Friday, January 29, 2010

Poetry for the Dead of Winter

Before Sylvia Plath there was Sara Teasdale whose growing debilitating health led her to suicide:

In 1930 . . . She contracts pneumonia on her second trip and returns home grievously ill. Her resultant debility contributes to her increasing disinterest in life. (Final Drafts, p. 146)

Here is a selection from her poetry:

Serene descent, as a red leaf's descending
When there is neither wind nor noise of rain,
But only autumn air and the unending
Drawing of all things to the earth again.

So be it, let the snow fall deep and cover
All that was drunken once with light and air.
The earth will not regret her tireless lover,
Nor he awake to know she does not care.

—“Epitaph” by Sara Teasdale, who committed suicide at age thirty-eight on this day in 1933

Final Drafts: suicides of world-famous authors by Mark Seinfelt. Prometheus Books. 1999

for Today

Last night as our book discussion group grappled with the themes of Joseph O'Neill's novel Netherland we were impressed by his use of colors throughout the book. This was one of the ways that he effectively made New York City an important character. I was reminded of this upon reading the following sonnet by Shakespeare where he also makes amazing use of color.

Sonnet #130

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

- William Shakespeare

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Learning Metaphors

'Master Harold' ...
and the Boys

by Athol Fugard

"a world without collisions . . ."

Once again I viewed an excellent production of a Tony Award-winning play at TimeLine Theatre Company. Athol Fugard's Harold and the Boys premiered on Broadway in May of 1982. The current production at TimeLine Theatre is directed by Jonathan Wilson who impressed me with his attention to the dramatic details of the play. I found this an intimate production that is well-suited for TimeLine's small theater. The tension and depth of the play's themes were emphasized while there were great performances by all of the cast. Nate Burger's portrayal of Hally moved from youthful confidence to moments of intense anguish and pain over his relationship with his father over the course of the play. Alfred H. Wilson as Sam brought the right amount of understanding to his role even as young Hally lashed out at him, while Daniel Bryant as Willie lent a lighter spirit to many of the scenes.

This short drama was kept taut with effective pacing of the constant changes in the relationships of the three characters. The changes were linked by several motifs, notably the metaphor of the dance which from the opening scene under laid the gradual movement toward the climax of the play. The play reached an emotional apex as the beauty of the ballroom dancing floor ("a world without collisions") is used as a transcendent metaphor for life and a creative paper topic. The ability of the actors to communicate the wealth of family background and interpersonal relationships impressed me the most. As the performance ended I left the theater with many thoughts about the drama I had just seen and joy at the experience of another great production from TimeLine Theatre Company.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

D. H. Lawrence's

The Man Who Loved Islands

"even islands like to keep each other company"

(The Complete Short Stories, p. 723)

Yes, more than men, that is the man of the story who loved islands, islands liked to keep each other company. This is a story from the pen of D. H. Lawrence who wrote many wonderful stories. In this story he has incorporated several themes and many layers of meaning all in less that twenty-five pages. The man who "loved islands" appears Quixotic as he attempts to create an imaginary island world around himself as he sequesters his being in his book-laden library to write about the birds of the classical world. But his dreams were quickly corroded as the corruption of humanity tainted his imaginary Eden. Suggestions of Milton's Paradise Lost - yet can Satan have corrupted humanity so thoroughly that few are honest or loyal enough to continue the journey with the man?
Imaginary though it was it reminded me of Rousseau's attacks on civilization while he wrote of an imaginary state of nature. This state of nature seemed to be close to the reincarnation of our man's island as he tried yet a second time to accomplish his dream. Ultimately the man who loved islands inherits a nightmare as the story veers into a snowy dystopia. What meaning does this hold for the reader? I am not sure, but the thoughts for which the story is a catalyst will continually remind me of this strange world.

The Complete Short Stories: Vol. Three by D. H. Lawrence. Penguin Books, New York. 1977 (1961)

Melville's Bartleby

“Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”
- H. Melville

Bartleby, the Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street is a long short story or novelette by the American novelist Herman Melville (1819-1891).
The narrator, an elderly lawyer who has a very comfortable business helping wealthy men deal with mortgages, title deeds, and bonds, relates the story of the strangest man he has ever known. One of the most complex stories ever written by Melville, it was no great success at the time of publication. Bartleby the Scrivener is now among the most notable of American short stories and is considered a precursor of absurdist literature, touching on several of Kafka's themes in such works as A Hunger Artist and The Trial.
(source: Classical Pursuits)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Modern Music

Boulez, Bartok & Stravinsky

“The aim of music is not to express feelings but to express music. It is not a vessel into which the composer distills his soul drop by drop, but a labyrinth with no beginning and no end, full of new paths to discover, where mystery remains eternal.”
- Pierre Boulez

Even at sixty I must be a fairly modern person in the sense that musical compositions considered modern or contemporary may be at least as old. Last night I heard a composition by Pierre Boulez which was originally composed in the year of my birth. While he has revised it since then (it was originally written for string quartet) it is still considered contemporary if not avant-garde in its modern sound. Better yet I was fortunate to hear the composition, Livre pour cordes, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. It is a spare composition for strings alone with intricate lines of music for the various players. The contrasts within the piece were striking and the use of rests - open spaces - notable as the piece seemed to shimmer with brittle edges in the evening. An acquired taste, but not unpleasant, the music was thought-provoking.
More accessible was a performance of Bela Bartok's Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra (1940). While composed a decade before the Boulez work it also resounds with modernist dissonance, but in Bartok's distinctive style highlighting folk melodies and percussion. The presence of two pianists, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, and percussion soloists, Cynthia Yeh and Vadim Karpinos, in front of the orchestra was the focus of my attention and they were all excellent performing a work of daunting difficulty. The result was an exciting evening of music from the near past. The concert concluded with a truly audience-pleasing composition, Igor Stravinsky's music for the ballet The Firebird. Just the sort of dazzling orchestration for which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is uniquely suited to perform and they did not disappoint.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Pianist, Composer, and Pedagogue

Ferrucio Busoni:

an introduction

Ferruccio Busoni, emiment concert pianist, composer and one of the best-known pedagogues of this generation, died on July 27, 1924 of heart disease. He was professor in the State Academy of Arts.

Ferruccio Benvenuto Busoni was born at Empoli, near Florence, on April 1, 1866. His father was Ferdinando Busoni, a prominent clarinetist, and his mother, Anna Weiss, a pianist from whom he received his first instruction on the piano. When only eight years old Busoni made his first public appearance in Vienna, where he studied with Hans Schmitt, going later to Dr. Wilhelm Mayer in Graz, after which he made is first concert tour of Italy. On the completion of the tour he was elected a member of the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna, and the city of Florence struck a gold medal in his honor. In 1886 he took up his residence in Lepizig to devote himself to composition and while there composed a fantastic opera, a symphonic suite and smaller pieces. Two years later financial considerations drove him to accept a position as teacher in the Conservatory of Helsingfors, Finland, where he remained until 1890, when he took a similar position in the Moscow Conservatory after winning the Rubinstein prize for piano playing and also for composition with a konzertstuck for piano and orchestra, a sonata for piano and violin and arrangements of Bach's organ fugues.

In 1891 Busoni made his first visit to the United States as professor of piano at the New England Conservatory, returning to Europe two years later, making his home in Berlin, where he resided off and on until his death, making frequent concert tours and spending the season 1907-1908 in Vienna, where he succeeded Emil Sauer as teacher of the Meisterklasse at the Conservatory. In 1909-1911 he made highly successful tours of the United States and in 1913 went to Bologna as director of the Liceo and conductor of symphony concerts. The same year he was decorated with the cross of a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur, Rossini and Verdi being the only other Italians to have been so honored. During the war he resided in Zurich but returned to Berlin after the cessation of hostilities.

Busoni achieved fame in three phases of his profession, as a pianist, a pedagogue and as a composer. As a pianist he was an extraordinary technician and, though the charge was brought against him of sacrificing beauty of tone to volume, he always played with extraordinary fire, which he imparted to his pupils as well, many of them being among the foremost concert artists of the present time. His compositions cover practically the entire field of music from opera and symphony to incidental music. He also wrote treatises on musical subjects and made numerous transcriptions of compositions by Bach and edited the entire piano works of Liszt and Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavichord."

Source: Michael Sayers Great Pianists Web pages

Friday, January 22, 2010

Lord Byron

"a keen sense of what is noble and honourable,"
- Sir Walter Scott

I was reminded by Tim S. that today is the birthday of George Gordon, Lord Byron. He was born on this date in 1788. A representative sample of his verse from my handy Oxford collection of his poetry and prose follows:

Dear Nature is the kindest mother still,
Though always changing in her aspect mild;
From her bare bosom let me take my fill,
Her never-wean'd, though not her favour'd child.
Oh! she is fairest in her features wild,
Where nothing polish'd dares pollute her path:
To me by day or night she never smiled,
Though I have mark'd her when none other hath,
And sought her more and more, and loved her best in wrath.

Childe Harold, Canto II, 37-45

Byron Poetry & Prose. The Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1940.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sebastian Faulks


It is a small part of life we really live. Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time.
- From On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

I read Sebastian Faulk's novel Charlotte Gray almost a decade ago. It is an historical novel of the best kind both for its historical accuracy and its dramatic characterization.
In reading Engleby I found a psychological novel where characterization is brought to the fore with the presentation in the first person. That person, Mike Engleby, gradually becomes several characters as the novel progresses. Much like Dickens, notably in David Copperfield and Great Expectations, Sebastian Faulks's protagonist adopts different names for his persona over the course of the novel. The reader gradually begins to doubt the reliability of Engleby as narrator of his life story and with good cause, as he develops psychological characteristics that one may only categorize as pathological. Where these lead him I will leave to those readers interested in finding our for themselves. I found his story suspenseful, even as it began to repulse me. My interest was also piqued by his recurrent meditations like this one on time:

"What is this present then? It's an illusion; it's not reality if it can't be held. What therefore is there to fear in it?"(p. 65)

This is early in the novel, he has later meditations on the nature of thinking itself, and you gradually wonder if these are not symptoms of his gradual loss of the ability to distinguish reality from imagination. His pathology includes a variant of voyeurism that allow the author to incorporate diaries and other documents into the narrative - perhaps to confirm Engleby's own views. The combinatorial effect of the narrative techniques made this an intriguing psychological novel and raised the author in my estimation. I look forward to reading more of his novels.

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks. Vintage Books, London. 2008 (2007)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Six Moral Tales:
Claire's Knee

We trifle when we assign limits to our desires, since nature hath set none
- Christian Nevell Bovee

As the decade of the 1960s ended Eric Rohmer was more than halfway through his group of films refered to as Contes moraux (Six Moral Tales). The fourth of these (third in order of production) was the classic Ma Nuit Chez Maude which is among my favorite films of all time. Rohmer followed this with a discourse on desire titled Le genou de Claire (Claire's Knee). While this does not resonate with me the way Chez Maude did it is a powerful and evocative film.

Rohmer's films invariably concentrate on intelligent, articulate protagonists, who nevertheless frequently fail to own up to their real desires. The contrast between what they say and what they do fuels much of the drama in his films. This is true in Claire's Knee as the protagonist Jerome, at the instigation of his writer friend Aurora, manages to flirt with a teenage girl and then reach the brink of desire with her sister Claire. What impressed me most was the power and suspense that Rohmer was able to build into the climactic scene where Jerome caresses Claire's Knee. This scene reminds me of the power of Hitchcock who could build suspense and horror without showing the actual act of murder. It is no surprise that Rohmer had collaborated with Claude Chabrol on a study of Hitchcock earlier in his career. The impact of the discussions of Jerome's desire with his friend Aurora and his momentary brush with the culmination of that desire is tremendously moving. As in his other films Rohmer's tendency to spend considerable time in his films showing his characters going from place to place, walking, driving, bicycling, or boating is evident in Claire's Knee. His flirtation with Laura occurs while hiking in the mountains and the climax occurs when his kindness in giving Claire a ride into town is interrupted by a rain storm. The contrast of serious discussion and the wide open expanses of nature (almost every scene is outdoors) adds to the appeal of the film and suggests that Jerome, who is headed off to be married, and Claire who is reconciling with her boyfriend Gilles at the end are indeed doing what nature intended.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cold Running

The best most of us can do is to be a Poet an hour a day. Take the hour when we run . . .
Take that hour away from being serious adults and become serious beginners.
- Dr. George Sheehan

What other kind of running is there in Chicago in January? So this morning I persevered for a short run in the cold. Once you get moving your body heat keeps you warm and in the cold I perspire slightly less than I do on warm summer days. Listening to the music of my favorite classical FM station helped as well. It was good to get out and attempt to shake off the cobwebs of the night with an early morning awakening - cold running.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Twenty-first Century Odyssey


by Joseph O'Neill

"I'm sure I told you about him. A cricket guy I used to know. A guy from Brooklyn."
- - Netherland, p. 6.

While I have traveled some over the course of my adult life I have never traveled to London; but my image of London was always that of a modern cosmopolitan metropolis. Thus it was with some surprise that I read of the "parochialism" of London as I began the last third of Joseph O'Neill's novel Netherland. The protagonist, a Dutchman named Hans van den Broek, has just returned from several years in New York City and is not pleased with the treatment he receives from the Londoners he meets. This is just one of several instances of what I would describe as hubris exhibited by Hans as he preens with a reflexive post-modern attitude that I did not find very appealing. While he is in London he finds out about his wife's affair with their "friend" Martin from his son. His wife merely nods to him and he is off into the night. This was not a surprise as I had been expecting them to separate since before page fifty, in fact it seemed like they had already done so, or at least behaved as if they ought to and they also seem to be able to get back together as well: all Hans' relationships seem to be both fleeting and in flux throughout his life.

Hans' journey (memories of Thomas Mann) is an odyssey through the multicultural neighborhoods of New York City, spiked with bouts of Cricket fever inspired by his Trinidadian friend, Chuck Ramkisoon. Chuck is a man of many trades including driving instructor, but he is primarily a promoter of Chuck! When Hans leaves him for London that is a let down of sorts, but the novel maintains some interest, if nothing else for its' quirkiness and its ability to surprise - although Chuck's demise is not a surprise since the author (is this hubris as well?) introduces Chuck as a character through the report of his death. Have you ever found out you were a partner in an enterprise only after your supposed partner had "parted" this world? If you like a well-written off-beat novel with only minor flaws (some may not even notice them) then this may be a novel you should consider - you may find, as I did, that Hans' friend Chuck was the most interesting character of all.

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. Vintage Books, New York. 2009 (2008)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thoughts on Time

Sonnet #123

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow and this shall ever be;
I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sonnet for the Day


I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

- Elizabeth Bishop

The Complete Poems 1927 - 1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York. 1979.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Iliad

"Homer's Horses"

. . . the horses mourned,
longing for their driver, their luxurious manes soiled,
streaming down from the yoke-pads, down along the yoke.
- The Iliad, Homer (lines 566-8, p. 456)

Our reading and discussion of The Iliad has reached Books 16 and 17. We spent the morning discussing Patroclus' furious charge after Hector. He wreaks his vengeance on the Trojans "making them pay the price for Argives slaughtered".( line 473, p. 425) This passion grows over the pages of Book Sixteen to the point where even Homer seems awed by the fury when he asks:

Patroclus -
who was the first you slaughtered, who the last
when the great gods called you down to death?
(lines 809-11, p. 435)

Fate has decreed and with Apollo's help Hector brings the final blow down on Patroclus. At this point you realize why this poem has been read for millenia and loved by many. But just as touching, perhaps more moving are moments like the one described in the epigraph above. For in the next book as Menelaus leads the Greeks to retrieve Patroclus body and the Trojans battle the Argives we are told of Achilles' horses who "wept from the time they had first sensed their driver's death," (lines 493-4, p. 456). This brings home the momentous occasion of Patroclus' death in a way that transcends the battle scenes and suggests it is the fabric of their life that has been rent - not just another battle death.

The Iliad by Homer, trans. Robert Fagles. Viking Press, New York. 1990.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

That Summer in Paris

"… even in the 1960s, Mr. Callaghan was “perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world,” - Edmund Wilson

Morley Callaghan was only twenty-six years old when he spent the summer of 1929 in Paris with his wife.
Born and raised in Canada, he had been encouraged in his writing by Ernest Hemingway when they were both journalists in Toronto and looked forward to seeing Hemingway again at his place in Paris. Along the way he stops off in New York and meets Sinclair Lewis and others of the Greenwich Village artistic crowd while establishing himself with the editor Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's who published his first book.
But it is in Paris that he tries to make a home for that one summer. In addition to Hemingway there is Scott Fitzgerald and Robert McAlmon with whom he develops some rapport. He manages to meet with "Jimmy" Joyce and his wife in spite of the protectiveness of Sylvia Beach who is on a mission to guard the privacy of Joyce. His memoir is uneven - surprisingly Paris did not seem that romantic or lively - but it is difficult to avoid some interest in the shenanigans of the trio of Scott, Ernest and Morley when the latter duo engage in boxing matches or when Morley and his wife encounter Scott and Zelda on the afternoon following a bender with them wasted in their apartment. Moments like these not only are fascinating but also serve to underscore the mythic images of these authors. Morley Callaghan would go on to write mainly unmemorable novels that according to some critics (see Wilson quote above) are unjustly neglected. But his summer in Paris reminds me that he was once a part of the twentieth century's greatest writers making Paris their home.

That Summer in Paris by Marley Callaghan. Exile Editions, Toronto. 2007 (1963)

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

What does it mean to be Human?

notes on Der Steppenwolf

Our task as human beings is this:
Within our own unique personal lives
To move one step further along the path
From animal to human being.
- Hermann Hesse, in “Thou Shalt Not Kill”

A work like Steppenwolf is iconic in its artistic significance. Being so makes it more difficult to discuss the book as I would other "good" reads. A novel of ideas, one that challenges my own conception of the world, it raises more questions than it answers. It draws upon the ideas of other thinkers, notable Goethe and Nietzsche and Jung, and presents those ideas in new ways - challenging even those with which the author may agree. This is what Hermann Hesse set out to do in writing Der Steppenwolf in 1927.

The novel presents a complex narrative that combines three different styles within its structure; a straightforward preface introducing the protagonist, Harry Haller, a "Treatise on the Steppenwolf" in the form of a pamphlet that Harry accepts and interprets as a study of his own life, and Harry's own narrative which moves into a dream sequence when Harry enters the "Magic Theater". We meet characters, both women and men, at least one of whom may be Harry's alter ego or "anima" in Jungian terms. We see a man who would separate himself from the Nietzschean herd and values individuality. Most of all we encounter a man facing not the "two souls" that dwell within his breast, as Goethe described Faust, but one who faces innumerable souls in a personality that seems to be breaking up into different persons. Through it all Harry looks up to artistic "Immortals" as representative of an ideal in the form of idealized visions of Goethe and Mozart. Especially Mozart who plays a critical role in Harry's dreams.

What can I take away from this work? As I said it raises questions and the thoughts and process of reviewing the way I approach the world is one thing that this novel provides. With all great - read transcendent - works of art I continue to find new layers of meaning as I read and reread their pages. One fundamental question, and I think this is central to all of Hesse's writings, is what does it mean to be human? The philosophers from Plato and Aristotle have tried to define this, but Hesse's Steppenwolf continues to present the question and explore original ways to find the answer.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. Henry Holt & Company, New York. 1990 (1927)

Monday, January 04, 2010

Top Ten 2009

Top Ten Reads of 2009

My list of favorite books read in 2009 (now revised to include the beginning of 2010) includes more than three dozen books (and not everything I read made that list). But I thought I would try to whittle the list down to the top ten that I read last year. So here it is in no particular order:

Hunger by Knut Hamsun.

This was a reread and one of the most unique imaginative fictional lives that I have encountered (better for me than his Mysteries).
2. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil.
Also a rereading which reinforced the importance of this novel in my personal pantheon and ensured that I will return to Musil.
3. The History Boys by Alan Bennett.
This was my summer of experiencing this play in performance at The Timeline Theatre Company production (which ran for almost six months) and reading the play again was sheer delight!
4. The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.
Miller loves Greece and this is brought home by his incomparable prose in this book which I was encouraged to read by a friend at a local used bookstore: thanks to Peter.
5. Stoner by John Williams.
This book should be better known as it is an almost perfect novel. Thanks to New York Book Review Classics it may receive the acclaim that it deserves.
6. Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich Schiller.
Another play, this one a classic of the Romantic era that includes the famous apple scene, but so much more.
7. Sodom & Gomorrah by Marcel Proust.
The fourth volume of his immensely readable In Search of Lost Time. I enjoyed this more as I savored the humor of Proust's human comedy.
8. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.
Darwin is also very readable and his arguments stand the test of time. One of the most lucid scientific treatises that I have encountered.
9. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood.
A short novel that is, like Stoner, almost perfect. Better than the movie, but both are very good.
10. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
I no longer read much science fiction, but this tale of alternate history is written for readers of all ages and transcends the genre.

I am reluctant to stop at ten best since I enjoyed many other books during the year, but this is enough of a retrospective for one cold January day. Let's all move on to the great reads of the new year!

Sonnet for Today

ruin'd love, when it is built anew,
- Shakespeare

Shakespeare has tasted "potions" from "Siren tears" and succumbed to "distraction" of a fever all in the name of love. Once he has gone over the top it seems the best thing is to build "anew".

Sonnet #119


What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,
Distill'd from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!
What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought itself so blessed never!
How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted
In the distraction of this madding fever!
O benefit of ill! now I find true
That better is by evil still made better;
And ruin'd love, when it is built anew,
Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater.
So I return rebuked to my content
And gain by ill thrice more than I have spent.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A Journey and Education

“Most of the time it's not the Europeans who belittle us. What happens when we look at them is that we belittle ourselves. When we undertake the pilgrimage, it's not just to escape the tyranny at home but also to reach to the depths of our souls. The day arrives when the guilty must return to save those who could not find the courage to leave.”  ― Orhan Pamuk, Snow
As long as I can remember I have enjoyed reading novels about the growth and journey of young heroes.
Joseph Campbell has documented the mythology of this as the "heroic journey" and it is found as far back as Gilgamesh and Homer's Odyssey. Related to this, A Handbook to Literature defines the "bildungsroman" as "A novel that deals with the development of a young person as he grows up." One of the earliest examples is Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship written at the end of the eighteenth century. This is considered by some to be the paragon of the genre, but this type of novel continued to be popular throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. My personal favorites include both Dicken's David Copperfield and Great Expectations, Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, Thomas Mann's magisterial The Magic Mountain and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (also described as a Kunstleroman). Each of these novels differs in the depiction of the development and growth of the young person. Dicken's David Copperfield (a very autobiographical example as many of this type of novel are) shows a maturation from the moment of birth to adulthood where he finally settles down with his second wife (pardon me if you have not yet read this wonderful novel). Contrast that with the development of Philip Carey in Maugham's Of Human Bondage where Carey again and again makes unwise decisions, learning slowly if at all, and settling in the end for a life that seems to be good only in contrast to all the mistakes that led him to it. Each of these novels reflects the outlook of the novelist as well as the life of the young protagonist who is at the center of the novel. In Mann's case, young Hans Castorp is just beginning his adult life as we leave him at the end of the novel and, at the risk of spoiling it for those who have not read it, the outlook for him is not good. I will leave you with a quotation from the more positive ending of another novel that ends with the young hero's entry into adulthood, Joyce's A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

"Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated consciousness of my race."

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Chandler & Marlowe

"I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust"
"Who's he?" I put a cigarette in my mouth and stared at her. She looked a little pale and strained, but she looked like a girl who could function under a strain.
"A French writer, a connoisseur in degenerates. You wouldn't know him."
"Tut, tut," I said. "Come into my boudoir."
- The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler was fifty years old when he wrote his first novel, The Big Sleep. It was an outstanding debut. In 2005, Time magazine included the novel in its 100 Best Novels published after 1923, and it deserves the praise as it is an intelligent, witty and realistic glimpse into the underside of sunny California - Los Angeles in particular. The novel opens with "rain in the foothills" and rain continues as a leit motif throughout the novel with the rain clouds never too far away. Much of the action occurs at night as well as this is a book that can best be described as classic crime "noir". Philip Marlowe, private eye, is tough and disillusioned, but sensitive when necessary and ultimately the epitome of the private detective. In his book on the history of the detective story, Mortal Consequences, author Julian Symons has this to say about Raymond Chandler:

"Chandler had a fine feeling for the sound and value of words, and he added to it a very sharp eye for places, things, people, and the wisecracks (this out-of-date word still seems the right one) that in their tone and timing are almost always perfect."

This was certainly true in The Big Sleep and it is a narrative that is nothing if not what one would cinematic in its beautiful prose. Yet, it is the dialogue that seems to me to be the best part. This is the oomph that gave his novel a kick that I seldom experience in my reading. Chandler was both a master of prose and the detective story and, despite rough edges, never seemed to lose his authorial grip over the plot while dazzling the reader with beautiful women and sleazy characters. His private eye, Philip Marlowe, is smooth and suave and always seems to be on top of the situation, even when he appears to be on the bottom.
Chandler's imagination and creativity is astonishing as he has created a book with a complicated plot but even more complex levels of reference and meaning. The basic story takes on the trappings of Greek tragedy as Marlowe is hired by patriarchal General Sternwood, overseer of a family fortune, to handle a case of blackmail against one of his two daughters. Marlowe handles the case with efficiency, but the story does not end with the one daughter and her blackmailer. The further convolutions of plot and the suspense that builds through the interaction of a number of colorful if unlikeable characters kept me reading with interest till the end. Whether you are a fan of crime fiction or not, this is a great book to read. It is also one of the great films of all time with Bogart and Bacall, directed by Howard Hawks - check it out.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Vintage Books, New York. 1988 (1939)