January 7, 2010

My comments are mostly about books and reading. I don’t do comprehensive reviews. Instead I write about some aspect that gets my attention.

For information about American silver and for slide shows related to my courses, see the Pages listed on the right.

What I Read in October 2014

October 31, 2014

BrownZolaFrederick Brown, Zola: A Life. This weighty biography relates the life of Zola, as well as the lives of his friends and colleagues along with the ups and down of French politics and society during his lifetime. Complete, almost overwhelming.

SteamboatHerman Melville, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. A man travels down the Mississippi to New Orleans on a steamboat. He meets many people and is himself, in fact, many people. If you give him your confidence, you may also have to give him your money.

ZolaPotEmile Zola, Pot-Boulle / Pot Luck, translated by Brian Nelson. The inhabitants of an apartment house in Paris display a variety of form of corruptions, financial and sexual. This modern translation leaves nothing out.

Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_poster1-croppedRobert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this very Victorian novel, a doctor creates a second self to express the evil and violent side of his nature.

ManyMasksBrendan Gill, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright. A lifelong admirer of Wright’s work, I thoroughly enjoyed Gill’s account of both the life and work of this distinguished American architect. If you live in the greater New York City area, you have limited access to examples of his work, but here are a few: Wright in Our Neighborhood.

At this point an unexpected illness interrupted my blogging, but the following two books cheered me in the hospital. Maybe I can return later to write more about Wright.


I read this on my Kindle, so here is a suggestive image.

Ada Leverson, Love’s Shadow. I knew before I read this entertaining novel that Leverson was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, but I was not surprised later to learn that they were friends. This depiction of a shadow on the love of a young married couple is very Wildean, with witty dialogue. They are silly, of course, but you forget that most of the time. A flaw was in the presentation of the other couples in the book, especially of Edith and her husband. He became more and more childish as the story progressed, and this was never resolved.

LyndonMargaret Kennedy, The Ladies of Lyndon — thanks to the generosity of blogger Kat at Mirabile Dictu. Like all the best social comedy, this one had one foot (but only one foot) in reality. A beautiful girl marries a wealthy man. She is 18; he is 30. Both are from the same world of mannered courtesy and great wealth. It works, but only for a short time. After all, whose character is perfectly developed by 18? So the fun begins, with the various ladies of Lyndon making their own matches with a variety of consequences, all accompanied by dazzling dialogue. Be careful what you wish for because, if you are beautiful and perfectly prepared to marry great wealth, you may be unprepared for any other life.



The Picture of Jekyll and Hyde

October 16, 2014

Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_poster1-croppedWe all know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of the mild-mannered physician who drank a potion which turned him into the menacing Mr. Hyde. The story is told by Robert Louis Stevenson in his novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Written in 1886 it is told, as many Victorian novels are, in stages which develop slowly. We begin with two gentlemen who take a walk and are reminded of a certain incident, followed by discussions and interviews. The climax of the tale is told in documents left by participants who are no longer with us and cannot be interrogated. Too bad, because there are questions I would ask, most especially why Jekyll was so concerned that his suppressed self was evil.

Dr. Jekyll is civilized and benevolent as are his friends, Mr. Utterhouse and lawyer and Dr. Lanyon, another physician. With them in view, the story is only mildly interesting; it is Mr. Hyde who grabs and holds our attention. Witnesses struggle to describe him:

 Only on one point, were they agreed; and that was the haunting sense of unexpressed deformity with which the fugitive impressed his beholders.

Hyde is not an obvious cripple, yet de-formed, a variant from the normal form of a man. When Jekyll becomes Hyde, his clothes are too large because Hyde is smaller. At the same time, Hyde is younger, more agile, more flexible and energetic in his movements, more vital in every way. Jekyll explains Hyde’s origins:

 It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved day-dream, on the thought of the separation of these elements.

Jekyll wants to separate these two elements of himself, to place them in two separate bodies. To what advantage?

 If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust delivered from the aspirations might go his way, and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

Jekyll believes that by splitting off the less desirable side of his nature, he will no longer need to make the effort to control evil impulses and will be relieved of their consequences. This same idea was used by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Again we have dual bodies, but one is forever young and beautiful, while the other is a portrait which reflects Dorian’s true nature. Wilde’s book was written five years after Stevenson’s, so he may well have been familiar with Jekyll and Hyde, but his interpretation of what happens when a personality is split stands on its own.

In both books, there is a strong suggestion that those desires we struggle to suppress are strong. If we release them – even temporarily – they grow stronger and even more difficult to control. Symbolically, Hyde grows larger and more able to fill Jekylls’ clothes. Dorian, as his portrait takes on the physical effects of his depravity, becomes even more extreme in his actions and desires.


Dorian Gray and the portrait which shows the real man

Neither man wants to admit or display the side of his personality which he has transferred to Hyde or to the hidden portrait. What are the impulses which frighten and disgust them? Dorian Gray desires sex and drugs and possession of beautiful things. He is indifferent to cruelty and takes pleasure in his power over others. Robert Louis Stevenson is more reluctant to spell out what it is exactly that Hyde does.

 The pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified; I would scarce use a harder term. But in the hands of Edward Hyde, they soon began to turn toward the monstrous. When I would come back from these excursions, I was often plunged into a kind of wonder at my vicarious depravity.

The examples in the text are of sadistic and unprovoked violence toward others.


John Barrymore as Mr. Hyde

Stevenson was understandably reluctant to mention sexual adventures – although they are implied – but Hollywood was not so restrained. In the 1920 silent film, John Barrymore plays a Hyde who leers at the Spanish dancer when she flaps her shawls and clearly believes any woman can be bought. All the male characters in this movie are very stiff, very British, except Barrymore who grins and scowls and generally made a fool of himself as Hyde. He had a reputation as a great actor, but his performance here is terrible.

These are morality tales. A man who denies his basic impulses – his   id   – may indeed strengthen their power to do him harm. Jekyll concludes:

I have been made to learn that the doom and burthen of our life is bound for ever on man’s shoulders, and when the attempt is made to cast it off, it but returns upon us with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure.

A man who cannot accept his whole nature is in mortal danger of losing the best part of himself.

Emile Zola, Pot Luck / Pot-Bouille

October 12, 2014

ZolaPotThe expression Pot-Bouille, the title of one of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of novels, is difficult to render in English. “Pot luck” in the Midwest, where I come from, implies taking your chance on what may be in the pot that day. A French dictionary calls pot-bouille a “repas ordinaire d’un ménage.” I rather like that – it’s what you usually get, and luck doesn’t much enter into it.

The ménage in which Zola finds this ordinary meal is an apartment house in Paris, in which live a number of bourgeois families and their servants. These human ingredients of Zola’s story are no more exceptional than the ingredients of pot luck; their activities and attitudes are as we would expect. For details, see two posts at the Reading Zola blog where Jonathan provides a plot summary  and Lisa describes the characters and their interactions. Lisa also remarks that the “smart new building is Zola’s metaphor for the hypocrisy of the bourgeois.”

Almost all the inhabitants of the building are corrupt in some way. The servants steal from their employers and gossip about them. The tenants cheat financially and sleep with each other and with the servants. The bourgeoisie are hypocritical about what is going on; the servants are not. They know what is being concealed. After the morning gossip,

 They [the maids] all plunged back into their kitchens; and from the dark bowels of the narrow courtyard only the stench of the drains came up, like the smell of the hidden filth of the various families, stirred up by the servants’ rancor. This was the sewer of the house, draining off the house’s shames, while the masters lounged about in their slippers and the front staircase displayed all its solemn majesty amid the stuffy silence of the hot-air stove.

Now that I have read several Zola’s novels, I am struck by his repeated use of human constructions as metaphors for the theme of his story. In Pot-Bouille, it is the apartment house, designed to be impressive, but concealing its decadence. In La Curée, it is the grand, over-decorated mansion constructed by Saccard to display his wealth and social importance. In Germinal, it is the mine and its machinery – underground, yet dominating all above and below. In The Belly of Paris, it is the market, which is large, complex and contains the delights of fresh foods along with the stink of garbage.

In his biography, Zola: A Life, Frederick Brown gives a detailed account of how Zola acquired a modest country property at Medan. As he prospered, he expanded the original house, remodeling it and adding wings and towers. Construction had meaning to Zola, as shown by the attention he paid to his own property and his evident pride in the results. His house was a testimony to his success. With his feeling about the importance of buildings, it is appropriate that an apartment building in Bot-Bouille links together the characters and subplots of the novel. For example, it represented the conventional virtues to the erring Berthe, hiding from her angry husband.

 Then gradually the solemn staircase filled her with fresh anguish; it was so black, so austere. No one could see her; and yet she was overcome with confusion at sitting there in her chemise amid such respectable gilt and stucco. The wide mahogany doors, the conjugal dignity of these hearths, seemed to load her with reproaches. Never had the house appeared to her so saturated with purity and virtue.

Berthe is wrong, of course. The house itself cannot be virtuous, only the people within. Zola notices the details of wide mahogany doors and grants conjugal dignity to hearths. He is sensitive to constructions and what they represent. I hope he was satisfied by what his own domestic constructions meant to him, as well as what they represented to the world.

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville

October 9, 2014

SteamboatAll right, class. If you like reading Melville and you thoroughly enjoyed Moby Dick, raise your hands. Get them up there! What’s your problem? Many diligent readers have slogged through the tale of the whale, but very few can claim to have enjoyed it “thoroughly.” It helps to know, as you contemplate the physical, psychological and philosophical aspects of the whale, that in the conflict with Captain Ahab action is coming. Melville’s philosophizing has an interesting variety to it, although he is self-indulgent, sometimes pursuing issues unlikely to interest his readers. Hmmm – that puts me in mind of James Joyce and Ulysses.

Be respectful of my opinions here because I managed to read all the way to the end of Melville’s The Confidence-Man, evidencing the sort of dumb persistence of which very few other members of my book group were guilty. Now I get to show off my tediously-acquired knowledge.

A steamship is traveling down the Mississippi River in the 1850s. As various people board and leave the ship they discuss confidence in all its aspects. (There is no whale and no other action.) I almost said many aspects of confidence, but there aren’t all that many, since confidence seems to be the basis for some sort of swindle, time after time after time. Do you have confidence?

 “Believe me, I—yes, yes—I may say—that—that——” “That you have confidence? Prove it. Let me have twenty dollars.” “Twenty dollars!” “There, I told you, madam, you had no confidence.”

There is some entertainment value in the various ways Melville approaches his subject. Sometimes, we have the classical:

 Without confidence himself, Tacitus destroys it in all his readers. Destroys confidence, paternal confidence, of which God knows that there is in this world none to spare. For, comparatively inexperienced as you are, my dear young friend, did you never observe how little, very little, confidence, there is? I mean between man and man—more particularly between stranger and stranger. In a sad world it is the saddest fact. Confidence! I have sometimes almost thought that confidence is fled; that confidence is the New Astrea—emigrated—vanished—gone.”

Sometimes we have religious exhortation:

 Oh, friends,” raising his arms as in the pulpit, “oh beloved, how are we admonished by the melancholy spectacle of this raver. Let us profit by the lesson; and is it not this: that if, next to mistrusting Providence, there be aught that man should pray against, it is against mistrusting his fellow-man.

And best of all, plain old assertion:

 Hope is proportioned to confidence. How much confidence you give me, so much hope do I give you.

HermanMelvilleStampWho says these things? Sometimes one and sometimes another, and they may all be the same person. It’s a masquerade. You too can read The Confidence-Man and without any expense since it is available at Project Gutenberg. One of the members of our group did not know that and is bitter about the $9 he spent for his copy of the book. He feels his confidence was betrayed.

Frederick Brown, Zola: A Life

October 5, 2014

BrownZolaI have now read more than half a dozen of the twenty novels which make up Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. Wanting to know more about Zola, both as a writer and as a man, I read Mathew Johnson’s 1928 biography, Zola and His Time, and found it disappointing, with too much literary squabbling in Paris and not enough about Zola himself. The last portion of the book, dealing with The Dreyfus Affair, was the most satisfactory. Writing before World War II, however, Johnson had no vision of the eventual outcome of virulent antisemitism.

I looked for something more recent and more comprehensive and found Frederick Brown’s Zola: A Life. More recent (1995) and more comprehensive (803 pages of text, plus notes, etc.), it is neither a quick nor an easy read. Sometimes with a work this massive, it helps to comment at intervals, but it is too late for that now. Still, it does break into three main sections: boyhood and the apprentice years, the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and the years after Rougon-Macquart, including The Dreyfus Affair. The information presented throughout is so wide-ranging, however, that I see these possible divisions only in retrospect.

What does Frederick Brown give us in this “life”?

  • A complete description of the Zola family, including his father’s career and his mother’s struggles.
  • French politics and conflicts before and during his long life. Zola turns out to have been very politically aware, even as a young man, so his later involvement with Dreyfus was far from an aberration.
  • All Zola’s literary and artistic acquaintances – their lives, their struggles, their off-and-on relationships with him. We hear about Cezanne, Flaubert, Maupassant, the Goncourts, Manet, Daudet, Hugo, Balzac and many more. These are not passing references, but full accounts with ample quotations from articles and letters.
  • The regime of Napoleon III, as it played out in reality and in Zola’s novels set in the period.
  • Zola’s writing and research methods, with the sources used for all his works.
  • Detailed synopses and interpretations of all Zola’s major writings, with critical commentary by his contemporaries.
  • Description and examples of Zola’s other writing, including journalism and plays.
  • The ins and outs of Zola marriage; his mistress and children; his houses.

Did all this information change my perception of Zola? I think not, since my perceptions come from his novels. In The Belly of Paris, I find sensitivity to both social justice and the delights of a sensual life. In L’Argent I discover an understanding of greed and how it warps the moral standards of even “good” people. In Germinal I find a willingness to grapple with the dirty details of how things get done in this world, as well as a recognition of the difficulties of achieving social change. In L’Debacle I learn that Zola knows the best and the worst that men will do in trying circumstances and how they justify these actions. Zola’s careful research into military maneuvers or mining techniques or the layout of Les Halles provided him with necessary detail for his novels, but his understanding of human nature and his moral judgment could only come from the man itself.

Some of Brown’s psychological interpretations I found intrusive. Explaining Zola’s turn from gauzy poetry to naturalist fiction, he says,

 Nurtured on romantic literature, his mind found easy purchase at extremes, and it leapt from quaking reverence for magical forces to a belief in science holding sway over the universe. This is to say that Zola wavered between superstition and rationalism, between feelings of impotence and fantasies of omnipotence. What made him conceive the progenitor who masters virgin nature also made him sire those children, prisoners of heredity, who would soon crowd his novels.

He sees patterns in Zola’s plots, and these patterns he relates to Zola’s own obsessions.

 Zola, whose recurrent nightmare was of himself buried alive, could hardly conceive drama without a sacrificial victim or denouement that expunges some character from humankind. Identity and enclosure, the self and an abode standing islandlike on the margin of some larger settlement are linked again and again in disaster.

Reading a chapter every day or so provided me with a chronological narrative of his Zola’s life, but it was too much information to digest. Zola: A Life would work very well as a reference work, to look up Zola’s sources, as well as the activities of his colleagues and critics. There is a great deal of solid information here, worth pondering, whether or not you agree with Brown’s analyses. The pictures are good also. Here is one example:

Emile Zola with his mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, in 1893.

Emile Zola with his mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, in 1893.



What I Read in September 2014

October 1, 2014

diamond-heistAnthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds. Who stole the diamonds? Lord George? Eager attorney Camperdown? Lizzie herself? Maybe nobody took them, but if so, where are they? Trollope spins an entertaining tale with wonderful characters who never cease to amuse and instruct. One of the Palliser series of novels, but stands quite well on its own.

John Mills as Mr. Polly

John Mills as Mr. Polly

H. G. Wells, The History of Mr. Polly. Although today Wells is chiefly remembered for his science fiction novels like The War of the Worlds, he wrote in a variety of genres. In this novel, as well as in Tono Bungay and Kips, he relates the life and times of the lower middle class English male. Playing Mr. Polly, John Mills has captured his wistful but hopeful nature as he seeks adventure on his trusty bicycle.

MCorkleJill McCorkle, Life and Life. Life in a retirement home has echoes of high school — the cliques, the personal judgments, the need to get along with people you didn’t choose. In alternating voices, the elderly and those who know them tell us how it has been and perhaps will continue to be.

Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera. You are young and in-love and your future husband does everything for you, including your thinking. What could possibly go wrong? This feminist novel by the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden is chilling in its psychological acuteness.

Susan Glaspell, 1913

Susan Glaspell, 1913

Susan Glaspell, Fidelity. When a young woman goes off with another woman’s husband, she becomes “that kind of woman” and all the socially desirable people in her hometown reject her. Is this the worst consequence she suffers? This 1915 novel explores.

QuietDonMikhail Sholokhow, And Quiet Flows the Don. In this novel the Nobel laureate tells of the lives of the Don Cossacks before, during and immediately after World War I.

LowlandJhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland. Two brothers grow up together in Calcutta. One becomes an academic in America; the other dies as a terrorist. This novel spans 40 years in the lives of the brothers and those involved with them. Violent events have strong effects on these well-drawn characters. Two brothers, two cultures, two marriages — all are linked just as the lowland linked two ponds.



And Quiet Flows the Don

September 28, 2014

QuietDonI wanted to like Mikhail Sholokhov’s acclaimed novel, but it was a tough slog. I enjoy the great Russian writers and feel both affection and respect for recently-discovered Vasily Grossman (Life and Fate, A Russian Writer at War). War books are disturbing to read, but can move you as literature should – Life and Fate, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Things they Carried. What bothered me throughout this book were two strong themes Sholokhov could never let go of: how glorious the Cossacks were, and the inevitable triumph of the Bolsheviks.

Let’s start with the Cossacks. They inhabit the Don River area of Ukraine. They despise everyone who is not a Cossack, whether Ukrainian or Russian or Jewish or Turk or just a “peasant.” They defend their version of religious orthodoxy but are not much concerned with its precepts. They fight with each other and seduce women, except when they beat them. They ride horses very well and only want to go to war in the company of other Cossacks. They are skeptical about the czar but think he is probably necessary.

The novel is divided into four sections: Peace, War, Revolution, and Civil War. The opening section, Peace, is entirely devoted to scenes of Cossack life in the years immediately before World War I. I enjoyed this section the most, although I find that I don’t like Cossacks much. My antipathy was not helped by prose heavy with metaphor which probably suffers in translation:

 So with Aksinia. Over her feelings, ripened to a golden flower, Gregor had trodden with his heavy rawhide boots. He had sullied them, burnt them to ash – and that was all.

In the section War, the Cossacks experience the horrors of The Great War on the eastern front. Some seem to enjoy the fighting, the chance to be recognized for their prowess. Most are sane enough to reject war; they continue to fight because they are Cossacks.

 Gregor returned to the front a good Cossack. Mentally still unreconciled to the senselessness of war, none the less he faithfully defended his Cossack honour.

As the revolution happens, far away in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and then the civil war erupts between the “whites” and the Bolsheviks, the Cossacks mostly want to withdraw, to return to village life. Sholokhov was writing between 1926 and 1940, and Sholokhov the writer seems increasingly to remember that he is also Sholokhov the citizen of the Soviet Union. Although the Cossacks do not know who will prevail in the civil war, Sholokhov does know the outcome and it affects his presentation.

“It’s a shame. And the Bolsheviks are on the right track, yet you want us to fight them.”

At first Listnitsky listed with inward agitation. But as the Cossack developed his argument, he could not control himself and lost his temper.

“Are you a Bolshevik, then?” he demanded.

“The name doesn’t matter,” Lagutin replied. “It’s not a question of names, but of right. The people want their rights, but they’re always being buried and the earth heaped over them.”

“It’s obvious what the Bolsheviks are teaching you! You haven’t wasted the time you have spent in their company.”

“Ah, captain, it’s life itself that has taught us patient ones, and the Bolsheviks have only set fire to the tinder.”

This is a fair sample of political discussion. Maybe people talked like that; if they do, it is called socialist realism.

As in most long Russian novels, we have myriad characters, some of whom are followed consistently, some who appear and disappear and yet others who appear briefly for a political purpose. Sholokhof received the Nobel Prize in 1965, almost entirely on the basis of this book. I undertook to read it as a “classic in translation” for the Back to the Classics challenge, but found it disappointing compared to the other Russian classics I have read.


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