Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Book of Dead PhilosophersThe Book of Dead Philosophers 

by Simon Critchley

"One who no longer is canot suffer."  - Lucretius

"To philosophize is to learn how to die."  - Cicero

A book for reflection and inspiration, this collection is worth dipping into from time to time or just reading in a random fashion. It contains bried lives (and deaths) of nearly two hundred of the world's most noted philosophers.  The book suggested to me different ways of thought and perhaps will direct you to original works for further consideration of the philosophers included. It complements the exploration of dead authors in general; a journey which some readers enjoy.

The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley. Vintage Books, New York. 2008.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

Top Ten 2010

Top Ten Reads of 2010

My list of favorite books read in 2010 (to be updated in January 2011) 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:

1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The best dystopian novel I have read in a long time and a reminder of the power of this author to impress this reader.
2. Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonard Tsypkin. 
Tsypkin's novel mesmerizes with two stories that enthrall with emotion and truth. A taut gem of historical fiction and a doppelganger of style.
3. The Knife Man by Wendy Moore.
Wendy Moore's biography of Dr. John Hunter, The Knife Man, captures one man's contribution to the Enlightenment and modern surgical medicine.
4. The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.
I reread this book in which 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. Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk.
Capturing a sense of the Istanbul of memory and tradition, Pamuk  juxtaposes it with the Istanbul as seen by outsiders, especially the literary lights that visited Istanbul over the years, Pamuk creates a rich texture for his story of the memories and city. This is a unique look at one of the great centers of civilization. 
6. Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
Aurelius presents the tenets that underlie the stoic philosophy he learned from his teachers including a discussion of the importance of your duty both to your own nature and that of the whole universe..
7. The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. 
While all fiction emanates from the imagination and this novel is rare that a work successfully mimics the language of dreams..
8. Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum. 
The story of a man of more than fifty years old who caps his career with a world-spanning sailing trip that still has power to grip the reader's imagination today. .
9. Call Me by Your name by Andre Aciman. 
With emphasis on the erotic, he has created an almost Proustian meditation on time and desire, a love letter, an invocation in words that one must call simply "beautiful". 
10. Ubik by Philip K. Dick.
For the second year in a row Philip K. Dick makes my top ten list.  This novel is dazzling and complex as Philip K. Dick takes you on a journey through levels of both time and consciousness. .

I reluctantly stopped at ten best even though I enjoyed many other great books during the year (including rereading some classics by Homer, Dostoevsky and Proust that I purposely left off this list), but this is enough of a retrospective for one cold October day. I'll review the list in January when the cold may lead me to revise or add to the list!

Books in His Life

A Passion For Books

A Passion For Books by Dale Salwak

With a book in hand, the reader is never alone.

This book provides several different benefits to its reader. As the title suggests you get a book filled with diverse writing about the passion readers have for books. But you also are entertained by a selection of wonderful essays that demonstrate that art while covering the titled topic. The interested reader is presented with a cornucopia of ideas and suggestions for reading based on the authors' passions. These passions include general topics like "Books in My Life" by G. Thomas Tanselle or essays on obsessions with individual writers like Mann and Larkin. There are also excursions into the connections between reading and art, theater, or music. And most poignant are the discussions of the impact of one's family on the life of reading and its impact on the soul. The result is something for almost everyone except, perhaps the solipsistic reader who while immersed in a book is disconnected with the rest of the world. I've heard such creatures exist, but for the rest of us readers there is the passion for books.

A Passion for Books. Dale Salwak, ed. St. Martin's Press, New York. 1999

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Journeys of Simplicity: Traveling Light With Thomas Merton, Basho, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard & OthersJourneys of Simplicity: Traveling Light With Thomas Merton, Basho, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard & Others 

by Philip Harnden

I travel light; as light
That is, as a man can travel who will
Still carry his body around because
Of its sentimental value.
- Thomas Mendip in Christopher Fry's Play The Lady's Not for Burning

A book which shares vignettes of spare poetry about the beauties of unencumbered living. Drawn from disparate sources, both literary and real life, the brief chapters in this book show the minimal material possessions that are required for living fulfilled lives. Some of the vignettes are of well-known figures like Edward Abbey, Thoreau, Merton, Muir, and Werner Herzog;  others, drawn from literature include Ishmael, Father Zossima, and Bilbo Baggins;  yet others were unfamiliar to this reader, including Dolores Garcia, Father Terence and Emma Gatewood.  This book is worth meditating upon as a reminder of what is essential for living a life.

Journeys of Simplicity by Philip Harnden. Skylight Paths Publishing. 2003.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tom Stoppard: Plays 5 : Arcadia, The Real Thing, Night & Day, Indian Ink, HapgoodTom Stoppard: Plays 5 : Arcadia, The Real Thing, 
Night & Day, Indian Ink, Hapgood 

by Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard's drama is complex and full of witty wordplay. It can be confusing, especially upon first reading or viewing, but all of that is just a part of what makes his work so beautiful and appealing to the reader or playgoer who, caught up in the wordplay and fireworks of the complexity, experiences the brilliant result. This collection has two, maybe three, of his best works - or at least my favorites. Like all great works of literature they are worth returning to; the levels of meaning continue to unfold a reveal the worth of each play.

Tom Stoppard: Plays 5 by Tom Stoppard. Faber and Faber, London. 1999

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Drama of Freedom

Night and Day

by Tom Stoppard

"I felt part of a privileged group, inside society and yet outside it, with a licence to scourge it and a duty to defend it, night and day, the street of adventure, the fourth estate." (Night and Day, Act 1)

Tom Stoppard's play. Night and Day, was first performed at the Phoenix Theatre, London, on November 8, 1978.  The current production by Remy Bumppo proves that this play has the staying power to speak to us today.  Directed with the vision of experience by James Bohnen, the whole ensemble was more than capable in presenting an outstanding two hours of drama.  I particularly enjoyed the strong performance of Linda Gillum in the complex role of Ruth.  

Stoppard always provides a wealth of witty word play, but in this case the production added the spark that is needed to take the words beyond mere caustic cerebral commentary and make them come alive with meaning for the audience.  This play, although more than thirty years old and based on the currents events of its day still was able to speak to issues today;  issues centering on the theme of freedom, both of the press, the world, and personal relations.  James Bohnen commented in Remy Bumppo's "Field Guide" of background information, the play "seems to center on three struggles about freedom: freedom of the press; freedom of a country; personal freedom (Ruth's struggle)."  Remy Bumppo has shown once again that they are more than capable of presenting "think" theater with meaning and value for an appreciative audience.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Istanbul: Memories and the City
Istanbul: Memories and the City 

by Orhan Pamuk

The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy.
- Ahmet Rasim

Orhan Pamuk begins his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, with a meditation on his doppelganger, the other Orhan in his life when he was a young boy. This is both an indication of the budding artist within and a metaphor for the city without, the city in which he was to grow up and live. Capturing a sense of the Istanbul of memory and tradition and juxtaposing it with the Istanbul as seen by outsiders, especially the literary lights that visited Istanbul over the years, Pamuk creates a rich texture for his story of the memories and city. Augmented by literally hundreds of photographs of city, family and history this is a unique look at one of the great centers of civilization.

The memoir is colored by melancholy, a word rooted in the Greek melankholia referring to pensive reflection marked by a dark or sad outlook. The Turkish word for melancholy is huzun and it has an Arabic root with a much more nuanced meaning that spans thoughts of both material pleasure and spirtual loss. According to Pamuk:

"The huzun of Istanbul is not just the mood evoked by its music and its poetry, it is a way of looking at life that implicates us all, not only a spiritual state but a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating." (p 91)

It is this feeling that Pamuk tries to capture in his discussions and digressions on his own experience of Istanbul and that of the others, often from the West, who have observed its life. So we encounter comments and thoughts from writers as diverse as Levi-Strauss, Ruskin, Flaubert, Gide and Gerard de Nerval. But there are also the insights of local writers like the novelist Tanpinar who, influenced by the French poet Theophile Gautier, wrote in a poetic and painterly mode of the vistas of Istanbul and extolled "the painterly style of writers like Stendahl, Balzac, and Zola" (p 227).

While Pamuk discusses the view of Istanbul "Under Western Eyes" (pp 234-44) he also finds the source of this melancholy in the ruins of the old city as seen both in his personal experience and through his reading of Tanpinar and others. He also meditates on the impact and meaning of the Bosporus to himself and his family. The city becomes a dream to which its denizens could aspire. "We might call this dream -- which grew out of the barren, isolated, destitute neighborhoods beyon the city walls -- the 'melancholy of the ruins'" (p 253)

The sum of all these thoughts and more is a brilliant and evocative image of the Istanbul that encourages the reader to read more and the traveller to visit and see for himself. This reader found in the memoir everything that he had come to expect from Pamuk's fiction melded with a passion for family, literature and city. It has become another favorite of mine from the pen of this great writer.

Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk. Vintage Books, New York. 2006 (2003)
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Friday, October 22, 2010

The Religious Illusion

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: 
A Work of Fiction 
by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

"Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world." (p 3)

I first encountered the writing of Rebecca Goldstein when I read her novel, The Mind-Body Problem. It is an informed, witty and very humorous look into the relationship of two academics and their grappling with that famous philosophical issue among other things. Having enjoyed that book enough to recommend it to others I looked forward to reading her latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. I was not disappointed. It reminds me that I have missed most of her writing in the interim, which includes other fiction, as well as biographical works about Gödel and Spinoza.

Her latest, however, is a big, ambitious novel that is nominally about God, although it unfolds on an extremely earthly plane. Overcomplicated yet dazzling, sparked by frequent flashes of nonchalant brilliance, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God affirms Ms. Goldstein’s rare ability to explore the quotidian and the cosmological with equal ease. The main character, Cass Seltzer, has written a book called "The Varieties of Religious Illusion" (see William James and Sigmund Freud) which has, surprisingly to the author, become a best-seller. Nobody in Ms. Goldstein’s novel thinks much of Cass’s book, Cass included. But it has become enormously popular thanks to the book’s appendix, which is called “36 Arguments for the Existence of God.” That appendix is also included as an appendix to Ms. Goldstein’s novel. And it offers a coherent refutation of each one of the 36 arguments that are listed. Cass became a celebrity because he made the case for atheism so well.

The rest of Ms. Goldstein’s book, the fictitious part, is divided into 36 chapters. Each chapter is titled with a fictitious argument mirroring the 36 in Cass's own book; titles like "The Argument from Lucinda" (his enamored beauty and current girl friend) or "The Argument from Strange Laughter". The chapter titles remind me of epigraphs in that they both suggest and connect to plot moments covered by the chapter. The main thread of the book is the argument for and against belief in the existence of God, The climax of which occurs almost by accident. Cass almost forgets that he will be debating the existence of God with a Nobel Laureate at Harvard, but remembers this commitment only the night before the debate. It is held in "the beautiful nave of the church" at Harvard and sponsored by the "Agnostic Chaplaincy"! I was impressed with the dream-like setting of the debate and the moment when the argument that "lack of a higher authority" would mean that "it all dissolves into moral chaos and ethical relativism. . ."(p 315). This reminded me of Ivan's argument in The Brothers Karamazov.

Since the debate constitutes one of this book’s big dramatic moments and is so hastily introduced, it’s not surprising to find smaller plot points being treated in equally haphazard ways. On the other hand, give Ms. Goldstein a philosophical case to make about potato kugel, Jewish cuisine and Kabbalistic numerology, and she really does soar. Some of the humor in the book comes at the expense of academia with Cass considering an offer from Harvard as a result of his book after long being stuck in the backwater of Frankfurter University. Overall, despite a bit of excess complexity, this was an entertaining novel of ideas leavened by sophisticated humor.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein. Pantheon Books, New York. 2010

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Monday, October 18, 2010

The Man of Feeling

The Man of Feeling 

by Javier Marías

I think myself into love,
And I dream myself out of it.
William Hazlitt

A tale of cosmopolitan love, The Man of Feeling is a novel of recollection, a thoughtful novel of emotion. A memory of love remembered ala Proust, but with a shortened span of memory as if the dream is fleeting as the love. A ghost story in the sense that memory is ghost-like and this memory, while filled with desire, is haunting with fragments of what happened or may have happened. For an opera-lover like myself it had just enough passion to suggest the music of love. It had the libretto, if not the music.

The Man of Feeling by Javier Maris. New Directions Books, New York. 2003 (1986)

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Chekhov Classic

The Sea Gull
by Anton Chekhov

"The point is, my friends, there's no use being theatrical. None whatever. The whole thing is very simple. The characters are simple, ordinary people."

On this day in 1896 Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, the first of his masterpieces, premiered in St. Petersburg. 
The opening night was such a disaster that by Act Two Chekhov was hiding backstage from the jeering, and by 2 a.m., after hours of walking the streets alone, he was declaring, "Not if I live to be seven hundred will I write another play."

Yesterday I saw a performance of The Seagull at The Goodman Theater directed by Robert Falls.  It was a distinctive production with minimal props on a rough hewn diagonal set across the open space of the Goodman's Owen Theater.  The cast had several actors whom I had seen in previous performances, two of whom I knew from their work at Timeline Theatre.  The not so classic comedy/drama was well-received, as it has been for the century-plus since its opening night flop.  The individual characters were well-portrayed and gradually came together to create a microcosm of humanity that was in every sense Chekhovian.  It was not hard to see how the first audiences for this play might have been confused by the atomised almost chaotic appearance of the tale of lovers and strangers set in this small Russian summer retreat.  The simple ordinary people are not what audiences expected in the last decade of the nineteenth century and even today some of us would prefer stories of superheroes saving the day.  The Goodman production sometimes goes over the line and lets bombast interfere with the playwright's goal of a pianissimo production, but this is the exception and the combination of good acting and simple clarity prevailed.  The result was an afternoon of gentle comedy and human foibles combined with dramatic resolve on display as imagined by one of the masters of the theater.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


by Elias Canetti

The author shakes you with the first scene in the book, one of the best openings of any novel that I've ever read. And he continues to challenge you with a riveting account of the travails of a fascinating scholar recluse, Peter Kien. Canetti created in Peter Kien an indelible image of a man with a library in his head. His only novel is both modern in conception and emotionally draining. It is also one of my favorites.

Auto da Fé is a 1935 novel by Elias Canetti; the title of the English translation refers to the burning of heretics by the Inquisition. The book was banned by the Nazis and did not become widely known until after the worldwide success of his Crowds and Power (1960). The protagonist is Peter Kien, a middle-aged philologist. He himself was the owner of the most important private library in the whole of this great city. He carried a minute portion of it with him wherever he went. His passion for it, the only one which he had permitted himself during a life of austere and exacting study, moved him to take special precautions. Books, even bad ones, tempted him easily into making a purchase. Fortunately, the great number of the book shops did not open until after eight o'clock.
Kien is absorbed in his studies of Chinese and fears social and physical contacts, but he is pressured into marrying his ignorant housekeeper, Therese Krummholz, who robs him with the help of Benedikt Pfaff, the proto-fascist apartment manager. Kien descends to the depths of society as his brother tries in vain to cure him, reaching an apocalyptic end amid his books.

Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1984 (1935)

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Words Alive!

Poem for Today

"A word is dead 
When it is said, 
Some say. 
I say it just 
Begins to live 
That day." 

- Emily Dickinson

Bank Story

Union Atlantic
Union Atlantic

by Adam Haslett

"Truth lay in the aggregate numbers, not in the images of citizens the media alighted upon for a minute or two and then quickly left behind. Currency devaluations created more misery than any corporate criminal ever would. What the populist critics rarely bothered to countenance was the shape of things in the wake of real, systemic collapse."

The author of this novel depicts the operations of the financial world accurately, namely his description of the activities of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York whose President is a character in the novel. However, I was unimpressed with the story and the machinations of the young banker and retired history teacher, who just happens to be the sister of the Fed Bank President, at the heart of the novel. The characters and their actions seem contrived. The lack of convincing portrayals yielded an unsuccessful attempt to achieve any of the ambition that is desired but not demonstrated by this novel.

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett.  Doubleday, New York. 2009

Monday, October 11, 2010

Coriolanus (Arden Shakespeare: Second Series)Coriolanus

by William Shakespeare

Reading this as part of a class at the University of Chicago was a revelation. It is, for me, the best of the lesser-known of his plays and stands tall by the side of the other two great Roman history plays, Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra. In particular, the psychological depth of the character of Coriolanus, his relationships with his mother and sunject Romans, and the dramatic action make this play a delight to read.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Disappointing Drama

Romeo and Juliet

"How silver-sweet sound lovers' tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears!"

I attended the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Romeo and Juliet this afternoon.  It was a production that I would characterize as approaching Shakespeare from the outside in rather than from the inside out.  By this I mean that the trappings (set, music, choreography) of the play controled the drama rather than the drama originating in the words, Shakespeare's poetry.  And in Romeo and Juliet, laced with sonnets, the poetry is even more important than it is in other of his plays.  I found the result unsatisfying and it was compounded by lackluster acting from the lead characters.  For example, the famous balcony scene had Romeo performing acrobatics climbing the lattice work while his recitation of the familiar lines somehow seemed less interesting in comparison.  Juliet's silly teenage idiosyncracies  made her appear less attractive than the play suggests.  Some of the supporting characters were well played, particularly Ora Jones as the Nurse and Ariel Shafir as Mercutio.  The special effects were exciting, but did not offset the failure to bring the exciting poetry of Shakespeare to the audience with consistent portrayals of the main characters.  Shakespeare's masterpiece of young love deserves better.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Power of Delight: A Lifetime in Literature: Essays 1962-2002The Power of Delight: A Lifetime in Literature: Essays 1962-2002 

by John Bayley

This is a book in which it is pleasant to dip into from time to time. To read the essays either as a spur to further reading or to provide background for one's current reading makes this book valuable. It is even more valuable for both the erudition of the author and the breadth of literary authors and topics covered within the almost seven hundred pages included in the hefty tome. I enjoyed both the essays about authors with whom I was familiar and those that introduced me to authors I have not yet read. The wealth of material is only surpassed by the delightful prose. It is fun to read the essays of John Bayley.

The Power of delight by John Bayley. W. W. Norton & Co., New York. 2005

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Rites of Spring : The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age

Rites of Spring : The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age 

by Modris Eksteins

Having read and enjoyed Paul Fussel's The Great War and Modern Memory I came to Modris Eksteins’ The Rites Of Spring and discovered another great work of cultural history that both augmented and complemented Fussel's book. The author transports the reader by demonstrating the advent of the modern through a mood laced with death, movement, irony, rebellion and inwardness. The book unveils a pre-war world of German industrialization and avant-garde art, discusses the disillusionment of an unending first world war, and climaxes with the resultant rise of Nazi regime. Eksteins’ cultural history is readable as he delves into the beginning of tthe 20th century, limning the convoluted social, political and military realities through the lens of individual lives of thinkers, artists and politicians. His aesthetic style, fleeting comparisons and iconoclastic conclusions not only mimics the modes of his subjects, but engages the interest of the reader in a manner paralleled only by authors of fiction. Taking a new approach to cultural history, The Rites of Spring challenges traditional historiography that sheds new light on the spirit of the modern age. For those interested in the nexus of traditional history and culture this is an essential book.

Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins. Mariner Books, New York. 2000

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Book Blogger Hop
Book Blogger Hop 

Once again the world has turned around for another week and it is time to participate in the Book Blogger Hop.  What a great way to encourage reading - for both life and reading can be a party.

This week's question is:
What's your favorite beverage while reading or blogging, if any? Is it tea, coffee, water, a glass of wine, or something else?
My favorite beverage is all of the above depending on what time of the day I am reading.  I am an early riser and like to start the day with a book and a cup of coffee (or two).  Later in the day I will switch to water or soda and still have a book (perhaps not the same one).  Sometimes in the evening I choose to have a glass of wine, often with a book by my side.  So the only constant is the book.  Happy reading!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Call Me by Your Name
Call Me by Your Name 

by André Aciman

What is the difference between the lover and beloved, the watcher and the one watched? In his story of Eros and education the author, Andre Aciman, considers these questions and with his narrative demonstrates the answers. With emphasis on the erotic, he has created an almost Proustian meditation on time and desire, a love letter, an invocation in words that one must call simply "beautiful". His novel, Call Me by Your Name, is a wonderful tale whose dream-like qualities continually evoke the narrator's obscure object of desire which is, by definition, inexpiable, and indeterminate. The story is one of a young man, Elio, and a slightly older man, Oliver, for whom Elio obsesses with a passion that is filled with Mediterranean fire, yet mediated by a classical patina not unlike that suggested in the less accurate translations of Plato's dialogues. For further details of the story I recommend you read the book, not because it is banal but rather because it is too beautiful to risk spoiling. 

This book constantly reminded me that it was fiction - the product of an imagination able to create an unreal dream world - yet I did not mind because it was simply, joyously readable. I was both entranced and intrigued by the narrator, whose name is withheld for much of the novel, but this is because, as the title implies, he is entranced and intrigued himself by his family's summer guest, Oliver, who seems to be nothing less than a Greek god. The subtle allusions to poetry and philosophy, the music of the senses, add to the magnificence of this short novel. Perhaps it will not effect everyone the same as it did me, but for those who appreciate the classical source of beauty this is a novel that ranks with Mann and Gide in its glistening presence.

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Acimin. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York. 2007.

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Monday, October 04, 2010

Wordsworth & Coleridge

"an experiment, which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted. . ." (Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1800)

The first edition of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads was published on this day in 1798. A historic moment in poetry, it is the high-water mark of perhaps the most famous collaboration and friendship in literary history. The two remained close for another decade, but the fault lines were by then well established. Dorothy Wordsworth took up much of her brother’s emotional life, and after Wordsworth married (on this day in 1802) there was even less room for Coleridge. This became especially clear when Coleridge attempted to live in the same house with the other three, while maintaining his old, opium-fueled pattern of wild plans and dark moods. The poetic record shows the strain: in 1807, while Coleridge was publicly proclaiming his love and need for “O Friend! My comforter and guide! / Strong in thyself, and powerful to give strength!” (lines from “To William Wordsworth”), Wordsworth was penning:

A Complaint

There is a change—and I am poor;
Your love hath been, nor long ago,
A fountain at my fond heart's door,
Whose only business was to flow;
And flow it did; not taking heed
Of its own bounty, or my need.

What happy moments did I count!
Blest was I then all bliss above!
Now, for that consecrated fount
Of murmuring, sparkling, living love,
What have I? shall I dare to tell?
A comfortless and hidden well.

A well of love—it may be deep—
I trust it is,—and never dry:
What matter? if the waters sleep
In silence and obscurity.
—Such change, and at the very door
Of my fond heart, hath made me poor.


Saturday, October 02, 2010

Brideshead Revisited

by Evelyn Waugh

"My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time." (p 225)

This is one of my favorite books. The beauty and quality of the writing is breathtaking. Certainly it reminds me of Proust, and not because I am currently reading the final volume of his magnificent tome, but because, with the major theme of memory, it is exploring some of the same territory. Waugh, speaking as Charles Ryder, nostalgically remembers the best parts of his life when he stumbles upon Brideshead during military maneuvers in World War II.

Here my last love dies. There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death. One day, not long before this last day in camp, as I lay awake before reveille, in the Nissen hut, gazing into the complete blackness, amid the deep breathing and muttering of the four other occupants, turning over in my mind what I had to do that day--had I put in the names of two corporals for the weapon-training course? Should I again have the largest number of men overstaying their leave in the batch due back that day? Could I trust Hooper to take the candidates class out map-reading?--as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster. . .(p 5)

In his letters Waugh claims that the theme of the novel is death, but I am not sure we should trust the author to be completely accurate in that sweeping summary of what appears, upon reading, to be a complicated and thoroughly multi-layered meditation on, yes death, but also memory and loss and the source of spiritual nurturing for human beings. Charles finds his passion in art and is as successful in that endeavor as he is unsuccessful in love. The sadness that surrounds his relationships with the various members of the Marchmain clan mirrors the sadness of their decline. I am reminded of Mann's Buddenbrooks from the turn of the century which limned a not dissimilar family decline. In Brideshead a significant question is whether Charles can overcome his two lost loves--both of whom moved away from him more than he from them--with the love of life that he acquires through art. His journey involves a tumult of emotion and imagery told in such a compelling and magnificent way that it is easy to lose ones self in the prose. Rather than bias the reader I will not provide a conclusion or even hint where I come out with regard to Charles life other than to suggest that, as Eliot once said with poetic grace, the end is there in the beginning.

If you like magnificent writing, biting wit, England (Oxford in particular) or Venice, or the serene beauty of traditional manners you will love this book.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Little, Brown & Co. Boston. 1945.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Book Blogger HopBook Blogger Hop

With all your reading get more reading, understanding will follow. The connections made through the "book blogger hop" provide a new dimension in my reading life, so I participate and welcome those who share my love for reading and, perhaps, some of the books that I read and enjoy. More than ever I find that I am rereading books; currently The Brothers Karamazov, The Odyssey, Time Regained - the final volume of In Search of Lost Time, and Brideshead Revisited. That doesn't prevent me from reading books, new to me in the sense that I have not read them previously, including; Recapitulation by Wallace Stegner, Cakes and Ale by Maugham, and Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. There is room for more books and reading the delightful literary blogs of others helps my not so limited imagination expand with wonder at the treasure trove available. Now, back to reading.