Kinkazzo's Book Reviews 2007-2008
- THE MEDICI SEAL BY THERESA BRESLIN
- FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM BY UMBERTO ECO
- THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN BY GARTH STEIN
- OSCAR WILDE AND THE CANDLELIGHT MURDERS BY GYLES BRANDRETH
- OSCAR WILDE AND THE RING OF DEATH BY GYLES BRANDRETH
- FORESKIN'S LAMENT BY SHALOM AUSLANDER
- NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON BY PASCAL MERCIER
- OLD MEN IN LOVE BY ALASDAIR GRAY
- THE END OF MR Y BY SCARLETT THOMAS
- DUMA KEY BY STEPHEN KING
- WILL BY CHRISTOPHER RUSH
- THE RAW SHARK TEXTS BY STEVEN HALL
- ANTONIO TABUCCHI (an appraisal)
- THE LATE MATTIA PASCAL BY LUIGI PIRANDELLO
- IL FU MATTIA PASCAL DI LUIGI PIRANDELLO
- THE BOOK THIEF BY MARKUS ZUSAK
- THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE BY SALMAN RUSHDIE
- FIRMIN LIVES! (Firmin: Adventures Of A Metropolitan Lowlife, by Sam Savage) - bilingual En/It
- A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS BY R.J. ELLORY
- GIOSUÈ CARDUCCI (an appraisal)
- CONSTANTINE P. CAVAFY (an appraisal)
- THE INVENTION OF EVERYTHING ELSE BY SAMANTHA HUNT
- HERMETIC OBSCURATION: GIUSEPPE UNGARETTI
- WALT WHITMAN (an appraisal)
THE MEDICI SEAL BY THERESA BRESLIN
That Renaissance Feeling… (2008)
I love historical fiction and I love Leonardo da Vinci. I may be biased, as he's my compatriot, but it is a fact that, because of the multiplicity of interests that spurred him to pursue every field of knowledge, Leonardo can be considered, quite rightly, to have been the universal genius par excellence, and with all the disquieting overtones inherent in that term. Humanity is as uncomfortable today, faced with a genius, as they were in the 16th century. Five centuries have passed, yet we still view Leonardo with awe. As the famous art historian Bernard Berenson wrote in 1896: "Leonardo is the one artist of whom it may be said with perfect literalness: Nothing that he touched but turned into a thing of eternal beauty. Whether it be the cross section of a skull, the structure of a weed, or a study of muscles, he, with his feeling for line and for light and shade, forever transmuted it into life-communicating values." You got to love Leonardo.
So, in an era when books having Leonardo as a character are ten a penny, here’s a book on the Florentine polymath smartly written and holding its own. Set in violent, warring, factional 16th century Italy The Medici Seal tells the story of fictional Matteo, a gypsy boy with a secret. As events spin him from one danger to another he meets Leonardo da Vinci and is, for several years, part of his household. Theresa Breslin brilliantly succeeds in weaving into the story much of what we know about this Tuscan polymath genius - the dissections, anatomical drawings, experimental flying machine and the painting of "The Last Supper", in the process bringing Renaissance Italy to life and showing the scope and humanity of the Maestro.
This thick and meaty book does not present a pretty view of life, in a time and place in which Borgias, Medicis and other powerful families are ruthlessly vying for power in the city provinces of a country which is still nearly 400 years way from being unified. There is treachery, rape, pillage and grisly death. Matteo - who would prefer to be a doctor - fights hard in battles and is also the object of a personal vendetta. The excitement and sense of mystery never flag, as Breslin is indeed very good at telling it as it is (or was) without dwelling gratuitously on the horrors. There's also a final twist with a surprise ending: I don't want to spoil it, but I defy you to see it coming.
Theresa Breslin is a Scottish author, living and working in Kirkintilloch. Formerly a librarian, she has been writing for a number of years and finds much of her inspiration in the castles and ruins around her home. But with The Medici Seal she went abroad, and found her castles in Italy. She has received many awards for her work, including the Young Book Trust Fidler Award for Young Writers and the Carnegie Medal in 1995. She writes mainly for older children and teenagers, but her books are enjoyed by a great deal of adults too ~ including me! This particular novel about Leonardo and the Medicis stands on its own merits and should not be pigeon holed as either adult or children's literature. It is just an extremely good read. As a matter of fact, it is a very substantial read, full of detail from the complicated history of the period, which the author has taken pains to incorporate into the equally complex adventure story of Matteo and his friends. In the book’s mid-section we move away from Matteo's story to a fictionalised account of Leonardo's artistic and inventive life. The Mona Lisa, Battle of Anghiari, Last Supper and abortive flying machines are all here, in a gorgeously produced book which will be treasured for its handsome form as well as its content.
During the Edinburgh Festival 2008, I attended the author’s presentation of The Medici Seal at the Book Show, having been invited by the author to the event. She seized the occasion to also present another novel she had just completed (The Nostradamus Prophecy set in the France of another member of the Medici Family - Queen Catherine), and I was amazed by her profound knowledge of history and the ease with which she described events that shaped human destiny for centuries to come. I admiringly got her autograph on my copy of her book and decided to keep reading her for centuries to come…
FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM BY UMBERTO ECO
Eschew obfuscation and read this (2008)
This is the father of all Da Vinci Codes, this is the real McCoy, the genuine article! And after twenty years from its original publication, I think this novel is still quite good and thoroughly engrossing... Like good Italian wine, it has aged well, and Weaver's translation is superb (as always, with all of Eco's books).
Umberto Eco's FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM is about three intellectuals who tell themselves a dangerous story. Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi constitute the cynical editorial staff of two small Milan publishing houses. Garamond Press publishes significant works by serious authors. Manutius publishes self financing authors (SFAs), courting any and all willing to pay the toll. The former, a respectable but unprofitable pursuit, provides fodder for the latter, and the conjunction keeps both operations afloat. All the while the editors amuse themselves in intellectual play, such as inventing courses that could fill the curricula at a "School of Comparative Irrelevance." (Urban Planning for Gypsies, Contemporary Sumerian Literature, Democratic Oligarchy, Spartan Sybaritics, and the list goes on.) Then Signor Garamond, an affable business savant, stumbles into a thriving occult bookstore and Project Hermes, the ultimate symbiotic venture for the two enterprises, is conceived. Garamond will publish a sophisticated, cerebral series about subjects occult, advertising and soliciting manuscripts extensively. Simultaneously Manutius will "publish" its own occult series to capitalize on what past experience predicts will be an endless supply of the hermetically inclined but literarily challenged, all with manuscripts in hand.
The Diabolicals, as the SFA occultists are soon labelled, are not only distinguished by their fervent questing for mystic secrets and their ardent belief that receptivity to such knowledge is the only prerequisite for revelation. As a group they also adhere to a modified version of the Kevin Bacon Theory of Information, demonstrating a flexibility of logic that enables them to develop connections between any given factoid or event and practically anything else, given enough paper. The connections could link the pyramids and extraterrestrials, Masonic conspiracy and WWII, or the Rosicrucians and the Paris subway system. Regardless of content, once made the connections are cited as evidence proving the Diabolical's theory, typically involving some conspiracy of which only he or she and those few evil geniuses involved are aware.
In FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM Eco makes a masterful study of the nature of Meaning and the dangers of tampering with the stories of others. Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi reside firmly in the sceptical relativistic world of the intellectual. They question everything, believe nothing without reservation, and amuse themselves by twisting the Meanings of stories believed by others. Their intellectual tradition has taught them that their scepticism provides insulation from the passions with which non-intellectuals, the Diabolicals included, infuse their stories. However, the editors, ironically shackled by their own internal scepticism story, gravely underestimate the extent of the Diabolicals' desire for a story that will provide purpose greater than their collected individual stories, a story that will create transcendent Meaning.
Most humans, not just Diabolicals, strongly desire a story that will provide transcendent Meaning in their lives. There exist scores of established Belief Systems in our modern world (Judeo-Christianity, Buddhism, secular humanism, Science, to name a few) which serve precisely that purpose. Each provides a story, or rather an overriding system of stories, which, when believed by the individual, attribute to his or her experiences transcendent Meaning, higher Purpose.
However, it is also an established phenomena that humans tend to value more those things that are less available. This phenomena applies not only to the material Free Market but also to the Free Market of Ideas. "If that Belief System makes its knowledge public, gives it away for free, how much can it be worth?" sums up such an attitude. Knowledge made public is mistaken for mere information, factoids and data points stripped of Meaning. "There must be more," cry the populace, "Where is the private knowledge, so valuable that it can't be made public. That's where we'll find True Meaning." And just so simply begins the quest for Secret Knowledge that has fuelled conspiracy theories, secret societies, cults, and all manner of suspicion across the ages and into today.
Eco, historian, philosopher, semiotician, acclaimed author, the quintessential intellectual, has created in FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM a masterful book, filled with sophisticated and arcane humour, and pointed and perceptive social commentary. Not for the faint of heart, the small of vocabulary, or the inflexible of mind, FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM is a treat to be savoured by anyone who finds the slogan "Eschew Obfuscation" amusing.
A DOGGONE FETCHING STORY
The Art of Racing in the Rain
by Garth Stein
I can remember only another book where dogs where the main interpreters, and it was a Sci-Fi book by Clifford D. Simak, CITY (1952) which I read in my teens. It was a collection of eight tales recited by intelligent, caring dogs passing down the oral legend of an extinct creature known as 'Man'. It was a beautiful book, recounting some of the planet’s history through the genetically mutated voices of scholarly canines.
But Enzo, the main character of Garth Stein’s book, cannot talk and is nearing terminal departure from a planet that is very much our present one. Narrated from his deathbed, this dog's tale is rich with quirky observations - many of them olfactory - and love for his human owner, a down-on-his-luck car racer.
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is a funny, heartbreaking, and heartwarming novel related by a surprisingly intelligent and insightful old dog, Enzo the lab-terrier mix. Set in his point of view, it begins with his puppyhood and ends with his death. Throughout his life, hand in hand with his family, Enzo undergoes tragedy and loss. But owner Denny teaches him through the subtle nuances of his craft, not to buckle down and give up under all that is piled on top of you.
I am no fan of racing, but I come from the town where they make Ferraris, and much of what Enzo describes, especially when he refers to specific races and circuits (see Imola, for instance), is close to my visual memories with their metaphors and nuances - also meaning a lot to Enzo’s story. He in fact describes and views life as a racetrack, slick and tricky with the wet of rain, and only the constant concentration and subtle care with the steering wheel will get you to the end.
Stein’s is a touching story, where the canine narrator pours his considerable heart and spirit into this book, sharing his experiences and reflections with readers. Although Enzo is frustrated with his limitations as a canine, he comforts himself with the fact that, according to a documentary he watched about Mongolia (Enzo is a dedicated television viewer – and many dog owners will confirm their dog’s love for TV; mine particularly likes repeats of SEINFELD), he will be reincarnated as a human. And he knows a lot about being a human after watching his master Denny, who is a hero to him.
Enzo’s reminiscences begin with the day Denny chose him out of a heap of puppies, taking him from a country farm to an apartment in Seattle. Although Enzo doesn't enjoy living there, he adores Denny and thus looks on this as a good life. He later develops a fondness for Eve, "the interloper," who Denny falls in love with and marries. He stands in literally for Denny on the day that his daughter, Zoë, is born. Denny is off racing in Daytona, Florida while Enzo is at the new mother's side.
For Denny, the joyous day of Zoë's birth is overshadowed as his racing career takes a beating. After a year of obtaining sponsorships in order to enter the race, he loses this hard-won opportunity to shine when a driver on his team has an accident. Denny returns to his day job as a customer service representative at a luxury auto shop.
The story keeps unfolding, with its many dramas and its many misfortunes (too many, if I may say so), Denny having to suffer through the loss of his wife and a custody battle for his daughter. Enzo observes and helps where he can. "Gestures are all I have," he says. He uses them to punish the guilty and reward the virtuous, according his moral order for the world. His philosophy is part Zen, part law of attraction, and as Enzo often says, "That which we manifest is before us." He is a hopeful agnostic, full of platitudes that would sink the novel if they appeared in a human protagonist's head. But because Stein's guileless writing style persuades us to suspend our disbelief for a canine narrator, he neatly delivers the heart and soul of his story in a philosophy we thought we were tired of hearing.
And to top it all, THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN has a perfect ending: I sure loved it. It was the only satisfying way to end it, and I found myself sitting there with the last page open for a while afterwards considering how perfectly satisfying it was. If you ever wanted a dogs-eye view of the world, this is the book for you.
So… GO FETCH IT!! Good dog.
OSCAR WILDE AND THE CANDLELIGHT MURDERS BY GYLES BRANDRETH (2007)
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” (O.W.) --
If Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle had ever teamed up in reality, then this would have been exactly how it happened! Gyles Brandreth has captured the essence of both these astounding authors and combined their characters to superb effect in a crime novel that is every bit as clever and witty as the protagonists of the story.
Entering a room in a terraced house near the Houses of Parliament one August day in 1889, an elegantly dressed man stumbles across the body of a naked boy. The teenager, whose throat has been cut from ear to ear, is a male prostitute, name Billy Wood; the man is Oscar Wilde. Appalled by the boy's senseless death and by the curious lack of interest in the case shown by the police, Wilde turns Sherlock Holmes and, accompanied by his own Dr Watson in the shape of a fellow writer, Robert Sherard, sets out to solve the crime. Brandreth's Wilde regularly rehearses the bon mots of his future plays and the book becomes an amiably enjoyable Victorian murder mystery.
In fact, the story is so exciting and full of twists and turns that the reader is kept on the edge of their seat from start to finish, and it's so well written that one could really believe to be listening to Oscar and Arthur first hand. Their interaction and escapades remains faithful to both and the historical context is superbly represented.
It's obvious from the word go that Brandreth is a big fan of Oscar Wilde and he sets the scene well. The books are narrated from the point of view of Robert Sherrad, a real life friend of Wilde's, and right at the beginning Robert makes it clear that although he loved Oscar, he was not his lover. The narration style is worthy of Watson, bumbling a good 20 steps behind the genius of Wilde as he burns his way across the page, leaving epithets and witticisms in his wake.
We have loads of quips taken from his real-life conversations and his writings. Often while reading the novel, I burst out laughing at some paradox Wilde tosses out. Adding to the general fun, we also have Wilde sometimes quoting from the novel that Doyle is working on to prove his assertion, "I am absorbing what lessons I can from Mr Sherlock Holmes,... that perfect reasoning and observing machine." In particular, he quotes from memory Holmes' maxim, "Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
Throughout the novel the historical context is kept firmly in mind. Prince Eddy's and other famous names are casually dropped so as to deliciously blend fact and fiction. Because of the victim, there is a special emphasis on the demimonde. References are made to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, whose vague charge of "gross indecency" turned it into the "blackmailer's charter," and to the Cleveland Street scandal involving a house of male prostitution. Needless to say, however, the reader may rest assured that nothing happens during the course of the novel to frighten the horses in the street. The period detail is spectacularly well done, the demimonde feel of the fin-de-siècle cities, the descriptions of Oscar's house, the dinner parties and most intriguingly the group of men who love boys, is perfectly expressed. The cast of characters, ranging from the aesthetes to the grotesque is wonderfully drawn and suit the era and the darker undercurrents exactly.
If you admire the works of Wilde and Doyle, then this book is for you: it'll be a sure treat.
OSCAR WILDE AND THE RING OF DEATH BY GYLES BRANDRETH
Fun and games with Oscar Wilde (2008)
I liked the first one, I really enjoyed this second, where Oscar Wilde is investigating a series of bizarre deaths in London in 1892. When Wilde and the members of his Socrates Club sit down to dinner one evening, an amusing diversion is proposed: each is invited to write down the name of the person they would most like to murder. It seems harmless enough at the time -- but soon the nominated victims begin to mysteriously die. A good old-fashioned Sherlock Holmes-style detective story, with a colourful cast of characters and plenty of action, the book is enlivened by Wilde’s constant witticisms, both real and invented (but uncannily accurate).
As if Wilde hadn't done enough in his 46 years on this planet, Gyles Brandreth creates a new role for him altogether: a brilliant detective, who’s going to be the central character of a projected ten crime stories: I’m surely going to read them all, given the current rubbish published elsewhere in the genre. This second instalment is an almost perfect puzzle, with the mechanics of plot cleverly drawn up -- helpfully, with a map of central London in 1892, drawings of seating arrangements at the "Murder" dinner held at the Cadogan Hotel, lists of suspects and the like.
This matters, because the author's jeu d'esprit relies for its success on sourcing apparent implausibility (a crime-busting Oscar Wilde) in fact. The more the boundaries are blurred, the more prepared we are to suspend our disbelief. Of the 13 gathered round the Cadogan Hotel table for the "Murder" game, it helps that at least half a dozen of them are given back-stories or described in terms that check out with their real biographies.
Concluding, I have no doubt that Wilde would have loved the idea of a writer adopting him as a character for their book. In his own words; "There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about". Oscar was a delightful person: charming and brilliant, with a sharp intellect and the most perfect manners. Brandreth quotes, "Because of his imprisonment and disgrace, he is seen nowadays as a tragic figure. That should not be his lasting memorial ... He was such fun."
That is indeed the portrait of the aesthete as a young detective that we have in this second book of the series. As we take our seats at the table of Cadogan Hotel with actual personages such as Bosie, Bram Stoker and Conan Doyle, Walter Sickert, and sip champagne at Gatti's or take a carriage to Victoria in pursuit of a murderer, it's not the martyred gay icon who joins us, but a charismatically charming man in whose company it is impossible to be bored.
FORESKIN'S LAMENT BY SHALOM AUSLANDER
Auslander's Complaint (2008)
In this memoir author Shalom Auslander writes about his attempt to break free from the strict, socially isolated Orthodox Jewish environment of his childhood.
Both inspired and unnerved by the birth of his first child, Auslander takes a good long look at his upbringing in an oppressive community. His memoir plays the spectacle for laughs, but beneath the extremely funny shtick is one ferociously angry book.
According to Auslander, his volatile father regularly guzzled Manischewitz and flew into violent rages, while his doleful mother sighed and fussed about keeping kosher. Their lives were governed by joyless rabbis who introduced Auslander to the Hebrew God, "an abusive, belligerent god, a god who awoke millennia ago on the wrong side of the firmament and still hasn't cheered up."
God's pet peeves become Auslander's favourite pastimes: he binges on nonkosher booze and watches cheap skin flicks. Every transgression inspires fears of retribution, crescendoing in Auslander's semicomic crisis over whether to circumcise his newborn son. Auslander overuses some of his material; there are about a dozen too many mediocre masturbation jokes -- but he's a gifted writer, who digs for something deep and rich in his problematic past with humor and bitter irony.
If there is a defining thread that runs through Jewish-American literature, it is in the ability of writers such as Bellow, Heller and Roth (remember PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT?), to intermingle pain and humour seamlessly. When Jewish writing is tragi-comic, it is often not a case of alternating between one state and the other, more that the prose can be simultaneously dark and light, serious and funny. Shalom Auslander comes directly out of this tradition.
For all the unhappiness he describes, this memoir is never self-pitying, maudlin or depressing; nor is he flippant or disingenuous in confronting the difficulties of being an alienated child.
You can read this book for the humour, you can read it as reportage into a secretive and bizarre world, you can read it as a personal tale of triumph over adversity, or you can just read it for the misery. It doesn't really matter. BUT DO READ IT!
With his middle finger pointed at the heavens and a hand held over his heart, Auslander gives us his bittersweet memoir. Mazel tov to him. And God? Well, like comedian Dave Allen used to say on parting:
"Goodnight, thank you, and may your god go with you".
NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON BY PASCAL MERCIER
Train of thought (2008)
This novel is preoccupied with translation, with all that can be lost or gained in the process. But more than that, it is concerned with the power of language to forge and dismantle people's experiences, desires, and identities. When a character undertakes this level of soul-searching, the temptation to over philosophize can be difficult to resist, and at times, the author succumbs. Add to that a bad edition with lots of typos and Barbara Harshav's inelegant translation (a deplorable paradox, given the subject matter!) from the German original, and you get a product where unpacking each sentence is like decoding a cryptic crossword in hieroglyphs.
So, I'd posit that NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON is not your typical best-seller, to say the least. You have to create the right atmosphere within yourself, to be able to really enjoy it: and I did enjoy it, especially because I empathised with the main character and some of his deeply existential questions. It is a meditative novel that builds an uncanny power through a labyrinth of memories and philosophical concepts that illuminate the narrative from within, just as its protagonist will discover the shadows of his neglected soul by bringing the story of another man into the light.
NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON is the third novel of Swiss author Peter Bieri, a philosophy professor writing under the pseudonym Pascal Mercier. It was first published in 2004 and was wildly popular in Europe. It centres on a high school classics teacher from Berne who has spent almost his entire life -- first as a pupil, then as a teacher -- at the same school in Berne. Raimund Gregorius is a legendary and near-infallible figure in that small world, dedicated entirely to his work, interested only in his Greek and Latin and Hebrew. He was married for a while -- to a former student -- but it's no surprise that that didn't quite work out. Now in his late fifties, he is very set in his ways -- until he encounters woman standing on a bridge on his way to school one morning...
The meeting changes everything, shaking his world to its very roots. Nothing much happens, and she's gone almost as quickly as she came into his life, but then Gregorius is almost entirely a mind-person and to know that she is Portuguese is enough to set a whole train of events into motion. Leaving even his books behind he heads into town after class, completely out of character. He winds up in a Spanish bookstore -- familiar because Spanish had been his former wife's field -- and stumbles across a Portuguese book there, written by an Amadeu de Prado and published in 1975, "A Goldsmith of Words". The bookseller reads out some of the passages and translates them for Gregorius, who then knows he has to have the book, even though he can't read Portuguese.
He is transfixed by it, and transformed. Without much thought he packs his bags and is ready to set off for Portugal. He has some doubts, but ultimately is determined, and soon enough he's in Lisbon.
Gregorius is determined to learn the story of the author and the book, as well as the language. He throws himself into the tasks with vigour, helped along by some acquaintances he makes along the way, who also hand him off to others. In fact, the book's subtlest, most appealing accomplishment may be in how other characters respond to Gregorius' precipitous swerve onto the spiritual path. Strangers give him things: that book, that phone number, a thorough eye examination. They readily discuss sensitive topics, trust him with important documents. His best friend and even the boss he left in the lurch both encourage him. The support he and his peculiar quest inspire is credible and touching. To break free of a proscribed life of duty and attend to the stifled aspects of one's Self is a reigning myth of personal fulfillment. Those unable to take such a step are often drawn to those who do. Whole religions function this way. He's almost scared by his own initiative, repeatedly ready to turn around but then staying after all, and when he does venture back to Berne it's only briefly, as he realises he still has more to do before he's ready to face and continue with his life again.
OLD MEN IN LOVE BY ALASDAIR GRAY
A nutty beauty (2007)
...and a joy to read and view!
Enriched with the athor's fine letterings, drawings and various stylish illustrations (well, he's a "painter certificated by Glasgow Art School", isn't he?) which make the book a true pleasure for the mind and eye alike, all the rest is schizophrenia galore. But what a feast of it!
The narration is made up from a triangulated collection of texts, sprinkled with the main character's diaries. We are transported to Classic Athens, to Renaissance Italy and to Victorian England, with savouries from Scottish history and the narrator's sexual musings.
The author's ideas and creative imagination are all over the place, and fun to read, with their weird and sharp propositions.
A startling book, to be sure, ambitious and impossible not to like.
THE END OF MR Y BY SCARLETT THOMAS
Not Only Is Something Good, But Reading It Makes It So (2007)
I like Scarlett Thomas and the original way she approaches narration, generally. This book exemplifies her writing development... If in 2001 she was included in the "Independent on Sunday's list of the UK's 20 best young writers", now she's coming of age. She's moved from the crime genre to fancy literary fiction and this novel aims at achieving ingenious inroads into mental adventure.
Thomas' heroine Ariel (perhaps one can see some similarities with the author?) is studying the forgotten Victorian novelist Thomas Lumas while doing a PhD on thought experiments -- didn't Einstein discover relativity by using this method? Lumas - a fictional contemporary of real Samuel Butler - produced a mysterious work entitled The End of Mr Y, which apparently exists in a single surviving copy locked in a German bank. But no, Ariel stumbles upon another copy in a small dusty bookshop. And here the mental adventure starts... A mixture of The Matrix, Narnia and the dark side of Alice in Wonderland.
Apart from the author's fixation with absurd Derrida and other French postmodern blabberers, everything else is enticing and compelling reading: an unusual literary experience among parallel universes and digital dilemmas.
Scarlett Thomas writes fluently. The language is uncluttered, and when her characters get excited, so does her prose. Incidental observation is sardonic, but in a way that seems fresh. Metaphors come out sharp and clear. What is conveyed in the end is something of the excitement of consciousness itself, even if we feel side-tracked by a beginner's guide to Heidegger or Einstein's thought experiments (love'em!). There's something refreshing about Thomas's sense that, when it comes to assimilating ideas, we have to start at the beginning.
So, to begin with, THE END OF MR Y is a scintillating novel. The energy of the prose, the way everyday situations segue into episodes in the un-bounded, parallel world, and the gleeful open-endedness of its debates may remind readers of John Fowles's "The Magus", or Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum". It is not easy being an experimentalist these days, with all the pseudo-intelligentsia roaming about the bookshops, but Scarlett Thomas surely wins my passionate attention with a beguiling combination of promise, sales patter, seduction and subterfuge.
THE END OF MR Y is a big lump of ideas, and it goes after the very meaning of life with passion & inventiveness. God, reality, and everything -- hitchhiking it the Douglas Adams way, but more seriously... Much of the plot is in fact far-fetched, and quite a bit of it trite, but Thomas has a sure enough hand that one barely notices. The novel is thriller-exciting, and the idea-talk presented well enough that it doesn't bog the narrative down too much. There are a lot of ambitions here, and not everything works, but on the whole it's a gripping read -- and a whole lot of fun. I agree with her main character's pronunciation:
"Real life is physical. Give me books instead: Give me the invisibility of the contents of books, the thoughts, the ideas, the images. Let me become part of a book; I'd give anything for that."
I'd give anything myself...
DUMA KEY BY STEPHEN KING (2008)
In the wake of the 1999 roadside accident that permanently altered his consciousness, Stephen King has turned the evanescence of health and sanity into his books’ most disturbing source of fear. His use of horror is not what it used to be: it may still be the impetus for his stories, but it is no longer the foremost reason they’re interesting. Sure, he can still use supernatural effects to scare you witless. But lately he also shows off other interests, and I truly enjoy the change.
DUMA KEY is about characters whose near-death experiences have given them psychic powers. That may make it sound fanciful, but this novel is frank and well grounded. It is a complex book, but its heart—as with all of King’s best novels—belongs to its characters. The first person narrative puts readers solidly inside the main character’s head, even as he tries to explain the unexplainable, the impossibility of comparing the act of creativity to something tangible. The “I” in the novel is Edgar Freemantle, a recent amputee who’s become a painter out of desperation. But he is in fact a fantastic good painter, and he can’t explain why: “You can’t tell anyone what it’s like. You can only talk around it until everyone’s exhausted and it’s time to go to sleep.”
“Art is memory…The clearer the memory, the better the art. The purer.”
“Our memories have voices, too,” Edgar says. “Ask anyone who has ever lost a limb or a child or a long-cherished dream. Ask anyone who blames himself for a bad decision, usually made in a raw instant (an instant that is most commonly red). Our memories have voices, too. Often sad ones that clamour like raised arms in the dark.”
Edgar’s two most important relationships—that with his younger daughter and his new friendship with Wireman—are as real as fiction can possibly reproduce. Even the tense détente Edgar finds with his ex-wife bears the patina of truth. The memories these characters experience are real, imagined, revised and occasionally just slightly out of their grasp.
So, then, DUMA KEY concerns creativity and memory, and features a damaged man on whom a place acts like a psychic magnet: Duma Key, precisely – on the Gulf of Mexico, Florida. King’s work has always been coloured by region and landscape, and here he seizes on and makes vivid an exotic world: the Florida Keys. It’s a whole island, not a mere hotel this time, that calls to Edgar and almost demands his presence, so that a tale can be brought to its climax, or spun into another cycle.
No other popular novelist, perhaps no other contemporary novelist, can take recognisable, ordinary people and put them through the wringer with such panache while always keeping sight of their humanity. King’s characters are always fixed in the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day, wearing silly sneakers or gobbling down luncheon meat out of the fridge, and that’s a huge part of his gift and success. He dotes on the creations he tortures and when Wireman says, “This made cocaine seem like Xanax,” we’re sure that the writer knows whereof his invention speaks. King understands crunching pain and the agony of the disarrayed mind. He’s been there.
One of horror fiction’s central ideas is thus brought into play, namely how we perceive the relationship between our fear of chaos and our creeping sense that dreadful events are part of a fated and unstoppable sequence.
“Trying to re-invent the ordinary, make it new by turning it into a dream,” is how Freemantle comes to define his art, and this is King’s quest also. He writes as always with energy and drive and a wit and grace for which critics often fail to give him credit. DUMA KEY is full of pleasures as well as a host of moments that make you really shiver and shudder. The book is perhaps too long and creaks a bit by the end, but on reading it I perceived throughout the thrilling sense of a master determined not only to flex his muscles but develop them too.
WILL BY CHRISTOPHER RUSH (2008)
“For the first time in 400 years, an author has dared to take on the voice of the world’s most famous playwright.” So says the back flap, and it’s a true statement indeed.
I attended the author’s presentation of this book at Waterstone’s Edinburgh and was totally taken by his passion and wit, especially when he read some poignant passages from the text itself. Christopher Rush taught Shakespeare for 30 years in Fife, has written 12 books during that time, but all he really wanted to do was finally writing this extraordinary novel, which takes as its dramatic theme the deathbed meeting between William Shakespeare and his lawyer, as they set out his final will and testament. In fact, the title refers both to Shakespeare and, niftily enough, his will, that notoriously anti-poetic document in which Anne Hathaway’s lifetime of loyalty to an unfaithful absentee was rewarded by the “gift” of his second-best bed (it was hers anyway). As he answers his lawyer’s questions, the Great Bard begins to recall his life, and over 448 pages of tumultuous, passionate and glorious writing the true life of the man emerges.
This is Shakespeare as we have never been able to know him: angry, emotional, honest, reflective, joyous, despairing. How then does one bind the genius of Shakespeare to the banality of his life? Perhaps Shakespeare’s curse on any who sought to disturb his bones was really aimed at those who would seek to uncover his inner history. If so, his curse has hit home. Biographers attempt this feat almost every year and the result is rarely satisfying (Bill Bryson’s recent attempt is mostly depressing). Christopher Rush, on the other hand, seeks to approach the bard in the realm of the imagination.
This is a fleshy novel indeed, gorgeous, garrulous and gross. Eschewing confession to any sort of priest, Will decides to confide in Francis Collins, the lawyer who is to draw up his will. Collins, who had expected a brisk affair of items and legatees, finds himself subjected to his old friend’s secret story. Rush stitches the narrative together with great colour and skill. I’d say that the first half, recounting Shakespeare’s early life, surely reads more smoothly than the second, where the prose becomes more elaborate and introverted. This is partly because, with the move to London, the author must address the plays, and therefore their origins in the poet’s imagination: a formidable task in itself. Rush’s Shakespeare begins to ruminate, to pontificate, to muse, and here the writing style often reaches glories of expression I truly enjoyed: “...while the cold oceans washed the globe, slurped and bulged to the moonpull, and the tides sighed in their shackles.” Beautiful.
This book is full of plausible explanations and a brilliant and evocative experiment on an extremely difficult subject: the rare genius of a wily old merchant-poet, whom to this day people doubt he really existed… Too good to be true.
On concluding his presentation, Rush emotionally announced that Sir Ben Kingsley had just acquired the movie rights to his novel. Empathising with his emotion, I then stood up and offered to translate his book for free into Italian!
THE RAW SHARK TEXTS BY STEVEN HALL (2007)
My initial problem with this book is that it is at least the third novel I’ve read in the past year about a man trying to recreate reality after losing his memory. John Haskell’s American Purgatorio was unbearably solipsistic, while Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was pleasingly eerie. The Raw Shark Texts falls somewhere in between, with an added dash of adventure story. There’s another one along this month, from Sam Taylor: The Amnesiac. I think a literary moratorium on young male amnesiacs would be welcome. Don’t women ever lose their memories?
However, this notwithstanding, The Raw Shark Texts is a novel that genuinely isn’t like anything you have ever read before, and could be as big an inspiration to the next generation of writers as Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami have been to Steven Hall. There is even a 50-page flipbook of an approaching shark late in the novel, which is surprisingly effective and chilling in context. And though Hall’s romantic dialogue is hackneyed, he’s an effective writer of both horror and adventure. “My eyes slammed themselves capital O open,” he starts in the first few lines of Chapter 1.
The main character, Eric Sanderson, is jolted awake one morning to discover that he does not know who he or where he is. All he has to cling to is a series of letters and packages - which he is warned not to open - signed “with regret and hope” from the First Eric Sanderson. Attacked in his own home by a force he cannot see and memories he cannot ignore - including those of a perfect love now lost - Eric tears open the parcels. He discovers he is being relentlessly pursued by a shark that may only exist in his mind, but which stalks him through the flows and streams of human interaction. Hunting the answers as he is hunted, Eric is lead on a journey that will either bring The First Eric Sanderson back to life, or destroy both Eric Sandersons forever.
The Raw Shark Texts is a daring and unique novel that confronts readers with literary hieroglyphs as well as an intensely original story, plumbing the depths and dangers of language, the fluidity of memory and the bittersweet ripples of loss.
Certainly being the most European of current Italian writers, Antonio Tabucchi is never on the side of Authority: fatally attracted by tormented and contradictory characters, his novels express emotion and indignation in the widest possible sense and appeal to an audience that goes beyond linguistic limits and national confines. Tabucchi's characters are not loud or important people, but there is a humanity to almost all of them -- one which Tabucchi carefully reveals and emphasizes. There is anger at the Fascist legacies of specifically Italy and Portugal, and social injustice more generally, but Tabucchi presents it without loudly raging. Nevertheless, his censure is more resonant and effective than that of most socially engaged authors.
Tabucchi’s capacity to doubt is very important, at an almost physiological level: one must doubt any fundamentalist religion not allowing for doubt, any imposed political regime not allowing for doubt, any aesthetic form of perfection not allowing for doubt -- albeit never forgetting basic values about which it’s impossible to equivocate, such as the affirmation 'Treat thy neighbour as you would want your neighbour to treat you,' or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On reading Tabucchi’s opus, one constantly perceives an obstinate faith in literature as memory -- a ‘long’ memory as against the short memory of the mass media -- literature as a vehicle for the attainment of consciousness through convoluted and mysterious pathways, effectively contributing to an expansion, a dilation of our constricted existential plane.
Tabucchi's writing is, above all, an artifice, a self-referring stem whose decodification demands a previous knowledge of the writer’s intellectual and artistic coordinates. He is one of the most careful observers and original interpreters of the narrative and aesthetic tendencies which emerged in Europe during the last three decades, producing elegant and clever books, stories and short novels that are deceptively simple yet manage to pack a great deal in relatively few pages.
A TABUCCHI google BIBLIOGRAPHY
LATE MATTIA PASCAL BY LUIGI PIRANDELLO
LOOSE IDENTITIES (2008)
In English-speaking cultures, Nobel Prize winner Luigi Pirandello (Italy, 1867-1936) is mainly known for his plays on existential insecurities about identity, as RIGHT YOU ARE (IF YOU THINK YOU ARE), SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR, HENRY IV, that foreshadowed the Theatre of the Absurd and Eastern European literature on the unbearable lightness of being. But before the successes as a playwright, Pirandello published a large body of fiction. The 1904 novel IL FU MATTIA PASCAL was his third novel and first to receive international success.
It tells the story of protagonist Mattia Pascal, who endures a life of drudgery in a provincial town. Then, providentially, he discovers that he has been declared dead. Realizing he has a chance to start over, to do it right this time, he moves to a new city, adopts a new name, and a new course of life -- only to find that this new existence is as insufferable as the old one. But when he returns to the world he left behind, it's too late: his job is gone, his wife has remarried. Mattia Pascal is therefore reduced to a figure outside the mainstream of society, his fate to live on as the ghost of the man he was. A second death, which in fact he fakes once more.
Many of Pirandello's stories and plays involve a radical disjuncture between who a character thinks himself or herself to be and who others think the character is. Mattia, who narrates the story of his two and a fraction lives and two unreal deaths, is not a sympathetic character: spoiled and as idle as he is able to be, his character however develops in unexpected, even admirable, ways.
An explorer of identity and its mysteries, a connoisseur of black humour, Luigi Pirandello is among the most teasing and profound of modern masters. This book, which I originally read in Italian, is here skillfully rendered into English by translator William Weaver, whom I was unable to fault in any way when comparing the two versions. In fact, it offers an irresistible introduction to this great writer's work and a fit confirmation of Erich Fromm's statement:
"One can be sure of oneself only if one lives up to the expectations of others. If we do not live up to this picture, we not only risk disapproval and increased isolation, but we risk losing the identity of our personality, which means jeopardizing sanity." - (Erich Fromm, 'Escape from Freedom', 1941).
IL FU MATTIA PASCAL DI LUIGI PIRANDELLO
BELLO, ANZI BELLISSIMO! (2008)
Lontano dal romanzo di formazione tipico dell'Ottocento, Luigi Pirandello, nel 1904, dà alle stampe un romanzo che induce a riflettere sull'impossibilità di un'affermazione piena e totale all'interno della società, preludio di quel "male di vivere" che percorrerà molta letteratura del Novecento.
Luigi Pirandello pubblicò il suo terzo romanzo, IL FU MATTIA PASCAL, nel 1904 prima a puntate sulla rivista "Nuova Antologia", e poi, nello stesso anno, in volume. Il romanzo, al momento della sua pubblicazione, ebbe notevole successo tanto che venne tradotto subito in tedesco (1905), poi in francese (1910) e in inglese (1923). Nonostante ciò la critica militante più impegnata ne sottovalutò l'importanza e, accostandolo ai romanzi di facile intrattenimento, ebbe in generale un atteggiamento negativo nei confronti dell'opera. Dopo L'ESCLUSA (1893) e IL TURNO (1895), questo terzo romanzo rappresenta invece un momento fondamentale e di svolta nella vita e nella carriera letteraria di Pirandello.
Nel 1904 egli aveva soltanto trentasette anni ma poteva già vantare alle sue spalle una carriera letteraria ventennale. Dopo aver esordito giovanissimo, aveva infatti pubblicato saggi, recensioni, libri di poesia, romanzi e novelle, ma sarà questa opera a cambiare il percorso letterario dell'autore, sia perché dà inizio al suo successo come narratore, sia perché segna il passaggio da una concezione ancora ottocentesca del romanzo a una nuova di tipo soggettivo.
Abbandonati infatti i vecchi modelli del romanzo positivista, oggettivo e di formazione, Pirandello costruisce la sua opera su un nuovo modello aperto, sperimentale e soggettivo che anticipa quasi le avanguardie novecentesche. Questo nuovo modello si fonda non più sulla linearità causale e temporale del racconto ma si basa sull'imprevedibilità dell'intreccio, sulle digressioni, sulla distruzione dell'ordine e dell'armonia. E' questa la carica innovativa e sperimentale del romanzo, forse non del tutto intuita dalla critica ufficiale del tempo.
Molti temi del romanzo sono stati utilizzati successivamente da Pirandello nella sua produzione saggistica, soprattutto nell'opera "L'Umorismo" (1908), testo fondamentale della poetica pirandelliana. Il romanzo e il saggio sono fortemente intrecciati e insieme segnano l'inizio della nuova fase di ricerca dello scrittore, quella appunto dell'umorismo.
Secondo Pirandello in un'opera d'arte, che nasce "dal libero movimento della vita interiore", tragico e comico, riso e serietà si mescolano in una visione disordinata della realtà, al limite dell'assurdo. Nato dalla grande crisi di inizio secolo, l'umorismo viene applicato per la prima volta da Pirandello proprio nel FU MATTIA PASCAL che dunque diviene il capostipite del filone principale dell'arte pirandelliana.
Il romanzo, scritto in prima persona, inizia "dalla fine", cioè a vicenda conclusa quando è il "fu" Mattia Pascal (che per tutti ormai è morto) a decidere di raccontare la sua "strana storia". Il procedimento del racconto è dunque retrospettivo.
La prima parte della vicenda è ambientata a Miragno, immaginario paese della Liguria, ma dai forti connotati siciliani, dove Mattia Pascal, giovane benestante e scapestrato, è costretto a sposare Romilda che aspetta un figlio da lui. La nuova vita coniugale che lo soffoca, la rovina economica e i lutti che colpiscono la sua famiglia portano Mattia, che nel frattempo per vivere ha accettato un lavoro di bibliotecario, alla disperazione. Per evadere dal grigiore dell'ambiente familiare si reca a Nizza e a Montecarlo e qui, giocando alla roulette, diventa improvvisamente ricco.
Sul treno che lo sta riportando a casa Mattia apprende da un giornale la notizia della propria morte: è stato infatti ritrovato il cadavere di un uomo affogato, identificato, per la forte somiglianza, in Mattia Pascal scomparso da molti giorni. Ricco e ormai libero da qualsiasi obbligo sociale e familiare, il protagonista decide di farsi passare per morto e di cominciare una nuova vita.
Inizia così la seconda parte della vicenda quando Mattia Pascal diventa Adriano Meis. Il protagonista decide di viaggiare in Italia e in Germania e dopo un inverno passato a Milano si stabilisce a Roma. Qui Adriano, attratto di nuovo dalla vita, si innamora di Adriana ma si rende conto di essere in una strada senza uscita; si crede libero ma la mancanza di uno stato civile gli impedisce di amare Adriana e di vivere liberamente la sua vita: quando viene derubato dei suoi soldi non può nemmeno denunciare il furto per paura di essere scoperto.
Adriano avverte di non essere "nessuno" e l'impossibilità di avere un'identità provoca in lui angoscia e terrore, un pesante senso di solitudine. Disperato, lascia il bastone e il cappello, con dentro il nome di Adriano Meis, sul parapetto del Tevere in modo da far credere a un suicidio e fugge da Roma per tornare a Miragno.
E' questo il momento di maggior tensione di tutto il romanzo: Adriano fallisce nella costruzione della sua personalità. Pascal-Meis capisce che non può liberare la sua voglia di vivere, per attuare il suo progetto di una nuova vita si rivela indispensabile uno stato civile e quindi, ancora una volta, una condizione di dipendenza e prigionia. Questo tema della famiglia come nido e come prigione sarà presente in tutta la produzione successiva di Pirandello, sia nelle novelle e nei romanzi sia nel teatro.
Protagonista della terza parte è dunque il "fu" Mattia Pascal che torna in Liguria per riprendersi la sua vita. La rivendicazione dei propri diritti non verrà portata a termine anzi, Mattia rinuncia anche alla moglie che ormai si è risposata e ha una figlia e resta a Miragno "come fuori della vita".
Pascal rinuncia ad essere una persona, non vive più ma guarda vivere e nel chiuso della biblioteca, dove si è rifugiato, scrive la sua storia. Mattia che si reca al cimitero per rendere omaggio alla propria tomba, diventa così una sorta di fantasma che vive ai confini della vita e fuori dell'ordine sociale, è un "fu". Dal bilancio della propria esistenza non ricava nessun insegnamento per sé e per gli altri. E' per questo che IL FU MATTIA PASCAL non può essere considerato un romanzo di formazione alla maniera ottocentesca perché non racconta un'educazione alla vita, ma alla non-vita. La conclusione del romanzo rivela infatti l'impossibilità di una affermazione piena e totale da parte del protagonista all'interno della società.
THE BOOK THIEF BY MARKUS ZUSAK
DEATHLY TALE (2008)
Originally intended for children, with his book German-Australian author Markus Zusak has created a wholly original story. First, the narrator is Death, who talks in a kind of roundabout language, part all-knowing, part creepy, part loving.
And second, the main character is an ordinary German girl growing up in Nazi Germany who must confront many personal difficulties and traumas during the course of the Second World War. This is not so much a book about the extermination of the Jewish race under Nazi occupation, but the ways in which many Germans went about their ordinary lives at the time and the extraordinary lengths some of them (not that many, though) went to save their Jewish friends.
The story begins with Liesel Meminger, a traumatised nine-year-old girl. It's 1939 and she has just witnessed the death and burial of her younger brother enroute to her new foster family in a town called Molching. During the burial Liesel picks up an object she finds in the snow -- "The Gravediggers Handbook" -- which sets up a lifelong love of books, even if she has to beg, borrow or steal them.
Her foster father, the kindly accordion-playing Hans Hubermann, teaches her how to read, and together the two of them pass many hours pouring over the pages of the gravedigger's instruction manual. Later, when the family takes in a Jewish man, Max Vanderburg, and hides him away in their basement, Leisel shares her love of words with him, too.
Desperate for new reading material, Liesel -- with the help of her blonde-headed friend Rudy -- rescues a book from a Nazi book-burning pile. Later she is introduced to an amazing private library, owned by the mayor's wife, which allows her to momentarily escape the dismal poverty of her ordinary day-to-day life.
But when the Nazis discover her foster father handing out bread to a march-through of Jews on their way to Dachau, their lives suddenly take on a more sinister, darker twist -- which no amount of book thievery can alleviate. When the Allied bombs begin to fall on their street, things get even worse and death begins to close in on Liesel, her family and friends...
THE BOOK THIEF is, without a doubt, an incredibly memorable story. The narrative voice is unique, and the style, which double-backs on itself and occasionally jumps backwards and forwards in time, is interesting if somewhat confusing at times. Initially the staccato rhythm of Death's voice jarred, but I soon learnt to appreciate its whimsical charm.
The characters are great, too. Liesel starts off as a rather weak-willed creature, too terrified to even step out of the car when she first arrives at her foster family's home, but over the course of the war she turns into a feisty, courageous tomboy, who isn't scared of tackling anyone who bullies her. And her best friend Rudy, who has an obsession with Olympic athlete Jesse James, is a suitable, dare I say lovable, ally.
I was not as convinced about the foster parents who seemed a little stereotyped -- the kindly, loving father; the foul-mouthed, bullish mother -- but I can understand that younger readers would enjoy the "good cop, bad cop" personalities.
THE BOOK THIEF is a deeply unsettling story and a truly moving one. The ending is of the typical tear-jerking sort. But in reading this very long book -- perhaps meandering a bit too much in the middle -- I never once thought I was being emotionally manipulated. Zusak does a nice line in letting actions speak louder than words, so that the reader gets to join the dots rather than have every little thing spelt out for them. I like this approach, if only because he treats young readers with intelligence rather than patronising or speaking down to them.
A delightfully human book, haunting, wise and joyous by turn. As the author stated one time, when interviewed, "[the book] came to mean much more to me than I could have imagined. No matter what anyone ever says about it, whether good or bad, I know it was the best I could do, and I don't think a writer can ask for more of himself than that."
THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE BY SALMAN RUSHDIE
THE NEW VIAGRA (2008)
I think Rushdie has always been seriously overrated, what with all his misadventures both in the religious and sentimental areas, managing to ride the surf of fame without really deserving it. His books are tedious, convoluted, ultimately unattractive... Perhaps Rushdie is a bit too clever for his own good.
Well, anyway, that's my personal opinion as a reader: the fact is, I cannot finish Rushdie's books, as they get me utterly bored with their "exquisite" pomposity and "glittering" style. But I do find them superlatively soporific: so don't read them in bed!
This particular book is unusually concupiscent, even for Rushdie. Overexcited, perhaps, by the Kama Sutra, which he cites as a source, Rushdie goes to town with scenes of harem life and brothels. This novel is as much a celebration of sex, of every kind and degree of expertise, as it is of the artificiality of dreary tale-telling.
Rushdie has covertly and overtly accused aggressive Islamic fundamentalism of a cowardly fear of women's sexuality. One expression of this is the insistence on women wearing the veil, which he has said, publicly, sucks. In this novel the enemy and object of ridicule is a group of Christian fundamentalists, Girolamo Savonarola's Weepers, whose life-denying doctrines are laid to rest in a murderous, Dionysiac frenzy. Rushdie is the new Viagra.
With the sex there is death; this is definitely not for children, but then most fairytales shouldn't be either. Rushdie goes beyond the call of duty with his accounts of the vicious thoroughness of 15th-century horror figure Vlad the Impaler (the name's the game), who also makes an appearance in the book. Skip those bits if you feel delicate. Obviously, Rushdie does not like to bore himself, but it surely bores me, with a glut of strange names and places, making you long for the staid restraint of, say, his good mate, Ian McEwan. History, as Rushdie exploits it, shows us that the high cultural refinements of East and West did not lead to niceness; these people were as expert in violence as in the erotic arts.
Ultimately THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE is grossly overwritten, with a plethora of words in different languages, a veritable verbal diarrhoea meaning nothing. Fantasy deserves better than to be used as a safe-conduct pass for melodramatic cliché, arbitrary-seeming lurches of event, and reams of overinflated prose. There are lines that churners-out of blood-and-thunder grand guignol would blush to acknowledge. Only rarely does Rushdie find scope for the quick, cartoonish vividnesses of description that, in past novels, seemed to be his forte. And actually, when he does, the novel's flabby artificiality momentarily flickers into life. Momentarily.
A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS BY R.J. ELLORY
THE BELIEF IS TOO QUIET (2008)
Laudations galore for this one -- impressive eulogies all the way!
Uhm... So, having read the many raving reviews, I bought the book.
And I wanted to love it, since just about everybody else did. That'll teach me to read reviews beforehand! (a logical thing to do, I'm sure, but from now on I'll read them afterwards).
The book seems to have everything that I usually enjoy. There's a murder mystery stretching over a number of years with a fairly restricted number of people who could be 'in the frame'. There's human interest. The main character, Joseph Vaughan, is interesting and likeable, a much brighter child than most of his age but blighted by the death of his father when he was young and his mother's increasing mental instability as she fails to cope with the situation in Augusta Falls. There are some strong male characters and some quite spirited females. They're all characters you can believe in and Ellory has a good ability to evoke place -- he must have studied it well and travelled there, perhaps -- kudos to him for that.
But I didn't love it. Actually in parts I was quite bored, which shouldn't be happening when reading a murder mystery, but there's rather a lot of mawkish description. Faces seemed to be a favourite and I found myself wondering how long it would be before the next appeared. The writing is skilled, but self-indulgent and repetitive in places. The device of the feathers (remember Forrest Gump the movie?) -- which appear as a portent of death -- seemed contrived and overdone and I tired of the "if only I had known what was to come" endings to chapters. It's a device which should be used very sparingly, but here it becomes an obsession. All in all, I was conscious of the writing rather than of the story. And this being a thriller and not a new edition of WAR & PEACE, I began dozing...
Sure enough, some ruthless editing could have turned this into a very good book -- but nothing more.
The plot is good, but not exceptional. If you strip away all that happens to Joseph Vaughan (and I did occasionally groan as yet another tragedy dropped on his toes) there's a serial killer whose identity needs to be established. It was pretty obvious to me who it was from quite early on so the twist at the end was no surprise at all -- and the flash forwards which appear at regular intervals in the book all but gave us the name.
AN ITALIAN POET LAUREATE (2008)
The first Italian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1906), Giosuè Carducci is regarded as the finest Italian poet of the late nineteenth century and one of the greatest in modern Italy. Also a noted classicist and accomplished writer of essays and criticism (his prose writings fill some 20 volumes), Carducci’s neo-classical ideals of reason, action, and nature evinced his strong reaction against the predominantly romantic and sentimental mode of works written by his Italian contemporaries in the earlier nineteenth century. The poet also vehemently opposed the monarchy and the Catholic Church, believing them to be responsible for inhibiting progress towards the unification of Italy. He employed his literary talents to voice these controversial opinions. In his poetry, Carducci drew from Italy's rich historical tradition in an attempt to inspire his countrymen and restore a more heroic age. He additionally utilized classical Greek and Latin forms and conventions to impart his pagan ideals, perhaps most successfully in his collection ODI BARBARE (1877; THE BARBARIAN ODES). Carducci was also an excellent translator and translated some of Goethe and Heine into Italian. His research in Italian literature was warmed by his poetic imagination and style, and his best prose works equal his poetry.
The son of a republican country doctor, Carducci spent his childhood in the wild Maremma region of southern Tuscany. He studied at the University of Pisa and in 1860 became professor of Italian literature at Bologna, where he lectured for more than 40 years. He was made a senator for life in 1890 and was revered by the Italians as a national poet.
In his youth Carducci was the centre of a group of young men determined to overthrow the prevailing Romanticism and to return to classical models. Giuseppe Parini, Vincenzo Monti, and Ugo Foscolo were his masters, and their influence is evident in his first books of poems (RIME, 1857; later collected in JUVENILIA and LEVIA GRAVIA - “Light And Serious Poems”). He showed both his great power as a poet and the strength of his republican, anticlerical feeling in his HYMN TO SATAN, “Inno a Satana” (1863), and in his GIAMBI ED EPODI (1867–69; “Iambics and Epodes”), inspired chiefly by contemporary politics. Its violent, bitter language reflects the virile, rebellious character of the poet.
RIME NUOVE (1887; THE NEW LYRICS) and ODI BARBARE (1877; THE BARBARIAN ODES) contain the best of Carducci’s poetry: the evocations of the Maremma landscape and the memories of childhood; the lament for the loss of his only son; the representation of great historical events; and the ambitious attempts to recall the glory of Roman history and the pagan happiness of classical civilization. Carducci’s enthusiasm for the classical in art led him to adapt Latin prosody to Italian verse, and his ODI BARBARE are written in metres imitative of Horace and Virgil. In other works, Carducci applied his mastery of classical meter and unrhymed verse to more personal matters, including those he addressed to “Lina.” In one of his most notable poems of this type, “Alla stazione in una mattina d'autunno” (which may be translated as “To the Station On An Autumn Morning”), Carducci says one of many farewells to his mistress, in the process revealing some of his most intimate lyrical verse.
Critics in the late nineteenth century were initially divided in opinion on Carducci's work. The publication of INNO A SATANA created adversarial relationships with some. To his contemporaries, the somewhat extreme opinions contained in his works generally elicited strong reactions and exerted a greater influence on critics than the merit of his poetry. After Italian unification, acclaim was virtually unanimous, however, as Carducci became an important voice for his struggling nation. In addition, his affair with Carolina Priva (the “Lina” cited above) brought a heightened emotional sensibility to his work, which for many made it more accessible and increasingly popular with critics. Opinions of Carducci's last work, RIME E RITMI (RHYMES AND RHYTHMS), were harsh, with many criticizing the volume for its lack of progression in ideas or technique. In the twentieth century, Carducci's work began to receive notice outside of Italy, among critics from Northern Europe and the United States, where opinions ranged from acclamation to subdued indifference. Critics have since pondered whether his poetry is meaningful outside of Italy, while others have noted the difficulty in translating his work. Most scholars agree, nevertheless, that Carducci is without equal as the leading figure in Italian poetry during the late nineteenth century.
CONSTANTINE P. CAVAFY
A UNIQUE TONE OF VOICE, AT A SLIGHT ANGLE TO THE UNIVERSE (2008)
Constantine Cavafy (Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis, 29 April 1863 - 29 April 1933 - yes, he died on his 70th birthday), Greek poet, is a leading figure in twentieth-century Greek literature. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt, where he spent most of his life. A ruthless self-critic who was often troubled by his own unorthodoxy, Cavafy published little during his lifetime. He rejected the traditional values of Christianity, the heterosexual ethic, nationalism, and patriotism. Cavafy developed an individualistic style mixing stilted artificial literary language with the Greek vernacular. His verses often superimpose events from Hellenistic and Byzantine history on contemporary affairs, as in two of his best-known poems, "The god abandons Antony" and "Ithaca," both written in 1911. Cavafy's works became known to English readers through references in E. M. Forster's study of Alexandria, “Pharos and Pharillon” (1923), and in Lawrence Durrell's “Alexandria Quartet” (1957-1960). THE COMPLETE POEMS OF CAVAFY (1961), translated by Rae Dalven, with an introduction by W. H. Auden, established Cavafy's reputation and ensured his place in Western literature.
Cavafy is reported to have called himself, late in life, a “poet of old age”, comparing himself with Anatole France who “wrote his colossal work after the age of forty-five”. Indeed, it was after he reached his fortieth year, following a poetic crisis which led to what he termed a ‘philosophical scrutiny’ of his earlier poetic production (1903-04), that Cavafy discovered his own poetic voice - - that “unique tone of voice” as W. H. Auden has called it, that “survives translation”.
The process of discovery was a long one: it lasted some twenty years, at the latest from 1882, when he wrote his first extant poem, to around 1903. Along the way, drawing from his wide reading in European (especially English and French) literature, Cavafy experimented with the poetic idioms of Romanticism, the Parnasse and Symbolism. Poems written during the 1880s (but also into the 1890s) bear the imprint of Romantic influences - Shelley, Keats, Lady Anne Barnard, Hugo, as well as representatives of Greek Romanticism -, and this at a time when in Greece Romanticism had been declared “dead” by the poet Kostis Palamas, chef-de-file of the literary ‘Generation of 1880’. The early 1890s saw Cavafy turn in two new directions. On the one hand he adopted the model of the ‘Parnassiens’ in his use of “Ancient Days” (one of his early thematic headings) as a source of poetic inspiration. The attraction of Symbolism was, however, significantly stronger. In the poem ‘Correspondence according to Baudelaire’, written in 1892, he declares his attachment to the French poet’s notions of “correspondences” and synaesthesia, while in ‘The Builders’, written the same year, he echoes Baudelaire’s rejection of the ideal of progress. His adherence to Symbolism and to other associated movements (Aestheticism, Esoterism, Decadence) during the 1890s is evident in a number of other poems as well as in his one short story, ‘In Broad Daylight’.
Cavafy’s apprenticeship to various poetic schools during his formative years coincides with his early interest in history. There is abundant evidence of his wide reading in ancient, Byzantine, and European history, as would be expected of a writer who at the age of fifteen had begun compiling a historical dictionary, and who in later years would call himself a “historical poet”. Of particular significance in view of Cavafy’s development are his reading notes on Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. Cavafy’s extensive ‘dialogue’ with Gibbon during the years c.1893-1899 makes clear his disagreement with the eighteenth-century historian-philosopher’s unfavourable view of Byzantium and of Christianity, whether on matters of history, spirituality, or aesthetics, as well as his espousal of the views of the Greek Romantic historian Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos, known for his role in the rehabilitation of Byzantium in the modern Greek consciousness during the second half of the nineteenth century. It was in this climate that Cavafy wrote a series of early ‘Byzantine’ poems with a ‘national’ character which he later expressly rejected. For it was shortly after his encounter with Gibbon that Cavafy underwent the poetic crisis of the years 1899-1903 which led to his passage to realism and to poetic maturity. Poems from these years in which Cavafy questions established myths as he ‘rewrites’ episodes from the modern and ancient traditions -- Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Wagner’s Lohengrin, the prologue to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon -- reflect his rapprochement with Gibbon’s ironic view of history and at the same time his abandonment of Romantic historiography and Symbolist mysticism and aesthetics.
The one hundred and fifty-four poems that comprise Cavafy's recognized work (some thirty additional examples were left unfinished at his death) fall into three categories, which the poet himself identified as follows: poems which, though not precisely ‘philosophical’, “provoke thought”; ‘historical’ poems; and ‘hedonistic’ (or ‘aesthetic’) poems. Many poems may be considered either historical or hedonistic, as Cavafy was also careful to point out. The poems of the first category (to which belong some of Cavafy’s best-known pieces, such as ‘The City’ and ‘Ithaca’), all published before 1916, often display a certain didacticism. The historical poems (often historical in appearance only), the first of which was published in 1906, are usually set in the Hellenistic age (including Late Antiquity), the period which Cavafy believed was “particularly fitting as a context for his characters”, although Byzantium does not disappear entirely from his poetry. Beginning in 1917 the poems of this category take on a political (in the broad sense) element which gains in importance as it interweaves with questions such as religion and ethics. As for the third category, Cavafy’s first daringly-hedonistic poem (‘Dangerous Thoughts’) was published only in 1911 (the year which Cavafy indicated as a dividing line in his poetic production). Later poems became increasingly explicit -- although Cavafy did not begin publishing poems in which the eroticism is specified as homosexual until after 1918 -- and acquire a social dimension as they depict characters living on the margins of society in sometimes harshly realistic settings.
Cavafy was keenly aware that his poetry was ahead of its time, especially within the sphere of modern Greek letters. The poem ‘For the Shop’, published in 1913, speaks of this awareness: a craftsman of exquisite jewels, “beautiful according to his taste, to his desire, his vision”, will “leave them in the safe, examples of his bold, his skilful work”. The “safe” would in fact remain closed for several years, for although Cavafy’s work had been presented to the Athenian public in 1903 by the writer Grigorios Xenopoulos, it was either ignored or ridiculed by the literati of the metropolis until around 1918, when it began to gain wider acceptance—although the voices of detractors were still audible. The reasons for the negative criticism were diverse: Cavafy’s language, a subtle mixture of demotic and purist Greek not in keeping with the directives of the ‘demoticist’ movement; his style, considered prosaic; his lack of idealism; his bold eroticism. It is therefore not surprising that in an interview reportedly given three years before his death (1930) Cavafy described himself as “an ultra modern poet, a poet of future generations” whose poetry “will not simply be closed within libraries as part of the historical record of the development of modern Greek literature”.
Cavafy’s prediction was fulfilled. Not only is his work read more in Greece now than it was during his lifetime, but it has travelled well beyond the confines of the modern Greek literary world. It was Cavafy’s friend E.M. Forster who in his essay ‘The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy’, published in 1919, first presented to the English public the “Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”. The first English translation of the Cavafy ‘canon’ (by John Mavrogordatos) was published in 1951; since then the poet’s work has been translated into most of the world’s languages. But beyond being the most widely translated poet of modern Greece, Cavafy is a poet with whom a host of other poets worldwide have been ‘conversing’ through their own work for over seventy years. His “unique tone of voice”, which he laboured so hard to discover and then to perfect, has thus become the foundation for a rich new poetic dialogue.
THE INVENTION OF EVERYTHING ELSE BY SAMANTHA HUNT
A MAN IS A GOD IN RUINS [R.W.Emerson]
One of the greatest minds of the 19th and 20th centuries, responsible for today's modern world, Nikola Tesla is still virtually unknown to today's textbooks, teachers, and general public. Thinking back to your high school years and looking through an encyclopaedia, who do you remember as the inventor of radio? The name that probably comes to mind is Marconi. And if I asked the same about X-rays, you'd probably say Roentgen. And a vacuum tube amp, probably de Forest. While you're at it, who invented the florescent bulb, neon lights, speedometer, auto ignition system, and the basics behind radar, the electron microscope, and the microwave oven? Chances are you see little, if any, mentions of Tesla. Very few people today have ever even heard of him. The all-around nice guy Thomas Edison made sure of that: to the point his quote…
“Everybody steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot myself. But I know how to steal.”
…which opens Chapter 3 of Samantha Hunt’s novel about Nikola Tesla and a fictionalised account of his life, moving back and forth across time from the middle of the 19th century to the winter of 1943.
The book begins with the end: Tesla at the finish of his run. At 86, he has no money, no laboratory, and no trillion-dollar idea with which to reverse his fortunes. Dismissed by the scientific community and ridiculed by the press, Tesla putters in his two-room suite on the 33rd floor of the New Yorker Hotel and tends to injured pigeons. Then along comes Louisa Dewell the chambermaid, who discovers that the hotel is the permanent home of this eccentric scientist, the godfather of electricity, whose inventions helped usher in the wireless age.
Tesla nobly believed that an idea was not the sole property of any one person, which he struggled to reconcile with the fact that other scientists had taken credit for his original work. Picking up these and other historically accurate threads, Hunt's story unfolds over the last week of Tesla's life: an old, destitute genius, maybe a little crazy (afflicted by obsessive-compulsive disorder and other phobias) and definitely the ideal person to bring back to life through fiction - - technically, he's famous, but he's also largely unfamiliar. Because his actual story is so incredible (he was pals with Mark Twain, he fell in love with a bird, he tried to invent a "death ray"), it's tricky to separate the pieces of Hunt's account that are drawn from fact from those that she's invented. Tesla is counter-balanced by the entirely fictional character of Louisa, who befriends the inventor after he catches her snooping through his things. A classic sort of heroine, she treats the fading man like an oracle as she juggles her own daily dramas.
Each chapter is preceded by a quote that is intended to help orient the reader. While it's easy to keep tabs on Louisa in wartime New York, with Tesla it's considerably trickier as he narrates his story over the course of his long life. Unfortunately, the quotations reveal more than they should, like a movie trailer that gives away too much of the storyline and allows the reader to telegraph what should be some of the narrative's surprises.
All considered, THE INVENTION OF EVERYTHING ELSE reads fairly well as a historical novel, although the characters continuously experience things the reader knows are impossible: men go back in time (perhaps); inventors communicate with the stars (sort of); young lovers fly like birds (at least for a little while). At times it’s like being in a Chagall painting. But, as these narrative flights of fancy dissipate, we are left with the novel's true subject: the destruction of innocence, a tragedy experienced by every American alive in 1943.
When the United States entered World War II, it had righteousness on its side; but when all was said and done, American forces were responsible for unleashing the most destructive weapon the world had ever seen. There is a kind of misguided romance to the way it all unfolded, with soldiers going off in ships to meet the enemy face-to-face on the field of battle. By the end, combat was ruled by radar, rockets, atomic bombs and a host of technological terrors - - enormous power wielded from afar, and Tesla saw it coming.
I’m sure Hunt's book required extensive research (endnotes are also provided). All the most fascinating and bizarre titbits in the book are invariably the ones that are based in fact. Tesla dreamed of building a stationary ring around the earth, to be used for ultra-fast world travel. A woman published a book during Tesla's lifetime advancing a theory that he actually came from the planet Venus. In contrast, the purely fictional elements of the book seem, at times, too studied and too impassive, as though the effort of having to hew to reality was bogging down Hunt's fertile imagination.
Ultimately and unfortunately, Tesla is a relatively minor character in the book. Much of the action centres on Louisa the chambermaid. But the inventor's lonely inner world is what really catches my heart and is beautifully rendered. The descriptions of his Serbian childhood are especially great. Early on, he recounts a story about his beloved older brother, Dane. Describing his twin feelings of overwhelming love and jealousy, he says, "The hole of what I had missed, the hole of not being my brother, after some time, dug down into my ear canals, through my nose and mouth. Envy and love choked me like a drill." Vibrant prose.
The descriptions of the evil Edison workshop are also wonderful. "I already recognized how Edison enjoyed pairing men who despised each other. Repulsion, frustration, disagreement, and anger were, Edison believed, the forge of good ideas. There was coughing, spitting, matches being lit to burn pipes, lunch pails tossed aside at the sudden burst of a good idea [...] and there was the sound of Mr Edison taking credit for it all." Angry men with tools hurl invective at one another, and you feel like you need to duck.
So, to be honest, what actually disappointed me in the novel is the interrupting Louisa’s secondary narrative: her love story; her father, Walter, trying to reclaim his past; and his friend Azor who may or may not be insane. There is a lot of running around and high drama about a time machine that may or may not actually work. I wasn’t really interested in it and wished that Hunt had discarded all the secondary story lines and stayed with the marvellous Tesla voice. (2008)
HERMETIC OBSCURATION: GIUSEPPE UNGARETTI (2008)
Giuseppe Ungaretti is the creator and major representative of Italian hermetic poetry. One of the great poets of the 20th century, he was born in 1888 in Alexandria, Egypt. Ungaretti spent his youth in North Africa, where he was greatly influenced by nomadic culture. In Paris, where he studied, Ungaretti formed friendships with members of the literary and artistic avant-garde. His service in the Italian infantry during World War I provided the background for his first mature poems, written in the trenches, which deal with love and the precariousness of life.
During a congress of the Pen Club in Brazil in 1936, Ungaretti accepted the offer of the chair of Italian language and literature at the University of São Paulo. Upon his return to Italy in 1942, he was elected a member of the Italian Academy and took the chair of modern Italian literature at the University of Rome. After the death of his wife in 1958, he travelled extensively. He died in Milan on June 1, 1970. He was the recipient of numerous literary prizes.
While still in school in Egypt, Ungaretti became acquainted with French symbolist poetry, particularly that of Stéphane Mallarmé. The example of the French symbolists, and later that of Paul Valéry and Apollinaire, led him to adopt his particular hermetic "technique of obscuration." Such a closed diction derives its characteristics from the basic symbolist beliefs in the magic qualities of the word and the conviction that the poet is the keeper of arcane secrets. Thus, as Ungaretti once said, true poetry must have the "obscure sense of revelation." The technique avails itself of all possibilities to give the single word greater relief, be it through abolition of punctuation, typographical or stylistic isolation, or epigrammatic composition. Ungaretti always professed to be preoccupied with ultimate questions of man's existence, with the mysteries of life, and he gave his entire work the title VITA D'UN UOMO (tr. LIFE OF A MAN - - 12 volumes, 1969 and 1974).
Ungaretti's first collection of verse, IL PORTO SEPOLTO (“The Buried Port” -1916 & 1923), was published in an edition of 80 copies and represented a definite break with traditional forms. The poems grew out of his first year's experience in the trenches of Monte San Michele. ALLEGRIA DI NAUFRAGI ("The Joy of Shipwrecks", 1919) is a testimony of self-revelation after the experiences of war. Typical is the long poem “I fiumi” (The rivers), in which he tries to define his heritage. The central collection of Ungaretti's poetry, SENTIMENTO DEL TEMPO ("The Feeling of Time", 1933), appeared after an interval of 14 years, and he spoke of the "most slow distillation" of this work. IL DOLORE ("The Pain", 1947) is a group of 17 poems written under the impression of the death of his son at the age of nine. With the sequence of the compositions contained in LA TERRA PROMESSA ("The Promised Land", 1950) Ungaretti adopted more extensive poetic forms and also returned to a modified hendecasyllable. UN GRIDO E PAESAGGI ("A Shout and Landscapes", 1952) contains poetry written between 1939 and 1952.
Ungaretti’s style achieves a remarkable purity by condensing his poetic expression to its essentials. In the tradition of the French symbolists, he stresses the musical properties of the individual word and the illuminating power of a single striking image. Ungaretti’s poetry is spare and intense; he employs unconventional syntax and avoids the elaborate rhetorical structures. Because of the allusive yet self-contained quality of his verse, the movement that he inaugurated in poetry was named Hermeticism.
CELEBRATING NATURE AND MAN:THE ELECTRIFYING POET OF THE OPEN ROAD
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Walt Whitman has always enjoyed great international renown. Perhaps William Faulkner can match Whitman’s impact on South America, but no U.S. writer, including Faulkner, has had a comparable influence in as many parts of the world. LEAVES OF GRASS has been translated in complete editions in Spain, France, Germany, Italy, China, and Japan, and partial translations have appeared in all major languages but Arabic. Whitman’s importance stems not only from his literary qualities, but also from his standing as a prophet of liberty and revolution: he has served as a major icon for socialists and communists. On the other hand, he has also been invoked on occasion by writers and politicians on the far right, including the National Socialists in Germany. In general, Whitman’s influence internationally has been most felt in liberal circles as a writer who articulated the beauty, power, and always incompletely fulfilled promise of democracy.
When Walt Whitman published his first edition of LEAVES OF GRASS on or around the fourth day of July in 1855, he believed he was embarking on a personal literary journey of national significance. Setting out to define the American experience, Whitman consciously hoped to answer Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1843 essay, "The Poet," which called for a truly original national poet, one who would sing of the new country in a new voice. The undertaking required unlimited optimism, especially considering the fact that Whitman had published only a small handful of poems prior to 1855; however, Whitman felt confident that the time was ripe and that the people would embrace him. This optimism and confidence resulted largely from his awareness of the tremendous changes in the American literary world that had taken place during his lifetime.
At the time of Whitman's birth in 1819, the Constitution and the democratic ideas upon which this country was founded were only a generation old; America was a land of seemingly unlimited space, resources, and possibilities, yet a land with no cultural roots to call its own. In 1820, a year after Whitman's birth, Sydney Smith of Britain's “Edinburgh Review” was prompted to ask, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" But the period between Smith's remark and the publication of Whitman's first edition of LEAVES OF GRASS in 1855 was one of remarkable and unprecedented change in America, particularly in the world of books.
By 1855, America could boast one of the world's largest and most advanced publishing industries, producing distinctly "American" books by authors such as Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Stowe, Fuller, Thoreau, and Emerson. The amazing growth of American literature and of the supporting publishing industry was the result of a self-conscious effort by authors and publishers to establish for America a literary culture of its own. The resulting increase in, or rather the sudden appearance of, authorship in this country was made possibly only through American ingenuity, innovation, and technology in publishing. In short, the advent of modern publishing practices during this period brought books to the people in heretofore unimaginable numbers, spawning as a result one of the greatest periods in the history of American literature.
Working as a printer, editor, journalist, and publisher during the years of the publishing industry's phenomenal growth, Whitman became keenly aware that the tools necessary for his emergence as the new, democratic poet were at his disposal. He believed he could bring poetry to the common people, and with the publication of his 1855 LEAVES OF GRASS, he assumed for himself the role of the American Poet, referring to himself as "one of the roughs," a common man. Whitman carefully continued to cultivate his literary personality throughout his career, especially through the relatively new field of photography. As he revised and enlarged LEAVES OF GRASS (8 editions and numerous printings would appear between 1855 and 1891), Whitman's goal as the self-styled national poet became more clearly defined. LEAVES OF GRASS is essentially a poem in process, with each succeeding edition representing a unique period in the poet's life as well as the nation's. This is perhaps best illustrated by Whitman's Civil War poetry. Originally published in 1865 as a separate volume entitled “Drum Taps”, these poems were later integrated into LEAVES OF GRASS, growing in importance in the book as the war's historical significance became clearer in Whitman's mind. He would eventually claim that LEAVES OF GRASS ‘revolves around that four year's war, which, as I was in the midst of it, becomes, in “Drum-Taps”, pivotal to the rest entire.’
Whitman stands as a great original force in American literature; perhaps one of the greatest. Art, as exemplified by such poets as Longfellow and Tennyson, he has little or none; but in the free play of his power he produces the effect of an art beyond art. His words are often steeped in the very sentiment of the themes they touch, and suggest more than they express. He has largeness of view, an all-including optimism, boundless love and faith. To say it all in one sentence, Whitman’s main purpose was to bring into his poems Nature, with undaunted realism -- especially Nature's living masterpiece, Man. And to demonstrate that everything in Nature and in Man, all that he is, feels, and observes, is worthy of celebration by the poet; not in the old, selective, artificial poetic forms, but with a freedom of method commensurate with Nature's own profusion and unconstraint. It was a magnificent conception, an intrepid revolt against the established canons of taste and art, a challenge and a menace to the greatest and most venerated names. Whitman calls for a new kind of literature to revive the American population ("Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does"). Yet ultimately, Whitman's main claim to immortality lies in "Song of Myself." Here he places the Romantic self at the centre of the consciousness of the poem:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Whitman's voice electrifies even modern readers with his proclamation of the unity and vital force of all creation. He was enormously innovative. From him spring the poem as autobiography, the American Everyman as bard, the reader as creator, and the still-contemporary discovery of "experimental," or organic, form.
~Downloadable e-Book THE EROTIC WHITMAN by Vivian R. Pollak (2000)
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