Sunday, June 27, 2010

Notes on Moby-Dick

 Man and Fate  seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates.  There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own.  This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. (p 213)

When one reads the first line of Moby-Dick, "Call me Ishmael.", he does not realize that the story about to unfold, a narrative that will include lessons in whaling and the mysteries of the deep, is already set in stone so to speak.  Nor does he realize that he is about to embark upon a journey with the narrator, Ishmael, that will, more than five hundred pages later, tell him that "This whole act's immutably decreed." (p 548)  The 'Loom of Time' described in the epigraph above is indeed fixed and Ishmael's, and our own, weaving has independence only in our dreams.  The unchanging nature of fate, its existence and our subjection by it is part of the story.  Not even as men are described as philosophers with their Faustian striving (p 51) do they manage to avoid that which fate holds for their lives.  The vicissitudes of life are ever present in this sea story and vivid as they are they do not detract from the omnipresent nature of fate.  Melville is poetic in his characterization of this aspect of our lives in the following passage from Chapter 60:

Again: as the profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies of the storm, is perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for, indeed, the calm is but the wrapper and envelope of the storm; and contains it in itself, as the seemingly harmless rifle holds the fatal powder, and the ball, and the explosion; so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play -- this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair.  But why say more?  All men live enveloped in whale-lines.  All are born with halters around their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift , sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.  And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side." (pp 280-1)

In Melville's tale the warp and woof of life is always present in one form or another, whether discerned by the men who go whaling or stay home.  We readers can only wonder at the progress of the tale and the lives therein; and try to make use of the lessons for our own life.  For we are one with Ahab, at least it seems to be so, as if life is a game like this passage from the end of Chapter 118:

"Well, well; I heard Ahab mutter, 'Here some one thrusts these cards into these old hands of mine; swears that I must play them, and no others.'  And damn me, Ahab, but thou actest right; live in the game, and die in it!" (p 490)

Moby-Dick or the Whale by Herman Melville. W. W. Norton, New York. 1976 (1851)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home 

by Susan Hill

Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote an essay called 'Books Unread' which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1904. In it he wrote, "The only knowledge that involves no burden lies . . . in the books that are left unread. Susan Hill's memoir of a a reading life is about both books unread and books read; books lost and books found; books with which we travel and those books we read at home, yet allow us to travel to far away places. In short, Susan Hill shares some delightful moments that warm the heart and inspire the mind of any reader who loves his or her books. We each can identify with the stories she tells of delight in reading and experiencing what one famous author called "The Joy of Books".

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. Profile Books, London. 2009

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Our Light, the Flame

The Dying Flame

Queen: My friends, where is this Athens said to be?
Chorus: Far toward the dying flames of the sun.”
Aeschylus, The Persians

Would we be slaves to the rule of the night?
Only if we defer to the mass – rejecting our sight.

Rejecting the true
the real
the hope
embodied in the reality of things --
Things here, now, the
world of our life
our heart
our being.

We must grasp the dying flames of reason
Before our light is extinguished.

From Preludes of the Mind 2010 by James Henderson

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Poem for Summer

The Summer Rain

My books I’d fain cast off, I cannot read,
  ’Twixt every page my thoughts go stray at large
Down in the meadow, where is richer feed,
  And will not mind to hit their proper targe.

Plutarch was good, and so was Homer too,
  Our Shakespeare’s life were rich to live again,
What Plutarch read, that was not good nor true,
  Nor Shakespeare’s books, unless his books were men.

Here while I lie beneath this walnut bough,
  What care I for the Greeks or for Troy town,
If juster battles are enacted now
  Between the ants upon this hummock’s crown?

Bid Homer wait till I the issue learn,
  If red or black the gods will favor most,
Or yonder Ajax will the phalanx turn,
  Struggling to heave some rock against the host.

Tell Shakespeare to attend some leisure hour,
  For now I’ve business with this drop of dew,
And see you not, the clouds prepare a shower—
  I’ll meet him shortly when the sky is blue.

This bed of herd’s grass and wild oats was spread
  Last year with nicer skill than monarchs use.
A clover tuft is pillow for my head,
  And violets quite overtop my shoes.

And now the cordial clouds have shut all in,
  And gently swells the wind to say all’s well;
The scattered drops are falling fast and thin,
  Some in the pool, some in the flower-bell.

I am well drenched upon my bed of oats;
  But see that globe come rolling down its stem,
Now like a lonely planet there it floats,
  And now it sinks into my garment’s hem.

Drip drip the trees for all the country round,
  And richness rare distills from every bough;
The wind alone it is makes every sound,
  Shaking down crystals on the leaves below.

For shame the sun will never show himself,
  Who could not with his beams e’er melt me so;
My dripping locks—they would become an elf,
  Who in a beaded coat does gayly go.

by Henry David Thoreau (1842)

A Favorite Author


 ". . . what he is writing at present, whether it turns out to be the history of the siege of Lisbon or not, he will write in the daylight, the natural light falling onto his hands, on to the sheets of paper, on to any words that might appear and remain, for not all words that appear remain, in their turn casting light on our understanding of things, as far as possible, and where, were it not for them, we would never arrive." (The History of the Siege of Lisbon, p 160)

José de Sousa Saramago (1922–2010) died last Friday.  He was a Nobel-laureate Portuguese novelist, playwright and journalist. His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor.  Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. His books have been translated into 25 languages.  In 1992, the Portuguese government, under Prime Minister Aníbal Cavaco Silva, ordered the removal of his novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,  from the European Literary Prize's shortlist, claiming the work was religiously offensive. Saramago complained of censorship and moved to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he resided until his death.  An outspoken proponent of libertarian communism, Saramago politically antagonized some, including the Catholic Church.

My favorite of Saramago's novels is The History of the Siege of Lisbon in which Raimundo Silva, a proofreader at a Portuguese publishing house alters a key word in a text to make it read that in 1147 the king of Portugal reconquered Lisbon from the Saracens without any assistance from the Crusaders.  After doing this he is inexplicably encouraged by his supervisor, Maria Sara, to rewrite the entire history of the siege.  From this kernel the novel develops into a complex meditation on the meaning of both history and words as well as a romance and parable of life under authoritarian rule.  While I have not read all of Saramago's novels this one stands out among those I have read as his best. I have also read and enjoyed Blindness and All the Names.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A tapestry reproduction of the painting Summer by Alphonse Mucha, the famous Art Nouveau artist .

The Words

Jean-Paul Sartre was born on this day in 1905. The Words, Jean-Paul Sartre's famous autobiography of his first ten years, has been compared to Rousseau's Confessions. Written when he was fifty-nine years old, The Words is a masterpiece of self-analysis. Sartre the philosopher, novelist and playwright brings to his own childhood the same rigor of honesty and insight he applied so brilliantly to other authors. Born into a gentle, book-loving family and raised by a widowed mother and doting grandparents, he had a childhood which might be described as one long love affair with the printed word. Ultimately, this book explores and evaluates the whole use of books and language in human experience.

Sartre writes about his very early life. He writes about things that as an adult you aren't even conscious of anymore. How reading a book about horses and armies can bring those things to life. Sartre talks about his grandfather, his mother, his absent father. He is pretty dispassionate about them. The main thing about the book is Sartres' ability for clear observation and honesty.  Sartre describes his fatherless childhood, a period during which playmates and rambles were happily exchanged for his grandfather’s library, where “I found my religion”:

          I disported myself in a tiny sanctuary, surrounded by ancient, heavy-set monuments which had seen me into the world, which would see me out of it, and whose permanence guaranteed me a future as calm as the past. …I was a daily witness of ceremonies whose meaning escaped me: my grandfather—who was usually so clumsy that my grandmother buttoned his gloves for him—handled those cultural objects with the dexterity of an officiant…. At times, I would draw near to observe those boxes which slit open like oysters, and I would see the nudity of their inner organs, pale, fusty leaves, slightly bloated, covered with black veinlets, which drank ink and smelled of mushrooms.

Sartre’s reading and writing nurtured “the idealism which it took me thirty years to shake off.” Inside the sixth-floor library, “I would take real birds from their nests, would chase real butterflies that alighted on real flowers”; compared to the bookish archetypes, “the monkeys in the zoo were less monkey, the men in the Luxembourg Gardens were less man.” In the last pages of The Words, Sartre begins to describe the exchange of the idealism for the brand of Existentialism which made him famous. “I’ve given up the office but not the frock,” writes the sixty-year-old: “I still write. What else can I do?”

The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre. Vintage Books, New York. 1981 (1964)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist  

by Richard Rhodes

Richard Rhodes is one of my favorite authors.  I first encountered his work when I read The Making of the Atomic Bomb.  His book, Why They Kill,  is unique in my experience, in that it is a blend of both biography and sociology.  It is the biography of Lonnie Athens who lived a violent life as a youth and later dedicated his life to the investigation of the source of violence in criminals.  It is also a presentation of  Athens' findings and an examination of the results of applying those findings to criminals who Athens had not studied.  The result of this, due greatly to the writing skills of the author, is a fascinating and unique story of the sociology of criminal life and the pathology of violence.  This is a challenging book for those readers interested in why some humans kill.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Roman Festivals

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent”
-  Victor Hugo 

In 1928 near the end of his career as a composer of works, mainly tone poems, for symphony orchestra Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) composed Roman Festivals (Feste Romane).  He had become well known for his transcriptions of music of the distant past such as Ancient Airs and Dances, and his earlier tone poems based on Roman themes, including The Fountains of Rome (1917) and Pines of Rome (1924).  Last Wednesday evening the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra inaugurated the current season of summer concerts with a night of Roman-themed music that concluded with Respighi's Roman Festivals.  This work is in four parts which Respighi labeled: I. The Circus Maximus, II. The Jubilee, III. The October Excursions, and IV. The Eve of the Epiphany in Piazza Navona.  The concluding section is the best known movement (in my memory) and has the distinctive rhythms of the Saltarello and the stornello gradually growing to a somewhat bombastic but joyful conclusion.  The earlier sections each demonstrated familiar Respighi-like harmonies that one of my friends with whom I attended the concert recognized immediately.  The piece was appropriate for the climax of an evening of music feting Rome.

The concert had started with Berlioz's famous Roman Carnival Overture (Le Carnaval Romain), Op. 9.  Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) composed the overture in 1844 and it was an immediate hit with Parisian audiences, as it has been to this day.  When I was in our high school concert band we played a transcription of it and I, fortunately, was the English Horn soloist although I still remember my nervousness in being asked to play such a prominent solo (this occurs in the introductory section of the overture).  The gestation of this overture began with Berlioz's opera "Benvenuto Cellini" which met with an unfortunate reception when first performed in Paris in 1838. For the London production, he wrote a second overture,"The Roman Carnival," to be played before the second act. The principal theme is taken from the Saltarello, in the closing scene of the first act of the opera. The overture begins with this theme, given by the violins with response at first in the flute, oboe and, clarinet, and then in the horns, basoon, trumpet, and cornet. After a sudden pause and some light passage work in the strings, woodwinds, and horns, the movement changes to the theme taken from an aria of Benvenuto's in the first act, given out by the English horn. The subdued melody is next taken by the violas, passing to the horns and violas. The interwoven with this romantic melody is heard a dance passage in the woodwinds and brasses, also in the percussion instruments. Gradually the dance passage dies away, giving place to the Andante theme, but anon the time changes, and the strings begin the Saltarello, completing the main section of the overture. The entire development now runs on this movement with the Andante heard at intervals in contrast, and worked up in close harmony. The Saltarello dominates the Finale at a rushing pace. The overture is brilliant throughout and full of the gay, bustling scenes of the carnival.

The main piece on the evening concert was Vivaldi's famous and popular The Four seasons (Le Quattro Stagioni).  Antonio Vivaldi (1669-1741) composed these pieces as four concerti grossi for violin and string orchestra with their related theme of the four seasons.  While not designed as such, the Vivaldi concerto grossi appear to resemble the tone poem style of composition that would not come into vogue until the following century.  This collection of pieces has become an audience favorite and, although the softer parts were difficult to hear from our lawn seats, we enjoyed the ambience created by this music that is at once both highly imaginative yet truly realistic.  The evening of Roman Festivals was a great way to begin the summer season in Millenium Park.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Death of a Beekeeper

"Kind readers.  Strange readers.   We begin again.  We never give up.  It is early spring 1975, the story begins in the middle of the thaw." (The Death of A Beekeeper, Prelude, p 1)  

I first discovered the writing of Lars Gustafsson several years ago when I found his novel, Bernard Foy's Third Castling, in a neighborhood bookstore.  It was such a quirky, interesting and arresting book that I have sought out other works by Gustafsson over the years.  One of these is The Death of a Beekeeper which opens with what Lars Gustafsson calls a “prelude” in which he says good-bye to the readers of this, the last part of his five-volume novel sequence. He presents himself as merely the editor of notes left behind on Lars Lennart Westin’s death, telling the reader that the speaker to whom he now hands over the narrative suffers from cancer of the spleen. Told in the form a journal or diary it tells the story of a man who was a schoolteacher, but now is dying; a man who is a beekeeper, and a man who is very human. We first read that he has received a letter from a local hospital, probably containing test results and the diagnosis of his ailment. He burns the letter.  This brief, quiet novel speaks with a courageous voice. Refusing to die with his life unclarified, unexamined, he rejects the sterile confines of a hospital and, for the few months left to him, retreats to the isolated Swedish countryside to work among his bees, to endure the progression of pain, and to record his accompanying, disquieting insights. It is his humanity and the way he faces life that makes his story touching and gives meaning to what might otherwise be seen as mundane everyday events.  Gustafsson, by juxtaposing the beekeeper's notes on his inner life, feelings, and memories, and his notes on his outer life, the daily running of the apiary, suggests by the inquiring, seemingly spontaneous entries the deep relatedness of life, death, and hope.

"Above him was the whole summer.  A soft wind was moving through the trees.  On the other side of the island a kingfisher hovered above the water . . ." (p 140)

Lars Gustafsson is a Swedish, poet, novelist and scholar. Even though he was raised and educated in Sweden he lived in Austin, Texas until 2003, and has recently returned to Sweden. He served as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he taught Philosophy and Creative Writing, until May 2006, when he retired. In addition to his novels he has published poetry and essays.

The Death of a Beekeeper by Lars Gustafsson. New Directions, New York. 1981 (1978)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Poem for Today

Like a great poet, Nature knows how to produce the greatest effects with the most limited means.
- Heinrich Heine 

A pine tree towers lonely
In the north, on a barren height.
He's drowsy; ice and snowdrift
quilt him in covers of white.

He dreams about a palm tree
That, far in the East alone,
Looks down in silent sorrow
From her cliff of blazing stone.

Translated by Aaron Kramer, in: The Poetry of Heinrich Heine, ed. Frederic Ewen (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1969, p. 74).

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Troilus and Cressida

"A stirring dwarf we do allowance give
Before a sleeping giant."
Troilus and Cressida, 2.3.135-6

The first two acts of Shakespeare's "Trojan" play, Troilus and Cressida, succeed in introducing most of the important players, but do not move the plot forward.  We are treated to scene after scene of talking, first with Troilus himself imploring his beloved Cressida's uncle Pandarus to talk with Cressida about his love for Cressida.  He certainly does not appear to be a steadfast hero when he intones, "I cannot come to Cressid but by Pandar, And he's a tetchy to be wooed to woo as she is stubborn-chaste against all suit." (1.1.91-3)  We will have to read further in the play if we are to find a Homeric hero here.

Pandarus does his best to sell Cressida on Troilus in the following scene, but his words seem hollow and unconvincing.  When Troilus appears again we are ready for fireworks, but are disappointed.  The rest of the first two acts includes meetings - Greek general meetings and Trojan warrior meetings.  Exciting stuff!  One notable exception to the generally uninteresting lack of events is the introduction of Thersites, as unpleasant character as any in Shakespeare, but the most interesting guy in a room of dull generals.  He is described in the Dramatis Personae as "a deformed and scurrilous Greek", but we recognize him as a dwarf, one of the first in literature, and worthy to bear that name.  So scurrilous he may be, but he speaks the truth in a play where that quality is in short supply.  I look forward to his stirrings as the play progresses through the remaining acts.

Troilus and Cressida by Shakespeare. The Arden Shakespeare, London. 2006 (1609)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

On the Aesthetic Education of ManOn the Aesthetic Education of Man
by Friedrich von Schiller

“Since the aesthetic disposition of our nature, as I have explained in the foregoing letters, is what first gives rise to freedom, it may easily be realized that it cannot itself arise from freedom, and consequently can have no moral origin. It must be a gift of Nature;” (Letter XXVI, p 124)

Friedrich Schiller wrote Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man in 1793 for his friend the Danish Prince Friedrich Christian who had provided him with a stipend to help him through an illness. In 1795 the letters were published and the provide a worthwhile consideration of the nature of Aesthetics for us still today. The collection of twenty seven letters is not an easy read but it is worth persevereing to gain the insights of this great poet and playwright, friend of Goethe and inspiration for Beethoven and many artists, particularly in the Romantic era.

The book touches upon a broad range of topics, some of which you do not normally associate with aesthetics. However the letters do consider the nature of Beauty and its relationship to art and man. For Schiller beauty seems to arise as a synthesis between opposing principles "whose highest ideal is to be sought in the most perfect possible union and equilibrium of reality and form"(Letter XVI, p 81). Schiller also discusses the nature of the ideal man and how the impulse for play interacts with man's nature, especially his rational and sensuous aspects which form a juxtaposition within him. This juxtaposition is discussed at length with a synthesis described in terms that suggest a transcendence that culminates in our very humanity (Letters 18-20). Man and his nature is important to Schiller as his reason, but "The first appearance of reason in Man is not yet the beginning of his humanity. The latter is not decided until he is free," (Letter XXIV, p 115).

Through discussion of the work of art and the fine arts Schiller brings us closer to a conception of what art means to man and how important "Homo Ludens" is as a conception of man. Schiller admired classical Greece and its art and saw the role of history and freedom important in the discussion of the nature of art. Above all both as a poet and a thinker Schiller held the ideal of freedom to be sacrosanct. According to Schiller, freedom is attained when the sensual and rational in man are fully integrated but his aesthetic disposition is seen as coming from Nature. These letters provide a rich vein of ideas from which the thoughtful and attentive reader may find inspiration in consideration of the aesthetics and the nature of the work of art.

On the Aesthetic Education of Man by Friedrich Schiller. Continuum, New York. 1989 (1795)

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Sunday, June 06, 2010

More on Polar Bears

While participating in the "Run for the Zoo" this morning in Lincoln Park I saw a Polar Bear, inspiring the following bit of verse.

The Bear at the Zoo

I saw a polar bear at the zoo today.
It was behind a glass wall, but that's okay
For I believe polar bears are best when they
Are safe in a place that keeps them away.

I saw the bear while running for the Zoo,
But I am certain that no matter who
The polar bear saw he did not care,
Since I don't look like another polar bear!

He was sitting in the shade and kept his eye
On the crowd outside - don't ask me why.
For I think he was really just keeping cool,
You see this Polar Bear, he was no fool!

- James Henderson

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Polar Bears

Polar Bear in there

There's a Polar Bear
In our Frigidaire--
He likes it 'cause it's cold in there.
With his seat in the meat
And his face in the fish
And his big hairy paws
In the buttery dish,
He's nibbling the noodles,
He's munching the rice,
He's slurping the soda,
He's licking the ice.
And he lets out a roar
If you open the door.
And it gives me a scare
To know he's in there--
That Polary Bear
In our Fridgitydaire.

Poem: Shel Silverstein

Image: Penguin Disguise

Friday, June 04, 2010

Sonnet for Today

While most of Shakespeare's sonnets are beautiful and great works of literature there are only a handful that move me as much as his thirtieth sonnet. From the opening line through the whole poem I am in thrall to the truth of his poetic voice.


When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

- William Shakespeare

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Winesburg, Ohio (Penguin Classics)Winesburg, Ohio

by Sherwood Anderson

“That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were truths and they were all beautiful.”
- Sherwood Anderson

I first read this book when I was in high school and have read it again since. From the beginning it struck me as a serious work of literature but only upon rereading it and reading more extensively authors who were influenced by Anderson have I come to some appreciation for his true greatness. Winesburg, Ohio depicts the strange, secret lives of the inhabitants of a small town. In "Hands," Wing Biddlebaum tries to hide the tale of his banishment from a Pennsylvania town, a tale represented by his hands. In "Adventure," lonely Alice Hindman impulsively walks naked into the night rain. Threaded through the stories is the viewpoint of George Willard, the young newspaper reporter who, like his creator, stands witness to the dark and despairing dealings of a community of isolated people. Each of the tales shines a clear light on the character of an inhabitant and you come to know Winesburg almost as well as your own home town. Growing up in a small midwestern town I never forgot the feeling this book gave me.

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On the Road

...and everything is going to the beat - It's the beat generation, it be-at, it's the beat to keep, it's the beat of the heart, it's being beat and down in the world and like oldtime lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat...
- Jack Kerouac

The Beat Generation is a term used to describe a group of American writers who came to prominence in the 1950s, and the cultural phenomena that they wrote about and inspired. Central elements of "Beat" culture include a rejection of materialism, experimentation with drugs and alternate forms of sexuality, and an interest in Eastern religion. Generally the major works of Beat writing are Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956), William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959) and Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Both Howl and Naked Lunch were the focus of obscenity trials that ultimately helped to liberalize what could be published in the United States. On the Road transformed Kerouac's friend Neal Cassady into a youth-culture hero. The members of the Beat Generation quickly developed a reputation as new bohemian hedonists, who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac was written in April 1951, and published by Viking Press in 1957. It is a largely autobiographical work that was based on the spontaneous road trips of Kerouac and his friends across mid-century America. Often considered a defining work of the postwar Beat Generation, it epitomizes the themes that made the movement famous. Narrated in the first person the character of Dean Moriarity stands out as larger than life, clearly the beloved of the narrator in the classical sense. The novel has an intimate immediacy that makes the episodes along the road come alive as if they happened just yeaterday.

"Dean was having his kicks; he put on a jazz record, grabbed Marylou, held her tight, and bounced against her with the beat of the music. She bounced right back. It was a real love dance."(p 125)

The spontaneity energizes the reader and gives this narrative a feel that is unique in my experience. The "beat of the music" is on every page and the characters' lives rise and fall to it. While many of the names and details of Kerouac's experiences are changed for the novel, hundreds of references in On the Road have real-world counterparts. That Kerouac was accused of promoting deliquency says as much about the culture against which he was rebelling as it does about him. That this book still feels exciting to read suggests that it has attained the status of a classic.

The Beat Generation works highlighted the primacy of such Beat Generation essentials as spontaneity, open emotion, visceral engagement in often gritty worldly experiences; in a seeming paradox, the Beats often emphasized a spiritual yearning, using concepts and imagery from Buddhism, Judaism, Catholicism, and so on. Thus members of the Beat Generation sought a synthesis of the "beaten down" and the "beatific," as Kerouac described it. One of the best-publicized aspects of Beat writing was the continual challenge to the limits of free expression; the Beat writers produced a body of written work controversial both for its advocacy of non-conformity and for its non-conforming style.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Penguin Books, New York. 1991 (1957).

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Traditional Novels from Pym

Barbara Pym

"She had always been an unashamed reader of novels ..."
— Barbara Pym (Quartet in Autumn)

The British novelist Barbara Pym was born on this day in 1913. Pym's writing career spans the second half of the twentieth century but her early success with a handful of novels in the 1950s was followed by a fifteen-year period during which no one would publish her. Only three years before her death by cancer at age sixty-six she was rediscovered and achieved international fame. The loci of the rediscovery was a survey of famous British writers in the January 21, 1977 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, in which two of the famous writers asked to nominate the most underrated book of the previous seventy-five years picked novels by Pym. Philip Larkin, one of the surveyed writers, put Pym in Jane Austen’s league for her ability to keep her reader “always on the verge of smiling.” Recently Alexander McCall Smith echoed this comparison when he singled out Pym’s Excellent Women as “one of the most endearingly amusing English novels of the twentieth century.” My recent reading of Jane Gardam's Old Filth reminded me of the Pym style which She seems to share at least in part.

Pym's novel Jane and Prudence, first published in 1953, is set in a very British village, a world of jumble sales, charity fetes and tea with the new vicar. Jane, the vicar’s wife, is not quite comfortable with her role, though she tries to be dutiful. She first meets many of the prominent parishioners at the decorating of the church for the Harvest Festival, to which Adrian Driver, the village's very eligible tweed-and-brogues widower, arrives bearing his handsome contribution to the altar display:

“What a fine marrow, Mr. Driver,” said Miss Doggett in a bright tone. “It is the biggest one we have so far, isn’t it, Miss Morrow?”
Miss Morrow, who was scrabbling on the floor among the vegetables, mumbled something inaudible.
“It is magnificent,” said Mrs. Mayhew reverently.
Mr. Driver moved forward and presented the marrow to Miss Doggett with something of a flourish.
Jane felt as if she were assisting at some primitive kind of ritual whose significance she hardly dared to guess.

Miss Doggett is chief decorator and an elderly spinster; a few chapters on, we find her again trying to sort her men from her marrows: “Miss Doggett again looked puzzled; it was as if she had heard that men only wanted one thing but had forgotten for the moment what it was.” According to the novelist Jilly Cooper this was her finest work “ full of wit, plotting, characterization and miraculous observation". My favorite of Pym's novels is The Sweet Dove Died, published in 1978, with its fascinating heroine Leonora Eyre. As with all her novels the literary references abound.