Thursday, April 28, 2011

The laws of science and the mysteries of the human soul collide (Books - The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald)

Penelope Fitzgerald's The Gate of Angels might be called an intellectual romp, a flirtation of ideas. It's one part English novel of manners, one part novel of the intellectual zeitgeist of Cambridge 1912, and one part American screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks. Quite the cocktail. I can imagine that Connie Willis might have taken a page from this book's style.
How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouse. On the open ground to the left the willow-trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on the their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason.
And this circus-of-a-paragraph brilliantly sets the scene, not merely for the novel's comic style and harried tempo, but also for the world of 1912. The gate of angels is a narrow gate, hardly ever opened, at St. Angelicus, a college at Cambridge. Fred Fairly, son of an English village rector and a Junior Fellow at St. Angelicus, begins to study physics, learn of the atom, and turn family tradition upside down. That is, until his bicycle crashes into Daisy Saunders's and Fred's infatuation begins. St. Angelicus has a strict policy of celibacy, so one could say that this episode opens its own little gate, letting in chaos.

The brief novel's four parts focus separately on the stories of Fred, Daisy, and Dr. Matthews, a medievalist and writer of ghost stories. Fitzgerald weaves them all together to explore the worlds of the humanities and the sciences as they collide in their own bicycle crash of sorts. Her cri de coeur in this novel is that scientific thought and ordinary everyday thought are not different, we just don't know enough to see how they are the same. It's an odd but a smart and, at the same time, very funny little book.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Satire of American ex-pats in Florence (Books - World so Wide by Sinclair Lewis)

Sinclair Lewis is an American writer best known for Main Street, Babbitt, Dodsworth, Elmer Gantry, and Arrowsmith, but he authored 22 novels in all between 1914 and 1951. World So Wide was his last. I picked it up the original, jacketed Random House edition pictured to the left in an antique store in Indiana last summer.

By his last book, Lewis has cultivated an elegant, confident narrative voice. Much like the film scripts of the same era, it had an almost singing tone. And his polished technique knew how to establish and plot and character in a stroke, without the song ever stopping. This is the novel's opening:
The traffic policemen and the two detectives from the homicide squad, examined the tracks of the car and were convinced that a soft shoulder of the road had given way.

They had been returning from Bison Park, after midnight but quite sober. Hayden Chart was driving the convertible and hating his wife, Caprice, and hating himself for hating her. He was not given to grudges and, despite her glitter of pale-green dinner dress and her glitter of derisive gossip, Caprice was a simpleton who no more deserved hatred than did a noisy child. But she did chatter so. It wore Hayden down like a telephone bell ringing incessantly in an empty house.
Quite an opener; but the contemporary reader must tolerate Lewis's overt patriarchal sexism to appreciate his prose and storytelling. I found it grating, but not without self-awareness, and Lewis's satirizing spares no one. Lewis sets up the entire plot in one compact paragraph at the end of the first chapter so that the reader knows where they are going.
He came clearly to in a hospital, with his head bandaged and Dr. Crittenham, their mild indecisive family physician, by the bed. He felt miraculously safe, and not for two days did he know that Caprice had been buried the day before, and that he was desolatingly free to wander in a world too bleakly too intimidatingly wide.
And wander he does, to Europe, mostly to Florence, in a plan to recover his sense of having a future. Today we might call it achieving closure. Lewis creates a musical refrain, with the repetition of melodious passages featuring the phrase "world so wide" to close many chapter sections. It reads like nothing so much as a monologue in a Broadway play of the 1930s or 40s:
He was not to think back fifteen years to the time when he was twenty, credulous and enthusiastic, when he was strong for walking, for singing, for making love. He was to look fifteen years ahead to the time when he would be fifty - and a fine, sound, competent age that was, too, when he ought to be able to eat and laugh and make love as well as ever. Compared with fifty, he still was young, he had recovered youth. Ah, the blazing wonders he was going to experience in these fifteen years ahead, with perhaps another twenty-five years on top of that! He was going to see all of the world so wise.
Corny, I know, but bold. Who would dare write "Ah, the blazing wonders he was going to experience..." today? Or:
The whole house was a dead thing now that it was deserted by Caprice's yelling and flouncing and running up and downstairs and telephoning violently and for hours. A dream and a languid, draining dream then was his hasty giving-away of Caprice's clothes, and her poor treasures: the silver-gilt vanity case, the onyx desk-set, her stout little ski boots, the flimsy bathing suits that she had loved. It was a dream of a life in which he had been busy and important and well-bedded and well-fed and had glowingly possessed everything except friends and contentment and any reason for living: a dream, a fable, a caricature of grandeur.
And so, off to Florence goes Hayden Chart, where he meets a cast of thoroughly-satirized ex-pats, including Lorenzo Lundsgard, who hopes to package old world culture for Americans with no time to read, and a cold, dusty historian of Italian princes - Dr. Lydia Lomond - who has smooth hands even while she practices unforgiving scholarship. Ah, but that is the rest of story, which I wouldn't want to spoil if what I have told you so far is at all enticing. Lewis is a wonderful painter of characters, who wrote at a time when, if a good American novel was to be entertaining, then it was expected to be part-Hollywood film or part-Broadway play. I found World so Wide of-its-time, to be sure, but delightfully entertaining.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Join in the celebration... (International Anita Brookner Day - 16 July 2011)

On July 16th Anita Brookner, author of 24 novels, turns 83. Thomas and Simon have decided to celebrate with an event named just for her: International Anita Brookner Day. If you have always wanted to read one of her books but never have, or if you have been hankering to re-read some old favorites, now is your chance. Thomas makes it simple - here are his rules. I've only read The Debut, which I thought excellent, but with IABD on the horizon and having just won a copy of A Closed Eye from Thomas, I will give my attention to a second of her works. If you care to join in the fun, stop by Thomas's place and declare yourself.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Boys bonded by tragic loss (Books - The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah)

Nathacha Appanah's The Last Brother is a novel of a tender memory that Raj, an elderly man from Mauritius, has of a Jewish refugee his own age, held in the prison where his father worked in 1944. In a childhood of poverty and brutal deprivation, one of the few beautiful things that happens to him is meeting David, one of a group of exiles from the Holocaust, detained because Palestine refused to take them in and turned their boat around. Although the two can share a few words of schoolroom French as their only means of verbal communication, what bonds them is devastating loss sustained while still boys.
It may have been at this moment that I realized I was dreaming. I do not know where it comes from, this sudden awareness, I wonder why the real world sometimes invades a dream. On this occasion I found the vague sensation most unwelcome and struggled to convince myself that David really was there, simply and patiently waiting for me to wake up. All right, I told myself, I'm going to tease him, say something to him like you're showing off, you're striking a pose, but I could not utter a sound. I made a superhuman effort, opened my jaws wide, trying and trying, but in vain, my throat dried up. It is incredible how real this felt, great gulps of air streaming in through my open mouth and parching everything inside. At that moment I sensed that I was on the brink of waking but I thought if I lay still the dream would last. So I stayed in bed, I closed my mouth, I went on looking toward the door but I could not quell the sadness that had arisen in my heart.

At the very moment when this grief swept over me, David came closer. With one supple movement he slipped his shoulder away from the door frame, his hands still in his pockets, and took three steps. I counted. Three steps. David was tall, strong, adult, handsome, so handsome. Then I really knew I was dreaming and could do nothing about it. The last time I had seen him he was ten years old.
I find Appanah's writing as translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan, captures that fairytaleish dream-state beautifully. It's full of the visceral details that makes what one is reading into what seems to be happening to us. The writing also has a certain musical quality reminiscent of what it is like to be read to as a child.
Grasping the big knot with both hands over my shoulder, I would climb back up the long road to my home. The sheet would slither about and I would have to give it a heave with my hips to hitch the bundle up again and get a new grip on the knot. There was no stopping, I would have had to put the sheet down on the ground and I would have gotten dirty. I was really afraid of dropping that sheet and the dresses, skirts, corsets, slips, and pants being strewn over the ground, so that, just like my father, my mother, too, would begin to regret that it was me, Raj, who had survived. Anil would have had no problem carrying that bundle, he was so strong, and Vinod would have devised a better method of balancing the weight on his back and would have carried it with a smile, as he used to when he was burdened with two quaking buckets filled to the brim with water.
Though not in the least romantic, this is nothing so much as a love story, weighted for its entirety with enormous sadness. At the same time, the alluring narrative voice swiftly propels the reader through its events. I read the majority of the book in one sitting, late into the evening, and wanted to start nothing else once I had finished. I lovely book - I wish I could remember who recommended it.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Being stereotyped doesn't just feel bad, it's bad for you (Books - Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele)

Claude Steele's Whistling Vivaldi is an excellent new work of social science for the lay-reader about how stereotypes impact the performance and even the long-term health of stereotyped group via a phenomenon called stereotype threat. There is an ever-growing mountain of experimental evidence for the existence of such a phenomenon, which Steele contends has less to do with a stereotyped person internalizing their society's racism as part of their personality, although that is one influence, and more to do with the way these social realities are ubiquitous, resulting in the stereotyped party receiving continual cues about the poor expectations of his performance from his environment. Steele presents research that debunks the myth that the simple solution to this problem is always to work harder. In fact, having a lot at stake and working at the most challenging level are two important contributors to the threat effect.

Steel tracks the evidence collected to-date about the mechanism of stereotype threat at three levels - society, identity, and brain (though he offers the least support for the last, sadly, as there are some very good studies out there). Although Steele's history explores newsworthy domains such as as stereotypes about women being poorer at math than men, and about those with dark skin being less academically strong than those with light, but he makes the point repeatedly that identity threat can and does effect most everyone, offering good examples. He chooses not only the obvious settings of the classroom and the running track to make his point, but some unlikely ones as well - such as the Supreme Court. Steele's writing is attractively free of self-serving hyperbole, his anecdotes illustrate his points clearly, he doesn't oversell them, and the book is both compact and fast-moving.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Music and idealism as the wall comes tumbling down (Books - The Student Conductor by Robert Ford)

Tom called Robert Ford's The Student Conductor one is his 10 best neglected literary classics. That and the classical music theme were good enough reason for me to check it out.

Set in Karlsruhe Germany around the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ford writes with vivid clarity.
Barrow woke to the hard yank of an oncoming train and caught the whisper of the last orange car as it passed. Outside, the German sun flung itself in all directions, glanced from the rails, perfected clouds. It was the kind of day they polish steel for.
Cooper Barrow, his protagonist, is a young American conductor who faces disillusionment early in his career, forcing him off the podium one day in the middle of his debut concert. Eight years later, he comes to Germany to study under the baton of Karlheinz Ziegler, a charismatic and dictatorial master teacher to try to restart his career. Ford skillfully weaves together three forces - artistic idealism, political passion, and good old human lust to create a intense drama. I found him most skillfull at writing scenes of strong tension. At his initial audition Ziegler asks Barrow, disheveled from his train ride, to "conduct" movements from standard repertoire symphonies and concerti without an actual orchestra. That is, to manufacture the orchestra and the sound he would have them make, with the expressions of his body. As he does so, he is quizzed on his orchestra's size, arrangement, and his choices for tempi:
"First symphony, fourth movement."

Beethoven's First - it had to be. The coincidence struck him. His last time before an orchestra, it had also been Beethoven's First.

His wrists shook. The hall was a cavernous void, nothing but a place to breathe. He raised his arms, left palm up, stick delivered straight forward. Conjure orchestra -

"You're shaking!"

Thanks, he thought. He'd crossed an ocean for this.

His arms opened to embrace the solid trunk of the fourth movement's opening fortissimo, and with a simple flick of the wrist he indicated an upbeat, released the opening sonority. The thick chord sprang up in his head. Full orchestra. Tutti. He held it, widened the embrace just so much, swiftly cut it off.

"Halt, halt, halt! Wie gross ist das Orchester?"

He would not have thought to ask -

"How large is the orchestra?" the teacher demanded, in English this time.

"I understand," Barrow shouted back in German, noting the shrillness in his voice. "Modern orchestra. Eighteen firsts, sixteen seconds, viola twelve, cello - "


The English, the English -



"Traditional. Firsts here, seconds here, celli..." Barrow indicated the placement of violins to his left, celli to his right -

"Continue," yelled the teacher in German - it would always be German, German from here on in.

The opening six bars consumed thirty minutes of harassment. The correct length of the eight note, the gradations of soft, softer, softest, their precise indication with his hands. A good conductor would never rehearse a full orchestra this way, this stopping and starting; they would mutiny. He would call out suggestions, cajole in passing, return only later to pick up what was missing.

Barrow began the new tempo, the Allegro molte e vivace -

"Too loud, too loud!"

There's no fucking orchestra!

He fought the impulse to turn, face his accuser. He didn't have to. The teacher had advanced to the lip of the stage, and it was Barrow's first look a Maestro Karlheinz Ziegler...
What Ford is best at is creating passages full of tension, made of the characters' emotions, their charged mileu and, often, music. It definitely helps to have some knowledge of classical repertoire in reading this novel. Where he falls short is in his plotting, which so engineers his coincidences of past and present that one can feel them coming. The climax and denouement of the book left me a bit unsatisfied, because the mysteries hinted at in the major characters are too set-up. This flaw aside I really recognized the people and places (I worked in the field for years) and the mind-games of a guru-like maestro. I enjoyed the characters, and I read the book compulsively, in two sittings, the second keeping me up quite late. There is a fabulous scene between Ziegler and Cooper that takes place in a sauna toward the end of the book that contains stunningly tense writing. It is reason enough to read the book.

Following reading it, I was sorry not to be able to find anything else by Ford - is there anything you know of, Tom?