Monday, December 28, 2009

All Past is Obsolete

A Single Man

by Christopher Isherwood

"But now isn't simply now. Now is also a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until -- later of sooner -- perhaps -- no, not perhaps -- quite certainly: it will come."
- A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood, p299

One day in the life of a man is the basis for Christopher Isherwood's penultimate and what many consider his best novel, A Single Man. Written from in the first person the protagonist, George, is reflecting on his life and friends as he lives through an ordinary day in the shadow of the sudden death of his partner, Jim. Using meditative prose Isherwood manages to express both the inner being of George and his memories of the past. But the present, through episodes with his former lover Charley, before his years with Jim, and his students, especially Kenny Potter, is intertwined with the memories to make this an exceptional read. George is an Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is also an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. 
Isherwood's fine short novel is also an honest look at his life by a man who accepts his being as a homosexual and reveres the life he had for many years with his partner Jim. He succeeds in bringing George's life alive even as both the day and his life wind down with a not unexpected quiet confidence.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996 (1964)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Walt Whitman

from "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"

O rising stars!
Perhaps the one I want so much will rise, will rise with some of you.

O throat! O trembling throat!
Sound clearer through the atmosphere!
Pierce the woods, the earth,
Somewhere listening to catch you must be the one I want.

Shake out carols! Note
Solitary here, the night's carols!
Carols of lonesome love! death's carols!
Carols under that lagging, yellow, waning moon!
O under that moon where she droops almost down into the sea!
O reckless despairing carols.
But soft! sink low!
Soft! let me just murmur,
And do you wait a moment you husky-nois'd sea,
For somewhere I believe I heard my mate responding to me,
So faint, I must be still, be still to listen,
But not altogether still, for then she might not come immediately to me.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


All sorts of stories were circulating about him in town.
- Mysteries, Knut Hamsun, p. 302

I was introduced to the author Knut Hamsun by reading his first novel, Hunger. It is a Dostoevskian tale of a young journalist who is literally starving to death. His story is about trying to write and live while not even being able to afford a scrap of food, pawning his vest to be able to survive a few more days. It is a searing story that one does not forget. I had reread that book about a year ago, but still had not tackled any of Hamsun's other works before I had picked this book. My expectations were high, as he is a Nobel Laureate, but I was not sure if he would equal, much less surpass, his earlier novel. Now I look forward to reading more of his works.

I was drawn to Mysteries because of a reference in Henry Miller's The Colossus of Maroussi where he said of Mysteries that it "is closer to me than any other book I have read." High praise from a writer that I respect and whose Colossus I loved.

Mysteries is not exactly thrilling, but it is an adventure into the unknown. It does not rely on a traditional plot, rather it starts under mysterious circumstances where a strange young man named Johan Nagel without any past appears in a small coastal town where a person has been recently killed. However, playing against expectations the book doesn't delve in to the suspense of the murder, rather all the mysteries lie in Nagel's relations with the townspeople and in discovering the duality of human mind. The duality that confuses us more than the bystander why we are what we are. How can we be so selfish while performing a selfless act? Why do we care about so much about something whose absence doesn't matter in long run? Why we love someone who doesn't love us back? I found moments in the book left me feeling that I was sharing a dream with the characters - an eerie feeling indeed but more puzzling than frightening. Did I mention - there is a dwarf (midget) in the book? If you have ever read The Dwarf by Par Lagerkvist you would know that any book with a dwarf is a good book.

Sven Birkerts has said that Hamsun has created " works of desperate lyrical romanticism". But Hamsun is also a precursor to and in some ways participant in modernism, writing works that span the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. This book is compelling with challenging arguments that you think and perhaps question your beliefs, especially the arguments on societal interpretation of the genius. Birkerts, in his introduction, goes on to say that Mysteries is "compelling in its fans a depth of devotion that owes less to narrative, character development, or evocative prose than to something more elemental, more . . . mysterious." (p. x)
It is thus to me and a novel of ideas that I can truly enjoy.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun. The Noonday Press, New York. 1967 (1890).
Mysteries: a novel by Knut Hamsun. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1999 (1892).

Young Orson Welles

"Me and Orson Welles"

Everybody denies I am a genius - but nobody ever called me one!

- Orson Welles

I thoroughly enjoyed Richard Linklater's new film "Me and Orson Welles" at the Webster Place 11 Theaters. It brought to life the young Orson Welles during the week before his exciting premiere of "Julius Caesar" at the newly formed Mercury Theater in New York City. He was already well-known as a radio personality but this is well before his triumph at RKO with Citizen Kane and other films (there is a neat moment of foreshadowing his future film interests when he reads from Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons to young Richard Samuels while riding in a cab). The film time is set in post depression era New York where the young student Richard (Zac Efron) goes to New York to get a start in the theater and bluffs his way into Welles' (Christian McKay) Mercury Theater, getting the role of Brutus' slave Lucius. During this week Richard will find romance with a worldly older woman, become immersed in a creative experience few are afforded and learn the downside of crossing the imperious, brilliant Welles. The film only hints at the multi-talented character of the man who created the grand-daddy of media hoaxes, directed films that re-directed the path of world cinema and was a fantastic magician, but Christian McKay's portrayal energizes the film as he becomes Welles. The other members of Welles' Mercury Theatre, Joseph Cotten, George Coulouris, Norman Lloyd And John Houseman were all present in this lovely film. Ben Chaplin's performance as George Colouris was particularly good as he almost has a nervous breakdown moments before going on stage as Mark Antony. Of course, Welles and his whole troupe share an immense triumph on the evening of the premiere, but the show really belongs to Orson Welles alone, while young Richard learns some lessons in life and love in the process. This was a lovely entertaining film that I heartily recommend to all.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Poems for the Season


The wind has a chill -
It is now solstice time.
So let us have our fill
Of a good winter wine!

- James Henderson, 2009

"Christmas Greeting" Christmas-tide comes round,
They remember it again -
Echo still the joyful sound
Peace on earth, good-will to men!
Thus, forgetting tricks and play
For a moment, Lady dear,
We would wish you, if we may,
Merry Christmas, Glad New Year!

- Lewis Carroll

Traversing the Eons of Time

The Man Who Folded Himself

by David Gerrold

What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? . . . What then is time?

- Confessions, Augustine, p. 230

Ever since Augustine's meditation on the nature of time in Book XI of his Confessions writers have attempted to analyze the nature of time. Over the last century and a half Science Fiction writers have used the theme of travel through time to consider some aspects of this concept. Perhaps the most famous example is that of H. G. Wells whose novel, The Time Machine, used time travel as a means for advancing some of Wells' social criticism. Written in 1895 it still has a sense of mystery and wonder. It was great fun too, and I enjoyed reading the novel and viewing the excellent film when I was younger.
A more recent example of time travel was the very popular novel by Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife. I read that book for a book group discussion which was the only reason I bothered to finish what I considered a flawed novel. The best part of Niffenegger's book was her unique gimmick of presenting time travel as a disease, beyond that the book left me yawning as the characterization seemed flat.

I recently read a much better presentation of this theme by David Gerrold in his novel, The Man Who Folded Himself. Gerrold's novel is not recent - it was published more than thirty years ago - but a friend recommended it to me (it is one of his favorites) and I finally read it. Like Wells' novel it is slight, less than 150 pages, but in that thin novel Gerrold packs a striking picture of the nature of time travel. In his view there exist multiple universes all populated with different versions on one's original self created through the process of travelling forward and backward in time. He makes an impressive case and touches upon many of the seeming limitless possibilities for time travel creation. While the novel was not particularly suspenseful since I guessed the ending early on, Gerrold does not spoil the book by going on for too long (unlike some authors - see Niffenegger above). His prose is simple but clear and using almost epigrammatic form he manages to provide the story of the life of Daniel Eakins (and some of his alter egos). The book is not without flaws for the lack of other characters was disappointing, aside from his own multiple personae there were few other characters in the book. But that did not prevent me from enjoying this imaginative journey into the realm of time and traversing its eons.

Confessions by Saint Augustine. Oxford University Press, 1991.
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Signet Classics, New York. 1984 (1895).
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Harcourt, New York. 2003.
The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold. Random House, New York. 1973.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Iliad and Latin Class

Assiduus usus uni rei deditus et ingenium et artem saepe vincit
- Cicero

I am currently rereading the Iliad for discussion with our Lincoln Park Sunday morning discussion group. The reading has reminded me of the my first encounter with the Iliad when I was in high school studying Latin.
I had two years of Latin study which has served me well over the years as a foundation for my English skills, such as they are, but this Latin class was not just studying a dry dead language but rather it was discovering a living culture that extended from the early age of Mycenae to the fall of Rome. The source of this was our Latin teacher, Mrs. Helen Daggett, who was perpetually invigorating with regard to all things Latin and classical. The result was an exciting class that found that Rome and Greece were interesting and sometimes exciting places about which to learn. The Latin Club was one of the largest in the high school and the annual "slave" sale was one of the high points of the school year.
But, you may ask, what does this have to do with Homer's Iliad? After all, didn't Homer write in Greek, and ancient not classic Greek? Yes but this Latin class, as I mentioned, was about more than just Latin, but also the culture of Rome and Greece before it. So it was there that I encountered the Iliad, but not directly from Homer. I learned about Heinrich Schliemann from reading Robert Payne's The Gold of Troy. It was Schliemann's adventurous and romantic life (more recently chronicled in an excellent biography of him by David Traill, Schliemann of Troy) that first introduced me to Troy and Mycenae and the story behind the story of The Iliad. It was due to his persistent belief that the city of Troy in the Iliad really existed and that it could be found that led me to the story of The Iliad. I still remember admiring the mask of Agamemnon from my days in Latin class. However, in reading and rereading The Iliad that mask pales in comparison to the "Shield of Achilles" described in Book XVIII. I have read many of the classical Greek and Latin authors since those days I spent in Latin class discovering Latin and Greek culture. And my love for the classics I owe in no little part to that class.

The Gold of Troy by Robert Payne. Funk & Wagnalls Co., New York. 1959
Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit by David A. Traill. St. Martin's Press, New York. 1995

Friday, December 18, 2009

What 'profound abysm'?


Your love and pity doth the impression fill
Which vulgar scandal stamp'd upon my brow;
For what care I who calls me well or ill,
So you o'er-green my bad, my good allow?
You are my all the world, and I must strive
To know my shames and praises from your tongue:
None else to me, nor I to none alive,
That my steel'd sense or changes right or wrong.
In so profound abysm I throw all care
Of others' voices, that my adder's sense
To critic and to flatterer stopped are.
Mark how with my neglect I do dispense:
You are so strongly in my purpose bred
That all the world besides methinks are dead.

- William Shakespeare, Sonnet #112

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thirteen Cellos

I love music for the cello, but before last night I had always thought that meant cello solos, various chamber works, concertos or the wonderful solo moments for cello in works for Symphony Orchestra like Von Suppe's famous Poet and Peasant Overture. Last night I had a new cello experience - 'Thirteen Cellos' playing as a group. I have to thank my friend Jim Edminster for inviting me to join him and some friends at a concert given by the Oakley Street Cello Ensemble. It was a cold winter night but the location, the Viaduct Theater, was both warm and convenient as a site for a wonderful concert that blended some of my favorite pieces (in new arrangements) with some that were new to me. Two of those new pieces were among the best of the evening, Hoy Mondongo by Michael O'Brien and DMO by Shirl Jae Atwell. The familiar tunes ranged from Leroy Anderson and Maurice Ravel to Simon & Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair. I enjoyed the arrangements of several of the pieces by Michael Yannell, who was also one of the cellists. The group acquiesced to the crowds' delight with an encore pizzicato version of Jingle Bells. It was a night which will linger in my memory as thirteen cellos and their melodic strains reverberate in my dreams.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Master Harold" and the boys

Sam. Should we try again, Hally?

Hally. Try what?

Sam. Fly another kite, I suppose. It worked once, and this time I need it as much as you do.

Hally. It's still raining, Sam. You can't fly kites on rainy days, remember.

Sam. So what do we do? Hope for better weather tomorrow?

Hally. (Helpless gesture) I don't know. I don't know anything anymore.
- "Master Harold" and the boys, p. 59

"Master Harold" and the boys is a short play that has an immense impact upon first reading. The playwright Athol Fugard manages to imagine a relationship between a boy and two Black servants in early 1950s in South Africa and make it become a universal experience that continues to resonate with readers in the Twenty-first century. I was impressed with the economy of words that were used to express multiple levels of feeling and meaning throughout the play. The culture of England, long the colonial power in this country, is also ever present in language and simple things such the names of towns.

The basic story is a simple tale of a boy, Hal, on the verge of manhood struggling with his education and his relationship both with his friends, the Black servants Sam and Willie, and his father who is nearing the end of what must have been a tyrannical patriarchy. Hal, who is "Master Harold" to Willie and plain Hally to Sam and everyone else, struggles through the issues of his relationships and what they mean until the difficulties with his father overtake him and he lashes out at the Black servants, reminding the reader that this is the era of apartheid and this is South Africa. One of the most powerful metaphors is that of the dance that is used from the opening of the play and culminates in a beautiful moment as the linchpin for transcendent beauty and the meaning of art. The day ends with tentative attempts at reconciliation, but we are left wondering whether the next day will bring a new level of maturity and hope for the master and his boys or more of the same tensions that make compassionate friendship crumble in this moving drama.

"Master Harold" and the boys by Athol Fugard. Vintage International, New York. 2009 (1982)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Alternative Reality

One had to blame the Germans for the situation. Tendency to bite off more than they could chew. After all, they had barely managed to win the war, and at once they had gone off to conquer the solar system, while at home they had passed edicts which . . .
- The Man in the High Castle, p. 24

I have enjoyed reading novels of ideas immensely over the years and The Man in the High Castle is one of the best I have read in a long time. My favorites include works by Mann, Musil, Dostoevsky and Orwell and among others -- now Philip K. Dick.

In his novel the author, Philip K. Dick, has created an alternative world and then tops that by having his title character author a book within the novel that imagines the world as it really is. What if the allies had lost World War II? That is the premise, and Dick's ability to build a believable alternative reality based on that premise is the foundation of this exciting, suspenseful and enjoyable book.
The characters, German spy, Jewish businessman, Japanese trade representative, Italian war veteran, and others, are each given individual fates that, woven together through a plot that creates suspense and wonder, inhabit a world that is scarily believable. Beyond them all lives "the man in the high castle" -- the author of the book about an alternative reality, a book that is banned throughout most of the world, inspiring even greater readership and fear. Honestly, I had previously viewed alternate reality fiction as more "gimmickry" than literature. Philip K. Dick, however, has written a novel that truly makes you think about the nature of fate (the I Ching is also an important element in the plot) and the small changes that could change history. An award-winning work of literature, it is a book that recreates the universe.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. Vintage Books, New York. 1992 (1962).

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Today's Shakespeare

Sonnet #108


What's in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What's new to speak, what new to register,
That may express my love or thy dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet, like prayers divine,
I must, each day say o'er the very same,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallow'd thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love's fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,
Finding the first conceit of love there bred
Where time and outward form would show it dead.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Poem in October

This poem by Dylan Thomas is one of my favorites among the many wonderful poems by this amazing poet. While it is already December it is never too late or early to share this poem.
I was reminded of it earlier today while attending a lecture entitled "Proust and Weather" by Joel Rich, an Instructor in The Basic Program of Liberal Education at The University of Chicago. While Joel shared the beauty and commented on the turns of meaning in Proust's prose about the weather I was reminded of this poem which also turns on the weather. Proust's narrator for In Search of Lost Time said, "A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves anew." I hope you will find similar thoughts expressed by Dylan Thomas in his Poem in October.


        It was my thirtieth year to heaven
     Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
        And the mussel pooled and the heron
                Priested shore
           The morning beckon
     With water praying and call of seagull and rook
     And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
           Myself to set foot
                That second
        In the still sleeping town and set forth.

        My birthday began with the water-
     Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
        Above the farms and the white horses
                And I rose
            In a rainy autumn
     And walked abroad in shower of all my days
     High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
            Over the border
                And the gates
        Of the town closed as the town awoke.

        A springful of larks in a rolling
     Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
        Blackbirds and the sun of October
            On the hill's shoulder,
     Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
     Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
            To the rain wringing
                Wind blow cold
        In the wood faraway under me.

        Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
     And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
        With its horns through mist and the castle
                Brown as owls
             But all the gardens
     Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
     Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
             There could I marvel
                My birthday
        Away but the weather turned around.

        It turned away from the blithe country
     And down the other air and the blue altered sky
        Streamed again a wonder of summer
                With apples
             Pears and red currants
     And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
     Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
             Through the parables
                Of sunlight
        And the legends of the green chapels

        And the twice told fields of infancy
     That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
        These were the woods the river and the sea
                Where a boy
             In the listening
     Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
     To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
             And the mystery
                Sang alive
        Still in the water and singing birds.

        And there could I marvel my birthday
     Away but the weather turned around. And the true
        Joy of the long dead child sang burning
                In the sun.
             It was my thirtieth
        Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
        Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
             O may my heart's truth
                Still be sung        On this high hill in a year's turning.

Selected Poems 1934-1952 by Dylan Thomas. New Directions, New York. 1953.

Island Dystopia

The Island of Dr. Moreau

by H. G. Wells

Wells was in the main a true prophet. In physical details his vision of the new world has been fulfilled to a surprising extent.  - George Orwell

Over the period of a decade beginning with The Time Machine in 1895, H. G. Wells created some of his most popular fictions in the form of scientific romance novels. These books have captured the imagination of readers ever since and are arguably as popular today as they were more than one hundred years ago. Among these perhaps the strangest and best is The Island of Dr. Moreau. Undoubtedly influenced by Robinson Crusoe, but also by Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island which was published only thirteen years earlier, this book goes far beyond those deserted island tales and looks forward to the twenty-first century and beyond. In its day it was considered blasphemous, but in the age of cloning its depiction of vivisection takes on new meaning while the blasphemy recedes into the background. Above all this is a good story with suspense that holds even after the first breathless reading that it usually inspires. The story is of such a suspenseful nature that I am reluctant to share any plot details for fear of spoiling the experience for the reader.

As with all great books the levels of meaning and reference in this book are many and the structure, a lost narrative found only after the author's death (reminiscent of Poe among others) is a nod to the era of the unreliable narrator for before his death Edward Pendrick, the narrator, claims to have no memory of the events which it described. Peter Straub, in his "Foreword" to the Modern Library edition, commented:

Given its infusion of the adventure tale with deep, pervasive doubt, Dr. Moreau can be seen as a unique and compelling alliance of Treasure Island and Joseph Conrad. (p. xvi)

I certainly agree with this assessment and believe that Wells, who was a good friend of Conrad as well as Henry James, Stephen Crane and Ford Madox Ford, might also agree with it. Like the best of Conrad reading this book was an exhilarating experience due both to its narrative and its deep meaning.

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells. The Modern Library, New York. 1996 (1896).