Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Two Loves

Anne Elliot and Lucy Manette

It may seem an unlikely pairing, but I would like to make some comments on and comparisons between two seemingly disparate literary heroines, Anne Elliot and Lucy Manette. In Charles Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities, the beautiful Lucy Manette marries Charles Darnay, the descendant of an aristocratic French family denounced by the revolutionaries, among whom are the memorably evil fanatic Mme. Defarge. While in Jane Austen's last novel, Persuasion, which was not published until after her death, Austen created a strong, mature, and independent heroine, Anne Elliot. Having foolishly broken off an engagement eight years earlier to Frederick Wentworth, a penniless naval officer, Anne at the age of 27 has remained unmarried--and secretly devoted to Wentworth. While written decades apart and depicting two different women, one of whom is substantially more "mature" than the other, I believe these characters share some of the same core values, the foremost of which is an enduring love for a man in whom each believes strongly. Lucy, as wife to Charles, is able to withstand the separation from him while he is imprisoned awaiting apparent doom buoyed by her love for him. Anne, after being "persuaded" to break off her engagement to Frederick when she was all of nineteen years old, did not abandon her inner feelings for him and found that in nurturing this enduring love she could attain the reward that she may not have imagined possible when he went off to sea. In addition to and complementing their love each woman demonstrates an extraordinary loyalty to her friends and family. We see this demonstrated in Anne's relationship with Mrs. Smith just as Lucy demonstrates a loyalty to her Father during moments when she cannot be sure that he recognizes her.

My comparison would not be complete if I did not also note some of the contrasts between the heroines and their respective novelistic worlds. There could not be a greater distance between the settings of the novels than these two with one focused primarily on two houses within miles of each other in England while the other is focused, as the title makes clear, on two urban centers in two different countries separated by the English Channel. One is focused on the internal workings of families seemingly immune to the world outside them while the other finds the characters and families buffeted by the winds of revolution and the politics of their respective countries. Fate and death intervene in the world created by Dickens with the express intent to mirror history; while fate is also present for Austen, and the threat of death is not absent, it is not nearly so overwhelmingly displayed. While the two heroines seem to share a certain reserve, it is in Austen's novel with its' narrower focus on family and marriage that we learn more about the details of the heroine's life. In many respects Lucy remains a cypher, not unlike some of Dicken's other fictional women, perhaps in part because, unlike Esther Summerson in Bleak House, we never are allowed to share her thoughts. In spite of the differences I believe that the fundamental character of each of these women has much in common. From my recent reading of these two novels they will remain among my fondest memories.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Penguin Books, London. 2003 (1859)
Persuasion by Jane Austen. The Modern Library, New York. 2002 (1818)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Russian Easter Overture

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composed the Russian Easter Overture in 1888 and conducted the first performance in December of that year. Last night I attended a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by guest conductor Charles Dutoit. I was surprised to discover, upon reading the program notes, that it had not been performed on a subscription concert since 1951. This is among Rimsky-Korsakov's most popular works and its absence from Orchestra hall for more than a half century is inexplicable. Fortunately it has returned and the audience was treated to the stunning orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov who was at the height of his powers when he wrote this piece, following Capriccio Espagnole and Sheherazade which had premiered earlier in the same year. Under Dutoit's baton each section of the orchestra displayed the virtuosity that is the hallmark of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The concert also included the Symphony in C of Igor Stravinsky, a twentieth century neoclassical icon completed in 1940 specifically for the fiftieth anniversary of the orchestra, and the Brahm's First Piano Concerto performed by the virtuoso Russian pianist Yevgeny Kissin. Each work was performed brilliantly by the orchestra while Kissin's mastery of the difficult Brahms concerto was the high point of the evening. This was certainly one of the best concerts that I have had the pleasure to attend this season.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Yacoubian Building

Reading literature about a particular city gives you insight into the mores and character of that community. This is true of Alaa Al Aswany's novel from 2002, The Yacoubian Building (ImaratYa'qubyan). I found the novel both well written and structured. Using the title building as his center Aswany portrays a diverse group of contemporary Cairenes to demonstrate the experience of living in the world of Egypt today. The author presents the issues of political corruption, class conflict and the "science" of love in a believable narrative; however, I found his portrayal of homosexuality less effective: sensitive at times but ultimately concluding with a stereotypically brutal end for the spurned lover. The difficulties of living in this society are highlighted as the novel moves smoothly from episode to episode building toward a climax that, while somewhat melodramatic, brings the story to an effective conclusion. Overall the complex narrative and view of the city of Cairo made this an engaging and satisfying read.

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany. Harper Perennial, New York. 2006 (2002).

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Cairo Trilogy III
The novel Sugar Street ends Naguib Mahfouz's masterpiece bringing the story of Al-Sayyid Ahmad's family to a close. With the death of Al-Sayyid his wife Amina is all alone. In a moving chapter we hear her voice and see the world through her eyes as she feels more alone than ever before. The house and the coffee hour are no longer the same. But the focus has turned to the grandchildren, particularly Ahmad and al-Muni'm, sons of Khadija. Each is seeking new directions, mirroring the political and cultural changes in Egypt as World War II approaches. Kamal continues to pine for his ideal love, Aida, and almost finds it in her younger sister, Budur. His own indecision prevents him from making a commitment to her, turning away when she makes the slightest advance. Superficially his life resembles that of his nephew Ridwan, the beautiful son of his brother Yasin. Kamal meets his old friend Husayn Shaddad one final time, learning of the fate of Aida and the Shaddad family, but not with any sense of encouragement or satisfaction. As the novel ends family change occurs once again with the passing of Amina and the birth of Yasin's first grandchild. There is a hopeful sign as Yasin goes out with Kamal to buy clothes for the new baby.

Mahfouz's trilogy has epic sweep in its depiction of the changes to Cairo over the first half of the twentieth century mirrored in the growth and change of the Ahmad family. He presents ideas and demonstrates them with the actions and interactions of the characters as they love and learn and die. The outside world, first seen in the occupation of the British, grows throughout and looms ever larger as the final novel in the trilogy ends. Twentieth century ideologies are beginning to affect Egypt with the power seen elsewhere in the world and the portent is ominous. Yet with that Mahfouz leaves the reader with the possibility of hope and the encouragement that can only be found in a great literary achievement.

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz. Everyman's Library, New York. 2001 (1957)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit

Lucette Lagnado's moving memoir is subtitled My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. It is a story of a remarkable father and his family movingly told with the feel of a novel as you share the experiences of this family who traveled half way around the world to settle in America. Lucette Lagnado, who is a senior special writer and investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal, demonstrates both her skill as a writer and an investigator.

The story begins with the marriage of her parents, Leon and Edith, in wartime Cairo. As the family establishes itself after the war, the position of the Jewish community gradually deteriorates until, in the early sixties they flee to Paris en route to their eventual destination. The strength of both parents and the details of the family's difficult journey is a story that this reader found intensely moving. The thought of being "stateless", as they were once they left Egypt, is hard to imagine. That they overcame this and survived is a tribute to their courage. This is a memoir that I will not soon forget.

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado. The Ecco Press, New York. 2007.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Cairo Trilogy, II

The second novel of Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy is titled Palace of Desire. The family of Ahmad al-Jawad has expanded as the married daughters and son have children. Particularly touching and revelatory is a scene where Ahmad becomes the doting grandfather demonstrating a side of his character that we did not see in the first novel of the trilogy. We also see the permutations of love and desire on display as the family evolves through the maturation of the second generation. There is a particular focus on the development of Kamal, the youngest of the children, who has seen success in school and slowly leaves behind his youthful innocence as he develops into a thinker, a writer, and an admirer of the perfection of beauty as embodied in the young Aida Shaddad. His view of love is doomed to an unsuccessful search for perfection when the one he adores, Aida, rejects him and leaves Egypt with another. Kamal will eventually satisfy his bodily needs with girls from the brothel district while he lives an ascetic life of the philosophic writer and teacher. He also highlights one other theme of the novel with his popularization of western philosophy as Egyptian nationalism grows and the culture of Ahmad's family is buffeted by the new ideas. Perhaps the eldest son, Yasin, best represents the view of love as mere desire. Even in the first novel Yasin had demonstrated his inability to control his natural desire for women and this lack of control continues to complicate his life. Unlike his father, who could discreetly maintain his life with the singers of the night separately from his home life, Yasin blunders about, endangering both his home life and his career. Desire permeates this story even as the world of Ahmad, the father, slowly begins to lose the control that seemed to be his main characteristic as the trilogy began.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Cairo Trilogy, I

As I near the end of the third and final novel of Naguib Mahfouz's masterpiece I thought I would summarize a few impressions of my experience reading this magnificent work. The first novel, Palace Walk, introduces the family of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad: his wife Amina, sons Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal, and daughters Khadija and Aisha. This family will be the center of all three novels as Mahfouz chronicles their experiences living within a Cairo neighborhood identified by the street, Palace Walk, home to the family. Prominent among the themes of the first novel is the freedom of the family (or lack of freedom) under the authoritarian rule of the father. Mahfouz slowly develops the relationships within the family and the novel builds upon events that epitomize the growth of each family member. Just as the middle son Fahmy excels in school he begins to seek freedom in the growth of nationalist fervor during the era of the Great War. Amina, who is present on the first page has the temerity to defy her husband and pays a price, yet demonstrates growth in stature within the family. Amina's life and personality is the lifeblood of the homelife of the family, bracketed by the scenes of the coffee hour and Amina on the roof overlooking the city. As the first novel ends we find the family's peace and structure threatened portending more change in the novels that follow.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Meaning of Life

I am reading a book by Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, that poses a lot of questions about that very issue. What is the meaning of life? Is it meaningful to even discuss this question? The book raises these and other questions and seems to alternate between challenging issues that encourage thoughtful responses, and a somewhat prosaic litany of differing responses to the questions, some of which do not deserve much thought or attention. What makes the book interesting and worth persevering are the former, the issues that challenge personal beliefs and encourage thoughtful meditation on the meaning of meaning, if not life itself. I was reminded of a somewhat tongue in cheek but lyrical meditation on the issue of meaning I wrote some years ago.

The Source

...alone with an inscrutable society.
- Virginia Woolf

Where does one look for the meaning of being
Apart from the life of the crowd?
The crowd with its shuffle
And bustle and people, whose trivial talking
Explains not one iota of what you need to know.

How does one know what is really important,
When cascading cacophonies of high-minded
Poseurs prevent you from sifting through cant
And through rhetoric; thus leaving you no way to grow?

Will growing and knowing enable the process
Of discovering all that is hidden beneath each and every
Accident comprising our world?
For there is the source, the location of meaning,
And with it the being that makes this world go.

Literary Poems, January 1992

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Play Reading

by Gore Vidal

This play, written by Gore Vidal in 1968, is a witty and very humorous look at the nature of politics. "Ripped from the headlines," as they say, it was almost dead on arrival on Broadway in early 1968. However it stands up as a comic vision of a certain time in political history with somewhat prescient moments, including a sly reference to a break in at Democratic Party national headquarters that would actually occur four years later. What made the play interesting to the current audience was its' brilliant dialogue and the complexity of the theme of politics which was addressed at several levels. The machinations within the MacGruder family were just as convoluted as those at the national level of politics. The twists and turns made for an interesting and sometimes surprising evening of theater. TimeLine Theatre Company produced this rare gem as part of their new play reading series. The production was excellent. The readings of Terry Hamilton, Erik Hellman and Penny Slusher as Senator MacGruder, his son Beany and wife Louise, respectively, were outstanding. If this series continues with such excellent fare it will be a welcome addition to TimeLine's fine record of dramatic productions.

TimePieces Play Reading Series from TimeLine Theatre Company

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Mahfouz and Updike

I was reading the wonderful story Pigeon Feathers by John Updike this morning and the thought occurred to me that young David Kern's (the protagonist of the story) situation was not that different than the young Kamal in Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, especially in the second volume, Palace of Desire. Not surprisingly, both texts were written within in a decade of each other (Mahfouz in the early fifties and Updike at the beginning of the sixties - of the last century) and each have, in part, the theme of how a young man thinks about faith and issues of spirituality. In Updike there is a bit more emphasis on death, but the issue of faith and the loss, or moving beyond, it is central for both young men. In each the boys are well versed in their faith. Kamal has memorized much of the Qu'ran and David is attending bible lessons in Sunday School. But the knowledge of their respective beliefs seems in each to inspire a spiritual rebellion. One that is not asked for, but comes none the less. In David's case his very questions of his pastor seem to be irreverent, at least in his imagination. While we see Kamal battling within his own mind, his inner dialogues questioning the nature of the world and spirit. It is striking that in this century in cultures separated by thousands of miles, one in the heart of the United States and the other in northeastern Africa, that these two young men are portrayed as facing similar spiritual issues and each in his own way moves in the opposite direction. David, in his experience with the barn pigeons, sees his faith in the eternal strengthened while Kamal moves toward a study of philosophy that seems to lead to a rejection of his faith.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Doris Lessing

I have begun to read the novels of Doris Lessing who was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature. I have started with an unusual choice, reading Shikasta , the first volume of her series Canopus in Argos. Having read many science fiction novels over the years I was not prepared for this unique approach to the genre. Lessings' space novel is told from the point of view of the alien Canopeans who compete with their rivals from the planet Shammat for the guidance of civilization on Shikasta (Earth). A cosmic accident of some kind (not caused by Shammat) disrupts the energy flows between Shikasta and Canopus. This leads to the breakdown of the harmony of Shikastan civilization, and dominance by Shammat. As an immediate effect, the life span of living beings on Shikasta is shortened from several hundred years to the average life span of a contemporary human. All kinds of evil aspects of modern society (mostly that of political violence and abuse of power) start to arise from this energy disruption. Throughout the Canopeans have agents visiting Shikasta to report on the events and finally living as Shikastans . The novel uses many different styles including historical reports, sociological studies, memos and the diary of the sister of the protagonist, George Sherban (aka Johor). It is a fascinating display of imagination even though it is dated in some ways (the Soviet Union and Communist China are depicted as they existed thirty years ago). It is almost quaint the way Johor walks across Africa and letters from Communist China are sent but never received, while the level of technology presented does not incorporate the immense changes in computing. However, as an allegory it demonstrates an political world that is not too different from the one in which we live. Overall I enjoyed her writing style and look forward to my next Lessing work, her first novel The Grass is Singing.