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)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Between Silence and Light

When I was a youth I had a fascination with buildings and architecture. I would pore over pictures and architectural drawings and design my own houses. This fascination faded somewhat as I grew older but within the world of art I have continued to have a special affinity for architecture, both reading about it and viewing it (I am especially looking forward to the opening of the new wing of the Art Institute of Chicago).
My interest in architecture was encouraged more than four years ago when I viewed the documentary My Architect based on the life of Louis Kahn. Kahn (1902-1974) was one of the great architects of the twentieth century. John Lobell described Louis Kahn's approach to architecture best in the introduction to his book on Kahn,
Between Silence and Light:

Louis Kahn saw architecture as the meeting of the measurable and the unmeasurable. He used the word "Silence" for the unmeasurable, for that which is not yet; and the word "Light" for the measurable, for that which is. Kahn saw architecture as existing at a threshold between silence and light, which he called the Treasury of the Shadow.

The spirit of Louis Kahn and his spirituality are demonstrated again and again through his creativity, in his buildings which are still with us. Some of the greatest of these include the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (my favorite), the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the Philips Exeter Academy Library. Above all Kahn created works that preserved art through time and thought, inspiring the world in the process.

Between Silence and Light by John Lobell. Shambhala Press, Boston. 1979.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Books and Childhood

Children's Literature

Last night I attended a lecture by Seth Lerer, Professor of English at Stanford University, on Children's Literature.
He explored the iconic books, ancient and contemporary alike, that have forged a lifelong love of literature in young readers during their formative years.
His book,
Children's Literature, charts the makings of the Western literary imagination from Aesop's fables to Mother Goose, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Peter Pan, from Where the Wild Things Are to Harry Potter. In his lively lecture Professor Lerer connected the current Newberry exhibit, Artifacts of Childhood, with his observations on the changing environments of family life and human growth, schooling and scholarship, and publishing and politics in which children found themselves changed by the books they read. The references to literature of childhood over the ages, many of which I was unaware of, were made fascinating by his witty, yet scholarly, observations. I look forward to reading his book.

Children's Literature: A Reader's History from Aesop to Harry Potter
by Seth Lerer. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Books I Love

I look at the statistics on my blog as they start to grow and I wonder about notion of "favorite books". What are my truly favorite books and why do I categorize them that way? Well, I certainly have fond memories of reading each of them, but for different reasons: for some it is the story, others the beauty of the prose, and many it is the ideas demonstrated by the book. One special group of favorites is the books that I have read more than once, in some cases many times. This is a select group that includes much of Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Notes from Underground and The Brothers Karamazov); but also single books by certain authors including War & Peace, Atlas Shrugged, The Sound and the Fury, The Man Without Qualities and Middlemarch. Actually I should include Ayn Rand in the multiple book group as The Fountainhead is another of hers that makes this list.
Finally there is a select group of books that I have read and reread my whole life and expect to read again. This group includes
Jane Eyre, Alice in Wonderland, Great Expectations and Of Human Bondage. While there are many other books that I have read once and consider favorites, the books mentioned here are among my "favorite books". Perhaps I will discuss their special qualities and appeal for me in a future commentary.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Camille Saint-Saens

Today is the anniversary of the birth in 1835 of Camille Saint-Saens. one of my favorite composers from my earliest years as a musician and music-lover. One of the first records that I owned included a two-piano version of "The Swan" from "Carnival of the Animals" in collection of duo piano favorites performed by Whittemore and Lowe. When I was attending college I found Saint-Saens piano concertos acquiring a recording of the second and fourth by Phillipe Entremont. I even took the fourth piano concerto as a topic for analysis in a course on the Symphonic Concerto. Over the years I have become acquainted with other great works of his including his lovely concertos for cello and violin, the "Organ" Symphony with its majestic tres French finale, and his most famous opera, Samson et Delilah, which I have seen more than once at Lyric Opera. In his long life Saint-Saens was a polymath, but it is his music that remains with us and inspires to this day.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Literary Economics

In light of current events on the business front I have been dipping into a classic text that provides historical perspective for understanding the events of today.
This is the classic Manias, Panics, and Crashes by Charles P. Kindleberger. He provides a succinct history of economic crises in ten chapters plus a conclusion as to "The Lessons of History". Interestingly he feels it necessary in his first chapter to explain: "This book is an essay in what is derogatorily called today "literary economics," as opposed to mathematical economics, econometrics, or (embracing them both) the "new economic history."" (pp. 7-8)
Having received my own degree in Economics less than a decade before this book was published I found a kindred spirit in that I, too, preferred "literary economics", eschewing econometrics, et. al. I recommend Kindleberger's treatise as a good example of economics (without approving of all his views), history, or both. His analysis of various episodes of speculative fever in the markets and his thoughtful discussion of causes and lessons for today are worth reading and considering in light of our own economic turbulence.

Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises by Charles P. Kindleberger. Basic Books, New York. 1978.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sibelius and Shostakovich

Last night I attended the Chicago Symphony Orchestra where guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in a concert that included both Jean Sibelius' Fourth Symphony and Dimitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. The Sibelius work, premiered in Helsinki in 1911, is a mostly bleak and lean composition which demonstrates Sibelius ability to connect thematically his larger works. Modern sounding even today, the original audiences reacted negatively with remarks that the symphony was "ultramodern". To the twenty-first century ear the modernity has faded but not disappeared and it is tempered with pastoral melodies and harmonies that are somewhat neo-romantic compared to contemporary fare.

The piece de resistance of the evening was the second half performance of Shostakovich's great Fifth Symphony in d minor. Written almost thirty years after the Sibelius in 1937, it represents Shostakovich's attempt to redeem himself with the Stalin government that had banned his Fourth Symphony and relegated him to their list of heretics and outsiders. Fortunately, for the composer and the musical world, his work received official approval, and audiences have subsequently made it a favorite of twentieth-century symphonic literature. The opening movement is heroic and is followed by a truly "joking" scherzo. A third movement of passionate emotional strength leads to a finale that is magnificent and uplifting throughout.
I first heard this Symphony about forty years ago and it immediately became one of my favorites. The Chicago Symphony's performance last night reminded why it remains a favorite.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Birds Without Wings

Louis de Bernieres is probably best known for his popular novel, Corelli's Mandolin, which I read and enjoyed several years ago. It was with this experience in mind that I anticipated reading this, his next novel, published in 2004. I was not disappointed. Birds Without Wings is more than a novel, it is several novels, a work of history and a biography of one of the leaders who remade the map of the twentieth century. It is this that makes it both an interesting book to read and a less successful book than it could have been. The stories are centered in a small village and resonate with today as lives are disrupted with displacement of both ethnic and religious groups as the society is forced into the future; our own present. I found the most dissatisfying aspect of Birds Without Wings was its massive size and the attempt of the author to do too much. The result is characters and events that are not always described with the depth necessary and deserving for the story. However, the book is excellent in its depiction of the time of the end of the Ottoman Empire, combining the beauty and nostalgia of the lives of people from small town Anatolia with the brutal sweep of the history of political movements and war encompassing the end of empire and the rise of Mustafa Kemal, subsequently known simply as Attaturk. The author tells each of these stories with a readable style that makes this book, while not without flaws, one that is easy to recommend.

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres. Alfred Knopf, New York. 2004.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Quotation of the Day: "Not all men can read all books; it is only in a chosen few that any man will find his appointed food; and the fittest lessons are the most palatable, and make themselves welcome to the mind. A writer learns this early, and it is his chief support; he goes on unafraid, laying down the law." Robert Louis Stevenson, Learning to Write 42 (1888; repr. 1920).

Simple Complexity

The Plague (continued)
by Albert Camus

Our discussion of Camus' The Plague last Sunday focused on the introductory section. The novel is written with simple complexity in that the seemingly simple prose reveals through careful analysis complexity that rivals any of Camus' favorite authors (Melville, Dostoyevsky, Kafka). The narrator claims to be writing a chronicle, but there are contrasts and mysteries that arise immediately including the question of the identity of the narrator. On page 6 we read that "the narrator (whose identity will be made known in due course". When that will be will have to wait until quite near the end of the novel. 

At any rate the narrator claims to have access to both his own witness of events, the testimony of other eyewitnesses and documents that record the events (this will include a journal that forms part of the subsequent text). The first person to whom we are introduced is Dr. Rieux who encounters rats almost immediately, but does not think much of that. We wondered why, especially after he notices a bleeding rat, that as a doctor he does not think about plague and disease, but he does not and that will have to wait. Our discussion will have to wait as well until next time when we plan to finish Part One.

The Plague by Albert Camus. Trans. by Stuart Gilbert. Vintage Books, New York. 1972 (1948)