Mr. Gardner has been making his life as a rationalist and author for decades. These slim essays take aim at current and past fancies that do not survive the cold hard light of reason.
In some cases the evidence for something seemed strong at the time, but later was revealed to be false or inaccurate. We may all have a secret desire to use a time machine and, "make it didn't happen", but that is just as likely as anything in this book.
Fast and easy to read, but richly detailed. It's not what you might consider "fair and balanced", but, then again, Mr. Gardner is only interested in getting the real truth out not some other fantasy.
This book collects three novellas (two long, one short) by the celebrated author Ms. Marguerite Yourcenar. They are remarkable even in the English tra...more This book collects three novellas (two long, one short) by the celebrated author Ms. Marguerite Yourcenar. They are remarkable even in the English translation. Each is richly written with full use of the five senses, attention to detail and human emotions. They appeal to one’s sense of imagination and adventure. While not breaking that implicit promise of showing us other places and other times, they bring us face-to-face with universal human thoughts and desires. Her characters are people: people you might have met under different circumstances or you might yet meet in the 21st century.
Allow me a brief spoiler-laden observation:
(view spoiler)[ They are very well crafted stories and that is no accident. For, after reading them, there is a set of detailed postfaces describing how each was first written decades earlier and then re-written and re-written with intermediate versions published until these final versions were released in 1982. I have nothing against and author taking a story or idea and re-using it. It often happens that a short story later serves as the basis for (or introduction to) a novel. In this case, Madame Yourcenar followed a path similar to that of J.R.R. Tolkien in how ideas and characters were worked on and changed and revised to fit different backgrounds. But, unlike Tolkien, she revisited these as she grew older to meet her own changing viewpoint (not to flesh out the history of a self-contained and internally consistent fictional world). In both cases, the end result is very, very good. (hide spoiler)]
I read this collection because of another Goodreader’s comments on Candide and the suggestion that I should try “An Obscure Man”. It was both excellent observations and advice. Of course, I am not doing myself any favors writing these thoughts a good 7 or 8 weeks after actually finishing the stories. But I’ll try to recapture the impressions that I had about each.
An Obscure Man
This is the first and one might easily claim most important story. Indeed it has strong parallels to Candide, but it also has strong contrasts. The protagonist, Nathaniel (Nathanael), has a life that encompasses many places, many trades, and many people. Like Candide (like most of us), he is an everyman who stumbles through the events that occur whether big or small. He strives to improve himself and his lot and although he makes progress at times, it is a very crooked path for each step forward there are the same or more going sideways and backwards.
As I began his tale I watched for similarities to Voltaire’s story, but later let myself relax and settle into the story. I want to avoid giving away too much, but Nathaniel sifts through the beliefs that he and those around him hold. While he never comes out with a definite statement (“We must all cultivate our garden”) like Candide, he does draw inferences about his world and those around him. He has a degree of education (from reading) that many commoners would not have and that gives him perspective to compare the (his) modern world to that of the historic (Greeks and Roman). But even with this advantage, he often misjudges people to a degree of absurdity. He wants to ascribe good intentions to those around him even when they are clearly cheating, lying, and defrauding him. It’s as if his ability to see the “macro” blinds him to the “micro”.
I’m not truly doing this story justice, but one should not think of it as a clone of Candide or any other story. The motivations of the author are certainly different: Voltaire chose to parody and lampoon the philosophical beliefs (optimism) that he thought were absurd and leading the world into idiocy. Ms. Yourcenar may also desire to show the fallacy of our philosophies, but this is more about exposing the frailty of our lives and how we carry ourselves in the world. She writes in a sterner way. One that might chide us for enjoying the lunacy we encounter just as much as she would for letting our emotions overcome us when lives treats us harshly. Both protagonists have their lives shaped by chance, but hers has it overrunning his freedom of choice more explicitly I think.
Another difference in these two tales is that An Obscure Man opens with the death of Nathaniel and how little notice it attracted; just like his birth had done. This mortality closes off the story (she returns to his dying in the last pages) in a way that Voltaire never did. When we leave Candide, he and his commune are living their lives maybe a bit more plainly now, but with no sense that they will be interrupted from their labors or thoughts any time soon.
*** 4.0 to 4.5 ***
A Lovely Morning
This very short tale is about Nathaniel’s son Lazarus. Lazarus is a very imaginative lad and his surroundings (an inn) promote his fancies. He is sheltered in the inn, but he is also exposed to the musings of those who live complex lives; at times on the periphery of society and at other times in the middle of it. His secret mentor is an aged actor and from him he learns to perform, emote, and see the world as nothing more than another kind of play. In the end he chooses to go off to join a troupe as they go to their next performance.
To make another parallel to Tolkien, like the One Ring linking The Hobbit to The Lord of The Rings, Nathaniel’s son is the link between “An Obscure Man” and “A Lovely Morning”. In all other respects the tone and style of the stories are completely different. It is an interesting contrast and shows the depth of the author’s ability.
*** 3.0 ***
The final tale takes us far away from the home of Rembrandt and puts us in Spanish-controlled Italy. We join the household of the Governor of Naples. We live with his wife, his son, and his daughter as they develop in age and emotion. The reader is never at much doubt as to where the story is taking us, but we go along willingly. The writing reflects the deep passion that the characters have; the phrasing is blunter and more powerful. As the story plays out we feel that we know both the city and the characters intimately. It ends as it only can. Death and resignation certainly, but there is more and that is left to the imagination of the nuns and the reader.
*** 3.0 ***
I had not read any of the author’s works before this and perhaps it is not representative of her other works. But I’d guess that her prose and ideas are just as powerfully drawn as they were here. This is not the first time that Goodreads has been the source of my reading and I hope not the last. It is always easy when it falls in your “comfort zone” and riskier if you stray outside that. This is a strong book that deserves to be read by anyone who loves good writing.
I’m on the fence about my rating. I think that it is at least a 3.5 and may be a 4.0, but I also feel that it should be at least that high after all of the re-writing. Consider it a 3.5 rounded up to 4.0. But, please read it yourself and find out how you would rank it.