Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Drunken Poet

Charles Baudelaire

"An artist is an artist only because of his exquisite sense of beauty, a sense which shows him intoxicating pleasures, but which at the same time implies and contains an equally exquisite sense of all deformities and all disproportion."  - Charles Baudelaire

In the 1860s Baudelaire wrote articles and essays on a wide range of subjects and figures. He was also publishing prose poems, which were posthumously collected in 1869 as Petits poémes en prose (Little Poems in Prose). By calling these non-metrical compositions poems, Baudelaire was the first poet to make a radical break with the form of verse.

In 1862, Baudelaire began to suffer nightmares and increasingly bad health. He left Paris for Brussels in 1863 to give a series of lectures, but suffered from several strokes that resulted in partial paralysis. On August 31, 1867, at the age of forty-six, Charles Baudelaire died in Paris. Although doctors at the time didn't mention it, it is likely that syphilis caused his final illness. His reputation as poet at that time was secure; writers such as Stephane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud claimed him as a predecessor. In the 20th century, thinkers and artists as diverse as Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Benjamin, Robert Lowell and Seamus Heaney have celebrated his work.

You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk. But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk. And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. Ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: It is the hour to be drunken! to escape being the martyred slaves of time, be ceaselessly drunk. On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you wish.
—“Be Drunk,” by Charles Baudelaire

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Novel of South Africa

The Covenant
The Covenant 
by James A. Michener

   "What we're looking for is beetles," old Kharu said as they searched the arid land, "but only the ones with two white dots." In fact they were not looking for adult beetles, but their larvae, and always of that special breed with the white specks and, Kharu claimed, an extra pair of legs.
   It was impossible to explain how, over a period of ten thousand years, these women and their ancestors had isolated this little creature which alone among beetles was capable of producing a poison of remorseless virulence. How had such a discovery been made? No one remembered, it occurred so long ago. But when men can neither read nor write, when they had nothing external to distract their minds, they can spend their lives in minute observation... San people had had time to study the larvae of a thousand different insects, finding at last the only one that produced a deadly poison..." —Rule of 33; The Covenant by James Michener

  James Michener built his reputation as a writer with his histories of contested lands: Israel (The Source), Korea (The Bridges at Toko-Ri), Hawaii, Mexico, Poland, Afghanistan (Caravans), and so on. By examining the land from the first—often before men had even come into the country—he was able to bring a perspective to these conflicts. By writing history as fiction, he communicates these perspectives in a very accessible way.
  In 1978 I spent six weeks in South Africa living in Johannesburg for business.  So I was intrigued when two years later Michener's historical fiction about South Africa was published and I read it.  The Covenant is Michener's novel of South Africa, from the time when only the nomadic San peoples (later called "Bushmen") lived there; to the coming of the Zulu tribes from the north at the same time as Dutch Huegenots settled at the southern tip of the continent; the arrival of the British colonial settlers; the passive rebellion of the Boers (Voertrekkers who left their rich colonial coast farms for the stony inner provinces) and their active rebellion (the Boer War, which the British nominally won); the clever way in which the former Boer general Oom Paul Kruger and his staff managed to wrest victory from that defeat, imposing apartheid on the nation; and the multicultural society that developed in the 80s when the fence between blanks (whites) and nie-blanks (non-whites) was finally broken.

  So in The Covenant, we meet the San and learn their depth of understanding of this land and its animals; this is their land by virtue of their command of its powers. The Boer is described with his forthright assumption of the covenant of Adam and Moses; this is his land by virtue of his willingness to invest the sweat of his brow in it.  And the Zulu tribes and their drive south to acquire grazing for their cattle are presented; it is their land by virtue of their blood and the blood of their children shed for it. Michener also discusses some of the motivations for British colonialism and the savage investment English-speaking settlers made in the Boer War; for these people, "British" is what their grandfather was—what they are is South African, and this is their land, too.

  I enjoyed the book and learned more about the history of the land I had visited but was not impressed enough to become a Michener fan.

The Covenant by James Michener. Random House, New York. 1980

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Memories, Warm & Otherwise

Kafka on the Shore
Kafka on the Shore 

"Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn't get in, and walk through it, step by step. There's no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That's the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine."  - Haruki Murakami

This is a strange novel by Haruki Murakami, although that is not surprising since strangeness is is stock in trade. It is part allegory, part fantasy and reading it was often frustrating to this reader. With a plethora of references to things as disparate as classical mythology, pop culture, music (both popular and classical), philosophy (Kant and Hegel) and religion, the novel seemed to be chaotic at times. However, there was an overarching story line that held the book together somewhat. Briefly, it is the story of a runaway fifteen year old boy named Kafka Tamura whose life eventually intersects with that of a much older "simple" man named Satoru Nakata. Told in alternating chapters with the help of a supporting cast including talking cats and "Colonel Sanders" the book careens, a little too slowly, toward a conclusion that at least is unpredictable. My only other experiences with talking cats (Carroll and Bulgakov) were much more to my liking. And I have never encountered Colonel Sanders in fiction before, although I suspect he is out there somewhere. I suppose I should admire the author's ability to describe what might be the memories or dreams of a teenager - I know mine were sometimes as chaotic as this novel.  However warm some moments in the story I found myself thinking otherwise - just flat and lacking any profundity. For Murakami devotees, this fantasy's loose ends will tantalize; to his admirers, they may invite potential interpretation; but for the unconvinced, they will just dangle. Thus I found novel unappealing and ultimately unsatisfying and cannot recommend this book to any but the most perversely adventurous readers.  If you want a better introduction to this author I would direct you to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Spirit of Man

Wind, Sand and Stars
Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Once again I had found myself in the presence of a truth and had failed to recognize it.  Consider what had happened to me: I had thought myself lost, had touched the very bottom of despair; and then, when the spirit of renunciation had filled me, I had known peace.  I know now what I was not conscious of at the time--that in such an hour a man feels that he has finally found himself and has become his own friend.  An essential inner need has been satisfied, and against that satisfaction, that self-fulfillment, no external power can prevail."(p 170)

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a man of action who seemed to have half a dozen different careers at once: he was a prize-winning novelist and professional mail pilot, an airborne adventurer and a war correspondent, a commercial test pilot and the author of a popular children's book. But whatever else he was doing, he never stopped writing. In this memoir he describes his experiences as a pilot in terms so poetic as to take your breath away. Few pilots perhaps have seen a cloud and thought of it as "a scarf of filings scraped off the surface of the earth and borne out to sea by the wind." The opening chapters form a sort of philosophical meditation on the nature of the life as a pilot as can be gleaned from the chapter titles: "The Craft", "The Men", "The Tool". There are moments and vignettes described as only someone who lived the life and imagined the experience could achieve.

Published on the eve of World War II, the book sold out quickly on both sides of the ocean, although the form baffled readers in each language. Three months after publication, the Academie Francaise awarded it the Grand Prix du Roman, naming it the best novel of 1939. American booksellers, for their part, chose Wind, Sand and Stars as "the best non-fiction book of the year." However you classify it this book is Saint-Exupery's paean to the spirit of man, to the goals that unite us, and to the optimism that was his stock in trade. Whether you agree with him or not, the book remains one that buoys the spirit and calms the heart.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Toward Parnassus

ABC of Reading
ABC of Reading  

"And it is my firm conviction that a man can learn more about poetry by really knowing and examining a few of the best poems than by meandering about among a great many."(p 43)

Mount Parnassus in Greek mythology is a mountain in central Greece where the Muses lived; it is known as the mythological home of music and poetry. The ABC of Reading is Ezra Pound's iconoclastic view of stages on the way to Parnassus -- to knowing the nature and meaning of literature. Pound was there at the beginning of the Modernist movement in literature. In fact one could argue that he invented it and he both discovered and encouraged fellow writers, T. S. Eliot is a prominent example, to persevere and "make it new". This spirit permeates this book and I believe it has not diminished over the decades. My beat up copy was obtained in Madison, Wisconsin at a used book store near the University. What an appropriate setting, for this book reads like an extension of the University expanding my education in time and through imagination. There are more ideas packed into just over two hundred pages in this little book than in many much larger tomes. The ideas are at one striking and sublime. Plus there are bon mots like this-- "Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree."(p 36) --in every chapter.

This classic retains "a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness" that makes it worth reading today; both for the challenge and for the insights into the nature of poetry and literature.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Family and a City

Palace Walk (Cairo Trilogy, #1)
Palace Walk 

"Through the stillness of the early morning, when the dark dawn sky was transfixed by arrows of light, there rose from the courtyard oven room the sound of dough being kneaded rhythmically, like the beating of a drum."

Sitting in the beautiful garden of my friend Jim in a courtyard-like alcove beside a pool of hyacinths yesterday, we were joined by several other readers we were discussing this novel by the Nobel-prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz. Everyone agreed that it was a good read and perhaps even a great book; certainly worthy of the setting with the late afternoon sun gracing the flowers surrounding us. The literary discussion that followed focused on the center of the novel -- on the characters Mahfouz created and their relationships--their story.  The story is one which takes you back to Cairo, Egypt during the Great War. Palace Walk is set in Cairo, and covers the time between 1917 and the Egyptian revolution of 1919. Most of the book, however, is set inside a single house, both a haven and an isolated island. The family is devoutly Muslim and each of the members, mother, Father, three sons and two daughters are distinct personalities with a story and a life to live. While the novel begins slowly, Mahfouz has complete control and uses this control to slowly increase the speed at which events occur to stir the pot, as they say.  The meaning of time and its effect on the world is one of the major themes of the novel.

  While it is a patriarchal society with a tyrannical Al-Sayyid Ahmad abd al-Jawad, the father, at the head of the family he sees his control diminishing as events overtake him, both within and without the family. The youngest child, his son Kamal, is easily the most likable family member and functions, in part, as a go-between the older male and female family members because at ten years of age he is young enough to be accepted in both realms. However, in this strict Muslim family the women are kept separate from the men and the mother, Amina, in particular maintains a subordinate role to her husband but does not rebel, for the most part, that is until her one mistake which shakes up the household and her relationships. But, rather than discuss specific events I would suggest that the success of the book depends upon the authors ability to maintain both control and a balance of the narrative that is exceptional in literature. The book reminds one of Eliot's Middlemarch both in this sense and in its portrayal of the breadth of society with many diverse characters interacting to present a complete world for the reader. The author does this with a subtlety and ease that makes this a delightful novel. The result is the reader's desire to continue on to read the subsequent two novels that continue this story and form the complete "Cairo Trilogy".

View all my reviews

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Russian Classic

Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse : The Bollingen Prize Translation in the Onegin Stanza, Extensively Revised
Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse

"Eugene Onegin: You interpret my heart, my nature, as you wish to believe it. In truth, I have no secret longing to be saved from myself." - A. Pushkin

This is a classic poem from the early romantic tradition in Russian literature written by Alexander Pushkin. Its eponymous protagonist has served as the model for a number of Russian literary heroes in the ensuing decades. Divided into eight chapters each containing between 40 to 60 stanzas of original and unvarying rhyme pattern, it is made up in about equal parts of plot, of delicate descriptions of nature and milieu that provide context, and of Byronic-style digressions. Widely acknowledged as the master work of the fountainhead of Russian literature, "Eugene Onegin" is a novel in verse, first published serially in 1825.

It follows the destinies of three men and three women in imperialist Russia. Eugene is a dandy bored with the social whirl of St. Petersburg, and in moving to the country for a change of scene, he becomes the friend of the poet Lensky, changing their fates dramatically. "Eugene Onegin" is narrated by Pushkin himself, though an idealized version who frequently yet entrancingly digresses in the midst of the beauty Tatyana's embarrassment with Onegin and maturity in the social world. Pushkin, with a tone that is at once satirical and full of storytelling verve, additionally utilizes the characters of Olga, Tatyana's sister, and a Muse, as well as a wide array of other individuals who enhance the tale's narrative. Tragically suspenseful, lively, and skillfully rendered, "Eugene Onegin" has proven to be not only the favorite work of its author, but a classic of Russian literature.

The romantic intrigue involved in the story of Tatyana, Lensky and Onegin has inspired readers and artists alike for more than a century. I found this verse translation, which was awarded the Bollingen Prize, very satisfying reading.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Poetry from the World Over

A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry
A Book of Luminous Things: 

An International Anthology of Poetry 

"The secret of all art, also of poetry, is thus distance.  Thanks to distance the past preserved in our memory is purified and embellished. . .  Remembering, we move to that land of past time, yet now without our former passions:  we do not strive for anything.  We are not afraid of anything, we become an eye which perceives and finds details that escaped our attention." (Introduction, p XX)

This is a marvelous anthology of poetry with selections that engage the reader with joy and wonder. It is very much an international collection of poetry. If you are familiar with European and American poetry there will be some familiar names, but many poets who are not familiar; though no less beautiful in their poetic offerings. Whether the poets are Chinese, Japanese, Persian or African, you can be sure the poems will fill you with wonder.  The poems are grouped in sections by topics, including: "Epiphany", "Nature", "The secret of a Thing", "Travel and Places", "The Moment", "People Among People", and more.  No wonder that the editor is Czeslaw Milosz who uses his own genius to guide the reader. In his introductory essay he reminds readers of the importance of poetry and then selects poetry that helps each of us understand what he meant by that.
Of the many fine poems in this anthology here is one of my favorites.  It is by a Chinese poet of the 8th century, Tu Fu, and is translated by Kenneth Rexroth:


Sunset glitters on the beads
Of the curtains.  Spring flowers
Bloom in the valley.  The gardens
Along the river are filled
With perfume.  Smoke of cooking
Fires drifts over the slow barges.
Sparrows hop and tumble in
The branches.  Whirling insects
Swarm in the air.  Who discovered
That one cup of thick wine
Will dispel a thousand cares?

View all my reviews

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Fire in Her Soul

Mistress to an Age: A Life of Madame de Stael (Reading Program)
Mistress to an Age: 
A Life of Madame de Stael 

"The soul is a fire that darts its rays through all the senses; it is in this fire that existence consists; all the observations and all the efforts of philosophers ought to turn towards this Me, the centre and moving power of our sentiments and our ideas."

This is a marvelous introduction to an amazing woman who participated in the beginnings of Romanticism. Madame Germaine de Stael charmed the intellectuals of her age with her salon. This book, called by Dame Rebecca West 'a cornucopia of good reading," is above all the biography of a great woman. Madame de Stael was courageous and prolific in her contacts with important personages of her age. A prolific letter writer, she also wrote novels and drama. In the 1790s she established a salon at Coppet in Switzerland, and there gathered round her a considerable number of friends and fellow-refugees, beginning the salon which at intervals during the next 25 years made the place so famous. However, in 1793 she made a long visit to England, and established a connection with other emigrants: Talleyrand, Narbonne, Montmorency, Jaucourt and others. 
 The most brilliant period of her career began in 1794, when she returned to Paris after the Reign of Terror; her salon, known for its literary and intellectual figures, flourished, and she published political and literary essays, notably A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations (1796), an important document of European Romanticism. In 1803 Napoleon, who resented her opposition, had her banished from Paris, and she made the family residence in Coppet her headquarters. 
 She would also travel to Germany in part as a result of this exile from Paris by Napoleon. I found her liaisons, which were legion, fascinating and of particular interest her connections with the classical liberal philosopher and novelist Benjamin Constant. This is an excellent introduction to the age and to a vibrant woman who helped make the age more memorable. Probably her most important work is Germany (1810), a serious study of German manners, literature and art, philosophy and morals, and religion. Her other writings include novels, plays, moral essays, history, and memoirs.  

View all my reviews

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Historic Event

Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution
Plain, Honest Men: 
The Making of the American Constitution 

"We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

The history of the making of the Constitution is presented here as it was created by an impressive group of individuals. Richard Beeman's excellent detailed account of the summer of 1787 relates the revolutionary results of these individuals in the context of their time. I was impressed with the character of the men who were able to work in secrecy for months even though their views were passionate and varied from state to state and even within some delegations. Holding the group together were the well-known personages of Washington, Madison and Franklin. But there were many others who made major contributions and put forward ideas that, even when rejected, spurred the debate. Some of the other notables included Gouvernor Morris who shaped the language of the document, Roger Sherman, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, Edmund Randolph and others.

One notable incident the author discusses is the late arrival of the delegates from New Hampshire almost two months after the start of the Convention. I found this discussion fascinating, especially his final remarks:
“It is difficult in retrospect to comprehend why any state—or any individual from any state—would consciously choose to be absent from one of the most important gatherings in modern history. But, as we have already seen from the tardy beginnings of the Convention, few at the time recognized the epochal quality of the gathering in Philadelphia.”(p 243)
I wondered what is important in history and how do you know when you are participating in important or momentous decisions? I wondered whether some of the delegates (Franklin or Madison perhaps) had some idea of the import of their meetings? That there was not the same energy among all the delegates does not seem surprising but the importance of their affairs was certainly not evident to all.  Another issue that has continued to be important in American political history is the battle between Federalism and Nationalism that would be so well-defined by James Madison in The Federalist Papers (Number 39).  The Constitution reflected the balance that these delegates were able to achieve through this summer of compromise, discussion and decisions.

The character of the delegates was impressive as was their camaraderie, for the time spent socializing was important as well. The partisan debates, especially between the small versus large states, mirrored partisan politics that is still with us today. The resolution of the structure of the Constitution was not always assured but achieved through compromise and hard work. This is a scholarly yet readable history that succeeds in providing you with the feeling as you read it that you are there with these plain, honest men.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The World is Changing

The Bookshop, the Gate of Angels, the Blue Flower (Everyman's Library (Alfred a. Knopf, Inc.).)
The Gate of Angels 
by Penelope Fitzgerald

"How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouse. On the open ground to the left the willow trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a  university city devoted to logic and reason."   — Penelope Fitzgerald

The world is always changing and never more so than at Cambridge University in 1912 as it is on the threshold of world-changing discoveries in physics and more. A young man, a rational man, named Fred Fairly, the only son of a clergyman, is a junior fellow at the university’s smallest college, St. Angelicus, closed to women for 500 years. Fred’s experiences with family, colleagues, and the mysterious, beautiful Daisy Saunders, who literally crashes into his life—bring him into a wider world and to some drastic modifications of his diehard beliefs and ambitions.
In this luminous and sublime novel, Fitzgerald creates a story from apparently irreconcilable strands, from the metaphysical to the religious, with ample mystery, romance, and history thrown in. Atoms and ghosts, angels and villains, certainty and chance, love and jealousy, reason and imagination, all figure prominently in the world within this novel. And a collision between any two of them can change the course of a life, or of life itself. The Gate of Angels is both intelligent and entertaining giving the reader a delightful ride through the world of Britain on the eve of the Great War.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Four History Books:
Three Novels and a Play

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I found this a well told story, but a bit melodramatic for my taste. It is a book that was recommended by a friend - a voracious, but indiscriminate reader. The book surprised me as I was drawn in by the characters and their relationships. I guess this is one of those so-called "page-turners" for I literally could not put this down for days while I tried to find out what was going to happen next. It succeeded in defying my expectations and I'm not sure if I reread it that I would no find it just as readable and surprising that I did the first time. This was a lightweight entertainment, but very successful at that level.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago

My favorite of Saramago's novels is The History of the Siege of Lisbon in which Raimundo Silva, a proofreader at a Portuguese publishing house alters a key word i a text to make it read that in 1147 the king of Portugal reconquered Lisbon from the Saracens without any assistance from the Crusaders. After doing this he is inexplicably encouraged by his supervisor, Maria Sara, to rewrite the entire history of the siege. From this kernel the novel develops into a complex meditation on the meaning of both history and words as well as a romance and parable of life under authoritarian rule. Saramago's prose style does take some extra effort to adjust to with long paragraphs and serpentine sentences, but it is worth the effort and, like Faulkner and others with difficult prose styles, repays the reader who perseveres. While I have not read all of Saramago's novels this one stands out among those I have read as his best.

The History of Mr. Polly by H.G. Wells

Mr. Polly is an ordinary middle-aged man who is tired of his wife's nagging and his dreary job as the owner of a regional gentleman's outfitters. Faced with the threat of bankruptcy, he concludes that the only way to escape his frustrating existence is by burning his shop to the ground and killing himself. Unexpected events, however, conspire to lead the bewildered Mr. Polly to a bright new future after he saves a life, fakes his death, and escapes to a world of heroism and hope.

The History Boys by Alan Bennett

The award-winning play by Alan Bennett is a great read. More devoted to the influence of words (the "dictionary" boy role of Posner) and music than the later screenplay, the play emphasizes the differing perspectives on education of the two lead teachers (Hector and Irwin). Without the need to "open up" demanded by film Bennett focuses on the schoolroom and uses subtle effects to effect his dramatic purpose. One aspect of the play that stands out is the multiple narrators throughout the drama. He is at his epigrammatic best and the performances in New York showed this as noted by the Advocate review. Bennett is successful in creating a delightful dramatic and comedic portrayal of ideas, all while evoking the spirit of bright young scholars at a key turning point in their lives. With reference to and in the spirit of Shakespeare he is successful in creating a delightful dramatic and comedic portrayal of ideas, all while evoking the spirit of bright young scholars at a key turning point in their lives.The battle between educational styles, the approaches to teaching of each of the teachers, stood out for me. The foundation is Mrs. Lintott's straightforward approach to teaching history which has produced "well taught" boys, but that is not enough. The headmaster, in his "wisdom" adds into the mix a young teacher just up from Oxford to give the students an "edge". It is his, Mr. Irwin's, method that is the one of paradox and turning the historical facts upside-down, with little regard for the "truth" of the situation that will go to battle with the methods of Hector, the "general studies" teacher who is enlisting the boys into a conspiracy against the world and the "education" they are supposedly receiving.

"Mrs. Lintott: They're all clever. I saw to that.
Hector: You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it."
- - - -
"Scripps: But it's all true.
Irwin: What has that got to do with it? What has that got to do with anything?"

With all of this battle of educational styles there is the undercurrent of eroticism, both due to the nature of education itself, as Hector points out, and due to the psychological tensions among Dakin and his two admirers, Posner and Irwin. This combination, which explodes at times to produce riveting moments of theater, is what makes this play great. That and the magnificent literary style of Bennett.

More History Forthcoming:

The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury; A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes; The Short History of a Prince : A Novel by Jane Hamilton.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Pure Essence of Poetry

My Sister - Life (European Poetry Classics)

My Sister - Life 
by Boris Pasternak


It's a tightly filled whistle,
it's the squeaking of jostled ice,
it's night, frosting the leaves,
it's two nightingales duelling.

It's the soundlessness of sweetpeas,
the tears of the universe in a pod.
It's a Figaro from music-stands and flutes
like hail on garden plots.

And all that the night finds hard to find
on the sunken floors of bathhouses
is carried to the fish pond
like a star on damp, trembling palms.

It's mugginess flatter than sunken boards,
alders banked over the horizon.
The laughter of the stars is welcome
in this universe--soundless place.

BREATHTAKING poems of ethereal light and being inhabit this collection from Boris Pasternak. Osip Mandelstam said, "To read the poems of Pasternak is to get one's throat clear , to fortify one's breathing. . . I see Pasternak's My Sister--Life as a collection of magnificent exercises in breathing . . . a cure for tuberculosis." These poems are enchanting; the product of the early life of Pasternak. There is a clarity in the translations of Mark Rudman with Bohdan Boychuk that allow Pasternak's "breathing" which I sense as almost a sort of singing voice to pierce through the boundary between languages. The result is the poet's voice is present in its most passionate form thrilling the reader with images of love and loss; foreshadowing the changes that would soon engulf the world of his family, friends, and fellow citizens as the Great War would end and bring with it the upheavals in the political world of the Russian Empire. This is a beautiful collection of poems that provides a counterweight to the more familiar Pasternak of Doctor Zhivago and his other later work.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Loneliness of a Novelist

Radclyffe Hall

"You're neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you're as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you're unexplained as yet -- you've not got your niche in creation." - Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall was born on this day in 1880. She is best known for The Well of Loneliness, the only one of her eight novels to have overt lesbian themes. Published in 1928, The Well of Loneliness deals with the life of Stephen Gordon, a masculine lesbian who, like Hall herself, identifies as an invert. Although Gordon's attitude toward her own sexuality is anguished, the novel presents lesbianism as natural and makes a plea for greater tolerance.  Although The Well of Loneliness is not sexually explicit, it was nevertheless the subject of an obscenity trial in the UK, which resulted in all copies of the novel being ordered destroyed. The United States allowed its publication only after a long court battle. Even though her place in literary history is primarily based upon that novel, or the controversy surrounding it, Hall was well known before her trial. 
In 1926, just two years before The Well of Loneliness, Hall’s Adam’s Breed, a psychological novel about an alienated Italian-Englishman, won both the Prix Femina and the James Tait Black Prize. Her early poems and songs were also popular one of them especially so. A decade before she was accused of writing a “vial of prussic acid” for the nation’s schoolchildren, Hall’s “The Blind Ploughman” was an international hit as a tribute song to WWI veterans who had lost their sight.

Set my hands upon the plough, my feet upon the sod:
Turn my face towards the east, and praise be to God!
Ev'ry year the rains do fall, the seeds they stir and spring;
Ev'ry year the spreading trees shelter birds that sing.

From the shelter of your heart, brother drive out sin.
Let the little birds of faith come and nest therein
God has made His sun to shine on both you and me;
God, who took away my eyes, that my soul might see.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Reading Three

Reading by Numbers


This is the third in a series of entries highlighting some of the books from my library based on the existence of a number in the title. Here are some of my favorite books with Three in the title. They include fiction and an unusual memoir.

The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare

The year: 1377. The place: the Balkan peninsula. Here an Albanian monk chronicles the events surrounding the construction of a bridge across a great river known as Ujana e Keqe, or "Wicked Waters". If successful in their endeavor, the bridge-builders will challenge a monopoly on water transportation. The story itself parallels developments in modern-day Eastern Europe, with the bridge emblematic of a disintegrating economic and political order: just as mysterious cracks in the span's masonry endanger the structure and cast the local community into a morass of uncertainty, superstition and murder, so the fast-changing conditions in the 14th-century Balkan peninsula threaten to overwhelm the stability of life there. Dark as the story itself is, Mr. Kadare's prose, skilfully translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson, is elegant, witty and deft. And with so many twists and turns in its carefully constructed plot, this political parable keeps the reader's interest to the very end.

Proofs and Three Parables by George Steiner

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 ophthalmologist: "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. 

Ninety-three  by Victor Hugo

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo is a glorious romantic imagining of an episode from the year 1793, during the French Revolution and the year of the Great Terror. The setting is Brittany where counter-revolutionary forces have risen up to oppose the Revolutionary leaders. The leader of this group, the aged Marquise de Lantenac, is a romantic hero in the grandest sense. His fate is seems to be determined, however the Revolutionary forces are led by his grand-nephew, Gauvain, who at the last provides the way for Lantenac to escape. The grandeur of this novel is superb, while Hugo builds suspense in every section. Some scenes are so vivid that you are unlikely to forget them, eg. the great cannon episode. The whole of the novel is one astonishing experience that kept this reader spellbound. 

A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano by Katie Hafner

A most unusual biographical study, this is a book about a musician and his music, but even more it is about his search for perfection. The author writes of a search for a piano that is more intense than anything I have experienced in my piano-playing life. While I have encountered several different pianos, from the old upright of my youth to the local public library grand and sturdy spinets at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, I have never obsessed the way Glenn Gould did. 

Katie Hafner makes the story interesting with details of the life of the piano, its caretaker and the marriage of artist and piano in the studio. The piano is a Steinway grand piano known as CD318. The caretaker, an almost completely blind piano tuner, reminded me of a piano tuner who maintained my own spinet for several years. The marriage meant that this piano became part of the history of music performances by one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. While the marriage of piano and pianist was not fated to last forever, that part of the story is best left for the reader to discover for himself. It is a story that this music lover found exceptional. And it is a unique perspective on the life of an artist notorious for his personal eccentricities.

Monday, August 08, 2011

An Heroic Journey

The crime of Galileo (Time reading program special edition)
The Crime of Galileo 
by Giorgio De Santillana

"But I do not feel obliged to believe that that same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them."  - Galileo Galilei 

 I have read this book twice many years apart; first, as background reading in an overview of the History of Science in college and second, in a study group in recent years where a group of adults pondered the meaning and value of this seminal battle in the history of ideas.
 Giorgio de Santillana wrote The Crime of Galileo as an intellectual whodunit which traces not the life but the mental journey of Galileo on his road to personal tragedy. When Galileo was 46 years old, in 1610, he developed the telescope, secured tenure and a big raise at Padua, then went on to make all the discoveries announced in Sidereus Nuncius: mountains on the moon, the moons of Jupiter, phases of Venus, etc. By naming the moons of Jupiter after the Medici family, Galileo landed the job of Mathematician and Philosopher (meaning Physicist) to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and was able to return to his native land. 

"But what exceeds all wonders, I have discovered four new planets and observed their proper and particular motions, different among themselves and from the motions of all the other stars; and these new planets move about another very large star [Jupiter] like Venus and Mercury, and perchance the other known planets, move about the Sun. As soon as this tract, which I shall send to all the philosophers and mathematicians as an announcement, is finished, I shall send a copy to the Most Serene Grand Duke, together with an excellent spyglass, so that he can verify all these truths." 

  This move upset his friends in Venice who had worked so hard to secure his promotion at Padua only months before. Of course, Galileo’s belief that his discoveries with the telescope strongly favored the Copernican world view meant he was headed for trouble with the Church. In fact, his Venetian friends warned him that it might be dangerous to leave the protection of the Venetian state. What we have in this book is the depiction of an intellectual hero second only to Socrates. Santillana succeeds in placing this fascinating episode in the history of science in the context and logic of its own time.

"Eppur si muove." (And yet it does move.)
Referring to the Earth. According to legend, these apocryphal words were uttered to himself as he rose from kneeling after making his abjuration of heliocentricity. In a painting by B. E. Murillo (1643) Galileo is shown at his prison wall, pointing to these words with a diagram of the solar system. 

View all my reviews

Two Poems

by Sara Teasdale

Summer Night, Riverside

In the wild soft summer darkness
How many and many a night we two together
Sat in the park and watched the Hudson
Wearing her lights like golden spangles
Glinting on black satin.
The rail along the curving pathway
Was low in a happy place to let us cross,
And down the hill a tree that dripped with bloom
Sheltered us,
While your kisses and the flowers,
Falling, falling,
Tangled in my hair....

The frail white stars moved slowly over the sky.

And now, far off
In the fragrant darkness
The tree is tremulous again with bloom
For June comes back.

To-night what girl
Dreamily before her mirror shakes from her hair
This year's blossoms, clinging to its coils?

The Flight

We are two eagles
Flying together
Under the heavens,
Over the mountains,
Stretched on the wind.
Sunlight heartens us,
Blind snow baffles us,
Clouds wheel after us
Ravelled and thinned.

We are like eagles,
But when Death harries us,
Human and humbled
When one of us goes,
Let the other follow,
Let the flight be ended,
Let the fire blacken,
Let the book close.

Sara Teasdale was born on this day in 1884, in St. Louis. She has a star in the St. Louis Walk of Fame, not far from T. S. Eliot, born in St. Louis four years later. Teasdale's third poetry collection, Rivers to the Sea, was published in 1915 and was a best seller, being reprinted several times. A year later, in 1916 she moved to New York City with her husband Ernst Filsinger, where they resided in an Upper West Side apartment on Central Park West - she would soon divorce him. In 1918, her poetry collection Love Songs (released 1917) won three awards: the Columbia University Poetry Society prize, the 1918 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the annual prize of the Poetry Society of America.
"The Flight" above is thought to refer to her close friendship with the poet Vachel Lindsay.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating  the Origins of Human Knowledge And Its Transmission Through Myth
Myth and the Frame of Time
Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge And Its Transmission Through Myth

"Inexorable as the stars in their courses, miserationis parcissimae, the Romans used to say.  Yet it was a world somehow not unmindful of man, one in which there was an accepted place for everything, rightfully and not only statistically, where no sparrow could fall unnoted, and where even what was rejected through its own error would not go down to eternal perdition;  for the order of Number and Time was a total order preserving all, of which all were members, gods and men and animal, trees and crystals and even absurd and errant stars, all subject to law and measure."(p 6)

 This is a book that reminds me of the mythological discourses by Joseph Campbell. It is an anthropological detective story that traces the origins of myths throughout the world and finds common elements in their origins. One finding is that the geography of myth is not that of the earth but rather is celestial. For anyone who is familiar with Greek mythology this is not a surprise, but we find here again that mythological language transcends cultural and geographic boundaries. 
 The author explores myths unfamiliar and familiar. For example he discusses the Epic of Gilgamesh in "The Adventure and the Quest". In it he finds connections with myths from India to Greece and beyond linking the symbols to constellations in the sky. The chapter concludes with a reference to knowledge:

"The notion of fire, in various forms, has been one of the recurring themes of this essay. Gilgamesh, like Prometheus, is intimately associated with it. The principle of fire, and the means of producing or acquiring it are best approached through them." (p 316)

 The essence of human knowledge seems bound up in these mythological origins. A difficult read, but worth persevering, Hamlet's Mill should be of interest to all who are interested in the origins of man's mind and his images of the world.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 05, 2011

Reading Lists, or not

Summer Reading

"We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading…is the search for a difficult pleasure."    — Harold Bloom

Last Sunday Julia Keller had another of her Cultural Critic columns about reading books that I found thought-provoking.  It was titled "The ABCs of Summer Reading".Summer Reading, that is assigned reading for high school students, was the topic which reminded me that more than four decades ago when I was a teenager in high school we did not have assigned reading for the Summer.  That did not mean that I was not a regular at our local public library, the Matheson Memorial Library, where I had almost memorized the shelves from my hours of browsing.  Apparently students, particularly those that are planning to graduate and continue on to college, require more motivation in the twenty-first century in the form of suggestions, recommendations and, yes, even required Summer reading.  

Julia Keller takes the required lists to task for including books that she considers too "earnest and improving" and  otherwise age inappropriate.  In her words the books on these lists are not "fun".  Two examples she provides are Rabbit Run by John Updike and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  These are certainly well written novels, and with that she does not disagree, but she suggests that they may discourage teenage readers (boys in particular) from developing a love for reading; the adult perspective, she thinks, is not one that can be appreciated by the teenage mind.  Certainly I would agree that it is difficult; yet it is not impossible and it is certainly worth the attempt.   She recommends substituting genre fiction in the form of stories about those things in which a boy is likely to be more interested, say sports or animals, or books that are more age appropriate like William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow or James Agee's A Death in the Family.  

To her credit Ms. Keller recommends substitutes that are well-written classics in their own right.  However she sounds like those from the school of reading almost anything is better than not reading at all.  I suggest that a better approach, and that which the Summer reading lists she criticizes take, would be to encourage high school readers to challenge themselves to read the more difficult, "earnest and improving" books as a way to broaden and deepen their reading experience.  Perhaps this reading could be augmented by genre fiction on the side and with kudos to Ms. Keller I would heartily endorse her recommendation of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (or most anything by that wonderful fantasist) as it was one of my favorites from my high school years.  And I did not need a Summer Reading list in order to read and enjoy it.