"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 28, 2011

"Candide" by Voltaire (Best Novellas)

Candide, written in 1759 by Voltaire (1694-1778), is a picaresque novella written to refute the tenets of the German philosopher Leibniz, who claimed that mankind lives in "the best of all possible worlds (created by God)." Voltaire was an agnostic who loathed the abuse of power and hypocrisy of the Church and he didn't agree at all that "everything was (already) for the best."

In Candide he piles misfortune on misfortune and disaster on disaster to show how bad the world really is. Candide is a young man like a blank leaf, very naive, in love with Cunegonde - when they are separated, he travels around the world searching for her. During his perambulations, he gradually learns about life and becomes more mature.

The point of view of Leibniz is represented by Candide's teacher, the philosopher Pangloss ("easy tongue"), who comes to grief, first by catching syphilis, later by being hanged. Voltaire graphically shows us the cruelty and savagery of humans who steal, rape, murder, torture, enslave, and cheat. He also includes historical happenings such as the Seven Years' War and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake (and tsunami). He even shows us the ills of colonialism (rare for the mid-eighteenth century!), in the form of a black man in Surinam whose hand and leg have been chopped off by his Dutch masters because he tried to escape. "That is the real cost of sugar," he remarks wryly. We also visit El Dorado, a land of equality where gold and riches are considered as so much dust, and Voltaire demonstrates how impossible such a utopia is.

Candide moves at neck-breaking speed, condensing whole novels into its chapters. It is full of sharp wit and provides an insightful portrayal of the human condition. In the end, Candide marries Cunegonde and they live on a farm. There they "cultivate their garden," which is the best we can do, as it leaves no time for idle speculation and as it serve the practical purpose of really making things gradually better.

Voltaire did believe in the ineradicable good of personal and philosophical liberty. Two other themes in his thought are the importance of skepticism and of empirical science. He was a fierce opponent of priestly and monarchical authority and fought these by debunking their  “irrational superstitions.”

As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, "Voltaire's legacy also cemented the alleged linkage that joined positivist science on the one hand with secularizing disenchantment and dechristianization on the other in the progressive modernization of the world. In this way, Voltaire should be seen as the initiator of a philosophical tradition that runs from him to Auguste Comte and Charles Darwin, and then on to Karl Popper and Richard Dawkins in the twentieth century."

Candide is an important element in that debunking of false authority - Leibniz stood at the side of authority, as he believed everything was already for the best. Voltaire on the other hand thought that social reform was necessary and that a lot of work ("cultivating our garden") was necessary in order to get a better society. He also was a child of the enlightenment in that he believed that rational thought can curtail evil.

Candide has had a significant influence on modern writers, especially on black humorists as Céline, Joseph Heller, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. It has also influenced dystopian science-fiction works as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Yevgeny Zamyatin's We.

In 1956, Candide was premiered as an operetta with music by Leonard Bernstein.
Candide can be found on Gutenberg. 

Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau

September 27, 2011

"A Handful of Dust" by Evelyn Waugh (Book Review)

Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust (a quotation from The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot) shows us that our most prized possessions, but also our most intimate relations - wife, children - yes, even our whole society are no more than that: just a handful of dust. They can evaporate any moment, especially if we follow our absurd caprices.

The aristocratic Tony Last (yes, the "last" of the Mohicans, living at the end of our civilization) is devoted to his ugly neo-Gothic homestead Hetton, to his wife Brenda and his young son John Andrew. At the start of the novel, everything seems pure happiness. But Brenda is bored with life in the country and her predictable husband.

Then a self-interested social climber, John Beaver, invites himself to Hetton and although he is childish and vapid, Brenda starts an affair with him. Yearning for urban excitement she has Tony rent her a small apartment in London and pretending to be busy studying economics, spends her weeks jet-setting with John. This is Brenda's caprice and she is so inundated in her new life that she spends less and less time with her family. Then her young son John Andrew dies from a horse riding accident. When she gets the news that "John is dead," she first thinks it is her lover... then realizing it is her son, utters one short sentence: "Thank God." 

Brenda now decides she wants a divorce. These are the 1930s when divorce was not as easy as it is today. To save Brenda from a scandal, Tony agrees to take the blame and therefore has to spend a weekend in Brighton with a fake mistress - one of the most funny scenes in the book. But their agreement on the divorce falls apart when Brenda and her family insist on a monetary settlement so large that Tony would have to sell Hetton. That is the last thing he would ever do.

Now, on a caprice of his own, he leaves for South-America where he joins the expedition of a mad explorer, Dr Messinger, to find a lost city in the jungle. Everything goes wrong, Dr Messinger dies in a canoe accident and Tony falls seriously ill. He is miraculously saved by a Mr Todd ("Tod" is German for "death") who has lived for sixty years in the jungle. Todd refuses to let Tony go and - not being literate himself - has Tony read him aloud the novels of Dickens. That is how Tony will spend the rest of his life. Culture in the jungle, you may think, but it should be noted that Waugh disliked Dickens.

Brenda, in the meantime, is far from the rich divorcee that John Beaver had expected, so he leaves her in the lurch. Shortly after Tony is declared dead, she marries a mutual friend. At the end of the novel obscure relatives of Tony take over Hetton.

That is how lives go to seed when people are cold and selfish. The novel has also been interpreted as symbolical of the end of the British empire, an end due to society losing its moral bearings.

But Evelyn Waugh serves up his "message" with tons of humor in this comedy of manners and that is a good thing. Dark as the book is, it is also wildly funny - Tony's visit to a club of ill-repute, Brenda's efforts to hook him up with one of her girlfriends, or a lady called "Cockpurse" - Waugh is like Wodehouse but then on a literary higher level. Waugh also writes in a perfect style, precise and concise. In short, this is a great book.

September 26, 2011

"The Way We Live Now" by Anthony Trollope (Book review}

Anthony Trollope wrote The Way We Live Now in 1875 as a biting satire on his time. After a trip abroad, he saw England with new eyes and was struck by the central position money had come to occupy and the dishonesty and vice accompanying this phenomenon. The fantasy of easy money was twisting the lives of many people and in the novel becomes the butt of the satirist's whip.

In the process Trollope creates some of his most memorable characters: in the first place the sinister financier Melmotte, a colossal figure who dominates the novel - he plays the stock market and creates fortunes out of nothing, which also tend to evaporate into nothingness again (it is almost a satire of our own times!). His origins are as obscure as his financial dealings, but London's decadent and penniless aristocracy welcomes him with open arms.

Then we have Lady Carbury, a 43-year old coquette and scheming widow, who writes for money and bribes the newspapers to write positively about her work; her profligate son Felix, a spineless youth addicted to gambling and almost all other vices one can think of, whose only way out of ruin is to marry an heiress; Marie, Melmotte's daughter, who abused by her father, stands up for herself and develops into a stronger woman; and Mrs Hurtle, an indomitable American lady who in the past has shot a man and now has followed her renegade suitor to England to remind him of his marriage promise.

Less interesting are Trollope's "stock characters:" the young man who has sowed his wild oats and now has reformed himself (Paul Montague, the previous suitor of Mrs. Hurtle); the stubborn young woman who does not make the reasonable choice her environment expects of her but who follows her own heart (Hetta Carbury); and Roger Carbury, the square and boring head of the Carbury family, fruitlessly in love with his niece Hetta, and the mouthpiece for Trollope's tirades "against the way we live now."

The satire in this novel is so strong, that in its own time The Way We Live Now was one of Trollope's least popular works. It was considered as sour and sordid. Trollope had probably stepped on the long toes of his contemporaries. But since then, the novel has emerged as Trollope's masterpiece and the most admired of his works. It certainly has a delicious cast of characters and is an engrossing comedy of manners.

I have only one problem with this giant book: this, Trollope's longest novel at about 950 pages, is really about one-third too long. Trollope set out to fill two volumes of each 50 chapters and he kept to his plan. But... the story is in fact finished when we are about one-third in volume two. At that point, the downfall of Melmotte has become clear and the fates of the other characters bring no new surprises. As readers, we can see it all before us, and would have been satisfied with a quick finale. But Trollope still has to fill more than thirty chapters and plodding makes his way forward by repetition and by spinning out the story as much as he can.

Trollope had to satisfy his publisher with the planned number of chapters so that the novel could be marketed in two large volumes, which brought in more money than one volume. The Way We Live Now is a satire on the power of money - but by unnaturally stretching the story Trollope himself here sacrifices art on the altar of profit, showing that he, too, was a child of his times.

The Way We Live Now is available as Oxford World Classic and as Penguin. It can also be found free on Gutenberg. In 2001, the novel was made into a BBC mini-series with David Suchet as Melmotte (a great performance, repulsive and charismatic at the same time).

September 24, 2011

"Psmith in the City" (1910) by Wodehouse (Book Review)

Psmith in the City is one of the earliest novels by English humorist P. G. Wodehouse (of Jeeves and Blandings Castle fame), first published in 1910. It tells the adventures of cricket-loving Mike Jackson and his immaculately-dressed, aristocratic friend Psmith (the "P" is not voiced - the “Psmith” name has been adopted "as there are too many Smiths").

Mike Jackson, cricketer, finds his dreams of studying and playing at Cambridge upset by his father's financial troubles, and must instead "go into commerce" by taking a job with the "New Asiatic Bank" in the London City. On arrival there, Mike finds his friend Psmith is also a new employee, and together they strive to make the best of their position, with heaps of black humor. The 9 to 5 life is a shock to both friends, but they are able to tweak the system with lots of "pottering" and escapes to long lunches.

It is a slight book that is still partly funny, especially the sections about office politics, how two bosses are made ineffectual, one by catering to his football hobby, the other by pestering him at his club. Psmith reveals himself as a schemer of deadly effectiveness, but also a "secret Socialist." The language is often surrealistic, many scenes are one wild farce -  the type of humor reminded me of Monty Python.

September 12, 2011

"The Awful Truth" (1937) (Film review)

Unfounded suspicions lead a wealthy married couple from Manhattan (Cary Grant as Jerry Warriner and Irene Dunne as Lucy Warriner) to begin divorce proceedings. After that, they both start undermining each other's attempts to find new romance, Jerry to a haughty socialite, Lucy to an oil-rich bumpkin from Oklahoma. The point is: they still love each other and we all know how that will end. This screwball comedy was directed by Leo McCarey, who received an Oscar.

Funny elements in The Awful Truth are Jerry's visitation rights with their fox terrier and Lucy's impersonation of Jerry's low-life "sister" to scandalize the family of his prospective bride.

This comedy is still watchable, but not more than that, I felt, and after recently seeing again several Ozu films, I now know why. In these Hollywood productions, everything is plot. Actions and events speed the film along, but there is no time for character development. There is even no time to get to like any of the characters. They all left me cold and therefore, in the end, the story as well. The whole thing is very mechanical, and devoid of human feeling. At the same time, ideologically, it is a rather obvious propaganda piece for monogamy. Think what Ozu would have made of this premise...

September 11, 2011

"A Night at the Opera" (1935) (Film review)

Business promoter Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx with his trademark glued-on mustache, thick eyebrows and fat cigar) is hired by dignified dowager and would-be socialite Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont, Groucho's perennial nemesis, who remains typically unruffled by the many insults he hurls at her) to help her enter high society. He convinces her to invest in an opera production, whose self-important manager Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) engages an arrogant tenor Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) as his star singer. But the leading soprano, hotty brunette Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) is in love with the young, talented singer Ricardo (Allan Jones). With the help of two wacky friends (Italian piano player and con man Chico Marx, and harp-player plus mute girl-chaser Harpo Marx) she tries to give him his big break. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo think up a zany plot to turn Ricardo into a star at the expense of Lassparri and enable the young lovers to stay together.

A Night at the Opera was the most successful film of the Marx Brothers at the box office, made after the absurdist anti-war Duck Soup had failed to catch public interest. The love interest was added at the instigation of MGM to catch more female viewers and there is more of a story than in their previous films thanks to a well-developed screenplay. Production values are high (director was Sam Wood) with several inserted musical numbers - of course Chico and Harpo have their piano and harp routines as well. To be sure the gags and jokes would work, the film was first market-tested in the vaudeville circuit.

Are the Marx Brothers still funny? In the main, yes. Of course some of the routines are dated and tired, but there was enough to keep me interested: the tearing up of a contract by taking out clause after clause ("The Party of the first part" etc.), the scene where a ton of people are being stuffed into Groucho's small cabin room, the sequence where the furniture is switched between two rooms to elude a private detective, or Harpo swinging like Tarzan on stage fly ropes high up in the opera house. This was the iconic scene I remembered the film by from seeing it long ago.

Made during the Great Depression and poking anarchic fun at authorities, this film is a sure antidote against any form of depression!

September 10, 2011

"The Asphalt Jungle" (1950) (Film review)

Based on enthusiastic reviews, for example on the Film Noir of the Week website, I was expecting much from The Asphalt Jungle. But I regret to say that there was nothing especially wonderful about this John Huston film - it is watchable, but not more than that.

In the first place, I would not call this a film noir - although there are varying definitions of this genre, I would expect 1) irreversible doom brought about by the own mistakes or plain stupidity of the protagonist, and 2) a vamp who catches him in her web. Neither is present in The Asphalt Jungle which is a rather ordinary crime story about a heist gone wrong.

 "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a "crime brain" just out of prison, has a plan for a burglary to steal jewels worth a million dollars. He recruits safe cracker Louis (Anthony Caruso), driver Gus (James Whitmore), financial backer Emmerich (Louis Calhern), and strong-arm man Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden). At first the plan goes like clockwork, but little accidents accumulate and although they get away with the loot, one of them is shot and the police is on their heels.

The moralistic last part of the film shows rather mechanically how they all get their deserves. Such moralism of course has no place in a real film noir. There is one bad cop (he looks viler than the criminals) and the film stresses that such cops are exceptions, the public can really trust the police force. You instinctively feel that is pure propaganda and that Huston is preaching for the authorities. This was 1950, the black period of McCarthyism and Huston may have felt he had rooted too much for the criminals, who come off very sympathetic.

The only light in the darkness is the quality of the acting - Sam Jaffe as a meek professor type, Sterling Hayden as a strongman bursting with anger and Louis Calhern as a gentlemanly uncle-type who behind his affable exterior is as mean as they get. He even has a "niece" set up in her own small apartment, Marylin Monroe in her first small role, who happens to be no family and could be his granddaughter.

One more elderly gentlemen interested in young women is "Doc" Riedenschneider, perhaps because of his long years in prison. A nice touch is that the cops arrest him when he unnecessarily delays his escape to watch a girl dance to jukebox music in a roadside cafe.

September 9, 2011

"The Apartment" (1960) by Billy Wilder (Film review)

In The Apartment, insurance clerk C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is doing something akin to Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face: he rides the elevator to success by making his New York apartment available to his bosses when they want to be unfaithful to their wives (and that is on an almost daily basis). The pathetic Baxter even provides drinks and snacks and stands waiting outside in the cold until the rendez-vous is finished. The film takes place during the end of the year with its holidays and wrings some calculated sympathy from the public for doubly lonely guy Baxter. But at work he advances from the noisy common office to a nice private room. His neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss hears every evening passionate sounds from Baxter's apartment and asks him to eventually donate his body to science - this guy looks so ordinary!

This set-up goes wrong when big boss Mr Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) lets his eye fall on the girl Baxter himself fancies: elevator girl Miss Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine). Like Baxter, she is into job prostitution hoping to become Mrs Sheldrake one day (which is a rather foolish thought - she should have taken her cue from Stanwyck in the above mentioned Baby Face!). She is also vulnerable for when she discovers that Sheldrake has lied to her about this, she tries to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills - in Baxter's apartment. Sheldrake flies and Baxter has to save her with the help of the doctor next door and nurse her back to health. Baxter cooks spaghetti for her and this gives Lemmon the chance for a famous scene in which he strains the pasta with his tennis racket.

This is not a simplistic romantic comedy, but a tough film that shows us the wrongs of society without moralizing. "Bud" Baxter and Fran Kubelik don't immediately fall for each other. They are too realistic for that, both their future prospects depend on the way they have been living so far. So after the attempted suicide Miss Kubelik even gives the boss a second chance and Baxter goes on enjoying his new office.

When they finally decide to join their fates together, and Baxter gives Sheldrake the big finger, it feels like a let-down. It certainly is a break in the internal consistency of the film. How can they give up everything they have suffered for so far? Does Baxter really want to loose his comfortable job and become a lowly clerk again in another company - if he can find a new job?

The film was directed by Billy Wilder and has his trademark witty dialogues; both Lemmon and Maclaine were starters at the time (although Lemmon just came from his first success, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and give committed performances. Baxter is a mean weasel, the type of pathetic boss flatterer one in real life would avoid like the pest (also as boss), but Jack Lemmon almost makes us forget the nastiness of his role.

September 2, 2011

"Baby Face" (1933) (Film review)

Baby Face is a great Barbara Stanwyck vehicle. It was made at the end of the Pre-Code years and shocked censors, who forced the studio to cut out fragments and change the ending. Fortunately, the original uncut version has surfaced in recent years.

The film surprises by its openness and bluntness, a very refreshing change from the political correctness that usually plagues American film. Stanwyck is hard-as-nails Lily Powers, whose father runs an illegal whiskey joint in filthy Erie, Pennsylvania. He pimps his daughter to the more well-to-do customers, but she is no sissy and if their hands wander too far she hits them with the bottle on the head. When the father dies in an accident with the whiskey still, she sheds no tears but takes the train to New York - no, she doesn't have the money for the trip but she is nice to the railway inspector.

Upon arrival she selects one of the tallest office buildings in the city and literally starts to sleep her way to the top - beginning with the personnel manager. Five men later (whom she sheds like old clothes) she arrives at the bank's elderly vice-president (she calls him "Baby Face"), who becomes her sugar-daddy and sets her up in a luxurious apartment.

Her ruthlessness is fun to see: in order to force things, she embraces her man on purpose when his fiancee is about to enter! One of the men she has thrown away really has a crunch on her and gets so mad that he shoots the vice-president before killing himself. No problem for Lily, who arranges with the Board to be sent to the Paris branch. The new bank president Courtland Trenholm (George Brent) is something of a playboy and she shrewdly ensnares him in her nets when he comes to the City of Light. She even pushes him to propose marriage...

But we are in the 30s, another time of financial upheaval: the bank goes unexpectedly under and Trenholm is arrested. He asks for Lily's not inconsiderable savings to get back on his feet again, but she refuses... at least initially... then she realizes he is what she wants after all, and she rushes to him with her suitcase with jewels.

Barbara Stanwyck shines in this subtle and compact comedy. She never looses her cool, even when bodies are falling around her, and she always thinks faster than the guys. She is seductive with a hard edge and gets every man she wants. Men are there to be manipulated, they are the steps on her ladder to success. Until the sentimental ending (but that's just the last five minutes) she has no tender feelings for anyone.

The film is very well crafted. Hardly a kiss is shown on screen, everything is done with innuendo, but the effect is infinitely more sexy than watching sweating bodies.
Be sure to see the uncut version of this film, brought out as Vol. 1 of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection of Warner Bros.