Thursday, December 30, 2010

Naturalist Extraordinaire

The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature
The Immense Journey: 
An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature 

“The need is not really for more brains, the need is now for a gentler, a more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger and the bear. The hand that hefted the ax, out of some old blind allegiance to the past fondles the machine gun as lovingly. It is a habit man will have to break to survive, but the roots go very deep.” ― Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature

Simply the most beautiful science writing I have ever read. An “imaginative naturalist,” according to the cover of his book, The Immense Journey. An anthropologist, a scholar, a poet, a genius. Eiseley wears all of these hats. He observes the story of life unfolding throughout history, recounting some of it to us in his own story. “Forward and backward I have gone, and for me it has been an immense journey” (p 13). By the time we read these words we have come to realize that Eiseley is not just talking about his own life’s journey. Eiseley’s narrator is metaphor for the journey of all humankind through the vast dimension of time and space—a journey filled with perplexity, delight, and impermanence. Eiseley might refute that, if he were alive today. He claims he does not pretend to speak for anyone but himself.

“I have given the record of what one man thought as he pursued research and pressed his hands against the confining walls of scientific method in his time. But men see differently. I can at best report only from my own wilderness” (p 13).

This book is science and philosophy presented in lucid, beautiful prose - a reader's delight.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Music Interpretation

Casals and the Art of Interpretation
Casals and the Art of Interpretation 

"'Imagine!'  Pablo Casals once said.  'They call me a great cellist.  I am not a cellist; I am a musician.  That is much more important."  (from the Preface)

Pau Casals i Defilló was born this day in 1876 and died on October 22, 1973.  He was known during his professional career as Pablo Casals and was a Spanish Catalan cellist and conductor. He made many recordings throughout his career, of solo, chamber, and orchestral music, also as conductor, but Casals is perhaps best remembered for the recording of the Bach Cello Suites he made from 1936 to 1939. Casals and the Art of Interpretation is perhaps the best book about his art and music. In this engaging book Blum analyzes and explicates the principles of music interpretation as demonstrated by Casals in his playing, conducting and living. Whether it is the need to produce a singing tone in a classic composition by Richard Wagner or the importance of design in shaping the themes of a composition - every aspect of the music he was playing or conducting was of importance to him. Blum uses precise musical terminology combined with detailed musical examples in his lucid and revealing interpretation of Casals' art. The result is a text that I found readable and easily grasped and, while I admittedly have more than average training in music, the book should be understandable for most general readers. The highlight of the book for me was both the chapter on "Casals and Bach" and the final discussion of a rehearsal of Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony". It is here that the heart of Pablo Casals is on display and the result is that I will never listen to these works the same way again.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Lost Sailor

The Death Ship
The Death Ship 

The death ship it is I am in,
All I have lost, nothing to win
So far off sunny New Orleans
So far off lovely Louisiana. 
(from "Song of An American Sailor")

This was B. Traven's first novel, published in 1934, and it is my favorite of his works. It is a sea story unlike any other in that it is a story of men at sea as a metaphor for men against what Jack London infamously referred to as the "Iron Heel" of modern industrialism. It is a novel with hypnotic power, timelessness, universality and authenticity. In this work Traven approaches the ability of Joseph Conrad to make the sea come alive for the reader. 
Bruce Catton called the book "a startling novel about the horrible things that can happen to a man in the cock-eyed post-war world of Europe if he can't prove he is who he says he is. . . Our sailor is entangled in a world gone mad,a world in which justice and sanity have simply ceased to exist."  A few decades later and several wars as well, and the world seems at times to be just as cock-eyed, no more just or sane.  
 What makes many readers intrigued, even more than this mesmerizing first novel, is the mysteriousness with which B. Traven hid his personal life. Even after many more novels, including the great Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Traven continued to hide behind a post office box in Mexico City. Well, no matter, his novels stand for themselves as exciting and daring adventures into the world of men and nature. This reader will continue to read and enjoy them for that alone.

View all my reviews

Trilogy of Desire

Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser died on this day in 1945, his posthumously-published novel, The Stoic not quite finished. This was the last book in his “Trilogy of Desire” — earlier novels were The Financier and The Titan — featuring the tycoon Frank Cowperwood, whom Dreiser based upon the American financier Charles Yerkes. Dreiser often took his stories from the newspapers and biographies of the day, and often used his investigations into marine biology to frame his naturalist views. Cowperwood’s first wife cannot fathom or interest her husband, for she is equipped with only “a conventional mind,” like an oyster or clam: “It has its little siphon of thought-processes forced up or down into the mighty ocean of fact and circumstance; but it uses so little, pumps so faintly, that the immediate contiguity of the vast mass is not disturbed.” Cowperwood himself is more complex, and a capitalist without principles or conscience, akin to the bottom-feeding Mycteroperca Bonaci, or Black Grouper:

Mycteroperca moving in its dark world of green waters is as fine an illustration of the constructive genius of nature, which is not beatific, as any which the mind of man may discover. Its great superiority lies in an almost unbelievable power of simulation, which relates solely to the pigmentation of its skin. …You cannot look at it long without feeling that you are witnessing something spectral and unnatural, so brilliant is its power to deceive. From being black it can become instantly white; from being an earth-colored brown it can fade into a delightful water-colored green. Its markings change as the clouds of the sky. One marvels at the variety and subtlety of its power.
Lying at the bottom of a bay, it can simulate the mud by which it is surrounded. Hidden in the folds of glorious leaves, it is of the same markings. Lurking in a flaw of light, it is like the light itself shining dimly in water. Its power to elude or strike unseen is of the greatest.
What would you say was the intention of the overruling, intelligent, constructive force which gives to Mycteroperca this ability? To fit it to be truthful? To permit it to present an unvarying appearance which all honest life-seeking fish may know? Or would you say that subtlety, chicanery, trickery, were here at work?

The Titan, the second book in the "Trilogy of Desire" - in which Cowperwood, now out of prison, fashions a new fortune for himself, was the first of this trilogy that I read when I was devouring Dreiser in high school.  My first taste of his writing was Sister Carrie, about the young girl who comes to Chicago;  Dreiser intertwined her narrative of being seduced by the lure of the city with the counter-narrative of a middle-aged man seduced by desire for Carrie.   I followed this with his greatest novel, An American Tragedy, the story of the ill-fated Clyde Griffiths.  And soon after read The Titan in this 1960 Laurel paperback edition.

I continue to enjoy the journalistic prose of Theodore Dreiser and commend his novels to all interested in discovering the flowering of naturalism in American literature.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Selected Poems: 1931-2004
Selected Poems: 1931-2004

"Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope."
- from Incantation, 1968 (p 87)

His poetry runs the gamut of feeling and thought, of nature and man, of beauty and the truth of poetry. The author of The Captive Mind, a great statement about the effects of totalitarianism, Czeslaw Milosz is even better when his daimon inspires him to write poetry. This selection covers his work over more than seven decades beginning with his early days in Poland, underground during the War, and beyond into his time in America. His survival, overcoming the ordeal of war and suppression gives his poetry a nobility that seems palpable on every page.

View all my reviews

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Poem for December

In Drear-Nighted December 

by John Keats

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne'er remember
Their green felicity:
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them;
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne'er remember
Apollo's summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.

Ah! would 'twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy!
But were there ever any
Writhed not at passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme.

The beauty and happiness of Nature cannot be undone by December's frozen nights.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop: 

Under-Appreciated Literature

Welcome to the Literary Blog Hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase!

This blog hop is open to blogs that primarily feature reviews of literary fiction, classic literature, and general literary discussion.

This week's question comes from Lisa at bibliophiliac:

What literary title (fiction or non-fiction) do you love that has been under-appreciated? We all know about the latest Dan Brown, and James Patterson isn't hurting for publicity. What quiet masterpiece do you want more readers to know?

And my answer is....

The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man

This is Mann's last novel and his most humorous one. The story of Felix Krull is filled with comic episodes worthy of the Mann's story-telling mastery.  Mann based the novel on an expanded version of a story he had written in 1911and he managed to finish, and publish part one of the Confessions of Felix Krull, but due to his death in 1955 the saga of the morally flexible and irresistible conman, Felix, remains unfinished.  In spite of that it is still one of the best novels about the question of identity. Early in the story Felix learns to deal with circumstances by changing his character as needed and he continues to shift identities becoming whomever he needs to be in all the ensuing predicaments that he encounters. It seems that Mann still had more story-telling magic left at the end of his life after World War II and decades after his great beginnings with Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice.  The only regret is that Mann was unable to finish the novel; yet, the "early years" of Felix Krull still amount to a small masterpiece.

The World Upside Down

The Collected Stories of Wolfgang HildesheimerThe Collected Stories 
of Wolfgang Hildesheimer 

by Wolfgang Hildesheimer

". . . standing among cloth-draped cages in the nocturnal dimness of the bird shop. The owner asked me what I would like.
"An owl, please," I said.
"Aha," he said, winking, as if relishing the shrewd expertise of his client.  "You're a connoisseur.  Most customers make the mistake of selecting an owl in the daylight.  Should I gift-wrap it?"
"No. It's for me.  I'd like to carry it to Athens."" (pp 79-80)

What imagination could conjure the "owl of Athena", not literally but as the basis for a short story?  The stories of Wolfgang Hildesheimer try to contain the imagination of the author who pens tales like this.  This is the first English-language appearance for 19 stories, most of them very short, by the witty, whimsical author of a controversial Mozart biography (1982) and four novels.  Many of the pieces here take the form of literary/academic parodies, with provocative views of culture emerging indirectly, but effectively.

In writing them Hildsheimer shares the journey of a man carrying the owl (owlet, to be exact) along with an amazing panoply of other characters in this small book. There is the retired magician who goes out in what some might call "Keatsian" glory, and a concert Pianist whose dream occupation turns on end the real-life struggles of so many famous composers and performers.  The response of the owner of the bird shop in the excerpt above from "I Carry an Owl to Athens" captures the epitome of Hildesheimer's style.   "I Am Not Writing a Book on Kafka" satirizes the little world of biographical scholars, clinging like parasites to their chosen subjects.  "1956--A Pilz Year" pays hilarious centenary tribute, complete with footnotes, to one Gottlieb Theodore Pilz, little-known apostle of sloth ("the pioneer of sitting in the sun"), whose contribution to Western civilization "was expressed in the non-existence of works which never came into being thanks to his courageous, self-sacrificing interference." (In 1836, for instance, "at the height of his powers," he "managed to talk Delacroix out of painting a series of colossal pictures of various jungle scenes.") Several stories explore the notion of a self-divided artist: in "Portrait of a Poet," it is revealed that Nobel-winning poet Sylvan Hardemuth was really literary critic Alphons Schwerdt, who wrote all those pseudonymous poems--intentionally awful, crassly derivative--in order to give himself a target for scathing, witty reviews; and one very Woody Allenish entry tells of the famous pianist who's secretly a frustrated insurance agent ("a double talent of unwonted proportions").  Hildesheimer sometimes pens an existential fable, often with surreal touches reminiscent of (among others) Donald Barthelme. One man, desperate for solitude (a recurring theme throughout the collection), turns himself into a nightingale; another builds himself a tiny apartment many stories up, virtually in thin air--a doomed experiment in sell-sufficiency. 
The strength of which is in his ability to turn the world upside down, to create a story out of a throw-away line, to dwell masterfully on the metaphors of the world and our lives in it.  Readers with a taste for cross-cultural drollery and dark whimsy will find this an impressive performance.  I found the result of his imaginings to be delightful, often humorous stories of people that I know I would like to meet, and, fortunately, thanks to Wolfgang Hildesheimer (and the excellent translation of his stories by Joachim Neugroschel) I already have.

The Collected Stories of Wolfgang Hildesheimer trans. by Joachim Neugroschel. The Ecco Press, New York.1987

Collected Stories of Wolfgang Hildesheimer, trans. by Joachim Neugroschel. Ecco Press, 1987.
Peter Grimes

The British poet, clergyman and naturalist George Crabbe was born on this day in 1754. One of Crabbe’s most famous poems is The Borough, a series of 24 “letters” which portray various inhabitants of an English village. Benjamin Britten took Letter XXII as the basis for his Peter Grimes opera; go here for Jon Vickers in Britten’s climactic scene, Grimes mad, guilty and about to sail away to his death. The lines below, from Crabbe’s poem:

…Fisher he seem’d, yet used no net nor hook;
Of sea-fowl swimming by no heed he took,
But on the gliding waves still fix’d his lazy look:
At certain stations he would view the stream,
As if he stood bewilder’d in a dream,
Or that some power had chain’d him for a time,
To feel a curse or meditate on crime….

It was through Forster that Britten developed an interest in the work of Crabbe, a fellow East Anglian, a curate as well as a writer born in the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh on the east coast of England in 1754. Peter Pears purchased a volume of Crabbe’s poetry shortly after Britten read Forster’s article and, as he was later to inscribe in the flyleaf of the book, it was from his and Britten’s reading of the long poem ‘The Borough’ that “we started work on the plans for making an opera out of Peter Grimes”. The "borough" of the opera is a fictional village which shares some similarities with Crabbe's, and later Britten's, own home Aldeburgh, on England's east coast, around 1830. Britten’s first full length, and possibly best known, opera originated in part from the composer’s reading of the article ‘George Crabbe: the Poet and the Man’ by E.M. Forster, which appeared in The Listener in May 1941. It was first performed at Sadler's Wells in London on 7 June 1945, conducted by Reginald Goodall and is still widely performed, both in the UK and internationally, and is considered part of the standard repertoire. In addition, the Four Sea Interludes were published separately (as op. 33a) and are frequently performed as an orchestral suite, go here for the final interlude - "the Storm" which sums up the mood of the climactic section of the opera.  The Passacaglia was also published separately (as op. 33b), and is also often performed, either together with the Sea Interludes or by itself. Both the opera and the Four Sea Interludes are among my favorites.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Skippy Dies
Skippy Dies 

"Now, what I want is facts." (Charles Dickens, Hard Times) 

"Through the window the neon doughnut sign shines in at you, the door of doors, the gateway to everything beyond, today and yesterday and the day before, all the times and people you have ever loved. 'Maybe it's my lucky day,' you say." (Skippy Dies, p 457)

Take one part Our Miss Brooks, add a dash of The History Boys, and mix it all with a dollop of postmodern drollery and you begin to approximate the experience of reading this mixed up story of modern youth in academia. Both less serious than the Enfield Tennis Academy and a lot more fun, most of the time (certainly more fun than Mr. Gradgrind's school in Coketown), I found this an energetic light read that was refreshing, if not quite able to attain the heights that some its hype would suggest. Perhaps I am too old to see all of the important meaning hiding beneath the irony and satire, but so be it. Give me James Hilton or R. F. Delderfield and I'm happy.

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Faber & Faber, New York. 2010

View all my reviews

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Death in Venice
Death in Venice 

"Nothing is more curious and awkward than the relationship of two people who only know each other with their eyes — who meet and observe each other daily, even hourly and who keep up the impression of disinterest either because of morals or because of a mental abnormality. Between them there is listlessness and pent-up curiosity, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally suppressed need for communion and also a kind of tense respect. Because man loves and honors man as long as he is not able to judge him, and desire is a product of lacking knowledge."

This may be the best short novel ever written and is certainly the best I have read. The ability of Thomas Mann to weave together character and theme and setting to achieve this perfection is uncanny and I do not believe he achieved as much in his longer fictions, great as they are. This is also one of the few novels that received a superlative treatment on film though, in the end, Visconti's film does not surpass the original.

View all my reviews

Friday, December 17, 2010


"The girl did not stir; for the last few seconds she had divined the great invisible presence which had invaded the house, and her hands grew cold. Then there rose up a long, bitter cry which terrified them because it was not the voice of anyone they knew, but merely the howl of despair which rises every moment in some part of the world and greets the presence of Death." (p 124)

With Minuit (Midnight) and Le Visionnaire (The Dreamer) two years earlier Green's novels delved into a dreamlike world of battle between good and evil, passion and reason. While these novels picture French provincial life in critical light, some critics see them as more complex than the typical anti-bourgeois novel. The psychology of evil and a sort of metaphysical boredom becomes the source of revolt, not social facts. In Midnight one finds a poetic evocation of the mystery of secrets in a dream. The author, in the preface, describes it as an answer to The Dreamer.

Julien Green was a French-American novelist and playwright, whose works are connected to the tradition of (Roman Catholic) psychological realism and also show the influence of Edgar Allan Poe and the American regional style known as Southern Gothic. Green's central subjects were self-destruction, religion, and sexuality. The stories were usually set in French provincial towns and depicted the lives of neurotic characters, who are tormented by their sensual greed, sins, and fears. Green preferred French to English as the language in which he published his works. In 1939 Green converted to Roman Catholicism for the second time. The first time was 1915 after which he became a Buddhist. Green's early religious tensions are seen in the title of his first published work, Pamphlet contre les catholiques de France (1924). Green is generally seen as writing in the Gothic romance tradition and in this novel you can see signposts that point toward his later, and better, work. From French writers Green was closest to Georges Bernanos (Diary of a Country Priest) and François Mauriac, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and author of Therese Desqueyroux and The Desert of Love among others.

View all my reviews
Parade's End (Everyman's Library (Cloth))
Parade's End

“At the beginning of the war…I had to look in on the War Office, and in a room I found a fellow…What do you think he was doing…what the hell do you think he was doing? He was devising the ceremonial for the disbanding of a Kitchener battalion. You can’t say we were not prepared in one matter at least…. Well, the end of the show was to be: the adjutant would stand the battalion at ease; the band would play Land of Hope and Glory, and then the adjutant would say: There will be no more parades…. Don’t you see how symbolical it was—the band playing Land of Hope and Glory, and then the adjutant saying: There will be no more parades?… For there won’t. There won’t, there damn well won’t. No more Hope, no more Glory, no more parades for you and me any more. Nor for the country…nor for the world, I dare say… None… Gone… Napoo finny! No…more…parades!”

Ford Madox Ford made his reputation as a novelist on the war & peace themes. The Good Soldier (1915) is his most famous, and is on several different ‘Best 100 Novels of the Century’ lists, as is his four-part Parade's End. The latter book was recently in the news, Tom Stoppard having just completed his adaptation for BBC television, the mini-series scheduled to air in 2011. This novel reminds me of other great chronicles of individual lives and war, in this case a chronicle of the life of Christopher Tietjens, "the last Tory," a brilliant government statistician from a wealthy land-owning family who is serving in the British Army during World War I. While this is generally considered a "war" novel it is unique in the way Ford has Tietjens' consciousness taking primacy over the war-events like a filter. Ford constructs a protagonist for whom the war is but one aspect of his life, and not always even the most prominent though he is in the middle of it. The two central novels follow Tietjens in the army in France and Belgium as he ruminates on how to be a better soldier and untangle his strange social life. In a narrative beginning before the war and ending after the armistice, Ford's project is to situate an unimaginable cataclysm within a social, moral and psychological complexity. The result is a modern literary project that rivals those of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time or, more aptly, Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Last Master, The: Passion and Anger - Volume 1 (Last Master)
The Last Master, 
Passion and Anger  

"The redemption theme of Prometheus* floated into his mind. Just the music. His music. No noises. No whistling. or rushing, or buzzing, or pain." (p 609)

The first volume of John Suchet's trilogy, a novel based on the life of Beethoven, takes his life from birth through his famous Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802, Beethoven's acknowledgement of the incurability of his growing deafness. We read of his beginnings where the prodigy emerges from the shadow of his father's thwarted ambitions to develop his own unique place in the musical life of the European capital of music, Vienna. By the end of this part of his life, Napoleon was on the precipice overlooking the rest of Europe and Beethoven was on the verge of greatness. The author deftly weaves important moments in young Ludwig's life into a narrative that rivals other fictional musical bildungsromans. I am reminded of Jean-Christophe, a novel about a German composer by Romain Rolland who adored Beethoven. The composer Beethoven was influenced not only by family relationships but by the musical world around him, including the devastation of Mozart's death. In it all we see the development of his personality, his vision, and his genius.

* Beethoven composed music for The Creatures of Prometheus in 1801, the same year he composed his Op. 27, no. 2 Piano Sonata, "quasi una fantasia,"Moonlight".

The Last Master, Volume 1 by John Suchet. Little, Brown & Co., Boston. 1996

View all my reviews
Izaak Walton

Good company and good discourse are the very sinews of virtue.
Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler, 1653

Izaak Walton died on this day in 1683. Walton’s The Compleat Angler offers all that any gentleman-piscator needs — not just tips and techniques but philosophy and verse. The lines below are from Walton’s "The Angler’s Song," :

As inward love breeds outward talk,
The hound some praise, and some the hawk;
Some, better pleased with private sport,
Use tennis; some a mistress court;
But these delights I neither wish
Nor envy, while I freely fish.

Walton is also revered for his biographies of, among others, George Herbert and John Donne. Walton knew Donne and, judging by Donne's "The Bait," the two may have spent a few lazy afternoons together:

Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
With silken lines, and silver hooks....

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Lives: An Autobiography
My Lives: An Autobiography 

"I belong to the last generation of Americans obsessed with Europe and intimidated by it." (p 171)

The author's willingness to share his most intimate feelings is present in every section of this impressive biography. The stories of his lives, whether as a boy trying to deal with a distant father or a man sharing his body and mind with other men, contain and contrast emotions that become palpable for the reader. Can the unique experiences of a boy from the Midwest become universal for his readers whether gay or straight? Do his lives in Paris or in leather seem fantasies or real stories told in a fantastic fictional shade? I am not sure, but the beauty and strength of Edmund White's writing suggests the possibility of real lives relived through the word. This reader found that is what he wants from a writer and his expectations were met and more by the lives committed to memory and shared with the world in this astonishing autobiography.

My Lives: An Autobiography by Edmund White. HarperCollins Publishers, New York. 2006.

View all my reviews
Today's Shakespeare

Sonnet #109


O, never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seem'd my flame to qualify.
As easy might I from myself depart
As from my soul, which in thy breast doth lie:
That is my home of love: if I have ranged,
Like him that travels I return again,
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that myself bring water for my stain.
Never believe, though in my nature reign'd
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stain'd,
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;
For nothing this wide universe I call,
Save thou, my rose; in it thou art my all.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889
A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 

by Frederic Morton

"In the first July week of 1888 Mahler sat down in his childhood room at his father's house in Iglau and worked out great sound-metaphors of perdition, the first movement of his Second Symphony. He would call it Totenfeier or Death Celebration. And to [his] friend he would confess: 'It is the hero of my First Symphony I carry to the grave here.  Immediately arise the great questions: Why hast thou lived? . . . Why hast thou suffered? . . . Is it all nothing but a huge, terrible joke?'"

This is a cultural history of a moment in time, less than two years, when the Hapsburg Empire was about to expire. The story of Crown Prince Rudolph and his world during the years of 1888 and 1889 touched upon the lives of many of the most famous people in nineteenth century history; people who would change both our parents' lives and our own  in the twentieth century. Young men are part of this story and they include Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Theodore Herzl, Hugo Wolf, and Arthur Schnitzler whose La Ronde was the great erotic drama of the fin de siecle. Their cultural elders were present also and Frederic Morton, whose own grandfather lived on the periphery of the story,  narrates many cultural events including the feud between Bruckner (obsessed with Wagner) and Brahms (one of whose followers was a young Arnold Schoenberg). The history reads like a novel that is both exciting and pathetic,  for an era and a century and a world were coming to an end--the great war that would destroy much of what little culture survived into the new century was lurking in the relative near-mist of future history.

A Nervous Splendor by Frederic Morton. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London. 1980

Friday, December 10, 2010

Victory: An Island Tale (Modern Library Classics)
Victory: An Island Tale 

"He remembered that she was pretty, and, more, that she had a special grace in the intimacy of life. She had the secret of individuality which excites--and escapes."

I enjoyed this novel from the pen of Joseph Conrad - it may be my favorite although Conrad has the knack for writing consistently good novels that makes it hard to rank them. Victory's most striking formal characteristic is its shifting narrative and temporal perspective with the first section from the viewpoint of a sailor, the second from omniscient perspective of Axel Heyst, the third from an interior perspective from Heyst, and the final section. I found the character of Axel interesting primarily due to his complexity. On a superficial level the novel reads like a melodrama more suited to a muddled opera libretto than a serious work of literature. But upon reflection the allegorical and psychological implications of the action, landscape and narrative structure redeem it as a modern novel worthy to be included with the best of Conrad. I am always more impressed when the author can make a serious work of literature appear on the surface, to be merely a "good story" (eg. Moby-Dick). The story line follows: through a business misadventure, the European Axel Heyst ends up living on an island in what is now Indonesia, with a Chinese assistant Wang. Heyst visits a nearby island when a female band is playing at a hotel owned by Mr. Schomberg. Schomberg attempts to force himself sexually on one of the band members, Alma, later called Lena. She flees with Heyst back to his island and they become lovers. Schomberg seeks revenge by attempting to frame Heyst for the "murder" of a man who had died of natural causes and later by sending three desperadoes (Pedro, Martin Ricardo and Mr. Jones) to Heyst's island with a lie about treasure hidden on the island. The ensuing conflict does not end well and has been compared to the ending of an Elizabethan drama where the stage is littered with corpses. The robust romanticism of Axel and Lena's story continues to haunt the reader long after one puts the novel down.

Victory by Joseph Conrad. Signet Classics, New York. 1991 (1914)

View all my reviews
Literary Blog Hop

Literary Pet Peeves

Literary Blog Hop is hosted by The Blue Bookcase. If you feature book reviews of literary fiction, classic literature, and general literary discussion, you too can join in!

This week's question is:

What is one of your literary pet peeves?  Is there something that writers do that really sets your teeth on edge?  Be specific, and give examples if you can.

I like to think that I am open to almost any style or genre of writing; however one of the few things that bothers me when reading a book is when the author does not provide sufficient information to let you know who is talking, and where and when the discussion or action is taking place.  This is popular in much of the post-modern fiction today, but is not always handled well.
One book that exemplifies this for me was The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai.  It did not help that I found most of the characters uninteresting, but the shifts were handled so poorly that I lost interest in the stories she was trying to tell.  A counter example, where the author handles shifts in place and time that are just as complicated , but is able to do it with a style that makes it so natural that you almost automatically know when and where you are, is Wallace Stegner's jewel of a novel, Recapitulation.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Love, Beauty, and the Good

The Symposium
The Symposium 

by Plato

And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is.

The nature of eros is discussed in this famous dialogue by Plato. Symposium literally means "drinking party" in ancient Greek and this was one well-attended party with the likes of Alcibiades, Aristophanes, Agathon, Pausanias, Eryximachus and Socrates. A variety of views are put forward by the participants including the notion that eros is a somewhat shadowy thing, neither beautiful nor ugly, good nor bad. The most famous view is Aristophanes myth of a time when humans were split into two halves with each seeking their other half to become whole, thus explaining the power of eros. The beauty of the prose, the intricacy of the structure and, above all, the fascinating theories that are propounded combine to make this one of the most profound and enjoyable of all of Plato's dialogues. I highly recommend this to all serious readers.

View all my reviews
Tao Te Ching (Penguin Classics)
Tao Te Ching 

by Laozi

I can only say there we have been: but I cannot say where

The Tao Te Ching is a book that cannot be read directly. Unfortunately, I have little experience reading books indirectly, so I found this a difficult book to read, end even more difficult to discern what was being said by the author.
A friend told me that he thought Heraclitus, the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, was somewhat like Lao Tzu. Heraclitus said "you can't step in the same river twice". He believed that reality was a flux composed of a unity of opposites. I suppose it is possible to consider Lao Tzu's "the way" in this manner and see it as a unifying force. I liken it to the ancient Greek notion of substance that underlies all things but does not have a separate existence.

The Tao te Ching seems to suggest action is good, except when inaction is required; that it is good to experience things with an open mind, but do not become too attached to one way of looking at reality for it may suddenly be going in the other direction. In other words, it is difficult to determine exactly what this book is saying, especially when it suggests that words cannot describe the way; thus the way is not that which is called by that name (don't worry - I don't know what that means either).

The best thing about the Tao te Ching is that the act of reading it stirs your mind, gets you thinking about deep questions and others. That alone makes it worth the effort, even though it may take a lifetime to make some progress toward answers.

Perhaps it is appropriate to turn to a twentieth century poet and thinker for some Tao-like advice. Here is a stanza from "Burnt Norton"

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.


Tao Te Ching by Laozi, trans. Lau. Penguin Classics, New York. 1964 (500bc)

Goodreads update

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Prentice Hall Good Reading Guide 

by Kenneth McLeish

I love books about books and I have a small collection of them. This book is one of my favorites because of its' structure. It is organized by author and tries to answer the questions: "Where shall I start?" and "Where shall I go next?" With each article describing the author's style, listing some books with which to start, and suggesting which authors are similar in style or genre, the reader has several avenues to pursue further good reading. 
There are also menus of books by topic scattered throughout the text that provide suggestions for reading.  I believe this is one of the most useful reading references for both inexperienced and experienced readers. The author, Kenneth McLeish, has not only authored this delightful book, but he is also the co-author (with Frederic Raphael) of The List of Books -- another favorite and a book I would encourage you to seek out.

The Prentice Hall Good reading Guide by Kenneth McLeish. Prentice Hall, New York. 1988
The List of Books: A Library of over 3,000 works by Frederic Raphael & Kenneth McLeish. Harmony Books, New York. 1981

View all my reviews