Sunday, August 31, 2014

Reading Begins at Home

Books from my Parents' Library

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! -- When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”   ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Before I was born and continuing after I arrived along with my sister (two years later) my parents had a small library in the home where we were raised.  This library consisted of  bookshelves that spread along one wall of our living room;  shelves that were filled with books from my earliest memory.  These books formed a not insignificant part of my reading from my earliest days - they were the source of such early reads as the Tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and more.  As I grew older and read more I remember my first encounters with Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I became a life-long fan of Stevenson's writing, but above all I still keep and cherish an age-worn copy of  A Child's Garden of Verses because  it was one of my mother's books from when she was a very young girl.   It was from those shelves that I experienced my first taste of horror and speculative fiction with Edgar Allan Poe and dipped my toe into the world of Dante whom I do not claim to have understood on my first encounter.   What I could understand a bit better was the development of Jane Eyre from her terrible days in boarding school to her romantic encounters with Mr. Rochester, or Carol Kennicott and the events on Main Street depicted by Sinclair Lewis.  Along the reading way I acquired my own bookshelves in my bedroom.  It was here I began my own collection of classics like Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Twain,  The Jungle Books of Kipling,  and a collection of biographies of scientists and inventors like Michael Faraday, George Washington Carver, and Thomas Edison.
Later in my teen years I opened a tome that changed my life, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand whose heroic architect, Howard Roark, was among the heroes that I admired in my reading.  Heroes like Roark included Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo.   Dumas' novel was a book I read as part of my school reading which augmented that program of reading that already had a sturdy foundation built at home.  There were other books for school including Willa Cather's My Antonia, Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days,  and the wonderful tale of immigrants, Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag.  These and many more as my reading for school expanded in high school and University.

My sister and I both spent many hours at the local library, The Matheson Memorial Library, in our home town.  It was there that we encountered many other authors and books that we enjoyed reading.  I first met Philip Carey on those shelves as Somerset Maugham's tale Of Human Bondage mesmerized me much as Jane Eyre had some years earlier.  The library books were a luxury that we could afford because they were free for us to read and make our own.  This was all part of a reading life that began in the home and did not stop, but continued during our school years as an independent and important part of our lives.  With all of our reading, in school, in the library, in the park and around town, and the reading that continues to this day, both my Sister and I continue to live in homes that are filled with books.  Because our love of reading had its start in the home of our parents with their library of books that they read and cherished as well.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Story of a Great Artist

My Name Is Asher LevMy Name Is Asher Lev 
by Chaim Potok

“You can do anything you want to do. What is rare is this actual wanting to do a specific thing: wanting it so much that you are practically blind to all other things, that nothing else will satisfy you,.”   ― Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev

What is the source of artistic genius in an individual? Is it a mystery -- of art, the artist, the genius that cannot be taught? This novel is the story of one such individual, Asher Lev, who is one such man. Born with a prodigious artistic ability into a Hasidic Jewish family, Asher is drawn to art from a very early age in a way that mystifies his parents and his community. It is only later after he has been studying for some time with another great artist, Jacob Kahn, that he hears these words from his teacher: "Asher Lev, an artist is a person first. He is an individual. If there is no person there is no artist." (p 257)

Asher's story is one of how he becomes an individual person who is also a great artist. He tells his story in the first person emphasizing on the first page that he is an observant Jew. Yet at the same time confirming that observant Jews are not artists and do not paint at all. The tension between the importance of his cultural traditions and his personal individuality as an artist are present in this beginning and this tension is a presence in his relationships, his development, and even his dreams.
The setting is the 1950s in the time of Joseph Stalin and the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. During Asher's childhood, his budding artistic inclination brings him into conflict with the members of his Jewish community, which values things primarily as they relate to faith and considers art unrelated to religious expression to be at best a waste of time and possibly a sacrilege. Most importantly it brings him into strong conflict with his father, a man who has devoted his life to serving their leader, the Rebbe, by traveling around the world bringing the teachings and practice of their sect to other Jews, and who is by nature incapable of understanding or appreciating art.

Asher's mother is firmly in the midst of this conflict. She has experienced her own trauma from the death of her brother, who was killed while traveling for the Rebbe; she suffers anxiety for her husband's safety during his almost constant traveling. It doesn't just affect her, but it affects her whole family and community. After her anxiety had passed, she decided she wanted to continue her brother’s work.

The Rebbe asks Asher’s father to travel to Vienna, since it would make his work easier. Asher becomes very upset about this and complains that he doesn't want to go to Vienna. His mother decides to stay in Brooklyn with Asher, while his father goes to Vienna. While Asher’s father is away, Asher draws more than ever; "I drew endlessly all those weeks after my father's departure. I drew while I walked; I drew while I ate; I drew while I sat in class; I drew in Yudel Krinsky's store; I drew in the museum." (p 161) His mother brings him a gift of a wooden box oil painting supplies along with an easel and some canvases that December. His first oil painting is of his mother. The conflict with his father continues, however, and it is only through the wisdom of the Rebbe that Asher is allowed to continue and to study with Jacob Kahn, the artist who recognizes in Asher Lev a genius that is even greater than his own. They meet with an exchange of drawings and a recognition that Asher has no choice but to become an artist, and Jacob to become his teacher.

Asher begins to learn by doing, by drawing and painting, by viewing the masters and copying them. His teacher shows him the way by challenging him, but cannot make him an artist. Jacob tells his friend Anna Schaeffer, an art dealer, that Asher's development will take time. "It will be five years. Millions of people can draw. Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way." (p 212) Yet the tension with his tradition remained for Asher. But Jacob would say "As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it. Anything else is what the Communists in Russia call art. I will teach you responsibility to art. Let your Landover Hasidim teach you responsibility to Jews." (p 218)
Asher begins to go to art museums where he studies paintings. He becomes very interested in the paintings, especially the ones of the crucifixions. He starts copying the paintings of the crucifixions and nudes, but this would only get him into trouble. Asher’s father returned home one night after a long trip to Russia for the Rebbe. He then sees Asher’s paintings of the crucifix and nudes and is furious. Asher’s father thinks that his gift is foolish and from the Sitra Achra, or Other Side. Asher’s mother doesn't know whether to support her son or her husband. She is torn between the two of them.
Asher continues to paint and to expand his artistic abilities culminating in several shows and subsequent travel to Europe to study further. He gradually enters a new religion. It is a religion called painting, but never before had a religious Jew been a great painter. 

“I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy. Power to bring pleasure and pain. Power to amuse and horrify. There was in that hand the demonic and the divine at one and the same time. The demonic and the divine were two aspects of the same force. Creation was demonic and divine. Creativity was demonic and divine. I was demonic and divine.”

 He paints and he studies and he broods about his differences with his father. He does not understand even as Jacob tells him "Do not try to understand. Become a great artist." (p278)  Asher's ultimate mastery of his art and his greatest triumph will further test him and demand that he make a choice between his family and his art.

Written in a simple, lucid style, this novel of artistic and personal growth has a power that is difficult to describe. Anyone who has had a passion for living a certain life that may be different than that of your parents or community must be moved by Asher's story. He relates the struggle of individuals everywhere, both those of genius and the rest of us, as we make our own way creating a unique place in the world.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Writers on Reading


from The History of That Ingenious Gentleman 

Don Quijote de la Mancha

In a word, Don Quijote so buried himself in his books that he read all night from sundown to dawn, and all day from sunup to dusk, until with virtually no sleep and so much reading he dried out his brain and lost his sanity.  He filled his imagination full to bursting with everything he read in his books, from witchcraft to duels, battles, challenges, wounds, flirtations, love affairs, anguish, and impossible foolishness, packing it all so firmly into his head that these sensational schemes and dreams become the literal truth and, as far as he was concerned, there were no more certain histories anywhere on  earth.  He'd explained that Cid Ruy Diaz had been a very good knight, but simply couldn't be compared to the Knight of the Flaming Sword, who with one backhand stroke had cut in half two huge, fierce giants.  He liked Bernardo del Carpio even better . . . But the knight he treasured above all others was Renaldo de Montalban, especially when he could be found riding out of his castle and robbing everyone he met, or when he travelled across the ocean to steal the idol of Mohammad,

Indeed, his mind was so tattered and torn that, finally, it produced the strangest notion a madman had ever conceived, and then considered it not just appropriate but inevitable.  As much for the sake of his own greater honor as for his duty to the nation, he decided to turn himself into a knight errant, travelling all over the world with his horse and his weapons, seeking adventures and doing everything that , according to his books, earlier knights had done, righting every manner of wrong, giving himself the opportunity to experience every sort of danger, so that, surmounting them all, he would cover himself with eternal fame and glory.  (p 10)

Don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.  Burton Raffel, trans. W. W. Norton & Company, 1995 (1605)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Eros and Memories of Love

Strait is the GateStrait is the Gate 
by André Gide

"I advanced slowly;  the sky was like my joy---warm, bright, delicately pure.  No doubt she was expecting me by the other path.  I was close to her, behind her, before she heard me;  I stopped . . . and as if time could have stopped with me, "This is the moment," I thought, "the most delicious moment, perhaps, of all, even though it should precede happiness itself---which happiness itself will not equal." (p 96)

"Enter ye in at the strait gate:  for wide is the gate and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction and many there be which go thereat:  Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." (Matthew 7:13-14).

This is the text from which Gide drew the title of his short novel, Strait is the Gate. It is a first person narrative that begins forthrightly with the words:
"Some people might have made a book out of it; but the story I am going to tell is one that it took all my strength to live and over which I have spent all my virtue. So I shall set down my recollections quite simply, and if in places they are ragged I shall have recourse to no invention and neither patch nor connect them; any effort I might make to dress them up would take away from the last pleasure I hope to get in telling them." (p 3)

The author signals in this short paragraph the importance of virtue (of what sort we shall find out) and that these are personal "recollections", subject to the vicissitudes of memory and desire, but not invented. Finally, the narrator claims to have pleasure, or at least hopes to, in telling them. One may see already the potential for the contradiction of truth presented as fiction and fiction telling the truth.

The setting is the Protestant upper-middle-class world of Normandy in the 1880s. The narrator, Jerome Palissier, originally from Le Havre, is eleven when the story begins. His father having died he is living with his mother and a governess. He is surrounded by family including a creole aunt Lucille who alternately fascinates and terrifies him. She has two young daughters, Alissa and Juliette Bucolin, who are devoted to their father. Alissa and Jerome become childhood sweethearts and this gradually develops into a situation such that it becomes assumed, at least unofficially, that they are engaged. Unfortunately Alissa never truly agrees to any such arrangement. Complicating matters further are the feelings of Juliette for Jerome and the entry of Jerome's good friend Abel Vautier who quickly becomes infatuated with Juliette. The relations among these young people are complicated by the strength of youthful Eros, their own growth, and their search for identity.  It is this search that leads Alissa in the direction of religion, in spite of which she professes to love Jerome. But she is no longer her former self and as Jerome is about to leave the country home of Fonguesemare where they have been together she claims that he has been in love with a ghost. Jerome replies that the ghost is not an illusion on his part: "Alissa, you are the woman I loved . . . What have you made yourself become?" Jerome leaves, "full of a vague hatred for what I still called virtue". Strong stuff for teenagers.

Three years later he returns but their relations are never the same;  the strength of her religious convictions has altered Alissa both spiritually and physically. The affairs narrated here are apparently drawn from Gide's own life, however loosely. Their are also parallels with Gide's own work as Alissa may be seen as corresponding to Michel, the protagonist in Gide's novel, The Immoralist, written about a decade earlier. Strait is the Gate presents itself as a small gem of a literary work. With its focus on the passions and desires of young love I am reminded of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther. Gide's biographer, Alan Sheridan, suggests that it is also a meditation on Gide's relationship with his own wife, Madeleine. Whether that is the case or not this short novel is has a beautiful clarity of prose and a haunting style that suggests the memories of young love that, while strong enough to leave permanent impressions, in some way become ghosts of one's youth.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Autumnal Expectations

by Jane Austen

Thanks to Jenna of The Lost Generation Reader for hosting Austen in August reading event. 

"How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been--how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence!  She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older--the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning." (p 33)

In Jane Austen's last novel, Persuasion, which was not published until after her death, Austen created a strong, mature, and independent heroine, Anne Elliot. One might consider this an autumnal work which emphasizes the flow of human sympathy and charity. Austen's attention to the sensibilities of her characters has been honed over the course of her preceding work, notably in Emma which she completed not long before beginning Persuasion.

Anne Elliot is characterized as having "lost her bloom". She is depicted as having a resigned melancholy due to her relations with her family who regard her as a "nobody" and her lack of having someone close to turn to. Her mother was no longer present, having died when Anne was fourteen. Having foolishly broken off an engagement eight years earlier to Frederick Wentworth, a penniless naval officer, Anne at the age of 27 has remained unmarried--and secretly devoted to Wentworth. The novel captures the poignant and seemingly hopeless situation of Anne by sharing the depth and subtleties of her emotional life. This is the essence of the book and its strength. Austen adopts a more metaphorical approach in her story than in preceding novels and, through Anne's feelings and the counterpart of nature, we see Anne coping and perhaps for the optimistic among us there is a possibility of hope in her future.

Major changes in Anne's life result from the move of her father to Bath while she remains behind in Uppercross with her younger sister's family. Thus begins a series of events that bring Wentworth, now a Captain, back into Anne's life. An unfortunate accident leads to Wentworth to begin re-examining his feelings about Anne. The changes that occur over the remainder of the story yield the expected classical ending; however the changes also suggest that the world of Kellynch Hall that Anne was raised in has been left behind for a new life that is not quite as expected.

This novel rivals Emma as my favorite of Jane Austen's novels; along with Pride and Prejudice it forms a trio of novels that I read again and again with growing joy and understanding.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Possibly Immortality?

Strange Bodies: A NovelStrange Bodies: A Novel 
by Marcel Theroux

"He didn't seem conventionally insane in any way that I could understand.  But there was no way of comprehending him.  In some eerie and fundamental way, he didn't appear to belong to our world.  But that didn't seem the same as being mad." (p 157)

The Theroux family has an impressive literary heritage. I first encountered Paul Theroux, an American travel writer and novelist, through reading his popular and mesmerizing travel narrative The Great Railway Bazaar. I also enjoyed his novel, The Mosquito Coast, that won the 1981 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Then there is his brother, Alexander, who is a writer and artist whose Darconville's Cat: A Novel is a Rabelaisian epic both in its words and multiple styles. But there is a new generation of literary members of this family that includes Marcel Theroux, Paul's son.

It is Marcel's most recent novel that I found on the library shelves recently. It is a labyrinthine exploration of identity and mortality, filled with big ideas. That would have carried many for more than the less than three hundred pages of this unique story. It qualifies as what I, adopting the approach of Margaret Atwood, would call speculative fiction; others might go further and call it science fiction. Either way it is a neat combination of literary criticism (the protagonist is a Samuel Johnson scholar, or perhaps he was); a conspiracy about the science of consciousness involving new bodies (sort of neo-Frankenstein); and a love angle or two that may involve some necrotic foreplay.

Dr. Nicholas Slopen—the literary scholar and Johnson expert—has already been declared dead at least once, before the novel presents itself as the testimony found by a former lover on a flash memory stick. The document begins in a mental ward, where the patient is trying to convince his therapists that he is in fact Slopen, whose death has been well-documented. He then relates the tale of how he (Slopen) had been hired to document some newly discovered Johnson letters that he immediately dismissed as fake, before realizing that he was in the midst of something far more extraordinary and sinister. Vera, a woman Nicholas makes friends with after a mysterious Silicon Valley type has hired him to authenticate some unearthed writings by Johnson, wears corrective shoes and acts as a kind of menial for more elite bosses. When Nicholas's examination of the unearthed documents turns up some oddities, he finds himself in communication with the novel's most interesting character, Jack—an initially nonverbal savant who was convinced that he was in fact Johnson and who eventually convinces the scholar that something stranger is afoot than fraud or even madness. “I felt I understood less and less, even as, intuitively, I was drawing closer to the hidden chamber of the infinitely dark truth.”

And within that infinitely dark truth, distinctions between sanity and madness, life and death are not nearly as absolute as they might have initially appeared: “All madness has a touch of death to it....But the finer details of reality—the state of a marriage, artistic merit, a person’s true nature—have something delicate and consensual about them....Each time someone drops out of our collective reality, it weakens a little.” The author interpolates comments from the observers of the supposed Nicholas Slopen and the plot gradually becomes one of strange bodies and stranger activities. The exact way in which the titular strange bodies begin to manifest themselves in the tale at this point makes reading this novel worth your while.

This fictional narrative could be compared to Philip K. Dick or perhaps Borges, but whether it reminds you of them or others you may have read it is unique in the style and marvelous tightness of Theroux's structure, which launches the final part of the story with more than one delicious twist. Twists aside, though, this is a thoughtful book that interrogates the intersection of literature and the self. Why are we drawn to certain works? To what extent are we defined by our literatures? Can books and ideas grant us a kind of immortality? Can great authors really shape our lives or our world? There is also a theme that seems to ask to what extent we can control books and authors—how much of them are "ours" (the rightful property of the public domain) and how much of them should be? These questions keep you wondering—and ensure that Theroux's strange little world will work its way under your skin. Theroux, like his father and uncle, is a master prose-smith; he builds a great, brooding atmosphere of slow-burning dread, splicing bits of Milton into conversations in which characters have "the haunted and knowing eyes of a caged ape" (p. 71). As Nicholas's ordinary life begins to disintegrate, the self-pitying tone in which he narrates the beginning of the novel takes on new meaning and leaves us ultimately moved by his plight.  Often enthralling and occasionally maddening, the novel expands the reader’s sense of possibility even as it strains credulity.

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Love and Silver

Nostromo: A Tale of the SeaboardNostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard 
by Joseph Conrad

"Most dangerous to the wielder, too, this weapon of wealth, double-edged with the cupidity and misery of mankind, steeped in all the vices of self-indulgence as in a concoction of poisonous roots, tainting the very cause for with it is drawn, always ready to turn awkwardly in the hand.  There was nothing for it now but to go on using it."  (p 390)

With Nostromo Conrad plumbs the depths of human frailty, offering an intimate study in psychology and human relations. Unlike his other novels he uses a greater canvas to consider the wider political and economic world. That canvas is constructed from fragmented plots containing fractures and divides that interrupt the narrative to the point that the landscape seems to "vanish into thin air" (p 31).

The story is one of a silver mine in the Occidental Province of “the imaginary (but true)” Latin American country of Costaguana, and the crisis by which the province passes from the chaos of post-colonial misrule to the unquiet prosperity of Anglo-American imperial capitalism. With the country beset by instability and warfare, Senor Gould, the mine's owner, decides to remove the silver and keep it out of the hands of the warlords.
To do so, Gould turns to Nostromo, the top stevedore and the most trusted man in Sulaco. Nostromo is resourceful, daring, loyal and—above all—incorruptible. His illustrious reputation is his most prized possession. Says one character, "the only thing he seems to care to be well spoken of." Well, you can see the potential for a tragic flaw right there.  Even the most incorruptible are, ultimately, corruptible.  In spite of that he continues to enjoy a favorable opinion from most because they see him not as he is but how they believe that he is.  The differing views of Nostromo connect through his own inner strength that makes him ultimately the title character even though there are many more pages expended upon the plethora of other interesting characters in the novel; including, Charles Gould - owner of the mine, his wife Emilia, Martin Decoud, Dr. Monygham, Guzman Bento - a former dictator, and Ribiera - the current head of state.

The book's psychological depth and narrative structure, with its distorted timeline that travels backward and forward in time, were innovative for the era, marking this novel as one of the prime examples of a literary modernism that would within a couple of decades culminate in the works of Proust and Joyce. The huge array of characters and interactions have been compared by some to War and Peace. Irony abounds: the non-chronological plot line tips us off to consequences before we know what led up to them—and results in a sense of inexorable fate pulling characters to their ultimate destiny.
Ultimately the story hinges on the struggle between actions concerning the silver and love interests.  While Gould's marriage succumbs to his passionate interest in the silver mine an even more fascinating turn of events yields a love triangle between Nostromo and two sisters Linda and Giselle.  These events, along with many others, create an entertaining and intriguing novel. Told in Conrad's inimitable prose style this is one of his greatest achievements.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Front Porch Swing

The ChosenThe Chosen 
by Chaim Potok

"I cannot explain it. It do not understand it completely myself. But what I know of it, I dislike. It was practiced in Europe by some few Hasidic families." Then his voice went hard. "There are better ways to teach a child compassion." (p 266)

This was my introduction to the world of Jewish culture. I remember sitting on my Grandmother's front porch swing during August, 1968, mesmerized by this tale of friendship in a culture very different than my own. This novel, the first from the pen of Chaim Potok, is ostensibly about the friendship between two boys, Reuven and Danny, from the time when they are fourteen on opposing yeshiva ball clubs. But it is also a coming of age story and most of all a novel of ideas.
At one point David Malter tells his son:

"Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?" He paused again, his eyes misty now, then went on. "I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something.
He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here."

This search for meaning animates the entire story. Reb Saunders has found meaning in serving God and his followers, but the others seek meaning in reason rather than faith. David Malter has found meaning, and hopes to give the Holocaust itself some meaning, in his political work as a Zionist. Reuven, with the study of logic, and Danny, with the study of psychology, both think that they have found the things that will fill their lives with meaning. The story becomes a sort of gently didactic differentiation between two aspects of the Jewish faith, the Hasidic and the Orthodox. Primarily the Hasidic, the little known mystics with their beards, earlocks and stringently reclusive way of life. According to Reuven's father who is a Zionist, an activist, they are fanatics; according to Danny's, other Jews are apostates and Zionists "goyim." The schisms here are reflected through discussions, between fathers and sons, and through the separation imposed on the two boys for two years which still does not affect their lasting friendship or enduring hopes: Danny goes on to become a psychiatrist refusing his inherited position of "tzaddik"; Reuven a rabbi. 

For me the important aspect was their search, a search that I subsequently found in novels as disparate as The Moviegoer, The Plague, and The Magic Mountain; a search that made this novel memorable for me. That and my Grandmother's front porch swing.

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Friday, August 08, 2014

Soft Rains

The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale (Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems, Helen of Troy and Other Poems, Rivers to the Sea, Love Songs, and Flame and Sha

The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale 
by Sara Teasdale

“look for a lovely thing and you will find it, it is not far, it never will be far” 

“You will recognize your own path when you come upon it because you will suddenly have all the energy and imagination you will ever need.”   ― Sara Teasdale

There Will Come Soft Rains

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Sara Teasdale

Sara Teasdale was born on August 8th in 1884 in St. Louis Missouri. In her short life of only thirty-eight years she published several books of poetry. In 1918 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book of Love Songs. The war referred to in the fourth stanza is, of course, The Great War that was destroying much of Europe when Sara was writing this poem.  For such a short poem there are many literary devices used including imagery, alliteration, personification, and rhyme/rhythm.  Ultimately the message is one that nature is eternal while humanity is ephemeral.

The title of this poem was used by Ray Bradbury as the title for the penultimate short story that he gathered in his book, The Martian Chronicles.  I suggest that you read the book and the story and you will find out why he chose that title.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Literature and Contemporary Life

How Literature Saved My LifeHow Literature Saved My Life 
by David Shields

"My own failure of imagination? Sure, but as Virginia Woolf said in a passage that I reread dozens of times in the fall of 1991, “The test of a book (to a writer) is if it makes a space in which, quite naturally, you can say what you want to say. This proves that a book is alive: because it has not crushed anything I wanted to say, but allowed me to slip it in, without any compression or alteration.”"   - David Shields

David Shields is a contemporary essayist and fiction writer. His first novel, Dead Languages, is notable, as are his collections of essays. I chose to read this book with the expectation that the main focus would be on literature. I was frustrated with some aspects of the book in the early going, but ultimately found Shields personal views on literature and its ability to save (or perhaps not save) his life to be challenging and valuable. Throughout the book he turns quotation, memory, anecdotes and considerations of film, literature, love and death into a collage that enables introspection.

Shields is as concerned with methods of construction and questions of genre as with subject, and in doing so he meters out nuggets of revelation amid explications of both classical and popular subjects, from Prometheus to Spider-Man. He uses a circuitous approach that sometimes frustrated this reader and may do so for others. However, his apparent failure to articulate the ways in which "life and art have always been everything" to him often proved fascinating to contemplate.

David Shields stuttered throughout childhood, and initially regarded writing as an ideal outlet; now, in his mid-50s with more than fifteen books to his credit, he writes “to feel as if, to the degree anyone can know anyone else,” he has connected with his readers. He uses a frequently self-deprecating yet engaging tone, while employing the act of accrual in hopes of guarding against “human loneliness,” and in doing so, creates a type of personal, modern version of a commonplace book. For readers like myself, references to authors such as Ben Lerner, E.M. Cioran, Jonathan Safran Foer, Annie Dillard, Sarah Manguso and David Foster Wallace, among others, may be interesting or even appealing. He mixes references to books while interpolating quotes as voices intersecting on the page. For readers unlike myself who are creative-writing practitioners, how Shield fashions his own anxieties and persona into brief essays provides an alternative model for writing on self-hood, revealing the his struggle in oblique ways.

The book defies easy categorization (as have others of Shields’ works): It is both a paean to the power of language and a confrontation with the knowledge that literature can't, after all, fulfill deeper existential needs. It is a work of contradictions, subversion, depression, humor and singular awareness; Shields is at his best when culling the work of others to arrive at his own well-timed, often heartbreaking lines. His list of "Fifty-five works I swear by:" is one of the most fascinating and useful sections of the book (Part 6, pp140-156). I would recommend this book for those who hope that reading literature may save your life and have the persistence or potvaliance to persevere when the book veers into unknown territory. The author always brings it back to literature.

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Saturday, August 02, 2014

Complexities of Love and Desire

Twelfth NightTwelfth Night 
by William Shakespeare

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
Act 1, 1.1-15

Every major character in Twelfth Night experiences some form of desire or love. Duke Orsino is in love with Olivia. Viola falls in love with Orsino, while disguised as his pageboy, Cesario. Olivia falls in love with Cesario. This love triangle is only resolved when Olivia falls in love with Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, and, at the last minute, Orsino decides that he actually loves Viola. Twelfth Night derives much of its comic force by satirizing these lovers. In the lines that open the play (above), Shakespeare pokes fun at Orsino's flowery love poetry, making it clear that Orsino is more in love with being in love than with his supposed beloveds. At the same time, by showing the details of the intricate rules that govern how nobles engage in courtship, Shakespeare examines how characters play the "game" of love. Viola (as Cesario) has the following lines in Act 1, scene 5:
Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out 'Olivia!' O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me. (251-259)

Twelfth Night further mocks the main characters' romantic ideas about love through the escapades of the servants. Malvolio's idiotic behavior, which he believes will win Olivia's heart, serves to underline Orsino's own only-slightly-less silly romantic ideas. Meanwhile, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch, and Maria, are always cracking crass double entendres that make it clear that while the nobles may spout flowery poetry about romantic love, that love is at least partly motivated by desire and sex. Shakespeare further makes fun of romantic love by showing how the devotion that connects siblings (Viola and Sebastian) and servants to masters (Antonio to Sebastian and Maria to Olivia) actually prove more constant than any of the romantic bonds in the play.

But there is more than love and desire in this amazing comedy. At the opening when Viola is shipwrecked in Illyria she bemoans that she cannot join her lost twin brother Sebastian in Elysium. Illyria is not Elysium however it reminds those familiar with As You Like It of the Arcadian forest of Arden. In both plays the setting is otherworldly--a place apart from the rest of civilization.

There is also melancholy,  for several characters in Twelfth Night suffer from some version of love-melancholy. Orsino exhibits many symptoms of the disease (including lethargy, inactivity, and interest in music and poetry). Dressed up as Cesario, Viola describes herself as dying of melancholy, because she is unable to act on her love for Orsino. Olivia also describes Malvolio as melancholy and blames it on his narcissism. It is this melancholy that represents the painful side of love.

Perhaps more central to this play in particular are the themes of deception, disguise, and performance. With these themes Twelfth Night raises questions about the nature of gender and sexual identity. That Viola has disguised herself as a man, and that her disguise fools Olivia into falling in love with her, is genuinely funny. On a more serious note, however, Viola's transformation into Cesario, and Olivia's impossible love for him/her, also imply that, maybe, distinctions between male/female and heterosexual/homosexual are not as absolutely firm as you might think. When you recall that the players in Shakespeare's Globe were all men and boys these issues become both more humorous and serious at the same time. You may get a more vivid idea of this theme by viewing clips of the recent all-male production of Twelfth Night starring Mark Rylance.*

This play rivals As You Like It for the title of the best of Shakespeare's comedies. While I prefer the former,  there are complexities of love and desire mixed with questions of sexual identity that make this comedy a fine way to experience and enjoy Shakespeare.

*Available on YouTube.

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Friday, August 01, 2014

Traveling Shakespeare

Globe to Globe Hamlet
by William Shakespeare

"Now I am alone. O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here, 
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit 
That from her working all his visage wann'd, 
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect, 
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting 
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!" (2.2, 520-527)

Wednesday evening I attended a production of Hamlet presented at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  What made this production unique was its presentation by Shakespeare's Globe from London on their world tour celebrating the 450th birthday of Shakespeare.  It is a two-year long project that began last spring at Shakespeare's Globe in London and will conclude in April of 2016 in London to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.  

The evening was a delightful experience with the Globe company of fewer than twelve actors presenting a bare-bones "traveling" version of Hamlet.  It was fast-paced, which helps with Shakespeare's longest play, and it had a few more touches of humor than most productions of this play.  The company excelled at sharing many of the roles and seemed more comfortable with the setting at Chicago's Shakespeare Theater than might be expected for the third and final of only three performances they gave before moving on to their next destination.

Learning of his father’s death, Prince Hamlet comes home to find his uncle married to his mother and installed on the Danish throne. At night, the ghost of the old king demands that Hamlet avenge his ‘foul and most unnatural murder’.  The play, encompasses political intrigue and sexual obsession, philosophical reflection and violent action, tragic depth and in this production, wild humor.  The introduction and finale added some song and dance that fit the occasion.

Hamlet as Shakespeare’s ‘poem unlimited’ is a colossus in the story of the English language and the fullest expression of his genius.  This production realized this genius and demonstrated why people still are enthralled by the play after more than four centuries.