Friday, October 8, 2010


Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian Wars. Written in the 5th century BC, this is one of the great early histories of anything. Thucydides was a general in the Athenian army and seems to have set about to write an impartial history of the wars, telling the story in a chronological way, describing the battles of the summer and the preparations of the winter.

One surprising thing he does not do is to involve the Gods in the story. Nowhere does he say that the gods were responsible for this or that victory or defeat. He does mention frequently the messages of the oracles, especially the oracle of Delphi. But he recognizes that the ambiguity of the oracular declamations is such that the messages don’t always help those who get them.

The first book establishes that Athens, after the end of the Persian and Mede wars, and the rebuilding of the Acropolis (although he says little about this), had essentially become a very large empire and felt that it was its duty to remain Imperial in its ambitions. Meanwhile the other city states of the Peloponnese felt that Athens had become too powerful and that it was impinging on their rights and powers. The Delian League (Athens) thus became the target of the Lacedemonians led by Sparta, and war ensued quickly.

Thucydides is inovative in many ways in this book. For one thing, he identifies himself clearly at the end of each of the books as the historian of the wars. For another, he includes the first person speeches of important figures all throughout the book. It is possible that he heard Pericles’ Funeral Oration when it was first spoken, and it is possible that he heard other great speeches, but it is likely that he either took them from the memory of others who heard them, or that he reconstructed them as best he could from what he heard from second-hand. What is so striking is the balance and patterning of the speeches, even in translation, that reveals so clearly the training in rhetoric that all these educated Greeks had. Nothing like this exists in today’s public utterances. The arguments in favor of saving or destroying cities are clear, eloquent, and difficult to act upon.

Thucydides’ method is to recount each of the important battles, on land and on sea, one after another and then explain who won, who lost, and what was at stake. He also goes into detail about how the fortifications were laid, what the nature of the armies was like: the heavy infantry with weapons and shields; the light infantry with less armor; the distant light fighters with stones and slings, arrows, and darts; and the navy with infantry standing on the upper decks while the rowers moved the boats in and out of harbors.

Athens, as Pericles is quick to point out, had the most seasoned navy and was immediately at a complete advantage over their opponents. He explained how long it would take the Spartans to learn how to move ships in and out of battle, and how powerful the admirals were who could defeat the Persians as they had done.

In the second year of the war Plague hit the Athenians and wiped out thousands of the best warriors. Thucydides does not say this was a punishment by the Gods – not a word of it. But he does describe having had a touch of the plague himself and having survived. He also pointed out the doctors in Athens almost all perished while helping patients. They could do nothing, of course, except try to comfort the dying. Finally, the citizens piled the bodies where they could and let the dying die. He also points out that those who contracted plague and also lived were essentially immune from getting it again. The plague was worse in the 2nd year, but it never entirely left the Athenians and later erupted again in the 4th year. They were all unaware of its source or its carriers.

One of the most telling passages occurs in his narrative of the 5th and 6th years of the war, when various factions attacked cities that were peripheral to one or the other side in the war. Often, when a city was beseiged the inhabitants would take sides against one another and ultimately civil war would break out. In some cases the seigeing army would put all the inhabitants to death, killing innocent and collaborators alike. But also, the murdering of neighbors became so vicious and so bloody, and the butchery so inhumane that it shocked even Thucydides. He says at one point that such internescine butchery would probably go on forever, as long as human nature stays as it is. His prophecy holds true.

Reading this book today, in view of the continuation of extensive wars, is frightening.

During a period of truce after the 6th year of the wars, Athens under Nisius and Demosthenes decided to chance an expeditionary war in distant Sicily.  This would have opened up new markets for Athens and it would have expanded their imperial ambitions and opportunities.  But this was a disaster.  After underestimating the power of Syracuse and the naval fleets, and not realizing that Syracuse had fitted its ships in ways that permitted them to ram and destroy many of the Athenian vessels, the Athenians overreached and had their involnerable navy essentially destroyed. 

The great expeditionary army of the Athenians eventually discarded its fleet and marched inland.  The huge army was split in two between Nisius and Demonstenes and totalled 40,000 men.  They were slowly picked apart by the Syracusans and their allies from a distance.  Eventually 7,000 men survived, and they were let perish in a prison until only hundreds were left, and they were sold into slavery.  It was heartbreaking to read the story of the destruction of the Athenian army.

In the end, Athens surrendered to the Spartans after 27 years.  Their democracy had been abandoned and they were ruled by an oligarchy and that was the end of Athens' greatness. 

As Santayana said, Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Richard Strauss, “Four Last Songs.”

Richard Strauss once described himself as “a second-rate composer,” then said, “but I am the best second-rate composer.” For Renee Fleming, this is not an adequate description. She has said publicly that if she could sing the works of only one composer, that would be Richard Strauss.

Were I a soprano I would agree with her. These songs, “Fruhling” (Spring); “September”; “Beim Schlafengehen” (Going to Sleep); “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset), were composed in the last months of Strauss’s life, from May to September, 1948, and, except for the song, “Malven,” are his last works.

He was 84, possibly aware of his impending death. And while the songs are based on texts of the poems of Herman Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff, all of which are generally associated with the end of days, the songs are extraordinarily uplifting.

They are profoundly moving as sung by some of the greatest sopranos of the second half of the 20th century. Most recently, in 2008, Renee Fleming has recorded them, but many fine recordings are available. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf has a very intimate and personal approach in her late recording in 1965 with George Szell, while Fleming’s voice is plummy and infused with the richness of her operatic voice.

Ricarda Merbeth’s recording is very straightforward, while the richness of Anne Schwanewilms’s recordings since 2004 led her to record all the Strauss songs, in fine interpretations. All these sopranos, and many of the others who recorded these songs, have found something intensely personal in the music, and it is not just an awareness of death. If anything, it is a deeper awareness of life itself. The depth of feeling that the songs give rise to in the experienced listener intensifies our love of life in part simply because of the amazing sensuality of the music in the soprano voice.

The Four Last Songs are said to be special favorites of literary characters, such as Inspector Morse, and real actors, such as Meryl Streep. For me they are virtually an addiction. Sometimes I will load six versions on my CD player and listen to them all, amazed at each version.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

London's National Theatre

After a couple of weeks in London and Oxford, I found myself thinking about the question of support of the arts, particularly in terms of the theater. We stayed in a hotel near the Hungerford Walk Bridge, looking out toward the London Eye and the South Bank Concert Center, and spent most of our time on the South Bank, where people massed in great numbers to take part in the cultural life of the nation.

The restaurants and cafes were lively and packed, with lines at dinner and lunch time. People were enthusiastic, multi-lingual, patient and apparently quite happy. The majority were young, well coifed and sophisticated. A few fast-food vans and ice-cream vans filled out the choices.

We ate often in the cafĂ© at the National Theatre, where we enjoyed concerts and people watching. The Bookshop is filled with the texts of the plays we expected to see as well as stocked thoroughly with historical material on the theater, recent anthologies, and such items as Simon Callow’s awaited autobiography, volume one. With the suggestions of the knowledgeable people behind the counter, we got a range of reviews of the offerings for the week and we made some careful and good choices.

Moira Ruffini’s Welcome to Thebes was the hot new ticket, which we caught on opening night. It was dazzling, a cast of possibly 20, on the huge stage of the Olivier, performing a subtle riff on Greek tragedy. The ostensible action was the arrival of the leader of Athens ready to introduce his version of democracy to the woman-run desolate state of Thebes, which had suffered decades of internal warfare. While it is obvious that the play points to the current situation in the middle east, it also offers some thoughtful insight into the great Greek tragedies, such as Antigone, which underlies some of this drama.  In addition, it is a wild, intense, threatening piece of work.

Tennessee Williams’ first play, Spring Storm, at the Cottesloe was slight in some ways – although deeply significant for him personally – and extremely well done.

The Lyttleton Theatre showed Terence Rattigan’s 1939 After the Dance, again, beautifully produced with a cast of 18. It is an indictment of the “bright young things” of the period between the wars, who frittered their lives away in drink and parties, losing the most precious thing of all, their love for life. This play was a success until the war began, early in its run, when it was put away and not performed again until this year.

The commercial theater in London also had virtually all of the plays available on Broadway today, but only the National Theatre had the quality of straight drama that I most respect – excluding, of course, Shakespeare, whose Henry IV, 1, was at the Globe. Is it only through government support that such quality can be sustained, such performances staged, such seriousness approached?

Friday, June 4, 2010


As I write, I am deeply in T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The book is a record of Lawrence’s efforts to help the Arab rebellion during the first world war, when Turkey controlled the Arab peninsula, Palestine, Syria, and Persia. The Turks were aligned with the Germans, so it was to the British advantage to have the Arabs engage the Turks in large numbers.

However, Lawrence, who had been in Arabia before the war, was aware that the Ottoman empire had ruled for more than 400 years over a scattered people who managed to learn to live with Ottoman control.

What strikes me as I read this book, is that Lawrence had developed a keen understanding of Arab interests and Arab habits. His views on Arab psychology are doubtless primitive by today’s standards, since they resemble the kinds of generalizations about groups that we know rarely hold up in practice. But he is subtle enough to see that there are characteristic behavioral patterns among the many different tribal groups and tribal chieftains that he ultimately gathered together. He knew, for example, not to group certain Arab tribes with those with whom they had a blood feud.

I think that modern warriors, such as those who were in the First Gulf War and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Aghanistan, would have profited from studying his work. They might have been better prepared for the difficulties that local police and troops have with discipline and regimentation – complaints that show up daily in our current newspapers. All these were issues in Lawrence’s time.

He describes his activities in 1916-17 and later. He published his work in 1922 in one version, then in another in 1926. He actually lost the bulk of his manuscript in 1919 after he had destroyed his notes, not a good practice, incidentally. Then he reconstructed the book from memory, and he had a most prodigious memory.

He not only characterizes the people with whom he rode and fought, but is meticulous in the best military fashion in describing the landscapes through which he and his men traveled. He emphasizes often the need to speak the language of the people, which many of his superior officers did, just as he emphasizes the fact that the local people were much his master when it came to understanding their land and its difficulties. Water, of course, is an absolute issue throughout the book, but he makes us understand that wells are placed at convenient distances to correlate with the capacities of the camels on which he and his men rode.

this is truly a timely book, and an education for contemporary Americans.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Marcel Proust's The Fugitive

Proust’s The Fugitive (or The Sweet Cheat Gone) continues Marcel’s fascination with Albertine and the possibility that Albertine has been unfaithful with women. Marcel has essentially driven her from his home – which we must remember is also his mother’s home – and then immediately thinks he wants her back. He ponders his situation, thinking that he both wants her back and wants her gone, realizing at times that he doesn’t really understand his feelings. He is riven with indecision both about his own feelings and his concern for having Albertine return.

None of his feelings are clarified by the news that Albertine has been killed in an accident with a horse. The sense of finality that should be his is not really acceptable to him. He even goes to a seance in an effort to know what Albertine feels about him. He gets a letter from her that says she still loves him and would return to him if he asked, and this does not make his sense of himself any more intelligible to him.

Aime’s two letters to him from Combray insist that Albertine was involved in a lesbian relationship with women in the baths, that she brought women from Balbec with her, and often appeared with younger girls and frequently met a woman in gray. All this made Marcel convinced that all his anguish earlier had roots in the truth of Albertine’s inclination toward a lesbian lifestyle. On the other hand Andree, who admits her own lesbian leanings, suggests that if that were true, Albertine had given it all up for Marcel while they were together.

Again, Marcel is unsettled about his relationship with Albertine. Meanwhile, his old friend Gilberte inherits so much money that she is the richest heiress in France. She is Mlle de Forcheville and attracts Robert St. Loup, who eventually marries her only to make her unhappy. St. Loup takes up with Charles Morel, once Morel is free of Palamede de Charlus. Thus, St. Loup reveals his inclination toward homosexuality and parallels the relationship of Marcel and Albertine. All this functions to reveal the complexities of sexuality and love and marriage. Near the end, Proust says, “Homosexuals would be the best husbands in the world if they did not pretend that they loved women.”

Throughout all this volume, the theme of the multiplicity of selves is constantly before us. Every important character seems to have several selves depending on whom they are with and what they are doing. Marcel is himself several selves, all essentially unaware of each other.

The volume ends with Marcel finally making his trip to Venice – the trip that he longed for in The Captive, but for which he substituted a visit to Versailles with Albertine. Now, his trip to Venice is with Mama, who essentially directs their travels and their attention. When Mama is ready to leave, Marcel is attracted to the Baroness Putbus and decides to stay, but after making his declaration and sending Mama away, he relents and rushes to the train station to go home with her.

Ironically, the novel ends with the realization with Gilberte that the Guermantes Way and the Meseglise Way are one and the same way.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

John Steinbeck East of Eden

John Steinbeck had not yet won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1962) when he published East of Eden (1955). But he had amassed a remarkable number of important works and had established himself as one of America’s great writers. He considered East of Eden his magnum opus and said that he felt destined to have written it. The reviews at the time were not as encouraging as one would have expected, given his reputation and the confidence he had in publishing the work.

In short, the narrative or story line of the book is built on a biblical armature: the story of Cain and Abel. But beneath that armature lies the essential issue of Original Sin and the presence of evil in the world. The purposes of the book are moral in nature, as Steinbeck himself said, and with that come the emphases on good and evil at work in the world. The problem that Steinbeck could not solve is how to populate such a novel with characters who seem to be three-dimensional and self-directed. The essential problem is that Steinbeck knows what his characters must do from the moment he begins writing, and as a result some of the sense of natural behavior is completely missing from the novel. The characters must, by definition, follow the pattern set for them by the biblical armature.

Some novels, like Light in August, can use the figure of Christ, say, and make the story still seem to be natural and the characters developed and interesting in their own right. But most of the time that is not true of East of Eden. We have two sets of brothers, Charles and Adam Trask, whose father was a con man of sorts, and then Caleb and Aron Trask, children of Charles, but unknowingly raised by Adam. Steinbeck includes Cathy Ames, a monster of evil behavior who is totally unredeemed throughout her life. She is the mother of Caleb and Aron, but she abandons them as soon as she is healthy enough to do so, and in leaving Adam she shoots him so that he will understand how dreadful she is and how devoid of human emotion. She becomes a madam in a nearby town and is known for sadistic sexual practices – in other words, Steinbeck makes her as irredeemable as possible, the very essence of evil.

Then, the problem Caleb feels is the burden of an inheritance of sin. He is the first of the children to find and understand his mother, and he is the only one who can still function in face of such horror. When, in a fit of anger, he brings Aron to see his mother, Aron is incapable of facing life. He runs off underage and joins the army fighting in France. Caleb’s action indirectly kills Aron, thus bearing out the Cain and Abel theme.

The most improbable character in the novel is Lee, a Chinese servant who works for Adam almost all his life. He is college educated and melds the east with the west and interprets all the story of Cain and Abel after having learned Hebrew with a Chinese study group. It is he who unravels the Hebrew word Timshel, translated in the standard bible as “you must,” while Lee has divined that it really means “you may,” and thus opens the way for Caleb to choose not to be evil. He has choice and the novel ends with the promise that Caleb and Aron’s first girlfriend, Abra, will go off and live reasonable lives after all.

The very alterity of evil in the novel suggests that Steinbeck was fighting a rear-guard action against the new secular thinking that dominated the late 1940s and the mid 1950s. Evil was out of fashion then, with the new arrival of genetic studies and the flowering of Freudian and other modern psychological models. Going back to the bible was Steinbeck’s way of confirming his life’s commitments and his fundamental beliefs in a conventional religion. The problem with the novel, however, is that his characters seem to have little life except as they represent the counters that are established for them in the first few chapters of Genesis.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

William Blake's Eternity

Blake’s short poem Eternity may have resulted from an encounter with a butterfly, but whether or not such an encounter took place, Blake, in his customary way, sought in this poem some insight into the nature of life. And also in his customary way, he seems to be considering life as it extends far beyond the years allotted each of us on earth.


He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

Blake implies what we already know as we grow older, that joy and beauty cannot be possessed and thus are never commodified except in the minds of shallow people or people who are certain that they are entitled to privileges denied to others. Keeping the beautiful butterfly can be done only by destroying its life, which is a path many people follow, unaware of the fact that by doing so they undo its beauty.

Eternity implies something quite opposite to the material world in which we must live our lives. That we have glimpses of beauty in nature makes us all the more aware that Eternity, like beauty, is immaterial, and thus eternal. Blake asks us to live in “Eternity’s sunrise” with a sense of reassurance that somehow we will “see” that sunrise, that metaphoric beginning of something, like joy and beauty, that has no beginning and no end.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Mary Cassatt's Show Woman

Mary Cassatt was an independent woman at a time when it was very difficult to achieve such a position. She lived for most of her life in France, where independent women were more able to be part of society without attracting the wrong kind of attention.

Many of her canvases portray mothers with their children, and while the Medieval and Renaissance religious theme of mother and child was virtually a given throughout Europe, in the 19th century the portrait of an ordinary mother with her child was almost a novelty. And it was rarely taken seriously in an age in which huge canvases picturing the accomplishments of men in and out of wars were the norm at the Academy both in the United States and abroad. Yet, we find her portraits very touching because in our time the public tastes have altered. Rather than the epic, we prefer the intimate, the emotionally recognizable and the local.

Her painting Woman with a Pearl Necklace in the loge of the Opera Comique is similar to another of her paintings of a woman alone in a box in the theater. But instead of wearing black and preferring to be unnoticed, this Woman is brilliantly dressed in a radiantly emotional color, showing decollete highlighted by her pearl necklace.

She is a woman on exhibition and because of her beauty and the way in which she engages her audience, including us, she is a refreshing, intimate presence. She radiates beauty and confidence. Like Mary Cassatt, she is an independent woman. The difference is that Mary Cassatt is not, like this lovely woman, seen; she is showing us what is to be seen. Like the showman behind the curtain, Casssatt is the showwoman behind the canvas.  
The Woman with the Pearl Necklace is showing herself in her setting, not looking at the stage, but around herself as if there is someone, a man perhaps?, by whom she wishes to be seen. She is in fact there to be seen, to be appreciated, just as the painting itself is designed to be seen and to be appreciated.  But what is the reflection behind her and what does it imply?

Monday, April 5, 2010


In a recent interview, I was asked about the advantages of publishing through Hammonasset House Books, an Independent Press set up by several writers to publish their books.  First, I pointed out that all the writers involved with Hammonasset House Books had been widely published by commercial presses.  One writer has published more than 20 books by conventional commercial presses.  Another, a member of the Writer's Guild, has published and produced more than a dozen screenplays, yet another published several dozen articles in magazines.  A fourth is a Television writer, member of the Writer's Guild, and the founder of an ongoing theater group in which he has been honored for the year's best work.

So, I answered the question by saying that the Independent Press approach gives us extraordinary control over our books, from the control over copyright, to design, and certainly to editorial content.  This model would not necessarily work well for writers who have not yet published book length works, but for highly experienced writers it offers a freedom that has been earned in the world of commercial publishing.

The Indie Press has control, too, over the means of publicizing and maintaining the life of the book.  Commercial presses are well known for publishing a book, giving it a little push if the author is not a celebrity or a best-seller, then letting it languish.  The sales rankings on Barnes and Noble and Amazon tell that tale clearly.  The Independent Press, with fewer titles, is able to keep pushing the book as long as it wishes.  True, it may not have the distribution potential of the commercial press, but that potential works best only in the first 6 months of a book's life.  With online outlets like Amazon, the Indie Press can promote a book for life.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Proust's THE PRISONER in the new translation by Carol Clark ( or The Captive in other translations) is a study in the power of jealousy to make love especially intense. This is a remarkable vision of the passion Marcel feels for Albertine, but it is also a profound psychological analysis of the way in which he understands love. The last hundred pages are especially marvelous to read, especially following the section on Marcel's visit to the Verdurins. Some wonderful pithy sentences: “Love is space and time made apprehensible to the heart” (356); “we love only what we do not possess” (355); “we can find everything in our memory: it is a kind of pharmacy or chemical laboratory, where one's hand may fall at any moment on a sedative drug or a dangerous poison.” (361). Then there are those lovely passages about the Fortuny dresses that Marcel wants Albertine to have – partly because they are associated in his mind with Venice.  Here is one from the 1920s:

I particularly found the analysis of art (347ff) to be remarkable for his insights into Vermeer, Hardy, and Dostoevsky, starting of course from the music of Vinteuil, which echoes through the entire latter half of the book. Ironically at the end of the volume Marcel and Albertine visit Versailles, not Venice, whose architecture and gondoliers have haunted him throughout.

The opening pages of the book set an interesting theme in motion. Marcel meditates on the instability of one's own personality, establishing that we are many “people” in different circumstances, and that it is not a simple matter to know or understand one another. I suspect this concern of his is indebted to Freud's insights into the unconscious, although it is inherent in earlier psychological thought, as evidenced in R.L.S.'s Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde and in the work of Conrad and others who explore the idea of the double. Frequently in this volume, Proust points to the multiplicity of persons within a single character.

The extensive visit to the Verdurins, which Marcel makes alone, without Albertine, parallels the salon of the Duchess de Guermantes, where the subtext revolved around the Dreyfus affair. At the Verdurins Charlus is compromised without an expected passionate defensive response. Mme. Verdurin attempts to separate Morel from Charlus, and each offer Morel impressive “gifts” for him to reject one and accept the other. It is perhaps not precisely a subtext in this section, but certainly a profound concern in these pages is Charlus' homosexuality and Morel's bisexuality. These issues are explored in remarkable depth in the Verdurins' salon, with most characters offering views of both acceptance and rejection.

Another impressive theme running through the book is the question of repetition as a necessary ingredient in art. Repetition implies memory, which implies the recollection of past events, central to the entire book, and Marcel begins with the seven note melody from Vinteuil, which Morel plays at the Verdurins.. He them speculates on repetition in Venetian architecture, in the works of Hardy, which he sees as utterly repetitive from novel to novel, and on to Vermeer, whose work he interprets as repeating the same motifs again and again.

And of course, we see in this volume a great deal of repetition, not only within the volume, but repetitive of events in earlier volumes. Nothing could make the painfulness of Albertine's bedtime kisses in the last pages more intense than our memory of the significance of the bedtime kiss of Marcel's mother in Swann's Way. These kinds of repetitions – and many more than I can mention here – act as armatures for the novel as a whole, and they help us interpret its inner meanings and show us how events take on meaning partly through their very return into our consciousness. It is part of the ineffable beauty of this volume.

Monday, March 8, 2010


THERESE RAQUIN by Emile Zola is a dark and somber tale of a woman born illegitimately of an Algerian mother and a French father, then abandoned by her father and put into the hands of his sister. Therese is thus an Africanized Frenchwoman living in a household with her aunt and her aunt's son Camille. Mme. Raquin is a haberdasher and operates a shop outside of Paris for a time. But soon Camille and Therese begin to grow up, and eventually they decide to marry, although there is no passion between them.

Camille is a sickly man and had been a sickly boy. But he got a job in civil service when Mme. Raquin, with an invested fortune of 40,000 francs, moves her shop to a dark but serviceable passageway street near the Seine. At first the marriage is workable, although Therese is by no means satisfied. Then, Camille brings home a fellow who works with him and who had come from the same village they had lived in. Laurent is a dilatory fellow who imagines himself a painter, although his work is a scribble. He visits the Raquins frequently and one day when no one is there to see them, Laurent seizes Therese and they make passionate, violent love in the rooms above the shop. Zola is impressive here because of the level of passion in their embrace and their relationship, implying subtly that Therese's African blood supplies what the cold and weak French blood cannot.

Their affair continues unabated for a while and the two of them cannot get enough of each other, although no one seems to notice what they are doing. Laurent takes afternoon strolls and sneaks in the back door of the shop and goes up to Therese's room and makes love to her day after day until they realize they cannot go on as they are. Therese is fed up with the sickly Camille, and when they are out on an afternoon picnic the three of them go out in a rickety boat on a lake. Camille is frightened to begin with but he goes along and Therese and Laurent determine to drown him. Camille fights, bites Laurent on the neck, but ultimately drowns.

Guilt begins to rise almost immediately in Laurent's heart, and for days he visits the morgue near the Seine to look at all the drowned victims, most of whom are horribly bloated, with their skin peeling from their faces. These are great scenes – his constant visitations are like scenes from a horror film. Ultimately, Camille appears on one of the slabs, and at least now Laurent knows he is dead, but instead of reassuring him, the sight of Camille unnerves him. The face of Camille is burned into his imagination. The crime that he and Therese have committed is perfect in that no one suspects them. Witnesses among the boaters at the scene back up Laurent's story that Camille stood up in the boat when he should not have done.

So the genius of the novel is that no one can implicate them in the crime except themselves. And once that is clear the novel takes on an intense psychological cast, with all the “action” taking place inside the minds of the criminals. Mme. Raquin becomes paralyzed and thinks they love her, but learns, because of the angry outbursts of the two who now hate one another because of their own guilt over the crime, that they are murderers. She is tormented beyond measure, but cannot communicate what she knows. Therese and Laurent cannot touch one another sexually because their nightmares and their growing guilt poison their relationship. What they wanted they now have – freedom to enjoy their sexual fantasies – but guilt makes all that impossible.

Eventually, Laurent beats Therese and their hatred for each other grows. She meanwhile, pretends that her aunt has forgiven her, which disgusts Laurent. Yet nothing satisfies them, and ultimately their guilt and their hatred for each other drive them to suicide with prussic acid. What makes this such a compelling novel is the intensity with which Zola explores the psychological effects first of passion, then guilt. A television series was made of this book, but the qualities that make Zola's book distinct are not those that lend themselves to visual portrayal. The plot is simple and direct, while the language is fulsome and sensual in ways that films can rarely capture. What the TV series may have revealed is the passion of the characters, and that would make it worth seeing. But the book is a 19th century artifact and, while nodding at the stage, especially in the morgue scenes, it remains a tale told rather than a tale shown.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Way We Live Now

Anthony Trollope's remarkable novel, The Way We Live Now, is 825 pages in my 1950 Alfred A. Knopf edition. I might mention that my book smells slightly old, and slightly damp. I found it, of course, on a shelf in a basement of a second hand store and when I saw it I realized that I had wanted to read it for many years and now had my chance.

To get the most obvious question out of the way first, the answer is yes, that in so many ways this book, which was published in parts in an American magazine beginning in 1874, is very much up to date and describes much of the way we live now. He is said to have written the book in response to the several large financial scandals of the 1870s. I presume they somewhat parallel the scandals of the first decade of our own century.

Trollope curiously includes a character, Mrs. Carbury who resembles his own scribbling mother, a woman author who does not get much encouragement from the publishing fellows in her immediate society. The problems of publication are quite different today, but the fright of trying to make a living as a writer is doubtless much the same if we go by Mrs. Carbury's experience.

But most striking for our time is the intense emphasis on money throughout the book. At its center is Augustus Melmotte, a master financial wizard who takes London by storm, is reckoned to be the wealthiest man in town, but who is suspected of being a rogue on the run from the continent. Melmotte has no manners whatever, and his bluntness is a blight on his immediate circle. He actually manages to be elected to Parliament from Westminster by virtue of plowing cash in the appropriate circles. . . does this ring a contemporary bell? And in Parliament he speaks to members as if they were waiters, and they do not approve.

Naturally, he turns out to be a con man of the dimension of our modern Mr. Madoff, wrecking the lives of many, losing a fortune, and unlike modern con men, commits suicide with prussic acid, not a pleasant way to go. But before he goes, he takes in a number of upper class but impecunious gentlemen and lords with his scheme for a Mexican railway to Vera Cruz. He sells shares at a high rate, and might have continued to flourish if it had not been for his hasty dealings with a piece of property whose bill of sale he casually forged. Once that was out he was out.

There are several romantic subplots, with Hetta Carbury refusing her cousin and preferring his friend, whose own situation is questionable. Marie Melmotte who, it turns out, has her own money, is refused by several adventurers hoping for her fortune but who assumed once Melmotte was dead that there was none. She, as a last resort, heads to America.  Even Mrs. Carbury ends the novel with the hope of a happy relationship with the editor of a local paper.

I have not seen the TV special that was done in 2001, but I think I will make an effort. I found the novel most interesting and assume the televised version, with David Suchet as Melmotte, would be quite worth seeing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Visiting the Great Wall has been a tourist “must” for centuries, and it has to be admitted that the experience is unforgettable. Apart from the fact that the wall can be seen from deep space and that it is possibly the most massive thing built by man, it has in its way a kind of beauty that grows on one.

Seeing it recently right after the heaviest snow that Beijing had seen in sixty years, we found it especially beautiful. The snow intensified its massiveness and outlined it against its background of mountains stretching on for miles. On the wall itself, where we all tried to walk uphill, the snow was treacherous enough to make us wish for ropes to hold on to or boots that dug deeply into the crust. Yet everywhere we looked, the scenery exalted the vision of the wall winding toward the horizon.

Several things impressed us. First, the wall was filled with tourists, but not primarily western tourists. Far and away the largest number of tourists was local or consisting of groups of workers, all wearing red baseball hats, or groups of citizens with their families and their children. We were amazed when some of them came and photographed us, then placed their wives next to us for another photograph. They placed their children between us and took our photograph. Then I began taking their photograph and giving them my camera to have them photograph us with their wives and children, usually with their arms around us or holding hands. Young couples insisted on having their photographs taken with us and then older couples came and followed suit. I don't remember anything like this happening in an American tourist spot.

We shook hands with many people who simply smiled and spoke a few words. Almost none were in English. But I had the impression that there was genuine good feeling between the Chinese tourists and us American tourists. Everywhere I looked there were smiles and good cheer. It was encouraging on many levels.  For some reason it made me think of Samuel Johnson.  In his home in London there is a large brick supposedly taken from the Great Wall and given to him as a remembrance.  I suppose a good photograph is something like a good brick.

Friday, January 29, 2010


This month and last I spent an agreeable time reading the entirety of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (Penguin, tr. Gerald E. Bevan, 860 pp.).

Naturally, I had read segments in abbreviated editions, but this was the first time I had read the entire book from beginning to end. The experience was enormously rewarding. His understanding of the effect of equality in a new nation was profound, and he saw in the death of the old aristocracy the wave of the future. He also found it difficult to fully understand the nature of government in America, since it seemed to him that there was little or none. He saw that people were independent, free, and beholden to no one. He saw that the primary impulse in America was the love of money, and thus that individualism (he is among the first to use the term) was a power to reckon with. This was in 1830, and clearly little has changed.

He also thought that the real power in America was in the individual states and not in the federal government. Even with Andrew Jackson, a potential "tyrant," in position of president–the man Tocqueville says, "is supposed to be working for the institution of a dictatorship in the United States" (461) has actually very little power to force any state, especially South Carolina, to his will. He has little regard for Jackson ("a man of a violent disposition and mediocre ability" [324]), and he deduces that the federal government's power will probably never soon compete with the power of the 24 confederated states of the union.

He has much to say about the possibility of civil war in the democracy of the United States, and concludes that it is virtually unthinkable. And he concludes this after the 1830sTariff incident in which South Carolina armed its militia in a threat to leave the union over perceived damages to its economy. Jackson backed down and the militia returned home. Twenty five years later the brutal Civil War was begun, Lincoln prevailed, and federalism became the power that forced the states to adhere to law.

De Tocqueville's is one of the most important books in American political history, so, for me, reading it was a really important experience, especially in light of the 2010 State of the Union speech by president Obama. Unlike many politicians he did not quote from de Tocqueville, but he was aware of some of the same stresses in political opinion as are expressed in Democracy in America.

In a moment of intense irony, the Governor of Virginia gave the rebuttal for the Republican party. He stood in the Capitol rotunda of Richmond, the center of the Confederacy where Jefferson Davis spoke, in a building designed by Jefferson and built by slaves--a truly symbolic act on his part--and what he did, by quoting Jefferson's comment that local government was the best government, was to reopen the dispute between strong federal government and strong states rights governments, the very things that de Tocqueville focuses on for more than 500 pages. I was amazed.

The Governor ignored the Civil War and the result of Lincoln's decisions to make the federal government strong enough to enforce laws in rebel states. The ignorance of the governor appalled me. But I know he was following an ideology that insists that the federal government be reigned in. Of course, that ideology also forgets that in the 1960s, a hundred years after Fort Sumter, we had to send our young people south to enforce federal rules regarding segregation. If we go back to the states rights version of government, we'll have subtle Jim Crow laws and much other undemocratic legislation designed to restrict abortion, gay rights, and free speech. If that happens, Alexis de Tocqueville would surely recognize the nation he saw in 1830 and feel that his prophecy of a possible tyranny of the majority could come true.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Negotiating With the Dead

Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing is a hymn to literature itself. This is not a self-help book, or a how-to book, but a smart introduction to the meditations that absorb every serious writer. And the word "serious" there implies only that the writer must be serious about his or herself because writers are, as Atwood makes very clear, in a complex relationship with the past and with the dead writers who have established the terrain and clarified the game of writing.

She covers everything one might expect, including the important question of who the writer's audience must be. She almost comes close to saying that the dead may be among the writer's audience, but of course she holds back and reflects upon the possibility that the writer may have only an audience of one--in which case there may be some difficulties. The book is after all the messenger that communicates the message. It is not the writer who does so. Once the book is gone from the writer's hand time moves on and the writer is no longer the person who wrote the book.

These are the Empson lectures at Cambridge and they allude indirectly to the ambiguities that are central to Empson's most famous book, Seven Types of Ambiguity. In one fascinating chapter she addresses the ambiguity implied in the multiple identities of the writer writing. One identity is as a person, another as the poet. The poet is most unpoetical as a person, and that alone creates a curious situation for our contemplation.

In general, this book sweeps through literature from Gilgamesh to Yeats, Delillo, and beyond, and while something short of a book of literary criticism, it is a book of literary discussion and literary communion. So many writers, famous and obscure, are addressed and quoted in these pages that one soon realizes there is a sub-text here that cannot be ignored. Writers must be readers. Such a simple observation may seem unnecssary to the "serious" writer, but the facts are very simple. Many people who think they are going to be writers neglect the most important thing of all: a literary education. Even James Patterson reads Joyce (except for Finnegans Wake). What Atwood does here is create a hymn for the love of literature.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Even in winter, China was at times a vibrant place. I spent three weeks this November in China, during the coldest winter since 1949, the year of Mao's Long March. In general, I have to say that China was gray and sometimes grim because of the weather–no sun, considerable cold, dampness, and eventually lots of snow. It surprised the natives, but as a New Englander, we were prepared. The Peking Opera was a nice surprise. Not only was there an interesting and socially significant libretto, but the visuals were often stunning. The opera was a welcome contrast to the out of doors in several ways. For one, the warmth and colors were lovely and delightful. But the contrast with the outdoor vendors, most of whom were hard working and serious about their business, but who were also desperate and obviously poor, was considerable. China is amazing in many ways, and one of the most remarkable is in the contrasts one sees all around the major cities.
Of course, the size of the cities is overwhelming for most of us. These days almost every city is marked by a plethora of cranes high in the skyline, building condos and business landmarks everywhere. Rarely is there fewer than three to seven visible cranes in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. In the region of the Three Gorges on the Yangtze, one sees cities built for the displaced people whose homes are now below almost 300 meters of water.
People are mixed in their reactions to this gigantic project. Some naturally lament the loss of their ancestral homes, but others revel in the fact that they now have their own condo with indoor plumbing and separate bedrooms. What impresses me as an outsider is the fact that China is rebuilding itself while we are waging war and resisting serious investment in our own infrastructure.