Saturday, March 28, 2015

Modern Fables

Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems IllustratedFables for Our Time 
and Famous Poems Illustrated 
by James Thurber

"Moral: It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers." 
from "The Scotty Who Knew Too Much"  - James Thurber

I was originally introduced to the writing of James Thurber when I found The Thurber Carnival collection in our library at home. This was when I was old enough to read but long enough ago that I do not remember the exact date. At a later point in my education I read some of the more famous fables in High School English class.

This collection brings together the fables and some of the poems for which Thurber provided illustrations. The fables include both the better-known ones like "The Unicorn in the Garden" and "The Little Girl and the Wolf", and some less well known tales that include "The Mouse Who Went to the Country", "The Lion Who Wanted to Zoom", and "The Moth and the Star". Each fable has a moral that is often some practical bit of wisdom.

The poems are such that you might want to memorize like Longfellow's "Excelsior" and "Oh When I was . . ." by A. E. Housman from his collection "A Shropshire Lad". This small gem of a book is a delight to read and reread from time to time to lighten your day.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Road Trip with Three Voices

Talking to Ourselves: A NovelTalking to Ourselves: A Novel 
by Andrés Neuman

"'Writing about illness,' I underlined last night in an essay by Roberto Bolano, 'especially if one is seriously ill oneself, can be an ordeal.  But it is also a liberating act,'  I hope this applies to us caregivers too, 'exercising the tyranny of illness,' this is something we never talk about," (p 81)

I was impressed with the mastery the author had over the voices of the three characters who tell the story in this small but profound novel. As the title suggests, the story is told by each of the characters in turn through a narrative of what they are telling themselves. This is accomplished through successive chapters devoted to each of the characters.

The father, Mario is dying of cancer. His decision to share a last few meaningful days with his 10-year-son Lito, results in a road trip in his brother’s truck. His wife Elena remains at home, seeking solace in books. Elena keeps a journal of her life, Mario records his thoughts on a series of tapes to leave for his son, and the son Lito, unaware of his father’s true illness, recounts the road trip in glorious detail. Lito’s humorous observations sounded very true to me with references to video games and dreams of riding in convertibles. They demonstrate the skill of the author as he lightens the darker material and provides a vivid sense of a 10-year-old’s voice and preoccupations.
In an attempt to make sense of her husband's impending death and her own turbulent emotions, Elena devours books and notes quotations from the authors she reads. These include John Banville, Roberto Bolaño, Javíer Marias and Virginia Woolf. In On Being Ill, Woolf declares “let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry”. Woolf’s question, why “illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature,” is just as relevant today.
After entering an intense sexual relationship with her husband’s doctor, Elena experiences shame and guilt but cannot stop herself. As Neuman suggests, grief has its own, often impenetrable, logic. When Mario is finally hospitalized Elena remarks “[p]ity has its own way of destroying”. She contemplates the horror of having lost all desire for Mario, feeling disgust, and yet still loving him: “He has shadows under his eyes, drawn features, no belly. There is a paleness about him that doesn't seem to come from a lack of sunshine, but from somewhere deeper. A sort of white glow beneath the skin. There, between his ribs.”

The multitude of emotions experienced on the death of a loved one are difficult if not impossible to describe. The right words seldom come to you and the result is a form of emotional isolation. The feelings consume you suddenly--on a moments notice.
I was drawn to this novel by Andrés Neuman because I enjoyed his previous award-winning Traveller of the Century. Talking to Ourselves, while a miniature by comparison, is articulate and profound, providing a meditation on illness, death and bereavement. It suggests ways that one may use literature to confront and understand mortality. As a reader I enjoyed it as much as his first novel and look forward to more from his pen.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Characters and Ideas

by Milan Kundera

"Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?  Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear?  Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of fold song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars?" (p 3)

What has become of "slowness" in a world that is growing smaller and moving ever faster? In this short novel Milan Kundera ties slowness to the act of remembering, and speed to the act of forgetting. When one wants to savor, remember, or prolong a moment, one moves and acts slowly. On the other hand, one travels fast in order to forget a past experience. For example, after Vincent's disastrous night at the chateau, he gets on his motorcycle and drives home as fast as he can in order to leave behind the site of his failed romantic endeavor.
Kundera shows the contrast between older and newer ways of thinking and feeling--specifically with the now devalued ideal of hedonism in a culture whose embrace of "speed" as the measure of all things denies us the possibility of having experiences at leisure and recollecting them in tranquility (or, as his unnamed narrator complains, ``Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?'').

The novel is also a meditation on the effects of modernity upon the individual's perception of the world. It is told through a number of plot lines that slowly weave together until they are all united at the end of the book. The narrator visits a chateau on vacation and tells a story that seems to be a combination of fiction and fact. A Chevalier from eighteenth-century France visits the chateau and experiences a night of carefully orchestrated sensual pleasure with its owner, Madame de T. The narrator's friend Vincent visits the hotel and pursues a romance with a girl met in a bar. Berck, a "dancer", meets a woman who once scorned him at the same conference and shows his emptiness to her. Immaculata, the woman who scorned Berck, must deal with her disappointment at learning Berck's apparent perfection is actually a facade.

The story develops as the different perspectives of these characters portrays the impact on the world of modernity, memory and sensuality. Gradually all of the stories come together in a single location and the characters interact, showing how the ideals they represent interact in the world. For example. the modern is connected to the past by having Vincent meet the Chevalier as they both depart. The ideas of sensuality and pleasure have changed as technology provides humanity with tools that speed us to our destination and demand our attention. There is also the suggestion that speed creates vulgarity, as suggested by the parallel seductions held at the chateau. Vincent's seduction of Julie is misguided and ultimately fails. Madame de T's seduction of the Chevalier is deliberate and provides them with a night of pleasure. Speed is associated with failure and the result is that serious consideration requires slowness; speed encourages rash decisions and ultimately failure.
Ideas abound in this Kunderian probe into characters' minds as seen when the concept of the dancer early in the book. The dancer, defined in the story, is a person who constantly seeks the infinite and invisible audience that modern media offers. This fame has a dramatic effect on the life of the dancer and upon people who seek him out.

This novel is typical Kundera in a story where characters and ideas merge inventive and amusing ways, especially with a delicious sensitivity to the convolutions of contemporary self-consciousness. As an aficionado of novels of ideas I appreciate this approach. It is best portrayed in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Slowness may be seen as a postscript or an introduction to the thoughtful world of Milan Kundera.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Growing Up With Books

An Open Book: Coming of Age in the HeartlandAn Open Book: Coming of Age 
in the Heartland 
by Michael Dirda

"Mine, it now seems, may be the last generation to value the traditional bound book as the engine of education, culture, and personal advancement. . . what follows may often appear a kind of memorial, a monument to a time of softly turned pages, when the young entered libraries hungry for books to devour rather than information to download,"  -  Michael Dirda, An Open Book, p 14.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World who has written several books in addition to this one;  a great book and a challenge to readers based on his memories of his reading life.  It is not only an interesting read but also a source for books to read and reread.  Dirda shares the typical stories of how friends and family shaped his life;  and he shares the impact of his reading. This is what I enjoyed the most. When he describes his encounter with Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo as a boy I remembered the same experience that I had discovering that great adventure story. By the time he arrived at Oberlin College he was a veteran reader. Again I could identify with his love affair with the college library. In my own case it was the Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin, where I would get lost in the stacks and find myself reading for hours. The only downside of this passion was that often the book I was reading was not required for my current courses. Somehow I still graduated with honors. Michael Dirda's adventures with books continually brought back fond memories of different yet not too dissimilar personal experiences.

His reading was both wide and deep. He did not discriminate among books with the Green Lantern and Tarzan just as welcome as Raskolnikov and Hamlet.  The result is a book that is not only challenging, but also inspirational. One among many positive aspects of this memoir is a listing of books he read in his teen years -- I'm always looking for suggestions for reading even as my own to-read list already seems to be overflowing. Whatever your personal experience, and it's likely that it differs from both mine and Dirda's in the details, I am sure that you will find this memoir a delight and one more reason to read the work of Michael Dirda, one of my favorite literary commentators.

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Monday, March 09, 2015

Great Works and Great Minds: Great Discourses

Thoughts of a Student 

As a longtime student in the Basic Program of Liberal Education and a frequent participant in Great Books discussions I was both interested and excited at the news of a new approach to discussing and analyzing the works of great minds.  It is with this in my mind that I welcome the Great Discourses as an on-line approach to providing a venue for the discussion of seminal works of the mind. 

My personal experience as a student of the Great Books has provided benefits beyond my original expectations with both practical and theoretical applications in my life;  more importantly, it allowed me to explore and examine what it means to be a human being and a citizen.  The examined life experienced through discussions of these works is enhanced by the contributions of diverse experiences and the unique perceptions of other participants in discussions.  

Further, the discussions are enlivened through the direction and encouragement of discussion leaders such as those offered by the Great Discourses.  I share this opinion based on personal experience with several of those involved with whom I have had the good fortune to participate as a student in Great Books discussions.  The contributions of these and other students inquiring and sharing observations on the readings have enriched my own life. 

How else could you describe the enjoyment of discourse with fellow students inquiring into the thoughts from great works of the ages as anything but fun?  I would consider it a form of happiness--one that may not be obtained anywhere else.  For all of the above and for the expectation of further growth through sharing in thoughts from the Great Books, I heartily recommend the Great Discourses to all interested in participating in life-long learning on-line.

Apropos of this I share these thoughts of Socrates from Plato's Meno:

"I do not insist that my argument is right in all other respects, but I would contend at all costs both in word and deed as far as I could that we will be better humans, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must not look for it."

Sunday, March 08, 2015

A Man and Nature

Hadji MuratHadji Murat 
by Leo Tolstoy

“What energy!' I thought. 'Man has conquered everything, and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won't submit.”   ― Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murat

Hadji Murat is a remembered story: "an old story from the Caucasus, part of which I saw, part of which I heard from witnesses, and part of which I imagined to myself." The story depicts the life of soldiers, of nobility, of family life, of the politics of war and the larger-than-life character of Hadji Murat.

Hadji Murat was a real Chechen leader and Tolstoy probably first heard of him while he was serving in the Caucasus, based on his own letters home to his brother. Although it is historical the story reads like a myth in spite of its realism. The primary theme is Murat's struggle to resist his enemies while remaining faithful to himself and his family. But there are many other ideas that can be found in the novel, such as determinism, the struggle between a Christian Russia and Muslim Chechnya, and the classic West versus East theme.
The story is told in short chapters or vignettes that ultimately introduce dozens of characters from all levels of Russian and Chechen society.  The first two pages of the story are like an overture that depicts the discovery of a thistle bloom in the field that will not "submit" and that reminds the narrator of his memory of the hero, Hadji Murat.  The story as remembered begins with Murat and two of his followers fleeing from Shamil, the commander of the Caucasian separatists, who is at war with the Russians. They find refuge at the house of Sado, a loyal supporter of Murat. However, the local people learn of his presence and chase him out of the village.

Murat decides to make contact with the Russians and sends his aide to them eliciting a promise to meet Murat. Arriving at the fortress of Vozdvizhenskaya, he joins the Russian forces, in hopes of drawing their support in order to overthrow Shamil and save his family. Before his arrival, a small skirmish occurs with some Chechens outside the fortress, and Petrukha Avdeyev, a young Russian soldier bleeds out in a local military hospital after being shot. There is a chapter-length aside about the childless Petrukha who volunteered as a conscript in place of his brother who had a family of his own. Petrukha's father regrets this because he was a dutiful worker compared to his complacent brother.

While at Vozdvizhenskaya, Murat befriends Prince Semyon Vorontsov, his wife Maria and his son, and wins over the good will of the soldiers stationed there. They are at once in awe of his physique and reputation, and enjoy his company and find him honest and upright. The Vorontsovs give him a present of a watch which fascinates him.
On the fifth day of Murat's stay, the governor-general's adjutant, Mikhail Loris-Melikov arrives with orders to write down Murat's story, and through this some of his history is told. He was born in the village of Tselmes and early on became close to the local khans due to his mother being the royal family's wet nurse. When he was fifteen some followers of Muridism came into his village calling for a holy war (ghazavat) against Russia. Murat declines at first but after a learned man is sent to explain how it will be run, he tentatively agrees. However, in their first confrontation, Shamil—then a lieutenant for the Muslims hostile to the Russians—embarrasses Murat when he goes to speak with the leader Gamzat. Gamzat eventually launches an attack on the capital of Khunzakh and kills the pro-Russian khans, taking control of this part of Dagestan. The slaughter of the khans throws Hadji and his brother against Gamzat, and they eventually succeed in tricking and killing him, causing his followers to flee. Unfortunately, Murat's brother is killed in the attempt and Shamil replaces Gazmat as leader. He calls on Murat to join his struggle, but Murat refuses because the blood of his brother and the khans are on Shamil.

Once Murat has joined the Russians, who are aware of his position and bargaining ability, they find him the perfect tool for getting to Shamil. However, Vorontsov's plans are ruined by the War Minister, Chernyshov. A rival prince who is jealous of him, and Murat has to remain in the fortress because the Tsar is told he is possibly a spy. The story digresses into a depiction of the Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, which reveals his lethargic and bitter nature and his egotistical complacency, as well as his contempt towards women, his brother-in-law, Frederick William IV of Prussia, and Russian students.
The Tsar orders an attack on the Chechens and Murat's remains in the fortress. Meanwhile, Murat's mother, wife and eldest son Yusuf, whom Shamil hold captive, are moved to a more defensible location. Realizing his position (neither trusted by the Russians to lead an army against Shamil, nor able to return to Shamil because he will be killed), Hadji Murat decides to flee the fortress to gather men to save his family.

At this point the narrative jumps forward in time, to the arrival of a group of soldiers at the fortress bearing Murat's severed head. While Maria Dimitriyevna—the companion of one of the officers and a friend of Murat—comments on the cruelty of men during times of war calling them 'butchers', the soldiers then tell the story of Murat's death. The nightingales, which stopped singing during the battle, begin again and the narrator ends by recalling the thistle that had been the catalyst for his original remembrance of Hadji Murat.

The story is filled with realistic details that bring the family of Murat and his comrades to life. His original decision to go over to the Russian side, while understandable, ultimately puts Murat in an untenable position. A scene between his son and Shamil, who his holding him captive, is both poignant and terrifying when Shamil tells the boy that he will slice off his head. The two cultures seem to be both very different yet similar. For example, the Tsar demonstrates condescension and enmity for his peers but this is also true of Shamil. The literary style of Tolstoy where every detail is important and the structure is held together by the mystical union of man and nature makes this short novel a major masterpiece.

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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Satire and Music

Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories
The Blood of the Volsungs

by Thomas Mann

Music and Literature, Part Two

Among the several stories included in this volume The Blood of the Volsungs is one that stands out in its differences and its use of music as a foundation.

This little drama begins at the dining-room table where both the theme of generational conflict between the parents and children of the Aarenhold family and 'racial' conflict between the family and an outsider, a government bureaucrat named Beckerath who is engaged to Sieglinde, the elder of two daughters in the family. In this story music is intertwined with the plot beginning with the twin brother, Siegmund, who with his sister mirror the siblings in Act One of Wagner's opera Die Valkyrie. But the musical influence goes beyond this as when, for example, one of the children taps out Hunding's motif (Sieglinde's husband from Valkyrie) when Beckerath appears for lunch; through the musical interlude at the opera which the siblings attend;   and the ensuing incestuous behavior of the same upon returning home.

These themes are played out over a single day in the life of this family. We see the children, turning away from the valetudinarianism of their father and mother, focusing on their own interests. These interests do not include the sort of hard work that Beckerath represented and they looked down on him as well. And from his perspective "they contradicted everything--as though they found it impossible, discreditable, lamentable, not to contradict."
The importance of race is most intense for Siegmund whom is presented as contemplating his racial characteristics as he prepares for the evening with Sieglinde. But also he is depicted as completely lacking in any interest in creating anything with his life; instead he is consumed with a passion for maintaining his toilette, for preparing himself for the day, as the day passes away quickly with no actual happenings. This was no surprise to the family for they exhibited a "lack of expectations" that conspired to rob him of any "actuality".

This may sound like a strange story. Perhaps it is, but Mann succeeds in presenting high tragedy in the form of melodrama. His satire seems well-suited to critique the superficial nature of the bourgeoisie at the end of the nineteenth century (Mann wrote the story in 1905). The strength of the story comes in great part from the high art of the operatic drama that underlies it. It may be that Mann in an indirect way was indicating how powerful Wagner's genius really could be.

 Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories by Thomas Mann.  Vintage Books, 1989.