Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Reading for Enjoyment

The Joy of Reading: A Passionate Guide to 189 of the World's Best Authors and Their WorksThe Joy of Reading
by Charles Van Doren

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! -- When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”  ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

There are many books about the enjoyment of reading. Each of them share the joy gained from reading certain books the author has found to be uplifting or enlightening or simply entertaining. Emerson once said, "Tis the good reader that makes the good book;" as he shared his confidence in the reader to find a message in the book intended particularly for that singular reader. Whether the authors of books about reading find messages or merely memories, the words they write about their enjoyment and the books they accumulate in lists for other readers' pleasure are some of the most interesting words that I have encountered in my reading life.

Charles Van Doren is one of the best of these authors and the title of his book says it all; the book is about the joy a reader experiences. This joy is enhanced when exploring the best works of literature from the time of the Greeks and before until the twentieth century. Van Doren aims in particular at those readers with "the mind and heart of a reader of goodwill". That is the general reader who, like Charles Van Doren, finds reading their "favorite thing to do." I unabashedly count myself among that group and cannot remember a time when I have not had a book near at hand or, better yet, in my hand. The Joy of Reading follows a plan in that it includes only books that Charles Van Doren has "fallen in love with", and of those books he comments on both what the book is about and why one should read it. The selected books span several genres including novels, plays, poems, history, philosophy, essays, etc. As with all good books there is a helpful bibliography that suggests, when it is important, editions that the author found particularly helpful.

While this book did not begin my journey through great literature it has enriched it and provided a companion to turn to when I am in need of meditation on the favorites of someone who evinced what is truly the best in literature. I sometimes feel that I am like the reader described by Malcolm Bradbury when he said, " A true good read is surely an act of innovative creation in which we, the readers, become conspirators."
Do I agree with his all of his selections of favorite books? No, but they are all worth considering, exploring, reading for a while to see if I can find some of what he saw in them. Some I have made my own with readings and re-readings and some have been reserved for what I hope will be a prosperous reading future filled with more joy. Perhaps you, too, dear reader will share in "The Joy of Reading".

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Monday, December 30, 2013

A Young Boy's Epic Quest

by Rudyard Kipling

“He sat in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammeh, on her old platform, opposite the old Ajaib gher, the Wonder House, as the natives called the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that 'fire-breathing dragon', hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot.”   ― Rudyard Kipling, Kim

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Rudyard Kipling on this day in 1865. As a young boy I enjoyed reading the stories of the young boy Mowgli who is raised by wolves in the Indian jungle and "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi", the story of a heroic mongoose, in his wonderful Jungle Books.  But my favorite book of all the Kipling I have read is his novel entitled simply Kim.

While it is one of the most beautiful tales of friendship I have ever read, Kim is much more. Rudyard Kipling created in Kim a novel in the mold of the classic heroic journey that has a pedigree reaching back to Gilgamesh and the Odyssey. With Kim, a young white boy, sahib, at it's center and his friend and mentor the Lama, we see the world of India in the nineteenth century as it is ruled by Great Britain. The story unfolds against the backdrop of The Great Game, the international political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia. It is set after the Second Afghan War which ended in 1881, but before the Third. The novel is notable for its detailed portrait of the people, culture, and varied religions of India.

While Kim is often categorized as a children's novel it has much to offer adult readers not unlike other "children's" books like Huckleberry Finn. Kipling raises questions of identity (Who is Kim? In appearance a young Indian boy, but in reality an orphan whose Irish father came to India as representative of the Crown), culture, spirituality and the nature of fate. Most of all he depicts the growth of a young man through his quest to find his destiny and the bond that develops between Kim as 'chela' or disciple and his Lama. The young boy Kim starts out with the cleverness he obtains from living in the streets, but his cleverness gradually becomes thoughtfulness as his adventures and his Lama stimulate his growing maturity.  

The greatness of this novel lies in Kipling's ability to combine all of these themes with a natural style that conveys the richness both of the lives of Kim and his friends and the fecundity of life in India; a vivid picture of India, its teeming populations, religions, and superstitions, and the life of the bazaars and the road. One of the most enduring images for me was the close tie Kim has with the land itself. This is shown several times throughout the novel culminating in his final renewal when he is stretched out on the earth near the end of the novel. The epic quest is successful as this novel unfolds a positive and uplifting narrative.

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Craft and Art of Poetry

The Habit Of ArtThe Habit Of Art 
by Alan Bennett

"Auden   Do you always mean what you write?

Britten   In the sense that Shostakovich somestimes doesn't?  I think so.  Don't you?

Auden   I do now.  But I didn't always.  When I was young I used to leave meaning to chance.  If it sounded right I let the meaning take care of itself.  It's why I find some of my early stuff so embarrassing."

  -  Alan Bennett, The Habit of Art.

Reading a play is often more difficult than viewing a play. It is certainly different in many ways. Yesterday I had the opportunity to see the The Habit of Art By Alan Bennett as presented via a rebroadcast of National Theatre (of London) Live’s 2010 broadcast.  Alan Bennett’s acclaimed play The Habit of Art, with Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings, was offered by the Music Box Theatre cinema as part of the National Theatre's 50th anniversary celebrations.

The story of the play is simple: Benjamin Britten, sailing uncomfortably close to the wind with his new opera, Death in Venice, seeks advice from his former collaborator and friend, W. H. Auden. During this imagined meeting, their first for twenty-five years, they are observed and interrupted by, amongst others, their future biographer and a young man from the local bus station. The actual play as written by Alan Bennett is a bit more complicated. It is staged as a play within a play, thus the audience sees the actors and the stage management perform a run-through of the play, late in its preparation for its formal presentation. This was somewhat more complicated in the reading than when viewing the play. One difference is the experience, when viewing the play, of the action of the play within the play seeming to evolve from the action of the characters who are making it happen.  This is difficult to describe, but it was quite wonderfully amazing when experienced.  
In addition to the main story of the Auden/Britten meeting the work of the actors is interrupted from time to time by discussions of changes to the script, questions of appropriate location of certain scenes and other issues that one might naturally encounter while preparing to stage a play. This aspect of the play was rather fascinating as the audience was provided a look inside the world of the theater. It reminded me a bit of the play "Noises Off!" by Michael Frayn in this aspect although it was not nearly as anarchic as that wonderful comedy. 

The poetry of Auden is present in the character and he explains what he does succinctly and simply in the phrase "I have the habit of art." That being said, he has many other very human habits and the play highlights this very human side of Auden, as it does for Britten. The staging is exceptional and the acting superb with Richard Griffiths as Auden, Alex Jennings as Britten, and Frances de la Tour as the Stage Manager.
Alan Bennett’s play is as much about the theatre as it is about poetry or music. It looks at the unsettling desires of two difficult men, and at the ethics of biography. It reflects on growing old, on creativity and inspiration, and on persisting when all passion’s spent: ultimately, on the habit of art

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Journey of a Seeker

by Hermann Hesse

“I have no right to call myself one who knows. I was one who seeks, and I still am, but I no longer seek in the stars or in books; I'm beginning to hear the teachings of my blood pulsing within me. My story isn't pleasant, it's not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.”   ― Hermann Hesse, Demian

Herman Hesse writes in the Prologue to Demian, "Each man's life represents a road toward himself, an attempt at such a road, the intimation of a path."(p 2) Is there a reality apart from our "constructed self"? Rather is each man on the road? The story of Emil Sinclair and his relationship with Max Demian is Hesse's attempt to narrate one young man's journey on the road toward himself.

Demian presents a first person account of Sinclair's life recorded not long after World War I and centered on crucial episodes earlier in his life between the ages of ten and twenty. His memories of boyhood are dominated by his friendship with Max Demian, an older boy who rescues him from a bully and challenges him to exercise his own independent thought to liberate himself from his parents life of pietism. Upon going off to boarding school Emil adopts another mentor, a renegade theologian named Pistorius, and experiences platonic love for a young girl whom he glimpses in a park. At the university to which he matriculates he once again encounters Demian and continues his spiritual growth until Demian goes off to war. Emil's eventual spiritual independence occurs with his realization that he no longer needs external protectors like Demian.

Hesse draws upon Nietzsche, Jung and others for his ideas, but the story is almost an archetypal example of the search both for meaning and identity. The forming of an identity involves discovering values, forming beliefs, and learning how to deal with reality. It involves reconciling the two worlds of his life, the world of light represented by a home filled with order and Christian goodness, and the world of dark that exists in the streets of the town with the temptations of sex, violence and lust. It is only through his relationship with Demian that Emil is able to escape from the temptations of this life, at least for a time.
Emil is not satisfied with a life of quiet piety. Life for Emil thus includes his dream life. He tells a friend, "I live in my dreams--that's what you sense. Other people live in dreams, but not in their own. That's the difference." (p 118) 

The experiences of Emil are dramatic and result in a rejection of the convention life for one of a seeker. In his search Emil confronts his beliefs, dreams, and more. An epiphany occurs on one Spring day when he is attracted by a young woman in the park. He names her Beatrice and is soon transformed "into a worshiper in a temple." (p 81) He says,
"I had an ideal again, life was rich with intimations of mystery and a feeling of dawn that made me immune to all taunts. I had come home again to myself, even if only as the slave and servant of a cherished image."(p 81)
Thus the narrator describes what in Jungian terms is his "anima". This inspires him to create and to read as his journey takes him in a new direction. For Hesse and for the reader it is always a path on "a road toward himself".

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

An Absurd Existence

Nausea Nausea 
by Jean-Paul Sartre

“My thought is me: that's why I can't stop. I exist because I think… and I can't stop myself from thinking. At this very moment - it's frightful - if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire.” 

“I am going to outlive myself. Eat, sleep, sleep, eat. Exist slowly, softly, like these trees, like a puddle of water, like the red bench in the streetcar.”   ― Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

This is Sartre's first novel and one of his best-known. I read it as part of an introductory class on Existentialism at the University of Chicago's Basic Program of Liberal Studies. Sartre's novel depicts the life of a dejected historian in a town similar to Le Havre, who becomes convinced that inanimate objects and situations encroach on his ability to define himself, on his intellectual and spiritual freedom, evoking in the protagonist a sense of nausea. Colin Wilson commented on this novel that "Roquentin feels insignificant before things. Without the meaning his Will would normally impose on it, his existence is absurd. Causality — Hume’s bugbear — has collapsed; consequently there are no adventures." While it is widely considered one of the canonical works of existentialism I did not find it as helpful as The Plague by Camus or The Trial by Kafka for my development of a better understanding of existentialism. I was not impressed with Sartre's approach to Roquentin, the main character, who seemed to lack direction, unable to process or even recognize reality. I found it difficult to appreciate Sartre's handling of this and other issues. Even the humor present in the actions of Ogier P., the autodidact, fell flat.

In his essay "What Is literature?", Sartre wrote, "On the one hand, the literary object has no substance but the reader's subjectivity . . . But, on the other hand, the words are there like traps to arouse our feelings and to reflect them towards us . . . Thus, the writer appeals to the reader's freedom to collaborate in the production of the work." His appeal did not work well for me in this novel. Perhaps another time it will.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

"Father-figure" Poet

Selected PoemsSelected Poems 
by Kenneth Rexroth

“The mature man lives quietly, does good privately, takes responsibility for his actions, treats others with friendliness and courtesy, finds mischief boring and avoids it. Without the hidden conspiracy of goodwill, society would not endure an hour.”  ― Kenneth Rexroth

Kenneth Rexroth was a poet, translator and critical essayist. He is regarded as a central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, and paved the groundwork for the movement. Although he did not consider himself to be a Beat poet, and disliked the association, he was one of the major influences on the Beat generation, and was once dubbed "Father of the Beats" by Time. He was among the first poets in the United States to explore traditional Japanese poetic forms such as haiku.
His first volume In What Hour appeared in 1940, in which spiritual tranquility and moral anguish appeared together like testaments to both the beauties of the cosmos and the horrors of human history. Many of his early poems employ the language of direct statement, the straightforward, if heightened, conversational speech of an unselfconscious first person, that of a man who would later claim to “have spent my life striving to write the way I talk”. Readily accessible, it was to become Rexroth’s characteristic poetic voice.
In What Hour was followed by a regular succession of volumes, and in 1952 The Dragon and the Unicorn, a book-length philosophical poem, with a narrative spine provided by his travels around Europe. As a result of this substantial body of published work, by the 1950s he was widely known and admired as a leading figure in the emerging alternative culture, whose effective capital was San Francisco. There he was something of a father-figure to the many younger poets and writers who had emerged from, or converged upon the city over the previous decade, among them Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg. He presided over their gatherings, participated in their readings, sometimes to jazz accompaniment, and boosted their work over his weekly radio book review program. 
His poems, in large part due to the "accessible voice" have always been among my favorites. Here is one that combines a classic of the literary canon with a personal moment.

Proust’s Madeleine

Somebody has given my 
Baby daughter a box of 
Old poker chips to play with. 
Today she hands me one while 
I am sitting with my tired 
Brain at my desk. It is red. 
On it is a picture of 
An elk’s head and the letters 
B.P.O.E.—a chip from 
A small town Elks’ Club. I flip 
It idly in the air and 
Catch it and do a coin trick 
To amuse my little girl. 
Suddenly everything slips aside. 
I see my father 
Doing the very same thing, 
Whistling “Beautiful Dreamer,” 
His breath smelling richly 
Of whiskey and cigars. I can 
Hear him coming home drunk 
From the Elks’ Club in Elkhart 
Indiana, bumping the 
Chairs in the dark. I can see 
Him dying of cirrhosis 
Of the liver and stomach 
Ulcers and pneumonia, 
Or, as he said on his deathbed, of 
Crooked cards and straight whiskey, 
Slow horses and fast women. 

Kenneth Rexroth

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Commonplace Entry

On the Need to Be

“Find meaning. Distinguish melancholy from sadness. Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter. Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself. Find meaning or don’t find meaning but 'steal' some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.”  -― Albert Camus, Notebooks 1951-1959

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Vision of Beauty

Death in Venice: A New Translation, Backgrounds and ContextsDeath in Venice 
by Thomas Mann

“It is most certainly a good thing that the world knows only the beautiful opus but not its origins, not the conditions of its creation; for if people knew the sources of the artist's inspiration, that knowledge would often confuse them, alarm them, and thereby destroy the effects of excellence. strange hours! strangely enervating labor! bizarrely fertile intercourse of the mind with a body!”   ― Thomas Mann, Death in Venice

This may be the best short novel ever written and is certainly one of the best I have read. The plot tells the story of the writer Gustav von Aschenbach who travels to Venice, where he falls in love with an adolescent boy before subsequently dying in the cholera-stricken city. Mann’s masterly command of language and play with mythology, his psychological profile of the artistic mind, and the novella’s contrast between cold artistic discipline and the power of love has generated great admiration.
Aschenbach is introduced as an esteemed author who has produced literary works known for their formalism and neo-classical style. He has chosen an ascetic, disciplined life, a life of “noble purity, simplicity and symmetry”, for the sake of his creativity, success and national reputation. At the beginning of Death in Venice, we find the fifty-three year old writer unable to write a perfectly balanced work. He decides to take a walk by the north cemetery in an unnamed town that can be identified as Munich. The year, presented in the text as “19—”, is actually 1911. Since Mann opted not to provide a precise date, the narrative contains a timeless, ahistorical dimension despite being grounded in contemporary events.
In the figure of a stranger whom Aschenbach sees at a chapel by the cemetery, Mann alludes to medieval personifications of death, and also to the Greek god Hermes, the guide to the Underworld. But the messenger of death is also a messenger of life. The text links him to the cult of life and the god of Asian origins, Dionysos. Mann's intention was to write a treatise on the Nietzschean contrast between the god of reason, Apollo, and the god of unreason, Dionysus.
In his description of Aschenbach’s journey into Venice, Mann includes encounters with a Charon-like figure, and an old man bereft of dignity. These characters serve as messengers signalling Aschenbach’s looming fate, and as conspicuous representations of the transience and ugliness of life.
The Venice depicted by Mann is "the fallen queen, flattering and dubious beauty . . . half fairy tale, half tourist trap". It is a vision presented in its sordid reality and in its mythical splendor. At the hotel Aschenbach catches sight of a beautiful, fourteen-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio who is vacationing with his family. Aschenbach is immediately attracted to him, comparing him to a Greek statue and an artistic masterpiece. Although the sultry air of Venice makes him feel unwell, he reverses his intention to leave the city. From now on, his life is controlled by his desire to continue to observe Tadzio.
With references to the Platonic idea that physical attraction leads to spiritual knowledge, Mann diverts readers from the fact that Aschenbach’s attraction to Tadzio is primarily physical, not metaphysical. The ability of Thomas Mann to weave together character and theme and setting to achieve this perfection is uncanny and I do not believe he achieved any better in his longer fictions, great as they are. This is also one of the few novels that received a superlative treatment on film though, in the end, Visconti's film does not surpass the original.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

The Early Life of a God

The Character of RainThe Character of Rain 
by Amélie Nothomb

“Water beneath me, water above me, water in me--I was water. How appropriate that the one definition of the Japanese character for my name was "rain." I, too, was precious and copious, inoffensive and deadly, silent and raucous, joyous and despicable, live-giving and corrosive, pure and grasping, patient and insidious, musical and off-key--but more than any of that, and beyond all those things, I was invulnerable.
...From the heights and depths of my diluvian life, I knew that I was rain and rain was rapture. Some realised it would be best to accept me, let me overwhelm them, let me be who I was. There was no greater luxury than to fall to earth, in sprinkles or in buckets, lashing faces and drenching countryside, swelling sources and overflowing rivers, spoiling weddings and consecrating burials, the blesssing and curse of the skies.
My rainy childhood thrived in Japan like a fish in water.
Tired of my unending passion for my element, Nishio-san would finally call to me, "Out of the lake! You'll dissolve!"
Too late. I had dissolved long before.”   ― Amélie Nothomb

What is it like to be treated like a god? According to this novel the Japanese treat newborn children like gods until about their third year of life. The newborn in this story is certainly more precocious than I would expect most of these babies, but in spite of her extraordinary intelligence, or perhaps because of it, she is careful in how and to whom she demonstrates her true nature.
With that brief introduction I must say that this short novel is very different from almost anything I have ever read. The story is primarily told in the first person, but that person being a newborn there are necessarily exceptions to this narrative mode. For example, early on the following occurs:

"The cradle became too small. The tube was transplanted to a crib, the same one used previously by its older brother and sister.
“Maybe moving the Plant will wake it up,” said the mother, sighing.
It didn't.
From the beginning of the universe, God had slept in the same room as its parents. This didn't pose problems for them, of course. They could forget it was even there."

The perspective of this very young girl is one of the most interesting aspects of the story. Everything is new for her thus her reactions are different than her parents or the reader. She takes delight in her senses , but is preternaturally judicious in the use of them. For a long time she did not speak and when she did decide to speak she chose her words very carefully. She started by naming things, in a very philosophic way sort of like a miniature Plato. Or Heraclitus, whom the narrator quotes using his famous observation that "nothing endures but change" early in the story when the little god appeared to be exceptionally unchanging. That being only her outward appearance she, when the narrative shifts to her point of view we realize that she is taking in everything that is happening around her and is truly changing on the inside. She was seeing and in doing so making choices.
Eventually she begins to speak and makes a great discovery:
"Careful examination of what other people said led me to the conclusion that speaking was as much a creative as a destructive act. I decided I would need to be careful about what to do with this discovery."

Thus her life progresses slowly, but carefully, and this occurs under the tutelage of two nannies. They are exact opposites of each other nullifying each other out in a sense, at least they would be doing so except the little god had her say and she preferred the nice nanny, Nishio-san, who thought she was beautiful and treated her like a god, to the unlikable nanny, Kashima-san, who refused her, denied her, and did not adore the little god; all this in spite of a "charm" offensive that with few exceptions had no effect.
The story is odd in its perspective, but gradually a rationale of a sort begins to emerge. I would call that rationale discovery; the child's discovery of the world around her and both her delight and dislike of the experience and consequences of that discovery. Her experiences are fascinating, like the experience of a rain storm:
"Sometimes I left the shelter of the roof and lay on top of the victim to participate in the onslaught. I chose the most exciting moment, the final pounding downpour, the moment in the bout when the clouds delivered a punishing, relentless hail of blows, in a booming fracas of exploding bones."
"THE RAIN SOMETIMES WON, and when it did it was called a flood."

This short novel only chronicles the first three years of the child's life, enough time for her to decide to become Japanese, to discover people and nature, and ultimately to make a choice about whether she would continue to live and grow. As for that last choice you will have to read the book yourself to find out her answer.

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Dazzling Delusions

Notes on some Ideas in
by Elias Canetti

"Almost Kien was tempted to believe in happiness, that contemptible life-goal of illiterates. If it came of itself, without being hunted for, if you did not hold it fast by force and treated it with a certain condescension, it was permissible to endure its presence for a few days・"― Elias Canetti, Auto-da-Fe

 Canetti's Auto da Fe is a complex novel that I would compare to Steppenwolf,  Moby-Dick, or Crime and Punishment.   These are novels of ideas with character and plot sometimes submitting to the power of the ideas that hold sway over the story.  Here are some notes on the ideas expressed in this novel.

I. Blindness, Books, and Knowledge

"Blindness is a weapon against time and space; our being is one vast blindness, save only for that little circle our mean intelligence - mean in its nature as in its scope - can illumine. The dominating principle of the universe is blindness. It makes possible juxtapositions which would be impossible if the objects could see each other. It permits the truncation of time when time is unendurable. Time is a continuum whence there is one escape only. By closing the eyes to it from time to time, it is possible to splinter it into those fragments with which alone we are familiar." - Elias Canetti

One of the important themes of the novel is the question of knowledge, that is how do we know something?  This issue is raised throughout the novel, for example Canetti references Plato's theory of knowledge with a reference to the famous story of the Cave in the Republic:   "The gas lamps in the street went out.  Shadows crept along the walls.  So there were ghosts. . . They read books."  and later on the same page,  "Knowledge and truth were for him identical terms." (p 15)  Later in the "Trousers" chapter (p 390) he refers to Descartes' theory of knowledge, "The foundation of all true learning is doubt."  However through it all there are recurring references to blindness, both self-imposed and accidental.

This question, one that permeates the book, is not merely what is knowledge, but also how do we acquire it?  Do we hide in our library and read like Peter Kien or do we go out in the world and experience it?   Kien quotes Confucius:  "At fifteen my inclination was to learning, at thirty I was fixed in that path, at forty I had no more doubts -- but only when I was sixty were my ears opened." (p 46) It seems that all of the characters have doubts, although despite his hallucinatory dreams Peter Kien seems to have few doubts about his books.  In fact, it appears that the books are sentient beings, at least in his mind.  As his living space dwindles  (in the chapter "Dazzling Furniture") the narrator says, "he could sense his books, he would have sensed them through a hundred doors;  but to sense where once he had seen was bitterness indeed."(p 67)  Are his books sentient?  Do they live in his mind as his treasure?  Consider the following quotation:
"Books have no life; they lack feeling maybe, and perhaps cannot feel pain, as animals and even plants feel pain. But what proof have we that inorganic objects can feel no pain? Who knows if a book may not yearn for other books, its companions of many years, in some way strange to us and therefore never yet perceived?"(p 67)

 Later ( in "Infinite Mercy") Kien is described this way:  "He was learned in books, but in men he was forced to concede, far less. He determined therefore to become learned in men too."  He studies people and has yet to meet one for whom his books are "a blessing". (pp 219-20)   The novel may be considered a "city novel" with its experiences and episodes all centered on a few almost claustrophobic city streets and the limited rooms of Kien's abode?  This is another aspect of Canetti's modernism.  While Dickens and Balzac wrote novels that had the urban environments of their day as a background, beginning with Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and continuing with novels like Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf the the urban location played a more pervasive role in the story sometimes mirroring the protagonists' sickness or delusion.  The city has a role in the nightmares of the characters who inhabit them. 

Another comparison can be made between Peter Kien and Stephen Dedalus from Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man in that they are both cut off from their family:  Stephen at the end of the novel when he leaves home as he goes off to "forge the uncreated consciousness" of his race and Peter Kien who, for the better part of the novel until his brother shows up, has no family.  From the first page of the novel when Kien meets the "little man", a boy who is interested in China and books, Kien maintains a distance from other characters.  The lack of any connection with them contributes to a selective perception and leads to self-delusion.  This occurs not only in Kien but all of the major characters exhibit this behavior spurred by their own egotism and specific solipsistic needs--often approaching obsession.

II.  Treasures, Libraries, and Death

What are the true treasures to a man?  For Peter Kien it was his books that he valued and were his treasure.  Let us consider Kien's library.  In the opening chapter ("The Morning Walk")  it is described this way:  "In his library everything went by clockwork."  Does that sound more like the age of enlightenment rather than the age of chaos or anxiety?  On the last page of the book:   "The books cascade off the shelves on to the floor."  And then they burn - will the world itself be engulfed with flames like Kien's own life?  
Regarding burning books, a worthwhile and, I believe, an apropos reference is an essay by the German author Joseph Roth called "The Auto-da-fe of the Mind" where he reports the burning of books by the Third Reich in 1933.  It can be found in his collection titled What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933; thus it covers the period that Canetti was writing his novel.   Kien's own studies of Chinese history provided the story of the Emperor who decreed that "every book in China was to be burnt." (p90)

What is the role of libraries in civilization?  In the same chapter that discusses Confucius there is also a reference to Eratosthenes and the Library of Alexandria (pp41-42).  Will our Libraries save us?  This is not the case in Kien's world, rather he keeps his library apart from the world just as he keeps his great knowledge of China apart from the world;  he refuses invitations to attend conferences to lecture, but does share some of his work, releasing it for presentation by others.

There is also evidence of the theme of death and rebirth:  We have in Kien a Lazarus-like character who apparently dies and is reborn, at least in the eyes of Therese, his housekeeper and wife, and the building caretaker.  Hallucinatory dreams of Kien also contribute to the aura of death;  one that builds as the novel continues.  Ultimately the themes and ideas in the novel reveal the bedazzlement of Peter Kien, the protagonist.  He was originally conceived by Canetti as the "The Bookman" one of a proposed "Human Comedy of Madmen".  This novel was the only one that Canetti would finish.  His creation of Peter Kien would for Canetti become the novel he titled Die Blendung [The Blinding] (Auto da Fe in the English translation).  Canetti commented in the second volume of his autobiography, The Torch in My Ear, writing fifty years after completing the novel that "This title preserved (recognizable to no one else) the memory of Samson's blinding, a memory that I dare not abjure even today."

Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti, trans. by C. V. Wedgwood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984 (1935)
The Torch in My Ear by Elias Canetti, trans, by JoachimNeugroschel. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1982.

Monday Morning Poetry

The classic  New England poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson brilliantly personified a winter blizzard in his poem “The Snow-Storm.”  In Emerson’s work, the high winds of the storm become a capricious artist. In the wake of the blizzard he discovers a snowy wonderland designed by a whimsical, half-mad architect. 

The Snow-Storm

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Selected Writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson. New American Library, 2003 (1957).

Friday, December 13, 2013

Epic of Ancient Mesopotamia

Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English VerseGilgamesh: A New Rendering 
in English Verse 
by David Ferry

“How long does a building stand before it falls?
How long does a contract last? How long will brothers

share the inheritance before they quarrel?
How long does hatred, for that matter, last?

Time after time the river has risen and flooded.
The insect leaves the cocoon to live but a minute.

How long is the eye able to look at the sun?
From the very beginning nothing at all has lasted.” 

― David Ferry, The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first of its kind in Western literature, coming from the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia . The hero is a legendary King, but men and gods are the inhabitants of this epic. While the epic transcends the real world of historical time it still speaks to us today with its story of the heroic journey and the friendship of Gilgamesh for Enkidu.
Enkidu is a wild man created by the gods as Gilgamesh's equal to distract him from oppressing the citizens of Uruk. But Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh's grief for his friend is described in this way:

"Gilgamesh, weeping, mourned for enkidu:
It is Enkidu, the companion, whom I weep for,
weeping for him as if I were a woman.
He was the festal garment of the feast.
On the dangerous errand, in the confusion of noises,
he was the shield that went before in the battle;
he was the weapon at hand to attack and defend.
A demon has come and taken away the companion." (p 44)

What follows is Gilgamesh's journey against death--seeking escape from this terrible foe that took away his dear friend and companion. It tells of his wandering through the darkness of the celestial mountain and his crossing the waters of death, his meeting with his forebear Utnapishtim, who escaped the Great Flood and was granted immortality by the gods. Gilgamesh seeks his wisdom and the secret of eternal life.
The epic of Gilgamesh was the first to develop themes that would continue through western literature, such as the use of the "double" and the contrast of civilization, represented by the city, with the wilderness. It is here that the story of the Great Flood is first recorded. The mythic qualities of this epic have resonated throughout Western literature ever since as evidenced by sources as disparate as the Old Testament of the Bible, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. 
David Ferry's modern translation allows these themes to come through the text without using a precise literal line by line translation. This is a very readable rendition of the original western epic.

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A River and a Destiny

Further Notes on 
Joseph and His Brothers

"Thus life's benefits were always held in check by its drawbacks, and its drawbacks compensated for by its benefits, so that in purely mathematical terms the result was naught and nothing, but in practical terms, it was the wisdom of balance and of middling perfection--in light of which neither jubilation no curses were in order, but rather contentment.  For perfection did not consist of a one-sided amassing of benefits, just as life would be impossible if it were naught but drawbacks.  Instead, life was made up of the mutual cancellation of benefit and drawback, resulting in nothing, which was to say, contentment." (p 622)

The Nile was the source of life for the peoples of Egypt, a land that was known by outsiders as the land of mud, but known by those who live there as the apex of the universe.  The above bit of distilled wisdom, blending thoughts from such disparate sources as Aristotle, Buddha, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, was inspired by the motion of the ship, optimistically named Sparkling with Speed, that carried Joseph and the entourage with which he belonged southward on the Nile or upstream as the Nile flows from the South toward the North where it ultimately empties into the Mediterranean Sea.  The journey of Joseph from the north to the south was taking him toward a future which the narrator in one of his somewhat omniscient moments declares:
"How accustomed he would one day become to this mode of travel, and how familiar to him this stretch between Amun's house and the witty graveyard town of Menfe would become!  And like those nobles in their tapestried shrines, that is how, by the decree of Providence, he would sit one day in stately immobility--which he would have to learn because the people expected it of their gods and great men.  For, under God's care, he was to conduct himself so wisely and with such grace that he became first among those in the West," (p 624)
Thus the reader is given a description of Joseph's future, foretelling his rise from his current position as a slave, a "boy of the sand", who is the lowest of the low.  He is a young innocent boy who in spite of his innocence senses his destiny with face upward, challenging his superiors at some risk, yet having already risen from the dead he is emboldened beyond the limits that would be expected for someone in his lowly position.  Yes,  he is "Osarsiph" and he is destined for more, much more, than the traders and courtiers who haggle over him as a piece of merchandise can possibly imagine.

The Nile journey is one that presents to Joseph a world teeming with life, made of flora and fauna that seem strange to his eyes.  But he takes it all in and uses his eyes, and other senses, to learn the essence of this new world.  Among the many plants are bulrushes, a vision that reminds this reader of another river and another time when a young boy leaves his home to encounter strange adventures on the border between civilization and nature.  That boy was Huck Finn and the river the mighty Mississippi.  It was mighty river for some of the same reasons as the Nile with its magnificent power and importance for the people and culture who lived on and by it and depended upon it for their livelihood.  Thomas Mann has created an archetypal portrait of the world that surrounds Joseph and which he is determined to subdue as he fulfills his destiny.

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman's Library, 2005 (1933-43)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Poem for Meditation

Sonnet #116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Every morning I receive a Sonnet from Shakespeare by email.  I usually peruse the sonnet briefly and then move on, but on some days the Sonnet, usually in the very first line, grabs my attention and holds my mind -- I must reread and think some more about this one.  Love is not an uncommon topic of Shakespeare's sonnets.  Some of the best, Sonnets 29 or 16 come to mind, and some of the rest touch on this topic.  In Sonnet 116 we have a declaration of love that defines the boundaries of the human mind. 
 What is this love? 

It is a marriage of minds; 
it is unaltering, we find,
and an  unbending kind 
of beaming star.

It is fixed in its goal --
Not shaken by rift nor shoal.
Time's love's neither reaping nor reeling,
And as clocks tick we survive the feeling
of loss.

These thoughts are said so much better by Shakespeare and as stated deserve the strength of his concluding lines:  "If this be error . . . I never writ, nor no man ever loved."

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Freedom of the Solitary Life

Solitude: A Philosophical EncounterSolitude: 
A Philosophical Encounter 
by Philip Koch

"For it is not the mere name of solitude but the good things which are proper to it that I praise.  And it is not so much the solitary recesses and the silence that delight me as the leisure and freedom that dwell within them." - Petrarch, De Vita Solitaria

This is an encounter with both the nature of solitude and the thinkers who have written about solitude. Some of these thinkers are writers who I already knew and admired and some, at least on this topic, were new to me. Comprising two sections, one on the "nature of solitude" and another evaluating its existence it seems to encompass the subject well without exceeding the patience of the solitary reader. 
The author presents arguments for and against solitude as a theoretical and practical matter. The culture and philosophy of solitude is considered. But most to my liking were the moments when specific writers' thoughts were presented. They ask questions like Byron's "Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt
In solitude, where we are least alone;". 
Are we alone or not when we cling to solitude? Is solitude like Robert Byrd's "long night as black as that on the dark side of the moon" or is it brightly illumined by our own "power of joy, we see into the life of things" as Wordsworth poetically proclaims. The wealth of questions and information about solitude is presented and assessed, but each individual reader will have to decide for himself what answers are best suited to his life.  However for me, I prefer the freedom expressed by Henry David Thoreau:

"I go and come with a strange liberty in nature." 

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Friday, December 06, 2013

Moments of a Writer's Life

Burning the Days: RecollectionBurning the Days: Recollection 
by James Salter

“Sometimes you are aware when your great moments are happening, and sometimes they rise from the past. Perhaps it's the same with people.”   ― James Salter, Burning the Days: Recollection

James Salter calls his memoir a "recollection" as it is more a collection of scenes and episodes selected from throughout his life than it is a typical memoir. Published in 1997 when he was a youthful seventy-two it includes some fascinating vignettes of youth, middle age and beyond, all told with his signature narrative style that is both precise and beautiful.
Several of these episodes were particularly memorable in my reading. He grew up in New York City. But he tells of an unexpected sojourn at West point early in the recollections. As a young boy he had a poetic bent and he had been accepted at Stanford, looking forward to heading west. His father who had graduated from West Point had arranged a second alternate's appointment for him and, improbably, both appointees ahead of him were unable to attend so he received notification that he had been admitted. He comments, "Seventeen, vain, and spoiled by poems, I prepared to enter a remote West Point. I would succeed there, it was hoped, as he had." His four years at West Point were difficult and he is honest about his difficulties, but he gradually found his true self and upon graduation in 1945 he would enter the Army Air Corps which he would call home for a dozen years, becoming a fighter pilot. His experience as a pilot would provide material for his first novel, The Hunters.

Salter displays an earnestness and life in his telling is a serious undertaking, a gesture toward glory and immortality through love and a kind of private ethics revealed in the large and small choices that add up to tell a story. He excels as a writer with a devotional purpose, though not religious in a modern sense. Instead, there are ancient, perhaps unspoken, tests to pass. Salter was a cadet at West Point and an Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War, and in his prose about flying, we see his guiding assumptions:
"It was among the knowledgeable others that one hoped to be talked about and admired. It was not impossible—the world of squadrons is small. The years would bow to you; you would be remembered, your name like a thoroughbred’s, a horse that ran and won."
Pilots were the elegant gladiators of the twentieth century, their battles were distilled examinations of mettle and will. Some of these pilots, friends of Salter, became astronauts later in their careers.  Two of these friends, Virgil Grissom and Edward White were killed on the launching pad at Cape Canaveral in 1967.

He jumps ahead to other moments in his life, writing having become his profession following the service career. Salter has written about fighter pilots and mountain climbers but also about poets and novelists, notably in two fine short-story collections, Dusk and Last Night.  He was officially credited with eight screenplays according to the Internet Movie Database, only one from his novels (The Hunters) and one other that stands out and is highlighted in his recollections, Downhill Racer, a film from 1969 based on Oakley Hall's novel and starring Robert Redford. Only a few pages are devoted to this episode but it is a fascinating one about a beautiful life, dining with the Redfords, and discussing his idea of writing a film that would be about something which he described simply as "the justice of sport."  And he includes a few moments about his most famous novel, A Sport and a Pastime, choosing to comment on the passage from the Qu'ran that provided the title for that book.

There are many such moments in this memoir including portraits of writers like John Cheever and Irwin Shaw, the latter a good friend to Salter; also film directors like Roman Polanski in addition to Redford. The culmination of these moments suggest a life that illuminates the meaning of becoming a humane person through a life of creativity.
I would compare this memoir to some of the best I have read, Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory and Gregor von Rezzori's The Snows of Yesteryear come to mind. James Salter's achievements have been compared to those of Flannery O'Connor, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and John Cheever by Michael Dirda, book critic for The Washington Post. This is an opinion that I share as I recommend his work to fellow readers.

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Wednesday, December 04, 2013

A Young Man's Destiny

Further Notes on
Joseph and His Brothers

"Joseph stood there beneath the stars and before the giant riddle for a long time, his weight on one leg, an elbow propped in one hand and his chin in the other.  When he was once again lying beside Kedma in the tent, he dreamt of the sphinx, which said to him, "I love you.  Come to me and name your name to me, whatever my nature may be."  But he answered, "How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?"

Joseph has entered into Egypt in the third volume of Thomas Mann's magisterial tetralogy, Joseph in Egypt.  His destiny that was identified in the opening pages of the tetralogy when he was given the promise, along with his father Jacob, "And you shall be a destiny"(p 7).  As the descent into Egypt begins Joseph is chatting with Kedma, son of the leader of the Midianite caravan that purchased him from his brothers after they saved him from the depths of the pit.  The reborn Joseph asks "Where is God leading me by having me travel with you?"  Kedma responds,
"What a fellow, always good for a laugh.  You have a way of putting yourself in the middle of things that leaves a man not knowing whether to be amazed or angry.  Do you suppose, Hey There, that we journey simply so that you may arrive somewhere your god wants you to be?"
Joseph responds that "you are the means and the tool by which I am to arrive at my goal.  That is why I asked you where you are leading me." (pp 541-2)  He has recognized his destiny and is confident that he will be able, wherever he ends up in this new land, to realize that destiny.

Thomas Mann is consummate in his ability to depict the details of the land Joseph is entering whether it is the great monuments or the common people he meets at a ceremony praising the gods of Menfe (Memphis) like a simple "potbellied man in bast sandals" standing next to them whose detailed description is a paragraph in length -- just one of many such seeming diversions that make the story all the more readable and believable as the interstices of the brief passages from the story in Genesis are filled in by the narrator. 
This is part of one of the primary themes in Thomas Mann's Joseph tetralogy.  The theme of Up and Down, Top and Bottom, Heaven and the Earth below in a metaphorical sense.  From the opening overture to the rest of the book, Descent into Hell, this theme recurs in many settings.  With major characters, often Joseph as in the quotation above, dreaming of the stars and the heavens above while pages later the narrator is sharing the details of the streets and the people that are encountered whether on the caravan trail or in a ceremony encompassing hundreds of common everyday people.

Throughout the story the narrative builds an image of an archetype, that is Joseph the young man on an heroic journey to claim his destiny.  He has been singled out by his father;  he was cast into the pit and left for dead only to be reborn and sold to traders headed for Egypt; and now he is entering "the Land of Mud" as Egypt was known pejoratively, a "Sheol" on earth.  In this journey he has left one father behind and in the head of the Midianite Traders found a second whom he will also soon leave behind.  At this most recent step he has acquired a new name.  The unknown young man who knows that he will be passed on to new owners in the not too distant future and who the traders referred to as "Hey There" has a lengthy discussion with the old man leading the traders which ends with this exchange:

""But you must at least be able to name the slave when you pass him on to that blessed house in Amun's city."
"So then, what is your name?"
"Osarsiph," Joseph replied.
The old man was silent.  Although there was no more than a respectful distance between them, they could perceive one another only as shadows now." (pp 564-5) 

Decline of an Empire

The Radetzky MarchThe Radetzky March 
by Joseph Roth

“That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.”   ― Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

Joseph Roth's novel takes its name from a march by Johann Strauss Senior who composed the rollicking tune, and a hundred years ago you could hear it in market towns the length and breadth of the Empire. The story follows the destiny of a family of humble Slovenian origins who rise to prominence through valor on the battlefield. Ennobled by the Emperor, the Trottas become part of the establishment, but by this stage, the cosmopolitan empire is beginning to come apart at the seams. The author's ability to evoke a sense of place, and Michael Hofmann's translation present the novel to wonderfully lyrical effect. The whole work has a dream-like quality, but there is a brooding sense of foreboding. Much of the The Radetzky March is focused on Carl von Trotta, who on joining the army, struggles to live up to the legend of his grandfather. The novel is peopled with memorable characters, such as the nonchalant Polish Count Chojnacki and the troubled Doctor Demant. Even some of the peripheral figures are beautifully sketched, such as Lieutenant Taittinger, 'whose single passion in life was the consumption of pastries.' The decline in the Trotta family that is so exquisitely presented mirrors a similar decline in the fortunes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the time of Carl the empire had frayed at its edges and was a mess after the First World War. The Radetzky March is far more than an exercise in mawkish sentimentality, and the Habsburg regime is not given a white-washing. Roth was largely a forgotten figure for several decades, and this, his most acclaimed novel, was rarely cited by Western academics. However, when Michael Hofmann published the current translation, writers queued up to hail The Radetzky March as one of the great European novels of the twentieth century - some consolation for the embattled author, who died tragically at the advent of war in 1939. But much consolation for readers like myself who were able to discover this author and include him in our personal pantheon of great twentieth century authors.

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