Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Richard III by William Shakespeare

I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them--
Why, I, in this weak, piping time of peace,,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

I probably can't describe Richard III any better than the introduction to the Folger edition of the play, which tells us to prepare for a "moral holiday." Shakespeare manipulates his audience into sharing the greatest part of their sympathy with Richard, for whom "Conscience is but a word that cowards use, / Devised at first to keep the strong in arm." There's no real trick to it; simply by keeping Richard alone on stage, hoarding the play's soliloquies, we are given the impression that we are intimate with the Duke (and later king), who puts his arm around us while we watch the rest of the kingdom toil as though behind plate glass. Shakespeare would use this technique to better effect with Iago and Edmund, but those are better, scarier villains.

Not that you would know that there was anything pedestrian about Richard from reading the play. It's sensationalistic in the extreme, alternating scenes of brutal violence with hand-wringing about how destructive Richard is. Queen Elizabeth, wife of the late Edward IV (who dies, incidentally, not at Richard's hands), tells Richard, "No doubt the murd'rous knife was dull and blunt / Till it was whetted on thy stone-hard heart, / To revel in the entrails of my lambs." And for a while, the glee of watching Richard remorselessly cut down his enemies for four acts makes for a considerable "moral holiday." His first victim is his own brother, Clarence, whom he has convinced the ailing Edward IV is the murderer of his children mentioned by prophecy. (Guess who it really turns out to be.) Clarence gets the best long speech of the play, recounting a dream:

As we passed along
Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,
Methought that [Richard, Duke of] Gloucester stumbled, and in falling
Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard
Into the tumbling billows of the main.
O Lord, methought what pain it was to drown,
What dreadful noise of waters in my ears,
What sights of ugly death within my eyes.
Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wracks,
A thousand men that fishes gnawed upon,
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scattered in the bottom of the sea.

Clarence is too trusting of Richard, and cannot see that the dream portends his own death, much less the downfall of Richard, and the laying to waste of all the riches and power sought by the battling houses of York and Lancaster.

Almost as entertaining is the scene in which Richard, for no seeming reason other than to give his faculties for lying a challenge, seduces Lady Anne over the body of her father, King Henry VI, whom Richard killed. (He also killed her husband, because, why not?) I am not sure the scene does enough to earn Anne's acceptance of Richard, but it does make for pretty good theater:

ANNE: And thou unfit for any place but hell.
RICHARD: Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.
ANNE: Some dungeon.
RICHARD: Your bedchamber.


But after these promising beginnings, Richard III failed to keep my attention, devolving into an interminable slog of murders, punctuated by curses, and followed by murders. There is a great dramatic intensity to Richard's interactions with the young heir Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, whom Shakespeare's audience knows will be "disappeared" from their protective cell in the Tower of London and never heard from again. But Shakespeare lingers too long, and overstays his welcome, ignoring the very good advice of the Duchess of York: "Why should calamity be full of words?"

Ultimately, Richard is defeated on the battlefield by the Earl of Richmond, who will become Henry VII and the grandfather of Elizabeth I, under whose reign Richard III was written. That may provide a justification for the thinly angelic Richmond and the irredeemable Richard, but not for the play's tediousness.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

“Rincewind, all the shops have been smashed open. There were a whole bunch of people across the street helping themselves to musical instruments, can you believe that?”

“Yeah,” said Rincewind, picking up a knife and testing its blade thoughtfully, “Luters, I suspect.”

It’s always a challenge to write decent reviews of light literature. It's easy to think of something to write about Ulysses, Othello, or Malcolm X, but what can be said about fluff, the sort of books that aren’t guilty pleasures, exactly, but which occupy a place in between real literature (Hamlet) and trash (Twilight)? I tend to read Discworld or John Grisham as palette cleansers after something particularly challenging, but it’s not exactly fair to demote such books to being simply trifles. After all, reading is a pleasurable, as well as mentally stimulating activity, and these books offer their own pleasures. If you enjoy reading high literature at all times, by all means, do it; I’ll take to occasional potboiler or adventure to mix things up.

Of course, low literature has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, with authors like David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, and even Thomas Pynchon taking cues from less lofty genres, but, while these and many other authors have genuine affection for the material they homage and reference, it’s hard not to read a little postmodern irony into their genre exercises—after all, something like Pynchon’s Inherent Vice might nod toward Carl Hiassen and Donald Westlake, but could hardly be mistaken for one of their books.

So, that said, The Light Fantastic is a Discworld book, the second, and it’s worlds better than the first, The Colour of Magic, in that it actually a) has a plot, rather than feeling like a series of comical vignettes strung together and b) feels like a Discworld book tonally, in spite of still being embryonic in the bigger scheme of things. It’s fast-moving, short, and introduces many of the characters that populate the later books. Aside from that, I don’t have a lot to say about it. It’s not particularly satirical, except when satirizing fantasy literature itself, and it’s not as funny or as well-plotted as the later books, but I enjoyed reading it, as I always enjoy Pratchett’s novels. It may be pulp, but it’s my pulp.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

There are two basic approaches to biographies. The first is the "Great Man," the tome, the multi-volume approach. The idea behind this approach is that readers will be better suited to understand the life of a person if they have all the facts--all the facts. The second model is a more focused approach. Gone are the superfluous details. Gone are the tangents that often lead readers into the proverbial weeds. What remains is a carefully crafted story of a life.

Both of these models serve a purpose. And it is true that the streamlined biographies frequently rely on the tomes that have come before them. They also often highlight a certain aspect--albeit usually rather broad--of a person's life. This is the case with Manning Marable's excellent Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

In 1988, Marable was teaching a course in African-American politics that included The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He states, "A close reading of the text revealed numerous inconsistencies, errors, and fictive characters at odds with Malcolm's actual life." Marable didn't begin working on this book in earnest until the early 2000s. According to Marable, his initial breakthrough came when he "finally realized that critical deconstruction of the Autobiography held the key to reinterpreting Malcolm's life." The Malcolm X Project began in 2001 at Columbia University. At one point, more than twenty graduate and undergraduate students were employed by the Malcolm X Project, writing hundreds of profiles and abstracts of important individuals, institutions, and groups that were mentioned in the Autobiography. Much of their work is available at http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/malcolmx and the subsequent more multimedia-rich website http://mxp.manningmarable.com.

The next major element in the writing of this biography was the construction of a detailed chronological grid of Malcolm X's life. Each entry on this grid would indicate the source or sources of the information. It took Marable and his team of historians six years to construct the massive chronology that would form the foundation for this biography.

Marable's writing is clear, straightforward and very readable. He includes a great amount of detail about Malcolm's life without getting in to the aforementioned weeds. The parts I enjoyed the most were those that dealt with the periods in Malcolm's life that the Autobiography glossed over or skipped altogether. I found particularly interesting the odd beliefs and historical traditions of the Nation of Islam and the extremely complicated relationship between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. Marable handles the convoluted events surrounding Malcolm's death exceptionally well.

I would recommend this book to anyone. Marable and his team of researchers do an excellent job reconstructing and portraying the life of one of America's most enigmatic political and cultural figures. If you don't think you want to commit the time to reading this book, I seriously recommend the nine-page epilogue "Reflections on a Revolutionary Vision."

For further reading on the relationship between Malcom X, Elijah Muhammad, Muhammad Ali, I recommend Gerald Early's "Muhammad Ali as Third World Hero" in his book This is Where I Came In.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

Let me have war, say I. It exceeds peace as far as day does night. It's sprightly, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war's a destroyer of men.

Coriolanus (expertly recounted by Brent here) begins as a political parable and mutates into something much stranger and more horrifying. From the very first scene Caius Martius (later Coriolanus) is at odds with the Roman plebeians, his illustrious military service to Rome overshadowed by his open disdain for common folk. Much of Coriolanus' hatred is bitterly prejudicial ("Bid them wash their faces / And keep their teeth clean," he says after being cajoled into eliciting their support for his consulship). And yet, his tirades against flattery still seem fresh and incisive in the era of the 24-hour media campaign:

CORIOLANUS: I will, sir, flatter my sworn brother, the people, to earn a dearer estimation of them. 'Tis a condition they account gentle; and since the wisdom of their choice is rather to have my hat than my heart, I will practice the insinuating nod and be off to them most counterfeitly.

He says he will, but he will not; he cannot; he simply isn't capable. The closest he can come to glad-handing the people is to say that he will, and in prose, rather than the iambic pentameter reserved for conversing with patricians. As grotesque as Coriolanus is, his unwillingness to dissemble, and the sharp contrast between him and the duplicitous tribunes that plot his downfall, Sicinius and Brutus, are what maintain our sympathy toward him.

When the tribunes successfully rouse the people into exiling Coriolanus, he joins forces with the Volscian general Aufidius, whom he had formerly routed in the name of Rome, and turns to attack his native city. I have to respectfully disagree with Brent that Aufidius is not "fleshed out;" though he has little stage time his relationship with Coriolanus is fascinating. I usually don't fall in for critical theories that see homoeroticism everywhere, but there is no doubt in my mind that Aufidius' obsession with Coriolanus is sexually charged:

AUFIDIUS: Let me twine
Mine arms about thy body, whereagainst
My grained ash an hundred times hath broke,
And scarred the moon with splinters...
Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.

Coriolanus, for his part, says of Aufidius, "And were I any thing but what I am, / I would wish to be only he." But once allied with his enemy, Coriolanus quickly forgets his former regard and retreats into himself. On the brink of exile, he rails that "There is a world elsewhere," but Coriolanus deems himself too large, too limitless, to admit any one or thing into his own private world. At the head of the Volscian army, he seems to have transformed into something superhuman, a terror unbound to the world:

He was a kind of nothing, titleless,
Till he had forged himself a name o' th' fire
Of burning Rome.

These words are Cominius', the current consul and Coriolanus' former friend. Brilliantly, Shakespeare establishes the report of the march on Rome before the march itself, in a dialogue between Cominius and Coriolanus' mentor Menenius that sounds like the conversation between two men on death row, or the same having arrived together at the gates of Hell. "If he could burn us all into one coal," says Menenius to the tribunes, "We have deserved it." The theme of their exchange is that Coriolanus, no coward before, has become all the more frightening having shaken off the ties of family, friendship, and state:

COMINIUS: I offered to awaken his regard
For's private friends. His answer to me was
He could not stay to pick them in a pile
Of noisome, musty chaff. He said 'twas folly,
For one poor grain or two, to leave unburnt
And still to nose th' offense.

MENENIUS: For one poor grain or two?
I am one of those! His mother, wife, his child,
And this brave fellow too, we are the grains.

As his mother, Volumnia, sallies forth from the city walls to beg for mercy, Coriolanus himself echoes this, saying, "I'll never / Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand / As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin."

Volumnia is a grotesque, seen in the opening act bragging about sending her son to war and thanking the gods for his wounds. At the end, her plea for mercy begins sympathetically but becomes increasingly desperate and unpleasant, parodying her former praise of an honorable death. Coriolanus breaks down and relents, though his words suggest he knows that to do so will mean the undoing of both his honor and his life:

O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. O my mother, mother! O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But for your son--believe it, O believe it!--
Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,
If not most mortal to him.

And indeed, Coriolanus, returning empty-handed from Rome, is killed by the people of Corioles, the city he had sacked single-handedly and from which he had taken his name.

This is the final irony of Coriolanus: Convinced he needs no one but his self, he tries to fashion himself into a sort of ronin, loosed from any relationship or deed that might seek to define him, to become the "author of himself." But Coriolanus is not Hamlet and he has no inner wellspring from which to draw. He can cast off "Caius Martius," the name his mother gave him, but in the end he is his mother's son. Even the name "Coriolanus," which Aufidius denies him on the precipice of his murder, anchors him to a place outside of himself.

Not knowing that Coriolanus' mother has begged peace of him, Menenius continues to despair, but his praise is rendered absurd: "The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes." When the myth of Coriolanus' making is undone, he is left with nothing. And though he loathes flattery, even of himself, and loathes the people for preferring his "hat" to his "heart," he fails to realize that he is more hat than heart--it is the accounting of his deeds that most defines him, more than his deeds and far more than his character. Though he disdains their speech, calling them mere "voices," without their voices he exists hardly at all.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

His nature is too noble for the world:
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for ‘s power to thunder.

Coriolanus, by most reckonings Shakespeare’s last tragedy, is probably also his least known (Only Timon of Athens or Cymbeline could really contest it for obscurity, I think), but since there’s a new film adaption that’s been getting rave reviews, it seemed like a good time to give it a shot.

Coriolanus is a warrior, but not just any warrior. He’s more like a Shakespearean Superman, completely fearless and virtually indestructible. However, unlike Othello, maybe his closest analog, he isn’t beloved. He’s arrogant and has little regard for the opinions of those he considers beneath him, which is almost everyone, excluding his mother, Voluminia, his wife, Virgilia, and his mentor, Menenius, . Having returned from a battle with the Volsces, led by his chief rival, Tullus Arfidius, in which he more-or-less singlehandedly won the day, Coriolanus is honored by the senate, but, through the scheming of certain senators, the people are turned against him, and his day of victory becomes one of sorrow, as he is exiled from Rome. He allies himself with Arfidius, his former enemy, to destroy Rome, but, at the last minute, is convinced by his mother to broker a peace instead. Of course, this being a tragedy, he is betrayed and killed in the final pages of the play.

Coriolanus is a little different from the typical Shakespearean lead because we’re not given much of a glimpse into his psyche. There are no real soliloquies, no soul-searching, for him. He’s a man’s man, a warrior who values battle and valor for their own sake and always speaks his mind. He’s not a very sympathetic protagonist in a lot of ways, but the conspiracies that slowly destroy his life turn him into an antihero for the people—a term the patrician Coriolanus would probably detest—in the sense that, who hasn’t felt like they were under-appreciated despite clearly being the best at what they do?

There’s an interesting fascist undertone to the play as well. Coriolanus is openly contemptuous of the common folk, disparaging them for wanting to influence the workings of empire, and, while the play never explicitly states that he is correct, his tragic heroism gives his statist leanings a sheen of idealism, something for Shakespeare scholars to fight over for a while, when they get tired of arguing about sexism in Taming of the Shrew.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

ORSINO: If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again! It had a dying fall;
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor. Enough; no more.
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

Twelfth Night opens on a panorama of grief. The twins, Viola and Sebastian, grieve for each other, thinking their sibling drowned in the shipwreck that separates them. The Countess Olivia grieves for her dead brother, refusing the Duke Orsino's advances on the grounds of mourning. Orsino grieves over Olivia's refusal, though it's not difficult to conceive that his bitterness, which wells up after he notes the "dying fall" of his musicians, may originate elsewhere.

Perhaps the comedic elements of Twelfth Night, then--Viola's disguise as Cesario, Sir Toby's antic pranking, and the arbitrary-seeming shuffling of romantic partners--suggest a darker element toward which the play's topsy-turvydom provides, if not a corrective, a brief respite. For those unfamiliar: Viola, shipwrecked on the Illyrian coast, disguises (for some reason) herself as a boy and becomes a servant of the Duke Orsino, with whom she falls madly in love. But Orsino only has eyes for Olivia, and unwittingly tortures Viola by sending her to repeatedly declare his love, a scheme which has the complicated consequence of sending Olivia head over heels for the disguised Viola.

In the B-plot, the pranksters Maria and Sir Toby Belch, along with their idiot friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, gull the cheerless Malvolio, Olivia's steward, into believing that Olivia is in love with him. Malvolio is the only character who refuses to partake in the celebratory atmosphere of the play, and disapproves of such salubrious activities as carousing and joking, saying of Olivia's fool:

MALVOLIO: I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal. I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool that has no more brain than a stone. Look you now, he's out of his guard already. Unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged. I protest I take these wise men that crow so at these set kind of fools no better than the fools' zanies.

OLIVIA: Oh, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite.

Malvolio, having wandered in from some other world and declared himself an enemy of laughter, probably gets what's coming to him. He is essentially cast in the play's masque against his will, convinced by a faked love letter that wearing a ridiculous get-up (yellow stockings with cross garters) and smiling ceaselessly will prove his love for Olivia. In an essentially comic play, this play would be sustained until Malvolio's utter embarrassment and possibly reform, but in Twelfth Night the prank results in Malvolio being cast into a madman's dungeon.

We might still laugh at Malvolio in this state, but our laughter is increasingly discomfiting, and undermines the relief that Twelfth Night has promised us. This is nothing compared to the sudden possibility of violence that Orsino threatens upon Viola, whom he has discerned is the object of Olivia's affection:

ORSINO: Why should I not, had I the heart to do it,
Like to th' Egyptian thief at point of death
Kill what I love?--a savage jealousy
That sometimes savors nobly. But hear me this:
Since you to nonregardance cast my faith,
And that I partly know the instrument
That screws me from my true place in your favor,
Live you the marble-breasted tyrant still.
But this your minion, whom I know you love,
And whom, by heaven I swear, I tender dearly,
Him will I tear out of that cruel eye
Where he sits crowned in his master's spite. --
Come boy, with me. My thoughts are ripe in mischief.

VIOLA: And I, most jocund, apt, and willingly,
To do you rest, a thousand deaths would die.

Suddenly, without warning, we are transported to Othello. Orsino's bloodlust is not so shocking; his overtures to Olivia have always had the air of a madman and a solipsist, but Viola's glee at the prospects of her death is one of the most unnerving moments I can think of in Shakespeare. Where are we, and what has comedy wrought? Of course, Sebastian shows up at the last minute to fix everything (conveniently becoming the new, more appropriate object of Olivia's affections) and Orsino marries the servant he was about to murder, his bride still in Cesario's breeches. But one wonders what the play might have been like if Sebastian had been just moments too late. It's true what they say, I suppose--in comedy, timing is everything.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein

The world is everything that is the case.

I am fascinated by philosophy, even though I’m barely qualified to read it, let alone write about it. Last year, I tackled Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling; this year, inspired by David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System, I decided to try some Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein has a reputation for being amongst the most difficult of philosophers, second only, perhaps, to Heidigger, and I suspect this is because his philosophy works at such a base level.

Indeed, the primary contribution of the Tracatus is the idea of Logical Atomism which says essentially that all logical statements can be broken down into tiny parts, and then those parts broken down further until at last they reach their “atomic” level, wherein they are recognizable as self-evident tautologies, which Wittgenstein calls propositions. These propositions require no proofs, or, rather, they prove themselves—they are both the statement of a fact and the evidence of said fact. They are self-contained, and by combining these atomic facts, we can construct a logical model that describes the world.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. Wittgenstein is careful to point out that having a model that describes the world does not mean that the model is an accurate representation of the world as a whole; rather, it means that the model is one way to describe the world, and this tells us something about the world itself. If we were to discover another model that could describe the world more accurately, this too would tell us something about the world—but the world itself remains essentially unknowable.

This doesn’t mean, however, that Wittgenstein is a relativist. He takes great pains to point this out:
At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. So people stop short at natural laws as something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate. And they are both right and wrong. but the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear terminus, whereas the modern system makes it appear as though everything were explained. The world is independent of my will. Even if everything we wished were to happen, this would only be, so to speak, a favour of fate, for there is no logical connexion between will and world, which would guarantee this, and the assumed physical connexion itself we could not against will.
There’s a lot more to the Tracatus, which, even at a slim 80 pages, is quite an undertaking, but I don’t feel like I have a strong enough grasp on Wittgenstein’s big picture to go into much detail about it. That’s ok, though. If philosophy is a search for knowledge, a quest to understand the way the world works, then it seems to me that reading it without understanding it all is sort of the point. The key is not to dissect every word—it’s to learn a way of thinking, a method of inquiry that will slowly expose blind spots and blank slates, and to begin to see the world as a beautiful, mysterious place, capable of inexplicable moments of epiphany and complexity. It’s a way of staying humble, of realizing that there is so much that is unknowable, and so much yet to know.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark

Arabs lived in the shelter of the eighteenth-century ruined fortresses, and even now in the years of the establishment of Israel, burning with its mixture of religion, hygiene, and applied sociology, the poor Arabs still hung their washing on the battlements, so that it fluttered all along the antique sea-front, innocent of the offence it was committing in the eyes of the seekers of beautiful sights and spiritual sensations, who had come all the way from the twentieth century, due west of Acre. Indeed, the washing draped out on the historic walls was a sign or progress, enlightenment, and industry, as it had been from time immemorial; it betokened a settlement and a society with a sense of tomorrow, even if it was only tomorrow's clean shirt, as against the shifty tent-dwelling communities of the wilderness; and however murky the cave-like homes along the shore, nad however indolent the occupants, they were one up on the Bedouin, at least in their own eyes if not in the sight of the tourist cameras which photographed the Bedouin shepherds continually but deplored the hung-out washing at Acre.

The Mandelbaum Gate is Muriel Spark's longest book (at a whopping 320+ pages), and bears few of her trademarks. It is surprisingly compassionate toward its protagonists, short on death and tragedy, though the subject matter might have easily invoked Spark's more violent tendencies, and at times borders on florid (the above passage is two sentences!).

But then again, its protagonist, Barbara Vaughan, is the most like Spark of all heroines, so perhaps it's unsurprising that Spark felt kindly disposed toward her, and her attention captured for longer. Like Spark, Vaughan is a half-Jewish, half-Protestant convert to Catholicism. The setting is Jerusalem, 1961, a city separated into an Arab and a Jewish half by the title gate, which is closely guarded and travel restricted. Barbara's fiance, an archaeologist, is working on the Arab side of the border, and Barbara undertakes to pass through, knowing that her Jewish blood puts her at danger even though she is a British citizen.

Such a premise threatens to devolve into a very Graham Greene-like spy caper, but Spark slyly buries the most espionage-like elements into b-plots and isolated moments. Instead, Barbara lingers at the Christian shrines in Jordan, disguised as an Arab woman, catches scarlet fever, and lingers in a sick bed--in short, there is simply too much lingering for The Mandelbaum Gate to qualify as a caper of any kind.

Instead, what Spark delivers is an uncharacteristically deft exploration of the multifarious perspectives on the Holy Land. One of my favorite passages is the one above, which describes the way that the residents of Acre struggle to maintain a present existence against the expectation of tourists and pilgrims, whose in their faith paradoxically seek to deaden and ossify the shrines they visit. In another passage, a collection of friars at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre look on in horror as a visiting priest cautions his congregation against trusting the claims of every shrine:

The three friars gazed at the priest as with one gaze. They had known it. The incipient defroque was undermining the Holy Land, as he went on to enumerate for practical purposes the shrines which his pilgrimage might well skip and the dubiety of their origins, their thoughts went to their brethren, the custodians of the Holy Land to whom these places were their whole heart and life; tears came to the eyes of the eldest friar as he thought of the venerable Franciscan, well past ninety, who kept the house where Our Lady was conceived by St. Joachim and St. Anne, and who had wanted nothing for himself all his life but to show it to the pilgrims and pray with them as they came, and collect alms for the poor of the place, and die there on that spot.

Again we are faced with the essential oxymoron created when the word Holy collides with Land; without a doubt the priest is the more literally correct, but his neatly ordered faith leaves no room for the lives of those that still live in Israel--or, as the Arabs in the book call it, Occupied Palestine.

In a broad sense, the Mandelbaum Gate itself provides a symbol of this conundrum, illustrating the difficulty of moving from one's own perspective into another's:

He followed the ancient walls of the city and Temple, past the gates of historic meaning, sealed and barred against Israel--the Zion Gate, Dung Gate, Jaffa Gate, New Gate. Then St. Stephen's Gate opened within the Old City to another medieval maze of streets--Damascus Gate, that gate of the Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and HErod's Gate. He walked round the city until at last, fumbling in his pocket for his diplomatic pass, he came to the Mandelbaum Gate, hardly a gate at all, but a piece of street between Jerusalem and Jerusalem, flanked by two huts, and called by that name because a house at the other end once belonged to a Mr. Mandelbaum.

But then again, the Mandelbaum Gate carries a different symbolic charge for each character. For the Arab Abdul Ramdez, the gate is the division of his family, as it separates him from his beloved sister, Suzi. For the normally staid English diplomat, Freddy Hamilton, who helps Barbara pass through into Jordan against his character, it is the inaccessible wall that prevents him from recovering his memories of the pilgrimage, through which he seems to inhabit some sort of fugue state. For Barbara, it is the artificial barrier between her Jewish self and Gentile self, that if only it were opened, may provide a total sense of identity:

She had thought then, but who am I?
I am who I am.
Yes, but who am I?

Spark is both canny and blasphemous enough to note the echo of Jehovah's words in Exodus, "I am that I am." If Barbara, made in God's image, cannot get a picture of herself, what then of God? The Holy Land is fractured, Spark maintains, because our view of God is fractured. Just as uncharacteristically, Spark ends the book optimistically, in the passage just above, as Freddy wanders through Jerusalem looking at the gates. Most are shuttered, but the Mandelbaum remains--the only entry way from one side of Jerusalem to the other--and it seems very small and mean, "flanked by two huts," and perhaps even comic. Can such a barrier really be insuperable?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance by Bruce A. Ware

Dr. Ware has written a deep, yet readable book that examines the relationships, roles, and relevance within the Trinity. This is the first book about the Trinity that I have read that deals so extensively with the roles of each member of the Godhead and the application it has for our own lives. I disagreed with a few of his application points, but all-in-all, I agreed with most of what I read. If you’re looking for a deeply theological work or a historical book that traces the roots of Trinitarian theology, this is not the book for you. It does, however, give a brief historical overview of Trinitarian theology and in laymen’s language address how each member of the Godhead relate to each other and how that applies to our lives, marriages, and ministries.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

It turns out my understanding of Rashomon, based on watching maybe five minutes of the Akira Kurosawa film, once, comes from a completely different Ryunosuke Akutagawa story.  The whole idea of the Rashomon effect, that we can't get a true depiction of an event from just hearsay because people are prone to subjectivity in recollection, is based on a short story called "In a Grove," and doesn't appear once in the story "Rashomon."  Kurosawa just mashed the two together for the purpose of the movie ("Rashomon" is the setting, "In a Grove" is the plot).

The Rashomon was the enormous gate (126 feet wide by 26 feet tall by 75 feet deep) that led into Kyoto when it was the capital of Japan, between 700 and 1200 AD.  At the time of the story it's fallen into complete disrepair, and what happens there is emblematic of the terrible state of the country.  It serves mostly as a shelter for thieves and murderers, and respectable citizens only visit it as a place to dump their dead.  The story, surprisingly short, follows a recently discharged samurai's servant (turns out samurai are not immune to recessions, apologies to anyone who followed my advice in 2008) waiting out a storm under the Rashomon gate and writhing in indecision.  One moment he's determined to remain virtuous, even if it means starving in a ditch; the next he's resigned himself to becoming a thief to survive.  I don't know if "Rashomon" became so famous because of the film or because it's such a perfect example of his writing, at least in the five other story in this book.  Akutagawa's protagonists misreport something they witnessed, waver between moral extremes, and manage to trick so many people that they become convinced that their own lies are true.  They change their point of view constantly and murder loved ones to protect their name, but seem to remain sure of their moral integrity.

His bio says that he was driven by his opposition to stupidity, greed and corruption, but shied away from the 'easy social criticism' popularized by his contemporaries in the early 20th century.  Instead he lets the psychological fluidity and insecurity of his characters criticize for him, showing how malleable a person's sense of morality can be if they let themselves be driven by greed or fear, or even a wish to avoid offending someone.  Parts of it reminded me of Dubliners, if Joyce had stopped short of the moments of epiphany that characterize some of the better stories, like "The Dead."  Akutagawa has his characters torturing themselves with their insecurities and lack of conviction, changing their mind incessantly and at the slightest influence.

They're beautiful stories, too, with little snippets of reverence for the natural world that sound more like Zen poetry than veiled social criticism.  Maybe meant to be a contrast between the impermanent, shifting world of humanity and the solid, defined world of nature, maybe just meant to be pretty, worth reading either way.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I said long long ago that I preferred Emma to Pride and Prejudice by a hair, but having just re-read the latter, I think that I must be mistaken--surely Pride and Prejudice is one of the most perfect books ever written. (You will excuse me as I slip into something of a panegyric; I don't think I can help it.) Every moment, every character, every word seems perfectly shaped and in place. Certainly I can think of few other books that compel me to read them so strongly. This is the (I think) fourth time I've read Pride and Prejudice, but every time, I find myself in a bitter disposition doing anything else but reading it, because something about it draws you to its conclusion. The ultimate joke, I think, in a book constructed from jokes is that when the climax comes, it's reported secondhand:

Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation now forced herself to speak; and and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.

This is hilarious, and nasty. After priming the reader for a final declaration of love from Darcy and an acceptance of marriage from Elizabeth, Austen drops the dialogue and essentially cuts to black, no kiss, no knee, nothing. Just "[she] gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded...," which is as funny as any of the ironic digs at Mr. Collins or William Lucas.

Not that you would be able to find much of that ironic sense in any of your ersatz Austen sequels, or even much in the (excellent) Joe Wright film, for which the love story outshines all other elements of the novel. But people insist on misunderstanding this book, even--or especially--its biggest fans. Why is it that the most irony-deficient people seem to love this book? How can it inspire such crippling sincerity as this?

LinkIn fact, the more I think about it, I wonder if Pride and Prejudice doesn't merely use irony as its modality, but its theme as well. It is, in a sense, a book about irony, that gap between perception and reality. Elizabeth is only able to find happiness with Darcy once she learns to balance public perception of him against his true character; it is a lesson she learns with Wickham in reverse. Mrs. Bennet jeopardizes her daughters' chances of marriage by being deficient in manners, which are a kind of irony, proudly bellowing what she perceives to be true at inopportune moments, unaware that saying what you do not mean, and meaning what you do not say, can both be a kind of social currency. For her part, Jane allows herself to be beguiled by Caroline Bingley because she cannot perceive the irony, or insincerity, of others. On the other hand, there is Mr. Bennet, so removed from the world by way of his ironic veil that he cannot grasp the danger of Lydia's Brighton trip, which serves as the prelude to a misbegotten elopement.

Or I could be completely full of shit. In any case, I love this book.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Ah, 2012. A new year in which to start strong and eventually fall off on my reviews. Last year, I didn't review over half of my books, and I'm regretting that now, since that means there is no review of The BFG, my literary introduction to the bizarre and sometimes cruel world of Roald Dahl.

Dahl's universe operates in extremes, largely populated by grotesques and beauties. Matilda's ignorant, crooked family and the kid-hating, shotputting teacher Ms Trunchbull fall in the former category, while Matilda and her teacher Ms Honey fall in the latter--but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Matilda is an extremely precocious little girl, growing up in a family that doesn't value intelligence and force-feeds television to her 24 hours a day (and, as an aside, Dahl apparently REALLY hated TV, to judge from this and Mike Teevee in Willy Wonka). Matilda, four, seeks asylum in books, and by the time she starts school, has read all sorts of things--Dickens, Steinbeck, Hemingway, C.S. Lewis. When she finally goes to school, she finds a sympathizer in the saintly-but-weak Ms. Honey, and an antagonizer in the cruel, abusive Ms. Trumbull.

Dahl presents Ms. Trumbull as an exaggerated monster who picks children up by their hair and hurls them out windows, but in spite of her absurdity, Ms. Trumbull is a wonderfully dark, wicked creation--entirely unambiguous and virtually unassailable. As Matilda says, when asked why parents never complain:

"Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it's unbelievable. No parent is going to believe this pigtail story, not in a million years. Mine wouldn't. They'd call me a liar."


Matilda eventually discovers that she has special powers, never given a name in the book but which are clearly some form of telekinesis, and, using them, she's able to overthrow Ms. Trumbull, help Ms. Honey and, eventually, even find a new family. It's childish wish fulfillment, but it's handled in such a way that any child would relate to--surely everyone reading this has tried moving something simply by staring at it, and, on an even more universal level, every person feels that they are special in ways that those around them don't understand, a theme also present in The BFG and Willy Wonka. Matilda's victory may come by supernatural means, but the scaffolding upon which it is built is natural and universal.

p.s. Quentin Blake's illustrations, both in this and The BFG are fantastic and perfectly established Dahl's mood before I read a word.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

Subtitled: "Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History." This was an extremely riveting account of a very significant period in American history that I knew basically nothing about. Am I the only one?

Pre-colonization, the Comanche tribe was living what Gwynne calls a stone-age existence, scratching out their survival mostly by foraging, falling victim to neighboring tribes with more complex culture, technology and religious rites. Post-colonization, as the invading Spanish managed to lose entire herds of horses to the wilderness, they transformed themselves with fierce determination into an unrivaled force, building their warrior culture around their almost superhuman skill on horseback.

Boys were given their first horse at age two or three, and within a few years were expected to perform small tricks, like picking up an object from the ground while riding. This little trick gets progressively more challenging until adulthood, at which point they could approach a fallen comrade, pick him up, and put him on the back of their horse without breaking stride. They were known to drop to the side of their horses when passing an enemy, with just one heel hooked over the back of the animal, and could release between ten and twenty arrows from beneath its neck before their opponent could reload their cumbersome ball and powder guns. This incredible discipline allowed them to master the art of mounted warfare apparently better than anyone before or since, and stop the advancing line of settlement in western Texas for over 150 years, at times even reversing it.
A large portion of the book is devoted to extremely graphic descriptions of the kind of brutality the Comanche inflicted on their enemies, rival tribes and white settlers alike. The mutilation, rape and murder of white settlers by Comanche bands was widely published (and often exaggerated) in Texas, drumming up anti-Indian sentiment to a fever pitch. Gwynne's timeline of the different militia groups and federal dispatches that tried and failed to solve the "Indian problem" gets muddled and confusing (how many unsuccessful military engagements am I supposed to keep track of?), but engaging nonetheless. He presents the Texas Rangers as a filthy, ragtag band of bloodthirsty adventure-seeking young men who proved the most successful opponent to the Comanches until the federal military managed to subdue them completely in the late 19th century (SPOILER ALERT).

Quanah Parker starts as something of a side story that Gwynne keeps returning to, and eventually takes center stage as the leader of one of the last free bands of Comanches that managed to resist the reservation, the Quahadis. His story is emblematic of the American west at the time: his mother, captured by a Comanche war band at age 9, was adopted into the tribe as an equal. She married a minor war chief, had two sons, and was forcibly returned to white society after her band was attacked by General So-and-so's latest expedition. She spent the rest of her life trying to return to them. Quanah went on to rally the remaining Comanche bands to form a resistance movement that managed to route the federals for a while but, surprisingly, surrendered when he realized it was hopeless. He went on to become a strong proponent of his tribe's assimilation, becoming the first principal chief of the Comanche tribe.

I'm rambling, but it's hard to know where to stop. The entire book is completely engaging, and manages to stay relatively impartial throughout. I don't know if I expected this going into it, but there's no clear picture of who held the moral high ground throughout, and Gwynne gives as much attention to the bloodlust and brutality of the Comanches as he does to the groups of settlers who would strike down Comanche women and children on revenge raids. There are moments of tenderness and humanity on both sides, and the clearest picture I can take away from such a complex history is that these were two cultures doing everything they could to preserve their ultimately irreconcilable ways of life.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Man Who Knew Too Much by G. K. Chesterton

"I am too tangled up in the whole thing, you see, and I was certainly never born to set it right."

I pulled this book off a bookshelf at my girlfriend's parents house, thinking that it might have been the basis for the Alfred Hitchcock movie with the same title. The author's name was not displayed on the side. I was delightfully surprised to see that it was a Chesterton book, and one that I had not heard of. I quickly stuffed it down the back of my pants.

As I suspected upon discovering its author, this book has no connection to the Alfred Hitchcock movie, other than the title. It is a collection of 8 detective stories set in the early 20th century. The title refers to Horne Fisher, a man who is burdened with private knowledge of public figures in England, due to the fact that he is so well connected. Fisher's intimate knowledge of the lives and motivations of members of Britain's upper class allows him to understand what is really going on, and what it ultimately kept from the public.

Accompanying Fisher in these stories is his friend Harold March--they meet in the first story. March is a journalist whose focus appears to be matters of politics. March does not figure heavily into the stories. However, his presence provides the opportunity for Fisher to voice some of the paradoxes he is facing as a result of what he know. Fisher knows who is guilty, but he also knows the motives behind their actions. And there are reasons why these persons cannot be brought to justice--at least in the traditional sense. Inherent to these stories, is a lack of justice. This is the fundamental difference between these stories and Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries.

While there is not a strict chronology to these stories, there is an overall arc to the collection, beginning with Fisher meeting March in the first story. They should definitely be read in the order.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

He was in an eddy again, a deep, lethargic gulf, without desire to work or write, love or dissipate. For the first time in his life he rather longed for death to roll over his generation, obliterating their petty fevers and struggles and exultations. His youth seemed never so vanished as now in the contrast between the utter loneliness of this visit and that riotous, joyful party of four years before. Things that had been the merest commonplaces of his life then, deep sleep, the sense of beauty around him, all desire, had flown away and the gaps they left were filled only with the great listlessness of his disillusion.

This Side of Paradise
was Fitzgerald's first novel, published at the age of (dammit) 23. It has the unsurprising kitchen-sink quality common to a first-time novelist who wants to try everything, and flits from narrative to poetry to drama with wild abandon. Among other things, it comprises a short play, several bad lyrical poems, an elegiacal one in the Celtic style, and several letters. In one of them, Amory Blaine's friend Tom tells him, "As for the well-known Amory, he would write immortal literature if he were sure enough about anything to risk telling any one else about it."

Also unsurprisingly, Amory, the young proto-writer and disaffected Princeton man, is a stand-in for the young Fitzgerald, as Stephan Dedalus was for James Joyce five years prior. Fitzgerald shares Amory's anxiety about have nothing certain to say, and so the novel becomes about him--"I know myself," Amory cries in the last line of the book, "but that is all!"--and the ecumenical style becomes a way of compensating. Like Portrait of the Artist, Paradise reads as a sort of legend of its own creation, but the key to Joyce's achievement was an otherworldly confidence in the quality of the book, not an otherworldly confidence in the quality of the author.

Paradise is at its best in the straightforward narrative mode, which begins as a satirical portrait of Amory as a precocious and quite insufferable child. My favorite line is this, describing Monsignor Darcy, a priest and friend of Amory's mother:

He was intensely ritualistic, startlingly dramatic, loved the idea of God enough to be celibate, and rather liked his neighbor.

Darcy proves to be a wise man and a stalwart friend to Amory, but the brilliant understatement of "[he] rather liked his neighbor" never fades, as does his confidence that he and Amory are of a special class. (This is a view that the author clearly shares, and perhaps he is borne out by history.)

The satire drops out as Amory grows, and becomes more lyrical as he becomes more lyrical, but the poetry he writes is largely forgettable. The prose is more successful:

Often they swam and as Amory floated lazily in the water he shut his mind to all thoughts except those of hazy soap-bubble lands where the sun splattered through wind-drunk trees. How could any one possibly think or worry, or do anything except splash and dive and loll there on the edge of time while the flower months failed. Let the days move over--sadness and memory and pain recurred outside, and here, once more, before he went on to meet them he wanted to drift and be young.


Only far inside his soul a little fire leaped and cried that something was pulling down, trying to get him inside a door and slam it behind him. After that door was slammed there would be only footfalls and white buildings in the moonlight, and perhaps he would be one of the footfalls.

But then there's a strange interlude where the Devil appears, some more bad poems, and a centerpiece where Amory's brief, tempestuous relationship with a girl named Rosalind is written as a stage play. The meaning of this is gut-wrenchingly obvious (she's histrionic, like an actress) and Rosalind and the playlet itself battle each other to determine which can be less interesting. The momentum of the book never recovers, and for some reason, even when Amory meets more interesting people (one girl rides her horse off a cliff to prove she doesn't believe in God!) he still yearns for Rosalind. Worst of all, where the climax should be, Fitzgerald provides a lengthy discussion about socialism with a complete stranger, and then the novel sort of limps off to die in a New Jersey ditch.

One of the strangest things about Paradise is that World War I is almost completely absent. Fitzgerald calls attention to how little Amory thinks of the war beginning as a high school student by limiting his notice of it to a half-page chapter. Then, when Amory goes off to fight in it, Fitzgerald provides--an act break. The Amory that returns is not markedly different. I'm pretty sure that Fitzgerald did not fight in WWI, but he felt it necessary that his alter ego did. And yet, he felt it not worthy--or too daunting?--to include. I wonder why.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Top Ten 2011

2011 is over; 2012 is here! This year promises to be even more difficult than the last, since the Mayan spaceships are supposed to arrive in late December, meaning we'll have one fewer weak to get to 50. But don't let that stop you--we would love to add contributors to our blog! You don't have to reach 50, you just have to love books and enjoy writing about them. If you're interested, e-mail me at misterchilton at gmail.com.

Here are the top ten books I read this year. This is a fairly skewed list, since I'm not counting either re-reads (like Brideshead Revisited) or stuff like Shakespeare, which is great, but not very interesting to put on a list because everyone already knows it's awesome.

10.) Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis -- I think of this dark satire of academia every time I work on my graduate school applications. Bonus fact: It was a favorite novel of the late great Christopher Hitchens.

9.) Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence -- I liked this much more than Lady Chatterley's Lover. Both are gorgeously written, but my memory of Chatterley was that its vision of love seems remarkably shallow. Sons and Lovers, on the other hand, matches Lawrence's prose to an appropriately metaphysical vision.

8.) Moby Dick by Herman Melville -- What can be said about Moby Dick? Its size, its universality, its grandeur all serve to obviate commentary. They also obviate a lot of the good will and humor that are built up in the opening chapters, creating an object of awe, rather than an object of love.

7.) The Red and the Black by Stendhal -- "More like the red and the bleak." -- Stephen Brent Waggoner

6.) The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow -- As close as I think I've seen to "The Great American Novel," thanks to its illimitable energy, adventure, and melting-pot approach to prose. It makes me want to be a better "Columbus of the near-at-hand."

5.) The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton -- My students have been complaining that all of Shakespeare's plays end tragically. (Coincidentally, they read nothing but tragedies.) I would like to spend a semester and just teach this, Ethan Frome, and The Age of Innocence and then see how they feel.

4.) Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy -- Now that I think back on what I've read this year, I think that Far from the Madding Crowd reminds me most of Moby Dick, purely in the sense that it reading it is to be overwhelmed by the knowledge Hardy summons to his fingertips. That, along with sympathetic characters and a believable plot, were what I thought were most missing from The Mayor of Casterbridge.

3.) A Passage to India by E. M. Forster -- Don't be fooled--this isn't really a novel about Anglo-Indian relations in the early 20th century. What it is, however, I find much more difficult to say.
2.) Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte -- I only pretended to read this in high school, and now I regret it. Very few characters are as intense as Heathcliff, and very few books are as intense as Wuthering Heights, which at times wavers between a Gus Van Sant movie and a snuff film.

1.) Parade's End (1 2 3 4) by Ford Madox Ford -- Maybe it's cheating to include the whole tetralogy here, but I wanted to save room for a few other books on my list. Parade's End is the best example I have ever seen of what Ford called literary impressionism, the reproduction of life as it is lived--in A Man Could Stand Up--, he spends twenty pages describing a spot on a wall!--and ever since then even great works of literature that attempt similar things have seemed to me disingenuous. I am skeptical, but optimistic, that the upcoming HBO adaptation will be successful. BUT in case you're wondering, Some Do Not... (1) > A Man Could Stand Up-- (3) > No More Parades (2) > The Last Post (4).

Happy New Year!