Friday, January 31, 2014

Two by O'Hara

John O'Hara was born on this day in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in 1905. He went on to lead a very successful career in journalism. However, O'Hara's real passion was in fiction writing, and he wrote 374 short stories and 18 novels throughout his lifetime. He was particularly known for an uncannily accurate ear for dialogue. O'Hara was a keen observer of social status and class differences, and wrote frequently about the socially ambitious.  He also wrote a few screenplays before his death in 1970.  Here are two of my favorite of his novels:

Appointment in Samarra
Appointment in Samarra 

by John O'Hara

“When Caroline Walker fell in love with Julian English she was a little tired of him. That was in the summer of 1926, one of the most unimportant years in the history of the United States, and the year in which Caroline Walker was sure her life had reached a pinnacle of uselessness.”  ― John O'Hara, Appointment in Samarra

The title for John O'Hara's first novel was taken from a short parable by W. Somerset Maugham which forms the epigraph for the novel. While it is a parable of death the novel is more of a slice of life as O'Hara does for fictional Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, what William Faulkner did for Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi: surveyed its social life and drew its psychic outlines. O'Hara does it in a realistic and worldly fashion, without Faulkner's taste for mythic inference or the poetry of his prose. I can sometimes see signs of O'Hara in the novels of Updike or Roth.

The first chapter of Appointment in Samarra puts you into the head of Luther (Lute) Fliegler, an employee of the Cadillac dealership that is owned by the protagonist, Julian English. Lute is a regular guy with a wife and three kids and is, along with his wife, basically happy. Julian is a man who is perpetually hungover, who has squandered what fate gave him. He lives on the right side of the tracks, with a country club membership and a wife who loves him, but he would rather spend his time drinking and philandering. This short novel outlines his decline and fall, over the course of just 72 hours around Christmas Day , showing him in the throes of too much spending, too much liquor compounded by three calamitous missteps. Each calamity is all the more powerful due to its extremely petty and preventable nature. In Faulkner the tragedies all seem to be comparable to Greek tragedy, even when they're happening among the lowlifes. In O'Hara's novels the commoners get there come-uppance and it is as if they could be you.

O'Hara is very clever. He subtly lets his characters talk about Julian's actions while Julian worries about them to a point; all the while they are never described in any detail resulting in their assuming an even more potent power over his existence. But with all of his worrying I found it difficult to understand his reaction to the events of three short days. During a holiday party at his country club, one filled with people Julian did not like and girls he describes simply as "sad birds", Julian has an unexpected chat with the local Monsignor. In it he sums up his life with these words:

"I never was meant to be a Cadillac dealer or any other kind of dealer, Father," said Julian. "That sounded to me as though--you're not a frustrated literary man, by any chance, are you? God forbid."
"Oh, no," said Julian. "I'm not anything. I guess I should have been a doctor."(p 92)

Perhaps this interchange should not be unexpected because Julian could never be that honest with anyone he really knew well, least of all his own Father, the doctor.

O'Hara captures the town and its people with his prose and with a few essential details makes their place in the small town society transparent. His style is very readable and I found this similar to other of his novels, even the long ones like From the Terrace, it was difficult to put down.

From The Terrace
From The Terrace 

by John O'Hara

“They say great themes make great novels.. but what these young writers don't understand is that there is no greater theme than men and women.”  ― John O'Hara

This massive novel is rooted in eastern Pennsylvania. The story centers on the character of Raymond Alfred Eaton whose life follows the pattern initiated by the rebuffs and rejection and the purposeful neglect by his father, the guilt associations with the death of a young girl and an older woman, and the escapism of his mother. Samuel Eaton, head of his own iron works, turns against Alfred with the death of his first drives him to an inner loneliness and defensiveness which prep school and Princeton help, first, to intensify and then diminish. Contacts with the world of wealth through Lex Porter, the Navy in World War I, and the money he sent him to New York City for a fling in airplane production after his marriage to Mary. His association with the powerful private bank of MacHardie & Company insures that the marriage will continue in spite of his fling with a mistress, and his term an Assistant Secretary of the Navy in World War II leaves its mark with the death of his first son, so that when divorce from Mary is finally accomplished he becomes a man who, in failing himself, has also failed others.

O'Hara was an expert in the analysis, of social and sexual tribal rites. Never more than here did he indulge his analytical talent and, through the various relationships involving Alfred, portraying physical intimacies, business machinations, governmental attitudes and other forms of social behavior. Through all the states of love -- hate -- pity there is seldom any state of grace, and an overwhelming sense of explicit reportage makes this sometimes appear to be a too revealing mirror, in which a present anguish is reflected in its cumulative influential past. Not dissimilar to the nuances of John Cheever's Wapshot Chronicle, this novel rewards the reader who enjoys a microscopic view of social life.

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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Thornton Wilder Project

Thornton Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and educated at Yale and Princeton.   As an accomplished novelist and playwright his works explore the connection between the commonplace and the cosmic dimensions of human experience. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of his seven novels, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, and is one of my favorite novels (The film adaption with Robert De Niro and Gabriel Byrne is also amazing).  His next-to-last novel, The Eighth Day received the National Book Award (1968), while two of his four major plays garnered Pulitzer Prizes, Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1943). His play, The Matchmaker ran on Broadway for 486 performances (1955-1957), and was later adapted into the record-breaking musical Hello, Dolly! 
Wilder also enjoyed enormous success with many other forms of the written and spoken word, among them translation, acting, opera librettos, lecturing, teaching and film (his screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 psycho-thriller, Shadow of a Doubt remains a classic and one of my favorites among Hitchcock's oeuvre). Letter writing held a central place in Wilder's life, and since his death, three volumes of his letters have been published. Wilder's many honors include the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Book Committee's Medal for Literature. 
Wilder continues to be read and performed around the world. Our Town is performed at least once each day somewhere in this country , with his other major dramas and shorter plays not far behind. In 2008, Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey were selected as a joint choice for the NEA's "Big Read" Program. In recent years Wilder's works have also inspired a growing number of adaptations, among them an opera based on Our Town (music by Ned Rorem, libretto by J.D. McClatchy) and a dramatized version of his novel, Theophilus North (Matt Burnett). Reflecting the renewed interest in Wilder, the Thornton Wilder Society sponsored the first international conference on Wilder in fall 2008. 

Last year I ambitiously decided to read one novel by Anthony Burgess each month.  That lasted two months before stalling, not because I did not like Anthony Burgess' prose but because too many other reading projects (mainly for groups and classes) intervened.  Well, this year I am going to try once more, setting my sights a little lower, in quantity not in quality, with the works of Thornton Wilder.  My goal is to attempt one book by Wilder every other month for this year.  That will primarily include novels: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, and others;  but will also include his letters and plays.  I hope I will be more successful with Wilder than I was with Burgess.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Reading and the Writing Life

The Book That Changed My Life: Interviews with National Book Award Winners and Finalists (Modern Library Paperbacks)The Book That Changed My Life: 
Interviews with National Book Award Winners and Finalists 
by Neil Baldwin

"we live well through insight, we do well through insight, we behave well through insight.  By the same token, as a writer you have to serve art truly; you ought never go for the cheap shot.  You have always to do the best possible work you can, to make the work as honest and free of cant as you can make it.  You have to be the best artist you possibly can be." - Robert Stone

Fifteen authors interviewed about the book, or in many cases books, that changed their lives. And not just any authors, but authors who had won or been nominated for awards for their work, important authors that dedicated readers might find interesting to read, if only to find out if they disagree with those critics who bestowed the awards.  These life-changing books range from children's favorites to popular fiction to classics: the Canon. The stories told in the interviews share in common the love of reading and its meaning for people who have become creators of books themselves. But what does it mean for a book to change your life? Did it influence you in some important way? And, if so, how and when and why? That is part of the import of the interviews, but most of wonder of this collection of interviews arises from the reading of books and its importance for these authors. There is a hint of the mystery of the act creation (as Arthur Koestler put it in the title of a marvelous book about creativity) and the wonder that reading can have any influence at all.

My interest in this book comes from that same space: wonder at what reading has meant in my life, and why and how. In my case the why is simply the question why, but each author must answer for him or her self. The parts of this book that impressed me were the moments of remembered childhood and the books that were important then in the beginning, formative years. Whether it was Diane Johnson reading Henry James or Philip Levine reading Dostoevsky, it is fascinating to read their stories about what books meant for them. The "matrix of relationships" is complex and, as I said, no two are alike, but it is reassuring to find, here and there, an author who read a book that you did and was influenced in some small way. Creativity begins there in part and love of learning and the road to Wisdom as well.

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Moral Journey

The Winter of Our DiscontentThe Winter of Our Discontent 
by John Steinbeck

"I had made my moves that could not be recalled.  Time and incidents had played along, had seemed to collaborate with me.  I did not ever draw virtue down to hide what I was doing from myself.  No one made me take the course I had chosen." (p 201) 

What is a talisman? A traditional understanding of the word, derived from the Greek via the Arabic tilasm, refers to a religious rite, its completion, and the symbol such as an amulet of that rite. The power in a talisman is implicit in its association with religion and this seems to be the sense in which it is used in The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck's last completed novel published in 1961.  

Perhaps I should have chosen as an epigraph the lines from Shakespeare's play, Richard III, "Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious by this Sun of  York.", but Steinbeck's novel, while including these lines in both parts one and two, is much more complex than suggested by this allusion with many layers of meaning, allusions, and references both literary and religious. With a contemporary setting it is nonetheless steeped in the tradition of family and country. The protagonist, Ethan Allen Hawley, traces his own family tradition in America almost two centuries although the wealth of the Hawley's and their concomitant social standing has deteriorated over the years so much that, when the story opens, Ethan is a clerk in a small town grocery store. The store is owned by an Italian-American, Mr. Marullo, who was born in Italy. "It's the first time in history a Hawley was ever a clerk in a guinea grocery."(p 14)

Ethan's personal ethics lead him into a conflict with Marullo early in the story that generates an interchange that underlines the difference in their perspectives on family tradition:  Ethan says, "Hawley's have been living here since the middle seveteen hundreds. You're a foreigner. You wouldn't know about that. We've been getting along with our neighbors and being decent all that time. If you think you can barge in from Sicily and change that. you're wrong." Marullo responds, putting Ethan in his place with these words, "You think Marullo is a guinea name, wop name, dago name. My genitori, my name, is maybe two, three thousand years old. Marullus is from Rome, Valerius Maximus tells about it. What's two hundred years?"(p 21)
For Ethan, upon reflection, this perspective "was the shocking perspective that makes a man wonder: If I've missed this, what else have I failed to see?"(p 22) That is the question, for Ethan is a man who fails to see a lot of things in this story of several months, momentous in some ways, in his life. 

Ominously the story begins on Good Friday with all the symbolism entailed in the ceremony of Easter weekend. This begins a moral journey for Ethan, complete with literary allusions both to Dante's hell and to Morte d'Arthur. He faces dilemmas on the business front from suppliers and from his own belief that he must restore the social standing of the Hawley name. But on an even deeper, more personal note he faces another biblical question: Am I my brother's keeper? For his closest friend from and early age, Danny Taylor, needs his help even though Ethan "knows" that his help is unlikely to make any real difference in the direction of Danny's life. Danny's dilemma is presented with a slight allusion to Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Imp of the Perverse". The issue is raised by Poe and alluded to with the phrase, "you've raised my imp."(p 119) 
Simply put: Why does a man who knows what is the right thing to do go ahead and do the wrong thing? Philosophers since Socrates have pondered this dilemma and while our increased understanding of our unconscious desires and the importance of the will may suggest some answers this is still a difficult issue; one that would bedevil Danny Taylor and perhaps Ethan as well.

These dilemmas blended with the vicissitudes of family life with his wife Mary and two children yield a richly woven and deeply thoughtful novel. It is one that raises questions, presents challenges and provides a believable story that enjoins the reader to question his own beliefs.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

Potiphar's Wife

 Further Notes on
Joseph and His Brothers

"Love is an illness, though perhaps more like pregnancy and the labors of childbirth, and thus, so to speak, a healthy illness, even if, like them, it is not without its dangers.  The woman's mind was dazed, and although as an educated Egyptian she could express herself with literary and, after her own fashion reasonable   eloquence, her ability to differentiate between what was permissible and impermissible was greatly diminished and blurred." (p 916)

In other words she was smitten with love, a condition entirely new to her, after many years in a merely symbolic relationship with Potiphar who, for reasons too recondite, or perhaps merely complicated, to relate, was not in any position to demand or persuade her emotional or physical participation in his bedroom.  No, his wife, Mut-em-enet, referred to simply as Mut, has fallen "head-over-heels" for Joseph.  Joseph, too, is confused as his growing maturity has increased his masculinity yet his position as Potiphar's chamberlain following the death of Mont-kaw, settled a new formality in his relations with Potiphar and his household, including Mut.  He was not a little dazed by the apparent change in her look and language used toward him and would fend off presents she offered as inappropriate for one in his position.  It is only when he reluctantly refuses a gift of "festive garb" that a realization occurs, his eyes suddenly cleared of the mist that had hampered them, which the narrator compares to the reaction that Gilgamesh had "when Ishtar besieged him because of his beauty and solicited him, saying: "Come then, Gilgamesh, you shall pair with me and impart your fruit to me," while holding out to him the splendor of many gifts should he comply with her wish."(p 920)

Joseph reflects on this and on Mut's rash actions and deliberates, concluding that "I understand myself in him [Gilgamesh], as I understand him through myself. . . and girded himself with his chastity against your pursuit and your gifts."(p 921)  Thus Joseph reflects on the chastity required and the reasons, enumerating seven reasons of varying validity and strength, perhaps the strongest of them being his loyalty to Potiphar and his recognition of the power of the covenant that he must maintain with his fathers, both Jacob his earthly father and God his spiritual father.  This is done as the years have passed and his memory of his earthly father seems to dim and with it the memory of what Jacob must continue to feel in his mourning for his dead son, yet Joseph's relation with his god seems to be continually refreshed bringing strength to his will that yields unexpected success in his dealings with the Egyptians for someone who is still a foreigner in their midst.

These internal vows determine that the narrative will be one of a smitten woman who, in spite of her relative power over Joseph, is hindered and thwarted in her increasingly heated and threatening attempts to conquer him in the sense that one gains the love of another.  Her increasing desire leads the narrator to compare her state that of a witch and the familiar metaphor of witchcraft in the tempting of a man is one that would fit her with the exception that she lacks any control over her actions.  Returning to a classical trope one would better describe Mut as being under the spell of Eros, engaging in an increasingly irrational series of actions that appear Maenadic in their Dionysian fury.  Through all their relations it appears that Joseph and Mut are talking past one another.  While Joseph is certainly aware of Mut's  desires (although perhaps not their strength), she is definitely not aware of the power of his reasons for chastity, especially a covenant with a god that is literally unknown to her.
At the same time, the evil dwarf Dudu is attempting to use the situation to his own benefit by persuading Potiphar to banish Joseph based on his telling tales about the so-called affair between Mut and Joseph.   Joseph, who does not appreciate the danger Dudu presents, remains unaware of these machinations.  We all know the outcome of these events, but the lengthy narrative once again demonstrates Thomas Mann's ability to create interest through detail and suspense and in this instance through relating a powerful story of unrequited love.  The power of the story raises Mut to the level of quintessential or perhaps even an archetypal woman; one who would compare with Eve or Delilah, Clytemnestra or Penelope.  

Joseph, for all his saintly chastity and growing maturity, is still a person who is both demonstrably hindered by his own "amor propre" and is overtly hubristic, losing sight of all the potentialities and possibilities of his situation.  Could not he have confided in Potiphar when Mut first approached him?  Potiphar certainly loves Joseph as the son that he never had, but this love will eventually be tested when Potiphar is faced with the pleading of his wife when she changes her fury from the pursuit of love to the rage for revenge. 

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman's Library, 2005 (1933-43)
Image of Joseph and Potiphar's Wife by Guido Reni.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tuesday Intros: Embers by Sandor Marai

Every Tuesday Diane from Bibliophile By the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where  participants share the first paragraph (or a few) of a book they are reading or thinking about reading soon.  Today's selection is from Embers Sandor Marai's beautiful and elegiac novel I am rereading for our First Sunday book group.


"In the morning, the old general spent a considerable time in the wine cellars with his winegrower inspecting two casks of wine that had begun to ferment.  He had gone there at first light, and it was past eleven o'clock before he had finished drawing off the wine and returned home.  Between the columns of the veranda, which exuded a musty smell from its damp flagstones, his gamekeeper was standing waiting for him, holding a letter."

Life in the Army Air Force

Guard of HonorGuard of Honor 
by James Gould Cozzens

"On one of his ill-considered impulses, Colonel Mowbray must have summoned everyone he could think of who might possibly know anything about it.  The undesirable result would be that all of them, in exchange for their trifles of information, learned much that was not necessary for them to know." (p 202)

James Gould Cozzens is an author who has been unjustly neglected both during the latter years of his life and in the three decades since his death. Of his often critically-acclaimed novels this one, published in 1948, stands alone, on its own merits. I believe that I first learned about this novel from reading Noel Perrin, the Dartmouth professor and book reviewer, who praised the author and this novel in particular as deserving more popular notice as worthy to stand beside Melville's novels in the American canon.

Cozzens' achievement in creating this war novel is evidenced by the setting, a Florida Air Base, but more importantly in doing this he has brought into sharp relief against the background of boredom and frustration and disappointment which most of the officers assigned there felt, the minor dramas of human lives, loves, hates, jealousies; the competitive spirit leveled at minor goals; and the interrelation of men, whose ranks are more or less the accident of the chance of war. General Beal, younger than most of his staff though already the commanding officer, is portrayed as vital figure who is torn by his friendship for a difficult junior officer, eternally in hot water, disturbed profoundly by the necessity of playing off local prejudices against the directives from Washington, attempting to be human and at the same time the martinet military procedure demanded.
The major issues that dominate and motivate the story include the problem of the Negro officers and the officers club; the disaster attendant on the trials of parachute jumping -- and the question of blame. Most of the story is told from the perspective of Nathaniel Hicks who, in private life, has a significant role in the media world of magazines. The tensions of civilian life are brought home through his own affair with a WAC Lieutenant. Character after character comes clear- small bits as well as large. In creating this world Cozzens reminds me of the breadth and depth found in the novels of George Eliot.

There is an implicit message of humaneness in the whole the kind of drama Command Decision provided -- against a setting that is infinitely less provocative of dramatic treatment. Cozzens has written a long book with many subplots; one that can be difficult at times. But the power of his prose and the resulting enjoyment of this great war novel builds as minor incident is piled on minor incident to create an unforgettable pattern. Rather than romanticizing his story, Cozzens' writing is taut and realistic, but at the same time exhibits an expansive warmth -- an unusual combination which makes for a favorable impression and an enjoyable read.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

A World of Dystopic Consequences

The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam #2)The Year of the Flood 
by Margaret Atwood

"But she went to tell the bees. She felt like an idiot doing it, but she'd promised. She remembered that it wasn't enough just to think at them: you had to say the words out loud. Bees were the messengers between this world and the other worlds, Pilar had said. Between the living and the dead. They carried the Word made air. (p 180)

What responsibilities do humans have to nature? To themselves? How do these interact with and effect their lives? The consequences, whether intended or not, of unbridled genetic manipulation of flora and fauna may lead to the ultimate destruction of all human life. It is the possibilities of these consequences that are explored by Margaret Atwood in The Year of the Flood, a novel in which she has imagined a companion piece for her earlier novel, Oryx and Crake. It is impressive in the way that the stories of the the characters in the novels blend with each other both through tangential personal connections between characters like Ren, Jimmy, and Glenn and through the experiences of Ren, Amanda, Toby and others with the "Gardeners" as the years progress and the inevitable disaster, "The Year of the Flood" occurs.
The friendship between Amanda and Ren stands out and as it grows, despite their differences it and the social cohesion of the Gardener breathe life and richness into the novel. The friendship of Pilar helps Toby go on after she succumbed to cancer.
"Toby knew the theory: Pilar believed that she was donating herself to the matrix of Life through her own volition, and she also believed that this should be a matter for celebration."(p 119)

The future in which they struggle to survive has many dangers whether from political controls executed by the security force known as CorpSeCorps or from random groups like refugees from the penal system know as Painballers or from the mutated and mutilated flora and fauna that have overtaken nature.
They are forced to improvise and develop survival skills in order to survive. They find some security at Scales and Tales, the AnooYoo Spa, and within the community of Gardeners even as their vulnerabilities continue.

The world of the Gardeners is a spiritual realm led by Adam One whose explanations of creation and the fall of humanity provide his followers with a belief system that helps them overcome the chaos that is engulfing them. 
“I could see how you could do extreme things for the person you loved. Adam One said that when you loved a person, that love might not always get returned the way you wanted, but it was a good thing anyway because love went out all around you like an energy wave, and a creature you didn't know would be helped by it.” 
One of the most beautiful aspects of the story are the poetic lyrics from The God's Gardeners Oral Hymnbook.

The novel's three voices, Toby's, Ren's, and Adam One's, complement each other even as their differing perspectives sometimes clash. Ren survives in part from the support of father figures that enter her life;  from the support of sayings like, “It's better to hope than mope!”  But ultimately she and the others must face a dark dystopian landscape with limited resources. It is a world that smells of death: "she sniffs the air. Mildew, of course. What else? Excrement. Decaying meat. Other noxious undertones. She wishes she had the nose of a dog, to sort one smell from another."(p 378)
It is an unpleasant and dangerous environment in which they face a future with hope and imagination, knowing that future may not have a place for any humans. This puts them in the same ultimate position as Jimmy, the "Snowman", the protagonist of Oryx and Crake. I look forward to the final volume in the trilogy with interest and hope, tempered by trepidation.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Tuesday Intros: The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

Every Tuesday Diane from Bibliophile By the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where  participants share the first paragraph (or a few) of a book they are reading or thinking about reading soon.

"When the fair gold morning of April stirred Mary Hawley awake, she turned over to her husband and saw him, little fingers pulling a frog mouth at her.
"You're silly," she said.  "Ethan, you've got your comical genius."
"Oh say, Miss Mousie, will you marry me?"
"Did you wake up silly?"
"The year's at the day.  The day's at the morn."

"I guess you did.""

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. The Viking Press, 1961.

Two Omnipresent Authors

Both of these classic novels share many characteristics, but one among them all prevails, permeating the stories and, for this reader, making them stand out among the many novels I have read.  That is the omnipresence of the author through his commentary on the story.  This was commonly done in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and none did it better that Fielding and Thackeray.  Near the beginning of Tom Jones Fielding writes, “Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any further together, to acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as often as I see occasion," thus alerting the reader to his intentions while not directly disclosing the delight that will be the result of his digressions (Laurence Sterne would make digressions the centerpiece of his Tristram Shandy only a decade later, but omits the warning).  Thackeray is more brittle with his comment when he says, “Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions.”  Yet, both authors entertain, not only with their very fine story-telling, but also with their authorial wit.

Vanity Fair
Vanity Fair 

“Are not there little chapters in everybody's life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history?”   ― William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

The story is about two girls with two very different personalities and temperaments. Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp form the center of this lengthy story "without a hero". By the end I was almost convinced that all is 'vanity' in this world, or at least in this novel. It reminded me a bit of Balzac (e. g. Cousin Bette), but with more humor.
The best thing in the book was the authorial presence as Thackeray comments on the people and their actions at regular intervals. The two most memorable aspects of the book for me were the voice of the author and the character of Becky Sharp, certainly one of the most memorable in all of my reading. Unlike Dickens, the author does not deal with the ills of society at large (e. g. education or debtors' prison), but focuses on the characters of the individuals and the consequences of their character and actions on their lives.

The characters seem like puppets on a stage at times, while he uses them to reveal general truths about human nature. Becky is the best example as her greed and selfishness know no bounds. When dealing with most of the other characters you almost don't mind since they usually deserve the treatment they receive from her; however, her unmotherly actions toward her son betray a more vile nature than one would expect from anyone other than Becky Sharp.

This is a novel that explores the dichotomy between love and money, those who depend on the largess of others are often disappointed and all the love in the world does not pay the bills. Thackeray manages to keep the story interesting primarily because, in spite of her character flaws, Becky is both smart and charming. He explores her nature in a way that is both profound and detailed and ultimately, with a large supporting cast, creates a world in Vanity Fair that seems not too unlike our own.

Tom JonesTom Jones 
by Henry Fielding

“Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any further together, to acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as often as I see occasion, of which I am myself a better judge than any pitiful critic whatever; and here I must desire all those critics to mind their own business, and not to intermeddle with affairs or works which no ways concern them; for till they produce the authority by which they are constituted judges, I shall not plead to their jurisdiction.”   ― Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

Having read Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Homer's Odyssey to name two thematically related however chronologically different literary creations I should have been ready for Fielding's foundling. However, it is taking a while to warm up to Fielding's style of storytelling. What we have is an omnipresent author/narrator whose story includes many fascinating characters, one of whom is that author/narrator himself. The reader is treated to a series of eighteen books each containing several chapters the first of which in each case is an essay by the author about the story itself or just about most anything the author feels is relevant or necessary for the reader's edification.

But I digress, under the influence of Fielding, from the story itself which is billed as a history of Tom Jones who, as the name suggests, is a sort of every-man, a more common version of Odysseus or Don Quixote for the eighteenth century. The history is a fiction and as such is populated by fictional characters. The characters surrounding him, from his teachers, Thwackum and Square, to the Squires, Allworthy and Western, are clearly drawn with wit and wisdom; lest I forget the women for Tom has a strong and healthy interest in them whether they are low like Molly or high like Sophia Western -- women continue to perplex Tom and enliven the plot. And Tom has a good opinion of himself as the narrator notes, "Can any man have a higher notion of the rule of right and the eternal fitness of things?" (Book IV, Ch. 4).

As I entered the concluding chapters of this lively novel I found myself looking for a word to sum up my experience. I think I have found that word -- cornucopia. The abundance of characters, stories, places, and all that goes with each of these can best be considered a cornucopia. These melded with Fielding's continual insertions through essays and commentaries begins to suggest to me why this novel is considered great - one of the first of its kind in modern literature.
I also find myself comparing the hero of this story to other literary heroes whose name adorns the title of their stories. For example, David Copperfield, Adam Bede, Pendennis, and Jude the Obscure come to mind. All of these owe at least a part of their literary heritage to Fielding's Tom. Even though there is a significant change in the psychology of the characters from David to Jude, the foundation for them all and many others is the History of Tom Jones.

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The Reader, the Night, and the World

Stevens: Poems

Stevens: Poems 
by Wallace Stevens

The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

The first line of the poem establishes a contrast between the part and the whole of the moment. The house and the world where quiet and calmness prevail. And in the second sentence we have "the reader", the third part of a triangle that encapsulates the poem. 
 But where are we really? It is a summer night and we are a reader engrossed in our book, so much that we have become the book and in the silence of the night there are words. The logic of the poem inheres in every line so that as the reader becomes the book his access to the book, his mind shares the meaning of the moment with the quiet of the night.
Here we have a magic moment of realization when the reader, with a book in his hands, recognizes himself, his world, the substance of things in what he is reading, so that the reader, the book, the summer night, the house, the world are all fused in an existential unity of real, inner and outer, truth. With this poem Wallace Stevens once again mesmerizes the reader with the music of the spheres--his poetry of spiritual logic that belongs to humanity and the universe.

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Servant Joseph and a Covenant

Further Notes on
Joseph and His Brothers

 "For this was the beginning, and his head was raised up in many ways;  but as for his becoming the servant closest to Potiphar--who, as the story presents it, then gradually placed the entire household in the Ebrew's hands--all that was already fully prepared for, its seed contained in Mont-kaw's words and in the covenant he made with Joseph, as surely as a tree's slow years of growth already lie within its seed, needing only time for development and fulfillment." (p 740)

In a lecture presented to the Royal Society of London in 1947 John Maynard Keynes described Sir Isaac Newton as "the last of the magicians . . .  Because he looked at the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret that could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence . . ."  Reading Joseph and His Brothers I sometimes feel the same way about Thomas Mann.  His interpretation and presentation of the Joseph story in Genesis is expanded and made vivid by his application of pure thought to the brief verses and terse suggestions in the Biblical story.  Undoubtedly his thought was amplified by his scholarship that was as lengthy as it was deep.  The evidence of this is presented on almost every page with references to the mythology of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece along with hints that he gleaned from Hebraic studies of the biblical text known as the Midrash (Sommer, 1977).  The result is magnificent in the detailed and seemingly realistic portrayal of Joseph's life in Egypt.  This is developed throughout the middle of the third novel in the tetralogy, Joseph in Egypt, especially in parts three through five; "The Arrival", The Highest", and "The Man of Blessing".

In these parts once again Joseph finds another father figure.  It is Mont-Kaw, the overseer who manages Potiphar's estate, who deals with the Midianites demonstrating his "sensible, natural" way one would describe as common sense.  He buys Joseph and from the very first notices his beauty, his aura, the difference in Joseph.  A difference that set him apart:

"Joseph stood before him . . . a human being, not a god, not Thoth of Khmunu.  But he had intellectual connections with that god, and there was something ambiguous about him--just as there is about certain words, about the adjective "divine," for instance, a word that, when compared to the sublime noun to which it refers, has undergone a certain diminution, no longer contains that noun's total reality and majesty, but is simply a reminder of it and thus retains about it something half unreal and figurative . . ."(p 651)

Mont-kaw took in these "ambiguities"  when "he first set eyes upon Joseph.  There was a repetitive quality to what was happening here.  The same thing or something very like it had happened, and would happen again, to others."(p 651)  It is not long before Mont-kaw takes Joseph under his wing and there develops a bond stronger than the one Joseph had developed with the old leader of the Midianite traders; a bond that would rival the one with his own father for whom he was no longer of this world.  The chapter depicting the death of the overseer, Mont-kaw, becomes even more heart-rending as a result of this bond.  It is a bond so strong that as Mont-kaw lays on his deathbed he gives Joseph his blessing and makes a covenant with him; "the gods have given your mind subtle refinements and higher charms that mine lacks . . . Which is why I have made a covenant with you for the sake of such service, which you are to keep when I am dead and am no more;"(p 808)  yet through it all Joseph does not lose sight of his destiny which means following the lead of his God.

It is in this part also that the narrator reminds us once again of the growing maturity of Joseph as the years pass by reinforcing the separation from his past life.  The world of Potiphar's court and his courtiers is exotic, filled with challenges for Joseph which he seems to handle well with his innate intelligence and clever ability, managing both fields and people, and an aura that surrounded him apparently stemming from the confluence of his inner direction and his outward beauty; one might call this his charisma.  It served him well but did not eliminate enemies for, after all, he was a foreigner from the East with strange beliefs who had made amazing progress in becoming the right hand of the Overseer in position to succeed him. These enemies and the power of Eros would ultimately present even more challenges for the stranger in Egypt.

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman's Library, 2005 (1933-43)
Mann, Midrash, and Mimesis by Doris Sommer.  Rutgers University, 1977

Friday, January 10, 2014

Commonplace Entry

The Last of the Magicians

Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.
Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher's treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood. He believed that these clues were to be found partly in the evidence of the heavens and in the constitution of elements (and that is what gives the false suggestion of his being an experimental natural philosopher), but also partly in certain papers and traditions handed down by the brethren in an unbroken chain back to the original cryptic revelation in Babylonia. He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty - just as he himself wrapt the discovery of the calculus in a cryptogram when he communicated with Leibniz. By pure thought, by concentration of mind, the riddle, he believed, would be revealed to the initiate.
He did read the riddle of the heavens. And he believed that by the same powers of his introspective imagination he would read the riddle of the Godhead, the riddle of past and future events divinely fore-ordained, the riddle of the elements and their constitution from an original undifferentiated first matter, the riddle of health and of immortality. All would be revealed to him if only he could persevere to the end, uninterrupted, by himself, no one coming into the room, reading, copying, testing-all by himself, no interruption for God's sake, no disclosure, no discordant breakings in or criticism, with fear and shrinking as he assailed these half-ordained, half-forbidden things, creeping back into the bosom of the Godhead as into his mother's womb. 'Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone', not as Charles Lamb 'a fellow who believed nothing unless it was as clear as the three sides of a triangle'.

Newton, the Man, John Maynard Keynes.  The Royal Society of London lecture in celebration of the tercentenary of Isaac Newton's birth, 1947.

American Poet

Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson JeffersRock and Hawk: 
A Selection of Shorter Poems 
by Robinson Jeffers

“I've changed my ways a little, I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream, and you, if you dream a moment,
You see me there.”  ― Robinson Jeffers

Robinson Jeffers was born on January 10, 1887. One of his most famous poems and one of my favorites is "Rock and Hawk" and it was used as the title for a selection of his shorter poems edited by the poet Robert Haas in 1987. The collection spans Jeffers' output of poems from the twenties through the sixties. The themes that spurred his seeking mind include nature as in these lines from "Natural Music":
"The old voice of the ocean, the bird-chatter of little rivers,
(Winter has given them gold for silver
To stain their water and bladed green for brown to line their
But he also was influenced by his reading of Nietzsche as evidenced by these thoughts in "Roan Stallion":
"Humanity is the start of
the race: I say
Humanity is the mold to break away from, the crust to break
through, the coal to break into fire,
The atom to be split."
The Jeffers that I like the most has a transcendental quality that reminds one of Thoreau or Emerson, but imbues nature with a modern patina that make its spiritual quality seem new. Many of the poems also suggest the beauty, the solitude, and the grandeur of the home Jeffers made in Carmel. While his musings can sometimes be dark and brooding; “One existence, one music, one organism, one life, one God: star-fire and rock-strength, the sea's cold flow, And man's dark soul.”   His poems taken as a whole reflect the mind of a truly great American poet.  

 Rock and Hawk

Here is a symbol in which
Many high tragic thoughts
Watch their own eyes.
This gray rock, standing tall
On the headland, where the seawind
Lets no tree grow,
Earthquake-proved, and signatured
By ages of storms: on its peak
A falcon has perched.
I think here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,
But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final
Life with calm death; the falcon's
Realist eyes and act
Married to the massive
Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast down
Nor success make proud.

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Poem for Meditation

Sonnet #116

How oft, when thou, my music, music play'st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway'st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood's boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O'er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more blest than living lips.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

The use of music and the delight in the dance make this one of my favorite sonnets.  But Shakespeare adds to the fun with his envy of the nimble "jacks" and his wish that it would be his lips and not the lute that would be tickled by her kiss.   It is reminiscent of the part in Taming of the Shrew where Kate calls her music tutor “rascal fiddler and twangling jack.”  She was not an enthusiastic musician.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

America's Great Migration

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: 
The Epic Story of America's Great Migration 
by Isabel Wilkerson

“Over the decades, perhaps the wrong questions have been asked about the Great Migration. Perhaps it is not a question of whether the migrants brought good or ill to the cities they fled to or were pushed or pulled to their destinations, but a question of how they summoned the courage to leave in the first place or how they found the will to press beyond the forces against them and the faith in a country that had rejected them for so long. By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts.”   ― Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

Isabel Wilkerson's history of Black migration from the south in the twentieth century is a book from which I expanded my knowledge of this major historical event of twentieth century America. She interviewed more than 1,200 people for this grand history, focusing primarily on the personal stories of three Black Americans. While telling these stories the book intertwines a general history and statistical analysis of the entire period. The specific people were: a sharecropper's wife who left Mississippi in the 1930s for Chicago, named Ida Mae Brandon Gladney; an agricultural worker, George Swanson Starling, who left Florida for New York City in the 1940s; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a doctor who left Louisiana in the early 1950s, for Los Angeles.

The use of these personal stories served as a means of demonstrating the overall theme of the migration of large numbers of black Americans out of the old South and into the Northeast, Midwest, and West of the United States. Each story is narrated over the course of the books in chronological vignettes of each life. Together these vignettes provide a biography of the whole of the lives of the three protagonists, if you will, and demonstrate the impact of the migration through their individual and family experiences. The author deftly interspersed their stories with short vignettes about other individuals; she also inserted general overviews of the migration into the narrative from time to time. The process consistently provided the bigger picture without interrupting the flow of the narrative.

The story-telling approach gave this history a novelistic flavor. However, reading the stories I felt a repetition due to overlapping material;  while some of the inserted stories were only tangentially related to the main theme of Black migration. The stories of the three individuals who provided the main portion of the book were rendered believably through sympathetic portrayals of the unique vicissitudes of their lives.  I particularly enjoyed the story of Robert Foster, the doctor who migrated to Los Angeles and, like the others, overcame much adversity to attain his personal dream. Overall the history was epic in its scope and Wilkerson's imaginative approach to the story made this an interesting and informative book.

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Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Philosophical Causes of History

Nietzsche and the NazisNietzsche and the Nazis 
by Stephen R.C. Hicks

In the middle of December I attended a solstice celebration with some friends.  During this gathering we played a gift giving game where gifts were traded anonymously.  The game was a lot of fun and better yet I chose this book as my gift.  Thanks go to my friend Don Parrish who contributed this book to the game and made my choice possible.

I read the book almost immediately after receiving it but I have had difficulty gathering my thoughts and deciding how to review it, not because the book itself was difficult to read; but because I was unsure how to approach this small jewel of a book. I decided to lay out some of the reasons why I both think highly of this book and like it as well.

Looking at its title, Nietzsche and the Nazis, I wondered what kind of book is this. Is it history, biography, some combination of both with sociology, or something else? The subtitle, "A Personal View", suggests that the author will inject his own personal opinions into the narrative in some manner. Looking at the Table of Contents we find that it is in fact something else; namely a book primarily about philosophy. In fact, the first three parts of the book have philosophy in their titles. This is one of the reasons I like the book. Books about philosophy appeal to me; especially well-written and well-reasoned books like this one.

The introduction identifies the aim of this book by highlighting how people in general tend to have an interest in history, and then briefly defining the philosophy of history. The author describes the philosophical perspective of history as one that "is a huge laboratory of experiments in human living." (p 3) The book specifically focuses on one "major experiment" in the twentieth century, the rise of the Nazis.
The remainder of the book methodically and very efficiently tells about the nature of Nazism: its philosophy, National Socialism's programs, and the effective means that the Nazis used while in power over the Third Reich. The discussion of the Nazis is then contrasted with the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. His life and influence is told through discussion of philosophical concepts that were key in his work such as nihilism, the death of God, the slave mentality, and the "overman". Having laid out the ideas of the Nazis and those of Nietzsche the book's climax presents the important differences between Nietzsche's thought and Nazism. This includes a discussion of ways in which Nietzsche's thought can be seen as a precursor of Nazism; they agree in such key areas as anti-individualism, anti-reason, and authoritarianism.

The book is excellent in several respects. It has a clarity of purpose and a logical structure. The principles of both the National Socialists and Nietzsche are well defined; in addition the conclusion highlights those principles which oppose the Nazis. This approach lets readers make their own decision about which principles they stand for. There are also helpful appendices that highlight relevant quotations on the ideas presented. If you are fascinated by history this book is a great place to discover both the reasons for one of the most important episodes in the history of the modern world and why each of us need to understand those reasons.

Nietzsche and the Nazis: A Personal View by Stephen R. C. Hicks. Ockham's Razor Publishing, 2010 (2006).

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Into the "Tunnel"

Red LightsRed Lights 
by Georges Simenon

"Then where did they come from, all those things he said when he'd had a drink too many and started by attacking Nancy before assailing society as a whole?  They had to spring from somewhere.  The same phenomenon occurred each time, and each time his rebellion followed exactly the same course."  - Georges Simenon, Red Lights

What do you do when you are rushing toward the unknown, possibly a dangerous situation, and you are unable to stop? Georges Simenon takes us through just such an experience in this novel as we join Steve Hogan as he begins an unexceptional Labor Day weekend sharing a drink with his wife Nancy before they head north to Maine to retrieve their two children from Summer Camp. What we know is that Steve has premonitions about the trip almost from the beginning and that he has a problem with alcohol. What we don't know is how serious and dangerous a trip it may become. Simenon succeeds in creating a seemingly mundane life for Steve and that makes the suspense which builds throughout the story even more effective.

The power of the novel comes from this suspense and from the psychological portrait of solitude and alienation that is slowly created moment by moment as Steve struggles, yet continually slips inexorably into danger and out of control.  
"He called it "going into the tunnel," an expression of his own, for his private use, which he never used in talking to anyone else, least of all to his wife.  He knew exactly what it meant, and what it was like to be in the tunnel; yet, curiously, when he was there he never allowed himself to admit the fact, except for occasional brief instants, and always too late."
Steve thinks about this behavior as the narrative builds through precise detail his journey in this "tunnel" of his own making.  Moreover he meditates about his and other men's ability to live life outside of the tracks of a normal life that most people, especially women, follow. His thoughts about  this and his rationalization of his drinking combine to lead him into very dangerous territory. Yet developments in his relationship with his wife over which he has no control loom as an even larger problem for him. The question ultimately becomes one of whether he can change his very out of control direction in time to save both his own life and that of his family.

Simenon lived in the United States for just a few years and set nine of his American novels on the east coast. This novel, due in large part to an attention to realistic detail, reads like the work of a writer who had lived here all his life.

This is a Goodreads update review.