This is a strange sort of novel, written by one who never lived to see it published, but withal one of the greatest works produced during the Soviet eThis is a strange sort of novel, written by one who never lived to see it published, but withal one of the greatest works produced during the Soviet era. Picture a doctor who is obsessed with the life of Dostoyevsky, who sees his own life as if it were in lock step with that of earlier writer. He recreates his life, and that of his second wife Anna Grigor'yevna, so vividly that I will have a difficult time unlinking it from this work.
Picture this memory of Anna Grigor'yevna's while her husband lies dying:
[S]he was on her knees before her dying husband, her husband, Fedya, who used to come to her every evening to say goodnight, used to write long, passionate letters to her from Bad Ems, where he would travel every summer to take the cure, who used to cause jealous scenes at readings of his works whenever she exchanged a quick word with anyone or he thought she was looking at someone, and then they would walk home separately, but he would not be able to keep it up, and he would catch up with her and ask her to forgive him, saying that if she refused, then he would throw himself on his knees before her there and then—and she would forgive him, and they would walk on together—and supporting her carefully by the arm, he would look into her eyes and then, leaving her for a moment, would dash into a shop and buy her some sweetmeats—nuts, raisins, bon-bons—and when they arrived home they would drink tea and he would produce the sweetmeats for her and the children, but if she had a cold, he would get irritated and ask her to stop sneezing, and this made her laugh, and in the end he would start to laugh as well.
Did you notice that this is all one sentence with phrases strung together by ands or other conjunctions. The translation by Roger and Angela Keys is so spot on that Leonid Tsypkin's sesquipedalian sentences would flow like a river in flood.
Summer in Baden-Baden is such a good book that it makes me want to re-read what Dostoyevsky I have already read and maybe include some of the obscure ones I haven't, such as The Insulted and the Injured and A Raw Youth....more
When former World Chess Champion lay in a Japanese prison, Iceland -- which had so benefited from the 1972 match with Boris Spassky -- offered him IceWhen former World Chess Champion lay in a Japanese prison, Iceland -- which had so benefited from the 1972 match with Boris Spassky -- offered him Icelandic citizenship. In 2005, Fischer arrived in Reykjavik was was befriended by several Icelanders, most notably Helgi Olafsson, a local chess grandmaster who saw him frequently.
It is well known that Fischer was a difficult person. Although Jewish on his mother's and (probably) father's side, he was consistently and vociferously anti-Semitic. He was paranoid about the Russians, the Jews, the CIA, and the press and would go to almost absurd lengths to avoid the possibility of running into anyone affiliated with them.
John Lynch has written two excellent biographies of the liberators of South America from Spanish rule. Earlier, I had read his Simon Bolivar: A Life.John Lynch has written two excellent biographies of the liberators of South America from Spanish rule. Earlier, I had read his Simon Bolivar: A Life. Now I have finished San Martín: Argentine Soldier, American Hero. I had always been curious about San Martin after seeing his tomb guarded by Argentine soldiers at a side altar of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires.
Between the two, Bolivar was the more decisive, even dictatorial. San Martin took a lot of heat for withdrawing into exile in Europe after an unsatisfactory meeting with Bolivar at Guayaquil. San Martin was a brilliant strategist, but he was not able to unify the diversely stratified society of Peru by his mild rule. When he left, Bolivar came in and knocked a few heads together -- well, actually more than a few.
The nature of South America's divisiveness in those early years -- and perhaps even continuing today to some extent -- meant that San Martin was sniped at from all sides. It is actually surprising that that the Argentinians brought his body back for burial in Buenos Aires after the attacks by Alvear, Rivadavia, and others. Everyone needs heroes, even when they aren't appreciated while still alive. ...more
He served under four flags: those of Britain, Chile, Brazil, and Greece. He was perhaps the greatest ship (rather than fleet) commander in all of navaHe served under four flags: those of Britain, Chile, Brazil, and Greece. He was perhaps the greatest ship (rather than fleet) commander in all of naval history. Yet Lord Cochrane is relatively unknown outside of Britain, Greece, and South America. Donald Thomas with his book Cochrane: Britannia's Sea Wolf attempts to redress that.
Like many exceedingly brilliant military figures, Cochrane frequently ran afoul of politicians and was frequently persecuted and mulcted by them. He was accused of stock fraud in a patently ludicrous trial by an unfair judge, Lord Ellenborough, served time in prison, was stripped of his title of Knight of the bath, and removed from the navy list.
That did not dismay the Scottish sea wolf, who helped Chile and Peru win their independence from Spain by destroying that country's Pacific Fleet. When he had done all he could there, he moved on to Brazil to fight for Don Pedro I. When that was over, he joined the struggle for Greek independence, where he was prevented from winning by the factionalism of the Greek politicians.
In the end, under Queen Vicoria, he regained all his honors and died rich in years and reputation. ...more
Too much luggage. Too many old friends to visit. Too many debts to pay. Those are not what make for a good travel book, let alone one published, as thToo much luggage. Too many old friends to visit. Too many debts to pay. Those are not what make for a good travel book, let alone one published, as this one was, by National Geographic. Ariel Dorfman is a good writer, but when too much is owing to the people one visits, one cannot concentrate on how a place works on your own insides. Desert Memories: Journeys Through the Chilean North is still worth reading for its insights into an area little known outside of Chile.
Contrast it with Bruce Chatwin's perhaps infamous In Patagonia, a book which consists of dozens of largely faked interviews. Did Bruce like the poetry of Osip Mandelstam? Well, then, he'll have one of his interviewees be a devotee with multiple volumes on his or her bookshelves. The people Chatwin visited didn't think much of the young Brit. But, still, he wrote a great book. It is a book I have read three times and which still calls out to me.
Writers have to stifle their imaginations somewhat when their work will be read and commented on and corrected by a host of friends and acquaintances. One can't be true to them and to the Norte Grande of Chile at the same time.
It's funny that I thought pretty much the same of Isabel Allende's My Invented Country. Both Dorfman and Allende were exiled from their land for many years under the Pinochetista dictatorship -- a fact that made them somewhat less than stellar writers about Chile. Curiously, that has not affected Pablo Neruda in his poetry. Perhaps it's just a prose thing....more
This is the second book by George Takei that I have read about his experiences with the Internet. I enjoy reading him because he is so benign a publicThis is the second book by George Takei that I have read about his experiences with the Internet. I enjoy reading him because he is so benign a public figure that he approaches Mother Theresa in this regard. There does not appear to be a mean bone in his body -- which is all the more impressive because of all the trolls and bullies and haters that stalk the Internet.
In fact, Lions and Tigers and Bears: The Internet Strikes Back leads me to hope that the Internet can evolve to a higher plane. I now follow Saint George's Facebook website, which acts as a conduit for humor and occasionally social progress (gays, imprisonment of Japanese during World War Two).
I recommend you read this book primarily because it will make you feel good and even, perhaps, hopeful in between mass shootings, acts of terrorism, horrendous disasters, and racial bigotry. ...more
It's not often that one finds a well-written book about guerrilla warfare written by one of the main participants. During the hostilities with EnglandIt's not often that one finds a well-written book about guerrilla warfare written by one of the main participants. During the hostilities with England in the period 1919-1921, the most active IRA fighting group was the West Cork Flying Column headed by Tom Barry. In his Guerilla Days in Ireland, Barry discusses the movements of his IRA fighters against the British regulars, the mercenary Black & Tans, and the Auxiliaries who were pitted against him in a vain attempt to hold onto Ireland for the British.
One thing that distinguished Barry from other, more self-involved military leaders is the tribute he pays in the book to each and every one of his fighters who died at the hands of the enemy. He memorializes them in place, when discussing the individual battles, and reserves an appendix in the back summarizing their names and origins. Barry would have been a good man to fight for: He cared for his men.
Reading this book, I was surprised how little I knew about recent Irish history. There have ben a couple of John Ford Films (most notably The Informer and The Rising of the Moon that popularized the conflict) and a biopic of Michael Collins. Other than that, this is all new material for me. ...more
The American film industry rose to pre-eminence because of the work, not only of great stars like Cary Grant and Bette Davis, great directors like JohThe American film industry rose to pre-eminence because of the work, not only of great stars like Cary Grant and Bette Davis, great directors like John Ford, but also because of actors like Richard Anderson who could excel across the board -- almost irrespective of what roles they played.
A quick glance at Richard's filmography includes such entertainments as Curse of the Faceless Man and Forbidden Planet, as well as such art house pictures as Seconds and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. Also, there were numerous television roles, most notably as Oscar Goldman in the "Six Million Dollar Man" series and its sequels.
One film which was not even mentioned is Gettysburg (1993) produced by Ted Turner. Anderson plays the part of General Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, who rides up after the battle has begun. The scene is a stormy night when Meade bursts in with all the Union general officers and inquires earnestly whether this was good ground for a battle. It is not a large role, but Anderson is completely believable as a general who badly wants to win, having just taken over command of the Union forces, and whose predecessors all ended badly.
Richard Anderson: At Last ... A Memoir shows its author to be the consummate professional. He played in theater, films, television, and did not refuse advertising gigs such as the Kiplinger Washington Newsletter and Drydees Disposable Diapers. He comes across not as a poseur, but a sincere and talented individual who believes in the system and makes it work for him supremely well.
If you get a lot of cable or dish TV channels, it is quite possible to run into his work several times a day, possibly competing with himself across the broadcast spectrum....more
Her first book, House of the Spirits, was written while she was living in Venezuela, about which she writes:
If someone had asked what it was about, I would have said that it was an attempt to recapture my lost country, to reunite my scattered family, to revive the dead and preserve their memories, which were beginning to be blown away in the whirlwind of exile.
Curiously, this is a very exact description also of My Invented Country.
I had hoped to read some background about Chile for a projected trip later this year. Reading it, I found ou a whole lot about the author, but only a few scattered tidbits about the country as a whole....more
I first saw a couple short essays from this book in an issue of The New York Review of Books. Being something of an aficionado of Russian prison literI first saw a couple short essays from this book in an issue of The New York Review of Books. Being something of an aficionado of Russian prison literature, ranging from Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead through Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales to Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky is perhaps Putin's most famous prisoner. Founder and head of Yukos, Khodorkovsky angered Putin, who had him put away for two jail terms, some of which was served in Siberia. My Fellow Prisoners is very like Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead, consisting as it does of isolated recollections that add up to a system in which people serve as much time as the State wants them to, whether they are innocent or no.
If someone powerful wants you in prison. There you'll go, and serve out as much time as the powers that be want....more
What does the average North American know about Argentina in the Twentieth Century? It was all about Evita ("Don't cry for me Argentina!") with her shWhat does the average North American know about Argentina in the Twentieth Century? It was all about Evita ("Don't cry for me Argentina!") with her shadowy husband Juan Domingo Peron lurking somewhere in the background.
Tomás Eloy Martínez wrote two novels which kind of sort of danced around Evita. One (Santa Evita) was about the travels of her embalmed body after death. The other, The Peron Novel, dealt primarily with Peron before he met Evita, then skips forward to his return to Argentina after his Spanish exile, only to die within a few weeks.
I felt a bit cheated by the live Evita playing such a minor role in Martinez's novels. Still, the Argentinian did capture the essence of Peron's genius:
The reason I've been a leading figure in history time and time again, is precisely because I have contradicted myself. You've already heard about [Count von] Schlieffen's strategy. You have to change plans several times a day, pull them out one at a time, as needed. The socialist fatherland? I invented it. The conservative fatherland? I keep it alive. I have to blow in all directions like the cock on the weathervane.
Thousands of people were waiting at Ezeiza Airport for Peron's plane to land, such that it became an ugly mob scene with over three million people present and numerous fatalities.
Peron's vague ideology made him attractive to too many discordant forces, from the military rightists to the Montonero Socialist guerrillas. It was to take over ten years for the bad blood to drain out of the system. Even today, President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner calls herself a Peronist, which in today's milieu means almost nothing. ...more
I am convinced that most biographies (not all: I am thinking of Boswell's Dr Johnson) would be better if they concentrated on one's early life -- theI am convinced that most biographies (not all: I am thinking of Boswell's Dr Johnson) would be better if they concentrated on one's early life -- the way that C.S. Lewis does in 'Surprised By Joy'. Although one's youth can just as well lead one down the wrong path, it is amazing when one reads about someone who has a fine mind, intellectual honesty, and a basic goodness.
In one sense, Surprised by Joy is about its author's journey toward Christianity. In another, it is the picture of a serious quest, one with many turnings and even a few dead ends, but with a worthwhile end in view. And that is not to mention the inimitable style. At one point, Lewis writes:
The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it "annihilates space." It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten. Of course, if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into the coffin at once? There is little enough space there.
It is probably just as well that Lewis had never -- at least as of the date of this book -- flown in an airplane.
This is in every way a worthy and superior book that I would recommend to any person....more
I have been so impressed by Geoff Dyer's The Search and Zona that I -- somewhat prematurely -- came to the conclusion that here was a writer whose worI have been so impressed by Geoff Dyer's The Search and Zona that I -- somewhat prematurely -- came to the conclusion that here was a writer whose work was golden. Well, with Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It I saw that I mistook for gold was perhaps brass. Each of the eleven essays in this book is about a man suffering a mid-life crisis trying to find some solution by travel. In fact, there is no essay about Mr. Dyer at home, because Mr. Dyer does not appear to ever be home.
There are two unfortunate traits he seems to display:
First, he is so uncomfortable in his own skin that he frequently needs chemical stimulation to ease the pain of being Geoff Dyer.
Second, he is lonely a good part of the time. In some of these essays, he is with a girlfriend in a highly temporary relationship in which he does not appear to have any real sense of emotional commitment invested. Neither does the girlfriend. So naturally, Poof! They're gone!
Still, I enjoyed reading the essays; I did, however, congratulate myself that I am not so complicated as their author.
One would think that, in order to survive some 1600-1700 years, a Roman text must have a certain level of quality. Apparently, not always. Lives of thOne would think that, in order to survive some 1600-1700 years, a Roman text must have a certain level of quality. Apparently, not always. Lives of the Later Caesars, by Anonymous (of whom I expected better things), builds on the popularity of Suetonius's earlier Lives of the Twelve Caesars by continuing the sequence from Nerva on.
It is now thought that the work had a single author, though he used invented authors for individual sections, such as Capitolinus, Lampridius, Spartianus, and Gallicanus -- none of whom were ever referenced in any other known written work.
This would not matter if the biographies were any good. The earlier emperors, from Hadrian through Commodus tend to be acceptable, but then Anonymous descends to just making up stuff. Judge, for example, the following said of Clodius Albinus:
Cordus, who recounts such things in his books, says that [Clodius Albinus] was a glutton, so much so indeed that he used to consume a greater quantity of fruit than human capacities permit. For he says that Albinus, when hungry, ate five hundred dried figs ..., a hundred Campanian peaches, ten Ostian melons, twenty pounds of Labican grapes, a hundred fig-peckers and four hundred oysters.
Now, that's quite an appetite! Guaranteed to kill any human long before they got to the thirtieth fig-pecker, whatever that is!
Not only does Anonymous invent authors for the individual biographies, but when he thinks it would help, he invents experts to back him up.
Toward the end, the name Antoninus became part of every emperor's name (because of the veneration in which Antonnus Pius and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus were held), and Anonymous builds on the confusion by just referring to each one as Antoninus by itself. At one point, "Lampridius," in his biography of Diadumenus Antoninus writes, "Indeed, so beloved was the name of the Antonines in those times that those who did not have the support of that name seemed not to have deserved imperial power."
After Marcus Aurelius's death, the Roman Empire entered a truly dismal period, in which the only variety seemed to be how each bearer of the title was murdered. The most interesting was Heliogabalus, whose body was dunked into a swer, and then weighted with stones and thrown into the Tiber.
Dismal as the period was, this book makes for some dismal reading, with unnecessary confusion to boot. I suppose Anthony Birley did a yeomanlike job translating it, but it does seem that the original was pretty punk.
This short study of Montaigne by Peter Burke excels in placing the French essayist in his milieu. He does not jump to conclusions, emphasizing "He wasThis short study of Montaigne by Peter Burke excels in placing the French essayist in his milieu. He does not jump to conclusions, emphasizing "He was not a systematic thinker, but a man full of insights, some of which are not consistent with others." After all, the essays are "attempts" or "tries" in which Montaigne puts on various thoughts to see how they look in the mirror. In the process, he can be brilliant, tempting one to ascribe to him conclusions which we as the readers draw, but which to Montaigne are primarily an exercise.
Montaigne is a good general introduction to the French essayist. I continue to find certain of his essays, such as "Of Experience," among the greatest works of man....more
Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges is an enigma in its own right. Its subject, the British mathematical genius who contributed to the cryptanalyAlan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges is an enigma in its own right. Its subject, the British mathematical genius who contributed to the cryptanalysis of the Nazi enigma code and to the beginnings of the computer, was not an easy subject. He was a homosexual at a time when homosexual acts were considered a crime. He was a largely unhappy loner. And he was a powerful intellectual.
Hodges adopts three approaches to his biography. First, he gives the facts of Turing's life as much as it was possible, for a person who largely lacked the ability to analyze his own life. Secondly -- and this takes up the majority of the book -- he follows Turing's ideas in computing and science in general. (At times, Alan Turing seems a history of Britain's contribution to the development of computing.) Finally, after Turing's suicide in 1954, he provides a long polemic about the role of gays in science in a world that was paranoiac about the Cold War and various spy scandals.
Admittedly, I skipped quickly through much of the mathematical discussion, and also through the polemic coda. What held me was the character of Turing himself, his abortive attempts to break out of his loneliness -- all the while shortening the Second World War by his brilliant contributions to cryptanalysis using computer prototypes.
Perhaps it is possible to write a better book about Turing, but among all the other stuff, I think Hodges did a respectable job. As a computer professional, I recognize in Alan Turing one of the great minds in at the start of my field....more
When the wounded Béla Zombory-Moldován went by train through Eperjes (now Presov) early in 1915, my father was nearby, a toddler at the age of three.When the wounded Béla Zombory-Moldován went by train through Eperjes (now Presov) early in 1915, my father was nearby, a toddler at the age of three. I cannot help but wonder if he heard the train go by, carrying the wounded officers and men of the Royal Hungarian Army after its defeat to the Russians at Rava-Ruska.
BZM, as I shall call him, managed to survive and, in fact, managed to live for another half century, becoming one of Hungary's most beloved artists. But in The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914, we see only a tiny slice of that life. Would that it were more! Supposedly the remainder of his autobiography was hidden or destroyed by a relative.
We tend not to know much about the Galician Front in 1914-1915, except that the casualty rates for the monarchy's forces were horrifying. In the first two weeks of fighting alone, the Austro-Hungarian forces lost some 400,000 killed, wounded or captured. The "butcher's bill" rose to 850,000 by the end of 1914 and to 1,600,000 by March.
We meet young Bela at a seaside resort in Croatia (then part of Hungary) the day that war is declared. Then we follow him to Veszprém, where he is called up to report, and from there to Galicia, where he engages in the battles at Rava-Ruska and Magierov. Wounded, he returns to Budapest where he has a month to recuperate before returning to duty. During that month, he visits a priest relative in the north of Hungary, and then returns for a while to the Croatian Adriatic.
During this time, BZM came to a realization:
Nature slumbered, seemingly indifferent. Everything moved forward in accordance with unchanging laws; sleeping or waking, every struggle, in accordance with its slow, gradual, hidden evolutionary laws. Nature flowed on its course, impervious to the absurd behavior of men, their mutual slaughter and assorted acts of wickedness. The whole world was manifestly indifferent in the face of the life-and-death struggles of men: it neither took their side nor opposed them, but simply paid no attention. Let them get on with it. Let them reap what they sow.
This edition from the New York Review of Books is the first publication of this fascinating little document in any language. It is translated into English by the author's grandson, Peter....more
Years ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- ConfessioYears ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- Confessions of an English Opium Eater -- is infinitely worth reading through to the end, and even returning to its glories at a later date.
De Quincey's opium habit led to his heterodox approach to life, which alternated between manic passages of glory to massive funereal threnodies, of which the following sentence from "The English Mail Coach" is but a sample: "I sate, and wept in secret the tears that men have ever given to the memory of those that died before the dawn, and by the treachery of earth, our mother."
Of the three essays in this volume, by far the best is the first, the eponymic Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The second, Suspiria de Profundis, is also tinged by its author's drug habit, particularly in its most depressive phase. The shorter "The English Mail Coach," begins with youthful exultation and ends with a long meditation on an night collision with a gig when the one-eyed coachman drove while asleep. In that collision, De Quincey speculates that a young woman was killed, though we never know for sure.
There is a scholarly elegance to De Quincey's writing:
Oh, burthen of solitude, thou cleavest to man through every stage of his being -- in his birth, which has been -- in his life, which is -- in his death, which shall be -- mighty and essential solitude! that wast, and art, and art to be; -- thou broodest, like the spirit of God moving upon the surface of the deeps, over every heart that sleeps in the nurseries of Christendom.
De Quincey had an awesome background in the Greek and Latin classics, and his prose is mightily influenced by those two dead languages, but only in the best sense of the word.
That he is so little known in North America obscures the fact that Simon Bolivar was like all our Founding Fathers rolled into one -- plus a winning gThat he is so little known in North America obscures the fact that Simon Bolivar was like all our Founding Fathers rolled into one -- plus a winning general, which none of the Founding Fathers ever were. And instead of liberating just one country, he liberated five: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. And when he had served his role as revolutionary and liberator, he turned to nation-building. It was there he finally failed.
John Lynch's biography, Simón Bolívar: A Life is a book of alternating triumph and tragedy. Bolivar tried to do in one lifetime what was given to few men -- not even to Napoleon. It was made even more frustrating by the strange stew of races, climates, and topography that is the northwest of the South American continent. Toward the end of his life (dead at the age of 47 from tuberculosis), Bolivar wrote:
You know that I have ruled for twenty years, and from these I have derived only a few certainties: (1) America is ungovernable, for us; (2) Those who serve a revolution plough the sea; (3) the only thing one can do in America is to emigrate; (4) This country will fall inevitably into the hands of the unbridled masses and then pass almost imperceptibly into the hands of petty tyrants, of all colours and races; (5) Once we have been devoured by every crime and extinguished by utter ferocity, the Europeans will not even regard us as worth conquering; (6) If it were possible for any part of the world to revert to primitive chaos, it would be America in her final hour.
And yet, the countries of South America are emerging from almost two centuries of rule by caudillos and incompetents and are hopeful once more. The peoples of South America now begin to appreciate what Bolivar tried to do.
John Lynch's biography is excellent. My only complaint is that it could have used better maps to illustrate the tens of thousands of miles traveled by the indefatigable Bolivar over mountains, across plains, and through jungles to achieve his ends....more
Well, let me see. This is both autobiography and fiction at the same time. (Its author at one point says, "I make no distinction between memory and imWell, let me see. This is both autobiography and fiction at the same time. (Its author at one point says, "I make no distinction between memory and imagination.") And that's not the only thing étrange about ce livre ci. Raymond Federman keeps switching between Anglais et French, quelquefois in the middle of a sentence, si non a paragraph.
Yet there is something likeable about Return to Manure, which purports to be a rambling tale about the author's stay at a farm in Vichy France after he somehow escaped being gassed at Auschwitz along with the rest of his family. He lives with a farmer named Lauzy, who mistreats him and sexually abuses the livestock, and his daughter-in-law Josette, with whom Federman develops a kind of ongoing sexual relationship.
There are several levels of narration. At the innermost level, it is Federman talking about his experiences. Interspersed with that are questions and comments from his wife Erica as they drive through France looking for the farm for old time's sake. On a yet higher level, there are questions and comments from the publisher (centered and boxed) who is bringing Return to Manure to press.
No doubt it is an odd book, but not an unlikeable one. In the three years he works on Lauzy's farm, Federman becomes a decent farmer. But then the war ends, and he returns to Paris looking for any of his family who may have survived. ...more
There are several criteria one can use to rate a book: The most obvious is its own intrinsic merit. If that were my main criterion, Boni De CastellaneThere are several criteria one can use to rate a book: The most obvious is its own intrinsic merit. If that were my main criterion, Boni De Castellane's How I Discovered America: Confessions of the Marquis Boni de Castellane (the title above is, I believe, the original French title, of which I read a translated Kessinger Library Reprint), would be only two or three stars. Boni de C is a notorious name-dropper; and he is so relentlessly a French aristocrat that unless the reader has a special affinity for that sort of thing, the reading experience would suffer correspondingly.
It just so happens, however, that the book was written by a character who was thought to be the original of of Proust's Robert de Saint Loup. And throughout the book, one is constantly running into the originals for Charles Swann (Charles Haas), Norpois (Gabriel Hanotaux), the Baron de Charlus (Comte Robert de Montesquiou), and the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes (Comte Henri and Comtesse Elisabeth Greffulhe). In fact, I read the book with a copy at my side of William Howard Adams's A Proust Souvenir, with its splendid society photographs by Paul Nadar.
There they are, all of Proust's characters from In Search of Lost Time. All that is missing is the exquisite sensibility of that young social climber Marcel Proust. It is his work that turned Boni de Castellane's work from a negligible piece of aristo-chatting into a literary document....more
When John Ford died in 1973, I cried. I loved his films: Again and again, I pop my favorite titles in the DVD and watch them, marveling at how effortlWhen John Ford died in 1973, I cried. I loved his films: Again and again, I pop my favorite titles in the DVD and watch them, marveling at how effortlessly Ford made everything look perfect. One of the actors in his "stock company" was Harry Carey Jr., who wrote an excellent book about his ten films with Ford entitled Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company.
The films covered were Three Godfathers (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagonmaster (1950), Rio Grande (1950), The Long Gray Line (1955), Mister Roberts (1955), The Searchers (1956), Two Rode Together (1961>, Flashing Spikes (1962), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). I cannot think of a list of ten films by any filmmaker who ever lived that are as great.
Carey's father, Harry Carey Sr., and his mother, Olive, started starring in Ford westerns beginning in 1917, and continued for a number of years through the silent era. Ford liked having familiar people working with him, and the son of his old star Harry Sr. came in for special attention -- not always of the most favorable kind. But Ford was that way, an old curmudgeon with a touch of brilliance.
I don't look at this as a typical actor autobiography, but as an ordered set of reminiscences of a relatively minor actor who spent a lot of time with the old man and who knew a lot about working with him through good and bad times.
If you like Ford's films, this is a good book to read; and I am indebted to Harry Carey Jr. for writing it....more
It was bound to happen sooner or later: After worshiping the man for over forty years, I am finally beginning to have my doubts about Jorge Luis BorgeIt was bound to happen sooner or later: After worshiping the man for over forty years, I am finally beginning to have my doubts about Jorge Luis Borges the man. But not, by any means, of Borges the poet and writer of short stories and essays. I still think he deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature on merit alone, but I begin to understand why he cheesed off the liberal-minded Nobel Prize Selection Committee.
Perhaps my favorite translator of Borges is Norman Thomas di Giovanni, whose book Georgie and Elsa: Jorge Luis Borges and His Wife, The Untold Story has just recently been published. Di Giovanni worked closely with Borges during the 1960s, shortly after he married Elsa Astete Millán, and through the divorce. What Di Giovanni discovered was that Borges was fatally naive when it came to women, politics, and social life. In fact, he was incredibly feckless in many ways. Di Giovanni writes:
[I]n later years, he travelled to Chile to receive a medal from the hands of Augusto Pinochet. This was one of the worst decisions of his life. But, he maintained, in his digging-his-heels-in mode that no one was going to tell him what he could or could not do. I imagine that it would never have occurred to Borges to question and be horrified by Pinochet’s well-oiled programme of eliminating Communists and other left-wingers. Borges was so universally condemned for his action that I think he came to realize his colossal mistake. But to justify it and himself, when I mentioned his folly to him, he said, ‘But I thought the medal was a gift of the Chilean people.’
Equally, if not more disastrous, was Borges’s marriage to Elsa. Years earlier, he had mooned over her; but, typically, someone else married her. (“Georgie” was not prime marriage material, as he lived with his mother well into his old age.) Then, one day, he met her again and—discovering that she was now widowed—took up with her again. By now, Borges was a famous literary figure; and, Elsa, being a social climber, thought that she was now about to enter the high life.
Her behavior during visits to the United States was execrable. She would steal silverware and other “souvenirs” from Borges’s friends and associates. During a visit to the Rockefellers, she insisted in photographing every room and asking about all the furnishings. It got to the point that people stopped inviting Borges lest Elsa come along. When she accidentally left a nutria coat in Cambridge after one trip, she made the return of the coat into an international incident involving U.S. and Argentinian ambassadorial and consular staffs.
Not that Borges was an ideal husband. He was an elderly blind man who happened to be impotent (which Elsa had known earlier) and incredibly old fashioned, a sort of Anglo-Argentinian who was neither all one thing or all the other. Finally, with di Giovanni’s help, Borges divorced her. He later re-married, with Maria Kodama, who now controls his esate.
Di Giovanni’s book is mandatory reading to supplement all the hagiographical biographies of the author who never quite get at the man’s character....more
This is the strangest of autobiographies: In fact, it is like a set of notes for an autobiography, with repetitions, footnotes that are nothing more tThis is the strangest of autobiographies: In fact, it is like a set of notes for an autobiography, with repetitions, footnotes that are nothing more than a reminder to the writer, and crude illustrations of rooms, streets, and scenes that played a part in the early life of Stendhal (Henri Marie Beyle).
And it is only the first twenty or so years in Stendhal's life that are covered, comprising his childhood in Grenoble, his first few months in Paris, and his happiness at joining Napoleon's army in its invasion of Italy.
Why is it called The Life of Henry Brulard when Stendhal's real name is Marie-Henri Beyle? If we learn anything in the first two-thirds of the book, it is that Marie-Henri loathes his father and his aunt Seraphie, who seems to spend most of her time belittling and punishing him. He refuses to call himself Beyle, adopting instead the name Brulard, which belonged to his late, beloved mother. When Seraphie dies and he finally gets to Paris, he is disconsolate because in Paris there are no mountains, as in his native Dauphiné. In fact, until the very end, when Stendhal falls in love with Italy, he is a young man not comfortable in his own skin:
"Is Paris no more than this?"
This meant: the thing I've longed for so much, as the supreme good, the thing to which I've sacrificed my life for the past three years, bores me. It was not the three years' sacrifice that distressed me; in spite of my dread of entering the Ecole Polytechnique next year, I loved mathematics; the terrible question that I was not clever enough to see clearly was this: Where, then, is happiness to be found on earth? And sometimes I got as far as asking: Is there such a thing as happiness on earth?
Although The Life of Henry Brulard lacks the formal excellence of a great literary biography such as we are accustomed to, it is so manifestly truthful and self-critical that, for once, we do not feel that the author is busily embroidering an alternate past for himself.
The whole book was written over a four-month period in the 1830s, when Stendhal was fifty-two. Reading The Life of Henry Brulard is like experiencing a great writer forgiving all the dead ends and defeats of his youth. It is, if anything, a kind of celebration of a wayward youth. Stendhal stops writing abruptly when he feels his life is on the right track. What we get are all the wrong tracks that threatened to overthrow his development.
Fortunately for all of us, Stendhal went on to become a great writer, one who was eventually happy within his own skin. ...more
Philip K. Dick is a mobius artichoke. You peel off the outer layers, and then find inner layers. Peel off enough inner layers, and you come up with --Philip K. Dick is a mobius artichoke. You peel off the outer layers, and then find inner layers. Peel off enough inner layers, and you come up with -- if not the ultimate reality -- more outer layers. That artichoke heart is elusive, and perhaps cannot be found at all.
I have loved reading Dick's work for decades. This is the first time I ever tried to read a book about him. Douglas A Mackey in his survey of the author and his work, suitably entitled Philip K Dick, tries to come to terms with his subject, and does a creditable job at it. At one point, he quotes an unpublished work by the author:
At one time my heme was the search for reality, which I posed as: What is real? What isn't? But I think really my theme, What is human? What isn't? is more vital and was there all the time underlying the other. After all, the subdivision of reality most important to our ability to make something we can treasure out of our life is the reality of other humans. To define what is real is to define what is human, if you care about humans.
That last phrase I find most illuminating. There are people among us so wrapped in their pets, their TV-fed fantasies, and their craziness that they may very well not care about humans. Not when they can pick up a military assault rifle and shoot up a kindergarten.
Fortunately, Dick does care about humans. He does encounter some problems, however, dealing with his female characters. Males care about humans in general in a very different way that males care about women. The result is that it is difficult (but not impossible) for male authors to create convincing women and vice versa. It is a small failing in Dick, who was married five times and couldn't really sort out his problems with women during an incredibly creative lifetime.
Dick in his endless search for reality has produced at least a dozen works that easily cross over from science fiction to literature. It is no accident that three volumes (comprising thirteen novels) of the prestigious Library of America have been devoted to his work....more
This is a curiously effective and affecting book, perhaps because of its very informality. The "Castle" in the title is Prague Castle, which has beenThis is a curiously effective and affecting book, perhaps because of its very informality. The "Castle" in the title is Prague Castle, which has been a seat of government for the Czechs for hundreds of years. Václav Havel was the last President of Czechoslovakia (the first after the fall of Communism) and the first President of the Czech Republic (after Slovakia opted for its own independence).
To the Castle and Back: Reflections on My Strange Life as a Fairy-Tale Hero consists of a series of notes made to his staff between 1993 and 2003 which were discovered on his computer. Then there were sections written in 2005 from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington during a long stay there, and finally a running interview with Karel Hvizd'ala which threads its way through the book. It shows some of the big issues that confronted Havel during his tenure at the Castle, such as the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Czech Republic's entry into NATO. It also shows some of the small issues that endlessly plagued him, such as the following:
In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it? The lightbulb has been unscrewed so as not to wake it up and upset it.
At other times, Havel had to complain about the ugliest telephones being in the most prominent places, about the length of the watering hose used in the gardens, and why the good silverware was not being used for state dinners.
I was curious to discover that Havel, despite being an internationally known playwright, was petrified whenever he had to begin writing anything. And he appears to have written all his own speeches!
Particularly impressive was Havel's answer as to what his credo was as the President of the Republic:
I think that the moral order stands above the legal, political, and economic orders, and that these latter orders should derive from the former, and not be techniques for getting around its imperatives. And I believe this moral order has a metaphysical anchoring in the infinite and the eternal.
Would any of our politicians be so cogent and candid? ...more
But this was not to be. Not only was the Liberator dying, but he had the misfortune of seeing the proud republics he had founded falling prey to disunity and squabbling. In answer to the pleas of his friends to continue in the leadership, he backs off:
It was the end. General Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios was leaving forever. He had wrested from Spanish domination an empire five times more vast than all of Europe, he had led twenty years of wars to keep it free and united, and he had governed it with a firm hand until the week before, but when it was time to leave he did not even take away with him the consolation that anyone believed in his departure. The only man with enough lucidity to know he really was going, and where he was going to, was the English diplomat, who wrote in an official report to his government: "The time he has left will hardly be enough for him to reach his grave."
And so it was. When Bolivar and his retinue reach the shores of the Caribbean, he temporizes about leaving while dealing with rumors of the dissolution of Colombia and Venezuela. He is half tempted to go back to war to restore Riohacha. Except he is desperately ill, and his moment of glory is past. Even as death approaches, he is a remarkable man; and his letters fly all around South America and the Caribbean trying futilely to hold all the pieces together one last time.
It was a kind of double sadness anticipating the death of this incredible conqueror, in the shadow of the death of Garcia Marquez, who wrote this book in 1989, a quarter of a century ago.
The General in His Labyrinth is, like others of his works that I have read, a simple story, bathed in the magic of the tropics, and told with a kind of sublime generosity toward his characters. There is not a shred of irony or post-modernism to destroy the effect. Garcia Marquez joins other great storytellers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Nikolai Leskov in his respect for the primacy of the tale itself.
When I saw Martin Scorsese's film version of The Wolf of Wall Street, I assumed it was an original script. Then I casually Googled Jordan Belfort andWhen I saw Martin Scorsese's film version of The Wolf of Wall Street, I assumed it was an original script. Then I casually Googled Jordan Belfort and found out that it was more or less true. At least to some degree. I have never in my reading encountered a writer who took so much joy in being a crook, a drug addict, and a sexual deviant. At several points during his autobiographical book (or should I say novel?), he talks about his experience being Life Styles of the Rich and Dysfunctional.
Belfort had founded a brokerage company called Stratton Oakmont in the early 1990s and became fabulously wealthy by essentially not following the regulators of the SEC and NASDAQ. At the same time, he lived high off the hog, consorted with prostitutes, and conspired with his associates to drain his clients of millions by selling them dubious investments. At one point, he says:
How much had my drug addiction fueled my life on the dark side? As a sober man, would I ever have slept with all those prostitutes? Would I have ever smuggled all that money to Switzerland? Would I have ever allowed Stratton's sales practices to spiral so far out of control?
I don't entirely believe Mr. Belfort because of the book's acknowledgments. He could apparently afford to higher a lot of high-priced talent to make him look like the silkiest of silk purses. The book is well written, but doesn't pass my fingerspitzengefuhl ("hunting dog nose") test: He looks too much like he enjoyed every moment of his life, even when he was doing things that were truly reprehensible, if not outright criminal.
Perhaps I am a secret Puritan at heart, because I don't buy it. But the story is well told, and Jordan Belfort comes across like someone we would all love to have as our friend -- even while he was picking our pockets and rogering our wives, daughters, and girlfriends. ...more
One of my favorite films of the 1980s was Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century Peruvian rubber baron who decides to bring the opera to tOne of my favorite films of the 1980s was Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century Peruvian rubber baron who decides to bring the opera to the jungle city of Iquitos. In order to do this, he must find a way of moving a largish steamship over a ridge that separates two adjacent rivers, the Camisea and the Urubamba.
Naturally, such an idea is madness on the face of it. But Herzog did it, and the result is a film production that will continue to amaze people as long as films are being watched.
Almost equal to the film, however, is Herzog's journal of the making of the film, Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo. Although in form the book is theoretically a documentation of an insanely difficult film production, it is as much a series of vignettes of life in the jungle, dreams, tales of encounters with snakes, spiders, Peruvian Indians, strange fish and birds, jungle rot, illnesses and wounds, and whatnot. Here is a brief example:
When I tossed a cigarette butt, still glowing, into a metal sewer grating, suddenly something like a snake shot up out of the damp, black sewer, seized the butt, dropped it again at once, and disappeared just as fast. It was a very large frog.
Here is another typical instance of jungle life:
Our kitchen crew slaughtered our last four ducks. While they were still alive, Julian plucked their neck feathers before chopping off their heads on the execution block. The albino turkey, that vain creature, the survivor of so many roast chickens and ducks transformed into soup, came over to inspect, gobbling and displaying, used his ugly feet to push one of the beheaded ducks as it lay there on the ground bleeding and flapping its wings into what he thought was a proper position, and making gurgling sounds while his bluish red wattles swelled, he mounted the dying duck and copulated with it.
There were also many descriptions of problems with the cast and crew, particularly with Klaus Kinski, who played the lead. After one of his crazier tantrums, a number of Campos Indians came up to Herzog and whispered whether he wanted to have the actor killed. Kinski got wind of what was going on and immediately died down.
This book is a classic and tells me more about the area around the Peruvian headwaters of the Amazon than I have seen in any other source. But then Herzog had made two films in the area. In addition to Fitzcarraldo, there was the equally excellent Aguirre, the Wrath of God, also starring Kinski. Also, this book gives me a good reason for never having wanted to become a film director: I would have gone stark raving mad and would have had to be killed by the Indians out of spite. ...more
Normally, I don't like biographies that much because most people do not have such exciting lives throughout. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was an excNormally, I don't like biographies that much because most people do not have such exciting lives throughout. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was an exception. He started out as a slave trader, enlisted as a private after Fort Sumter, but quickly rose to the rank of general commanding Confederate cavalry in Tennessee and Mississippi. He typically won battles in which his side was grossly outnumbered, never neglecting to "put the skeer" on his enemy.
With no West Point or other significant schooling, Forrest was an original. When attacked from two sides, he would think nothing of dividing his forces and have each attack in opposite directions. His cavalry operated more as dragoons, who used horses for mobility but fought as infantry. At Brice's Crossroads, he did the unthinkable: He had an artillery charge that completely flummoxed the Union forces. (Even now, I cannot imagine what THAT looked like.)
Unfortunately, Forrest was associated for the rest of his life with the massacre at Fort Pillow. He grew disgusted when his negotiations for a truce were running into what he considered bad faith. At this point, he ordered his men to "kill every God damned one of them." Most of the Union forces were black soldiers in uniform, and they were more likely to be killed than the whites.
After Appomattox, Forest became the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, though he repudiated the organization and tried -- unsuccessfully -- to build a railroad between Memphis and Selma. But the Fort Pillow taint plus local envy from his fellow Memphis citizens led to the project being abandoned.
In the end, Forrest wasted away and died of advanced diabetes twelve years after the war.
Jack Hurst has done a creditable job in his Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography. There was no question but that Forrest was a bad ass. But, according to Civil War historian Shelby Foote, he is one of the two greatest geniuses the war produced, the other being Abraham Lincoln....more