There is so much going on these days that one feels whipsawed by the turn of events. While I don’t comment on everything, even though it is tempting, I feel that I would be remiss not to comment on the recent savage stabbing of author Salman Rushdie. In 1989 Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the famed author for alleged apostasy in his newly released book, “The Satanic Verses.” A fatwa is a sentence of death and a bounty of several million dollars was placed on Rushdie’s head. I protested then and I protest now, 33 years later. Also involved in the fatwa was anyone associated with the book including editors and publishers. At the time bookstores were afraid to display Rushdie’s books in their store windows. I called them out on their cowardice. I have my copy proudly displayed on my main bookcase in the living room of my home alongside my other “good” books.
To say this was a barbarous act of cowardice on the part of the would-be assassin would be an understatement. It deals a powerful blow to the right of free expression and free speech. It is anathema to our way of life in the free world and puts a chill in the air of artistic freedom. It demonstrates the complete absurdity and insanity of religious fanaticism. I hasten to add that it is a perversion of Islam and does not represent the mainstream which is by far more tolerant.
I believe in freedom of religion, and I respect everyone’s right to believe what they choose. But you don’t have the right to impose your belief on me or anyone else. You certainly don’t have the right to kill me if I don’t agree with you.
It looks like Mr. Rushie is going to pull through despite his many injuries. For that, I am very grateful and wish him the best and a speedy recovery, although there will be lasting effects from his injuries including the probable loss of an eye.
I condemn this senseless act of violence in the strongest possible way, and I trust his assailant will be held fully accountable. Meanwhile, “The Satanic Verses” is soaring on the charts.
I am doing a deep dive into Samuel Beckett, and I feel that I must come up for air. I can’t go on, but I must go on.
I just finished reading The Unnamable, the third novel in the trilogy after Molloy, and Malone Dies. There have been about 20 years intervening between each reading and I have read a lot of other books since including other works by Beckett.
The Unnamable is the story of the self that strives for silence but is obliged to go on. It is about three things: The inability to speak, the inability to be silent, and solitude. It is full of internal contradictions, doubt, and paradoxes.
I keep coming back to Beckett because something about his work resonates. Not only that but I came across an interesting tome by Paul Foster that analyzes Beckett’s work in terms of the “dilemma” presented in his work through the lens of Zen Buddhism. Wow! That is what I said. So, I read The Unnamable in preparation for Beckett and Zen, by Paul Foster.
One of the dilemmas alluded to in Beckett and Zen is the doctrine of grace: grace given, and grace withheld. St. Augustine tells the story of the two thieves that are crucified with Christ, one is saved, and the other is damned. How can we make sense of this division Beckett wants to know? There is a scene in Waiting for Godot where this theme is played out by the characters Vladimir and Estragon.
Then there is the dilemma of human reason confronted by an outrageous relentless irrationality, a universe giving birth to the spectacle of life, of which the main feature is suffering and death.
There is the problem of time which leads to decay and into the abyss. Personal identity and isolation and need I say, alienation?
Distress is at the heart of Beckett’s work which arises from a mental and spiritual confusion resulting from the recognition of the dilemma of existence.
The problem of God. Does God exist? If He does is He an all-loving God or a monster? And what about the Silence of God? Why don’t we hear from Him?
Beckett refers to a fundamental sound resounding in the universe that can only be described as a howl of pain.
That is enough for now. I think I have caught my breath and can now emerge from this rabbit hole that I seem to have fallen into and get about my day.
Spoiler alert! Plot point giveaways straight ahead!
She was discontent. She was married to a country doctor and lived in a small town in France not far from Rouen. Her husband would do anything for her and loved her dearly but he was just a country bumpkin and he bored her. Emma Bovary had two love affairs that did not end well and she ran her household into debt trying to buy gifts for her lovers and trying to keep up appearances. Then, when everything was about to come crashing down on her head and the creditors were at the door ready to repossess all her belongings, she ate a handful of poison and died a painful death. Her heartbroken husband followed soon thereafter and her little daughter wound up working in a cotton factory. A story that one might say had tragic dimensions.
Now, this all might seem rather straightforward, hackneyed, and mundane, but it is not so. One, it is a prototype for many stories just like it that were to be repeated again and again into the future. But, two, it is the writing style Flaubert engages in that holds our attention and keeps us turning the pages. The book has been called a masterpiece and for good reason.
I came upon this novel the same way I come upon so many things in life, by way of another novel: MyLife as a Man, by Philip Roth. In it, Roth refers to Flaubert again and again, quoting him liberally. For example, in a letter to his mistress, Colet, in 1853, which Roth cites as an example to his writing students, Flaubert writes the following: “What seemed to me to be the highest and most difficult achievement of art is not to make us laugh or cry, but to do as nature does – that is, fill us with wonder.” And that is exactly what Flaubert has achieved in this magnificent work, he has filled us with wonder. I was hooked and vowed to read Madame Bovary as my very next novel.
In his description of country life in the small town of Yonville, Flaubert has created some unforgettable characters and has given us a taste of what it must have been like to live among them at that time and place. We have presented to us two funerals and a wedding, and a country fair. They spring to life for us before our very eyes.
We meet such characters as, Homais, the town pharmacist who was a know-it-all and loved to hear himself talk. Leon, a young law clerk who falls in love with Emma. Rodolphe, is a wealthy landowner, and a ladies’ man. Lheureux, is a local merchant, and a moneylender. Binet, the tax collector who retreats to his attic and spins out countless wooden napkin holders on his wood lathe. Abbe Bournisien, the town priest. And an assorted number of other colorful characters.
It is alleged that Flaubert once said, “I am Emma Bovary.” I haven’t been able to substantiate that claim anywhere, but I wouldn’t doubt that he identified with his heroine. Quite frankly, I identified with her as well. She must appeal to the anima that resides in my soul. But more than that she is a romantic figure much influenced by her reading of romantic novels and being in love with love. At one point she muses, “Love, she believed, must come suddenly, with great thunderclaps and bolts of lightning, – a hurricane from heaven that drops down on your life, overturns it tears away your will like a leaf, and carries your whole heart off with it into the abyss.”
Emma also rails against the French Bourgeois society of 19 th century France, which Flaubert also hated. She is trapped in a society where women have no agency and only a limited amount of freedom. Her only power comes from her sexuality.
Flaubert also explores the theme of fate (chance) vs free will illustrated by the following passages:
“You and I, for instance, why did we meet? What chance decreed it? It must be that, like two rivers flowing across the intervening distance and converging, our own particular inclinations impelled us toward one another.” Rodolphe to Emma
“One can’t fight against providence; one can’t resist the smiles of an angel!”
“Our destinies are bound together now, aren’t they?”
“Fate is to blame, only fate!”
And boredom. Anna was bored: “…boredom, that silent spider, was spinning its web in the darkness in every corner of her heart.”
A note about the translation. There is nothing more important to me in the enjoyment of a book written in a language other than my own than a good translation. The version I read was translated by Lydia Davis and it is excellent.
This is what Flaubert had to say about the importance of a good translation: “A good sentence should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.” And Davis has achieved this as the novel reads like poetry and it goes down like drinking a glass of cool refreshing water.
The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch
David Mamet is a good writer. That is not to say that he is a brilliant writer. I think not. Although, his plays might be considered so. Who can doubt the brilliance of Glengarry Glen Ross or The Verdict or Wag the Dog. However, these little essays of three or four pages each fall flat. And they are loaded with misinformation, lies, and incorrect conclusions. He sometimes gets his facts right but draws the wrong conclusions. I could disagree with him more on some of these points but I don’t see how. Mr. Mamet seems to have lost his way if not his mind.
There are a few things in the book that do I agree with, and one or two things that I actually identify with. But for the most part it is poppycock.
Here is what I like and agree with:
He says, and I quote: “…works that I have found helpful writing drama: Aristotle’s Poetics. Campbell’s, Hero with a Thousand Faces.”
I have both of these books in my library and have always wanted to read them. I will now be putting them on my TBR list.
“Each characterization of the hero…that does not jibe with our self image takes us out of the story. An invaluable understanding for the story teller.”
And an invaluable lesson for the writer as well.
“The script exists to describe to the cameraman what to shoot and to tell the actors what to say. Everything else is besides the point…The nature of a script is a recipe.”
“We human beings are a bad lot. Unchecked, we divide into predators and food.”
“Great paintings and music can inspire, suggest, soothe, thrill, but they cannot teach, Neither can literature. The arts exit, as does religion, to touch those portions of the human soul beyond the corruption of consciousness.”
OK, you had me all the way up to that last sentence. What exactly is the “corruption of consciousness?” “Most plays are no damned good. The only way to write a play is to write a lot of plays…To write a good play requires talent. There is not a lot of it around.”
“…The journey of the writer and that of the hero are one and the same. Both are forced to make difficult choices.”
“I was raised in the horror of the Chicago public schools…I didn’t learn a goddamn thing. It might have helped my grades if not my education if I ever opened a school book, but I was bored to catatonia…but outside of school hours, I read voraciously and was certainly better read than the teachers.” Now, this I can relate to. I had the same experience going to public schools. But I went to 14 schools in 12 years. My father was a Navy man and I transferred schools quite frequently as we moved around the country whenever my dad got new orders. I did however manage to get a pretty good education, even thought I was bored out of my mind much of the time.
“Samuel Beckett was the greatest dramatist since Shakespeare.”
No argument here. I would add perhaps Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.
“What is art for? It has no use. No more than a sunset…Art has no purpose, but it has a use (direct contradiction, but I know what he means). The oyster cannot use the pearl (cue Steinbeck). Observers may admire its beauty, but that does not allow them to understand the pearl, beauty, or the oyster.”
Now, for what I don’t like:
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war. The offer of Freedom (American constitutional democracy) is at issue, and the tyranny of the left displays the carrot and the stick to a legitimately disturbed populace.” I think the tyranny is on the right and not on the left. And there is ample evidence to support this contention. But I won’t use up valuable space here to refute it. Suffice it to say, I beg to differ. Domestic terror attacks emanate from the right far more than they do from the left.
There is another place in the book at the beginning where Mr. Mamet makes the argument that the left tried to steal the election. This is patently untrue and is rather the other way around. Has he forgotten about the January 6th insurrection when the members of the right-wing stormed the capitol in a failed to overthrow the government? Bill Maher called him out on this on his show and Mamet just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Skip that page.” Unfortunately, he makes similar statements and arguments throughout the book. We should perhaps skip the entire book.
The miners came in ‘49 The whores in ‘51 They jungled up in Texas And begot the native son
Somebody in Boots was originally titled Native Son, but Nelson Algren gave this title away to Richard Wright who used it to his great advantage.
Boots were a symbol of power, status, and authority. When someone in boots was approaching, you knew you were in trouble: “Someone was coming. Someone in boots. Cass heard his boots moving faster and faster. Such boots were two despisers of small things. They were high heeled sharp pointed, embedded deeply with sharp pointed spikes, shining with sun or bright with rain wet.”
This was Nelson Algren’s first novel and it has all the raw power and awkwardness of unrefined prose. Algren, himself, did not much care for the novel and would rework some of the material into a much better book, A Walk on the Wild Side. He wrote Somebody in Boots in 1936 and didn’t write another novel until 1940. By the time he got to The Man with the Golden Arm he was writing masterful prose and he made his words sing. But, he never lost his edge.
And this is an edgy novel to say the least. Personally, I loved this book and was in its thrall all the way through to the end. It has unforgettable characters and vivid situations and opens a window onto the events occurring in this country almost 100 years ago during the great depression, or the “great trouble” as it was described by one of the characters. The novel ends in Chicago during the 1933-34 World’s Fair. It is a novel of casual racism, police brutality, sexism, and misogyny. It might also be considered an anti-capitalist screed. It details he lives of hobos, homeless, and the haunted.
Cass McKay was a poor young man from the hills of West Texas. He lived in a one room shack with a dirt floor with his brother, sister and a brute of a father. He left home after a savage fight broke out between his brother and father and started riding the rails at the tender age of seventeen. First he went to New Orleans where he got his throat cut by a pimp in whore house. He then went back to Texas for couple of years the hit the road again drifting back and forth between Chicago and Texas, and all points south. He had a lot of adventures along the way.
“Wherever he walked that winter, whether in New Orleans along icy docks or on Railroad Street in Baton Rouge, he saw the vast army of America’s homeless ones; the boys and old women, the old men and young girls, a ragged parade of dull gray faces, begging, thieving, hawking, selling and whoring. Faces haggard and hungry, and cold, and afraid; as they passed, booted men followed and watched.” In Chicago “He walked up and down West Madison Street every day one ragged bum among ten thousand ragged bums.” He met a girl there by the name of Norah who was down on her luck. She had been working as a seamstress in a sweat shop and lost that job for mouthing off to the boss. She then started working a strip club called Little Rialto after seeing an ad in the Chicago Tribune: “WANTED: DANCER. EXP. PREF. APPLY HAUSER’S RIALTO.-S. STATE”
Cass got involved with her and they started knocking off drugstores together. One night they got caught and Cass end up doing 10 months in the joint. Norah got away.
Racism and police brutality quite often make an appearance on the page and sometimes they intersect as they do in the following passage illustrating once again that the more things change the more they stay the same. Black lives mattered then about as much as they do now.
“One Sam Phillips, black as ink and Alabama born, was in Chicago only two days when he got picked up on South Prairie Avenue by Sergeant M___ of the South Park Police. Sure the boy looked suspicious-he was in rags, and he had no place to sleep and he was a nigger. So what ? So M___ says, “Run eight-ball, or I’ll put you in for vag.” Sam Phillips didn’t know very much, he’d only been in town two days, but Sam did know that he didn’t like jails, and that he could run pretty fast all right. Two hundred yards I’ll give you,” the sergeant offered-and black Sammy Phillips just took it on the lam. He ran 20 feet; M___ dropped to one knee in the proper manner and let her flicker, one through the legs and five to the belly- but he got his promotion so, I guess it’s all right.”
I think it is interesting to go back and read the earlier works of authors you love, like I love Algren. That way you can see their development over the years as an artist. I wouldn’t recommend Somebody in Boots to the newbie Algren fan, but if you have read all his other work, this is a fascinating read. I would recommend, rather, The Man with the Golden Arm, or Never Come Morning. Both excellent.
The Weight of Ink is a historical novel superbly crafted by writer Rachel Kadish. It is not the sort of book I would normally have picked out for myself, but it was gifted to me by someone special and is so well written that I honestly couldn’t put it down.
It is a story of historical sleuthing based on papers found hidden away in an old home in Richmond, Surrey. Ms. Kadish creates a handful of compelling characters to tell her tale as she weaves her story back and forth between plague-ravaged London of the mid-1600s and present-day London.
The Weight of Ink is the tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam, who through chance and circumstance becomes a scribe for a blind rabbi, and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history. It is Ester’s story Helen strives to uncover and what a story it is. Ester documents the Jewish diaspora, the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, and the rich trade of the City of Amsterdam, all the while scribing for the rabbi in his London home. And she also lives through the Great Plague. Ester manages to communicate with some of the great philosophers of the day and express her own ideas.
There is also an appearance made by a certain bard who shall be nameless here but was named in the book. I kept waiting for him to appear as there were hints dropped along the way and I was not disappointed.
It is truly a remarkable feat to behold and a fabulous read!
Andrew Vachss writes like an avenging angel who has just been through hell.
I have long been a fan of Vachss and have read all the Burke series. He is sort of a guilty pleasure for me, not exactly literature, but a compelling read nonetheless. The man can write!
I ran across this volume in my favorite bookstore in Philadelphia, Molly Bloom’s, and I just couldn’t resist. Apparently, it is the first book in a new series featuring Dell and Dolly. Dell is an ex-legionnaire who was orphaned at a young age and has no idea where he came from. Dolly was a nurse with Doctors without Borders and their paths crossed when Dell was wounded in action on a mission somewhere in Africa. They fell in love, left their pasts behind, and moved to a small coastal town in Oregon. That is where the story begins.
The star softball player at the local high school walks into school on the last day of class and shoots to death a boy for no apparent reason. She also wounds two others. Why did she do it? Was it justified? That is largely what the book is about. But along the way, we meet some pretty onery characters inhabiting the dark underbelly of the town. We also meet some of the good guys. A small-town lawyer who rises to the occasion and puts on a masterful defense and a colorful expert witness from Kentucky.
The book culminates in a riveting courtroom scene that produces a satisfying denouement.
All in all, a good read. If you like thrillers, this is the book for you. Highly recommend!
Norwegian Wood is the second Murakami book that I have read. The first one was Kafka on the Shore. I was looking for a second book to get into when I landed on Norwegian Wood. I understand that it is a bit of a departure from his other books, but that is ok because I really loved Norwegian Wood. It was not what I was expecting, but it was perhaps better than what my expectations were. It is essentially a love story of a young man coming of age in Japan in the late 60s.
In Chapter one, Toru Watanabe hears the strains of the Beatles song, Norwegian Wood, as he lands at an airport in Hamburg, Germany. This song recalls to his mind the loves story of his youth in Tokyo when he was attending college. The rest of the novel tells that story.
In the telling, Murakami evokes the sights and sounds of the turbulent 60s, the songs of the period, the student unrest, and the pangs of falling in love. He has created some unforgettable characters, who by the end of the novel, we feel emotionally bonded to and care deeply about.
There are five deaths in the novel, four suicides, and one illness. But the way Murakami tells it, they are played “off stage” and are referred to rather than happening on the page. This gives a little emotional distance from the deaths but never the less has a powerful impact. When Toru got word of Naoko’s suicide in the last chapter it was like a punch to the gut. I literally let out an, “Oh no!” and went on reading. I don’t usually cry at novels but this was an exceptionally gut-wrenching moment.
I started off by saying this was a love story, and so it was, but I think it was more a book about loneliness, mental illness, and suicide. But Murakami is such a beautiful writer the way he presents his story is not depressing, but quite beautiful and poignant. I truly loved this novel.
Sunday. 2/6/2022. 2:58 pm Riot Café. Reading August Strindberg – Miss Julie and Other Plays. Notes to follow.
The Red Room, A satirical novel written by Strindberg in 1879. It is not a far cry to go from Red Room to Redrum to Murder. Just saying.
“Strindberg’s naturalism is not a slice of life, but rather the intense, immediate drama associated with what he called, ‘the battle of the brains.’ This is fought, not with theatrical swords or daggers, but with the equally lethal mental cut and thrust of two implacably hostile minds, bound to each other by desire and hatred. It is a battle in which one of them ultimately destroys the other’s will and commits ‘soul murder.’” One is immediately put in mind of Edward Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Indeed, Translator Michael Robinson makes the very same observation writing about, The Dance of Death, a play written by August Strindberg in 1900, as a depiction of a marital inferno. He cites the numerous critics who regard it as the forerunner to Eugene O’Neill’s, Long Day’s Journe into Night and Edward Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?
Why read Strindberg today? Because he is as relevant today as he was in 1887.
Strindberg was one of the most extreme theatrical innovators of the late 19th century and ultimately the most influential. The five plays presented here mark his transition from naturalism to modernism.
In The Father, Strindberg shifts away from social and political questions towards more psychological writing. Strindberg was more concerned with the discussion going on in Scandinavia at the time about the “woman question,” sexual morality, marriage, and the shifting psychological states of his characters (Robinson).
The Father is a three-act play with eight characters. The two principal characters are the Captain and his wife, Laura. It is a naturalistic tragedy about the struggle between parents over the future of their child.
The Captain is a scientist and freethinker whose marriage has gone south. He is engaged in a power struggle with his wife, Laura, over their daughter who wants to keep the girl home under her own influence whereas he wants to send the girl away to school. In an attempt to dominate her husband and get her way, Laura decides to drive her husband insane by first insinuating that he is not the girl’s father. The mother (Laura), uses her cunning to subdue and finally destroy the father (The Captain).
Strindberg is a great purveyor of naturalism, but in The Father, he is reaching for “greater naturalism” which is intense, immediate, and associated with a battle of the brains. (Battle of the sexes, battle of wills). The two main characters can be seen as representing the male and female principles.
Strindberg believed that life is a series of struggles between weaker and stronger wills.
What initially brought me to revisit Strindberg were the films of Ingmar Bergman. Always a big fan of Bergman I began to realize what an influence Strindberg had on the filmmaker. I began to do a little research and it turns out in his lifetime Bergman directed eleven Strindberg plays for the stage, eight for radio and two for television. He was responsible for altogether twenty-eight Strindberg productions. He often returned to the same plays, producing A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata four times, The Pelican three times and Miss Julie, Playing with Fire and Stormy Weather twice.
My favorite Bergman movie is The Seventh Seal. It has many similarities to the play, The Saga of the Folkungs. They are both set in the 14th century, the plague is present and religion is a major component.
Michael Robinson, Translator, Introduction and Notes to Miss Julie and Plays by August Strindberg.
Strindberg and Bergman, Egil Tornquist, November 2012
My Life as a Man, a novel written by Philip Roth, comes from Roth’s middle period, after Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, but before American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. Roth has written some 30 odd books, not all of them odd but some pretty strange, and he is possibly America’s best writer, if not one of the most prolific. Beats me why he never won the Nobel, for he was surely deserving.
I’ve read most of his later works and all of his earlier works and I am slowly catching up on his middle period. I don’t profess to be an expert on Roth, but I certainly like his writing I and return to him over and over again.
This book, My Life as a Man, is a story within a story, or two stories within a story, then Peter Tarnopol’s (narrator) true story. It concerns his marriage to Maureen Tarnopol who tricked him into marrying him and has become his arch-enemy. Maureen, in their divorce proceedings, described him as, “…a well-known seducer of college girls.”
Peter Tarnopol is a promising young writer who is also a college professor who teaches creative writing. He occasionally gets involved with his young students who become grist for his mill. He teaches literature and creative writing at The University of Wisconsin and Hofstra College on Long Island. He was a patient of Dr. Otto Spielvogel, a Manhattan psychoanalyst, from 1962-1967. Spielvogel considered Peter Tarnopol to be among the nation’s top young narcissists in the arts.
As usual, Roth draws from his own life and previous fiction and writes about what he knows best.
It is a rollicking satire teetering on the edge of tragedy as Roth brilliantly tells the tale of his marriage and his many peccadillos.
Roth writes in an attempt to make art out of his calamitous life and to spin gold out of straw. Is it him or his characters, or is it Memorex? You be the judge. For him, (Tarnopol), “…writing is a vain attempt to get myself to feel like something other than a foreigner being held against his will in a hostile and alien country.”
For Philip Roth, life is a Kafkaesque nightmare whereupon the dreamer ruminates on the possibility of being transformed into a gigantic cockroach. Upon awakening, he heeds the advice of Gustave Flaubert who suggests leading a regular and orderly life and being violent and original in his writing. This is a lesson Philip Roth seems to have taken to heart.