top of page

Books Reviews
~ Cont. ~

61FhbLYwPTL._AC_UF1000,1000_QL80_.jpg

Sonnez Les Matines (“Ring the Matins’ Bells”) by Jane Clark Scharl

 

Sonnez Les Matines (“Ring the Matins’ Bells”) is a one-act, five-scene verse drama written by poet-critic Jane Clark Scharl and published in 2023 by Wiseblood Books, a small press established by author and English professor Joshua Hren, which offers an impressive array of books.  The play had a successful debut in February 2023 at the Nubox Theatre in New York City’s Midtown Theater District.   

 

Set in Paris sometime in the 1520s, the play cleverly imagines the fictional friendship of a trio of pivotal historical figures before their fame:  Renaissance humanist and writer François Rabelais (c. 1494-c. 1553), Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564), and Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556).  The action occurs on Mardi Gras, the night of revelry before the penitential season of Lent, with a plot centering on the murder of a female prostitute, which somehow connects to each. 

 

Fun to read (and read aloud), Sonnez Les Matines is a fast-paced, unfolding mystery, raising serious questions about life and death—such as love, evil, justice, mercy, choice, guilt, and duty—but leavened by humor.  The trialogue format reveals the protagonists’ different personalities and philosophical perspectives.  One reviewer, Jonathan Geltner of Slant Books, suggest the main characters reflect three literary genres:  Rabelais, comedy; Calvin, tragedy; and Loyola, heroic epic or romance.   

 

The varying views are expressed, for example, in their three versions of beauty (pp. 72-74).   

 

Ignatius:  

I mourn this murdered woman.  All things   

Beautiful are also frail; the least brush  

With ugliness spoils them forever.  

The good can withstand grim battle  

With evil; truth can wrestle chest to chest  

With lies; yet beauty must have champions.  

She cannot wage her war alone; for her  

To enter the struggle is to lose.  

 

Rabelais:  

Now there I don’t agree.  Rather,  

You’ve got it all backwards.  

She’s a scrappy one, beauty; the merest  

Trace of beauty countermands the worst  

Of things and seals for them a spot  

In Paradise, if only cleaning out the pot.  

 

Jean:  

You’re both wrong!  What does beauty  

Have to do with this double obscenity:  

The body, corrupted, and death,  

The great corruptor?  Beauty’s withdrawn  

Herself so far from this that it is folly  

To discuss her.  As helpful as mapping  

In that blood the skies above  

The Antipodes as to involve  

Beauty in the affairs of human sin!  

 

Rabelais responds with a critique of the trialogue:  

 

See, this just isn’t fair.  Plato would never  

Have allowed dialogue like this.  The danger  

Of a three-way conversation’s too acute.  

The dialectic loses all its force;  

The third to speak will always seem to have  

The final word!  How does one knock the third’s   

Thickness?  If we ignore it, by convention  

It stands.  But by responding, we would launch  

A new round of dialectic that must  

Wind again its triple orbit, and that  

Takes far too long for any normal patience,  

Never again shall I speak with two others!   

… 

so, against my judgement, I defer to you, 

only by my silence.  But do not tempt me more. 

 

Yet, it is most often Rabelais who has the final word.  As Calvin responds, “If that is your rebuke in silence, spare us/ your rebuke in speech!” (p. 74) 

 

Do yourself a favor and purchase this entertaining, thought-provoking book, which will support an emerging literary talent and a worthy small press. 

51mAouHGp9L._AC_UF1000,1000_QL80_.jpg

Grand Opening by Jon Hassler 

 

Set in the Midwest during World War Two, Jon Hassler’s Grand Opening (1987) explores city folk adjusting to small-town life, the trials and triumphs of opening a business, as well as family, community, and interreligious relations.  Funny in places, sad in others, the story is populated with a memorable cast who experience hope and frustration, acceptance and rejection, charity and spite.  The well-woven threads of Grand Opening form a strong, touching story of enduring value. 

 

The pivotal character is Brendan Foster, who is 12 years old when the story begins on Labor Day 1944 as his family is moving from Minneapolis to Plum, Minnesota.  Over the years, his father, Hank, had risen through better and better jobs and is now a proprietor, having made a down-payment on an old, dilapidated grocery store in Plum.  As they are driving, Brendan’s 80-year-old maternal grandfather, Michael McMahon, miscounts passing railroad cars.  Brendan found adult mistakes reassuring if they were small, but their large errors were frightening, which is what he feared the move to Plum was.  

 

However, within the theme of adapting to changed circumstances, Brendan, his father, and grandfather are more successful than his mother, Catherine.   She is an intelligent, independent woman who had enjoyed life in the city, where she worked in a bookstore.  When approaching Plum, her dislike of the high hills of the area foreshadows her obstacles to fitting in.   

 

Catherine will be a partner with Hank in the business, to the particular dismay of the mayor’s imperious, judgmental wife, Mrs. Brask, who believes women should not work outside the home.  Catherine worries about the family’s chance of financial success and “of being planted in Plum forever.” (p. 155) She eventually mounts a campaign for a school board seat, generating even more opposition behind the scenes.   

 

While Catherine’s response to her outsider status is an attempt at bringing community change, two other central characters—Wallace Flint and Dodger Hicks—react differently to being misfits.  Their contrasting emotions, circumstances, and decisions put them on a tragic collision course. 

 

Twenty-five-year-old Wallace had been “a straight-A student in high school” but ended up with a “dead-end life as a grocery clerk …” not achieving his “teenage dreams of living in a city and moving in a circle of smart, sardonic friends …” (pp. 63-64)  He is arrogant, cynical, and spiteful.  In his bedroom, Wallace, an artist, has pictures of people whose genius was not recognized in their lifetime.  He despises Brendan who has everything Wallace wants, and he becomes jealous of Dodger’s eventual closeness to the Fosters. 

 

Dodger is the friendless, older, and taller classmate of Brendan.  Dodger’s mother is an alcoholic and his father, who beat him, is imprisoned for theft.  Dodger’s life has made him pathetically needy.  He attempts to befriend Brendan, who is torn between his Catholic conscience to be charitable and his desire to fit in with other students, all of whom shun Dodger.  Arrested for shoplifting, Dodger is sent to a boys’ home, where he’s mistreated by the other boys.   

 

Released early for exemplary behavior, though labeled uneducable, Dodger is taken in temporarily by the Fosters.  Brendan struggles to overcome his resentment of the burden of Dodger who needed constant companionship.  Grandfather McMahon tells tales of his railroad days to Dodger who didn’t remember anyone ever telling him a story.  Grandfather takes Dodger to the pool hall for soda and introduces him as a friend of the family even though everyone there knew he was “the outlaw son of an outlaw father.” (p. 206) 

 

When Dodger prepares to move in with his released father, Hank says they’ll miss him.  He looks at Hank with “intensely hungry eyes.  Three months with the Fosters had given Dodger an appetite for kindness. … [Then Hank] saw more than hunger in the boy’s eyes.  He saw starvation, and he felt very sad.” (p. 246) 

 

Comic relief is often provided by gregarious Grandfather McMahon, who is sometimes forgetful, but sometimes feigns it, and, to the distress of his daughter, furtively wanders the town to talk with people.  In one episode, he introduces himself to a train crew, then falls asleep on board and awakens as the train departs Plum.  After frantically searching for him, Catherine and a neighbor spot him as the train passes, wearing “a grin of blissful mischief.” (p. 32)   

 

A Catholic family, Brendan’s religion is aesthetic and meditative, Grandfather’s is social, Hank’s is “in the marrow of his bones,” while “Catherine helped God keep score.” (p. 42)  An important sub-theme of the book is the competitive divide between the town’s Catholics and Lutherans, which impacts business and social relations.  One Lutheran resident “complained about the influx of fish-eaters:  today the grocer, tomorrow the Pope.” (p. 83) Some in Plum are not far from the attitude of Thomas Nast

 

Paul Dimmitburg, son of the Lutheran pastor and devoted to Christian unity, calls both sides “bigots.” (p. 123) Having returned home after a nervous breakdown at the Lutheran seminary, Paul is hired by Hank and becomes Catherine’s intellectual comrade, provoking jealousy and vindictiveness from Wallace who’d considered her his “first kindred spirit…” (p. 89) When Wallace, an atheist, suffers an epileptic seizure in the store, Catherine kisses and hugs him out of concern, sparking rumors spread by Mrs. Brask, “proving beyond a doubt that the union of Catholicism and atheism led to depravity.” (p. 99) 

 

As World War Two ends, key characters make momentous decisions that will affect their lives and the community profoundly.  

 

After teaching high school English for several years, author Jon Hassler (1933-2008), a lifelong Minnesotan, combined college teaching with writing.  Between 1977 and 2005, he published twelve novels, two short-story collections, two young-adult novels, and five nonfiction collections.   

 

Hassler set much of his fiction in Midwestern small towns with individuals dealing with life changes or seeking purpose.  His main characters were often Catholics, observant or lapsed, and in 2003 he received the Colman Barry Award for Distinguished Contributions to Religion and Society. 

 

Hassler’s novel Staggerford (1977) was named Novel of the Year by the Friends of American Writers, which promotes writers focusing on the Midwest, and Grand Opening (1987) was selected as the Best Fiction of the Year by the Society of Midland Authors.  In 2000, Hassler won the Flanagan Prize from the Minnesota Humanities Commission and the Distinguished Minnesotan Award from Bemidji State University.   

rk-cover-500.jpeg

The Book of the Red King by Marly Youmans

 

The first book review posted on The Easy Chair was of Marly Youmans’ marvelous historical novel, Charis in a World of Wonders.  Youmans (pronounced Yoh-muhns) is a poet and author of eight novels, two young adult novels, short stories, and essays.  Her novel The Wolf Pit won the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction in 2001.  Several of her other novels and short stories have been honored with publication awards and book-of-the-year recognition.  She was a judge for the 2012 National Book Awards.  

 

In 2015, Youmans was interviewed by Blogcritics.com: Part 1 and Part 2.  Themes in her work include living close to nature, faith, magic, transition to adulthood, and redemption.  She often collaborates with artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who has illustrated seven of her literary works, including The Book of the Red King (2019).

 

If you can love a book without fully understanding it upon the first reading, then that is my reaction to Youman’s The Book of the Red King.  Told in enchanting verse, the story, or what author-poet Fred Chappell calls “nonsequential sequence” of events, conjures fabulist characters, medieval ambience, and an otherworldly kingdom.  It features the Fool, the Red King, and the Fool’s beloved, Wentletrap, a mysterious feminine figure whose name is that of a seashell.  

 

Shortly after publication, Chappell wrote Youmans, interpreting The Book of the Red King as a “metaphysical board game with icon pieces.”  He sees the Fool, seeking enlightenment, and the King as having contrasting understandings or perceptions of the world that are nonetheless complementary.  Youmans responds that she is uncertain of the inspiration for the characters but notes her childhood love for Lewis Carroll’s Alice books with their “strange gardens, odd courtly figures, puns, and musical language.”

 

The first poem, “The Starry Fool,”(p. 1) introduces the two main characters:

 

“In a shivering of bells, 

The Fool comes shining, shimmering 

Unseen along the moonshine way.

Little fir trees sprinkle his path

With needles, lift their limbs and point

To the bright whirligigs of stars.

 

And the crack in the Fool’s heart is 

For once mended, without a seam:

He shakes his bell-branched staff at light.

 

So cold, no one plays the watchman,

But in the tower called The Spear

The Red King rules the chiming hour.

 

He’ll spy the moon-washed Fool, skittling

Like a toy top through the city

He will run outside to greet him,

 

Calling, “my brother and my self,

My mirror, the crack inside my heart!”

 

Who can resist an opening like that?!

 

In the poem “Great Work of Time,” (p. 70) a royal alchemist speaks to the Fool:

 

“This you must know:  the world is a bright glass,

Reflecting all the universe as a knob

Of polished silver grasps and reflects in small

The features of a room.  Know this also,

That out from nature’s heart springs wonder, sign,

And message.

            So ritual and angel

Speak to us and cross a threshold’s sill,

So the great work transmutes the willing soul,

So phoenix light is born in middle-winter.” 

The first stanza of "The Birthday Roses" (p. 126) presents beauty, decay, and rebirth:

“Their fine green feet are pointed, hovering in the vase,

Rose-limbs joined as if in love but slanting outward,

Their petal perfection, their fine-grained velvet red

Is wonderfully marred as if by sgraffito—

Is there an inner layer of rot of ebony?

Dragon-toothed and -tongued, the sepals of the calyx

Make up a start tightly cupping the corolla.

In time the sepals arch and thrust the widening

Whorls of petals upward:  loosened wombs of fragrance.”

 

Marly Youmans’ The Book of the Red King is a treat for the ear, the eye, and the mind.

TheCityandMountainsCover.jpeg

… the gentle twilight peace slowly descending on valley and mountain.  High up, one small star twinkled, diamond-bright Venus, the languid herald of night and its contentments.  Jacinto had never … contemplated, with attentive soul, the majestic way in which Nature falls asleep.  The darkening of the hills as they drew the shadows up about them; the trees falling silent, grown weary of whispering; the bright whiteness of the houses softly growing dim; the blanket of mist, in which the coldness of the valleys huddles for warmth; the sleepy clanging of a bell rolling over the hillsides; the secretive murmur of water and of dark grasses—for him, each was an initiation.  From that window … he could glimpse another life, one not filled up by Man and his tumultuous doings.  And I heard my friend utter a sigh like that of someone who can at last rest. (p. 140)

The City and the Mountains by Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz

 

For me, a great reading experience is to be absorbed into the world of a book, particularly one alien to my own but touching on our common humanity.  It is to be transported by an engaging tale filled with fully fleshed characters in which even minor ones come alive.  The prose will have beauty without being ostentatious, and wit is nice, too.  You don’t want to leave that world. 

 

Such is the case with Jose Maria Eça de Queiroz’s The City and the Mountain.  Written in 1895, it was published posthumously in 1901 and republished in 2008 in an excellent translation by Margaret Jull Costa, an award-winning translator of Portuguese and Spanish literature into English.  

 

One of Portugal’s leading writers, Eça de Queiroz (1845-1900) has been compared to such great 19th-century authors as Tolstoi, Balzac, and Dickens.  A few years ago, I enjoyed reading Costa’s translation of Eça de Queiroz’ The Illustrious House of Ramires (1900; 2017) and have two more of his novels on the shelf:  The Maias (1888) and The Yellow Sofa (1925, posthumous).  Other notable works include The Crime of Father Amaro (1875), Cousin Bazilio (1878), and The Relic (1887). 

 

The City and the Mountains depicts the dramatic transformation in sentiments of its main character, Jacinto, as to what constitutes the good life.  From a transplanted, affluent Portuguese family, he was born in a palatial home in Paris, 202 Champs Elysée, where he leads “a life of utter idleness and good food…” paid for by rents from family estates in Portugal. (p. 15)  His friends nicknamed him “The Prince of Great Good Fortune.” (p. 18)  The narrator is his Portuguese friend Zé Fernandes.

 

Uninterested in politics, Jacinto’s “sole ambition … [is] a thorough grasp of General Ideas …” (p. 17)  He believed that Absolute Knowledge plus Absolute Power equaled Absolute Happiness, necessitating surrounding himself with the maximum amount of Civilization, which was inseparable from his idea of the City. To that end, his home has a library of 30,000 books and is equipped with the latest modern technology: a telegraph machine, telephones, phonograph, a clock with the times of all the capitals and planets’ positions, speaking tubes, an adding machine, heating and air purifying systems, and so forth.  

 

To Jacinto, “…there is only the City…”  Only it can give solidarity.  Listening to his friend’s philosophy, Zé is impressed, responding, “Gosh!” (p.22)  Conversely, Jacinto loathes the countryside.  After an hour in Montmorency Forest on the outskirts of Paris, Jacinto left terrified. When Zé has to go to the rural estate of his uncle Alfonso in Guiães, Jacinto is upset, seeing his friend as a tree uprooted, never to revive. 

 

When Zé returns to Paris seven years later, Jacinto has now taken on many duties and memberships “to live in more conscious communion with the City’s many functions.” But none give him pleasure:  “the telephone bell kept ringing…” and there were frequent visitors from business, industry, and the arts. (pp. 38-39) During their afternoon walks, the crowds and carriages distress Jacinto as do what he calls “grooves,” such as strong perfume of passing women or an overheard conversation of deceit, pedantry, or stupidity, which “remains stuck to your soul, like a splatter of mud …” (p. 41)  Zé is shocked by the transformation of Jacinto’s attitude toward the city.

 

The chapter describing Jacinto’s party for Grand Duke Casimiro is populated with a concatenation of clever, comical character sketches with foreshadowing metaphors of country life and nature.  Countess de Trèves is “[l]ike a good farmer’s wife, she threw grain to all the hungry chickens, maternally feeding other people’s vanity as she went. … her sole concern … [was] the Art of Pleasing Others.  Everything about her was sublimely false.” (pp. 54-55)  “…[A] red-haired young man… with a profile like a parakeet, was flapping his short arms about like wings and squawking: ‘Delicious!  Divine!’”  Another “young man whose soft downy beard was the colour of maize … was rocking back and forth on his heels, like an ear of wheat in the wind.” (p. 60)

 

Jacinto’s machines start to malfunction.  Before the party, a burst waterpipe caused a flood in his home, and during the dinner, the duke’s fish dish gets stuck in the dumbwaiter.  In despair over the technological disasters, Jacinto adds “newer and more powerful Machines.”  He summons Zé “to admire some new machine that would make our lives easier and confirm our dominion over Substance.” (p. 72 )

 

Jacinto’s confidence does not last.  He becomes depressed, suffering from “… the surfeit of Paris,” and no longer participates in his many organizations and companies. (p. 82)  “There was nothing sadder or more instructive than to see this supremely nineteenth-century man—surrounded by all kinds of apparatus intended … to bend to his service the Universal Forces, and by [books] … with the knowledge of the centuries—standing stock still, hands plunged dejectedly in his pockets, expressing … the difficulty and discomfort of living!” (p. 83)  

 

When Jacinto visits Metz, France, and looks down on the city from atop the hill, he notes it looks like an illusion and wonders if the City is “the greatest illusion.” (p. 86)  Zé returns from a tour of European cities to find Jacinto bored and reading “all the poets and theoreticians of Pessimism from Ecclesiastes to Schopenhauer.” (p. 104)   Jacinto develops an irritating habit of shrugging. Zé pities his friend who is now cutting out paper shapes to pass the time. 

  

Earlier, a storm had damaged the family crypt at the chapel on Jacinto’s estate in Portugal, and he ordered it rebuilt at whatever the cost. Now, he tells Zé he’s leaving for the family estate at Tormes, Portugal, to oversee the transfer of the ancestral remains. “Undone by Civilisation,” Jacinto had become a “scrawny over-refined man with no muscles and no energy…” (p. 114)  He planned to stay at Tormes for only one month but he packs many comforts of home.  Jacinto explains, “We leave No. 202, arrive in the country and find No. 202 again!  Ah, there’s nowhere like Paris!” Preparing for his exodus had rekindled his love of the City, and he became active again. 

 

However, upon arriving at Tormes, the friends’ luggage is not there nor anyone to meet them, so they must ride a mare and donkey to the estate.  But they soon forgot their troubles “in the face of the incomparable beauty of that blessed land…” (p. 133)  At the estate, they see: 

 

Zé goes to his aunt’s in Guiães, where he later receives news that Jacinto is still at Tormes after five weeks and planning to stay for the harvest festival.  When Zé returns, he is surprised to see Jacinto tanned and healthy.  Jacinto tells his friend of the diversity of Nature versus the repetition of the City.   “No two leaves of ivy, as regards colour or form, were ever the same.  In the City, on the other hand, each house slavishly repeats the other houses; every face reproduces the same indifference or the same disquiet; ideas all have the same value … Sameness, that’s what’s so dreadful about Cities!” (p. 157) 

 

When Zé mentions Jacinto’s former pessimism, he blames Schopenhauer and says “pessimism is a very consoling theory for those who suffer, because it de-individualises suffering, broadens it out into a universal law … thus removing the sting of it being a personal injustice imposed on the sufferer…” (p. 160)  

 

Zé notices considerable change in Jacinto and his relations to Nature over the weeks from sentimental contemplation to desire for Action, such as planting a tree, buying livestock, and starting cheese production.  His elaborate plans are met by Melchior the caretaker’s “staunch but slippery resistance” and Silvério the estate manager’s “respectful inertia…” (p. 177)    

 

Jacinto gradually gets to know the tenants and is shocked by their poverty and lack of medicine.  He then comes up with reform ideas for the tenants, such as new houses.  When he asks the horrified Silvério the cost, the estate manager “hurled a figure from on high, like an immense stone with which to crush Jacinto.” When Jacinto tells him to proceed with the plan, Silvério cries that it is “Revolution!” (p. 188)

 

The latter part of the novel sees Jacinto settling permanently at Tormes and then leaps ahead five years to find the protagonist married with children.  Eça de Queiroz died before completely reviewing the publisher’s proofs and the last page is missing.  His friend Ramalho Ortigaõ, a journalist and literary critic, wrote the ending, which translator Costa (in the introduction) finds too saccharine, preferring the penultimate paragraph as more in keeping with the Eça de Queiroz’s satirical imagination.  I agree.  Whatever other readers may decide, they will have a rewarding reading experience getting to that point.

robguyjob1.jpeg

Charles Portis (1933-2020) was one of America’s leading satirical writers.  His first novel, Norwood (1966), established his skill with deadpan dialogue, eccentric characters, and quixotic quests.  His other novels were True Grit (1968), The Dog of the South (1979), Masters of Atlantis (1985), and Gringos (1991).  True Grit was made into a movie starring John Wayne in 1969, with a remake by the Coen brothers in 2010, and a movie of Norwood, starring Glen Campbell, was released in 1970.

 

Masters of Atlantis, a spoof of secret societies like the Freemasons, opens in 1917 in France, where Lamar Jimmerson is a telephone switchboard operator for the American Expeditionary Force.  One night while walking along the Marne, he learns of the Gnomon Society, which claims secret wisdom from the lost continent of Atlantis.  Or so says a shady character who first calls himself Mike the Greek, then Jack the Armenian, then Robert the French Gypsy.  Readers quickly realize they are in for a quirky plot.

 

After being mustered out, Jimmerson travels to Malta, home of the Codex Pappas (named after founder Pletho Pappas) containing the arcane knowledge of Gnomonism.  There, he meets Sydney Hen, a young Englishman whom Jimmerson makes an initiate, then an adept, in the society.  Hen asserts that both are now Masters, and he returns to England.

 

Jimmerson moves to Gary, Indiana, where he establishes Pillar No. 1 in the society and marries Hen’s sister, Fanny, but soon loses his job because of his time devoted to recruiting for the Gnomon Society.  The onset of the Great Depression causes Gnomonism to flourish, despite a vicious rumor that members consumed a “ritual meal of … cat’s meat” (p.36) and other calumnies.  Success allows establishment in 1936 of the Gnomon Temple, where Jimmerson also resides.

 

Ambitious Austin Popper quickly rises from the Temple mailroom to major Gnomon recruiter and advisor, convincing Jimmerson to relax the rules to expand membership.  Popper courts the press and politicians, two of the Ps forbidden to traditional Gnomonism, along with the Pope and police.  The reforms provoke a split in Gnomonism into the Jimmerson School and the Hen School with mutual public criticisms escalating into book burning and property defacement.

 

With the onset of World War Two, the press and public lose interest in Gnomonism, which Popper tries to revive with a 10-point victory plan he and Jimmerson peddle in Washington.  There, they meet two other key characters, Pharris White and Cezar Golescu. 

 

White is a Gnomon initiate who is “de-ranked” and in retaliation steals the society’s “Rod of Punishment.”  Throughout the narrative, he reappears at crucial junctures as Gnomonism’s nemesis as he climbs the ranks of the legal system. 

 

Golescu is the Naval Observatory’s “assistant custodian of almanacs and star cataloguer.” (p. 49)  He’s also an expert on the lost continent of Mu and believes gold can be produced from bagweed.  In one of the funniest series of episodes, Golescu and Popper, having relocated to Colorado, grow bagweed to turn Golescu’s alchemical dream into reality.  Joining them is Popper’s talking blue jay, Squanto, who, as he ages, talks less and mutters at night.

 

Hen (now, Sir Sydney) opens a posh esoteric retreat in Mexico, while in Indiana Jimmerson’s reclusive obsession with studying Gnomonic writings leads to his wife leaving with their son and the decline of the Temple. 

 

After four years, Popper returns to Indiana, talking a reluctant Jimmerson into running for governor.  As elsewhere in the text, this episode is filled with farce and inane conversation. When trying to convince Jimmerson to leave the Temple for a speaking engagement, Popper says, “Wasn’t it Bismarck who said, ‘He who holds the—something or other—controls the—something else?  Controls the whole thing, you see.  It was Bismarck or one of those boys with a spike on his hat.”  Jimmerson responds, “Kaiser Bill had a spike on his helmet.  One of his arms was withered, you know, but I forget which one.” (p. 167)

 

When Maurice Babcock, a hypochondriac and recent Gnomon initiate, encounters Ed, Jimmerson’s assistant, Babcock assumes he is from the South. “He imagined Ed at home with his family, a big one, from old geezers through toddlers.  He saw them eating their yams and pralines and playing their fiddles and dancing their jigs and guffawing over coarse jokes and beating one another to death with agricultural implements.” (p. 199) He later learns that Ed is from Nebraska, which he thinks is not so bad but bad enough. 

 

Eventually, Popper is able to reunite Jimmerson and Hen at businessman Moreland Moaler’s “estate” in Texas, which turns out to be a large trailer.  Another humorous exchange occurs when Popper testifies before a Texas legislative committee investigating “cults, sects, [and] communes …” The politicians’ confusion results in adjournment.

 

The plot crescendos to an apocalyptic end when Babcock, believing Jimmerson, Hen, and Moaler are the three secret teachers, sees himself as the new Master.

turgenev.1-2_f64f49cf-11ba-402c-ab15-ee56854b9cba_2048x2048.webp

Fathers and Children by Ivan Turgenev, trans. Nicholas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater

 

Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) was one of Russia’s great novelists, as well as a poet, playwright, and translator.  His works were published in the second half of the 19th century, a period of tumultuous changes and challenges in Russia.  A supporter of liberalization and Westernization, “Ivan Turgenev Was Distrusted by the Left and the Right,” as literary scholar Micah Mattix explains. Turgenev first gained fame with critiques of the weak-willed intellectual in “The Dairy of a Superfluous Man” (1850) and of serfdom in his collection of short stories, “A Sportsman’s Sketches” (1852).  In 2001, Theodore Darymple compared the life and works of Turgenev and Karl Marx.

 

Turgenev’s Fathers and Children, published in 1862, a year after Tsar Alexander II freed 23 million serfs in Russia, is a penetrating look at human relations, generational differences, and the emerging ideology of Nihilism.  The title was translated previously into English as Fathers and Sons, but the new title is a more literal translation from Russian.  At least one reviewer has remarked that the original English title was more apt, however, I would say this engrossing novel perceptively presents multiple relationships of family—fathers, siblings, an uncle, and mothers (two by their absence)—friends, and host-guest. 

 

The story opens with Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov anxiously awaiting the return of his son Arkady after four years of university study.  The opening scene conveys the father’s admiring behavior toward the son, the son’s psychological analysis of the father—“indulgent tenderness … hidden superiority”— and Arkady’s view of himself as “free and emancipated.” (p. 10)  

 

Arkady arrives with his friend, Evgeni Vasilyich Bazarov, who earned a medical degree and who the adoring Arkady believes “knows everything.” (p. 7)  Bazarov is a Nihilist who rejects all authority and takes no principle on faith, and Arkady is his ideological acolyte.  Bazarov “claimed to know how to talk to the peasants … [but] had no idea that the peasants regarded him as … a buffoon.” (p. 194)

 

Despite Arkady’s devotion to Bazarov, there are early indications of differences.  Arkady sees beauty in nature, “gazing pensively at the distant dappled fields, softly and beautifully lit by the sun…” but Bazarov insists “Nature isn’t a temple—it’s a workshop, and man is a worker there.”  The author sides with Arkady:  “Just at that moment, the slow strains of a cello reached them … the sweet melody flowed through the air like honey.” (p. 44)

 

Nikolai’s older brother, Pavel, is handsome, self-confident, convivial, “and amusingly waspish.” (p. 29) His brilliant military career was cut short when he fell in love with a princess and, after she ended the relationship, followed her across Europe hoping in vain to rekindle the affair.  After her death, he returned to Russia and moved in with his newly widowed brother.  

 

Pavel considers Bazarov “a conceited, insolent, cynical commoner…” (p. 46) Pavel defends tradition—“We treasure our civilization…” (p. 55)—and dismisses the Nihilist’s materialism as unoriginal and “always a fallacy.”  Bazarov retorts that “Aristocracy, liberalism, progress, principle … [are] a lot of foreign words … useless words!” (p. 51, ellipses original)  Nikolai, who tries to keep the peace between them, is in awe of Bazarov’s intellect, although uneasy about his influence on Arkady.  

 

Fenichka is the 23-year-old servant with whom the widowed Nikolai has fathered another son.  Pavel begins visiting her, seeing in her the late princess, which makes Fenichka uneasy.  Bazarov will also be captivated by her.  Despite the unwarranted attention from the men, Fenichka remains true to Nikolai, impressing Pavel, who encourages his brother to marry her. 

 

In this deeply layered novel, even the secondary and “walk-on” characters are interesting, such as the town leader who is “a progressive … and a despot, as so often happens in Russia.” (p. 62)

 

About a third of the way into the narrative, readers are introduced to two other key characters, Anna Sergeyevna Odintsova, a young widow from a marriage of convenience, who is “an independent-minded woman and very determined” (p. 81) and her younger sister, Katya.  

 

Arkady becomes besotted with Anna, but she, who had “no preconceived ideas, nor strong beliefs [,]” is fascinated by Bazarov. “She found something different in him that she had never come across before, and she was curious.” (p. 91) Bazarov is also attracted to Anna, but tormented by his feelings, considering romantic love to be nonsense.  He claims his attitude is to get what he wants from a woman or drop her, but he has difficulty doing either with Anna. Their conversations and interactions are a central part of the story.

 

The two young men visit Bazarov’s parents, Vasily and Arina, after his long absence.  The father is a country doctor and the mother “… a real Russian gentlewoman … [of the type from] two hundred years earlier … pious and emotional…” (p. 125) They are overjoyed to see their son, but the father is outwardly restrained so as not to upset his son.  Vasily doesn’t want their guest, Arkady, to feel sorry that they live “in the wilds” because for “a thinking person, there’s no such thing as the wilds.” Vasily does, though, try “to keep up with modern times.” (p. 121) Bazarov sees his parents as happy, not bothered by what he thinks is the insignificance of human life—“this atom…” (p. 131)

 

With Anna focused on Bazarov, Arkady turns to Katya in consolation.  He soon realizes that Katya is as independent as her sister but more reserved.  She tells him that Bazarov is a wild animal while the two of them are tame.  As Katya and Arkady spend more time together, Anna mistakenly assumes their relationship is “like brother and sister.” (p. 187)

 

The story continues with the fates of the three couples and the narrator’s update of other characters at the end.

 

This reviewer’s sketch of Fathers and Children (or Sons) cannot do justice to the richness of Turgenev’s great novel.   

lernet_baron_bagge_cover rgb.jpeg

Baron Bagge by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, trans. Richard & Clara Winston

 

Set in the European Eastern Theater during World War One (1915), Baron Bagge (1936; English trans. 1956) is not the usual battlefield story.  The novella combines elements of quest and romance in a dreamlike tale of the liminal state between life and death (Bagge at the Bardo, perhaps):  “between these dreams [of death and life] bridges lead back and forth, and who may truly say what is death and what life, or where the space and time between them begin and end?” (p. 61)

 

From an aristocratic Austrian family, Bagge is first lieutenant in a cavalry squad stationed in eastern Hungary.  The commanding office, Captain von Semler-Wasserneuberg, “was considered a temperamental, unpredictable character, and … some … bluntly called him a fool.”  (p. 5) Outwardly charming, Sesmler was unreliable at critical moments. The second lieutenants are young Karl Maltitz and Hamilton, a volunteer from Kentucky, with most of the 120 men being Galician Poles.

 

Bagge’s squad is assigned to locate Russian troops in the Carpathian Mountains.  As the regiments depart the troops’ red pants from a distance made the snowy land appear “to be sprinkled with tiny drops of blood.” (p. 8)  The barren landscape they traverse is bereft of people or villages but when darkness descends Semler refuses to halt across the unknown territory.  Deep in the night, they stop at a village whose residents greet them cheerfully but report seeing no Russians.  

 

However, the next morning, a lieutenant on reconnaissance for another squadron reports “heavy fire from the bridge that crosses the Ondava River…” (p. 15)  Semler decides it is only a few sentries, so orders his regiment to attack.  Alarmed by the suicidal mission, Lt. Bagge confronts Semler who “choked back his rage.” (p. 16) Bagge would remember little of the details of the brief skirmish except amazement at its apparent success.  Bagge apologizes to Semler for his previous remarks and congratulates him on the victory.  Semler is gracious and humble.  The second lieutenants express no surprise at the triumph or Semler’s changed mood.  “There are some things you can’t be told,” says Maltitz. (p. 24)

 

At the village, Bagge is surprised to be greeted with a kiss from Charlotte Szent-Király, the daughter of his late mother’s friend whom he has not seen since she was a child, but he falls in love at first sight.  The joyous reception at her home is tempered by news that her mother had been killed in a previous attack by Circassians.  However, the family, like the other villagers, insist there are no enemies nearby, which reconnaissance will verify.  Over several days, the family and the village treat the troops to feasts and other festivities.  Bagge wonders, “How … can any of this be possible?” (p. 37)

 

Despite leaving no guard on duty, Semler is determined to locate the Russians.  Disbelieving the negative reports from reconnaissance, the captain orders a departure, which Charlotte begs Bagge not to join.  They are married in a macabre wedding the night of the departure.  As the troops descend into the valley, “from the bed of the river a strange glow rose up to us … like the ocean’s phosphorescence, and … the ground … began to shine … even the riders and horses emanated an unnatural light … as though a candle were burning behind each man.” (p. 59)  The spell is broken by enemy fire and Bagge awakens in a hospital.  

 

For this reader, the spell continued.  Baron Bagge is bewitching tale of beauty, love, tragedy, and mystery.


From an aristocratic Austrian family, author Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897-1976) served as a cavalry officer in World War One and in the 1920s became a successful, versatile playwright and poet.  In the 1930s, he wrote adventure and detective fiction, such as I Was Jack Mortimer, and short stories.  His novel The Standard (or The Glory is Departed, 1936) examines Serbian military unrest in 1918.  A later novel, Count Luna (1956), a dark comedy set mainly in post-World War Two Austria, is often considered Lernet-Holenia’s finest work.

s695712450413155821_p126_i3_w665.jpeg

One Hundred Visions of War, Julien Vocance, trans. Alfred Nicol, pref. Dana Gioia

 

World War One, or the Great War as it was called at the time, is much studied by historians, and inspired excellent novels and poems.  A distinctive contribution to the latter is Julien Vocance’s One Hundred Visions of War (first edition, 1916), a collection of some of the first haiku written in the West and based on his experience with trench warfare while in the French infantry.  Vocance (1878-1954) was stationed in eastern France where casualties were astronomically high along the Western Front, which did not move beyond 10 miles in either direction for more than three years (fall 1914-spring 1918).  

 

As poet Dan Gioia remarks in his valuable introduction, “Post-war France was a nation full of the blind, the crippled, the scarred, and the shell-shocked.” (p. v) Vocance’s poems are translated skillfully into English by American poet Alfred Nicol (Wiseblood Books, 2022).  In his introduction, Nicol explains that he uses the traditional 5-7-5 syllabic pattern of haiku, which Vocance did not.  

 

Although what the poems depict is troubling, their insight and beauty, with touches of sardonic humor, make reading them worthwhile.  As Gioia concludes, “Few works of such audacious originality are so accessible and emotionally engaging.” (p. ix)

 

Here are some excerpts:

 

Just pulled my head in,

there’s a mosquito whine and

the ridge collapses.

 

At ground level

fifteen days, I recognize

every clump and weed.

 

Iron gray, lead gray,

ash gray, resignation gray …

Let’s spruce this place up!

 

Castles from legends,

market towns from old etching, 

all razed in one day.

 

Lark, that song of yours

is obscene!  But no, it’s just

Nature’s indifference.

 

Terror in his eyes, 

his own death snarling at him,

he bolts from the trench.

 

Cla cla cla cla cla …

—like a skeleton counting

fingers on its teeth.

 

A beautiful glow! …

Put your hands on your eyelids

to protect yourself.

 

This is the realm where

shadows feel their way along

through an endless night.

 

He’s left the battle,

the old vet.  The post-war years

will tear him to shreds.

 

Two rows of trenches,

Two lines of barbed-wire fences:

Civilization

aleck.jpeg

The Life and Passion of Aleck Maury by Caroline Gordon

 

First published in 1934 as Aleck Maury, Sportsman, the novel was republished in 2020 by Cluny Press under author Caroline Gordon’s preferred title, The Life and Passion of Aleck Maury. It follows the titular character from childhood through old age focusing on his passions for hunting and fishing. 

 

Although those subjects may not usually interest many readers, including this reviewer, the book is so well written and revealing of a sportsman’s world in the late-19th-early-20th century that it holds one’s attention.  The author convincingly embodies the male protagonist to convey his enthusiasm for, his diagnosing and overcoming obstacles in, as well as the accoutrements and cultures of the sports.

 

Aleck Maury grew up “lonely in the midst of … a large family” (p. 2) on a Virginia farm.  His mother died when he was five and his father saw that his children received a basic classical education but otherwise was inattentive to them.  At age 10, Aleck moves in with his Uncle James and his wife, Victoria, who continues the boy’s education.  

 

Aleck’s lifelong passion begins at age eight when a servant takes him possum hunting.  The next year, he starts fishing for bream with Mr. Jones, the local miller.  While living at Uncle James’ farm, 13-year-old Aleck is allowed to take part in a fox hunt, an episode which is engagingly written in finely hewn prose, but unsettling in the treatment of the dogs and fox. 

 

The novel effectively relates Aleck’s emotional maturation, occasional tragedies, and the effects of aging.  On “[a] fine morning … in early fall with the wind right and rime blue on the leaves…” when his uncle, an avid horseman, is now “too heavy to ride,” 13-year-old Aleck “realized that man comes up like a weed and perishes. … Foreboding rushed over me.” (p. 36)  Years later, when a family tragedy causes his wife to become remote, he was “aware of an odd formality … as if we were all on a stage, under the eyes of a somber, a hostile audience.” (p. 121)

 

Aleck attends the University of Virginia, but leaves to work on a Missouri River survey crew, then as a clerk in the Seattle city engineer’s office, and next as a day laborer on a California ranch, where he contracts typhoid.  While recovering at a cousin’s house in Kansas City, he gets a job as a tutor for a family in Tennessee.  “It was as if I had come home, after long wanderings.”  He eventually marries the older daughter, Molly.

 

Correcting the assumption that fishing is a way to kill time, Aleck counters that it is “one of unremitting, exhausting effort.” (p. 74)  Yet he is also struck by its beauty, as when he describes a pool “ indelibly imprinted on my memory … [with] the most beautiful eddy I have ever seen …for some minutes [I] feasted my eyes on the sight…” (p. 76).  Similarly when hunting:  “the blades of sedge grass grew fine and feathery at the tip … and the leaves that fluttered down from the gum tree … were incredibly variegated; pale mauve, clear scarlet, one leaf of a strange bluish color shot with purple.” (pp. 91-92)

 

After starting his own school in Tennessee, Aleck’s teaching career will culminate with a teaching position at a college in the Ozarks region of Missouri.  The book then follows him into retirement and old age.  “I have learned … in the course of a long life … to be patient … [and] to go ahead sometimes on faith.” (p. 153)

 

Novelist and short-story writer Caroline Gordon was born in Virginia in 1895.  Her father, a teacher, later established a school in Tennessee.  After graduating from Bethany College (W. VA, 1916), she briefly worked as a schoolteacher and reporter.  In 1925, she married Allen Tate, one of the “Fugitive” poets associated with Vanderbilt University.  The couple lived in New York City, London, and Paris before settling in Clarksville, Tennessee.  They divorced and remarried in the mid-1940s and divorced again in 1959 but remained friends.  She eventually moved to California, where she died of a stroke in 1981.

 

In 1932, Gordon won a Guggenheim Fellowship and took second place in the O. Henry Prize for short stories.  She is part of the Southern Renaissance literary movement, which includes William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, and Margaret Mitchell.  Gordon was an influence on Southern writers Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.  


Gordon published nine novels, along with literary criticism, three short-story collections, and co-authored with Tate The House of Fiction, an influential anthology widely used as a textbook.  In 1989, The New Criterion profiled her literary accomplishments.  The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon was published in hardcover in 1981 and republished in paperback in 2009.

51mo8b2ep1S._AC_SY780_.jpg

The Socratic Method:  A Practitioner’s Handbook by Ward Farnsworth 

 

Given the cacophony of contemporary culture and the continuing decline of educational standards, Ward Farnworth’s The Socratic Method:  A Practitioner’s Handbook (2021) is an excellent refresher course in civil discourse and the search for truth.  In an enlightened society it would be recommended reading within the halls of academe.  Or perhaps an enlightened society wouldn’t need it.  We do.

 

Farnsworth is Dean of the University of Texas School of Law and author of The Practicing Stoic, the Farnsworth’s Classical English series, and scholarly law books.  His The Socratic Method succeeds in presenting the complex material of the Socratic Dialogues in a concise, compelling way for the general reader.

 

The Socratic method is usually considered a style of teaching via a dialogue of questions-and-answers, which it is.  However, Farnsworth contends it is also  “… a style of thought.  It is a help toward intelligence and an antidote to stupidity.” (p. vii)  He emphasizes that the Socratic method can be used, perhaps mainly, as an interior dialogue of self-examination, “to engage in skeptical questioning of yourself” (p. 39) to test one’s own ideas and principles:  to know yourself, as the ancient Greeks would say. 

 

The book begins with “The Socratic Problem” in which Farnsworth discusses the sources of our information about Socrates and the debate over to what extent those sources reflect the teaching of Socrates, who never wrote anything himself.  Farnsworth argues that whatever position one takes on that question (his is moderate) the method disclosed in the dialogues retains its validity and vitality for gaining understanding and approaching truth.

 

In the Socratic method, the questioner should: (1) not impose views but ask questions to understand the other person’s point; (2) focus on inconsistencies, gently guiding the dialogue partner to realize them; bad ideas, though, can be consistent, so it’s important to (3) identify the principle underlying what the dialogue partner is saying; (4) use concrete examples of ordinary people and situations; and (5) don’t claim expertise.  

 

Often the Socratic Dialogues end without an answer or open other questions.  However, that reveals an important point:  truth tends to be complex and moving toward it is often slow.  When Socrates claimed to know nothing, he meant nothing with absolute certainty.  Truth claims are always provisional, open to testing for confirmation or refutation.  “Socrates has a rare combination of beliefs:  confidence that truth exists, but humility about whether he knows it.”  Farnsworth points out “how strangely common the reverse has become.” (p. 69)

 

Chapters include “Socratic Rules for Dialogue,” “Socratic Goods,” “Finding Principles,” “Testing Principles,” comparisons with the Stoics and Skeptics (both ancient groups different from common use of those terms today), as well as various dialogic elements, such as “Consistency” and “Analogies.”

515qzfpkWTL._AC_SY780_.jpg

Phantoms of Breslau by Marek Krajewski, trans. by Danusia Stok

 

When the butchered, naked bodies of four men are discovered in the Oder River, a message indicates their deaths are in retaliation for a past mistake by Criminal Assistant Inspector Eberhard Mock.  As other deaths occur of people Mock interviews, it becomes clear that the serial murderer is following the inspector.   He’s removed from the case officially but continues to pursue the killer.  

 

Set in the German city of Breslau (the post-1945 Polish city of Wroclaw), this noir crime novel depicts the decadence and corruption of the Weimar Republic.  Mock, a World War One veteran, feels “[t]rapped in a tedious existence, between booking prostitutes, alcoholic delirium and the superhuman effort it took to continue to show his father respect … He was already used to unhappy thoughts and his own partially feigned cynicism … But all of a sudden he was afraid for his future.” (p. 34)

 

Most of the events in Phantoms of Breslau (2005, trans. 2010) happen in September 1919 except for the opening and closing chapters, set in October 1919, plus a flashback to the war in 1916.  The book includes interesting passing references about the era, such as the novelty of wristwatches. The narrative is interspersed with chapters from the murderer’s journal notes with references to occultism and suggestions of a conspiracy. Mocks’ dreams juxtapose with reality.

 

The plot does not present many suspects, so the mastermind of the deaths may not be a surprise if the reader shares Mock’s reliance on intuition.  The emphasis of the story is on the psychology and philosophy of the protagonist:  “’Defensive pessimism is the best attitude,” he thought, ‘because the only disappointment you can suffer will be a pleasant one.’” (p. 141)

 

Polish author Marek Krajewski (b. 1966) was a professor of Classical Philology and Ancient Culture at the University of Wroclaw until 2007 when he became a full-time writer of crime novels.  Phantoms of Breslau is the third publication in his Eberhard Mock series, although set first chronologically.  Krajewski has two other series featuring Jaroslaw Pater and Edward Popielski.

513R13iktiL.jpeg

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Golden Child

 

Years ago, I enjoyed reading several of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels and recently finished her debut novel, The Golden Child (1977).  Her fictional work often depicts characters dealing with unfortunate life circumstances but is leavened with wit and evocative prose.  The Times of London in 2008 named her one of “the 50 greatest British writers since 1945” and in 2012 the book editor of the Observer chose her The Blue Flower (1995) as one of the ten best historical novels.

 

After graduating with first-class honors from Somerville College, Oxford, Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) worked for the Ministry of Food, the BBC, and then briefly co-edited with her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, the World Review journal.  In her late 50s, she began publishing her own work, beginning with biographies of pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burnes-Jones (1975) and of her father and three uncles, The Knox Brothers (1977). 

 

The Golden Child is a murder mystery that spoofs the popular Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum in 1972. It was written as an amusing diversion for her husband, who was terminally ill.  

 

The Golden Child is part of the (fictional) Golden Treasure of Garamantia (based on an actual civilization in ancient North Africa), discovered in 1913 by Sir William Simpkin.  When the story opens, he is an elderly archaeologist with a private apartment in the British Museum. The unscrupulous museum director, Sir John Allison, “immune from the necessity of being liked” (p. 14), is expecting that Sir William will leave his fortune to the museum under Sir John’s discretionary spending authority. The personalities of their secretaries echo the two men’s character clash:  Sir William’s Dousha Vartarian, voluptuous and languid, sits “curled in creamy splendour in her typing chair…” (p. 20), while Sir John’s Miss Rank, is rigidly efficient.

 

Similar to Shirley Hazzard’s skeptical look at UN bureaucracy, Fitzgerald lampoons the inner workings of the British Museum:  “I am thinking about the formation of a consultative committee to discuss the preparation of a report to recommend the appointment of a special purchasing committee.” (p. 16)  In charge of the Golden Child exhibition is Marcus Hawthorne-Mannering, recently appointed Keeper of Funerary Art but whose heart is with watercolors.  “His appointment had been … an administrative error, or perhaps a last resort…” (p. 18)

 

The Golden Child entwines multiple mysteries.  Who is distributing pamphlets warning people of the curse of the Golden Child exhibition, and why does Sir William refuse to visit it?  What is contained in the exhibition’s secret report?  What are the roles of the Hopeforth Best tobacco corporation, North African politics, and the Soviet government?  Does Sir William die naturally of a heart attack or was he murdered with colliding library stacks?

 

Unwillingly involved in unraveling these mysteries is Waring Smith, a junior exhibitions officer.  He is an unexceptional young man who worries about mortgage payments and his wife Haggie’s dislike of his late hours, yet he has “an instinct for happiness” (p. 30)  He will eventually be sent on a secret mission to consult Golden Child expert Professor Semyonov in Russia.  The journey becomes, like Churchill’s description of that country, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  It’s frustrating for Smith, but funny for readers.

 

Fitzgerald has a fitness for names and character sketches, as with the visiting French and German scholars, Dr. Tite-Live Rochegrosse-Bergson and Professor Untermensch. The suave Rochegrosse-Bergson begins his speech at the museum with 15-minute introduction, then “proceeded to a refutation of his unseen enemies. … He moved his dapper hands with the gestures of an expert laundryman. … ‘The journey of humanity is a progression neither forward nor backward but noward.’ … Amazingly enough, this arrant nonsense was eagerly taken down by the two journalists.” (pp. 50-51)  The German tendency for compound words manifests in the title of Professor Untermensch’s monograph:  Garamantischengeheimschriftendechiffrierkunst. (p. 54)

 

Other key characters include left-wing technician Len Coker, Sir William’s loyal gofer, Jones, and Police Inspector Mace.  The Golden Child is a clever, lively beginning to Fitzgerald’s literary career.

 

Fitzgerald later won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for her novel Offshore (1979) and two other novels, The Bookshop (1978) and The Gate of Angels (1990), were shortlisted for the prize. Her novel The Blue Flower (1995) won the US National Book Critics Circle Award.  She received the Golden PEN Award for “a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature” in 1999.  Her other novels are Human Voices (1980), At Freddie's (1982), Innocence (1986), and The Beginning of Spring (1988).  Her biography of poet Charlotte Mew and Friends was published in 1986, and a collection of her short stories, The Means of Escape (2000), was published posthumously.

MaudMartha.jpeg

Maud Martha (1953) by Gwendolyn Brooks

 

Poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was the first black writer awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the first black woman to serve as the Library of Congress’ poetry consultant, and was named poet laureate of Illinois.  

 

Born in Kansas, Brooks moved with her family to Chicago, where her parents encouraged her love of reading and writing.  She published her first poem at age 13 and was a regular contributor of poems to the Chicago Defender by age 17.  She attended junior college, then worked for the NAACP. Her first collection of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, was published in 1945 and four years later she won the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen.  Brooks’ poetry depicts the black urban experience in 20th century America, as does her only novel, Maud Martha (1953).

 

Maud Martha is the story of a black woman in Chicago during the first half of the 20th century.  The brief chapters, most less than five pages, convincingly convey the title character’s life events and let her personality shine through. 

 

The novella begins with polychromatic exuberance in Maud Martha’s childhood:  

 

“What she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) … the very word meadow made her breathe more deeply, and either fling her arms or want to fling her arms … rapturously up to whatever was watching in the sky.  But dandelions were what she chiefly saw.  Yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her back yard. … it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower.  And could be cherished!  To be cherished was the dearest wish of the heart of Maud Martha Brown…” (p. 1) 

 

When her family visits her dying grandmother in the hospital, Maud Martha thinks, “How alone they were, how removed from this woman, this ordinary woman who had suddenly become a queen, for whom presently the most interesting door of them all would open, who, lying [in bed] … yet towered, triumphed over them, while they stood there asking the stupid questions people ask the sick, out of awe, out of half horror, half envy.” (p. 9)

 

The family’s financial struggles are addressed obliquely when Maud Martha, her older sister, Helen, “the pretty one” (p. 21), and her mother sit on the porch waiting to see if her father gets an extension on the home loan.  Elsewhere in the narrative, young Maud Martha dreams of a richer life, envisioning herself traveling to New York and stepping out of a taxi on Fifth Avenue in silk or fur.  In adulthood, the reality will be a tiny apartment with a bathroom down the hall shared with other tenants.

 

Both racism and the color line within the black community are addressed effectively through Maud Martha’s eyes.  She compares herself with her lighter-skinned sister and intuits her boyfriend’s feelings:  “She was the whole ‘colored’ race and Charles was … the entire Caucasian plan,” (pp. 11-12)  She thinks her future husband, Paul, wants a woman who is “cream-colored” or “the color of cocoa with a lot of milk in it.  Whereas, I am the color of cocoa straight…” (p. 33)  Nevertheless, she is rightly convinced they will marry.

 

Later, the newlyweds attend a movie in a well-off white area of Chicago.  “When the picture was over, and the lights revealed them for what they were, the Negroes stood up among the furs and good cloth and faint perfume … They hoped they would meet no cruel eyes. … They had enjoyed the picture so, they were so happy, they wanted to laugh, to say warmly to the other outgoers, ‘Good, huh?  Wasn’t it swell?’  This, of course, they could not do.  But if only no one would look intruded upon.” (pp. 49-50)  

 

There will be racial incidents of word or manner, including a heartbreaking encounter with a department store Santa.  When her young daughter, Paulette, asks why he didn’t like her, “Maud Martha wanted to cry” but tries to shield the child from the hate.  “Keep her those fairies, with witches always killed at the end, and every Santa … kind…” (p. 111)

 

When chapters begin, the reader is often not certain where Brooks is going but you want to go with her.  Chapter 22, “Tradition and Maud Martha,” is a good example of the author’s ability to upend readers’ expectations and use humor effectively concerning familial relations.  It begins in serious fashion:  “What she had wanted was a solid … shimmering form; warm, but hard as stone and as difficult to break … tradition.” Then, the first paragraph’s last line reveals it’s Christmas night and Maud Martha is “passing pretzels and beer.” (p. 66)  

 

The next few pages give Maud Martha’s version of her husband Paul’s strident arguments for having his friends over on Christmas night rather than follow her family’s fancy ways.  She then lovingly remembers their traditions at holidays and birthdays.  The chapter ends sardonically, back at the gathering:  “She passed around Blatz [beer], and inhaled the smoke of the guests’ cigarettes, and watched the soaked tissue that had enfolded the corner Chicken’s Inn’s burned barbecue drift listlessly to her rug.  She removed from her waist the arm of … Paul’s best friend.” (p. 69) 

 

With wit and wisdom, Brooks persuasively shares the life of Maud Martha with readers.  It’s a gift to be treasured.

shirl1.jpg
flowers1.jpg

People in Glass Houses by Shirley Hazzard

 

The previous update featured a biographical sketch and review of Shirley Hazzard’s excellent novel The Great Fire (2003).  She was also a skilled short-story writer, which shows clearly in People in Glass Houses (1967).  Although the Picador edition (2004) has “a novel” in small print on the cover, the book is usually and more accurately categorized as a series of interrelated short stories. 

 

People in Glass Houses reveals Hazzard’s talent for humor, particularly impressive for being so different from the historical romance of The Great Fire, yet both share psychological and sociological insight.  People in Glass Houses is a satire of the United Nations (referred to as “the Organization”), based on the author’s decade working there.  However, its acute understanding can be applied to any bureaucratic organization, public or private, a point the author makes explicit in several places.

 

People in Glass Houses consists of wonderful character sketches told in eight stories or chapters.  It opens with a spoof of bureaucratic language:  “Mr. Bekkus frequently misused the word ‘hopefully’.  He also made a point of saying ‘locate’ instead of ‘find’, ‘utilize’ instead of ‘use’, and never lost an opportunity to indicate or communicate; and would slip in a ‘basically’ when he felt unsure of his ground.” (p. 9)

 

A major theme of the stories is how large bureaucracies stifle creativity and individuality:  “the Organization … [had] no room for personalities, and … its hope for survival lay, like that of all organizations, in the subordination of individual gifts to general procedures.” (p. 16)  In the first story, Lidia is chastised by Miss Bass for “respond[ing] emotionally, not pragmatically. … Miss Bass was one of those who find it easy and even gratifying to direct fraternal feelings towards large numbers of people living at great distances … ‘You don’t relate to them as individuals.’  In Miss Bass’s mouth the very word ‘individuals’ denoted legions.” (pp. 28-29)

 

The second story, “The Flowers of Sorrow,” begins with the Organization’s “Nordic” leader, obviously based on UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-1961), departing from the prepared script of his speech to UN employees to add a poetic metaphor.  “Words like joy and, more especially, sorrow … were particularly unlooked-for on Staff Day, when the Organization was at its most impersonal.  The lifted faces—faces of a certain fatigued assiduity … dinted with the pressure of administrative detail, suggested habitual submergence … responded with a faint, corporate quiver.”  (p. 33) Much of the rest of the story is how various staff react, mainly negatively, to the poetic aberration, despite their sustained applause for the speech:  “the ovation continued a little longer without reference to the content of the speech, although some staff members were already filing out and others had begun their complaints while still applauding.” (p. 34)

 

A related theme is how the bureaucracy tends to change the character of its members for the worse.  Tong is beaming when he delivers news that another employee’s contract will be terminated.  Although he was “[n]ot naturally malicious, he had developed rapidly since entering bureaucracy.” (p. 20) Patricio Rodriguez-O’Hearn, a manager with DALTO—the Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented—was a man of culture who had wanted to be a concert pianist.  Yet, he will mimic the corporate jargon and craven behavior of Bekkus.

 

The obtuseness of those imposing the Organization’s idealistic aims on reluctant peoples is sardonically observed, a reminder that internationalism sometimes seems not so different from colonialism.  Concluding a presentation on the work of the Civic Coordination Programme, Edrich notes, “[t]hese aspiration may be difficult to establish in a society where there has been no evolution of attitudes or change in value orientation …” (p. 49)  

 

Achilles Pylos, new head of a department to aid “retarded nations,” sincerely wants to help those in need, but wonders about the DALTO mandates that “seemed to justify almost anything … once a country had admitted its backwardness, it could … not accept a box of pills without accepting, in principle, an atomic reactor.  Progress was a draught that must be drained to the last bitter drop.” (pp. 102-103]  Despite misgivings, he was “obliged to participate in … far-reaching decisions concerning countries of whose language … customs … religion … politics … [and] history…” he was ignorant. (p. 103)

 

Although the last two stories are less successful than the rest of the collection, both still contain patches of Hazzard’s perceptive wit.  In the penultimate chapter, the only one set abroad (in Rhodes), the taxi driver assumes the newly arrived Organization worker is affiliated with NATO.  When she explains that her group’s mission is not military but peacekeeping, he “shrugged at this subtlety.” (p. 134)

 

Having now enjoyed reading two very different books by Shirley Hazzard, she is certainly a candidate for the “favorite authors” category, and I look forward to exploring her work further.

900916.jpeg

Link to: Short Stories Page

The Great Fire by Shirtley Hazzard 

Writer Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016) was born in Australia and spent part of her youth in New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Italy, the latter of which would become her second home in adulthood. At the age of 20, she settled in New York City and worked at the United Nations (1952-1962) until gaining literary success for her short stories, novels, and non-fiction.

 

Patrick Kurp, author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence, describes Hazzard as “a writer whose acuity of perception, moral rigor and fineness of sensibility invite the flattering but misunderstood label ‘Jamesian.’”  In 2008, Kurp agreed with British journalist and author Brian Appleyard’s designation of Hazzard (before her death) as “the greatest living writer on goodness and love.”

 

In 1961, Hazzard published her first short story in The New Yorker and two years later her first short-story collection, Cliffs of Fall, which was praised by critics.  Based on her UN experience the short story collection People in Glass Houses (1967) comprises wonderful character sketches that satirize “The Organization.”

 

Hazzard’s first two novels were set in Italy, The Evening of the Holiday (1966) and The Bay of Noon (1970), the latter of which was shortlisted for the prestigious National Book Award.  Her novel The Transit of Venus (1980) earned the National Book Critics Circle award and has been called “a stylistic tour de force” (Encyl. Br.).  Her final novel, The Great Fire (2003), received the National Book Award.  She also published nonfiction, including two books about the United Nations, a memoir of her friend and fellow author Graham Greene, and essays about Naples.

 

The Great Fire (2003) is set mainly in 1947, two years after World War Two, although with earlier events remembered mostly by the main character, Aldred Leith, a British military officer.  In 1945, he was assigned to write an official report on China to which he added Japan.  The story opens in 1947 as he is traveling to a Japanese island near Hiroshima as a base for writing his report and to tutor the two younger children of Brigadier General Driscoll, a tough soldier and authoritarian father.  

 

When Leith first sees Driscoll, he is emerging from a pond, “… his body was corded by evidence of past exploits, muscles and sinews pushing up through tissue, as roots of an old tree might displace a pavement—the impression confirmed by a trunkfish neck, seared by pale creases.” (p. 26)  The general’s wife is described as having “A piping voice, active with falsity.” (p. 28)  

 

Driscoll’s 20-year-old son, Ben (Benedict), suffers from a debilitating, fatal disease, and daughter Helen is nearing her 18th birthday.  Both youths are bright, well educated, eager to learn, and being quite different from their parents, have developed a close bond.  At the heart of the novel is the slowly developing romance between 32-year-old Leith and Helen. “The Great Fire” refers both to their love and to World War Two.

 

An important background character is Leith’s austere father, an acclaimed writer. “His father had, at most, tinkered with the parental role, taking it up sporadically like a neglected hobby and allowing it to lapse.  Meanwhile, the son had cultivated independence—and valued it highly..." (p. 128) Following one’s heart even if contrary to the expectations of family, particularly represented by fathers, and society is a key theme of the novel.

 

Brian Talbot is Leith’s 20-year-old military driver. “A dozen years apart in age, they were conclusively divided by war.  The young soldier, called to arms as guns fell silent, was at peace with this superior—civil and comradely, scarcely saluting or saying Sir, formalities no longer justified.  Intuitively, too, they shared the unease of conquerors:  the unseemliness of finding themselves few miles from Hiroshima.” (p. 8)

 

An important narrative thread is the fate of Leith’s friend Peter Exley, bookish and unlucky.  From his youth, Peter has been interested in art, to the concern of his father who wants him to be a lawyer, but Peter realizes he does not have the talent.  He also knows he must decide his future before he sees his parents again.  “When we’re indecisive, yes, the wishes of others gain.” (p. 146)

 

Now stationed in Hong Kong, Exley is assigned to interrogate a Japanese officer charged with atrocities against POWs.  When a Dutch-Javanese merchant ship captain tells Exley his happiness at having tricked and sunk a German U-boat, Exley wonders if the Japanese officer felt similarly.  

 

Exley will develop a relationship with his typist, Rita Xavier, a Portuguese Eurasian, whose mixed heritage is derided by the other women in the office.  “He realized how few choices she had—intermarriage in the small community, or the nunnery.  Or the marginal position in the ill-paid office.” (p. 189)  However, Peter understands that “He and Rita were dealing not in passion or dispassion but with a proposal of shared resignation.  If he married her, he would perform an unresisting selfish action without pleasing himself in the least.” (p. 231)

 

Other notable characters include Aurora, lover of the father and years before of Aldred in his younger adulthood (another May-December romance but with the genders reversed), and Audrey Fellowes, a journalist who befriends Aldred Leith and Peter Exley.  “She [Audrey] was observant, intelligent, amusing, and asked questions that were acute without being assertive.” (p. 144)  

 

Hazzard’s The Great Fire is a novel filled with beautiful prose, emotional insight, and a panoply of memorable characters set during a watershed time in human history.

book123.jpeg

The Works of Love by Wright Morris 

 

Dedicated in part to Sherwood Anderson, Wright Morris’ novel The Works of Love (1949) follows the life of a curious character, Will Brady (William Jennings Brady) of Nebraska.  As his son will ask, “Why are you so different?” (p. 147)  Although rooted in the Midwest, the protagonist is not at home anywhere, except hotel lobbies, and has trouble making lasting connections with people.  His life could be characterized as sad, but the story is leavened with wry wit and very well written.  

 

Will’s circuitous path in life is the result of drifting compliantly where events take him interspersed with impetuous acts of instinct, often influenced by the sales pitch of others.  Readers are not given access to Will’s inner reflections, but through oblique references come to understand him better over the course of the novel, which follows the course of his life. 

 

Set mainly in Nebraska, The Works of Love opens with a beautifully evocative paragraph.

 

 “In the dry places, men begin to dream.  Where the rivers run sand, there is something in man that begins to flow.  West of the 98th Meridian—where it sometimes rains and it sometimes doesn’t—towns, like weeds, spring up when it rains, dry up when it stops.  …  The withered towns are empty, but not uninhabited.  Faces sometimes peer out from the broken windows, or whisper from the sagging balconies, as if this place—now that it is dead—had come to life.  As if empty it is forever occupied.  One of these towns … was Indian Bow.” (p. 3)

 

There, Will Brady’s father, Adam Brady, lived alone in a sod house until he advertised for a wife, marrying Caroline Clayton of Indiana.  Will was born 10 months later.  His father died four years later while repairing a windmill.  When Will was a teenager, his mother, who had always hated the “godforsaken hole,” died shortly after deciding to return to Indiana.  (p. 12)  Young Will then went to work for Emil Burton, the station master.  Will did not drink, smoke, gamble, swear, or talk much.

 

The second chapter begins with Will departing a train at the town of Calloway.  At the hotel, Will accepts the job of night clerk.  Hotel lobbies will play a major role in his adult life:  “Only in hotel lobbies was Will Brady at home.” (p. 170)  They are liminal spaces between “the real world, where nothing much ever happens, to the unreal world where anything might happen—and sometimes does.” (p. 173)

 

On his night off, Will visits Opal Mason, an older woman, who has become his lover at the local bordello. When he eventually asks her to marry him, she laughs.  Leaving the room, he offers to marry any of the younger prostitutes.  One suggests Mickey, about 15 or 16 years old, but she slaps him and says she’s already married.  He gives her the engagement ring, anyway.  Mickey later leaves for Omaha with Popkov, a station hand.  The next spring, Will is called to the railroad station to pick up an American Express package.  It’s a baby boy with a tag reading:  “My name is Will Brady.”  Although not the father, Will accepts the role.  Unfortunately, it will turn out he has little paternal skill.

 

When the boy is three, Will returns from a trip and sees the funeral for his employer, the hotel owner.  The widow, Ethel, lifts her veil to eye him.  Thereafter, Will drives the widow to church and cuts her grass.  She says the place needs a man, and Will says a man with a boy needs a home.  They honeymoon in Colorado Springs, but in the hotel room, his wife wraps herself in the sheet and doesn’t move or speak.  Not having experience with a married woman, Will thought it might be normal for a wedding night or for widows or foreign women (she’s Czech).  After two weeks, she gave up the sheet, and “he recognized it for what it was.  A compliment.  Perhaps the highest he had ever been paid.” (p. 55)

 

Back in Calloway, Will sleeps in the spare room, where he sees the railroad tracks and semaphores and hears the clicking sound.  At the hotel, the head of the Union Pacific commissary in Omaha, Luckett, tells Will he’s wasting his time in Calloway, and he mentions the commissary needs fresh eggs.  Will accepts a job and ten acres in Murdoch to raise chickens.  He had never thought of himself as “an up-can-coming man … or whether what he was doing or not doing was wasting his time.  He simply did it. … But it doesn’t take a man long to acquire a taste for the better things.  All he needs are these things.  They taste comes naturally.” (p. 59)  He prospers from an economic boom during World War One.

 

In his new house, Will and his wife live in separate sections, although she cares for his clothes and him when sick.  The children (she also had a boy) seemed to live with the neighbors or under the porch.  Will’s farm with 5000 chicken was an attraction to locals, who sometimes brought picnic baskets to watch.

 

Once a month, Will went to Omaha on business.  In the hotel lobby, he watched the cigar girl, Gertrude Long, roll dice for men to see if they could win a cigar.  He takes the cigar girl to the park and other venues, and they eventually have an affair.  Meanwhile, Will’s boy starts engaging in strange behavior, going pant-less, drinking vinegar, and sticking his hair in tar.  Will returns from Omaha to find a note from his wife, briefly stating she has left with her son.  He had previously wondered about his girlfriend but never about his wife and their marriage.

 

Will and his son move to the Wellington Hotel in Omaha, where the son spends time either in the lobby playing checkers with an old man or in the phone booth talking to the cigar girl.  Once a week, Will takes his son to places he thought boys like to go.  Will would call him in the phone booth.  “’This is your father, son,’ Will Brady would say, in the sober voice of a father, but he never had the feeling that the boy was impressed.  He didn’t believe it any more than Willy Brady did himself.” (p. 98) Will marries the cigar girl and they move into the Murdock house.  “The boy and girl—that was what he called them—lived … [in the] master bedroom…” (p. 116) while he lived in the basement:  “he sometimes marveled at this strange fellow, Will Jennings Brady…” (p. 118)

 

Although Will had been asked many times what would happen if a hen got sick, he didn’t know the answer.  When it occurred, people came from all over to watch the chicken die.  Experts said nothing could be done.  Then, the dying stopped, for no apparent reason, leaving 127 alive.  Moving his family back to Omaha, Will spends Sunday afternoons with them in the parlor, where the boy plays player piano rolls backwards and the girl plays solitary card games on the floor. 

 

Other mornings, Will got out of bed at 6:30 to drive to his chicken business.  His wife called twice a day to let him know what movie she and the boy were seeing.  After lunch at the restaurant across from his business, Will stood on the curb, where people would stop to talk to him. “He seldom interrupted to say anything himself.  He neither heard anything worth recounting nor said anything worth repeating, but he gave strangers the feeling that one of these days he might.  He was highly respected and said to be wise in the ways of the world.”  (pp. 132-133)

 

Some evenings Will spends in his office and some in the candling room (where eggs are monitored). One evening, he reads his son’s book Journey to the Moon.  He notices the moon and goes outside, looking at the growing city. “Without carrying things too far, he felt himself made part of the lives of these people, even part of the dreams that they were having …” (pp. 134-135) He then thinks of himself as “a traveler, something of an explorer …” but that “he did even stranger things than the men in books.” (p. 135) He wonders about the people he sees by the moonlight in their homes, and how they are more mysterious, “stranger than the moon …” (p. 136)

 

When Will took his wife and son to eat at restaurants, they would sit together and look at him “as if he were an imposter.  A father, one who didn’t know what being a father was like, and a lover, one who didn’t know much about love.  More or less hopeless.  For different reasons they both pitied him.” (pp. 147-148)

 

Over the second half of the novel, his second wife will leave him, returning temporarily later, and his son will be taken in by neighbors.  Will moves into a hotel before going on a round-trip train journey to Cheyenne.  When he does not get off the train at Omaha as planned, the conductor asks where he’s going.  “Well, he hadn’t made up his mind.  He was going where the train was going, and when that turned out to be Chicago, he implied that was all right with him.  All the roads seemed to lead to Chicago, so there was no reason why Will Brady, who followed the roads, shouldn’t go where they led.” (pp. 213-214)  

 

In the poignant final section, the now elderly Will takes a room in the Plinski family’s apartment, rides the Chicago streetcars, visits hotel lobbies, works nights sorting waybills in a fright yard tower room, and, finally, takes a job as a department store Santa Claus.

 

Wright Morris’s other literary work should certainly be worth exploring.  He won the National Book Award in 1956 for The Field of Vision and the American Book Award in 1981 for his last novel, Plains Song.  In 2019, he was lauded in The New York Times as “a writer who specializes in ‘American oddness.’”

bottom of page