Monday, February 2, 2015

Shakespeare--All's Well That Ends Well (1602 or 3)

First Shakespeare on the list. As we get deeper into it we are beginning to pick off more and more of these firsts, but there are still a few big areas out there that we have not gotten into. First Dickens, as well as other well-represented authors. First French, Russian, Spanish, modern Italian and Scandinavian books. First work in English of straight poetry (we have had a couple of dramas, namely this and Dryden, that have contained a considerable amount of verse so far). This is also the last of the series of readings, mainly plays and smaller novels, that were relatively short. The next five books on the list, at least--I try not to keep in mind more than five books ahead in doing this--are all on the longer side, at least 450 pages, with a couple even longer than that. I will read those at a somewhat more accelerated pace. I have been somewhat deliberate in reading these shorter ones because I wanted to feel that I had spent a little time with them. They all are become dear to me in some way and I don't want to just blow through them.

I have been finished with All's Well That Ends Well for about two weeks and have found that I have not had the energy in the evening, nor the time during the day, even to write up my little report. I don't want to fall behind on these.

I found with this, as I found with Virgil and Faulkner, the other two inner ring all time great authors we have come across on this list so far, that it was difficult to read late at night, which is by necessity the time when I do most of my reading (and writing), for more than a handful of pages before my concentration would break down and I would dose off to sleep. It is not that the books are completely beyond my reading ability when I am at close to full alertness and strength, as I have been reading these authors, and others in the same vein with a fair degree of familiarity with the style and language, at least, for twenty-five years. But old man fatigue is starting to hinder my ability to go back and take up the real Greats unless I am very fresh, well-rested and relaxed, which is a combination of circumstances I am finding it hard-pressed to attain.

I haven't said anything about the actual play, which I am pretty sure I had never read before, as I would have recognized when I read Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift a few years back the plot device of the neglected wife arranging for another woman to make an assignation with her wayward husband and taking the would be mistress's place in bed once darkness fell (which had been done long before Shakespeare as well). I enjoyed reading it, apart from my frustration on the occasions when I was unable to keep my eyes open. Everything with Shakespeare, especially after his first few plays, partakes of the character of the grand manner, and I am always alert to that sense, even if I am not alert enough to follow and make sense of the flow of the particular words on the page. I was surprised when I bothered to look at it at the relatively late date assigned to this play, as I tend to think of the comedies with Italian, or in this instance French-Italian, settings, as belonging to more or less the same period, and that the earlier part of Shakespeare's career before 1600, after which the tragedies became predominant. However I see that I am three or four years off in my calculating and that the 1600-1603 period was more comedy-heavy than I had realized, with Twelfth Night, Measure For Measure, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and other of the maturer ones coming out in these years.

I do not have a sense of what the best order to read Shakespeare would be if one is going to do it across a period of many years and at intervals among many other books. The IWE list does not have all of the plays, either--Pericles and Titus Andronicus at least did not make the cut--but it has most of them, and they will be coming up alphabetically. I think this was a good one to start with, as it is one of the lesser-known plays to the general reader, but it does partake of many of the best-loved qualities of the Shakespearean canon, the wit, the infectiousness and romance aroused by the language, the sense of being present both by the poetry and the setting of the story at the heart of all that defined and ever mattered about European civilization. The recovery, or acquisition, of some of these sensations is the whole raison d'etre for my undertaking this list at my time of life after all.

But I still haven't said anything about the play itself. No thoughts worth recording have come to me about it, nor have I been able to produce any on my own. High literature to someone like me is more a primer for how to try to live a little more nobly, with a little more purpose, with some mitigation of disgrace, than it is a fount for inquiring into serious ideas and human problems.   

Main Square, Rousillon, France

The Challenge

I am going to attempt to revamp the Challenge between now and the next occasion for it, as it has died entirely in its current form. Here are the sorry results for the last exercise of this version of it:

1. The Countess Conspiracy--Courtney Milan.....................191
2. Confessions of Catherine de Medici--C. W. Gortner......127
3. Travels--William Bartram (1739-1823)..............................18
4. Framing the Early Middle Ages--Chris Wickham...............7
5. Romancing Lady Cecily--Ashley March..............................5
6. The Shaping of Southern Culture--Bertram Wyatt Brown...1

There was a movie challenge also:

1. The King's Speech.....................1,465
2. The Merchant of Venice (2004)...186
3. Quai des Orfevres..........................11

The Bartram book apparently is well-regarded. I am thinking in my future version of the game to go to a tournament format in which I choose in one-on-one matchups which book I think likely to appeal to me most through to a final.

I saw The King's Speech a few years back. I thought the subject, and the spirit in which it undertook that subject, to be strange. I wasn't in the mood to revisit it at this time.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

One More Note on All Quiet on the Western Front

Reading in any war book about the food people had to survive on--thin broth with the barest trace of gristle in it, rotting turnips, ditch water, week old bread crusts--arouses in me fantasies of modern day food snobs being subjected to, if not quite this severe a regime, at least wartime era civilian rationing for some extended period of time. The rationed food would not even have to be bad, maybe--just limited in supply, and, most importantly, everybody would have to eat, qualitatively speaking, more or less the same thing. Yes, I am expressing a wormlike desire to see people humbled for at least sensing some aspect of personal superiority in themselves and daring to express it. But I can't endure the archness, pomposity, and judgments upon others' tastes and, by implication, characters and mental capacities, on the subjects of eating and drinking without wanting to see that person driven from whatever level of society he imagines himself to exist on and forced to survive on whatever delicacies he mocked other people for partaking of--forever. 

Contrary to what the paragraph above suggests, I have experienced happiness from what I perceived to be superior food and drink in the course of my life, though I am sure I have never felt in doing so the sense of triumph over lesser people or even my former or accustomed lesser self that seems to animate much of the study and experience of heightened eating among the initiated. Most of my happiest memories have had nothing to do with my being superior or in any way more savvy than other people, but were the product of stumbling upon a food culture being so advanced in some area that even the vulgar and socially undeserving could not fail to be exposed to certain delicacies of high quality, because all comparable inferior products had been marginalized or entirely absented from the market--this characterizes things like the beer in the Czech Republic and Germany, bread in France and Italy, coffee and the cafe scene in Austria and elsewhere in the former domains of the Hapsburg empire--you get the idea. The mundaneness, and often fadedness of most of these settings, whose staff and patrons rarely betrayed any consciousness of being inherently above any rivals real or imagined on gustatory grounds, calmed me and put me into the proper mindframe to sense the superior quality of its mundane offerings.

It is clear to me that a major source of the disdain among more cosmopolitan Americans for their less educationally accomplished compatriots is their failure, apart from a few isolated exceptions like the Cajuns in Louisana or maybe some of the more renowned centers of barbeque in the south, is the failure of these lower orders to develop, or sustain, a substantial cuisine, especially one in resistance to that pressed upon them by corporate interests. It is hard to overstate the degree of contempt and physical revulsion with which a substantial and socially influential (among the nominally and in some instances certifiedly intelligent) segment of the population has come to regard the ingestion of certain food products, and by extension anyone known or suspected to ingest them on a consistent basis.

I have a rant about the growth of beer snobbery too. First of all, I have drunk a lot of beer in my life. I have had it pretty much every day, and usually a decent amount, for the last twenty-five years. As people know, I lived in the Czech Republic for a couple of years, a country where deciding what beer to drink with breakfast is an important, though not socially deterministic, daily consideration. If one of these little i-phone tapping snots ever tries to tell me to my face to 'get a palate' I may rip the flesh clean off of his skull. Given that beer has traditionally, in the countries where it is most central in the national life, evolved to be consumed in fairly large quantities over a period lasting multiple hours, the most important indicator of quality, and one that correlates strongly with taste, or at least enjoyment of imbibing, because most of my favorite beers do not have a flavor that I identify other than that they taste to me more like beer, that is to say that they give me a perfect sensation of drinking liquid bread and that the pleasure in this will never diminish or grow old, than other varieties do, is in their consistency...

All right, I could go on in that vein for a while, but I will call it a night for (there are some good beer garden scenes and ruminations in AQOTWF by the way...

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Author List Volume VII

Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) Darkness at Noon (1941) Born: Sziv Street 16, Budapest, Hungary. Buried: Cremated, location of ashes unknown. College: Vienna Polytechnic.

Edward Noyes Westcott (1846-1898) David Harum (1898) Born: Syracuse, Onodaga, New York. Buried: Oakwood Cemetery, Syracuse, Onondaga, New York.

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) Dead Souls (1842) Born: Gogol Memorial Museum, Velyki Sorochyntsi, Ukraine. Buried: Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow, Russia.  Gogol Museum, 7 Nikitsky Boulevard, Moscow, Russia. Gogol Museum, Sistina Street, Rome, Lazio, Italy.

Brutus (85-42 B.C.) Born: Rome, Lazio, Italy.

Cassius (c. 85-42 B.C.) Born: unknown. Buried: Thasos, Greece. Cassius Roma Restaurant, Orizaba 76, Mexico City, Mexico.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) The Decameron (1353-1358). Born: Via Boccaccio, Certaldo, Tuscany, Italy. Buried: Church of Saints Jacopo and Phillippo, Certaldo, Tuscany, Italy.

Madame de Stael (Germaine) (1766-1817) Delphine (1802) Born: 28 Rue Michel-le-Comte, 3eme, Paris, France. Buried: Chateau de Coppet, Coppet, Switzerland.

Napoleon (1769-1821) Born: Casa Buonaparte, Rue St Charles, Ajaccio, Corsica, France. Buried: Les Invalides, 7eme, Paris, France. Napoleon Museum, Monte Carlo, Monaco (Better go soon. It looks like the collection is being sold off next month). College: Ecole Militaire.

Francois Mauriac (1885-1970) Desert of Love (1925) Born: 86 Rue du Pas-St-Georges, Bordeaux, Aquitaine, France. Buried: Cimitiere de Vemars, Vemars, Val d'Oise, Ile-de France, France. Musee Francois Mauriac, Rue Leon Bouchard, Vemars, Val d'Oise, Ile-de-France, France. Centre Francois Mauriac, 17 Route de Malagar, Saint-Maixant, Gironde, France. College: Bordeaux.

George Meredith (1828-1909) The Egoist (1879), Diana of the Crossways (1885) Born: 73 High Street, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England. Buried: Dorking Cemetery, Dorking, Surrey, England.

Caroline Norton (1808-1877) Born: London, England. Buried: Lecropt Church, Lecropt, Stirlingshire, Scotland. Portrait by Heyter, Chatsworth House, Bakewell, Derbyshire, England.

Lord Melbourne (William Lamb) (1779-1848) Born: Melbourne Hall, Church Square, Melbourne, Derbyshire, England. Buried: St Etheldreda Church, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England. Lord Melbourne Hotel, 63 Melbourne Street, North Adelaide, Australia. College: Trinity (Cambridge).

George Chapple Norton (1800-1875) Born: Kettlethorpe Hall, Wakefield, Yorkshire, England. Buried: Unknown. College: Edinburgh.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) The Divine Comedy (1300-21) Born: Casa di Dante, Via S. Margherita 1, Florence, Tuscany, Italy (*****3-3-97*****). Buried: Tomba di Dante, Ravenna, Emilio-Romagna, Italy.

Beatrice Portinari (1266-1290) Born: Palazzo Portinari Salviati, Via del Corso 6, Florence, Tuscany, Italy. Buried: Chiesa di Santa Margherita di Cerchi, Florence, Tuscany, Italy.

Percy Shelley (1792-1822) Born: Field Place, Warnham, Sussex, England. Buried: Protestant Cemetery, Rome, Lazio, Italy (*****3-1-01*****) Heart, Churchyard, St Peter's Church, Bournemouth, Hampshire, England. Keats-Shelley House, 26 Piazza di Spagna, Rome, Lazio, Italy (*****3-1-01*****) College: University (Oxford).

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) Born: 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh, Lothian, Scotland. Buried: Mount Vaea, Upolu, Samoa. Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, 1490 Library Lane, St Helena, California. Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, Vailima, Samoa. Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage and Museum, 11 Stevenson Lane, Saranac Lake, Essex, New York. Stevenson House Adobe & Garden, 530 Houston Street, Monterey, California. Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, Calistoga, California. Statue, Colinton Parish Church, Dell Road, Colinton, Edinburgh, Lothian, Scotland. Edinburgh Writers' Museum, Lady Stair's Close, Edinburgh, Lothian, Scotland. College: Edinburgh.

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) A Doll's House (1879) Born: Henrik Ibsen Museum, Venstophogda 74, Skien, Norway. (*****6-28-00*****) Buried: Var Freslurs Gravlund, Oslo, Norway. (*****6-26-00*****) Ibsenmuseet, Henrik Ibsens Gate 26, Oslo, Norway. (*****6-26-00*****) Ibsen-Museet, Grimstad, Norway (*****6-30-00*****).

Erechtheion, Athens, Greece.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616) Don Quixote (1605, 1615) Born: Casa Natale de Cervantes, C/Mayor 48, Alcala de Henares, Spain. Buried: Convento de los Trinitarios, Madrid, Spain. Hostal Miguel de Cervantes, Calle la Imogen 12, Alcala de Henares, Spain. Museo Casa de Cervantes. Calle Rastro, Valladolid, Spain. Statue, Plaza de Espana, Madrid, Spain. Instituto Miguel de Cervantes, Guanajuato, Mexico.

Peter Anthony Motteux (1663-1718) Born: Rouen, Upper Normandy, France. Buried: St Andrew Undershaft Churchyard, City, London, England.

James M. Cain (1892-1977) Double Indemnity (1943) Born: Paca-Carroll House, St John's College, Annapolis, Maryland. Buried: Body donated to medical science. College: Washington (Maryland).

Bram Stoker (1847-1912) Dracula (1897) Born: 15 Marino Crescent, Clontarf, Dublin, Ireland. Buried: Golders Green Crematorium, Golders Green, London, England. Castle Dracula, Clontarf, Dublin, Ireland. Bram Stoker Dracula Experience, 9 Marine Parade, Whitby, Yorkshire, England. College: Trinity (Dublin).

Henry Adams (1838-1918) The Education of Henry Adams (1907) Born: Mt Vernon Place, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts. Buried: Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Mont-St-Michel, Lower Normandy, France. Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, Centre, France. College: Harvard.

Charles Francis Adams (1807-1886) Born: SE Corner Boylston & Tremont Streets, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts. Buried: Mt Wollaston Cemetery, Quincy, Norfolk, Massachusetts. College: Harvard

Monday, January 12, 2015

Erich Maria Remarque--All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)

One would think that there must have been many efforts made at writing books taking up the same general theme as this one in the years following the first world war. But out of all of those efforts, this is one of the handful that made the greatest impact on the popular imagination of the Western nations in its time, and has come down to our own day, as far as I can make out, as the novel most closely associated with the 'experience', as it were, of that watershed catastrophe of modern history, particularly with regard to the trench warfare of the western front. I had never read it until now, though I had always been interested in doing so, and I was not disappointed. While there is some nitpicking on literary grounds that could be made, it is a good book, moving, it has a soul to it. It is to my mind short (299 pages of standard print--under 180 or so I barely consider to be a novel), and is written in the to me agreeable modern style that arose between the wars, which was unexpected, even though the IWE introduction itself noted that it had 'the clipped sentences, brief paragraphs, and unadorned descriptive language that have proved so effective in the novels of James M. Cain(!).' This makes the book a rather quick read; I actually would not have minded a little more incident and character development, though I appreciate that it is really difficult to produce a book that is successful and resonant to any degree, and that the tone and briefly recounted characters and incidents--which does give them, probably intentionally, a rather ghostly effect in the reader's imagination--are what makes this particular story work.   

I did not read this in high school, but I think in the past it was often read in high school, and it does seem like it would still be a good book for the earlier high school years, 9th or 10th grade, for particular kinds of students anyway, who, however, make up an ever-dwindling percentage of the school-age population and whom the education authorities are ever obsessed about not being perceived to favor in the organization of school curriculums (curricula?). But I think in certain instances it could be a valuable part of a literary education.

Fifteen or twenty years ago when I was recently out of school and more of a closer reader than I am now, I don't know that I would have thought as much of this book, or been as moved by it as I am again now (I probably would have felt a fondness for it in high school). This even though its literary flaws, with which one would think I of all people would have been sympathetic, are primarily the result of a young man (Remarque was 32 when the book was published) who has lived through an apocalypse and is unloading his memories of that experience with at times a mild excess of emotion and rage that is not focused with perfect precision. It is probably not full of deep intellectual insights--I doubt the Straussians would have much interest in it--but the emotional despair of this shattered generation has always resonated with me, and this was as affecting as anything else I have read about this war in that regard.

I will only include one quote, which I think conveys the spirit of the book pretty well. It is during the part when the narrator, Baumer, is home on leave and has to pay a visit to the mother of one of his old schoolmates and fellow soldiers who has died. Predictably, the mother carries on hysterically, to the irritation of Baumer:

"I console her, but she strikes me as rather stupid all the same. Why doesn't she stop worrying? Kemmerich will stay dead whether she knows about it or not. When a man has seen so many dead he cannot understand any longer why there should be so much anguish over a single individual."

The descriptions of death, and especially of corpses, in this are more than usually striking. Shell blasts and shrapnel blew bodies (and frequently the clothes on them) apart, so that the naked lower half of a man could be seen dangling from a tree while his dismembered arms and torso were strewn elsewhere on the battlefield. Even this did not seem as horrible to me as the picture given of the victims of gassing, who sat upright in their holes, their faces turned blue. The poison gas used in World War I seems to be the one development in modern warfare that even military people found to be so universally horrifying that concerted efforts have been made to curtail its use in ensuing conflicts, my impression is successfully. Even reading about it one is instinctively repulsed by the idea of it more than all the other awful things going on, none of which I am going to pretend I would have been equal to standing up to at any age, let alone as an eighteen or nineteen year old. The only reasons I can come with for this repulsion are absurd, but I think part of it is the sense that poison is not really fair, that it is not even a test of military prowess. Also it seems to eviscerate the body from the inside out, especially the lungs, the pain of which seems to be more disturbing to contemplate than suffering even fatal battle-wounds.

The edition of the book I have. I got it for free in an incredible haul a few years ago when one of the local high school libraries had a massive book purge of books high school students have no interest in anymore, presumably to make more room for more multimedia/computer space.

The other reading list that I have been working through for the last twenty years, taken from the GRE literature test prep book, is overwhelmingly concentrated, to a surprising extent to my mind, on English language works, with continental European works very sparsely represented. This is one of the main reasons I came back to the IWE list, as it does have more of a presence of the non-English European literatures, especially novels, though this has not shown up in my reports thus far, the "As" being more heavily weighted towards English and American books than most of the rest of the letters. I have hardly read anything from the German countries especially since I was in school, and I wanted to correct that. I don't know that All Quiet on the Western Front is considered to be a great example of German literature, but some of the scenes at least, especially those that are away from the front or even reminiscences on the world away from the front, give one something of an atmosphere that is different from the standard scenes of the English and American literary worlds, that gives a flavor of the landscape and tone of life in Germany and old Europe generally that makes for some enjoyment in the reading, even though these are not described for the most part with a nostalgic aspect, and of course the abomination of the war is exposing the emptiness of much of the rituals of society and traditional life and rendering them obsolete. Still, for those of us who live such mental life as we have through the templates given us by the classic literature and art of the past, what else do we have?

In a strange coincidence, this is the second author in a row in this record with a personal connection to one of Charlie Chaplin's wives. Remarque was married to the at one time extremely gorgeous movie actress Paulette Goddard, who had previously been married to Chaplin (and Burgess Meredith as well) from 1958 until his death in 1970. Remarque, all of whose books sold well, though other than All Quiet none of them seem to be well remembered today, had evidently amassed quite a lot of wealth, as well as a serious art collection, by the time of this marriage, much of which his widow (who was his second wife) inherited upon his death, in addition to her own evidently already substantial wealth.

The Challenge

1. Jon Krakauer--Into Thin Air..........................................................2,266
2. Dennis McNally--A Long, Strange Trip..............................................65
3. New Webster's American Handy College Dictionary (4th Edition)...52
4. Vittorio Arrigoni--Gaza Stay Human....................................................8
5. Paul Dowswell--Eleven Eleven.............................................................1
    Michael Marshall--Gallant Creoles.......................................................1

The extensive Zero list for this challenge includes War Classics: The Remarkable Life of Scottish Scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front, R.E. Foster, Wellington & Waterloo, Mike Brooke, Follow Me Through, Schmoop Literature's Guide to All Quiet on the Western Front, and Gaston Maspero's History of Egypt, Volume I. Maspero, a Frenchman, was actually an Egypt scholar of some renown. There are twelve volumes in the History all told, but like the Cambridge History of English Literature, the different volumes are often sold separately and it seems can be profitably read as stand alone books. I was considering taking it up if I could have procured a copy easily. I have actually read the Krakauer book before. It had some interest for me in a journalistic, zeitgeisty kind of way, but it is not something anyone needs to read twice.


The movie challenge produced a pair of old classics, including the most famous one based on this post's book. I have seen both of these landmark films recently enough that I will probably pass on them for now:

1. On the Waterfront...................................315
2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)...229

I am curious to see All Quiet again and see how it compares with the book, though the film, and maybe the book too, are unusual in that they are more about the war as a whole than in the specific incidents and characters that it is made up of.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Eugene O'Neill--All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924)

Our first repeat author. There is a lot of O'Neill on this list. Shakespeare turns up the most, and I am pretty sure Dickens is second, but O'Neill may be the third most represented author in this program.

I knew almost nothing about this play going into the reading. It seems to have been relegated to the national literary attic for most of the past forty years or so, probably until people can figure out how to pull it out and handle it safely. It is about racial division, and really is a pretty daring and pretty strong take on the subject for the mainstream theater in 1924. O'Neill obviously was a white male, and perhaps no one is interested anymore in what he would have had to say about the American racial situation, but I am interested in it, especially since it is a significant departure from the way most other white gu American writers of the time (i.e. Booth Tarkington, F Scott Fitzgerald, even T S Eliot) seemed to regard it, and O'Neill was immersed pretty seriously in the cultural and artistic life of this period, and he must have felt that the race issue impacted him in some way and that he had something to say about it. I only wish I were so impacted and engaged in life.

The 1960s introduction to the play in the IWE is truly a missive from a foreign country. Fifty years on, it defies contemporary intellectual propriety in about every way, though its intentions are clearly good and liberal in the context of its own time. I will reproduce it in its entirety:

This is a penetrating study of a controversial subject. A white girl, Ella, marries a Negro man, Jim, and she loses her mental balance. It is a foreseeable consequence in psychology and is not subject to controversy. On the message of the play, however, the United States divides on sectional lines. Generations of Northern students have been taught that the play is a protest against our culture, in its implanting of ineradicable prejudices. Southerners rather see in it a warning against the natural perils of miscegenation; and of course the warning is there, protest or no. The title is from a Negro spiritual.

The famous actor Paul Robeson was the original Jim on the stage.

I am a northern student (as was O'Neill himself, at one time), so I suppose it is natural that I am inclined to assume that the first interpretation is closer to the intention of the author than that it is a warning against miscegenation.

The sets and stage directions in this, particularly in the first act, have a bold, modernist character about them that strikes one. The first three scenes of the first act are set on 'a corner in lower New York' where two streets converge, with intervals of some years between them. Tenements stretch away down each of the streets, one of which is populated exclusively by white people, the other exclusively by black people. Popular songs of the various eras depicted are heard--different ones on each of the streets--and as the years progess the streets are emptier and the noises 'more rhythmically mechanical, electricity having taken the place of horse and steam'. The fourth scene, in some ways the central and most jolting one in the play, takes place 'in front of an old brick church...people--men, women, children--pour from the two tenements (on each side of the yard), whites from the tenement to the left, blacks from the one to the right. They hurry to form into two racial lines on each side of the gate, rigid and unyielding, staring across at each other with bitter hostile eyes'. In truth I admit that if somebody--whether an angry female (whether of color or not), a pouty, sarcastic gay, or maybe even a straight white guy who suspiciously managed to stay in everyone's good graces--were to write something like this into a contemporary play, I might not trust the accuracy of the vision or find the same level of attraction to it that I have done here. Age also has a way of clarifying what in at attitude or vision is solid or deep and what wasn't that I have a hard time delineating in the present.

From a British production.

I also can't repeat enough how much I love the American language and literary consciousness of the 1920s and 30s. Every time I come back to this period it really hits me. Unfortunately I am very much in many of my habits and worldviews stuck in this period and cannot relate very well to people who are alive now and the things they care about.

The second act, with its scenes in the apartment, struck me as very reminiscent, in its mood, setting, and sense of frustrated male hopelessness, of A Raisin in the Sun. In a broad sense, of course.

Oona (1925-1991), Eugene O'Neill's extremely attractive daughter, who at age eighteen married Charlie Chaplin, who was fifty-four at the time, and went on to have eight children with him. The playwright did not approve of the marriage, after which his relationship with his daughter was severed.

The Challenge

1. Sam Harris--Waking Up......................................550
2. Daniel E. Dennett--Consciousness Explained.....144
3. Dan Smith--The Child Thief................................110
4. Julie Cross--Whatever Life Throws at You............71
5. Eva Stachniak--Empress of the Night....................68
6. Ezra Pound--Cantos...............................................39
7. Leann Harris--Second Chance Ranch......................8

The winner this time is subtitled A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, which is something I might read, though the concept is not one that obsesses me. However, my local library does not have a copy of it, and I am not inclined to seek it out. There were some promising contestants this time, though. The Dennett book I think is supposed to be for an intelligence level above the general level, and the Ezra Pound, though finishing weakly in 6th place, was the result of a small alteration I have made in the process to try to get more serious books into the contest. I am betting the next Challenge gives us something we can actually read.

Paul Robeson sings the title song. It's a very good song. Obviously no one needs my pronouncement on the matter, but as a person who I am sure most knowing people would agree has and knows nothing of soul or anything in that way, the fact that I still like the song might be of interest to people who are in the same boat. 

O'Neill wrote a number of old songs, some of which I was familiar with, some of which I was not (but all of which I want and think i should be) into the stage directions. There was "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage":

"Little Annie Rooney", here in one of the better efforts of the Lennon Sisters:

"I Wish I Had a Girl"

"When I Lost You"

"Waiting For the Robert E Lee"

"Frankie and Johnny"

"Annie Laurie"

"Old Black Joe"

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

All For Love, or The World Well Lost--Dryden (1678)

I think this is the third time I have read this; I wonder if it probably will be the last. The first time was in October of 2004, and I thought it very good. The second time, a small report of which I made on my other blog in 2009, I thought much less of it, probably because on that occasion I was reading it alongside other Cleopatra plays, Shakespeare especially, but also Shaw and even Samuel Daniel, to which I thought it compared unfavorably. My judgment on this third reading is somewhere in between those of the previous two. The verse struck me once more as admirable and worthy of respect in itself; and as I was not as immersed in the story and particular set of characters over multiple versions as I had been on the second occasion, the manner in which they happened to be depicted here was not as off-putting to me. I am sure that none of these plays/novels/movies written 1500+ years after the events that inspired them are particularly accurate in terms either of history or characterization; however Dryden's characterization struck me as the weakest and least probable of the set when read alongside the others. However as I said, It did not bother me much on this occasion, and indeed I scarcely noticed it.

There is a picture on the page I linked to of my then 5, now 11 year old son holding up my Modern Library copy of Twelve Famous Plays of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century. My other book list loves Restoration drama, so I have read eight of the twelve famous plays for that, and numerous others from the period besides. At least five of the twelve are also on the IWE list and there may be as many as seven--I am not certain off hand whether Goldsmith and Congreve made it or not--so it has proven to be a volume worth having.

I have come over the years to enjoy Restoration plays when it chances that I have to read them, as I have come, I must admit, to enjoy sampling from most of the major genres and periods in literary history. I am not a very fierce reader, particularly with regard to the authors of the past, the value of whose surviving work, at least in the better examples, always seems to me to outweigh their deficiencies. The Restoration was not, I will say, one of the literary eras that I took to right from the start; as a teenager especially, I could make nothing out of it at all. Over a period of years and reading many plays and poems and other books from and about the period I have attained enough familiarity with it that it has acquired an interest for me as something definite and fairly important, and I even have a little fondness for it as a distinct entity in the family, or college, of literary history, people I look forward to seeing at a party every once in a while, especially here at holiday-time. That said, my feeling in reading them is still different from that I have in reading certain other genres to which I am perhaps closer in spirit. Reading long passages of formal verse especially requires some degree of alertness and concentration, and does an admirable job of keeping fuzzier emotions at bay.

I thought this was the only Dryden play to make the IWE list, but I see that The Conquest of Granada has also made it, so we aren't quite done with him yet. Like most modern people, I do not respond to Dryden overly strongly (as you see, I am having difficulty in writing about him)--indeed, it is hard to tell whether anyone has really done so, even in his own time. He was the poet laureate and the leading playwright and public critic and literary man of his age, but even then he doesn't seem to had a lot of rabid disciples or imitators. He was very good in the technical aspects of writing. His sentences and verses have a kind of neat quality about them as far as being constructions of words and sounds meant to convey thought. Like a lot of writers of his general class, I suppose he ultimately lacks power in the high degree. But to my mind he and his period are still worthing knowing in some degree.

The Challenge

I've decided to keep the Challenge as it has been for a little while, take it up if anything interesting should chance to win, and if not, then keep moving along the main list.

1. Jack Campbell--The Last Fleet: Guardian..........................................241
2. Vicki Alvear Shecter--Cleopatra's Moon..............................................56
3. Jacob Abbott--Cleopatra.......................................................................39
    H. Rider Haggard--Cleopatra................................................................39
5. Si Sheppard--Actium 31 B.C.: Downfall of Antony and Cleopatra.........6

I don't remember what this time's winner is about--I think it's a modern sci-fi/fantasy type thing, of limited literary interest. My library doesn't even have it. So I will move right on to the next book on the list.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Susan Glaspell--Alison's House (1930)

Four of the next five works on the IWE list are plays, along with one short novel. So I should continue to make a rapid progression through it for a while longer.

Alison's House won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1930. Even though its author is a woman, writing in an era when women were supposed to be underrepresented among playwrights, and its namesake subject a genius female poet who has some similarities to Emily Dickinson, it has fallen into obscurity. It has been out of print for years, and there are very few copies of it available on the internet, and most of those are over $100. As I want to collect at least some edition of all the books on this list--and most are either available very cheaply or I have them already--I was hard put to find anything available for under $50, let alone 15, which is at the outer edge of what I usually consider resonable. I finally came across a volume of Six Plays published in London in 1930, which looked to be a compendium of that year's major dramas on both sides of the Atlantic--in addition to Alison's House, it also included Marc Connelly's Green Pastures, which is also on the IWE list, as well as something by Elmer Rice (Street Scene)*--for eight bucks, though unfortunately as it had to be sent from New Zealand the shipping and handling was an additional twelve. But I was able to get my book, and not suffer an interruption in the program.

As I think this play is not widely known, I will briefly recapitulate its story, setting, and character. It is set on December 31, 1899, which everyone in the play considers to be the last day of the 19th century, and that there is significance in the fact. Alison, the titular poetess, has actually already been dead for twenty years, but her elderly sister has continued to live in the family house they shared, which is substantial and cultivated, and is situated along the Mississippi river in Iowa (Glaspell was a native of Davenport, Iowa, presumably the unidentified nearby city where Alison's brother, a lawyer, and his children live). They are not the Vanderbilts as far as wealth goes, but all of the men in the family either are attending or seem to have attended Harvard, which in 1899 indicates a pretty rarified status, especially in Iowa. As the elderly sister is becoming too infirm to live by herself in the old house anymore, the family has decided to sell it off and bring auntie to live with them in town. As the transfer is to take place the next day, the first day of the 1900s, they are spending the new century's eve cleaning the old place out. In addition to Alison's brother and sister, there are the brother's three children: the frustrated, dutiful older son and his even more rigidly correct wife, whom he does not love; the younger son, who is verge of flunking out of Harvard and is trying to save his skin by getting some gossip about his famous but mysterious dead aunt to feed his voracious English professor; and the wayward daughter who ran off with the husband of one of her friends and had been in effect banished from the family before turning up on the occasion of the house closing. There is also a reporter from a Chicago newspaper who has gotten wind of the house being sold and is sniffing around for a possible story, and the attorney's 'secretary', whose mother was the woman he really loved and whom it is strongly hinted is really his daughter. While there was a literary group interested in buying the house and preserving it as a museum, it appears as if the house is going to be sold to some vulgar townspeople who plan to turn it into a summer tourist resort. This all unfolds very compactly and neatly in the course of the play, which has an excellent construction. In reading it has a considerable amount of atmosphere also, with the imminent change of century and departure from the house and the sense that a comfortable familiar is about to be gone. It is also of course written in the language and style of its time, which has a cleanness and honesty and--awareness (?) of the essential details of its world, and their significance--that I do not find to my satisfaction in own writing at least, and not much in that of contemporary writers.

So as a means of amusing myself and escaping into the past I rather liked this, and again congratulated myself on finally allowing myself to take up this antiquated, and heavily middlebrow (though with a lot of real literature on it) list, which really does give me a pleasure that my life had come to lack through my years of unsuccessfully striving to become someone other people would approve as intelligent. If you were to ask me "How good is it?" and "What are its insights?" and insist on my defending such positions as I took, I would say 1) It is overall quite good, it is the work of an intelligent person, it evokes mood and feeling, pays tasteful homage to a period, a class of characters, and a somewhat iconic personage in our history without being overbearing about it; and 2) That is more difficult. However, the theme of elusive love, or loving an inappropriate person and being unable to find a love that is more acceptable, is a dominant one in the play, effecting at least five of the characters, including Alison, and seems to have been the wellspring of her celebrated poems. We are also reminded of the inevitability of death, not only of individuals but of generations, and cultures, etc, but with the suggestion at least of continual rejuvenation and the possibility of art to transcend the strictures of normal human time. So there is that. The play is not an absolute joke intellectually, at least not to people in the 85th-95th percentile range of intelligence or so. This group could get something out of the exercise of reading it.

It happens that I recently (late October) saw another play that was explicitly about Emily Dickinson, The Belle of Amherst, a one woman show written by William Luce, first produced in 1976. I went to this because my sister-in-law was the actress. The play was staged in a circa 1903 stone library that has been converted into a kind of community function hall. It was great to be out and to see a live performance with that degree of intimacy. The material was engaging, and the effect was probably greatly aided by seeing this particular story in New England the week before Halloween, which is an especially New England-y (in the Emily Dickinson sense) week. I don't know if it would be the same seeing it in Miami, which is where my sister-in-law currently works. It was really good to get out of the house, and they even had a little wine and cheese reception afterwards. You may laugh, but I never get to go to things like this. I almost felt like a real adult.

The Bourgeois Surrender Challenge

The challenge is dying. Another lackluster selection of titles and another murder/detective novel as a winner. Who reads all these detective novels? I know some of them are literature but the vast majority of them are exactly alike. The detective is always supposed to be some kind of superior super-intellect with a deep understanding of men and the organization of society, yet the books are always stupendously boring. I am going to have to revamp the system again to try to produce results more in line with what I am looking for.

1. The Beautiful Mystery--Louise Penny.......................................................................................1,111
2. Chance of a Ghost--E. J. Copperman...........................................................................................62
3. With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (ed. Douglas Valentine)............2
4. Lost Libraries: The Destruction of Great Book Collections Since Antiquity (ed. James Raven).....1
    The FSG Book of 20th Century Italian Poetry...............................................................................1
6. Cambridge Companion to 20th Century English Poetry (ed. Neil Corcoran).................................0
    Earth-Moon--Ted Hughes.................................................................................................................0

*The remaining plays in this collection are Badger's Green by R.C. Sherriff, Down Our Street by Ernest George, and the intriguing sounding Socrates by Clifford Bax. 

"Her brown hair is parted in the middle, and held loosely at the neck. She is looking straight ahead, as if into something. But she is really waiting for the right word to come. They came, you can tell that. They were willing visitors. She didn't have to go out and pull them in. There is a knock at the door. It's me. I am crying. She makes a funny little face. She says, 'Tell Alison.' I tell her Jimmy Miles has knocked over my mud house. She says, 'You can build a fort, and put him in it.' She tells me the story of the bumble-bee that got drunk on larkspur and set out to see how drunk you could get in heaven. And what became of her thoughts--the thought I interrupted?"

--Sample from Alison's House

This plaque is in Iowa City?