Sunday, December 28, 2014

In the Grip of Eros

by J.M. Coetzee

"She does not reply. She would rather hide her face, and he knows why. Because of the disgrace. Because of the shame. That is what their visitors have achieved; that is what they have done to this confident , modern young woman. Like a stain the story is spreading across the district." (p 115)

At the heart of this fine novel set in contemporary South Africa is a man who is self-destructive; a professor of English who cannot communicate and who must face not only the results of his own mistakes but the troubles of others and a world that he is unable to understand. J. M. Coetzee's ability to make this dark story readable is what makes this a great story. As the outset the professor, David Lurie, is medicating himself with weekly visits from a prostitute named Soraya but an incident occurs that ends that relationship.  Then we meet the professor in his school room teaching "Communications 101" to bored students whom he cannot reach:
"Silence again. The very air into which he speaks hangs listless as a sheet. A man looking at a mountain: why does it have to be so complicated, they want to complain? What answer can he give them?" (p 21)

But by this time he has begun to meet one of his students, Melanie, on the side. While she does not respond to Shakespeare she seems to respond to David's erotic advances until. Well this is where the story begins to explore the world of personal self-destruction, dramatic changes in David's life and ultimately, disgrace. If it ended there it would be well-written but not interesting, not challenging. David is let go by the University and he leaves for the countryside. But that will not be the end as we see when he is confronted by Melanie's father:
“‘Professor,’ he begins, laying heavy stress on the word, ‘you may be very educated and all that, but what you have done is not right…We put our children in the hands of you people because we think we can trust you. If we can’t trust the university, who can we trust?…No, Professor Lurie, you may be big and mighty and have all kinds of degrees, but if I was you I’d be very ashamed of myself, so help me God. If I’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick, now is your chance to say, but I don’t think so, I can see it from your face.’” And when Lurie finds the accusation beneath him and turns away, the girl’s father shouts, “‘You can’t just run away like that! You have not heard the last of it, I tell you!’” (p 38)

The challenges, for David, begin when he moves in with his daughter (from an earlier failed marriage) and finds out what fate really has in store for him. He tries to explain his mistake with the student to his daughter Lucy:
"I was a servant of Eros: that is what he wants to say, but does he have the effrontery? It was a god who acted through me. What vanity! Yet not a lie, not entirely."(p 89) He cannot take responsibility to himself or with others. His resulting actions seem out of sync with the world around him. His inability to understand himself fuels his inability to communicate with others.
It is with his daughter in the eastern Cape that we are introduced to Petrus, her black neighbor who is slowly taking advantage of the changed social order to lift himself from a “dog-man” to a substantial land holder. Lucy is nearly alone in her refusal to join the “white-flight” exodus out of such predominantly black areas; in the book’s most dramatic scene she is raped by three black men as her father is locked in a bathroom and set afire. How David and Lucy deal with this event defines the remainder of the story. You can see David's disgrace as a metaphor for the experience of whites in post-apartheid South Africa.

Disgrace is a gripping read, paced, shaped, and developed in a way that gives the narrative an immediacy. Through the embedding of recurring images, like that of fire, the novel slowly builds to an unbearable climax. This is one of the better novels of J. M. Coetzee that I have read; that is it is very good and worthy of the awards. In it he details a story of personal trials and integrates the culture of post-apartheid South Africa effectively into the story. I would have rated it slightly higher, but it is not a pleasant story to read. It is neither as affecting nor as imaginatively fashioned as Coetzee's other Booker winner, Life and Times of Michael K. The characters are so flatly presented that it is difficult to penetrate their mental worlds, yet the sparse prose is eminently readable. After rereading the novel and learning more about these characters I would include this in my list of favorite Coetzee novels.

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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Music and Poetry

Respighi, Britten & Christmas

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Long ago.

- Christina Rosetti

What better way to start Christmas day than listening to the music of Respighi and Benjamin Britten? Ottorino Respighi composed his Trittico botticelliano for small orchestra in 1927, inspired by three of Sandro Botticelli's paintings in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. 
Included in this suite is the L'adorazione dei Magi which represents musically the scene captured by Botticelli of the Magi or kings from the East presenting gifts to the new-born Jesus. Included in this beautiful music is the ancient Advent plainchant 'Veni, Veni, Emmanuel', better known today as the hymn 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Along with other evocative tunes including a section reminiscent of Handel's 'Pastoral Symphony' this music is good listening for the Christmas morning.

Benjamin Britten, whose operas I love, composed the choral showpiece A Boy Was Born in 1932-3, when he was only 19 and a student at the Royal College of Music in London. He revised the work in 1955 and it represents an early example of his achievements in the composition of choral works based on an anthology of texts. The music for this group of texts is written for an eight-part choir and an additional part for unison boys' voices. The effect is brilliant as he weaves the music through a theme and set of variations from Jesus' birth to a final Noel. My favorite part is a setting of the hymn by Christina Rosetti, 'In the Bleak Midwinter'.
While the weather outside my apartment is bleak on this Christmas morning the music inside warmed the both the rooms I live in and my soul within.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top Ten Books I Would Like to See under My Christmas Tree

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish.  The following are the top books I would welcome seeing under the tree on Christmas morning:

1.  THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH. By Richard Flanagan.  A frail humanity survives the unspeakable in this novel of the Burma-­Thailand Railway of World War II.  I still cannot forget reading his wonderful novel, Gould's Book of Fish.

2.  The Grove Centenary Editions of Samuel Beckett Boxed Set.  Need I say more?

3.  THE BONE CLOCKS. By David Mitchell.  In this latest head-­spinning flight into other dimensions from the author of “Cloud Atlas,” all borders between pubby England and the machinations of the undead begin to blur.  A great follow-up to Cloud Atlas which I loved. 

4.  A new edition of The Odyssey to read for the spring weekend retreat planned by the University of Chicago.

5.  COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE. By Haruki Murakami. Translated by Philip Gabriel.  A novel of a man’s traumatic entrance into adulthood and the shadowy passages he must then ­negotiate.  I'm overdue to read more Murakami.

6.  THE DOG. By Joseph O’Neill.  In O’Neill’s disturbing, elegant novel, his first since “Netherland,” a lost and tormented New York lawyer recognizes more darkness within himself than in the iniquitous place he works, Dubai.  Our book group enjoyed Netherland.

7.  NORA WEBSTER. By Colm Toibin.  In Toibin’s luminous, elliptical novel, set in the late 1960s and early ’70s, an Irishwoman struggles toward independence after her husband’s unexpected death.  Having read Brooklyn I expect more of his best.

8.  THE POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013. Selected by Glyn Maxwell.  Stroke by patient stroke, the poems in this largehearted and essential selection from Walcott, now 84, are the work of a painterly hand.  I admired Omeros several years ago and would like to delve further into Walcott's poetry.

9.  NAPOLEON: A Life. By Andrew Roberts.  Roberts brilliantly conveys the sheer energy of this military and organizational whirlwind.  This looks like a good way to explore his life.

10.  THE PARTHENON ENIGMA. By Joan Breton Connelly.  With first-rate scholarship, an archaeologist reinterprets the Parthenon frieze in this exciting and revelatory history.  This combines my interest in the classics with archaeology.  A sure winner.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

An Ordinary Death

The Death of Ivan Ilych And Other StoriesThe Death of Ivan Ilych 
by Leo Tolstoy

"Essentially, though, it was the same as with all people who are not exactly rich, but who want to resemble the rich, and for that reason only resemble each other . . . And in his case the resemblance was such that it was even impossible for it to attract attention;  but to him it all seemed something special."   - Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych

The Death of Ivan Ilych is notable for many things not the least being its focus on the life of Ivan Ilych; for, after introducing the narrative with the announcement of his death the story continues with his life up to and including his last days. This is the story of a very ordinary man, a Russian equivalent of an American John Smith, who is notable by his coworkers as being likable, but not so important that they do not make their first thoughts upon his death an intense discussion about how each might benefit from his passing -- whether through promotion or increase in salary.

A deceptively simple tale, it is admirable in its brevity, succinctness, and even ordinariness. Reading this short novel reminded me of some of the existentialist works that I have read and studied over the years (think of Camus' The Stranger or The Plague). 
Tolstoy's story is a meditation on the death of an every man, a bureaucrat whose life was anything but uncommon. Effortlessly, Tolstoy examines life’s shallow exteriors as well as its inner workings. And in the quotidian details of a life we see pageant of folly. After noting Ivan's rise to apparent success in chapter three, there begins a slow descent into illness and inevitably death. As death approaches there are signs ignored, reality deferred, and only slowly does wisdom emerge not like a dull moral lesson, but heavy, as if from a downpour, with all the weight, shine and freshness of real life. We see, vividly, Ivan Ilych’s errors until one day we realize that someone is looking at us as if we were a character in The Death of Ivan Ilych. This is a small book with a large impact on the reader. It is one that has not lost its power more than a century after its first appearance.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Top Ten Books I Read In 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish.  
The following are the top books I have read since January 1, 2014. They are in no particular order. I highly recommend all of the following:

  1. Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. This novel enthralled me with its chronicle of the lives of two working class Australian families who come to live together at One Cloud Street, in a suburb of Perth, Western Australia, over a period of twenty years, from the nineteen forties to the sixties

  1. Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. I recently reread this classic of Science Fiction that was first published sixty years ago. It gets better with every reading.

  1. Collected Poems of Robert Frost. Reading the poems of Robert Frost reminds me of both his stature as an American poet and his intelligence. Every line has depths of meaning that bear reading and study. Ultimately one of the poets I truly love.

  1. The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary. This prize-winning novel won me over with its passion and beauty. The striving for freedom of its main character and the descriptions of Africa were superb.

  1. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. In this play the unexpected becomes what you expect and the absurd becomes the norm ; the story shows characters search for meaning in the nothingness of their presumed existence. 

  1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. The quintessential novel of ideas with philosophical debates central to the message of the novel raising questions and speculations that mirror our own. The world of Hans Castorp, upon leaving the sanatorium, becomes a mirror for ours. 

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. One of my lifetime favorites that I reread for the first time in the new century. It never grows old as Bronte's tale of Jane Eyre seems to inhabit my being more closely than most others.

  1. The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato. This was 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.

  1. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. What would my reading life be without some Shakespeare? And this is one of his best comedies with questions of identity and more.

  1. Kabloona by Gontran de Poncins. This is an extraordinary adventure of an encounter with the Eskimos.. It is a true example of sui generis writing and it is unlikely that anything quite like it will be written again. 

Some very good books I read this year that came close but did not make the top ten included:  Executive Suite by Cameron Hawley;  Straight is the Gate by Andre Gide;  and, Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Epic of a Cairo Family

The Cairo Trilogy
by Naguib Mahfouz

On this day in 1911 the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was born.

"Voices were blended and intermingled in a tumultuous swirl around which eddied laughter, shouts, the squeaking of doors and windows, piano and accordion music, rollicking handclaps, a policeman's bark, braying, grunts, coughs of hashish addicts and screams of drunkards, anonymous calls for help, raps of a stick, and singing by individuals and groups."  --from PALACE OF DESIRE (1957)

It is hard to overemphasize the beauty and intelligence of this family saga. Of course it is much more than that, being also an historical epic about Cairo and Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century.  The first novel, Palace Walk, introduces the family of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad: his wife Amina, sons Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal, and daughters Khadija and Aisha. This family will be the center of all three novels as Mahfouz chronicles their experiences living within a Cairo neighborhood identified by the street, Palace Walk, home to the family. Prominent among the themes of the first novel is the freedom of the family (or lack of freedom) under the authoritarian rule of the father. Mahfouz slowly develops the relationships within the family and the novel builds upon events that epitomize the growth of each family member. Just as the middle son Fahmy excels in school he begins to seek freedom in the growth of nationalist fervor during the era of the Great War. Amina, who is present on the first page has the temerity to defy her husband and pays a price, yet demonstrates growth in stature within the family. Amina's life and personality is the lifeblood of the home life of the family, bracketed by the scenes of the coffee hour and Amina on the roof overlooking the city. As the first novel ends we find the family's peace and structure threatened portending more change in the novels that follow.

In my continuing traversal of this massive novel I find the pace of events quickening. The narrative, which started slowly as the author introduced Ahmad and his family, gradually picks up speed as the eldest son and daughters are married. The change seems to be a form of familial evolution as the members of the family interact. Just as slowly the world beyond the family's Cairo neighborhood begins to intrude into their lives with the growth of Egyptian nationalist fervor in response to the English protectorate. In addition, Mahfouz's philosophical background can be seen in both the descriptions ("a Platonic world. . ." in chapter five) and the narrative perspective. All of this impresses me as Mahfouz masterfully blends the psychological portraits of the individuals with the society that they encounter in their daily lives. The result is a type of suspense encountered only in the work of the best authors I have read. Mahfouz joins them.

The second novel of Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy is titled Palace of Desire. The family of Ahmad al-Jawad has expanded as the married daughters and son have children. Particularly touching and revelatory is a scene where Ahmad becomes the doting grandfather demonstrating a side of his character that we did not see in the first novel of the trilogy. We also see the permutations of love and desire on display as the family evolves through the maturation of the second generation. There is a particular focus on the development of Kamal, the youngest of the children, who has seen success in school and slowly leaves behind his youthful innocence as he develops into a thinker, a writer, and an admirer of the perfection of beauty as embodied in the young Aida Shaddad. His view of love is doomed to an unsuccessful search for perfection when the one he adores, Aida, rejects him and leaves Egypt with another. Kamal will eventually satisfy his bodily needs with girls from the brothel district while he lives an ascetic life of the philosophic writer and teacher. He also highlights one other theme of the novel with his popularization of western philosophy as Egyptian nationalism grows and the culture of Ahmad's family is buffeted by the new ideas. Perhaps the eldest son, Yasin, best represents the view of love as mere desire. Even in the first novel Yasin had demonstrated his inability to control his natural desire for women and this lack of control continues to complicate his life. Unlike his father, who could discreetly maintain his life with the singers of the night separately from his home life, Yasin blunders about, endangering both his home life and his career. Desire permeates this story even as the world of Ahmad, the father, slowly begins to lose the control that seemed to be his main characteristic as the trilogy began.

The novel Sugar Street ends Naguib Mahfouz's masterpiece bringing the story of Al-Sayyid Ahmad's family to a close. With the death of Al-Sayyid his wife Amina is all alone. In a moving chapter we hear her voice and see the world through her eyes as she feels more alone than ever before. The house and the coffee hour are no longer the same. But the focus has turned to the grandchildren, particularly Ahmad and al-Muni'm, sons of Khadija. Each is seeking new directions, mirroring the political and cultural changes in Egypt as World War II approaches. Kamal continues to pine for his ideal love, Aida, and almost finds it in her younger sister, Budur. His own indecision prevents him from making a commitment to her, turning away when she makes the slightest advance. Superficially his life resembles that of his nephew Ridwan, the beautiful son of his brother Yasin. Kamal meets his old friend Husayn Shaddad one final time, learning of the fate of Aida and the Shaddad family, but not with any sense of encouragement or satisfaction. As the novel ends family change occurs once again with the passing of Amina and the birth of Yasin's first grandchild. There is a hopeful sign as Yasin goes out with Kamal to buy clothes for the new baby.

Mahfouz's trilogy has epic sweep in its depiction of the changes to Cairo over the first half of the twentieth century mirrored in the growth and change of the Ahmad family. He presents ideas and demonstrates them with the actions and interactions of the characters as they love and learn and die. The outside world, first seen in the occupation of the British, grows throughout and looms ever larger as the final novel in the trilogy ends. Twentieth century ideologies are beginning to affect Egypt with the power seen elsewhere in the world and the portent is ominous. Yet with that Mahfouz leaves the reader with the possibility of hope and the encouragement that can only be found in a great literary achievement.

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz.  Published October 16th 2001 by Everyman's Library (first published 1957)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tale of an Outsider

The White TigerThe White Tiger 
by Aravind Adiga

“So I stood around that big square of books. Standing around books, even books in a foreign language, you feel a kind of electricity buzzing up toward you, Your Excellency. It just happens, the way you get erect around girls wearing tight jeans.
"Except here what happens is that your brain starts to hum.”   ― Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger

This first novel by Aravind Adiga reminded me of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. That is to say it is not your traditional Indian novel, but one that presents the hero as the outsider, a man who is both literally and figuratively underground and invisible.

The novel is narrated by Balram Halwai, "The White Tiger" who over seven nights shares his life story in the form of a letter to a Chinese official. In Balram the author has created an anti-hero who, with both charisma and charm, shares a very dark story about corruption, death and escape from the most extreme poverty into the wealth of successful entrepreneurship. The author uses the metaphors of light and dark to help us understand his traversal of a side of India seldom seen in most tales of that country. The theme of naming/identity also plays an important role as Balram takes on different names as he grows and changes from the simple munna to his eventual magisterial identity as "The White Tiger". The author has created a sort of modern journey, much as Ellison did where the hero overcomes his beginnings, and the corruption he finds everywhere, to create a new life for himself. It is, however, a new life that is strangely cut off from society so he remains an outsider to the end. The brilliant conception of the author impressed me as he presented believable characters, the realistic details about the best and worst of Indian society, and a clear depiction of the nature of the hero at the center of the story. There is black humor that is sometimes excruciatingly funny alongside true regret, and underlying it all hints of a fear (of the past) that cannot be completely eradicated. 

The author's voice is original and challenging as he takes you on a journey that, while seemingly straightforward, has many layers of meaning and leaves you with questions to ponder. One of these is why he is writing to a Chinese official; perhaps sixty years ago he would have been writing to a British official? Genuinely deserving of the Man Booker Prize of 2008, The White Tiger is both an engaging enjoyable read and a thought-provoking meditation on life.

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The Overlords

Childhood's EndChildhood's End 

by Arthur C. Clarke

“No utopia can ever give satisfaction to everyone, all the time. As their material conditions improve, men raise their sights and become discontented with power and possessions that once would have seemed beyond their wildest dreams. And even when the external world has granted all it can, there still remain the searchings of the mind and the longings of the heart.”  ― Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End

There are reasons why certain books are considered great. Arthur C. Clarke's novel, Childhood's End, exhibits several of them. It is a lucid account of the meeting of "aliens" from outer space with the residents of earth. In describing this encounter and the aftermath, Clarke created a scene, the image of huge spaceships hovering over major cities of Earth, that not only impresses the reader but that had remained as an image for subsequent science fiction. But this book should be considered great as a work of literature, from the structure to style to characterization there is an economy that allows for a tale spanning decades to be told in a couple hundred pages. Clarke focuses on the essentials of the story and lets the reader imagine the inessential details. He also provides contrasts in character and ideas while providing just the right amount of suspense to keep the reader turning the page.

Fundamentally this is a "novel of ideas" and that is what this reader took away from the book. It explores the wonder at the nature of the universe and the potential for man when encountering other residents of it.  The author makes this comment about man's relations to the stars.  Do you agree?

“In this single galaxy of ours there are eighty-seven thousand million suns. [...] In challenging it, you would be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the deserts of the world. [...] It is a bitter thought, but you must face it. The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for man.”   ― Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Story About Two Brothers

Once We Were Brothers

Once We Were Brothers 
by Ronald H. Balson

“Find a reason to turn your nose up at a culture, to denigrate a people because they are different, and it's not such a giant leap from ethnic subjugation to ethnic slaughter”   ― Ronald H. Balson, Once We Were Brothers

This novel is as exciting and interesting as historical fiction can be. With a very public opening confrontation between a retired Chicago holocaust victim and one of the most powerful philanthropists in the city, Once We Were Brothers provides a level of suspense that continues through to the last pages of the novel. The story of why the former Park District employee, Ben Solomon, engages in this confrontation leads back to Poland in 1929 and through Ben's experience of the holocaust during the War.  It is his fervent belief that his story is true that leads him to seek out an attorney, Catherine Lockhart, and her story in turn and her own discovery of why she needed to help Ben is as inspirational as Ben's own journey from Poland to Chicago.

The novel narrates Ben's journey through flashbacks to Ben's life in Zamosc Poland that begins when he was growing up in a family that had taken in a young German boy, Otto Piatek, who would become as close to Ben as any real brother could have been.  In between episodes of this story are interspersed events in current day Chicago, 2004, where we meet Catherine Lockhart and Liam Taggart, her friend, who assists in finding evidence to support Ben's claim that the wealthy philanthropist, Elliot Rosenzweig, is actually the former Nazi SS officer, Otto Piatek.  How these narratives come together and whether Ben is able to prove his claim provide for great reading.

This is not a typical story of the holocaust nor is it just about an old man identified as a former Nazi. It is much more and I would encourage anyone interested in what it means to be human and care about another human to read this novel. It is a fictional portrayal but it has aspects that impressed me as much as the best non-fiction I have read about the holocaust. In the end it was not the history that moved me as much as the character of Catherine and how she changed and grew to know herself in a way that made her a better person.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Top Ten New-To-Me Authors I Read In 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored by TheBroke and the Bookish.  
The following are the top works of fiction I have read in 2014 whose authors were new to me. Some of these will be included in my top ten reads for the whole year while there are other new authors that did not make this list. I highly recommend all of the following:

1.  Tim Winton:  This is an Australian author I have read most recently (last month) and his book, Cloudstreet, will be on my ten best list for the year.  It is a family saga  that is both a paean to working-class Australians and an unflinching examination of the human heart's capacity for sorrow, joy, and endless gradations in between.  

2.  Romain Gary:  I had wanted to read  The Roots of Heaven for several years and did so as part of as part of the Romain Gary Literature Month sponsored by Emma at Book Around the Corner.   This French author won  the Goncourt Prize for his novel about freedom and elephants in Africa.

3.  Cameron Hawley:  A  friend of mine recommended this author and I read  Executive Suite last spring.  It is a suspenseful and inspiring novel about business.  

4.  Nurrudin Farah:  His novel Maps was a book group selection that we all enjoyed.  It is a moving and historical story about growing up in Somalia during its difficult transition to independence.  The author is  a chronicler of modern Africa's sociopolitical turbulence and growth who has lived in exile from his native Somalia since 1974.

5.  Ernest Sabato:  His short novel The Tunnel  is An unforgettable psychological novel of obsessive love, It  was championed by Albert Camus, Thomas Mann, and Graham Greene upon its publication in 1948 and went on to become an international bestseller. 

6.  Thomas Landolfi:  In his short novel An Autumn Story  the dramatic action of the narrative provides complexities sufficient to make this one of the most competent novellas of its kind. That is a story of adventure, Eros, and mystery combined with a deeper sense of the spirit of the unknown. 

7.  Danilo Kis:   The Attic  is a novel written by candlelight and it is in the shadows that the world creeps into the life of young Orpheus. His real life is in his mind and it is as interesting and beautiful as any imagined world could ever be. 

8.  Marcel Theroux:    Strange Bodies  is an often enthralling and occasionally maddening novel that expands the reader’s sense of possibility even as it strains credulity. 

9.  Jean Patrick Manchette:    The Mad and the Bad, first published in 1972, is a taut crime thriller which opens as wealthy Parisian architect Michel Hartog springs Julie Ballanger from a New Age mental hospital and hires her to look after his nephew. 

10.  Nicholas Mosley:    Accident  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. 

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Running Haiku

Belmont Harbor 
in December

Running before dawn this morning I noticed the placid lake with boats no more.  They have migrated to higher ground making way for the ice to come.

 The harbor is clear
Boats and masts have disappeared
Soon ice will be here

 From "The Kingdom of Music",  2014
James Henderson

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Absurd Comedy with Delusions (at no extra charge)

by Blaise Cendrars

"Olympio is a large reddish, orang-outang. Whether he comes from Borneo or not, he's the most elegant creature aboard. It takes two Innovation trunks to hold his collection of suits and his under-finery. It is impossible to set foot on deck without immediately bumping into him." (p124)

Where do I begin? With the deranged doctor or the blue Indians? But how can I forget the orang-outang? We meet these characters in the second half of the book after reading about Moravagine escaping from a nightmarish boyhood and a strange castle in the earlier parts of the ersatz memoirs.

What we have with Moravagine (1926) by Blaise Cendrars is a novel that is difficult to summarize and, while written in the era of modern novels, seems almost post-modern in its organization. That is a structure I would compare with Nabokov's Pale Fire with its disparate sections of memoir, notes from the author, and other non-traditional bits of text, although the prose is nothing like Nabokov. Rather the prose is comparable to nightmarish narratives whether from Joris-Karl Huysmans or Franz Kafka.

The main narrative is in a picaresque style narrated by a young doctor who frees the mysterious Moravagine from an asylum where he’s been imprisoned for many years. “Moravagine” is an adopted name whose origin and meaning is never addressed, although a French reader would find a rather unavoidable pun on “death by vagina”. Moravagine himself is an otherwise unnamed member of the Hungarian royal family, a dwarfish intellectual psychopath with a bad leg who goes on the run with the doctor, first to pre-revolutionary Russia, then to the United States and South America.

The prose seems coherent only in the sense that your dreams (at least mine) seem rational until you realize that they are really absurd. The author may have been writing his narrative in reaction to his own experience of the senselessness of the Great War where he lost his right arm. He spent about a decade from 1917 to 1926 writing this novel and Cendrars himself appears as a character in the later chapters; he has his narrator lose a leg while Moravagine loses his reason altogether. At the end of the book he’s found imprisoned in another asylum where he believes he’s an inhabitant of the planet Mars, and where he spends his last months writing a huge, apocalyptic account of how the world will be in the year 2013.

This is a short novel that is in turns comedic and absurd, not necessarily all at the same time. If you enjoy experimentation in the books that you read you will like Cendrars memorable reflections on the meaninglessness of (fictional) existence.

Cover art is here

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Three Nineteenth-Century Favorites

Three giants of nineteenth-century British fiction were published on December 1st: 
Great Expectations (serialization began Dec. 1, 1860), Middlemarch (the first volume published Dec. 1, 1871), and Tess of the d'Urbervilles (serialization began Dec. 1, 1891). They are all among my favorites.

Great Expectations
by Charles Dickens

“Now lookee here,” he said, “the question being whether you’re to be let to live. You know what a file is?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And you know what wittles is?”
“Yes, sir.”
After each question he tilted me over a little more, so as to give me a greater sense of helplessness and danger.
“You get me a file.” He tilted me again. “And you get me wittles.” He tilted me again. “You bring ’em both to me.” He tilted me again. “Or I'll have your heart and liver out.”   ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

His name is Pip and this is his story. Starting with the convict in the marsh we are swept away into the world of Pip with all of his friends, acquaintances and antagonists. The story is one of "the universal struggle", we are told, and this will be a motif for Pip's story. The first people Pip introduces are all dead, except his sister Mrs. Joe Gargery. He is in a churchyard and his family, father, mother Georgiana, and "five little brothers" are all buried there. The mood is set early with the sudden appearance of a convict who interrogates and terrorizes Pip. As the first chapter ends Pip is running home, running under a sky that "was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed", with the shadow of a gibbet in the distance.

What a beginning! This is the penultimate (complete) novel from Dicken's pen and it demonstrates all the skills that he had developed over his career. We gradually meet Mrs. Joe and Joe Gargery, Mr. Pumblechook and Mr. Wopsle; but it is a visit to an old mansion to provide companionship to a young girl that is the one of the first turning points in this story. 

Miss Havisham, the bride who is frozen in time as she slowly ages with yellowing and gray, and the young girl Estella with whom Pip almost immediately is smitten. Poor Pip, so innocent one day and the next, the sad inheritor of the knowledge that he is a poor boy with "rough" hands who does not know the proper way to play and socialize. This realization begins to stir in Pip the yearning to leave this small village and his friend Joe and take up a better life, or what he believes would be a better life. It is not long after that he is provided the opportunity as the lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, presents him with "great expectations" from a mysterious unnamed person.
Work on Great Expectations commenced in late September of 1860 at what proved to be a peak of emotional intensity for its author. Two years before, Dickens had separated from Catherine, his wife of twenty-two years, and several weeks prior to the beginning of this novel, Dickens had burned all his papers and correspondence of the past twenty years at his Gad's Hill estate. This action, in retrospect, can be viewed as a sort of spiritual purge—an attempt to break decisively from the past in order (paradoxically) to fully embrace it, as he does so resonantly in this work.

I participated in a book group discussion of this novel which demonstrated its popularity with all of the attendees showing more passion than typical for the group. Perhaps this is because everyone, myself included , seems to like this story, and in spite of his faults, the protagonist Pip. Perhaps this was because Dickens demonstrated a mastery of his novel-writing craft and, as he demonstrated in Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities, he has restrained the prolixity of his prose and yet not failed to deliver vivid descriptions and dramatic scenes. There are moments as moving as any of Dickens, for example when Joe Gargery says goodbye to Pip in London as he returns to his home and the forge. Joe, who is portrayed as the "natural man", is naturally good as the village blacksmith and somehow his Edenic life is believable. Considered by many critics to be Charles Dickens's most psychologically acute self-portrait, Great Expectations is without a doubt one of Dickens's most fully-realized literary creations.

by George Eliot

“To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely-ordered variety on the chords of emotion--a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge.”   ― George Eliot, Middlemarch

George Eliot’s Middlemarch began publication on December 1, 1871 — the first volume of eight issued, the other volumes appearing at regular intervals over the following year. Eliot's "Study of Provincial Life" was immediately popular, on both sides of the Atlantic.  It is among my favorite novels ever since I first read it more than thirty years ago.  I have reread it several times since then and my enjoyment has always increased.  I find the intelligence of Eliot shines through on every page, from her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, to the epigraphs for each chapter.  
Dorothea is introduced in Chapter One as a beauty in a plain dress, the dress the product of "well-bred economy," of knowing "frippery as the ambition of a huckster's daughter," and of her aspirations for some higher perspective:
She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in gimp and artificial protrusions of drapery. Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there; she was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it. Certainly such elements in the character of a marriageable girl tended to interfere with her lot, and hinder it from being decided according to custom, by good looks, vanity, and merely canine affection.

Perhaps my enjoyment of the novel is because, as Virginia Woolf famously commented:  "Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people."  It certainly is that and much more.  It is a "A Study of Provincial Life," pursued by Eliot with a very broad canvas that includes multiple plots with a large cast of characters, and in addition to its distinct though interlocking narratives it pursues a number of underlying themes, including the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. The pace is leisurely, the tone is mildly didactic in the best way possible from the perspective of this reader.  Another earlier reader, Emily Dickinson, offered biblical praise as can be seen in the following excerpt from an 1873 letter:
""What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?" What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this "mortal has already put on immortality." George Eliot is one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the "mysteries of redemption," for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite…."

Tess of the D'Urbervilles 
by Thomas Hardy

“A strong woman who recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.”  ― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Tess starts out as an emblem of innocence, a pretty country girl who delights in dancing on the village green. Yet the world conspires against her. Her travails begin when her family is in need and decides to seek help from relatives by the name of d’Urberville. They send Tess to ask them for help. Seduced by a duplicitous older man, her virtue is destroyed when she bears his child and her future life is shaped by a continual suffering for crimes that are not her own.

Cast out by a morally hypocritical society, Tess identifies most strongly with the natural world and it is here that Hardy's textual lyricism comes into its own. His heroine's physical attributes are described with organic metaphors - her arm, covered in curds from the milking, is 'as cold and damp ... as a new-gathered mushroom'. At the height of Tess's love affair with the parson's son, Angel Clare, Hardy describes a summer of 'oozing fatness and warm ferments'. When she is separated from him, Tess is depicted digging out swedes in a rain-drenched, colourless field, working until 'the leaden light diminishes'. Tess’ baby symbolizes Tess’ bad circumstances and innocence in the sense since this baby was innocent having done nothing wrong, but it was punished by society for coming from such an evil act. Having been raped, Tess was also innocent of the crime, but she was still punished and pushed aside by society. 

This book deals with the oppression of an innocent girl. Most of the consequences she faced were not consequences of her own actions which makes this story somewhat of a tragedy in that sense giving the book a mood that you can try to make for yourself a good life, but you do not determine your own outcome. 
Hardy uses a lot of imagery and describes the scenery in great detail. While each individual sentence may not be difficult to understand, it is the way the various sentences fit together to form a whole picture which separates him from other authors. His evocative descriptions are underpinned by a gripping story of love, loss and tragedy. According to Hardy's biographer, Claire Tomalin, the book 'glows with the intensity of his imagination'. It is this that remains the key to its lasting power.