Sunday, September 28, 2014

Dostoevsky's Demons (background)

Sometimes I find it hard to get chronology correct, particularly when I am looking into when an author wrote certain works.  And this gets more muddled the further I am going from my own time and culture.  As a prime example, it feels to me that Demons sort of prefigures Crime and Punishment, and that Dostoevsky was "working up" to Crime and Punishment, though in fact Crime and Punishment was the earlier work and any connections between the two are deliberate or unconscious echoes in Demons.

I suppose I am imposing my (limited) knowledge of Dostoevsky's life onto his work and assuming that the pattern holds -- he got involved to some degree with progressive or utopian groups considered deelpy "subversive," he was caught and went through a mock execution (which many felt worsened his epilepsy), he was exiled to Siberia for 8 years and only later was he allowed to return and granted permission to publish his various works.  Thus, the logical order of the books might be something like Demons (all about the mischief caused by self-proclaimed revolutionaries), Crime and Punishment (where one could argue that Raskolnikov ultimately welcomes being caught and paying for his crimes with exile) and Memoirs from the House of the Dead (a lightly fictionalized treatment of his exile in Siberia).

However, the order is exactly the reverse, so one might say that Dostoevsky was sort of processing through his life traumas backwards, though certainly starting with the painful outcome of his "crimes" (i.e. exile in Siberia) and then moving to the root causes.  While one can definitely see some strong echoes of Memoirs from the House of the Dead in Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn doesn't really put forward the idea that there is redemption in suffering, as he never accepted the notion that he was at all to blame, whereas Dostoevsky does internalize his "guilt" to a considerable extent.  After his return from exile, Dostoevsky rejects completely (as far as I can tell) his former political vision.  He actually turns against Turgenev, who was still accepted in progressive circles, and there is quite the poison-pen portrait of Turgenev in Demons (the vain writer Karmazinov).  His works do carry a tinge of mysticism about them and the most foolish characters are generally the ones who continue to reject religion.  This may be why Isaiah Berlin never really takes a shine to him and discusses him only briefly in Russian Thinkers (largely dismissing him*), though he has a lot to say about Tolstoy, who basically strikes me as having the same sort of religious leanings as Dostoevsky and one who suffered far less for his political views.  I still have a ways to go in Russian Thinkers, and I'll certainly be returning to this general theme of how political many of these great Russian novels really are.

This post is going astray to the point that I think I'll break it in half and write the actual review of Demons in the second half, which I should be able to get to tonight (famous last words!).  Anyway, in the introduction, Pevear argues that this is one of the five great novels upon which Dostoevsky's fame rests. (I should note that until fairly recently Demons was more frequently translated as The Possessed.)  The other three are clearly Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot (as it happens I don't rate The Idiot at all but many others do).  I'm pretty sure they don't mean The Adolescent (or Raw Youth).  Despite Pevear's spirited defense of it in their recent translation, it has pretty much always been classified as a minor work. I think he must have meant either Notes from Underground or The Gambler, and probably the former.**  It doesn't really matter, but I am just curious.

Next week I am going to tackle The Double for what I believe is the first time (though first reading some of the stories by Gogol that inspired Dostoevesky to write The Double) as well as The Gambler.  Looking over the list of major and semi-major works by Dostoevsky, that would only leave a few left which I have never read before:
Poor Folks
The Landlady (which I may well skip)
Uncle's Dream
The Village of Stepanchikovo (or The Friend of the Family)
The Insulted and Humiliated
X The Eternal Husband
The Adolescent

Now I don't really feel I have to read all of these, or indeed perhaps any of them, but if I do, I will probably try to end on The Eternal Husband or The Insulted and Humiliated rather than with The Adolescent (which pace Pevear still strikes me as fairly minor).  In any case, I think my time would be somewhat better spent in rereading Crime and Punishment (tentatively slated for 2015) and The Brothers Karamazov (not yet put back into queue) and certainly reading Tolstoy's War and Peace for the first time, and only then would I consider these somewhat secondary works.  But of course, it is so hard to tell.  I ended up liking Demons quite a bit, though its impact would have been greater had I read it a bit earlier (and certainly at a time when I could have gotten through it in a week or two rather than stretched out to close to a month!).  So the proper review is yet to follow, but I have quite a bit planned for this afternoon, so I have to go.

* I really wonder if it is that fact Berlin is on "Team Ivan (Turgenev)" and not on "Team Fyodor" that makes him appear so dismissive of Dostoevsky.  Anyway, the more typically asked question is Dostoevsky vs. Tolstoy.  There are some quite interesting comments here, including the bon mot that Dostoevsky is for adolescence and Tolstoy for adulthood.  This is naturally insulting, but I suppose there is some truth in it.  I did read a fair bit of Dostoevsky in my teen years (and Fathers and Sons) but almost no Tolstoy, and that did shape me (aside from the religious frenzy one finds periodically in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov) to the point where I naturally still side with Dostoevsky.  You get them young, and they can never escape that influence.  It's probably for the best that in my teens I was unaware of the spat between Dostoevsky and Turgenev.

** Upon rereading that is exactly what he means -- that The Adolescent is ranked among Dostoevsky's best 5 novels, though I think this is only in Pevear's imagination.

Before there were blogs, pt. 2 (teaser only)

I guess this is truly just a teaser, but it is so disappointing to find that the scanning is so hit or miss.  On the last attempt it went through pretty cleanly.  This time around -- a quite lengthy discussion of what it was like to be a teacher in Newark as the state was preparing to take over, mixed in with a discussion of a poetry reading I was involved in and some slightly shorter discussions of poets I was reading at the time -- absolutely none of it was processed through the OCR conversion process.  I'm glad I have it down.  I remember doing these things, but through a veil.  Reading what I wrote at the time makes it return so much more vividly (and of course I wish I had written even more about those times). While I can certainly retype all of it, I wonder if it is worth trying to track down the old hard drive that had my Mac files (I was still using a Mac at that time) and if any of that was converted over.  The good news is that I can still read the scan perfectly well, and I'm still a fairly good typist (I actually made a pretty good living as a temp in my summers off and then for a whole year between University of Toronto and Northwestern University).  But it is a lot of typing, and I am definitely not up for that tonight.  I will come back to this in a week or so (if I haven't turned up the old files) and then I'll post the full account from the journal.  So stay tuned.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Beethoven the Revolutionary

I have to admit my thoughts on Beethoven are fairly routine, not going much deeper than he was great.  But in fact he was probably more influential than Mozart in terms of shaping the classical music tradition.  I learned only a year ago that he was perhaps the prime mover in coming up with the orchestral concertos in their current form.  Previously, you had the soloist state a theme and then the orchestra would follow and there was relatively little interaction between the two.  This started to change around his Piano Concerto #4 and really took off in Piano Concerto #5 where the soloist and orchestra may play different themes and certainly play quite different melodies at the same time.  I received these pearls of wisdom at a pre-concert talk last season (when I managed to make the entire Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle).  In fact, over the past 3 years, I've seen his piano concerto #5 three times.  I had yet another opportunity this November, but really something had to give.  I will see be seeing piano concertos #3 and #4 paired with two 2 Nielsen symphonies (#2 and #4), so that should be fun.

The fall arts season has started with a vengeance.  This week is Culture Weekend with a number of free museums open to the public.  (Sadly I'm pretty wiped out from work so I may just rest tomorrow, but I plan on taking the kids or at least my son to the Gardiner on Sunday.)  The following weekend is Nuit Blanche, though I may be so overbooked with theatre, that I skip it.  And then we'll be in Chicago for a weekend! So far I've only gotten my tickets to the TSO, but I'll probably be booking a few other things very quickly before the sell out (the Yo-Yo Ma concert at TSO in late May is definitely going to be one hot ticket).  (Actually, I did get tickets to Stevie Wonder for late November, and they weren't actually that hard to come by.)

So far, in terms of chestnuts, it is looking like 2 Beethoven symphonies (#7 and #9), 2 Beethoven piano concertos, Dvorak's 8th Symphony (getting to the 9th may just be too difficult this year), Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony and probably Vivaldi's Four Seasons.  Slightly less frequently performed, there is Brahms' Double Concerto and Elgar's Enigma Variations, which I heard done quite well last year at the VSO.  It doesn't look like any Prokofiev this year (last season the VSO did a rousing version of Prokofiev's Symphony 5).  And maybe just a single Shostakovich symphony, so maybe the interest in him is fading just a bit from a peak a couple of years ago.  Now I do have the opportunity to see Shostakovich's piano quintet, which I'd like to see but just comes in the middle of a huge number of concerts, so a little restraint is in order.  (I'm pretty sure I saw the Vogler Quartet do this in Vancouver last season -- I mean if I can work it in, I'll see.)  One that is sort of tempting, but a bit overpriced is Tafelmusik doing Beethoven's Symphony 5 (and Beethoven's Mass in C Major).  While I'm sure they will do a fantastic job, it just seems a bit of a cash cow, since it isn't really the music that Tafelmusik really specializes in.  Still, if I want to hear Beethoven's 5th this season, I think it is my only chance (unless the Casa Loma orchestra pops up again).  I do have a more traditional Tafelmusik event on my calendar for April, and that should be fun.

As I was trying to look up some of this information, I found out that the Pacifica Quartet is going to be putting on an awesome concert in Vancouver in mid Jan (2015) with Dvorak's Piano Quintet and Shostakovich's 9th String Quartet, and I would strongly encourage anyone vaguely interested to go.  However, I can't even get jealous -- or regret for a minute that I am here -- as I will probably be in Washington D.C. on that date anyway.  I've also seen Pacifica do both pieces: the Shostakovich as part of their amazing Shostakovich cycle and then the Dvorak all the way back in 2000, just before they really made it big.  (It would be great if Pacifica makes a tour through Toronto, though it won't happen this season.)  I've only seen Dvorak's 8th Symphony 2 or 3 times (last month at Casa Loma and in 2011 the VSO paired it with Shostkovich's Cello Concerto 2!) but the 9th Symphony at least 5 times, including the VSO in 2013, in Prague and 3 times with the CSO!).  So while I do hope to see it again fairly soon, I probably don't have to knock myself out this season.

Ok, so to get back to tonight, I was at the TSO to see Beethoven's 9th Symphony.  I'm pretty sure I've only seen it one time previously, as I've always been scared off by the length.  At any rate, the conductor, Peter Oundjian, gave a few pointers on things to watch for, particularly how the cellos and basses are almost in a recitative with the rest of the orchestra at the start of the 4th movement.  It turns out that Beethoven was essentially the first composer to fuse voices in symphonic form, something later picked up Mahler.  So quite the musical revolutionary.

My seat was kind of strange, basically hanging over the side of the stage and overlooking the symphony, though the sound was still decent and not too unbalanced.  Fortunately, the other seats in my subscription are a bit further back and slightly more centered.  I was right on top of the cellos (I don't know if they will always have them reversed or if this was just for Beethoven) and could really see what Oundjian meant about the start of the 4th.  There was one major advantage in being that far up and that was how close I was to the Mendelssohn Choir, which meant being surrounded by voices throughout the 4th movement.  It's really hard to describe how overwhelming it was (but in a good way).  I doubt I will ever feel the symphony that viscerally again.  It was definitely an experience.  And with that, I think it is finally time for bed.  It has been a super-long week.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Before there were blogs, pt. 1

I think I mentioned that I have been scanning old journal entries.  This is actually a very backward way to do things, since these were Word documents to begin with, though I am not entirely sure I can find the originals.  That is a project for next summer, I think.  Anyway, it is somewhat perverse to have to take the printed output, which fortunately I did save, and then scan it back in and ultimately translate it back into a text file.  This doesn't work quite as well as I would like for some of the ones where everything was single spaced.  It is just a massive block of text that I need to clean up.

While I don't have any intention of putting everything up, it has been most interesting peeking back into my thoughts from over 20 years ago.  I was stressed over work (not much has changed) and taking in a lot of culture and staying up too late and then paying for it the next day at work.  The only main difference is then I was staying up reading poetry and novels, and now I am staying up to catch up with work, though to be fair I do some blogging and putzing around on the internet.  I'm slowly getting better, particularly after using LeechBlock to lock myself out of some of the worst time-wasters.  If I ever do complete the Toronto novel (which I think I shall do) and there is call for the sequel (which is pretty unlikely), I can definitely switch the chronology around just a bit and have the protagonist, after his departure from Toronto, living a very lonely life (with just a small dog for company) in Newark's East Side (also called the Ironbound).  (One minor joke is that the main character is allergic to cats, so would have a dog instead, whereas I am not a dog person by any measure.)  He won't read nearly as much as I do (or did back then), but a lot of the other bits of daily life that are in the journal (or are sparked by reading the journal) can make their way into the book.   Things like the very peculiar nature of the Ironbound where tenants are responsible for buying their own refrigerator (no joke -- that's how it was 20 years ago).

I've added just a few comments in brackets {} where appropriate.

This journal entry is from 1992 when the internet was still in its infancy.  We had limited email, and I mostly was writing letters to classmates from university.  There were no browsers (Lynx rolled out six months later, though I didn't see it until late 1993) and blogs as such didn't exist.  If I do post more material from the Dark Ages, I'll generally try to keep to posts that have useful reviews that I still agree with (to the extent I even remember the book I am discussing...).

Jan. 5 1992

Waiting for the PATH again. Should be about 10 more minutes. There we go. I finally got the pen to work. This is the first time I try to go to New York in ’92. I guess there’s something comforting about the routine. Now walking about in New York after dark (in some sections) is comparable to walking about in the Ironbound. I just realized that I don’t even have my maps of New York today. I plan on seeing if the Strand is open and getting that M.C. Escher calendar. Then I’ll check out Tower Records and Mercer St Books. I’d rather not buy anything as I can’t exactly afford it (though I can) though I expect that I’ll probably get music, especially if that Talking Heads CD is in. {Probably Sand in the Vaseline.}

Todd was being an asshole today again. I guess I’d hoped for more after last week and his repeated avowals to pay more attention to friends. … So I went to New York after all and didn’t bother to call Todd. There is no point; I’m too dependent on him anyway.

On the way to the station, I was stopped twice. A “homeless” man asked for some change. I was somewhat irritated, but I gave it to him. I think whenever one gets into a conversation or even a partial conversation with a mendicant, one is lost. I really don’t remember what he said. If I don’t want to give money I can’t stop. I have to act like in my poem where I wrenched myself away from two or three men. (I actually did that in Ann Arbor. I’m not sure I would dare in New York.)

Then I got stopped by some canvassing environmentalists. They weren’t linked with NJPirg but were pushing for some kind of clean water bill going through Trenton. They asked me if I spoke English – Yes. Unfortunately for them I don’t speak Portuguese. They wanted to know the Portuguese word for water - I have no idea. I could tell them that it is agua in Spanish, which I think they already knew, and in French l’eau (though I had to think much harder that I would have wanted to come up with that).

Well the trip went as planned. I got the calendar and only two other books: the last ones I needed to complete Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence. I am really not sure how interested I even am in the series, but I am so compulsive that I had to finish {buying} it. I imagine that I will find it fascinating once I start it, whenever that is, just like I got drawn to The Diary of Jane Somers and The Golden Notebook. I ended up getting the Traffic set; I didn’t ask about the Talking Heads, as I didn’t like the looks of the guy standing behind the information desk. Finally, at Mercer St Books, I restrained myself and only got a book by Julio Cortazar.

{I can't believe that I owned this whole set and then must have given it up to prepare for my move to Toronto without even cracking the spine of Martha Quest. Eliot's books has a decent price for the first four, and -- assuming I can clear out a few books -- I may succumb. At any rate, I returned to the theme of books at the end of the month (Jan 27) with a vengeance. I had read 97(!) books in five months while starting my job as a teacher in Newark, which naturally led to me not being able to remember many of them, even then and certainly today over 20 years later. Here are some of the more interesting remarks I made back then about the literature I wanted to fix in my memory (apparently not that successfully…).}

Revolutionary Letters. Diane DiPrima. Reasonably childish & terribly strident. Still a good example of the poetry coming out of the 60s. Revolutionaries are unfortunately not very poetic and take things too far. I had always wondered why she had left most of these out of her Selected Poems and I think I understand now. I especially didn’t appreciate it when she said that all teachers must be done away with along with anything vaguely mechanical. She was writing like one of those survivalist freaks, but unlike Gary Snyder, I don’t think she ever actually withdrew from society. I xeroxed one poem just because it was too much: Free all political prisoners/All prisoners are political prisoners… She goes on for quite some time like that about how murderers and even rapists are political prisoners. Poems like that offend even me {with my leftist leanings}. Her poetry then strikes me as very bad Ginsberg and not terribly compelling, though she of course did write a few good poems in the bunch, particularly the one about Newark. (She was linked with Amiri Baraka for a while in the 60s.) Enough about her.

In Memory of Fire (Origins, Faces and Masks, and Century of the Wind). Eduardo Galleano This I liked quite a bit. I’m hoping I can finally find it used or maybe they will combine all three volumes. This was the series that Jenny Van Valey (Ann Arbor campus radical and family friend) kept urging me to read. I really did enjoy it. Galleano would take little bits of history, primarily of Latin and South America, and put them together in a montage. It is all factual, though occasionally dramatized like the mini portraits of Lincoln or Rockefeller. It was easier for me to read the second two volumes, for I really was a follower of news in South America for a while (El Salvador and Nicaragua, etc.) and had a fair idea of what we the US has done. … Also, I remembered a bit about Father Hidalgo and Bolivar from middle school. Finally I read a good deal of South American literature that points out the deadly absurdity of life under rotating political regimes (I still haven’t read Garcia Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth yet though {I finally did in 2014!}). The first volume was largely Genesis myths and the coming of the conquistadors. All in all it was masterful, though certainly very leftist. Perhaps the best was Galleano’s way of writing about some of the “little people” and their reactions and struggle for survival. It’s called history from the bottom or Marxist history, and I’ve rarely seen it so mixed in with the major figures of history.

Dance Script with Electric Ballerina. Alice Fulton Pretty good. I’d get a copy if I found it used. Fulton is a pretty complicated poet, whose schemes go beyond the poem to organizing the book into certain sections. Sometimes I like the fact that her poems are not easy; sometimes I don’t. I didn’t particularly care for her second book, but I also read over it very quickly because I own it. She seems a poet that will take many rereadings and having been taught by Ken {Mikolowski}, I generally don’t value that. I do remember that the poems about her mother and other relatives were pretty good. I actually met her. She was poet in residence at Michigan and Angela took one of her classes. Angela was very much taken by her, but I thought it was a bit galling to assign one of your own books in a poetry course. I met her at the book signing at Shaman Drum, where Angela (gracefully?) explained I was one of her fellow poets. As to her third book, Powers of Congress, it looks pretty good but I just wasn’t up to reading it then. The title poem is very good, however. Whenever I feel ready, I’ll read that and reread Palladium, which I’ll surely like better with time. An example of her complicated style is in one very long poem in Powers (which I personally did not care for) that had comments written in the margins. It is hard to say exactly what they are. Angela says that Alice did not write them all herself. Ostensibly they are the notes that people made while the poem was being read at a workshop. There were all varieties of feedback ranging from hostile and somewhat chauvinistic to readers who liked the poem because some of the lines reminded her (?) of spending time with a brother … Anyway, I’ll write about Fulton again when I read Fulton again.

Paradise. Donald Barthelme. Humorous, implausible plot about three lingerie models who come to stay with an older architect. A good example of Barthelme’s style extended to novel length. The bizzare conversations between characters who may not be named. One of the highlights was the obligatory Q/A session, this time with a psychiatrist who became quite assertive and started talking about his own problems instead of Simon’s. Some of the language was very poetic, especially when discussing architecture. I’m sure I’ll talk more about Barthelme when I contrast the Barthelme brothers (in Nov.). {I don’t think I did ever read any Frederick Barthelme.}

{Nothing too serious, but some SPOILERS coming up.}

The Alexandria Quartet. Laurence Durrell Fantastic. Probably one of the best things I have ever read and certainly the best this fall. I imagine I’ll be writing more about it later, so I can hold off for a while. It has finally faded, but for nearly two months I could remember the setting better than whatever book I was reading at the time. It is quite post-modern. The writer of the notes, who really is not identified until Mountolive, flips around between the past and present, which is not so different from The Good Soldier, which I also loved. However, he is writing of his relationship with Justine and he has in his possession a book written by her former husband who also was writing about her though under a false name. So within Justine are generous sections of the other book. That does not do justice to the many other characters who are extremely vivid, especially Scobie, an old Englishman who occasionally gives in to transvestism.

Where the scheme gets complicated is in the second book. The author of the notes sends his book to Balthazar, a homosexual and leader of a Cabbalistic discussion group is the best way to put it. He sends back the book with many notes and emendations and basically says that nothing in Justine was actually that way. Justine had an affair with him because she was actually in love with another novelist, but nobody could tell him at the time. The enormous upheavals and reversals are highly reminiscent of The Good Soldier. The author by this time is on an island with the child of his mistress by the husband of Justine (his mistress had died in childbirth). He rethinks the past with this new information and writes a great deal more about the other author, who was mostly a minor figure in Justine.

The third book, Mountolive, is much more about political intrigue then passion and mutual destruction. The author of the other books is much less important. Justine has different motives for loving both authors than either the author or Balthazar suspect. She actually loves her husband because of his scheme to send arms to Palestine to try to found a Jewish state (Justine is Jewish) in order that the Muslims of Egypt pay more attention to outsiders than persecuting the Coptic Christians. Justine is mostly entranced by the scope of his vision. The other author commits suicide for a variety of reasons (most think because he feels he is betraying Justine and her husband by finally reporting their plans to David Mountolive, the British Ambassador) but mostly because he is terribly in love with his sister, who will finally become Mountolive’s wife.

It is certainly a complicated series and one of its distinguishing features is that the first three books basically occur simultaneously. They are different perspectives of various events all occurring at the same chronological time. Justine and Balthazar are the two most closely linked. The last book is in some ways a sequel to the others. The author returns from the island and learns the story of Clea, who was an artist also in love with Justine. Both have grown and Clea accepts the author into her life as a lover. Justine we find is in Israel. I think it is in this final book that there is a fantastic description of St. Scobie’s shrine -- it is his bathtub.

... The one other book I was thinking about as I read Justine was Waiting for the End of the World by Madison Smartt Bell. I’m not exactly sure why, perhaps the slightly spooky atmosphere and the self-destructive nature of many of the characters. That was one of the best books I read over the summer, so it’s natural I should want to find some connections {to other things I’ve read}.

{Just a few final thoughts. I certainly had a fairly rigorous reading program, and it got more regimented in my second year in Newark where I read Pym, Greene and Bellow, though I failed at adding Dickens into the mix. The few books that really made a big impression on me -- The Alexandria Quartet, The Good Soldier and Waiting for the End of the World -- do remain major favourites of mine, and which I still hold out hope of rereading some day.}

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Making lemonade

Well, this could be about the lemonade stand that my daughter is always asking to set up.  I'm hoping that a stint in the Brownies selling cookies will sate her entrepreneurial desires.  (I hated having to shill for products, but she thinks that being cute will be sufficient, particularly given the cookies are tasty.  She's probably right.)  If I really am in a good mood, I'll help her set up a stand next summer.

Anyway, no this is about "making lemonade when life gives you lemons."  Despite being pretty good at recovering when life throws curves at me, I've never liked this phrase much.  I also don't take these set-backs in a spirit of good grace, which is at least partially implied by the phrase.

I'll give a quick rundown of the weekend so far.  My wife is a bit under the weather and my son is getting fairly sick.  So taking them around on a visit to Fort York was pretty much out of the question.  I decided that I would swing by anyway, since I also wanted to check out this literary festival in Queen's Park.  Also, there was a band playing called Autorickshaw.  They sounded pretty interesting, and there is a droll connection with one of my nearly finished plays where I gave an Asian improv group the name Friday Night Rickshaw Race.  (I'm starting to think this might be a bad idea because it is a bit of a stretch for the main character to be involved in a sketch comedy group -- it definitely seems out of character.  I mostly did it on the basis of getting a punch line into the script, and also because actors so often love going meta, i.e. performing lines about being actors.  I definitely will want to blog some day about the pros and cons of writing a play with a specific ensemble in mind.)  While I had briefly considered just taking my daughter with me, I was quite sure she wouldn't want to listen to the band.

So I swung by the library, then caught the Queen streetcar to Bathurst. It was a drag how few restaurants were open at 11 there, but I ran into Tim Hortons.  My luck held, as the line got really long right after I placed my order.  Then I took a short streetcar ride to the Fort.  I was actually almost 45 minutes early.  The good news was that the Fort itself was open, so I wandered around for a bit.  It is mostly of interest to War of 1812 buffs, though my son would have loved to see all the canons, many of which you can touch.  I read up on many things I knew nothing about, including that the British commander in charge of Fort York blew up a gun-power magazine and that led to the greatest loss among the American troops.  Apparently, the Americans really did capture Toronto and York (at that time York was actually the more substantial city) and caused much upheaval.  Interestingly, the Americans burned down a government building right in the center of Fort York, and that was the primary cause of the British later burning the White House in D.C.  I guess the Americans couldn't hold the city, though they attacked it two more times.  Finally, a settlement was reached and the Americans left Upper Canada alone.  It is somewhat intriguing that if Canadians at that time wanted to break free from Britain, then this would have been the time to do so. Toronto at least would almost certainly have been annexed, though who knows if it would ever have gotten much larger than Buffalo under such a scenario.

A few minutes before noon I wander over to the Fort York Visitor Centre.  They were setting up for a band and moving all the chairs around and trying to encourage people to move up to the front.  I noticed that a number of chairs in the front had bird crap on them, and I tried to tell two of the staff or volunteers about that.  One really just responded "Oh really?" in a tone that said "What do you expect me to do about it?"  Well, really I expect the chairs to be cleaned off or at least moved to the back.  I mean it isn't like this is my big opening to the public, where I am trying to make a good impression.  I felt I had tried and they weren't particularly competent and this kind of soured me on the Visitor Centre.  (I was also unimpressed watching them struggle to find the keys to the door to let people inside.)  The music finally started and it was ok, but not quite what I hoped for.  I wasn't crazy about the actual lyrics.  But mostly it was just too loud given how close the chairs were to the stage.  I didn't feel like being a Nagging Nancy, so I just went inside the Visitor Centre.  I was completely underwhelmed by the contemporary art, which was completely vapid.  So at this point I may take the kids to the Fort itself next year, but I doubt I'd ever go back to the Visitor Centre.  Good first impressions are important, and this one fell totally flat.

After this, since I still had the daily pass, I decided to go check out a few bookstores.  I did not go into Seekers on Bloor near Bathurst, though I am pleased (and amazed) it still exists.  I snuck into BMV.  Now that I think about it, it does seem to be in the same general location as a book store that specialized in seconded books back in my day.  This time I didn't get anything there.  I went to Willow, which is relatively new (to me).  It struck me as a bit overpriced for paperbacks, though if you buy two books, there is some discount.  Almost a month ago, I'd seen a Yonge St. bookstore (that I rarely frequented back in the day) that was closing down.  I just couldn't get to it in time (sans family).  Now it's gone.  Eliot's books is there, and that may be the used book store closest to my tastes now.  I thought the paperback prices were fair, though trade paperbacks and hardcovers are too expensive.  That seems to be the case everywhere, and you basically have to take shipping prices into account and add $6 (whoof) to the price of anything you see on  Blah.  It is certainly good that I built up my library back in the day of super-cheap shipping (and often tax-free shopping).  I could never have done it today...

Even at Eliot's there were only 3 or 4 other customers, and I only bought one book.  BMV has better foot-traffic it seems.  But I do worry that only a few more years and nearly all the bookstores will be gone.  Looking at the map, it seems only 1 of 4 bookstores on Harbord has survived and none of the ones I used to go to on Queen St. West.  Those were fun little shops, and that's largely where I built my Canadian collection.  I think of the bookstores I used to frequent, it is down to Atticus (which I'll have to visit soon), Seekers and Eliot's.  I'll see about She Said Boom and Circus Books (up on Danforth) to see if either can become new favourites.  I had nearly forgotten about the Queen Park festival so I went over on that (and it took forever for the streetcar, since two short-turn streetcars came by in the meantime).  It turns out that the festival is Sunday only, which is crazy (giving up an entire day and the day when more people are out and about).  They are going to regret it, as today it is going to be raining a fair bit.  While I expect to head downtown, I don't think I will bother with the festival, given my let-down at Fort York.  I guess it is having the high expectations that is really the problem.

So I finally got back and crashed for a bit.  I decided at the last minute that I would use the transit pass to go back out to Beach Cinema to see Guardians of the Galaxy before it finally disappeared.  Getting there wasn't too bad, and the movie was fun.  Though the body count was quite high, and I made the right call in not taking my son.  I just missed a streetcar (darn you absurdly long closing credits) and walked down to the next stop.  I texted the TTC and it was 35 minutes to the next streetcar, at which point there would be four of them.  This was kind of the last straw, so I just walked and walked and walked.  I made it to Jones when the streetcar finally showed up.  I decided to get on and rode 2 stops to Carlaw.  At which point I missed the bus and walked the rest of the way home, just as it started to rain.  So not the best end to the day.

We'll see what the rest of the day brings today.  I do have to go in to work to get at least some work done, and I want to see if I can carve out enough time to finish Dostoevsky's Demons (I'm just starting the third section) and then to unpack another few boxes downstairs.  I guess that would be ok.  Ta-ta for now.

Minor update: I put in 5 hours at work, just missing the rain in the morning and a major storm that broke around 8 pm.  I mostly did work on the TransLink PNR module and also did some scanning.  It turns out that I have come across a bunch of journal entries from 1991 through 1993!  What a different frame of mind I was in.  I hardly remember anything from those days, particularly some of the heavy literature I was reading back then (Vargas Llosa mostly).  Anyway, it looks like the literary festival managed to get almost everything in before the rain.  For some reason, I had thought it was more like the Printer's Row Book Fair (and I would have been all over that), but there were very few bookstalls (according to the map).  I suspect many of these book stores are just hanging on by a thread, and can't spare even one person to go off to work a stall for a whole day.  It is kind of sad.  If I had been just a bit more together about it, I might have gone to hear Peter Norman read from his novel Emberton.  It's sort of on my list but way down there, so I guess in a way I didn't want to feel guilty about not reading it sooner, which I might have done if I had heard him read.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book bucket bench-warmers

So a few books have started coming 'round and wondering why they didn't make the cut.  (It's getting a bit crowded inside my head...)

Probably the most significant omission is Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, which I like considerably more than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though that is a good book in its own right.  I really ought to add James to the list, even if it means cutting Flatland or I, Robot (probably the latter).  That still wouldn't leave any room for Charlotte's Web, however.  While both celebrate unusual friendships, and Charlotte teaches us important lessons about learning to live with the cycle of life, I really was struck by how nasty the aunts were and how amusing it was when they got squashed.  It takes much longer for Harry Potter to ever get revenge on his horrible uncle, though there is still the same motivating force.  I do respect children's lit. that points out that not all adults are particularly nice people.  That was a lesson that stayed with me for a long time, and indeed, many of the books that are on the list already are about outsiders and/or explain why being a bit different from others isn't something to be ashamed of, even though broader society may disapprove and even punish those who get out of line.

Now there are two others that are on many people's lists, but not on mine.  And while I am sure I will enjoy them, their impact on me is necessarily going to be limited: To Kill a Mockingbird and The Grapes of Wrath.  I've already admitted that I just couldn't squeeze them in so far, but at least Mockingbird is somewhere on the list for 2015. Anyway, they obviously didn't influence me if I didn't read them.

So far, I have:
Roald Dahl - James and the Giant Peach
E.B. White - Charlotte's Web
James Joyce - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby
Charles Dickens - A Christmas Carol
George Orwell - 1984
Thomas Pynchon - The Crying of Lot 49 (I do enjoy paranoiac fiction when done well)
Ford Madox Ford - The Good Soldier
Barbara Kingsolver - The Poisonwood Bible
Audre Lorde - The Black Unicorn (though New York Head Shop and Museum should not be overlooked)

I probably ought to include just a bit more science fiction, as I read so much of it from grade 4 through high school.

Certainly something by Robert Heinlein:
Stranger in Strange Land would have been my pick when I was younger, but in some ways it just tries a bit too hard.  I suppose I would actually go with one of the juvenile novels from the 50s, like Citizen of the Galaxy or probably The Rolling Stones, which had just a taste of his libertarian-lite philosophy.
And one of my other favorite authors is Roger Zelazny.
I have a huge soft spot for Roadmarks, which many people consider very minor Zelazny.  It does have the distinction of introducing me to Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal."  In terms of anything actually making the list it would either be Eye of Cat or Lord of Light (with the latter slightly edging out the former).
Douglas Adams - The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Depending on how it is counted, this is a baker's dozen of books that could easily find a place on my original list(s) if they could only elbow another book out of place.  So between the two posts that's 33 (or so) books that changed my life.

Maybe at some point, if I ever have the time, I will write out some short mini-essays on what each meant to me, but I don't anticipate doing this at any point in the near future.

(Oh, this is indeed a special post: number 300.  Huzzah!)

Update (10/3): Madison Smartt Bell's Waiting for the End of the World wants to know why it didn't even make the 3rd batch of books.  I have no good answer.

I can only weakly point out that I am supposed to get around to rereading it next year, at which point it may reassert itself in my consciousness. If it lives up to the mental picture I have built up about how great it was, then it will definitely make the cut. But I may have changed (presumably the book has not), and it may no longer strike home as deeply as it did in my 20s.

Book bucket challenge (a double barrel)

I just heard about this through a Toronto Star piece (sorry if it is behind a paywall).

The basic idea is to list 10 books that deeply influenced you and that you would recommend to others.  As far as I can tell, there are no specific age limits, and while it is true many of our most influential books are ones we read as children, that doesn't have to be the case.  I also don't want to tie it too strongly to books that "changed my life," as that may mean sticking to books that are too overtly philosophical.  This may be something I return to from time to time, and indeed, perhaps I should add a date anytime I update the list (rather than editing it silently).

On a somewhat related topic, someone mentioned that many of the critical darlings of today (particularly of the New Yorker set) will have fallen from fashion at the end of the century, which got me to thinking about literary canons and the fact that today's literary landscape seems particularly fragmented.  I do think a fair number of the 20th Century foreign authors I read have made it into translation and will probably still be remembered (particularly if they were republished by NYRB Press). So that would certainly include von Rezzori, Bulgakov, Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, Mahfouz, I.B. Singer, Narayan, V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie (ok, so the last three aren't really being translated but they do write primarily about non-Western cultures).  I am not entirely sure about
Irène Némirovsky; she's got a compelling and tragic back-story, but will it resonate in another 85 years?

It's so hard to predict if times will be so terrible that escapist fiction is the order of the day, or if those future readers obsessively peruse our dystopian books and books about ecological disasters and wonder why we mostly sat around on our asses and let the world burn up.

Anyway, after I gave it some thought, I decided that of the US or British (or Canadian) authors from the second half of 20th Century or early 21st Century, the ones that would still be discussed at century's end were probably Don DeLillo (esp. White Noise), Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, probably Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro (but only in the context of a few stories that get anthologized), maybe Muriel Spark, possibly Doris Lessing (though her best work is over 50 years old already).  It's possible that Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible will resonate more strongly through the years as conflicts between the developing world and Western nations increase (most likely anyway). I suspect there are some who are still in circulation that maybe shouldn't be (looking at you, Jonathan Franzen). David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem might have some readers but probably not a very significant following compared to today.  It's so tough, because most of the writers before then that I read already rose to the top as it were, so it is extremely likely that Fitzgerald and Faulkner and Willa Cather will still be read (even outside of university courses) whereas much of what I read now hasn't passed any kind of longevity test.  What I do tend to think is that the urban writers will speak more to future readers and that these future readers will generally be fairly alienated from rural life.  On the other hand, some people will read the "country" writers just for a window into that world, but that may be a minority position.  Very hard to say.

I think I have come up with my list of 10 books that I found powerful and influenced my thinking in one way or another.  I believe I would still recommend all 10 (I hope I have it narrowed down to 10 -- let's see).  I'll list them in roughly the order I came across them.

Jonathan Swift - Gulliver's Travels
Edwin Abbott - Flatland
Isaac Asimov - I, Robot (I read a lot of science fiction as a teenager)
Franz Kafka - Metamorphosis and Other Stories
Ivan Turgenev - Fathers and Sons
Fyodor Dostoevsky - Crime and Punishment
Ralph Ellison - Invisible Man
Jorge Luis Borges - Labyrinths (also A Personal Anthology -- or cut to the chase and get Collected Fictions)
Italo Calvino - Invisible Cities 
Samuel Beckett - Waiting for Godot

That's already 10!

I need at least 10 more:
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - One Hundred Years of Solitude
Toni Morrison - Song of Solomon
Adrienne Rich - The Fact of a Doorframe
Anne Sexton - Complete Poems
Donald Barthelme - City Life (or The Dead Father but really just go get Sixty Stories) 
Raymond Carver - Cathedral (or the Collected Stories from Library of America)
Don DeLillo - White Noise
Timothy Findley - Not Wanted on the Voyage (need at least some CanCon on the list!)
Mikhail Bulgakov - The Master and Margarita
Amitav Ghosh - The Hungry Tide (this is the most recent addition to the list, while not as overtly philosophical as Life of Pi, I think it is some ways more meaningful)

I'm sure this will change, and I almost left an empty spot, just to signify the impossibility of the task.  (Just like some rune sets come with a blank rune.)  But they are a pretty solid 20 to start with.  Feel free to add your nominations in the comments.

And a few of these are particularly dear to my heart.  I've actually given away Invisible Cities and The Master and Margarita to some of the junior modellers I've worked with over the years (having picked up a bunch of remaindered copies one year -- I think I am down to one left).  I even ordered a few copies of Borges' Collected Fictions to give away when I left RAND, but that was a special case.

In some cases, I would recommend the more complete version, particularly for short stories or even poetry, but this isn't how I first was introduced to these authors.  It is also the case that something more compact may have more impact, particularly on somebody just starting out on a (life)long journey of appreciating books.  I only put one play on the list, as I generally do think they need to be seen to be fully appreciated, but Waiting for Godot was so radical and it did influence me in several ways (I already told the story of how my Senior Honors English teacher had us do a live reading of this in place of our final exam).  I think in a week or two, I will put together a list of the best plays -- perhaps 10 of the ones I consider the most intelligently constructed on the page and 10 productions that have stayed with me all through the years (some might be quite surprising!).

I am tempted to include at least one non-fiction book on the list, but most are a bit too specialized.  I also was tempted to include Thoreau's Walden, but the truth is, while I find much that is admirable about it, it never influenced me that much.  I certainly never wanted to stop being a city boy -- or to slow down.

Now there are a few books that are tempting to throw on the list that skew more towards children, such as The Little Prince or The Phantom Tollbooth, but the truth is that I came to both of those pretty late, and I wouldn't say I was that influenced by them.  Still, both are great books.  Now Charlotte's Web is a more serious contender, and perhaps that will sneak into the first list, particularly if I decide that my knowledge of the Three Laws of Robotics never really came in handy.  But by the same token, I never needed to know how to deal with farm animals!  I probably will have to work Orwell's 1984 onto the list, as that has remains a powerful and depressing vision of the society we are creeping towards and have essentially become.

But rather than making any changes, I'd rather take a week and let some of those omitted books start creeping their way back into my consciousness, asking for a place somewhere on the list.  (I suspect in the end I will cheat and I'll pull the poetry off into its own special list and free up a couple of spaces at least.)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Minor progress

I did manage to get through the TRB reviews.  I made some progress on the documentation and bought basically one more day, so I am about to go work on that (otherwise I will probably fall asleep and just feel like I tossed away my lifeline).  There is one other thing I should do for work, and I can probably wrap that up in 30 minutes, so I'll probably look for a break when I am sick of typing.  I'm not thrilled at how much extra time this is taking, but in some sense I did squander some of my time (prior to this week).  I've always found completing documentation difficult.  This is actually not nearly as bad as the GUM documentation which ended up taking something like a year to complete, and all the files are missing.  Well, after my various recovery attempts, pretty much all the files have been recovered, though some still sit on the TransLink servers, meaning I may not have instant access to them.

I just get distracted by other pressing things, and I find that in general I am a better started of projects than a finisher.  This is something I share with Nelson Algren apparently.  It's also somewhat endemic of the consulting life, though you would think there would be some people coming up through the ranks who are better "finishers."  And in fact, my greatest strength is to do the solid, difficult work in the middle of a project (which in itself is a bit of a rare skill) and hand off stuff to the client and have them satisfied.  Is it so much to ask that someone come around and help me polish off the bitter end of a project (when there is still documentation to write and no budget left)?  Apparently so.

One exciting thing is that I did see the new streetcar on Spadina.  It's almost like catching sight of the white whale.  I had actually debated bringing my camera along when I went to lunch, but left without it.  Too bad.  Anyway, over time these will start becoming far more common on Toronto streets.  Now I happen to like riding on the streetcars (at least some of the time), though I am aware of their shortcomings, particularly when they 1) break down, 2) get diverted with little or no notice and 3) get stuck behind a car making a left turn.  Still, I do like them, especially on weekends when I am not as pressed for time.  It will be a difficult period of adjustment, as they are so much longer and it will be harder for them to interact with cars (and then the cars will make life even harder for cyclists, particularly on Queen and Dundas (west of Broadview at any rate).  I'm sure I'll post more on TTC and its policies later down the road.

We met a very promising candidate to babysit the kids.  We'll ultimately want to find two or three possible sitters, but this one seems like a keeper.  Maybe my wife and I will get to make it to the movies for the first time in months.  That in itself is serious progress.  (The sitter even complimented us on how homey our place felt after only two months, and we really are basically done, aside from the boxes in the basement.)

As much as I want to, I can't spend any time on the basement tonight or probably tomorrow, but after that, I think I can get back to it.  Once I see serious progress down here, I'll be in better spirits and can start thinking about setting up an actual writing schedule or a progress meter or something.  But now -- back to work.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Tough decisions

I finally had a breakthrough in the basement.  I was able to clear enough space to put together the final bookcase and then rearranged a few other boxes.  I also got the rug down, which makes it feel like a more appealing space.  The problem is that I can already tell that there is still going to be some overflow.  I lost roughly 15 linear feet of shelves because the ceilings are lower here, though at least the shelves fit downstairs in the first place.  And there are far fewer places to just stuff things here.  For instance, after the boxes are broken down, I can't just toss them in the garage.

On the positive side, this will probably force me to start getting serious about tossing out books that are only marginally of interest after I have read them.  I'll also have to get off the pot on one of these academic projects I have been considering for a long time.  If I am not going to follow through with it, I need to part with the relevant books (ideally donating them to the UT library if they don't happen to have them).  And I really need to start paring down my CD and DVD collection, so I'll have to find out which shops actually buy them and start up a routine of visiting them and dropping off those things I can part with.

Just looking at the shelves of books that I have tentatively marked as read once and discard, I just wonder if I will have time to get through them all and how would I start narrowing that massive bunch down (without reading them...).  It just feels overwhelming right now, but I'll probably get back to some equilibrium down the road, i.e. I'd still be pushing off some tough decisions in the hope that I could get through them all.  I guess what I really need to do is to rip through a bunch of 150-250 page books and clear them out, and I'll feel so much better, but I really do want to stick to my program of Russian novelists and thinkers for the time being.*

The other tough decision is whether to push through and get most of the books on the shelves or to just do a bit each night.  I'd really prefer the first approach, but I just have too much real work that is intervening.  For that matter, I promised to complete a bunch of reviews for TRB and they are all due tomorrow.  So instead of going off to the AGO (and a stop off at work), I think I'll take the kids for a quick trip to the park and then come back and get caught up.  So I will try to do the right thing, which basically means unplugging from the internet for a couple of days.  I'll check back with my progress after the reviews and in and the TransLink document is submitted.  It could be another long night...

* I will admit that following through is a real problem because there are just so many ideas I want to pursue and books I want to read.  And then I get an idea like scanning journals or digitizing cassettes or even VHS tapes, and I get about halfway through and run out of steam.  It's not that this doesn't make an improvement since I can toss stuff out along the way, but in general, it would probably be better to try to see one idea through at a time.  Well, as always, easier said than done.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Iris Murdoch's Under the Net

This current post was meant to be written as a continuation of this post, but with the packing and a lot of other things coming up, I just had to push it off for several months now!  I'm not sure if I will ever get through the whole of Iris Murdoch (or Muriel Spark for that matter), but I was told that her first book, Under the Net, was a particularly strong one to start with.  And it is a fairly fun romp, though every now and again, you want to give the main character Jake Donaghue, a good shake for being so stubborn or short-sighted.  I think in particular his decision to stop translating books by the French author Jean Pierre Breteuil once Jean Pierre actually went and wrote a decent book was petty and small.

While it is hardly a new insight, I did like the way Murdoch expressed the idea that a person really can't know how others see him or her and that these others have internal lives in which the observer may play only a fairly small role.  Given how I have continually uprooted myself from family and potential friends, this is not news to me.  On the flip side, because I identify so closely with academics, they all scattered anyway, and even if I had stayed in Toronto or Chicago (both places where I went to grad school), they would have moved away from me.  Even now that I am moving back to Toronto, I believe I will only be near two or three people that were in my Masters program, and a couple of people in the transportation world that I know reasonably well from conferences. I've actually written before on rootlessness and how Simmel argued that for some people, their ties were not primarily geographic.  That is certainly true of me.

But back to the point at hand, back in January I finally read Jeremy Thrane by Kate Christensen, and it expressed this same view that Donaghue has, i.e. that we are only fairly minor actors in other people's dramas, though this role can expand and shrink based on how much we interact with others.

Anyway, here are the passages from Under the Net:
We all live in the interstices of each other's lives, and we would all get a surprise if we could see everything. (p. 50)

Donaghue realizes he had been mistaken about Anna's true feelings: "I had no longer any picture of Anna. She faded like a sorcerer's apparition; and yet somehow her presence remained to me, more substantial than ever before.  It seemed as if, for the first time, Anna really existed now as a separate being and not as a part of myself.  To experience this was extremely painful. (p. 268)

I hope or at least think that I am bigger than Donaghue in that Under the Net is reasonably close to the kind of novel I hope to write some day -- some amusing episodes, some tolerably profound sentiments passed back and forth (though hopefully I can at least give different characters  different voices rather than being uniform).  I even was going to have an escape out the window which occurs in Under the Net (fortunately such escapes are common enough that one cannot be accused of plagiarizing any particular one).  So I could choose to mope or at least feign unhappiness about being scooped (which is more or less Donaghue's reaction to Jean Pierre's good fortune in finally writing a well-received book), or I can just get on with the business of writing.

As far as that goes, I clearly need to clean out more of the basement before I can really have a productive space conductive to creative writing.  It is past time to shut down the blog for the day (though I am feeling reasonably satisfied about the last four posts or so) and spend some time unpacking and sorting and reshelving.

Proust redux

So it turns out that when I am not distracted by other books, I can read Proust on a fairly normal schedule.  The first two volumes took 2 months each, but I managed to get through the 3rd in 3-4 weeks.  The bad news, however, is that reading it straight through didn't really make it any more compelling, even when Proust kills off one of the key characters to the Narrator's early development, and while the Narrator does mope about it to some degree, he actually seems to think it is just as well that this person died before their being "on the down low" was discovered.  (I'll actually dwell a bit more on the somewhat bizarre treatment of homosexuality below, since it is inescapable from the second volume on).  The depiction of the writer Bergotte's death is certainly more sensitive, though as I already groused it is spoiled for me by the fact that the Narrator could not have possibly witnessed it or known Bergotte's last thoughts. Basically, I never did get over the issues I had with memory -- false memory and impossible memories, particularly the hundreds of pages that Proust devotes to Swann’s love affair with Odette, when there doesn’t seem to be any opportunity for the Narrator to ever have learned about these details, particularly at such length.

On the whole, there are a few decent insights per chapter and one or two true belly laughs, but there is nothing in here that truly merits this length. I'll go ahead and provide a few of the most interesting bits below. If they strike you as pretty thin gruel, then by all means skip Proust entirely; you don't need to feel like you are missing out.

[Françoise] was one of those servants who in a household seem least satisfactory, at first, to a stranger, doubtless because they take no pains to make a conquest of him and shew him no special attention, knowing very well that they have no real need of him, that he will cease to be invited to the house sooner than they will be dismissed from it; who, on the other hand, cling with most fidelity to those masters and mistresses who have tested and proved their real capacity, and do not look for that superficial responsiveness, that slavish affability, which may impress a stranger favourably, but often conceals an utter barrenness of spirit in which no amount of training can produce the least trace of individuality.

It is paradoxical, as Françoise seemed so uncongenial to the Narrator but then ends up sticking around forever. To some extent this was one of the problems of this particular form of labour relations -- what to do with aged servants who had more or less become part of the family. What does seem particularly unfair is how Proust translated an actual servant who was completely devoted to him (Céleste Albaret)* into this querulous, fairly stupid peasant-type. There is also perhaps a bit of transference of guilt over being so coddled and pampered by others (though this definitely might be a modern day rereading of Proust).  Rushdie's Midnight's Children seems to encapsulate the dilemma of living so closely with servants who know every bit of your business, though he adds a somewhat creepy sexual dimension on top of this by having Saleem sleep with Padma on an occasional basis.

What is somewhat interesting is the Narrator's description of certain kinds of technologies coming into more widespread use (at least among the upper classes), such as telephones and private automobiles.  There is even a bizarre bit where the Narrator is befuddled by a revolving door.  While the coming of the railroad and its impacts on society was even more profound (and well covered by Dickens (see Dombey and Son), Trollope (The Way We Live Now) and Tolstoy (Anna Karenina, obviously)), Proust was writing in a time when technological change was really picking up steam.  He generally was writing about the more positive side of technological change, which makes sense that these inventions were often first marketed to the well-off as conveniences or even expensive toys.  You would have to look to Dickens and even Trollope to get the more rounded picture of how industrialization also changed societies and put many out of work and divorced the factory workers from the land.  (Heck, you could even find this line of thinking expressed by Father Beaubien in MacLennan's Two Solitudes, written 25 years after Remembrance.)

Certainly a Marxian critic could have a field day with Proust, given that he provides so much detail about the upper classes and occasionally furnishes some insight into the relationship of the working class servants to their employers.  I think class-based analysis is essential to understanding Proust, but at the same time there is a certain sameness to what one could say about this, book after book.  I very quickly found the Narrator deeply immersed in a world of boring parasites, who were almost indistinguishable at the many boring parties that Proust describes. Even the Narrator later seems to feel a bit ashamed of how he sometimes spurned more artistic types in favour of attending another party.

I was constantly asking myself why I spent thousands of pages inhabiting the world of people whom I despised, not least of which was the Narrator. He reports at one point that his servant Françoise once said he wasn’t worth the rope it would take to hang him, and it’s hard to say she was wrong. He is a schemer, loose-lipped, very full of himself and generally disinclined to actually do anything other than go to parties. His entire class appears parasitical and unbelievably status-conscious. Since they all seem interchangeable, I have no desire to read at length about a party where they try to snub others outside their circle, and yet that kept coming up over and over. I thought the nobility in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina were pretty intolerable, but this batch is far worse.

It was marginally interesting to see how the Dreyfus affair did divide society, raising its head in different contexts and even causing some breaks between friends.  Typically, Proust describes how one salon would primarily be inhabited by those who were completely convinced about Dreyfus's guilt and then another where most people had doubts.  Obviously, antisemitism was a recurring theme whenever Dreyfus came up.  Proust does show how at least some people in society could either change their minds or, more typically for those that didn't particularly care either way, equivocate so that they could move in both social spheres.  Certainly a number of people decided it was the wisest course to simply hide their true feelings regarding the Dreyfus affair unless it was completely clear what those around them thought about it.  I think if one was going to write a contemporary novel set in New York or particularly D.C., any discussions about Snowden would be somewhat comparable, though no one doubts he really took the NSA documents, but rather whether his actions were justified.  If one is more interested in conversations where guilt is uncertain (and sometimes discussions over the slippery nature of Truth can be worthwhile) then the Amanda Knox case or even the Woody Allen molestation accusations might be more polarizing (than Snowden -- given that people on the two sides hardly talk to each other other than just hurling insults on Internet message boards), though I don't know whether these cases are discussed "in society."

Still, Proust's introduction of the Dreyfus affair resulted in this short passage, which was just about the only time I laughed out loud in weeks of reading: “My mother, torn between her love for my father and her hope that I might turn out to have brains, preserved an impartiality which she expressed by silence.”

One other insight related to these salons: the more literary the salon, the more likely that it appear to historians to be the most popular when this probably wasn’t the case at all, but simply that it left more records.

That pretty much is the extent of what I found worthy in Proust. The rest was incredibly repetitive. The sexual politics in Remembrance were appalling. Virtually all the men in the book end up falling for courtesans who were two-bit whores earlier in their careers. I haven't felt the whore-madonna complex so widespread in society (or at least one author's representation of society) since Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy (of which my overall review is shamefully delinquent -- it probably shouldn't be hard to guess that I found The Cairo Trilogy far more rewarding, and it can sometimes be harder to write about things you respect more than things you don't care for).

Throughout the book, particularly the first two volumes, the Narrator strikes me as such a whiny, boring and immature brat. He pines endlessly for one woman after another. I found it very hard to get a handle on his age in the second and beginning of the third volume.  While I would guess he was roughly 18 or 19 (as he had visited brothels already) he seems to act closer to 15, particularly when he first meets Albertine and the other girls on vacation. 

I'm turning the corner on this admittedly very long wrap-up of Proust, but now is the time for a SPOILER warning.


I've gone into some of my major stylistic problems with Proust here and here, but ultimately I was totally turned off by the twist at the end of vol. 2 (Sodom and Gomorrah) where the Narrator learns that Albertine has occasionally indulged in lesbian antics and decides he will marry her to "save" her from these tendencies.  So he installs her in his house with the promise of marriage and turns her into essentially a prisoner (and thus the title of book 5).  But he suffers unbearably from jealousy and obsesses just how much lesbian sex Albertine has actually had.  It is so unpleasant reading this.  Why couldn't he just leave her alone?  Even leaving aside the fact that homosexuality was not acceptable in this era, he could have just stayed out of it.  It makes no sense to me that he ran through all his inheritance in a totally futile attempt to change someone else and force them to conform to his views (and admittedly most of society's) of what was acceptable.  I guess it was telling that Proust often used the term "invert" for male homosexuals, which while marginally more acceptable than "deviant" is pretty judgmental.  Proust also says some frankly silly things about how inversion can be conquered by will-power, which he must have surely known was not the case.  (This blog goes into considerable detail about how Proust transformed a male love-interest into Albertine.)

Even leaving the Narrator's obsession with whether Albertine and Andrée got it on and, if so, how many times aside (and it is the main thrust of The Prisoner (or The Captive) and The Fugitive), the last volume of Remembrance is basically a monument to The Closet.  Almost all the men that interact with Palamède de Guermantes, the Baron de Charlus,** are homosexuals, and there is a bit where he basically finds homosexuals under every overturned stone in Paris.  It is all a bit much.  Obviously there is transference going on on an epic scale, as the Narrator (and his father and Swann and Palamède's brother) ultimately end up just about the only straight men in Paris.  A bit of an exaggeration, but not much.  I found it exhausting and more than a little tragic, thinking of all the lives that were ruined by having to hide their sexuality.  Nonetheless, the Narrator's deliberate attempts to squelch Albertine were just one more thing in a long list of things that turned me against him and Remembrance of Things Past in general.

And with that, I think I have finally had my say on Proust.

* Apparently, she wrote a book, Monsieur Proust, about her experiences living with and working for Proust.  It fleshes out what we think we know about Proust from his descriptions of the Narrator.  Not surprisingly, some biographical details embedded in Remembrance still hold up whereas others were completely transformed or fictionalized in some way.  To be honest, I don't have enough interest in Proust to read this, but I can see the appeal for anyone who was more sympathetic to Proust and what he was up to.  While perhaps it is too much of a stretch, I wonder if the portrait of the secretly intelligent concierge, Renée, in Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog was somewhat inspired by Céleste Albaret.  Perhaps I am just particularly resistant to French literature these days, as I was quite turned off by Hedgehog as well.

** The Baron de Charlus is an unpleasant character to be sure, though I (and certainly the Narrator) may on occasion cut him a bit of slack simply because it was so difficult to be a man with "vices" that would have destroyed him in society were they discovered.  And indeed this basically what transpires in the final book, Time Regained.  (Incidentally, there is a movie of that title directed by Raúl Ruiz where John Malkovitch is cast as the Baron de Charlus.  I haven't seen it but that strikes me as just terrible celebrity-driven casting.  I'm sure I am being unfair, however.)  While he doesn't have quite as far to fall, I find there are some interesting ties between Charlus and Edward II (as represented in Marlowe's play).  I have trouble believing Proust would have been aware of this play (and obviously not the brilliant Derek Jarman film) but stranger things have happened.

Anyway, despite his decline in society, Charlus is sort of restored to his former glory (at least in his own mind) when wartime comes and Paris fills with soldiers and is largely emptied of women.  There is a kind of creepy scene where Charlus pursues "rough trade" sex from a soldier and then runs into the Narrator just outside the bawdy house.  Perhaps for the best, he is not aware of what the Narrator knows about him and his proclivities, and they stroll on for a bit in the darkened streets of Paris.  I find this section just slightly Cooveresque (here I am thinking of Pinocchio in Venice).  To be scrupulous, this passage did catch my attention and was, for me, the best part of all of Time Regained:

The aeroplanes which a few hours earlier I had seen, like insects, as brown dots upon the surface of the blue evening, now passed like blazing fire-ships through the darkness of the night, which was made darker still by the partial extinction of the street lamps. And perhaps the greatest impression of beauty that these human shooting stars made us feel came simply from their forcing us to look at the sky, towards which normally we so seldom raise our eyes. In this Paris, whose beauty in 1914 I had seen awaiting almost defenceless the threat of the approaching enemy, there was certainly, as there had been then, the ancient unalterable splendour of a moon cruelly and mysteriously serene, which poured down its useless beauty upon the still untouched buildings of the capital; but as in 1914, and more now than in 1914, there was also something else, there were lights from a different source, intermittent beams which, whether they came from the aeroplanes or from the searchlights of the Eiffel Tower, one knew to be directed by an intelligent will, by a friendly vigilance which gave one the same kind of emotion, inspired the same sort of gratitude and calm that I had felt in Saint-Loup’s room at Doncières, in the cell of that military cloister where so many fervent and disciplined hearts were exercising themselves in readiness for the day when, without hesitation, in the midst of their youth, they would consummate their sacrifice.

Friday, September 12, 2014

More thoughts on theatre (Tartuffe fall-out)

I think I may need to explain this post a bit better and preempt at least a few angry comments.

First, I do want to stress that, for the most part, I thought the production of Tartuffe was well done, but the play itself was execrable.

Second, I don't mean that people that enjoyed themselves were duped.  What I was really getting at is that there is a powerful tendency for people who have spent a fair bit of money (and time!) on something, either a car or a house or an evening out, will generally want to feel that their money was well-spent -- and that their judgement was correct in purchasing that thing in the first place.  It is essentially a form of self-reinforcement. Georg Simmel goes into this at some length in The Philosophy of Money, a profound but relatively unknown book.

Third, I don't consider it an insult to say that, for many theatre-goers, plot is fairly incidental compared to the dialogue (even I find the language in Walsh's Penelope far more interesting than the so-called plot), or the quality of the acting, or some aspect of the director's approach, or even the sets and costumes.  All of these are perfectly valid things to focus on.  It is just in my make-up that I am deeply driven by plot considerations, which is why I very rarely see the same play done more than once, even if it is a different production.  There are exceptions of course, particularly plays that are mostly about ideas which I find stimulating.  As it happens, I'll almost certainly be seeing Arcadia for a third time in November.

The last thing I want to discuss is that I seem to be implying that Molière is violating a contract with the audience when he pulls these rabbits out hats without any warning.  Actually, I do feel this way.  But what could this mean?  It's not that I think any idea is too "out there" to be put on stage, but that a good playwright will construct a play within a particular set of rules.  There is one set for comedy (where all must be set right at the end) and another for classic tragedy (it is almost inevitable that there be a way out of the unfolding mess on stage but the protagonist's fatal flaw closes this off).  There are more realistic dramas where there may not even be a true villain in a piece but the point of the play is that people have legitimate interests that clash and end up hurting others (I'm sort of thinking about The Glass Menagerie or some of O'Neill's later plays).  The whole second paragraph of this post from a couple of years ago goes into this at length.

One thing does bear repeating and that is, I really don't think most playwrights or actors understand that most people that do go to theatre aren't fully immersed in their world.  (And this is particularly true for Broadway productions.)  We are just occasional sight-seers.  There is a clear tendency in essentially all the arts for artists to feel stifled and/or bored by convention and to want to try new things; this almost always ends up being pretty esoteric -- free jazz for example or a lot of conceptual art and nearly all performance art.  But theatre requires an audience, and this audience is very often not "ready" or remotely interested in ditching theatrical conventions.

So one could argue (though I don't really think it was the case) that Molière knowingly violated the rules of comedy by delaying the downfall of the scoundrel Tartuffe for an unnaturally long time, but even more importantly, did not have his downfall brought about by the resourcefulness of the main characters, but rather by a deus ex machina in the form of message from the king that set things right.  How many people would find this a clever ending aimed at theatre "insiders" specifically because it thumbed its nose at convention versus how many would just feel that there was something wrong with the play because it refused to follow the typical rules of comedy?  It really is difficult to walk that line between playing primarily to a very small elite group within the already fairly elite group of theatre-goers and catering to the broader crowd.  Certainly when I have overheard people leaving the theatre, they so rarely catch many nuances of the plays and sometimes have major misunderstandings of what actually happened in the plot.  Personally, I've come to the conclusion that if you want to work in theatre, which requires and indeed demands a public in the way being a novelist does not (though clearly a novelist would like to find a public!), then one should play fair with one's audience.  I suppose this really is quite a conservative view, but it is one that is grounded in wanting the audience to be respected and perhaps even more in the belief that there is a kind of artistic integrity to a play that should be maintained.  (Next thing you know, I'll be resurrecting New Criticism.)

But it is even ok to put together a play within a set of rules that are postmodern, i.e. there are no rules or at least no conventional ones, but this should be established early on, and certainly by the intermission, so that people who wish to leave may do so.  Certainly Jones and others pour much of their scorn on plays that suddenly shift direction and their ground rules after the intermission.

Curiously, I was somewhat involved in a play that does exactly this. David Henry Hwang set out to write a play that starts as a family comedy and devolves into tragedy.  This was Family Devotions.  While I did enjoy it, it does not surprise me that it wasn't viewed as a particularly successful play because it is unsettling.  I might well not have been so forgiving if I hadn't read the play first.  In this case, I may be too willing to interpret some of the unsettling aspects of the first half as being enough of a sign post that the play was not going to fall into a completely comic mode.  But as I said, I was an insider for this production (I was actually just rotating off the board of that particular theatre company and knew all the actors) and was willing to accept the rules being deeply bent in this particular case.

At any rate, I think I have made my position on Tartuffe clear enough.  From my perspective, it violates far too many precepts of the rules of comedy.  Indeed, the amount of information withheld from the audience and revealed later is enormous, and that's probably the biggest cheat.  It isn't even particularly original, as pious hypocrites have been in literature for ages, notably in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and in Boccaccio's The Decameron.

I hate Tartuffe

No, this is not some wry play on Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet.  It turns out that I basically despise the structure and plot of Tartuffe, whereas I think The Misanthrope (a slightly later play) still offers some pretty insightful material.

As far as the overall experience, it was pretty mixed.  I liked the fact that Soulpepper (or truly the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto's Distillery Historic District) has a modern lobby that is almost spacious enough for all the theatre-goers.  This is generally a problem at so many theatres where it is just miserable to be pressed for space while waiting for what seems like forever for the house to open.  And the crowd skewed fairly young, which is a great sign.  What was bad was that the two main transit options had major flaws in them.  I took the 72C bus and walked under the Gardiner as directed, but the sidewalks were all torn up and I had to cross roads twice without any traffic lights and then double back when what was left of the sidewalk had been completely fenced off.  As a pedestrian option, it was shit.  Then on the way back, the King streetcar has been rerouted for another few months, so I had to walk up to Queen, which was a bit annoying.  Maybe it is just another sign that I am to avoid Soulpepper this year and check back next year.  (I am bummed that last season looked absolutely amazing -- Angels in America, Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests and Fugard's The Road to Mecca -- and I definitely would have subscribed.  This year nothing really catches my fancy -- and I was so let down by Tartuffe.)

I should say that the acting wasn't really the problem.  I did think the direction was to play it a little overbroad and even a bit like a cartoon, and that wasn't to my taste.  However, the actor playing Tartuffe did a very good job of putting on the mask of false piety (and even a bit of unctuousness), and then later revealing just how terrible and forceful he was underneath. Orgon's wife Elmire was well-played, and I thought the first attempted seduction scene was well done.  Even at that point, I was starting to tune out because Orgon was thick as a brick, and I really hated the reminder that women were nothing more than chattel at that moment in time, but I was still more or less hanging in there.  It was the turn of events after Tartuffe is unmasked where I basically lost interest in the play, and I'll get to that in a minute.  While the maid Dorine was just a bit too saucy to be believable, I thought she was the other stand-out in the play, though again directed just a bit too broad for me.


So to keep you from making the same mistake I did, I will work through what I hated about the play.  I don't find simpletons particularly interesting, which is why I have never been remotely interested in Forrest Gump.  Intelligent or semi-intelligent people being duped are somewhat more interesting, though this can still be a one-trick pony of a play or movie.  But there comes a point (say after Tartuffe's seduction is revealed and he even admits he was at fault and should leave) where a normal, halfway sane person would listen to others and not double-down by disinheriting his son and ignoring his wife.  It is the too stupid to be believed threshold, and Orgon crossed it fairly early in the play.  (Actually, I already hated Orgon when it was revealed he cared far more about Tartuffe than his wife; even when Dorine upbraided him about it, she is brushed off.) In this case, he is basically too stupid to live (having at least 4 good advisers whom he ignores), and I didn't have any sympathy for him, though it was a shame about his family.  If I was watching TV I would have turned it off and I probably would have left if this were a movie.  And I seriously thought about leaving at intermission (my ears were actually hot I was so angry), but I did want to see how Tartuffe's downfall came about.

Speaking of movies, it did not help that a few weeks ago I saw Satyajit Ray's The Holy Man, which does brilliantly in one hour what it takes Molière 2.5 hours to do badly.  And The Holy Man has a satisfying ending, which Molière completely failed to provide.  So onward.

Elmire hatches a plot to have Tartuffe try to seduce her again with Orgon in the room.  While Tartuffe suspects some treachery, he eventually falls prey to his lust and comes close to consummating the deed.  One woman in the balcony actually burst out "Fucking shit" when Orgon simply would not come out from under the table.  So I don't think I was the only one that thought the pacing was really problematic.  Moliere has Orgon say that he was paralyzed by learning how wrong he was and his mind was whirling.  Fair enough, but he still should have come out earlier to stop the rape of his wife.  Well, in the end he comes out just in the nick of time.  Much relieved laughter from the audience, but none from me.

For half a second, it looks like the trick has worked, and then Tartuffe changes into a different character and says that no, he isn't leaving, that he will turn them out of house.  And this is where things totally go off the rails.  (Though I can sort of understand Molière wanted to tease the audience since in a normal play this would be the turn, leading to the happy ending.)  But really, what rank moron would hand over the deed to his own house while he was still alive?  I don't believe that for a second and it obviously ruins the plot of the play.  But then Molière raises the stakes by introducing a box of treacherous letters that Orgon held for an acquaintance but that he then gave over to Tartuffe for safe keeping.  Umm exqueeze me?  Introducing some key plot point this late in the game (that not even his wife was aware of) is such a cheat.  But it gets worse.

Orgon's mother comes over and then she won't believe the terrible things that Tartuffe has done.  All this is just to allow Dorine to essentially say "sucks to not be believed, doesn't it?"  But obviously the apple didn't fall far from the tree, and she is also dumb as mud.  I actually sensed the audience turning at this point, getting a bit fed up.  If the director was sensible, he would have completely cut this unnecessary bit from the play.  Okay, she quickly changes her tune when the baliff turns up to kick them out of the house, but it is still deeply unsatisfying.

The letters turn out to be just as dangerous as Orgon suspected, and he is about to flee the country when Tartuffe shows up and points them out to the King's Officer.  How the worm has turned, and there are a couple of good lines between Orgon and Tartuffe at this point (not enough to salvage the play obviously).  So how will this end?  How will the tables be turned?

And then a little golden carriage roles out and the King's Officer reads a message literally covered with gold sparkles.  The message is that Tartuffe is to be arrested and the deeds returned to Orgon.  It so transpires that the king in his infinite wisdom knew that Tartuffe was a trickster and just needed more proof, so he let things all play out as they did until it was nearly too late.  So perhaps a nod or two to The Tempest, which as I already pointed out does have its own shortcomings due to the lack of any real threat to Prospero.  Or one could point out that in some ways this isn't that far off from the Book of Job, which is just one damn thing after another until finally God steps in and makes it all better, which is unsatisfying on so many levels, not least of which is God just stands by and lets Job's children be killed off, whereas Molière has the king intervene before anyone really gets hurt.

I will say that I give props to the director for having at least a couple of actors, including Dorine, look totally stunned at this turn of events, as golden confetti rains down upon them.  The happy resolution does come out of nowhere.  It reinforces Molière's somewhat sycophantic relationship to Louis XIV (who was basically the only one who kept him from being excommunicated over this play!), i.e. even if the Church is full of hypocrites, the monarchy is still just and all-knowing.  And it is a complete cheat on every level, from a dramatic point of view.  It easily takes the crown from Shakespeare's As You Like It as the most deeply unsatisfying ending to a major play I have ever seen.  I was just so disgusted with the play itself, I could barely force myself to clap for the actors.  Most people did enjoy themselves (or at least convinced themselves they had a good time), but I was not one of them.

So you have been warned.  If you largely go to plays for their plot (and in fairness most people do not), then Tartuffe is one to be avoided.