lundi 29 septembre 2014

Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain, 1876

In the history of literature, some books have complex lives, falling in and out of favour with critics, readers, school boards and even courts of law. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, unlike its sibling The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has had a relatively smooth ride for most of its 140 year life. Of course, the presence of the despicable Injun Joe and the occasional use of sensitive racial tags has led to debates about the appropriateness of teaching Tom Sawyer, unexpurgated, in secondary schools, but in large part the book remains on reading lists and library shelves.

One way to test the appeal of a book that is being read today, whether it was written generations ago or is newly published, is to read the book reviews. In the case of Tom Sawyer the verdict of the initial reviewers was largely the same, summed up by The London Examiner in 1876 as such: "the book will no doubt be a favourite with boys … (but) it might be most prized by philosophers and poets". Essentially, there is something there for everyone.

The opinion of both American and British reviewers was positive, with the exception of a couple, one of whom conflated the purpose of literature and a preacher's homily: "One gets very fond of Tom notwithstanding his grave faults, some of which you almost wish had been omitted. One cannot help regretting that so fine a fellow as Tom lies and smokes...".

The review which best summed up the contribution that Mark Twain made to American letters and to the psychological and sociological understanding of his country came from W. D. Howells who wrote in The Atlantic Monthly in May 1876, "The whole little town lives in the reader's sense with its religiousness, its lawlessness, its droll social distinctions, its civilization qualified by its slave-holding, and its traditions of the Wilder West which has passed away." The whole review is worth reading because the opinions stated and the quality of the analysis are as valid today as they were when Howells published the piece.

Now, we might want to add that race and class are the determining categories through which we view the institution of slavery, puritan-based religion, rural and small-town prejudices. Similar ideas, slightly different language.

Regarding the style, both Twain’s contemporaries and readers today would say that Mark Twain’s wit, timing and good writing breath life into the complex humanity of pre-civil war America. Quite a feat for the father of a fictional twelve year old orphan who just wanted to play hooky and search for pirate gold!

jeudi 24 juillet 2014

Grimms' Fairy Tales by David Hockney, 1969

In 1993 the South Bank Centre in London mounted a touring exhibition of David Hockney's lithographs which he created in 1969 to illustrate six fairy tales by the Grimm brothers. The booklet which accompanied the exhibition is small, short (31 pages) and cleverly executed and includes just enough information and reproductions to pique the interest of those who favour new interpretations of old works.

The middle part of the booklet is especially good, consisting of notes made by Hockney to explain the rationale as well as the sources for the various lithographs.

It is clear from the start that he takes liberties with the narratives, adding psychological dimensions to some of the stories that would have seemed bizarre to the Grimm brothers and their audience but which ring true to us.
Hockney also tells us which artists or paintings served as models for some of the images, citing among others, Hieronymus Bosch, Leonardo da Vinci, Vittore Carpaccio and Rene Magritte. In the lithograph entitled "The Enchantress with the baby Rapunzel", for instance, the figures are positioned in the classical Renaissance manner of religious paintings. Hockney explains, "so the only way she (the ugly Enchantress) could get a child would be to get it from somebody else, so I thought she was probably a virgin, an old virgin. So this is based on a Virgin and Child motif, and it's done from a Hieronymus Bosch. But of course the face is altered and made deliberately ugly, and the trees are done from Leonardo da Vinci."

Revelations of inspirations abound. There's a lithograph from the tale "The Boy who Left Home to Learn Fear" showing a sexton disguised as a ghost trying to frighten a boy where the sheeted man was "drawn from simply sticking a handkerchief on top of a pencil and watching the folds, so I could draw the correct shadow on the folds". The proportions of the man are wrong — but knowing the source for the image changes the viewer's reaction to the composition. We go from confusion to amusement.

Hockney mines popular culture too — the front and back cover illustrations are taken from old horror movie stills and the inside back cover consists of a four-part panel series showing somewhat grotesque yet comical (and comic book style) images of Rumpelstilzchen tearing himself into pieces, ending with eyes, hair and nose flying around, above a dismembered belly and limbs.

This reimagining of fairy tales is complex and original and having the artist discuss process makes these decidedly odd lithographs memorable.

lundi 21 juillet 2014

Paul Auster, Winter Journal, 2012

If Paul Auster had read reviews of his book Winter Journal, he might have been disappointed with a number of them, several of which called this effort an essentially prosaic, episodic, arc-less piece of writing. I think they didn't get the point.
It is true that this book lacks the classic linear temporal structure that autobiographies commonly follow, but this is Paul Auster writing. One critic whose review departs from the expectation of a diachronic trajectory suggests that the book is "a literary composition — similar to music — composed of autobiographical fragments". That's getting closer.

Auster himself tells us that he will "try to examine what it felt like to live inside this body from the first day that you can remember being alive until this one. A catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing."

A "phenomenology of breathing" — a way to collect and structure experience and consciousness via breath, that is, through the senses, the body. Yes, that's what Auster does: he writes his life, told in fragments, episodes, through lists of things like childhood games played, places travelled to, scars left behind from youthful mishaps, addresses lived at over a lifetime.

The unconnectedness, the varied lengths of the recollections, the poetic texture of the book also informs the rhythm of the reading: sometimes we slow down to think about something that's being recounted, prompting us, too, to remember and list our own childhood candies (feeling again their stickiness on our hands). Sometimes we speed up to find out what that terrible car accident did to himself and his family.

Winter Journal is in turn jubilant and melancholy, deep and light, and always carefully and beautifully written.

jeudi 13 mars 2014

Gibran in Paris, Yusuf Huwayyik, 1976

Introductions or prefaces to works of fiction or autobiography are generally explanatory and laudatory so whenever I encounter one which is argumentative or contestatory, I take notice. In the case of Yusuf Huwayyik's memoir "Gibran in Paris", a book which I enjoyed and would recommend, I was somewhat taken aback by the introductory essay's forthright assessment not of the work itself but of the psychologies and philosophies that lay outside the scope of the book...
The twenty five short stories, more accurately characterized as episodes or character studies are perfect. They were written in 1957 when Lebanese painter Yusuf Huwayyik  was 74 years old, describing two short but fruitful years (1909-10) in his youth, spent in Paris studying art with Kahlil Gibran — painter, poet, mystic and author of "The Prophet". The stories are written by a mature, older man who has reflected on life and given us a balanced, discrete (oh so charmingly discrete) account of the adventures of two young men of limited financial means but great ambition who sowed their wild oats in Picasso and Isadora Duncan's Paris.
In the introductory essay, a fifth of the entire book, its author Matti Moosa —  academic, critic and translator of Huwayyik's reminiscences, makes almost no reference to the stories. Instead, he maps out a sophisticated philosophical and sociological schematic of Gibran's life and work, missing no opportunity to point out inconsistencies and gaps in his thought. Gibran is a Modernist, a Catholic, a Romantic, a student of Nietzsche, a self-appointed guru, a conflicted Easterner and a conflicted Westerner - an unlikely mix, clearly. Moosa also shows how Gibran sometimes just gets it wrong, misreading history or philosophy, "vitiated as his understanding is by a somewhat spurious naivete", especially when voicing his opinions on the position of women in his native culture or his interpretation of Nietzsche. There is nothing of the hagiography here!
After the toughness of the introduction, how can the reader move on to enjoy the generous, whimsical quality of the stories?
And yet there is much to recommend this little book which I would argue is really two separate pieces of writing: twenty five charming stories about the lives of two young men in Paris and a university-style essay best suited to an academic journal. They don't go together and yet they're both worth reading.

lundi 13 janvier 2014

Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell, 1933

Over the years, travelling by train to Paris and London, I've seen dozens of readers tucking into George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London". It's just short enough to be able to finish if read uninterrupted on a round trip journey from one capital to another. And, because it's based on real places (which are easy enough to locate), you're motivated to read quickly so that if you pass through any of the areas described you can do some amateur forensic sleuthing, if you like.
This book is neither straight journalism nor high literature but a combination of the two. Journalism's mandate is to tell, as clearly as possible, what happened, how, where, to whom and if possible, why. Style serves content. Literature is free to examine an event or a situation, to get at the truth too, but the rules regarding form and content are completely different. "Down and Out" does both brilliantly.
Orwell himself admitted that while the events and people he described were real enough, he took liberties with the facts by rearranging the sequence of events, sanitizing the dialogue and changing or omitting names of people or places. In this way, publishers, censors and young Orwell's fellow 'plongeurs'' concerns could be satisfied. This document - memoir viewed through socialist sensibilities, wrapped up in fine description is a classic in that strange genre of writing that others like Hemingway also excelled at.
Read the opening scene - it will hook you:
"The rue du Coq d'Or, Paris, seven in the morning. A succession of furious, choking yells from the street. Madame Monce, who kept the little hotel opposite mine, had come out on to the pavement to address a lodger on the third floor. Her bare feet were stuck into sabots and her grey hair was streaming down. 
MADAME MONCE: 'Salope! Salope! How many times have I told you to not squash bugs on the wallpaper? Do you think you've bought the hotel, eh? Why can't you throw them out the window like everyone else? Putain! Salope!' 
Thereupon a whole variegated chorus of yells, as windows were flung open on every side and half the street joined in the quarrel. They shut up abruptly ten minutes later, when a squadron of calvary rode past and people stopped shouting to look at them. 
I sketch this scene just to convey something of the spirit of the rue du Coq d'Or. Not that quarrels were the only thing that happened there - but still, we seldom got through the morning without at least one outburst of this description. Quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawkers, and the shouts of children chasing orange-peel over cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse-carts, made up the atmosphere of the street."

lundi 16 décembre 2013

Back Where I Came From, A J Liebling (1938)

"People back where I came from are receptive to artistic influences from outside, and among the visiting priestesses of the arts I remember was a dancer named Princess White Wing. Shortly before her arrival the City License Department had prescribed opaque clothing over the critical portions of all dancers' anatomies.
"What's the use of opaque clothing?" demanded the Princess. "You can see right through it."
The Princess, who was a graduate of a college in Sherman, Tex., had abandoned the brick-and-stucco teepees of the Cherokee nation to carve out a career as a feather dancer. She employed as many as two feathers at a single performance, and she had been all set to open at a new night club when along came this theatrical reform business..."
Thus begins the first story in the section entitled "The World of Art" from A J Liebling's book called "Back Where I Came From", originally published in 1938.
Liebling had a long and successful career writing columns and stories, primarily for the New Yorker. This collection of stories and profiles was written early in his career but his style, tone and subject matter had already been set. He introduced his readers to both ordinary and unusual people, mundane and specialized professions, likeable and sometimes unsavoury characters. If you want to meet in print, at least, jockeys, hairdressers, pickpockets and the police who chased after them, feather dancers, grifters and punters who lived in NYC in the 1930s, this lovely book will satisfy.
Liebling was a master of understatement and hyperbole; he had an acute ear for dialogue, the vernacular, and could convincingly leverage the rhythm and syntax of spoken English of numerous ethnic groups. If you like Leo Rosten's books, (another New Yorker from the same generation) particularly "The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N", you will enjoy the friendly way that Liebling handles ethnic dialogue.
The stories and prose are measured and when read out loud, they flow well, constituting an oral history of a fascinating time that is long gone.

mardi 10 décembre 2013

La Symphonie Pastorale, Andre Gide (1919)

"La Symphonie Pastorale" is a novella written by Andre Gide in 1919 when he was 50 years old, and despite its small size (70 pages), it is both structurally and thematically sophisticated.
The characters, for example, are complex: some grow, some change, one dies, while one, the narrator, damns himself to perpetual moral stagnation. He is the most interesting figure in this sad story: a sort of anti-hero, he is a country minister living in a remote part of Switzerland in the 1890s, who, imbued with some kind of truncated Christian charity, takes on the academic and moral education of a blind, initially mute orphan girl, and two and a half years later, at the girl's demise, falls to his knees, now broken and pathetic but still not enlightened, petitioning God for forgiveness.
Poor us. We have waded through the theological distinctions he has made between Protestantism and Catholicism, Pauline doctrine and Jesus' teachings; listened to his theories of language acquisition; and patiently stood by as he puzzled out the role of knowledge in happiness. In fact, the minister at first seems erudite, quoting Scripture and Virgil but his logic proves faulty and his self-described Christian core shows itself to be empty. He is always almost coming to self-understanding but always falling short, retreating...
The last line, "I would have wept but I felt my heart more arid than a desert" should signal understanding and remorse but only a paragraph or two before he dismisses the authenticity of his son's newly discovered vocation and instead of asking for his wife's forgiveness, asks her to pray for his if he is all that matters.
The form of the book is appropriate to the characterization: divided into two notebooks, the first, written in the past tense and told after the fact, describes how the narrator educates Gertrude, ending with the girl moving to another home, inadequately formed perhaps, but happy; Jacques, his eldest son and his competition for Gertrude's affections is temporarily sent away; and Amelie, the minister's watchful wife, while purposely ignored by him, anchors the events in some kind of objectivity.
At the close of the first notebook, redemption is possible and no irreparable damage has been done but the second notebook is different. The action in this one moves quickly, it is set in the narrator's present, writing it as it happens to him, so that in the span of a few short weeks, the minister's life unravels and he lacks the time to figure out how he is responsible: Jacques, disillusioned by his father's ministry, joins a Catholic order, converts Gertrude and offers her real understanding of the world. Gertrude in turn, comes to see her guiltless but central role in the disintegration of the unity of her host family, and accepting the impossibility of love with the priest, she dies by her own hand. This is a perfect, lyrical tragedy.