Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Greatest Secret in the World, by Og Mandino

Someone gave a complete set of Mandino's self-help books to a blind reader, and I expect I'll end up
recording them all. While this prospect doesn't thrill me, they're far from the worst books I've recorded.  Actually, my lukewarm response to this book puts me in a distinct minority, since Og Mandino is the best-selling self-help author of all time.

The book is structured around ten 'scrolls', each addressing one facet of self-improvement.  Mandino instructs his readers to allocate five weeks to each of the scrolls and to read the scroll first thing each morning, a second time at the end of the work day, and a third time -- aloud -- before going to bed.  This is an early (the book was published in 1972) version of what we now call neuro-linguistic programming:  If you repeat the same assertions often enough, they will embed themselves in your subconscious mind. 

Also at the end of each day, Mandino requires readers to complete a 'success recorder' -- a scoresheet on which to record the number of times one actually read the scroll and a numerical score to assess how well one adhered to its values.  

I believe that, if you exert the discipline, dedicate the time and follow through with Mandino's programme as he specifies, you will indeed improve your life.  If you simply read the book (as I did when recording it), you'll come away less impressed. This is an exercise book as much as anything else. Simply reading it is like reading a book about yoga without ever unrolling the mat. 


Moominland Midwinter, by Tove Jansson

I scanned my bookshelf for the antidote to the book hangover occasioned by Shroud.  Found it!

Bookface has a soft spot in her heart for Finland and has spent a few summers in Helsinki. Although she developed a fondness for Marimekko textiles and Sibelius, the whole Moomin craze simply eluded her. Until now.

Her pal in Edinburgh bought this little book for her, suggesting it for a day when she needed either a dose of winter or of whimsy.

Moomins are funny little creatures, looking somewhat like a hippo with the ears and tail of a mule. They hibernate in their snug little houses through the winter months, which seems eminently sensible to me, since I often shivered in the Finnish July. In this book, a young male Moomin, Moomintroll, wakes up and goes outdoors to have a series of adventures with the other creatures who are out and about in the dark, white night of winter.

Although he is delighted with the newness of it all, this is not a season filled exclusively with joyful frolics. His new acquaintances warn Moomintroll that soon the Lady of the Cold will come to visit. The Lady seems to be clothed in aurora borealis, but she's as dangerous as she is beautiful.
They went out onto the landing-stage and sniffed towards the sea. The evening sky was green all over, and all the world seemed to be made of thin glass. All was silent, nothing stirred, and slender stars were shining everywhere and twinkling in the ice. It was terribly cold... Far out on the ice came the Lady of the Cold. She was pure white, like the candles, but if one looked at her through the right pane she became red and seen through the left one she was pale green. Suddenly Moomintroll felt the pane become so cold that it hurt, and he drew back his snout in rather a fright. 
The Lady of the Cold pauses with a smile to scratch the scatter-brained squirrel with the magnificent tail (who forgot to stay home) behind his ear. Moomintroll and his pals find the unfortunate squirrel on his back, legs up in the air, stiff as a board. "'At least he saw something beautiful before he died,' said Moomintroll in a trembling voice." One of his plucky and practical little companions simply pipes up that the squirrel's tail will make a splendid muff.  (Tove Jansson leaves an author's note at this point to forestall any excessive grief:  "In case the reader feels like having a cry, please take a quick look at page 126."  Here, one learns that the squirrel eventually recovers from his near-fatal brush with the Lady of the Cold, although -- unsurprisingly, being such a dimwit -- he has no memory of it.)

Sorry-oo, the little dog in the illustration above, also learns a valuable lesson that winter. He arrives in the Moomin village and stays, but he rejects all efforts of the residents to befriend him. He wants only to join the pack of wolves whom he hears howling in the Lonely Mountains. He goes frequently to his howling pit and bays his heart out, daydreaming about how glorious it will be when he can join the pack.  Then, one night, he learns the truth of the old adage, be careful what you wish for...
Now Sorry-oo was quite overwhelmed with his vivid daydream. He turned his muzzle to the stars and gave a howl.
And the wolves answered him.
They were so near that Sorry-oo felt frightened. He tried clumsily to burrow down in the snow. Eyes were lighting up all around him.
The wolves were silent again. They had formed a ring around him, and it was slowly closing in.
Sorry-oo wagged his tail and whined, but nobody answered him. He took off his woolen cap and threw it in the air to show that he would like to play. That he was quite harmless.
But the wolves didn't even look at the cap. And suddenly Sorry-oo knew that he had made a mistake. They weren't his brethren at all, and one couldn't have any fun with them.
One could only be eaten up, and possibly have the time to regret that one had behaved like an ass. He stopped his tail  that was still wagging from pure habit, and thought: 'What a pity. I could have slept all these nights instead of sitting here and longing myself silly...'
Tove Jansson reminded me of life in a part of the world that has dramatic seasonal shifts, where the hours of daylight swerve between close to 24 in the summer to none at all at the winter solstice. No one revels in the glories of spring like someone who has been through a long, dark, bitterly cold winter. Many northerners (myself included, I must admit) see the winter as a quiet, inward, reflective time of the year -- a healthy contrast to the energetic summer. Even the Moomin has to learn that winter is an ordeal that one must survive, largely in solitude.  As the days get longer, his friend Too-Ticky gives the bathing-house a spring cleaning (once all those who sought winter shelter in it have moved out).
'Now the bathing-house'll be a bathing-house again,' she said. 'When the summer's hot and green, and you lie on your tummy on the warm boards of the landing-stage and listen to the waves chuckling and clucking...'
'Why didn't you talk like that in winter?' said Moomintroll. 'It'd have been such a comfort. Remember, I said once: "There were a lot of apples here." And you just replied: "But now here's a lot of snow." Didn't you understand that I was melancholy?
Too-ticky shrugged her shoulders. 'One has to discover everything for oneself,' she replied, 'and get over it alone.'
I adore children's books, but since I don't have children, I don't often read them, and that's a pity. A well-written children's book -- like this one -- has pertinent messages for people of all ages, even cranky old ones like me. Reading Moominland Midwinter was a great analgesic after the heaviness of my previous book but also a nostalgic joy. As I lazed about under the ceiling fan, completely absorbed in the Moomin's doings, I was transported back to the summer afternoons of my childhood, when I would retreat to the hammock which hung between two great, leafy maples in our back yard and lose myself in a book until dinner time. Happy, happy.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Shroud, by John Banville

John Banville
"My monstrous child," says John Banville of this novel. It's something that Victor Frankenstein might have said of his creature, which he constructed from cadaverous odds and ends and enlivened with 'vulcanism' and his pure genius. We aren't likely to love the result in either case, but you have to admire the architecture and creative obsession. In a Paris Review interview, Spring 2009, the interviewer asked Banville if there is any one of his novels which he'd like to be remembered for. There is, and it's Shroud:
It’s a dark, hard, cruel book. It’s the novel in which I got closest to doing what I aimed to do at the start of writing it. That had only happened once before, with The Newton Letters. Everybody hated Shroud — even, I think, the people who admired it. It was favourably reviewed, but it was not and is not a book a reader could readily love. Shroud is my monstrous child whom I cherish but who horrifies others.
I read this interview a few days after finishing the book, and that comment drew a sigh of relief. I did admire the book tremendously and wondered how I could simultaneously dislike it so much. It seemed, at least, that I was in good company in my conflicted responses to it.

This is an unremittingly dark novel. Its protagonist is an old, partially crippled professor who goes by the name of Axel Vander, although it is not his own. It's an identity he stole from a Gentile schoolmate who disappeared during the Nazi occupation of Antwerp, an identity which facilitated his own bid to escape capture and death. Now, decades later, a young woman contacts the irascible professor emeritus to say she has uncovered the secrets of his past. They meet in Turin, the home of the famous shroud. Despite the fact that he's old enough to be her grandfather, they consummate an affair which Banville paints in vile colours, the old, bitter man throwing himself upon the younger woman who is afflicted with a rare form of seizure and mood disorder. Fellow academics look on in horror at his drunken rants with the girl in tow, but she has concluded that her purpose is to save him from himself. He knows that his whole life is at some level an enormous fraud. Excruciating, all the way round.

I'm not going to write here about the plot, the themes, the characters, the symbols. What impressed me most about this book was the wordcraft. My vocabulary is above average; John Banville's is prodigious. No other author since William F. Buckley has sent me scrambling so frequently for my dictionary.  As I did when reading Buckley, I occasionally wondered if the million dollar word was simply ostentatious, or was it really the best tool for the job?  As I spent time with the definitions and etymologies, I decided upon the latter -- Banville took the time to find a rare but finely honed component with finer nuances than a more common word. The following passage from that same Paris Review interview confirmed my suspicion. The right word, no matter how obscure it might be, it fits into Banville's sentence with an almost audible (to him, at least) click, like the correct piece into a jigsaw puzzle.
Occasionally I will leave behind a sentence that I know is missing a word, and I’ll go back to it later. I wrote a sentence like that yesterday. A man is talking about his wife, who’s a singer. She has just woken up in the morning, and he says, “Even half asleep like this, she sounded a true, dark note, a thrilling . . .” I put in “cadence,” but I know it’s not the right word—so the sentence is just sitting there, waiting for me to find the right, the exact, the only word.
On a related note, John Banville publishes equally dark mystery novels under the pen name of Benjamin Black. The multiple personality issue here reminds me very much of my musings about Barbara Vine and Ruth Rendell.  That one writer can assume two radically different voices and styles fascinates me. The Black-Banville split seems even more dramatic. It reaffirms, however, that John Banville values prose style above all else; he is producing a work of art.
If I’m Benjamin Black, I can write up to two and a half thousand words a day. As John Banville, if I write two hundred words a day I am very, very happy. A Banville novel will take me up to five years to write. When I’d finished The Lemur, the third Benjamin Black book, and sat down to become John Banville again, I worked one Friday for six hours straight, and I ended up with one sentence. Not a particularly good sentence, either. But I was thrilled to be back working in that strange, deep level of concentration. That’s the distinction—what you get in Banville is concentration, what you get from Black is spontaneity. I know there are readers who consider Black a better writer, certainly a better novelist, than Banville, and perhaps they’re right.
And now some examples of those sculpted sentences with their eye-stopping words. All italics are mine.
Time and age have brought not wisdom, as they are supposed to do, but confusion, and a broadening incomprehension, each year laying down another ring of nescience
Nescience: ignorance or agnosticism; literally, not knowing. I like his choice of nescience here, because ignorance gives one the hope that it can be corrected with effort. Axel Vander's nescience, I think, is simply his growing awareness of all that he does not and cannot ever know.  
She spoke with judicious care, costively, rationing the words; was there someone with her, overhearing what she said?
Costive: constipated, slow in action or in expressing ideas. (An archaic definition is stingy or tight-fisted; constipated, in other words, with one's money.)
I had a sensation of incipient weightlessness, as if at any moment I might float upward, wingless and yet wonderfully volant, and drift away free, into air, and light, the empty, cold and brilliant blue. 
Volant: engaged in or having the power of flight. It's just the perfect word for this sentence.
At last the door was opened by a diminutive, homuncular voung woman wearing a drab dress... 
Vander leads Cass, the young woman who has come to Turin to meet him, to the apartment where Nietzsche suffered his final psychological collapse (after embracing the beaten cart horse). There is a plaque on the wall in the stairwell, but the woman who answers the door appears to know nothing about the philosopher who had stayed there before. She, Banville tells us, resembles a homunculus, or a fully formed, miniature human body believed, according to some medical theories of the 16th and 17th centuries, to be contained in the spermatozoon.
A scrawny, ill-dressed person, vaguely male, a student, I presumed, leaning by an open window consuming a clandestine cigarette, gave me a defiant, surly stare. No call for truculence, pale ephebe --see, I am lighting up one myself.
Ephebe: in ancient Greece, a young man, about to enter full citizenship. Banville's misanthropy shines through in a steady stream of new derogatory verbiage. Vander's fellow smoker would likely not even realise that his masculinity was being trashed.
I never really favoured the tall, pale, pyriform kind, although they were the very ones who always seemed to seek me out. Given the choice -- which I rarely was given, because of my great bulk, naturally -- I would have preferred little fat women.
Pyriform: pear-shaped.  Vander goes on, as he muses about his ideal woman, to describe a squat, fat fertility goddess figurine with no recognisable facial features.
...she was another tall, tense, fissile vessel waiting to be cloven in two.
Fissile: capable of being split or divided; cleavable.  The young woman who pursues Vander to Turin is Cass Cleave, and as the story progresses, she cleaves ever more to him and also seems ever more likely to be 'cloven in two'. By the time Vander confesses (to the reader, not to Cass) that he loves her, his brutish behaviour has already destroyed this fissile vessel.
If I had not exactly been spawned in an estaminet, as the poet so prettily puts it, our place -- I would never have thought to call that low, dim warren an apartment -- was the opposite of where the Vanders grandly resided.
Estaminet:  French, possibly Walloon, meaning a cafe, bar or bistro, especially a shabby one. Reflecting on his youth in Antwerp, the old professor recalls looking at Mrs. Vander, elegantly dressed, standing in the window of their lovely apartment with an expression of ennui. It was her son's -- Axel's -- identity that he stole as he fled Europe.
...one could hear one of Axel's studiedly otiose sighs rustling amid the words like a breeze in the grass.
Otiose: idle, indolent, superfluous. In this sentence, the professor recalls the real Axel Vander, a handsome son of affluent parents -- in almost every sense the opposite of himself. Even his sighs express his fabulous uselessness.
Only let the Idea triumph, the great instauration begin!
Instauration: renewal, restoration, renovation, repair. Although Vander is talking about the instauration of his reputation, his use of this word suggests a construction, which, in fact, his identity is. A very elaborate construction.
Most amazing of all the explanations I heard of Axel's disappearance, however, was the heroic farrago, recounted to me one ice-hung morning in a cafe on the Groenplaats, in tones of tragic wonderment, by one of his former girlfriends...
Farrago:  a confused mixture, hodge-podge or medley, coming from the Latin term for a mixed crop of feed grains. The professor never did learn the real fate of the young man whose identity he stole; this mixed-up tale of espionage and capture was one of many accounts that came to him over the years.
I reached my lowest point on a December twilight in Hendaye, where I sat in a tenebrous bar listening to the flags flapping mournfully along the deserted sea front and realised with a sad start that it was Christmas Eve. 
Tenebrous: dark, gloomy, obscure, from Latin tenebrae, or darkness. Somehow my spirits would sink even lower in a tenebrous bar than they would in a dark or gloomy one.
So many questions, so many quiddities, yet I am no further along. 
Quiddity: the quality that makes a thing what it is; the essential nature of a thing -- its 'whatness'.  This is a word I've wanted for years, and I thank Mr. Banville for introducing us.
...the house in Belgravia was a jewel box stuffed with unconsidered and certainly unguarded bibelots.
Bibelot: from the French, a small item of curiosity, beauty or rarity. This word is a cousin of 'bauble', but it suggests to me an item of higher value.  Baubles are usually found in the company of trinkets, after all.  Vander removed a few bibelots from the house of Lady Laura, a British noblewoman who had been keeping him since his flight from Belgium. When she realised his theft, she sent two thugs to rough him up a bit. She didn't necessarily want her property back, but she wanted Vander to know that he had annoyed her.
America was emptiness. In my image of it the country had no people anywhere, only great, stark, silent buildings, and gleaming machinery, and endless, desolate spaces. Even the name seemed a nonce-word, or an unsolvable anagram, with too many vowels in it. 
Nonce-word: a word coined and used only for a particular occasion. Vander plans to use the proceeds from Lady Laura's bibelots to buy passage to America, that great blank slate.  
While I was fishing in my pockets, the other one came up behind me and struck me with a cosh. Yes, a cosh, the real thing.
Cosh:  a blackjack, a bludgeon. Can also be used as a verb to signify being hit in the head with the same. I'm not sure why Vander is impressed that the thugs are battering him with a real cosh -- what else should they use?
Although she may have seemed in those intervals like a catatonic, she would retain a quality of such vividness, such -- what shall I say? -- such immanence, that it was plain she was fully conscious, but, as it were, conscious somewhere else.
Immanent: remaining within, in-dwelling, inherent; contrast with transcendent. Do not confuse with imminent, likely to occur at any moment. G. K. Chesterton speaks of Buddhist immanence in Orthodoxy, but he misses the sense that Banville conveys here -- that both the mid-seizure Cass Cleave and the Buddhist meditator are fully conscious, perhaps even super-conscious.
However, lest I present an image of myself bent low in hieratic submission at the feet of a capricious moon goddess -- although they were lovely, in their way, those large, long, slender, pale feet of hers -- I should say that my treatment of her in general was not pretty, no, not pretty at all. 
Hieratic: of or pertaining to priests or the priesthood, sacerdotal. Again, Vander's priesthood is far more profane than sacred. At least he confesses his ugly treatment of Cass.  
Say what? I am running out of things to say. There I am, as usual, with my glass of drink and my cigarette, smiling about me savagely, entertaining my old Caligulan dream of a world with a single neck for me to wring. My kind should be rounded up and corralled off somewhere, Madagascar, say, although I do not like the smell of cloves. Or is that Zanzibar?
Caligulan: What a splendid adjective! It succinctly captures Vander's sociopathic streak, tinged with humour.    And the scent of cloves.
All was as it had been, Bartoli blackly frowning, and Montale's double clenching his fists, and Kristina Kovacs rolling the corner of her napkin, and Bartoli's mother maundering, miles away.
Maunder: to talk in a rambling, foolish or meaningless way; to move or act in an aimless or confused manner.The Caligulan thought and the passage above both occur at a dinner party at the Turin home of a fellow academic, Bartoli. The elderly mother sounds like the most content of the diners, oblivious to the tumult around the rest of the table. Cass will shortly slip under the table in the throes of another seizure, freeing her too from the hostility of her companions.

Shroud, like its protagonist, is a gorgeously crafted monster.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton


"Angels can fly because..."

Months ago, on the advice of C. S. Lewis, I downloaded Chesterton's book The Eternal Man but have yet to read it. Last month, a friend in Scotland recommended Orthodoxy, and that was the nudge I needed to dive into Chesterton's Christian apologetics, although he's possibly better known for his Father Brown mysteries.

When in polite company, avoid the topics of religion, politics and money, correct?  Mr. Chesterton is unflaggingly polite, yet his book is proof positive that one cannot discuss religion without kicking up a fuss from one quarter or another. My own reactions ran the gamut from admiration to spluttering anger.  On the whole, however, I can see why C. S. Lewis found him so influential.

When Chesterton published Orthodoxy in 1908, he decried that modern man seemed to feel that science and modernity had made religion obsolete.  In the intervening century, this trend has certainly increased. Science explains, self-help books teach, industry and cleverness bring material success. Who needs God, and for what?  We've got way too big for our britches, Chesterton retorts. We are arrogant.
I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, "That man will get on; he believes in himself." ...
Actors who can't act believe in themselves; and debtors who won't pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.
Those who do still claim to be religious have assumed an untoward familiarity with the deity, or as Chesterton puts it, maybe the lunatic in Hanwell (the asylum) who claims to be God really is, simply another incarnation or modern prophet. They maintain that God is to be found everywhere on earth, in every one and in every thing, including the madman and the post box. This, replies Chesterton, is simply belittling. How can we feel awe for a deity who lives next-door? Where's the mystery in that?
...if the man in Hanwell is the real God, he is not much of a god. And, similarly, if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk. The deity is less divine than many men; and (according to Haeckel) the whole of life is something much more grey, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than the whole.
As I look back on my own angry adolescent rebellion against my Catholic upbringing, I realise that I tossed out the baby with the bathwater. Because I could not believe in certain teachings -- the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection -- I turned my back on the whole lot. Chesterton asks readers to shift the emphasis from what they cannot to believe, looking instead for ways to believe what they can.  He presages Joseph Campbell in his insistence that we need elements of the mythical, the mysterious, the ineffable in our lives. We are happy to allow ourselves to believe in fables, romances and fairy tales -- perhaps not literally but to allow them to transport us to psychic states that we would not otherwise experience and to learn the lessons they teach. Why, I had to start asking myself, could I not allow myself to read the Gospels in the same way? Accepting not by coercion, this time, but by choice?
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that...
Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.
I recall listening to an interview with Richard Dawkins in which the scientist veritably spat at religion, attacking it on every level. The vitriol of his attack struck me as every bit as blinkered and intransigent as the arguments posed by religious fundamentalists who refute the possibility of evolution on the grounds of Genesis. I realised then that fundamentalism equals closed-mindedness, no matter what the belief system, and Dawkins is in fact a fundamentalist atheist. Chesterton invites us to revisit the Christian story. At least approach it again with a more open mind.  Maybe we can accept some of it on some level, as opposed to those who have planted their feet in mulish refusal to even venture a glimpse into what they've dismissed as superstitious nonsense. As Augustine noted, "If I be asked why these could not believe, I immediately answer, because they Would Not."

One of the steps in the 12-step programmes for substance abuse is acknowledging that there is "a higher power", and it's up to the individual how to define or even ponder that term, but the point is that he must concede that he is not the only or even the most powerful force affecting his life; there is something greater and more vast than us humans. Chesterton is even more blunt on this point.
Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain.
Of course, even then (and more so now), avowing Christian faith is unfashionable and suggests a lack of rational thought.  And what, Chesterton wonders, will replace the sacred wonder, the awe, the grandeur?  Microbiology? Politics? He finds more solid grounding in his Christian values.
They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election.
Since Chesterton's time, countless scientists and religious leaders have written about the connections (or lack of them) between their fields.  E. O. Wilson, venerable biologist and entomologist, writes movingly about being constantly amazed by the natural world; the Dalai Lama is fascinated with advances in neuroscience and how they can inform Buddhist ideas about consciousness.  To me, any astrophysicist who contemplates the cosmos with astonishment is having a religious experience. He needn't hold the belief that a deity created it in seven days; the awe at its enormity and complexity is enough. Those who insist, on the other hand, that the universe is a mere prosaic assortment of energy and matter, all of which we humans will likely one day comprehend and manipulate, strike Chesterton as psychologically fettered.
But the expansion of which I speak was much more evil than all this. I have remarked that the materialist, like the madman, is in prison; in the prison of one thought. These people seemed to think it singularly inspiring to keep on saying that the prison was very large. The size of this scientific universe gave one no novelty, no relief. The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity of the secret of its cosmos added nothing to it. It was like telling a prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear that the gaol now covered half the county. The warder would have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human. So these expanders of the universe had nothing to show us except more and more infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns and empty of all that is divine.
I have some atheist friends who are generally content with their lives, and a handful of others who are unsettled and seeking a larger purpose. One in particular adamantly refuses to have truck with anything he can't perceive with his five senses. (He doesn't read fiction, either, because it "isn't real".) I've often pointed out to him that his present views are not serving him very well, as he's so chronically miserable, but he will not budge from his view that his perceptions are the only truth. He is also very quick to ridicule anyone who possesses any type of religious or spiritual faith. Chesterton had a comment for people like this.
Perhaps, those might not be the very best judges of the relation of religion to happiness who, by their own account, had neither one nor the other.
When Chesterton begins comparing Christianity to Buddhism, however, I began to fume. His ignorance of the latter is plain, and his arguments crumble into this gap in his knowledge. He repeats the common misconception that the Buddhist practice is all inward-facing in its attempts to avoid the sufferings and messy realities of this world. This is maddeningly incorrect. He claims that Buddhists believe that "we are really all one person; that there are no real walls of individuality between man and man".  Again, this is simply wrong: Buddhism posits that all beings are interconnected, but not that all humans are one and the same. Because his understanding of Buddhism is so skewed, the contrasts that Chesterton draws between it and Christianity are nearly worthless.  For example, his insistence that Buddhists are essentially navel-gazing introverts, while Christians are actively involved in the world around them...  Oh, really, Mr. Chesterton!
By insisting specially on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism, social indifference -- Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation --Christendom.
He did, however, win my heart back after this gaffe of a chapter. I came across a familiar passage and wondered that he hadn't cited the original author.  Then, laughing at myself, I realised -- Chesterton was the original author!  This famous line was his.
A characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.
Notice the extra word, please.  I've always heard this line quoted as "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly."  The original text actually reads:  "Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly."  It's a minor difference, but an important one, I think.  Because an angel or a saint can take himself lightly doesn't mean that he always does so. To say that they take themselves lightly makes them sound frivolous.  On this point, anyway, I do agree with Chesterton.  I think there must be a sense of levity in the heavens, and we'd do well to nod to it now and then.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Mansion, by William Faulkner

This is the third volume in Faulkner's Snopes family trilogy; it was the one that Anthony Burgess added to his 99 best novels list.  I skipped the first two books, The Hamlet and The Town, and jumped right into the third. Faulkner's comments in the introduction made it clear that it's not a tightly-knit trilogy -- he was 34 years in writing them. I felt all right about starting with (and maybe ending with) the final novel, The Mansion.
...there will be found discrepancies and contradictions in the thirty-four-year progress of this particular chronicle; the purpose of this note is simply to notify the reader that the author has already found more discrepancies and contradictions than he hopes the reader will -- contradictions and discrepancies due to the fact that the author has learned, he believes, more about the human heart and its dilemma than he knew thirty-four years ago; and is sure that, having lived with them that long time, he knows the characters in this chronicle better than he did then.
I've spent a fair amount of time in Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner's fictional stomping ground in Mississippee, thanks to earlier novels like The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Sanctuary. The almost feudal control that one family exerts over a county in the deep south comes through in The Mansion. The Snopeses aren't from old money, and their gains are nearly all ill-got. They seem to have reached their status as lords of Jefferson, Mississippee by old-fashioned wiles and thuggery.  At the top of the heap is Flem Snopes, who has taken over the titular mansion from his late wife's clandestine lover, who fled the property rather than face scandal. By similar means, Flem has also assumed the presidency of the local bank.  Just say that name a few times:  Flem. Snopes.  Main character he may be, but no hero would ever be named Flem Snopes.

Not all Snopeses, however, have Flem's cunning.  As the novel opens, Flem's cousin, Mink Snopes (yes, picture a weasel) is on trial for murder, hoping in vain that Flem will step in to save him. Mink reflects on other people -- They and Them -- including his cousin Flem, who have talents and horizons denied him. Me? I marvel at all Faulkner conveys in this one remarkable sentence.
Then the twin ruby lamps on the last car diminished rapidly together in one last flick! at the curve, the four blasts came fading back from the south crossing and he thought of distance, of New Orleans where he had never been and perhaps never would go, with distance even beyond New Orleans, with Texas somewhere in it; and now for the first time he began really to think about his absent cousin: the one Snopes of them all who had risen, broken free, had either been born with or had learned, taught himself, the knack or the luck to cope with, hold his own, handle the They and Them which he, Mink, apparently did not have the knack or the luck to do.
Faulkner steps back and forth in time, giving us back-story. Mink had murdered another white man -- a rich, hard, white man who had humiliated him -- in the early 1900s. Being poor and not too bright, Mink was only a small notch above the local black folks in social standing.  He notes that the Negros had decent enough lives, even if lacking in "right and justice", but he still feels entitled to walk into any of their houses when he needs a place to sleep.
...then a section all Negro homes, even with electric lights too, peaceful, with no worries, no need to fight and strive single-handed, not to gain right and justice because they were already lost, but just to defend the principle of them, his rights to them, but instead could talk a little while and then go even into a nigger house and just lay down and sleep in place of walking all the way to the depot just to have something to look at until the durn mail carrier left at eight oclock tomorrow.
Today America is convulsed with debates on gun ownership. Mink Snopes, at the turn of the last century, goes into a general store to buy the buckshot with which he intends to kill his enemy, and the shop owner provides the screening that so many people today are asking their legislators to require.  (The Senate voted yesterday, 18 April 2013, and failed to pass a more comprehensive screening law.) Seems the United States needs more Mr. McCaslins.
"What do you want with two buckshot shells?" McCaslin said.
"A nigger came in this morning and said he seen that bear's foot in the mud at Blackwater Slough."
"No," McCaslin said. "What do you want with buckshot shells?"
"I can pay you soon as I gin my cotton," Mink said.
"No," McCaslin said. "I aint going to let you have them. There aint anything out there at Frenchman's Bend you need to shoot buckshot at."
As he does in many of his novels, Faulkner also switches between narrators.  V. K. Ratliff is a lifelong Jefferson denizen. He's a keen observer with no shortage of mother wit, and a friend of attorney Gavin Stevens, whom he refers to simply as Lawyer.  Ratliffe is not a highly educated man, as his speech reveals, but he's no fool, either.  Here he talks about Lawyer's experiences after leaving Heidelberg University's law school to fight in WWII. Not everyone in Yoknapatawpha County is a yokel.
...the modern German culture since the revolutions of 1848 never had no concern with, and if anything a little contempt for, anything that happened to man on the outside, or through the eyes and touch, like sculpture and painting and civil laws for his social benefit, but jest with what happened to him through his ears, like music and philosophy and what was wrong inside of his mind. Which he said was the reason why German was such a ugly language, not musical like Italian and Spanish nor what he called the epicene exactitude of French, but was harsh and ugly, not to mention full of spit (like as the feller says, you speak Italian to men, French to women, and German to horses), so that there wouldn't be nothing to interfere and distract your mind from what your nerves and glands was hearing: the mystical ideas, the glorious music--Lawyer said, the best of music, from the mathematical inevitability of Mozart through the godlike passion of Beethoven and Bach to the combination bawdy-house street-carnival uproar that Wagner made--that come straight to the modern virile northern Aryan's heart without bothering his mind a-tall. Except that he didn't join the German army. I dont know what lies he managed to tell the Germans to get out of Germany where he could join the enemy fighting them, nor what lies he thought up for the English and French to explain why a student out of a German university was a safe risk to have around where he might overhear somebody telling what surprise they was fixing up next. But he done it. And it wasn't the English army he joined neither. It was the French one: them folks that, according to him, spent all their time talking about epicene exactitudes to ladies.
On the other hand, not all Mississippian efforts to speak the 'epicene exactitudes' of French are successful....
And for her first eighteen years Eula breathed that same Frenchman's Bend mill-yew atmosphere too...
By the end of The Mansion, the reign of the Snopeses was at its end, but I'd soaked up about 50 years of the mill-yew that Faulkner created with exquisite skill. His ear for dialect has to be one of the world's finest. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Royal Road to Romance, by Richard Halliburton

I picked up a copy of this classic at a remainder sale, and it's been gathering dust on my shelf for years. I finally decided to record it for Malaysian Association for the Blind, figuring it would be a good vehicle for armchair travel.  After graduating from Princeton, Halliburton set out on his trip around the world, seeking what he felt were the most exotic and adventurous sites and experiences.

Halliburton's photograph of a
Balinese woman making a temple offering
As I'm sure my tones of voice will make clear to anyone who borrows this recording, I alternately adored Halliburton for his vivid accounts and wanted to throttle him for his arrogance. This is a book written by a young white man traveling the world in the 1920s, with all that implies.

The positives:  He was a young man, full of brio. Guards, fences, No Admittance signs and hours of operation meant nothing to him. If he wanted to take photographs from the tip of Gibraltar or spend the night in the Taj Mahal or atop an Egyptian pyramid, he found ways to do so. His enthusiasms were still passionate, driving him to wax poetic about the Alhambra and Bali at a time when most people's only exposure to these places were written accounts, perhaps accompanied by a photo or two. Halliburton's youthful strength permitted him to make treks that others deemed foolhardy -- up the Matterhorn and Mount Fuji with borrowed and inadequate equipment at inopportune seasons, or over a Himalayan pass to Ladakh.

The tourism industry was also in its youth in the 1920s, and it's marvellous to read today of the difficulties Halliburton overcame to reach the Angkor ruins, which he explored in perfect solitude, apart from the bats and a handful of monks living in Angkor Wat.  Today we can reach all of these sites with less difficulty, and the price we pay is seeing them alongside hordes of other travellers. The romance is rather dashed when another mob of tourists follows their guide (with his microphone) off their coach and overruns the temple or palace. Kashmir was still an earthly paradise, decades before warfare tore it apart, and Halliburton was fortunate enough to witness a raucous Balinese funeral ceremony (the more energetic aspects of which actually appalled him) that can be seen no more. He was in the Forbidden City when the last emperor was essentially held under house arrest, albeit in gorgeously appointed chambers. He arrived in Vladivostok to converse with Russian nobles who had fled from the west to escape the depredations of the Bolsheviks. Halliburton always took pains to avoid the 'beaten tourist track', even though far fewer tourists were beating tracks to anywhere then, so his account stands apart from others written at the same time.

There are also negative aspects to this travelogue by a young white man travelling the world in the 1920s. Halliburton, although he has a Princeton diploma and a well-heeled family backing him, decided that it would be so much more romantic and adventurous to do this globe-trotting on the cheap.  The scenes of him evading ticket collectors on Indian trains are nothing short of horrifying. One conductor insists that as a passenger with a 3rd class ticket, Halliburton must vacate the 1st class berth in which he's squatting. Halliburton deems the man insolent and ultimately decks him.  Later, when he has no ticket at all, he gets into a physical tussle with another conductor and pitches the much smaller man off the train, furious at the impudence of these 'natives'.  Evidently he managed to graduate Princeton unaware that taking things to which one is not entitled constitutes theft, and that theft is wrong, not even justifiable in the name of adventure or romance.

In his eagerness to avoid the typical tourist routes, he decides to ignore all local advice and undertake a journey across the Malay isthmus on foot during the monsoon season. He discovers that the only person who will agree to serve as his guide (for a fee of $6) is known as the village idiot. The two of them set out for what proves to be an arduous, soaking, and miserable several days' slog through the jungle.  He makes several derogatory remarks about 'the idiot' who is leading him, noting that the guide doesn't seem bothered by the deep waters covering the trail. Trying to find easier going, Halliburton decides to walk on the grass to the side of the submerged trail.  He almost immediately treads on a cobra's nest and finds himself face to face with a rearing and furious snake. Certain that he's about to die, he whacks at the creature with his walking stick, and it retreats without striking him.  'The idiot', he notes, was trudging on ahead of him, blissfully unaware of this whole drama.  As well he should be! The arrogance of this young foreigner, putting other people's lives at risk to gratify his own sense of sport, and then demeaning them in the process!

Halliburton had a big, rambunctious personality, so it's not surprising that he inspired admiration and irritation in equal measure. His antics came to an end in 1939 (he was then 39 years old), when he attempted to sail from Hong Kong to San Francisco in an oversized Chinese junk. The ship was not seaworthy and went down in a storm with Halliburton and the whole crew. I wonder if this was another instance of rash arrogance that endangered not only the adventurer but also those whom he hired to join him. Where was the line in this case between adventure and foolhardiness?



Saturday, April 13, 2013

Through the Window, by Julian Barnes


Subtitled 'Seventeen Essays and a Short Story', Through the Window reminded me both how much I love a well-crafted essay, and how deeply I admire Julian Barnes.  In these reflections on books and authors, Barnes introduced me to writers I've not yet read and illuminated aspects of books that I have read, but regrettably with less care and thought than he gave them.

In the book's opening essay, 'The Deceptiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald', Barnes lauds an author I know only by name and moves her up several notches on my to-be-read list.
"On the whole," she told her American editor in 1987, "I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken." Fitzgerald is tender towards her characters and their worlds, unpredictably funny, and at times surprisingly aphoristic; though it is characteristic of her that such moments of wisdom appear not author-generated, but arising in the text organically, like moss or coral. Her fictional personnel are rarely vicious or deliberately evil; when things go wrong for them, or when they inflict harm on others, it is usually out of misplaced understanding, a lack less of sympathy than of imagination. The main problem is that they cannot see the terms and conditions which come attached to life: moral grace and social incompetence are often in close proximity.
I adore authors who can take an ostensibly 'ordinary' character and, without crime sprees or plane crashes, expose the drama in his everyday life, whether internal or external. Great fiction needn't be thrilling. Quirky will do quite nicely, just as in life.
One of our better-known novelists once described the experience of reading a Fitzgerald novel as riding along in a top-quality car, only to find that after a mile or so, "someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window".  
Barnes penned three essays on Ford Madox Ford and his books.  Ford is another author whom I haven't yet read.  I 'met' him in the semi-autobiographical novels of Jean Rhys -- she'd carried on an alternately torrid and sordid and disastrous affair with Ford, husband of her best friend. His character in her books is, not surprisingly, a boor.  He comes across a wee bit better in Barnes' essays, which focus instead on Ford's love affair with southern France.
"There are in this world only two earthly Paradises ... Provence... and the Reading Room of the British Museum." Provence was not only itself, but also the absence of the North, where most human vices accumulated. The North meant aggression, the Gothic, the "sadistically mad cruelties of the Northern Middle Ages" and the "Northern tortures of ennui and indigestion". Ford was a great believer in diet and digestion as controllers of human behaviour...
...South good, North bad: Ford was convinced that no one could be "completely whole either physically or mentally" without "a reasonable amount of garlic" in their diet, and equally obsessed with the malign effect of Brussels sprouts, an item of particular northern mischief. Provence was a place of good thoughts and moral actions, "for there the apple will not flourish and the Brussels sprout will not grow at all". The North was also full of excessive meat-eating, which caused not just indigestion but lunacy: "Any alienist will tell you that the first thing he does with a homicidal maniac after he gets him into an asylum is to deliver, with immense purges, his stomach from bull-beef and Brussels sprouts."
Ford sincerely embraced this philosophy, the values embedded in Proven├žal life. He saw himself not as a geographical writer, but as a prophet, and Barnes shares this lofty vision.
The old advice about cultivating one's garden was always moral as well as practical; nor was it a counsel of quietism. As human beings recklessly use up the world's resources and despoil the planet, as the follies of globalisation become more apparent, as we head towards what could be the biggest smash of all, the wisdom and the way of living that Ford Madox Ford -- literature's good soldier -- found in Provence are perhaps even more worth attending to.
In the essay 'France's Kipling', Barnes points out that the British author is usually associated with India and Burma, but he also had a cordial relationship with France at a time when the two chronically antagonistic nations were in a relatively civil state. This description of one squabble between them seems quaintly polite, supremely Kiplingesque.
The Fashoda Incident had recently brought the two powers to the edge of intercolonial war. To the British, Fashoda was and remains just a strange place name at or beyond the margins of memory; to the French, an event hugely magnified by propaganda and lost pride. In July 1898, eight French and 120 Senegalese soldiers arrived at a ruined fort on the Sudanese Upper Nile, having spent two years crossing the continent to get there (Frenchly, they set off equipped with 1,300 litres of claret, 50 bottles of Pernod and a mechanical piano). They raised the tricolore and planted a garden. Their main purpose was to annoy the British, and they did, a little: Kitchener turned up with a sizeable force and advised them to leave. He also gave them copies of French newspapers, in which they read of the Dreyfus case and wept. The two sides fraternised, the matter was handed over to the politicians, and six months later a British band played the Marseillaise as the French withdrew. No one was hurt, let alone killed.
The essay 'Translating Madame Bovary' is one of the most thought-provoking pieces on the topic of literary translations that I've yet read. If you think writing a book is a monumental task, Barnes suggests, try translating one.
John Rutherford's magisterial version of Leopoldo Alas's La Regenta -- a kind of Spanish Bovary -- used up, according to his calculation, five times as much of his life as it had of the original author's. "Translation is a strange business," he noted in his introduction, "which sensible people no doubt avoid."
Lydia Davis, one of the Bovary translators, defended her occasionally awkward English phrasing on the grounds that it was the more precise translation. Barnes takes exception to this, seeming to suggest that some precision can be sacrificed to retain the lyrical flow of the French prose.
This is the paradox and bind of translation. If to be 'faithful' is to be 'clunky', then it is also to be unfaithful, because Flaubert was not a 'clunky' writer. He moves between registers; he cuts into the lyric with the prosaic; but this is language whose every sentence, word, syllable has been tested aloud again and again. Flaubert said that a line of prose should be as rhythmical, sonorous and unchangeable as a line of poetry. He said that he aimed only at beauty, and wrote Madame Bovary because he hated realism (an exasperated, self-deluding claim, but still). He said that prose is like hair: it shines with combing. He combed all the time.
Translators of contemporary fiction have it easier in that they can confer with the authors to clarify certain intentions and nuances, but there is still no shortage of stumbling blocks.
Nowadays, at least, books are generally translated with less of a time lag (La Regenta was first published in 1884-5, and not rendered into English until 1984). Translators can quiz writers about what they mean, by email, or even in person: Don Delillo had a London conference for his European translators of Underworld, whose problems began as the novel does: with a sixty-page baseball game.
I was thrilled to arrive at the essay, 'Wharton's The Reef'.  I wish I had written it, rather than this comparatively fatuous commentary. Barnes identifies the novels key themes and tags them with key words:  natural, veil, life, house, luck, reef and silence.  Under the heading of 'natural', Barnes discusses the qualities of nature vs. society. This is classic Edith Wharton territory.
Her initial and prime effect is to show up the world of Darrow and Anna in all its evasive formality; it makes him reflect on "the deadening process of forming a 'lady'" in good society. Travelling to Paris on the train with Sophy, Darrow indicates the term which is the novel's polar opposite to "naturalness". Had he been in the same compartment and circumstances with Anna, he decides, she would not have been so restless and talkative; she would have behaved "better" than Sophy, "but her adaptability, her appropriateness, would not have been nature but 'tact'". Sophy strikes him as having the naturalness of "a dryad in a dew-drenched forest"; but -- regrettably, or fortunately -- we no longer live in forests, and "Darrow reflected that mankind would never have needed to invent tact if it had not first invented social complications".
Somehow I've managed to read quite a number of John Updike's books dodging the three Rabbit novels the whole time.  (This is by chance, not intent.)  Barnes' essay 'Remembering John Updike, Remembering Rabbit' was a prod to remedy this gap. If Updike's skill can drive Philip Roth to quit writing, he can certainly dissuade me from even trying!
Philip Roth, with memorably mock-aggrieved generosity, said of Rabbit is Rich: "Updike knows so much, about golf, about porn, about kids, about America. I don't know anything about anything. His hero is a Toyota salesman. Updike knows everything about being a Toyota salesman. Here I live in the country and I don't even know the names of the trees. I'm going to give up writing."
It takes more, though, than attention to the details of car salesmanship to build a classic novel. There has to be access to deeper truths. Updike is one of few authors who can merge the ridiculous with the sublime to powerful effect.
And after death? Harry's intimations, not of immortality, but of the numinous, show up more clearly on rereading. Updike said that he couldn't quite give up on religion, because without the possibility or dream of something beyond and above, our terrestrial life became unendurable.
The final essay in Through the Window is the most visceral, the most personal.  "Regulating Sorrow" is the prelude to Mr. Barnes' latest book, Levels of Life, his account of life following the death of his wife. A review in the Guardian suggests that Levels of Life is a book to re-read, re-read and re-read, and that is true of the essay, as well. Like Updike, Barnes veers between philosophy and the excruciatingly immediate and personal manifestations of grief. I have often thought about the distance at which many of us hold death, almost as if it might be an optional event.
Unless we have a religious belief which envisages the total resurrection of the body, we know that we shall never see the lost loved again on terrestrial terms: never see, never talk and listen to, never touch, never hold. In the quarter of a millennium since Johnson described the unparalleled pain of grief, we -- we in the secularising West, at least -- have got less good at dealing with death, and therefore with its emotional consequences...
Of course, at one level we know that we all shall die; but death has come to be looked upon more as a medical failure than a human norm. It increasingly happens away from the home, in hospital, and is handled by a series of outside specialists -- a matter for the professionals.
Barnes, alongside Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates, both fine authors who have recently published accounts of grief, remarks that it is difficult, if not impossible, to critique these books. The writing style may show flaws, but they merely reflect the nature of the subject he says.
In some ways, autobiographical accounts of grief are un-falsifiable, and therefore unreviewable by any normal criteria. The book is repetitive? So is grief. The book is obsessive? So is grief. The book is at times incoherent? So is grief.
'Regulating Sorrow' is not obsessive, repetitive nor incoherent. Like the other essays, it is astute and moving, worthy of multiple re-readings.

Through the Window added books and authors to my to-be-read list -- Penelope Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Updike's Rabbit novels -- but also fired my appetite for more of Julian Barnes' own writing, including Flaubert's Parrot, Before She Met Me, Staring at the Sun, Talking It Over and its sequel, Love, Etc., and Nothing to Be Frightened Of. This isn't his complete list, of course, just the ones I'm most keen to read. I should keep a hand-written list. It would be fill a notebook of Moby Dick proportions and would be a good reminder to me that I should not waste time when I could be reading.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Who I Am, by Peter Townshend

And so we shift from A Pair of Blue Eyes to the man Behind Blue Eyes.

Celebrity autobiographies aren't generally my thing. For one thing, living in Malaysia and having no television, I rarely have any clue who these folks are, never mind why I'd want to read their accounts of their (no doubt scintillating) lives in cinema and theatre and the bedroom.  I do remember clearly, though, the day in 1978 when I first heard a song on the radio that all but blew me off my feet. A male singer screamed/shrieked/bellowed, "WHO ARE YOU?"  My thought: Well, I'm not altogether sure yet, but meanwhile, who are you?

The band was, of course, The Who.

Pete Townshend has, I suppose, earned the title of Rock Star Emeritus, or he would, if he'd ever retire. He and Roger Daltrey (the two surviving members of the original four) are on a Who tour as I write, and he's still writing solo work, as well.  Despite the band's controversial habit of smashing instruments on stage at the end of the show and wreaking frequent mayhem in hotels, Townshend's lyrics betray a fierce, sensitive intelligence.

I admire the openness with which Townshend tells his life story. The book has a very level, factual tone, giving himself credit when its due and confessing his shortcomings in a gently self-deprecating way. He's equally gentle in his treatment of others. When talking about a life with such manic peaks and dives, this is an achievement.

In the 1950s, when the four young men got together, Pete Townshend was a  gawky, insecure teen-ager. As the band's fame and success grew, he often seemed bewildered by the fans' adulation. He married with the intention of remaining faithful to his wife, hordes of groupies notwithstanding, and often struggled with the conflicts between his career and his family. When not on the road, he was most often working long hours in the studio. Times of heavy substance abuse alternated with long periods of sobriety.

Who I Am is an autobiography of the artist, but also a biography of his music. I first heard Tommy, the first rock opera, in the late 1970s, a decade after its release. I didn't grasp then what a landmark it had been -- the first rock song cycle with a plot, a theme, a story tying the music together -- I just loved the music. In this book, Townshend gives the context -- the Who played to the generation that had reached adulthood at the end of WWII, whose parents had survived (or not) the Blitz, listening to their jazz for solace and cheer, to the Queen and Churchill for strength. There is a sense of flailing in the next generation (My Generation, as an early Who anthem puts it). Their roles were less clearly defined, their heroes few if any.

The opera about the deaf, dumb & blind boy who wows the crowds as the Pinball Wizard and becomes a prophet in his own right spoke to the younger generation's confusion.  When Ken Russell began production of the film, Townshend's reservations speak eloquently of his own vision.
I realised that Ken had missed a key point at the heart of my rock opera: that it spoke of the end of dictators and self-created messiahs. Somehow Russell, eighteen years older than we were, was operating on the far side of the generational divide. He knew the rigours of war first-hand: he had been bombed, blitzed, and had performed military service in both the Royal Air Force and the post-war merchant navy. But he had little sense of the next generation's post-war shame and anger, or the way our parents' denial of those feelings might need to be confronted by us, and cast aside.
It struck me that The Who was a partnership of four equals, each with his own musical and character strengths, and each leading the band in a different regard. Being professional performers, they also boasted four significant egos, which makes the band's longevity even more astonishing. It seems that each of them deeply appreciated what the others contributed to the whole. After Keith Moon's death, Roger Daltrey complained that the replacement drummer couldn't intuit his needs as Moon had. The "quiet" John Entwistle laid down innovative and driving bass lines that lifted Townshend's lead guitar riffs off the ground. Watching this quartet -- much like a family -- evolve over the years was fascinating.
Roger arrived in a twin-engined Jet Ranger helicopter, and announced that he owned it. Thirty minutes later he flew out again. Roger's home was in West Sussex, so the helicopter was certainly useful, but we all found it strange. With the release of the movie Roger had become ostentatiously rich, a superstar teenybopper sex object, complete with helicopter. Keith was clearly jealous -- the two of them seemed to compete over such mine-is-bigger-than-yours displays. He gazed at Roger's helicopter dwindling in the distance, and I could tell he longed for something equally impressive. Did I long for anything? I was longing for my hair to stop receding.
The amount of time Pete Townshend spent and spends at work, especially in the days before digital recording, is stunning.  His descriptions of the many studios he designed for himself and The Who drove home the point that he has always been an innovator, quick to try new technologies, fearless of investing a fortune in the process. His workaholism was central to the failure of his marriage, but it's a compulsion that he's been unable to control, sadly watching as his beloved wife and daughters receded into the distance. His energy to break new ground is awe-inspiring, and Who I Am provided a time-line of Townshend's creative life to date. His solo career has been every bit as vital as that with The Who.  

Some of us fans have welcomed his metamorphoses more than others. There are still goons who bellow demands that he smash his guitar.  Fortunately for the rest of us, he doesn't seem to oblige them much nowadays. To one critic, Townshend makes plain that although some of his fans might appreciate his stagnation, he's not about to oblige them.
"You've gone all whiter than white and squeaky clean," he said. "Your fans don't know who you are any more." Had they ever known? Even now I'm still trying to find out who I am.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Pair of Blue Eyes, by Thomas Hardy


I was one of those inordinately strange children who loved reading Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Stranger in secondary school.  I timidly mentioned that to a friend whom I'd always taken to be equally eccentric and was thrown off balance when he replied, "No! Not really? You're joking, right?"

This fellow had the tact and good sense to redirect the conversation quickly, and he asked if I'd read A Pair of Blue Eyes, which was said to be Hardy's own favourite of his novels.
Evidently the critics have not been as enamoured of this novel as its author was, but I still enjoyed it tremendously.  Elfride Swancourt is a vivid, strikingly modern heroine, and her concerns and reactions ring true to me today. She is a sharp-minded, reasonably educated young woman who lives with her pastor father in a small village in the west of England. Critics have written this novel off as melodrama, but when you have a good female mind stuck in a small town, there is bound to be drama, much of it inside the unfortunate woman's own head.  Hardy captures beautifully Elfride's eagerness to connect with intelligent people -- by circumstance nearly all men -- who pass through the village and the sometimes unfortunate results when she does so.

First arrives the young Stephen Smith, an angel-faced architect's assistant come to look at the village church in preparation for repairs.  Smith is quickly enamoured of Elfride, startled by her intelligence and beauty. He begins to court her avidly. At first she holds him at arm's length but eventually gives in to his effusive wooing.  The catch? He finally reveals that he is the son of the local stonemason, gone up to London to try and make a good career for himself but still of no exalted bloodlines. He and Elfride realise that her father is unlikely to sanction their marriage. Elfride tries to reason with her father, expressing the belief that Stephen's aptitude is what counts. Her father, initially very fond of Smith, will have none of it and finds every reason -- including the young man's distaste for gravy -- to discount the suitor.
'Professional men in London,' Elfride argued, 'don't know anything about their clerks' fathers and mothers. They have assistants who come to their offices and shops for years, and hardly even know where they live. What they can do -- what profits they can bring the firm -- that's all London men care about. And that is helped in him by his faculty of being uniformly pleasant.'
'Uniform pleasantness is rather a defect than a faculty. It shows that a man hasn't sense enough to know whom to despise.'
'It shows that he acts by faith and not by sight, as those you claim succession from directed.'
'That's some more of what he's been telling you, I suppose! Yes, I was inclined to suspect him, because he didn't care about sauces of any kind. I always did doubt a man's being a gentleman if his palate had no acquired tastes. An unedified palate is the irrepressible cloven foot of the upstart...'
After a secret and failed attempt to elope, the couple returns. Elfride commits herself to wait patiently while Stephen goes off to India to build his fortune and reputation.  Meanwhile, her father marries a witty, wealthy and perceptive widow who becomes Elfride's mentor and confidante. Here too it strikes me that Hardy's women are much more realistically complex characters than his men.  Step-mum makes Elfride's father look like a rigid and self-absorbed fuddy-duddy.  She encourages Elfride to complete and publish the historical novel she's been working on for years.

Some time later, a negative review of the book comes to Elfride's attention. Her stepmother minimises the criticism and highlights the complimentary bits, ultimately encouraging the young woman to write to the reviewer, which she does. The reviewer, it turns out, is not only the stepmother's nephew, but also Stephen Smith's former tutor.  At his aunt's invitation, Henry Knight comes to the village to visit his aunt and to meet the young author. Elfride's anger and wounded pride give way to admiration for Knight's erudition and confidence, which at times comes across only as arid pomposity.  She sees in him a man who is older and more accomplished than Stephen, and harder to impress.

Their exchange about her future as an author tells worlds about both of them. It reveals him as a somewhat prudish man with very rigid ideas about a woman's place. The fact that Elfride does not dismiss him out of hand reveals her own openness of mind.
'You may do better next time,' he said placidly: 'I think you will. But I would advise you to confine yourself to domestic scenes.'
'Thank you. But never again!'
'Well, you may be right. That a young woman has taken to writing is not by any means the best thing to hear about her.'
'What is the best?'
'I prefer not to say.'
'Do you know? Then, do tell me, please.'
'Well -- (Knight was evidently changing his meaning) -- I suppose to hear that she has married.'
Elfride hesitated. 'And what when she has been married?' she said at last, partly in order to withdraw her own person from the argument.
'Then to hear no more about her. It is as Smeaton said of his lighthouse: her greatest real praise, when the novelty of her inauguration has worn off, is that nothing happens to keep the talk of her alive.'
Elfride becomes enamoured of Knight, and despite his rational thoughts on the matter, the attraction is mutual. Stephen Smith returns from India to find his love engaged to his former tutor. Eventually, however, Knight learns of Elfride's previous relationship and blanches to think she had kissed another before him, shattering his delusion that he was her first love, which was blindly based upon the fact that he had not kissed a woman before, despite being many years older. Unable to bear his disappointment that she has kissed others before him, the cowardly Knight flees the household without a word, leaving Elfride distraught.

Too late, he realises that Elfride's social 'indiscretions' were the result of her propensity to wear her heart on her sleeve. But it is too late, for both of them.
...the unreserve, which was really artlessness without ballast, meant indifference to decorum; and what so likely as that such a woman had been deceived in the past? He said to himself, in a mood of the bitterest cynicism: 'The suspicious discreet woman who imagines dark and evil things of all her fellow-creatures is far too shrewd to be deluded by man: trusting beings like Elfride are the women who fall.'
Her two suitors are such classic male stereotypes:  Stephen Smith blindly worships Elfride, placing her on an unreasonably elevated pedestal. Henry Knight persists in seeing her as the virgin in her pastoral tower, never having been courted until he arrived.  Poor Elfride! She was so exuberant and open, and they still failed to see her clearly.