Monday, March 28, 2011

Russian Magic

The Master and Margarita
From the Novel by 
Mikhail Bulgakov
Adapted by Edward Kemp

"Love leaped out in front of us like a murderer in an alley leaping out of nowhere, and struck us both at once. As lightning strikes, as a Finnish knife strikes! She, by the way, insisted afterwards that it wasn’t so, that we had, of course, loved each other for a long, long time, without knowing each other, never having seen each other… "   —  Mikhail Bulgakov 

The Strawdog Theatre Company production of The Master and Margarita captures the magic of the original novel and places it on stage for all to see. From the adaptation by Edward Kemp to the direction by Louis Contey, whose work I have previously admired at Timeline Theatre, to the large ensemble of actors required for this amazing production everything came together yesterday afternoon in a most mesmerizing way. While there were many aspects of the production that I enjoyed, the most important aspect for me was the humor demonstrated repeatedly throughout the play -- humor that I did not fully appreciate from my previous reading of the novel. I will soon be rereading the novel and look forward to finding some of that humor which I missed before.
But the real center of the production was the magic, whether literally during the magic show scene or the dramatization of the magical realism of the novel or the magic of the theater that is always there when actors bring a story to life upon the stage. This center was made possible by the way the stories of the Master and Margarita, his play about Pontius Pilate, and the ongoing battles with the brutes and buffoons of the Soviet Bureaucracy were melded and held together through the insightful direction of Louis Contey. Among the actors I was most impressed with the intelligent performance of Ian Maxwell as Pontius and Stravinsky, and with the tongue-in-cheek and almost spritely performance of Danny Taylor as Fagott. Tom Hickey was appropriately magisterial in the Mephistophelean role of Woland and Justine C. Turner was a magical Margarita.  The focus of the whole ensemble was successful in creating the magical characters in every scene that this play demanded. Suffused with the aura of Faust's Mephistopheles, this late afternoon of dramatic comedy became an enjoyable dream sequence of magic that reminded me why I love the theater.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Here is a poem from Billy Collins

The Lanyard 

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Philosophical Notes

Fragments from the Notebooks

Notes on the Phaedrus of Plato

What did Plato set out to accomplish when he wrote the dialogue we know as the Phaedrus? There, in the myths of both Socrates and ____, we find erotic dreams of an allegorical nature about our relation to the world and the nature of that world. It is these myths that hold the key to one facet of Plato's metaphysics -- a metaphysics that links us with the world and the surrounding universe. Can that metaphysics be connected with or reconciled to that of Aristotle? What place or role does objectivity play in it? Perhaps this excursion into the dialogue and beyond will show us the way toward objectivity and being.

The demonstration of existence in the dialogues of Plato, particularly the Phaedrus, can be seen if we consider briefly the typical situation presented in many of the dialogues. This is where there are one or more interlocutors engaged in a discussion of a particular philosophical topic by Socrates. This is the case in the Phaedrus where we find Phaedrus and walking outside the city of Athens. . . .

What does man's quest for perfection consist of when, as Plato writes in the Phaedrus, only god can have the necessary wisdom (to understand perfection)? Socrates, in reply to Phaedrus' question gives us an answer concerning man's quest:

To call him wise, Phaedrus, would, I think be going to far; the epithet is proper only to a god. A name that would fit him better, and have more seemliness, would be "lover of wisdom". (Phaedrus, 278d)

Man to seek perfection must be a lover of wisdom, or philosopher. It is the philosopher who will come closest to knowledge and thus to the idea, god (or the Good). Man must continually exert an effort to combat his ignorance and strive for the achievement of this ideal. This point, in particular, emphasizes the importance of Plato's conception of god for his belief in the dichotomy between body and soul. . . . 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Sunday Commonplace Entry

This weeks entry comes from St. Augustine’s City of God

"Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”
by Yasmina Reza

"This is the worst day of my life."

Bad people doing bad things, but in a very witty way, was how I described the characters in Aldous Huxley's novel, Point Counter Point in my review in October, 2008. The same description applies to the four characters in Yasmina Reza's play, God of Carnage, that is currently playing at the Goodman Theatre in downtown Chicago. More than one hundred years after Oscar Wilde's brilliantly witty comedy we have award-winning (Tony, Olivier, Moliere) comedy with wit, but without the soul. Not since attending Moliere who gave us The Misanthrope have I seen such misanthropic characters on stage. While I was yearning for some wisdom to show itself to reward the pain being endured on the stage -- both Veronica and Annette exclaim the comment quoted above -- there was little on the stage that approached anything other than sheer Bacchanalian chaos.  However, Euripides this is not.

The evening was made bearable by beautiful acting from the ensemble, great direction by Rick Snyder, an efficient set, and a well-constructed play.  The skill with which the ensemble slowly raised their passions and the ensuing chaos I would compare to the gradual and inexorable increase in sound of a Rossini crescendo. That the playwright succeeded in her presentation of comedy with wit and thought is a tribute to Reza, but this is a world that I would want to stay away from. The only thing more violent than the passions on stage last night were the missiles reigning down on an insane North African dictator thousands of miles away. The verbal missiles and bombs on stage made for comedy, but it was a comedy filled with laughter that left a bad taste in my mouth.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer 

"When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind." 
— Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne's essays are among my favorite reading material both for their breadth of subjects and for the thinking that they spur. The essays serve as a catalyst for my own thinking, but as with most of my literary reading I am also interested in the lives of the authors behind and beyond the literary works themselves. Here Sarah Bakewell tells the story of Montaigne’s life in an admirably brisk and entertaining fashion, focusing on anecdotes and themes rather than on thoroughness and strict chronology. This is not a biography for the Montaigne expert but rather for the general reader who wants to know more about the man or who has read and loved the essays. That having been said it is a delight for most any reader that is interested in exploring Montaigne's world from a twenty-first century perspective.

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Literary Blog Hop What one literary work must you read before you die?

My first reaction to this question was that it is unanswerable.  Even if I could wrack my brain and come up with "one literary work" that I myself must read before I die (which after so much hard brain work might be any minute now), why should I believe, consider, have the hubris to suggest that this work is the one you must read before you die.  Difficult as this question may be I think I have found an answer and I thank the Ladies at The Blue Bookcase and Debbie Nance for recommending the question for this week:

What one literary work must you read before you die?

After allowing my brain a few moments to cool down I decided that rather than choosing one of my favorites from the past (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) or the present (The Brothers Karamazov); or selecting one of my favorite heroines (Dorothea in Middlemarch) or heroes (Prince Andrei in War and Peace);  I would select a very literary work about other literary works.  One of my reading passions is reading books about other books and among those my bible is A Lifetime's Reading by Philip Ward.  I encountered this work about twenty years ago and have used it as a guide to new and interesting reading ever since.  The reasons for this are best described by the author himself in his Introduction where he explains that the "sheer richness of literary treasures that are waiting to be enjoyed" led to this book and he goes on to say:
  "My heart has been touched by the magnitude of their choice. I long to offer them the plays of Euripides and the stories of Isaac Babel, the love songs of Dante and the wisdom of Mencius. But I know help must be given only when sought. A maturity that is bullied into life is not worth having."
So he wrote a literary guide to the "World's 500 Greatest Books" divided into fifty chapters or years which can be explored at any pace and in any order that a reader desires.  While I enjoy a myriad of other sources of inspiration for reading and my own list of books would include a few that are not in Philip Ward's guide, I have found this to be an invaluable source for finding literary works to read.  There is a wealth of literary works before us and I hope to read many more before I die.  Philip Ward's book is the one literary work that I must read if I am to achieve that goal.

A Lifetime's Reading by Philip Ward. Stein and Day, New York. 1983 (1982)  

Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Not a word. Not a word. Not a word. . . . "

From the opening scene  of this brilliant play by the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh I was impressed by the humor -- a humor based in the honesty of the characters in this small town on the western coast of Ireland.  These were characters who spoke their mind and in doing so often spoke the truth which brought laughter when it did not hurt too much.  
The production by the Druid and Atlantic Theater Company from Ireland now playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is excellent in all its aspects from direction to set to acting.  The drama, while filled with comic moments whether from the droll commentary by Eileen and Kate, Billy Craven's pixilated "Aunties",  who run the local general store or the spurious seriousness of JohnnyPateenMike who cares for his drunken mother and makes it his mission to share "news" with the locals of his neighborhood, is ultimately serious in the desire of young Billy,  known as cripple Billy, who is searching for love and for escape from the torment of just about everybody in the town and from the memory of his dead parents.  His parents deaths are shrouded in mystery as is much of what occurs in the play, for nothing, it turns out, is exactly what you think it is or expect it to be.  And that is one of the strengths of this play.  For McDonagh upsets the audience's expectations and in the process creates a nuanced and emotionally moving drama without the sentimentality that could have easily developed.  Billy is engaged in a seemingly Sisyphean task but the coming of Hollywood to the neighboorhood of Inishmaan gives him his one chance to escape.
The germ of an idea for the play was apparently based on a real incident when a film company from America came to this area to make a film titled "Man from Aram".  The image of the actors on stage staring out at the audience as they watch the resulting film in the second act of the play is one of the many memorable moments and along with revelations and realizations of the main characters helps bring this play to a meaningful and effective conclusion.  I have seldom seen such a powerful dramatic performance in my years of play-going.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography (Books That Changed The World)
Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey: 
A Biography 

"Every great work of literature is either the Iliad or the Odyssey"
- Raymond Queneau, Preface to Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet, 1947

I have been rereading the Odyssey and last year reread the Iliad.  As background reading I found this collection of essays and commentary to be a valuable compendium of literary information.  Alberto Manguel's commentary is best read with the original works by Homer.  However, the commentary goes beyond the typical analysis of the text and includes references to and about the Odyssey and The Iliad that I found helpful. The influence of Homer's poetry on Virgil, Dante and religions from Christianity to Islam is valuable. Since this book is brief it can be used as a starting point for further investigation into any number of avenues in pursuit of understanding the importance of Homer for us today. Alberto Manguel is an excellent guide.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

One Must Also Be Hungarian
One Must Also Be Hungarian 

The Hungarian national anthem is the only sad and desperate anthem in the world. It was written in the nineteenth century and even the communist regime kept it. Instead of the usual lyrics claiming "we are the best," "our fatherland is above all others," "we shall win against all," it states, "this nation has already suffered the price for the past and the future." (p xvii)

Perhaps one must also be Hungarian to truly understand Hungarian literature. Having read several books over the past eleven weeks from the pen of more than a half dozen different Hungarian authors whose work spans the era from the ebbing of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of the nineteenth century to the fall of Communism near the end of the twentieth century I cannot claim to have developed an understanding of the literature or the culture.  But I have developed an appreciation for their literature -- both fiction and memoir.  Adam Biro's own  memoir, One Must Also Be Hungarian, displaying his family and ancestors, and more poetically titled Les Ancetres d'Ulysse in the original French, is a memorable collection of portraits of his family. Each portrait within it is like a snapshot capturing features of personality and character, illuminated by memories and episodes from family history and the author's own experience. His use of family photographs enhances the personal nature of the story by providing images to set beside his elegant but simple prose.  While the elan and humor of his family is clearly delineated there remains an overarching melancholy tinged with sadness for those relatives whose lives were ended suddenly, sometimes due to the violence and hatred that swept Europe in the twentieth century. He shares the glories of Hungarians both within and outside of his family that permeate the zeitgeist of their existence. The stories of success as with Uncle Eugene Perlmuth and the tragic life of the artist, Uncle Jozsi, are just two of the portraits that moved me the most. Both the glories and the sadness are conflated to create an overall image that I found -- the humanity of the whole.

One Must Also Be Hungarian by Adam Biro. University of Chicago Press. 2006 (2002)

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The Bridge

Cape Hatteras

Breathe deep, mine eyes, the frosty saga of eternal suns
From unseen depths and dreams undreamt,
I sing the gleaming cantos of unvanquished space
By thought I embrace the universal
With wings of mind I sail the infinitude
Glory! 'tis the stars which beckon man's spirit and set our souls adrift!

        —from Hart Crane’s “Cape Hatteras,” published independently on this day in 1930, and was published the following month as the fifth part of Hart Crane’s long poem, “The Bridge”.  It is an interesting poem, that seems to be almost like a history poem.  The poem begins in the age of the dinosaur and moves on quickly to the eternal geological change of Earth.  It continues onto, once again, another reference to Pocahontas, the Indian princess.  But before that, Hart references Walt Whitman, “Or to read you, Walt,–knowing us in thrall.”
During the course of “Cape Hatteras”, Crane makes several references to Whitman.  That makes sense, since many critics and readers take “The Bridge” to be the contemporary version of “Songs of Myself”, representing Crane’s vision of his America.  “Cape Hattars” continues to on-again-off-again blank verse that was seen earlier, but is more consistent than “Cutty Sark”.  The language that Crane employs is very beautiful, and seems, almost Romantic at places.

"Hart Crane's poems are profound and deep-seeking. In them he reveals, with a new insight and unique power, the mystic undertones of beauty which move words to express vision."
- Eugene O'Neill

Cowslip and shad-blow, flaked like tethered foam 
Around bared teeth of stallions, bloomed that spring 
When first I read thy lines, rife as the loam 
Of prairies, yet like breakers cliffward leaping ! 
O, early following thee, I searched the hill 
Blue-writ and odor-firm with violets, 'til 
With June the mountain laurel broke through green 
And filled the forest with what clustrous sheen ! 
Potomac lilies, --- then the Pontiac rose, 
And Klondike edelweiss of occult snows ! 
White banks of moonlight came descending valleys --- 
How speechful on oak-vizored palisades, 
As vibrantly I follow down Sequoia alleys 
Heard thunder's eloquence through green arcades 
Set trumpets breathing in each clump and grass tuft --- 'til 
Gold autumn, captured, crowned the trembling hill.

From The Bridge, Cape Hatteras
Agnes of God

I attended the Hubris productions presentation of  Agnes of God on  recent evening and was bowled over by the fine acting and the excellent direction by Jacob Christopher Green of this famous play.  Written  by John Pielmeier, it tells the story of a novice nun who gives birth and insists that the dead child was the result of a virgin conception. A psychiatrist and the mother superior of the convent clash during the resulting investigation. The Hubris production featured Barbara Roeder Harris as  Martha, the Psychiatrist; Lorraine Freund as the Mother Superior; and Sara Pavlak as Agnes, the Novice. There are no other characters on stage.  All three roles are considered demanding and these actors succeeded in handling those demands well.  Martha covers the full gamut of emotion during the play, from nurturer to antagonist, from hard nosed court psychiatrist and atheist to faith-searching healer. She is always on stage and has only three small respites from monologues or dialogue while Agnes and the Mother Superior enact flashbacks to events at the convent.The Mother Superior must expound the possibilities of miracles while recognizing the realities of today's world, of which she is painfully aware. Agnes is a beautiful but tormented soul whose abusive upbringing has affected her ability to think rationally.  Sara Pavlak's performance as Agnes was outstanding for her ability to sing beautifully and portray the right balance of innocence and hysteria that is called for by the role.  The issues of belief versus non-belief and questions about the nature of the events of both the evening of the birth and the moment of conception leave the audience wondering about the nature of truth, belief and life.  This was a great production of a powerful play.  

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Commonplace Entry

This weeks entry comes from Errata: an examined life by George Steiner

"The death of a language, be it whispered by the merest handful on some parcel of condemned ground, is the death of a world.  With each day, the number of different ways in which we can say "hope" diminishes.  On its minute scale, my polyglot condition has been my uttermost luck.  Thanks be to Babel." (p 114)

Errata: an examined life by George Steiner. Yale University Press, New Haven. 1998

Devoted Proofreader

Proofs and Three Parables
Proofs and Three Parables 
by George Steiner

"Absurdly, a touch of fear stung him, and the momentary, deranged conviction that a deserted universe, like a house unlocked after the removal vans had gone, would sink into oblivion if he failed to carry out his present purpose."(p 72)

George Steiner, an eminent critic whose fictions include "Anno Domini" and The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H., has called his fiction "allegories for argument" or "scripts for thought." In Proofs he centers his story on an Italian proofreader so devoted to his craft that "if the winds blew a piece" of wastepaper "towards his feet, he would pick it up, smooth it, read closely and make any correction needed." Then: "He would deposit it in the garbage receptacle, feeling obscurely rewarded and saddened. Any witness to this rite would have thought him deranged." But there are signs of problems with his eyes, pains, and he goes to an opthamologist: "Had you come to me in good time, it would have been worth operating on the left eye. To remove those cataracts. To implant a lens. As matters stand now . . ."

The proofreader is in a Marxist study group, but each evening he sees the news of the crumbling of the Communist edifice throughout Eastern Europe and Russia - the doubts begin. Into the story is added an eloquent debate that the proofreader carries on with Carlo, a priest and friend from his study group, over the relative merits of Communism, capitalism and Christianity. In this discussion neither side seems to fare well but the proofreader, in spite of the news and debate, will not give up his belief in Marxism. This suggests that the blindness is two-fold -- a Dante-esque prescription for a man who devoted his life to getting texts right. In a fiction written with as meticulous and spare a style as the protagonist proofreader himself exhibits we have a thoroughly Steineresque commentary on the twentieth century, the power of belief and the nature of the humane.

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A Barthes Reader

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.”

This is a book that is worth reading for the introduction by Susan Sontag alone, but that would be a disservice to the excellent group of essays by Roland Barthes that she selected for inclusion in this reader. The opening essay, "On Gide and His Journal", won me over with its insights into one of my favorite authors. The remaining essays range from Tacitus to Racine to Garbo which should provide some idea of the breadth of Barthes' interest and intellect. There are also judicious selections from The Pleasure of the Text and A Lover's Discourse that will leave you wanting more. The penultimate selection is Barthes' "Inaugural Lecture" given at the establishment of the chair of Semiology at the College de France. In it Barthes describes his current age as one of "unlearning" and uses these words to describe this experience, which I believe apply to much of this book: "a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible."

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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Lovers on the Heath

The Return of the Native (Modern Library Classics)
The Return of the Native 

"To have lost is less disturbing than to wonder if we may possibly have won; and Eustacia could now, like other people at such a stage, take a standing-point outside herself, observe herself as a disinterested spectator, and think what a sport for Heaven this woman Eustacia was." 

I have enjoyed reading and rereading this novel since I was in my teens. In thinking about this I can only suggest that from the first reading I was impressed with Hardy's ability to create a complete believable setting where the characters interacted not just with one another but with the world in which they lived. That world was a rural Victorian one, but it resonated with my own somewhat rural experience even though it occurred more than one hundred years earlier.

What Thomas Hardy created was a tale of passion and tragedy on Egdon Heath located in his fictional Wessex. Egdon Heath itself is the first "character" introduced into the book. The heath proves physically and psychologically important throughout the novel: characters are defined by their relation to the heath. Among them is Eustacia Vye whose desire to lead a life elsewhere is dashed when she marries Clym Yeobright (the Native) upon his return from Paris. The pair represents the archetype of two people caught up in their passion for each other and conflicting ambitions. For Clym, the heath is beautiful; for Eustacia, it is hateful. The plot of the novel emphasizes just this kind of difference in perception. What impresses me upon rereading this is the intricate plotting of Eustacia who throughout the novel is weaving a web of deceit with the aim of enhancing her own life. Her hubris knows few bounds and is exacerbated by her lack of understanding of those in whose lives she has intervened. She raves, "How have I tried and tried to be a splendid woman, and how destiny has been against me! I do not deserve my lot! O, the cruelty of putting me into this ill-conceived world! I was capable of much; but I have been injured and blighted and crushed by things beyond my control! O, how hard it is of Heaven to devise such tortures for me, who have done no harm to Heaven at all!"(Book 5, Chapter 7) 
This lack of understanding is an example of the importance of misconception in the novel which is not limited to the character of Eustacia. Ambiguity builds as the novel progresses and the main characters remain obscure for the reader. When The Return of the Native was first published, contemporary critics criticized the novel for its lack of sympathetic characters. All of the novel's characters prove themselves deeply flawed, or--at the very least--of ambiguous motivation. What I found redeeming about the novel was the way Hardy brings the lives of this couple and their friends and families alive through detail that reinforces his penetrating portrayal of the community on the heath.

The final section provides some hope for the future, tempering the otherwise bleak landscape of the novel. This was Thomas Hardy's first great novel and he would follow it with bleaker tales this is the one that I return to when reminiscing of the joy of reading Thomas Hardy's novels.

The Return of the Native

Monday, March 07, 2011

Sunday Commonplace Entry
on Monday morning

This weeks entry comes from Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari

"In short, the best historians have tried to show how men have acted wisely or foolishly, with prudence or compassion and magnanimity;  recognizing that history is the true mirror of life, they have not simply given a dry, factual account of what happened to this prince or that republic but have explained the opinions, counsels, decisions, and plans that lead men to successful or unsuccessful action.  This is the true spirit of history, which fulfills its real purpose in making men prudent and showing them how to live, apart from the pleasure it brings in presenting past events as if they were in the present."  (from the Preface to Part II)

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television
The Last Lone Inventor: 

A Tale of Genius, Deceit, 
and the Birth of Television 

I love studying the history of science and seldom has a book on this topic read more like a novel. The mind of young genius Philo T. Farnsworth seems to be overflowing with ideas almost from birth. The timing is right for he comes of age just as the information age is being transformed from the print medium that ruled the nineteenth century to audio and video that will rule the twentieth century. Many men have laid claim to the title "The Father of Television," but Philo T. Farnsworth is the true genius behind what may be the most influential invention of our time. Farnsworth ended up a footnote in history yet he was the first to demonstrate an electronic process for scanning, transmitting and receiving moving images, a discovery that changed the way we live. Unfortunately Farnsworth, the "lone inventor", comes up against David Sarnoff the media mogul who uses his control over radio leverage the same control over the beginnings of television. Their battle is epic and Evan Schwartz tells the story so well that it kept me interested both through the discoveries and the disaster (for Farnsworth) that followed. Adding to my enjoyment was the opportunity to see a production of Aaron Sorkin's play, The Farnsworth Invention, based in part on Farnsworth's life.

The Last Lone Inventor by Evan I. Schwartz. HarperCollins, New York. 2002

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Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel
Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel 

"The boy stumbled and I caught his cold little hand in my bony paw. His eyes swam and floated up into his head; he fainted. NowI'm as frail as he was, but back then I was fit. I carried him into the Everett House." (p 13-14)

The story of Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel is one of two pairs of lovers, Stephen Crane and his wife Cora and the young prostitute Elliott and his lover Theodore the Banker, who are products of Stephen Crane's literary imagination. In this novel Crane is writing a companion piece to his earlier novel, Maggie, Girl of the Streets, and it is this novel, The Painted Boy, that occupies Crane as he slowly succumbs to the ravages of tuberculosis. What is fascinating is the seamless way that White is able to meld the stories of Crane's life and Crane's writing. Sections of The Painted Boy are interspersed throughout the novel as Crane dictates it to his wife Cora. The description of the young boy of the streets, Elliott is both moving and heartbreaking as he loses his childhood in an attempt to simply survive. Yet no less moving is the image of Stephen Crane as his life slowly fades away:

"Stephen felt his life force flickering, no more than a candle about to blow out, and his whole pained body hovering around this fragile blue light. His mind still registered odd details, and he knew his lips were working though no sound was coming out. His body was wracked with pain. Pain was all he knew."(p 123)

In an inter textual delight for the reader Crane is a character both in White's novel, as journalist studying the boy, and in the novel he is writing within Hotel de Dream. It reminds me of a favorite novel of mine, The Counterfeiters, by Andre Gide, wherein the protagonist Edouard is writing a novel titled The Counterfeiters, thus making Gide's tale a novel within a novel. White is using a modern approach to the novel to tell an apparently authentic fin de siecle tale.

He almost successful since I have difficulties with the somewhat melodramatic ending; yet the reader is drawn along by the atmospheric seediness of turn-of-the century Manhattan as it is contrasted with the quiet, ironically idyllic, countryside of England where Stephen passes his final days with Cora. There is an injection of realism from visits by Henry James and Joseph Conrad that add to the book's milieu. I found White's prose elegant and his realization of Crane's novel within the novel believable. The contrasting portraits of passion and pain help make this novel a gem. It makes me want to explore more of both writers in the near future.

Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel by Edmund White. Ecco Press, New York, 2007.

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Saturday, March 05, 2011

Literary Blog HopLiterary Blog Hop

The Literary Blog Hop is hosted by The Blue Bookcase!  This week Gilion from Rose City Reader asks:

Can literature be funny? What is your favorite humorous literary book?

The first question that this topic raised in my mind is what is literature?  What makes a book a literary book?  But that is not the question, rather can this book, assuming it is literary in nature, be funny?  While I have read many funny books over the years and most of them would qualify as literary in the general sense of the word, the best answer is provided by "classic" literature, that is the greatest works of the greatest minds.  I would agree with Lucia in that regard that classic literature definitively answers the question in the affirmative.

Given that is the case, my favorite humorous literary book, one for which humour in many of its classic forms is the defining theme, is Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais.  This book, considered by many the first novel, chronicles the comic adventures of the giant Gargantua and those of his son Pantagruel.  It is  written broadly with bawdy comedy and a lack of reserve that has often relegated it to the corner reserved for "banned" books.  It is humor based in confusion and breaking the boundaries of normal human behavior.  The examples of Rabelais' humor are too numerous to list; his penchant for making lists being one of the major sources of that humor, along with events like the war between the bakers, the story of Gargantua's tutor "Powerbrain", and his rants against lawyers, the priesthood and all whose hubris leads them into folly - the portrait is painful only if you consider excessive humor a source of pain.  The book is a revolutionary reaction to a time, the first half of the Sixteenth century when society was filled with pain, deformity, starvation and death.  It was the life described the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, as "nasty, brutish and short".  Rabelais' reaction was a humor so outsize and full of zest for life and freedom of being that its revolutionary outlook is still funny in our day.  In fact this novel from the last days of the middle ages is so revolutionary that it still seems modern in the Twenty-first century.  Rabelais said it best in his prefatory poem, 

"To My Readers"
"I'd rather write about laughing than crying, For laughter makes men human, and courageous."

Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais. Trans. by Burton Raffel. W. W. Norton & Co.,  1990.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Swan Lake

Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is one of the best known masters of the Romantic era. His many works (eighty of which are known by an opus number) were published largely between 1867 and 1893 and include Symphonies, Overtures, Concertos, Chamber music and solo works. Among all of these pieces, Tchaikovsky's three ballets are some of his best recognized works.

 Written in 1876 Swan Lake received is debut on March 4, 1877 at the Bolshoi Theater.  Tchaikovsky's first ballet, it was inspired by a variety of sources, including a story called "Der geraubte Schleirer" (The Stolen Veil) by German writer Johann Karl August Musaus, the life of Bavarian King Ludwig II, and a Russian folktale known as "The White Duck." The earliest known version of Tchaikovsky's composition was written in 1871. After the world premier at the Bolshoi it was premiered in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre on January 27, 1895, over a year after Tchaikovsky's death.The original production was unsuccessful and nearly universally panned by critics. The ballet still received forty-one performances between 1877 and 1883. Fortunately it subsequently received better notices, especially by music lovers world-wide, who as I do love the soaring melodies and the way the music captures the drama of the ballet.  His Swan Lake Ballet has never been surpassed for its melodic intensity and instrumental brilliance. 

Thursday, March 03, 2011

   Listening to Your Life 
A selection


An old silent pond.
Into the pond a frog jumps.
Silence again.

It is perhaps the best known of all Japanese haiku. No subject could be more humdrum. No language could be more pedestrian. Basho, the poet, makes no comment on what he is describing. He implies no meaning, message, or metaphor. He simply invites our attention to no more and no less than just this: the old pond in its watery stillness, the kerplunk of the frog, the gradual return of the stillness.
In effect he is putting a frame around the moment, and what the frame does is enable us to see not just something about the moment but the moment itself in all its ineffable ordinariness and particularity. The chances are that if we had been passing by when the frog jumped, we wouldn’t have noticed a thing or, noticing it, wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But the frame sets it off from everything else that distracts us. It makes possible a second thought. That is the moment, but it changes our way of perceiving the moment. It makes us NOTICE the moment, and that is what Basho wants above all else. It is what literature in general wants above all else too.
From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that swells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.
The painter does the same thing, of course. Rembrandt puts a frame around an old woman’s face. It is seamed with wrinkles. The upper lip is sunken in, the skin waxy and pale. It is not a remarkable face. You would not look twice at the old woman if you found her sitting across the aisle form you on a bus. But is is a face so remarkably seen that it forces you to see it remarkably just as Cézanne makes you see a bowl of apples or Andrew Wyeth a muslin curtain blowing in at an open window. It is a face unlike any other face in all the world. All the faces in the world are in this one old face.
Unlike painters, who work with space, musicians work with time, with note following note as second follows second. Listen! says Vivaldi, Brahms, Stravinsky. Listen to this time that I have framed between the first note and the last and to these sounds in time. Listen to the way the silence is broken into uneven lengths between the sounds and to the silences themselves. Listen to the scrape of bow against gut, the rap of stick against drumhead, the rush of breath through reed and wood. The sounds of the earth are like music, the old song goes, and the sounds of music are also like the sounds of the earth, which is of course where music comes from. Listen to the voices outside the window, the rumble of the furnace, the creak of your chair, the water running in the kitchen sink. Learn to listen to the music of your own lengths of time, your own silences.
Literature, painting, music–the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things.

Source: Classical Pursuits

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

English Passengers
English Passengers 

"Truly it was a mystery to confuse how they could ever kill all my ones and steal the world, or even why they wanted it, as it was no place they could endure. Why, they couldn't live here just alone but had to carry some Hobart Town with them hither and thither. "

This is an historical novel with multiple story lines beginning with the story of Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, the leader of a crew of Manx smugglers. It is here that both the authenticity and complexity of the novel begins to display itself. Kewley is a lively character as are his fellow Manx shipmates. Apparently the Isle Of Man, according to historical sources, was home to Manx smugglers who wandered widely and that some were forcibly transported to the New World, where they endured the hospitality of Port Arthur prison in Tasmania. I enjoyed this part as it was very amusing when Kewley and crew try to offload their ill-gotten gains. But then their ship attracts the attention of Customs, and Kewley is forced to consider the indignity of taking on board paying passengers.

This is divine timing for the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, who needs a ship to go to Tasmania to prove his theory of Divine Refrigeration. His discourse offers the rather surprising argument that the Garden of Eden is to be found within Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). Wilson has been inspired by the writings of Darwinists, who believe that the Bible is not to be taken literally when it comes to the question of Genesis and the Origins of Species. Unfortunately, Wilson's sponsor is the infantile entrepreneur Jonah Childs whose notion of a good idea would be to use wallabies as pack animals. Childs further demonstrates his poor judgement when he chooses the odious Doctor Potter as botanist for the trip who also volunteers as ship's surgeon. It doesn't take long for Wilson and Potter to realise that they are natural enemies, and it seems that we could be in for a battle of the survival of the fittest, as each take turns to try to convert Kewley's crew. No matter how he tries, Kewley is unable to dump his passengers, so off into the New World they sail.

Another storyline retreats in time to the 1820s to detail the narration of Peevay, a Tasmanian Aborigine, who relates how the 'ghosts' take over the land of his people, and drive them to extinction. He is the product of a rape: his mother was snatched by a white sealer and imprisoned on his island. She escaped, but is forever haunted by the seething hatred she feels for the man who did that to her. When his mother rejects him due to his mixed blood, Peevay yearns for his father. One might think that a novel full of individual narrators would be difficult to navigate, but Kneale handles this well with vivid and vital characters who are engaging for the reader, even when they are as unlikeable as Potter is. I found Kneale's narrative always quite stimulating as did the rest of our Thursday evening book group. He artfully brings all of these narratives to life in a masterful display of black comedy.

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