Monday, January 31, 2011

Memoir of Voices

Satyr Square: A Year, a Life in Rome
Satyr Square: A Year, a Life 
in Rome 

"Poets' voices. I had come to feel, were too easy to hear, which, oddly enough, meant that their voices were being drowned out by too many professors -- my colleagues -- speaking on their behalf. I came to Rome to hear voices hoarse from much longer silence, the voices of material objects, statues of marble and bronze that had lived the public and private life of ancient Rome," (pp 35-36)

This is a memoir of voices, both that of the author and that of the antiquities and that of the  Renaissance as well as writers and poets, like Shakespeare. All the voices come together to form the story of a year spent in Rome. But there are also the tastes, for this is as much a culinary journey as an aesthetic travelogue. The combination may prove too much for some readers, but I was at home with the lonely man, Leonard Barkan, at the center and his voices and tastes and experiences were seldom less than interesting. His passions suggested new ideas and thinkers to me and presented his take on those with whom I was already acquainted. All of this within a travelogue with fragments of Italy presented -- fragments and images of places that I enjoyed having shared the author's erudite and humorous views from his year in Rome.

Satyr Square by Leonard Barkan. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York. 2006

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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday Commonplace Entry

This weeks entry comes from The Sibyl by Par Lagerkvist

I had long spells of utter indifference. And yet I burned with a vague longing for I knew not what. And suddenly, without warning and for no reason at all, I would be filled with a glowing wave -- a wave of happiness and excitement which at first was glorious but afterwards became so violent and hot that it filled me with anguish and terror, so that I had to press my hand hard against my eyes for a while until the wave subsided and I became myself again. Myself? But who was that?
Who was I?  (p 37)

The Sibyl by Par Lagerkvist. Naomi Walford, trans. Vintage Books, New York. 1963 (1956)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Memoir as Novel

Memoirs of an 

"The story I am telling seems as distant --  not only in space but also in time -- as if I'd merely dreamed it."

Rezzori's novel reads as if written with the authority of a memoir yet it is imbued with the "golden haze of myth" (p 243). The aroma of the dying embers of the fire that destroyed the empire into which the narrator was born fills each chapter of his life and rises to form a cloud that stands between him and his past and stands between the reader and the reality of his life, fiction though it may be. Moments of hilarity abound like the episode when the young boy of Czernowitz tries to improvise a uniform that will transform him into a young fraternity cadet. His humiliation is evident to all but himself yet this moment of humor is quickly transformed in the horrible reality of class and racial consciousness that bare the dark side of the world of our young memoirist.
The young boy grows into a gregarious dreamer whose artistic talent is wasted on crepe-paper window decorations and dreams that lay fallow in the byways of Bucharest. His thoughts ran to romantic melodrama: "At nineteen life is a drama threatening to become a tragedy every fifteen minutes." (p 72) His relations with women, torn between the unattainable ideal and his frequent lust for the gutter, lead him to philosophical meditations: "This brought up the question of free will, and that was his existential conflict." (p 119).
The final chapter, "Pravda" is the most shocking and revelatory section of the novel.  At age sixty we are in the consciousness of this observer of change:  "had he fallen into a deep slumber back then like Rip Van Winkle and awakened only in the world of today, he would go crazy with despair: what has happened to this world between then, 1919, and today 1979, is so incredible, has changed it so radically that one can scarcely believe the same person lived in both epochs.
Thus we are thrust with the narrator into the modern world, a new epoch, and one in which the question: What is truth? is both more difficult and more important than ever.  This is in his thoughts as we see the themes of the earlier sections reemerge in light of this radical age.
Rezzori uses colors and mood motifs with a veritable pastiche of breathtaking prose to hold the adventures and musings of the memoirist together and control the pace of the story. Hauntingly beautiful when it is not horrifying this is a monument to the writer's art and simply a great book.

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor von Rezzori. New York Review Books. 2008 (1981)

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The Death of Ahasuerus
The Death of Ahasuerus 

"I've always liked wandering about, being alone, at peace. Perhaps that day I felt more need for it than usual - more need to get away from the others; I was weary of this meaningless existence, of the pointlessness of everything." (p 33)

Set during the age of medieval pilgrimages, the first part of Par Lagerkvist's short novel brings together two fascinating, yet mysterious characters. They include Tobias (a soldier who became a bandit) and a wandering saint who meet at an inn on the way to the Holy Land. Although each look at divinity, sin, atonement and faith in different ways, embarking on the same road to Jerusalem (one on a mission as a sort of soldier of fortune, the other there to not let him alone). Both trying to accomplish a personal dream. But Tobias has acquired another companion along the way, a woman named, appropriately for this story, Diana.
We eventually come to understand that the alien could not be anyone but Ahasuerus, a name that is known in mythology as the "Wandering Jew" . It is the monologue of Ahasuerus that forms the second part of the novel. The interactions among the characters on their journey somehow surprised this reader, while the importance of the relation of them to each other and to nature was overpowering in its implications. From the scene of the storm to its peaceful aftermath the beauty of nature is exemplified in the following passage: "On the very loftiest mountains now had fallen - the first since the summer - and white peaks rose to the heavens like a song of praise." (p 64)
The ideas, images and questions raised by this story combine to make it an exceptionally thoughtful read. The story is told in an impressionistic style where glimpses of individuals and their environment must suffice to produce the overall picture. What sets Lagerkvist apart is his use of paradox, and his constant examination of faith and one's relationship to "god." The monologue of Ahauerus gives shape to this examination and questioning of the meaning of divinity. In this and in its beauty the novel mirrors aspects of life. It is a book that ends too quickly and that, ultimately, makes you wish to think about its meaning and perhaps read it again. 

"People puzzle themselves so much about what they're to live on - they talk and talk about it. But what is one to live for? Can you tell me? (p 32)

The Death of Ahasuerus by Par Lagerkvist. Naomi Walford, trans. Random House, New York.  1962 (1960)

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

First Snow on Fuji
Mysterious Mountain
First Snow on Fuji by Yasunari Kawabata

"Wait - you can't tell whether it's the first snow or not, can you? It's the first time you and I have seen snow on Mount Fuji this year, but it might have snowed before."

The beauty of spare prose combined with the complications of conflicted emotions is the way I would describe the titular story in this collection. Yasunari Kawabata, whose novel Thousand Cranes moved me some years ago, manages to convey the sorrows of Japan through a chance meeting between two former lovers in the short story "First Snow on Fuji".  In this spare story, as with much of the prose this very modern author, the chance meeting leads to a planned encounter. A trip to the country yields much about the lives of the two lovers, Jiro and Utake, but leaves even more unsaid, hidden between the lines. The conflicted emotions of each of them yield to the pain of war and the even more personal pain of grief and loss, yet this is not a tragedy, at least not in the classic sense. Both detachment and an inability to communicate seem to lead each of the two players closer together only to also underline unsurmountable differences - perhaps. 
Ultimately Kawabata, the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature, demonstrates his genius in creating an amazing mosaic of interlocked events, feelings, and meanings - all rich with metaphor and allusion. These are stories worth reading and rereading for their depth defies damoclean certitude. Mysterious as a mount - the stories remain in your memory as clouded as the brow of the thoughtful man Jiro.

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Wide Sargasso Sea
Wide Sargasso Sea 

"You can pretend for a long time, but one day it all falls away and you are alone. We are alone in the most beautiful place in the world..." 

In this novel Jean Rhys presents a luminous evocation of the youth and marriage of Mr. Rochester's lunatic wife. How many of us had wondered when reading Jane Eyre, who was that woman in the attic, what had she done to deserve her incarceration, and why did no one try to help her? Written in a different age, here at last was a book that offered some kind of explanation, even for the fire Bertha starts at Thornfield Hall. Imagined as Antoinette Cosway, the girl undergoes painful permutations on her short journey from the West Indies to a small prison-like room in Great Britain. I enjoyed the portrayal of the native patois and the tightly written narrative of Ms. Rhys. It was an entertaining, if painful, read. I look forward to reading earlier novels by Rhys (Quartet and Good Morning, Midnight).

A Goodreads update

Sunday Commonplace Entry

This week's entry comes from The Death of My Brother Abel by Gregor Von Rezzori

And there I had a vision all at once. You, Mr. Brodny, the model American (hadn’t gone over on the Mayflower, to be sure, but all the more militant in New World spirit for that: a pogrom-tested Babbitt from Galicia), and as the personification of that spirit you were eating not patè de grives but a dish named Yurop. The thing you smeared so thickly on your little pieces of white bread and inserted between your perfectly serviced teeth, the thing on which you closed your lips, leaving them to their so original play of expressions, while you were totally interiorized to a chewer and swallower—that thing was not thrush patè, it was Europe. Her spirit, her soul, her dream of herself, her self-illusion. Her old skillfulness, her inexhaustible wealth of forms, all her many forms so thoroughly imbued with her spirit, in short, the essence of her being. Indeed, that was a feasting! I saw palaces and cathedrals vanishing into your mouth, which closed over them, contorting—either disdainful or offended, mocking or arrogant—while your teeth chewed. Entire cities, lovelier than Nuremberg, were gobbled up by you, for instance Bruges or Siena or Salzburg or Varasdin or Prague. With you, I tasted Paestum still in swampland and a tangle of wild roses, I saw a spring morning in Brabant melting on your tongue. You forked up the Lubeck Dance of Death and chewed it with delight; you then insert Michelangelo’s David with its oversize head and fists (but what a head, what fists!), promptly followed by a Klimt portrait of a lady. Shakespeare’s sonnets tickled your palate. You swallowed the facade of Chartres with all the mysterious queens and angels and granted yourself, last but not least, the concluding chapter of Proust’s Du cotè de chez Swann. And you washed all this down with a wine that got its color from Giordano Bruno’s blood and its charmingly virile spirit from Spinoza. And with the sounds of Palestrina, Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss, your angelic voice now clambered over the threshold of my consciousness: Gaia’s first lover.
I had to hold my breath and writhe and squirm to keep from throwing up.
from The Death of My Brother Abel (c)Viking Press (1985)

A Delightful Dusting

“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”  -  John Ruskin

I awoke early this morning and looked out the window to the spectacle of what I lightheartedly describe as a delightful dusting of snow.  The flakes looked large, but they were lightweight indeed as the temperature was struggling to stay in the low double digits.  A bit later when confronting the front steps and sidewalk I found perhaps two inches of the stuff strewn across the walk and parkway that separates our six-flat apartment building from the thoroughfare - it is more than a mere street.  After brushing the flakes from our front steps, I took up my shovel and proceeded to quickly dispatch the fluff that was close to two inches thick.  The snow glistened in the glare of the streetlights and looked like the sort of stuff you might request to complete a perfect winter morning.  Delightful as this dusting was I still hoped that the snow would abate after dawn so that there would be no more shoveling for me this Sunday.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

An Irish Lass in Brooklyn

Brooklyn : a novel

"In the silence that lingered, she realized, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America." (p 25)

Doors opened and closed, sunlight and shade, yesterdays and tomorrows; these are all motifs that come to mind as I consider the beauty of Colm Toibin's poignant novel, Brooklyn. Brooklyn is the tomorrow when the novel begins and almost becomes the yesterday that is forgotten as Toibin shares the story of Eilis Lacey in his own unsensational way. From the start the importance of her family permeates the book as seen in the simple opening sentence:  "Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the houseon Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work." (p 3)

Her sister, Rose, along with her mother are important in Eilis's young life as she experiences the opening and closing of doors. The way Eilis who appears almost stoic at times, yet is full of emotional turmoil inside, handles the major changes in her life is both touching and endearing. I often tell a close friend that I do not love (or hate) a character in a book, but I grew to love Eilis as her character matured. For this is also an Irish-American bildungsroman with Eilis, encouraged by her sister, growing and learning and maturing into a woman who must face some difficult decisions.
Colm Toibin tells this story through the accumulation of small moments that gradually cohere to form a novel that deals with profound questions of love and life and death. He is at his best when he describes how difficult it is for Eilis to communicate her innermost desires with those closest to her. His abililty to describe the impact of both memories on the moment and the being of the other resonated with my own experience. Meditating on her family that she left in Ireland she muses: "they would never know her now. Maybe, she thought, they had never known her, any of them" (p 73) 

The otherness of Eilis that permeates the novel arises more than from the isolation of an Irish girl in Brooklyn, but also from the tensions that develop as she tries to develop her own identity as a woman and face the choices she must make as one. It is these choices, the beauty of Toibin's prose, and the impression that he leaves you with - a feeling that you have shared a part of the life of this young woman from Ireland - that make this a meaningful novel.

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Earthly Powers
Earthly Powers 

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me. 

Earthly Powers is the linchpin of Anthony Burgess' novel-writing career. It is a massive work that compares favorably with similar tomes of twentieth century literature. What sets Burgess apart from other authors is his linguistic playfulness combined with an exceptional narrative style. Although this style is here somewhat less obviously experimental than that of Burgess’s other novels of this period, his use of a professional story teller as a first-person narrator allows him to call into the question the nature of authority in fictional texts. The narrative becomes a retrospective account of a life spent as an outsider. Within that account, Burgess locates his protagonist,Toomey, at some key moments of twentieth century history in order, it seems, to comment on those issues which consistently surface in all of Burgess’s fiction, particularly the nature of evil and its presence in the physical world. The novel attempts to address issues of belief, and the role of religion in late twentieth century culture, using a broad cast of characters, fictional and real; it is not, however, a roman à clef. Though often mentioned in reviews of this novel, the identification of Toomey with Somerset Maugham fails to recognise that Toomey is a portmanteau of many characters. He contains hints of Maugham, certainly, but there are suggestions of, to name a few, Alec Waugh in the precocious young novelist; of P. G. Wodehouse in the broadcaster from Berlin; of W. H. Auden in the rescuer of a Nobel laureate’s offspring; and of Burgess himself, the author of a real Blooms of Dublin. Burgess ability to meld this amalgam of  characters into his protagonist reminds me of another favorite novel, The New Confessions by William Boyd, in which the author uses a similar technique to create a tremendously exciting and interesting protagonist. Throughout the novel, the emphasis is on the debate about the nature of evil rather than on the accuracy or otherwise of the references to twentieth century figures. The novel examines at length the nature of belief, the way in which people cope with an imperfect world, and the operation of evil and suffering. In doing so it succeeds in presenting a distinctive and compelling view of the twentieth century through the life of Toomey. It is both a challenging and rewarding read that I would recommend to all.

Earthly Powers: A Novel by Anthony Burgess. Simon & Schuster, New York. 1980

A Good Reads Update

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog HopLiterary Blog Hop: Jan 20-23

Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university. Why did you dislike it?

First of all, hate is a very strong word and I do not think I have ever read "a work of literary merit" that I truly hated (I reserve that for books without literary merit).  However, I have had the experience of disliking some worthy literary tomes that were assigned as reading in school.  Those that I remember the best are the ones that I subsequently reread with much more appreciation for the aspects of the book that I did not appreciate originally.  One of the most notable examples in my experience was my first encounter with the writing of George Eliot, namely her novel Silas Marner.  I remember finding it both difficult and dull.  The nuances of Eliot's prose were lost on me and even in a short novel, as this is, I found the reading difficult.  As a young high school student I had little interest in this miser and the orphan girl that he takes in and raises as his own. 

 Only in recent years as an adult who has read and reread Eliot's other novels, especially Middlemarch, with great appreciation did I return to this small novel from her early years as a writer.  I found Silas Marner to be a much different book than the one I remembered disliking in High School, or rather I was a much different person who, in my current persona, discovered the real literary merit that had been hidden from me when I was a mere teen.  The ability of Eliot to portray the power of love to heal the unjustly damaged person that Silas had become made this a masterly work of authorial genius.  This realization took more reading experience than I had at the time I was originally "required" to read the novel.  It seems I have spent as many words describing how I overcame my original dislike of this novel, while the original question was simply why I disliked it.  I guess I find the discovery and correction of my error more interesting and also find the experience explains why I am less likely to judge a book, especially one that appears to be of literary merit, harshly upon first reading.

British Bildungsroman

Of Human Bondage (Vintage Classics)
Of Human Bondage 

It's asking a great deal that things should appeal to your reason as well as your sense of the aesthetic.
W. Somerset Maugham, 'Of Human Bondage'

This is one of my favorite novels; yet, strangely, even after having read and reread it over several decades time, I have difficulty understanding the hero (anti-hero?) Philip Carey. Philip, who like the author himself, is orphaned and brought up by his uncle. Harshly treated, he is burdened with liabilities, both physical, a clubfoot, and intellectual, a habit of making the least of his opportunities through bad choices and/or lack of talent.

As I read the novel I am immediately impressed by the importance of reading for the young Philip Carey. He turns to reading to escape the pain of losing his mother and father, of being different, of his inability to satisfy his uncle whose harshness rivals some of Dickens's famous hard-hearted characters. Philip seeks and finds solace in his reading and it is one of the characteristics that make him a sympathetic character for this reader. Just as David Copperfield and others before him have found reading a meaningful salve for the pains encountered in their lives - readers of this novel may find themselves.

It is written as a type of novel called bildungsroman, tracing the young protagonist's education and travels to Germany, Paris, and London, while exploring both his intellectual and emotional growth. It somewhat reminds me of Flaubert's novel, A Sentimental Education , which possibly influenced Maugham.  As Philip matures he settles into a sort of life in London, but continues to make the wrong choices. In so doing he enters a destructive relationship with an unappealing (to this reader) Cockney waitress named Mildred. In spite of all the bad choices and ensuing difficulties, Maugham's story is beautifully told and as a result I have been drawn back to it again and again over the years.  Maugham is nothing if not a great story-teller and this one, with its very personal meaning for him is his best.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

A Girl and Her Grandfather

The Old Curiosity Shop
The Old Curiosity Shop 

I had it always in my fancy to surround the lonely figure of the child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible companions, and to gather about her innocent face and pure intentions, associates as strange and uncongenial as the grim objects that are about her bed when her history is first foreshadowed.(From the author's introduction)

Following the publication of Nicholas Nickleby Charles Dickens started a new publication called Master Humphrey's Clock that was to be a miscellany of selections by various writers including Dickens himself. One of the first short pieces was The Old Curiosity Shop, a Tale of Master Humphrey, but when the public demanded another novel Dickens expanded his concept for this story into his next novel.

The Old Curiosity Shop is the story of a young girl, Nell and her Grandfather. Nell is one of Dickens young girls who are beautiful and, in this case, possesses a certain strength. Her Grandfather is addicted to gambling and seems to need the care of Nell more than she needs his care. Her innocence holds some appeal but I have found her appeal is limited and insufficient to hold my interest. Early in the story Nell and her Grandfather leave London due to his indebtedness to an evil dwarf named Daniel Quilp. If this brief outline suggests the melodramatic it is not far from it. The interest of the reader is maintained primarily through Dickens ability to create fascinating evil characters in Quilp and Nell's brother Fred. Quilp seems to be almost satanic in the way his character and physical appearance are described when he is introduced in chapters three and four. Later he is described as engaging in a "demon dance" (p. 170) and when he tells Mrs. Nubbles that he "doesn't eat babies" neither she nor you as the reader are sure that he is telling the truth, although he may prefer to just torment characters rather than actually eat them.

Dickens is effective in creating a mood and establishing contrasting themes of dark and light, night and day, old and young, city and country, big and small and cleanliness and filth; fundamentally depicting a battle between good and evil. Rather than creating another novel that indites social evils like Oliver Twist or Nicholas, Dickens uses biblical allusions and references to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to establish the story of Nell and her Grandfather as, at least partly, an allegorical tale. Over the next two weeks I will find out what fate holds for this duo and where their peregrinations through the countryside lead them.

Dickens finished writing The Old Curiosity Shop at 4 a.m. on January 17, 1841. The story had been in serialization for ten months, and Dickens had been in torment over the planned ending, unable to bring himself or his characters to face the death of his heroine, the all-sacrificing Little Nell:
"I tremble to approach the place a great deal more than Kit; a great deal more than Mr. Garland; a great deal more than the Single Gentleman....  I am slowly murdering that poor child.  It wrings my heart. Yet it must be."
Having lived with Nell, serially speaking, for so long, his readers must have felt the same dread, and in the preceding months they had written to Dickens by the hundreds to ask that Nell be spared. But the legendary testimonials of anguish — for example, the American readers who anxiously shouted "Is Nell dead?" to the steamer captain delivering the fateful last installment to the New York docks — are matched by the scoffs at Dickensian sentimentality. Most famous of the latter is Oscar Wilde's "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." A third category of reader, among them the postmaster of the real village at which the fictitious Nell was supposed to have died, saw an entrepreneurial opportunity. He managed to organize a hoax which was so convincing — details included a faked burial entry in the local church records — that many literary travelers paid to visit Nell's 'grave' in Tong, Shropshire. As in many other tales of this sort, the gullible literary traveler is usually described as an American, arriving with their copies of the book, or china figurines of Nell. The village of Tong still maintains the story of Nell's death, and tends her grave site.

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Favorite of the Imagination

Lewis Carroll

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twoice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?" (Opening lines of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)

Lewis Carroll died on this day in 1898, aged sixty-five. He has been a favorite author of mine since I first read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland while I was still in grade school.  Fortunately the edition I had included the beautiful illustrations by Tenniel unlike the books poor Alice found her sister reading.  No one made me read Carroll and I grew to enjoy both Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass.  There was much poetry interlaced among the prose of these stories but Carroll also published several collections of poetry — parodies, occasional poems, and the sort of playful, oddball verse that abounds in his more famous books. Many of the collected poems reflect Carroll’s love of words and word games; some of them seem written as if in hope of getting boxed in by a rhyme scheme, in order to find a way to wriggle out. In “Melancholetta,” the speaker laments that his sister — Carroll had several — is forever weeping and woe-ing. In a brotherly attempt to end her sniffling, he sets up an evening out — dinner and a play, all in cheery company:

I asked three gay young dogs from town
To join us in our folly,
Whose mirth, I thought, might serve to drown
My sister's melancholy:
The lively Jones, the sportive Brown,
And Robinson the jolly.

As the appetizers are trotted in, the lively Jones does his conversational best, the brother throws up his hands, and the tap of despair drips on:

Vainly he strove, with ready wit,
To joke about the weather -
To ventilate the last 'ON DIT' -
To quote the price of leather -
She groaned "Here I and Sorrow sit:
Let us lament together!"
I urged "You're wasting time, you know:
Delay will spoil the venison."
"My heart is wasted with my woe!
There is no rest--in Venice, on
The Bridge of Sighs!" she quoted low
From Byron and from Tennyson.

A good place to find these and other of Carroll's writings is in the Modern Library edition of The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll.

Top Ten Reads of 2010

My list of favorite books read in 2010 (updated from earlier in the year) 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. Time Regained by Marcel Proust
The final volume of In Search of Lost Time chronicles the years of World War I, when, as M. de Charlus reflects on a moonlit walk, Paris threatens to become another Pompeii. Years later, after the war's end, Proust's narrator returns to Paris, where Mme. Verdurin has become the Princesse de Guermantes. He reflects on time, reality, jealousy, artistic creation, and the raw material for literature-his past life.
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. Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford.
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.

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

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Faith and Anti-Communism

Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (Modern Library Paperbacks)

Whittaker Chambers: A Biographyby Sam Tanenhaus

"To many Chambers remained a puzzle.  He had offered himself to the nation as both sinner and savior.  .  . His moral attitude at times recalled the stoic resignation of the ancient tragedians, at times the anti-heroism of Sartre or Beckett, at times the torment of the twice-born soul." (p 514)

For three months in the summer of 1952 Witness sat atop the New York Times list of bestselling books. It would end the year in the top ten of all nonfiction books published that year. it was the culmination of a life lived first in the secret shadow of communist underground and then in the glare of publicity over the two perjury trials of Alger Hiss. Whittaker Chambers: A Biography by Sam Tanenhaus beautifully relates the life of the author of that book - a man who was for many the epitome of the outspoken anti-communist in the middle of the twentieth century. But Whittaker Chambers was much more. He was an intellectual educated at Columbia, although he did not receive a degree. He studied with Mark Van Doren and other academic luminaries there and continued his personal journey of learning until his last days in 1961. Tanenhaus presents all the details of Chambers' journey as a Communist, his departure into a sort of isolation where, with good reason, he was in fear for his life, his days as editor at Time Magazine at the side of Henry Luce, and most of all a thorough examination and analysis of the trials. His was a life that was based on beliefs held strongly and ultimately a life that was not tragic, but one that was fulfilled through those beliefs. I found Chambers blend of faith, liberalism and anti-communism made him a more complex thinker. He grew to be close friends with many other anti-communists, but never shared the conservative free-market views that most of them espoused, especially his friend William F. Buckley, Jr.  
The book includes a valuable appendix where Tanenhaus highlights documentation that was found in Communist archives in the 1990s, in spite of Soviet attempts to destroy all evidence of Hiss's career as a spy.  Further evidence from the American NSA files confirmed that Hiss had continued to be an agent long after Chambers's defection.  Through it all Tanenhaus presents the details with lucid prose that is worthy of the epic tale that was the life of Whittaker Chambers.

Whittaker Chambers: A Biography by Sam Tanenhaus. Modern Library, New York. 1998 (1997)

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Sunday, January 09, 2011

Reading Isherwood

Where Joy Resides: A Christopher Isherwood Reader
Where Joy Resides: A Christopher Isherwood Reader 
edited by Don Bachardy

"And the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice . . . For to miss the joy is to miss all." (From The Lantern Bearers by Robert Louis Stevenson as quoted by Christopher Isherwood in his commonplace book.

The above quotation from Stevenson is placed as the epigraph to this selection of works by Isherwood. It is a selection that spans his lifetime as a writer from the early days in Berlin to the last days in Hollywood. In making the selections Don Bachardy and James P. White appropriately include the short novel A Single Man as the final selection. This is fitting because it is both the finest of Isherwood's novels and that one whose style and content delineate an ending to life and art in such a beautiful way. The other selections in the book include fictional, biographical, critical and spiritual writings that help the reader gain a picture of Isherwood's life from his own artistic creations. The result suggests how he imagined a world of love and freedom in an era when that life was hidden in ways that are difficult to comprehend in the twenty-first century. His friend Gore Vidal, to whom Isherwood dedicated A Single Man, states in his introduction: "throughout Christopher's life and work - and he made the two the same - he never ceased to attempt the impossible: to say exactly what a thing was and how it struck him in such a way that the reader might grasp it as he himself did, writer and reader as one in the ultimate collusive act of understanding."
This selection of his works captures that "collusive act" and presents it to readers everywhere.

A Christopher Isherwood Reader. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York. 1989

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Fathers and Sons: A Novel
Fathers and Sons: A Novel 

"I don't see why it's impossible to express everything that's on one's mind." 

The novel Fathers and Sons, like other great works of literature, has a timeless quality. The characters are memorable and the plot, while not terribly complicated, is universal in its aspect. An inadvertent political agenda favorite, juxtaposing two generations, "the fathers," or the fading aristocracy, and "the sons," or the new fresh blood of the middle class and the nihilists, the novel seemed a perfect vehicle for portraying the brewing unrest of the pre-revolutionary era, and introduced the character of Bazarov -- the spirited nihilist who was seen as a brilliant idealistic rebel, the new kind of perfect man who rejected the old notions of class and came to disrupt nobility's status quo. His nihilism is particularly interesting since it was not the sort of nihilism I had previously encountered in Western European intellectual history, but it is more like a sort of empiricism. As such it was a Russian intellectual movement in the 19th century that insisted that one should not believe in anything that could not be demonstrated to be true. As a critical approach to virtually everything it is a powerful force used by Turgenev through the character of Bazarov to provide an alternative to the traditions and romanticism of the 'fathers' of the novel. The force does not prevail however. The strength of Bazarov's intellectual approach to everything crumbles in the face of both nature and love. His adoring friend Arkady loses interest in it and Bazarov himself succumbs; first to the personality of Madame Odintsov and finally to the infection that leads to his untimely death. Growing up, Turgenev witnessed much class injustice in Russia, and his themes reflect his overwhelming concern with the suffering of the poor and the voiceless serfs. But Fathers and Sons is not merely a convenient socio-political piece; Turgenev is a lyrical romantic. At the novel's heart lies the ultimately tragic human story of Bazarov's flippant kiss of a servant girl and the bizarre tension it causes in a cozy country gentry household where he is a guest. The world goes on, but the ideas presented are not vanquished but merely lie dormant, to be resurrected in continuing political unrest in Russia.

A Good Reads update
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Journey to a Revolution: A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956Journey to a Revolution: A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 

"For those who survived, life goes on, and even looking back in time, for those of us who were there, the events of October and November 1956 seem remote now, something out of another age." (p 205)

 Michael Korda is able to combine history and memoir in one package that at times reads like a novel, but at its heart is a very personal story of one man and his Hungarian heritage. The history is an inspiring story of the David versus Goliath battle that took place in Hungary in 1956. Korda was a student at Oxford who traveled to Budapest to bring help, medicine for hospitals, and to participate in one of the great moments in postwar European history. "The Hungarians stood up to the Soviet Union, bravely and alone; and although they lost, inevitably, they created a deep fissure in the monolith of communism" (p 204) that was omnipresent throughout Eastern Europe behind the "Iron Curtain." 
 Korda begins his story, after an introductory chapter, with an all too brief history of Hungary, a nation that was not unfamiliar with oppression by foreign rulers from the invasions of the Huns to the Empire of the Hapsburgs, but it had a proud culture.  Its' recent history was one of decline throughout the twentieth century.  The two world wars had been particularly harsh in the toll they took on the country's fortunes. I was impressed with the way Korda was able to transition from this history into his family's and ultimately his own position as a young man at Oxford - thus leading the reader into the main section of the book detailing the brutal details of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. His own adventures as an eyewitness add credibility to his account and his lucid and readable style make this a successful memoir and history. Reading this in combination with some of the literature produced by Hungarian writers added to my enjoyment of both the literature and the history.

Journey to a Revolution by Michael Korda. Harper Perennial, New York. 2007 (2006)

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Friday, January 07, 2011

Literary Blog HopLiterary Blog Hop

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 Debbie at Reader Buzz:

How did you find your way to reading literary fiction and nonfiction?

I was fortunate in that I had parents who were readers.  While they were primarily interested in genre fiction (mysteries and science fiction) we had a library at home (one wall of our living room was one continuous set of book shelves) that included literary fiction and nonfiction that included a variety of authors: Dante, the Bronte sisters, Poe, Lewis Carroll, Carl Van Doren, William Shirer and others.  In addition I had my own library from an early age with children's classics like the Grimm brothers, Andersen, Stevenson, Twain, Kipling and a variety of others.  With this start I remember spending time every summer at the public library reading British history and in school becoming acquainted with an ever widening circle of authors.  My early interest continued to be reinforced by what I can only attribute to a genetic disposition toward bibliophilia.  One which was only truly satisfied with more and more challenging reading.  In closing let me leave you with a stanza from one of my favorite poems, learned as a child.

From A Child's Garden of Verses

My Shadow
I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Thursday Book List

Five Books about Paris 

    1. Paris Album: 1900-1914 by Jean Cocteau

    2. Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

3. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier  by  Thad Carhart

    4. The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White

    5. The Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb

French Culture and Literature

Something to Declare: Essays on France and French Culture
Something to Declare: Essays on France 
and French Culture 

“I think a great book—leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on—is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths—about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both—such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television.”  ― Julian Barnes

This is France through the senses and sensibility of Julian Barnes. From the Tour de France to French cooking you get a British perspective of the country. In these essays Barnes is a student of the language and literature and he "spent the academic year of 1966-7 working as a lecteur d'anglais " (the slightly posher term for assistant) in Rennes; he has remained the leading exponent of what might be called assistantialism. He is a novelist of ideas, in other words, who relies on "simplicities that are merely camouflaged as fiendish complexities".  The book includes this and more with several essays on Flaubert - well-written and fun to read.

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