Monday, June 26, 2017

The Search for Perfection

A Romance on Three Legs: 
Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest 
for the Perfect Piano 

A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano

“Gould’s playing evoked a visceral response from people who had never thought to stop and really listen to classical music. There was something about the silence between and behind each note, the richness of the different voices, that captured the imagination and caused listeners to feel that their lives had been deepened and enhanced. Thousands of people over the years had heard Gould’s best-selling 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations—the little air and its thirty virtuosic variations—and became lifelong fans.”   ― Katie Hafner, A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano

A most unusual biographical study, this is a book about a musician and his music, but even more it is about his search for perfection. The author writes of a search for a piano that is more intense than anything I have experienced in my piano-playing life. While I have encountered several different pianos, from the old upright of my youth to the local public library grand and sturdy spinets at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, I have never obsessed the way Glenn Gould did.

Katie Hafner makes the story interesting with details of the life of the piano, its caretaker and the marriage of artist and piano in the studio. The piano is a Steinway grand piano known as CD318. The caretaker, an almost completely blind piano tuner, reminded me of a piano tuner who maintained my own spinet for several years. The marriage meant that this piano became part of the history of music performances by one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. While the marriage of piano and pianist was not fated to last forever, that part of the story is best left for the reader to discover for himself. It is a story that this music lover found exceptional. And it is a unique perspective on the life of an artist notorious for his personal eccentricities.

The Man of Principle

The Fountainhead 

The Fountainhead

“I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need…. It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing....”  — Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead;

Ayn Rand began writing her best seller on June 26, 1938. It was published in 1943 and by the summer of 1945 it was on the bestseller lists and has remained in print ever since. I have always enjoyed reading books about heroes and this was one of my favorite discoveries. When I was in high school I read this story of Howard Roark and in it found a representative of individualism with whom I could identify.

In lucid direct prose Ayn Rand narrates a story of an architect with principles who will defer to no one in the pursuit of his life goals. The basic conflict is between Roark as an exemplar of egoism who uses his reason to judge for himself contrasted with the character of Peter Keating who is a"second-hander", that is one who bases his life on the opinions of others. She creates characters who represent principles of good and evil including one of the most evil characters in literature in the person of Ellsworth Toohey, a man who manipulates others into giving up that which they hold most dear.  While Roark suffers, especially due to the machinations of Toohey, he is ultimately vindicated and stands as a hero to all who choose to think and create and produce.

The novel is written in a clear and lucid style that belies the Romanticism inherent in the story-line.  If you have enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo or the works of Victor Hugo you will like The Fountainhead.

Friday, June 23, 2017

An Irish Family

The Green Road 

The Green Road

“Far below were the limestone flats they called the Flaggy Shore; grey rocks under a grey sky, and there were days when the sea was a glittering grey and your eyes could not tell if it was dusk or dawn, your eyes were always adjusting. It was like the rocks took the light and hid it away. And that was the thing about Boolavaun, it was a place that made itself hard to see.”   ― Anne Enright, The Green Road

The Green Road is a family narrative told through place and time. The writing demonstrates real lives filled with compassion and selfishness and effortlessly carries the reader forward. It is a thoroughly Irish book that considers issues both modern and traditional through that lens. Our Thursday night book group enjoyed it for a variety of reasons that led to a lively discussion. I found the writing style and the structure of the book the best aspects, even while some of the characters, not all, were somewhat opaque. The story explored both the gaps in the human heart and family tensions in our modern age.

The story unfolds over decades with the first half of the book constructed from vignettes that might stand on their own as short stories. These stories explore the lives of the children of Rosaleen, matriarch of the Madigans, a family on the cusp of either coming together or falling irreparably apart. Each of the four Madigan children and their mother Rosaleen receive a chapter of their own beginning with Hannah Madigan. Hannah's chapter focuses on a family member as a child and deals with her relationship with her father. She is traumatized by viewing the culling of a chicken for dinner on her grandmother's farm. Dan Madigan's story jumps forward to 1991 during his time in New York with his fiance as his repressed homosexuality comes to the fore during the AIDS epidemic. He gradually accepts his life and begins living in Canada with a life partner. Constance Madigan's chapter is based in 1997 Limerick and considers her domestic roles of mother and wife. She is seen balancing the concerns of her health that make her face her own mortality. Emmet has traveled to Mali in 2002 and works with impoverished children even as he is haunted by previous relief work he has been involved with. All the while his relationships are slowly deteriorating.

Rosaleen, in her early old age, announces that she's decided to sell the house and divide the proceeds. Her adult children come back for a last Christmas, with the feeling that their childhoods are being erased, their personal history bought and sold. The second part of the book focuses on this homecoming as the story comes together through a combination of memories and family interactions. This was the best section of the book for this reader. It is where the home becomes a character as much as the Matriarch and her children.

The book is a pleasure to read through the story of the family and the author's beautiful prose. The story about a family's desperate attempt to recover the relationships they've lost and forge the ones they never had becomes a profoundly moving work.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Favorite Poet

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats 

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats

“Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” 

― W.B. Yeats, The Wind Among the Reeds

I have enjoyed the poetry of William Butler Yeats for many years as evidenced by my well-worn copy of his Complete Poems. But there is more to enjoy when considering this protean author for throughout his long life, William Butler Yeats produced important works in every literary genre, works of astonishing range, energy, erudition, beauty, and skill. His early poetry is memorable and moving. His poems and plays of middle age address the human condition with language that has entered our vocabulary for cataclysmic personal and world events.

"O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?"
("Among School Children", p 105)

The writings of his final years offer wisdom, courage, humor, and sheer technical virtuosity. T. S. Eliot pronounced Yeats "the greatest poet of our time -- certainly the greatest in this language, and so far as I am able to judge, in any language" and "one of the few whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them."

There are always new things to be learned when reading and meditating on the poetry of this masterful author.  But I often return to his greatest poems like "The Second Coming".  It was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the first World War. The version of the poem below is as it was published in the edition of Michael Robartes and the Dancer dated 1920.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

― W.B. Yeats, The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Satirical Voyages

Gulliver's Travels 

Gulliver's Travels

“He was perfectly astonished with the historical account gave him of our affairs during the last century; protesting “it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce.”  -  Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

The first volume of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was published on October 28th in 1726. This was part of the onset of a literary tidal wave that included the novels of Daniel Defoe and would pick up speed by mid-century with the appearance of Fielding's masterpiece, Tom Jones.

Swift clearly relished the hoax aspect of his book, taking pains (under a pseudonym) to give his hero a genealogy and history, and a reputation for veracity so legendary “that it became a sort of proverb among his neighbours at Redriff, when any one affirmed a thing, to say, it was as true as if Mr. Gulliver had spoken it.” This kept up through the publication of subsequent volumes and editions, Gulliver himself now going on record to quibble over misprinted facts, or chortle over those “so bold as to think my book of travels a mere fiction out of mine own brain, and have gone so far as to drop hints, that the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos have no more existence than the inhabitants of Utopia.” The ideas are embodied in grotesques and fantastic creatures, in the six-inch high Lilliputians, the gigantic Brobdingnagians, the horse-like Houyhnhnms and the disgusting Yahoos.

The book itself is a fantastical satire that uses the ancient method of a journey (in this case multiple journeys) to foreign lands in the service of social satire and cultural commentary. The motivating force behind Gulliver's Travels is the author's apparent disgust with human folly and pretension. The Fourth Voyage is perhaps the most disturbing . Gulliver encounters disgusting ape-like creatures who "discharge their excrements" onto him from a tree, and then a pair of unusually thoughtful horses. These horses call themselves Houyhnhnms. They are super-rational beings who do not even understand the concept of lying, referring to it as "saying the thing which is not." For all their reasonableness they lack any passion and lead what would appear to most humans as dull lives. By contrast the "Yahoos" as they call the ape-like creatures are pure passion and emotion with no visible restraint. Gulliver gradually becomes enamored of the Houyhnhnms, so much so that when he eventually returns home he cannot abide the smell of of his wife and family and is happiest when spending time with his horses. While the land of the Houyhnhnms is superficially a utopia, this reader, after consideration of the life presented, found it to be a very drab and boring place. Nonetheless Gulliver, when relating life in England to his Houyhnhnm masters, is scathing in his attacks on lawyers, doctors, and the ruling classes. He confesses that he could be reconciled to the English Yahoos "if they would be content with those Vices and Follies only which Nature hath entitled them to. I am not in the least provoked at the sight of a Lawyer, a Pick-pocket, a Colonel, a Fool, a Lord, a Gamster, a Politician, a Whoremunger, a Physician, . . . or the like: This is all according to the due Course of Things: but, when I behold a Lump of Deformity, and Diseases both in Body and Mind, smitten with Pride, it immediately breaks all the Measures of my patience."

The characters imagined in this tale are so memorable that their names have become part of our culture. The journeys provide lessons for Lemuel Gulliver who is an honest if gullible narrator. Whether he learned the right lessons or ones that have value for others is for each reader to decide. Ultimately it is a satire that has stood the test of time and its relevance suggests the follies of twenty-first century humans are not so different from those caricatured by this brilliant eighteenth century satirist.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Who Can Remember Pain?

The Handmaid's Tale 

The Handmaid's Tale

“But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”   ― Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

I have enjoyed several of Margaret Atwood's novels over the years; especially Oryx and Crake, the first novel in her Maddam Trilogy. I had not read The Handmaid's Tale until our Thursday evening book group chose it for our most recent book discussion. This also gave me the opportunity to use my Kindle app which I rarely use since I prefer the feeling of holding a "real" book. I was not disappointed by this unusual dystopian postmodern tale of a future that one hopes we may avoid.

The title of this now classic novel echoes the component parts of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, this is suggestive of an almost allegoric aspect of the story but also a pervasive theme that is woven throughout the book; that is theocracy, a government in which there is no separation between state and religion. We see this in the names of the servants who are called “Marthas” and the local police as “Guardians of the Faith”; soldiers as “Angels”; and the “Commanders of the Faithful”. In addition Atwood's vocabulary incorporates religious terminology and biblical references. All the stores have biblical names: Loaves and Fishes, All Flesh, Milk and Honey. Even the automobiles have biblical names like Behemoth, Whirlwind, and Chariot. Using religious terminology to describe people, ranks, and businesses, masks political skulduggery in pious language. The reader is faced with an ever-present reminder that the founders of Gilead insist they act on the authority of the Bible itself. Politics and religion sleep in the same bed in Gilead, where the slogan “God is a National Resource” predominates.

In the society of The Handmaid's Tale, while even the powerful live very restricted lives, however the Handmaids are confined to their bedrooms except for sanctioned outings to grocery stores, childbearing Ceremonies, and executions; as a result they are worse off than most. Doubly trapped by their low social statuses and their fertile bodies, Handmaids barely get to do anything. Their bodies' fertility both enforces their confinement and paradoxically promises them a kind of freedom.
If Handmaids become pregnant by their Commanders (this is their sole purpose in this society) their reward is not being sent off to die. If they do get pregnant, they're confined to their bodies in a different way, forced to give birth to children they don't get to keep, fathered by men they don't love.

I found this a book that I appreciated for its literary values more than the content which was brutal at times. This is undoubtedly to be expected in a dystopian tale, but understanding the fact did not provide solace for the reader. The story is a tale of "witness" by a rebellious handmaid named Offred. Her rebellion begins with recording her story, but extends to other activities that eventual provide what little suspense there is in the tale. As with all first person narratives the reader must maintain some skepticism in recognition of the unreliability of the narrator. We never quite know what's true in The Handmaid's Tale; even when people state their names, they're lying. Throughout the book we're reminded that this is a story and that the narrator is altering some of the details. The narrator wishes she could change the events that happened to her through retelling them, or what she calls "reconstruction." Even the epilogue, with its "Historical Notes," reinforces the idea that this is a tale, a story, and that the manner of the telling is as important as what the narrator reveals through it.

This leads me to the only substantive criticism I have of the book in that I would have appreciated more information about some of the other characters, especially Offred's friend Moira who disappears from the story before it is concluded. We find Offred narrating "I can't remember the last time I saw her. It blends in with all the others; it was some trivial occasion. She must have dropped by; she did that, she breezed in and out of my house", but that was some time ago and it is only her memory of Moira that Offred captures.

This is not a book for the faint of heart, but as some in our book group related Atwood's beautiful prose has an almost mesmerizing effect that helps you move past some of the more gruesome details of this dystopic tale. My conclusion is that this deserves to be considered a postmodern classic that adds luster to the standing of Margaret Atwood in my personal reading pantheon of authors.

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