"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 23, 2014

Camus - L'Etranger (The Stranger)

Where the literary work of other existentialists as Sartre has fallen into obscurity (thank you, Mr Nabokov!), only Albert Camus (1913-1960) is still holding the tattered banner, perhaps due to the circumstance that his books are rather suitable for teaching in universities. I have recently read his famous novella L'Etranger (The Stranger or The Outsider) for a second time and was surprised how outdated this story now is. I wondered how it could still be so popular and a fixed item on every shortlist of best French novels (except for historical reasons)...

[Albert Camus - Photo Wikipedia]

Before I explain my opinion, first in a few sentences what the novel is about: Meursault is a young Frenchman living and working in colonial Algeria. He tells his own story, in a sort of minimalist, Hemingway-type "macho" tone. In the first part of the story we follow him as he goes to the funeral of his mother, visits the beach, and meets his girlfriend as well as other people who live in his apartment building. We notice that he does not care for others, nor for his job, and is not interested in anything whatsoever. Finally, he happens to murder an Arab young man, again for no obvious reason (a group of Arab youths has threatened his "pal," a neighbor from his apartment building, who apparently has acted as a "pimp" for the sister of one of them. But there was no reason for Meursault to become involved, as he was anyway indifferent towards this so-called "pal" as well). The second part is about Meursault's trial and subsequent death sentence. He is given the maximum punishment because he shows no regret about his deed (which he is unable and unwilling to explain) and his general behavior before the crime is interpreted as being devoid of normal human feelings. Meursault is not so much an outsider as someone who is truly a "stranger" to his own people.

Back to my criticism. With "outdated" I mean that the following three messages Camus tries to drive home with this book have today become irrelevant (as a philosophical novel, the book is more message than art, and therefore we should also judge it on its messages): (1) the world is meaningless and absurd (a general point of the existentialists), (2) social convention demands that people "play the game" and (3) an indictment of the death penalty, especially by the guillotine (Camus also wrote a famous essay about this topic).

Idea (1) is outdated because we know at least since the middle of the 19th century that there are no gods, that the universe has no higher purpose and that our existence (the evolution of conscious life) is just coincidence. Except for people born in an orthodox religious environment, there is nothing new about this statement anymore. It is a generally accepted fact of science and at least Europe has moved on.

Idea (2) is outdated because social conventions have changed and today people are free to be as egotistic and asocial as they want - as long as they don't hurt others. In case of a criminal trial, this attitude will in most parts of the world not lead to a more severe punishment.

Idea (3) is outdated because the death penalty has been abolished in the whole of the EU, making the "old continent" one of the most civilized parts of the world.

And I might add a fourth point where Camus is now outdated, this time through an omission: the fact that the murder central to the book happened in a colonial situation, where the killer was a French colonialist and the victim an Arab youth, is not addressed at all, something which today would be unthinkable.

Of course, the novel is so outdated because it is a novel of ideas. As soon as the ideas have become stale, the book degenerates into a museum piece. I therefore fully share Nabokov's often voiced objections against this type of literature!

But my greatest objection against the book is the character of Meursault - and this is an artistic point. Apparently, Camus wanted to depict an individual free from the bonds of religion and social custom, and brutally honest, but what he has given us is a man who has no inner life and who lives only by his instincts. While trying to depict a radically free individual, Camus has given us a man who is just like an animal, without any humanizing qualities. Meursault is not only unattractive, he is totally uninteresting. Who cares what happens to him?

I believe Camus made a mistake here. Based on his philosophy that the world is meaningless, he has depicted human life as meaningless, too. But he forgets the important point that human life can be given meaning by us - subjectively, when we make the effort - for example, by caring for others, by devotion to a job, by developing oneself, by interest in art and literature. "Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance," as Henry James said. It is up to us to discover the meaning of our lives. For, in this "absurd" universe, isn't consciousness a great wonder?

July 20, 2014

Bach Cantatas (51): Trinity XVIII

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity. The readings if this Sunday concern the dual birthright of Jesus as the son of David and of God. The lines from Matthew also contain the "Great Commandment:" "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind," and also the second commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

There are two cantatas for this Sunday.

Readings:
1 Corinthians 1:4–8, Paul's thanks for grace of God in Ephesus
Matthew 22:34–46, the Great Commandment

References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText


Cantatas:
  • Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn, BWV 96, 8 October 1724

    Chorale: Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn
    Recitative (alto): O Wunderkraft der Liebe
    Aria (tenor, flute): Ach, ziehe die Seele mit Seilen der Liebe
    Recitative (soprano): Ach, führe mich, o Gott, zum rechten Wege
    Aria (bass, oboes, strings): Bald zur Rechten, bald zur Linken
    Chorale: Ertöt uns durch dein Güte


    ("Lord Christ, the only son of God") This chorale cantata starts with a sparkling opening chorus in a lilting meter based on the hymn "Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn" from 1524 by Elisabeth Kreutziger. Although originally an Epiphany hymn praising Christ as the Morning Star (as in Cantata BWV 1), it also has a traditional association with the 18th Sunday after Trinity since the readings of that day deal with Christ's discussion with the Pharisees about the meaning of phrase "Son of David." An unusual element is the flauto piccolo accompaniment twinkling above the musical texture - of course, this symbolizes the morning star which appeared to the Magi above a pastoral landscape. The alto sings the cantus firmus, and not the soprano, to better set off the flauto piccolo. The light and charming da capo aria for tenor which follows after a short recitative is accompanied by a transverse flute (probably the same player as the flauto piccolo in Bach's time - he must have had an excellent flute player for these performances). The flute's ritornello melody provides most of the musical material for this aria. In the pompous, opera-style bass aria we have some musical painting: the words "Soon to the right, soon to the left my erring steps lean" (these are the lurching steps of the misguided soul) are illustrated by using jagged motifs and sudden switches between strings and the oboe choir. The closing chorale is a fine four-part harmonization.

  • Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV 169, 20 October 1726

    Sinfonia
    Arioso: Gott soll allein mein Herze haben
    Aria: Gott soll allein mein Herze haben
    Recitative: Was ist die Liebe Gottes
    Aria: Stirb in mir, Welt, und alle deine Liebe
    Recitative: Doch meint es auch dabei
    Chorale: Du süße Liebe, schenk uns deine Gunst


    ("God alone shall have my heart") Alto cantata, concluded by a chorale. The text sings about the love of God in the first five movements, the commandment to also love one's neighbor is expressed in a short recitative, leading to the chorale, which asks for assistance from the Holy Spirit. The cantata starts with a sinfonia based on the first two movements of Bach's E Major Clavier Concerto BWV 1053 (itself a reworking of a lost oboe concerto) - the keyboard part is here played by the organ (in Bach's own performance this would have been ably played by his son Carl Philip Emanuel). After an extended arioso, we have a gentle and beautiful alto aria "Gott soll allein mein Herze haben" accompanied by the organ and a simple continuo. The second alto aria "Stirb in mir, Welt, und alle deine Liebe" follows after a simple secco recitative. Here we find again a marvelous adaptation from the above mentioned concerto, with the voice attractively woven into the solo organ and the strings. Like the first alto aria, this is truly great music - it has been called a farewell to worldly life, but also a mystic contemplation of heavenly love. A straightforward chorale harmonization on the famous tune "Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist" brings in the chorus for the first time to close the cantata. Perhaps the most beautiful among Bach's four alto cantatas.

July 19, 2014

"The Moon and the Bonfires" by Cesare Pavese (1950)

The overriding sentiments in The Moon and the Bonfires by the poet and novelist Cesar Pavese (1908-1950) are nostalgia and melancholy, as well as bitterness. The narrator - a "bastard" (orphan) who has been brought up by peasants, known as Anguilla, "The Eel" - has twenty years ago left his native Piemonte village to make his fortune in America. He has succeeded modestly and returns a self-made man (although there is something shadowy in the way he made his fortune, which is never explained), but also realizes about America that "the more places you see, the less you belong to any of them," and therefore after WWII has decided to return to his native place in northwestern Italy. But he finds that the world he knew has been eradicated by years of war and political unrest - a drama that is still present: the seemingly so innocent fields still render up a grim harvest of dead bodies of German soldiers or Fascists from shallow graves.

[Santo Stefano Belbo, the Piemonte village which is the location of the novel]

Time among the hills has not stood still, and most people of the narrator's idealized past are now dead. The only remaining link to that past is his old pal Nuno, who still works in the village as a carpenter. When he was in his teens, The Eel looked up to the older Nuno, who was a responsible man and Communist activist. He now finds a weary Nuno who says that after the war things went from bad to worse and that people still live as beasts, "except for the dead." Nuno is also cagy about what happened exactly during the war, and the story of events - of executions and reprisals - that took place in the village only emerges gradually. This is tied to the fates of people of the rich farm at the Mora where the narrator started working and living as a farmhand when he was thirteen - after his adopted father Padrino sold his farm. Here he started idolizing the three beautiful daughters of Sor Matteo, the owner, Irene, Sylvia, and the much younger and rather wild Santino. Now he learns about their sad fates, especially of the youngest one, who as a sort of femme fatale became involved with both the fascists and the partisans and was eventually brutally killed.

Also the present is not without its catastrophes. The peasant now renting the hardscrabble farm where The Eel spent his youngest years, is a violent and sadistic man who uses violence against his sister-in-law with whom he lives after his wife's death, and who also mistreats his son Cino who is lame. The narrator has befriended Cino and tries to help him escape from his despairing situation. Frustrated over the unfavorable conditions in a new contract for his land, the farmer batters his wife to death, and sets fire to the hovel with his aged mother still in it, before hanging himself from a sturdy tree - the boy Cino fortunately manages to escape. Life's horrors go on repeating themselves - the world the narrator has idealized in his memory, is in fact ugly and terrifying.

What remains is the consolation of the sun-drenched landscape, scorched and harsh, but also beautiful. By the way, this countryside has prospered considerably in the last 50 years, mostly thanks to the local muscat grapes and the resultant sparkling wines.

The novel has been written in an elegant and spare style, which is rather understated. The "bonfires" of the title allude to the local custom to light bonfires during important festivals. Later, of course, there are other bonfires caused by the war: the burning of farms, the burning of the corpses of the dead.

[Cesar Pavese - Photo Wikipedia]

Pavese - a graduate from the University of Turin in English literature - was plagued by depression and asthma, and he was singularly unlucky in his relations with women. In the 1930s, he had a girlfriend in Turin who was involved in anti-Fascist activities. He helped her, was arrested, but never mentioned her name and took the blame on himself. As a result he was put in prison and later briefly exiled to Calabria. When he finally could return to Turin, he was told that just the day before she had married another man.

And in 1950 he had a turbulent affair with the blonde American model/actress Constance Dowling (who had also been the girlfriend of Elia Kazan). Pavese never recovered from her rejection and finally took his own life in a hotel room in Turin. One of his last poems was entitled "Death will come and she'll have your eyes."

The Moon and Bonfires was translated by R.W. Flint and is available from The New York Review Books. 
From the same publishing house we also have The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese, presenting a number of short novels: The Beach, a comedy of romantic misunderstandings; The House on the Hill, a novel of war in which a teacher flees through the countryside; Among Women Only, a tale about a fashion designer; and The Devil in the Hills, a road novel about three young men roaming the hills in high summer.

July 16, 2014

Ian McEwan: "The Comfort of Strangers" (Best novellas)

The Comfort of Strangers was Ian McEwan's fourth book, after the story collections First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets, and the novella The Cement Garden, and like those other early works contains a hefty mix of sadistic violence with a sexual undertone. In fact, it is mean little story very much like James' The Turn of the Screw.

Mary and Colin have a seven-yearlong relationship, but live apart - Mary also has two kids from a previous marriage. They always spend the summer holidays together, and their vacation has now brought them to a city that may or may not be Venice (McEwan probably keeps it vague because he has changed some elements to suit the story). Mary and Colin have grown a bit weary of each other, even their sex has become a mannerism.

[Photo Wikipedia]

One evening, looking for something to eat after all restaurants have already closed, they get lost in the endlessly winding streets and alleys of the ancient city and are picked up by an enigmatic Italian called Robert. Robert has an open shirt, revealing his hairy chest and a gilded razor blade hanging around his neck. He is forceful and insistent, and can't keeps his hands off the handsome but weak Colin. About women he has a rather chauvinistic and patriarchal view. He guides them to a bar he owns for a bite and a bottle of wine - the other customers seem all homosexual men.

The next morning he takes them to his apartment, where they also meet his Canadian wife, Caroline, an invalid. Although they are shown great hospitality, Caroline has spied on them while they were sleeping naked; and later, before dinner, Robert will punch Colin playfully - but very painfully - in the stomach.

It appears that Robert is the product of a sadistic upbringing (he tells some weird tales about his domineering father's strictness and his bitterly jealous sisters), while Caroline has an uncomfortable masochistic view of life - she sees men as masters to whom women should yield. Is she an invalid because something went wrong during an SM session with Robert? When Mary and Colin leave to go back to the hotel, they hear a slapping sound behind the just closed door, as if Robert has hit his wife, but they can't be sure about that.

By now, every reader can smell disaster - of course, Mary and Colin should never go back to Robert and Caroline again. But they feel strangely inspired by the meeting and back in the hotel, they make love, sleep, and make love again - for days on end. They also have sadomasochistic dreams...

They have been hypnotized, as it were, by the mysterious other couple, and are like rabbits, sitting still, while the snake bends over them... There is a huge thrill at the end, but I will say no more.

McEwan tells this terrifying story of sadomasochism and ritualized murder in his usual cool and precise style.

July 13, 2014

'Lady Godiva' by John Collier (Stories behind paintings)

Lady Godiva was painted in 1897 by John Collier and is in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, England.


A woman sits on a horse, riding through what looks like a medieval town. The remarkable thing is that the horse is dressed better than she is - she is only clothed in her long golden hair. Happily the streets are empty.

Who is this medieval streaker?

First, history. Lady Godiva (her Saxon name was Godgyfu) was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, who died in 1057. Earl Leofric was one of the powerful lords who ruled England under the Danish King Canute. Lady Godiva seems to have been a rich landowner in her own right - one of her most valuable properties was Coventry. Both Leofric and Godiva were known for their generous donations to churches and monasteries - the only reliable records of her and her husband are found in the chronicles of various religious foundations and in charters, where their pious donations are named - unfortunately most of the treasures were afterwards stolen by the Norman invaders.

But despite her illustrious husband, renowned piety, and religious benefactions, without the tantalizing legend of her ride told below Lady Godiva would likely be completely forgotten.

Then, the legend, which first appears out of the blue in the 13th century in a not very reliable account. In the story Leofric has been made into a tyrant; but Lady Godiva felt pity for the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband's oppressive taxation. Again and again she appealed to her husband, but he obstinately refused to lower the taxes. When she kept entreating him, he grew so fed up that, either with playful raillery or in a spirit of bitter jesting, he told her that he would do what she wanted "if she would strip naked and ride through the streets of the town." The real joke is, of course, that Lady Godiva took him at his word. She issued a proclamation that everyone should stay indoors and close the shutters before their windows, and then she rode through the town of Coventry, clothed only in her long hair and lovely tresses, which poured around her body like a veil. And thus the Lady Godiva, "with a downcast but not a shamefaced eye, looking towards the earth through her flowing locks, rode through the silent and deserted streets." Her surprised husband kept his word and remitted the onerous taxes.

Regrettably, the story of Lady Godiva's ride is almost certainly a myth. The earliest written record of it comes from one Roger of Wendover more than a century after Godiva's death, a medieval scribe renowned for exaggeration and embellished stories. Historians have looked for the origin of this legend in both pagan fertility rituals and in medieval penitential processions.

Over the centuries, the tale became sentimentalized and more erotically charged, and the victimization of the Lady Godiva became paramount - she must be a virtuous victim, compelled by an unfeeling husband to perform a humiliating act. She became - literally - "the naked truth."

It was left to Alfred Lord Tennyson, in 1842, to codify the tale into the form in which it became known around the world. It then became also popular with various 19th century painters and sculptors.

[Lady Godiva by Jules Joseph Lefebre,
Musée de Picardie, Amiens]

Peeping Tom. Interestingly, the Godiva legend is linked with the story of Peeping Tom - for why would Tom peep? Well, Tom was a tailor in Coventry who was the only person on town to disobey Lady Godiva's proclamation. He bored a hole in the shutters so that he might see her pass - becoming the archetypal voyeurist. In a moralistic version of the story, as a punishment for violating the injunction of the noble lady, he was "blinded by the wrath of Heaven" for his temerity in not obeying the order. A wooden effigy of Peeping Tom used to look out on the world from a hotel at the northwest corner of Hertford Street in Coventry - it seems now to stand in Cathedral Lanes Shopping Center. The eyes in this effigy are apparently blank, but that may be because the paint has worn off over the years.

John Collier (1850-1934), the painter of Lady Godiva reproduced at the beginning of this post, was a leading English artist who painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style. His range of subject was broad, but he was especially successful as a portrait painter. He has been praised for his fresh use of light and color.

To conclude with a line from the Tennyson poem:
"Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:
The deep air listen'd round her as she rode,
And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear."
[Lady Godiva statue by John Thomas, Maidstone Museum, Kent, England]

The Czech composer Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949) wrote a symphonic poem about the Lady Godiva story - where one would perhaps expect some light music, this work is a deadly serious and at times rather harrowing - but also extremely exciting - tone poem about the fight between Good and Evil.

[all pictures from Wikipedia]

July 11, 2014

Bach Cantatas (50): Trinity XVII

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity. Both readings for this day emphasize humility and modesty: the exhortation of Paul to the Ephesians for generosity and selflessness, and the parable of the man invited to the rich man's dinner from Luke, which concludes with the words: For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. This parable also contains the dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees about whether one is allowed to do good works on the Sabbath, or should completely abstain from all activity.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Readings:
Ephesians 4:1–6, "Admonition to keep the unity of the Spirit"
Luke 14:1–11, "Healing a man with dropsy on the Sabbath"

References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText


Cantatas:
  • Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens, BWV 148, 19 September 1723

    Chorus: Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens
    Aria (tenor, violin): Ich eile, die Lehren des Lebens zu hören
    Recitativo (alto, strings): So wie der Hirsch nach frischem Wasser schreit
    Aria (alto, oboes): Mund und Herze steht dir offen
    Recitativo (tenor): Bleib auch, mein Gott, in mir
    Chorale: Amen zu aller Stund


    ("Bring to the Lord honour of His name") One of most sunny cantatas Bach wrote, scored with festive trumpets. The text does not directly refer to the readings for this Sunday, but emphasizes that one should honor God on Sabbath. The lyrics are based on a poem by Picander – the first time Bach used a text by this poet. The opening chorus - a work of tremendous vigor - begins with an instrumental sinfonia, presenting the themes, followed by the choir singing two fugues. The dense texture gives the impression of a large crowd singing these ringing words. In the first aria, for tenor, the florid solo violin illustrates both the joy in God and the “running” (Eilen) mentioned in the text in a happy 6/8 rhythm. The recitative for alto is accompanied by long notes in the strings, as if to give extra warmth to the desire for God which is expressed here. In the next aria, also for alto, the mystical unity of the soul with God is given musical form in the unusual scoring for two oboe d'amore and oboe da caccia. When the alto voice starts singing, the continuo is momentarily silent, to express the letting behind of worldly concerns. The closing chorale is a warm harmonization - Bach specified a melody here, but no text has come down to us, so different texts are used by different performers to supplement the lacuna.

  • Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost, BWV 114, 1 October 1724

    Coro: Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost
    Aria (tenor): Wo wird diesem Jammertale
    Recitativo (bass): O Sünder, trage mit Geduld
    Chorale (soprano): Kein Frucht das Weizenkörnlein bringt
    Aria (alto): Du machst, o Tod, mir nun nicht ferner bange
    Recitativo (tenor): Indes bedenke deine Seele
    Chorale: Wir wachen oder schlafen ein


    ("Ah, dear Christians, be comforted") Chorale cantata based on a song of penitence in six stanzas by Johannes Gigas (1561) and its associated melody by Justas Jonas. The text shows no close connection to the readings for this Sunday, but expresses a philosophy often found in Bach's cantatas: that believers should bear tribulation with patience (after all, they deserve it, for they are sinners) and look for comfort in the world to come. The opening chorus is a glorious piece of music. It starts with an orchestral introduction, after which the soprano sings the chorale melody as a cantus firmus, doubled by the horn, with the three lower voices more actively employed (the doubling by horn of the soprano voice also has a practical use: the sopranos available to Bach in the church were boy sopranos, with weak and relatively untrained voices). Bach expresses two thoughts of the text, comfort and fear, by contrasting themes that appear simultaneously in the instruments: an assertive theme played by the two oboes and first violins and an anxious one in the second violins and the continuo. The choral lines are separated by instrumental ritornellos. This is followed by a long aria for alto accompanied by hyperactive flute obbligato, expressing both the anxious question "Wo wird in diesem Jammertale vor meinen Geist die Zuflucht sein?" (Where can the refuge of my spirit be found in this valley of woe?) and the trusting answer "Allein zu Jesu Vaterhänden will ich mich in der Schwachheit wenden" (Only to Jesus's paternal hands do I wish to turn in weakness). The recitative contains an arioso on the Gospel words "erhebst" (exalt) and "erniedrigt" (humbled). In the rather unembellished central chorale the soprano soloist (again doubled by horn, as well as by oboes and violins) intones one of the verses of the hymn. The ensuing alto aria again is a straightforward da capo aria but features a beautiful orchestral accompaniment. It is the only part of the cantata set in a major key, making the shift to minor on the words "Es muß ja so einmal gestorben sein" (One day, indeed, one must die) all the more striking. The cantata concludes with a four-part setting of the chorale melody.

  • Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden, BWV 47, 13 October 1726

    Coro: Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden
    Aria (soprano): Wer ein wahrer Christ will heißen
    Recitativo (bass): Der Mensch ist Kot, Stank, Asch und Erde
    Aria (bass): Jesu, beuge doch mein Herze
    Chorale: Der zeitlichen Ehrn will ich gern entbehrn


    ("Who exalts himself, will be humbled") The text of this cantata is by the court poet Johann Friedrich Helbig (1680–1722), who in 1720 published an annual cycle of cantata texts (Telemann set several of his texts to music, Bach only used this one). The poet takes the final line from the Gospel as his starting point in the first movement, after which he concentrates on the warning of pride, leading to a final prayer for humility. The opening movement is one of Bach's most imposing fugal choruses, a reworking of material from the well-known Prelude and Fugue in c minor BWV 546 for organ. The rising motif played by the oboes illustrates the haughty self-exaltation in the first half of the Gospel text ("Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased"); a counter-subject moving in the opposite direction is meant to demonstrate humility ("He that humbleth himself shall be exalted"). This complex choral movement, that also by its length dominates the whole cantata, is followed by a simpler soprano aria, again depicting both humility and pride, the latter associated with the Devil - there are some harsh, broken chords here that aptly illustrate arrogance. In the bass aria oboe and violin are equal partners to the bass voice in a prayer for humility. The closing chorale is set for four parts and again expresses utmost humility.

July 7, 2014

Marcel Proust: "Swann's Way" (1913; In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1)

Last year, the first volume of Marcel Proust's monumental À la recherche du temps perdu, was exactly a century old - Swann's Way (Du côté de chez Swann) was first published in 1913, on the eve of the madness of the Great War that would destroy the world in which Proust and his characters had lived.

À la recherche du temps perdu is not in the first place a novel about time and memory as is often said (although these are very important, too, in its pages), but rather about the power of art. It is only art that can recapture the lost - only art triumphs over the destructive power of time - and that is the very thing Proust sets out to demonstrate by writing his novel. Proust had picked up this important idea about the transformative power of art from the influential and eminent English art critic John Ruskin, several of whose works he had translated into French.

Already in "Combray," the first part of the novel, the narrator desires to become a writer and he in fact gives an example of how he transforms one of the family's usual walks (where he experiences a sort of epiphany on seeing the bell towers of a neighboring village) into a short descriptive literary passage. Art is created by taking the experiences of life and transforming them by our inner consciousness. Besides this, throughout the whole novel, writing, painting, and music are discussed at great length. À la recherche du temps perdu is saturated with art.

The narrator's subject is his own story and the narrative perspective that of "lived time," therefore memory also plays a large role - we first have to recall our past experiences before we can transform them into art.

Du côté de chez Swann is divided into four parts: "Combray I," "Combray II," "Un Amour de Swann," and "Noms de pays: le nom."

"Combray I" starts with "For a long time I used to go to bed early" and the famous goodnight kiss scene: as a boy, the narrator can not sleep if his mother does not first come up to his bedroom to give him a goodnight kiss - a situation where the boy clearly manipulates the love of the mother - and the manipulation of love will be an important theme in the whole novel. This part ends with the famous madeleine episode, introducing the theme of "involuntary memory." A madeleine is a shell-shaped sponge cake, and when the narrator later in life happens to eat such a cake, and dip it in his tea, he realizes this forms a forgotten memory of his life in Combray - a memory that brings back a whole conglomerate of other memories he had forgotten: 
"And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness."
[Madeleine]

As his memories of Combray have been reactivated by the madeleine, "Combray II" can now introduce the intimate world of the narrator and his family, as well as various family friends. We also read about the "two ways" (two fixed walks he often took with his father and mother): the way along the estate owned by Swann, a rich dilettante, where beautiful hawthorns blossom (and "Swann's Way" has become the title of the whole novel), and the way along the estate of the Guermantes, the top aristocratic family in Combray, a beautiful river scenery with water lilies. These two walks symbolize the separate bourgeois and aristocratic worlds, which will be united at the end of the last volume of A la recherche.

The Combray chapters take place between 1883 and 1892 (the narrator was born in 1878). This chronology, by the way, is not given by Proust, who keeps it on purpose vague.

Part Three, "Un Amour de Swann," is about the wealthy Jewish art lover Charles Swann, his infatuation with a woman from the demi-monde, Odette de Crécy, and the Verdurin circle to which Odette belongs. Swann is an elegant man with strong ties to high society, including the Guermantes family, but his love for the high-class prostitute Odette means that they both are excluded from that society. Odette plays a game of hide and seek with Swann and he is tormented by jealousy, for good reasons, as he will discover. This part takes place before the narrator is born, in 1877-78. It is the only part of the novel that the narrator did not experience himself but has from hearsay.

What does Swann see in Odette? She is described as neither very charming nor intelligent, and not even Swann's "type." It is art which does the trick again: Swann falls in love with her after he realizes her face resembles that of Jethra's daughter Zipporah in the famous painting Trials of Moses by Botticelli in the Sistine Chapel in Rome (see picture below). And it is music that forges the bond between them - when they first meet in the salon of Mme Verdurin, an andante from a violin sonata is played and that becomes their "love theme" (called "the little phrase"). The composer is the fictional Vinteuil, one of the characters in the novel, but Proust is probably thinking about real music here: the adagio from the first sonata for violin and piano, op. 75, by Saint-Saens.

Swann, who throws away his life for a love not really worth the sacrifice, and who never manages to finish the study he is writing about the painter Vermeer - and thus floats aimlessly through life - is a negative contrast to the narrator, who in the end will find his true destiny.

As "Un Amour de Swann" forms a self-contained story and is relatively short, it is sometimes read as an independent novella. It was filmed in 1983 by Volker Schlöndorff.

[Botticelli, detail from the Trials of Moses in the Sistine Chapel 
(Jethra's daughter Zipporah, Moses' future wife) -
Swann fell in love with Odette because he felt her features resembled this woman]

Part Four, "Noms de pays: le nom." After a digression on place names and the images they evoke, we get the beginning of the story of the love the narrator feels for Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette, who is of his own age (yes, Swann and Odette have married, as we learn for certain in the second volume). The narrator meets Gilberte in the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but had already once seen her in Combray, in the garden of Swann's estate, where she made an indecent gesture at him. His adolescent love (which is more "love of being in love" than love for Gilberte) remains unanswered, mirroring in a smaller way the mad infatuation of Swann for Odette, and prefiguring the long infatuation of the narrator for Albertine which will play out in the next few volumes. This part also takes place in 1892.

Needless to say: although A la Recherche contains many elements from Proust's life and the lives of his acquaintances, the work is not an autobiography; the narrator is not Proust the person, and the characters never existed except in the author's mind.

A la Recherche often puts off readers: it is one huge, monumental novel (like a cathedral in words) consisting of seven volumes of each 500 pages (almost without paragraphs and chapters, so with very little white space to rest the eyes), written in lengthy and sometimes difficult sentences. That is a pity, for it is truly one of the greatest novels ever written and an extremely engaging book, especially for those who share Proust's love for art. The way to tackle it, is just to read on, and allow the rhythmic swing of Proust's prose to propel you on, without worrying about small things that are not fully understood at this stage - keep that for a second reading sometime in the future. Also, as this is a novel about time, time wasted and time used, and the tricks time plays on us by accelerating and decreasing its speed, it is probably best to read it when one has some experience of the flow of time oneself, i.e. when one is not too young anymore.

I read the novel in the translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, which I can fully recommend. Scott Moncrieff translated the first six volumes in English between 1922 and his death in 1930 under the title Remembrance of Things Past, a phrase taken from Shakespeare's Sonnet 30 (only the final volume therefore had a different translator). Scott Moncrieff was close to the world of Proust and he put all his passion into this translation. There are some slips and small mistakes, but these were removed in a revised edition by Terence Kilmartin, and again in a further revision by D.J. Enright (published by the Modern Library in 1992). A completely new translation, with seven different translators is being brought out by Penguin Books, a project started in 1995, but I have to confess I do not find the style an improvement on Scott Moncrieff (and his revisers) and not all choices are felicitous - moreover it has been printed in too small print to read such a long novel comfortably. Give me the Scott Moncrieff translation (the original one is freely available here), whose long rhythmic sentences are just as beautiful as Proust's and who has a sonority and harmonic feeling that seem just right.

July 5, 2014

John Williams: "Stoner" (1965)

How is it possible that one of the greatest novels of the 20th century has been almost forgotten until recently?

John Williams' novel Stoner was published about fifty years ago in the United States and at that time didn't cause any ripples in the literary pond. Although it was respectably reviewed and sold 2,000 copies, the publisher soon allowed it to go out of print. Occasional reprints followed, about which critics wrote positively, but there was no great stir. Until last year, when Stoner became an unexpected bestseller - in several European countries, such as the Netherlands, Germany, France and Italy - as well as in Israel. In the Netherlands alone, 200,000 copies were sold, many times more than the original ever sold in the much larger market of the U.S. Sales in Europe were also helped by the enthusiastic push given by famous authors as Ian McEwan in England and Arnold Grunberg in the Netherlands.

Now Stoner also in the U.S. is called a "perfect novel," and "the greatest American novel you never heard about."

[John Edward Willams, photo Wikipedia]

But, really, Stoner is more European than American. There is nothing flashy about the book, which like European literature is focused on character rather than plot. Stoner could be called "anti-Gatsby" (something I very much applaud) - it is not about the rich jet-set, but its protagonist is an unglamorous, hardworking academic at a mid-Western university, whose life to all appearances is a failure.

William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century as the only son of a dirt-poor farming family in Missouri. He is sent to state university to study agronomy, but falls in love with literature and silently switches to the English department. There his tutor recognizes his talent and love for literature and so the farmer's son starts a scholar's life. But the years to come have many disappointments in store for Stoner.

He falls in love and marries, but realizes already within a month that the relationship is doomed - almost his whole life he is pestered by his nervous and hysterical wife, who also turns their only daughter - whom he adores - against him. He enjoys teaching and is good at it, but an antagonistic head of department, with whom he is in a permanent state of war (Stoner is a traditional philologist, the department head a "New Critic"), has him drudge away at first-year classes. At the same time, his many teaching duties and the noise at home leave him no peace for further research after his thesis has been published. When he finds new love and happiness with a young woman, a researcher in his department, the affair is broken up by the threat of scandal. Finally Stoner falls ill, dies, and is soon forgotten.

But, the wonderful thing is, that in fact Stoner's life was not at all bad - isn't this the average life full of compromises that most of us lead? In fact, Stoner had a better life than many other people - he was able to do what he wanted to do, after being gripped by a Shakespeare sonnet in his young years, he could spent the rest of his life in the pursuit of literature. Literature gave him “the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.” He was proud of his job as a teacher and did his best to be a good one (his courses on medieval literature are dry, but passionate) - this gave him his own identity and made him what he was.

The son of dirt-poor Missouri farmers, Stoner also has a deep resilience. He is patient and earnest and has an inner strength that helps him overcome the many blows that fate deals him. He lives without delusions, yet also without despair. Driven ever deeper into himself, he rediscovers the stoic silence of his farmer-forebears and is able to bear his solitude.

For readers this deeply moving novel is not always an easy book, as there are scenes of shattering sadness, when you again see the next blow of fate coming. But Williams writes a lucid and precise prose that never becomes maudlin and his work possesses a quiet perfection in both style and structure.

John Williams (1922-1994) was an academic himself, like Stoner. Raised in Texas, he fought during WWII in Birma and India, and in 1954 obtained his Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Missouri (where the novel also takes place). But Williams pursued his academic career at his original alma mater, the University of Denver, where he became assistant professor and director of the program of creative writing, until his retirement in 1985. Besides pursuing an academic career, Williams wrote two poetry collections and four novels. Of these, Stoner is the best; Butcher's Crossing (1960) is a Western (or rather, anti-Western) and Augustus (1972) is a historical novel about ancient Rome.

Stoner concludes with one of the most beautiful death scenes in literature: instead of being with his wife or daughter from whom he is estranged, Stoner is alone and caresses the copy of the book based on his thesis, the only book he ever wrote. Although he realizes it is already forgotten even in academic circles, it still contains a small part of him... "Then the fingers loosened, and the book they had held moved slowly and then swiftly across the still body and fell into the silence of the room."
Stoner has been published by New York Review Books (a wonderful series that is worth exploring also for other literary jewels. On top of that, the books are just beautiful - paper, print, covers - and a pleasure to have.).


July 2, 2014

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: "The Leopard" (1958)

The Leopard (Italian: Il Gattopardo) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) chronicles the fatalistic struggle of a Sicilian aristocrat to survive in the face of social change during the Risorgimento, in the decade leading up to the unification of Italy in 1871. It is considered as one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature. The author was the last scion in a line of minor princes in Sicily, and he based the rich historical novel on the life of his great-grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa, infusing it with his own nostalgic and tragic vision of life.

The author was born in 1896 into the old aristocratic family described in the novel, that had been in Sicily for centuries. He fought in the Great War, but for the rest of his life spent his days mainly reading literature and discussing it with friends in the cafes of Palermo. He remained outside the literary establishment and published nothing during his lifetime except a few articles in an obscure periodical.

Lampedusa was married to a Baltic baroness, but had no offspring, and aware that he would be the last Prince, later in life - when he was already in his fifties - he began to write about his family. Another impetus was an Allied bomb which destroyed the family palazzo in Palermo and which made him want to record the family history. Unfortunately, Lampedusa died in 1957, before completely finishing his novel, the fruit of a lifetime of reading and discussing literature - Lampedusa was especially inspired by Stendhal.

The novel was published posthumously and immediately hailed as a masterpiece. The title is based on the coat of arms of Tomasi's family, but the animal called "gattopardo" actually refers to an African serval rather than a leopard.

[Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, photo Wikipedia]

Episodic in form, the book consists of eight chapters, each marked by a date. The story is told by an omniscient narrator who, from a vantage point of temporal distance, imposes his own feelings and impressions upon the flux of existence. Most chapters take place in the early 1860s; the last chapter, a sort of epilogue, in 1910.

The novel tells the story of the charming Don Fabrizio, the world-weary Prince of Salina, a physical giant who unconsciously bends cutlery when in a dark mood. The scion of an old feudal family, he is a taciturn and solitary man, and a lover of astronomy, who rules over extensive lands and hundreds of people (including his own large family), in a mix of splendor and squalor.

The book opens in 1860 with the landing in Sicily of Garibaldi and his forces intent on unifying Italy. As a result of the political upheaval, the prince's position is eroded by the new middle class. He is forced to choose between continuing to uphold aristocratic values, or breaking tradition and securing the continuity of his family's influence.

Don Fabrizio chooses the latter and accepts that his nephew, Tancredi, joins Garibaldi. Tancredi is motivated more by opportunism than idealism and eventually becomes a diplomat of the new reunified Italy. To further his career, he must marry money (the old family has none left) - which inevitably means marrying down. Tancredi woes Angelica, the beautiful daughter of a shabby peasant who has come into land and money (and will go on to become an important politician) and an illiterate mother - both of whom are initially unfit for polite society, which leads to some bitterly humorous scenes. It is Tancredi who speaks the novel's most famous line, an ironic maxim: "Everything must change so that everything can stay the same."

But the decline of the nobility is inevitable and the novel wallows in the sensuality of decline and death, in decrepit palaces and burnt landscapes, and in an all-pervading sense of languidness. The Prince has a favorite dog, Bendico, and as Lampedusa has remarked, this dog is an important character as well, in fact almost the key to the novel, for in the end ruin even comes to the dog. But mortality and decay are also contrasted with the everlasting and enduring in the prince's love for astronomy and the resilience to change of the Sicilian people.

Lampedusa's novel was filmed in 1963 by Luchino Visconti, starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale. The film in the main faithfully follows the novel and is especially famous for the visualization of a long, magnificent ball scene in a gilded Palermo salon.
This great novel has been beautifully translated by Archibald Colquhoun (Pantheon Books).

June 30, 2014

Vladimir Nabokov: "The Eye" (Best Novellas)

Vladimir Nabokov's The Eye (Soglyadatay, 1930) is a wonderful, modernist experiment, in which the first-person narrator commits suicide at the beginning of the book, but all the same continues telling his story.

That story is set in Berlin, the informal capital of Russian émigrés, where Nabokov lived from 1922 to 1937. His father had set up the émigré newspaper Rul', in which Nabokov - writing under the pseudonym V. Sirin - also published his first poems and novels. The father was assassinated in 1922 by a Russian monarchist, but Nabokov continued living in the city, earning a small income as a private tutor of languages and tennis.

The Eye is one of Nabokov's two published novellas (the other one is Transparent Things from 1972) and was his fourth book, written in Russian. The English translation was made in 1965 by Nabokov's son, Dmitri.

When I looked at reader's comments on the internet, I was struck by the large number of people claiming not to understand this novella. Indeed, there are two hurdles, an easy one and a harder one. To solve them, it is important to note that throughout his career, Nabokov invented many tricks such as literary puzzles, plot intricacies and unreliable narrators to manipulate the reader, but that he also always adhered to the rule of fair play - the reader is given sufficient clues to work out what is going on.

The easy hurdle is of course that the (unnamed) narrator commits suicide early on in the story. He has been beaten and humiliated in front of his two pupils (who keep staring at the scene with big eyes) by the jealous husband of a woman he was bedding. Out of shame he later shoots himself in his room. But Nabokov gives plenty of hints that the suicide is unsuccessful (although at the same time preserving a decided ambiguity): the narrator feels uncomfortable with the pistol pushing against his chest, so he moves it away before pulling the trigger; and he wakes up in a hospital. Still, after the shot has gone off, he believes himself to be dead and now a ghost walking the earth. I would call this a psychological condition rather than reality, for even in Nabokov ghosts don't exist. Anyway, he continues to go about his daily activities as if he had never died.

The second hurdle is that after the suicide, the originally first-person story switches to an objective third-person account of a man called Smurov, who regularly visits a Russian émigré family living in an apartment one floor higher than his own flat. It is as if the narrator is observing one of his fellow boarders, investigating every aspect of his life. But in fact, the (unnamed) narrator and this Smurov are one and the same person. After the shock of his suicide, the "I" of the narrator has become an "eye," observing himself as it were objectively, from the outside. By setting himself up as a stranger, he offers himself a chance to escape his real identity and to project his being into a more satisfying, even heroic, self.

We then get an ironical story about the Russian émigré milieu, a parody on the all-Russian theme of a neurotic and tortured character, who fails to make an impression on the (higher class) people with whom he associates, and who in the end brings about his own humiliation. It is good to realize that Nabokov strongly disapproved of this cult of suffering and self-negation, and that he hated Dostoyevsky's 'humiliated heroes.' Nabokov had a very low opinion of the sentimental Dostoevsky, so he makes fun of him in this brilliant parody.

This Smurov is an enigmatic young man, flatteringly introduced with the words 'everything he said was intelligent and appropriate,' but who also likes to brag about his imaginary exploits fighting the Communists during the Russian revolution - unconsciously revealing that he is a liar, for when he relates a heroic feat taking place at the Yalta railway station, another visitor coolly remarks that there is no railway station in Yalta. Of course, the bragging serves to attract the attention of a young woman, Varvara, nicknamed Vanya, with whom he is in love. He lovingly describes Vanya with the words 'she was so enchanting... her downy face, near-sighted eyes... her short bright dresses... her big knees and big hands with pink knuckles.' (Not coincidentally, she has a masculine nickname.)

On top of that, the lovesick Smurov is the only one who does not know that Vanya is in fact already engaged to another visitor, Mukhin.

In this comic-grotesque tale the narrator steals other people's correspondence to get their opinion about himself, and he also sneaks into Vanya's room to see if she has his picture on her desk - only to discover that his image has been carefully cut away from all pictures she keeps! Now ends Smurov's obsessive attempt at self-detachment and he passionately declares his love to Vanya - and is sent packing with his tail between his legs.

At the end of the story, the narrator again happens to meet the irate husband from the beginning - who now is the first to call him "Mr Smurov," thereby confirming the single identity of these two pseudo-doubles - and is offered an apology as other infidelities of the wife have come out. The narrator then closes with a desperate, strident protest of happiness. I suspect that the narrator/Smurov is again unreliable here, and that this flattering meeting with the husband is just a fantasy.

We could call Smurov a spy (the meaning of the Russian title) of what other people think about him. He tries to find his identity in the mirrors of other people's opinions, something which is of course impossible, for others may have completely wrong ideas about us. Identity is not something that can be spied out, but a reality that must exist in ourselves.