Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Geographer's Library, by Jon Fasman

I listened to this novel on my hour-long commutes by bus, and although I enjoyed it enormously, I struggled to keep my bearings. The book has an audaciously complex plot structure moving back and forth between 12th-century Italy, 20th-century Soviet Union, and present-day Connecticut. As I was moving between locations on a bus, pausing at the bus stop rather than at a chapter's end, it made for a disjointed experience.

The story's narrator is Paul Tomm, a young reporter for a small-town newspaper in rural Connecticut. He goes out to gather some biographical information for an obituary -- an elderly, reclusive former professor at Paul's alma mater has been found dead in his home. The police say it looks like a death from natural causes, but in his search for the most basic details for the obituary, Paul discovers only very puzzling and incongruous bits of information about the deceased.

In a parallel plot thread, Fasman traces the 15 items which had been stolen from the court geographer's home in the 12th century and have been scattered around the globe since then. Now it appears someone is trying to collect them all again, and as Paul delves into the mysteries surrounding the dead Estonian professor, he repeatedly finds connections to the highly-coveted objects from the geographer's library, all of which relate to alchemy. Paul's knowledge of alchemy is limited to arcane efforts to turn lead into gold. Professor Puhapaev knew its broader meaning -- the transformation of any thing into its most perfect form, and for humans, that perfection means immortality.

The plot represents a broad spectrum of knowledge and research, and Fasman has a deft style. I regret that I sometimes lost my bearings in the audio, and much as I like Scott Brick as a reader, his attempts at Russian accents aren't always successful. I should have read this one in print.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Wagner's Ring: Turning the Sky Round, by M. Owen Lee

I resolved to spend the coming months immersing myself in Richard Wagner's Ring cycle.  I've never listened to it in full, and it's been long enough on my list of things to do. It's not a trivial project -- Lee describes it as a "cycle of four immense musical dramas, the vastest piece of music ever conceived by the mind of man -- what an experience it is first to discover, then to spend a lifetime exploring, those four parts, tracing their connective links, puzzling out their meanings, and listening through in wonder and awe to their shattering conclusion!"

Father M. Owen Lee is a classics professor who gave the intermission talks during a Texaco/Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast, and those talks form the basis of the book.  The limits of the intermission time enforced brevity, and he's expanded only slightly in the print version, resulting in a superb and compact 112-page guide that is a pleasure to read, whether or not you ever choose to listen to the operas.

The book's title is courtesy of C. S. Lewis who recalls the power of first hearing Wagner's Ring as a child. Lee quotes him at length:
"The sky had turned round," he remembered. "Pure 'Northernness' engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight... and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago... There arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country...  I stared round that dusty school-room like a man recovering from unconsciousness... and at once I knew (with fatal knowledge) that to have [that sense] again was the supreme and only important object of desire."
I have read Lewis' revelation a dozen times now, and it resonates on as many levels. First, the sense of 'pure Northernness':  I am someone of northern European descent living in Malaysia, and I had many long discussions with an English friend (who after two decades here has now resettled in Edinburgh) about the concept of northernness. Stark landscapes, frigid air and all the frozen precipitation, limited winter light... This ecology tends to produce people of a certain temperament, quite different from those who develop in the tropics. Obviously Wagner's operas touched some deep, innate chord  in Lewis, instantly spawning images of a primordial north.  Of course the power of the music may well move a Spaniard or a Malaysian to equal rapture, but will it trigger that visceral sense of connection to the mythical origins of the world that are, in Wagner's case, purely northern?  Will I also feel like a returning exile when I listen?

Next, 'the memory of Joy':  this of course reminds me of Beethoven and his rapturous Ode to Joy. I remember just as vividly hearing this piece as an adolescent and being transfixed by the memory of Joy -- a joy so sublime and transcendent that I had never experienced it before, and quite probably never will, yet I knew it at some deep intuitive level.

Lee provides 24 examples of thematic motifs in the book's appendix and of course frequently describes musical passages. The bulk of his commentary, though, is on the plots and the Norse myth, philosophy and politics that fed Wagner's imagination during his bursts of composition. Credit in turn goes to Wagner for feeding the later work of Jung and Freud, who later used much of the same imagery as they explored the collective unconscious.  The Ring presents us with the creation and destruction of the universe, and every phase of humanity's (and the gods') development in between. From the moment Alberich the dwarf renounces love in order to steal the Ring which confers power and wealth upon him to the destruction of Valhalla, the celestial palace of the gods, Wagner takes us from the birth to the death of existence itself.
It begins with a god [Wotan] newly established in power and ends with that god consumed in flames. That is to say, it begins with the emergence of man into consciousness, and ends with consciousness voluntarily yielding to -- the next evolutionary development in human nature. That, I suggest, is why Wagner couldn't put the end of the Ring into words, even in six separate attempts. As he labored over his mythic cycle, an intuitive idea kept hammering away at him, year after year -- perhaps the most important idea of his century, and not to be fulfilled for centuries to come, though man's myths knew, and had always known, it would someday happen: man was meant to evolve beyond his present state, even as he had evolved into it. But this step would require the death of his present consciousness, and its transformation into -- Wagner could only say what that was in music... 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro

I was discussing abridged audio books with a blind friend recently. I avoid them. I don't see how an editor can prune 40-60% of a book without expunging its soul. Nicholas disagreed, citing John le Carre's novels as an example of books that could do nicely with some ruthless editing. "There's just too much description," he grumbled. "All this description of places and people..."  I suppose I should read one of le Carre's novels first in abridged then in unabridged form and then reconsider my stance that description is the flesh over the bones of the plot.

This conversation popped back into my head as I read this collection of Alice Munro's stories.  I am not a fan of the short story, and it's not for lack of trying. I've dutifully listened to umpteen episodes of public radio's  'Selected Shorts'. The New Yorker publishes a podcast of one of its published short story writers reading the work of another. Rave reviews led me to buy a collection of Tobias Wolff's short fiction, which I set aside after the first piece with a sense of personal failure.

My problem? I too often feel that I'm reading an abridged novel.  Or an excerpt of a novel. When the story wraps up, I want the rest of it.

Alice Munro's short stories are the exception to this gripe. I don't come away hungry. Her characters are fully developed, photographically vivid. They go through all the pivotal life changes -- hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage and death -- in a dazzlingly efficient word count. (The title, by the way, refers to the more nuanced Canadian version of plucking the petals off a daisy. The simplistic American version is "He loves me, he loves me not.")

The title story features two malicious teen-aged girls having a bit of fun with the domestic helper in one of their households. They forge letters in her name and send them to a roguish male relative in western Canada, then forge responses from him. Before boarding the west-bound train to meet her "beau", the maid visits a dress shop to buy one fine dress. Perhaps she might even be married in it. She chooses one of fine woollen fabric, in dark brown. This is a practical woman, who is not going to waste money on white taffeta yet who is going to the opposite side of the continent to meet a man she's met only once. It is the teen-agers' letters that convince her that this man wants and needs her. As it turns out, he actually does. He needs all her strength and practicality, and she does, after all, look stunning in that elegant brown woollen dress.

Munro's stories remind me of that dress:  they are supremely well-tailored. Not an extraneous ruffle or pleat. They are a deep, earthy brown rather than garish colours and patterns. I think Alice Munro is among the greatest authors of the short-story-as-abridged-novel. Her tales still have plenty of flesh and bones -- description and plot -- but they are lithe and compact.

At the moment, I am marching through an 800-page history of Prussia. That's one downfall of e-books, I've realised:  the page count is not immediately evident. I might have been happy with (horrors!) an abridged version, but it's too late. This is a fine book, worth reading. After every century or so, however, I feel the need for a break. It occurs to me that one of Alice Munro's stories would provide the perfect intermission between the episodes of Prussian history. As soon as Napoleon relinquishes his grasp, I think I'll dart back to Canada for a brief respite.