Sunday, March 23, 2014

Romantic Masterpieces

Schubert   and   Schumann

Last night I attended a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that included two great romantic works, Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in a minor and Franz Schubert's Great Symphony in C Major.  Sometimes considered his greatest work, the Great C Major, his  9th Symphony,  was never heard by the composer, because the Viennese musicians considered it unplayable; rather, it was premiered in a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert in 1839 under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn.

Schubert's Symphony No. 9 begins with a noble, reflective theme that reappears throughout the first movement. Well after Schubert's death, the theme's grandeur and sense of space, together with the sheer length of the Symphony, helped to earn it the nickname the "Great C Major".  Robert Schumann, who brought it to the attention of Mendelssohn, referred to its length as "heavenly" in the critical music revue which he edited.  In fact, the nickname was first applied by a music publisher to distinguish the work from Schubert's shorter and less ambitious 6th Symphony, the "Little C Major." But the name aptly describes both Schubert's evident intent in writing the work, and the stature of the final composition.

Schubert profoundly revered Beethoven. He may have paid the older composer a single visit, but generally he kept a humble distance, content with attending Beethoven's concerts including most probably the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth "Choral" Symphony in 1824. He served as one of Beethoven's pallbearers at the great man's funeral. Perhaps his greatest tribute to Beethoven was his resolve to write a grand symphony with the breadth and profundity of his predecessor's; and his Symphony No. 9 was the result.

It was a perfect vehicle to show off the strengths of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Music Director Riccardo Muti, and their success was rewarded by the enthusiastic response of the audience.  Earlier in the evening the reknowned pianist Mitsuko Uchida played the Schumann concerto with sublime style.  Her experience in this repetoire, she first played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra almost thirty years ago, provided her with the ability to share deep insights into this familiar concerto.  The concert was another triumph for one of the great orchestras of the world.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Versailles in 1919

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the WorldParis 1919: 
Six Months That Changed the World 
by Margaret MacMillan

“We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.” ― Margaret MacMillan

It was 1919 and the Great War had ended the previous year when, from January to June, the leaders of Britain, France, Italy and the United States met in Paris to decide the outcome of the war they had just won against the Central Powers. This would be difficult,  for the Great War of 1914-18 had seen the disappearance of four old multinational empires: the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman. The fate of people from places as disparate as Strasburg to Baghdad--hundreds of millions--was to be decided. What should this peace conference consider? A Congress of nations had convened in Vienna in 1815 to reorder Europe after the defeat of Napoleon , but confined itself, like others before it, to adjusting the fates of dynasties and states. The peacemakers of 1919 had also paid attention to principles, promises, public opinion and a fast-changing and unstable political scene. It was a current question whether much of central Europe would follow the direction of the Russian revolution.

The making of the Versailles treaty had early on been written about by two young English participants in the Paris negotiations, who wrote their own accounts of the events. In ''Peacemaking 1919,'' Harold Nicolson sketched caustic vignettes of elderly statesmen adrift in a world they couldn't comprehend. And John Maynard Keynes, in ''The Economic Consequences of the Peace,'' demolished the credibility of the settlement itself, eviscerated the case for war reparations and predicted the disaster that must follow. These accounts are still worth reading.

Margaret MacMillan with her ''Paris 1919'' has written a very good history of the negotiations, full of detail and fairly comprehensive. While the organization of the book is sometimes confusing, for example discussing the 1919 creation of Yugoslavia without first explaining what happened in the Balkan wars of 1912-13. And the author's decision to tell the story of the breakup of the Hapsburg empire after her account of the little states that succeeded may confuse those not already familiar with that story. But the many national narratives were well told and constitute parts of the book that I enjoyed the most.

MacMillan has a good focus on the characterization of individuals, both leading figures like Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, and peripheral actors like Queen Marie of Romania and many other hapless supplicants from Beijing to Budapest. Wilson is treated fairly and realistically. Despite his good intentions, perhaps because of them, he was widely viewed as petulant, petty and vain. Lloyd George and Clemenceau, while growing tolerant of his obsessions never got used to his peculiarly American brand of idealism. Wilson, just as would prove to be the case upon his return to face the Senate, was unable to adapt and compromise, demurring the requisite political trading that might achieve some of his goals. His obsession with achieving his new League of Nations was not shared by the many Europeans.
Nevertheless, the American president was the key figure in Paris. The French were understandably concerned with keeping Germany down for the indefinite future. The Italians wanted the territorial pound of flesh they had been secretly promised in return for switching sides in 1915. The British sought above all to stabilize the periphery of Europe and protect access to their imperial possessions farther south and east. Only the Americans had a Big Idea -- self-determination. The peoples and nations now released from imperial captivity were each to receive their own spaces, assigned after careful specialist attention to history, geography, language and other relevant considerations. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Serbs, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Armenians, even Kurds were to have a place in the sun. Only Germans, and to a lesser extent Turks, were not free to determine where and with whom they would live -- the price of defeat.
The unintended consequences of this "Big Idea" are still haunting the world today almost a century later. The idea of self-determination was a chimera leading to a disastrous reality. As Robert Lansing, Wilson's secretary of state, predicted: ''It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until it was too late to check those who attempt to put the principle into force.'' He was right. The peoples of central Europe and the old Ottoman empire could not be divided into conveniently distinct communities. They were mixed up together then and we have seen the results in the Balkans at the end of the twentieth century and are seeing a continuation of sorts both in the Middle East and the old Soviet Empire today.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

What is Real?

by Nicholas Mosley

"I was standing in the hall, the dead time, four o'clock in the morning.  Nothing at the centre, not even pain.  If only I could cease.  Listen to the clock.  A wind.  The wind stops.  I hear a noise like a breath expelled through a dry throat.  Then nothing.  I wait for it to be repeated.  Nothing.  Nothing about death." (p 164)

This is an obsessive short novel that opens with an accident. The narrator, Stephen Jervis - a don at Oxford, has come upon two of his students, Anna and William, who have just crashed their car. The story flashes back to the moment when Anna has just met Stephen, as he has become her Philosophy tutor. As a tutor in Philosophy Stephen seems conflicted. In order to hide from his emotions he focuses on his work. "The consolations of work are that you come from it tired at the end of a long day. A robot, with men working inside you. They pull levers; switch. You watch and move. At the end you have something to look forward to. You go home. To rest. The mechanism sleeps. The men open doors, windows. Look out into the air."(p 18)

In the first meeting with Anna he gives her a brief introduction to the nature of philosophy and how much she must learn about it - existence and persons. What makes a person an enduring entity? What is the real substance of existence and what is an "accident." In his discussion with her it comes to the point where "Now we've got a choice. Before it was Just accident."(p 31)
With this introductory moment we have the theme of the novel. There is the real and the accidents of our existence. These will be played out through the lives of Stephen and his wife Rosalind, lives that include infidelity and the games that Stephen plays with the lives of others; both his student Anna and, in London, Francesca. As he thinks about the events leading up to the accident he wonders: "At what point did the course of events go wrong?" He thinks, "An accident is different from reality."(p 61)  But what is reality?  Is it the truth or an accident?  The novel provides questions, not answers.

The culmination of his affairs comes in the relation of various incidents to the accident of the title, one that is on more physical grounds and one where, another one of Stephen's students, a young man he really doesn't like, William, is killed. What role does Stephen play in all of this? Should he feel guilt or is he even guilty? During the course of the book Anna has exercised quite an influence not only on William, but on Stephen and his colleague, Charlie. And at the close of what has been a demonstration and a defense of free will, worrying about the questions of guilt versus responsibility, Stephen (and Charlie) are left to determine their own conduct. Mosley writes in a style that commands attention. It is allusive, controlled, and with ideas that are implicit. For those who love novels of ideas and their relation to human emotions this is a perfect short novel.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Personal Favorite

David CopperfieldDavid Copperfield 
by Charles Dickens

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”   ― Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

This was the first time Dickens made extended use of the first person and he was effective, particularly expressing both the innocence of youth and wonder of the young David while subtly signifying the older David's narrative voice as he looked back on the events. I was impressed with the relationships David develops in his youth, especially his friendship with Steerforth who is portrayed as a charismatic character with a portent of darkness in his demeanor. As a reader I am not as trusting as the narrator. We are also introduced to the Micawbers, with Mr. Micawber's famous dictum on the nature of happiness and misery:  
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”   Mr. Micawber is merely one of the many memorable characters in David's story - what fun he is!

What is the identity of David Copperfield? David, through the first two dozen chapters of the novel, is called by various names: David by his family; Daisy by Steerforth; Trotwood by his Aunt Betsey; Davey by Mr. McCawber; the list goes on and will be continued and expanded. What is interesting is that David assumes these names as his own. He does this not only in the company of the person who names him but, in the case of Trotwood, in the school he attends as well. The question of David's identity is one theme of this novel that I believe deserves further exploration and attention. For the moment I wonder at the connection, if any, with all of these names and the opening paragraph of the book where David meditates about whether he will be the hero of his own life. As for the question - who is the hero of the novel? - that is another major issue. I should also note the importance of the sea and nature, for example when Steerforth was staying in Yarmouth at the Pegotty’s we see him in meditation by the fire, where he expresses his wish that he “had had a judicious father”. . . “to better guide him”. It is moments like this that also provide a deepening of our understanding of Steerforth’s character.

Continuing on his journey, David completes his schooling and with the financial backing of his Aunt Betsey becomes an apprentice "proctor" (a sort of agent). When David was 10 or 11 years old he seemed old for his years, but he has kept much of his child-like innocence and naivete as he enters his late teens and now seems young for his age. His maturation will have to wait for much more experience and a deepening of his thought much later in the novel. He is able to avoid being taken advantage of by his friend Micawber, but he does not avoid Cupid's arrow and he falls in love with Dora Spenlow. This event with other complications provides growing suspense for the reader. In addition, Dickens continues to provide for David's intermittent commentary from the perspective of his older self. This provides the reader with curious suggestions of the action that will ensue in the rest of the novel.

I find Dicken's notion of marriage somewhat strange. David continues to dote on Dora after his marriage and a first year where they discover their inability to maintain there household. Dora , whose complete lack of common sense is irritating (at least to this reader), provokes David with her innumeracy. The situation does provide Dickens with an opportunity for a humorous set-piece when David tries to "form" Dora's mind by reading Shakespeare to her. Needless to say the project flounders on the rock that is located where her mind should be. In a book that is Dickens's best to date (greater novels loom on the horizon) it does disappoint in the use of coincidence and just a bit of melodrama in the saga of L'il Emily who returns to Mr. Peggoty with the help of mysterious Martha. That aside, David does seem to be maturing just in time to become a successful writer just like the author of his story.

As the novel closes David's story ends and his new journey, with Agnes by his side, begins. Dickens deftly brings the novel to a climax, as David narrates the resolution of each of the novels main characters' fates. But I was most impressed by Dickens's use of the theme of nature and how it signals the final true maturation of David. While nature and the sea have been recurring motifs throughout the novel (see above), in the final section we have nature brought home to David as he meditates on his life (following the deaths of Dora and Steerforth). We get the first intimation of this in Chapter LII:
"Early in the morning, I sauntered through the dear old tranquil streets . . . The rooks were sailing about the cathedral towers ; and the towers themselves , overlooking many a long unaltered mile of the rich country and its pleasant streams, were cutting the bright morning air, as if there were no such thing as change on earth."(p. 747)

Then in Chapter LV, Tempest, natures brews a storm leading to the shipwreck and discovery of Steerforth's dead body. But it is three chapters later while David is travelling in Switzerland that he narrates:
"I think some long-unwonted sense of beauty and tranquillity, some softening influence awakened by its peace, moved faintly in my breast."(p. 821)

I believe David's feeling here which is followed swiftly by a reassuring letter from Agnes, allows him to regain his artistic vigor leading him to write once again after a hiatus. It also signals his final maturation; and the reader delights in his return to England and the ultimate moment when he and Agnes share their long delayed testaments of love for each other.  Thus ends one of Dickens' most famous and my personal favorite of all his delightful novels.

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Poems by Frost

New HampshireNew Hampshire 
by Robert Frost

"It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can.  The figure a poem makes.  It begins in delight and ends in wisdom."  -  Robert Frost, "The Figure a Poem Makes"

In 1923 Robert Frost published his Selected Poems in the spring followed by this collection in November. The following year he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for it. In addition to the titular poem this collection includes the famous "Fire and Ice", a short poem with resonance from Dante and others. 
  One of my favorites is "The Onset" that seems an appropriate poem to meditate upon as spring approaches.  I think we can see a hint of Dante again in this poem with "the dark woods", and there is also the symbolism of winter coming, of snow falling, a beautiful imagery that a time will descend upon us where our lives are dull, tragic, painful or lonely.  Yet in the second stanza hope appears with the recognition that "winter death has never tried the earth but it has failed:".  By the end of the poem the transition from death to life is complete when one contrasts the white of "the gathered snow" at night to the living white of the birch tree and hope in family life symbolized by "a clump of houses" and the spiritual life of the church.

The Onset                                                                    

Always the same, when on a fated night
At last the gathered snow lets down as white
As may be in dark woods, and with a song
It shall not make again all winter long
Of hissing on the yet uncovered ground,
I almost stumble looking up and round,
As one who overtaken by the end
Gives up his errand, and lets death descend
Upon him where he is, with nothing done
To evil, no important triumph won,
More than if life had never been begun.

Yet all the precedent is on my side:
I know that winter death has never tried
The earth but it has failed: the snow may heap
In long storms an undrifted four feet deep
As measured again maple, birch, and oak,
It cannot check the peeper's silver croak;
And I shall see the snow all go down hill
In water of a slender April rill
That flashes tail through last year's withered brake
And dead weeds, like a disappearing snake.
Nothing will be left white but here a birch,
And there a clump of houses with a church.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Two Comedies by Two Waughs

Decline and Fall Decline and Fall 
by Evelyn Waugh

“...any one who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul destroying.”  ― Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall 

Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall, is a delightful satiric comedy. It is based in part on Waugh's undergraduate years at Hertford College, Oxford, and his experience as a teacher in Wales. He is sent down from Oxford and as a result takes a position at the Llanabba school in Wales.  The school itself is dingy, depressing, and seems always on the verge of coming apart at the seams. The masters, Captain Grimes, Mr. Prendergast, and Paul, are all unqualified for their positions, the students are frightfully undisciplined, and little or no learning ever takes place within Llanabba Castle's walls.  In this episode and others I encountered the author's not so subtle satire and characteristic black humor in lampooning various features of British schools and society in the 1920s. 

The novel's title is a contraction of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But it also alludes to the German philosopher Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918–1922), which first appeared in an English translation in 1926 and which argued, among other things, that the rise of nations and cultures is inevitably followed by their eclipse. Waugh read both Gibbon and Spengler while writing his first novel.
I tremendously enjoyed the picaresque adventures of its hero, Paul Pennyfeather, as he encountered barely believable difficulties in "getting along". Waugh's characterization is superb while his satire is unambiguously hostile to much that was in vogue in the late 1920s, and themes of cultural change and confusion, moral disintegration and social decay all drive the novel forward and fuel its humor. This book was a joy to read even if you do not participate in all of Mr. Waugh's inside references. It is a worthy introduction to the novels of one of the finest authors of our century. 

 The Foxglove SagaThe Foxglove Saga 
by Auberon Waugh

“There is an old story about the boy at Eton who committed suicide. The other boys in his house were gathered together and asked if any of them could suggest a reason for the tragedy. After a long silence a small boy in the front put up his hand: 'Could it have been the food, sir?”  ― Auberon Waugh

Auberon Waugh's first novel, The Foxglove Saga, is a comic novel very much in the style of his father's earlier books and the result is very successful. Its hero, Martin Foxglove, is an abominably flawless paragon. While at school Martin chooses a set of friends considered inappropriate by his family and he abandons his Christian faith. His story and that of his friends, particularly the ugly, middle-class Kenneth Stoat and the unfortunate Martin O'Connor, makes for a slyly humorous and sometimes sadly funny novel. 
The plot is intentionally absurd, built around the central character's desire to implement the seven corporal Works of Mercy. The catholic Lady Foxglove parades them one by one, treating the list as if it provided some definitive road map to saintliness, while liberally reinterpreting her own self-interested actions as charitable ones, in order to cross another required work from the list. The irony here is that while the list provides some guidance as to how the merciful should act in advancing the welfare of others, Lady Foxglove's interventions always reduce the happiness of her intended beneficiaries.

I do not claim to have understood all of the sardonic details that Waugh includes but the story has plenty of references that are clear to anyone familiar with twentieth century British literature, especially if the name Waugh is below the title. The comic attitude of the book seems to be that any official machinery—the school, the hospital, the Army—can be made to go wrong by individual determination and lying. I would suggest that it is not Mr. Waugh who is amoral and cruel, but the machinery in which his characters are caught. Anarchism of this sort is viable, if not as a basis for life, at least for a comic novel and in his creation Auberon compares well with his more famous father as his first novel continues the family tradition of irreverent humor.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

An Antique Violin

Canone InversoCanone Inverso 
by Paolo Maurensig

". . . my mind had become accustomed to severity, to discipline, to the pursuit of perfection. I suddenly felt as if I were a stranger among all those noisy people who had nothing to do with music, talked about everything but, and were concerned with things I didn't understand."(p 91)

An antique violin is the heart of Paolo Maurensig's exploration of art and the artist. The question is: who is the greater artist? The one who owns his art or the one who is owned by it? Structured almost like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner the buyer of the violin is accosted by a stranger who relays the history of the instrument, the rivalry between budding artists Kuno and Jeno at a horrific music academy, and the playing out of their lives against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation of Europe. Deeply layered, full of symbols and themes, this is almost a perfect novella. In fact that is one of the themes of the book:

"Perfection, you see, is related to infinity, but infinity is not the only infinitely big. It is also the infinitely small. Perfection can suggest the idea of forward movement, but also the idea of coming to a halt. The search for perfection proceeds with a pace that becomes infinitely slower. It is a continuous progression that nevertheless gradually reduces itself as it approaches its goal."(p 37)

The main character, a Hungarian peasant boy named Jeno, is haunted both by his obsession to achieve perfection in playing the violin and his obsession for Sophie, a violinist and music teacher. While still a young boy he is sent to study at a serious music academy where he meets and becomes friends with another young boy, and Aristocratic Austrian boy named Kuno. He at first seems to be Jeno's doppelganger, but we soon find that he is filled with contrasts to Jeno that complement him. They are linked by the violin.

The beauty of the prose is like music and its structure mimics that of a work of music. Reminiscent of the short fiction of Sandor Marai or Isak Dinesen this novella is exceptionally poignant and affecting on many levels. Most importantly, it questions the reality of the very lives that we live - are they merely a dream? Reading books like this makes the question one that could lead to obsession.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mann the Teacher

  Final Notes on 
Joseph and His Brothers

"That my brothers mutilated me and threw me into the pit and that they shall now be standing before me--that is life.  And life is also the question of whether one should judge the deed by its consequences and so call what is evil good, because it was necessary for a good result.  Those are the questions that life poses.  One cannot answer them with a long face.  The human spirit can rise above them only in serene delight, so that in its own profound amusement over what is unanswerable, it may move God Himself, the great unanswering God, to laughter." (p 1304)

As Joseph and His Brothers moves inexorably toward its conclusion the reader is reminded again by the narrator of this fact.
"We are astonished to note that this story is moving toward its end--who would have thought it could ever run dry and come to an end?  But ultimately it no more has an end than it actually had a beginning, and instead, since it  cannot possibly go on forever like this, it must at some point excuse itself and simply cease its narration." (p 1431)

At the beginning of the story we were regaled with the "Tales of Jacob" and his clever wresting of the birthright from his elder brother Esau.  Now, as Jacob is reunited with his lost son Joseph in Egypt he bestows his rightful blessing on Ephraim, the younger of Joseph's two sons, instead of Manasseh, the elder.  Thus we have the beginning in the end and as Joseph points out to his father Jacob what he has done Jacob says to him, "What I have done, I have done, and it is indeed my will that it become a proverb and saying in Israel, so that whenever anyone wishes to bless, he shall say, 'God make you as Ephraim and Manasseh.'  Let Israel take note." (p 1461)

Again, the narrator has lectured the reader about what to expect, "How remarkable, how it tickles one's fancy, to note how events in this story are ordered in such lovely correspondence and one piece finds its fulfillment in its counterpart." (p 1388)  
Jacob's sons have just returned from Egypt with the news that his son whom he thought was dead is instead alive and prospering in Egypt.  Yes, Joseph has risen to the penultimate level in the whole country.  Thus the second fall into the pit of prison has led to an even greater outcome than the earlier apparent death and rebirth from the first pit.  In the meantime the narrator has regaled the reader with Joseph's dream interpretations and his continued faithful adherence to what he believed to be God's plan for his life. Yet his life story was interpreted in light of episodes that mirrored Mesopotamian and Greek mythology, and involved Joseph becoming an Egyptian. In Jacob's eyes "Joseph was the man set apart, who in being exalted had stepped back, was now separated from his tribe, and could not be a tribe himself." (p 1450)  This would devolve upon his sons as we saw above.  

At the end of the fourth and final novel in the massive tetralogy, after his sons had buried Jacob, the brothers are united in a positive spirit respecting Jacob's last wish and the story ends on a beautiful note.  The magnificent story of Joseph and His Brothers was complete, a story in the even greater comedy of humankind.

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

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Artist of Despair

The TunnelThe Tunnel 
by Ernesto Sabato

“I am a sick man...I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts.”  ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

"True!--nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am;  but why will you say that I am mad?  - Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart

"It should be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed Maria Iribarne."  - Ernesto Sabato, The Tunnel

Ernesto Sabato writes about an artist, Juan Pablo Castel, narrating his own story about desire and obsessive love through the lens of madness. I would describe the nature of the narrator, but let me quote his own assessment from early in the book:
"My brain was in pandemonium: swarming ideas, emotions of love and loathing, questions, resentment, and memories all blended together or flashed by in rapid succession." (p 47)
Juan had just discovered that his beloved Maria Iribarne was married to a blind man. He thinks, "why hadn't she warned me she was married?"  There is much he does not know about Maria in spite of his longing for her;  a longing that leads him to the brink of despair.

This story, set in Buenos Aires, is told from the narrator's point of view, but the narrator, like the narrator of  Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, is deranged, living in an internal world that is filled with discontinuities with the outside world of other people because it is based on his own delusions rather than the real world. His thoughts seem to bounce between two poles represented by moments of acute focus on reality contrasted with a bizarre world where he understands no one and they do not understand him. All of this is enhanced by increasingly complex dreams. He wants to be with Maria but when she seemingly rejects him, by leaving for the "estancia" in the country, he retreats in to a world of "absolute loneliness".  He describes this world:
"Usually the feeling of being alone in the world is accompanied by a condescending sense of superiority. I scorn all humankind; people around me seem vile, sordid, stupid, greedy, gross, niggardly. I do not fear solitude; it is almost Olympian." (p 81)

The novel is short with only thirty-nine short chapters over less than one hundred fifty pages. Even so it is complex and suspenseful although it begins with the seemingly straightforward declaration from the narrator that he is "the painter who killed Maria Iribarne." The obsessiveness of his love for Maria is demonstrated by both his stalking her, watching from a distance, and his imagining what she must be thinking, often extrapolating delusional thoughts from a brief note that she has written. For example, when she writes him the note "I think of you, too. Maria" he immediately begins to wonder if she was nervous and whether the note betrayed "real emotion" followed by exuberance over the signature. The simple act of her signing her name led Juan to a feeling that "she now belonged to me." (p 49)
The narrator gradually becomes more intense in his thoughts about Maria. This is accompanied by difficulties relating to the few other people he encounters in the book; symbolized by the disintegration of his painting and by references to the increasing turbulence of the sea.

The story is not without humor demonstrated best by Juan's encounter with a postal clerk who will not return to him a letter he has written to Maria. He demands that it be returned because he left out an important thought. As a reader you almost feel sympathy for Juan as his entreaties are blocked by the petty bureaucrat, but this lighter moment does not last long and the urge to sympathize melts away as he returns to his delusional world.

Ernesto Sabato has created a mesmerizing story of a man who has lost touch with reality and his obsessions over a married woman who eludes his grasp. He is an artist who cannot abide this world so he creates a world of his own. When the two worlds collide the consequences are grave. His narrator shares the sickness of Dostoevsky's narrator in Notes from Underground along with the life of urban denizens found in the works of Hamsun and Kafka among others. Brilliant in its evocation of this modern world it raises questions for any reader who dreams of other realities or shares, even in a little part, questions about the nature of the real world around himself.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Sculptor, Artist and Genius

Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his TimesMichelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his Times 
by William E. Wallace

“The greatest artist does not have any concept
Which a single piece of marble does not itself contain
Within its excess, though only
A hand that obeys the intellect can discover it.”
― Michelangelo, I Sonetti Di Michelangelo: The 78 Sonnets of Michelangelo with Verse Translation

Oscar Wilde once said, "I think a man should invent his own myth." One man for whom it could be said that he did this, at least indirectly through his contributions, is Michelangelo. He was born on March 6, 1475, in Caprese, Italy to a family of moderate means in the banking business. He became an apprentice to a painter before studying in the sculpture gardens of the powerful Medici family. What followed was a remarkable career as an artist in the Italian Renaissance, recognized in his own time for his artistic virtuosity. It was a career of "an aristocrat who made art" according to his biographer William Wallace. Wallace's biography is compact at less than four hundred pages but it provides a generous amount of detail and interesting theories about the nature and importance of Michelangelo's life. Wallace studied biographies of other artists in his preparation for this work including those written by Richard Ellman, David Cairns, and Maynard Solomon. I think this helped him shape a worthy life of Michelangelo.

That Michelangelo was an artist worthy of note is a notion that began in his own lifetime as his contemporaries were writing about his life when he was in his early fifties. He was the only living artist to be included in Giorgio Vasari's famous Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects in 1550. Although this was an honor, perceived inaccuracies in Vasari's text led Michelangelo to ask his pupil and amanuensis, Ascanio Condivi, to write his biography. This Life of Michelangelo appeared three years later and emphasized, among other things, Michelangelo's noble origins. Thus the potential myth-making began. Wallace relies on many original documents including the letters of Michelangelo, of which there were more than a thousand, his records, and his family correspondence. I was interested in the attention paid to his poetry as I have long been fond of his sonnets. Not unexpectedly, however, the documentation for his life is uneven with gaps that make some of his life, especially the earlier years, more difficult to portray.

I appreciated the biographer's attention to the culture of the Renaissance and Michelangelo's place in it. The cultural history of society was presented with a focus on his times in Rome and Florence during progressive artistic periods of his life. The story of the artist reminded me of the story of other artists as Michelangelo was like many others who had difficulty persuading their father that the career of an artist was better than a prestigious profession and an advantageous marriage. Yet, even while Michelangelo insisted on an artistic career he still sometimes harbored misgivings and had doubts; nonetheless forging ahead in a direction that he thought would "resuscitate" his family name. Even more important to him, and this was an aspect of the life of painters and sculptors of his day, was his insistence that he was truly an artist; not a mere artisan running a workshop.

With works that include the "David" and "Pieta" statues and the ceiling paintings of Rome's Sistine Chapel, including the "Last Judgment" we look at him today as one of the greatest sculptors and painters of all time--a true genius. While Michelangelo lived most of his life in Rome, where he died in 1564 at age 88, he always considered himself a Florentine. He also was a generous family man who created great works of art for patrons that were more often than not his friends.

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The World and the Why

I Like School

Am I a freak?
Or rather a geek?
For I absolutely have to admit,
That I like school.  I really love it!

The idea of learning the answer to why
The brook runs dry or there's blue in the sky,
Delights me no end, and is likely to send
Me to a place that I wish would not end.

When I'm in a class I feel comfortable
For this is where I am most capable,
Exploring the issues of now and then.
Yes, that's history with its where and when.

And what about math and studying space?
There seems no more appropriate place
Than school for learning that vast expanse
Of knowledge that will my mind entrance.

You may ask what it is that makes me this way,
When so many feel that school spoils their day.
I guess that I would quickly retort, with a reply
That for me the world's a school.  That's why.

James Henderson, The Kingdom of Music, March, 2014

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Leading Lady visits America

In AmericaIn America 
by Susan Sontag

"Each of us carries a room within ourselves, waiting to be furnished and peopled, and if you listen closely, you may need to silence everything in your own room, you can hear the sounds of that other room inside your head.”  ― Susan Sontag, In America

In America is an historical novel, yet it is more. It is a novel about identity, about names and words and people who leave their homeland for a new unknown and undiscovered land called America. The novel is one where the stage and all that it represents mirrors life -- a story set near the end of the nineteenth century.
On the first page of the novel the motif of the stage is hinted at by how snow flakes seen through a window are described as a "scrim" for the moonlight in the background. The unnamed narrator looks out on the wintry landscape from her vantage point in a warm corner of a large room filled with people. Slowly the narrator, who is Sontag herself embedded in this prelude to the novel, gradually introduces the main characters who are gathered at a private party. These characters include an actress, Maryna the greatest leading lady in Poland; her husband, Bogdan; and a budding writer, Ryszard, who will eventually become her lover.

Language is an important aspect of the novel as the narrator meditates on all the words in the air swirling around her at this party. Her meditation leads he to comment that "I mean here only to give these words their proper, poignant emphasis. And it occurred to me that this might explain, partly, my presence in this room. For I was moved by the way they possessed these words and regarded themselves bound by them to actions. . . . I was enjoying the repetition. Dare I say I felt at one with them? Almost. Those dreaded words, dreaded by others (not by me), seemed like caresses. Pleasantly numbed, I felt myself borne along by their music . . ." (p 8) While musing on the Polish diva who holds the company spellbound, Sontag notes: "I remember when I first read Middlemarch: I had just turned 18, and a third of the way through the book burst into tears because I realised not only that I was Dorothea but that a few months earlier, I had married Mr Casaubon... It took me nine years to decide that I had the right, the moral right, to divorce Mr Casaubon." (p 24) She indulges herself and suggests that this will be the story of a Dorothea who does not, like George Eliot's heroine, bury herself in the obscurity of "private" good works. She will shine in the public blaze of celebrity.
The party is in Poland, but some converse in French as well. This is their home where they are known and comfortable--yet there is more--ideas are in the air. The narrator hears bits of conversation that hint at plans Maryna has to leave Poland. These words suggest the possibility of a project to create a "perfect" society, one influenced by both Voltaire and Rousseau. After further ruminations on these people surrounding her at the party the narrator decides to write their story: "I decided to follow them out into the world." (p 27)
After this unusual introduction the actual story, an historical one, continues for nine more chapters chronicling the journey of Maryna, her close friends, family, and entourage, to America. They fairly quickly settle in a dusty southern California village established originally by Germans, namely Anaheim. Just as earlier communities like Brook Farm in New England and others have failed theirs does as well. The experiment is unsuccessful due to unexpected difficulties as they find the empty and dry expanse of California is not conducive to their plans. While many of them return to Poland it is at this moment that Maryna, longing for a return to the stage, decides to move to San Francisco and mount an American career where she can once again become a leading lady, perhaps a legend. This is, after all, an historical novel and the main characters are based on real people. Maryna is based on Helena Modrzejewska, who at 35 years old was Poland's greatest actress and who emigrated to America. The story abounds with moments when Maryna is in the theater playing Camille or Juliet for adoring audiences. Gradually her stage character takes hold of the reader much as it must have for those audiences. Following her came her husband and her lover, based on the writer Henryk Sinkiewicz (later famous as the author of Quo Vadis, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature). However, not all the real names are changed and , not unlike some other historical novels, famous names drop in from time to time including Edwin Booth and Henry James (later in the story as Maryna has moved on to conquer the London stage; her success there was limited but better by far than that of James whose plays bombed).

This is a novel that, according to the author, was inspired by her own family background as all four of her grandparents came from Poland. She herself, in the three years of the novel's conception, frequently visited "besieged Sarajevo" (the novel is dedicated to her friends in that unhappy city). The main character has luminescent moments, but I found the story as a whole uneven. Ryszard and Bogdan both have moments "on stage" but the rest of the characters fade into the background. They all were on stage as followers of Maryna to America and it is a book worth reading to share the experiences of her dramatic and eventful life.

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