Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Literary Cornucopia

Tom Jones (Oxford World's Classics)
Tom Jones 

"Peradventure there may be no parts in this prodigious work which will give the reader less pleasure in perusing than those which have given the author the greatest pains in composing. Among these, probably, may be reckoned those initial essays which we have prefixed to the historical matter contained in every book, and which we have determined to be essentially necessary to this kind of writing, of which we have set ourselves at the head.
For this our determination we do not hold ourselves strictly bound to assign any reason, it being abundantly sufficient that we have laid it down as a rule necessary to be observed in all prosai-comi-epic writing. Who ever demanded the reasons of that nice unity of time or place which is now established as so essential to dramatic poetry?" (V, 1)

Having read Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Homer's Odyssey to name two thematically related however chronologically different literary creations I should have been ready for Fielding's foundling. However, it is taking a while to warm up to Fielding's style of storytelling. What we have is an omnipresent author/narrator whose story includes many fascinating characters, one of whom is that author/narrator himself. The reader is treated to a series of eighteen books each containing several chapters the first of which in each case is an essay by the author about the story itself or just about most anything the author feels is relevant or necessary for the reader's edification.
But I digress, under the influence of Fielding, from the story itself which is billed as a history of Tom Jones who, as the name suggests, is a sort of every-man, a more common version of Odysseus or Don Quixote for the eighteenth century. The history is a fiction and as such is populated by fictional characters. The characters surrounding him, from his teachers, Thwackum and Square, to the Squires, Allworthy and Western, are clearly drawn with wit and wisdom; lest I forget the women for Tom has a strong and healthy interest in them whether they are low like Molly or high like Sophia Western -- women continue to perplex Tom and enliven the plot.  And Tom has a good opinion of himself as the narrator notes,  "Can any man have a higher notion of the rule of right and the eternal fitness of things?" (Book IV, Ch. 4).  
As I entered the concluding chapters of this lively novel I found myself looking for a word to sum up my experience. I think I have found that word -- cornucopia. The abundance of characters, stories, places, and all that goes with each of these can best be considered a cornucopia. These melded with Fielding's continual insertions through essays and commentaries begins to suggest to me why this novel is considered great - one of the first of its kind in modern literature.
I also find myself comparing the hero of this story to other literary heroes whose name adorns the title of their stories. For example, David Copperfield, Adam Bede, Pendennis, and Jude the Obscure come to mind. All of these owe at least a part of their literary heritage to Fielding's Tom. Even though there is a significant change in the psychology of the characters from David to Jude, the foundation for them all and many others is the History of Tom Jones.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Insight into Russian Authors

Russian Thinkers (Penguin Philosophy)
Russian Thinkers 

“Science cannot destroy the consciousness of freedom, without which there is no morality and no art, but it can refute it.” 
― Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History

Classic work on Russian literature and ideas. Included in his excellent collection of essays, Russian Thinkers, Isaiah Berlin has a fascinating essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. In this essay Berlin uses the distinction found in a fragment of the poet Archilocus that argues that there are two types of thinkers: Hedgehogs, who know one big thing and foxes, who know many things. Berlin goes on to categorize the great thinkers of the ages into groups based on this distinction. Hedgehogs like Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal and Dostoevsky versus foxes like Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Goethe and Balzac. He goes on to attempt to classify Tolstoy and analyze his view of history. It is a worthy task and I will recommend to all that they read the essay and decide for themselves what Berlin succeeds in accomplishing with all his analysis. It is essays like this one that document the seriousness of the thought of Isaiah Berlin. The essays include ones on other Russian luminaries, including Alexander Herzen, Belinsky, Tolstoy, Bakunin, and the populists (including Chernyshevsky). His insight into Russian authors like Turgenev is magnificent. This is a delightful collection of essays.

Goodreads Update

Poem for Today

Sonnet #104

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers' pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn'd
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn'd,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion and mine eye may be deceived:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred;
Ere you were born was beauty's summer dead.

- William Shakespeare

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

London, necessary and contingent

Under the Net 

“I hate solitude, but i'm afraid of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself which to turn into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction. The company which I need is the company which a pub or a cafe will provide. I have never wanted a communion of souls. It's already hard enough to tell the truth to oneself.”  ― Iris Murdoch, Under the Net

Iris Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net, has wonderful characters, including writers, eccentrics and a glamorous actress; but the character that imbues the novel as no other is London itself. The novel follows a picaresque structure, recounting a series of episodes narrated in the first person by James Donaghue, known as Jake. Moreover, London becomes the central setting of the main character’s adventures (particularly Holborn and the financial districts), together with brief but important scenes that take place in another great and enigmatic city, Paris. 

 London appears in many other ways, even philosophically. She wrote "There are some parts of London which are necessary and others which are contingent". But for Murdoch, in her novel, all of London is part of the story she weaves around her writer-hero, Jake Donaghue. It was dedicated to Raymond Queneau. When Jake leaves Madge's flat in Chapter 1, two of the books he mentions taking are Murphy by Samuel Beckett, and Pierrot mon Ami by Queneau, both of which are echoed in this story. Another character, Hugo Belfounder, is mainly based on Yorick Smythies, a student of Wittgenstein's.  It seems that literary references abound as in this example:
"...I like the women in novels by James and Conrad who are so peculiarly flower-like and who are described as 'guileless, profound, confident, and trustful'. That 'profound' is good: fluttering white hands and as deep as the sea..." (p 28)

 The epigraph for the novel, from John Dryden's Secular Masque, refers to the way in which the main character is driven from place to place by his misunderstandings. Angus Wilson summed it up as "wine, women, and Wittgenstein". Overall the novel is an exciting beginning to what would become a brilliant writing career.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch. Penguin Books, 1977 (1954)

The Children's Crusade


"Eheu, fugaces laburuntur anni," - Horace

"Billy was having an adventure very common among people without power in time of war: He was trying to prove to a willfully deaf and blind enemy that he was interesting to hear and see. He kept silent until the lights went out at night, and then, when there had been a long silence containing nothing to echo, he said to Rumfoord, "I was in Dresden when it was bombed. I was a prisoner of war." - Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

This is one of my favorite Vonnegut novels. A satirical novel about World War II experiences and journeys through time of a soldier called Billy Pilgrim, it is widely regarded as among the most significant works of 20th century literatures, and is generally recognized as Vonnegut's most influential and popular work. In the story Billy survives capture by the Germans, the Dresden bombings, and the struggle for financial success only to be kidnapped in a flying saucer and taken to the planet Tralfamadore. Through the hero Billy Pilgrim, we see the central themes of Vonnegut’s humanism along with his satirical take on how disgusting it is when humans don’t use their (limited) free will to prevent simple atrocities. In it we explore fate, free will and the illogical nature of human beings. Protagonist Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time, randomly experiencing the events of his life, with no idea of what part he will next visit — so, his life does not end with death; he re-lives his death, before its time, an experience often mingled with his other experiences.  
Billy Pilgrim says there is no free will, an assertion confirmed by a Tralfamadorian, who says, "I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe . . . Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." The story's central concept: most of humanity is insignificant; they do what they do, because they must.  A great example of how we use humor to deal with hardship, and the conflict between the way heroism is conveyed through stories for actions in situations that perhaps could have been avoided altogether.
“So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.”
What also impressed me was the way Vonnegut integrated symbolism, imagery and allegory throughout the novel.  For example Slaughterhouse-Five uses a lot of elements from the fictional part of the novel, and specifically from Billy's experiences on Tralfamadore, to structure the book as a whole. Not only do the stars in the Tralfamadorian novel appear throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, but the fact that the book is told out of chronological order fits the Tralfamadorian concept of time. 
Slaughterhouse-Five was nominated for a best-novel Nebula Award and for a best-novel Hugo Award, 1970. It lost both to The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. While I would also rate it a notch below LeGuin's classic novel it is still very good, certainly the best Vonnegut that I have read.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Britain's Operatic Genius

Benjamin Britten

“It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony.”  ― Benjamin Britten

Britten was born, by happy coincidence on this day, St. Cecilia's Day, in 1913 at the family home in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England. He was the youngest of four children, with a brother, Robert (1907), and two sisters, Barbara (1902) and Beth (1909). He was educated locally, and studied, first, piano, and then, later, viola, from private teachers.
He began to compose as early as 1919, and after about 1922, composed steadily until his death. At a concert in 1927, conducted by composer Frank Bridge, he met Bridge, later showed him several of his compositions, and ultimately Bridge took him on as a private pupil. After two years at Gresham's School in Holt, Norfolk, he entered the Royal College of Music in London (1930) where he studied composition with John Ireland and piano with Arthur Benjamin. During his stay at the RCM he won several prizes for his compositions.
He completed a choral work, A Boy was Born, in 1933; at a rehearsal for a broadcast performance of the work by the BBC Singers, he met tenor Peter Pears, the beginning of a lifelong personal and professional relationship. (Many of Britten's solo songs, choral and operatic works feature the tenor voice, and Pears was the designated soloist at many of their premieres.)
From about 1935 until the beginning of World War II, Britten did a great deal of composing for the GPO Film Unit, for BBC Radio, and for small, usually left-wing, theater groups in London. During this period he met and worked frequently with the poet W. H. Auden who provided texts for numerous songs as well as complete scripts for which Britten provided incidental music.
In the spring of 1939, Britten and Pears sailed for North America, eventually settling in Amityville, Long Island, NY. In 1940 he worked with Auden on what would become his first opera, actually an operetta for high schools called Paul Bunyan, based on traditional American folk characters. However, on a trip to California in 1941, he read an article by E. M. Forster on the English poet George Crabbe, planting the seed for what would eventually be Britten's first opera and one of my favorites, Peter Grimes. In 1942, Serge Koussevitzky became interested in Britten's music and performed the Sinfonia da Requiem with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Out of this association came the commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation (in memory of Koussevitzky's late wife Natalie) for the new opera, based on Crabbe's work The Borough. Britten and Pears worked on the scenario during their return voyage to England in March, 1942.
During the early 40s, Britten produced a number of works, outstanding among them the Hymn to St. Cecilia, A Ceremony of Carols, Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Serenade (for tenor, horn, and strings), Rejoice in the Lamb, and the Festival Te Deum. Peter Grimes, with a libretto by Montagu Slater, was complete in 1945 and had its premiere on June 7 of that year by the Sadler's Wells Opera Company. (Slightly over a year later, the work had its American premiere at the Boston Symphony's summer home at Tanglewood, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.) 
One of Britten's best known works is The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946), which was composed to accompany Instruments of the Orchestra, an educational film produced by the British government, narrated and conducted by Malcolm Sargent. Its subtitle is Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell; the theme is a melody from  Henry Purcell's Abdelazar. Britten gives individual variations to each of the sections of the orchestra, starting with the woodwind, then the string instruments, the brass instruments and finally the percussion. Britten then brings the whole orchestra together again in a fugue before restating the theme to close the work.
Among his many other operas my favorites include The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Billy Budd (1951) Gloriana (1953), The Turn of the Screw (1954), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960),  Owen Wingrave (1970) [for television], and finally Death in Venice (1973).
Britten was awarded the Order of Merit in March 1965; he was created a Life Peer, Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk, in the Queen's Birthday Honours List, June, 1976. Three years earlier, in May, 1973, he had undergone open heart surgery which left him an invalid for the remainder of his life. He was nevertheless able to attend the London premiere of Death in Venice at Covent Garden, October, 1973, and was able to travel to Germany and Italy. He died at his home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on 4 December 1976 and is buried in the churchyard of the Aldeburgh Parish Church. His colleagues Peter Pears and Imogene Holst, co-founders with BB of the Aldeburgh Festival, lie in adjacent graves.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Spinning World

Let the Great World Spin
Let the Great World Spin 

“Some people think love is the end of the road, and if you're lucky enough to find it, you stay there. Other people say it just becomes a cliff you drive off, but most people who've been around awhile know it's just a thing that changes day by day, and depending on how much you fight for it, you get it, or you hold on to it, or you lose it, but sometimes it's never even there in the first place.”   ― Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin

  The world spins and our lives go on. Each of these lives is made up of words and stories that intersect with each other. The stories overlap and connections are made and broken. This novel takes up these notions and, adding a focal point with the event and wonder at the achievement of a mysterious tightrope walker in August, 1974, tells the stories of some lives of people in New York City whose world like ours was spinning.  “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.” (p 349)
  I was impressed with this novel filled with calamities and disorder, people from judges to prostitutes, the high and the low -- McCann was not afraid to portray the underbelly of society, the immigrants (one would not expect less from such a well-traveled Irish writer), and the magic of the funambulist at the center of it all. The disorder begins even before the two Irish brothers whose story opens the novel when one of them is knocked down by an explosion. There will be more disorder before their story ends, but the spinning theme is also the glue that ties the stories and the characters' world together with a sort of structure. The stories include those told by the mother of Corrigan and his brother: "she would launch into a story of her own creation, fables that sent my brother and me to different places, and we would wake in the morning wondering if we had dreamed different parts of the same dream, or if we had duplicated each other, or if in some strange world our dreams had overlapped . . . We have all heard of these things before. The love letter arriving as the teacup falls. The guitar striking up as the last breath sounds out. I don't attribute it to God or to sentiment. Perhaps it's chance."(p 68)
  Yes, chance plays a role in the novel. But the intersection of lives also evokes the era, one centered on that famous tightrope walk between the twin towers.  This era, one that was lost in September of 2001, is merely adumbrated in this novel which seems to lose focus at times,  and it is story, not plot, driven.  I am reminded of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland which also tells a story of post-2001 New York City with similarly disparate characters, but a more focused plot.   The overall effect of McCann's narrative is one that seems fitting to New York City (although there are many other stories of the city that are not included here) and the new milennium. Each reader will have to decide for himself what the stories mean.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Advocate for Freedom

Capitalism and Freedom
Capitalism and Freedom 

“The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.” 
“The society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither. The society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both”
"Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself."
― Milton Friedman

I recently saw an encore presentation of a classic interview of Milton Friedman by Brian Lamb on Booknotes. This interview reminded me that this book is one of the most important books I have ever read. Capitalism and Freedom was a primary contributor to my decision to major in Economics in college. As a freshman in the fall of 1967 I was privileged to be part of the "Honors" program and one of the courses I took as part of that program of studies was Economics. One of our readings was this little (it is relatively short) book by Milton Friedman. It is a powerful little book full of exciting ideas about the power of capitalism and the importance of free market and the fundamental premise that freedom is the foundation for prosperity. I was moved to read and discover more about the science of economics and now, more than forty years later, I still consider the lessons of Milton Friedman, who would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1976,  in this book, and in his many others including the great Free to Choose, to be foundational for my view of the world.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Kafkaesque or not?

Some Novels of Jose Saramago

“Words are like that, they deceive, they pile up, it seems they do not know where to go, and, suddenly, because of two or three or four that suddenly come out, simple in themselves, a personal pronoun, an adverb, an adjective, we have the excitement of seeing them coming irresistibly to the surface through the skin and the eyes and upsetting the composure of our feelings, sometimes the nerves that can not bear it any longer, they put up with a great deal, they put up with everything, it was as if they were wearing armor, we might say.”  ― José Saramago, Blindness

José Saramago, Portugal's only Nobel winner (1998) was born on this day in 1922. In an interview several years before his death in 2010, Saramago said that he thought the best place to start for anyone unfamiliar with his unusual novels would be Journey to Portugal, his 1981 travel book (If this book is as good as Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk I would agree, but unfortunately I have not read the Saramago work). Perhaps he's right, but I am more familiar with his novels, especially The History of the Siege of Lisbon, Blindness, and All The Names

 All The Names is the story of a middle-aged civil servant  named Senhor Jose, who works as a clerk in the Central Registry for births, marriages and deaths. He is the only person named in the story–all the remaining characters in the novel are referred to by their titles or descriptions: The Registrar, the woman in the apartment, and so on. It is an interesting literary device, given the title of the book, but not surprising if you read this as an allegory.  Senhor Jose, still a bachelor in his fifties, lives a quiet life with no social life, or family to visit. At his work and the hierarchical structure and discipline of the institution does not allow for personal exchanges of any kind. He has spent a lifetime alongside co-workers that know nothing significant about him. In order to maintain a connection with humanity, he clips articles out of newspapers and magazines and keeps his own personal registry of stranger’s lives. He secretly cross-checks his files with those of the official labyrinth files at the Central Registry. One day the filing card of “an unknown woman” sticks to the other files he has surreptitiously borrowed for his hobby. The file of the unknown woman begins to haunt his life. In response he steps out of his lonely existence to try to track her down and , in doing so he becomes a sleuth and a forger and much more. The tension through the novel builds as we begin to learn more about the unknown woman and this tension exhibits itself in Senhor Jose, who comes under the suspicion of his boss. The remainder of the novel takes on a Proustian stream-of-consciousness internal monologue with the reader drifting in a sort of haze of metaphor and allegory that is the most beautiful consequence of this novel. It has been compared to a Kafkaesque experience. 

In the novel Blindness Saramago uses a quotation from the Book of Exhortations as the epigram: "If you can see, look. If you can look, observe". Near the end of this novel, when the blind people are getting their vision back, he has one of his characters remark:" I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see" (p 292). These two quotations suggest the political and philosophical intention of the novel.  The greatest problem with an allegorical novel like Blindness is that it grants too much freedom to the reader. It allows too many interpretations. Saramago uses blindness as a metaphor for both personal misfortune and social catastrophe. The story begins when the first blind man loses his vision in his car while waiting for a traffic light to change. The man who helps him get safely home goes back and steals his car. The next day the wife of the first blind man takes him to see the eye doctor. Within a few days, the wife of the first blind man, the car thief, the doctor and all of the patients in his waiting room also go blind. The only character in the novel that miraculously avoids the affliction of blindness is the doctor's wife. Saramago's writings have often been discussed as an example of "magic realism". However, it has been suggested that Blindness has more in common with Kafka's allegorical novels than it does with works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie. The fundamental problem posed by allegorical novels is how to locate their political and social meaning. Saramago provides his readers with few clues to guide interpretation. 

 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 in 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 complex 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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Finding Words in Reading

A Reading Diary: 
A Passionate Reader's Reflections 
on a Year of Books 

“Maybe this is why we read, and why in moments of darkness we return to books: to find words for what we already know.”  - Alberto Manguel

Life and literature are seldom closer than in the writings of Alberto Manguel. In this personal book he relates his experience of reading over the course of one year. It is a compendium of notes , reflections, and impressions of both reading and travel, his life and friendships as illuminated by his reading. This "Diary" can be read as a memoir or used as a reference guide to one's own reading. The texts are all worthwhile; I found some old favorites, new authors and classic texts all within Manguel's reading annual. This little book, slightly more than two hundred pages, has Rabelaisian qualities confined in a little space. There are lists, wide-ranging comments, thoughts, statements, beliefs, pronouncements, and a veritable litany of the delights of living the reading life.
The subtitle of the book, "A Passionate Reader's Reflections on a Year of Books", captures the essence of the text. For Manguel is a "passionate reader" in every sense of that phrase and his reflections are illuminating. I would welcome further annuals like this, and find myself challenged to make my own. For like the author, I consider myself a "passionate reader".

The Reading List:
The Invention of Morel by Adofo Bioy Casares
The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand
The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
Elective Affinities by Goethe
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Don Quixote by Cervantes
The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati
The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Machado de Asis

Monday, November 14, 2011

The meaning of rereading

On Rereading Books

“There's nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over. When you do, the words get inside you, become a part of you, in a way that words in a book you've read only once can't.”
― Gail Carson Levine, Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly

Once again I have found an inspiring Lit Life column by Julia Keller.  In Sunday's Chicago Tribune she noted the new novel by Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery, and while a new novel by the distinguished author Eco is always worth noting she turned to comment on the "powerful urge to reread two of Eco's works: "The Name of the Rose" (1980), a love letter to a library cleverly disguised as a murder mystery, and "Foucault's Pendulum" (1988), which, with its labyrinthine plot and echo chamber of conspiratorial whisperings, serves as a sort of dry run for some of the ideas in "The Prague Cemetery.""  This urge leads her to discussion of the emotions engendered in readers everywhere by the tug of war between books yet unread and the richness of those great and not so great books that we remember fondly from our first and perhaps precious previous rereadings.
This is a war that must go on in the heads of many readers, I know that I have experienced some of the same feelings described by Ms. Keller in her essay.  Why forgo a new work by a young but creative author for yet one more read of a classic or a favorite?  She suggests that Eco understands this dilemma based on his oeuvre and his comments in a recent work, "Confessions of a Young Novelist" that notes the contradictions raised by novelists who present life with all of its inconsistencies and want "to stage a series of contradictions." In response Ms. Keller asks the question whether rereading is merely repeating oneself.
In response I would turn to my own experience and say that rereading may be merely repeating oneself;  but it does not have to be merely that - for then it would be a contradiction of the joy and wonder and benefits of reading.  If, however you learn from your rereading, much as the philosopher Santayana suggests that one should learn from history, you can put that learning to good use in the exploration and enjoyment of new reading.  For example, there is a literary tradition that exerts its influence on contemporary writers just as it has on writers over the centuries.  Robert Alter, in "The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age" (1989), identifies this cohesiveness as a "powerful impulse of self-recapitulation".  I have found rereading, especially those powerful foundational texts, increases ones ability to recognize the cohesiveness of the literary tradition when it inevitably pops up in contemporary novels.  Eco himself, in yet another of his many works "Six Walks in the Fictional Woods" (1994), observes that, "In a narrative text, the reader is forced to make choices all the time."  I would further suggest that rereading texts helps the reader in making those choices when faced with new and different responses of writers to the challenge of creating a novel and presenting new contradictions.  
The excitement of reading is multiplied for every reader by each of our unique experiences.  Rereading familiar and not so familiar texts can be a catalyst to help increase the excitement as we experience new and unfamiliar novelistic worlds.  This excitement - rereading books - begs the question of why read at all, and no one has answered that question better than Marcel Proust:
"It seemed to me that they would not be 'my' readers but readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician at Combray used to offer his customers -- it would be my book but with it I would furnish them the means of reading what lay inside themselves.  So that I would not ask them to praise me or to censure me, but simply to tell me whether 'it really is like that.'  I should ask whether the words that they read within themselves are the same as those which I have written."*

* from In Search of Lost Time, quoted in Why Read? by Mark Edmundson (Bloomsbury, 2004), pp. 3-4.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Le Mot Juste

"Before she married, she thought she was in love; but the happiness that should have resulted from that love, somehow had not come. It seemed to her that she must have made a mistake, have misunderstood in some way or another. And Emma tried hard to discover what, precisely, it was in life that was denoted by the words 'joy, passion, intoxication', which had always looked so fine to her in books."  - Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, Ch. 5

Gustave Flaubert famously declared "No lyricism, no digressions, personality of the author absent", when commenting to his friend and literary confidant Louis Bouilhet about his tone of writing Madame Bovary. That is the hallmark of Flaubert's style and the aim of his hard work writing slowly to make sure he had just the right words. He became his characters, entered into their lives and dreamt their dreams. This resulted in the masterpiece that has become a classic of French literature.
The story is one of a doctor's wife, Emma Bovary, who has adulterous affairs and lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life. Though the basic plot is rather simple, even archetypal, the novel's true art lies in its details and hidden patterns. And in the psychological details portrayed by the author, for example in chapter seven:  "for her, life was as cold as an attic with a window looking to the north, and ennui, like a spider, was silently spinning its shadowy web in every cranny of her heart."  This, only one of many instances of the psychology of Madame Bovary and Flaubert's continuing search for le mot juste (the right word).  
Demonstrating the truth of Keats's dictum about truth and beauty, Flaubert achieves a mood of 'aesthetic mysticism' that has seldom been reached by others. The result is one that we as readers can enjoy and marvel at the power of his words. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Literati

The Information
The Information 

“Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It's nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that...Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and sob probes, and you would mark them. Women--and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses--will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, "What is it?" And the men will say, "Nothing. No it isn't anything really. Just sad dreams.”   ― Martin Amis, The Information

By the time I read The Information, the novel was notable not so much for its critical success, but for the scandals surrounding its publication, I had already enjoyed London Fields. The Information, while also set in London had a more contemporaneous plot and with its focus on the literati held my attention in spite of Amis's sometimes anarchic prose style. The enormous advance (an alleged £500,000) demanded and subsequently obtained by Amis for the novel attracted what the author described as "an Eisteddfod of hostility" from writers and critics after he abandoned his long-serving agent, the late Pat Kavanagh, in order to be represented by the Harvard-educated Andrew "The Jackal" Wylie. The split was by no means amicable; it created a rift between Amis and his long-time friend, Julian Barnes, who was married to Kavanagh. According to Amis's autobiography Experience (2000), he and Barnes had not resolved their differences.
The Information itself deals with the relationship between a pair of British writers of fiction. One, a spectacularly successful purveyor of "airport novels," is envied by his friend, an equally unsuccessful writer of philosophical and generally abstruse prose. The novel is written in the author's classic style: characters appearing as stereotyped caricatures, grotesque elaborations on the wickedness of middle age, and a general air of post-apocalyptic malaise.
Amis's novels are somewhat an acquired taste and his claim to be influenced by Jane Austen seems to have dissipated by the appearance of this and later novels. On the other hand perhaps not, with a fascination for words and contemporary relationships Amis's style may mirror our current world in a way not that different from Austen in her world.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Haunting Melodies

Two Pavanes
"The song is ended / But the melody lingers on."
 -  Irving Berlin
The pavane, pavan, paven, pavin, pavian, pavine, or pavyn (It. pavana, padovana; Ger. Paduana) is a slow processional dance common in Europe during the 16th century.   The origin of this term is not known with any certainty;  possibilities include the word being
from Italian "[danza] Padovana", meaning "[dance] typical of Padua" (as in Bergamask); this is consistent with the equivalent form, "Paduana".  The decorous sweep of the pavane suited the new more sober Spanish-influenced courtly manners of 16th century Italy.  It appears in dance manuals in England, France, and Italy.  The pavane as a musical form survived long after the dance itself was abandoned, and well into the Baroque period, when it finally gave way to the more recent allemande/courante sequence.  Two examples stand out in my experience: 

The classical composition Pavane by Gabriel Fauré is one of my favorites.  Composed in 1887, the same year he set Verlaine's poem Claire de Lune to music, this is a version of this dance form for small orchestra.  Its haunting melody is a melancholy tune that is shared between woodwind and strings.  Maurice Ravel shared a fascination for earlier dance forms, but his famous Pavane pour une infante defunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess) was apparently based as much on the musical style of his teacher, Gabriel Faure.  The piece was written for solo piano in 1899, while Ravel was studying with Faure, and the orchestral version, with its lovely and imaginative use of the french horn for the melody, was composed in 1910.

Both pieces have been adapted for wind ensemble which was where I first encountered them.  Their haunting melodies and evocative harmonies have made them favorites of mine ever since.

Temptation of a Young Girl

Sister Carrie
Sister Carrie 

“People in general attach too much importance to words. They are under the illusion that talking effects great results. As a matter of fact, words are, as a rule, the shallowest portion of all the argument. They but dimly represent the great surging feelings and desires which lie behind. When the distraction of the tongue is removed, the heart listens.”   ― Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie

This was my introduction to the world of Theodore Dreiser more than forty years ago when I was devouring American literature in high school. His journalistic prose style, while sometimes prolix, was just right for me and I read his novels about Frank Cowperwood and the massive An American Tragedy. But before Clyde Griffiths' downfall there was the story of Sister Carrie, published on November 8, 1900 to a prolonged uproar, that riveted me as she succumbed to the advances of vastly more experienced men. A Pamela some 150 years on, Carrie also confronts temptation, making the leap from her small town to Chicago and, feeling that she had few options, into the calculating arms of the travelling salesman, Drouet. After overcoming her doubts about sharing the salesman’s apartment, she stands before the window looking into her "never wholly convincing” conscience:
"It was only an average little conscience, a thing which represented the world, her past environment, habit, convention, in a confused way. With it, the voice of the people was only the voice of God.
“Oh, thou failure!” said the voice.
“Why?” she questioned.
“Look at those about,” came the whispered answer. “Look at those who are good. How would they scorn to do what you have done. Look at the good girls; how will they draw away from such as you when they know you have been weak. You had not tried before you failed.”
Carrie moves up the social ladder to the wealthy George Hurstwood. Fleeing an unhappy marriage he takes her to New York City. There things take a turn, for while the book is of course about Carrie herself as the story goes on, it becomes more of Hurstwood’s tale. Yes, Carrie is still the force driving it, but we are given two separate lives—as Carrie manages to thrive, Hurstwood becomes homeless, helpless. The handling of these characters and their tragic lives makes this a great book by one of America's best writers.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The String Serenade

From Mozart to Tchaikovsky and Beyond

In October of 1880 as Tchaikovsky was in the process of composing what would become his most famous overture, the 1812 Overture, op.49, he was also en-rapt in the creative process that would produce a very different composition;  the Serenade for Strings, op. 48.  A composer who battled continually with self-doubt, Tchaikavsky was unusually proud of the serenade for he wrote to his benefactor Nadia von Meck describing it  as "a heartfelt piece and so . . . not lacking in real qualities."  It is a lovely four movement composition with classical style and one of Tchaikovsky's most delightful waltzes as the second of those movements. 

Almost a century earlier in August, 1787, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart entered in his catalogue of compositions a short notturno or serenade as "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" (a little night music).  These pieces, both favorites of mine and many other music lovers, are definitive examples of the string serenade, a genre that would extend well into the twentieth century with prominent popular compositions by Elgar, Dvorak, Vaughan Williams and Suk among others. The Serenade by the Swedish composer Dag Wirén is also one of my favorites with sparkling modern melodies seasoned with just a bit of dissonance and delightful rhythms.

The string Serenade is typically a lighter work, often including folk themes or dance-based movements like the waltz mentioned above.  While often in four movements like a symphony it may have more or less.  Serenade is from the French French sérénade, from Italian serenata, from sereno, calm, clear, the open air, from Latin serēnus. (the same root for serene).
As the name serenade implies it is a composition that achieves serene song-like character through the use of the variety of sounds of the string ensemble.
In addition to the famous waltz Tchaikovsky uses a lively Russian folk song as the basis for the final movement of his Serenade for Strings.  This practice was continued by Vaughan Williams in pieces like both his Fantasias on "Greensleeves" and on "a theme by Thomas Tallis".  My favorite, Dvorak's Serenade for Strings in E, Op. 22, which unlike a typical symphony of the day has a first movement (Moderato) that is the briefest of the lot. Its primary theme is a guileless melody that is made the subject of playful imitation; delicately pointed dotted rhythms fill the central, G major section. More than once, the C sharp minor Tempo di Valse second movement shows a better-than-passing resemblance to Chopin's C sharp minor Waltz, Op. 64/2, though Dvorák never veers far from his own Bohemian roots; certainly a five-measure waltz-phrase like Dvorák's main idea is something Chopin might have reconsidered. The third movement, Scherzo, is a Vivace zinger; the Larghetto's main tune is a beautifully resigned. The rhythm and shape of the introductory measures of the finale to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony sneak into the start of the Serenade's finale (Allegro vivace). The themes of first the Larghetto and then the Moderato first movement make encore appearances as the finale unfolds.
The serenade for strings is a melodic space in the universe of classical music and one that includes many stellar examples such as those discussed above.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Bending Fiction


"Nothing is as central to our understanding of the world, and our conception of ourselves within the world, as the idea of presence.  Yet nothing is more elusive."(p 1)

"P.S. And, by the way Landfall is not a diary of my time in Galicia, and I am not its narrator.  It's a novel." (From Atchley's letter to Fletcher dated February 10, 1998, p 32)

"Think back to that first time you saw the sea.  What fascinated you most was how the earth curved away beyond the horizon and left the eye nothing but an endless guld of empty space to dwell on." (Landfall, p 91)

This short novel(?) is constructed from four pieces of fiction. After a one page preface it begins with a philosophic essay on the concept of "presence". There follows an analysis of the novella Landfall, excerpts from the letters of the author, Atchley, and the novella Landfall. In the tradition of Nabokov's Pale Fire we are faced with the reflexivity of fiction that comments on itself along with the confusion of non-fiction with fiction. Boundaries are broken and the world is challenged with words that do not fall within the structures of novel writing that have developed over the centuries since Fielding and Richardson.
And yet, there are plenty of examples of rebels shaking the novel out of his doldrum existence. In addition to Nabokov, we can look back to Sterne and Joyce; more recently Barth and Wallace among others have bent the rules. This novel is a short example that will entertain those willing to join in the author's imaginative playfulness.

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Saturday, November 05, 2011

Vignettes from the Middle Century

Mrs. Bridge: A Novel
Mrs. Bridge: A Novel 

"She spent a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by the sense that she was waiting.  But waiting for what?  She did not know." 

This is a beautifully written novel. Built through a mosaic of vignettes and episodes in the life of the titular character and her family, the novel gently limns the world of the aptly named Mrs. Bridge. She is a part of the generation that tries to hold on to the past during the era between the wars. It is not immediately clear that her family is living through the depression, although early in the novel the hard work of her husband is emphasized, it is hard work that pays off in a better life for Mrs. Bridge and the family. Toward the end of the book, their son Douglas heads off to WWII, signalling an end to an era. While the senior Bridges are tradition bound and deeply conformist, their children and their society are changing rapidly. Evan Connell paints a sympathetic but fairly condescending portrait of Mrs. Bridge as she fights to hold back the tide of these changes. She struggles to preserve proprieties and appearances as her three children grow increasingly rebellious at the stifling social conventions that she seeks to force upon them.
Meanwhile, as the children grow away from her, and with Mr. Bridge completely focused on his legal work, Mrs. Bridge begins to sense an emptiness in her own life. At one point, a friend who later takes her own life asks : "Have you ever felt like those people in the Grimm fairy tales--the ones who were all hollowed out in back?" This is pretty clearly Connell's point in the book, that Mrs. Bridge, however likable, is indeed hollow, that she is all deference to her husband, service to her children, and conformity to public mores, with no room left over for a unique and genuine person. He conveys this message with great humor and no little understanding, but it can't help but be a pretty harsh indictment of her essentially wasted life.
Then there are two scenes with Mr. Bridge, one where, having gone to their club to celebrate their anniversary, he refuses to leave the dinner table as a tornado approaches. The twister does indeed miss them, but the episode suggests the solidity of Mr. Bridge and of their marriage, both unyielding even to forces of nature :
"The tornado, whether impressed by his intransigence or touched by her devotion, had drawn itself up into the sky and was never seen or heard of again."

And in the most moving scene, Mrs. Bridge, despite having not cooked in years, tries to make Mr. Bridge's favorite dessert, pineapple bread, and biffs it horribly, Mr. Bridge gently tells her, "Never mind", and the next day brings her a dozen roses. Though Mr. Bridge is rarely even present in the book, these episodes capture the strength and essential goodness of the marriage.
Finally, though the children move away, even move quite far away, the most pleasant thoughts of the more rebellious daughter are of home and the other daughter returns whenever there's trouble in her own ill-advised marriage. And the son, Douglas, grows up to be a man very much like his father. They, like Mrs. Bridge, and like the author himself, seem to realize that though the life that the Bridges have made may at first seem emotionally stunted, overly circumscribed, and unfulfilling, upon further reflection, there is something powerfully compelling about it.
This book is terrific, by turns moving and funny and heartbreaking - there are many small moments of humor that both lighten and enliven the story. But in the end, the Bridges come off much better than they first appear, and forty years later they look better still. Would that we had a bridge back to the simple values they represent.

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Jane Austen in the Information Age

Technology and Jane Austen

“It is only a novel... or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” 
― Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

A lecture with the title, "Sense and Sensibility in the Age of Technology: Will Jane Austen survive?", suggests to me that I will be treated to a discussion of the latest ways that Jane Austen's novels have been morphed into electronic tidbits for our information age.  I remembered that in Jane Austen's day information was sent by letters, but this lecture informed us about the technology of our day - the internet and what changes that technology has spawned. 
The topic was presented yesterday by the lucid lecturer on Austen and the humanities, Elisabeth Lenckos - Instructor in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago,  and I was not disappointed in the result of her presentation.  In the introduction to the topic she surveyed the changes wrought by technological progress in recent years including the growth of the internet and its impact on the creative urges of human beings as they have progressed beyond the age of homo ludens.  The body of the lecture featured a brilliant answer to the questions of the title with variations on the theme of technology and its impact on our reading of Jane Austen. The lecture quickly provided the answer that most attendees were no doubt expecting to the titular question.  It was a resounding yes.  But the answer only led to further questions about how and why this must be true.  Rather than relying simply on the the beautiful and economic prose style of Miss Austen, which is without doubt part of the answer, Ms. Lenckos turned to the philosophical foundations of Austen's novels.  She identified empiricism as evidenced by the importance of experience and observation in Austen's work along side rationalism as evidenced by the intuitive nature of the important characters.  The ability of "good" people in the novels (Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood) to identify and understand the "frauds" (George Wickham or John Willoughby) was possible because they would observe and learn from their experience.  
I especially appreciated the lecturer's take on what readers may learn from Austen's novels;  that is the strength that comes from personal observation, independence of thought demonstrated by the characters, and the importance of reliance on informed intuition. The potential of these and the many examples from the novels on future human relationships is reason enough for the continued popularity of Austen's novels.  Finally the lecturer suggested that Jane Austen would likely embrace modern technology and engage in self-publication.  No matter how much our world is changed by the information age and the pervasive impact of modern technology classic texts which display universal truths such as we find in the novels of Jane Austen will continue to delight and inform readers everywhere.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Man on Wire

To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers
To Reach the Clouds: 
My High Wire Walk 

Between the Twin Towers 

"I walk on the wire like a funambulist."

This is a poetic book that takes your breath away with its photography. Even black and white photos of Petit walking the high wire between the two towers are dramatic and mesmerizing. Petit focuses on his six year journey from the moment he reads a newspaper article about the construction of the World Trade Center to the fateful early morning when he completes his journey. While there was a lifetime of preparation for this achievement the moment is all.
Yet it is with his spare and, at times, poetic prose that he captures the reader's attention with his many moments of improvisation along the way as he gathered the necessary aid and materials to accomplish his task. The reality of his journey is in many ways stranger than fiction until you reflect that this event actually happened. For many of us it happened in our lifetime and this record of it helps to preserve the memory of the New York City skyline from the previous century.  The event has been preserved on film in the excellent documentary Man on Wire.  
Philippe Petit is an individual artist, a magician, a juggler, and a funambulist of uncommon stature and abilities. He will always be remembered for his artistic achievements and his unique accomplishments on the high wire.

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