Friday, October 31, 2008

Nevermore! (Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven)

This post was a hit last Halloween, so I thought I would re-run it. A classic by the original American horror writer, Edgar Allen Poe. You can read The Raven below or listen to Garrison Keillor read it, in fact, listen to his whole Halloween show, or watch the Vincent Price video at the bottom of the Wikipedia link, or the Simpson's episode. Anyway you get your dose, it's great fun. This is the original version with the original spelling.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visiter," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door --
Only this, and nothing more."
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; -- vainly I had tried to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow -- sorrow for the lost Lenore --
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore --
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me -- filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
"'Tis some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door --
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door; --
This it is, and nothing more."
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you " -- here I opened wide the door; ----
Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore!"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!" --
Merely this, and nothing more.

Then into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon I heard again a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore --
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;--
'Tis the wind and nothing more!"
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door --
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door --
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore --
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning -- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no sublunary being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door --
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered -- not a feather then he fluttered --
Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before --
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
Wondering at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster so when Hope he would adjure --
Stern Despair returned, instead of the sweet Hope he dared adjure --
That sad answer, "Never -- nevermore."
But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore --
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Angels whose faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee -- by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite -- respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore;
Let me quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! -- prophet still, if bird or devil! --
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted --
On this home by Horror haunted -- tell me truly, I implore --
Is there -- is there balm in Gilead? -- tell me -- tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil -- prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us -- by that God we both adore --
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore --
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
"Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting --
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! -- quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the raven "Nevermore."
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted -- nevermore!

Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

On Delaying gratification (Books - A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle & Old School by Tobias Woolf)

There is nothing like an enticing first paragraph.
Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all. Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold. If he'd been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor. Kennedy, thought - here was a warrior, an ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was a fox. And he read and wrote books, one of which, Why England Slept, was required reading in my honors history seminar. We recognized Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would have been a favorite here, roguish and literate, with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class.

If I didn't know the setting of Tobias Wolff's Old School was a boarding school, I would still have pegged the narrator for an adolescent male and I still would have been hot to read it for its diction, and a tone that seems elegiac for a time gone by. So, why then am I reading A Ring of Light one of Madeleine L'Engle's Austin Family Chronicles series? Especially with all of her religiosity hanging out all over the place? Well, I swore I would read another of L'Engle's books since Sheila (who has a great post on Diner today, one of my favorite movies) enjoys her so much. She is very imaginative. It moves very quickly. I read twenty-five pages last night in under fifteen minutes. And the introduction, written by L'Engle's granddaughters has this to say:
All of Madeliein's writing, fiction and nonfiction, was an example of how all narrative is fiction, and all fiction can be true. She wrote and lectured extensively on the difference between truth and fact, arguing that it is through story that we human beings approach the truth, not through facts; which can only get us so far. As her granddaughters, this was both liberating and confusing...
I am crazy about narrative and its function and so was taken with the introduction. I almost even agree with it, except to say that I think that we human beings approach not truth itself, but rather the feeling of truth, and that that is an important distinction. But as I weighed these two books in my hands last night, reading a page here and a page there, there is nothing particularly impressive about her writerly skills displayed in the early pages of this book, but her writing has a warmth and she renders the messiness of being in a family with verissimilitude. I also had a feeling that I would really like Old School, so I delayed reading it so that I can look forward to it. Is that daft or do you know what I mean?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Lilting, melodic anti-mystery (Books - Christine Falls by Benjamin Black aka John Banville)

The ending of Benjamin Black's (aka John Banville's) anti-mystery, Christine Falls, did not disappoint.
He was angry again, he was not sure why, exactly, for what he had learned from Sister Anselm had not been news to him, not really. He had begun to consider the possibility that this unfocused anger would be the condition of his life from now on, that he would have to keep bouncing along before it helplessly forever, like a piece of litter buffeted by an unceasing wind.
A detective who is not really a detective, who investigates a crime, or possibly just an accident, that resulted from a wrong-doing he suspects his brother to have committed, but that man is not really his brother. I enjoyed the fact that somehow, even in this anti-mystery, the final scenes are set at a manor house with all the suspects present, but there is no denouement scene, with the detective gathering everyone in the drawing room. Rather, they gather without him as he watches from the distance.
He watched them gathering, and followed them into the drawing rom, where the funeral meats were set out, and as he listened to the hubbub of their mingled and clashing voices, a sense almost of physical revulsion welled up in him. These were the people who had killed Christine Falls and her child, who had sent the torturers after Doly Moran, who had ordered that he be thrown down those slimed steps and kicked and beaten to within an inch of his life. Oh, not all of them; no doubt there were those among them who were innocent, innocent of these particular crimes, at least. And he, how innocent was he? What right did he have to stand upon a height and look down on them, he who had not even found the courage to...
Here the real conundrum is moral ambiguity and the fact that this anti-detective is in some way connected to all the dirty business involving pregnant Catholic women and their babies. In this anti-mystery, the story is all caught up not in events but in character, and Quirke, our anti-detective is, like many John Banville characters, a ruminative man. The mystery is an interesting one, sure, but not so interesting as its affect on Quirke. That is the meat of Black-Banville's book. That and the precise, sad, and melodic prose of a crack writer.
She told him, in that wispy voice she had developed lately, that sounded as if it was wearing out and would soon be just a sort of sighing, a sort of breathing, with no words.
While a mystery is uncovered in this book, this writer takes the time to get what people look and sound like and what events mean just right. It also does not spoon-feed the reader, emblazoning explanations of who did what with ribbons and fanfare. We learn as Quirke learns - by implication, by accident. When we know who did it, the moment almost slips by - an anti-moment for an anti-mystery.

Great story - thanks Sheila. Here are my other thoughts on Christine Falls 1, 2, 3.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Literary Criticism 101

Let me mention, if you haven't already read it, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus, has written a review of John Updike's latest novel The Widows of Eastwick, that occupies the cover page of this Sunday's issue. It is richly contextualized by a thorough reading of Updike's large body of work, a well-informed cultural perspective, and is warmly appreciative of Updike's writing. It sent me immediately to the New York Public Library website to reserve a few books. Tanenhaus writes the kind of literary criticism I can only aspire to:
The genius inheres in the precise observation, in the equally precise language, but above all in the illusion that the image has been received and processed in real time, when in truth Updike has slowed events to a dreamlike pace and given them a dream's hyperreality, so that the distinction between the actual and the imagined feels erased.

That is a hell of a sentence, and aspire I will.

Raw Theatre Prettied Up for Hollywood (Film - Dreamgirls)

On a completely different note, The Ragazzo borrowed the DVD of Dreamgirls from the library and we watched it last night. I saw the show on Broadway back in the early 1980s and I find the piece much more suited to the stage than film. The film is prettied up and I don't really like the pop-i-fied take on the music. I know it suits the contemporary artists they cast and the tastes of this age, but the original music had a more gospel/R&B sound to it, as did the music of the age of the story. I found it a particularly strange choice considering that the show is about having integrity and going your own way, but I get why they did it. The Broadway take also had these fantastic sections of what, in opera, one would call sprechstimme. A type of music that is both conversationally spoken and also sung at the same time. I remember this from the original Broadway show because it was an almost classical musical touch, but done in the lingo of urban African American culture that was entirely familiar to me from daily life. It was very exciting to hear and made the acting and singing one thing. In the film, although it was done with skill, lines were either spoken or sung and they were rarely acted with the energy, character, or precision of the Broadway show. The exceptions were Eddie Murphy, the man can sing, move, act, - he really is the most incredible chameleon -and newcomer Jennifer Hudson. While she does not have the seismic force of Jennifer Holliday, who created the role of Effie on stage, she brings the role and especially her big aria - I'm Not Going - a refinement all her own. And her talent just oozes out of her. Beyonce does the Diana Ross role justice and really does sing the hell out of her big song. Jamie Foxx should be singled out for a performance which, no matter which facet you examine - singing, acting, or just walking across a space - is utterly lacking in talent, charisma, or basic sense. He doesn't even emote badly, and he sure can't sing. They put seven different wigs on him and changed his costumes about 150 times. It doesn't help. He's a walking void. All in all the movie is too refined and packaged a take on this show for my taste, but it is a good story and some of the songs are satisfying. For those of you who have never seen it. Here's a link to an excerpt of the original stage production from the 1982 Tony Awards on YouTube. I remember the moment in the usually staid awards show that the audience started shouting - the place went beserk. Jennifer Holliday does not do the pretty-picture version of this part. It is down and dirty and spectacular.

Art Built on Character (Book - Christine Falls)

A full day in the lab and a computer problem caused by a Windows update kept me from ever getting to my computer yesterday, but without the internet I was able to watch a movie and almost finish Christine Falls. Around 50 pages from the end one already knows who did it, in fact, I have known that for some time (I think). There are two worlds in this story - one involved in perpetuating crime and one trying to uncover it. At a certain point the 'perps' are made known but there is a great distance between Quirke, our pathologist turned detective, and that other world. And in that other world, shady dealings are still going on and so a tension is created as I hope they will come together. As past events reveal themselves, one uncovers dealings that are quite purely evil - there are moral shades of grey - which make what is being uncovered more interesting still. I know I am being vague, but intentionally so as this is a story worth reading. Even if you are not typically into mysteries, or perhaps especially if you aren't. This is really an anti-mystery. The crime is certainly a crime, but likely didn't start that way. The detective is not really a detective, just a pathologist and the brother of a man who is somehow involved in the crime. And Benjamin Black makes these anti-genre intentions known with a smirk. After being physically attacked, Quirke goes to see a police detective involved in the case:
"Have there been any developments in the Dolly Moran case?" Quirke asked.
For a moment Hackett was silent and then began to laugh wheezily, his shoulders shaking. The tall, high-windowed housefronts seemed to peer down upon him in surprise and cold disapproval. "Ah, God, Mr. Quirke," he said with rich enjoyment, "you must go to the pictures an awful lot." He lifted his hand with the heel of the same hand wiped his brow and resettled the hat at a sharper angle. "Developments, now - let me see. We have a full set of fingerprints, of course, and a couple of locks of hair. Oh, and a cigarette butt - Balkan Sobrainie, I recognized the ash straightaway - and a lucky monkey's paw dropped by a person of Oriental origin, a lascar, most likely." He grinned, showing the tip of his tongue between his teeth. "No, Mr. Quirke, there have been no developments. Unless, of course, you'd call it a development that I've been directed to drop the investigation." Quirke stared at him and he tapped a finger to the side of his nose, still smiling. "Orders from on high," he said softly.
A hilarious swipe at Sherlock Holmes, or any classic mystery. Benjamin Black's anti-genre intentions are also made plain by the form of the same excerpt. In a pop novel of a more expected ilk, we would a) know nothing about any peering housefronts and b) this scene would not be laid out as one paragraph, but as several. Each bit of dialogue on a separate line to move the eye along, as the only thing that usually develops in a conventional mystery is plot. But here character is developed while the plot moves forward and their integrity is communicated by that unbroken block of text. Their integrity is essential because the mystery here is not who did it, but why certain people are involved in these crimes. Bad things appear to have been done by relatively well intentioned people. Ah, but character is everything in this thoughtful mystery, because issues of morality are entirely driven by individual circumstances. Very few people don't know what's basically 'right,' but circumstances make them forget, or think they are the exception. This is where Black's writing shines.
Dolly Moran, done to death for the keeping of a diary; Christine Falls and Christine Falls's child, both lost and soon to be forgotten; all of them, all scorned by him, unvalued, ignored, betrayed even. And then there was Quirke himself, the Quirke he was taking grim measure of, Quirke dodging into Mcgonagle's of an afternoon to drink his whiskey and laugh at the memorials in the Mail - what right had he to laugh, how much better was he than the joxer scratching his balls over the racing pages or the drunken poet contemplating his failures in the bottom of a glass? He was like this leg, cocooned in the solid plaster of his indifference and selfishness. Again that face with the black-rimmed glasses and the stained teeth rose before him in the darkness of the window like a malign moon, the face, he realized, that would be with him always, the face of his nemesis.
This sad contemplation displays such a lilting melody, and to use his own broken leg as a metaphor in this internal monologue is so... right. Another writer would chose a clever metaphor (actually, it's a simile) picked out of his own quiver, whereas here, the character chooses the simile from the force of his own circumstances. Ruing his own powerlessness, looking around him in this bar and seeing his own leg encased in something he cannot move, and snorting at it for its aptness. It is as if the writer is really an actor here.

Then, about fifty pages from the end, where I am now, Benjamin Black lobs a zinger into the plot. On the one hand, it really reeks a tad of melodrama, but I must admit I did not see it coming. Again I must be vague. But this development complicates the question of goodness and badness of certain behavior still further and really has me wanting to get to the end, to see how it all fits together. But I can't because I have so much school work to do today. That and a chamber music concert this evening.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Literary Couples... and one threesome

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Monica suggested this one:

Got this idea from Literary Feline during her recent contest:

“Name a favorite literary couple and tell me why they are a favorite. If you cannot choose just one, that is okay too. Name as many as you like–sometimes narrowing down a list can be extremely difficult and painful. Or maybe that’s just me.”

Franny and Zooey. Actually the couple I really love in Salinger's book is Zooey and his mother, Bessie. The ultimate in nagging mother and a son who knows he can get away with anything. Raskolnikov and Porfiry (Dostoyevki's Crime and Punishment) I cannot think of a more intimate literary relationship - criminal and confessor. Holmes and Watson, 'nuff said. Poirot and Hastings, I always thought this one of the great faithful literary relationships, Poirot really has a soft spot for his dull old spaniel-like companion and Hastings, like a good wife, lets Poirot think that it is always he that is the smarter one. Sebastian and Charles from Brideshead Revisted. Their love in the book's opening chapters is the most sweetly idylic of any I have ever read. On the filp side, Leontes and Hermione (Shakespeare's Winter's Tale) are probably the most realistic couple here. Leontes is flawed to the core and any lasting relationship has to have some forgiveness built into it. Narcissus and Goldmund (of the Hesse novel by the same title), Adrian Leverkuhn and his biographer Serenus Zeitblom (Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann) the whole book is their incredible relationship. I'm not sure which relationship to site in In E. M. Forster's Maurice. Clive is the first great love of Maurice's life, but their relationship is doomed and it is Alec Scudder with whom Maurice can supposedly finally find some happiness, although considering the intolerance of the time period, I was always a little skeptical of the relationship's longevity. Jan and Franklin from The Goldbug Variations by Richard Powers. What a love affair! But it wouldn't exist without the catalyst of Dr. Stuart Ressler, so in some ways this might count as a threesome. And finally, the first literary couple I was ever introduced to - little blue and little yellow (from the book of the same title). P.S. They make green.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Morbid relfections (Books - Christine Falls by Benjamin Black)

It sometimes seemed to him that he favored dead bodies over living ones. Yes, he harbored a sort of admiration for cadavers, these wax-skinned, soft, suddenly ceased machines. They were perfected, in the their way, no matter how damaged or decayed, and fully as impressive as any ancient marble. He suspected, too, that he was becoming more and more like them, that he was even in some way becoming one of them. He would stare at his hands and they would seem to have the same texture, inert, malleable, porous, as the corpses that he worked on, as if something of their substance were seeping into him by slow but steady degrees. Yes, he was fascinated by the mute mysteriousness of the dead. Each corpse carried its unique secret - the precise cause of death - a secret that it was his task to uncover. For him, the spark of death was fully as vital as the spark of life.
- Benjamin Black, I mean, John Banville, from Christine Falls

This paragraph makes me glad that a great writer (and a reflective mind) wanted to write mysteries.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Tragedy of Insistence on Conformity (Books - Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse)

Hermann Hesse's second novel, Beneath the Wheel, is an indictment of the seminary-based educational system available to young men in late ninetheenth century Germany. A system full of intense pressure, overbearing workload, and insistence on conformity. Hesse himself fell victim to it, attempting suicide in his youth, so the passion of his argument should come as little surprise. But this is a novel too, full of rich evocations of youthfull landmarks - intense friendships, fear of authority, and first stirrings of sexual passion. These are lyrically expressed, the passion is served up poetic, rather than raw. The result is a little over-romanticized for my taste. One could argue that Hans Giebenrath's realm of experience (or, indeed, Hesse's) was this innocent, that it was a function of the time, or his villagae upbringing. It is hard for me to believe that any teenager grew up this chastely.

Hans is not only an innocent, but a serious student, bearing the full weight of his teachers' and his father's expectations fully on his back. The most formative and beautiful experience Hans has at the academy is his friendship with Hermann Heilner.
With some astonishment Hans discovered how different all things looked to his friend than to him. Nothing was abstract for Heilner, nothing he could not have imagined and colored with his fantasy. Mathematics, as far as he was concerned, was a Sphinx charged with deceitful puzzles whose cold malicious gaze transfixed her victimes, and he gave the monster wide berth.
Ultimately, however, the story is not a sweet, but a tragic one. Hans only has his eyes opened to a few new experiences, something one would hope for anyone preparing to move from childhood to adulthood. But these philosophical and physical stirrings make it hard for him to relate to any part of his life as he did before. His world becomes larger. The old rules no longer hold. And the adults in his midst are unable to show him ways he might continue to stay interested, other than simply to be obedient.
All these conscientious guides of youth - from the headmaster to Father Gibenrath, professors and tutors - regarded Hans as an impediment in their path, a recalcitrant and listless something which had to be compelled to move. No one, except perhpas Wiedrich, the sympathtic tutur, detected behind the slight noby's helpless smile the suffering of a drowning soul casting about desperately. Nor did it occur to any of them that a fragile creature had been reduced to this state by virtue of school and the barbaric ambition of his father and his grammar-school teacher.
I wonder what Hesse would have thought of today's famously over-scheduled children, running from soccer, to play practise, to SAT prep course every afternoon of the week?

One of the lovliest sections of writing is occassioned by the greatest tragedy, the accidental death of a student named Hindinger, the son of a tailor from Allgau.

The teachers apparently regarded a dead student very differently from a living one. They realized for a fleeting moment how irrecoverable and unique is each life and youth, on whom they perpetrated so much thoughtless harm at other times...

Then came the burial. The coffin was given a place of honor in the dormitory and the tailor from Allgau stood beside it, watching everything that was being done. He was a tailor from head to toe; skinny and angular, he wore a black dresscoat with a greenish sheen to it, and narrow skimpy trousers. In his hand he held a shabby top hat. His small thin face looked grieved, sad and week, like a penny-candle in the wind; he was both embarrassed and overawed by the headmaster and the professors.

At the last moment, just before the pallbearers picked up the coffin, the sorry little man stepped forward once more and touched the coffin lid with timid tenderness. He remained there, helplessly fighting his tears, standing in the large quiet room like a withered tree in the winter - it was sorrowful to behold how lost and hopeless and at the mercy of the element he looked. The pastor took him by the hand and stayed at his side. The tailor put on his fantastically curved top hat and was the first to follow the coffin down the steps, across the cloister, through the old gate and across the white countryside toward the low churchyard wall. While singing hymns at the graveside the students annoyed the music-teacher by not watching his hand beating time. Instead they looked at the lonely, wind-blown figure of the little tailor who stood sad and freezing in the snow, listening with bowed head to the pastor's and headmaster's speeches, nodding to the students, and occasionally fishing with his left hand for a handekerchief in his coat without ever extracting it.

Beneath the Wheel is a swift moving, tragic yet passionate novel. I admire work that comes from strong feeling but nonetheless displays evidence of craft. I am glad that the German lit challenge floating around grabbed my will-o'-the-wisp attention so that I might re-read some Hesse. I think I might try a few more. In the meantime, here is my other post about Beneath the Wheel.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The duality of human nature (Books - Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse)

After having the mother of bw over for dinner last night (tortellini con brodo - I had made homemade broth on saturday when we had our first really chilly day) I settled in with Hermann Hesse's Beneath the Wheel, which I haven't read in about 25 years. I'm surprised how much of the story I remember. Hans Giebenrath is the young pride-and-joy of a small Swabian mill town, being the first young student gifted enough to sit for and pass the exams to attend the state theological academy. The book's opening first describes the father and then the son:
...jobber and middleman, possessed no laudable or peculiar traits distinguishing him from his fellow townsmen. Like the majority, he was endowed with a sturdy and healthy body, a knack for business and an unabashed, heartfelt veneration of money; not to mention a small house and garden, a family plot in the cemetery, a more or less enlightened if threadbare attachment to the church, an appropriate respect for god and the authorities and blind submission to the inflexible laws of bourgeois respectability. Though no teetotaler, he never drank to excess; though engaged in more than one questionable deal, he never transgressed the limits of what was legally permitted. He despised those poorer than himself as have-nots and those wealthier as show-offs...

In every respect, his inner life was that of a Philistine. The 'sensitive' side of his personality had long since corroded and now consisted of little more than a traditional rough-and-ready 'family sense,' pride in his only son. and an occasional charitable impulse toward the poor...Enough of him. It would require a profound satirist to represent the shallowness and unconscious tragedy of this man's life. But he had a son, and there's more to be said about him.
Hans Giebenrath was, beyond doubt, a gifted child. One gathered as much simply by noting the subtle and unusual impression he made on his fellow students. Their Black Forest village was not in the habit of producing prodigies. So far it had not brought forth anyone whose vision and effect had transcended its narrow confines. Only god knows where this boy got his serious and intelligent look and his elegant movements. Had he inherited them from his mother?
Hesse's chief obsession was the duality of human nature - the natural and impulsive along side the measured and ambitious - and his books waged a campaign for the value of cultivating the individual, creative, soulful side of ones nature. This book observes how the German educational system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and indeed a whole way of life that might be termed 'traditional' crushed the life out of the individual spirit. The style of education at that time was predominantly classical. The basis of one's education was learning Latin and Greek, alongside German and some math. Seminary students also learned Hebrew. It's fascinating to me to read a fictionalized case for overthrowing tradition in a story that itself seems so representative of what is traditional, but that may be because half my family comes from Southern Germany. I really recognize this lyrical story-telling style, the romanticizing of childhood, the ways Hesse describes the natural world - they are very familiar to me. I am also re-reading this book, having read all of Hesse's book when I was in my teens and twenties. My reading then was partly about absorbing this part of my heritage at a time I was forming a sense of who I was. I really identified with my maternal grandparents, and a lot of the things that formed my intellectual and spiritual identity come from them. I tend to rebel against the predictability, the sureness of the bourgeois side of that culture, but a lot of this book feels like what I come from. Part of that impression might also be created by Michael Roloff's 1960s translation. I don't know if it is his style or Hesse's own that, even in talking about overturning tradition, reads as so quotidian and measured. I suppose one also might say that it reads as unambitious - getting out of the way of the story - and is, in that sense, fitting.

At the academy, Hans Giebenrath - the naive boy trying to live up to his Village's ambitions for him - meets Hermann Heilner a sensitive,rebellious and creative boy, and his sense of what life can be begins to open up. Hesse seems to offer these characters as externalizations of the two sides of human nature, at least that is the impression I am forming half-way into Beneath the Wheel. I see my own dualities - the creative and the scientific, the impulsive and the controlled - playing out before me in this novel.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Whatever happened to...? (Books - Christine Falls by Benjamin Black aka John Banville)

Jude the Obscure
(in progress)
Among the Russians
Proust and the Squid

Red Cavalry (in progress)
The Solitudes (started, don't know if I'll get through it)
Rhythms of the Brain
Neuroscience of Cognitive Development
(in progress)
Attachment, Play, and Authenticity (in progress)
The Dead Fish Museum
In the Land of No Right Angles

Do you see Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Christine Falls, or Beneath the Wheel anywhere on this list? Not to mention Old School or The Meaning of Night (soon to arrive in the mail). No? Well neither do I. I guess it's official. I've fallen off the list. It was bound to happen, I can only comfort myself with the fact that it took two months rather than two weeks. So much in the rest of life is obligatory. Pleasure reading must be frolicsome, I need to feel free to roam.

That being said
It was not the dead that seemed to Quirke uncanny but the living. When he walked into the morgue long after midnight and saw Malachy Griffin there he felt a shiver along his spine that was to prove prophetic, a tremor of troubles to come. Mal was in Quirke's office, sitting at the desk. Quirke stopped in the unlit body room, among the shrouded forms on the trolleys, and watched him through the open doorway. He was seated with his back to the door, leaning forward intently in his steel-framed spectacles, the desk lamp lighting the left side of his face and making an angry pink glow through the shell of his ear. He had a file open on the desk before him and was writing in it with peculiar awkwardness. This would have struck Quirke as stranger than it did if he had not been drunk. The scene sparked a memory in him from their school days together, startlingly clear, of Mal, intent like this, sitting at a desk among fifty other earnest students in a big hushed hall, as he laboriously composed an examination essay, with a beam of sunlight falling slantways on him from a window somewhere high above. A quarter of a century later he still had the smooth seal's head of oiled black hair, scrupulously combed and parted.

This is John Banville's alter-ego Benjamin Black's opening paragraph to Christine Falls, and while Banville may be slumming in another genre and feeling as frolicsome in his writing as I do in my reading, it doesn't seem to compromise the quality any. In just one paragraph and we have setting, characters established - drunk and dreamy versus earnest, angry and scrupulous, and character background promising the tension of the emotions of early friendships, a stark image, and an atmosphere of forboding - all written with clarity and beauty.

Mal is the son of a powerful judge Garrett Griffin. In his childhood, Griffin adopts Quirke from an orphanage and seems to favor Quirke as the boys grow up. But Malachy marries the woman Quirke loved and becomes a reputable obstetrition while Quirke becomes a pathologist and, his life not quite dealing him what he had hoped for, takes to drinking. The first fifty pages are reminding me a bit of East of Eden, with that brotherly theme playing prominently. Thanks for the recommendation, Sheila. I have also begun a nostalgic re-read of Beneath the Wheel as I have seen a German book challenge floating around the blog-o-sphere. I'm not doing the challenge, owing to my frolicsome nature, but I have been inspired by it. I was crazy about Hesse in my early twenties, so I am curious to see how he holds up to re-reading.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Room of Her Own

Virginia Woolf's writing room at Monk's House in Sussex from The Guardian's series, Writer's Rooms. George Bernard Shaw, Jane Austen, and Anne Enright are there too. I love these.

Happy, happy they that in hell feel not the world's despite (Books - Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick)

I first read Philip K. Dick's Flow my Tears, The Policeman Said at some point around 1983, eleven years after it was written and just five year before it was set. At that point is was already clear how his fictional imaginings of the 'future' in this book would fall short. We were clearly not five years from driving personal airplanes rather than cars, nor would picture telephones be de rigeur. Twenty years later we would still not carry around 3-D pictures of our loved ones, build 4-dimensional rooms (whatever they are), or use the words 'mellow' and 'dig' quite so often. However, the police would have devices attached to people they are not holding in jail but want to keep track of , and nearly everything would be computerized (although we would no longer require punch cards for that process), and there would be a network you could plug into and get lost for hours or days with everything from imaginary games to sex - but it would be via the computer rather than the telephone. But he wasn't writing science fiction to be a prognosticator, Philip K. Dick was more of a philosopher. He wrote about future worlds to imagine the consequences of the one he lived in. That is, he really wrote about his present, and his creations are a combination of thoughtful erudition and thriller-like plots.

This book, for example, is one long chase scene housing a philosophical meditation on what makes life worth living, and quotes from a John Dowling lute song. Jason Taverner, a famous television host and singer, and a type of human called a '6,' wakes up to find himself in a world almost exactly like the one he left, only he doesn't exist in it. No one has ever heard of him- a virtual nightmare for someone who enjoys his celebrity. So this book is, on the one hand, an exploration of how we define ourselves. Are we addicted to the approval of others? Do we rely only on ourselves? Does work define us? Can we live with the dark in us, or do we try to drown it out with messages of comfort or obliterate it with drugs? In his new world Taverner must get false documents and is pursued by a learned police general and they have have a game of cat and mouse that is evocative of the one between Raskolnikov and Porfiry, the criminal and police officer of Crime and Punishment. This duel is complicated by General Buckman's profligate sister, Alys, who is a key to the twist on which the plot turns. I won't spoil it for you, since that is one of the pleasures of reading a Philip K. Dick novel.

There is a triad of women Taverner encounters on his journey who are contrast enjoyably and are central to the plot. First there is Kate, the document forgerer he engages to make him false identification. She doubles an informer, adding tracking devices to the IDs for the police to get her husband out of forced labor, but she doesn't always turn her customers in. Sometimes she likes them and helps them out instead. She has some sort of mental illness that has her careening from a vulnerable little girl one minute to a ruthlessly manipulative operative the next, and when pushed to her limit, she simply lies down on the floor and screams. In some ways, she is every person - living by a moral code that is not absolute but flexible, and driven by her comfort level with other people, her fear, and her need for love. And she has a breaking point where her need becomes blinding and absolute.

Then there is Ruth Rae, the aging huanter of Vegas nightclubs, now on her 21st husband.
Ruth still had beautiful black hair, all coiled in an upsweep at the back of her head. Featherplastic eyelashes, brilliant purple streaks across her cheek, as if she had been seared by psychedelic tiger claws.

Dressed in a colorful sari, barefoot - as usual she had kicked off her high-heeled shoes, somewhere - and not wearing her glasses, she did not strike him as bad-looking. Ruth Rae, he mused. Sews her own clothes. Bifocals which she never wears when anyone's around...excluding me. Does she still read the Book-of-the-Month selection? Does she still get off reading those endless dull novels about sexual misdeeds in weird, small, but apparently normal Midwestern towns?

Somehow, I don't think that the fashions of the late sixties and early seventies would be endlessly perpetuated through the ages, but if you can get past this distraction, it is Ruth who drives home the central theme of this novel.
..."Love isn't just wanting another person the way you want to own an object you see in a store. That's just desire. You want to have it around, take it home and set it up somewhere in the apartment like a lamp. Love is" - she pause, reflecting, - "like a father saving his children from a burning house, getting them out and dying himself. When you love you cease to live for yourself; you live for another person."

"And that's good?" It did not sound so good to him...

..."It's better not to love so that never happens to you. Even a pet, a dog or a cat. As you pointed out - you love them and they perish. If the death of a rabbit is bad - " He had, then, a glimpse of horror: the crushed bones and hair of a girl, held and leaking blood, in the jaws of a dimply-seen enemy outlooming any dog.

"But you can grieve," Ruth said, anxiously studying his face. "Jason! Grief is the most powerful emotion a man or child or animal can feel. It's a good feeling."

"In what fucking way?" he said harshly.

"Grief causes you to leave yourself. You step outside your narrow little pelt. And you can't feel grief unless you've had love before it - grief is the final outcome of love, because it's love lost.

Ok, the love and sacrifice stuff is pretty cliched, but the novel is written in a popular idiom. This theme is endlessly played out because it is a universal and timeless conflict. How many movies, novels, pop songs, plays, television plots can you think of about the need for love and the fear of commitment (particularly when it comes to the young Western male). But Ruth Rae's point about grief is about one of the requirements for love - vulnerability. Without being open, we can't really love, and if we're open we risk being hurt.

The third muse, Mary Anne Dominic, is an insecure, overweight woman who makes pottery. Despite the fact that Taverner only sees her lack of superficial beauty when he first meets her, and only relates to her as someone who can help him (come to think of it, that is pretty much how he relates to everyone), and despite the fact that we learn she was emotionally crippled by her mother and this has made her neurotically fearful, her modesty and her self sufficiency end up making her the most attractive of the three women, and the most valuable to Jason Taverner's growth.

If you can get past the silliness of the 1970s lingo, the story is entertaining and at times quite gripping, and I found its discussion meaningful, even sophisticated. I am going to re-read a few more of Philip K. Dick's books and see how they hold up.

Flow my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled forever let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

Down, vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are black enough for those
That in despair their lost fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to condemn light.
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dreams, futile and vain

btt button

Okay–here was an interesting article by Christopher Schoppa in the Washington Post.

Avid readers know all too well how easy it is to acquire books — it’s the letting go that’s the difficult part. … During the past 20 years, in which books have played a significant role in both my personal and professional lives, I’ve certainly had my fair share of them (and some might say several others’ shares) in my library. Many were read and saved for posterity, others eventually, but still reluctantly, sent back out into the world.

But there is also a category of titles that I’ve clung to for years, as they survived numerous purges, frequent library donations and countless changes of residence. I’ve yet to read them, but am absolutely certain I will. And should. When, I’m not sure, as I’m constantly distracted by the recent, just published and soon to be published works.

So, the question is his: “What tomes are waiting patiently on your shelves?

What characterizes those books that hang around and have even, in some cases, moved from place to place with me but aren't literally on the to-be-read list, is fantasy, sentimentality, or obedience. That is, I have some vision of myself reading them or being well read enough to have read them (fantasy), I keep them because they were part of my library or my grandparents' library and I can't part with them (sentimentality), or The Ragazzo won't let me throw them out because he thinks that he is going to read them or that they will be good 'guest room books,' if we ever have a guest room (his fantasy or sentimentality, my obedience).

In the third category are numerous books from the days when the Ragazzo did freelance editing and proofreading for a publishing company, and there is this series called A History of Private Life. I originally bought the volumes imagining they would be good research resources for plays and operas I was directing. I rarely used them and still have three volumes, The Rennaisance, Pagan Rome and Byzantium, and the Medieval world. I guess my fantasy of having read those has been transferred to The Ragazzo because I am no longer deluding myself on that score. In the second category are a number of books from my grandparents in German, which I don't read fluently, mostly poetry, and some original copies of All Quiet on the Western Front, The Golem, and some of Thomas Mann's novels. Others are in English, like a complete set of Andre Gide's diaries.

Then there is that first category, which the majority of books-in-waiting occupy. Take Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (please! take it!). I have tried valiantly. I have vainly imagined myself as being the person who has read it, but I never will. The same with The Crisis of Reason - European Thought, 1848 to 1914. I want to have read it, I bought it because of my obsession with the modernist period - let's say 1899 - 1920 - I figured it would be good to think about what preceeded it. It hasn't happened. Even now I look at it and think - this looks interesting! I should read it. I have a number of books on the modernist period which are well read, but others languish on the shelves - a book on Wittgenstein's Vienna, another on the Bauhaus movement, a history of fin-de siecle Vienna, and another on Expressionism in Twentieth Century Music. I have a number of books on the history of Saint Petersburg (Russia, not Florida). I haven't read those either. And I try to read Orlando Figge's cultural history of Russia called Natasha's Dance annually, but it has yet to capture my interest for more than 100 pages. Maybe when I retire. There are a bunch of books of source material for future imagined theatre or opera projects like, Visionaries about Marian visionaries (visions of the virgin Mary) - I had a whole plot sketched out that I thought would make a good opera. There is another show I had envisioned based on Aramis or The Love of Technology, a book about a guided-transportation system once designed for Paris that has never been realized. It combines the idea of an electrically powered subway system with the individual flexibility of the car and was among the technological fantasies envisioned to reduce our reliance on gas powered vehicles for individuals. I had a show idea about abandoned inventions and I guess I hang on to the book as a few poor sods probably hang on to the notion that some day the guided transportation idea might be revived. What romantics we are.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Some goodies soon to arrive, some from the library and some from the book shops. Midterm this week, so I think I needed something to look forward to.

I saw a post by Katherine, who is always walking into some bookstore or other, on Michael Cox's The Glass of Time, a Wilkie Collins-ish mystery. That sounded like fun but, it turns out, this book is the sequel to The Meaning of Night, so I decided I would read the first volume first. The Meaning of Night seems most remarked upon for its length, which is not necessarily a good sign, but it is compared to Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and The Quincunx, which I loved. So when I can hunker down with a good long saga, probably over winter break, I will dig into this one.

Now where did I read about this one? I have to be better about noting these things down. Someone raved about it. I am familiar with the plays of Swiss writer Max Frisch, but have never read one of his novels. Man in the Holocene was published in the late 1970s and concerns Herr Geiser, who lives alone in the Ticino - the Italian-speaking section of Switzerland. Through several days of heavy rains and threats of landslides he contemplates the fragility of memory and his existence. Not everyone's cup of tea most probably, but the writing is meant to be gorgeous and it is described that the violence of the terrain and the quietness of an interior monologue make for a meaningful parable.

Ring of Endless Light is about a young girl looking for love while coming to terms with the death of her grandfather. It's by Madeleine L'Engle whose writing I adore and whose penchant for slipping religious messages into her work I hate, but Sheila recommended so, enough said.

Everyone was writing Old School a few weeks back. I read about it on Books for Breakfast and I know that Matt wrote about it. Boys in a New England prep school compete in a poetry contest in 1960 as they await the fall of Camelot with the murder of John F. Kennedy, and the important cultural shifts that rocked America in the explosion of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. I enjoyed some of Wolff's short stories so I am looking forward to sinking my teeth into a novel by him.

In the meantime, as I study for my midterm and try to choose a paper topic my poor little brain cannot handle Middlemarch so I decided to re-read some Philip K. Dick and chose Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. He was already a bit dated when I read him in the 1980s, I'm curious how he will hold up 25 years later.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Normality may be dangerous

A story in today's Science Times about the variance in quality of MRI scans by Gina Kolata made me think not about MRI per se but rather about the notion of quality in health care. Kolata tells a few anecdotes about colleagues whose MRIs did not lead to a diagnosis of a problem that turned out to be serious. The article doesn't discuss the frequency of these errors but suggests that use of MRI is likely to be variable for several reasons. Different body tissues respond differently to MRI scans, individual MRI machines vary enormously in the age of their technology and what software they use, certain machines and settings are better for certain types of tissue, skills among technicians who run the equipment vary, and finally many radiologists who read scans are specialized for scans of bone as opposed to, say, lung tissue, others are generalists. Their conclusion? Doctors shouldn't rely on scans alone but on good history taking and a thorough examination. All well and good, machines aren't perfect and the people who run them and interpret their results aren't either. No surprises there. But this made me think of Atul Gawande's terrific book Better (my post about it is here), probably because I was talking with a colleague about it yesterday at the lab, and about Gawande's observation that, like every other industry, medicine's performance can be charted on the bell curve, i.e., most performance is average. Gawande writes:
It belies the promise that we make to patients: that they can count on the medical system to give them their very best chance. It also contradicts the belief nearly all of us have that we are doing our job as well as it can be done.

The thing about the normal curve (pictured left) is that it is, well, normal. It defines a phenomenon in nature. By definition most people's performance falls in the middle, the numbers of those who are a little above or below average is smaller, and those who are exceptionally bad or good are very rare. If you improve the average score with a series of trainings, it is likely that the other scores will settle about that central score in the same pattern. And if occasionally someone's performance goes off the charts as exceptionally good or bad because they won a prize that boosted their confidence, or they experienced a personal tragedy, over time their performance will tend to become closer to average again - this is regression to the mean. It is a truism - the average performance is, by definition, average. Anyhoo, my point is that exceptional performance in any industry, even one that cares for our health - one where we want better than average care if we can get it - is abnormal. If it that is your aim you must find a way to constantly throw nature off course.

Kolata's article quotes a Dr. at Massachusetts General Hospital as saying:
"musculoskeletal MRIs are read by someone who does musculoskeletal imaging every day"... It pays to check the credentials of a center's radiologists.
But that got me thinking, is hyperspecialization really the answer? (I don't mean I want an anesthesiologist switching with a plastic surgeon every other thursday, but I am questioning reading only one kind of scan day in and day out). I can think of at least two advantages of specialization 1) the medical and technological knowledge base is forever growing and no one can keep up with every advance; 2) specialists develop expertise because they look at a far greater number of bone scans than they do liver scans and we want those with the most exposures to our type of tissue to be reading our scan - don't we? I'm not sure. There is an improvement in performance for experts as compared to novices but, on the other hand people habituate to what they are used to and over time there is a fall-off in the performance of those who must be vigilant in the same way for a long time. People burn out when they do the same thing over and over. I wonder if there isn't a point where the advantage gained by expertise is lost to burn out. Has this balance been studied?

As humans develop, we generally start a little hypothesis testing machines. We acquire as much knowledge as we possibly can, and then acquire skills too. After the basics - walking, talking, toilet training, tying our shoes, washing and feeding ourselves, reading, etc... the rest is gravy. Our acquisition turns to learning heuristics, that is we learn to take short cuts, saving time and freeing up cognitive resources for... well, just freeing up cognitive resources. In the wild we might have adapted this way so as to always have some cognitive power left for emergencies, today I guess it gives us time for Dexter and Gray's Anatomy or perhaps blogging. One might say we are wired to be lazy.

If excellent performance is not normal and we must throw nature off balance to continually do anything at exceptionally high level, what kind of environment would provide a balance of the right level of expertise with enough newness to keep those who work in healthcare (or any other industry that aspires to exceptional performance) on their toes?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Elsewhere is where I'd rather be...

If you are as crazy about notebooks as I am, you will love the Black Cover. So dedicated are they to finding the perfect notebook, they review their candidates within an inch of their lives. A stationary store is toy store for grown-ups as far as I am concerned.

The Booksurfer made me aware of a new book worth coveting by biographer Richard Holmes - The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. His post links to the Times review. Holmes's book follows the journeys of several discoverers of the day including William Herschel in his creation of the reflector telescope and Humphrey Davy on his numerous advances in chemistry. It sounds as though Holmes builds a case for what he sees as the very model of a scientific discoverer. As Jenny Uglow puts it in her excellent review in this weekend's Guardian:
The key virtue is close attention, immersion in the other: the questing, reasoning, "scientific" mode of Keats's negative capability. The track on which these questing spirits race, however, is far from fixed. Holmes's scientists roam far, literally and poetically, as the playful chapter headings suggest: "Joseph Banks in Paradise", "Herschel on the Moon", "Davy on the Gas".

As is the current mode, Holmes's book links science and imagination, so it is a must-have for me. While it is not out yet in the U.S., I link to the Book Depository if you click the title. They ship anywhere in the world for free! So, go for it.

Finally, there is another book I am excited to read - a new biography of Oscar Wilde by Thomas Wright called Oscar's Books. It is being hyped as a revolutionary type of biography. It hardly seems that, but Wright chooses to re-tell Wilde's oft-told life through the books he read and has accomplished this by spending two decades tracking every last one of them down. I owe a big apology to the blogger who wrote about this book as I cannot for the life of me remember who it was. CORRECTION! It was Sheila, sorry Sheila. Here are the reviews from the Guardian, Independent, and The Scotsman. The Book Depository carries that one too.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The reality of unreality (Books - Eclipse by John Banville)

"What is it?" Lydia said without looking up and for a second I thought she had somehow been reading my mind. "What's wrong with you, what is the matter? What" - wearily - "what has happened to you?"

The apples were a pale whitish green and each bite came away with a satisfying, woody snap. I remember them; to this day I remember them.

"I have the feeling," I said, "the conviction, I can't rid myself of it, that something has happened, something dreadful, and I haven't taken sufficient notice, haven't paid due regard, because I don' t know what it is."

She was silent, then gave a sort of laugh, and sat up and rubbed her hands vigorously on her upper arms, as if she had become chilled, keeping her face turned away from me.

"Maybe it's your life," she said. "That's disaster enough, isn't it?"

Alexander Cleave falls apart and he goes to live among the ghosts that haunt his life. As an actor he has always made lives, but now that his own has fallen apart he can't seem to put it back together. He has the actor's occupational hazard of studying those around him.

I confess I have always been fascinated by nature's anomalies. Mine is not the eagerness of the prurient crowd at a freak-show, nor is it, I insist again,, the anthropologist's cold inquisitiveness or the blood-lust of the pitiless dissector; rather, it is the gentle dedication of the naturalist, with his net and syringe. I am convinced I have things to learn from the afflicted, that they have news from elsewhere, a world in which the skies are different, and strange creatures roam, and the laws are not our laws, a world that I would know at once, if I were to see it.

It is as though Alex thinks that, by retreating to his childhood home, he can take refuge in this other world, but sadly for him, it does not exist. A strange cast of characters live in this house along with Alex, a middle aged care taker, a fifteen-year-old girl, and eventually Alex's wife. This group's identities mix with the characters of his past so that Alex begins to have a harder time than usual time separating fantasy from reality.

There is something at once unsettling and tantalising about a locked door with someone sitting behind it hour on hour in silence. When I knocked at Cass's room that day, standing in the corridor clutching a hank of her hair, I had the feeling that I always had on such occasions, a mingling of dread and vexation, and a peculiar, stifled excitedness - Cass, after all, is capable of anything. And I felt foolish, too. A buttery lozenge of late sunlight lay fatly on the carpet runner at my feet. I spoke through the door to her and got no response. There was the circus music - no, no, that is now, not then; things are running together, collapsing into each other, the present inot the past, the past into the future. My head feels full of something...

"A buttery lozenze of late sunlight lay fatly on the carpet runner at my feet." What a gorgeous sentence. You could eat it. The circus spoken of become the scene of a terrific climactic scene and the denoument that follows is touching and well earned. This novel is nearly entirely an interior landscape and the world that Banville creates is one of grief and longing of a man who can no longer hide. He is particularly good at creating the reality of the kind of experience that, though it happens in "real life" seems to be entirely unreal. The book is a thoughtful and imaginative and though it is short in length, I did not find it a breezy or quick read. It is beautiful and hypnotic.

My other thought's on John Banville's Eclipse are here, here, here, and here.

Jude the Obscure
(in progress)
Among the Russians
Proust and the Squid

Red Cavalry (in progress)
The Solitudes (started, don't know if I'll get through it)
Rhythms of the Brain
Neuroscience of Cognitive Development
(in progress)
Attachment, Play, and Authenticity (in progress)
The Dead Fish Museum
In the Land of No Right Angles

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Making Meaning (Books - Eclipse by John Banville and Attachment, Play and Authenticity by Steven Tuber)

Both Attachment, Play and Authenticity, a book about the work of child psychologist D. W. Winnicott written by a professor of mine - Steven Tuber, and Eclipse, a novel by John Banville, dwell in the land of how the past builds our experience of the present. Each chapter of the Winnicott book begins with an energetic opening featuring a story or artistic example.

I don't know whether Winnicott had a penchant for rhythm and blues, but I feel quite sure that he would have made a link between a song entitled "Give Me One Reason to Stay Here" by Tracy Chapman and his article "Primitive Emotional Development" (1945). Chapman's soulful distinction between the deadly engulfment cause by an overly intrusive squeeze versus the soothing, repetitive holding that gets her through the night highlights the life-or-death importance of early mothering in a manner that Winnicott would have certainly resonated with.

Infancy, rather than Freud's mythic Oedipal stage (3-5 years old), is where Winnicott places the most fundamental period in the development of a healthy or pathological psychology. The origin of one's style of relating to self and other, discerning reality and fantasy, and, as the Tracy Chapman song suggsts, the difference between being cared for and being smothered begins in the formative relationship between mother and infant, and the rituals they create. As is my wont, I also think of the narrative construction that accompanies these rituals. The flow of words naming and describing what they are doing, and how indelibly that narrative becomes established along with whatever actions are performed and, as this chapter's heading says, makes meaning for the participants. Tuber's enthusiasm for the ideas of Winnicott and their usefulness to a meaningful therapeutic process is readily communicated in the easy style of this book.

In Eclipse Alex Cleave, an actor who wakes up one day to find himself broken, revisits those rituals and retells those narratives by returning to his childhood home, now in as great a state of disrepair as he is.

Memories crowd in on me, irresistibly, threatning to overwhelm my thoughts entirely, and I might be a child again, and this arid present no more than a troubled foreglimpse of the future. I dare not go up to the garret for fear I might see my father again...

But am I rightly remembering that night? Am I remembering anything rightly? I may be embellishing, inventing, I may be mixing everything up. Perhaps it was another night entirely that he brought me home on the bar of his bicyicle, under his coat. And how did his bicycle come to be threre, at the station, anyway, if he was arriving by train? These are the telltale threads on which memory snags her nails.

Here I am, a grown man in a haunted house, obsessing on the past.

It is to those formative relationships that Alex returns to try to find himself again. Perhaps it is not so important whether the memory is 'right,' I want to tell him, as it is to listen to the narrative you now give those events. That is the meaning you are making of them. That's what we're all reading, isn't it? Constructed narrative, a made meaning. Reading a novel gives me a way to try out the possibility of narratives other than my own. That is, they say, a value of reading stories as we form ourselves in childhood and adolescence. But that view assumes that we ever stop forming ourselves and I don't think we do. There is a certain stability, sure. But the world changes and a healthy self adapts right along with it. Books give us source material as we write and re-write that narrative.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Celebrate National Poetry Day

I don't have time for a full post on Wallace Stevens today, but since Mark Thwaite recommended we carry him around today for Britain's National Poetry Day, I thought I would oblige my British readers (or anyone in the mood) with this so that you may carry it around in your head, if not in your pocket. It will certainly give you more return today than your investments

A High-Toned Old Christian Woman

Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms,
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That's clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began. Allow,
Therefore, that in the planetary scene
Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade,
Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,
May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves
A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.
This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.

Old Hat

btt button

I feel like this is re-hashing things a bit, (see this post) but I haven't done BTT in a few weeks so...

What was the last book you bought?

The Vakhtangov School of Stage Art by Nicolai Gorchakov. Yevgeny Vakhtangov was a pupil of Stanislavski, the great Moscow Art Theatre acting teacher. A separate studio of the theatre was created for him where he created still lengendary productions of Turandot (pictured left) and The Dybbuk. His application of Stanislavski's method was unique in its imagination. I furtively xeroxed a xerox copy of this book when I worked in advertising in Chicago many years ago. I finally felt I had found someone who thought like I did about theatre. I discovered this copy on line at a used bookshop in England and bought it a couple of weeks ago.

Name a book you have read MORE than once

For Kings and Planets by Ethan Canin. I feel like a broken record but this is a writer worth repeating myself for and this is a book worth a repeat readings. Despite the sadness in the story, it is somehow a feel-good read for me.

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok - it gave me the sense that my feelings around being an outsider were not all bad. That I could be very different from those around me and still find expression for myself and have the respect of others for what I made with that vision.

How do you choose a book? eg. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews

How it looks, how it feels as an object (that's one reason I like to go to an actual bookstore that is itself a positive aesthetic experience). The feel of the room, the presentation of the books, whether the employees are readers (I especially love shelves with the recommendations of employees). I like to walk around and collect a big pile of books, more than I could ever actually walk away with, and then sit somewhere comfortable and dip in. Even if I only buy a book or two and note others for cheaper on-line purchase later, I still love the bookstore experience and will always give my favorites some of my business. I choose a book less by summary - I'd rather know what the read is like than what it is about if I'm actually going to read it myself. But the biggest influence is what other readers I trust have said about it. Witness the last few books I have read Eclipse was a recommendation of Verbivore, Tanglewreck of Shiela, The Dead Fish Museum of Mark Sarvas, and the novels of Bernard MacLaverty of John Self. You know not just whether these fine readers liked it but their thoughts are given context by the prodigious extent of their other reading (and their writing). Consummate recommenders all.

Do you prefer Fiction or Non-Fiction?

Fiction hands down.

What’s more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?

Only in a novel? They should feel nearly inseperable in any good book.

Most loved/memorable character (character/book)

Joseph Knecht the Magister Ludi of Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. I'm also pretty fond of Zooey Glass from J. D. Salinger and Wilbur from Charlotte's Web.

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?

My in-progress pile is so big it doesn't fit on my nightstand, but the top third of the current pile contains (as you can see on my sidebar) Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel, The Neuroscience of Cognitive Development, The Solitudes by John Crowley, Eclipse by John Banville, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Attachment, Play and Authenticity by Steven Tuber, and then right below them are Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy Darkmans by Nicole Barker, and Among the Russians by Colin Thubron.

What was the last book you’ve read, and when was it?

Honestly, where have you been? (This is a silly question for a book blogger, what else would I have been writing about?) Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson. See my sidebar for my rantings and ravings on this tangled wreck of a story.

Have you ever given up on a book half way in?

Are you kidding me? Of course. Life is too short to read books I don't enjoy. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil, any Tolkein I have ever tried, and I'm thinking that The Solitudes by John Crowley is going to make its way to this category, it has a sense of self-importance I am finding obnoxious, this on a book where the series title is mispelled on the cover!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Machinations and justifications (Books - Middlemarch by George Eliot)

Ah, the machinations and justifications that go into the acquiring of power. I seem to be seeing it everywhere lately. New York's current mayor wishes to overturn the twice-approved term-limit law (whatever one might think of it) so that he may run for a third term. He has convinced himself that this is because he is the only person qualified to get our city through the current financial mess we are in. The Ragazzo and I continue to watch Rome - in which we are witnessing its descent into moral and literal bankruptcy as those both high and low murder its people and divide its territory so that they might rule what is left of it, and persuade themselves that they do so for the good of Rome. And in George Eliot's Middlemarch there is a certain banker...
Mr. Bulstrode's power was not due simply to his being a country banker, who knew the financial secrets of most traders in the town and could touch the springs of their credit; it was fortified by a beneficence that was at once ready and severe - ready to confer obligations, and severe in watching the result...His private minor loans were numerous, but he would inquire strictly into the circumstances both before and after. In this way a man gathers a domain in his neighbours' hope and fear as well as gratitude; and power, when once it has got into that subtle region, propagates itself, spreading out of all proportion to its external means. It was a principle with Mr. Bulstrode to gain as much power as possible, that he might use it for the glory of God. He went through a great deal of spiritual conflict and inward argument in order to adjust his motives, and make clear to himself what God's glory required.

Yes, I'm sure he did. It is always scary when someone starts mixing god, or in the case of Rome - gods - into the equation and are so sure that they are the person who knows what it is this god or these gods want. The arrogance - but I suppose that lust for power is itself an expression of arrogance so this justification should not be so surprising, and Eliot meets this outrage with her tongue firmly in cheek:
But, as we have seen, his motives were not always rightly appreciated. There were many crass minds in Middlemarch whose reflective scales could only weigh things in the lump; and they had a strong suspicion that since Mr. Bulstrode could not enjoy life in their fashion, eating and drinking so little as he did, and worreting himself about everything, he must have a sort of vampire's feast in the sense of mastery.
Human nature hasn't changed, has it? 'If someone's nature is not like mine it cannot be good.' I think that is the saddest opinion one can hold. It's why political campaigns get away with bald manipulations of personality as a technique for acquiring office. Eliot's study of town and village domestic and political life is impressively comprehensive, it seems like one can study the entire world in microcosm, but I barely have the brain to read Middlemarch these days. It took me ages to read just this one chapter last night so preoccupied was I with studying for midterms.