Sunday, March 31, 2013

Superb Keyboard Sonatas

Domenico ScarlattiDomenico Scarlatti 
by Ralph Kirkpatrick

Domenico Scarlatti (b. Oct. 26, 1685, in Naples; d. July 23, 1757, in Madrid) was the sixth son of Alessandro Scarlatti. The father no doubt exposed Domenico to the best possible training in Naples, taking him in about 1708 to Venice to study with Francesco Gasparini (1668-1727), himself a pupil of Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). From Venice the younger Scarlatti journeyed to Rome — with Handel, according to report — where both performed before Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. About 1720 he moved to Lisbon, and some ten years later to Madrid.

Only a small fraction of Scarlatti's compositions were published during his lifetime; Scarlatti himself seems to have overseen the publication in 1738 of the most famous collection, his 30 Essercizi ("Exercises"). These were rapturously received throughout Europe, and were championed by the foremost English writer on music of the eighteenth century, Charles Burney.
The many sonatas which were unpublished during Scarlatti's lifetime have appeared in print irregularly in the two and a half centuries since. Scarlatti has attracted notable admirers, including Frédéric Chopin, Johannes Brahms, Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, Heinrich Schenker, Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and Marc-André Hamelin.
Scarlatti's 555 keyboard sonatas are single movements, mostly in binary form, and mostly written for the harpsichord or the earliest pianofortes. (There are four for organ, and a few for small instrumental group). Some of them display harmonic audacity in their use of discords, and also unconventional modulations to remote keys.

Other distinctive attributes of Scarlatti's style are the following:  The influence of Iberian (Portuguese and Spanish) folk music. An example is Scarlatti's use of the Phrygian mode and other tonal inflections more or less alien to European art music. Many of Scarlatti's figurations and dissonances are suggestive of the guitar.
A formal device in which each half of a sonata leads to a pivotal point, which the Scarlatti scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick termed "the crux", and which is sometimes underlined by a pause or fermata. Before the crux, Scarlatti sonatas often contain their main thematic variety, and after the crux the music makes more use of repetitive figurations as it modulates away from the home key (in the first half) or back to the home key (in the second half).
Ralph Kirkpatrick produced an edition of the sonatas in 1953, and the numbering from this edition is now nearly always used – the Kk. or K. number. Previously, the numbering commonly used was from the 1906 edition compiled by the Neapolitan pianist Alessandro Longo (L. numbers). Kirkpatrick's numbering is chronological, while Longo's ordering is a result of his grouping the sonatas into "suites". In 1967 the Italian musicologist Giorgio Pestelli published a revised catalogue (using P. numbers), which corrected what he considered to be some anachronisms.[1]

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Intellectual Excellence

On the Importance of the Intellect

I. It becomes all men, who desire to excel other animals,[1] to strive, to the utmost of their power,[2] not to pass through life in obscurity, [3] like the beasts of the field,[4] which nature has formed groveling[5] and subservient to appetite.

All our power is situate in the mind and in the body.[6] Of the mind we rather employ the government;[7] of the body the service.[8] The one is common to us with the gods; the other with the brutes. It appears to me, therefore, more reasonable[9]to pursue glory by means of the intellect than of bodily strength, and, since the life which we enjoy is short, to make the remembrance of us as lasting as possible. For the glory of wealth and beauty is fleeting and perishable; that of intellectual power is illustrious and immortal.[10]

Yet it was long a subject of dispute among mankind, whether military efforts were more advanced by strength of body, or by force of intellect. For, in affairs of war, it is necessary to plan before beginning to act,[11] and, after planning, to act with promptitude and vigor.[12] Thus, each[13] being insufficient of itself, the one requires the assistance of the other.[14]


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On the Wings of Ideas

A Dream of Daring
A Dream of Daring 

by Gen LaGreca

"When men understand that their greatest gift is their intelligence, that their glory is to use it, that their own will is their trusted guide to chart their course, that their labors are theirs to choose, that the fruits of them are theirs to keep, and that surrendering this immense power to the rule of others is beneath the dignity of man---that is when the new age will soar to heights unimaginable." (p 281)

While reading A Dream of Daring I was reminded of John Stuart Mill who wrote in chapter three of On Liberty (“On Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-being”) a passionate defense of individuality and diversity, and the liberty that allows them to flourish.
Gen LaGreca in A Dream of Daring has written a passionate historical novel where the wings of the idea of freedom of thought, liberty, and individual responsibility allow the hero and heroine to achieve their dreams.  Added to the historical setting of the antebellum South is a suspense-filled murder mystery with plot developments, including the theft of Thomas's revolutionary invention, building to an exciting action-filled and emotionally satisfying ending. More important are the ideas that motivate the characters furnishing a foundation for the story. This makes A Dream of Daring a great novel.
The author demonstrates-- through the actions of the hero, Thomas Edmunton, and the heroine, introduced as "Solo"; but also the actions of their antagonists-- a battle of good versus evil, the willingness to take bold action versus the foolish consistency of attachment to a dying cultural tradition, and the importance of moral principles for man's survival. The characters are developed effectively beginning with the hero who at the onset of the novel is "out of step with the world around him", but who gradually discovers both why that is true and what the implications of it are. The demonstration of the importance of freedom, responsibility, and learning occurs not only through the heroic actions of Thomas and Solo, but also through those of the supporting characters, particularly Jerome who flourishes once he is given the freedom to pursue his passion by Thomas.  The development of characters and the ideas they represent is presented as sort of mystery of discovery echoing the mystery of murder and the theft of Thomas's invention. It is the interplay of these ideas, the development and growth of the characters, and the resolution of the action that impressed this reader. The author wrote with a lucid prose style and enriched the story with mythological and literary references. These factors combined with the power of ideas lifted the novel beyond the bounds of history and suspense and into the realm of inspiration. It was a journey that could only be taken on the wings of ideas.

A Dream of Daring by Gen LaGreca. Winged Victory Press, Chicago. 2013

Monday, March 25, 2013

Flute Virtuoso and Symphonic Gems

Russian Music

"Truly there would be reason to go mad were it not for music."  -  Peter Tchaikovsky

Saturday night I attended a performance of the music of Borodin, Khachaturian, and Tchaikovsky with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tugan Sokhiev, music director of the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. The performance was impressive.
The concert opened with an orchestral miniature from Alexander Borodin.  Russian Romantic composers are composed short tone poems, the most famous being those from Anatol Liadov  such as "Baba Yaga" and "The Enchanted Lake".  Borodin's composed "In the Steppes of Central Asia" in 1880 and it was premiered in St. Petersburg under Rimsky-Korsakov's baton that year.  It is a tonal picture that depicts the Russians conquering the natives of the steppe region with reference songs of both peoples.  The result is a very expressive piece that gradually builds from a peaceful slow opening to a great climax before subsiding with the music drifting off into the distance.
Following that the orchestra performed a piece from 1968 that is Jean Pierre Rampal's arrangement for flute of Aram Khachaturian's Violin Concerto of 1940.  The original concerto is a technically-demanding virtuoso concerto for the violin and the arrangement for flute by Rampal lost none of that style.  The soloist was Mathieu Dufour, principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  His performance was truly stunning and elicited an immediate unanimous standing ovation from the audience.
The second half of the concert was devoted to the Fourth Symphony, Op. 36,  of Peter Tchaikovsky.  First performed in 1878 in Moscow, this is one of the most powerful romantic symphonies by the great Russian composer.  He composed the symphony at a particularly troubled time in his life, and it can be seen ( as in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies) as a musical portrait of the composer.  He had, during work on the score, entered into an ill-considered and short-lived marriage to one of his pupils, and soon found himself in the throes of a deep depression bordering on despair.  He recovered from this--and completed the symphony--during a six-month visit to Switzerland and Italy.  One positive note in his life was his long distance epistolary relationship with Nadeshda von Meck.  She became both his patroness and frequent correspondent, both lightening his financial burdens (he was able to give up his professorship and compose full time) and providing him with a sympathetic ear.
It was in one of his letters to Mme. von Meck that he described in outline a program for this symphony.  He wrote that the introduction "contains the germ of the entire symphony, without question its central idea: This is Fate, the fatal force that prevents our striving for happiness".  This theme dominates the first movement and returns in the finale, and Allegro con fuoco.  In the middle movements a melancholy dominates contrasted with a scherzo filled with pizzicato strings (perhaps mimicking the balalaika) and lively winds.  The combination of melodies provided both material well-suited for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and music that delighted the audience.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Improbable Experience

State of WonderState of Wonder 
by Ann Patchett

"The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived.  That is how one respects indigenous people.  If you pay any attention at all you'll realize that you could never convert them to your way of life anyway.  They are an intractable race.  Any progress you advance to them will be undone before your back is turned.  You might as well come down here to unbend the river." (pp 162-3) 

IN an age of cell phones, ubiquitous GPS devices, computers of every size and shape we have here a novel that opens with an aerogram letter reporting the mysterious death in the jungles of Brazil of a scientist employed by a pharmaceutical company of presumably substantial size. This event left me as the reader of a story about employees of a global enterprise in the twenty-first century in a state of wonder that strained my credulity. The ensuing story tells of a search, by another research scientist, Marina Singh, who at the request of the President of the company goes to the jungle of Brazil, somewhere beyond Manaus, to find out the details of the death of the scientist, Dr. Anders Eckman, and also report on the status of a mysterious research project led by Marina's one-time teacher, Dr. Annick Swenson, who has been in the jungle for decades purportedly looking for a miraculous drug. The journey of Marina and its outcome comprise the majority of this sometimes tedious and often improbable novel.  She is sent on her journey by Mr. Fox, the CEO of  the pharmaceutical company, who is something of a cypher.
The best aspect of the novel is the ease in reading the prose which allowed me to read it quickly, for I did not want to linger in the omnipresent heat of the Amazonian jungle, with its insects, spiders, bats, snakes, and poisonous plants, for any longer than necessary. Marina often, practically every night, escaped into a dream world that was often nightmarish and may have helped her bear the difficult environment. Her dreams and her personal psychological issues, while making her a more sympathetic character, added to my wonder at her willingness to stay with Dr. Swenson.
The story is reminiscent of Conrad's Heart of Darkness in outline only, for it has none of the depth of philosophic or moral emphasis found in that book. Here we have in Dr. Swenson merely a nasty person ruling over her jungle fiefdom with an iron fist.
I was hoping that my experience reading State of Wonder would be better than that I had reading Patchett's earlier creation Bel Canto; but I my hope did not bear fruition leaving me in a state of wonder where other readers find the enjoyment in her novels.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Harper Perennial, 2012 (2011)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Progress versus Tradition

The Mill on the Floss: A Norton Critical Edition
The Mill on the Floss
by George Eliot

"Nature repairs her ravages, but not all. The uptorn trees are not rooted again; the parted hills are left scarred; if there is a new growth, the trees are not the same as the old, and the hills underneath their green vesture bear the marks of the past rending. To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair." - George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

What a pleasure it is to read the novels of George Eliot. The sheer intelligence of the author shines on every page. In this, her second novel following closely after Adam Bede, she draws on her own experience to create a world of characters surrounding her hero & heroine, Tom and Maggie Tulliver.
The story develops at a leisurely pace with the first two books devoted to the childhood of Maggie and Tom. As Tom goes off to be tutored, Maggie must stay at home and their lives slowly diverge until in subsequent books, as their father's world disintegrates in debt, they are found on opposite sides with their filial love tested again and again. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the complexity of these characters as created by Eliot. Tom distinguishes himself at the trading firm of his Uncle Deane and matures into a confident and courageous young man, repaying the debts of his father. Yet, his character is flawed in both his inflexibility and his inability to appreciate the needs of his sister Maggie. Maggie, who is significantly more intelligent than Tom, and self-taught, has developed from a somewhat over-emotional young girl into a sort of Christian ascetic based on her reading of Thomas a Kempis. She is forbidden friendship with Philip Waken, the son of the lawyer who bought her father's mill, and is prevented from developing the potential that is central to her character. The choices she makes define who she is, how she will live, how her community will see her, and in some cases, how those around her will live. The tension between progress and tradition is central in The Mill on the Floss. In many ways, it is embodied in Maggie. The pull she feels between her individual desires and her communal duties is very much a pull between progress and tradition, as those communal duties are highly traditional, and her individual desires are far more suited to a more progressive world.
Though Maggie is deeply intelligent and passionate and has clearly defined desires, she finds fulfilling these desires nearly impossible. The denouement of the novel leads it down the path of the tragic side of life if not true tragedy, but the complexity of the characters and realism of the world in which they live continues to impress.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Secretive Genius


by Peter Ackroyd

When Newton saw an apple fall, he found
In that slight startle from his contemplation --
'T is said (for I'll not answer above ground
For any sage's creed or calculation) --
A mode of proving that the earth turn'd round
In a most natural whirl, called "gravitation;"
And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,
Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple.
Man fell with apples, and with apples rose,
If this be true; for we must deem the mode
In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose
Through the then unpaved stars the turnpike road,
A thing to counterbalance human woes:
For ever since immortal man hath glow'd
With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon
Steam-engines will conduct him to the moon.
Byron, Don Juan

Sir Isaac Newton died on this day in 1727. He was born on Christmas day 1642, the posthumous child of an illiterate yeoman farmer. His mother remarried and left him to be raised by his grandmother. At a local school, he distinguished himself by his inventiveness at creating toys and gadgets; it quickly became apparent he had no aptitude for farming. At his teacher’s urging, he was sent to Cambridge, where he so excelled in math that he was appointed a professor at the age of 26. His full genius bloomed during an involuntary vacation forced by the Great Plague of 1665. He experimented with prisms to uncover the nature of light; he worked up the essentials of calculus; and he laid the foundations for a theory of gravitation. Upon his return to the academic world, he began to publish some of what he had learned. Peter Ackroyd points out that Newton took his time to make his mark; indeed, he maintained a secretiveness regarding his work for much of his life. He researched and speculated on alchemy and theology, which thoughts he was probably just as wise not to commit to publication. (In fact, had his religious convictions become known, he would undoubtedly have had to resign his academic post.) He was contentious regarding his scientific opinions resulting in a number of professional feuds, with Robert Hooke, John Flamsteed and Gottfried Leibnitz in particular, that are perhaps the most regrettable blemish on his reputation. Peter Ackroyd provides the historical context to clearly delineate Newton’s salient character traits and make his greatest accomplishments clear to the modern reader. This is a good introduction to Newton in a compact biography of the great English scientist, the third in Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series.

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

New York Society

Old New YorkOld New York 
by Edith Wharton

“The idea that reading is a moral quality has unhappily led many conscientious persons to renounce their innocuous dalliance with light literature for more strenuous intercourse. These are the persons who "make it a rule to read.”  ― Edith Wharton

This is a collection of four stories centered on New York. It includes "False Dawn", "The Old Maid", "The Spark", and "New Year's Day". In "False Dawn" Wharton deplores the materialism and philistinism of the wealthy, dull people among whom she had grown up. "The Spark" is primarily a character sketch while "New Year's Day" is another critique of the insensitivity of Society. However, of the four novellas, my favorite is "The Old Maid". In it the beauty of Edith Wharton's writing is demonstrated as well as in any of her many novels and stories. The story chronicles the complex relationship between cousins who join together to hide the origins of an orphan. Not only the prose style, but the structure and the depiction of human relationships is exquisite. The entire collection which provides a good introduction to the work of Edith Wharton, is worth reading and rereading.

Old New York by Edith Wharton.  Scribners, 1995 (1924)

Poem for Meditation

Sonnet 14

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.

- William Shakespeare

In Sonnet 14 the poet first reveals that it is not through science ("astronomy"), his own judgement, or personal experience that he obtains his knowledge about life and love -- all that he knows comes simply and only from his lover ("But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive"). And the primary lesson the poet learns from his lover's eyes is that, if his lover refuses to create a child to carry on his (or her) lineage, all the ideals embodied by his lover will cease to exist. This is yet another variation on Shakespeare's theme of the necessity of procreation that dominates the early sonnets.   (Mabillard, Amanda. An Analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 14. Shakespeare Online. 2000.  < >.)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Treasure of Humanity

The Analects (Penguin Classics)The Analects 
by Confucius

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” ― Confucius

This is one of the spiritual texts that I have read, considered, and meditated upon in recent years (Along with Lao-Tse, Mohammed, and the Old Testament). The Analects were distilled over centuries from the teachings of Confucius who lived from 551 to 479 B.C.
Confucius' political beliefs were rooted in his belief that a good ruler would be self-disciplined, would govern his subjects through education and by his own example, and would seek to correct his subjects with love and concern rather than punishment and coercion. "If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord" (Analects 2.3; see also 13.6).
The importance of education and study is a fundamental theme of the Analects. For Confucius, a good student respects and learns from the words and deeds of his teacher, and a good teacher is someone older who is familiar with the ways of the past and the practices of antiquity (Analects 7.22). Confucius emphasized the need to find balance between formal study and intuitive self-reflection (Analects 2.15).
Throughout the Analects Confucius' students frequently request that Confucius define ren and give examples of people who embody it, but Confucius generally responds indirectly to his students' questions, instead offering illustrations and examples of behaviours that are associated with ren and explaining how a person could achieve it. According to Confucius, a person with a well-cultivated sense of ren would: speak carefully and modestly (Analects 12.3); be resolute and firm (Analects 12.20); be courageous (Analects 14.4); be free from worry, unhappiness, and insecurity (Analects 9.28; 6.21); moderate their desires and return to propriety (Analects 12.1); be respectful, tolerant, diligent, trustworthy, and kind (Analects 17.6); and, would love others (Analects 12.22). Confucius recognized his followers' disappointment that he would not give them a more comprehensive definition of ren, but assured them that he was sharing all that he could (Analects 7.23).
It strikes this reader as a very un-western book and difficult to decipher. In spite of that there is a lot that Confucius' thought has in common with the wisdom of the west. One of the most famous doctrines is that of "reciprocity".
15.24 Zigong asked: "Is there any single word that could guide one's entire life?" The Master said: "Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others." (Simon Leys trans., p 77)
That is complementary to the more familiar "Golden Rule" that says one should "do unto others as one would have them do unto you." From reading the aphorisms one comes away with an appreciation for culture, family and what seems to be a conservative view of man. It also is a very humane, even humanistic, view of society.
Apparently this was just what was needed during the lifetime of Confucius as there was great change in his society. He lived during a period of acute cultural crisis. Confucius, like thinkers in the West from Socrates to Gandhi, demonstrated a confidence that in turn drew followers to him and his thought. We can thank them for what little of Confucius' thought that we have. In these books and fragments we have the distillation of his thought and it impresses me as worth meditating on. It is a treasure of humanity.

The Analects by Confucius.  D. C. Lau, trans. Penguin Classics, 1979

Friday, March 15, 2013

Dublin Journey

by James Joyce

“The movements which work revolutions in the world are born out of the dreams and visions in a peasant's heart on the hillside.”  ― James Joyce, Ulysses

The plot and theme of James Joyce's Ulysses center on life as a journey. Joyce based the framework of his novel on the structure of one of the greatest and most influential epic poems, The Odyssey of Homer. In it Homer presented the archetypal journey of life as a heroic adventure. The protagonist, Odysseus (Roman name, Ulysses), encounters many perils–including giants, angry gods, and monsters–during his voyage home to Ithaca, Greece, after the Trojan War. In Joyce's Twentieth Century novel, the author also depicts life as a journey, in imitation of Homer. But Joyce presents this journey as humdrum, dreary, and uneventful. Joyce's Ulysses is a Jew of Hungarian origin, Leopold Bloom, who lives in Dublin, Ireland. His adventure consists of getting breakfast, feeding his cat, going to a funeral, doing legwork for his job, visiting pubs or restaurants, and thinking about his unfaithful wife. His activities parallel in some way the adventures of Homer's Ulysses. For example Bloom attends a funeral in a chapter entitled "Hades"; paralleling an episode in The Odyssey in which Ulysses visits Hades, the land of the dead (or Underworld) in Greek mythology. Bloom's unfaithful wife, Molly, represents the faithful wife of Ulysses, Penelope. A young aspiring writer, Stephen Dedalus, represents the son of Ulysses, Telemachus, who searches for his father. Although Dedalus is not Bloom's son, Dedalus nonetheless is depicted as searching for a father figure to replace his own drunken father.

But why, when almost everyone who has heard of this book and many others who have read Ulysses, would so many say it is "difficult"?
Perhaps it is a difficulty that is an inescapable aspect of the human condition and as such, when presented as literature, is accessible to humans. Perhaps it is a difficulty that may be overcome by simply reading the text, enjoying the story, and waiting for the moments, christened "Eureka" moments by Claudia Traudt (Instructor in the Basic Program of Liberal Education at The University of Chicago), where the text will become more understandable, part of your soul, if not less difficult.

Reading it reminds me of my own experience reading William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, another notoriously difficult book. After at least three readings and countless partial attempts one summer I found myself finally "in the zone" with the text suddenly alive and the voices of the characters, their streaming consciousnesses, clearer than ever before. "Eureka!"
This takes work and both serious reading of and listening to the text. It is a text that echoes and reechoes Homer's Odyssey. One example of this jumped out at me when references to the sea from Ulysses brought to my mind the image of Odysseus sitting on the shore of Calypso's island pining for his home. The result of reading and rereading this great text is that its fundamental humaneness comes to the fore and you can celebrate the greatness that is Joyce's Ulysses.

Ulysses by James Joyce.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pieces of Life

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge 
by Elizabeth Strout

“What young people didn't know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly . . . No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn't chose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not know what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered. . . . But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union--what pieces life took out of you.”  ― Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge

This is a novel of contrasts: contrasting characters and contrasting stories. But the stories are linked thematically and by the character of Olive Kitteridge. It is Olive who,with her husband, is on center stage in the opening story. She makes a formidable contrast with her gentle, quietly cheerful husband Henry from the moment we meet them both in “Pharmacy,” which introduces us to several other denizens of Crosby, Maine. Though she was a math teacher before she and Henry retired, she’s not exactly patient with shy young people—or anyone else. Yet she brusquely comforts suicidal Kevin Coulson in “Incoming Tide” with the news that her father, like Kevin’s mother, killed himself. Kevin thinks to himself, "He had liked her; not everyone had."(p 34) And she does her best to help anorexic Nina in “Starving,” though Olive knows that the troubled girl is not the only person in Crosby, Maine that is hungry for love. Children disappoint, spouses are unfaithful and almost everyone is lonely at least some of the time in Strout’s realistic and rueful tales. The Kitteridges’ son Christopher marries, moves to California and divorces, but he doesn't come home to the house his parents built for him, causing deep resentments to fester around the borders of Olive’s carefully tended garden. Tensions simmer in all the families here; even the genuinely loving couple in “Winter Concert” has a painful betrayal in its past.
Elizabeth Strout deftly demonstrates these emotion-laden stories with beautiful precise prose that more often hints at the feelings and shows characters reacting with glances rather than stares.
Strout demonstrates Olive's character from differing perspectives; in "Winter Concert" as Jane and Bob Houlton watch Olive and Henry arrive Bob turns to Jane saying "I don't know how he can stand her." The scene continues: "They watched the Kitteridges settle into their pew, Olive shaking off her coat, then placing it back on her shoulders, Henry helping her. Olive Kitteridge has taught math at the school Jane had worked at; very seldom had the two women spoken at length. Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology, and Jane had kept her distance. In response to Bob's remark now, Jane merely shrugged."(p 130) Olive's presence comes to be expected, but her encounters with other characters are never predictable.
At times the stories were reminiscent of the estimable Sherwood Anderson's tales of Winesburg, Ohio; the prose evanescent but precise enough to suggest the pen of Connell or John Williams. The dangers of societies everywhere, aging, the loss of love, the imminence of death, are present in the stories of Crosby, Maine. This is the sort of novel you enjoy for the perceptive writing and the resonance with lives lived elsewhere. Olive brings more tartness than most titular characters, but as a reader I was enchanted with her stories and those of the people around her. And I was ultimately won over by her humanity.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.  Random House, 2008.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Prose Miniatures

Posthumous Papers of a Living Author

"you may very well both diagree with and disapprove of your best friends;  indeed there are many friends who can't stand each other.  And in a certain sense, those friendships are the deepest and the best, for without any admixtures, they contain that indefinable essence in its purest form." - Robert Musil, "The Blackbird"

Robert Musil  who was born in Austria is one of my favorite authors. A lifelong journalist and writer, Musil was a war correspondent during World War I. He is best known for his dark, haunting, ironic and Utopian prose style, showcased in his major works, The Man Without Qualities and Confusions of Young Torless.
Posthumous Papers of a Living Author begins with a section called “Pictures,” which features a series of sketches. These include short stories and some observations about things like horses and a village funeral. The writing here, some of Musil’s earliest published work, is polished. These are miniatures that suggest Kafka in a surreal vignette about monkeys; while there are a number of little prose poems. It is easy to dismiss these, but they portray a subtle style that is deeper than it appears. There is a small piece that shows up again in his collection Five Women. And memorable sentences like this from "Maidens and Heroes": "How lovely are you servant girls with your peasant legs and those peaceful eyes, about which you just can't tell, do they wonder about everything or about nothing?"(p 37) Or this from his essay on waking up at dawn: “I discover strange fellows, the smokestacks. In groups of three, five, seven and sometimes alone, they stand up on the rooftops; like trees in a landscape. Space winds around them and into the deep.”(p 19-20)

There is also some very enjoyable fiction: absurd tales, parables, and long narrative jokes. Finally, in “The Blackbird,” the strange, visionary story that ends this collection, Musil discovers how to combine the imaginative and analytical sides of his character. The story is a masterpiece, and the collection is worth owning for it alone. It was the last volume Robert Musil published before his sudden death in 1942. Musil had begun to fathom the impossibility of completing his monumental masterpiece The Man Without Qualities and this volume reveals his shift to a radically different form. Musil observes a fly’s tragic struggle with flypaper, the laughter of a horse; he peers through microscopes and telescopes, dissecting both large and small. Musil’s quest for the essential is a voyage into the minute.

Posthumous Papers of a Living Author by Robert Musil. Peter Wortsman, transl. Eridanos Press, 1987

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

First Martyr of the Renaissance

Etienne Dolet

"place Maubert, or the Maub, as it was known in criminal circles (formerly the center of university life in the Middle Ages, when students flocked there from the Faculty of Arts in Vicus Stramineus, or rue de Fouarre, and later a place of execution for apostles of free thought such as Etienne Dolet)"  -  Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetary, Chapter One, p 1.

Étienne Dolet,  (born Aug. 3, 1509, Orléans, France—died Aug. 3, 1546, Paris), French humanist, scholar, and printer whose Commentarii linguae Latinae contributed notably to Latin scholarship. He is often described as “the first martyr of the Renaissance.”

After studying at Paris and the universities of Padua and Venice, Dolet settled in Toulouse, France. His quarrelsome temperament, unrestrained enthusiasm for Renaissance learning, and anticlericalism involved him in personal and public controversies. He was banished from the University of Toulouse and moved to Lyon, where for a time he was imprisoned for the justifiable homicide of a painter; he was released by royal pardon.  He began his career as correcteur for the printer Sebastian Gryphius at Lyon in 1534. Having established his own press there four years later, he produced more than 80 volumes, including works by several classical authors, Marot, Rabelais, Calvin, and himself.   In 1536 published the first volume of his Commentarii; the second followed in 1538. This work was dedicated to Francis I, who gave him permission to set himself up as a printer. His first publication, Cato Christianus (“The Christian Cato”), was a profession of his creed as a Christian moralist. Cato was followed by Dolet’s translations and editions of classical authors, Erasmus, the New Testament and Psalms, and Rabelais.  He contributed significantly to the growth of humanism through his encouragement of neo-Latin poets in Lyon, his printing and editing of classical works, and his own writings.
He was accused of atheism three times on the double charge of having published Calvinistic works and a dialogue by Plato denying the immortality of the soul, and he was imprisoned in 1542, 1544, and 1546. He was finally condemned by the theological faculty of the Sorbonne and, having first been tortured, was burned at the stake.  Whether Dolet was a Protestant or an anti-Christian rationalist and freethinker is debatable. He was condemned by both Calvin and the Roman Catholic church, but he published many religious books and repeatedly advocated the reading of the Scriptures in the vernacular. It seems likely that his fate was the result of his capacity to make enemies rather than the result of his opinions.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Never the Twain shall Meet

A Passage to India
by E.M. Forster

“She had come to that state where the horror of the universe and its smallness are both visible at the same time—the twilight of the double vision in which so many elderly people are involved. If this world is not to our taste, well, at all events, there is Heaven, Hell, Annihilation—one or other of those large things, that huge scenic background of stars, fires, blue or black air. All heroic endeavour, and all that is known as art, assumes that there is such a background, just as all practical endeavour, when the world is to our taste, assumes that the world is all. But in the twilight of the double vision, a spiritual muddledom is set up for which no high-sounding words can be found; we can neither act nor refrain from action, we can neither ignore nor respect Infinity.”  ― E.M. Forster, A Passage To India

"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet"" wrote Rudyard Kipling in his 1889-first published poem, "The Ballad of East and West". This 1924 novel of E. M. Forster clearly illustrates this belief.

This book, in an edition from the Folio Society, sat on my bookshelf unread for too many years.  Even after I had read and enjoyed both A Room With a View and Howard's End I resisted the urge to read what many consider to be Forster's masterpiece.  However, almost two years ago when I was engaged in reading another great novel about India, Vikram Seth's massive A Suitable Boy, I decided to read A Passage to India.  I found that it is a novel about the effect on a group of people of divisive differences between the East and the West. The central incident upon which the plot hangs is an expedition to the Caves of Marabar organized for a group of British visitors to India by a young Muslim doctor, Aziz. He is a passionate admirer of the British. Among the visitors is a young and earnest woman, Adela Quested, who is determined to explore and understand the 'real India' and in so doing overcome the impediments created by the snobbishness and intolerance of her countrymen. An incident in the caves results in her accusing Aziz of assaulting her. The resolution of this incident provides for the main drama in the novel. Forster's prose is impeccable and the other characters are all excellently delineated, especially the powerful and equivocal figure of Mrs. Moore who, though seemingly an ordinary old lady, seems to possess remarkably intuitive insights into the sources of conflict in India. This, along side Howard's End, is among my favorite novels of E. M. Forster.

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster. Folio Society, 1996 (1924).

Thursday, March 07, 2013

The Ides of March

Julius Caesar 

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre 
Jonathan Munby, Director

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."
-  Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)

This is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays and one that I have read and reread over the years in addition to seeing several performances of the play. The classic story is informed by history as we know from Roman accounts about the life and death of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare adhered closely to the version of the story in Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. In comparing prominent figures from Greek and Roman history , Plutarch presented history as a compendium of the deeds of great men, portraying the characters with all the ambiguities and idiosyncrasies that were present in their lives. The writings of Marcu Tullius Cicero also informed Shakespeare. Cicero was a staunch republican and his dislike of Caesar preceded the conspiracy that led to his assassination, a conspiracy in which Cicero did not directly participate.  A final source for Shakespeare was the Roman historian Appian who chronicled the civil wars as part of his longer history of Rome. All of these sources inform the dramatic tension within this play adding an historical realism to Shakespeare's own dramatic genius. I especially like the relationship between Caesar and his wife. I also found the psychology of the characters, particularly Brutus, an important aspect of the drama. This helps make many of the characters from Brutus and Cassius to Mark Antony as memorable as the title character. It is one of the great Roman plays in Shakespeare's works, and it is both an historical and a dramatic achievement.

On this past Wednesday I attended a performance of Julius Caesar at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  Under the direction of Jonathan Munby Chicago Shakespeare Theater produced the famous play in a contemporary setting with a stellar cast.  This was the third time I have seen Julius Caesar on the stage starting with a college production in the late 1960s and a previous production at Chicago Shakespeare a decade ago directed by Barbara Gaines.  This is one Shakespeare's three great Roman history plays that include Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus.  While they are history there is great drama and aspects of tragedy in each of them.  The current production included tremendous performances by John Light and Jason Kolotouros as Brutus and Cassius, respectively.  By the moment of each or their deaths they had effected me deeply, creating a sympathetic feeling that I had never experienced with these characters at precious productions.  The production enhanced its contemporary credentials by embracing modern technology through the inclusion of cell phones and Caesar had his own web site (  The set, lighting and sound were particularly effective in creating an intensity that carried the actors forward inexorably toward the bloody battles that ended with the triumph of Octavian and Antony.

National Enigma

Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made ManNixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man 
by Garry Wills

“We were so elated about winning the big game, and to have the President of the United States (Richard Nixon) come into your locker room ? if you're not impressed with that, hoss, you just can't be impressed.” - Darrell Royal

Wills convincingly argues for the view that Nixon was really a liberal in the modern political sense. His approach to Nixon, based on this premise, is both enlightening and intelligent. Richard Nixon was certainly a national enigma, our president of polarization--I personally saw that happen in my family. Considering the policies initiated by Nixon; for example, going off the gold standard, expanding major government programs like the EPA, and opening ties to Red China, the view of Nixon as a liberal is not unreasonable. Wills absolutely nailed Nixon's character, and not unsympathetically. He noted, for instance, that Nixon revered Woodrow Wilson, the only Democrat whose picture hung in Nixon's oval office. Although Nixon was "not a convincing moralist," Wills explained, he was nonetheless (like Wilson) a moralist by conviction: "He does not woo the Forgotten American cynically; he agrees with the silent majority."
The result is an unbiased portrait that has the virtue of avoiding some of the excesses of Nixon's many detractors. Combined with his always excellent prose this book is one of Wills' best and in my experience one of the best analyses of Richard Nixon.

Nixon Agonistes by Garry Wills. Marriner Books, 2002 (1969)

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Rhythms and Chords of Life

by Romain Rolland

“Les rythmes et les accords, dans l’univers des âmes, voilà le plan sur lequel meut ma pensée” [Rhythms and chords in the universe of souls, that’s the plane on which my thoughts move] (Cahiers Romain Rolland 15, 1964, p. 211)

This is a massive multi-volume novel that, with music and humanity at its heart, is one of my favorites joining the pantheon beside Musil, Proust, and Shakespeare. The central character of the novel is Jean-Christophe Krafft, a German musician whose life is traced from his birth until his death. Using a wide canvas, Rolland broadened his scope to explore many aspects relating to different stages of life. The story starts when the hero is born in a small German village on the banks of the Rhine to an alcoholic musician father and loving, care-worn mother. Christophe discovers the world of fears, suffering and social injustice whilst at the same time his musical genius takes form. He also experiences childhood love, adolescent romances and the need to support the household as a musician following the death of, first, his grandfather, and then his father.
Romain Rolland did not see his novel as belonging to the accepted literary genres of the day. He was the first to designate it as a “roman-fleuve”. His “created” character took form as Rolland himself observed and experienced life and many of the comments in the novel reflect Rolland’s personal thoughts on social, political and cultural matters at the time of writing. Rolland’s musical background also played a determining role in how he structured Jean-Christophe.
Consistent with his overall philosophy Rolland's underlying message conveyed in the novel is that peoples of different countries and backgrounds could and should come together in harmony. The power of the novel derives from his thirst for truth, his need for morality and his love of humanity. The aesthetic life for him is not just to create beauty, but above all it is a means to create an act of humanity. The power and the beauty of his prose made this long novel one I will always remember.

Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland. Carroll & Graf, 1996 (1912).

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Daughter of an Activist

Burger's DaughterBurger's Daughter
by Nadine Gordimer

“I don't want to know more about her; don't want to know her weaknesses or calculate them. What I have is not for her; he gives me to understand she would not know what to do with it; it's not her fault. --One is married and there is nothing to be done.-- Yet he has said to me, I would marry you if I could, meaning: I want very much to marry you. I offended him a bit by not being moved. It's other things he's said that are the text I'm living by. I really do not know if I want any form of public statement, status, code; such as marriage. There's nothing more private and personal than the life of a mistress, is there? Outwardly, no one even knows we are responsible to each other...."  ― Nadine Gordimer, Burger's Daughter

This was the second novel by Nadine Gordimer that I have read; several years ago I read her short novel, July's People. I wish this novel had been a bit shorter, for I did not enjoy reading it. The story follows the life of Rosa, the title character, as she comes to terms with her father Lionel's legacy as an activist in the South African Communist Party over the course of 30 years. The perspective shifts between Rosa's internal monologue (often directed towards her father or her sometimes lover Conrad), and the omniscient narrator. The novel is rooted in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa with references to actual events and people from that period.
Her somewhat cryptic style and the difficulty I had trying to focus on what was happening in the story made reading it more difficult than it was worth. There were moments of beautiful prose and my own travel to South Africa helped me picture some of the settings. However the history seemed to overwhelm the story of Rosa Burger.  I asked myself whether this was a novel about Rosa Burger with historical context or if Burger's daughter was a cipher who inhabited a narrative about the history of twentieth century South Africa?  There were moments in the narrative arc that seemed to exist for Rosa, but there were others that intruded creating a jagged edge.  It was these moments where I had to force myself to keep reading from page to page. For a while I hoped the next chapter would bring some relief, but I gradually realized that this book was not going to succeed for this reader.

Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer.  Penguin Books, 1980 (1979).

A Theory of Bull

On Bull: Art/Truth/Lying 

a lecture by Michaelangelo Allocca

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bull..." was the beginning of the philosopher Harry Frankfurt's seminal 1986 essay. He then observed that while most people feel they can recognize it, there was no theory on it, and attempted to remedy that lack. We will explore the ways that this category occupies a conceptual middle ground between truth and lying, and its overlap with similar borderline categories such as "art," "literature," and "rhetoric." (from the description of the Lecture at The Basic Program web site)

In 1986 the philosopher Harry Frankfurt,  professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, wrote an essay, "On Bullshit".   Originally published in the journal Raritan, the essay was republished as a separate volume in 2005 and became a nonfiction bestseller, spending twenty-seven weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.   Yesterday Michaelangelo Allocca, Instructor and Chair of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago, gave a lecture on this topic.
The topic was introduced as a question of language:  Is Bullshit merely vulgar or indecent or more.  More important is the question raised in the prefatory comments for the lecture: what is the relationship between truth, lying, and bullshit?  There seems to be a cultural standard for the meaning for bullshit (or bull as it is abbreviated for the squeamish).  Most people recognize what is being referred to when somebody announces that "such and such" is bullshit, even if they may not choose to use the term themselves.  According to Professor Frankfurt the meaning of the term bullshit exists in a middle ground somewhere between truth and lying.  Bullshit is certainly not the truth, but its use conveys something that is not quite lying either.
Mr. Allocca referenced an earlier philosopher, Max Black (1909-1988).  Black, a British-American philosopher, was a leading influential figure in analytic philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century. He made contributions to the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mathematics and science, and the philosophy of art.  In one of his essays, "The Prevalence of Humbug", he concludes a rather thorough investigation of the use of the word with this definition:
"HUMBUG: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes."
This seems to be somewhat similar to what is referred to by many as bullshit.  Interestingly, pairs Max Black's essay Collection, The Prevalence of Humbug and Other Essays with Harry Frankfurt's essay as two books which are "frequently bought together".
The Oxford English Dictionary recognizes bullshit with a definition that states it is fakery  rather than falsity, with an emphasis on bluffing by talking nonsense.  That definition rings true since it seems reasonable to substitute nonsense for bullshit when describing such instances, especially if one prefers discretion as the better part of valor in the use of the English language.
When considering works of art the realm of bullshit seems to exist when the art is a fake.  Literary fakes and other phony artistic representations would seem also to warrant the designation as bullshit.  Art itself may be considered as inhabiting the middle ground between the truth and lying; one would hope on  higher aesthetic ground than mere bullshit.
The lecture also considered the philosophical aspects of bullshit.  The argument was presented that ethically bullshit is worse than lying.  This is because the liar is concerned with the truth, choosing falsehood instead;  forming an intention to not tell the truth is certainly dependent on knowing what the truth is.  The bullshit "artist", on the other hand, is completely unconcerned with the truth.  However, literature has has a tough time with the philosophers, starting with Plato in his dialogue on The Republic.  Though people would study the arts in Plato's Republic, he did not have much respect for the arts. Art was a copy of reality, which in turn is a pale representation of the exalted Forms. He believed that art did not belong in an ideal state. “No Artists Beyond this Point” would be prominently displayed at the gates of Plato's Republic.  Poetry would be banned as well. It speaks of the heart and inflames emotions, things that further entrench people in the material world. And the objective of the citizenry is to strive for the Ideal and avoid the animal passions that enslave people to this seriously flawed reality. Plato did not see art and poetry as inspiring and uplifting the human spirit. He viewed them as corrupting influences.  Poetry may not tell the truth, but it does not necessarily lie either.  Ethical philosophy may sometimes have a higher standard as in Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals where he puts forward the maxim that right action must be universally true for all. A will is good, Kant says, not because of what it achieves. It is good solely because of its willing. In other words, it must be “good in itself” without regard for consequences.  The truth must be adhered to no matter what the consequences.
What would a good discussion of bullshit be without some reference to political discourse.  Thus there were references to recent political campaigns of which the term malarkey reared it's head--quite appropriately, I believe.  One would hope that most bullshit is harmless, just as those little white lies may be harmless (although Kant would disagree).  The presentation by Mr. Allocca was alternately enlightening and humorous, with enough theoretical weight to lift it above and beyond any realm that inhabits the middle ground between the truth and lying.

On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt. Princeton University Press, 2005.
The Prevalence of Humbug and Other Essays by Max Black. Cornell University Press, 1985.