Review: A Farewell to Arms

Review: A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to ArmsA Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.

If Voltaire had read Hemingway’s famous war novel, I’d wager that he would pronounce that it is neither about war nor a novel. Compared to All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, the descriptions of war in this book are ludicrously tame. The vast majority of the time the narrator is not even at the front; and when he is, he is far behind the front lines, driving an ambulance. The bulk of the book is taken up, instead, by a love story. The war forms the backdrop—though admittedly a very conspicuous backdrop—and is not the main thread of the book.

What of the novel? Hemingway is a writer of conspicuous strengths and weaknesses; and the longer the book, the more apparent his shortcomings. Though the novel is slim, it still feels padded. Hemingway, for whatever reason, considered it dramatically necessary to narrate every time his characters ate or drank. Aside from telling us that his characters drank a lot (even while pregnant) and appreciated good wines, we learn very little from these frequent repasts, and the ultimate effect is to make the reader hungry.

The conversations, too, are repetitive—especially between the narrator and Catherine Barkley, his wartime sweetheart. While strikingly tender and frank, especially for Hemingway, the relationship between these two never sparkles with the interplay of personality. There is none of the mutual discovery we find in, say, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. Instead, the two of them talk to each other the way people talk to their dogs—asking cutesie rhetorical questions never meant to be answered.

These two examples are just part of a larger fault: Hemingway’s tendency to get carried away into nostalgic, atmospheric descriptions. At his best moments, admittedly, he creates that wistful, bittersweet, melancholic tone that he is known for, and that forms such a beautiful part of his work. But too often the book becomes pointlessly autobiographical. Hemingway is, after all, one of the strongest proponents of the “write what you know” school of fiction. Though wise advice, there is a danger to this method: Since everyone’s life is interesting to themselves, it can be difficult to know which parts may be interesting to other people. This book definitely suffers in this way.

Of course there are many strong bits. Some scenes are unforgettable—the narrator’s injury, the long retreat, rowing across the Swiss Lake, among others. I also really loved the conversations between the narrator and Rinanldi. Unlike the love story, that friendship has true chemistry. Indeed many episodes, taken by themselves, are remarkable. But do they add up to a coherent book?

I ask this specifically in regards to the ending. Since I had just read A.C. Bradley’s book on tragedy, in which he insisted that tragedy requires that a hero create his own downfall, I was struck by how un-tragic was the end of this book. The fatal stroke is not the inevitable result of any personal flaw or a misguided decision, but pure misfortune. The final effect, therefore, is not tragic, but pathetic. In Hemingway’s novel, the universe itself is malevolent, even sadistic, and humans just confused defenseless creatures caught in its maw.

Thus I am a bit perplexed that some people see this as an anti-war novel. The narrator’s crushing blow is not caused by the war; indeed it is something that could have happened to anyone. You can argue that the novel’s bleak atmosphere reflects the fatalism and the pessimism engendered by the war: a nihilistic perspective that is carried over into every phase of life—even love. Yet the narrator himself is not pessimistic—at least not most of the time; if he were, he would not have embarked on his love-affair. It is neither his perspective nor the war, therefore, that dooms the narrator, but some mysterious malevolency of the world itself that makes lasting happiness impossible, in war or in peace.

Thus, aside from a few explicitly anti-war passages in the book, the general tenor has little to do with pacifism or any other political reflection. Instead, to paraphrase the book’s most famous passage, the final message is: Everyone gets broken in the end no matter what. And I don’t think this notion has any truth or value.

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Review: Shakespearean Tragedy

Review: Shakespearean Tragedy

Shakespearean TragedyShakespearean Tragedy by A.C. Bradley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I dreamt last night that Shakespeare’s Ghost
Sat for a civil service post
The English paper for that year
Had several questions on King Lear
Which Shakespeare answered very badly
Because he hadn’t read his Bradley

Analyzing great works of art is always fraught with danger. Whether the critic sets her sights on a portrait, a sonata, or a play, the task is always that of turning poetry into prose. The critic, in other words, must extract content from form—and making content and form inseparable is one of the goals of art. Insofar as art is great, therefore, the critic’s task will prove difficult; and criticism thus reaches its most acute challenge in Shakespeare. His works have eluded minds as powerful as Coleridge and Freud, Goethe and Joyce. The man worthiest to the challenge was not anyone so famous; he was, rather, a retiring Oxford don who published a series of lectures on Shakespeare’s tragedies in 1904.

Bradley’s method has been attacked and dismissed as overly literal, treating Shakespeare’s characters as real people: “How Many Children had Lady Macbeth?” was the derisive title of one critical article, implying that the question (which Bradley never asked) was ludicrous. But I am convinced that Bradley’s method is, on the whole, the right one. For Shakespeare’s tragedies are incomprehensible unless we set our sights on character—the plays’ personalities. If you try the experiment suggested by Bradley himself, you will see this: attempt to narrate the plots of any of these stories without any mention of personality, merely recording the events, and the plot becomes weak and baffling.

The extreme example of this is, of course, Hamlet, whose endless ruminations and procrastinations have been a stumbling block for generations of critics. But the central importance of personality is apparent in all the tragedies. Indeed it must be, as Bradley explains, since a tragedy is tragic only insofar as the events result from a character’s personality. To fall off a building, to catch a deadly disease, to be conscripted into the army—all of these, while remarkably sad, are not tragic in the strict sense because they might happen to anyone. A tragedy may only happen to one person, because it is caused by that person. It does not result from circumstance, accident, or any overwhelming external force. To confirm this, try mentally switching the characters in these tragedies. Othello would have solved Hamlet’s problem in an hour, and Hamlet would have seen right through Iago’s trickery—the plot disappears.

The existence of tragedy, as Bradley also makes clear, seems to suggest a certain sort of universe. The characters must be capable of free action, since the consequences must flow from their personalities. Along with divine determination, the idea of a Christian afterlife is incompatible, too, since if every character ultimately receives their just desserts then the feeling of dreadful finality is lost. For tragedy, as Bradley tells us, always involves the idea of irrecoverable waste—wasted lives, wasted talents, wasted goodness. But the universe in Shakespeare’s plays is not indifferent. Indeed, although good and evil qualities are deeply mixed in all of his most memorable characters, we are never in doubt which is which. And though the hero is inevitably defeated, evil never triumph.

Most difficult to articulate is the odd mixture of inevitability and avoidability that permeates the atmosphere in these tragedies. One is never in doubt that the characters are, in every sense, free and responsible for their destiny; and yet their unhappy fate seems certain. This feeling is caused, I think, by the way that circumstance bleeds into personality. The behavior of Shakespeare’s characters is the reaction of their personality with their environment; and in tragedy this reaction is always fateful. The events correspond exactly with our heroes’ fatal weakness—a weakness which, in any other situation, would not have doomed them. In this sense their personality becomes their prison. They cannot but act otherwise because it is who they are. The final impression is one of cosmic misfortune—by some twist of fate they have been thrown into a predicament which dooms them, and they participate in creating this situation every fateful step of the way.

To fully illustrate this view of tragedy, as springing from a character’s personality, Bradley must analyze Shakespeare’s heroes and villains. And these investigations are absolutely masterful. His dissections of Hamlet and Iago in particular—my two favorite Shakespeare characters, and the two most resistant to analysis—were spectacular. Ever since I first read those plays, I have been beating my head against them in the attempt to make sense of these bottomless personages. The plots of their respective plays are determined by the actions of these two, and yet their motivations are famously difficult to ferret out. What motivates Iago, and what prevents Hamlet from acting? They are mysterious, and yet extremely coherent; one is always sure their actions are of a piece with their nature—and yet their natures are so subtle and complex that they evade understanding. Indeed for some time I was ready to say that the challenge was impossible; but Bradley’s exegesis has convinced me that I was wrong.

This book was, in sum, a revelation: a model of literary criticism that left me thoroughly convinced. And to complete the triumph, Bradley accomplishes his analysis with brevity and charm. There is nothing stifled or academic in his approach; all technical matters are reserved for footnotes and endnotes. He is, rather, a frank and plainspoken man. Nothing could feel more natural than his tone and approach, and no guide could be more friendly and tolerant. However the intellectual winds may blow in the halls of academe, ordinary lovers of Shakespeare will always cherish Bradley, for he performs the office of the critic: to enhance our enjoyment of a work while being true to its spirit.

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Review: Meditations on Quixote

Review: Meditations on Quixote

Meditaciones Del QuijoteMeditaciones Del Quijote by José Ortega y Gasset

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like the varnish on a painting, the critic aspires to put literary objects in a purer atmosphere, the high mountain air, where the colors are more vibrant and the perspective more ample.

Ortega published this, his first book, in 1914 when he was 31 years old. It was meant to be only the opening salvo of a continuous barrage. According to his plan, this book was to be followed by nine other “Meditations”: on Azorín, Pío Baroja, the aesthetics of The Poem of the Cid, a parallel analysis of Lope de Vega and Goethe, among others. But, like so many youthful plans, this ambitious scheme was soon abandoned and this brief essay now stands alone.

As is the custom, Ortega fashions himself a follower of Cervantes; but he distinguishes his “quijotismo” by asserting that he worships, not the character Don Quixote, but the book. Ortega sees in this novel a repudiation of an earlier form of literature. By having his titular character rattle his brains by reading romantic tales of knights and adventure, only to go out into the world and make a fool of himself, Cervantes condemned all literature based on unusual people and events, replacing it with the literature of realism.

This is most dramatically portrayed in the episodes involving Maese Pedro, a picaresque character whom Quixote frees in the first part, and who returns in the second part to put on a puppet show for our hero. Unable to distinguish the puppets from his reality, the knight promptly charges and destroys them. This little episode demonstrates that romantic characters, such as Maese Pedro, reside in an imaginative space clearly delineated from the reality we know; but for Don Quixote imagination and reality are one seamless blend.

Apart from this discussion of the novel, Ortega roams far and wide in this essay, comparing Mediterranean and German cultures, discussing the epic form and Charles Darwin, and also including a germ of his later philosophy: “I am myself and my circumstances.” This collection also includes a long essay on Pío Baroja, which I could not properly appreciate since I have yet to read any of Baroja’s novels.

Ortega is his usual charming self. His prose is fluid and clean; his sentences sparkle with epigrams. He scatters his thoughts here and there with youthful zeal, not properly developing, clarifying, or defending any of them, but pushing joyfully on to the next point. I have heard some people describe Ortega as “dense,” but to me he is remarkably readable. Indeed I would describe Ortega as more of an intellectual essayist than a disciplined thinker. And the more I read of him, the more I am impressed.

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Review: The Complete Essays

Review: The Complete Essays

The Complete EssaysThe Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

e’ssay. (2) A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.
—From Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language.

Now I finally have an answer to the famous “desert island book” question: This book. It would have to be. Not that Montaigne’s Essays is necessarily the greatest book I’ve ever read—it’s not. But here Montaigne managed to do something that has eluded the greatest of our modern science: to preserve a complete likeness of a person. Montaigne lives and breathes in these pages, just as much as he would if he’d been cryogentically frozen and brought back to life before your eyes.

Working your way through this book is a little like starting a relationship. At first, it’s new and exciting. But eventually the exhilaration wears off. You begin looking for other books, missing the thrill of first love. But what Montaigne lacks in bells and whistles, he more than compensates for with his constant companionship. You learn about the intimacies of his eating habits and bowel movements, his philosophy of sex as well as science, his opinion on doctors and horsemanship. He lets it all hang out. And after a long and stressful day, you know Montaigne will be waiting on your bedside table to tell you a funny anecdote, to have easygoing conversation, or to just pass the time.

To quote Francis Bacon’s Essays: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Montaigne’s essays are to be sipped. This book took me a grand total of six months to read. I would dip into it right before bed—just a few pages. Sometimes, I tried to spend more time on the essays, but I soon gave it up. Montaigne’s mind drifts from topic to topic like a sleepwalker. He has no attention span for longwinded arguments or extended exposition. It’s not quite stream-of-consciousness, but almost. As a result, whenever I tried to spend an hour on his writing, I got bored.

Plus, burning your way through this book would ruin the experience of it. Another reviewer called Montaigne’s Essays the “introvert’s Bible”. This is a very perceptive comment. For me, there was something quasi-religious in the ritual of reading a few pages of this book right before bed—night after night after night. For everything Montaigne lacks in intelligence, patience, diligence, and humility, he makes up for with his exquisite sanity. I can find no other word to describe it. Dipping into his writing is like dipping a bucket into a deep well of pure, blissful sanity. It almost seems like a contradiction to call someone “profoundly down-to-earth,” but that’s just it. Montaigne makes the pursuit of living a reasonable life into high art.

Indeed, I find something in Montaigne’s quest for self-knowledge strangely akin to religious thinking. In Plato’s system, self-knowledge leads to knowledge of the abstract realm of ideals; and in the Upanishads, self-knowledge leads to the conception of the totality of the cosmos. For Montaigne, self-knowledge is the key to knowledge of the human condition. In his patient cataloging of his feelings and opinions, Montaigne shows that there is hardly anything like an unchanging ‘self’ at the center of our being, but we are rather an ever-changing flux of emotions, thoughts, memories, anxieties, hopes, and sensations. Montaigne is a Skeptic one moment, an Epicurean another, a Stoic still another, and finally a Christian.

And isn’t this how it always is? You may take pride in a definition of yourself—a communist, a musician, a vegan—but no simple label ever comes close to pinning down the chaotic stream that is human life. We hold certain principles near and dear one moment, and five minutes later these principles are forgotten with the smell of lunch. The most dangerous people, it seems, are those that do try to totalize themselves under one heading or one creed. How do you reason with a person like that?

I’ve read too much Montaigne—now I’m rambling. To return to this book, I’m both sorry that I’ve finished it, and excited that it’s done. Now I can move on to another bedside book. But if I ever feel myself drifting towards radicalism, extremism, or if I start to think abstract arguments are more important than the real stuff of human life, I will return to my old friend Montaigne. This is a book that could last you a lifetime.

Narcicus Caravaggio

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Review: The Taming of the Shrew

Review: The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the ShrewThe Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Talk not to me. I shall go sit and weep
Till I can find occasion of revenge.

Like The Merchant of Venice, whose anti-Semitism makes us squirm, this play presents a sticky problem to modern audiences: was Shakespeare a misogynist? And it must be said that the misogyny present in this play is more difficult to excuse than the prejudice against poor Shylock, since Shakespeare is not clearly in sympathy with the titular shrew, Katherine, as he is with the Venetian merchant. So just as bardolaters have striven to distance Shakespeare from the badness of Titus Andronicus, so have they tried to complicate Shakespeare’s relationship to the explicit misogyny of the play.

First there is the induction, a seemingly extraneous introductory bit that frames the rest of the work, making it a play-within-a-play. Did Shakespeare do this to distance himself from the misogyny? A rather flimsy shield, if you ask me. Another way to excuse the bard has been historical relativism, noting that misogyny was universal in his day and thus excusable. But this explanation isn’t satisfying, either. The play presents Petruchio’s actions as unusual and noteworthy, so much so that the rest of the characters are awestricken by the end. In the context of Shakespeare’s own plays, too, the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine is far from typical.

But perhaps Shakespeare meant this as a negative example, not to emulate but to scorn? Maybe we are supposed to loathe Petruchio and gasp in horror at Katherine’s submissive ending monologue? This does not seem plausible to me; rather it strikes me as a wholly un-Shakespearean reading—with evil unapologetically triumphant, something that never happens even in his tragedies. Somewhat differently, Harold Bloom frees Shakespeare with irony. As he notes, the ending monologue is far too long, and can easily be read as satire on Katherine’s part. Using evidence such as this, Bloom asserts that Katherine is not tamed at all, but rather learns to dominate Petruchio. Yet avoiding her husband’s temper tantrums through unconditional obedience hardly seems like “dominance” to me.

We are thus left, uneasily, with simple misogyny.* And yet the play did not have a terribly unpleasant effect on me. This is because several factors serve to mitigate the main theme of shrew-taming.

For one, however unhealthy their relationship might be by modern standards, Petruchio and Katherine have undeniable chemistry. From the hilarious sexual raillery of the opening courtship to the “Kiss me, Kate” in the streets of Padua, the couple is electrifying to watch. Then there is the obvious ironic comparison with the relationship between Lucentio and Bianca. Bianca, the sweetly submissive girl who every suitor pursues, ends up deceiving her father and making her own choice of marriage; while Katherine, the infamous shrew, compliantly marries the first suitable suitor who comes along with no deception whatsoever. And it is also worth noting that, all the bizarre torture notwithstanding, Katherine does seem better off with Petruchio, who is deeply fond of her, than with her father, who finds her to be a pestilence.

In any case, this play can take its place alongside A Comedy of Errors as a light comedy with finely-drawn characters, full of life and wit—indeed in many ways it is far better. If only it wasn’t about subjugating a wife!


*Given that this play is very unusual in the context of Shakespeare’s oeuvre—full as it is of strong and compelling women—I doubt that it represented Shakespeare’s own views on the subject.

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Review: Our Lord Don Quixote

Review: Our Lord Don Quixote

Vida De Don Quijote Y Sancho/ the Life of Don Quijote and Sancho (Letras Hispanicas / Hispanic Writings)Vida De Don Quijote Y Sancho/ the Life of Don Quijote and Sancho by Miguel de Unamuno

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘For me alone was Don Quixote born, and myself for his sake; he knew how to act and I to write,’ Cervantes has written with his pen. And I say that for Cervantes to recount their lives, and for me to explain and elucidate them, were born Don Quijote and Sancho. Cervantes was born to narrate, and to write commentary was I made.

Miguel de Unamuno defies classification. At once a philosopher, a literary critic, a novelist, a poet, and an essayist—and yet none of them completely—he resembled Nietzsche in his mercurial identity. In this way, too, did he resemble Nietzsche: though he had many themes and central ideas, he had no system. He wrote in short feverish bursts, each one as fiery and explosive as a sermon, going off into the branches (as the Spanish say) and returning again and again to his ostensible subject—only to depart once more. He was a wandering knight errant of a writer.

Unamuno was a member of the so-called Generation of ‘98. The date—1898—alludes to the Spanish-American war, a conflict in which Spain suffered a humiliating defeat and lost nearly all of her colonies. After this, it became impossible to see Spain as a world power; her decline and decadence were incontrovertible. This generation of intellectuals and artists was, therefore, concerned with rejuvenating Spanish culture. In Unamuno’s case, this took the form of finding Spain’s ‘essence’: which he did in the person of Don Quixote. He sees in the knight errant everything profound and important in Spanish culture, as a kind of Messiah of Spanish Catholicism, often comparing Quixote to Iñigo de Loyola and Teresa de Ávila.

This book has, therefore, a quasi-nationalistic aim, which may weary the non-Spanish reader. But it survives as one of the greatest works of criticism written on Spain’s greatest book.

The title of Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho is usually rendered in English as Our Lord Don Quijote; and this title, though not literal, does ample justice to Unamuno’s project. In this work Unamuno undertakes to write a full, chapter-by-chapter commentary on Cervantes’ novel; but his commentary is no conventional literary criticism. Unamuno declares his belief that Don Quixote and his squire were real, and that Cervantes did a grave injustice to their lives by writing it as a farce. In reality, the Don was a hero of the highest order, a saint and a savior, and Unamuno aims to reveal the holiness of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance for his readers.

Unamuno is, thus, the most quixotic of interpreters. He claims to see naught but pure nobility and heroism in the great knight from La Mancha. And yet the grandiose and ludicrous claims of Unamuno, and the farcical nature of Don Quixote himself, put the reader on guard: this commentary, like the great novel itself, is laden with delicate irony—an irony that does not undermine Unamuno’s literal meaning, but complements and complicates it.

You might call this Cervantine irony, and it is difficult to adequately describe, since it relies on a contradiction. It is the contradiction of Don Quixote himself: perhaps the most heroic character in all of literature, braver than Achilles and nobler than Odysseus, and yet laughably ridiculous—at times even pitiable and pathetic. We are thus faced with a dilemma: applaud the knight, or ridicule him? Neither seems satisfactory. At times Quixote is undeniably funny, a poor fool who tilts at windmills; but by the end of the novel—an ending more tragic than the darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies—when he renounces his life as a knight and condemns all his adventures as insanity, we cannot help but feel profoundly sad, and we plead along with Sancho that he continue to live in his fantasy world, if not for his sake than for ours.

This is the paradox of idealism. To change the world you must be able to re-imagine it: to see it for what it might be rather than for what it is. Further, you must act “as if”—to pretend, as it were, that you were living in a better world. How can you hope to transform a dishonest world if you are not honest yourself, if you do not insist on taking others at their word? Quixoticism is thus the recipe for improving the world. Dorothea, from Middlemarch, is a quietly quixotic figure, only seeing pure intentions in those around her. But paradoxically, by presupposing only the best, and seeing goodness where it is not, she creates the goodness that she imagines. Confronted with a person who sees only the most generous motives, those she meets actually become kind and generous in her presence.

We then must ask: Is Dorothea a fool? And if so, does it even matter? And what does it even mean to be a fool? For as Lionel Trilling pointed out, Cervantes posed one of the central questions of literature: What is the relationship between fiction and reality?

Human reality is peculiar: We acknowledge an entire class of facts that are only facts because of social agreement. The value of a dollar, for example, or the rules of football are real enough—we see their effects every day—and yet, if everyone were to change their opinion at once, these “facts” would evaporate. These “social facts” dominate our lives: that Donald Trump is president and that the United States is a country are two more examples. You might say that these are facts only because everyone acts “as if” they are: and our actions constitute their being true.

The reality that Don Quixote inhabits is not, in this sense, less real than this “normal” social reality. He simply acts “as if” he were residing in another social world, one purer and nobler. And in doing so, he engenders his own reality—a reality inspired by his pure and noble heart. What is a queen, after all, but a woman who we agree to treat as special? And if Don Quixote treats his Dulcinea the same way, what prevents her from being a queen? What is a helmet but a piece of metal we choose to put on our heads? And if Don Quixote treats his barber’s bowl as a helmet, isn’t it one? We see this happen again and again: the great knight transforms those around him, making them lords and ladies, monsters and villains, only by seeing them differently.

In this way, Don Quixote opens a gulf for us: by acknowledging the conventional nature of much of our reality, and the power of the imagination to change it, we are left groping. What does it mean for something to be real? What does it mean to be mistaken, or to be a fool? To improve the world, must we see it falsely? Is this false seeing even “false,” or is it profoundly true? In short, what is the relationship between fiction and fact?

To me, this is the central question of Cervantes’ novel. But it remains a dead issue if we choose to see Quixote merely as a fool, as he is so commonly understood. Indeed I think we laugh at the knight partly out of self-defense, to avoid these troublesome issues. Unamuno’s worshipful commentary pushes against this tendency, and allows us to see the knight in all his heroism.

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Review: A Comedy of Errors

Review: A Comedy of Errors

The Comedy of ErrorsThe Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Comedy of Errors holds a special place in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. It is believed to be his first play; it is one of two Shakespeare plays that observe the “classical unities”; and it is Shakespeare’s shortest play. You can add to this list, Shakespeare’s silliest play, since A Comedy of Errors amply merits this superlative.

To enjoy this work, the viewer must be an expert in suspending disbelief. That there be two sets of twins, bestowed with the same names, who happened to be dressed in the same clothes on the same day—it does not even approach credulity. Added to this is the capstone absurdity that the mother was in the city the whole time, but did not choose to reveal herself to her son for years.

The reward for accepting this improbable premise is hilarity. The humor is low and occasionally crude, but no less brilliant for that. Shakespeare manipulates the simple device of mistaken identity like a virtuoso, squeezing out every bit of drama and every fleeting giggle from this ancient gag. Shakespeare is always witty and amusing, of course, but seldom was he such an expert conjurer of belly-laughs. The scene in which Dromio of Syracuse compares the kitchen-maid to a globe, describing where all the countries can be found on her rotund body, is a pinnacle of comedy.

If this play was, indeed, his first, it certainly augurs Shakespeare’s coming greatness. To make a slapstick farce such as this, the writer need not endow the characters with anything resembling a round personality. But Shakespeare does, and brilliantly. Antipholus of Syracuse is appealing speculative, comparing his search for his long-lost brother to “a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop,” and repeatedly questioning his own identity. His twin brother of Ephesus is decidedly more bourgeois and extroverted; and his wife, Adriana, is touching in her scorned devotion. But of course the real star of the play is Dromio—played by none other than Roger Daltrey in the version I saw—who’s relentless good nature and nonstop wordplay render him irresistibly endearing.

In sum, though certainly not “deep,” this play is both expert and original—a piece of juvenilia that, even by itself, would have secured Shakespeare a modest place in the Western canon, if only as the most perfect example of a staged farce.

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Review: Rimas y Leyendas

Review: Rimas y Leyendas

Rimas y leyendasRimas y leyendas by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know a hymn, giant and strange, that announces an aurora in the soul’s night; and these pages are from that hymn: cadences which expand in the overshadowed air.

Bécquer is an example of that species of national writers, almost universally known in their own countries, almost universally obscure elsewhere. Here in Spain he is the second most commonly assigned author in schools, only bested by Cervantes himself. But how many readers—even avid readers—outside of Hispanophone countries even know his name?

For an iconic Spaniard, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer has a curiously Germanic name; change a few letters and you have Gustav Adolf Becker. Indeed, “Bécquer” wasn’t the name he was born with, but one he adopted later in life. (It was his father’s mother’s last name, of Flemish origin.) To me this Germanic tinge is singularly appropriate, since Bécquer was a prophet of Romanticism, an intellectual movement I most strongly associate with German authors.

Notwithstanding this Teutonic whiff, the writer who, in many ways, most closely resembles Bécquer is Edgar Allen Poe: both of them are authors of creepy tales and charming verses. Romantic writers to the bone, they both died relatively young (Bécquer at 34, Poe at 40), although Bécquer perhaps beats Poe by never having achieved widespread fame during his lifetime. This book, Bécquer’s most famous, is a collection of his most popular short stories (“Legends”) and several dozen short poems (“Rhymes”). Poetry was his first and truest love. Yet, as befalls so many of us, penury forced him into prose.

I read the Legends before the Rhymes. These are distinguished, most of all, by their atmosphere. The plot, the dialogue, the characters, the description—everything is subordinate to a certain mood, a mood of mystery and foreboding. The characters wander, wide-eyed and wondering, through haunted glades, enchanted monasteries, and cursed dens. And as is so common in literature written by men, beautiful women are mixed up with these demonic haunts; and Bécquer’s women are always surpassingly beautiful—with pure white skin and pure black hair. Added to this medieval twilight is a strong dose of Spanish Catholicism: beautiful Jewish and Moorish maids are whisked away by their Christian paramours, saved from their heathen fathers.

Some examples might illustrate these tales. In “El Rayo de Luna,” a wandering poet, who walks aimlessly from dawn to dusk in his aesthetic quest, encounters a beautiful woman, chases her until she mysteriously disappears, and then spends the rest of his life comparing everything to “a moonbeam.” In “Tres Fechas,” the Narrator spends most of his time in extended descriptions of old buildings in Toledo, only to be interrupted, three times, by a fleeting vision of a beautiful woman—with ivory-white skin, of course—until finally he encounters her taking the vows of a nun. In “Creed en Dios,” a young atheist kills a priest, gets lost in a forest, is overwhelmed by a cosmic vision, and suddenly awakens to find that generations have gone by—a sort of Catholic Rip Van Winkle. You get the idea.

Although I enjoyed the overwrought atmosphere of these legends, I must say I was surfeited by the end. The Rhymes, on the other hand, are absolutely charming from first to last. The poems seem to have been especially written for Spanish students, since they are surprisingly simple and easy, while maintaining a high quality throughout. In form they are as simple as can be, rhyming couplets or alternating ABAB patterns, sometimes with a refrain. In subject matter they concern themselves with the usual holy trinity of poetry: death, immortality, and love:

“What is poetry?” you ask while
You fix in mine your eyes of azure
What is poetry! And you ask me this?
Poetry… is you

It is light and airy, and appeals to the teenager in all of us—sometimes even to the wistful adult. For any students of Spanish, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western FrontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All Quiet on the Western Front is an extraordinary war novel. It has everything you would expect from a book about World War I: the mixture of boredom and fear; the constant specter of gore; the unrelenting threat of death from every direction; the strong bonds between fellow soldiers and the hatred of superior officers; the reduction of life to its most basic elements; the depersonalization of oneself and one’s enemies; the feeling of apathy and pointlessness; and the difficulty in re-adjusting to civilian life. This, by and large, is the common image of the First World War nowadays, so it is surprising to me that this novel sparked controversy when it was first published. The Nazis eventually burned Remarque’s books, and later decapitated Remarque’s sister.

I have never been in battle, thank heavens, and I hope never to be. Thus the conditions described by Remarque, though doubtless true enough, often struck me as unreal—ghoulish nightmares rather than reality. Indeed, the First World War in general is hard for me to wrap my mind around. That so much carnage could result from such petty causes—it makes my stomach tie itself into a knot the more I think about it. And then there is the, for me, strange collision of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries: Kaisers and the aristocracy, cavalry charges, bayonets, juxtaposed with gas bombs, land mines, and heavy artillery. Technologically, it seems that defensive weapons far outpaced offensive ones. There were heavy artillery and machine guns, but neither were portable and so of limited use in an attack. Thus the endless trench warfare and the pointless offensives, as both sides could beat each other back but neither could win a decisive victory.

The final effect for the soldier, if he escaped with his body intact, was trauma. This was a world before PTSD; back then it was called “shell shock,” and poorly understood. But as Remarque describes the conditions on the front line, it is no wonder that recruits were traumatized; rather it would be a wonder if they weren’t. The carnage—bodies stabbed, shot, blown to bits, and wounded in every other imaginable way—was ever-present and horrific. Added to that is the constant fear—of artillery, snipers, landmines, electrified barbed wire, or merely getting separated from your fellows and lost in no-man’s land. And then the soldier must endure the loss of his friends—his fellow soldiers, with whom he forms bonds of terrific strength—as the war takes more and more men.

The worst part, perhaps, is that after enduring all this, the soldier cannot easily return to civilian life. In war, life is reduced to its bare essentials: the search for food, warmth, safety. Every moment, even those of rest, is part of a struggle to survive. Thus the soldier is shocked when he returns to his home. Civilian life, though enviably safe and comfortable, also seems terribly artificial, oriented towards goals that, to a soldier accustomed to struggling for bare survival, can seem superficial and even despicable. Remarque portrays this brilliantly, as the returning Narrator finds himself unable to communicate his experiences when he goes home on leave. After reading Proust’s novel set during the First World War, which focuses on the ridiculous pontifications of the socialites far behind the front lines, treating the war as just another topic for gossip, I can see why returning soldiers could feel disgusted.

Just thinking of how young these soldiers were—just eighteen when they began fighting—one realizes that a whole generation of men spent some of their most formative years in the most brutal conditions imaginable. It is no wonder they considered themselves the Lost Generation. And what was it for? Although admittedly the propaganda seems to have been quite effective in whipping up anti-German, -French, or -English sentiment, many soldiers must have felt like Stefan Zweig did—that the conflict was pointless. Remarque captures the absurdity of the situation: powerful men in ornate rooms, signing pieces of paper that result in thousands of young men fighting and killing thousands of other young men, not because any of them have any grievance against one another, but for the sake of the Fatherland.

Remarque conveys all this with a gripping immediacy. The story moves forward at lightning pace; and yet there is nuance and depth, too, in this short novel. Even though this is hardly a story of adventure, you realize that merely to keep on going required a kind of daily heroism—an unglamorous, grueling, thankless heroism—the loyalty to one’s fellows and the determination not to succumb to despair. War brings out both sides of the human character: our enormous capacity for violence and destruction, and our capacity for selfless devotion and extraordinary endurance. This is why war has formed one of the most popular themes of literature, going all the way back to Homer. But between those two extremes we often forget that war is long, boring, and terrifying, and that many people lose everything. It is this daily horror, and the daily heroism required to live through it, that Remarque captures.

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Review: Titus Andronicus

Review: Titus Andronicus

Titus AndronicusTitus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This play is famous for being Shakespeare’s dud, not only bad by his lofty standards but by any standard. Even Harold Bloom, who worships Shakespeare this side of idolatry, calls Titus Andronicus “ghastly bad.” The plot is mechanical and clumsy—but admittedly that’s true of many Shakespeare plays. More important, the characters are bland and flat, with the notable exception of Aaron the Moor, who nevertheless is still leagues behind the serviceable villains Iago and Edmund. But the main problem, for audiences and critics, has been the violence. This play is a bloodbath; character are not just killed, they are hacked to bits.

True idolaters of Shakespeare have attempted to defend him from this play. The most obvious defense is that he didn’t write it, or that he collaborated with someone else and only wrote the good bits. Unfortunately the available evidence seems to support the Bard’s authorship. Given the time period, it would hardly be surprising that Shakespeare could write something so violent. Elizabethan audiences were quite fond of bloodshed; and this play was wildly successful in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Harold Bloom takes a subtler approach in Shakespeare’s defense, and asserts that Shakespeare wrote this to free himself from the influence of Christopher Marlowe, by parodying Marlowe’s style to excess. This reading does have its merits. Many passages are nearly impossible to read straight:

Come, brother, take a head,
And in this hand the other will I bear
And, Lavinia, thou shalt be employ’d
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.

I agree with Bloom that these lines, the last in particular, cannot be read without a shocked chortle. And Aaron the Moor, devious plotter, is as ridiculous as Dr. Evil in his famous monologue:

Even now I curse the day—and yet, I think, / Few come within the compass of my curse— / Wherein I did not some notorious ill; / As kill a man, or devise his death; / Ravish a maid, or plot a way to do it; / Accuse some innocent, and forswear myself; / Set deadly enmity between two friends; / Make poor men’s cattle break their necks; / Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night, / And bid the owners quench them with their tears. / Oft I have digg’d up dead men from their graves, / And set them upright at their friends’ door / Even when their sorrow as almost forgot, / And on their skins, as on the bark of trees, / Have with my knife carved in Roman letters / “Let not your sorrows die, though I am dead.” / Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things / As willingly as one would kill a fly; / And nothing grieves me more heartily indeed / But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

And yet the play is rarely funny, not even unintentionally funny. Indeed, some lines have a certain gravity and grandeur, though they are often marred by melodrama. Titus’s impassioned sorrow, too, does contain a faint hint of Lear’s magnificently mad grief:

If there were reason for these miseries
Then into limits could I bind my woes
When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth o’erflow?
If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad,
Threatening the welkin with his big-swoln face?
And wilt thou have a reason for this coil?

But even the most charitable appraisal must rate Titus Andonicus far behind the other tragedies. Of all Shakespeare’s plays that I know, it is the most marked by its Elizabethan origins, the least able to transcend its epoch. The only indication that this playwright will go on to do bigger and greater things is Aaron the Moor, by far the most “Shakespearean” character in the play, whose tenderness for his newborn son adds an extra dimension to his villainy.

All this being said, I still must say I quite enjoyed Titus Andronicus. This is probably because we are nowadays swinging back around to Elizabethan sensibilities. In a world where Game of Thrones—far more bloody and gruesome than this play—is the most popular show in the world, Titus Andronicus is neither intolerably gory nor overly melodramatic. Indeed, I think if HBO did a production of it, they could make a lot of money.

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