Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Whisper of the Blood

by Knut Hamsun

“I suffered no pain, my hunger had taken the edge off; instead I felt pleasantly empty, untouched by everything around me and happy to be unseen by all. I put my legs up on the bench and leaned back, the best way to feel the true well-being of seclusion. There wasn't a cloud in my mind, nor did I feel any discomfort, and I hadn't a single unfulfilled desire or craving as far as my thought could reach. I lay with open eyes in a state of utter absence from myself and felt deliciously out of it.”   ― Knut Hamsun, Hunger

Hunger by Knut Hamsun is a startling narrative told by a young journalist who is literally starving throughout the novel. Hamsun's technique, achieved in this first novel of his published in 1888, is to present a first person narrative that demonstrates a man subject to delusions and psychological stress that almost reaches the breaking point. This is not unusual for a contemporary author, but in the late nineteenth century it was very unusual.

Written after Hamsun's return from an ill-fated tour of America, Hunger is loosely based on the author's own impoverished life before his breakthrough in 1890. Set in fin-de-siecle Christiana, the novel recounts the adventures of a starving young man whose sense of reality is giving way to a delusional existence on the darker side of a modern metropolis. While he vainly tries to maintain an outer shell of respectability, his mental and physical decay are recounted in detail. His ordeal, enhanced by his inability or unwillingness to pursue a professional career, which he deems unfit for someone of his abilities, is pictured in a series of encounters which Hamsun himself described as 'a series of analyses.' In many ways, the protagonist of the novel displays traits reminiscent of the underground man and Raskolnikov, whose creator, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was one of Hamsun's main influences. Hunger encompasses two of Hamsun's literary and ideological leitmotifs: His insistence that the intricacies of the human mind ought to be the main object of modern literature.
“The intelligent poor individual was a much finer observer than the intelligent rich one. The poor individual looks around him at every step, listens suspiciously to every word he hears from the people he meets; thus, every step he takes presents a problem, a task, for his thoughts and feelings. He is alert and sensitive, he is experienced, his soul has been burned...” 

His literary program, to describe 'the whisper of the blood and the pleading of the bone marrow', is thoroughly manifest in Hunger; as seen here: “And the great spirit of darkness spread a shroud over me...everything was silent-everything. But upon the heights soughed the everlasting song, the voice of the air, the distant, toneless humming which is never silent.”
And he also demonstrated a depreciation of modern, urban civilization. In the famous opening lines of the novel, he ambiguously describes Christiana as "this strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him . . .." (p.3)
In Hamsun's story you have the unnamed narrator imagining actions of others, impersonating other people and living on the brink of an existence that seems surreal. In effective clear prose this rises to the level of a nightmare in print. The beauty and power of this book makes it a great read and one that I will not forget.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun. Trans. by Robert Bly. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998 (1890)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dystopian Delight

The Wanting SeedThe Wanting Seed 
by Anthony Burgess

"Life's only choosing when to die. Life's a big postponement because the choice is so difficult. It's a tremendous relief not to have to choose.”  ― Anthony Burgess, The Wanting Seed

Last month I reread Anthony Burgess's most famous novel, A Clockwork Orange. In it I found new insights into Burgess's creative thought, encouraging me to read more of his oeuvre. I followed up on that idea with The Wanting Seed, which he wrote immediately following Clockwork. This dystopian novel demonstrates one of his persistent themes, the conflict between 'Augustinian' authoritarianism and 'neo-Pelagian' liberalism. The novel is set in a future similar to A Clockwork Orange, where Burgess projects an England in which Christianity, fertility, and heterosexuality will have been outlawed. His heroine, Beatrice-Joanna, is a dissident earth-mother who runs away to Wales to give birth in the home of her brother-in-law. Her husband, Tristram, is a history teacher who, in an early scene in the novel, explains the history and meaning of pelphase (Pelagianism) and gusphase (Augustinianism), while his brother heads the Ministry of Infertility. The brothers' relationship leads Tristram to think, “If you expect the worst from a person you can never be disappointed.”  Using an almost over-the-top comic style Burgess comments on themes including: the tyranny of the state, homosexuality, perpetual war, spontaneous orgies, the persistence of religious feeling, and cannibalism. After his escape from prison Tristram hitches a ride from a sort of local militia-man who comments:  "There doesn't seem to be a government at the moment, but we're trying to improvise some kind of regional law and order. . . We can't have all this, indiscriminate cannibalism and the drains out of order.  We've got our wives and children to think of." (pp 171-2)  Although the setting of the novel demonstrates the worst aspects of pelagian liberalism and addresses many societal issues, the primary subject is overpopulation and its relation to culture.
The novel is inventive with a comic seriousness that is humorous with periodic moments of unease; the line between the comic and the serious is sometimes blurred. The author's signature fecundity of ideas, his love of quotations and literary allusions, and his brilliant use of language carries the reader through the rough spots. However, it is not hard to understand why it was "considered too daring" by potential backers of Carlo Ponti's proposed film version. My admiration for Burgess as a novelist of ideas grows with each of his novels. This comically heretical entry, combines with its predecessor to provide a veritable one-two punch of dystopian delight.

The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess.  W. W. Norton, 1996 (1962).

Monday, February 25, 2013

Eerie and Erotic Opera

The Fall of the House of Usher
by Philip Glass

A production of Chicago Opera Theater
Directed by Ken Cazan
Andreas Mitisek, Conductor

I still remember the vibrant and meaningful production of Monteverdi’s 1607 “Orfeo,” back in 2000.  Brian Dickie set the Chicago Opera Theater in a  new direction when he combined a  British Mozart specialist in the orchestra pit with a new-to-the-genre downtown New York theater director handling the interpretation.
Sunday afternoon I attended an equally memorable production led by new General Director  Andreas Mitisek.  He proffered a rare treat, the Chicago premiere of Philip Glass’ 1987 take on the Edgar Allan Poe tale, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Mitisek himself led the 13-member chamber ensemble of local musicians; Ken Cazan, who had also worked with Dickie, created an appropriately sensual and dark interpretation of the strange story on the stage.
The aspect of the production that impressed me the most was the almost lyrical score by Philip Glass.  His music matched the mood moment to moment and rivalled larger works like the earlier Monteverdi or Verdi (who we will see in a production of his "Joan of Arc" in September).  Glass's music provided the drama with strong singing design and focus.
But the rest of the production was excellent also. The music of Glass with its looping, minimal and intentionally repetitive sounds it conjures up can be difficult for some opera-goers. But this 80-minute chamber piece is a tightly focused explication of the Poe story of a young man who finds himself compelled to answer a cry for help by a wealthy, brilliant and disturbed childhood friend who is the last of his line.
Poe’s story never makes clear why the man does so, coming close to sacrificing his life, and librettist Arthur Yorinks leaves the question open. Cazan answers it, in your face but reasonably: The visitor William and the heir Roderick Usher have a sexual and emotional attraction. The possibly imaginary Madeline Usher, whether Roderick’s twin or hallucination, expresses the drug-added artist’s very mixed and complex longings.
Chicago Opera Theater once again found more than capable young lead singers, all new to Chicago Opera. Baritone Lee Gregory conveys William’s own combination of innocence and desire with a compelling voice and stage presence. Ryan MacPherson grabs Roderick’s multifaceted personality and has a tenor both strong and seductive enough to ride the score’s high passage work. Soprano Suzan Hanson, who created the role of Madeline a quarter century ago, makes her sounds and movements eerily ghostly in her wordless part -- a role that was both frightening and compelling.
Tenor Jonathan Mack as the dour Dr. Feelgood and bass-baritone Nick Shelton as the Usher family servant round out the cast. The eight silent goth young men who both move Alan E. Muraoka’s imaginatively designed modular set pieces around and menace William were both contemporary yet appropriate for the story.  The movable set provided an illusion of great space inside the House of Usher while David Martin Jacques’ lighting and Jacqueline Saint Anne’s costumes moved easily across time and from fantasy and reality and back.
Greeting the audience Mitisek, in crutches and a plastic splint (a recent slip on the ice by the California arrival), he once again engaged in his delightful shtick of reading a letter from the composer.   More importantly his conducting brought out the subtleties in Glass’ music, including his use of guitar (Steve Roberts), Poe’s choice for Roderick’s own instrument. He’s off to a personal, provocative start and Chicago Opera Theater is vibrantly better than ever.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Story of Walls and More

Great Short Works of 
Herman Melville 

Great Short Works of Herman Melville

"I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener, the strangest I ever saw, or heard of." (p 39)

In the spring of 1853 after the failure of his novel Pierre: Or the Ambiguities and the rejection of his most recent manuscript, The Isle of the Cross (now lost), Herman Melville submitted three stories to Harper's. This was the beginning of period that would see the publication of such great stories as "Bartley, the Scrivener", "Benito Cereno", "The Piazza", and others. It would culminate with his great unfinished novella, Billy Budd, Sailor. All of Melville's tales including Billy Budd are included in this collection from Harper's Perennial Library.

By the end of 1853 Melville submits his first story that can be considered not only great but even amazing; this is Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. The story amazes in many ways and on many levels. One theme is a world of walls as the narrator, an "unambitious" lawyer who prefers the peace of his office to the bustle of the courtroom with judge and jury. He describes himself as "an eminently safe man", certainly someone who his clients can trust. The world of his office, located on Wall Street, is one of walls within, separating the scriveners from the lawyer, and walls without since the view from the few windows is limited by the proximity of the walls of the building next door.
Into his apparently prosperous business enters Bartleby, a scrivener or clerk, who is hired to handle some additional copying work. Bartleby, as we soon learn, would "prefer not" to do any task other than copying and before too long he seems to slowly stop doing any work. He is a "forlorn" and sickly character from the beginning (reminiscent of the copyist "Nemo", a minor character in Dickens' Bleak House). And his presence gradually requires the narrator to attempt, unsuccessfully, to provoke him so that he might respond in kind. Their worlds clash and in another deeper sense a spiritual realm is entered. The result is a crisis of faith for the lawyer, he thought to himself: "I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach." (p 56)
Death seems to surround Bartleby from the moment he walks in the door and into the narrator's life. He's described incessantly as "cadaverous," and this corpse-like disposition is reflected not only in his pallid appearance, but in his eerily calm manner. There is a chilling vision of Bartleby as a corpse in his winding sheet, which evokes both sympathy and fear in himself and in his readers, and even when Bartleby is alive (technically), he has a certain undead quality about him. Also significant is what the narrator calls Bartleby's "dead wall reveries," in which Bartleby stares at the "dead," blank brick wall outside his office window for hours on end. This presence of the living dead in the office is a really disturbing one – there's something incredibly creepy about Bartleby's perpetually incomprehensible inaction.
A question that does not arise is the position of women in the story.  Since there are literally no women in the 19th century world of commerce that we see here (and this is true of much Victorian fiction that is not based on the world of commerce--the example of  Stevenson or Wilde immediately comes to mind), any question of heterosexuality is simply a non-issue. As with most Melville texts, an argument could be made for the presence of some very, very faint homosexual undertones – however, in this story, it's not really much to base an argument on. While some might claim that the narrator's interest in Bartleby is really some kind of deeply hidden desire for Bartleby, I suggest that this is much more a story about the nature of humanity – what makes Bartleby fascinating is simply the incomprehensibility of his character.

The story introduces Bartleby by citing his "advent" and this is not the only allusion to Christ.  So we may interpret Bartleby as a "Christ-like" messenger, but what is his message? The variety of themes in the story takes on an objective pathos and parabolic overtones that are almost Dostoievskian in complexity.  The story ends with a sort of epilogue that succeeds only in muddying the message further. What makes the story so magnificent is all of the many different possibilities present in it. Just as the narrator has his faith shaken and his perceptions changed by Bartleby, the reader finds his imagination roiled by the possibilities -- the ending merely lays out a choice for the reader. You decide what it all means.

Great Short Works of Herman Melville.  Harper Perennial books, 1969.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Descent into Statelessness

The Death ShipThe Death Ship 
by B. Traven

The death ship it is I am in,
All I have lost, nothing to win
So far off sunny New Orleans
So far off lovely Louisiana.
(from "Song of An American Sailor")

This was B. Traven's first novel, first published in 1926, and it is my favorite of his works. It is a sea story unlike any other, being a story of men at sea as a metaphor for men against what Jack London infamously referred to as the "Iron Heel" of modern industrialism.
Gerard Gales misses his ship, the Tuscaloosa, in Antwerp and is picked up by the police. After some back and forth between Holland and Belgium he ends up in Paris and, since he has no "papers" and cannot prove he is an American he becomes a "nameless" creature. He makes his way to Cadiz, Spain and signs on to the Yorikke, a "death ship"; that is a ship which has been condemned by her owners to go to the bottom of the sea so that they may collect her insurance. Gale has further adventures, surviving against all odds. The book is an attack on a certain sort of pernicious business practices, nationalism, and bureaucracy; its viewpoint is anarchist; its humor is sardonic, grim, and cheerful by turns; its style is ironic; its hero is both wise and naive, an American "innocent' who suffers his "fate" though he is fiercely indignant at the injustice of the prevailing social conditions. The novel's vision is tragicomic, deeply involved yet highly detached.
Bruce Catton called the book "a startling novel about the horrible things that can happen to a man in the cock-eyed post-war world of Europe if he can't prove he is who he says he is. . . Our sailor is entangled in a world gone mad,a world in which justice and sanity have simply ceased to exist." A few decades later and several wars as well, and the world seems at times to be just as cock-eyed, no more just or sane.
What intrigued me, perhaps even more than this mesmerizing first novel, is the mysteriousness with which B. Traven hid his personal life. Even after many more novels, including the great Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Traven continued to hide behind a post office box in Mexico City. However that does not matter since his novels stand for themselves as exciting and daring adventures into the world of men and nature. This reader found Death Ship was a novel with hypnotic power, timelessness, universality and authenticity. Traven approaches the ability of Joseph Conrad to make the sea come alive, and for that alone I would continue to read and enjoy the his novels.

The Death Ship by B. Traven.  Collier Books, 1962 (1926)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Conflicting Claims of Truth

An Instance of the FingerpostAn Instance of the Fingerpost 
by Iain Pears

“In my small way, I preserved and catalogued, and dipped into the vast ocean of learning that awaited, knowing all the time that the life of one man was insufficient for even the smallest part of the wonders that lay within. It is cruel that we are granted the desire to know, but denied the time to do so properly. We all die frustrated; it is the greatest lesson we have to learn.”   ― Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost

England in the mid 1660s, 1663 to be exact, was a world filled with religious suspicions, class differences, restored monarchy, war and deception, treason and prison, poisoning and trials, public hangings, science versus religion, truth and lies.  With the age of scientific experimentation came also a plethora of autopsies, human and animal, transfusions. Just then the Royal Society was flexing its muscles -- Oxford and all of England was at the height of Restoration. Anyone knowing anything of this period knows the civil unrest and the intrigues of the times. With Cromwell dead and the monarchy restored, England is in an uneasy period and even the hallowed cloisters of Oxford provide no refuge.
Iain Pears' entertaining and long tale benefits from his work as art historian, consultant and journalist.  Using his experience he creates a compelling and intelligently written mystery, comprising a search for real truth, precise and accurate in every word. Against this backdrop of English Restoration, Pears has woven a wonderful story of darkness and shadows. A must for anyone who likes good literature mixed with history and an exciting plot. Told from multiple points of view and incorporating many actual historical figures, the book examines the difficulty of ascertaining the truth while offering a carefully reconstructed picture of life in the seventeenth century.
The story is divided into four sections. In the first, Venetian scholar and traveler Marco da Cola offers his version of the events surrounding the murder of Oxford Fellow Robert Grove. Opinionated, influential Dr. Robert Grove is poisoned with arsenic in his New College lodgings. A missing signet ring leads his colleagues to his former servant (and rumored strumpet). The child of religious radicals, Sarah falls under suspicion when it is learned that Grove has recently fired her after rumors of an affair between them began circulating in Oxford. She is swiftly brought to trial, confesses and is promptly hanged--and dissected by enthusiastic physician Richard Lower. But the crime, evidently so simple in its events, is presented through the distorting lenses of four narrators whose obsessions place it in dramatically different contexts. Much of the evidence against Sarah is provided by Jack Prestcott, a young man determined to clear his father’s name of treason charges and also the narrator of the book’s second section. The third narrator, Dr. John Wallis, mathematician and divine, believes Sarah to be instrumental in anti-government plots, while Anthony Wood, an historian and the book’s fourth narrator, loves her.
In the brilliantly illuminated world in which medical experiments, religious and political debates between Roundheads and Royalists, and the founding of the Royal Society bring debates about the nature of science, history, religion, and authority into a focus whose sharpness has a special urgency for our own time, each of these narrators has his own slashingly conflicting claims to make. But it's not until the final narrator, burrowing historian Anthony Wood, weighs in to judge among the sharply competing visions of the earlier narrators that Pears produces his most memorable surprises, or unveils his deepest mysteries. Self-interest, political expediency, and the social climate of the times all play a part in Sarah’s fate, with Pears’ startling conclusion placing the story’s final assessment in the hands of his readers. I would highly recommend it for those who enjoyed Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. Riverhead Books, 2000 (1988).

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Ambiguities of Eros

The Immoralist 
by André Gide

"The capacity to get free is nothing; the capacity to be free, that is the task."
    —from the first paragraph of The Immoralist (1902), by Andre Gide, who died on this day in 1951; the sentence became well known in the first half of the twentieth century, singled out not just by reviewers of the novel but by Camus and other European existentialists  

I read this book when I was in high school and did not appreciate it. Fortunately, I returned to it and have read it several times since then. While I think The Counterfeiters is a better novel I still hold this novella in great esteem. Gide's approach to the erotic continues to amaze me. The similarity of his demonstration of Eros here with Thomas Mann's approach in his novella, Death in Venice, is striking. Both are imbued with the influence of Nietzsche, but Mann takes a more classical philosophical approach with references to the ideal nature of love (see Plato's Phaedrus). Gide, on the other hand, has entered Freudian territory, not to mention his more existential approach, in his interpretation of the inner erotic man.
For Gide there is the search as embodied in the protagonist, Michel, who is trying to separate himself from his past. In North Africa, during a stay in Biskra, he watches in a mirror as a young boy, Moktir steals a pair of scissors. The scene does not disgust Michel. "Quite the contrary, I could not manage to convince myself that the feeling which filled me at that moment was anything but amusement, but delight."(p 44) His sensations build a sense of complicity between himself and Moktir and correspondingly enhances his separation from his past, from the European social milieu he desires to escape. Coming near the end of his stay in North Africa this episode is part of the culmination of his journey. It is a journey signified by reference to Homer's Odyssey (p 37), but more importantly one that is filled with a new freedom from his illness and his weakness, all engendered by a new ability to feel internal sensations.
"I had forgotten my exhaustion and my discomfort. I walked on in a kind of ecstasy, a silent happiness, an exaltation of the senses and the flesh."(p 39)
Michel's suppression of his homosexuality is more sensual and physical than the brittle death rattle of Gustave in Death in Venice. Yet at the same time he expresses this aspect himself by choosing favorites among the boys in North Africa. The search for the nature of one's self and a life of freedom has seldom been explored with such complexity as Gide does it here. There is an ambiguity throughout this novel that overpowered me on my first reading and continues to intrigue me and bring me back to The Immoralist again and again. I experienced a similar feeling upon encountering Edouard when reading The Counterfeiters.

The Immoralist by Andre Gide.  Trans. by Richard Howard.  Modern Library, 1983 (1902)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Poem in Anticipation of Spring


"Swinburne . . . was one of those not very numerous poets whom their contemporaries have treated with justice. The different attention which he received at different periods very fairly corresponded to differences, at those periods, in the quality of his writing. He was neither steadily overrated, like Bighorn, nor steadily underrated, like Shelley, nor, like Wordsworth, derided while he wrote well and celebrated when he wrote well no longer: he received the day's wages for the day's work. His first book fell dead, as it deserved; his first good book, "Atalanta in Calydon," earned him celebrity; his best book, "Poems and Ballads," was his most famous and influential book; and the decline of his powers, slow in "Songs before Sunrise" and "Both Well" and "Retches," accelerated in his later writings, was followed, not immediately, but after an interval sufficient to give him the chance of recovery, by a corresponding decline. . . ." -- A.E. Houston

Chorus from 'Atalanta'
WHEN the hounds of spring are on winter's traces,
  The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
  With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;
And the brown bright nightingale amorous         5
Is half assuaged for Itylus,
For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces.
  The tongueless vigil, and all the pain.

Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers,
  Maiden most perfect, lady of light,  10
With a noise of winds and many rivers,
  With a clamour of waters, and with might;
Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet,
Over the splendour and speed of thy feet;
For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers,  15
  Round the feet of the day and the feet of the night.

Where shall we find her, how shall we sing to her,
  Fold our hands round her knees, and cling?
O that man's heart were as fire and could spring to her,
  Fire, or the strength of the streams that spring!  20
For the stars and the winds are unto her
As raiment, as songs of the harp-player;
For the risen stars and the fallen cling to her,
  And the southwest-wind and the west-wind sing.

For winter's rains and ruins are over,  25
  And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
  The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remember'd is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,  30
And in green underwood and cover
  Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

The full streams feed on flower of rushes,
  Ripe grasses trammel a travelling foot,
The faint fresh flame of the young year flushes  35
  From leaf to flower and flower to fruit;
And fruit and leaf are as gold and fire,
And the oat is heard above the lyre,
And the hoofèd heel of a satyr crushes
  The chestnut-husk at the chestnut-root.  40

And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,
  Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid,
Follows with dancing and fills with delight
  The Mænad and the Bassarid;
And soft as lips that laugh and hide  45
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
  The god pursuing, the maiden hid.

The ivy falls with the Bacchanal's hair
  Over her eyebrows hiding her eyes;  50
The wild vine slipping down leaves bare
  Her bright breast shortening into sighs;
The wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves,
But the berried ivy catches and cleaves
To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare  55
  The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies.

Algernon Charles Swinburne, Atalanta in Calydon, 1865 (excerpt)

Friday, February 15, 2013

Notes on Hawthorne, II

Hawthorne's Short StoriesHawthorne's Short Stories 
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I  Specter and Science:
The tales in this collection include some of the best written by Hawthorne. Among them it is hard to rate one over another, however Rappaccini's Daughter is near the top. A tale of the natural versus the supernatural with overtones of professional jealousy, first love, and the desire for perfection. Perfection as desiderata, but unwillingness to pay the price. There are two scientists in Baglioni and Rappaccini himself. The latter seems to have created a new Eden with his garden that is lovingly overseen by his daughter, Beatrice, who is even more lovely than the flowers that surround her. Enter the young student, Giovanni, who is in Padua to study but is distracted by the view from his window: first, by the beautiful purple blossoms of a shrub in the center of the garden that illuminated it with a light that rivaled the sun; and second, by the entrance of Beatrice who made such an impression on the young student that it was as if "here were another flower . . . more beautiful than the richest of them,". The story develops into a question of whether the poison in the flowers (yes, they are poisonous plants) has overtaken Beatrice as well making her dangerous to other plants, animals, and even Giovanni. The question of whether she is a supernatural being or mere mortal is answered by the end of the story, but Giovanni's life is forever changed - how we may only speculate.  This story only hints at some of the myriad emotions and strange occurrences in these stories of men and women in settings as disparate as Salem Massachusetts and Padua Italy.

II The Collection:
Furthermore this collection of short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne is worth reading for several reasons: 1) the collection includes many stories that are not found outside of a complete edition of Hawthorne's stories like the edition from the Library of America; 2) there is an excellent introduction by Newton Arvin who places the stories in the context of Hawthorne's life and art. Arvin notes, "If Hawthorne had lived a generation later, in Europe, he would have counted as a symbolist, though as it was he stopped short, at some point not easy to specify, of being a symboliste in the strictest sense"; (in this he may be compared with Poe who inspired the symbolists in France); 3) the book is one of Vintage Books' small and beautifully styled paperbacks. If you own other collections of Hawthorne's tales, as I do, you may want to consider this one for your library.

Hawthorne's Short Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Vintage Books, 1946.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sweetness and Wit

Love's Alchemy

Some that have deeper digg'd love's mine than I,
Say, where his centric happiness doth lie;
         I have lov'd, and got, and told,
But should I love, get, tell, till I were old,
I should not find that hidden mystery.
         Oh, 'tis imposture all!
And as no chemic yet th'elixir got,
         But glorifies his pregnant pot
         If by the way to him befall
Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal,
         So, lovers dream a rich and long delight,
         But get a winter-seeming summer's night.

Our ease, our thrift, our honour, and our day,
Shall we for this vain bubble's shadow pay?
         Ends love in this, that my man
Can be as happy'as I can, if he can
Endure the short scorn of a bridegroom's play?
         That loving wretch that swears
'Tis not the bodies marry, but the minds,
         Which he in her angelic finds,
         Would swear as justly that he hears,
In that day's rude hoarse minstrelsy, the spheres.
         Hope not for mind in women; at their best
         Sweetness and wit, they'are but mummy, possess'd.

from: Poems of Love by John Donne. Folio Society, 1958.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Opera Divas and Other Eccentrics

Moe's Villa and Other StoriesMoe's Villa and Other Stories 
by James Purdy

 "I feel that the stories and subjects "come" to me, because when I try to seek them, they elude me. Consequently, I don’t write for anyone. I write for the soul. If you really tell yourself the truth, you’ve told everyone. This doesn’t come easily at all. It’s all a matter of psychic energy, of getting in touch with what you’re looking for."  - James Purdy

James Purdy's writing has been described as archetypal. He commented that "Though my plays are really American myths and the language and characters are very American, they are not only about America. They just happen to take place here." That they happen in America and feel very American on the surface still allows room for depths of meaning that suggest the archetypal. I am reminded of the southern Gothic world of Flannery O'Connor without the religion. His thoroughly idiosyncratic writing leaves trails of peculiar, odd, eccentric characters that make their way through a world that is a skewed version of every town. His every town is usually more akin to David Lynch than Thornton Wilder.
I first encountered Purdy through his mysterious, eerie vision of Eustace Chisholm, but soon graduated to the smaller works like Malcolm and The Nephew where his focus was more acute. This collection includes twelve new stories; from fairy tales about an opera diva whose mega-stardom is managed shrewdly by her talking cat to the little girl who runs off with a fire-breathing dragon to eat turtle soup; from a bizarre account of a desperate husband whose obsession over his wayward ex-wife leads to his fixation on a rare white dove to a visit to Moe’s Villa, a private mansion doubling as a gambling casino where lonely boys are taught the art of poker by the Native American proprietor.
Gore Vidal called him "an authentic American genius". For Vidal, himself given to the fantastic, Purdy's stories contained "lost or losing golden ephebes". This collection is a welcome feast for fans of Purdy, as well as a nice taste for newcomers.

Moe's Villa & Other Stories by James Purdy.  Carrol & Graf Publishers, 2004.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Thinking About Being

Everywhere Being Is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of ThinkingEverywhere Being Is Dancing: 
Twenty Pieces of Thinking 
by Robert Bringhurst

"It is an article of faith with me that music and poetry spring from the same root.  The space between them now is filled with words--and words, of course, are not to be trusted, because words have been betrayed." (p 33)

"Being speaks and means -- it has no choice --
because WHAT IS exists and WHAT ISN'T doesn't.
These are things I believe you should ponder.
"The Fragments of Parmenides", p 147

The essays in this book stretch the bounds of thought. For example, music is discussed in relationship to language, literature, myth, philosophy, painting, and even typography. This discussion is of typography in the modern (or post-modern) sense that those who in the twenty-first century participate in the computer revolution are likely to have an interest in typography. Thus on page 118 we find this statement:
"But typography isn't something to watch; it's something to do, like writing and reading and cooking and music and literature. It's an intrinsically rewarding, honest craft. And the nature of craft is that mental and physical ways of being stay in touch; they hold each other by the hand."
So, yes typography is like music in that sense and slowly, as you peruse the other essays (that quote was from an essay titled, "To Tell the Truth by Lying: Gorgias the Sicilian and a Theory You Can't Refuse") you become entwined in the connections that everything worth thinking about has with everything else. The quoted essay leads up to the riff on typography through a discussion of Homer, Socrates, and Plato - author of the Gorgias. In fact this essay is a microcosm of the collection as a whole; essays are included with specific titles but with amorphous paths of prose as they get to their point. The path the essays lay down for the reader leads from Mythology to Haida Oral literature and the poet Gary Snyder -- on the way there are excursions through the philosophy of poetry, the art of Joan Miro, and Bach as interpreted by Glenn Gould.  And that is just the tip of the proverbial ice cube.
 The underlying theme of the collection is presented in the title of the book and if you are interested in the nature of being you may be just the reader to delight in Robert Bringhurst's Dance.

Everywhere Being is dancing by Robert Bringhurst. Counterpoint, 2008

Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Dark Side of Invisibility

The Invisible Man The Invisible Man 
by H.G. Wells

“To do such a thing would be to transcend magic. And I beheld, unclouded by doubt, a magnificent vision of all that invisibility might mean to a man—the mystery, the power, the freedom. Drawbacks I saw none. You have only to think! And I, a shabby, poverty-struck, hemmed-in demonstrator, teaching fools in a provincial college, might suddenly become—this.”  ― H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man  

Wells' novel was originally serialized in Pearson's Magazine in 1897, and published as a novel the same year. Part ghost story and part science fiction tale, Wells’s The Invisible Man begins with the arrival of a mysterious, shrouded stranger in the small village of Iping. 

"The stranger came in early February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow,"(p 1)
A man heavily clothed with hats, bandages and gloves takes a room at a local inn, and quickly unnerves the townspeople with his strange laboratory experiments and odd behavior. A series of burglaries take place in the village, and with her suspicion aroused, the innkeeper Mrs. Hall confronts the stranger. Removing all of his clothing and bandages, the man reveals that there is nothing underneath and that he is invisible. Terrified, Mrs. Hall flees and the police attempt to catch the man, but he throws off his clothes and thus eludes capture.
After running from town to town, breaking into houses and stealing things along the way, the invisible man encounters a former associate, Dr. Kemp. The invisible man, who we finally learn is called Griffin, was a brilliant medical student of Dr. Kemp’s at the university. Griffin theorizes that if a person's refractive index is changed to exactly that of air and his body does not absorb or reflect light, then he will be invisible. He successfully carries out this procedure on himself, but cannot become visible again. 

"The man's become inhuman, I tell you, said Kemp."(p 127)
This is indicative of his internal conflict as Griffin struggles to live with his situation. He rationalizes his crimes rather than making any sane attempt to get people to understand his predicament. He uses force to get people to help him and goes from bad to worse in his attempts to replenish his research materials for experiments in reversing the process that rendered him invisible. As Griffin grows increasingly unstable, he begins to feel self-delusions of grandeur and invincibility that lead to this tale’s shocking conclusion. 

I found the narrative structure compelling because the origin of how the Invisible Man came to be and the revealing of his discovery occurs in the later portions of the novel, only after the reader has committed his curiosity to this odd character; someone whose person is at once sympathetic and villainous.  The structure permits the narrative to grow more and more interesting with each turn of the page. 

The Invisible Man is reminiscent of Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (published a decade earlier) in the creation of an alter ego that quickly goes out of control. That is the interest of this story along with how Wells brilliantly works out the development of the theme if invisibility.  If one could become invisible, what then?   Certainly I found this aspect appealing when I first read the novel and undoubtedly it has contributed to the continuing popularity of this novel.  The moral and psychological questions of how humans behave when the stabilizing gaze of society is not upon them are in play.  One considers: What transgressions can be gotten away with? What boundaries can be trespassed? And, most profoundly how would true social isolation affect one's ability to keep his or her moral and social obligations?  In our age the question of whether morality is genetic comes to mind.  

Whether it is science fiction or rather speculative fiction is a critical concern but does not affect the reader's enjoyment.  This novel belongs in a special place along with Wells other great early science fiction works. And if you really enjoy this story the dark side of man is even more evident in his earlier Darwinian arabesque, The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells.  Signet Classics, 2002 (1897).

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The City of Earth

Inverted WorldInverted World 
by Christopher Priest

"I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.  Beyond the door the guildsmen were assembling for the ceremony in which I would be admitted as a guild apprentice.  It was a moment of excitement and apprehension, a concentration into a few minutes of all that my life had been until then." (p 7)

Seldom does a science fiction author create a world that is as believably scientific as Christopher Priest has in his 1974 novel, Inverted World. Beyond the science, there is the hero/protagonist Helward Mann who, as a member of the city's elite, guides us through the world as he completes his apprenticeship as a member of one of the "Guilds" that effectively run the city. Perhaps even more important is the character of Elizabeth Khan, although after her appearance in the brief prologue she does not reappear for almost two hundred pages. It is she who stands in for the reader and in doing so provides Helward with information that will change his life and those of his fellow dwellers in the "City of Earth". The miles that Helward grows over the course of the novel move faster and slower taking the reader on a journey into a land that is stranger than any alien planet ever imagined yet ultimately closer to Earth than any planet, real or imagined.
Helward lives in a city called "Earth", a giant structure that is slowly winched along on a set of tracks forever northward. The pulling of the city has been going on long before Helward was born - and although he is puzzled by the need to keep the city constantly moving and its need to reach "the optimum", he nevertheless joins one of the Guilds - the elite that ensure the constant motion and survival of the city.
All the inhabitants of the city Earth believe that they are lost a long way from planet Earth, and that one day they will be found and rescued but until then they must go on surviving in the little microcosm they have constructed of planet Earth. The populace of city Earth is strictly controlled by the guilds with the youth sheltered in a special area called the "creche". A few of the inhabitants - chosen males - are offered positions with the guildsmen. These are the only inhabitants of the city given access to the outside world, and it is these alone that know the secret of the city. At the opening of part one Helward Mann is just beginning his apprenticeship to join the Guild and much of the novel involves his exploration of the outside world.
Beyond the walls the true nature of the city is revealed, and the great lengths that must be achieved for its continued survival. Constructed on top of great wheels, the city is slowly winched along railway tracks, moving forever northward. The tracks are constantly reused; as the city moves past one section that part is ripped up, carried to the front of the city and relaid once more. Once the tracks reach a suitable length, giant wheel-pulleys are moved into position and slowly, smoothly - so that no resident of the city realizes - the city is dragged along to its new location, and track laying can once again begin in earnest.
It is the responsibility of the guildsmen to ensure the movement and survival of the city. Come river, ravine, valley or mountain, the city must never stop its relentless movement, as there had been severe detrimental effects the more the city lagged behind in the 'past'. As directed originally by Francis Destaine, a physicist who was one of the first residents of the city, the best way to achieve the city being near the 'optimum' is to have a selection of guilds, each responsible for specific jobs. At first there were four Guilds: Track Guild, Traction Guild, Future Guild and Bridge-Builders Guild. An additional two were added later on: Barter Guild and Militia Guild. Representatives from each of the Guilds formed a Council called the Navigators that effectively governed the city.
The Track Guild is responsible for the laying and removing of the tracks; the Traction Guild are responsible for the pulling of the city; the Future Guild map out the land ahead of the city to determine the best route for the city; the Bridge-Builders are responsible for ensuring the city can navigate safely across ravines or rivers. As the city moves through its environment it passes by villages and it is the job of the Barter Guild to employ labor to help the Track Guild and to 'invite' surrogate mothers from poor local native clans, since women in the city tend to bear mostly male offspring. Occasionally some of these villages can be aggressive and it is the Militia Guild's job to protect the city from them.
Critical to understanding the novel is the structure. It is divided into five parts with a short prologue. The opening and third sections of the book are narrated in first-person by the protagonist, Helward Mann; the middle part is in third-person. Each of the sections are progressively shorter in length. The significance of this and the narrative structure becomes clearer as the reader nears the climax of the novel. But, I believe that there is a connection between the structure and the story itself. Like many aspects of this novel, the reader needs to discover this for himself.
At the center of the novel are the physical principles that were established by Destaine. This is a hard science fiction novel with a novel approach. Helward's journey is in one sense a variation on the classic hero's journey that has been a cultural metaphor since the days of Gilgamesh. But in another sense there is a separate exploration of the nature of perception and the effect that our beliefs have on the way we see the world. It is this journey that the reader takes along with Helward, Elizabeth and the other characters. It is this journey that made this book a wonder that I will not soon forget.

Inverted World by Christopher Priest. New York Review Books, 2008 (1974).

Monday, February 04, 2013

Three "Classical" Composers

Clementi, Brahms, and Schoenberg

"I never was very capable of expressing my feelings or emotions in words. I don't know whether this is the cause why I did it in music and also why I did it in painting. Or vice versa: That I had this way as an outlet. I could renounce expressing something in words." - Arnold Schoenberg 
"All good music resembles something. Good music stirs by its mysterious resemblance to the objects and feelings which motivated it." - Jean Cocteau 

Today as I was listening to recordings of piano sonatas by Muzio Clementi and three piano trios by Johannes Brahms I was  reminded of the arc of classicism that stretched from Clementi through to Brahms and in turn was evidenced even in the twentieth century in the work of Arnold Schoenberg who, as a young student of composition, was influenced by the work of Brahms.  What follows are brief comments about each composer whose combined lifetimes spanned almost two hundred years.

Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) was a child prodigy in an era that produced Mozart among others.  By the age of seven he was receiving organ lessons, and in open competition with adults was appointed the local church organist. At the age of 14 he went to study in England, after the Englishman Peter Beckford heard him play and was impressed enough to become his patron. Clementi made his first London appearance in 1775. In 1779 he published his six Piano sonatas Opus 2; these established the piano sonata as distinct from the harpsichord sonata and made Clementi's reputation.  His 1781 trip to Europe allowed him to engage in public competition with other pianists, including the famous "piano duel" with Mozart, in which each player improvised upon his own compositions. Neither was declared outright winner: Mozart considered Clementi "a Charlatan - like all Italians", while Clementi was more gracious about Mozart's gifts.
Clementi continued his travels in Europe and wrote more sonatas (his final tally was over 100).  He innovated by adding a third movement to the two that were typical of the Italian style, and in doing so Clementi brought the sonata to a new level of development. He settled in London in spring 1785 and remained there for the next 20 years, re-establishing old links with the Hanover Concert series and enjoying rising status as a soloist and conductor. He turned his attentions to composing symphonies, but his works suffered from comparison with those of the hugely revered Haydn, who visited London in 1791 and probably contributed to Clementi's lack of success. None of his own efforts was published during his lifetime.

The year after Clementi died Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was born.  He would go on to create Classical musical structures in a Romantic age. His writing is notable for its rich textures resulting from a dense fabric of interwoven melodies. It gives his music an emotional depth quite different from the passionate intensity of Tchaikovsky, for example; in the Clarinet quintet he beautifully conveys a sense of autumnal melancholy.  His influence was wide but one young student who admired him would found a "Second Viennese School" of classical music and revolutionize the way music would be composed in the twentieth century.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was born in Vienna and, after his father's death, he was obliged to work in a bank from 1891 to 1895, but found time to pursue his musical development through amateur chamber music performance and composition lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky. The early String quartet in D from 1897 shows the influence of Dvorak and Brahms, and was performed with success. But his next work initiated the controversy that was to dog Schoenberg throughout his career. The string sextet Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured night) — whose Romantic character and impassioned richness of harmony and colour are reminiscent of Wagner and Richard Strauss - was turned down by the Vienna Music Association because of some unacceptably dissonant chords.  Schoenberg married Zemlinsky's sister in 1901 and moved to Berlin, where he subsidized composition of the symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande by orchestrating operettas in a cabaret theatre. He was rescued from such drudgery when on Richard Strauss's recommendation he was appointed to teach at Berlin's Stern Academy. This was the beginning of Schoenberg's long career as a great teacher. In 1903 he returned to Vienna to teach privately. Alb an Berg and Anton Webern — who would, along with Schoenberg, form the "Second Viennese School" — became his pupils the following year.  This atmosphere of creative stimulation produced bold and rapid developments in Schoenberg's style, with the First chamber symphony pushing and the Second string quartet breaking the limits of tonality ( the traditional method of composing a piece of music in one particular key). The soprano that Schoenberg added to the quartet sings words that appear symbolic and significant: "I breathe the air from another planet."

Schoenberg returned to Berlin in 1912 to conduct the premiere of Pierrot lunaire, a setting of 21 poems for speaker and chamber ensemble. In this piece, a key work of the twentieth century, the composer drew on the surrealist poems of Albert Giraud, which express the worlds of subconscious violence, madness, and desperate nostalgia that were implicit in the musical worlds Schoenberg was exploring. The work makes a feature of Sprechgesang, a type of vocal production between singing and speech. Schoenberg's compositional experiments culminated in the technique of serialism, an atonal method where the 12 notes of the chromatic scale are used with equal emphasis. His first works in this style date from 1923, two early examples being the Piano suite and the Suite for eight instruments.
Schoenberg's arrangement of the vigorous Piano Quartet, Op. 25 by Brahms (1937) has often been criticized for unidiomatic touches, such as the chromatic writing for brass (a style of orchestral thinking which never became a part of Brahms' musical vocabulary although it became technically possible even before he wrote his First Symphony). Purists object to the uncharacteristic use of coloristic percussion, such as xylophones, in the final movement.  These criticisms lose sight of the main issue, which is that the orchestrated work brilliantly presents in new garb a major chamber work which too few people would otherwise get to know. The overall orchestral sound, moreover, has the burnished richness and thickness we would expect from Brahms -- never mind that Schoenberg achieves it by use of heavier reliance on brass doublings than Brahms would have used.  The composition is a vigorous and attractive version that does carry Brahms' message very well into a new medium.  

Johannes Brahms: A Biography by Jan Swafford. Alfred A. Knopf, 1997
Clementi, His Life And Music by Leon Plantinga. Da Capo Press, 1977
Arnold Schoenberg's Journey by Allen Shawn. Farrar, Strus, & Giroux, 2002.