Sunday, August 29, 2021

"a perfect novel"

by John Williams

"That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."
William Shakespeare

Today marks the 99th anniversary of John Williams's birth. He worked as an editor and academic and wrote four novels during his lifetime, all of which are published in by New York Review Book Classics series: Nothing but the Night, Butcher's Crossing, Augustus (co-winner of the 1973 National Book Award), and Stoner, my favorite, which was called “a perfect novel” by The New York Times Book Review. In his memory I am reprinting my review from several years ago.

John Williams's Stoner is that rare novel which is almost perfect in every way, from its plain prose style to its subtle portrayal of themes and evocative descriptions of events that are common enough for all adults to have experienced them - in ways that make the narration a pleasure - and which makes you stop and reflect in wonder at the marvels around you, past and present. 

I found the story often took my breath away as I intently pondered the beautiful telling of a story of love and loss. The pain and pleasure were so pronounced that the reality of the images created by the author had an effect that few books ever do. I found the prose style reminiscent of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, but with more hope present even as Stoner deals unsuccessfully with the vicissitudes of life.

This is a Midwestern book, set on the plains, about a young man who is schooled in the hardships of farm life but who flowers in an academic setting - up to a point. His taciturn being and stoicism both help him survive and contribute to his downfall in love and learning. In each he fails, even though he does experience small moments of triumph; yet even in failure his determination shines through the pages of the novel and makes this drama somehow less tragic than it might have been otherwise. The difficulty which Stoner has in communicating his feelings is palpable throughout compounding the inevitability of defeat for our hero. 

This novel in all its detailing of the life of William Stoner captures some of the passion and loss that is suggested by Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 (quoted above) that plays a pivotal role in Stoner's education. This is a story of integrity and persistence in living through adversity and loss.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Ghosts in Massachusetts

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales
Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales 

"Nathaniel in his turn would walk the ways of Salem, town and village, and ghosts would keep him company, never quite visible , lurking always just beyond the corner of his eye.  But he would pin them down on paper and when he had them there he would inspect them with a kind of literary credulity.  For it was with him somewhat as it was with Cotton Mather; useless to preach to the artist against the existence of witches; the very breath of the artist is witchery and magic."  (Marion Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts, p 277)

The ghosts of Salem and Nathaniel Hawthorne's past are represented in many of the tales in this collection. None do it as well as in his magnificent short story, "Young Goodman Brown".

In this story Hawthorne describes the titular young man on a journey one evening that would change his life. As the story begins he comes "forth at sunset" after "crossing the threshold" of his house and his life, leaving his wife, Faith, who talks of "dreams" and is, he believes, "a blessed angel". His journey turns into one of his own dreams or visions where one after another of the people in his life are unmasked by the devil. He gradually discovers that his own corruptibility which he fears his embodied in his fellow townspeople, and ultimately in his own wife Faith. Young Goodman starts the evening journey with "excellent resolve", but he also has doubts which are fueled by comments from the stranger he meets. He grows more concerned and conceals himself even as his spectral visions (not unlike the evidence of witches in old Salem) show the deacon and elders of the town laid bare in their consorting with the devil. The evening has led to Young Goodman's loss of moral virginity. It is a loss that will haunt him the rest of his life.

This is the classic American short story of the guilty conscience. The question Brown confronts is whether his heritage of Original Sin incapacitates him for resisting personal sin. In this profoundly ambiguous story, Brown wavers between the desperate cynicism of the corrupt soul and the hopefulness of the believer. Hawthorne mirrors the communion of the church with that of Satan's altar. Contrasts abound with Faith, the angel of Young Goodman, joining the fallen angel in his mind. His tale is a blend of simplicity and seriousness. But more importantly he portrays experiences, fears, and feelings that, at least in part, his readers share in the sense they may experience similar doubts and wonder about the nature of their own morality and mortality. Melville would say of Hawthorne that his writing was "as deep as Dante".

At the beginning of the story, he has already made his bargain with the Devil—hardly a token that he is among God’s elect but not necessarily a sign of damnation, either, if he can reject the consummation in the form of the perverted communion service in the woods. Whether by act of will or by divine grace, Brown appears to have resisted the power of evil at the climactic moment and given evidence of at least the possibility of salvation for his wife and himself. There is abundant evidence in this and the best of his early stories that Hawthorne has much magic in his prose.

Friday, August 27, 2021

The Gallic Wars

The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete WorksThe Landmark Julius Caesar: 
The Complete Works 
by Gaius Julius Caesar

“In war, events of importance are the result of trivial causes.”   ― Julius Caesar

"All Gaul is divided into thee parts."
With these famous words Julius Caesar begins the first of his Commentaries on the Gallic War.*
In these Commentaries, he gives a chronological account of his activities in Gaul from the time of his succession to the governorship of Gallia Narbonensis in 59 b.c.e. to the end of the Gallic revolt led by Vercingetorix late in the same decade. During those years, Caesar and his Roman legions confronted first one group of tribes, then another. Only two sections, the first section of book 1 and the second section of book 6, are not about actual battle operations or preparations. The former is a description of Gaul and its inhabitants; the latter is an account of customs of the Gauls and Germans.

In his comments about the Gauls, Caesar stirs the imagination and stimulates curiosity by giving only enough information to make the reader wish more had been written. The account of the Gallic Wars is a reminder that war has been a continual factor in human affairs. As one example of the fury and effectiveness of war in ancient times, Caesar comments at the end of his account of the battle with the Nervii: This battle being ended, and the name and nation of the Nervii almost reduced to annihilation, their old men, together with the boys and women whom we have stated had been collected together in the inlets and the marshes, when this battle had been reported to them, convinced that nothing was an obstacle to the conquerors, and nothing safe to the conquered, sent ambassadors to Caesar with the consent of all who survived, and surrendered themselves to him; and in recounting the calamity of their state, they said that their senators were reduced from six hundred to three; that of sixty thousand men who could bear arms, scarcely five hundred remained.

Other examples of the character of these ancient wars included the massacre at Avaricum, at which, according to Caesar, scarcely eight hundred people of all ages and both genders escaped the city when it was taken, out of a population of forty thousand; the rest were killed; while indiscriminate killing was the norm at Sarsura and the Euberones, among others.

Caesar the Roman administrator is apparent throughout the Commentaries. He writes in an impersonal fashion, however, much as though he were preparing a favorable report to the Roman senate. Only rarely does an individual come through to the reader as a real personality. Even Caesar himself, whose name figures more largely than any other, remains an official and a general rather than emerging as a clearly visualized person. The Gallic and Germanic chieftains who oppose him are little more than names, and the same is true of the lieutenants who serve under him. The only outstanding exception to this general statement is the passage concerning Sextius Baculus, who, sick though he was, arose from his bed and saved the day for the Romans by rallying their forces when they were attacked in a camp at Aduatuca; he fought bravely until he was carried back to rest.

Of particular interest to English-speaking readers are those portions of the Commentaries that deal with Britain and Caesar’s invasions of Britain. Caesar’s account of the early history of that part of the world is the earliest of the Roman documents. Caesar tells of his first expedition, an abortive one, made in 55 b.c.e., and his second and more successful attempt the following year, an invasion that paved the way for the Roman occupation that lasted until the fifth century c.e. For his second invasion, he ordered a fleet of more than eight hundred vessels built and assembled, a logistical success noteworthy in any era of history. This fleet carried two thousand cavalrymen with their mounts and five Roman legions, each consisting at that time of about five thousand men.

Caesar was a remarkable man, one of the greatest in human history, in the sense that greatness may be defined as leaving an indelible mark on the history of his time. Few such men have lived; fewer still have left written records for posterity; and none has left a document to compare with Caesar’s Commentaries. The book occupies a unique place in the written records of the Western world. In addition to its value as history, it deserves to be read as an example of a concise report presented with an idiosyncratic style and flavor. The military greatness of Julius Caesar is the most striking aspect of the eight books of his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. Whether you believe all of what is reported or not, this was an achievement of massive proportions.

*The Landmark edition of his commentaries is magnificent providing a new translation complemented by extensive footnotes, helpful maps, drawings, and illustrations. There are also useful appendices and even links to a series of scholarly essays on the Landmark web site.

Friday, August 13, 2021

The Study & Library of Cervantes

The House of Miguel de Cervantes in Valladolid, Spain*

"In Valladolid, readers of Don Quixote can stroll through the house occupied by Miguel de Cervantes from 1602 to 1605, the year in which the first part of the novel was published, and experience a voyeuristic thrill . . . . The house, though carefully restored, has necessarily been furnished with bits and pieces that never were in Crevantes's possession. Only the study, on the second floor, contains a few objects that most certainly belonged to him: not the "ebony and ivory" desk described in the will of his daughter, Isabel de Cervantes, but another, also mentioned in the document, "made of walnut, the largest one I possess," two paintings, one of Saint John and the other of the Virgin, a copper brazier, a chest for keeping papers and a single bookshelf holding some of the titles mentioned in his work. In this room he wrote several stories for his Exemplary Novels, and here he must have discussed with his friends the conception of his singular Quixote."

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, pp. 182-3.

*By Lourdes Cardenal - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Misunderstood Young Man

Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins
Pudd'nhead Wilson 
and Those Extraordinary Twins 

“Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple's sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.”   ― Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson

This is an unusual novel with more than one story interpolated within the overall account of the fall and rise of David "Pudd'nhead" Wilson. His story is that of a would be lawyer who has a clever remark of his misunderstood, which causes locals to brand him a "pudd'nhead" (nitwit). His hobby of collecting fingerprints does not raise his standing in the eyes of the townsfolk, who consider him to be eccentric and do not frequent his law practice in Dawson's Landing. How he overcomes this distinction holds the novel together.

There are at least two other stories that are interposed with his. In the first, A slave named Roxy who is one-sixteenth black and majority white, while her son Valet de Chambre (referred to as Chambers) is 1/32 black. Roxy is principally charged with caring for her wealthy and inattentive master's infant son Tom Driscoll, who is the same age as her own son. After fellow slaves are caught stealing and are nearly sold "down the river" to a master in the Deep South, Roxy fears for her son and herself. She considers killing her boy and herself, but decides to switch Chambers and Tom in their cribs to give her son a life of freedom and privilege.

In the other thread, twin Italian noblemen visit Dawson's Landing. Tom quarrels with one. Tom robs and murders his wealthy uncle, and the blame falls wrongly on one of the Italians. From that point, the novel proceeds as a crime novel. 
In a courtroom scene, the whole mystery is solved when Wilson demonstrates, through fingerprints, both that Tom is the murderer and not the true Driscoll heir.

Character and perception are important themes in Pudd'nhead Wilson. This is emphasized as Twain's narrative builds on the importance of character. In the maxim from Pudd'nhead Wilson's calendar about character, Twain underscores how the good and sensible character of a person may be completely destroyed or misconstrued by ridicule or false assumptions. Twain also elaborates on this with the arrival of David Wilson in the town of Dawson's Landing. Because of Wilson's clever remark about owning half a dog, the simple townspeople completely misjudged him as being an idiot, or "pudd'nhead". Through his character of Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain explores how people's motives, character, and personality can be misjudged and misunderstood.

While this is not the best of Twain's works, it has redeeming features and is notably one of the first novels to use the evidence of fingerprints in solving a judicial case.