Thursday, October 27, 2011

Berlin Winters

The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris and  Goodbye to BerlinThe Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris and  Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Berlin Stories, upon which the musical Cabaret was based, pairs two novels by Christopher Isherwood.  Both were inspired by his experiences as an English expatriate in Berlin in the early 1930s.  The second 'novel' (if it really is a novel), Goodbye to Berlin, is in my view far superior to the first, The Last of Mr. Norris (I would skip it), but both contain extraordinarily vivid prose, and Goodbye to Berlin is a paragon of modern realism and one of my very favorite books.

Particularly in the description of human behaviors, Isherwood exhibits a genius for metaphor, with which he makes the unknown world of the narrator materialize before your eyes by comparison to something known.  E.g.: "She wore a bandage round her throat, tight under the high collar of her old-fashioned black dress.  She seemed a nice old lady, but somehow slightly obscene, like an old dog with sores."   Or this description of a Berlin winter (this is actually from Mr. Norris): “Like a long train which stops at every dingy little station, the winter dragged slowly past.”  He fashions many unforgettable images of 1930s Berlin in winter, in fact, and they've become emblazoned in my mind as omens of world war:

Tonight, for the first time this winter, it is very cold. The dead cold grips the town in utter silence, like the silence of intense midday summer heat. In the cold the town seems actually to contract, to dwindle to a small black dot, scarcely larger than hundreds of other dots, isolated and hard to find, on the enormous European map. Outside, in the night, beyond the last new-built blocks of concrete flats, where the streets end in frozen allotment gardens, are the Prussian plains. You can feel them all round you, tonight, creeping in upon the city, like an immense waste of unhomely ocean—sprinkled with leafless copses and ice-lakes and tiny villages which are remembered only as the outlandish names of battlefields in half-forgotten wars. Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching. I feel in my bones the sharp ache of the frost in the girders of the overhead railway, in the ironwork of balconies, in bridges, tramlines, lamp-standards, latrines. The iron throbs and shrinks, the stone and the bricks ache dully, the plaster is numb. Goodbye to Berlin (The Berlin Stories), p. 186

Isherwood also shows what use can be made of adjectives, which are often abstract and dead on the page.  Isherwood's, by contrast, are often unexpected and helpful to the imagination because of their specificity.  He sets a hoity-toity dinner table not with silver and port, but with "historic" silver and "legendary" port.  And check out the modifier on snow in this sentence: "They drew back--harmless, after all, as mere ghosts--into the darkness, while our bus, with a great churning of its wheels, lurched forward towards the city, through the deep unseen snow."  Ironically the word "unseen" makes the moment seeable for any reader who's had a nighttime bus ride or been outdoors in the countryside on a winter night.

His character sketches have an uncommonly persuasive depth psychology to them, and the figures in the book are hence both real and very moving.  And while some might find Goodbye to Berlin too meandering, I think Isherwood has loaded the vignettes with story, albeit realistic story, life-problems.  Some of the characters also recur so that the novel itself does feel like it has a story arc.  Finally, Isherwood scales individual lives against the backdrop of history--all in all a very impressive work, a real piece of art, and in that old childish sense, I didn't want it to end.  I had that rare feeling of having experienced real people for a couple of hundred pages.  To me that is the gold standard of literary art--whether the author has successfully created beings of sufficient complexity, nuance, detail, and verisimilitude to seem real.  Sometimes it seems to me that works that do this particularly well are under-appreciated, precisely because of their ability to create a persuasive fictional dream without calling attention to the writer's artifice.  It's as though the characters really exist and the author had nothing to do with it, or is only to be called on the carpet for mistreating these real people he calls his characters or choosing the wrong people to be in his book.  Please do not make this mistake with prose master Christopher Isherwood.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Dog's Dog

Ribsy (Henry, #6)Ribsy by Beverly Cleary

No one but Jack London, perhaps, has ever written so convincingly from a dog’s point of view as has Beverly Cleary in Ribsy. Like most dogs, Ribsy seems charmingly brain damaged. His loyalties are permanent but also have a happy-go-lucky fluidity that embraces many; he forgets to be ashamed for very long; and forgets discouragement. He’s in a word dogged.

When he’s ashamed, he rarely knows what he did wrong, and moves on with admirable alacrity. He solves problems with the tools he has at hand, for example, waiting. This is how he deals with young Ramona Quimby, who constantly irritates him. There’s waiting and there’s also trying, again and again. There’s subterfuge. At one point he feigns sleep, waits for a ticket-taker to walk away, and then sneaks into a stadium—I think in pursuit of hot dogs. Wittgenstein said that a dog is incapable of hypocrisy, but he never met Ribsy. I assume he had met a hot dog somewhere along the line since Wittgenstein was from Vienna, hometown of the original wiener.

Wittgenstein, Cleary, and Jack London aren’t alone in imagining what it is to be man’s best friend. Franz Kafka’s short story, “Investigations of a Dog,” predictably imagines a dog in rebellion against his own nature, a dog apart from other dogs, a dog who’s uncomfortable being a dog. Ribsy is by contrast one of those unquestioning dogs that Kafka’s tormented narrator would have envied. Kafka was famously not at home in his body and with his instincts. He is the greatest of artists devoted to that problem Freud named Civilization and Its Discontents, and it makes sense that Kafka chose the dog as a representative creature who (except for his unusual narrator) is content, in direct proportion to his incivility. My grandfather called all dogs “he,” and I always felt this had something to do with their incivility. There’s something unfussy about drinking out of a toilet.

Jack London’s White Fang, however, who’s three parts wolf and one part domestic dog, shares in the Kafkaesque dog’s alienation from his own species and in his struggles with the yoke of civilization. A harsh Indian master called Grey Beaver gives White Fang his first taste of civilization, and White Fang learns to revere human beings as gods. But he doesn’t feel at home with the civilization forced upon him in the company of men until he discovers the hidden instinctual pleasures that civilization alone makes possible: love and even violence on behalf of those he loves.

In a non-fiction book that tries to imagine the psychological experience of a dog, Jeffrey Masson quotes the 19th century pediatrician Louis Robinson on the presumed centrality of human beings in the canine weltanschauung. I wonder if Robinson got this from London or the other way around:
It has been said that a man stands to his dog in the position of god; but when we consider that our conceptions of deity lead us to the general idea of an enormously powerful and omniscient man, who loves, hates, desires, rewards, and punishes in human-like fashion, it involves no strain of imagination to conceive that from the dog’s point of view his master is an elongated and abnormally cunning dog—of different shape and manners certain from the common run of dogs, yet canine in his essential nature.
Dogs have much that’s human in them, and we have much that’s canine. If dogs have something to teach us, perhaps it’s not to be too discouraged by civilization and its discontents. Like Ribsy, or like a child, we can still love and can still find outlets for a natural aggression that is, after all, part of the life-force. We, too, can run after hot dogs and forget what to be ashamed of.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Out of Eden

The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern PaganismThe Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism by Peter Gay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For more than a month now, I've been steeped in Peter Gay's sane and sage history of the sanest and sagest intellects from Roman antiquity to the 18th-century.  Gay's command of his subject is broad and deep.  He owns a subtle, temperate, and vivacious mind.   This book is a treasure chest of historical data, but it's also a philosophical meditation on the central question that nature has put to the human race: can you face the facts of life and of yourself, or will you bury your head in the sand like an ostrich?  (Do even ostriches actually do this?)  Will you bury your thinking mind in all manner of denial and magic and, one might add, will you in so doing destroy your planet, your kind, yourselves?  This question, which has been so well articulated by Carl Sagan, that great latter-day Justus Lipsius, intermittently haunted me while reading--but then anxiety haunts me even if I'm sitting on the beach, Corona in hand.  And more than anxiety, I felt a great comfort in my daily immersion in the humanism of antiquity, of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Gay focuses on the writings and ideas themselves more than on the personal lives of the writers and thinkers.  It isn't light reading in that sense, but it's leavened by Gay's perspicuous and unpedantic writing style and his sense of the drama in the flux of ideas across empires and ages.  I learned all the great Roman writers I should have read by now, and discovered the Carl Sagans of their time, the popularizers, the encyclopedists and curators of the arts and letters of the modern and humane.  People with fantastic names like Aldus Manutius and Poggio Bracciolini (I think I ate something like that braised with garlic).  Poggio, "the most assiduous and successful discoverer of classical texts in the Renaissance" (p. 261), was a church figure who shrugged off clerical duties to rescue manuscripts from monasteries.  "From 1414 to 1418," Gay tells us, "Poggio Bracciolini found himself Apostolic Secretary at the Council of Constance, a council which, fortunately for scholarship, rarely met." (p. 262)  Gay's dry humor keeps the history entertaining throughout and, despite the precedence of ideas before personalities, Gay does in the end resurrect certain personalities through his amusing and affecting anecdotes.  I learned that Boccaccio, the great progenitor of Chaucer and Shakespeare and author of The Decameron, was also a Raider of the Lost Ark.  Gay writes:

When Boccaccio visited the great Benedictine library of Monte Cassino, he found it a room without a door, with grass growing on the window sills, and the manuscripts covered with dust, torn and mutilated.  Profoundly dejected, and in tears, he asked one of the monks how such desecrations could have been permitted, and was told that the monks would tear off strips of parchment, to be made into psalters for boys or amulets for women, just to make a little money. p. 262

No one figure looms over the book, and over the Enlightenment itself, as does Voltaire--the archangel of the Enlightenment, an effete Machiavellian marauder on behalf of all the right things: science, tolerance, the classics.  Gay describes Voltaire's exile from the court of Frederick the Great thus: "Depressed, irritable, aimless, he wandered from elegant refuge to elegant refuge" (p. 363) until he landed at the abbey of Senones in 1754.  While Calmet generously hosted Voltaire at the abbey, Voltaire privately scoffed at him, "Felix errore suo," (p. 363-364) and used the abbey library to research polemics meant to destroy all that Calmet held most dear--the Christian faith.  

David Hume is the other hero of the book and the age.  Gay paints a portrait of James Boswell's visit to Hume in the weeks before the latter's death: "Hume's good nature and graceful acceptance of his imminent dissolution withstood even the tasteless intrusion of James Boswell," Gay writes (p. 356).  Boswell, like his mentor Samuel Johnson, was terrified of the philosophes' demotion of the Christian Heaven to the status of a fairy tale, and they particularly feared Hume, one of the most original and formidable minds of all time.  Boswell tried to extract from Hume some shred of Christian belief (as if Hume's endorsement would make it all true!) but even on his deathbed, Hume calmly refused to abandon the conclusions to which careful reasoning had led him.  "The Christian was on the defensive," Gay writes, "and grave doubts assailed him.  Perhaps to dispel them--he does not tell us--Boswell then sought refuge in an argument that Hume would certainly have been too charitable to use."  Boswell said in effect, Don't you want to see your friends in Heaven?  To which Hume replied, yes, but his friends didn't believe in an absurd notion like Heaven either.  "Not long after," says Gay, "as [Edward] Gibbon notes with majestic approval, Hume died at Edinburgh, 'the death of a philosopher.' " (p. 357)

"Hume makes plain that since God is silent, man is his own master: he must live in a disenchanted world, submit everything to criticism, and make his own way," Gay writes in conclusion (p. 419), and I suspect he deliberately echoes the last lines of Paradise Lost on the departure of Adam and Eve from Eden:

"They hand in hand with wand'ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way."

Let us all be so courageously modern as Peter Gay, David Hume, Milton, Adam, and Eve.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Life Also Sucked in Roman Times

Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica (Loeb Classical Library No. 194)Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica by Horace
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's almost shocking how modern and relevant Horace's social commentary reads today.  Every character type he attacks I recognize from my own experience.  Every flaw he describes in himself I recognize in myself.  He's caustic, crude, witty, self-deprecating, down-to-earth, and wise in his guidance on how to live and how to write.  His voice is so strong you can feel his personal presence from two millennia away.

Clifton Fadiman and John Major's New Lifetime Reading Plan, a sage and practical guide to great books, leaves out Horace.  This is perhaps because Major added a long list of "non-Western" titles to the list.  I don't disagree with that in any way.  I don't, and I don't think even Harold Bloom would.  But you can't bump Horace from a lifetime reading plan for anybody.  Bump Aldous Huxley instead.  There--now you, me, Major, and Fadiman have room for Horace.  Do not hold it against Horace that he is "Western," if such a category even exists.  He was the son of a slave, for crying out loud!  (Virgil wasn't even Roman--he was a Gaul.)  And Horace was a satirist, not an apologist for the culture in which he lived!  How much more marginalized do you want his CV to be?  What's important is not that he wrote in Latin but that he was wise, and an inspiration to many centuries of other profound thinkers.  He'll make you feel better about the headaches of modern times (jackhammers are even now shivering my skull) with all his complaints about the noise and irritating superficiality of life in ancient Rome.

I like the Loeb Classical edition, which contains a 1926 English translation by H.R. Fairclough side by side with the original Latin.  I can't remember much Latin at this point, but this translation seems to me to take fewer liberties than more recent ones do.  The Penguin Classics translation by Niall Rudd attempts to recapture the original's irreverent tone by modernizing the diction, but to me this comes off anachronistic and unfaithful.  Fairclough also provides helpful footnotes.

Mirabile visu.

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