Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Echoes of a Literary Master

Jack Maggs
Jack Maggs

"With that [Maggs] hugged him, wrapping his arm tight around his shoulders and pulling Toby’s face into his breast, thus forcing him to inhale what would always thereafter be the prisoner’s smell — the odour of cold sour sweat"   (p 265) 

Have you ever read Great Expectations? The main character Philip Pirrip ,known as Pip, runs into a convict in the opening scene of the novel. The convict is Abel Magwitch who meets young Pip at a graveyard. Magwitch tricks the seven-year-old boy into believing that he has an accomplice who is a terrible young man who would tear out and eat Pip's heart and liver if Pip did not help them. Pip, terrified, steals a pork pie, brandy and a file from his house and brings them to Magwitch the next morning. The relationship between Pip and Magwitch is integral to the development of this famous novel.
Undoubtedly inspired by Magwitch's story in Dickens, the modern-day Australian novelist Peter Carey has in Jack Maggs imagined a retelling of Magwitch's tale. Returning to the historical territory--19th-century Australia and England--of his Booker-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988), he focuses on 1830s London, where an exiled convict has returned to breathe the air of home and to see his beloved son. Pardoned and prosperous in New South Wales, but still under penalty of death if discovered in England, the fearless Jack Maggs steps out of a coach one evening in London to search for Henry Phipps, the boy he had left behind years before. He discovers Phipps's house, but, finding no one home, Maggs seeks employment as a neighbor's footman in order to keep an eye out for his son's return. He writes letters almost incessantly to explain his past to his boy. In the meantime, at a literary dinner hosted by his new employer, Maggs makes the acquaintance of an up-and-coming young writer, Tobias Oates, whose skill as a mesmerist is needed to cure Maggs of a "fit." Oates, penetrating his "patient's" ruses, recognizes a motherlode of material waiting to be tapped, and offers the man a deal: the name of someone who can locate Phipps in exchange for two weeks of demonstrating his ability to engage Maggs's fit-inducing demons through hypnosis. As they meet, however, other forces conspire to alter the scheme of things. The story includes subplots about love affairs involving Phipps and others, but more importantly secrets about Phipps whereabouts are revealed. Carey's complexities of plot also demonstrate gradually that Maggs is honest, fierce, and fabulously deluded. This complicated story benefits from the author's ability to bring the London of Dickens alive and with it characters who echo those first created in the imagination of that literary master's mind.

Jack Maggs by Peter Carey. Alfred Knopf, 1998 (1997)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Americans in Japan

American Fuji
American Fuji 

“Mount Fuji was mostly invisible n the summer, but on clear days she could see its grand and graceful silhouette dominating the northern sky. White herons gathered in the river upstream from laundry suds pouring out of a city grate, and hydrangeas bloomed on the banks, dropping blue and lavender petals over soda cans and bento cartons littered beside the asphalt.” ― Sara Backer, American Fuji

The Japanese have a saying according to Sara Backer, "expect the unexpected". Her entertaining novel demonstrates this and provides a lesson in the experience of living in Japan through her clearly delineated characters, especially Gaby Stanton and Alex Thorn. Gaby Stanton, a 36-year-old expatriate in her fifth year of teaching English at a small Japanese university, is peremptorily fired. No explanation furnished. No appeal possible. Unexpectedly, then, she lands a job at a company called Gone With the Wind, owned and operated by one Mr. Eguchi, cool, shrewd, and, it turns out, yakuza-connected (read: mafia). She's to sell fantasy funerals, suddenly a hot status symbol among affluent Japanese. For a fix on the degree of affluence, Eguchi counsels the ever-reliable toilet test whenever Gaby makes a house call: “Toilets tell truth about people,” he insists. Alex Thorn is a psychologist and author of Why Love Fails, a self-help book that developed out of his own bitter experience. Alex is in Japan to investigate the presumably accidental death of his college-aged son, a death surrounded by mysterious circumstances.
The story is a sort of dual mystery at its core with Alex pursuing details about his son's accidental death and with Gaby trying to find out what she should do with her life since her academic career has been derailed. When their paths cross they slowly begin to share their individual mysteries with consequences that make this book better than the average tale of an American in Japan. The owner, Mr. Eguchi, is just one of several exotic Japanese that Alex encounters during his stay in Japan. Along with Gaby's other American friends, coworkers, a couple of students and encounters with what seems like the Japanese mob the characters provide interest.  In spite of being a bit longer than required,  there is enough mystery, romance, and humor in this novel to make it a truly unexpected entertainment.

American Fuji by Sara Backer. Berkley Books, 2009 (2001)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Tales of My Landlord

Old Mortality
Old Mortality 

“One hour of life, crowded to the full with glorious action, and filled with noble risks, is worth whole years of those mean observances of paltry decorum”  ― Walter Scott

Old Mortality is not as well known nor is it as popular as Rob Roy, Ivanhoe or Kenilworth, all of which followed it in the five years subsequent to its publication in 1816. It also precedes The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermoor, both of which were part of Scott's series of novels "Tales of My Landlord". But Old Mortality is considered one of Scott's best novels.
Under the reign of the last Stewarts, there was an anxious wish on the part of government to counteract, by every means in their power, the strict or puritanical spirit which had been the chief characteristic of the republican government. The novel takes its title from the nickname of Robert Paterson, a Scotsman of the 18th century who late in life decided to travel around Scotland re-engraving the tombs of 17th century Covenanter martyrs. The first chapter of the novel describes a meeting between him and the novel's fictitious narrator.
The novel tells the story of Henry Morton, who shelters John Balfour of Burley, one of the assassins of Archbishop James Sharp. As a consequence Morton joins Burley in an uprising of Covenanters (who wanted the re-establishment of Presbyterianism in Scotland) which was eventually defeated at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679, by forces led by the Duke of Monmouth and John Graham of Claverhouse. The bulk of the novel describes the progress of the rebellion from its initial success at the Battle of Drumclog, and the growth of factionalism which hastened its defeat. Henry's involvement in the rebellion causes a conflict of loyalties for him, since he is in love with Edith Bellenden who belongs to a family who oppose the uprising. Henry's beliefs are not as extreme as those of Burley and many other rebel leaders, which leads to his involvement in the factional disputes. The novel also shows their oppressors, led by Claverhouse, to be extreme in their beliefs and methods. Comic relief is provided by Cuddie Headrigg, a peasant who reluctantly joins the rebellion because of his personal loyalty to Morton, as well as his own fanatical mother.
This novel is both interesting and exciting in its historical detail. More importantly it addresses the questions of the relative merits of 'enthusiasm' and moderation, of extremism and consensus, when the nation is swept by rebellion and violent change.

Old Mortality by Sir Walter Scott. The Penguin English Library, 1975 (1816) 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Complexities of Love and War

Flare Path

"The title of the play refers to the flares that were used to light runways to allow planes to take off and land but the flare paths were also used by the Germans to target the RAF planes." (BBC Radio 3)

  Years before I was born in a small town in Wisconsin my mother-to-be was living in Alexandria Virginia, a suburb of Washington D. C.  The year was 1942 and as it slowly faded in to the next year my father, whom she had married earlier that same year was in the Army Air Corps on his way to the Southeastern Pacific islands.  He would not return for several years, but I wonder how often my mother spent her evenings poring over his letters home with secret fears  that his return would never occur.  I attended a play yesterday afternoon that laid bare similar emotions of three British couples along with more complex feelings arising from the complexities of love relationships.  
  These relationships and emotions were dramatically portrayed by a skilled ensemble of actors in a production of Terence Rattigan's play, Flare Path.  Based on his own experiences in the RAF, this play, written in 1941 and first staged in 1942.  Set in a hotel near an RAF Bomber Command airbase during the Second World War, the story involves a love triangle between a pilot, his actress wife and a famous film star.  It was his first successful serious drama and first commercial success since the mid-1930s.  
  The play portrays the impact on three couples of the demands on the fliers who leave, perhaps never to return, and their wives and lovers who wait for their return.  Of the three couples, one is a young sergeant whose working wife is visiting for the weekend.  Another is a Polish emigre Count who has married a British bar maid so that he may join the fight against the Germans.  And the third couple is a young Lieutenant who is facing his own demons and is unsure if he is a worthy mate for his wife, one Patricia Graham, an actress from London, who has something of her own to tell her husband Teddy, the  bomber pilot. The situation is complicated when Peter Kyle, a Hollywood film star, arrives at the hotel, and Teddy is sent out on a night raid over Germany. Patricia is torn between a rekindled old flame and loyalty to the husband who relies on her for support.  The tension mounts as the the night moves into morning and the fliers begin their return.  Rattigan effectively ratchets the emotional tensions and the suspense upward until the climax.  
  Griffin Theatre Company produced the play and it was directed by Robin Witt.  The ensemble was uniformly excellent in their respective roles.  In particular I enjoyed the performances of Vanessa Greenway as the wife of the Count and Darci Nalepa as Patricia Warren.  Joey deBettencourt was outstanding as he brought believable emotional tension to his portrayal of Bomber Pilot Teddy Graham.  The cast was brought together under Robin Witt's direction which captured the drama that Rattigan poured into this, one of his best plays.  Also worthy of mention was the set designed by Joe Schermoly whose underscored the soaring emotional drama with soaring details of wall and stairs.  I am glad I experienced this fine Griffin Theatre production and may add it to the many Rattigan plays that I have enjoyed over the years.

*Photo above, right: Terence Rattigan in London in 1948.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Late Thirties in Manhattan

Rules of Civility
Rules of Civility

“In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions—we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.”  ― Amor Towles, Rules of Civility

A young woman on the way up meets a man who seems to be near the pinnacle for it's his birthright and only her aspiration. Amor Towles scintillating first novel encompasses this simple story arc and much more as it reveals the penultimate year of the thirties as it was for the young and restless in Manhattan. The narrator/heroine is Katey Kontent (with the emphasis on the last syllable) and the characters she meets on her way up include her roommate Eve, a man who appears to be made of patrician blood, Tinker Grey, Tinker's brother Henry and many others in the space of a year. Katey is a bright, attractive and ambitious young woman whose relationships with her insecure roommate and the privileged Adonis they meet in a jazz club begin simply but gain in complexity as both personal tragedies and world events intervene in their lives. Katey is a Brooklyn girl and her boardinghouse mate Eve is a Midwestern beauty. Together they are expert flirts who become an instant, inseparable threesome with mysterious young banker Tinker Grey. With him, they hit all the hot nightspots and consume much alcohol. Katey's life in particular echoes that of one of Dicken's most famous, beloved my many, literary narrators of the previous century--the explicit references to Great Expectations abound. Strong-willed Katey works her way up the career ladder, from secretarial job on Wall Street to publisher’s assistant at Condé Nast, forging friendships with society types and not allowing social niceties to stand in her way. But this is just one facet of her rise among the high rises of a Manhattan that show off its night life from jazz clubs to speak-easies. What impressed this reader was Katey's uncompromising purpose through it all as she searched for her own personal truth.
Even more appealing was Tinker's fascination with nature as found in the writings of Henry David Thoreau. This was emblematic of his own personal turmoil that seemed to be a complex mix of the age old nature versus nurture battle superimposed upon a larger struggle between Nature and Civilization. Implicit in all of this are the echoes of Gatsby. All the characters are beautifully drawn, the dialogue is sharp and Towles manages to avoid unnecessary sentimentality in the period pieces. The denouement of Katey's civilized life along with those of the friends she makes over the course of this one year in the late thirties makes this novel an exceptional one. I consider myself fortunate to have begun my new year of reading with such a thoughtful, literary, and evocative novel.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. Penguin Books, 2011

Friday, January 18, 2013

Music, Language, and Violence

A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange 

“Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed. Then flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.”  ― Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

1.  Twenty-four years after the original American publication of A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess wrote an introduction to a new edition of his novel. In it he explains why the American edition had included only twenty of the twenty-one chapters in his novel (as published in England). Reading this version for the first time gave me the opportunity to enjoy his language, the wondrous blending of music into the fabric of the story, the thematic and allusory complexities, and the author's preferred ending. It is a novel that is well worth the time spent rereading.
Burgess presents a thoroughly unsettling but brilliant conception of a world seemingly gone bad. A decade earlier the humane anthropologist Ashley Montagu had warned that man "has befuddled and endangered himself to such a degree that he stands today on the very brink of destruction--self-destruction."(On Being Human, p. 11).  What may seem like hyperbole today was surely a serious observation by a renowned scientist of man at the time.  Burgess novel depicts another aspect of man's danger to himself.  This one is not unlike the dystopia of Orwell's 1984, a book in which an entire social order is implied through language:  its order and disorder, meaning and the chaos in its destruction.  And what language!   Burgess imagines a language that he uses to hint at the vile universe of the 15-year-old delinquent Alex and his murderous droogs, Burgess created "nadsat," a rich futuristic patois. "Sinny" for "cinema." "Viddy" for "see," "horrorshow" for "good" — from the Russian, khorosho, which gives you some idea of which political system has prevailed. The words locate him in a world of corrupted values, violence and boundless infantile indulgence (His drug is "milk plus.").  Its a destructive world where words as much as actions create a vortex of violence.

 “Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?” - Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange  

2.  If Alex is proactive in the pursuit of vice, his parents are apathetic in the pursuit of life.  This is not good and, whether or not it contributes to Alex's delinquency (nature vs. nurture), their lives are displayed with savage satire by Burgess.   When Alex is apprehended by the authorities he is subjected to psychological conditioning to make him nauseated at any impulse towards violence. This conditioning raises several issues - one being the value of repressiveness itself. "To turn a decent man into a piece of clockwork should not, surely, be seen as any triumph for any government, save one that boasts of its repressiveness." Repressiveness for what purpose? A further issue is the quality of the life of one who has been deprived of his ability to make any choice in his actions. Is the elimination of the will, and with it one's essential humanity, too high a price to pay for the expectation of the elimination of violent behavior? Burgess's book becomes a meditation on whether a world in which evil can be freely chosen might still be preferable to one in which goodness is compelled.  The novel demonstrates a view of man that seems almost Manichean in its pervasive duality.  The battle between good and evil in Alex's soul becomes the epicenter of this theme and his struggle is mirrored in the society, with seemingly 'good' characters turning 'bad'.   All this and more inhabits this dystopian tale.
Burgess's imagination is capable of more than all but a few authors. His prose style and use of the language places him in a realm inhabited by even fewer. The joy is that all lovers of great books may partake of the wonder he creates.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  W. W. Norton, 1995 (1962) 
On Being Human by Ashley Montagu. Hawthorn Books, 1966 (1950)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Historical Romance

Notre-Dame of Paris
Notre-Dame of Paris 

“Love is like a tree: it shoots of itself; it strikes it's roots deeply into our whole being, and frequently continues to put forth green leaves over a heart in ruins. And there is this unaccountable circumstance attending it, that the blinder the passion the more tenacious it is. Never is it stronger than when it is most unreasonable.”  ― Victor Hugo, The Huntchback of Notre Dame

Several years ago I both read this book and saw an adaptation of it for the stage as a musical! They were both great productions. The original began appearing in the bookshops of Paris on March 16, 1831 as a new novel from the pen of Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris. This novel, which is now popularly known as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", tells the emotionally exhausting tale of the penniless poet, Gringoire the demonic, lecherous priest, Frollo, the handsome, empty-headed, guardsman, Captain Phoebus, the deaf bell-ringer, Quasimodo, with his hump and his wart-obscured eye, and the beautiful gypsy girl they all fall in love with: Esmeralda, whose only friend in the world is her performing goat, Djali (the name Emma Bovary gives to her lap-dog twenty-six years later).
The epicenter of the novel is the Gothic cathedral. In the minds of progressive Parisians, it was a shabby relic of the barbarian past. Hugo himself explored the cathedral climbing the bell-towers and it is there that he discovered his inspiration for the story. The story is sited in 1482 at the historical crossroads when the modern world was struggling to be born and when the printed word began to dominate and annihilate that older form of writing--architecture. Hugo's own "basketful of rubble" is reminiscent of the Renaissance novelist whose tale, though gargantuan, was also thought by some to be no better than rubble (The opposite is true and the wise reader should explore the beauty of Rabelais if he has not already done so).
Hugo's novel is one of the great historical romances of all time with characters in the Hunchback Quasimodo, Esmeralda and Frollo who you will never forget. The City of Paris and the Cathedral of Notre Dame also come alive in Hugo's story and you see the power of love and loyalty that can persevere in the face of evil. The theme of justice also resounds in this novel almost as much as in Les Miserables. It is clear that this was an important concept for Hugo. For lovers of romantic historical literature this is a great read.

Notre-Dame of Paris by Victor Hugo. Penguin Classics, 1978 (1831)

A Modern Poe?

The Butcher Boy 

"these monsters of real life usually looked and behaved in a more normal manner than their actually normal brothers and sisters: they presented a more convincing picture of virtue than virtue presented of itself—just as the wax rosebud or the plastic peach seemed more perfect to the eye, more what the mind thought a rosebud or a peach should be than the imperfect original from which it had been modeled.”   ― William March, The Bad Seed

“Oh now now he says that's all over you must forget all about that next week your solitary finishes how about that hmm? I felt like laughing in his face: How can your solitary finish? That's the best laugh yet.”  ― Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy

Can children be evil? In literature this is certainly the case. I am reminded of the evil little girl, Rhoda Penmark, in The Bad Seed by William March. In Patrick McCabe's third novel we have a rival for Rhoda with Francie Brady. It is a journey into the heart of darkness: the mind of a desperately troubled kid one step away from madness and murder. Francie Brady is a schoolboy in a small town in Ireland. His father is a mean drunk and his mother a slovenly housekeeper, but Francie has a good buddy, Joe Purcell, and their Tom-and-Huck friendship is what sustains him. Then a seemingly trivial incident alters the landscape: Francie and Joe con the very proper Philip Nugent out of his prize collection of comic books, and Philip's mother calls the Bradys ``pigs.''
Like many of Edgar Allan Poe's narrators, Francie will blame all his troubles on someone else, in his case Mrs. Nugent; it doesn't help that the Nugent household is a cozy haven, maddeningly out of his reach. Matters rapidly deteriorate. His mother enters a mental hospital. Francie runs away to Dublin; he returns to find that his ma, whom he had promised never to let down, has drowned herself. He breaks into the Nugents' house, defecates on the carpet, is sent to reform school, and (the unkindest cut) loses Joe to Philip Nugent. Francie tells us all of this in a voice that is the novel's greatest triumph--a minimally punctuated but always intelligible flow of razor-sharp impressions, name-calling, self-loathing, pop-culture detritus culled from comic books and John Wayne movies (the time is 1962), all delivered with the assurance of a stand-up comic.
We see in this story the longing for childhood innocence, now lost forever, and just an inkling of the gathering mental darkness that will lead to an inevitable denouement. Reminiscent of Salinger and Sillitoe, McCabe has created something all his own--an uncompromisingly bleak vision of a child who retains the pathos of a grubby urchin even as he evolves into a monster not unlike some of those that issue from Poe's imagination. His novel is a tour de force.

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe. Fromm International, 1993 (1992)

Poe's Doppelganger

William Wilson 

"In truth, the ardor, the enthusiasm, and the imperiousness of my disposition, soon rendered me a marked character among my schoolmates, and by slow, but natural gradations, gave me an ascendancy over all not greatly older than myself; --over all with a single exception. This exception was found in the person of a scholar, who, although no relation, bore the same Christian and surname as myself; --a circumstance, in fact, little remarkable; for, notwithstanding a noble descent, mine was one of those everyday appellations which seem, by prescriptive right, to have been, time out of mind, the common property of the mob. In this narrative I have therefore designated myself as William Wilson,"  -  Edgar Allan Poe

The German word ‘Doppelganger' meaning ‘double walker' is derived from the German word ‘doppel' meaning ‘double' and ‘ganger' meaning ‘walker'. Doppelganger is, therefore, an apparition of oneself or someone whom we are aquainted with and even someone whom we have never met before.  In literature, dream analysis, or archetypal symbolism, the Doppelganger is often figured as a twin, shadow, or mirror-image of the protagonist. The Doppelganger characteristically appears as identical to (or closely resembling) the protagonist; sometimes the protagonist and Doppelganger have the same name. 

The use of the doppelganger in this tale portrays better than any other the divided personality of Edgar Allan Poe. The sharp inward division between the strength of Poe's rational mind, he possessed enormous erudition, and the force of his irrational apprehension was reflected not only in his poems and stories but also in his conflict with authority, his anxious welcome of personal disaster and his compulsion to destroy his own life. In this autobiographical tale the narrator, like Poe himself in certain moods, has an "imaginative and easily excitable temperament" and is "self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions." He is tormented and pursued by his double--an inseparable companion in Dr. Bransby's school, at Eton and Oxford, and on the Continent--who mimics all his actions. Finally, unable to escape his tiresome other self, he stabs him to death. Only then does he realize that he has destroyed his conscience, or the finer part of himself. He has become dead to the moral world and no longer has a meaningful existence. The story demonstrates Poe's dual impulses: to act destructively and to censure his own irrational behavior.  Beyond that it contains signature aspects of Poe's writing, the building of atmosphere, suspense, and delineation of character through subtle and always important details.

This is one of Poe's finest tales, and has been recognized as such as can be seen through its influence on subsequent writers from Dostoevsky in The Double to Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Daphne Du Maurier's The Scapegoat, and in Chesterton's The Man Who was Thursday.  In the cinema Alfred Hitchcock's use of the doppelganger was magnificent.  Poe's tale, like so many of his other works, may be the quintessence of this type of tale.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Poet for Today

Osip Mandelstam

" My turn shall also come:
I sense the spreading of a wing."

Osip Mandelstam was born on this day in 1891.  After surviving the revolution in 1922 Mandelstam married Madezhda Iokovlevna Khazin, who accompanied him throughout his years of exile and imprisonment. In the 1920s Mandelstam supported himself by writing children's books and translating works by Upton Sinclair, Jules Romains, Charles de Coster and others. He did not compose poems from 1925 to 1930 but turned to prose. In 1930 he made a trip to Armenia. Mandelstam saw his role as an outsider and drew parallels with his fate and Pushkin's. The importance of preserving the cultural tradition became for the poet a central concern. The Soviet cultural authorities were rightly suspicious of his loyalty to the Bolshevik rule. To escape his influential enemies Mandelstam traveled as a journalist in the distant provinces. Mandelstam's Journey to Armenia (1933) became his last major work published during his life time. 
'We live, deaf to the land beneath us, 
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches, 
But where there's so much as a half a conversation 
The Kremlin's mountaineer will get his mention.' 
(from 'Stalin' 1934) 
Mandelstam was arrested for 'counter-revolutionary' activities in May 1938 and sentenced to five years in a labour camp. Interrogated by Nikolay Shivarov, he confessed that he had written a counter-revolutionary a poem which started with the lines: 'We live without sensing the country beneath us, At ten paces, our speech has no sound and when there's the will to half-open our mouths the Kremlin crag-dweller bars the way.' 
In the transit camp, Mandelstam was already so weak that he couldn't stand. He died in the Gulag Archipelago in Vtoraia rechka, near Vladivostok, on December 27, 1938.His body was taken to a common grave.  
The following poem seems particularly appropriate for this time of year:

“Alone I stare into the frost’s white face”

Alone I stare into the frost’s white face.   
It’s going nowhere, and I—from nowhere.   
Everything ironed flat, pleated without a wrinkle:   
Miraculous, the breathing plain.   

Meanwhile the sun squints at this starched poverty—
The squint itself consoled, at ease . . .   
The ten-fold forest almost the same . . .   
And snow crunches in the eyes, innocent, like clean bread.   


Notes on Poe, II

The following excerpt - relates a tale as befitting the bizarre subjects of his stories, American author Edgar Allan Poe lived a life filled with distress and poverty, married his thirteen-year-old cousin, and died in dire circumstances at the age of forty:

"Edgar Poe was born in Boston, on January 19, 1809, to a talented actress named Eliza Poe and her hapless husband, David, who deserted her. When Edgar was two, his mother died of consumption. The Poe orphans had little more to depend upon than the charity of strangers. The children were separated and Edgar landed in the home of a wealthy Richmond merchant named John Allan and his sickly, childless wife, Fanny. Allan, who ran a firm called the House of Ellis and Allan, never adopted the boy, and never loved him, either. Poe, for his part, took Allan's name but never wanted it. (He signed letters, and published, as 'Edgar A. Poe.') In 1815, Allan moved his family to London, to take advantage of the booming British market for Virginia tobacco. Poe attended posh boarding schools. Then, during the Panic of 1819, the first bust in the industrializing nineteenth century, banks failed, factories closed, and Allan's business imploded. The House of Ellis and Allan fell. Allan, plagued with two hundred thousand dollars of debt, sailed back to Virginia. Poe turned poet. ...

"In 1823, Poe fell in love with Jane Stannard, the unhinged mother of a school friend. A year later, Stannard died, insane. Poe spent much time at her graveside. 'No more' became his favorite phrase. ... In 1825, Allan inherited a fortune from an uncle. Allan rose; Poe kept falling. At sixteen, Poe went to the University of Virginia where he drank and gambled and, in a matter of months, racked up debts totaling more than two thousand dollars. Allan refused to honor them, even though Poe was at some risk of finding himself in debtor's prison. Poe ran off. There followed a series of huffy pronouncements and stormy departures; most ended in Poe begging Allan for money. 'I am in the greatest necessity, not having tasted food since Yesterday morning,' Poe wrote. 'I have nowhere to sleep at night, but roam about the Streets.' Allan was unmoved. Poe enlisted in the army and served for two years as Edgar A. Perry. In 1829, Fanny Allan died. Andrew Jackson was inaugurated. Poe, while awaiting a commission to West Point -- having sent an application, and Allan's fifty dollars, to Jackson's secretary of war, John Eaton -- submitted the manuscript for a book of poems to a publisher, who told him that he would publish it only if Poe would guarantee him against the loss. Allan refused to front the money. Poe moved to Baltimore, where he lived with his invalid grandmother; his aunt, Maria Clemm; his nine-year-old cousin, Virginia; and his brother, Henry, an alcoholic who was dying of consumption. ...

"Poe, who was broke, didn't need a bank. He could treasure up funds, he came to believe, in his own brain. He read as much as he could, charging books out of the Baltimore Library. 'There are minds which not only retain all receipts, but keep them at compound interest for ever,' he once wrote. 'Knowledge breeds knowledge, as gold gold.' Poe may have thought his mind was a mint, but when his book of poems was finally published, it earned him nothing. ...

" 'I have an inveterate habit of speaking the truth,' Poe once wrote. That, too, was a lie. (That Poe lied so compulsively about his own life has proved the undoing of many a biographer.) In 1830, Poe finally made it to West Point, where he pulled pranks. 'I cannot believe a word he writes,' Allan wrote on the back of yet another letter from his wayward charge. After Poe was court-martialed, Allan, who had since married a woman twenty years his junior, cut Poe off entirely. Poe went to New York but, unable to support himself by writing, he left the city within three months, returning to Baltimore, to live with Mrs. Clemm and little Virginia. He published his first story, 'Metzengerstein.' He won a prize of fifty dollars from the Baltimore Weekly Visitor for 'MS in a Bottle.' The editor, who met him, later wrote, 'I found him a state of starvation.' In these straits, Poe wrote 'Berenice,' a story about a man who disinters his dead lover and yanks out all her teeth -- 'the white and glistening, and ghastly teeth of Berenice' -- although this gets even grosser when, after he's done it, he realizes she was still alive. It has been plausibly claimed that Poe wrote this story to make a very bad and cruel and long-winded joke about 'bad taste.'? Also: he was hungry.

"John Allan died in 1834, a rich man. He left his vast estate, three plantations and two hundred slaves, to his second wife and their two children. He left Edgar A. Poe not a penny. The next year, Poe was hired as the editor of a new monthly magazine, the Southern Literary Messenger, in Richmond. He was paid sixty dollars a month, a modest salary but for him, a fortune. In 1836, Poe married Virginia Clemm. She was thirteen; he was twenty-seven; he said she was twenty-one. He called her his 'darling little wifey.' "

Author: Jill Lepore
Title: The Story of America: Essays on Origins
Publisher: Princeton
Date: Copyright 2012 by Jill Lepore
Pages: 180-184

The Story of America: Essays on Origins
by Jill Lepore by Princeton University Press
Source: DelanceyPlace

Monday, January 14, 2013

Phonetics and Shorthand



“Higgins: I find that the moment I let a woman make friends with me, she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a damned nuisance. I find that the moment I let myself make friends with a woman, I become selfish and tyrannical. Women upset everything. When you let them into your life, you find that the woman is driving at one thing and you're driving at another.
Pickering: At what, for example?
Higgins: Oh, Lord knows! I suppose the woman wants to live her own life; and the man wants to live his; and each tries to drag the other on to the wrong track. One wants to go north and the other south; and the result is that both have to go east, though they both hate the east wind.”  ― George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion

Although he based the tales in Metamorphoses on existing stories, Ovid presents them with a freshness and originality that made them uniquely his own. His writing is vivid, elegant, and succinct, with the stories including "Pygmalion"generally moving swiftly from beginning to end without tedious digressions or inflated language. Metamorphoses was highly popular with readers of the Augustan age (27 BC to AD 14, when Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire) and became one of the best read books of the Renaissance, influencing Shakespeare and other prominent writers. The themes and motifs are as timely today as they were 2,000 years ago.
In ancient Greek mythology, Pygmalion fell in love with one of his sculptures that came to life and was a popular subject for Victorian era English playwrights, including one of Shaw's influences, W. S. Gilbert, who wrote a successful play based on the story in 1871, called Pygmalion and Galatea. Shaw also would have been familiar with the burlesque version, Galatea, or Pygmalion Reversed. It is with this background that George Bernard Shaw took up this myth and made it his own with the first performance occurring in April, 1914. Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador's garden party by teaching her to assume a veneer of gentility, the most important element of which, he believes, is impeccable speech. The play is a sharp lampoon of the rigid British class system of the day and a commentary on women's independence.  Like all of Shaw's plays the wordplay is a delight rivaling Shakespeare in that realm.

I have attended several productions of Pygmalion over the years and was fortunate to see another yesterday afternoon presented at Theater Wit in Chicago.  Produced jointly by Stage Left Theatre and BoHo Theatre and directed by Vance Smith it was an excellent afternoon of theater.  It was an entertaining and straightforward production from director Smith and clearly brought a certain freshness and insouciance to this familiar, but invariably enjoyable, play.  The acting was energetic effectively communicating Shaw's humor.  The performances of Steve O'Connell and Sandy Elias as Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering, respectively, were outstanding.  While not the best of Shaw's plays, this is undoubtedly the most familiar due to the popularity of the musical adaptation by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Heroic Composer

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra
in Concert
Riccardo Muti, Music Director
Edo de Waart, Conductor

What William Kinderman, in his magnificent biography of Beethoven, calls "The Heroic Style" was on display at Symphony Center last night.  Beethoven's Third Symphony, the "Eroica", was the main offering and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was up to the challenge under the leadership of conductor Edo de Waart.  It was a pleasure to see Mr. de Waart on the podium for It marked De Waart's first downtown appearance with the Chicago Symphony since 1987, although his association with the orchestra goes back 42 years.

The Eroica performance was thoughtful with each jewel-like movement proffered with beautiful precision even as the whole symphony was driven inexorably to its noble climax in the artfully vibrant variations that make up the final movement.  The terrain surrounding this famous symphony has been explored many times in performance and critical analysis.  I will mention only one aspect on display: the compelling intensity of the continuity of the music.  This music, when played with the musical expertise of the Chicago Symphony, became an intense experience of the composer through time expressing musical joy.  Seldom are moments as sublime as this.
The first half of the concert did not disappoint, opening with the Leonore Overture No. 3 and a truly classic performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major with Radu Lupu as soloist.  This concerto, as with the second and third, is representative of the classical concerto form associated with Haydn and Mozart.   Mr. Lupu, famous for his interpretation of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Schubert, played with a clarity and precision that brought out the details of Beethoven's early concerto.  The Leonore Overture No. 3 is one of several versions of Beethoven's overture for his only opera, Fidelio.  While he trimmed the overture for inclusion with his opera, this version is much longer as it distills the dramatic themes of the opera in a manner approaching that of a tone poem; a form that later Romantic composers like Lizst would perfect.  This concert once again highlighted the strengths of one of the great orchestras of the world.

Beethoven by William Kinderman. Oxford University Press, 1997 (1995)

Friday, January 11, 2013

Notes on Poe, I

The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings

The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings 

"And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over acuteness of the senses?--now, I say, there came to my ears a low dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.  I knew that sound well, too.  It was the beating of the old man's heart.  It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage."

The madness of the narrator is evident from the moment he claims that he is not mad. "The Tell-Tale Heart" is an economical tale only four pages in length; yet it packs a lot of emotion into its small size. He claims that his own calmness is proof he is not mad when moments later he refers to a court case where calmness was evidence of madness.  The clarity of the prose is striking, and just as he claims he is not mad the narrator also claims the old man did nothing to cause him to kill him. He had no passion, no objection, he loved the old man; "I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him."  Yet upon reflection it was the old man's eye. "One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture--a pale blue eye, with a film over it. When ever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold;".
  There is more in this very short story, layers of details with each word important when attempting to understand it. The evil eye is a terror that was traditionally associated with the devil or the power to inflict pain or injury. Reaction to this leads the narrator onward relentlessly to the denouement. Yet the real terror is in the aftermath of his crime when, his heightened senses lead him to an unexpected end.
 Edgar Allan Poe, in this tale and in "The Black Cat" and others presents narrators that are unhinged by their actions, unaware of their own real feelings and those of the people around them. They interpret their own perversity as a form a sagacity and are methodical in their madness. The stories are filled with symbolism, and the perversity seems to be in spite of the will of the narrator. It is as if an "imp of the perverse" made him do the crime. Just so, Poe has another tale that dwells on that very character. Here we see Poe the master of the human conscience telling tales that lay bare the result when conscience is not present or ignored until it is too late; until its beating or other sign demands that it be heard.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"I seek joy."

The Selected Poetry

The Selected Poetry 

“The tides are in our veins, we still mirror the stars, life is your child, but there is in me
Older and harder than life and more impartial, the eye that watched before there was an ocean.” 
― Robinson Jeffers, "The Continent's End"

Robinson Jeffers was born on January 10, 1887. In this, the definitive selection of Jeffers poetry, there is a broad selection that includes his best efforts. Ranging from Roan Stallion and Cawdor from the twenties to his last poems in the late fifties, the collection demonstrates that he belongs in the pantheon with the best poets of the ages. "Rock and Hawk" is both one of his greatest poems and one of my favorites; but I also relish the great thoughts found in some of the smallest poems:
"I am neither mountain nor bird
Nor star: and I seek joy."
Jeffers, who lived on and often wrote about the California coast, is regarded by many as “the father of environmental poetry.” He attracted controversy for his pacifism and his philosophy of “Inhumanism,” which advocated "a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the trans-human magnificence." But I like to focus on the beauty of his words; for example "Tor House" which is today a popular stop for both literary travelers and environmentalists.

If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant….
― Robinson Jeffers, The Selected Poetry, "Tor House"

“A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again.” 
― Robinson Jeffers, The Selected Poetry, "The Return"

The Selected Poetry by Robinson Jeffers. Stanford University Press, 2002 (1938)

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Two by Oates

We Were the Mulvaneys
We Were the Mulvaneys 

“For what are the words with which to summarize a lifetime, so much crowded confused happiness terminated by such stark slow-motion pain?”  ― Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys

This story begins as one about a "typical" American family, if there could be such a thing. I read this with a book group and we mostly liked the novel in spite of the melodramatic qualities of the story. The characters were well-defined and believable, but a tragic incident changes their lives with the result that the family is never the same again. It thus becomes a modern family tragedy with a theme as painfully primal as Oedipus Rex. Over the course of 400-plus pages, we watch, in a kind of slow-motion horror, as life at the Mulvaneys' High Point Farm in upstate New York is wrenched apart by an act of careless brutality inflicted by an outsider upon the family's only daughter. The rape of the almost-too-perfect Marianne — spoken of in hushed voices and euphemistic language designed to efface its blunt horror — comes to haunt each member of the family in a different way.

One reviewer described the novel as "as rich and as maddeningly jumbled as life itself." That it was but most of the jumbles I have experienced in my life (not perhaps typical) are much less exciting. The tragedy of the Mulvaneys is not their end and so there is some hope in this story. Overall it was a good read and perhaps even better for Oates devotees.


In Rough Country: Essays and Reviews
In Rough Country: Essays and Reviews 

Joyce Carol Oates is a protean writer.  That is her writing  demonstrates a diversity and fecundity of style that is exceptional although not unique in my experience.  Rather than devoting herself to one style or theme and honing that over many stories and novels, she has explored myriad ways to tell stories over a career that has produced more than three dozen novels (not counting those she has written under a pseudonym).  I remember being mesmerized by the beauty of Wonderland; however not nearly as impressed with the tragic family saga We Were the Mulvaneys; and unable to finish tomes like Bellefleur.  I even read and enjoyed one of her "entertainments" written under a pseudonym.  It is not surprising that she is widely read, and a prescient critic of literature.  There is a double meaning for this collection of previously published literary essays and reviews, “In Rough Country.” “It refers to both the treacherous geographic/psychological terrains of the writers who are my subjects. And also the emotional terrain of my life,” she writes in the preface. It’s an especially evocative parallel when you consider a pair of essays in the collection also titled “In Rough Country” (set apart from each other with Roman numerals). In the first, she examines the ecstatic violence of Cormac McCarthy’s work, in the second the brutal naturalism of Annie Proulx’s fiction. Rough country, indeed.

Thus it is her skill at criticism that is on display in this readable collection of essays. Just as she has with her own fiction and poetry, she displays a variety of interests and styles sometimes regaling the reader with biographical morsels, as in her essay on Edgar Allan Poe.  I appreciated learning that some of my formative reading paralleled Oates' even as I admire her criticism and the immensity of her oeuvre.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Bizarre, but Appealing

Dan Yack
Dan Yack 

"I shall write a novel-novel, and I won't appear in it, because they don't see but one character in all my books: Cendrars! L'Or is Cendrars; Moravagine is Cendrars; Dan Yack is Cendrars—I'm annoyed with this Cendrars! Anyway, one shouldn't believe that the novelist is incarnated in his characters—Flaubert isn't Madame Bovary. "  -- Blaise Cendrars, the Paris Review, "The Art of Fiction No. 38"

Literary modernism included an broad array of different authorial styles, each writer breaking new ground. One of those writers whose style resonates well for this reader is Blaise Cendrars. His novel Dan Yack can be described: "The style is bizarre, full of paradoxes and piquant and ingenious ideas." Thus one of Dan Yack's acquaintances describes a curious book of poetry and in so doing provides an apt description of Cendrars' novel. Every page presents anomalies, curiosities, phrases whose bizarre irrationality gradually becomes the reader's expectation. The opening scene includes champagne corks and witnesses Dan Yack in a drunken spree where the "gilt rods that held the red carpet in place stabbed his brain"(p 10). The adventures of Yack with three artists, poet and musician and sculptor, on his schooner to Antarctica provide entertainment enough for the reader of this slight tome.
Reality continually merges with hallucinatory moments and the rush that the characters live provides delight for the reader. I am not sure why I find Cendrars' absurdities both humorous and appealing. They remind me of my own dreams and Cendrars said of himself: "I'm not an extraordinary worker, I'm an extraordinary daydreamer. I exceed all my fantasies—even that of writing." (from an Interview in the Paris Review)
Dan Yack is a gem--short, sweet, and bizarre.

Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars, Nina Rootes, trans.  Michael Kesend Publishing, 1987 (1927)
The Paris Review, "Blaise Cendrars, The Art of Fiction No. 38."

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Writing as Conversation

Notes on Tristram Shandy

I have been reading Tristram Shandy slowly for a couple of months gradually becoming accustomed to Sterne's melange of allusions, false starts, detours, and general wordplay that often borders on word-buffoonery.  Throughout it all the narrator/author is having a conversation with the reader.  This is the first installment of my notes, quotations, and other comments on this most post-modern eighteenth century novel.  Here is Sterne on writing:

"Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.  As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all;--so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good-breeding, would presume to think all:  The truest respect which you can pay the reader's understanding is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine in turn, as well as yourself.
For my own part, I am eternally paying him compliments of this kind, and do all that lies in my power to keep his imagination as busy as my own." (Chapter XXXVI, pp 117-118)

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne.  Everyman's Library, 1991 (1760)

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Memoir of an Era

The Classmates: Privilege, Chaos, and the End of an Era

The Classmates: 
Privilege, Chaos, and the End of an Era 

"Expectations.  It was expectations that began all this, that began everything.  St. Paul's was an expectations mill--especially for boys, like John, with industry barons for grandfathers and fathers or uncles who'd laid down the path to Princeton or Yale.  For most of these boys, the legacy worked as it was meant to:  they grew up with their sights on life as grooved as their table manners.  They may have anguished ove failing, or even sometiems failed, but they rarely jumped the track." (p 79)

I enjoy reading memoirs, and my enjoyment is increased if, as in this case, the memoir is contemporaneous with part of my life. While I did not go to an elite private school in New England like this author, I was in high school just a few years later experiencing some of the same small and large events in my own place and way.
This memoir was triggered, in the spring of 2004, by the presidential bid of fellow alum Kerry, and its impact on some of his former classmates at St. Paul's school more than forty years earlier. The author recalls the frantic e-mail exchanges that eventually prompted him to meet with a few of his former classmates, including Kerry. He discovered that St. Paul’s alumni had endured a broad range of experiences since graduating, and he eloquently chronicles those experiences. The narrative frequently returns to Arthur, a class clown mercilessly ridiculed at school who suddenly died while the e-mail reunion was in full swing. The book is filled with the emotions unleashed by a group of middle-aged men’s miraculous reconnection. Douglas describes meetings between himself and several other graduates, including Chad Floyd, a successful architect and Vietnam vet whose wife was crippled by depression, and Philip Heckscher, a Harlem high-school teacher who took a long time coming to terms with his homosexuality. While the discussion about John Kerry is the least interesting in the book it matters little, because the reunion he inadvertently sparked opens a gateway for Douglas to muse on his own life journey, one that began with his leaving St. Paul's a year before graduation, and such larger concepts as identity, loss, expectation, failure and idealism. This memoir brought back my own memories of not too dissimilar events and interactions with my fellow high school classmates, some of whom I reconnected with last fall at our high school reunion. Douglas' memoir is among the best I have read.

The Classmates by Geoffrey Douglas. Hyperion Books, 2008

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Science & Superstition

I Am Legend

I Am Legend 

“Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”  ― Richard Matheson, I am Legend and Other Stories

A single man is isolated in his own home in a land that has become alien. The opening sentence of the novel ominously describes the danger lurking as simply "they". With this brilliant opening Richard Matheson uses an understated style to combine the horror of vampirism with the analysis of science as his lonely protagonist, Robert Neville, faces the unknown.
The premise is simple: after a nuclear war, a mutation sweeps across the globe. It transforms every living human into a vampire, except one: Robert Neville. A clever inversion of the traditional vampire story in which one mysterious figure infects a healthy community with the physical and moral threat of vampirism, I Am Legend gives readers a world of continuous and almost certainly doomed combat. The one human left alive struggles to figure out if the plague can be reversed and how to stay alive as night after night hordes of vampires throw themselves at his house.  We see Neville by day going through the routine activities to maintain his lonely existence, while by night he broods, deadens his pain with alcohol, and plans for his next day.  In it all he does not lose his will to live and this keeps him going, his mental abilities seem to lift him enough that he survives to live the next day.  The story alternates between direct action; science-fictional inquiries into the nature of this dark new world; and deeply human, if at times unbalanced, plunges into loneliness and despair.
Matheson’s novel has influenced both of its two parent genres. It laid the foundation for later science-fictional works that treat vampirism as a medical condition (for example the movie and comic series Blade), and it provided the foundation for literary works to explore the idea of extending vampirism throughout an entire society. Finally, I Am Legend also showed that it was possible to return to older genre traditions thought dead and revitalize them, as authors Stephen King and Anne Rice did a generation later with the vampire myth. It is a short novel that packs a lot of ideas and power into a few pages. No wonder that it is a classic.

I am Legend by Richard Matheson. Tor Books, 2007 (1954)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Fire-side Enjoyments

William Cowper

from: The Winter Evening

Oh Winter! ruler of th’ inverted year,
Thy scatter’d hair with sleet like ashes fill’d,
Thy breath congeal’d upon thy lips, thy cheeks
Fring’d with a beard made white with other snows
Than those of age; thy forehead wrapt in clouds,
A leafless branch thy sceptre, and thy throne
A sliding car, indebted to no wheels,
But urg’d by storms along its slipp’ry way;
I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st,
And dreaded as thou art!  Thou hold’st the sun
A pris’ner in the yet undawning East,
Short’ning his journey between morn and noon,
And hurrying him, impatient of his stay,
Down to the rosy West; but kindly still
Compensating his loss with added hours
Of social converse and instructive ease,
And gathering at short notice, in one group,
The family dispers’d, and fixing thought,
Not less dispers’d by day-light and its cares.
I crown thee King of intimate delights,
Fire-side enjoyments, home-born happiness,
And all the comforts that the lowly roof
Of undisturb’d retirement, and the hours
Of long uninterrupted evening, know.

Source: Poems of William Cowper (1794)