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 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 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.