Monday, April 30, 2012

Transcendent Prose

The Good Soldier
The Good Soldier 

“So I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.” 
― Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

Some questions arise when reading The Good Soldier.  Is it an impressionistic masterpiece? Is it a tragedy or a comedy? Published in 1915, from the pen of Ford Madox Ford, it is unique enough to have been described by its critics as all of the preceding and more. Subtitled "A Tale of Passion", the emotions are presented through an ever shifting memory with multiple facets that suggest Ford's subtle attempt to join the realm of Cubism.  It is a unique novel both in my experience and within the author's total work.

The story is narrated by an American, John Dowell, who invites the reader to sit down with him beside the fire of his study to listen to the "saddest story" he has ever known. Set during the decade preceding the Great War, the story, while appearing to be sad for some of the participants, is truly sad only in the ironic sense of the word. Thus we encounter one of the themes of the book--the distinction between appearance and reality.

The characters are not particularly likable or sympathetic. Consider Leonora, the wife of Edward Ashburnham (the "good soldier"):
"Leonora, as I have said, was the perfectly normal woman. I mean to say that in normal circumstances her desires were those of the woman who is needed by society. She desired children, decorum, an establishment; she desired to avoid waste, she desired to keep up appearances. She was utterly and entirely normal even in her utterly undeniable beauty. But I don't mean to say she acted perfectly normally in the perfectly abnormal situation. All the world was mad around her and she herself, agonized, took on the complexion of a mad woman; of a woman very wicked; of the villain of the piece. What would you have? Steel is a normal, hard, polished substance. But, if you put it in a hot fire it will become red, soft, and not to be handled. If you put it in a fire still more hot it will drip away. It was like that with Leonora."
Considering the unlikeability of the characters, it is counter intuitive, but the reader is spurred on to read the novel by the precision and the beauty of the prose and the intrigue within the story. The narrative unfolds in a mosaic-like way with a traversal of the narrator's memory back and forth over the nine year period that is covered. The mosaic is interlaced by motifs including the importance of the date: August 4, and the apparent existence of a heart condition in some of the character's lives.   I mentioned the narrator's memory, but one experiences a growing realization that the narrator is inherently unreliable; perhaps John Dowell is the most unreliable narrator in literary history--so much so that I cannot help but think that Ford may have been influenced by Leo Tolstoy's philosophy of history.  When complete, the tale is ended perfectly much as it begins.

The result is a beautiful small novel that ranks high in this reader's experience.  When a book improves with each rereading some call it great or a classic.  My personal term is transcendent, as the books for which I have experienced this effect embody transcendence on one or more levels of reading.  The Good Soldier is one such book for me.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. Everyman's Library, 1991 (1914)

Conundrums Abound in Space

Hull Zero Three
Hull Zero Three 

"For some reason, survival makes me laugh.  I've come this far, I become multitudes--I'm more than eccentric, I'm plain silly--my life makes me laugh in mad earnest.  I stop laughing, suck as much air as I can stand, try not to retch, and continue my climb, hand over hand, following instinct." (p 116)

I had not read any of Greg Bear's extensive oeuvre before picking up Hull Zero Three to read as part of the 2012 Sci-Fi challenge at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm. What I discovered while reading this book was a thought-provoking and challenging novel by a multiple award-winning SF author. Although the novel employs many classic tropes – the deep space mission gone awry, consciousness spawned and run amok, humanity’s struggle with survival and destruction – conceptually, Hull Zero Three paints an ambitious picture of space exploration in the distant future. In overall form it is more a mystery than an actual hard, groundbreaking SF novel, and even if the themes and ideas are familiar the conundrums that emanate from Bear’s storytelling skill make the book a worthwhile, if en petite abstruse, read. Bear presents classic familiar questions in the science fiction realm, contrasting humanity and individuality--dream versus reality through the lens of genetic manipulation, and examines the future of a primitive and destructive humankind among the stars. In some, slight way the book reminded me of other Science Fiction that I have enjoyed like James Blish's Cities in Flight and A. E. Van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Bear’s novel is certainly more sophisticated than the latter and incredibly subtle with powerful concepts that provoke reflection. I enjoyed Hull Zero Three for the most part and found the conclusion especially satisfying.
There are a few aspects of the book that I found disappointing in light of the overall success. The presentation of the mystery, as narrated by Teacher, the main character in the book is slow to develop. While the reader can enjoy the discovery of clues as to the nature of the ship that is Teacher's home, the difficulty in putting the pieces together detracts from the overall presentation of the story. Hull Zero Three is written with a great expanse of detail, but in a strange way the descriptions and style are often confusing and intangible; the characters and even Ship (note the capitalization and lack of a definite article) itself are hard to visualize. For example, monkey-like creatures are described as donuts, one character can rearrange her bulk and shape by somehow shifting sinew and muscle. Teacher is prone to confused visualizations as he tries to reform his new lexicon from deep sleep. He discovers new words he didn’t know existed, unlocking memories for each item and creature he encounters the longer he is awake, and this initial use of language, the importance of books and the actual format of Hull Zero Three – itself as a written book by Teacher – is very clever and comes together nicely by the end of the book…but the overall effect is somewhat piecemeal. I grew impatient at times with the stylistic details of the novel and from the lack of actual, meaty character development – there are some scenes of self-reflection, but without any real depth or heft. Hull Zero Three is more about the mystery and solving the puzzle than it is about realization of character arcs – which isn’t to say that Teacher’s struggle isn’t a valid or engaging one! It certainly is. But Hull‘s strengths lie elsewhere – namely, in that of its overall concept and design.
That Bear is able to overcome some of these issues and bring the story together brilliantly by the end of the novel while resolving questions raised by the mysteries of Ship, the resolution felt somewhat subitaneous. To much telling in the wrapping up marred the excellent space adventure but did not keep me from considering more Greg Bear for my future and recommending this particular novel for your future.

Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear. Orbit Books, 2011 (2010)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

An Epic of Earth

Growth of the Soil
Growth of the Soil 
by Knut Hamsun

"The long, long road over the moors and up into the forest--who trod it into being first of all? Man, a human being, the first that came here. There was no path before he came. Afterward, some beast or other, following the faint tracks over marsh and moorland, wearing them deeper; after these again some Lapp gained scent of the path, and took that way from field to field, looking to his reindeer. Thus was made the road through great Almenning--the common tracts without an owner; no-man's land." - (Knut Hamsun, Growth of the Soil)

One of my favorite novels from my teen years was Giants in the Earth by Ole Rolvaag. I first read it as outside reading for my eighth grade English class and enjoyed it as much as My Antonia which I read at about the same time. More recently I read Pat Conroy’s memoir My Reading Life, in which he writes about his agent who gives him a copy of Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun, telling him: “It’s an essential book. A necessary one. It’s the most important book I’ve ever read. I named my farm Sellanraa in honor of Isak the man who builds his home and raises a family out of nothing.” To which Conroy says: “I’ll read it.” His agent’s response: “You don’t just read this book. You must enter in. Live it. It contains the great truth.” Which his agent explains: “Everything of virtue springs from the soil. Civilization always comes along to ruin it. But you can always find the truth if it comes from the earth.”
Well after that recommendation and my own memories of Rolvaag I picked up Hamsun's book (I should have done this long before when I was amazed by Hunger which I have read and reread) and found it to be the life story of a man in the wilds, the genesis and gradual development of a homestead, the unit of humanity, in the unfilled, uncleared tracts that still remain in the Norwegian Highlands.
It is an epic of earth; the history of a microcosm. Its dominant note is one of patient strength and simplicity; the mainstay of its working is the tacit, stern, yet loving alliance between Nature and the Man who faces her himself, trusting to himself and her for the physical means of life, and the spiritual contentment with life which she must grant if he be worthy. Modern man faces Nature only by proxy, or as proxy, through others or for others, and the intimacy is lost. In the wilds the contact is direct and immediate; it is the foothold upon earth, the touch of the soil itself, that gives strength.
The story is epic in its magnitude, in its calm, steady progress and unhurrying rhythm, in its vast and intimate humanity. The author looks upon his characters with a great, all-tolerant sympathy, aloof yet kindly, as a god. A more objective work of fiction it would be hard to find—certainly in what used to be called "the neurasthenic North."

Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun. Vintage Books, 1972 (1917).

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Innovative and Difficult

The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square
The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square

"In the morning, the city of Vienna is usually shrouded in a low lying cloud, out of which it slowly unwraps itself with great exertion"
- Gert Jonke, The System of Vienna, p 87.

This novella reminded me a bit of Calvino in its terse style and bizarre images. Like the bulk of his work, this novel is musical, innovative, and difficult, not in a dusty academic way, but as a delightful puzzle, as a well-constructed argument, as a challenging game of chess. Innocence devolves into disillusion and the paranoid appear in unexpected moments.
Beginning with a recounting of the narrator’s birth, and how his skin was tinged blue, the novel proceeds with descriptions of events that helped shape his personality, his consciousness, his obsessions: he encounters a man who thinks the French Embassy was built in the wrong place; he meets another who is unsure whether he is or isn’t the Chancellor’s confidant; he bumps into an eccentric stamp collector in the woods he thinks was imitating a tawny owl’s call; he meets another man (perhaps Jonke’s tribute to André Gide’s The Counterfeiters) who hands him a book called The System of Vienna; and he meets a paranoid fish merchant who believes that he masterminds Austrian politics from his stall.
Filled with eclectic sketches of personal interests of the narrator, his friends, and other characters the images seem to fit together in a magical way that defies analysis. It is a book that bears reflection and perhaps ultimately will leave questions unanswered and thoughts unresolved. From stamp collecting to lovemaking to an opera class the book becomes more fantastic as it spans briefly into nonexistence.

The System of Vienna by Gert Jonke. Dalkey Archive Press, 2009 (1999)

A Protean Author

The Yeats Reader: A Portable Compendium of Poetry, Drama, and Prose 

The Yeats Reader: A Portable Compendium of Poetry, Drama, and Prose

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” 
― W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming", p 80

I have enjoyed the poetry of William Butler Yeats for many years as evidenced by my well-worn copy of his Complete Poems. But there is more to enjoy when considering this protean author for throughout his long life, William Butler Yeats produced important works in every literary genre, works of astonishing range, energy, erudition, beauty, and skill. His early poetry is memorable and moving. His poems and plays of middle age address the human condition with language that has entered our vocabulary for cataclysmic personal and world events.
"O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?"
("Among School Children", p 105)
The writings of his final years offer wisdom, courage, humor, and sheer technical virtuosity. T. S. Eliot pronounced Yeats "the greatest poet of our time -- certainly the greatest in this language, and so far as I am able to judge, in any language" and "one of the few whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them."
The Yeats Reader is a comprehensive single volume that demonstrates the full range of Yeats's talents. It presents more than one hundred and fifty of his best-known poems plus eight plays, a sampling of his prose tales, and excerpts from his published autobiographical and critical writings. In addition, an appendix offers six early texts of poems that Yeats later revised. Also included are selections from the memoirs left unpublished at his death and complete introductions written for a projected collection that never came to fruition. These are supplemented by unobtrusive annotation and a chronology of the life.
Yeats was a protean writer and thinker, and few writers so thoroughly reward a reader's efforts to essay the whole of their canon. This volume is an excellent place to begin that enterprise, to renew an old acquaintance with one of world literature's great voices, or to continue a lifelong interest in the phenomenon of literary genius.

The Yeats Reader edited by Richard J. Finneran. Scribner Poetry, 2002

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Iliad: Two Modern Retellings

An Iliad
An Iliad 

Allesandro Baricco, better known for his novel Silk, turns to ancient Greece in this retelling of The Iliad, but unlike Homer the gods do not interfere in the affairs of the men who are battling each other in this version of the story. Modern motivations consume these humans as they make ancient history. The story is told by multiple narrators, including Odysseus, Achilles, and Nestor--familiar to those who have read the original. The New Yorker magazine wrote Baricco's retelling of the epic is "defiantly modern," but I would encourage you to see for yourself. It is certainly good read even if you have not read the original.


David Malouf begins his retelling of the story with Achilles mourning the death of Patroclus during the Trojan War. Achilles, enraged at his friend's death, slays Hector, Patroclus' killer, and drags Hector's corpse behind a chariot around the walls of Troy. Rage as he does in Homer's original, Achilles terrifying aspect is amplified in comparison. Malouf tries to explain the psychology of Achilles, asking how a man capable of anything takes out his frustration. The narrative then shifts towards Priam, Hector's father and the King of Troy. Priam cannot stand the abuse of his beloved son's body. Malouf explores this parallel of loss between Priam and Achilles that Homer, in the original Iliad, left unsaid. Unlike the version told by Baricco a goddess intervenes and Priam then explains to Troy that he will make his way to the Greek camp with ransom treasure for Achilles. He hopes to stop his mistreatment of Hector’s body which Queen Hecuba points out is a suicide mission. Priam goes on the journey, despite warnings from his wife. He eventually meets Achilles at his tent, where the exchange is made. Priam appeals to Achilles' conscience, reminding him of his own father, in trying to persuade him to return Hector to Troy for a proper burial.
With the addition of Somax, the most successfully developed character in the entire narrative, Malouf makes certain changes to the original. Malouf takes liberties with the personalities of Priam and Achilles that are not entirely in consonant with their depictions in the Iliad. However, with Somax, Malouf manages to create a perfect character foil for Priam. Like many a royal figure before and after Priam has lived in a cocoon of safety for his entire life and is now forced to exit it to bury his son. Somax, who has by no means lived any life of luxury, unintentionally teaches Priam about the world outside of the palace: he is both ordinary and he is not the type of person that normally would have anything to do with the royal family, yet he is enthused with the opportunity. A delight to read as always, despite differences to the original, Malouf is successful in creating his own characters.

An Iliad by Alessandro Baricco. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Ransom by David Malouf. Pantheon Books, 2010.

Behind the Scrim

The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire
The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire 

"There is nothing prosaic about a diva. But diva prose is often banal: an ordinariness touched by sublimity. The diva writes to amplify herself, to state the obvious--floridly. (When a nondiva writes diva prose, she writes to admire or to impersonate.) Diva prose is amusing and pathetic because the divas who writes about themselves so grandly are often dead, no longer household words. Because a diva is rarely a dictator, we can afford to be charmed and transported bu the tragicomedy of diva prose, and not insist on greater circumspection." ("Codes of Diva Conduct", p 85)

As an opera lover I found this to be a delightful book aimed directly at all of us who love opera. Unique in his presentation and passionate in his approach to the subject, Wayne Koestenbaum illuminates the queer and queerer aspects of Opera in a way that is both intriguing and fascinating. Using opera as metaphor for gay life the divas of the past take on a melancholy patina that is affecting in its ability to communicate an earlier age of gay culture. The divide marked by Stonewall and the ravages of AIDS lends the book a haunting aura in spite of the morsels of operatic trivia that otherwise are still scandalously funny. The high point of the book for many will undoubtedly be the obligatory paean to the revolution known as "The Callas Cult".

"Luchino Visconti, in a photograph, kisses Callas's cheek, which makeup foundation has made unnaturally pale; Leonard Bernstein exclaims, "Callas? She was pure electricity." Visconti and Bernstein loved Callas not because they were gay but because she was a genius;" (p 136)

There are more details than could have been imagined about opera, from divas to opera queens, including musical trivia galore for those interested in the lives of Callas or Ponselle or Patti. The almost fifty pages devoted to "A Pocket Guide to Queer Moments in Opera" may be alternatively revealing or nostalgic depending on the readers' personal experiences. The result is a unique combination of reflections on camp, glamour, spectacle, privacy, identity, coming-out and more. For those who want to go beyond the basics of the music and drama of opera, who want to delve into the world of gay culture and the desires built upon the lore of Opera divadom, this is the that book takes them behind the scrim and into 'never land'.

“An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I've left the opera house.” 
- Maria Callas

The Queen's Throat by Wayne Koestenbaum. Poseidon Press, 1993.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Alien Mythology and Psychology

The Left Hand of Darkness
The Left Hand of Darkness 

"Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way."
- pp 223-4 

This is in large part a novel about a friendship -- one that crosses the barriers of gender, race and stars. It tells the story of an envoy, Genly Ai, who in the process of observing the people of the planet Winter ("Gethen" in the language of its own people) is is drawn into a relationship with this strange world and some of the people in that world. Winter is, as its name indicates, a planet that is always cold, and its citizens are neither female nor male: they have gender identities and sexual urges only once a month. These conditions have affected the development of civilizations on Winter with the most notable effect being that though there are two very different nations (Karhide and Orgoreyn), there has never been a war on the planet. From the opening pages unique aspects of Gethen begin with the notion of time different with a focus on the present that is so intense that each year is always year one with the past and the future redefined the beginning of each year. Genly narrates his situation thus:
"So it was spring in Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide, and I was in peril of my life, and did not know it."(p 2)
Le Guin explores what life would be like without the dualities, such as summer and winter or male and female, that form our way of thinking: the book's title comes from a Gethen poem, which begins, "Light is The Left Hand of Darkness … " Even the idea of progress is lacking as the society is defined by the concept of presence. However, it is the friendship of Ai with a local resident named Estraven and the resulting courageous actions that flow from that friendship that I found the most appealing aspect of this fine novel. After Estraven is exiled from Karhide Genly visits Orgoreyn as part of his investigation of the planet. His visit does not turn out well in that place and the adventure that ensues is one of peril and discovery for both Genly and Estraven.
The story is moving, in great part because it is beautifully written by an author who would win awards for her writing no matter in what genre she wrote. It is both one of the truly great science fiction novels of the twentieth century and one of my favorites. Harold Bloom wrote in the introduction to his anthology of criticism on the book that "Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time". It won the 1969 Nebula Award for Best Novel and 1970 Hugo award, and is considered by some to be one of the first major works of feminist science fiction.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Ace Books, 1976 (1969)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Classic Sea Adventure

The Bounty Trilogy 

          "The Bounty was a little ship of about two hundred tons burthen, stoutly rigged and built strongly of English oak. Her sails were patched and weather-beaten, her copper sheathing grown over with trailing weed, and the paint on her sides, once a smart black, was now a scaling, rusty brown. She was on the starboard tack, with the light southwesterly wind abaft the beam. Only nine mutineers were now on board, including Fletcher Christian and Midshipmen Edward Young. With the six Polynesian men and twelve women whom they had persuaded to accompany them, they were searching for a permanent refuge…"

At daybreak, on the twenty-eighth of November 1789, His Majesty’s the H.M.S. Bounty set sail and began to journey across the Pacific Ocean. Her mission was a simple one: To set anchor at the island of Tahiti and acquire upwards of one thousand breadfruit trees; then, to return to England for transplant.
In the first volume, "Mutiny on the Bounty", the crew consisted of forty-five men of varying ages and walks of life. In command was Lieutenant William Bligh, while Fletcher Christian, masters mate - his second in command, was a respectable sailor and a man of honor. The relationship between these two men deteriorates rapidly as the journey progresses and the seeds of mutiny are planted. Even in the best of times Bligh’s stern, tyrannical control weighs heavily on the crew and inevitably leads to its breakup. Shortly after daybreak one morning during the return voyage from Tahiti the narrator of book one, Roger Byam, is awakened to the realization that Lieutenant Bligh has been taken prisoner by the hand of Mr. Christian.
“Our company was divided, and, though linked together by a common disaster, we were not to share a common fate. I doubt whether a ship has ever sailed from England whose numbers, during the course of her voyage, were to be so widely scattered over the face of the earth, and whose individual members were to meet ends so strange and, in many cases, so tragic.”- (R. Byam)
After some deliberation, Christian decides to return to Tahiti and allow Byam and some others to remain there while the Bounty departs for shores unknown. The remaining two books tell the story of Lieutenant Bligh and the company of the Bounty's launch in "Men Against the Sea", and the mutineers with Fletcher Christian in the final book, "Pitcairn's Island".
The Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy is a deeply engrossing adventure story. Both a tale of human achievement and one of survival against all odds, it is deserving of the popularity it has achieved. It is among the best adventure books I have read.

The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Little< Brown and Company, 1951.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Revolutionary Anarchism

Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings
Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings

"The need for a new life becomes apparent. The code of established morality, that which governs the greater number of people in their daily life, no longer seems sufficient. What formerly seemed just is now felt to be a crying injustice. The morality of yesterday is today recognized as revolting immorality. The conflict between new ideas and old traditions flames up in every class of society, in every possible environment, in the very bosom of the family. ... Those who long for the triumph of justice, those who would put new ideas into practice, are soon forced to recognize that the realization of their generous, humanitarian and regenerating ideas cannot take place in a society thus constituted; they perceive the necessity of a revolutionary whirlwind which will sweep away all this rottenness, revive sluggish hearts with its breath, and bring to mankind that spirit of devotion, self-denial, and heroism, without which society sinks through degradation and vileness into complete disintegration." - Peter Kropotkin, "The Spirit of Revolt" (1880)

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) was a member of the Russian aristocracy who became one of the leading theorists of anarchism. He spent most of his adult life in exile, mainly in England. This book is an anthology of his writings on anarchism. His view of anarchism is essentially idealistic , viewing it as a "natural phenomenon" (p 236). He was revolutionary, but opposed the excesses of the Russian Revolution, looking to a future where individuals could work in voluntary groups to accomplish their ends.

ANARCHISM (from the Gr. ἅυ, and άρχη, contrary to authority), the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government — harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being. In a society developed on these lines, the voluntary associations which already now begin to cover all the fields of human activity would take a still greater extension so as to substitute themselves for the state in all its functions. They would represent an interwoven network, composed of an infinite variety of groups and federations of all sizes and degrees, local, regional, national and international temporary or more or less permanent — for all possible purposes: production, consumption and exchange, communications, sanitary arrangements, education, mutual protection, defence of the territory, and so on; and, on the other side, for the satisfaction of an ever-increasing number of scientific, artistic, literary and sociable needs. Moreover, such a society would represent nothing immutable. On the contrary — as is seen in organic life at large — harmony would (it is contended) result from an ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium between the multitudes of forces and influences, and this adjustment would be the easier to obtain as none of the forces would enjoy a special protection from the state. (from Kropotkin's entry on "Anarchism" in the Encyclopædia Britannica (1910))

In addition to the excellent statement on anarchism he prepared for the Encyclopedia Britannica the book also includes the essays, "Modern Science and Anarchism", "Law and Authority", and "Prisons and their Moral Influence". The "Spirit of Revolt" is a brief but moving personal statement of belief while the other essays discuss principles, education, and ethics of anarchism. I found this book a valuable contribution to the history of anarchist thought.

Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings by Peter Kropotkin. Dover Publications, 2002 (1927)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Two Poems about Time

Sonnet #12

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver'd o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

from Sonnets by William Shakespeare


"Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead
as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels;
only when the clock stops does time come to life."
- William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

Time is dead -- frozen in a place we
cannot reach, forever placed beyond
our being.

Time is place -- being our
desires and fears, passions and tears.
What is the source of our being?

Can we know what we are as the birds depart,
gone with the leaves?
We are left with the frozen crystals of ice --
a replacement for life.

The perfection of a a triangle is like our being.
But where can we find that perfection?
Is it only an imaginary construct?

We see in movement
the source of being, place and time.
Do not we change,
and in our changing become?

We become the thing we were not before.
We create our being. We are alive
with motion and change and being.

from Geography Lessons, January 1994 (2004) by  James Henderson

A Terminal Case

The World According to Garp
The World According to Garp

“In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases”  ― John Irving, The World According to Garp

Irving's novel tells about the life of T. S. Garp. His mother, Jenny Fields nurses a dying sergeant Garp referred to simply as Technical Sergeant. Unconstrained by convention and driven by practicality and her desire for a child, Jenny uses Garp's sexual response to impregnate herself, and names the resultant son after him "T. S." (standing only for "Technical Sergeant"). Jenny raises young Garp alone, taking a position at an all-boys school.
Garp grows up, becoming interested in sex, wrestling, and writing fiction—three topics in which his mother has little interest. He launches his writing career, courts and marries the wrestling coach's daughter, and fathers three children. Meanwhile, his mother suddenly becomes a feminist icon after publishing a best-selling autobiography called A Sexual Suspect (referring to the general assessment of her as a woman who does not care to bind herself to a man, and who chooses to raise a child on her own).
Garp and his family experience dark and violent events through which the characters change and grow. Garp learns (often painfully) from the women in his life (including transsexual ex-football player Roberta Muldoon) struggling to become more tolerant in the face of intolerance. The story is decidedly rich with (in the words of the fictional Garp's teacher) "lunacy and sorrow," and the sometimes ridiculous chains of events the characters experience still resonate with painful truth.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel are the several framed narratives embedded within the narrative, including: Garp's first novella, The Pension Grillparzer; a short story; and a portion of one of his novels, The World According to Bensenhaver. The book also contains some motifs that reappear in other Irving novels: bears, wrestling, Vienna, New England, people who are uninterested in having sex, and a complex Dickensian plot that spans the protagonist's whole life. Adultery (another common Irving motif) also plays a large part, culminating in one of the novel's most harrowing and memorable scenes.
The combination of unusual events makes this one of the most interesting, albeit strange, novels that I have read. However, after being diappointed with Irving's next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, I have yet to read another of his works.

The World According to Garp by John Irving. Dutton, 1978

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Memories of a Different Place and Time

A Month in the Country
A Month in the Country 

 "The marvelous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall-painting for them. And, afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the War and the rows with Vinny had done to me and begin where I’d left off." (p 20)

 The ages of history are not sharply defined. The middle ages did not end in a particular year with the populace of Europe awaking to the Renaissance the next, and so on with subsequent ages.
 This thought came to mind as I read this evocative, adagio-like story. The world of the small country village of Oxgodby in the summer of 1920, where Tom Birkin is called up to a church to restore a medieval wall painting, is one that time seems to have passed by. Existing in a time that is worlds away from the civilization of urban life, it was a bit like being in a different era, perhaps one more romantic than medieval.
 The task he undertakes was one deeded in the will of an eccentric and recently-deceased gentrywoman, Miss Hebron. The painting is barely visible, covered by seemingly indelible layers of grime, lime-wash, plaster, and stove smoke - just as the village is sheltered from the modern world and Birkin’s quarters are more rustic yet just as his heart is neglected. He arrives in Oxgodby with searing memories of World War I, a facial twitch from exposure to gas at the Battle of Passchendeale, and an ego shattered by a flighty, vindictive wife who remains in London with a lover.
 The story develops at a deliberate pace and Birkin slowly begins to recover, meets villagers, completes his task. There is the task itself, dinners with the Ellerbecks, Birkin's own thoughtful meditations and dreams that slowly force the pain of the war to dissipate into the more distant past, if not to disappear.  The impressive aspect to the novella is its length, which suits the subject well, and the levels of meaning - only one of which is the way memory and time mesh inside and outside of young Tom Birkin.
   "We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours forever -- the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on the belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face.  They've gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass." (p 135)
  A Month in the Country is short enough that the reader can easily take in the whole tale or stop to delve into its layers, and there behold: evocations of beauty, the subtle portrait of Birkin’s shell shock, and the sense of loss as Birkin looks across decades at a time when he was happy.  It was a time that he was sheltered and surfeited with the power of a world from another age.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr. New York Review Books, 2000 (1980)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Literary Life

Stephen Spender: A Literary Life
Stephen Spender: A Literary Life

“Although Poets are vain and ambitious, their vanity and ambition are of the purest kind attainable in this world. They are ambitious to be accepted for what they ultimately are as revealed in their poetry.”  

“I'm struggling at the end to get out of the valley of hectoring youth, journalistic middle age, imposture, moneymaking, public relations, bad writing, mental confusion.”  ― Stephen Spender

"But do you really think I'm any good?" a nervous Stephen Spender asked W. H.  Auden, some six weeks after they'd met. "Of course," Auden said. "Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated." Humiliation was Spender's lifetime companion. Few poets have been more savagely reviewed. And none has nurtured a greater sense of inadequacy. This is the man who, having dismissed John Lehmann as a potential lover because he was a "failed version of myself", adds: "but I also regarded myself as a failed version of myself." With Spender, self-deprecation reaches comic extremes of self-abasement.
Enjoying his poetry is only part of the wonder encountered in John Sutherland's recent biographical portrait, Stephen Spender. From his privileged upbringing to his adult life filled with self-abnegation this biography is a literary goldmine. His marriages, travels, relationships with men, and more are part of this comprehensive tome. It truly was a "Literary Life". I enjoyed reading this book as it drew me into hie wonderful world of literary friendships with Auden and others with his time in Berlin fascinating as an account of the early journey of the young poet.
Sutherland convincingly shares a description of Spender as a "fine" or even "great" poet. That is the poet I know when I read him and like Stephen Spender, "I think of those who were truly great", and in doing so cherish the transcendent geniuses of the past. Spender's poetry is only part of his superb literary output.

Stephen Spender: A Literary Life by John Sutherland. Oxford University Press, 2005

Friday, April 13, 2012

Products of Men who Dream

Tall Buildings

Tall buildings, stately reminders of Vision – the culmination of the minds
of men who dream.
These are the products of generations of thought distilled by those who choose
to think for themselves.
Each man acting upon principles honed in the workshops
of men like themselves.
Men of action, who lived their dreams, created the towers we see today.

Wide boulevards remind us of those who thought for the future
and dreamt no little dreams.
Their creative processes brought forth through time renew our spirit
with the bounty of rational thought.
Self evident principles fire our own desire for the passion of the new –
thus guiding our vision and its’ purpose.
People of action, who fulfill their purpose, find Reason the way.

from Preludes of the Mind - May, 1993, James Henderson

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Questions of Identity

The New York Trilogy
The New York Trilogy 

“We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another – for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself.” ― Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy

This is certainly a mysterious book. Ostensibly presented as detective fiction, the stories of The New York Trilogy have been described as "meta-detective-fiction", "anti-detective fiction", "mysteries about mysteries", a "strangely humorous working of the detective novel", "very soft-boiled", a "metamystery" and a "mixture between the detective story and the nouveau roman". Auster appears to be a postmodern writer whose works are influenced by the American postmodernism movement. He has his own unique vision that is evidenced by a certain coherence in the narrative discourse that goes beyond metafictional and subversive elements. This distinguishes him from other postmodern writers. The New York Trilogy is a particular form of postmodern detective fiction which uses well-known elements of the detective novel (the classical and hardboiled varieties, for example) but also creates a new form.  His prose is enticing and intelligent:
“Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists telling. To say that so and so was born here and went there, that he did this and did that, that he married this woman and had these children, that he lived, that he died, that he left behind these books or this battle or that bridge – none of that tells us very much.” 
The trilogy includes the novels City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room. The first story, City of Glass, features a detective-fiction writer become private investigator who descends into madness as he becomes embroiled in a case. It explores layers of identity and reality, from Paul Auster the writer of the novel to the unnamed "author" who reports the events as reality to "Paul Auster the writer", a character in the story, to "Paul Auster the detective", who may or may not exist in the novel, to Peter Stillman the younger to Peter Stillman the elder and, finally, to Daniel Quinn, protagonist. I enjoyed the connections with Don Quixote evident in the text.
The second story, Ghosts, is about a private eye called Blue, trained by Brown, who is investigating a man named Black on Orange Street for a client named White. Blue writes written reports to White who in turn pays him for his work. Blue becomes frustrated and loses himself as he becomes immersed in the life of Black. The Locked Room is the story of a writer who lacks the creativity to produce fiction. The stories share the confusion of identities that makes them both provocative and frustrating.
Some might call the trilogy simply confusing, I know I felt that way at times. But it is also a wonderful book with fantastic themes that challenge the reader.

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. Penguin Books, 1990 (1987)

Monday, April 09, 2012

An American Life

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

"As his friend the French statesman Turgot said in his famous epigram, Eripuit coelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis, he snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants." (p 492)

Peter Gay, writing in The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom, assayed the views of the French Philosphes toward Benjamin Franklin. He quoted Condorcet, who said in his eulogy to Franklin in 1790, “Men whom the reading of philosophic books had secretly converted to the love of liberty became enthusiastic over the liberty of a foreign people while they waited for the moment when they could recover their own, and they seized with joy the opportunity to avow publicly the sentiments which prudence had prevented them from expressing.” Franklin, who had spent years in France representing first the thirteen colonies and later the United States of America, had earlier been embraced by Voltaire who, according to Gay, was joined by spectators who saw him “embrace Franklin and bless Franklin's godson with these charged words: “God and liberty.” By now God had become the guide to American philosphes, and liberty an American specialty.
The Benjamin Franklin described in Walter Isaacson's magisterial survey of his life was truly an American philosphe and a friend of liberty. The image of Franklin that I took away from this biography was all of that, but even more one of a practical man whose never-ending search for knowledge and wisdom was always used to further the ends of practical applications both in his own life and for his country.
The early years of his life are probably the most familiar to most Americans, for he is one of the “Founding Fathers” whose life has been elevated to mythical status. Issacson adds to the familiar story the details of family and the episodes that are less familiar but all-important to Franklin's development. The prodigal son would be one metaphor for his life. One event that I found notable was his retirement from business (he had a very successful printing business in Philadelphia) at the age of 42, exactly halfway through his long life. It was his achievements in the second half of his life, scientific, social, political, diplomatic, and philosophic that made him the man who would be embraced by Voltaire and others within and without his home country. He would charm philosophers in England as well, persuading David Hume to support the colonial cause.
“Of one of Hume's essays favoring free trade with the colonies, Franklin enthused that it would have “a good effect in promoting a certain interest too little thought of by selfish man . . . I mean the interest of humanity, or the common good of mankind.”(p 197)
Isaacson uses the theme of “pouring oil on troubled water” to tie together separate sections of the book. This is originally based on Franklin's observation of the physical effect of oil on the wake of the ship (evidence of his consistently putting to use his powers of observation in the cause of science), but it would take on metaphoric status and could also refer to his diplomatic achievements and, to a lesser degree, his family relations. Overall the author's journalistic style is fluent enough to keep you going through the less exciting passages until you reach the years of conflict: Coercive measures, war for independence, and diplomatic intrigue in France.
While Franklin labored long in London to maintain the uneasy relationship between the Crown and the colonies he reached a turning point with the intolerable taxes and other coercive acts. These led him to “abandon his moderation in the colonies' battles with Parliament. The turning point had been reached.”(p 247)
The concluding section tells of Franklin's final and perhaps finest performance as grand old man at the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787. Here he used his status as diplomat emeritus to silently (mostly) help usher into existence the document that would be the foundation for the new Republic to this day. The combination of his thoughts and actions, the events in which he participated, and the effect he had on family and country lead his life to rightly be called “An American Life”.

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson.  Simon and Schuster, 2003.

The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom by Peter Gay. Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Arrogant, Funny, Ironic, Interesting

Tropic of Cancer
Tropic of Cancer 

“I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am.” - Henry Miller

This is a Rabelaisian novel first and foremost. While rough around the edges, it is full of life. Henry Miller's once-banned memoir-like novel is better than any reality TV show (pardon me, that standard is too low to be meaningful). Using a picaresque style he tells of journeying through and around France while sharing experiences that seem as real as any dream, or nightmare, can be. Combining autobiography and fiction, some chapters follow a narrative of some kind and refer to Miller's actual friends, colleagues, and workplaces; others are written as stream-of-consciousness reflections that are occasionally epiphanic. The novel is written in the first person, as are many of Miller's other novels, and does not have a linear organization, but rather fluctuates frequently between the past and present.
Even better for me were the observations of the narrator on life and art, for example: describing an artist he wrote: "An artist is always alone - if he is an artist. No, what an artist needs is loneliness." There are other comments like this -- perhaps somewhat arrogant, but almost always funny, ironic, interesting or some combination of these.
Describing his perception of Paris during this time, Miller wrote:
"One can live in Paris—I discovered that!—on just grief and anguish. A bitter nourishment—perhaps the best there is for certain people. At any rate, I had not yet come to the end of my rope. I was only flirting with disaster. ... I understood then why it is that Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love. I understood why it is that here, at the very hub of the wheel, one can embrace the most fantastic, the most impossible theories, without finding them in the least strange; it is here that one reads again the books of his youth and the enigmas take on new meanings, one for every white hair. One walks the streets knowing that he is mad, possessed, because it is only too obvious that these cold, indifferent faces are the visages of one's keepers. Here all boundaries fade away and the world reveals itself for the mad slaughterhouse that it is. The treadmill stretches away to infinitude, the hatches are closed down tight, logic runs rampant, with bloody cleaver flashing."(pp 180-182)
Miller's style makes you think about what is happening and what is being said, whether you like it or not. Often viewing life from the under the under side it is a crazy wonderful book. Not for prudes - if there are any left in the twenty-first century.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. Modern Library, 1983 (1934)

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Author of a "New Regime"

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing."
 - Benjamin Franklin

In the summer of 1771, while he was living in a country home in England, Benjamin Franklin began an autobiography that he was destined to never finish. He prepared an outline of a final section that he did not complete, but the four parts that he did finish represent one of the seminal documents of the enlightenment. 
A statesman, an author, an inventor, a scientist, a printer, and the list goes on and on when describing Benjamin Franklin. As an autobiographer he also demonstrated his genius as he reinvented the genre and the result is a classic.  By focusing on his own self-invention the narrator of the autobiography broke with the previous models of this type of writing and provided a way for America to imagine itself. 
Reading this work is both useful and inspirational. Undoubtedly that was intended for the author demonstrated a practicality in everything he did in his long life. The book also demonstrates a secular character that differs from some of the earlier classics such as Augustine's Confessions. For those who love reading his description of the founding of the first lending library is a perfect example of how he led his life, and he determined from this experience that the best way to promote a project was to remain in the background, avoiding self-promotion.

"I therefore put my self as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a Scheme of a Number of Friends, who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought Lovers of Reading. In this way my Affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practis'd it on such Occasions; and from my frequent Successes, can heartily recommend it."

The autobiography is filled with many examples like this and may be read as not only the story of a person's life, but as the foundation of a country's character.  I am reminded of a lecture I attended several years ago where Franklin's achievement was described as a  "new Regime" by Professor Joseph Alulis.  In his lucid and invigorating presentation at the Chicago Cultural Center (part of the First Friday series of lectures of the Basic Program of Liberal Education at the University of Chicago),  he told how Franklin outlined a new order - a foundation for what became The United States of America. 
Only 5 years after writing the first part of his autobiography Franklin would join Thomas Jefferson and others in writing the Declaration of Independence of the United States. The autobiography is an inspirational work and one that recommends a life of the pursuit of virtue and wisdom.  It is a book worth reading and rereading.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin. Yale, 2003 (1790)

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Aphorists from Adorno to Zomeren

Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists
Geary's Guide 
to the World's Great Aphorists 

"People of solitude always love the aphorism. It gives distraction to the hypochondriac, it gives an air of composure and calm to the nervous, it gives the illusion of productivity to the thinker and the poet in times of barrenness and nonproductivity."  -  Vilhelm Ekelund

I have enjoyed aphoristic thinkers and writers for most of my reading life. Authors from Epictetus to Rochester and, especially the Germans: Lichtenberg, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and my favorite, Goethe ("A good man is always a beginner").
James Geary has compiled an authoritative guide that not only includes all of those and many other well known writers but those less well known with aphorisms that often surprise the reader with aptness if not always greatness. The aphorists are grouped by category such as comics, moralists, painters and poets. In addition to the aphorisms there is a brief biography for each author. One of the most fascinating aspects of the guide are aphoristic comparisons called "Parallel Lines". These are included after many of the entries and present varying interpretations of similar aphorisms by different authors.
Importantly for the reader there are two indices that provide listings by author and by theme. More importantly for those who want to explore an author in depth there is an extensive bibliography. As with most reference books of this kind I enjoy dipping into the book from time to time. It is exciting to find authors previously unknown who have pithy or poignant things to say. One of my favorite sections is titled "Strange Beasts" and include those aphorists who "resist easy categorization" according to Geary. Included in this group are aphorists as disparate as Emily Dickinson and Ludwig Wittgentstein. Also in this group is Ambrose Bierce who appropriately wrote, "Aphorism, n. Predigested wisdom."
If you are looking for an on-line feast of aphorisms you should visit James Geary's aphorisms

Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists by James Geary.  Bloomsbury, 2007.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Ghost Sonata and more . . .

Strindberg: Five Plays
Strindberg: Five Plays 

Death doesn't bargain.   --August Strindberg

A multi-faceted author, Strindberg was an author of extremes. His early plays belong to the Naturalistic movement. His works from this time are often compared with the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Strindberg's best-known play from this period is Miss Julie.
Strindberg wanted to attain what he called "greater Naturalism." He disliked the expository character backgrounds that characterise the work of Henrik Ibsen and rejected the convention of a dramatic "slice of life" because he felt that the resulting plays were mundane and uninteresting. Strindberg felt that true naturalism was a psychological "battle of brains": two people who hate each other in the immediate moment and strive to drive the other to doom is the type of mental hostility that Strindberg strove to describe. He intended his plays to be impartial and objective, citing a desire to make literature akin to a science. Strindberg subsequently ended his association with Naturalism and began to produce works informed by Symbolism. 

He is considered one of the pioneers of the modern European stage and Expressionism. The Dance of Death, A Dream Play, and The Ghost Sonata are well-known plays from this period. His plays are what I would characterize as an "acquired taste", but the power of his drama is intense and worth exploring.

No matter how far we travel, the memories will follow in the baggage car.
-- August Strindberg

Illustration: Edvard Munch Portrait of August Strindberg, 1892, Museum of Modern Art,Stockholm, Sweden

Strindberg: Five Plays by August Strindberg. Signet Classics, 1984 (1960)