“For a long time, I took my pen for a sword; I now know we’re powerless. No matter. I write and will keep writing books; they’re needed; all the same, they do serve some purpose. Culture doesn’t save anything or anyone, it doesn’t justify. But it’s a product of man: he projects himself into it, he recognizes himself in it; that critical mirror alone offers him his image. ” – Jean-Paul Sartre
The Words by Jean Paul Sartre (Image courtesy Goodreads)
Back to the 2015 reading list for a book I did not expect to like and have found myself liking a great deal. Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words (Les Mots) purports to be an autobiography, albeit a most limited one: written when the great Existentialistwas in his late 50’s, TheWords covers only the first ten years of Sartre’s life. But, as we shall learn, the first ten years of the life of one like Sartre, sifted through the the mind of one like Sartre over 40 years later, is no ordinary autobiography. As one can and should expect from Sartre, it’s part memoir, part philosophical inquiry, and part pretentious bullshit disguised as profound insight.Continue reading →
R.K. Narayan’s Under the Banyan Tree is really a collection of sketches rather than short stories that bring to readers the daily life of the India of his time. They are often clever and always charming; still, from such an obvious talent, one wishes for more than one gets here.
Under the Banyan Tree by R.K. Narayan (image courtesy Goodreads)
I stumbled upon this collection by Indian author R.K. Narayan in my favorite used bookstore last fall and picked it up for my 2015 reading list segment on world literature. This is one of those rare instances where I have come across an author and realized I had no recollection of ever reading any of his work. Given his status as one of India’s most respected authors of the 20th century and a multiple time Nobel nominee, he seemed a natural for my reading list. As with another writer new to me, Yasunari Kawabata, I expected great things. Kawabata did not disappoint.
After reading Under the Banyan Tree, I won’t say that Narayan disappointed me, but I do believe I will have to go further into his oeuvre to discover the writer who won so much praise. While the pieces in this volume are full of charm and turn a clear eye on the character of Indian daily life, they are mainly character sketches rather than stories. Continue reading →
“…it’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.” – Sigrid Undset
Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset (image courtesy Goodreads)
I first came across Sigrid Undset during my first year of teaching. The school where I taught had a set of world literature texts that they were discarding (the books were in great shape and to this day I puzzle over why books full of world literature classics were being discarded) and I snagged one of them and over the course of a few weeks of casual reading made my way through a variety of selections by writers I knew like Hugo and Goethe and de Maupassant and Cervantes – and writers I sort of knew like Strindberg (“Half a Sheet of Paper” shows how flash fiction should be done) and writers I didn’t know – like Sigrid Undset.
The world lit collection contained a selection from Kristin Lavransdatter I. (For those familiar with the work,it’s the chapter where Kristin and Ingeborg become lost in the forest and are rescued from the German boys by Erland.) I found it rich, engrossing writing, though the pace was not such that it appealed to me in my youth. Still, I remembered the careful accrual of detail and the power of the writing and made a mental note to read more Undset.
It’s taken me about 40 years to get back to her. Perhaps I needed those years to develop a palate able to appreciate what rich gift patient, thorough storytelling is. If so, I am grateful; Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath is the embodiment of what we should mean when we talk about great storytelling. Continue reading →
“And men will not understand us…and the war will be forgotten – and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves…the years will pass by and we shall fall into ruin.” – Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (image courtesy Goodreads)
It is often called the greatest war novel of all time.
Erich Maria Remarque’s depiction of the horror of an ordinary soldier’s life in World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front, is a work of great power that haunts one long after one has completed it. Like other great examiners of war from Grimmelshausen to Stephen Crane to Norman Mailer to Kevin Powers, Remarque has the skill to give us the psychological horror of being lost on the battlefield – and lost at home.
What sets Remarque’s novel apart, of course, is that it is told from the point of view of an “enemy” soldier, Paul Baumer, a private in the German Imperial Army. (Simplicius, the hero of Grimmelshausen’s novel, is German, too. But since the Thirty Years’ War is only vague European history to Americans, one can safely assume that his nationality is not a matter of controversy.) One of the revelations, in fact, of All Quiet on the Western Front is the discovery that the ordinary German soldier felt much the same as the ordinary British soldier, the ordinary French soldier, the ordinary Russian soldier, the ordinary American soldier: like a pawn being moved – and sacrificed – without regard for his humanity. Ordinary people’s lives don’t count to the rich and powerful who believe themselves masters of history.
“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” Hermann Hesse
Demian by Hermann Hesse (image courtesy Goodreads)
We turn in this next essay from the subtle, Zen inflected musings of Kawabata to another Nobelist, this one a lifelong yearning seeker of self understanding. In the original 2015 reading list I had chosen Hesse’s novel describing an artist’s search for spiritual fulfillment, Rosshalde, as my selection from the novelist whose lasting reputation owes as much to his adoption as spokesperson by the Boomer generation (a mistaken adoption) as to his literary merit (which is real). Instead, when it came time to pull Rosshalde from the shelf, I took it down and thought about how many times I’ve read Siddhartha which is a better treatment of the same themes as the earlier novel. Instead, I pulled out the Hesse novel next to Rosshalde, the lesser known and equally fascinating bildungsroman, Demian.
It turned out to be an interesting choice. I had not read Demian for many years, at least since the mid-seventies. Like most of my generation, I’d read Steppenwolf and Siddhartha as an undergraduate, taken in by the mystique attached to both books: in the case of the former, the “magic theater” section that suggests psychedelia (though there is no proof anywhere that Hesse ever used drugs) and in the latter its fable like retelling of the life of the Buddha. Both were, of course, very groovy, read in those heady times. But by the time I came to Demian I was a young teacher and part-time graduate student and had learned a bit more about the author Hesse besides that he wrote groovy books. I approached this tale of a youth’s search for self understanding, self confidence, and self acceptance in a more critical fashion. My assessment from that reading was that the novel was simply a quest narrative wrapped up in a bildungsroman.
“But a haiku by Buson came into his mind: ‘I try to forget this senile love; a chilly autumn shower.’ The gloom only grew denser.” – Yasunari Kawabata
The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (image courtesy Goodreads)
Reading Japanese Nobelist Yasunari Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain, one is reminded of the great films of his artistic contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa: Tokyo Story and Ikuru, respectively. These two cinema classics, like Kawabata’s novel, deal with the themes of aging, family relationships (particularly parents/adult children and grandparents/grandchildren), and the psychological and philosophical aspects of coming to terms with the end of life. Tokyo Story tells about the trip of an elderly couple to see their beloved adult children and grandchildren and the disappointment they feel when they realize their loved ones have no time for or interest in them. Ikuru (which translates as “to live”) tells the story of an aging bureaucrat who gets a terminal illness diagnosis and attempts to “do something” before he dies that will give his life meaning.
Ikuru appeared in 1952, Tokyo Story in 1953. The Sound of the Mountain was originally published the following year, 1954. This period, short of a decade after the end of World War II, seems to have been a time of bittersweet reflection for members of this generation (Kawabata, Ozu, and Kurosawa were all born within about a decade of each other). Continue reading →
…to whom I have been married for 15 years as of today, and who lived and inspired this story and so many others in my heart’s yet unwritten library.
The old timers had been going there for over one hundred years, and I was finally back after more than twenty.
It was Kamiya Bar, in the Asakusa part of Tokyo, and in 2008 it was the oldest western-style bar in the city. Western as in high ceilings, with wood-veneer wall panels, chrome light fixtures and those patterned tin ceiling tiles you see in old saloons in Tombstone, Arizona or Virginia City, Nevada.
But I don’t mean it also had brass spittoons and buffalo horns on the walls.
This is part II in a series of III. Part I, gendered bombs, here.
Mutual outerspace penetration
In July, 1975, the first international docking in space occurred involving the American Apollo and the Soviet Soyuz (meaning “union”). An official news release out of Houston, referring to the mating as “androgynous,” explained that the American ship played the “male / active role” on Thursday, July 17, by inserting its “nose” into the “nose” of the Russian ship. The press release further helpfully explained that the docking operation “was a purely male/female arrangement – a probe that fit snugly into a receptacle.” At the height of the militarism and mutually assured destruction that was the Cold War, however, neither country could be allowed to appear more “male” than the other. And so, the press release explained, on Friday, the Russian craft got to be the penetrator – ta-da, masculinity, understood as male-as-penetrator, preserved for both posturing nations. Continue reading →
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the opposite of free trade
Like many, I have my share of disappointments with Obama. On balance, he’s infinitely preferable to any of the plausible Republican alternatives—can you imagine what Mitt Romney or John McCain and a Republican Congress would be getting up to these days? Still, there are areas—global warming in particular—where I wish he had been more aggressive. I fully concede the limits of what may have been possible throughout his term, given the implacable opposition he has been facing. But still, it would have been good to see a more deliberate attempt to change the trajectory of things.
The ongoing corporatization of nearly everything would have been another place to start. I suppose the failure to pursue the banks aggressively should have been a tip-off that the Clinton financial people were still running the show. Plus the Obama administration’s unwillingness to try to put Elizabeth Warren as head of her brainchild, the new (and pretty efficient, I gather) Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (although she has had her payback.) When people start telling me that there’s no real difference between the two parties, in the finance area I tend to agree, with some notable exceptions like Warren. Continue reading →
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…parent dotes on children who are ingrates and…yeah, well…
Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac (image courtesy Goodreads)
It is easy to make arguments against Père Goriot. It’s a rather sloppy book because the author, Honoré de Balzac, wrote quickly and rarely labored over his words. It’s a frustrating book because Balzac veers back and forth between Romanticism and Realism, sometimes on the same page. Two characters who would seem to be major figures disappear from the novel without adequate explanation. The ending is both overly long and abrupt, quite an accomplishment in itself, but not the preferred effect one would expect a great author to achieve.
In spite of all these flaws, it’s a magnificent book and one that will haunt anyone who has been a parent or had a parent who, for all the best intentions in the world, can’t seem to get that most fundamental life relationship right.
A couple of rambling asides before I get to Goriot. This is another of those books that I read a very long time ago (I believe Nixon was POTUS) and decided to re-read for this year’s world lit themed portion of the 2015 reading list. Continue reading →
Many are aghast at the treasonous nature of the open letter to Iran signed by 47 Republican senators.
It’s astonishing that U.S. senators would try to pull the rug out from a presidency in the midst of sensitive negotiations with another state. (Photo: Mike Myers / Flickr Commons)
As you have no doubt heard by now, 47 Republican senators wrote an open letter directed at Iran’s leadership. Its main message:
We will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. … The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of an agreement at any time. Continue reading →
Today for Women’s History Month, I offer a list of women heads of state in the 20th century. The link I’ve provided has further links to biographical sketches of each head of state. I hope you will dig in and check at least some of them out. Notice what powerful country has no entry (sigh…).
First, the big guns, and from one side of Hillary’s mouth, at that:
Back when she last ran for president, Clinton was vocal about other government officials who use private emails that circumvent automatic government archiving.
“Our Constitution is being shredded. We know about the secret wiretaps, the secret military tribunals, the secret White House email accounts,” she said at an event in 2007, indirectly indicting the Republican administration. “It’s a stunning record of secrecy and corruption, of cronyism run amok.”
The Byronic figure, a response to proto-Romantic figures like Mackenzie’s The Man of Feelingor Goethe’s Werther, was a world weary, bored, self-destructive figure who cannot find peace anywhere. Lermontov’s Grigoriy Pechorin is just such a figure. His inability to relate to his fellow human beings is not simply excused – it is admired and forgiven:
…if all people reasoned more, they would be convinced that life is not worth worrying about so much…
“Regardless of whether you are Jewish or not Jewish, Republican or Democrat, if you greatly value having the strongest relationship possible with Israel, welcoming the Israeli prime minister to America with open arms should be something members fully embrace,” he [Rep. Lee Zeldin] said. “It is an opportunity to let not just the Israeli prime minister know, but the Israeli people know, that America is united in strengthening our relationship with Israel.”
It’s also an opportunity to let Bibi and the Israeli people know that America is clearly not so united in strengthening that relationship as they would like to think. Continue reading →
Pushkin’s prose tales, mostly uncompleted, tantalize and torment readers both with their beauty and with the wistful sense of ‘what might have been’ that their incompleteness conveys….
The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin, trans. Gillon R, Aitken (image courtesy Goodreads)
This selection from the 2015 reading list is a re-read from my undergraduate days. The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin in the Gillon Aitken translation includes every piece that Pushkin worked on. Like any scholarly edition, it has that painstaking sense of completeness that can feel like both a blessing and a curse. It is wonderful to read all the prose that Pushkin attempted in his life; it is painful to be left wondering again and again as stories and novellas break off with the translator’s too oft repeated message:
(Pushkin never completed this story.)
Pushkin is Russia’s first great modern writer. Renowned even more as a poet than as a prose writer, his magnum opus, Eugene Onegin, tells a story that is haunting in its prescience: a sensitive poet is drawn into a duel and killed due to his flirtatious fiancée.
Pushkin himself was killed at the age of 37 in a duel caused by his flirtatious wife. Art can imitate life with disastrous consequences. Continue reading →
The J. H. Sears edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (image courtesy Etsy)
The next book from the 2015 reading list is another of those “rescued” books of mine. Lea and I were wandering around a local antique/junk shop when we came across a “children’s edition” (or what passed for a children’s edition early in the 20th century). The book I have was published by J.H. Sears and Company of New York, although the edition I have was “set up, printed, and bound” by the Kingsport Press of Kingsport Tennessee. There is no publication date, but the book is inscribed, “Nancy Ivey/Grade 1/1929-30” so this book is at least 85 years old, perhaps older. Continue reading →