Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Notes from Hermann Hesse

Books on Trial

 Recently I had to sort out my books again, because circumstances forced me to give away part of my library. . . 

Days later, when I was finished with the job, I realized for the first time how much my relationship to books had altered during these years, along with other things. There are whole categories of literature that I now cheerfully give away. There are authors whom it is no longer possible to take seriously. But what a comfort the Knut Hamsun is still alive! How fortunate there is Jammes*! And how nice it is to have cleared all the thick biographies of poets, with their boredom and their meager psychology. The rooms look brighter. Treasures remain behind and now they gleam far more brightly. Goethe stands there, Holderlin stands there, all of Dostoevsky stands there, Morike smiles, Arnim flashes audaciously, the Icelandic sagas outlast all troubles. Marchen and folk tales remain indestructible. And the old books, the books in pigskin with a theological look, which for the most part are so much dearer than all the new books, they too are still there. They are something that for once one doesn't mind being outlived by."

My Belief: Essays on Life and Art by Hermann Hesse. Denver Lindley, trans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1975, pp 93-95.

*Francis Jammes, French Poet (1868-1938)

Monday, March 29, 2021

Proust on Identity

 The Person We Know

"But even with respect to the most insignificant things in life, none of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others. Even the very simple act that we call "seeing a person we know" is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part. In the end they swell his cheeks so perfectly, follow the line of his nose in an adherence so exact, they do so well as nuancing the sonority of his voice as though the latter were only a  transparent envelope that each time we see this face and hear this voice, it is these notions that we encounter again, that we hear."

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust, trans. by Lydia Davis. Penguin Books, New York, 2003 (1913), p 19.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Write, write, write . . .

Write, write, write, out of your guts, out of the sweat on your forehead and the blood in your veins. Do not think about Mr. Potter’s guide to the salesmanship of short stories produced, apparently, on the lines of the Ford works. Do not bother your head about the length of the stuff you are writing . . . . Write a story (if you must write stories) about yourself searching for your soul amid the horrors of corruption and disease, about your passionate strivings after something you don’t know and can’t express. (This is one of the few ways [of] knowing it and expressing it.)

Dylan Thomas (letter to Trevor Hughes, 1932)

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Narrative Distortions of Memory

Trust Exercise
Trust Exercise 

“REMEMBER THE IMPOSSIBLE eventfulness of time, transformation and emotion packed like gunpowder into the barrel. Remember the dilation and diffusion, the years within days. Theirs were endless; lives flowered and died between waking and noon.”  ― Susan Choi, Trust Exercise

This was a confusing look at relationships in the twenty-first century. Centered around the titular activity the narration changes from section to section in a way that seems quite postmodern. I read the author's American Woman, based on real events, more than a year ago and found this, her latest novel, was more effective in spite of, or perhaps because of, being more unconventional. More loosely inspired by some actual places and events, it comes across as a deliberate demonstration of the possibilities in fiction, from shifting and unreliable narrator to viscerally real characters living lives that change in ways that are both weird and wonderful.

Events at the CAPA(Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts) involve students in love with each other while at the same time being challenged by a overbearing teacher in trust exercises that border on harassment. I'm not sure I would have survived in that environment.

After the first section, which follows Sarah through her sophomore year, we shift into the perspective of Karen, one of Sarah’s classmates. “Karen” – whose name is not really Karen – informs us that for the first hundred or so pages, we’ve been reading a novel written by “Sarah” (whose name is not truly Sarah). Now an adult, not only is Karen utterly dissatisfied with her erasure from the story that plays out in Sarah’s semi-autobiographical novel, she’s also armed with her own version of the events of that year.

Through it all you learn more about the subsequent lives of some of the students which includes surprising twists. In spite of some realistic detail, the over-the-top nature of some of the students' activities is hard to accept. I'll give the author a high rating for imagination, but the structure and execution of the story at times left me wondering what the author intended.

Winner of the National Book Award for fiction in 2019, Trust Exercise is a stunning study of the increasingly muddied line between fact and fiction, the power of the stories we tell ourselves and the consequences of the inherent distortions of memory.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Notes on the Border Trilogy

All the Pretty Horses (The Border Trilogy, #1)
All the Pretty Horses 

“He lay on his back in his blankets and looked our where the quartermoon lay cocked over the heel of the mountains. In the false blue dawn the Pleiades seemed to be rising up into the darkness above the world and dragging all the stars away, the great diamond of Orion and Cepella and the signature of Cassiopeia all rising up through the phosphorous dark like a sea-net. He lay a long time listening to the others breathing in their sleep while he contemplated the wildness about him, the wildness within.”  ― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

The story begins in a room lit by candle light with John Grady Cole wearing a black suit and looking at his dead grandfather laying in an oak coffin. "It was dark outside and cold and no wind." This bleak opening belies the adventure that lay ahead for young John Grady Cole. The seventeen year-old boy at the center of this scene and the novel is suddenly, roughly jolted from the freedom of youth into another life - one of the open frontier, of adventure, of love and danger. Cormac McCarthy blends gritty realism with mystical dreams of horses and meditations on the meaning of fate and life and horses in this meaningful and mesmerizing novel of a young man's quest for love and life and, ultimately, redemption.

What makes this novel great? Is it the archetypical experiences of a young man's first love, of the pains of that and the initiation into the violence and reality of the west? Is it the beauty of words strung together in phrases that take your breath away? It is these and more as McCarthy succeeds in mixing the quotidian details of ranch life with just the right balance of mythic phantasmagorical imaginings. Just as his prose seems to be over-the-top he suddenly returns to the Beckett-like dialogue of two buddies alone on the prairie. One example of this occurs when he is out on the mesa with his buddy Lacey Rawlins--his Sancho to at least the extent that his adventures approached the Quixotic--when one evening a few nights later he is approached by Alejandra, the daughter of the Ranch owner. Two pages and many nights together riding their horses up and swimming in the lake until; "She was so pale in the lake she seemed to be burning. Like foxfire in darkened wood." (p 141) She beckons and he says yes and just as the scene reaches a mystic climax we return to the world of the two buddies. The dynamic tension is like the immediate break from fortissimo to piano in a Beethoven Symphony.

The story of John Grady Cole takes many turns and he looks back at regrets while going forward on his own personal quest. One constant question that is raised like a drumbeat accompanying his actions is what does fate have in store for him. Alejandra's grandaunt and godmother is the Duena Alfonsa who is the matriarch of the family. Like several of the characters she eventually relates her story to John Grady Cole. Not the least important aspect of this is her view of fate, "Yes. We'll see what fate has in store for us, won't we?" (p 241). McCarthy presents a complex world and John Grady Cole dives into it with the fervor of innocence. The excitement is watching him lose that innocence while maintaining a sort of fervor for life, at least for the life that he chooses for himself.

"That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow as far as the eye could see . . . and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them . . . " (p 163)

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Rereading Notes

Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader
Unfinished Business: 
Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader

“Responsible for every successful connection ever made between a book and a reader--no less than between people--is that deepest of all human mysteries, emotional readiness: upon which the shape of every life is vitally dependent. How morbidly circumstantial life can seem when we think of the apparent randomness with which we welcome or repel what will turn out to be--or what might have turned out to be--some of the most important relationships of our lives. How often have lifelong friends or lovers shuddered to think, 'If I had met you at any other time...' It's the same between a reader and a book that becomes an intimate you very nearly did not encounter with an open mind or a welcoming heart because you were not in the right mood; that is, in a state of readiness.”  ― Vivian Gornick

A lovely read for those of us who reread books with a passion. I have books that I have read and reread for my whole reading life - one that spans more than six decades. Then there are other books that I have encountered in the early years of this century and I have already reread them; for example Call Me By Your Name is one of those. Others from the whole span of my life from the pen of authors like Lewis Carroll, Somerset Maugham, Willa Cather, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Dreiser, Gide, Mann, Proust, and more are among those whose books I have reread. 

The author shares her personal experiences with books, but even though they may be personal I believe most readers will find a universality in them as well. The title of her short book belies the joy that I believe all re-readers gain from their literary habit. It may be a "chronic" passion, but is one worth pursuing and, I believe, it does not deter the continued exploration of new reading, but rather spurs you onward to more reading in a search for your next favorite great read; one that you can add to your rereading list.

"I sometimes think I was born reading. I can't remember the time when I didn't have a book in my hands, my head lost to the world around me." - Vivian Gornick

Monday, March 15, 2021

Alaskan Beauty and Mystery

The Snow Child
The Snow Child 

“We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That’s where the adventure is. Not knowing where you’ll end up or how you’ll fare. It’s all a mystery, and when we say any different, we’re just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?”   ― Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child

This is a simple story inspired by a famous Russian fairy tale. In its narrative complications abound and the the story grow more and more complex as it encompasses multiple story lines. Changes abound in this novel, as one might expect in a story inspired by an older long lasting piece of imaginative literature; one that has inspired operas, ballets, films, and other similar tales.*

At the opening we meet Mabel and Jack, a childless couple who have moved to the wilds of Alaska to start farming. The work and the weather is brutal, but they are committed not just to surviving, but to succeeding. Early on we are told by the narrator:

“All her life she had believed in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses. It was the flutter of moth wings on glass and the promise of river nymphs in the dappled creek beds. It was the smell of oak trees on the summer evening she fell in love, and the way dawn threw itself across the cow pond and turned the water to light.”(p 5)

Mabel's dreams seem to come true when a young girl appears the day after they had built a child out of snow. The young girl is elusive with a feral, yet magical appearance. They barely survive the first winter and, as they prepare to plant a crop of potatoes for the following year, Jack is injured by his horse when it is startled by a bear. Fortunately, their neighbors Esther, George, with their youngest son Garrett help them to get their crop planted. The story continues to follow the intrigue between the snow girl and the travails of Mabel and Jack along with young Garrett who continues to work with them on their farm.

The broad outlines of the story do not begin to capture the beautiful magic of the growing relationship between the snow girl, whose name is Faina, and Mabel and Jack. Each is transformed over the course of the narrative, while at the same time the neighbor's young son is growing into manhood. These stories blend together in a way that is unpredictable (at least for this reader) while the families grow together growing to understand and love the nature that surrounds them. The harshness, especially the cold winters, is made palpable by the precise and simple prose of the author.

The Snow Child blends this rough reality with the magic of the fairy tale presence of the snow girl to produce an unusual and wonderful book. The reader experiences something like the following:
"It was as if Mabel had fallen through a hole into another world . . . This was an untidy place, but welcoming and full of laughter."(p 31) 
There is also sadness and ultimately the satisfaction of lives that incorporate some of the magic of believing as they deal with the reality of a harsh but beautiful world.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Isolated from the World


“How much can we ever know about the love and pain in another heart? How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation, and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known?”  ― Orhan Pamuk, Snow

Orhan Pamuk' s novel is set in the small Turkish town of Kars, isolated from the rest of the world for three days by a snowstorm. The plot of the novel is as intricate and symmetrical as the pattern of a snowflake. As narrated by Pamuk himself, he tells of the poet journalist Kerim Alakusoglu, known as Ka is a poet, who returns to Turkey after 12 years of political exile in Germany. He has several motives, first, as a journalist, to investigate the events surrounding a group of young women who are committing suicide rather than give up their headscarves, but also seeking Ýpek, a woman on whom he had a crush many years before. Heavy snow cuts off the town for about three days during which time Ka is in conversation with a former communist, a secularist, a fascist nationalist, a possible Islamic extremist, Islamic moderates, young Kurds, the military, the Secret Service, the police and in particular, an actor-revolutionary. In the midst of this, love and passion are to be found.

This is a very contemporary story of the clash between devout Islamists and the secular state that controls Turkey. Isolating the action in the snowbound town of Kars we learn of the tensions through Ka's interviews with various citizens. Pamuk's narrative style presents a pastiche of events that blend together to form the story with both love and politics coming to the fore.

Though slow reading at times, Snow has considerable appeal as a satire of a paralyzed society in which political and social groups are either too weak or too fanatical. Locked in perpetual conflict, none of them can establish a nuanced stance or interact, except violently. Consequently, over the course of the novel, the dilemma of each character becomes bleaker, each caught between the violence of Islamic radicalism and government crackdowns. Some Western readers, often seeing themselves as the victims, may gain a more nuanced grasp of the conflict and the almost impossible situation in which the people of the Middle East find themselves. The many surprises and shocks of the story kept me interested and I found new fascination for the contemporary history of Turkey. The translation by Maureen Freely, who has translated several of Pamuk's novels, is excellent.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Schubert on Mozart


On June 13, 1816 the 19-year-old Franz Schubert wrote in his diary,

    This day will haunt me for the rest of my life as a bright, clear, and lovely one. Gently, and as from a distance, the magic tones of Mozart’s music sound in my ears. With what alternate force and tenderness, with what masterly power did Schlesinger’s playing of that music impress it deep, deep in my heart! Thus do these sweet impressions, passing into our souls, work beneficently on our inmost being, and no time, do change of circumstances, can obliterate them. In the darkness of this life, they show a light, a clear, beautiful distance, from which we gather confidence and hope. Mozart! immortal Mozart! how many and what countless images of a brighter, better world hast thou stamped on our souls!

Monday, March 01, 2021

Drawn Apart by Desire and Reason

by Ovid
Translated and edited by Charles Martin

“I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.”  ― Ovid, Metamorphoses

Metamorphoses is a poem in fifteen books by the Augustan Roman poet Ovid describing the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose myth-based historical framework. It is often called a mock-epic, as it is written in dactylic hexameter (the form of the great epic poems of the ancient tradition, such as “The Iliad”, “The Odyssey” and “The Aeneid”), unlike Ovid's other works. But, rather than following and extolling the deeds of a great hero like the traditional epics, Ovid’s work leaps from story to story, often with little or no connection other than that they all involve transformations of one sort or another. Sometimes, a character from one story is used as a (more or less tenuous) connection to the next story, and sometimes the mythical characters themselves are used as the story-tellers of “stories within stories”.

 Completed in AD 8, it is recognized as a masterpiece of Golden Age Latin literature. The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is that of love (and especially the trans-formative power of love), whether it be personal love or love personified in the figure of Cupid, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon who is the closest thing this mock-epic has to a hero. Unlike the predominantly romantic notions of love that were "invented" in the Middle Ages, however, Ovid viewed love more as a dangerous, destabilizing force than a positive one, and demonstrates how love has power over everyone, mortals and gods alike.

 It is notable that the other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated and made to appear ridiculous by fate and by Cupid in the stories. This is particularly true of Apollo, the god of pure reason, who is often confounded by irrational love. The poem inverts the accepted order to a large extent, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods (and their own somewhat petty desires and conquests) the objects of low humor, often portraying the gods as self-absorbed and vengeful. Perhaps because of the continuing power of Greek culture there remains the shadow of the power of the gods as a distinct recurrent theme throughout the poem.

 Revenge is another common theme, and it is often the motivation for whatever transformation the stories are explaining, as the gods avenge themselves and change mortals into birds or beasts to prove their own superiority. Violence, and often rape, occurs in almost every story in the collection, and women are generally portrayed negatively, either as virginal girls running from the gods who want to rape them, or alternatively as malicious and vengeful.

 As do all the major Greek and Roman epics, “Metamorphoses” emphasizes that hubris (overly prideful behavior) is a fatal flaw which inevitably leads to a character's downfall. Hubris always attracts the notice and punishment of the gods, who disdain all human beings who attempt to compare themselves to divinity. Some, especially women like Arachne and Niobe, actively challenge the gods and goddesses to defend their prowess, while others display hubris in ignoring their own mortality. Like love, hubris is seen by Ovid as a universal equalizer.

 Ovid's “Metamorphoses” was an immediate success in its day, its popularity threatening even that of Virgil's “Aeneid”. One can even imagine it being used as a teaching tool for Roman children, from which they could learn important stories that explain their world, as well as learn about their glorious emperor and his ancestors. Particularly towards the end, the poem can be seen to deliberately emphasize the greatness of Rome and its rulers.

 Not unlike many works of classical literature this poem has been a rich cultural resource ever since its inception, influencing authors from Chaucer and Shakespeare to, more recently, Ted Hughes, and composers from Gluck and Offenbach to Britten.