Sunday, February 28, 2016

Corrupt Evangelist

Elmer GantryElmer Gantry 
by Sinclair Lewis

"Oh, he gave me special instructions back of the pulpit Christmas Eve. He got to howlin' "Repent! Repent!" and I got to moanin' "Save me! Save me!" and the first thing I know he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man's footsteps!" 

Elmer Gantry, the traveling evangelist who loved whiskey, women and wealth, was written by Sinclair Lewis in 1927. Lewis would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Gantry went on to become a synonym for hypocrisy and showmanship. Displays of these traits will often evoke his name, especially in reference to preachers. Lewis delighted in exposing hypocrisy and pomposity. His landscape was America in the 1920s, often the Midwest. It was a time when the Jazz Age and Prohibition were both in full swing, the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee highlighted a rise in fundamentalism, and traveling evangelists were popular.

During my Sinclair Lewis reading phase many years ago I found Arrowsmith, while providing an interesting picture of some of the quandaries in the medical profession, was not as appealing to me as Elmer Gantry. The latter novel drew me into the arena of fanatically religiosity and hypocrisy just as Main Street had done with the cultural life of small town America. The novel is an unabashed, unashamed, and unforgiving look at a man whose actions contradict everything he says--the epitome of a hypocrite. Elmer Gantry is perhaps one of the finest examples of a "larger than life" character, certainly exceeding Arrowsmith, Babbit and the genteel Carol Kennicott in that aspect. Gantry is a charming womanizer with a great voice who has been been kicked out of seminary and works as a traveling salesman. Gantry gets religion at a tent meeting in a small town, where he falls for Sister Sharon Falconer. She's suspicious, but agrees to take him on when he vows to testify as a "salesman who found God." The trouble down the novel's road awaits simply because Gantry never had a genuine call to the pulpit.

The book was banned in Boston, and other cities, for its depiction of the morally corrupt evangelist, Elmer Gantry. Several years later, it was even banned in Ireland. The opening and closing lines of the novel say it all: "Elmer Gantry was drunk... And we shall yet make these United States a moral nation." The success of the novel can be seen in that the name has become part of our language.

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Imaginary Libraries

Libraries of imaginary books delight us because they allow thus the pleasure of creation without the effort of research and writing.  But they are also doubly disturbing--first because they cannot be collected, and secondly because they cannot be read.  Theses promising treasures must remain closed to all readers.  Every one of them can claim the title Kipling gives to the never-to-be-written tale of the young bank clerk Charlie Mears, "The Finest Story in the World."  And yet  the hunt for such imaginary books, though necessarily fruitless, remains compelling.  What devotee of horror stories has not dreamt of coming upon a copy of the Necronomicon, the demonic manual invented by H. P. Lovecraft in his dark Cthulhu saga?  According to Lovecraft, the Al Azif (to give it its original title) was written by Abdul Alhazred  c. 730 in Damascus.  In 950 it was translated into Greek under the title Necronomicon by Theodorus Philetas, bu the sole copy was burnt by the Patriarch Michael in 1050.  In 1228 Olaus translated the original (now lost) into Latin.  A copy of the work is supposed kept in the library of Miskatonic University in Arkham, "one well known for certain forbidden manuscripts and books gradually accumulated over a period of centuries and begun in colonial times."

Not all imaginary libraries contain imaginary books.  The library that the barber and the priest condemn to the flames in the first part of Don Quixote;  Mr. Casaubon's scholarly library in George Eliot's Middlemarch;  Des Esseintes's languorous library in Huysman's A Rebours;  the murderous monastic library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose . . .  all these are merely wishful.  Given money enough and time, such dream libraries could find a solid reality.  

from The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, pp 283-84.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Amalgam of Characters

Earthly PowersEarthly Powers 
by Anthony Burgess

"It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of John Anthony Burgess Wilson, who published under the pen name Anthony Burgess.  He was an English writer and composer who, from relatively modest beginnings,  became one of the best known English literary figures of the latter half of the twentieth century.  Although Burgess was predominantly a comic writer, his dystopian satire A Clockwork Orange remains his best known novel.  In 1971 it was adapted into a highly controversial film by Stanley Kubrick, which Burgess said was chiefly responsible for the popularity of the book. Burgess produced numerous other novels, including the Enderby quartet, and Earthly Powers, regarded by most critics as his greatest novel. He wrote librettos and screenplays, worked as a literary critic, and wrote studies of classic writers, notably James Joyce. A versatile linguist, Burgess lectured in phonetics, and translated Cyrano de Bergerac, Oedipus the King, and the opera Carmen, among others.

Burgess also composed over 250 musical works; he sometimes claimed to consider himself as much a composer as an author, although he enjoyed considerably more success in writing.  The following are some of my thoughts about Earthly Powers.

Earthly Powers is the linchpin of Anthony Burgess' novel-writing career. It is a massive work that compares favorably with similar tomes of twentieth century literature. What sets Burgess apart from other authors is his linguistic playfulness combined with an exceptional narrative style. Although this style is here somewhat less obviously experimental than that of Burgess’s other novels of this period, his use of a professional story teller as a first-person narrator allows him to call into the question the nature of authority in fictional texts. The narrative becomes a retrospective account of a life spent as an outsider. Within that account, Burgess locates his protagonist,Toomey, at some key moments of twentieth century history in order, it seems, to comment on those issues which consistently surface in all of Burgess’s fiction, particularly the nature of evil and its presence in the physical world. 

The novel attempts to address issues of belief, and the role of religion in late twentieth century culture, using a broad cast of characters, fictional and real; it is not, however, a roman à clef. Though often mentioned in reviews of this novel, the identification of Toomey with Somerset Maugham fails to recognise that Toomey is a portmanteau of many characters. He contains hints of Maugham, certainly, but there are suggestions of, to name a few, Alec Waugh in the precocious young novelist; of P. G. Wodehouse in the broadcaster from Berlin; of W. H. Auden in the rescuer of a Nobel laureate’s offspring; and of Burgess himself, the author of a real Blooms of Dublin. Burgess ability to meld this amalgam of characters into his protagonist reminds me of another favorite novel, The New Confessions by William Boyd, in which the author uses a similar technique to create a tremendously exciting and interesting protagonist. Throughout the novel, the emphasis is on the debate about the nature of evil rather than on the accuracy or otherwise of the references to twentieth century figures. The novel examines at length the nature of belief, the way in which people cope with an imperfect world, and the operation of evil and suffering. In doing so it succeeds in presenting a distinctive and compelling view of the twentieth century through the life of Toomey. It is both a challenging and rewarding read that I would recommend to all.

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Monday, February 22, 2016

Adrift in the City

The Lonely LondonersThe Lonely Londoners 
by Sam Selvon

"But Galahad feel like a king living in London." (p 85)

The immigrant experience was never so well told as it is in this short novel. Furthermore the ability of the author to demonstrate that experience through his prose was so successful that I was reminded why I love reading. Set in London in the early nineteen fifties it provides an entry into a world that is both far away and familiar at the same time.

Covering a period of roughly three years, it has no plot but is picaresque or episodic as it follows a limited number of characters of the "Windrush generation", all of them "coloureds", through their daily lives in the capital. The various threads of action form a whole through the unifying central character of Trinidadian Moses Aloetta, a veteran emigré who, after more than ten years in London, has still not achieved anything of note and whose homesickness increases as he gets older. Every Sunday morning "the boys", many a recent arrival among them, come together in his rented room to trade stories and inquire after those whom they have not seen for a while. 

The immigrants in this story are treated poorly with low-level jobs that are insufficient to provide for more than the most basic necessities. They live on the fringe of the host society that regards them with indifference or hostility. Throughout the force of race and color prejudice is shown in incidents and through conversations but always with a sense of the human comedy that buoys most of the Caribbean natives that populate the story. Moses who has been in London a while shares his experience with newcomers or tries to if they will listen to him.

Early in the story Moses meets a newcomer named Henry Oliver (nicknamed Galahad) who is just "off the boat".
"From the very beginning they out to give you the impression that they hep, that they on the ball, that nobody could tie them up.
Sir Galahad was a fellar like that, and he was trying hard to give Moses the feeling that everything all right, that he could take care of himself, that he don't want help for anything. So that same morning when they finish eating Moses tell him that he would go with him to help him find a work, but Galahad say: 'Don't worry man, I will make out for myself.'"

Galahad goes out and immediately gets lost, but Moses follows him and persuades Galahad to take his advice and get a job, but be sure to find a place to live close to where you work. The patois of the immigrants has an almost musical quality in its simplicity and lack of tense.  As the story continues more characters are introduced, in episodic fashion, each with their own idiosyncrasies. Despite their differences, their newness and unfamiliarity with the surroundings they are able to make a home within the larger urban environment provided by the city of London. Near the end of the story they come together for a "fete", a celebration and dance. They are enjoying themselves and for a moment forget about the life they left in the Caribbean, the daily difficulties they face in London, and the loneliness that remains a part of their lives.

"The changing of the seasons, the cold slicing winds, the falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land, London particular. Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows, but to have said: 'I walked on Waterloo Bridge,' 'I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,' "Picadilly Circus is my playground,' to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world."

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Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Family Chronicle

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a FamilyBuddenbrooks: 
The Decline of a Family 
by Thomas Mann

“Often, the outward and visible material signs and symbols of happiness and success only show themselves when the process of decline has already set in. The outer manifestations take time - like the light of that star up there, which may in reality be already quenched, when it looks to us to be shining its brightest.”   ― Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family

Before there was The Magic Mountain and before Death in Venice Thomas Mann gained critical acclaim for Buddenbrooks. It is a long, beautifully written account of a declining bourgeois family, that some have suggested was inspired by his reading of Tolstoy among others. While the book has lighter moments it is overwhelmingly bleak. The Buddenbrooks' family success is behind them and there are few of the current and upcoming generations that are up to the task of maintaining the family much less improving it.
When we first meet the family one is immediately impressed by their conservatism and traditional ways. It is set in the 1830s in a northern German trading city and the fine mansion where they live and everything else about them exudes the feeling of haute bourgeoisie. The central characters are introduced, Johann and Elisabeth the father and mother with three children, Antonie (Tony), Thomas, and his younger brother Christian. It is their lives that form the center of the story for the first half of the novel.

With Thomas Mann every detail is important, so as time goes by (and it seems to fly by decade after decade) the background of the changes resulting from both the Industrial Revolution and the politics of the German states is as important as the family social struggles. And struggles they have as the Grandfather dies and the firm passes on to Johann who too few years later passes the firm on to his eldest son Thomas. If there is one central figure in the family saga it is Tony who first marries an older man rather than her young love as her father demands only to see that marriage end in divorce due to the bankruptcy of her husband who (wrongly) assumed the Buddenbrooks family would bail him out. I hope you are beginning to get a feeling for the theme of decline.  Buddenbrooks reminds me a bit of Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, a novel about another family who fails to change with the times and struggles to maintain their social standing. 

Mann's satirical side is brought home often and is best seen in a set piece when the workers challenge the leaders of the Town. The mini-revolt (it pales in comparison to the real revolution of 1848) is defused by Consul Johann while one of the town elders is parodied as he shows more concern for his carriage than anything the workers (who like children should be silent) might have to say.  One of the keenest issues for me is the position of women in the Buddenbrooks family and society in general. That is the lack of standing and choice that they have. This is evident not only in Tony's failed marriages (she has a second divorce before the midpoint in the novel) but also in other female members of the family, particularly Tony's younger sister Clara who is considered unmarriageable until a Minister, Sievert Tiburtius, takes an interest in her. Most women in this society are prepared for nothing in life with limited choices and the prospect of life as second class citizens.

Throughout the novel Mann develops themes through the use of leitmotifs. These stem from his admiration for the operas of Richard Wagner, in the case of Buddenbrooks an example can be found in the description of the color – blue and yellow, respectively – of the skin and the teeth of the characters. Each such description alludes to different states of health, personality and even the destiny of the characters.  Aspects of Thomas Mann's own personality are manifest in the two brothers, Thomas and Christian, who find it extremely difficult to live together. Christian is much the free spirit who cannot be happy working in the family firm, the leadership of which Thomas has inherited as the eldest son. It should not be considered a coincidence that Mann shared the same first name with one of them. The influence of Schopenhauer is also present and it is through the brothers that both Buddenbrooks reflect a conflict lived by the author: departure from a conventional bourgeois life to pursue an artistic one, although without rejecting bourgeois ethics. I plan to expand upon these thoughts with a further commentary on the remainder of the novel and the rise and fall of the next generation of Buddenbrooks. 

Thomas "worked hard, and success was his.  His standing in town grew, and, despite the capital lost through setting Christian up on his own and Tony's second marriage, the firm had several excellent years.  Nevertheless, there were a few things that could sap his courage for hours on end, dulling the sharpness of his mind and casting him into gloom." (p 354)

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Monday, February 08, 2016

Time Travel and History

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)To Say Nothing of the Dog 
by Connie Willis

“You'd help if you could, wouldn't you, boy?" I said. "It's no wonder they call you man's best friend. Faithful and loyal and true, you share in our sorrows and rejoice with us in our triumphs, the truest friend we ever have known, a better friend than we deserve. You have thrown in your lot with us, through thick and thin, on battlefield and hearthrug, refusing to leave your master even when death and destruction lie all around. Ah, noble dog, you are the furry mirror in which we see our better selves reflected, man as he could be, unstained by war or ambition, unspoilt by-”   ― Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog

The novel, as suggested by the subtitle (How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last), has a plot that is hard to detect at times. It primarily involves time travel itself which is used primarily as a tool for historical research. Although millions were spent to develop time travel as a commercial venture, it turned out to have no profit potential. In this novel the natural laws of the "time continuum" prevent anything of significance from being brought from the past to the future, and also act to keep time travellers away from historically critical events, such as the Battle of Waterloo. One plot thread indicated by the subtitle involves the time travelers search for an artifact known as the "Bishop's bird stump."* However, little progress is made in the search, and the nature of the bird stump is never clearly understood. The scavenger hunt never really developed significant interest for this reader.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is heavily based on Jerome K. Jerome's classic novel Three Men in a Boat (1889). In doing so Connie Willis uses the Victorian novel's sub-title as her title, mentions the novel in the dedication, and has one of the main characters, Ned Henry, who seems to know about as much about Victorian literature as he does about any history, often quote Jerome's novel. It led this reader to wonder why he has so much of the work memorized.

The novel is enjoyable at times, but did not gain traction for me. Each chapter begins with a wonderful epigram from a wide variety of people from Lewis Carroll to Darryl Zanuck. I looked forward to these signposts as much or more than the story. In the end this was a good read, but I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone who was not already a fan of Connie Willis or is more of a dog-lover than I.

* Ceramic vase in the form of a tree stump.

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Sunday, February 07, 2016

A Writer's Lavish Legacy

A Minor ApocalypseA Minor Apocalypse 
by Tadeusz Konwicki

"I could still run away to my little mouse hole.  I still had one last little morsel of time.  To hide in some hole, like Stargard, change my name, join the Party, start a new family.  Save myself a few years for Nadezhda;  that is Hope.  But that way I would only lose her.  She would die in my arms or in my mind." (p 226)

This is a novel about the "end of the world" for an aging Polish writer named Konwicki who has built a reputation as a representative of the people in their battle against the oppressive Communist government and its Soviet allies. As we meet him he thinks about his night . It was one that when he went to sleep he began to "understand the meaning of existence, time, and the life beyond this one. I understand that mystery for a fraction of a second, through an instant of distant memories, a brief moment of consolation or fearful foreboding , and then plunge instantly into the depths of my bad dreams. . . I would give everything I possess -- to see that mystery in all its simplicity, to see it once and then to forget it forever." (p 6)

Konwicki is in reality doomed to forfeit his life for the cause, the uprising of activists, writers like himself, and other compatriots who oppose the State in Poland at the end of the 1970s. He is approached early on this day by his friends Rhysio and Hubert with the decision , made by others in his absence, that he must that evening immolate himself in front of the Congress building of the government.
This is not an act that he can agree to but neither is it one that he rejects. He spends the rest of his day, one that may be his last, thinking about the meaning of this act. At some point he acquires a can filled with specially prepared gasoline that he carries with him like a cross. As he walks through Warsaw he is challenged several times during the day by various levels of State police to prove his identity by providing his papers and answering annoying questions. The quotidian details of his day provide a picture of the rigid society in which he lives. He also meets another friend, Tadzio Skorko, and the love of his life Nadezhda.
At one point his last two friends walk past him without saying hello and he thinks, "I really do have one foot in the grave." (p 107)

The satire is present and heavy at times. The police are portrayed as buffoons yet the one time he is interrogated the scene is filled with brutal reality, both physical and mental. The State apparatus is clearly aware that something unusual is planned for this day.
The mixture of the quotidian details of the day and Konwicki's fleeting memories of his past relationships and writing provide a fascinating background for the impending horror of his death. There are allusions to Dante and Savonarola but the most pertinent and poignant is the following literary reference:
""You were created by this regime. You were excreted by the system, you're part of this tyranny's flesh and blood. You're like a character from Dostoevsky's The Possessed*, not from a Zeromski story or one by Strug.""(p 138)

As the day proceeds Konwicki's meditations on his existence and imminent death become more serious and, for the reader, more thought-provoking.
"A reckoning with my conscience. My act of contrition. Regret for my sins. My life story in the colors of mediocrity. At first I hated that mediocrity, disdained it, but in the end I made my home in it. Greatness in mediocrity. Mediocrity as the highest form of aristocracy. Mediocrity as asceticism, as proud isolation amid vulgarity, the gray habit of a proud monk. Mediocrity as the final stage of exaltation."(p 143)

I could conclude with that statement, for it is one that includes his life - greatness - the culture in which he lives - vulgarity - and his own isolation and coming exaltation. But the novel is not without lyrical passages, in spite of the gray vulgarity of living in that society. Not surprisingly it is Nadezhda who inspires the best of his lyricism:
"Saying nothing, without a single word, we rose from the cement step which was already absorbing the late-afternoon chill and we entered the silent nave of the editorial offices' ruins. . . The remains of the walls, partitions, and ceilings were lying in the middle of the building, piles of picturesque rubble which seemed arranged by some romantic architect. Astonishingly luxuriant vegetation had entwined itself around those hunks of cement and brick, those dunes of withered lime. The sun's oblique light made the large, blackish burdocks glow; it gilded the handsome ferns and lit the deadly nightshade bushes on fire. Even fall asters had stolen into that enchanted garden, which had overgrown the junk pile of what once had been editorial offices.
The stairs invited our eyes to the sky, which had grown distinctly opalescent now." (p 170)

This is a beautiful novel about the ultimate moment in one man's life. The narrator says it best:
"My testament. My lavish legacy to those I loved."

*Also translated as The Demons.

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Saturday, February 06, 2016

Quote for Today

Thomas Carlyle

    Alas, what a wretched thing were Life, if there were no Death in it. I fancy the foolishest man would grow desperate of his existence and its paltrinesses, if that celestial temple, fearful and wonderful to the foolishest, stood not always in the background. Standing there, it makes the meanest life divine. Dying we do become a kind of Gods….

    Do you read many Books? You will find resources in Literature, the more as you get deeper into it. A picture of the struggle of a man; every book is that. All men in all ages, one finds, have had intrinsically the same struggle as we; identical, tho under such diversity of vesture. The face[s] of them, on this hand and on that, give one comfort: We are not alone then; we are in an endless army of comrades!

from a letter of Oct. 21, 1840 to the author, Geraldine Jewsbury