would be exceptional and I was not disappointed. David shared a list of Home Truths about Homer and provided brief arguments in support of each of them. In doing so he demonstrated his thorough knowledge of Homer and other writers; for example at one point he invoked Jane Austen's Mansfield Park as an example to support his argument.

There were twelve 'Home Truths' and while I will not list them all I will mention some of them. They included some well known and accepted (I believe) truths like the fact that we know nothing about Homer's life, that the Greeks are not mentioned in Homer, and the fact that Homer does not mention Iphigenia, the supposed daughter of Agamemnon who is so important to later Greek dramatists such as Aeschylus. More interesting were some of his less well-known truths such as the poet known as Homer was female, Aphrodite is real, and there is no soul in Homer's poems. Most interesting was his argument for the origin of Homer's poetry in the 'Dance of the Muses' for which he shared a video presentation of a dance version of Homer read in the original Greek. The Lecture as a whole was both impressive and inspirational. It provided many ideas to spur my rereading of The Iliad.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Dickens and Opium

In an Opium Den

In 1830 Hector Berlioz conceived his Symphonie Fantastique as an autobiographical tale which according to the composer's own detailed program was composed to describe the tortured dreams of a sensitive artist in lovesick despair who takes an overdose of opium and becomes haunted by visions of an unattainable woman.
In the penultimate movement of this epitome of Romanticism he depicts the musical equivalent of opium hallucinations ('Marche aux supplice'). This music referred to the pleasures of opium, production of which had been growing since the eighteenth century development of the opium trade by the British East India Company.
Even before Berlioz, in 1821 Thomas de Quincey published the first edition of his now famous Confessions of an English Opium Eater chronicling his experiences with the drug. These included his dreams and the original manuscript was written in haste at one might say a 'fever pitch'. The final section, "The Pains of Opium", recounts the extreme of the author's opium experience (up to that time), with insomnia, nightmares, frightening visions, and difficult physical symptoms. Thomas de Quincey revised his 'Confessions' for a new edition in 1856 and it is this edition that we enjoy today.

All this is in preface to a brief discussion of Charles Dickens and opium. Dickens' biographer Peter Ackroyd notes a slight connection between de Quincey and Dickens' family during their move early in Charles' life to the city (Dickens by Peter Ackroyd, p. 19). It does not seem to be a stretch to imagine that the mature Dickens was aware of, if not familiar with, de Quincey's work. It with this in mind that we turn to the opening scene of The Mystery of Edwin Drood which is set in an opium den. It is the aura of this den and the degenerates within that create the first hint of mysteriousness that will be with the reader throughout the, unfortunately, uncompleted work. A brief passage follows:
"Shaking from head to foor, the man whose scattered consciousness has thus fantastically pieced itself together, at length rises, supports his trembling frame upon his arms, and looks around. He is in the meanest and closest of small rooms. Through the ragged window-curtain, the light of early day steals in from a miserable court."(p. 7)

The man is John Jasper who, in a Jekyll and Hyde fashion, will inhabit the book and find the aura of the opium den is not the only part of his aspect that suggests villainy. One mystery in the story is that no proof is ever presented of any overt malediction on his part; therefore we must simply rely on his creepily obsessive behavior enhanced by the aura of the opium den to feed our speculations. At the end of the manuscript we have only journeyed halfway into the story; thus the ends are left loose and destined to lay before us like unanswered questions for eternity.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics, New York. 2002 (1870)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

A Great Essayist

All Art is Propaganda
by George Orwell

A new collection of the essays of George Orwell is always welcome and this one is timely in this hyper-political election year.
All Art is Propaganda is a collection of his essays bound by the theme of philosophical and aesthetic commentary. It includes such masterpieces as "Politics and the English Language", "Charles Dickens" and "Rudyard Kipling". Of particular interest in our political enthused year are the essays addressing the nature of propaganda; both directly in "Propaganda and Demotic Speech", and somewhat tangentially in "Politics and the English Language". The latter being more important includes many bits of wisdom including,
"if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. Bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better."
The usage of political speech in the twenty-first century is proof enough of Orwell's claim. Thoughtful criticism, such as Orwell's, is woefully lacking in our current day, particularly among practicing politicians and their supporters. Reading Orwell reminds one of the possibilities of fine prose. His essays never fail to be both enlightening and interesting on each of the disparate topics he addresses. I hope that some of the many readers of his novels will take the time to savor their fine prose.

All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays by George Orwell. Harcourt, New York. 2008.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Opium and Mystery, but No Ending

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
by Charles Dickens

Four years, many speaking engagements, and a trip to America intervened between Charles Dickens' penultimate novel and his final one, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Ever since his involvement in a train accident in 1865 on his return from France, and perhaps even before, Dickens was ailing with a variety of illnesses, some of which were at least aggravated by overwork and his refusal to reduce his schedule. It was thus in 1869 that he began writing his final novel of which the first six of the originally intended twelve monthly parts were published in 1870. He died in June of that year with the mystery unfinished.
Edwin Drood begins in an opium den and the air of mystery that surrounds that venue grows as the story progresses. At the center of the story is Edwin Drood, his fiancee Rosa Budd, his uncle John Jasper, Canon Crisparkle, and the Landless twins, with others to numerous (as was Dickens' way) to mention. The style is fresh and new for Dickens, especially when contrasted with the heavier more convoluted style of Our Mutual Friend which immediately preceded it. The first half of the story introduces conflict and doubt for the young Drood and we see glimmers of danger headed his way in the remaining finished sections. Although incomplete, the novel has appeal and is well worth reading.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics, New York. 2002 (1870).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On the Road

I visited the Columbia College Center for Book & Paper Arts yesterday with my friend Kyle Tschaen. After a light repast at Ceres restaurant with our friend Randy Koch, Kyle and I walked over to the Center to view Jack Kerouac’s iconic manuscript scroll of On the Road.
It is the centerpiece of a college-wide initiative at Columbia investigating the disparate group of poets, artists, filmmakers and musicians known as the Beat Generation. The first draft of On the Road was produced by Jack Kerouac in a three-week writing marathon. He created a 120-foot-long continuous scroll of semi-translucent paper by pasting and taping together separate 12-foot-long strips so he could feed the it through the typewriter without interruption. In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Road, the exhibition offers visitors a rare opportunity to see the original draft, containing Kerouac’s own edits in pencil, and using the real names of those depicted in the published novel including Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. In addition there is a unique exhibit of book covers entitled
"On the Road Around the World", displaying 66 international book covers from different editions of On the Road from the Collection of Horst Spandler. With the addition of a biographical video of interviews and commentary on Kerouac's life this is an amazing exhibit of modern American culture from the mid-twentieth century.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Viking Press, New York. 1957.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Point Counter Point

Bad people doing bad things, but in a very witty way. That is a brief, if incomplete, summary of Aldous Huxley's novel, Point Counter Point.
It is more broadly a "novel of ideas" with a novelist of ideas, Philip Quarles, at its center surrounded by friends and family whose lives are like those of the monsters that Philip writes about in his journal. Just as Philip decides to structure his novel on the contrapuntal techniques of music (think Bach and Beethoven) the novel Huxley has written is structured in the same way. We are presented with an opening overture of more than one-hundred-fifty pages at a dinner party that serves as an introduction to most of the characters. The remainder of the novel intersperses scenes from their lives, letters from lovers and most interesting, the writings of Philip Quarles, who with his wife spends most of the first half of the novel returning from India and who is the closest to a protagonist that we get. While there is a bit of a literary explosion near the end, this is more a novel of the daily lives of London sophisticates in the 1920s. It catalogues their alternately sordid and ludicrous (sometimes both) erotic adventures, which generally end unhappily.
I particularly enjoyed the wealth of references to literature and philosophy, Huxley's polymathic mind shows through on every page. Among the literary references was the use of Dickens in a way that captures one of his essential character traits, "the appearance of Dickensian young-girlishness" (p. 19). Overall, I found the play of wit and ideas compelling, enough to bear with the bad people and their antics.

Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley. Harper & Row, New York. 1928.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Our Mutual Friend

Charles Dickens' penultimate novel, and last complete one, is a compendium of the best and worst of his art. The characters are present, perhaps too many, but they lack the fresh life and spirit of earlier works like Dombey & Son or Bleak House.
The metaphors are present, but the waters of Our Mutual Friend are dark and foreboding, ultimately leading to death; while the waters of earlier works, such as Dombey again, hold the promise of life. It seems that Dickens is worn out and it shows in the lack of energy; but in spite of this there remain beautiful passages and complex plotting, perhaps his greatest. His critique of social class and society surrounds the story with the caricature of the Veneerings at its apex. Within the story he uses his theme of false identity as well as he ever has with one of the central characters, John Harmon, the prime specimen. But he fails to provide a central character with whom we can identify as he did so well in David Copperfield, Bleak House and Great Expectations. The Boffins, who are very appealing at first, appear to change their moral character and thus disappoint (at least Mr. Boffin) while the most appealing characters, like Jenny Wren or Lizzie Hexam, are not substantial enough or central enough to carry the novel. So we have a novel that receives a mixed grade from this reader. I finished it longing for the early Dickens humor and the later Dickens greatness but was left with a bit of that but not enough to sustain the 800 pages he had devoted to the story of Our Mutual Friend.

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics, New York. 1997 (1865)