Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Nana (Emile Zola)



Relationships are hard.  Really hard.  And I should know because I recently broke up with my girlfriend.  That was hard too.  I don't know if I did the right thing.  I thought I was when I did it, but now I'm sad and lonely and heartbroken and missing her.  Fuck.  In a lot of ways we were bad for one another but in a lot of ways we were good.  See what I mean?...this shit is hard!  Fuck.

To help drown my abundant sorrows I'm drinking a Tanqueray Bloomsbury Gin martini.  I picked a bottle of this gin up at a local liquor store since I'd never heard of it.  Turns out it's a limited edition gin from Tanqueray, based on a recipe from Charles Tanqueray’s son, Charles Waugh Tanqueray, who took over the family business after his father’s death.  Why the hell couldn't my family have been in the gin business?  Actually it's probably for the best, since if they were I'd probably be dead by now.  Anyway, this martini is quite delicious, but since it's a limited edition I'll probably never see another bottle of this gin again, which is too bad, but fortunately not fatal since there are other gins I love out there.  Are you listening, Hendrick's?

Fuck.  Heartache really sucks.  You'd think the booze would help, but it just makes the pain a little more duller rather than taking it away.  I must keep drinking...

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah, relationships are hard.  And when they end it's even harder.  Everyone gets their heart broken...just listen to popular music...about 75% of the songs are about heartache.  Or at least that's what it seems like to me as I type through my Tanqueray haze.  Hey, that's a good band name, Tanqueray Haze.  Except you'd get sued bigtime by the Diageo Corporation.

But you know who never gets her heart broken, and who instead breaks everyone else's hearts...and wallets?  It's Nana, the main character from Emile Zola's novel of the same name.  This book has sat on my shelf for years, and I finally decided to read it.  Good timing.  Nana takes place in Paris during the Second French Empire (1852-1870).  The novel opens in a Parisian theatre, where a mysterious new star named Nana is appearing in an operetta called The Blonde Venus.  Pre-show publicity has all of Paris talking excitedly about this Nana, but no one knows who she is.  When the 18-year old Nana takes the stage, she's not very good, and the audience is initially disappointed.  But then comes a scene where she appears as Venus, dressed in thin, see-through clothing.  At that point the audience is completely in her power.  Nana is so sexy and her body so perfect that she drives everyone insane with her sexual power.  From that point on she is pursued by many men of Parisian upper class society who want her as their lover.  And Nana is happy to oblige every one of them...for a price.  She is the hoe of all hoes of 19th century Paris.  The only real plot of the novel is how Nana uses and destroys each of the men that pursue her.  The novel is a litany of men who end up financially ruined because they gave all their money to Nana in exchange for sex.  She fucks them, uses them up, and throws them away.  They buy her houses, sell all their land to pay to go to bed with her, spend everything they own.  Then sometimes they kill themselves.  And she laughs when she breaks them.  She's certainly one of the most promiscuous characters I've encountered in literature.  She even has a fellow female prostitute as a lover.  In fact, one of the more funny scenes in the novel is when her current sugar daddy walks in on her having sex with her female friend.  He is appalled until she tells him not to worry, that all women do this to each other and it's just a thing all female friends do...they just never tell men about it.  His response is basically "Huh, OK.  Sorry I didn't know."  This book must have been a very titillating read back when it was written in 1880.  It seems much more modern than that, although it does get rather moralizing towards the end.

Nana is not a very sympathetic character.  Yet she's not totally unredeemed.  She can have this childlike innocence at times, and then this utter ruthlessness and heartlessness at other times.  She's quite emotionally damaged, and while she uses her sexuality to her full advantage I don't think she's evil at heart...she just doesn't think about the damage she's doing to the men who pursue her.  She's more thoughtless than evil.  Her attitude seems to be that it's their choice so why shouldn't she take advantage of them, which she does.  So bankruptcies occur, marriages are ruined, scandal is thrown about everywhere.  And she's an odd contradiction...she's not very smart, but she can be very cunning in her ways of managing to squeeze every last penny out of the men who flock to her.

It's obvious Zola doesn't approve of Nana or of the men who chase after her.  Yet he also seems to understand the incredible power of sex, which is why I think he makes Nana almost a caricature of female sexuality.  Men are like moths to a flame around her.  As I said, this novel seems so modern.  Not so much in the moralizing, but the realization that things haven't changed.  In Nana's time, women like her were called courtesans.  Nowadays they're called sugar babies.  There are websites today where young women can go online in search of sugar daddies...men who will pay their bills and rent, men who will "spoil" them, in exchange for sexual favors.  This novel makes it clear that's the way it's always been...older men have the money and younger women have the sexuality, and a trade is made one for the other.  Zola didn't approve, and you might not either, but it's part of the human condition and will never end.  Unlike my past relationship.  Sigh.  Time for another martini...rock on, Tanqueray Haze!!


Friday, January 15, 2016

Book #62 - Confessions (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)



Tonight I'm sipping on a can of Olympia Beer.  Yep, Olympia Beer...in a can.  Olympia was once a popular beer in the Pacific Northwest, and in the 1970s Olympia Brewing Company was the 9th largest brewer in the United States.  You can even see Clint Eastwood drinking an Olympia in the movie "Magnum Force".  That's right, classic 1970s cool and manly Clint Eastwood, not the crazy old Clint who talked to a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention.  But then Olympia Beer faded.  Business mistakes were made, and the brewery got bought, then bought again.  Today Olympia is brewed by the Pabst Brewing Company and is hard to find.  And when you find it, like I did, you can enjoy that delicious golden taste, that, um...well, OK, it's kind of a swill beer.  BUT, and it's a big but, this stuff cost me $8 for a 12-pack.  Yeah, sure, I could afford a $15 six-pack of some limited-batch Belgian quadruple IPA, but when I see 12-pack of beer for $8 my inner college student kicks in and I just buy it.  Then I drink the swill and use it as inspiration to type out more swill, which you are now reading.  So be it.  Hold on, time for another can...

Oh yeah, that's delicious.  Well, OK, maybe not delicious, but it's definitely cool and wet.  I put a slice of lime in this one, which helps the taste, plus it prevents scurvy.  Yeah, that's it...I mostly drink this stuff for my health.

And speaking of health, I've been getting what seems like over 1000 e-mails a day, wondering where I am and if I died and if I will ever continue with this blog and my project of reading these 105 books before I die.  And by "what seems like over 1000 e-mails" I actually mean no e-mails.  Regardless, no, I am not dead, and no, I have not given up this blog or on my reading.  Nor have I gotten Alzheimer's or any other brain disease which is preventing me from finishing this project.  Um, at least as far as I know.  Although maybe the Olympia will have this effect...that remains to be determined.  But the reality is that I just haven't read anything on my blog list for quite awhile.  Sometimes you have to put down the classics and just read some crappy stuff for a bit.  You know, to cleanse the palette...which is exactly what this Olympia is doing.  Of course, it's also re-polluting my palette as well.

Anyway, to start out 2016 on a blog-positive note, I got a frenzy of inspiration and plowed through Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Confessions".  Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a French dude and one of the philosophes, which was the name given to the intellectuals who spearheaded the Enlightenment in the 18th century.  The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that promoted reason and liberty and tolerance, and pushed back against the abuses of religious orthodoxy and absolute monarchy.  That much I knew before reading this book.  But aside from Voltaire's "Candide" (which it turns out was partially written in response to Rousseau's optimism) I'd never read anything by an Enlightenment writer.  This book wasn't a quick read, but I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would.  Indeed, it's one of those books that I almost enjoy more when I think back upon it than when I was first reading it.

Rousseau's "Confessions" is considered the first non-spiritual autobiography.  Augustine wrote his "Confessions" over a thousand years earlier, but that work is more about his religious and spiritual journey (or so I'm told...I haven't read it yet, but it is on my blog list).  Rousseau starts out his confessions with the words "I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself."  And while he doesn't confess as much as a more modern autobiography would, I can imagine that the details he goes into would have shocked the good folk living in the late 1700s.  It's like the equivalent of an 18th century reality show!  For example in the early part of the book he talks about two sexual proclivities of his.  One started when he was about 10 years old, and was boarding with a minister and his wife.  He got into trouble and the wife spanked him, and from then on he seems to have gotten greatly aroused by spanking, especially by older women.  He also as a boy had a penchant for exposing himself to women in public places.  Hehe, whatever turns you on, bro!

One of the fascinating things to me about Rousseau's life story is how different it was growing up in the 1700s than now.  Rousseau's mother died a few days after he was born, and he was raised by his dad until he was 10, when his dad had to flee Geneva (where Rousseau was born) to avoid a lawsuit. At this point, Rousseau's uncle raised him a bit, but then shipped him off to the aforementioned minister's to live for awhile.  At age 13 he apprenticed with an engraver who would beat him, so he ran away and met a Catholic priest who introduced him to a 29 year-old noblewoman Françoise-Louise de Warens.  He ended up living with her on and off (and eventually became her lover), but also wandered around the countryside supporting himself as a servant, as a tutor, or just off of various scams.  I mean the dude just totally bounced around.  There was no high school to college to grad school to job life-path like there is today.  It seems that people, including Rousseau, just had to wing it.  It made me wonder how many other geniuses like him just fell by the wayside because they couldn't figure out how to survive in such a harsh world.  It was also apparent that just knowing someone who could help you went a long way.  It was totally who you knew, who could recommend you to someone else, who knew someone who could help you, etc.  That still matters a lot today, but not as much as back then, I think, when no one had SAT scores or college transcripts to help back them up.

At the age of 31 Rousseau finally got his first "real" job, working as a secretary for the French ambassador to Venice.  Everyone there seems to have recognized his talent and intelligence except for the ambassador, who treated him like shit and stiffed him much of his pay.  He left in disgust after about a year and moved to Paris.  It was here that stuff really started to happen for him.  First, he met his girlfriend and eventual wife Thérèse Levasseur.  Thérèse was an uneducated seamstress, who he ended up knocking up about five times.  When they were born, Rousseau insisted that she give up the babies to an orphanage, which she did.  It's not clear to me why he insisted on this.  He says at various times in the book it's because he couldn't educate them like he wanted, or he wasn't rich enough to raise kids, or he simply didn't want them growing up around Thérèse's family, who frankly sound like a bunch of 18th century Parisian rednecks.  Regardless, the whole giving up his children thing strikes me as a dick move, as it struck some of his contemporaries too, apparently.

It was also in Paris that he met and became good friends with Denis Diderot.  Diderot is a key figure in the Enlightenment, and was the organizer of a huge project called the Encyclopédie.  The Encyclopédie was the world's first encyclopedia, and in it Diderot attempted to write down and systematize all the world's knowledge.  Diderot enlisted many of his fellow Enlightenment intellectuals and writers to write articles for the Encyclopédie, with Rousseau being one of them.  This, along with a winning essay contest entry he wrote about whether science and the arts were morally beneficial, won him widespread fame and regard as a writer.  He also wrote music, and had a successful opera called "The Village Soothsayer" performed in 1752.  Things were looking good for him after his early years of floundering about.

But his lifestyle of an independent writer and intellectual in 18th century France never really got easy.  He seems to have been often been dependent on rich patrons to put him up in nice country houses where he could write and think real hard.  (Side note - it cracks me up that it appears that country houses in those days were located a mile or two outside of town, where today you would probably find strip malls and fast food franchises).  And as his fame magnified and his ideas became more well known, he was persecuted by local authorities everywhere for his writings, which the conservative authorities of the day found shocking and sacrilegious.  His books got burned and warrants were issued for his arrest.  Indeed after the period covered by the "Confessions" (they end in 1765 and Rousseau died in 1778) Rousseau had to flee the continent altogether and go hang out in England for awhile to escape persecution.  But what was even more of a problem was his falling out with various noblemen and noblewomen and patrons and fellow intellectuals.  This was one of the more confusing parts of the "Confessions" for me.  Rousseau has falling outs with a lot of people, including his old buddy Diderot.  Rousseau claimed that Diderot and a mutual friend of theirs, a journalist named Grimm, conspired against him.  To me it seemed like, yeah maybe that happened, but it also seems like Rousseau could be a bit of a prickly character himself, so it made it hard for me to believe one could get the whole story from this book alone.  Rousseau also gets in fights with wealthy patrons.  He seems to have hated the idea of being dependent on anyone, and even declined a pension offer from the king of France just because he wanted to be an independent thinker and his own man.  Admirable, yes, but one does have to play the game to get along.

One other thing that's hard to glean from this book alone is exactly why Rousseau became such a popular figure among the people, and why he was so reviled by the authorities.  For this, I would have to read his other works.  I may do this, but if I do it will be awhile (after all, I have to finish my reading for this blog!).  Alas, I will just have to take this part on faith for the time being.  But regardless, this book was a fascinating look at life in the 1700s, and you really feel like you get to know Rousseau, warts and all.  I only wish he were here, so I could offer him a cold can of Olympia and ask him why the hell he abandoned his kids, as we sat back and watched some soft core spanking porn on Cinemax.  Knowing him as I do from reading this book, I think we'd have a good time...until he tasted the Olympia.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Book #60 (Part 2) - Roman Lives (Plutarch)



I'm sitting here drinking my Plymouth Gin martini and trying to figure out how to start this latest blog post.  Usually I try to be witty and funny, and I let the alcohol wash over me like a wave of inspiration, sweeping me up into the vast ocean of wisdom to be found in the world's greatest literature.  Meh, but not tonight.  My martini is good, but somehow it's not quite the drink I thought I was craving.  And my reading of late has been slow going, just because the pressures of daily life have kept me away from the pages.  And finally, the mass shooting a few days ago in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina has made me sad and worried for this country.  WOOO, 'Merica!!  Ugh.  This country is so divided between right and left, common sense and respect for wisdom and knowledge have gone out the window, and the government seems so incapable of doing anything except for what's good for the rich and powerful.  Fuck!

I've been reading a few more of Plutarch's "Lives" lately.  It's interesting to compare what's happening today, versus the events and lives Plutarch tells us about from over 2000 years ago.  Back in Ancient Rome, man, now they knew how to get things done!  No sitting around in fancy cocktail bars drinking $12 cocktails made with artisan gin and pineapple gomme and hibiscus bitters, and moaning about how bad things are getting.  No, when those ancient Roman dudes got pissed off they took to the streets and got it DONE!  Take Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, for example.  What, you never heard of them?  The Gracchi brothers?  Well Plutarch, in his Life of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, tells us about how these two dudes stirred it UP in the old Roman Republic.  You know, before the whole Republic thing fell apart and became a dictatorship...uh, I mean empire.  The Gracchi brothers lived in the mid-100s BC, and came from a wealthy and noble family.  They both served as tribunes, which means they were elected officials who served to protect the interests of the plebeians against the senate.  The Gracchi, in spite of their wealth, sided with the 99% against the wealthy landowners, and decided to push for agrarian land reform.  OK, that sounds pretty dull, but what it meant was that they were pissed off at the rich dudes who hogged up all the farm lands and wouldn't give the little guy a chance to do any farming.  So the Gracchi figured they should pass laws limiting the amount of land any one person could own, and thus take some of the land owned by the rich farmers who were just kicking back smoking weed while their slaves worked their asses off, and give it to the poor and homeless who just wanted a break, and maybe were veterans and all, and deserved a chance at a piece of the pie.  Go Gracchi!!  Occupy Rome!!  Of course, the rich dudes in the senate didn't like this at all, because they themselves owned a lot of farmland and didn't want it to get snatched up.  So the rich fought back against attempts by the Gracchi brothers to redistribute some wealth to the poor, and guess how that turned out.  Yep, the Gracchi were killed.  Tiberius was clubbed to death by his fellow senators, and Gaius killed himself years later after being cornered by an angry mob of political opponents.  Woohoo, violence solves everything!  Anyway, that was the beginning of violence seeping into the Roman political system, which became more and more ingrained as time went on, eventually undermining the Roman Republic.  So what can we learn from this?  We can learn Fight the Power!...and if we do we'll literally get beaten down and killed.  Woo.  I need another drink.

Ahh, feeling better now.  I'm drinking a rum and pineapple now, because rum remotely sounds like Rome.  That seemed like a pretty valid reason to me.  Meanwhile back in Ancient Rome:  after the Gracchi brothers, along came these dudes Marius and Sulla.  And yes, Plutarch wrote two of his Lives about them too.  Under their leadership, the violence in Rome's political system got worse.  A lot worse.  Gaius Marius was born in 157 B.C., Marius became a great Roman general, beating up on Germanic tribes and other foreigners, and served as consul for an unprecedented seven times.  Marius became a Roman hero, but in 88 B.C, another Roman consul, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, was put in charge of a Roman army to defeat an enemy of Rome, King Mithridates.  Marius did not like this, and tried to get the army for himself, and in response, Sulla took the army and turned it against Rome and Marius in an act of Civil War.  Marius was defeated and had to flee Rome.  Plutarch describes his flight, and it's pretty exciting, with lots of close calls and near escapes.  Finally Marius makes it to Africa, where he is safe, and Sulla takes his army and goes to fight Mithridates.  Sulla's absence allowed Marius to raise his own army and to march on Rome, retaking it for himself.  He and his soldiers sought a bloodthirsty vengeance, and killed a lot of his opponents upon his return to Rome.  Then he died in 86 B.C., of some kind of illness.

But the violence was not to end there.  In 83 B.C., Sulla once again marched on Rome, after having won the war against Mithridates.  After a huge battle, he seized control of the city.  Then the killing began in earnest.  Seems like Sulla was the Stalin of ancient Rome, instituting a series of purges where lists of "enemies of the state" were publicly posted, and bounties put upon their heads.  Sulla's enemies were killed, and then enemies of Sulla's friends, and then just rich people so that Sulla could seize their property and auction it off.  It was a bloodbath.  Plutarch's descriptions of the murders and executions are chilling.  Finally, two years later, Sulla surprisingly ended his dictatorship and returned Rome to its Republican rule.  He retired from public life and died a few years later of natural causes.  Nonetheless, his example of being a dictator was not lost on Julius Caesar, who took control of Rome a generation later and finally ended the Republic for good.

Reading Plutarch is surprisingly fun, for two reasons.  First, the dude is a natural born storyteller.  He's the kind of guy you'd want sit around the fire with on a cold winter evening, and hear him tell stories about the old days while sipping on another rum and pineapple.  But second, it's fascinating to hear these stories of people and times that are 2000 years gone, and yet still ring true today.  It's not hard to imagine how today's political debates and divides could break out into violence...and indeed, they sometimes do.  The Roman Republic fell, and launched an age of emperors, and that too eventually ended.  We sometimes take for granted that our own republic will always stand, but there's no guarantee.  Reading Plutarch makes one remember that nothing is permanent, and today's strife and struggles will one day be ancient history, and yet they may one day also be repeated in one form or another.  Hmm, so then I might as well have another rum and pineapple...

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Book #61 - The Trial (Franz Kafka)



You know who fucking kicks ass?  Captain America, that's who!  I mean, first off, the dude has the word "America" right in his name!  America, fuck yeah!!  And then he's got this shield he throws.  I mean, how cool is that?  Usually dudes with shields use them to shield themselves....you know, as a defensive weapon.  But Captain America doesn't have time to wait around to defend himself.  Nope, he takes his goddamn shield and throws it at his enemies, doing them great bodily harm because NO ONE expects to have a shield thrown at them.  And why should Captain America need a defensive weapon when he can just throw his shield and hurt his enemies before his enemies get a chance to hurt him?  Yep, Captain America kicks ass.  

So why do I bring this up in a blog post about Franz Kafka's "The Trial"?  Am I simply tanked up on gin martinis and just ranting about the first thing that comes to my head?  Well, no.  I mean, yes.  Both, actually.  Because I am drinking a gin martini, made with Mayfair London Dry Gin.  I've never had this gin before...saw it at the store and took and chance on it and I'm glad I did because it is awesome!  It's got nice botanicals but it's not too crazy or heavy on the juniper.  It makes a refreshing martini and would be good in other mixed drinks as well because it's not overwhelmingly "ginny" (is that a word?).  But in regards to Captain America, no I'm not just ranting like a crazy man boozed out of his mind on this fine tasting gin.  Because I had a point, and my point is this:  In the totally excellent movie "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", the bad guys (led by Robert Redford, who surprisingly makes a chilling bad guy...who knew?) are ready to launch these huge drone ships that will hover above the Earth and kill with precision targeting anyone who is a threat to world peace...an no one can stop them because the ships are hovering above everyone and ready to be the judge/jury/executioner as determined by an algorithm that no one understands because it's too complicated.  And that reminded me of "The Trial", in which a man, Joseph K., is arrested and subjected to court proceedings and a trial in which the charges are never made clear.   In fact the only charge seems to be a sense of guilt, and poor Joseph K., who may or may not be guilty because we don't know what the charges are, is subjected to a Byzantine bureaucracy of secret courts and judges and lawyers, and we and he never really know what's going on.  Fuck.

OK, maybe the plot of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is not the best analogy, so let me try another one.  A few years ago I was driving from San Francisco to Santa Fe, New Mexico to attend a conference for work.  I decided to drive because I had a friend who was going to meet me in Las Vegas for a weekend, so we would party there for two days and then I would drive on to Santa Fe.  So I rented a car in San Francisco, drove to Vegas, had fun with my friend, and then left on Monday morning to drive to Santa Fe.  On Interstate 40, east of Flagstaff, Arizona, I was pulled over by a highway patrol officer for going a bit over the speed limit.  Oops.  I mean, it's flat, it's the desert, who cares if you speed a bit, right?  Well, he cared.  So he pulls me over and says "You were speeding and I'm just going to give you a warning...but do you mind if I search your car?"  So I say that's fine, since I only had one suitcase and a laptop bag, figuring he'd give just a quick look and knowing that I had nothing to hide.  The officer then proceeds to take every last goddamn thing out of my suitcase, all the while asking me questions like where am I from, and why am I driving a rental car, and how much is my rent (WTF?), and why do I seem nervous (um, because you're totally freaking me out?)?  After about 20 minutes of perusing my luggage he calls up another cop on the radio, who soon pulls up and gets out of his car.  The first officer goes over to him and I hear him say "Yeah, I get a bad vibe from this guy".  The newly arrived officer asks me more questions while the first officer keeps searching my car (at one point he bangs on the inside of the doors and asks me if these are "false panels".  I tell him politely how the fuck should I know, it's a goddamn rental car).  Finally the first officer comes back from searching my car and abruptly says "You can go".  It felt like I was on trial and presumed guilty and subjected to a legal proceeding beyond my control and in which I did not know the rules, which sounds like ''The Trial".  I mean, kind of, right?

This book is really surrealistic.  It's not just Joseph K.'s unexplained arrest and ongoing trial, it's everything that happens in the novel.  One day Joseph K. walks into a back room of the bank where he works to find two of the men who arrested him getting whipped.  Joseph meets an artist who knows the court system well, and helps him out.  An artist?  The artist is harassed by teenage girls living in his apartment building.  The courts are located in obscure, out-of-the-way areas of weird apartment buildings.  Joseph seems to have women throwing themselves at him hard, which seems unlikely.  The whole novel is like this - weird and dreamlike.  But in an ominous way.  Not scary, but ominous.  The novel is foreboding...all the odd things that happen, and the way they are described, lend to the feeling of being in a rather sickly universe, where people get crushed by the machinery of the society around them, but crushed in a slow, impersonal manner.

Anyway, The Trial doesn't end up well for Joseph K., but then the reader never really expects that it will.  The novel is actually unfinished...for some reason Kafka stopped writing it and put it aside, and then died of tuberculosis before getting back to it, if he ever would have.  Fortunately he wrote the ending, so the reader knows the ultimate outcome, but there are other places where there are obvious holes.  Plot threads are left dangling, and we don't know how he ended up in the situation at the end of the novel.  But whatever, the odd incompleteness I think adds to the surrealism and confusion of the novel, and thus actually helps it.  Not that Kafka needed help.  The world he paints in this novel is very, uh, Kafkaesque.  Wow, how does he get his own adjective and Captain America does not?  It's an outrage!  Anyway, it's a dark, grim, soul-crushing world he depicts, and as many have pointed out, foretells the emergence of the totalitarian horrors of the 20th century.  It's an odd and strange book, but one whose message is prescient and more relevant than ever.  Which is why we really need Captain America these days!  Where the hell is he, anyways?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Suite Francaise (Irene Nemirovsky)



So it was the Christmas holidays and I was heading back to the Midwest to visit family, and I wanted to take a book along to read.  Hmm, what book to take?  So I looked at my shelves and pulled down "Suite Francaise", which I'd bought quite awhile ago but had never gotten around to reading.  Yeah, it's not on my list of 105 books that I really need to readand blog about before my impending death, but once again I threw caution to the wind and veered off the list.  I'd been wanting to read this book, and besides, what could be more appropriate for the holiday season than reading about Nazis?  That was a joke.  The Nazis sucked.  I mean totally sucked, and that's made clear by this book.  Not even just the plot of the book, but the circumstances under which this book was written.  Goddamn it, I just spilled my martini.

Fuck, that was a good martini too, made with Plymouth Gin and chipotle pepper-stuffed olives from The Olive Pit.  Fortunately there wasn't much left of the martini when I spilled it, but one of the olives rolled across the floor and I had to toss it in the garbage, as it was now thoroughly coated with a dusty residue.  What a pity!  Chipotle-stuffed olives are the bomb and you can quote me on that.  And that's not just the 7/8ths of a martini talking.  Well, maybe it partly is.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah, those goddamn fucking Nazis.  Both the plot of this book, as well as the story of the author and how and where this book were written, are tainted with Nazis.  Irene Nemirovsky was a Russian Jew born in Kiev in 1903.  During the Russian Revolution her family fled to France, where she attended the Sorbonne and became a writer.  She married and had two daughters, but after the Germans invaded and occupied France in World War II she was eventually arrested (in 1942) as a "stateless person of Jewish descent" and deported to Auschwitz where she died soon after.  Her husband later died in Auschwitz as well, but her two daughters survived the war, and they had in their possession a notebook written by their mother during the German occupation.  Thinking it was a memoir, they couldn't bear to read the contents, and so it was stored away until the 1990s, when one of her daughters finally read it.  Surprisingly it wasn't a memoir, but the first two parts of a planned five-part sequence of novellas.  It was quickly published under the title "Suite Francaise" to great critical acclaim.

The book is fascinating, because the subject of the two novellas is the German occupation of France, and the lives of the French citizens under the occupation.  The book thus fictionalizes events that were occurring during the war right as the author was writing it.  The author had no idea how the sequence of five novellas would turn out, because she didn't know how the war would end.  And tragically, she didn't and couldn't predict that the war would consume her before she could finish the work.  But fortunately for us what she did get to write survived and was rediscovered.

The first novella, called "Storm in June", recounts events as the German army stormed into France in 1940.  As the Germans press towards Paris, many residents of the city flee, as it is not clear whether Paris will be leveled with bombs or not (it wasn't, as an armistice was signed and France surrendered before Paris could be destroyed).  The roads are flooded with refugees, taking as many of their belongings with them as possible.  Panic is everywhere as no one really knows what's happening, or what will happen.  The book follows the stories of a cast of individuals and families as they flee the oncoming Germans.  Most of the characters do not have any connection with one another, so the narrative cuts back and forth from one person/family to another.  This might seem like it would be confusing, but it actually works quite well.  As the characters flee, chaos reigns, and all their initial plans become confounded.  Most of the characters become more and more unsympathetic, as they lose their humanity and become more ruthless and self-centered in order to survive.  But the book really moves, and it's hard to put down.  Despite not really liking many of the characters, the sense of doom and danger is made quite palpable.  And there's one scene that I found particularly disturbing.  One of the characters is a priest who is leading a group of orphans fleeing into the countryside.  When he chastises them for breaking into someone's house, they turn on him.  The scene was a surprise to me, and things just get worse and worse for the priest, and it's horrific.  The helpless orphan boys become as bad, or worse, than the oncoming Nazis.  The scene reminded me of something from "Lord of the Flies".

In the second novella, called "Dolce", we are introduced to several new main characters, although some of the characters from the first novella reappear, or are at least mentioned.  This novella focuses on a small French country village which is occupied by the Nazis.  The Germans live apparently peacefully with the villagers, and the officers are billeted in the French people's houses.  Relations on the surface seem polite and cordial...the Germans try to keep things as normal as possible, and many officers try to respect the lives and property of the citizens. The Germans are perhaps a bit too formal for the French (they are military personnel after all) but at least they're polite.  But beneath the veneer, things are much more grim.  The French can never forget that they have been conquered, and that many of the men from the town are being held captive somewhere far away in German POW camps.  The Germans post many rules, such as a curfew and prohibition of gun ownership, and notices plastered around the town remind people that violations of the rules are punishable by death.  Some townsfolk collaborate with the Germans, and are despised, while others resist but not too openly.

The main character in "Dolce" is Lucile Angellier, a young newlywed whose husband has been captured by the Germans and is in a POW camp far away.  She has mixed feelings about this, because she doesn't want him to suffer, but on the other hand he has been unfaithful to her and she has no love for him.  She lives with her mother-in-law, who despises her.  A young German officer, Bruno von Falk, is billeted in their house.  Bruno is a polite and cultured, and was studying to be a musician before the war.  He and Lucille start discretely spending time together and they fall in love.  Well, sort of.  Because of the power dynamics of conqueror and vanquished, and their different cultures and languages, there is always a gap between them.  Eventually a local farmer murders a German soldier because he was trying to seduce his wife, and Lucille agrees to hide him in her house, under the nose of Bruno.  She does so because she knows Bruno and the Germans would never suspect her of all people from hiding this most wanted man.  But by doing so, she drives a wedge between her and Bruno, at least in her mind, as it make apparent to her their vastly different roles in the war.  But then the Germans in town are forced to leave when Germany declares war on the Soviet Union, and they are called away to fight on the Eastern Front. It is there that the novella closes.

This book is one that is going to stick with me.  The writing was beautiful, and the story was a page turner.  But what makes this book so totally poignant is how the author's story is intertwined with the story in the book.  The German occupation of France, which she novelized right as it was happening, is what led to her own downfall and death, and prevented her from finishing the book.  She left an outline of the third novella in the five-part series, entitled "Captivity", but she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz before she could start writing it.  Both her book and her life are a tragic and horrible story in a tragic and horrible historic period that consumed many millions of lives.  Goddamn Nazis.  But fortunately this beautiful book survived and was rediscovered.  A small consolation, perhaps, and too late for the author, but ensuring that the story of her own personal tragedy, and her insights into the lives of the citizens who suffered in France in World War II, will not be forgotten.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Death Comes for the Archbishop (Willa Cather)



Times have changed so much in the last 150 years that it's hard to fathom.  150 years ago we were fighting the Civil War, and there was a frontier where the living was hard and dangerous, and there was no delicious Willett single barrel 4-year old straight rye whiskey available for bloggers like me to sip on while the desperately try to write something slightly interesting and remotely relevant.  Hard to imagine.  So what did men and women do out on the frontier back in those rugged days if they couldn't fall asleep while trying to read my latest lame blog post?  Well, if you're like the main character of this book, Archbishop Jean Marie Latour, you saved men's souls while doing a lot of horseback/muleback riding.  Yes, it seems that for an archbishop in the old southwest frontier days horseback riding was part of the job description.  An archbishop could drink wine too, apparently, but there was no rye whiskey...or at least none in this novel.  Hard living indeed.

"Death Comes for the Archbishop" is based closely on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, a French Roman Catholic prelate who served as the first archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Lamy was a French priest who got the missionary bug, and came to the US to work in Ohio in 1839.  In 1850, the pope sent him to New Mexico to be a bishop.  He eventually became archbishop, and oversaw the building of the St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe (pictured above), before retiring in 1885 and dying in Santa Fe three years later.  The novel follows Cather's version of Lamy, Jean Marie Latour, as he and his vicar buddy Joseph Vaillant wander around the desert southwest, spreading Catholicism and administering to the whites, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Native Americans, and everyone else.  They have to contend with snowstorms, windstorms, dust storms, rebellious priests, outlaws, suspicious Native Americans, and the vast loneliness of the desert surroundings.  It's pretty cool actually, the contrast of the spreaders of a very organized European religion lead by an aristocratic French intellectual, with the almost unfathomable vastness of the desert frontier and the myriad of issues and tensions surrounding the coming together of so many cultures...French, Spanish, Native American, mountain men, gold miners, etc.

The novel essentially has no plot.  It is more a collection of anecdotes describing the adventures of the Fathers Latour and Vaillant as they minister across the southwest.  And I use the word "adventures" loosely.  Very loosely.  Sure, there was the time they narrowly escaped being murdered, and rescued their would-be murderer's abused wife.  But most of the stories are much more subtle, describing a clash of cultures that isn't really a clash, just different types of people trying to figure out how to live together.  The book is really almost meditative.  Not all that much happens, yet it's easy to get caught up in the book's subtle rhythm and just go along with it.  Some might call it a slow read, but I think that misses the point.  To me the writing is reminiscent of the southwest itself...calm, vast, inspiring awe.  I'm not a religious man, but I couldn't help admiring the characters' devotions to the people in their diocese.  And while the two main characters are vastly different (Latour is more inward focused and reflective, while Vaillant is a fearless extrovert with a huge personality), they both love each other and the people living in their congregation.

Eventually Latour leads the construction of the cathedral at Santa Fe, while Vaillant is called to minister to an influx of gold miners into Colorado.  The two grow old separately and do not see one another again.  Latour eventually retires. lives for awhile longer just outside of Santa Fe, then becomes ill and dies peacefully.  Which brings me to the book's title.  WTF?  Yes, death came for the archbishop, but not until he had a long, full life.  So why is the title relentlessly focused on his death?  Perhaps the rye whiskey is making me foggy, but I have no idea.  Whatever...this is a good book.  It is very different from My Antonia, but well worth reading to get a flavor of what it was like out on the frontier of this country 150 years ago.  To us it would be like another world, as it was to the archbishop...a world long gone by.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Childhood's End (Arthur C. Clarke)



I started this blog seven years ago.  WTF?!?  I was almost 20 years younger then...so innocent and unknowing of the cold, callous ways of the world.  And now, having read 59 1/3 of the 105 books I originally intended to read, what have I actually learned along the way from this blogging/reading project?  Well, I've learned, relearned actually, just how delicious some alcoholic beverages can be (yes, I'm talking to you, aged rye whiskey).  And I've learned that it takes fucking forever to read 105 books, especially when you're reading them with an addled middle-aged mind.  I've learned that some books quickly fade from memory once they're finished...I'd tell you which one(s) but I can't remember them.  And yet, I've learned that some books not only stay with you after you've read them, but seem to grow in importance long after their covers have been closed.  In particular I'm thinking of Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War".  As readers of this blog may recall (assuming there are readers of this blog, which seems highly unlikely) Thucydides was not the definition of an easy read, and although his book was quite interesting, it was not a page turner.  And yet, I think back onto this book almost daily.  I'm somewhat of a news junkie, and I follow current events and politics fairly closely, and I'm blown away by how the problems of the Greek world of 400BC as described in Thucydides so closely parallel many of the problems faced by our global society today.  The tension between aristocracy and the common people, and the pressures on democracies to become oligarchies, are themes very relevant to society in 2014.  And the rise of demagogues in Athens, and the penchant for such politicians to make decisions that are not in the best interests of the country in the long run, well these seem depressingly similar to the political scene in America today.  History indeed repeats itself.  People are the same as they were 2400 years ago, making the same mistakes and coming to the same dysfunctional ends.  Ugh.  The human race is not evolving, it's just on a stationary treadmill.

But this is not what's going on in Arthur C. Clarke's novel "Childhood's End".  Arthur C. Clarke was a science fiction writer, best known for his book (and the Stanley Kubrick movie based on it) "2001: A Space Odyessey".  "Childhood's End" was an earlier science fiction novel of his, written in 1953.  No, it's not on my list of 105 books for this blog, but I once again veered off the list because I fucking wanted to, and because I haven't read a science fiction novel since maybe the sixth grade.  Plus after a big bite of Plutarch I wanted to read something completely different...a quick read and a page-turner.  Anyway, where was I...oh yeah, this book is all about the evolution of humankind into something higher and better, very similar to the theme of "2001", actually.  And like "2001", aliens are involved.  At the novel's opening, super intelligent aliens in huge spaceships come to Earth.  Their ships hover over all the major cities, and they announce that from now on there will be no more war or violence or unnecessary cruelty towards animals (yay, animals!).  The aliens are unbelievably technologically advanced and don't even need to show themselves, although they eventually agree to after 50 years.  Meanwhile, relieved of all their misery and troubles causes the human race to become, for the most part, relaxed and unmotivated under the new regime of the aliens whom they refer to as "The Overlords".  Why make art or do research when you can just chill out and let The Overlords deal with shit.  So what happens...Are The Overlords good or evil?  How can humans evolve under such circumstances?  Well, I can't really go into much more detail without spoiling it, because there are lots of plot twists and curves.  Some of them are great, while others are kinda meh, but still the fun of this kind of book is having no idea what comes next.  So I will leave you hanging until you read it yourself.

But, barring aliens coming down and hovering over our cities, I fear that Thucydides really nailed the human condition over 2400 years ago.  Times change but human nature does not, as much as we like to think it has.  Maybe someday, but not today.  We're waiting for those aliens, just like they waited for Godot.  Waiting...waiting...