Monday, January 30, 2012

Undaunted Courage


translated by Seamus Heaney

"Often, for undaunted courage,
fate spares the man it has not already marked." (572-573) 

Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf is both modern and satisfying poetry, in a translation as if from another world. The poem has in Heaney’s words a ‘hand-built, rock sure feel’ and yet at the same time his lines are expansive with an elemental feeling emanating from within the verse. It’s what Heaney elsewhere calls ‘the ore of longing’. The world of Danish kings, gold hoards and minstrels keeps revealing regions remote from human influence, making exciting reading. It’s as though you almost had to conceive of two dimensions at once. And Heaney tends to set his words so starkly as to allow the direct opposing pull of those separate forces:
"His warrior band did what he bade them
when he laid down the law among the Danes:
they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood,
the chief they revered who had long ruled them."

For Heaney the whole poem is bordered by yet related to the beyond, by which he means both the immanent and the imminent, ‘unknowable but certain’. He stresses that the queer sounds of Beowulf to modern ears is not merely the result of our distance in time from that epic world (the dragons, barrows, and boar-shapes flashing over golden cheek-guards). Rather the poem’s difference (perhaps shared with similar sagas) lies in its ‘mythic potency’:
"Like Shield Sheafson… [the poem] arrives from somewhere beyond the
known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose (again
like Shield) it passes once more into the beyond."

Rereading the poem in this translation was a delight even though I would still recommend the fine translation by Burton Raffel that I read in the early nineties. I intend to return to this poem, but plan to seek out the new version by Neil Gaiman – that is sure to be yet a new way to experience this great medieval epic.

Beowulf trans. by Seamus Heaney. W. W. Norton, 2001.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Strangers and Brothers

The Masters (Strangers and Brothers, #5)
The Masters 

"There are some hidden streaks in any politics, which only flash to the surface in an intense election such as this.  Suddenly they leap out:  one finds to one's astonishment that there are moments when one loves one's rival--despises one's supporters--hates one's candidate.  Usually these streaks do not make any difference in the action, but in a crisis it is prudent to watch them." (p 155)

The setting of The Masters is Cambridge in 1937. It is the fourth novel in the eleven novel sequence the comprises C. P. Snow's masterpiece, Strangers and Brothers. Narrated by Lewis Eliot, the story tells of the election of a new Master to replace the old Master who, as the novel opens, lays dying. The choice facing Eliot and the other dons is whether to elect Paul Jago, a scholar of literature, or Crawford, a biologist. The novel slowly, but effectively, develops suspense from the political machinations of the various academic characters while the contrast between the two candidates' personalities clearly becomes an important factor. In the confined sphere of the academy Snow delineates a paradigm of the political process in action.
All this is set against the backdrop of international political changes roiling the continent. There are hints of this when one of the dons visits Berlin and another goes to the Balkans. In clear lucid prose the tale spins out, with a thin veneer of academic respectability continually covering the power struggles in the background. Through it all my interest was maintained by the suspense that builds till the end. While this is only one of several novels in the series that is set in Cambridge it may be read independently of the others. However, I found Snow's story-telling ability such that I will likely return to discover what happens in other novels in the series.

The Masters (Strangers and Brothers, Vol. 2) by C. P. Snow.  Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 1972

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Deadly Deviations

The Chrysalids

The Chrysalids 

"When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city - which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. . . . " (p 5)

The society depicted in the Chrysalids is chilling in the extreme.
The setting is a post-apocalyptic Labrador, several hundreds of years after a disaster known as ‘Tribulation’, which is never explicitly defined, but which is implied to be nuclear in origin. As a result of Tribulation, genetic mutation has become very common, ranging in severity from very bad in the area nearest to the original disaster, known as the Badlands, to relatively low in the area where the main story takes place. Mutation is seen as a blasphemy and is exterminated wherever possible. The young narrator, David, is the son of a particularly fanatical father who, with other elders, is responsible for maintaining order. David begins to realise how dangerous it is to be abnormal or different when his friend Sophie and her parents have to flee the area owing to her having six toes. In private, and with his friends and an uncle, David begins to seriously question the validity of the preaching and doctrine of the regime. The tension builds in this short novel with further discoveries by the narrator that require him to make life-changing decisions.
While The Chrysalids may have its inspiration in the Cold War of the fifties its portrait of a community driven to authoritarian madness by its overwhelming fear of difference - in this case, of genetic mutations in the aftermath of nuclear war - is timely in our own age of cloning and genome exploration.
John Wyndham's prose style is sophisticated, yet readable with a clarity that acts as a foundation for an almost compulsive readability.  He was responsible for a series of eerily terrifying tales of destroyed civilisations, created several of the twentieth century's most imaginative monsters and wrote a handful of novels that are rightly regarded as modern classics - this is among his best.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. Penguin Books, London. 1958 (1955)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Love and Knowledge

Five Women (Verba Mundi)
Five Women 

“The thought is not something that observes an inner event, but, rather it is this inner event itself. We do not reflect on something, but, rather, something thinks itself in us. ” 
― Robert Musil

This is a collection of stories that reminded me of Joyce's great collection, Dubliners, in the ability of the author to both present a sense of a place in time and the thematic connections with his later work.  Robert  Musil's stories are grouped into two sections, "Three Women" and "Unions". All of the stories are linked by their erotic themes, the nature of love and its relation to knowledge. This is a foreshadowing of one of the themes of his magnum opus, The Man Without Qualities. In this collection the story "Quiet Veronica' explores bestial love, while in "The Perfecting of Love" it is profligate. "Grigia" and "Tonka" present variations on the seduction of a peasant girl, by a man of a higher social class and by a student, respectively. Musil uses these situations to explore deeper in the human consciousness with sex as the central ground of his exploration.
I was impressed with the authenticity of of the settings and the integration of peasant life with the themes of love and death.
"Love ran ahead like a herald, love was made ready everywhere like a bed freshly made up for the guest, and each living being more gifts of welcome in their eyes. The women could let that be freely seen, but sometimes as one passed a meadow there might be an old peasant there, waving his scythe like Death in person." (p 19)
The women in the stories experience love and guilt and the energetic ecstasy of turning points that shake their world. Musil draws fine distinctions like a scientist with a scalpel. The reactions of their lovers, the men with whom they interact are always finely drawn and sometimes deeply incisive.
"Volition, cognition, and perception were like a tangled skein. One noticed this only when one tried to find the end of the thread. But perhaps there was some other way of going through the world, other than following the thread of truth? At such moments, when a veneer of coldness separated him from everything, Tonka was more than a fairy-tale: she was almost a visitation.' (p 110)
All of the stories have obvious autobiographical elements, ties to the personal life of the author, but what stands out is his creative ability to both imagine these characters' lives and bring his intelligence to bear on their situation. The result provides the reader with a wealth of issues to digest, presented in a prose setting that brings the world of turn-of-the -century Austria alive. This is also an excellent introduction to the writing of one of the twentieth century's premiere novelist of ideas.

Five Women by Robert Musil. David R. Godine, Publisher, Boston. 1986 (1965)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Literary Marriage

Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson
Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson 

“It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.”  ― Vita Sackville-West

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Nigel Nicolson who was born in 1917 to Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West.   Nigel Nicolson died in 2004, after having found fame in several other ways — as co-founder of the publisher Weidenfeld and Nicolson, as award-winning author, as a controversial MP. His son, Adam Nicolson, is an award-winning author also; one of his books, right, got its start when his father, then still an undergraduate, responded to this newspaper advertisement
His fascinating biography of the marriage of his parents, written by Nigel Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, described a marriage between two individuals who should not have been able to live together. That they did and succeeded in raising a family is the story of this book--one that is told in a unique way with two sections based on Vita's autobiography amplified by sections written by her son Nigel. The focus is tilted toward the courtship and early years of marriage with little detail of the later years of the marriage.
Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage caused a double stir, partly for Sackville-West's journal entries and letters (see quote below) describing her lesbian affairs, partly for her son's decision to publish them, with commentary. Ethics aside, the book is a compelling account of passion and fidelity — and, on the son's part, of admiration for both his bisexual parents and their unusual, half-century marriage.
The book raises interesting questions about the differences in the couple and the dynamics of their personal lives apart from the marriage and the effect on both their marriage and sons. Most importantly it is an interesting story about two people who lived unusual and very literary lives.

“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this —But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it.”  - ― Vita Sackville-West, The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson. Univ. of Chicago Press. 1998 (1973)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Traveler and Writer Extraordinaire


"...In his view, the true heroes of this impossible situation were the people who wouldn't raise a murmur against the Party or State - yet who seemed to carry the sum of Western Civilization in their heads. 'With their silence...they inflict a final insult on the State, by pretending it does not exist."' p. 15

 Bruce Chatwin died on this day in 1989, aged forty-eight. However suspect Chatwin’s travel books may be as guides or historical records, they continue to be praised as writing. Chatwin's novel On the Black Hill won the 1982 James Tait Black Memorial Prize; however my favorite of all his works is Utz, a beautiful little novel I first read in a local book group.  
It was then that I first became enamored with the writing of Bruce Chatwin.  More recently Utz was included in a class I took at University of Chicago on the literature of Prague.  Fundamentally it is the story of Kaspar Utz, who lives in Prague and who is consumed by collecting figurines and living a quiet life under the communist system. Utz is painted as a prisoner to his dolls while he lives under a totalitarian regime, so when he leaves on his annual sabbatical to Vichy in France, he finds capitalist life not to his liking, even though he has an alleged fortune in Swiss banks enabling him to enjoy a nice standard of living abroad, he misses his figurines and wants to return back home.
But really, that isn’t him, he was a state collaborator acting on small tasks when he was abroad and he enjoyed living under the Soviet system as he was comfortable with his life there. This is highlighted by the way he keeps his figurines so that only he can enjoy them, not the state, and that in an era where drabness is the norm, he can stand out from the crowd and lure partners with his goods brought overseas and obtained locally on the black market. Chatwin creates a unique and believable world in this small jewel of a story.

Chatwin was especially noted for his travel writing and his many friendships and acquaintances in the literary and art worlds.  The following is from “Mrs. Mandelstam,” Chatwin’s account of his visit with the widow of the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, collected in What Am I Doing Here?, the last book he published before he died:
  "White metal fastenings glittered among the brown stumps of her teeth. A cigarette stuck to her lower lip. Her nose was a weapon. You knew for certain she was one of the most powerful women in the world, and knew she knew it…. She waved me to a chair and, as she waved, one of her breasts tumbled out of her nightie. "Tell me," she shoved it back, "are there any grand poets left in your country?"

Utz by Bruce Chatwin. Penguin Books. 1989 (1988)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Classic Comedy


"Good God! Do you expect me to submit
To the tyranny of that carping hypocrite?
Must we forgo all joys and satisfactions
Because that bigot censures all our actions?" 
-        (Tartuffe, 1.1.18)

Less than two weeks ago I attended a lecture on "Why Comedy is No Laughing Matter". The lecture tilted toward serious literature that includes humor and comedy as an important aspect. On Sunday past I attended a performance of a classic comedy that has serious ideas as an important aspect.  The BoHo Theatre: Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presented Tartuffe by Moliere as adapted by Ranjit Bolt.  The afternoon of theater was exciting as the excellent production kept a smile on my face when I wasn't laughing.  BoHo's ensemble proved that this classic is still able to speak to audiences in the twenty-first century.  The direction was crisp with efficient use of small theater space that allowed a theater-in-the-round format.  Best of all the acting was great with a particularly exceptional performance by Saren Nofs-Snyder as Dorine.  Daria Harper's portrayal of Mme. Pernelle was also worth mentioning as she was effective in the role of Grand Dame trying, without success, to keep her extended family under control.  For example in Act 1  she comments:

"Children, I take my leave much vexed in spirit.
I offer good advice but you won't hear it.
You all break in and chatter on and on.
It's like a madhouse with the keeper gone." (1.1.5)

  As with all his plays, Moliere's Tartuffe is a comedy of ideas wherein the author uses humor, ridicules stereotypical, yet recognizable types to make a serious statement about his world. In the case of Tartuffe, which I first read more than four decades ago in a comparative literature class at the University of Wisconsin, there is a central character whose religious hypocrisy upends the lives of those around him. The hypocritcal character of Tartuffe and the critique of religion presented in the play resulted in its being banned after very few performances. The play survived, however, as demonstrated by its inclusion in the university curriculum three centuries later and its continuing presence on the stage. Tartuffe, along with a handful of Moliere's other great comedies are still worth reading and rereading for their insights into human foibles that are with us to this day.

Tartuffe by Moliere

Monday, January 16, 2012

Perplexities of Reading

Reading used to be simpler.  One just had to find a comfortable chair, turn on a good reading light, open the book and read.  Now reading has become a project or rather, in my case, two projects.  

First, I am reading The Guide of the Perplexed by  Moses Maimonides.  The edition we (the reading is part of a class in the Basic Program of Liberal Education of the University of Chicago) are using is the translation by Shlomo Pines.  
A close reading of this two volume work requires not only attention to the text, but accompanying support of the following volumes from my library: The Oxford NIV Schofield Study Bible, my (two volume) edition of the Complete Works of Aristotle; Geddes MacGregor's Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy;  and an English language dictionary.  The translator's introduction suggests that I may have further recourse to Plato, Epicurus, Galen and others (this may require a camp out at the Chicago Public Library).  Admittedly, these are requirements for reading a serious work of philosophy that inter alia attempts to reconcile the old testament prophets with ancient Greek philosophy.

Second, one might think that reading a short twentieth-century poem with four cantos consisting of less than one thousand lines of verse might be a little easier.  But, no.  
This is Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, a volume that includes in addition to thirty-six pages of poetry almost three hundred additional pages consisting of epigraph, foreword, commentary on the poem, and an index.  The result of which requires, so far (since I am less than half-way through the book), the additional support of both a dictionary and my copy of the Norton Complete Works of Shakespeare.  The editor in his foreword also has the following advice for the reader:
"Other notes, arranged in a running commentary, will certainly satisfy the most voracious reader.  Although those notes, in conformity with custom, come after the poem, the reader is advised to consult them first and then study the poem with their help, rereading them of course as he goes through the text, and perhaps, after having done with the poem, consulting them a third time so as to complete the picture.  I find it wise in such cases as this to eliminate the bother of back-and-forth leafings by either cutting out and clipping together the pages with the text of the thing, or, even more simply, purchasing two copies of the same work which can then be placed in adjacent positions on a comfortable table . . ."

At which point my table, or rather desk, is completely filled with books.  I either need to find a larger desk or need to find less complex reading projects.

The Guide of the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides. Shlomo Pines, transl. Univ.  of Chicago Press. 1963
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. Vintage Books, New York. 1989 (1962)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Philosophical Questions

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?: 23 Questions from Great Philosophers
Why Is There Something Rather 
Than Nothing?: 23 Questions from Great Philosophers 

"I want to talk about the thought of great philosophers, not about their lives,"
- from the introduction, p x.

This is a small book both in number of pages and height - it is only six and a quarter inches tall. But within this small frame Leszek Kolakowski packs a lot of philosophy. It is organized by philosopher from ancient to modern and for each section of about ten pages the book focuses upon one key idea associated with the philosopher being discussed. As Kolakowski says in the introduction: "I do not intend to 'summarize' Plato, Descartes or Husserl: that would be an absurd ambition." [at least within the confines of a small volume like this] "I would like, rather, to approach these great philosophers by concentrating on one idea in the thought of each--an important idea, an idea that was fundamental to his philosophical construction, but also one that we can still understand today; an idea that touches a chord in us, rather than being simply a bit of historical information."
Because of this approach and his deep understanding of the philosophers presented the book is valuable as a catalyst for the thought of the reader, whether one has read deeply in philosophy or not. The fundamental questions raised may spur further reading and thought about these issues. One disappointment is the lack of a bibliography, but there are references in the text to specific works of philosophers which can be used to search out further texts for reading. Those who are already familiar with the works of these thinkers will find this book a refreshing challenge to remember and rethink some key ideas.

Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? by Leszek Kolakowski. Basic Books, NY. 2007

Friday, January 13, 2012

Protean Musician

Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations
Sviatoslav Richter: 

Notebooks and Conversations 

“I don’t like pianos, I like music more” - Sviatoslav Richter

A life that was completely immersed in his music, Sviatislov Richter truly was a "protean" artist. The personal voice of Richter conveyed in this amazing volume is as magnetic as his playing (I regret I only know his music through recordings).
On March 19, 1934, Richter gave his first recital, at the Engineers' Club of Odessa; but he did not formally start studying piano until three years later, when he decided to seek out Heinrich Neuhaus, a famous pianist and piano teacher, at the Moscow Conservatory. During Richter's audition for Neuhaus (at which he performed Chopin's Ballade No. 4), Neuhaus apparently whispered to a fellow student, "This man's a genius". Although Neuhaus taught many great pianists, including Emil Gilels and Radu Lupu, it is said that he considered Richter to be "the genius pupil, for whom he had been waiting all his life," while acknowledging that he taught Richter "almost nothing."
Emil Gilels was one of Richter's first advocates in the West. He commented, during his own first tour of the United States, that the critics (who were giving Gilels rave reviews) should "wait until you hear Richter." Richter's first concerts in the West took place in May 1960, when he was allowed to play in Finland, and on October 15, 1960, in Chicago, where he played Brahms's Second Piano Concerto accompanied by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Erich Leinsdorf. He created a sensation, and noted Chicago music critic Claudia Cassidy, who was known for her unkind reviews of established artists, recalled Richter first walking on stage hesitantly, looking vulnerable (as if about to be "devoured"), but then sitting at the piano and dispatching "the performance of a lifetime". Richter's 1960 tour of the United States culminated in a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall.
Richter, however, claimed to dislike performing in the United States. He also claimed to dislike the high expectations of American audiences. In 1961, Richter played for the first time in London. His first recital, pairing works of Haydn and Prokofiev, was received with hostility by British critics. Notably, Neville Cardus concluded that Richter's playing was "provincial", and wondered why Richter had been invited to play in London, given that London had plenty of "second class" pianists of its own. Following a July 18, 1961, concert, where Richter performed both of Liszt's piano concertos, the critics reversed course. In 1963, after searching in the Loire Valley, France, for a venue suitable for a music festival, Richter discovered La Grange de Meslay several kilometres north of Tours. The festival was established by Richter and became an annual event. In 1970, Richter visited Japan for the first time traveling across Siberia by railway and boat as he disliked airplanes. He played Beethoven, Schumann, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Bartok and Rachmaninov, as well as works by Mozart and Beethoven with Japanese orchestras. Richter eventually visited Japan a total of eight times. His nomadic existence mirrors the breadth of the music he surveyed and performed over his lifetime.
In this book there are both intimate and interesting portraits of composers and artists, friends of the man who shared the spirit of music with them. Inspirational moments occur on almost every page with Richter's life, at least for this music-lover, becoming more alive with every detail. The book is divided into two sections: "Richter in his own words", and "Notebooks: On Music". I will keep this book near me and my music collection for future reference.

For those interested in recordings made by Sviatoslav Richter there is an excellent article by Gene Gaudette at Musical Concepts.

Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon. Princeton University Press (2001)

Monday, January 09, 2012

Music's Greatest Riddle

Temperament: The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle
The Idea That Solved 
Music's Greatest Riddle 

"Temperaments, settling like tracks along the winding path of Western Civilization, unfettered the engine of musical progress.  Once freed, and fueled by the sparks of those most human of qualities--imagination and passion--musical art, with religion, politics, and science in tow, chugged its way inescapably toward our own era." (p 8)

Why do we listen to classical music? What makes great music great? The author, Stuart Isacoff, explores the principles that underly truly great music. Explaining the scientific principles behind the music, he takes the reader on a journey from the classical thoughts of Euclid through Newton with even a section on the important contribution of the Chinese. Focusing on the piano he brings his conclusions home with principles both poetic, scientific, and philosophic. The details of the secrets of musical harmony are laid out in several chapters that include thinkers you may have never associated with music. The story is akin to the history of science, an area of thought that has long intrigued me. The conclusion is that the genius of musical art rests on a very scientific foundation. A generous bibliography enhances the volume for those who wish to pursue the subject. Isacoff has made a unique contribution to music literature that exudes virtuosity.

Temperament by Stuart Isacoff. Alfred A. Knopf, new York. 2001

Uncommon Novel of Manners

Bertram Cope's Year
Bertram Cope's Year 

"'Oh,' thought Randolph, 'one of the cool boys, and one of the self-sufficing.  Probably a bit of an ascetic at bottom, with good capacity for self-control and self-direction.  Not at all an uninteresting type,' he summed up." (p 33)

My favorite novels from late nineteenth-century America include Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage which I first read while I was attending high school, and Harold Frederic's less well-known The Damnation of Theron Ware which deals with personal religious issues of the titular character. It was not until the end of the twentieth century when I was in my reading maturity that I discovered this somewhat similar and equally good novel by Henry Blake Fuller.
Fuller, who was born in Chicago and spent most of his life there wrote many novels , most of which are forgotten today. His novel of Chicago, The Cliff Dwellers, is probably his best known, but late in his life in 1919 at the age of sixty-two he published Bertram Cope's Year about a young (twenty-five year old) English instructor at a Middle Western university (admittedly modeled after Northwestern University). Cope is good looking and a pleasant companion. Early in the novel he is adopted socially by a local hostess, Medora T. Phillips, and begins regular attendance at her soirees. He also makes another acquaintance, Basil Randolph, who is a collector of objects d'art and admirer of handsome young men. Cope's involvement with these characters and their crowd leads him into complicated social situations with young women who pursue him, unaware of his attachment to a young man, Arthur Lemoyne. Cope had left Lemoyne in Wisconsin when he moved to Churchton but following some correspondence soon expected Lemoyne to join him. The natural way that Bertram and Arthur live a life that mimics a young married couple is just one of the surprising aspects of this stylish novel of manners. It also may explain why Fuller had to publish the novel at his own expense in spite of his success with earlier efforts. As a novel of manners the book reminds me somewhat of Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point, and like that book it does not have any truly likable characters. Cope himself, who is at the center of the novel's social wheel, is pleasant enough, but lacks a spine with which to stand up to those characters (too numerous to mention) who try to direct his life. One aspect of this and the novel as a whole is that of unmet expectations, Cope does not meet the expectations of the other characters and in this he disappointed this reader as well.
However, as Edmund Wilson said in the introduction to the Triangle Classics edition of the novel, "This curious book, which is perhaps Fuller's best, seems never to have had adequate attention." (p. xxxi). That is a shame because it is one of the earliest natural and positive depictions of the life of a young gay man in American society. Both this and the excellence of the writing recommend this novel to all readers who enjoy understated social novels.

Bertram Cope's Year by Henry Blake Fuller. Turtle Point Press, New York. 1998 (1919)

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Berlioz - Book and Performance

Berlioz and His Century 

“Love cannot express the idea of music, while music may give an idea of love” - Hector Berlioz

There have been few figures in the history of music with so fascinating, almost hypnotic, an appeal for the present-day reader as Berlioz. With his life span encompassing roughly the rise and fall of two French empires, he emerges as perhaps the first totally modern mind in music— the man of affairs as well as of notes, a great conductor, concert organizer, writer of distinction. 
Whatever he touched, in any medium, bore the mark of his volatile, yet strangely sober, personality. Unlike his predecessors Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, he was equipped to challenge the intellectual world on all fronts and make his charge across any field. This basic phase of Berlioz’s gift—its multiplicity in unity—has been admirably detailed by Jacques Barzun in this book. Barzun is one of the great teachers and thinkers of the our era. In his seminal work on Romanticism and the importance of Berlioz in the movement the author reveals Hector Berlioz in the perspective of his relationship to the other outstanding Romantics of his time, establishing the composer as the fountainhead of all that has come after him in virtually every sphere of symphonic and operatic music. As this long recital draws to a close the magnificence of the creator’s personality comes clearly into focus, the figures surrounding him emerge with warmth and humanity. The book, while having been surpassed by more recent scholarship, is still worthy of consideration due to its unique approach to Berlioz and his legacy. Mr. Barzun, treating a subject obviously congenial to him, commands an impressive range of scholarship and eloquence of style. Whether you love music or ideas or both this book is essential for you.

Berlioz and His Century by Jacques Barzun. University of Chicago Press. 1982 (1956)


Berlioz, Byron, 
and Shakespeare

Yesterday evening I attended a concert presenting selected works by Hector Berlioz performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Mark Elder.  The concert began with The Corsair Overture, Op. 21, a brilliant overture whose title references the work of Lord Byron, one of several literary muses who inspired Berlioz.  
Following this introduction the orchestra played two excerpts from his dramatic symphony, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17, selected by Mr. Elder.  In addition to the sublime music two actors from Chicago Shakespeare Theater read  excerpts from the text of the original play.  In 1827 Berlioz attended performances of both Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in Paris.  He was immediately struck by the poetic beauty of Shakespeare's work and subsequently created works including this symphony and a later opera.  Following the interval the orchestra performed Harold in Italy, Op. 16, a "symphony in four parts with solo viola".  The viola solo was performed with gusto by Lawrence Power, a violist who has performed extensively throughout Europe and America. The unique concerto in symphonic form was well-suited to the talents of the orchestra and soloist.  The evening was filled with romantic music from one of the leading composers of that movement presented with the inimitable style of our own CSO.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

On the Seriousness of Comedy

But Seriously, Folks: 
Why Comedy is No Laughing Matter
"G.K. Chesterton once rebutted a critic who 'thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because [he] thinks that funny is the opposite of serious.  Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.'" (from the introduction to the lecture)

Yesterday I had another enjoyable and edifying noon hour attending the monthly lecture in the First Friday Lecture Series presented by the University of Chicago.  The first speaker of the new year was Michaelangelo Allocca,  Instructor and Chair of the Basic Program of Liberal Education, presenting the topic "But Seriously, Folks: Why Comedy is No Laughing Matter." 
Beginning with a quote from G. K. Chesterton on the distinction between what is "serious" and what is "not funny" the talk presented by Mr. Allocca was wide-ranging in its defense of the seriousness of comedy and the comic in literature of both serious and not so serious sorts.  After an anecdote from the Dalai Lama in support of Chesterton's claims the talk provided examples from the Bible to demonstrate the existence of humor in what is generally thought of as a serious work.  What followed were both philosophical and literary citations that further demonstrated the importance, if not seriousness, of comedy.  While readers' perceptions may lead to misinterpretations it was clear from the lecture, and from my own reading, that Plato's Socrates often turned to humor in his dialogues, while literary examples abound in both comic texts like Fielding's History of Tom Jones and tomes generally thought to be more serious like Moby-Dick or Wuthering Heights.  Certainly the use of humor is essential in Shakespeare  to provide comic relief in tragedies from Macbeth to Hamlet.  
The psychological aspects of humor were also explored as noted above that there are often differences in the viewer or reader's perception of what is funny.  Maybe they just do not get it?  And sometimes the joke is on the narrator - with the resulting anxiety an aspect of the humorous moment.  The result is we may be left with the conclusion that "some day this will be funny", or not?  In my own experience my first reading of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (as a requirement of high school English) left me with the conclusion that it was a dull and serious novel.  Years later as an adult rereading the same novel I found that, while it was still serious, it was no longer dull but had taken on a humorous sheen as it was filled with comic moments.  In the passing years it had "become funny".  One other personal note: two of my favorite authors, both noted for the seriousness of their writing, concluded their careers as novelists with supreme comic novels - namely Thomas Mann's The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man and William Faulkner's The Reivers.  Perhaps this too underlines the importance of comedy in literature.
When defining comedy one may turn to the classical authors, for example Moliere who claimed that the comic was based in incongruity.  Certainly it has this aspect and perhaps some bit of the illogical or the irrational or even the absurd. One may also turn to Aristotle's Poetics which, although it is focused on tragedy, does have some things to say about comedy.  The result of all these considerations of comedy and its seriousness was an entertaining hour of literary and philosophical reflection: Serious, yes;  but filled with laughter.

Here is a final thought from the pen of Henry Fielding:
"hath anyone living attempted to explain what the modern judges of our theatres mean by that word low; by which they have happily succeeded in banishing all humour from the stage, and have made the theatre as dull as a drawing-room!" (Tom Jones, V, 1)

Friday, January 06, 2012

Two Techno-Thrillers

Daemon (Daemon, #1)
Daemon and  Freedom TM

“In all, his outfit required nearly two thousand man-years of research and development, eight barrels of oil, and sixteen patent and trademark infringement lawsuits. All so he could possess casual style. A style that, in logistical requirements, was comparable to fielding a nineteenth-century military brigade.  But he looked good. Casual.” ― Daniel Suarez, Daemon

While Daemon was published in 2009 it was a new book and author for me when I read it last November as part of a reading and discussion class on Science Fiction as part of the Basic Program of Liberal Education at The University of Chicago. We had read mostly classic Science Fiction stories and two earlier novels by Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert, so Daniel Suarez was in rarefied company when we turned to his novel as the last work on the syllabus. We were not disappointed for his techno-thriller style of Science Fiction was, in both its imaginative content and suspense, worthy of inclusion with most of the classics.
In Daemon, a software tycoon and game designer named Matthew Sobol is dying. Sobol writes a program called the Daemon that scans news sites on the web for stories about his death. When the Daemon detects (via the web) that Sobol has died, it springs into action.
All aficionados of speculative fiction should enjoy Daemon, but computer science and high-tech lovers will especially enjoy how plausible some of the ideas are. For example, the Daemon initially stays below the radar of the government by recruiting from within a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), which skews toward a younger demographic and not older FBI agents. The ideas presented build on the current cutting edge of information science and generally seem plausible. As with much speculative fiction there may be a few gaps in the science but the suspense and brilliant action scenes engage the reader and make up for any rough edges. The overall consensus of the class and my own reading judgement was positive and left many of us looking forward to the continuation of the story in Suarez's more recent novel. Freedom.

Freedom TM (Daemon #2)Continuing the story he started in Daemon Daniel Suarez has written an even better novel of the near future. In a Science Fiction techno-thriller he highlights some of the potential dangers and risks involved in the mix of economic dysfunction and evolving technology that we already are experiencing. Imagining a future that moves in a dystopian direction Suarez creates some of the most vivid good and bad characters to battle with the aid of the next generation of cyber-technology.
Freedom continues the world of Daemon, and suspense builds as it becomes less clear as to the true nature of the Daemon; which players are the most ruthless in changing the world becomes an issue that keeps you on the proverbial edge of your seat. Freedom pushes the concepts of Daemon further into a future in which civilization itself seems to be dissolving with changes that bring its viability into question: members of the guerrilla resistance fight against copyrighted DNA and for sustainable next-generation energy. They also share a private augmented reality. The new members of the “darknet” also share an interesting reputation system and the result of it all is worth the reading trip. Suarez is an author with an imagination that will challenge even veteran readers of speculative literature.

Daemon & Freedom by Daniel Suarez.  

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Architectural Masterpiece

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal, the architectural masterpiece of the Islamic ruler of India, Shah Jehan, was built using artisans from Baghdad, Constantinople, and other centers of the Muslim faith. In 1983, the Taj Mahal became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While the white domed marble mausoleum is the most familiar component of the Taj Mahal, it is actually an integrated complex of structures. The construction began around 1632 and was completed around 1653, employing thousands of artisans and craftsmen.  The construction of the Taj Mahal was entrusted to a board of architects under imperial supervision, including Abd ul-Karim Ma'mur Khan, Makramat Khan, and Ustad Ahmad Lahauri.  
Jehan spent the last years of his life viewing his masterpiece from a jail cell:

"A brutal, wasteful, and ruthless emperor, who ordered the killing of all his male relations who might possibly claim the throne, Shah Jehan (ruled 1627-1658 CE) also had a passion for architecture, and he imported Italian artists who taught his craftsmen the art of inlaying marble with a mosaic of precious stones. He built forts with luxurious halls bearing panels of Florentine mosaic on black marble, as well as ceilings and arches carved with such skill they looked like lace. However, he is mostly remembered for the hauntingly beautiful Taj Mahal, a tribute to his eternal love for his beauteous queen, Mumtaz Mahal (Exalted of the Palace). Mumtaz gave her husband fourteen children in eighteen years and died in childbirth at the age of thirty-nine.

"In 1632, the mausoleum was built for the queen by the inconsolable Shah Jehan. There is no trace of Hindu influence. Artisans were brought from Baghdad, Constantinople, and other centers of the Muslim faith. It took twenty-two years and twenty-two thousand laborers and craftsmen from India, Asia, and Europe to build the white marble Taj. The building is set in a Persian landscaped garden on the banks of the Yamuna River. The Taj Mahal is exquisitely proportioned, with minarets and a central dome mirrored in a reflecting pool. It features perforated marble grilles, semiprecious stones (including jasper, lapis lazuli, and bloodstone) inlaid in marble, as well as arabesques and chevrons. There is hardly a break between the stones. One flower an inch square can have sixty different inlays. The Taj Mahal reflects the varying moods of night and day: brilliant and dazzling at noon, warm and glowing at dusk, and ethereal in the moonlight. The main entrance was once guarded with heavy silver gates. The stone carving is of alabaster lace, beautiful and sublime with delicate detail.

"Another legendary work of art created at this time was the Peacock Throne, which took seven years to complete. It was legendary for its components of precious metals and stones. Four legs of gold supported the seat, and twelve pillars of emeralds held up the enameled canopy, while each pillar bore two peacocks glittering with rubies and pearls. Between the peacocks was a tree, covered with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and pearls. The fabled throne was carried off to Persia in 1739 by Nadir Shah and then was gradually dismantled to pay off the expenses of the royal personages.

"Yet another project on a grand scale, the Red Fort (Lal Kila) - of red sandstone - was built in Delhi in 1640. It includes towering ramparts, factories, storehouses, military barracks, stables, and a mint. It housed thousands of servants, courtiers, and princesses. A magnificent mosque, Jama Masjid, was built facing the main entrance. Every Friday, tens of thousands of Muslims in India still gather here to pray at noon.

"Shah Jehan, the most lavish spender of the Moghul emperors, ruled for three decades. He began his reign by killing his brothers but neglected to kill his sons, one of whom, Aurangzeb, not only overthrew him but imprisoned him. Shah Jehan languished in prison for eight years, looking sorrowfully through a grille at his creation, the Taj Mahal, where the body of his beloved rested."

Source:  India: an Illustrated History by Prem Kishore & Anuradha Kishore Ganpati.  Hippocrene, New York.  2003.  (Pages: 86-90)

Monday, January 02, 2012

Poem for January

Childhood Among the Ferns
by Thomas Hardy

I sat one sprinkling day upon the lea,
Where tall-stemmed ferns spread out luxuriantly,
And nothing but those tall ferns sheltered me.

The rain gained strength, and damped each lopping frond,
Ran down their stalks beside me and beyond,
And shaped slow-creeping rivulets as I conned,

With pride, my spray-proofed house. And though anon
Some drops pierced its green rafters, I sat on,
Making pretence I was not rained upon.

The sun then burst, and brought forth a sweet breath
 From the limp ferns as they dried underneath:
I said: 'I could live on here thus till death;'

And queried in the green rays as I sate:
'Why should I have to grow to man's estate,
And this afar-noises World perambulate?'