Friday, February 27, 2009

Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir
Kafka Was the Rage: 
A Greenwich Village Memoir 

"Nineteen forty-six was a good time--perhaps the best time--in the twentieth century.  The war was over, the Depression had ended, and everyone was rediscovering the simple pleasures.  A war is like an illness and when it's over you think you've never felt so well.  There's a terrific sense of coming back, of repossessing your life." (p7)
This is a book that carries you away to another time and place written by a near perfect writer. It was a joy to read and imagine the feeling of excitement experienced by the denizens of Greenwich Village in 1946. Broyard's memoir is full of life, yet the undercurrent of mortality seems to be there as well.
The memoir reads like a story, one that is full of unique moments -- literary bon mots -- whether chatting with Delmore Schwartz at the San Remo Bar, running into Auden on the street or dancing with Hemingway; there is always a vivacious bohemian life with friends, and best of all reading, discussing, living with books. Anatole Broyard tells of opening a used book store when books were still truly appreciated (well at least more than now). 
"In 1946 in the Village our feelings about books…went beyond love. It was as if we didn’t know where we ended and books began. We didn’t simply read books; we became them. We took them into ourselves and made them into our histories. While it would be easy to say that we escaped into books, it might be truer to say that books escaped into us. They showed us what was possible." (p 29-30)
And he indulged in psychoanalysis - his analyst was "the sort of man who read Schiller, Heine, and Kleist, who listened to Schubert and Mahler". Who wouldn't want to engage an analyst like that; perhaps he could only be equaled by the analyst in Daniel Menaker's novel, The Treatment. It is a reminder of the influence that Freud and other thinkers had on culture in that era -- the excitement of discovery of those writers who, it seemed, could help explain a world ravished by two world wars. But I focus too much on the dark side, for there was lightness and the dance as well. This is a delightful read whose only downside is length - it is too short and you will finish it wishing there was more.

Kafka was the Rage by Anatole Broyard. Carol Southern Books, New York. 1993.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Koeppen Redux

Death in Rome
by Wolfgang Koeppen

I am once again reading Wolfgang Koeppen's masterpiece, Death in Rome. I am impressed even more, as I reread it, with the way Koeppen uses every line and page to build the tension that explodes at the end of the novel. Death permeates this book in a way that few other novels rival. I think of Death in Venice, another twentieth century masterpiece, but Mann's enterprise is more Nietzschean than Koeppen's. While Tolstoy comes to mind also, in The Death of Ivan Ilych he seems a nineteenth-century precursor to the existentialism that would blossom a few decades later.
No, Koeppen is more at home in the post-war dilemma of Europe and Germany in particular. And the world he depicts is brutal and dark. It is as if, at least for some of the characters, the war has not ended. This is particularly true of Gottlieb "Gotz" Judejahn who is at the center of the novel. Having disappeared he is tried in abstentia at Nuremberg and is effectively a ghost (as is his wife Eva) who haunts Germany, not directly but from a distance - in Rome. The other theme that haunts this reader is the 'new' music of Siegfried Pfaffrath - best described as a latecomer to the atonal style whose priest was Arnold Schoenberg. Late in the novel Siegfried meditates on the nature of music:

Music was an enigmatic construction to which there was no longer any access, or just a narrow gate that admits only a few people. Whoever sat inside couldn't communicate to those on the outside, and yet they felt that this enigmatic, invisible construction, built by magic formulae, was important to them.

The structure of this novel and the thoughts of the characters, their communication or lack thereof, seems to mirror this image of music and its relation to those who hear and do not understand. Perhaps the only answer is to act out your lack of understanding - to end the dark, unbearable world with death.

Death in Rome by Wolfgang Koeppen. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 2001 (1954).

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Stanza On Keats

from Ego Dominus Tuus

His art is happy but who knows his mind?
I see a schoolboy when I think of him,
With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window,
For certainly he sank into his grave
His senses and his heart unsatisfied,
And made—being poor, ailing and ignorant,
Shut out from all the luxury of the world,
The coarse-bred son of a livery stablekeeper—
Luxuriant song.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Protean Artist

Living a life that was completely immersed in his music, Sviatislov Richter truly was a "protean" artist. He was born on March 7, 1915 in the Ukrainian town of Zhitomir and a year later moved to Odessa with his family. Richter began his career rather late in life, beginning serious study at the Moscow Conservatory in the late thirties after an eclectic musical upbringing. He relates his personal story in the magnificent, Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon.

The personal voice of Richter conveyed in this amazing volume is as magnetic as his playing (I regret I only know his music through recordings). He was friends with Emil Gilels, Rostropovich and Prokofiev, and many other notable twentieth century artists. His nomadic existence mirrors the breadth of the music he surveyed and performed over his lifetime. In this book we find intimate and interesting portraits of composers and artists, friends of the man who shares the spirit of music. Inspirational on almost every page Richter's life, at least for this music-lover, comes alive with every detail. The book is divided into two sections: "Richter in his own words", and "Notebooks: On Music". I will keep them both near my music collection for future reference.

Richter's own words may convey some of the excitement I experienced reading this volume. On Performing:

I had to give recital at the Soviet Embassy in Paris. The piano tuner took one look at their Steinway and told me that in his opinion it was unplayable. I immediately cancelled the concert. The ambassador ignored my cancellation. At five o'clock in the afternoon of the day of the concert, he rang me: "The audience is coming in. What shall I do? Shoot myself?" His words moved me to pity and so I decided to go there in spite of everything, convinced that the concert would be a disaster. I went out on to the platform, thinking, "To hell with the piano and the rest of them", and launched into Brahm's Sonata in F sharp minor. It was probably my best concert of the season.

The book is full of similar stories and inspirational thoughts from this great pianist and musician. I will keep both his recordings and this volume at my side for future excursions into the world of music.

Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon. Stewart Spencer, trans. Princeton University Press. 2001.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


by Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen was one of the most acclaimed and influential writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1891 as Nellie Walker. In 1926, having made friends with important figures in the Negro Awakening that became the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen gave up her work as a librarian and began to work as a writer active in the literary community. Soon after she published Quicksand, a largely autobiographical novel, which received significant critical acclaim, if not great financial success.
In 1929, she published Passing, her second novel, which was also critically successful. It is the story of two childhood friends, Clare and Irene. They lost touch when Clare's father died and she moved in with two white aunts. By hiding that Clare was part-black, she was able to 'pass' as a white woman and married a white bigot. Irene by contrast lives in Harlem, commits herself to racial uplift, and marries a black doctor. The novel centers on the meeting of the two childhood friends later in life, and the unfolding of events as each woman is fascinated and seduced by the other's daring lifestyle. The novel traces a tragic path as Irene believes, without concrete evidence, that her husband is having an affair with Clare. Her fears are never clearly justified as incidents seemingly innocent are not probative. Clare's race is revealed to her husband and the novel ends with a 'shocking' finale.
The novel is complicated but elegantly plotted. The dual figures of Irene and Clare in many ways mirror each other and allow the author to explore the the complexities of their relationship. While there may be erotic undertones in the two women's relationship, it is their repressed lives that clearly predominates. With Clare in a terrible marriage to a bigot and Irene subject to increasing doubts about her own marriage and family, the novel quickly progresses towards its denouement. I found this a lucidly written depiction of a world that is not limited to blacks, but occurs wherever secrets are allowed to take control of people's lives.
Recently, Passing has received renewed attention because of its close examination of racial and sexual ambiguities and liminal spaces. It has achieved canonical status in many American universities.

Passing by Nella Larsen. Penguin Books, New York. 2003 (1929)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Two Platonic Dialogues

by Iris Murdoch

What is the nature of reality? Is it orderly or mere chaos? Is religion merely mythology? These are some of the questions touched upon in this short philosophic excursion by Iris Murdoch. Two Platonic dialogues for our day, written to be performed on stage, the book is a fitting addition to philosophic corpus.
Better known for her novels, Murdoch was an accomplished philosopher, and this along with Fire and the Sun demonstrate her philosophic prowess. The two dialogues are connected by the questioning of young Acastos along with Plato and Socrates. Plato comes across as a brooding young philosopher, but Socrates is his familiar self, questioning and drawing out the young Acastos just as we have come to expect from Plato's collected dialogues. As an example of the gems from the book we find Socrates commenting near the end of the first dialogue, "perhaps the language of art is the most universal and enduring kind of human thought." This is a great short read for armchair philosophers.

Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues by Iris Murdoch. Viking Penguin, New York. 1987.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Meaning and Absurdity
Comments contra Camus

What is a meaningful life? How do we create meaning in our lives? Some suggest that having a goal, identifying values, and pursuing them is a way to create and live a meaningful life. I see this as part of living a human life - for its own sake. Having goals is part of being a better human being. Aristotle famously called this living a flourishing life.
This approach, however, is different for every individual human being. In spite of this we all share with each other our humanness - our humanity - that which makes our lives humane and worthwhile. There are those who deny or disagree with this approach to living a meaningful life. A prominent exponent of this denial is Albert Camus who, in The Myth of Sisyphus, and other writings, posits an absurd universe devoid of meaning. Julian Baggini comments on this:

Here we confront a fundamental difficulty. Almost all deniers of meaning in life seem to be rejecting only the idea that life has a specific kind of meaning: one determined by agents, purposes or principles somehow external to this world. This does not justify the conclusion that life has no meaning at all. Their pronouncement that 'life is meaningless' thus just appears to be a kind of hyperbole. (p. 161, What's It All About)

We all can live a meaningful life if we choose to do so. The choice is also part of our humanity and it entails having a philosophy of life. This is eloquently discussed by Ayn Rand in her essay: Philosophy: Who Needs It? (Address to the graduating class of West Point on March 6, 1974). She points out the importance of facing and answering the questions "Where am I? How do I know it? What should I do?"(p. 2, PWNI). The process of answering those questions, developing one's own philosophy of life, is inherent in living a meaningful life.

The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays by Albert Camus. Vintage Books, New York. 1991 (1955)
Philosophy: Who Needs It by Ayn Rand. Bobbs-Merrill, New York. 1982
What's It All About? by Julian Baggini. Oxford University Press, New York. 2006 (2004)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Quality of Life

Revolutionary Road
by Richard Yates

“The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves … A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place.”   ― Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

How do you describe what you have just experienced when you've just finished reading a perfectly-written book? Richard Yates' masterpiece, Revolutionary Road, is a modern classic in the true sense of the word. He captures life in the fifties and the ennui and longing that lay hidden behind the grey flannel suits and the white aprons. This book works on every level, just one being the way he successfully creates a central couple as protagonists and is able to provide, in a theme and variation style, two other couples whose lives in different ways mirror those of the central couple, the Wheelers - Jack and April. His writing style is effortless and deeply serious - in our book discussion the multiple connections to the poetry of T. S. Eliot were brought out as examples of the depth and complexity of the novel. Yates uses motifs with superb subtlety to provide a continuity that lasts throughout, even surviving the climactic finale.

What amazes me even more is that this was a first novel - it is unusual for the first novel of an author to be his best. I also find interesting that this novel was bested by Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, a book that I personally like, for the National Book award in 1962 (Heller's Catch 22 was also a finalist). That suggests the quality of the competition in that year was very high (I wish I could say the same about every year). I found this to be a book that works well on many levels and one that I strongly recommend be read by all.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Everyman's Library. 2009 (1961)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Nostalgia and Fantasy

Dandelion Wine
by Ray Bradbury

“Some people turn sad awfully young. No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I'm one of them.”  ― Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

In effect this book is a perfect blend of nostalgia and fantasy in which Bradbury creates a dream world. My personal preference is for his later science fiction like The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451; however, Dandelion Wine, along with many of his fine short stories collected in The Stories of Ray Bradbury, is almost as enjoyable a read. This novel is semi-autobiographical, taking place in the summer of 1928 in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, presumably a pseudonym for Bradbury's childhood home of Waukegan, Illinois.
The title refers to a wine made with dandelion petals and other ingredients, commonly citrus fruit. In the story, dandelion wine, as made by the protagonist's grandfather, serves as a metaphor for packing all of the joys of summer into a single bottle. The main character of the story is Douglas Spaulding, a 12-year-old boy loosely patterned after the author. Most of the book is focused upon the routines of small-town America, and the simple joys of yesteryear.
As Bradbury writes in "Just This Side of Byzantium," a 1974 essay used as an introduction to the book, Dandelion Wine is a recreation of a boy's childhood, based upon an intertwining of Bradbury's actual experiences and his unique imagination. Dandelion wine is presented as a metaphor of summer, bottled for the winter season of illnesses and wheezing.
In Douglas' words: "Dandelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered."
Dandelion Wine has been described as the first of Bradbury's nostalgic "autobiographical fantasies," in which he recreates the childhood memories of his hometown, Waukegan, in the form of a lyrical work, with realistic plots and settings touched with fantasy to represent the magic and wonders of childhood. Even with the focus on the bright days of summer, Bradbury, in his typical style, briefly explores the horrific side of these events.
Farewell Summer, the official sequel to Dandelion Wine, was published in October 2006. While Farewell Summer is a direct continuation of the plot of Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, a novel with a completely different plot and characters, is often paired with the latter because of their stylistic and thematic similarities.

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Simon & Schuster, New York. 2000 (1957)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Ballantine Books, New York. 1987
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The Heritage Press. 1974
The Stories of Ray Bradbury. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1981

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it.
Forget injuries, never forget kindnesses.

Those are just two of the hundreds of sayings, epigrams, and aphorisms that are attributed to Confucius. Over the past few weeks I have been reading, considering and meditating upon the classic translation of Confucius by James Legge entitled, Confucian Analects, The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean. All works distilled over centuries from the teachings of Confucius who lived from 551 to 479 B.C.

Elias Canetti summed it up neatly: "The Analects of Confucius are the oldest complete intellectual and spiritual portrait of a man. It strikes one as a modern book." It also strikes this reader as a very un-western book and difficult to decipher. In spite of that there is a lot that Confucius' thought has in common with the wisdom of the west. One of the most famous doctrines is that of "reciprocity".

15.24 Zigong asked: "Is there any single word that could guide one's entire life?" The Master said: "Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others." (Simon Leys trans., p 77)

That is complementary to the more familiar "Golden Rule" that says one should "do unto others as one would have them do unto you." From reading the aphorisms one comes away with an appreciation for culture, family and what seems to be a conservative view of man. It also is a very humane, even humanistic, view of society.
Apparently this was just what was needed during the lifetime of Confucius as there was great change in his society. He lived during a period of acute cultural crisis. Confucius, like thinkers in the West from Socrates to Gandhi, demonstrated a confidence that in turn drew followers to him and his thought. We can thank them for what little of Confucius' thought that we have. In these books and fragments we have the distillation of his thought and it impresses me as worth meditating on. It is a treasure of humanity.

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

Ignorance is the night of the mind, but a night without moon and star.

It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.

Men's natures are alike, it is their habits that carry them far apart.

Respect yourself and others will respect you.

Study the past if you would define the future.

Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean by Confucius. James Legge, trans. Dover Publications. 1971 (1893).

The Analects of Confucius. Simon Leys, trans. W. W. Norton & Company, New York. 1997.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Melting

Life ending - New Beginning

Winter ice
melts into clean water-
clear is my heart.

- Hyakka, 1779

A selection from Japanese Death Poems.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Blackbird in Winter


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

(photograph - masahisa fukase)

As the snow melts I share a final poetic thought as Winter appears to be on the wane. Stevens' famous poem evokes tranquillity and nature among other things. He commented in a letter that the poem dealt with sense experiences or "sensations" (Letters, 251). Our sensations of winter depend so much on our perspective, as "the eye of the blackbird", and our imagination, as we may see "golden birds". I prefer to meditate on the simple beauty of the poem.


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

from 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird' by Wallace Stevens

The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1954.

The Solitude of Ravens by Masahisa Fukase. Chronicle Books, New York. 1992.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Electrifying Trial

Not Enough Air
by Masha Obolensky

Masha Obolensky's new historical drama,
Not Enough Air, is the story of Sophie Treadwell, her play Machinal, and its source in the 1927 trial of Ruth Snyder for her husband's murder. Obolensky uses all the disparate, fascinating threads of her subject, from Treadwell's "neurasthenia" to her complicated but congenial marriage and her troubled relationship with her father, and weaves them together to create a great play. As directed by Nick Bowling it is presented as a expressionistic drama with feminist overtones. The resulting production conveys the similarities between the vastly different characters of Treadwell, Snyder, and the protagonist of Machinal, the Young Woman. It is most effective in presenting the act of creation and the best moments of the evening occur as Treadwell (brilliantly portrayed by Janet Ulrich Brooks) is intently attempting to understand the personality of the young bride-murderess Ruth Snyder (portrayed by Danica Ivancevic). These moments occurring early in the first act and mirrored in the second were as powerful as anything I have seen in recent memory. David Parkes was convincing as Sophie's husband, communicating the changes in their relationship; while the set design by Brian Sidney Bembridge was efficient in the best sense. This was a drama with both emotional power and ideas to keep the audience thinking for long after the play has ended. Nick Bowling's world premiere at TimeLine Theatre Company boasts impeccable performances with impressive, ingenious design and staging.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Thomas Hardy on Shelley

Shelley's Skylark

Somewhere afield here something lies
In Earth's oblivious eyeless trust
That moved a poet to prophecies -
A pinch of unseen, unguarded dust

The dust of the lark that Shelley heard,
And made immortal through times to be; -
Though it only lived like another bird,
And knew not its immortality.

Lived its meek life; then, one day, fell -
A little ball of feather and bone;
And how it perished, when piped farewell,
And where it wastes, are alike unknown.

Maybe it rests in the loam I view,
Maybe it throbs in a myrtle's green,
Maybe it sleeps in the coming hue
Of a grape on the slopes of yon inland scene.

Go find it, faeries, go and find
That tiny pinch of priceless dust,
And bring a casket silver-lined,
And framed of gold that gems encrust;

And we will lay it safe therein,
And consecrate it to endless time;
For it inspired a bard to win
Ecstatic heights in thought and rhyme.

The Complete Poems by Thomas Hardy. Collier Books, New York. 1982.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

More Poetry for Winter

Winter Remembered

Two evils, monstrous either one apart,
Possessed me, and were long and loath at going:
A cry of Absence, Absence, in the heart,
And in the wood the furious winter blowing.

Think not, when fire was bright upon my bricks,
And past the tight boards hardly a wind could enter,
I glowed like them, the simple burning sticks,
Far from my cause, my proper heat and center.

Better to walk forth in the frozen air
And wash my wound in the snows; that would be healing;
Because my heart would throb less painful there,
Being caked with cold, and past the smart of feeling.

And where I walked, the murderous winter blast
Would have this body bowed, these eyeballs streaming,
And though I think this heart's blood froze not fast
It ran too small to spare one drop for dreaming.

Dear love, these fingers that had known your touch,
And tied our separate forces first together,
Were ten poor idiot fingers not worth much,
Ten frozen parsnips hanging in the weather.

John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974)

Respected as a traditional conservative poet, Ransom tended toward philosophical and theoretical pursuits and these came to dominate much of his literary output beginning in the late 1920s. Ransom joined with eleven other southern men (including several who were also members of the Fugitives) to produce I'll Take My Stand, a volume of essays that praised southern traditions and the agrarian ways of life that dominated the Old South. For the next several years, Ransom explored Agrarianism at greater depth, while at the same time he began to write critical essays that described and defended poetry which could represent reality fully and completely without retreating into untrustworthy realms of abstraction. Ransom's critical pursuits soon led to the publication in 1938 of The World's Body, a collection of essays which laid much of the groundwork for what came to be known as New Criticism, an influential critical movement that sought to focus the critic's attention on the work of literature itself--its language and formal qualities--rather than on the historical and biographical context of the work. In that same year, two of Ransom's former students--Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren--published Understanding Poetry, which expressed many of the critical principles Ransom was advocating, and which eventually became the standard text for teaching poetry in colleges and universities throughout the nation.

Poems and Essays by John Crowe Ransom. Vintage Books, New York. 1955.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Arcadia (Greek: Ἀρκαδία) refers to a Utopian vision of pastoralism and harmony with nature. The term is derived from the Greek province of the same name which dates to antiquity; the province's mountainous topography and sparse population of pastoralists later caused the word Arcadia to develop into a poetic byword for an idyllic vision of unspoiled wilderness.

The Utopian vision, Arcadia, is associated with bountiful natural splendor, harmony, and is often inhabited by shepherds. The concept also figures in Renaissance mythology and is s vision of the pastoral. The inhabitants were often regarded as having continued to live after the manner of the Golden Age, without the pride and avarice that corrupted other regions. It is also sometimes referred to in English poetry as Arcady. The inhabitants of this region bear an obvious connection to the figure of the Noble savage, both being regarded as living close to nature, uncorrupted by civilization, and virtuous.

Representations of arcadia and the pastoral in the arts include paintings like this one by Thomas Eakins:

Some of Shakespeare's plays contain pastoral elements, most notably As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream. As opera developed, the dramatic pastoral came to the fore with such works as Jacopo Peri's Dafne and, most notably, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. Pastoral opera remained popular throughout the 17th-century, and not just in Italy, as is shown by the French genre of pastorale héroïque, Englishman Henry Lawes's music for Milton's Comus:

Our study of the Piano Sonatas of Beethoven journeyed into the world of the pastoral yesterday with his Sonata in D, Op. 28. When you consider the pastoral and Beethoven, his Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68, is probably the work that most often comes to mind. And it is a good example of the Arcadian impulse as is his even later Sonata for Violin and Piano in G, Op. 96. In the case of the Piano Sonata, op. 28, the appellation Pastorale that comes down to us was not invented by the composer, but by the publisher August Cranz of Hamburg (for an edition he published in 1838). Irving Kolodin, in his The Interior Beethoven, suggests this may have been done because of a perceived similarity between the first movement of the sonata and the F-major Symphony, or merely an attempt to connect to the fame of that work.
At any rate the first movement and finale display characteristic elements of the pastoral tradition. A languorous and sonorous opening of the first movement is created in part by the drone of a repeated D in the bass that does not cease for 24 bars. Charles Rosen, in his book on Beethoven's piano sonatas, comments on the "tranquil atmosphere, an unpretentious air of quiet mastery, with which the harmonic movement is accomplished." The rondo finale that concludes the sonata is very rustic music which heightens the pastoral feeling of the whole.
Finally, the Sonata, while written in the first year of the new century, seems to look backward rather than forward. It is in traditional classical form with four movements, including a sonata movement, a song movement, a scherzo and a rondo finale. It is this look backward that may in some sense be a final indication of its' arcadian essence.

The Interior Beethoven by Irving Kolodin. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1975.
Beethoven's Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion by Charles Rosen. Yale University Press. 2002

Monday, February 02, 2009

Poetic Prose


Rereading Dubliners was a real joy, particularly due to Joyce's command of language. The variety within the collection is due to Joyce's Irish experiences, which constitute an essential element of his writings. This early volume of short stories is a penetrating analysis of the stagnation and paralysis of Dublin society. The stories were written at the time when Irish nationalism was at its peak, and a search for a national identity and purpose was raging; at a crossroads of history and culture, Ireland was jolted by various converging ideas and influences.

Many of the characters in Dubliners later appear in minor roles in Joyce's novel Ulysses. The initial stories in the collection are narrated by children as protagonists, and as the stories continue, they deal with the lives and concerns of progressively older people. They often focus on his idea of an epiphany: a moment where a character has a special moment of self-understanding or illumination.

Joyce's writing in Dubliners is neutral; he rarely uses hyperbole or emotive language, relying on simplistic language and close detail to create a realistic setting. This ties the reader's understanding of people to their environments. He does not tell the reader what to think, rather they are left to come to their own conclusions (in stark contrast to the moral judgements displayed by earlier writers such as Charles Dickens). The stories frequently demonstrate a lack of traditional dramatic resolution. It has been argued by some critics that Joyce often allows his narrative voice to gravitate towards the voice of a textual character.
For example, the opening line of 'The Dead' reads "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet." She is not, in this instance, "literally" run off her feet, and neither would Joyce have thought so; rather, the narrative lends itself to a mis-use of language typical of the character being described.

Joyce often uses descriptions from the characters' point of view, although he very rarely writes in the first person. This can be seen in 'Eveline', when Joyce writes, "Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne". Here, Joyce employs an empirical perspective in his description of characters and events; an understanding of characters' personalities is often gained through an analysis of their possessions. The first paragraph of 'A Painful Case' is an example of this style, as well as Joyce's use of global to local description of the character's possessions. Joyce also employs parodies of other writing styles; part of 'A Painful Case' is written as a newspaper story, and part of 'Grace' is written as a sermon. This stylistic motif takes a more prominent role in Ulysses (for example, in the Aeolus episode, which is written in a newspaper style).

The collection as a whole displays an overall plan, beginning with stories of youth and progressing in age to culminate in 'The Dead'. Great emphasis is laid upon the specific geographic details of Dublin, details to which a reader with a knowledge of the area would be able to directly relate. The multiple perspectives presented throughout the collection serve to present a broad view of the social and political contexts of life in Dublin at this time.

The final and most famous story in the collection, 'The Dead', was made into a feature film in 1987 directed by John Huston (it was Huston's last major work).

Dubliners by James Joyce. Viking Press, New York. 1975 (1916)
Ulysses by James Joyce. Vintage Books, New York. 1990 (1922)

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Literary Economics

In The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne,
we find this discussion of mortgages:

The Mortgager and Mortgagee differ the one from the other, not more in length of purse, than the Jester and Jestee do, in that of memory. But in this the comparison between them runs, as the scholiasts call it, upon all- four; which, by the bye, is upon one or two legs more than some of the best of Homer's can pretend to;--namely, That the one raises a sum, and the other a laugh at your expence, and thinks no more about it. Interest, however, still runs on in both cases;--the periodical or accidental payments of it, just serving to keep the memory of the affair alive; till, at length, in some evil hour, pop comes the creditor upon each, and by demanding principal upon the spot, together with full interest to the very day, makes them both feel the full extent of their obligations. (Volume One, Chapter XII)

The narrator goes on to alert his readers that his Hero had "wantonly involved himself in a multitude of small book-debts of this stamp". We have seen over the past couple of years that the effect of these transactions, when multiplied a thousand-fold and more, can wreak havoc not only on the finances of one poor traveler, even after seeking the advise of experts (at least those more expert than he), but also on the whole system of finance. Our own government economists might learn some lessons in human behavior from reading Mr. Sterne.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
by Laurence Sterne. Collins Press, London. 1955 (1759-67)