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Thursday
Jan172008

The Italian Secretary

Although widely and justly considered second–rate works, the library of this legendary sleuth's  further adventures has been growing by leaps and even greater leaps the last forty–odd years.  A staggering number of these books, of course, wallow in that corner of chilly obscurity especially reserved for epigones.  Even an authoritative collection penned by Arthur Conan Doyle's youngest son and Agatha Christie's most heralded contemporary and based on unsolved Holmes cases never fleshed out in print suffers from the ingenious self–limitation of recycling actual Doylean plot lines.  Thus, if you are more than superficially acquainted with the original stories, you will see the guilty party marching towards you from the other end of Baker street.

0786715480.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpgNot so with the American author Caleb Carr, who comes up with an entirely new adventure and one not remiss in its Holmesian eccentricities.  Carr is the author of this other bestselling novel, which I cannot recommend, as well as a noted military historian.  His training in that field must definitely have imbued the villain's weapon of mass devastation (I shall not describe it further) with a certain  authenticity, although that is again not my business to judge.  What I may say, however, is that the historian finds Victorian dialogue to be a rather delightful affair and, while generally refraining from archaic constructions, dispatches a convincing Watson (no story is complete without him) to lead the reader from room to darkened room in search of, well, a ghost.  The ghost has been biding its time for a while now:  the Italian secretary in question is none other than this murdered gentleman, once a member of the court of  Mary, Queen of Scots, and now still very much bounding about this old palace.

Mycroft, Holmes's older brother always described by Sherlock as having the better brain of the two, if beset by irreparable indolence, summons the dynamic pair to Scotland to investigate the evisceration of an architect and a mason.  Along the way, a few belligerent Scottish terrorists decide to ventilate the train that the two visitors happen to be riding.  We are to gather that this small piece of action will be a foretaste of the revolt awaiting the detectives in the North, although the extreme violence of the novel (a very modern addition) is tempered by the cozy whispers of ghosts and goblin–like baddies from every crevice and crack of  Holyrood.  Once there, the usual chain of events ensues: Holmes becomes moody and finds the whole operation either tedious or hilarious, while Watson drifts from one shady character to another, inspecting each of them with severe medical thoroughness.  Holmes of course knows exactly what's going on and just has to test out a few of his theories to substantiate his peerless intuition; Watson, on the other hand, is tasked to play the role of the silly goat.  This thankless assignment involves irrational fears of the supernatural, excessive politeness (especially to the fairest and most distressed of Europe's damsels), and an unerring tendency for absurd deductions based on a hint or a sniff of a clue (or the hint of a sniff of a clue).  This is both the trademark of the Holmes stories and its cardinal shortcoming, and Carr smartly chooses not to tamper with a proven product.

I cannot say I like the end of The Italian Secretary, neither what happens nor how and why it happens.  The history of Rizzio's murder is a nice backdrop, but how many Holmesian solutions do we have that truly involve the otherworldly?  Despite this obvious straw–man, on most pages Carr offers a flattering and sincere imitation of Watson's unique cadence.  More impressively, the reader's attention is held even though the vast majority of the novel are lengthy dialogues: Holmes and his foil, or the Brothers Holmes, or Watson and the young woman he finds wandering the castle.  Yes, it's always Watson who finds the woman.  Holmes found a woman once, in this, his first short story.  Conan Doyle immediately recognized the schmaltzy path that his beloved creation would be taking if he continued in this vein and wisely concluded that some artists should remain monks, or at least keep bees instead of grandchildren.  Had he not, it would have been one of the most disastrous decisions in literary history.  But perhaps still not as bad as this one.

Tuesday
Jan152008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

A long time ago, while still studying Czech, I decided to devote half my master’s thesis to this venerable Franco-Czech writer, an announcement met with sharp criticism from a few other burgeoning scholars, all of whom were women.  They could not quite believe that I, ostensibly an open–minded fellow if a bit carefree, was going to allot a considerable amount of time to such a “sexist.”  “I cannot stand him,” said one particularly disgusted student who happened to attend a few of my classes, “I simply cannot stand him.”  Her small, pretty nose twitched as she said this (the sign of true contempt), but she never explained why she found his oeuvre so intolerable.  Yet I understood why then, and the matter is even clearer to me now in re–examining his most famous novel.

Waves of politics and philosophy undulate through The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but at the core swims a young couple, Tomas and Tereza, who are trying to make sense of that most human condition of all, morality.  They are joined in their quest by two more main characters: Sabina, who is Tomas’s lover, and Franz, who is also Sabina’s lover.  The four live in awareness of one another, but perhaps not in acceptance, and each embodies, with his or her profession, one field of human knowledge.  Franz is a university professor and the most distant from the incredible ecstasy of art; he finds solace in politicized protests and sewn–on labels such as “dissident,” “immigrant,” and “radical change.”  Tomas is a physician and an inveterate rake, but his aesthetic sense perseveres through bouts of wanton behavior and even justifies his emotional immaturity in a German aphorism.  Tomas is clearly superior to Franz in every way, and the reader cannot but smirk when Franz feels burdened by his Philistine wife and bourgeois existence, while Tomas continues to enjoy whatever skirt he can crawl his way under.  Sabina and Tereza, meanwhile, are slabs from the same quarry.  They even pursue variants of the same vocation: Sabina is a painter and Tereza a professional photographer.  They are the pictures for Tomas’s captions, the film for his voiceover.  And both of them adore Tomas for his alleged strength and freedom of spirit, yet acknowledge that these traits only cloak a fear to commit, a fear to love completely and absolutely, and that most primal of male anxieties, the fear of giving up all the earth’s women to receive, in return, only one.  How can one woman possibly compensate for the plenitude of all the rest?  In a way, this is the novel’s essential question.  One may do well to substitute “life” or “soul” for “woman” and ask the question again.                

If all this seems vague and meandering, think of it as a symphony.  After all, that is how Kundera, the son of a well–known Czech musicologist, loves to characterize his works.  He himself once studied composition, and musical references, liner notes, and tidbits of musical history are scattered throughout his writings.  He is particularly fond of the granddaddy of bombast, and a famous quote from the musical genius is repeated throughout the novel.   The plot, if one may call it that, is furnished by the events of the Prague Spring and its aftermath.  The historical happenings are as meaningless for the characters as stage props.  They may stumble and injure themselves on them, even mortally, but nothing can ingress their substance, because the substance of each of them (except, arguably, that of Franz) is entirely outside of any plot or material life.  Someone at one point or another must have already dubbed The Unbearable Lightness of Being a “waltz of souls,” or something to that effect.  If no one has, then I will be happy to use that designation.

On the back cover of the first English version of the novel (translated by this renowned Slavist), one reviewer calls Kundera “an intellectual heavyweight,” which, in my humble opinion, he most certainly is.  But the philosophy in the novel is threadbare, and can be whittled down to the simple statement: if our decisions have no consequences because they repeat infinitely, are we freer or more enslaved?  The question is worth asking, and a topic for students of ethics.  But more important is whether one life, or soul, or woman (which, if she is loved completely and absolutely, can be a life or soul) can matter in the face of churning time.  These characters, called in some places “Kundera's quartet,” represent science, academe, art, and journalism (Tereza’s photographs inevitably chronicle the tumult of 1968), with Soviet tanks providing the military segment.  They become the polyphony of Czech society itself, although it doesn’t need to be Czechoslovakia or 1968  for us to get the idea.  Woven between and among things they could not possibly impact or control, they are both triumphant and trampled underfoot.  They both sublimate and disintegrate, and sometimes it is hard to predict exactly how the fates will turn given all the decisions that have to be made along the way.  A constant pendulum between light and heavy, which may explain the oxymoron of the novel’s title.
             
What then of Kundera the “sexist”?  If you are familiar with Kundera’s ten works of prose fiction, you know that he likely sides with the Don Juans of life, perhaps being one himself, although that needn’t concern us here.  It is women, however, that he sees differently.  He believes, or will have us believe, that women were more liberated before the sexual revolution because they retained their mystique.  Does anyone, he might ask, ever compose odes to a woman’s beauty any more?  Can love for a woman in Western society ever be separated from enjoying her womanhood without inducing mockery?  In a way, such discourse is an oversimplification, because the liberation of women over the last hundred years has to do with much more than sex.  But Kundera is steadfast in his portrayals of modern women: he sees them as equals, yet society certainly does not.  He gives them as much intelligence and fortitude as his male characters then watches them fail.  Whether this makes him a sadist, a sexist, or someone who yearns for the days when women and love could be safely placed above lascivious urges, is a matter of perspective.  Sabina and Tereza are the true heroes of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  They are braver and smarter than everyone else in the novel, but society expects less talent and more prudence on their part.  And so they fail.  And had they succeeded, they might have spared us a lot of nose–twitching.
Friday
Jan112008

Cosmos

There was an oppressive profusion of possible links and clues.  How many sentences can be composed with the twenty–six letters of the alphabet?  How many meanings could be deduced from these hundreds of weeds, clumps of earth, and other details?
It was, I believe, Robbe-Grillet who said that the nouveau roman movement of the 1950s (and, by extension, the modern novel) was simply an attempt to take the detective novel seriously.  The product of this manifesto are books such as this recent masterpiece.  Modern readers no longer have any patience for the vaguely connected reflections of the artist and crave a throbbing plot and explanations as complete as a jigsaw, which, I can say without fear of perjury, is a desire that afflicts every one of us from time to time.  Things must fit together, not just fall apart.  And yet sometimes, as in Witold Gombrowicz's Cosmos, there is too much fitting.   

180px-Gombrowicz2.jpgHerein lies Witold’s problem (Witold is also the name of the protagonist): he and his fellow traveler Fuchs have come across a hanged sparrow, “too high for it to have been done by anyone but an adult.”  Witold’s subsequent attempts to explain this occurrence leads him to suspect everything and everyone. “In spite of myself,” he says, “I started working out shapes and relationships ... what attracted me about these things was one thing’s being behind another.”  Thus begin the makings of the reluctant sleuth: an otherwise uninformed narrator hurled willy–nilly into the realm of crime and uncertainty, a plot quite in keeping with detective fiction conventions.  “Looking at one point masks everything else,” he continues, “when we stare at a single point on a map we are quite aware that others elude us,” because apart from that point perhaps, “everything is happening on the same level.”  This is of course the antithesis of what a detective is supposed to be doing: that is, configuring a “sort of pattern” within all that he sees, “a kind of confused message [which] could be divined in the series of events.”  “How many ‘almosts’ had I not come across?” laments Witold, who concludes that “there is a sort of excess about reality, and after a certain point it can become intolerable” — an admission not terribly distant from the “ineluctable modality of the visible” that Stephen Dedalus comes to accept.

Witold’s bizarre decision to hang Lena’s cat is important for three reasons.  First, Witold mocks the evil precedent of the bastard son and eventual parricide Smerdyakov, who, as a boy, hanged cats and likely tortured other animals (Witold himself is not evil, despite his action).  Second, our narrator is now a murderer, and the motive for the crime appears to be rather extraordinary.  In Witold’s case, “strangling her [Lena’s] beloved cat had brought me closer to her.”  But the third reason is a linguistic one: the cat’s murder denotes an attempt on Witold’s part to speak Lena’s “language.”  In other words, it has a similar and comparative value to the hanging of the sparrow and might therefore, in relation to this first hanging, signify something of greater importance to Lena (this argument will be familiar to certain linguists).  If what the dead sparrow signifies to Witold were different than what it signified to Lena, one might assume that the linguistic unit of a “hanged sparrow” did not share a common definition for both persons; there appears to be, however, an agreed definition of the linguistic unit “hanged cat.”  Should there “always [be] the same act of hanging, though the object changes”  — and we have several hangings in the novel (the sparrow, allegedly the chicken, a piece of wood, the cat, and, finally, Louis) — then Witold’s concatenation of these events would be based mostly on the fact that they are all hangings and not simply murders, thus supporting this value definition. 

While a reconciliation of the various hangings in Cosmos is logical, we realize that, at the same time, these are separate occurrences (the sparrow, for example, was not hanged several times).  For that reason, Witold seems to find himself caught between linguistic units, since
I [Witold] felt myself to be suspended between those two poles [the dead bird and the ‘hanged’ piece of wood], so to speak, and our sitting together at the table under the lamp here seemed to have a special significance ‘in relation to’ the bird and the bit of wood .... they were two futilities and we were in between them.  
They are ‘futilities’ because “each and every object is a huge army, an inexhaustible host”: each person’s interpretation is bound to vary, if only minutely at times.  The point is such a basic linguistic premise that it almost appears ridiculous to return to it continuously.  But Gombrowicz is well aware of  this convention of (good) detective fiction, where all the necessary events or facts are present within its pages, and simply require ordering and comprehension.  The reader feels cheated when, upon finally reaching the much–desired solution, he finds that a key facet of that solution lurked in certain events and facts to which he had not been made privy.

If there is an ontology in the novel, it is that the sleuth’s task is to bypass the obvious, to avoid the sententious rebuff “one is what one is” and to assume that “there was always something behind everything.”  Yet the number of possible links is practically infinite, so even if we “have spotted one sign ... how many more [which] we had not spotted might be concealed in the natural order of things?"  Which makes “had it really no relation to me? Who could tell?” more than just a plausible epigraph to Cosmos, but a lovely conundrum that modern literature is finally learning to answer rather than avoid.
Wednesday
Jan092008

Kira

Back in the golden days of necromancers and exorcists, a certain subsection of people was thought to be steered by unspeakable things.  They would rave and rant, act irresponsibly and unpredictably, and smash apart relationships, families, homes, and dreams.  Having successfully isolated themselves from everyone else, including those who loved them and wished them only happiness, they (collectively termed “the possessed”) would then almost invariably turn towards bolder violations of the law.  Idle hands are the Devil’s work, the Devil made me do it, I was not myself, and so forth.  And because we cannot possibly match wits with Old Nick, many of them met horrible deaths at the hands of inquisitors, mobs, and other enforcement teams.  Now it is believed that no demons were ever involved.  Brain damage and syphilis have replaced Beelzebub and succubus, and while these poor people (now known as “the mentally ill”) have not become any less helpless, society at large has become more empowered.  Lock up them in a sanitarium, apply copious amounts of uppers and downers in some secret binary combination, scare them straight with pictures of ink blots, and discharge them back into the world benumbed but docile.  Surely, they are many who are helped by modern science’s tools and techniques, but many others (American streets are often their residence) are set free of everything except themselves.  As a rule, they have only one or two goals in mind.  But these goals are necessarily unattainable, because they and their goals are so far from one another as to be in different worlds.  That they try nonetheless to achieve these aims, at whatever the cost, has become one of the most famous definitions of insanity.

Ole Christian Madsen’s Kira is about a woman (Stine Stengade), a young vibrant mother and wife, who is coming home.  We learn very early on where she spent the last year, and why her two little boys cannot possibly understand.  Her tall, handsome, praying mantis of a husband Mads (Lars Mikkelsen) is all too eager to have her back, perhaps because he wants to move on from some other part of his life, perhaps because he is tired of answering his children’s questions, but also because he really does love her.  He treats her to an old–fashioned hero’s welcome, as if she had been in a war and returned home decorated and revered.  Things turn predictably sour and the excuses and embarrassment, the sudden end to an otherwise civilized gathering, all of it comes rushing back.  And when Kira, with the utmost sincerity, threatens the life of their young and pretty au pair, we know why Mads looks and acts like a man of infinite burdens.  There is, of course, more to this story.  Kira is half-Swedish, and that Swedish half has little to do with his family now, preferring the company of frivolous women and cold drinks.  The chasm between father and daughter has widened to such a point that everyone – including, most unforgivably, Mads himself – sees Kira as the one at fault (after all, Kira’s father is morose, selfish and fractious, but at least he’s perfectly sane).  As such, Mads treats Kira like a delinquent and grounds her.  And just like a recalcitrant teenager, she then proceeds to doll herself up, wander into a bar, and take up conversation with a cynical Swede who is convinced that he will never again have a one night stand with a beautiful woman.  The next day, Kira calls Mads from Malmö to inform him that the Swede was wrong.

After a brief period of mourning and accusations, an uneasy truce is reached.  The upshot is that Mads needs to hold a business dinner and Kira wants to organize it.  All she wants is to be a good mother and wife, and that is precisely the one thing she is most incapable of doing.  She organizes it and Mads holds his breath, although by now he probably has been holding it for years.  Which brings us to the last part of the film, so remarkable and right in every way that I am loath to reveal anything.  I will just say that Kira writes a big, bold letter – as if, in fact, she were writing on an asylum wall – to her husband and is asked by a stranger whether she is mad.  The self-awareness of being mad is, we are told, impossible for the truly mad, but Kira’s response and subsequent behavior are quite interesting.  From here, a very good reason emerges for her illness (her father, bless his soul, has nothing to do with it); and, indeed, the usual English title is Kira’s reason: a love story.  The original Danish, however, is simply A love story, which is far more accurate.

Tuesday
Jan082008

The Dead

He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the head of his hearers .... they would think he was airing his superior education.

How likely are those gathered for Christmas dinner in this famous tale to comprehend Gabriel Conroy's postprandial speech?  In his opinion, not at all.  How can he talk about something which doesn't interest him to people who are so obviously not on his cloudy plateau of learning?  What could he possibly do or say that would put both him and his audience at ease?  Since they have nothing in common, he will either betray his own truth or the truth of those around him.  But Gabriel's day is governed by untruth and the harsh odor of an undying passion, and no aspect of his existence is left sacred or undisturbed.  Until his wife's confession he remains, however, the only true orator in the story; that will change with mention of the curious immortal Michael Furey.

Gabriel believed, or at least was willing to say, that "literature was above politics" (a quote repeatedly attributed to Joyce himself), and for that splendid reason, kept his name and newspaper column unassociated and this important principle unuttered.  With Miss Ivors, for example, he "could not risk a grandiose phrase" because it would presumably come off as insincere.  His love for literature naturally propels him towards the richer European traditions and their languages, and, subsequently, he resents what he sees as Irish parochialism and the insufficiency of being monoglot.  Like Joyce, he is  tired of simply being Irish, and deposits truth in distant, foreign lands.  The term "West Briton" stems from his work at The Daily Express, but the fact that Miss Ivors reiterates it following his praise of Europe and disparagement of Ireland shows her keen psychology: she will not accord him his desired status, that of a "European."  He fears he might never escape this despicable parochialism.  When Gretta asks him "what words" he had had with Miss Ivors, he responds: "no words ... no words ... only she wanted me to go for a trip to the west of Ireland."  Gabriel's tribute to his aunts is perhaps fake, or perhaps he takes pains to mention nothing save their so-called 'admirable' qualities.  Otherwise, they were "only two ignorant old women."  After the spinster Julia's rendition of "Arrayed for the Bridal," Gabriel seizes her hand in congratulatory ecstasy, "shaking it where words failed him," and offers compliments on her performance:

I never heard your voice as it is to-night.  Now!  Would you believe that now?  That's the truth.  Upon my word and honour that's the truth.

The truth is that he couldn't care less about his batty aunts' modest capabilities, and it is no coincidence that his speech is directly preceded by the story of the monks of Mount Melleray.  These monks never speak because they seek to atone "for the sins committed by all the sinners in the outside world."  Hardly an original concept, this "outside world" of "sins" and lies, and an inner world of truth, silentium est aureum, and so forth.  And Gabriel, unlike his creator, is hardly an original.

The speech itself is laden with pious observations.  "We are living in a sceptical and ... thought-tormented age," Gabriel says, then adds that the past days, "might, without exaggeration, be called spacious days."  He has just held forth on "genuine warm-hearted courteous  Irish hospitality," and fearlessly so; his truth has nothing to do with custom, it is in fact the shunning thereof, the break with the expected that evokes his anti-patriotism.  The "thought-tormented age," the present climate of doubt and revolt, does not dovetail with the romantic quirks he reveals near the narrative's end, where his speech becomes an almost purely rhetorical construct tinged with vindictiveness towards those who might dare question his interpretation of values.  When he mentions "those dead and gone, great ones whose fame the world will not let willingly die," he is taken to mean the idols of his aunts and their generation.  But he is really thinking of his own masters, such as Browning.  As he does to the living, Gabriel accords to the dead a certain hierarchy, what can be loosely termed an aesthetic index, by which he measures those around him.  And so he would never imagine a scene like the story's ultimate, because Michael Furey is supposed to be lost in oblivion.  Someone like Michael Furey, or any trivial, rustic aspect of life cannot possibly be true.  "Unless he tells a lie," this simple or parochial emphasis on true things (a predilection for honesty in contrast to the current "sceptical" times), could very well summarize the falseness in Gabriel's discourse.

The Lass of Aughrim dominates the last third of the story, but initially Gabriel reminisces about his love for Gretta.  His passionate letters contain quotes such as, "why is it that words like these seem to me dull and cold?  Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?"  The truest part of Gabriel in The Dead comprises his tender inner thoughts that invariably flow towards his wife, and, if one allows Gabriel's voice or at least a great part of his consciousness to seep through Joyce's lines, the discourse in these pages is lyrical and strong.  His inability or unwillingness to verbalize his relationship with his wife provides two effects: he retains his luster within him, and he fails to understand Gretta's own passion.  While he fretted about his speech, "the indelicate clacking of the men's heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his," and yet Michael Furey is unquestionably "delicate."  Gretta turns out to be "country cute" as Gabriel's mother had warned him, and this "overeducated"  Irishman now sees himself as

a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts ... a pitiable fatuous fellow.

His own repository of truth, his wife, proves itself to some extent a lie, and its cause is a part of culture he has hitherto denounced openly.  The immortal power of the silent dead, and their famous equation with the living in the story's final line, indicates the vacuity of bold and learned words when compared to the few, small and perhaps simple passions, much like those of a child, that linger forever in memory.

Saturday
Jan052008

Amsterdam

Goethe famously claimed to have read this book in five and a half hours, a whole morning. When asked whether authoring a great novel or a great poem would be more satisfying, a renowned critic opted for verse because he could sit down with a glass of scotch in his study and finish the deed between dinner and bed.  And while each of us must decide his own threshold of sustained artistic pleasure, with our poor attention span constantly assailed by news bytes masquerading as watersheds, its natural length seems to be about two and a half to three hours.  There is something inherently sumptuous about a literary work that can be read and enjoyed in the same time as an opera, play, or artistic film.  A major asset of the 1998 Booker Prize winner is precisely this feeling of round edges.  The circle, beginning with two bad men and excessive ambition, will certainly be completed.  Since the only reference to the Dutch city involves a very controversial procedure, even the news–bitten reader understands that death awaits one of the co–protagonists, who in no small irony begin their fatidic march at the funeral of a shared lover.

Several years past their forties, Clive and Vernon are long–time friends and not unremittingly bad.  But too many of their own concerns clutter their living space.  Clive can barely leave his privileged residence to mingle with the rabble, and has to turn to the whims of nature to inspire himself to Europe's next great symphony (reminiscent of the central motif, literally and figuratively, of this film).  Vernon on the other hand is a gambler of souls, making money off reputations and what readers of his tabloid could possibly be led to believe.  Snippets of boardroom banter reveal that he is neither respected nor feared by his staff, and that his life has been wasted on the petty faults of the famous.  A clear dichotomy between the artist and the huckster, except that our dear composer is an unrepentant boor and snob (there is an excellent passage in which he "dares" to think of himself as a "genius").  He is also, like his yellow newsman chum, sentimentally attached to the late and lovely Molly Lane.  Funerals of lovers, especially those loved in a distant past, are convenient moments to mull over the deceased's infidelities, promiscuity and forks in the road.  Molly's husband George, unpleasantly aware that no fewer than three mourners had prior enjoyment of his companion, sets the two friends upon the third, an MP of rising importance and unaccountable physical repulsiveness.  What did Molly see in him? They both stare and frown and shake their heads as all boys do when they see a pretty girl with anything less than an Adonis.  Ah, but George knows what.  And he has the pictures to prove it.

It is here that George, McEwan, and the reader wisely lean back and watch the spectacle run its course.  Each of our protagonists is a misanthrope (a surly and unproductive Clive is even shrouded in "misanthropic gloom" on a train ride): Vernon has to make his readers hate celebrities in order to get them to read about their hatefulness, and ends up hating everyone except Molly (he has always, it should be said, hated himself), while Clive hates people because they were not assigned the honor of composing the symphony of Europe and all they do is prevent him from fulfilling his destiny.  In time, hate becomes the mantra for the entire novel, and we know that hate is only rewarded in one way.  And if it isn't, then we have just wasted our expectations on one of most uniformly detestable casts of characters in recent memory.  What follows is both perfectly predictable and perfectly preposterous.  Considering the "moral choices" that the two men make (a point given emphasis in most blurbs on the novel), the results merit no questioning.  Just deserts could not be stamped more clearly on their lurching backs.  About two–thirds through Amsterdam, Molly vanishes into a corner of both her former lovers' minds to remain beautiful and haunting forever and ever.  With her go the youth and youthful frivolity of two souls whose idea of facing adulthood is watching a grown man squirm.

Friday
Jan042008

The Holmes Classification and Jeremy Brett

jeremy%20brett.jpgMany winters ago I offended an acquaintance when, in a moment of unforgivable cavalierness, I declared the Sherlock Holmes stories to be "works written for children."   Rarely have I made a comment that I so regret.  In point of fact, I had loved the stories as I suppose all young boys do, and was particularly taken by the magnificent screen embodiment of Holmes by the late and sensationally talented Jeremy Brett.  If you have never seen these productions, which ran on PBS's Mystery! from 1984 to just before Brett's death in 1995, I cannot possibly recommend them more highly.   Of the 56 stories and four novellas, rediscovered and readored by me the last few years, 41 episodes (with one episode combining elements of two stories) were filmed and are viewable on 21 discs.

1) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 1, 1984): “A Scandal in Bohemia”; “The Dancing Men”; “The Naval Treaty”; “The Solitary Cyclist”
2) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 2, 1984): “The Crooked Man”; “The Speckled Band”
3) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 3, 1984): “The Blue Carbuncle”; “The Copper Beeches”
4) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 4, 1984): “The Greek Interpreter”; “The Norwood Builder”
5) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 5, 1984): “The Resident Patient”; “The Red–Headed League”; “The Final Problem”
6) The Hound of the Baskervilles (1984) 
7) The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 1, 1986): “The Empty House”; “Abbey Grange”
8) The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 2, 1986): “The Second Stain”; “The Six Napoleons”
9) The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 3, 1986): “The Priory School”; “Wisteria Lodge”
10) The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 4, 1986): “The Devil’s Foot”; “Silver Blaze”; “The Bruce–Partington Plans”
11) The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 5, 1986): “The Musgrave Ritual”; “The Man with the Twisted Lip”
12) The Sign of Four (1987)  
13) The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 1, 1991): “Lady Carfax”; “Thor Bridge”
14) The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 2, 1991): “Shoscombe Old Place”; “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”
15) The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 3, 1991): “The Illustrious Client”; “The Creeping Man”
16) The Eligible Bachelor (1992, based on the story “The Noble Bachelor”)
17) The Last Vampire (1993, based on the story “The Sussex Vampire”)
18) The Master Blackmailer (1993, based on the story “Charles Augustus Milverton”)
19) The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 1, 1994): “The Three Gables”***; “The Dying Detective”
20) The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 2, 1994): “The Golden Pince-nez”; “The Red Circle”
21) The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (Disc 3, 1994): “The Mazarin Stone***/ The Three Garridebs”; “The Cardboard Box”

For now I will spare you the disquisition, but the spurious (***) authorship of both "The Three Gables" and "The Mazarin Stone" has long been a topos for Sherlockians.  All these discs are available for rental or purchase from the usual suspects.  Brett's performance in My Fair Lady also reminds me that I saw a fine version of the same classic the other night at the Kennedy Center.

Thursday
Jan032008

A Few Soft Words About the Transcendent

Although Eagleton addresses the subject very eloquently, leaving little to add, I am still nonplussed at how even highly educated and respected opponents of faith still think of religion as a bunch of Believers chanting, making sacrifices and saying how the Lord has led them onto the path of righteousness.   They will deny this, but they hardly distinguish between fundamentalists, or to use a less–scorned term, people who take the holy books literally although they can barely read much less interpret them, and the great scholars and artists of all periods of human existence.  This is the equivalent of equating a port–a–potty, a small, limited, and purely functional thing that provides immediate and consistent relief, with the Taj Mahal.

Morals have not changed, but since science has made our lives easier it leads some to think that morals are antiquated.  Yet morals by definition cannot be antiquated.  Customs may be antiquated and immoral, but morals are unalterable codes of conduct, and one would do well not to confuse practice with ideal morality (usually, as it were, quite distinct entities).  So one does not know, in fact, that the tribesmen are anachronistic and wrong; their wickiups and primal chants may seem backward although it's very likely that they believed in the same things we do.  They simply have a less 'modern' switchboard – that is, something that can appeal directly to our sense of space and function – for conducting operations.  And while religion may be comforting to the poor who seek redemption for their hardscrabble lives, religion to the privileged (we count ourselves among them, by the way) is the opposite of comfort, it is about responsibility, because it tags each of our actions with consequences.  On the contrary, it is atheism or agnosticism that provides comfort by suggesting there is nothing to be worried about since it all is too complex or not yet discovered.  Here are the tenets of their unfaith:

1) There is nothing worth knowing 'for the present time,' but when there will be, it surely will appear in bold newspaper headlines everywhere.  Not only that, once all or part of the truth is revealed, it will be immediately comprehensible to everyone, regardless of training, education, rigorous thinking processes, faith, language, or intelligence. 

2) If we can disprove one little facet of any theory by stating that it is not universally held, we can whittle down the work of thousands of artists, scholars, and thinkers over the centuries, into confirming that we really know nothing at all.  Morals are the product of necessity because governments punish crimes and no one, as far as is known to us, has ever abstained from a crime he could have gotten away with.

3) Since science tells us a toaster will toast bread, and that is the normal outcome of using such an instrument, science has made progress.  Pithecanthropus did not have a toaster, nor for that matter, an oven to bake grain, and obviously concluded that when he ate a mango, it was at the grace and mercy of the mango god Frutita.

4) Science also has no explanation for how and why we came to be here.  Strange how quick they are to dismiss any spiritual beliefs that are not universally agreed upon, but the disputes among physicists and astronomers are seen as polite humbug and oneupmanship. 

5) Religion is basically a bunch of people who do not want to be responsible for their actions and therefore blame (and, occasionally, even thank) a Higher Being for the events in their lives.  Their faith is a total sham from beginning to end that involves brainwashing, the quoting of old and indecipherable collections of fairy tales, the punishment of those who do not adhere, and a general smugness that their path is the broad band of destiny.  When they really don’t like someone, they massacre them and claim it to be God’s will.

6) Religion does not involve any of the following: original thought, doubt, scepticism, debate, research, learning, interpretation, concern, investigation, and artistic merit.  In addition, while believing in God makes sense to some quaint degree, it is very puzzling that anyone nowadays would still believe in Jesus Christ.  After all, he died almost two thousand years ago, and those were different times: the Jews were in Israel, a Latin-based language was the lingua franca of Europe, the Middle East was in turmoil, and sharks patrolled the Red Sea.  Jesus is a product of his time much like, say, Elvis Presley.  Elvis is dead, so we need to get over it and stop pretending he’s hiding out somewhere in Nevada.

7) The best and really, let us be honest, the only way to be sure of anything is to touch, smell, hear, taste, or see it.  Otherwise, it cannot be vouched for and should be readily discarded.  Love, friendship, hope, optimism, curiosity, pride, shame, pity, doubt – all these things only exist insofar as we can sense them.  For example, I express my friendship to another person by calling her my friend, supporting her decisions and being there when something troubles her.  It would be unfathomable that I could also love, pity, or be proud of her, often when she is not there, and often when I have no one to whom to show these emotions except myself.  That is not friendship, but a trick I use to convince myself that I am needed by other people and therefore have a reason to get up in the morning.  It also lets me think of myself as a good and righteous human being who is living in truth, who is justified in his distinctions of right from wrong, and who therefore may be accorded a certain authority in speaking or writing about life and its events.  I do this all for selfish reasons because everything we do is for selfish reasons.  That is the law of the jungle and we are simply its most evolved members.

Thursday
Jan032008

Emma Zunz

My rendition of the Borges classic.  You can read the original here.

While returning from the textile factory of Tarbuch and Loewenthal on the fourteenth of January, 1922, Emma Zunz found at the back of the entrance hall a letter dated in Brazil by which she knew her father had died.  The seal and the envelope fooled her at first; then she became discomfited by the unknown handwriting.  Nine or ten scribbled lines sought to fill up the page; Emma read that Señor Maier had ingested a strong dose of veronal by mistake and died on the third of the current month in the hospital in Bagé.  The letter was signed by a companion from her father’s boarding house, a certain Fein O’Fain of the Rio Grande, who could not have known that he was addressing the daughter of the deceased.

250px-Jorge_Luis_Borges_Hotel.jpgEmma let the paper fall.  Her first sentiment was indisposition in her stomach and knees; then she felt blind guilt, unreality, cold, fear; then she wanted it to be the next day already.  She understood  right afterward that this wish was useless because her father’s death was the only thing that had happened in the world and that would keep happening without end.  She retrieved the paper and went to her room.  She furtively guarded it in a drawer, as if, otherwise, it would meet other ends.   She had already started to see them loom; perhaps she was already as she would be.

In the growing darkness, Emma cried until the end of the day of the suicide of Manuel Maier, who was Emanuel Zunz in the old, happy days.  She remembered summer vacations on a small farm near Gualeguay, remembered (tried to remember) her mother, remembered the house in Lanús that they auctioned off, remembered the yellow lozenge panes of a window, remembered the prison sentence and the opprobrium, remembered the anonymous letters with the newspaper clipping on “the cashier’s embezzlement,” remembered (but this actually she never forgot) that her father, that last night, had sworn to her that the thief was Loewenthal.  Loewenthal, Aaron Loewenthal, previously the factory manager and now one of the owners.  Emma had guarded this secret since 1916.  She had revealed it to no one, not even to her best friend, Elsa Urstein.  Perhaps she was evading profane incredulity; perhaps she believed that her secret was a link between her and her absent father.  Loewenthal did not know that she knew; from this small fact Emma derived a feeling of power.

That night she did not sleep; and when the first light outlined the window’s rectangle, her plan had already been perfected.  She got that day, which to her seemed interminable, to be like the others.  In the factory, there were rumors of a strike; as always, Emma declared herself to be against all violence.  At six o’clock, she finished work and went with Elsa to a women’s club which had a gym and swimming pool.  They signed in; she had to spell and repeat her name and surname and pretend to enjoy the vulgar jokes which accompanied the review.  With Elsa and with the younger of the Kronfusses, she talked about which cinema they would go to on Sunday afternoon.  Then they spoke about boyfriends, with no one expecting Emma to speak.  She was going to be nineteen in April, but men still inspired almost pathological terror in her ... On returning, she made some tapioca soup and vegetables, ate early, went to bed and forced herself to sleep.  In this laborious and trivial way, Friday the fifteenth, the eve of the events, passed.

On Saturday, impatience woke her up.  Impatience, not inquietude, and the sole relief of being on that day, at an end.  She no longer had to plot and imagine: within a few hours, the simplicity of the events took over.  She read in La Prensa that the Nordstjärnan of Malmö was setting sail tonight from pier three; she phoned Loewenthal, insinuated that she desired to communicate (without the others’ knowing about it) something about the strike, and promised to pass by the office at nightfall.  Her voice was trembling; the trembling suited an informer.  No other memorable event occurred that morning.  Emma worked until twelve and fixed the details of a Sunday walk with Elsa and Perla Kronfuss.  After having lunch, she lay down and, eyes closed, recapitulated the plan she had plotted.  She thought that the last stage would be less horrible than the first and would doubtless provide the taste of victory and justice.  Suddenly, alarmed, she got up and ran over to the drawer of the dresser.  She opened it; under the picture of Milton Sills, where she had left it the night before, was the letter from Fain.  No one could have seen it.  She began to read it and ripped it up.

To relate with certain reality the events of that evening would be difficult and perhaps not right.  One attribute of the infernal is its unreality, an attribute that at once mitigates and aggravates its terrors.  How could one make an action credible when one did not believe who did it?  How can one recuperate this brief chaos which, today, the memory of Emma Zunz repudiates and confounds?  Emma lived by Almagro, on Liniers street; it is evident to us that she went to the port that evening.  Maybe in the infamous Paseo de Julio she saw herself multiplied in mirrors, revealed by lights, and undressed by hungry eyes; but it is more reasonable to conjecture that at first she strayed inadvertently towards the indifferent arcade ... She entered two or three bars and saw the routine and manners of other women.  Finally she spoke to the men from the Nordstjärnan.  She was afraid that one man, very young, would fill her with tenderness, so she opted for another, coarse and perhaps shorter than she was, for whom the pureness of the horror would not be mitigated.  The man led her to a doorway, then a turbid entrance hall, then a steep staircase, then a small room (which had a window with lozenge panes identical to those in the house in Lanús), then to a door which was locked.  The grave events were outside of time; and for that reason, the immediate past remains cut from the future; and for that reason, the parts that form the events do not seem consecutive.

At what time apart from this time, in what perplexing disorder of unconnected and atrocious sensations did Emma think but once of the death that motivated her sacrifice?  I am of the belief that she thought about it one time, and at this moment endangered her desperate proposition.  She thought (she could not but think) that her father had done the horrible thing to her mother which they were now doing to her.  She thought with faint astonishment and immediately took refuge in her vertigo.  The man, a Swede or a Finn, did not speak Spanish; he was a tool for Emma as she was for him, but she was serving joy and he justice.

Once she was alone, Emma did not immediately open her eyes.  On the lamp table was the money the man had left.  Emma got to her feet and ripped up the money as she had ripped up the letter.  Ripping up money is an impiety, like throwing out bread; Emma repented as soon as she did it.  An act of arrogance and on that day ... Fear got lost in her body’s sadness, in her disgust.  Her disgust and her sadness  were paralyzing her, but Emma rose slowly and proceeded to get dressed.  No bright colors remained in the room; the last dusk was becoming worse.  Emma managed to leave without anyone’s notice; at the corner, she boarded a train on the Lacroze line which was heading west.  Following her plan, she chose the seat all the way at the front so that they could not see her face.  Perhaps it consoled her to affirm, in the insipid hustle and bustle of the streets, that what happened had not contaminated matters.  She traveled through deteriorating and opaque neighborhoods at once seen and forgotten and got off at one of the turnings of Warnes.  Paradoxically, her fatigue came to be a strength since it forced her to concentrate on the details of the affair and conceal its background and its end.

Aaron Loewenthal was, according to everybody, a serious and reliable man; but his few intimates knew him as greedy.  He lived upstairs in the factory, alone.  It was set up in a run–down area for fear of thieves; he kept a large dog in the factory’s courtyard and in the drawer of his desk, everybody knew, a revolver.  Last year he had cried with much decorum over his wife’s unexpected death (a Gauss who bore a good dowry!), but money was his true passion.  To his personal embarrassment, he was less talented at making it than keeping it.  He was very religious, believing himself to have a secret pact with the Lord which excused him from acting good in exchange for orations and prayers.  Bald, corpulent, in mourning garb, with steamed–up glasses and a blond beard, he stood by the window expecting the confidential report of worker Zunz.

He saw her push the gate (which he had left half–open on purpose) and cross the dark courtyard.  He saw her give a small start when the still–fastened dog barked.  Emma’s lips were moving like those of someone praying in a low voice; tired, they repeated the sentence which Señor Loewenthal would hear before dying.

Things did not happen the way Emma Zunz had foreseen them.  Since yesterday’s early morning she had dreamt of many things, holding the firm revolver, forcing that miserable man to confess his miserable guilt, and explaining that intrepid stratagem that would allow Divine Justice to triumph over the justice of men (not by fear but by being an instrument of Justice, she did not wish to be punished).  One bullet in the middle of the chest would then seal Loewenthal’s fate.  But the events did not occur thus.   

Before Aaron Loewenthal, more than the urgency of avenging her father, Emma felt the urgency of punishing the outrage she had suffered because of him.  She could not but kill him after this meticulous disgrace.  Nor did she have the time to spare for theatrics.  Seated and shy, she asked Loewenthal for forgiveness and invoked (as an informer) the obligations of loyalty, mentioned certain names, said she understood others and cut herself off as if fear had won out.  She managed to make Loewenthal leave for a glass of water.  When he, incredulous but indulgent of such a fuss, returned from the dining room, Emma had already taken the heavy revolver from the drawer.  She squeezed the trigger twice.  His considerable body collapsed as if the explosions and the smoke had ripped him up; the glass of water broke; his face showed both fear and anger; the face’s mouth insulted her in Spanish and in Yiddish.  The bad words did not cease; Emma had to fire another time.  In the courtyard, the tethered dog broke out in barking, and an effusion of sudden blood remained on the obscene lips and stained his beard and clothes.  Emma began the accusation she had prepared (“I have avenged my father and they will not be able to punish me...”), but she did not finish because Señor Loewenthal was dead.  She never knew whether he was able to understand.

The mounting barks reminded her, however, that she could not rest.  She disarranged the couch, unbuttoned the cadaver’s jacket, removed his bespattered glasses and left them on top of the file cabinet.  Then she took the phone and repeated what she would repeat so many times, with these and other words:  Something unbelievable has happened ... Señor Loewenthal made me come by with the strike as a pretext ... He took advantage of me and I killed him.

As it were, the story was unbelievable, but it prevailed upon everyone because it was substantially true.  Emma Zunz’s tone was real, her decency was real, her hate was real.  And the outrage which she had suffered was also real: only the circumstances, the time, and one or two names were false.

Wednesday
Jan022008

An Open Letter on A Grammar of Assent

Dear Friend 
 
You have asked me what is religious experience, a topic I cannot hope to explain in any detail because religious experience is precisely what we sense that does not lend itself to explanation.  I can say, however, that having premonitions of what is about to happen is not a religious experience, because life is either a religious experience or it is not.  Knowing or seeing something beforehand might be nothing more than an example of braille on the plain surface of time, but it certainly does not qualify as anything profound.

The approach I can suggest for your other questions is that it is not about understanding anything at all, but by experiencing.  The formulation of the intercourse of one mind's experience of something beyond what one can see and touch may be termed an aesthetic expression.  Sustaining that expression over a whole canvas, or page, or series of euphonious instruments, might be termed an artistic work.   Seeing the world in this way  may then be termed as artist's perspective and is not a choice but a vocation bereft of any higgedly–piggedly religious epiphany.   An epiphany implies that there is a break in consciousness that allows the subject to enter a higher plane.  But there are no breaks from my perspective, because the viewpoint is as constant as the firmament itself is starry and black.

In short, one either sees the world this way or one doesn't, and there is really nothing one can do about it.  Time and again common sense has tried, in gruff impatience, to pull me away from the exotic beauty of some magnificent exhibit to show me the spoils of man's discoveries, only to have me resist and shake myself loose each time.    Answers are not to be found, but to be lived, and perhaps when we are sad and grey and life's glow has dimmed, we will derive a certain thread of understanding from this bedlam.  Until then I will remain as enlightened as a dolmen amidst the sylvan scene.

newman1844h.gifThe title of this post is one of the most remarkable texts ever written.  It is, in a few words, a proof of proof, and one that goes beyond contemporary thought by virtue of both its openness and its tightness. It is by a man appropriately called Newman, whose style and logic are so incontrovertible that they could corral the staunchest pagan (he was a Cardinal) and make the most ardent of disbelievers twitch.   I will leave you, however, with a quote from another famous book, which will perhaps express something my abilities cannot:

"He [Maximov] was as reliable as iron and oak, and when Krug mentioned once that the word 'loyalty' phonetically and visually reminded him of a golden fork lying in the sun on a smooth spread of pale yellow silk, Maximov replied somewhat stiffly that to him loyalty was limited to its dictionary denotation.   Common sense with him was saved from smug vulgarity by a delicate emotional undercurrent, and the somewhat bare and birdless symmetry of his branching principles was ever so slightly disturbed by a moist wind blowing from regions which he naively thought did not exist.  The misfortunes of others worried him more than did his own troubles, and had he been an old sea captain, he would have dutifully gone down with his ship rather than plump apologetically into the last lifeboat."
Tuesday
Jan012008

How about that! The Life of Mel Allen

This is my Amazon review of Stephen Borelli's definitive biography of Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen. Get the book here.

180px-Mel_Allen_NYWTS.jpgMel Allen was not only the voice of the Yankees: he was the voice of all baseball for three decades, as important a sports icon in his time as John Madden is to younger generations, and as respected a commentator as Marv Albert or Vin Scully.  When you thought of baseball (and, as Stephen Borelli assiduously notes, any big-time sporting events), you could hear the soothing calm of Mel's clear, crisp Southern drawl as he effortlessly described at-bat after at-bat.  Knowledgeable, charming and precise, Allen was simultaneously the most spontaneous and the most polished of all broadcasters.  Nowadays we think little of these qualities in our high-definition, internet world, but at the time, most citizens were radio-bound, and they trusted and loved one man before all his peers, Melvin Allen.

Borelli's research is first-rate and wonderful entertainment, and will appeal both to diehard sports fans and those who love tantalizing narratives.  I sat down one July evening after having bought my copy and read the whole thing, cover-to-cover, in four hours (missing dinner, I noticed only later).  My wife, who is not overly interested in sports, also read it and greatly enjoyed it.  It is a treasure trove of anecdotes, facts, figures, and, most of all, the story of the fantastic voyage of an impoverished Jewish boy from rural Alabama who fought prejudice and ignorance to become the most respected and highly paid sports broadcaster in the world.  I loved Mel Allen before I read the book, and already considered him the epitome of announcers and someone whose kind we will never see again.  After reading this superb account of his life, his times, and the lasting impact he made on both fans and players, I am even more settled in my opinion.  As you will discover, there are hundreds of reasons why, in the words of George Steinbrenner himself, "no man in the history of the Yankees has ever meant more to the Yankees than Mel Allen."

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