Review: Poet in New York

Review: Poet in New York

Poet in New York: A Bilingual EditionPoet in New York: A Bilingual Edition by Federico García Lorca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I want to cry because I feel like it
as the boys in the back row cry,
because I am not a man nor a poet nor a leaf
but a wounded pulse that probes the things of the other side.

Poetry is an odd thing. You notice this when you encounter poetry in a second language. This happened to me a few weeks ago, when I went to a poetry reading in Madrid. There were four or five poets there, some of them fairly well-known, with a crowd of hushed listeners hanging on their every word. Meanwhile, with my very imperfect Spanish, I was only able to catch bits of phrases and scattered words that added up to nothing.

“Look, I can be a poet,” I said to a friend after the show: “A cow is a moon, / a moon is a balloon.” That’s really how it sounded to me.

In a way, this isn’t surprising, of course; but it got me thinking how strange a thing is poetry. We string phrases together that, interpreted literally, are either false, absurd, meaningless, or banal; and yet somehow, when the poetry works, these phrases open up subtle emotional reactions in their listeners. Why is it that a certain phrase seems just right, inexhaustibly expressive and unutterably perfect, while a similar phrase may be dead on arrival, impotent, sterile, and maybe even unpleasant? Bad poetry, indeed, can be excruciating and embarrassing to witness, perhaps because it is in bad poetry that the essential strangeness of the act of poetry is most acutely manifest. We feel that this whole thing is silly—trying to make portentous sounding phrases that signify close to nothing. And yet the genuine article, once witnessed, is undeniable.

I usually group poetry along with novels and short stories, as literature; but lately I think that poetry may be closer to another art form: dance. Dance is distinct from every other kind of movement—from walking to golf to sign language—in that it is not oriented towards any external goal. That is, the movement itself is the goal; the point is to move, and to move well. In poetry, too, our words—which normally point us towards the world, if only to an imaginary or a hypothetical world—are stripped as much as possible of their normal denoting function; the point becomes, rather, the pure manipulation of diction and grammar, in much the same way that, in dance, the point becomes the pure movement of limb and trunk.

This is a healthy thing, I think, since in life we can get so preoccupied with the attainment of a goal that we become blind to everything that does not advance our progress towards our object. A coach of a football team, for example, is only concerned with how well his players’ actions increase the likelihood of winning; and likewise, normally when we use language, we are using it to accomplish something specific, from ordering pizza to chiding children. Dance and poetry, by stripping away the intentionality of the act, reveal the subtle beauty in the activity itself, allowing us to slow down, to appreciate the rhythm of a word or the gentle flexion of an arm.

I must hasten to add that this description of poetry and dance does not apply equally to all examples. Alexander Pope’s poetry approaches very nearly to prose in its use of denotation; and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is on the other side of the spectrum. A similar spectrum applies in the case of dance, I suppose.

Federico García Lorca’s poetry is much closer to Eliot’s in this regard, perhaps even further along in its tendency towards connotation. This makes his poetry doubly hard for a foreigner like me to appreciate, since the specific emotional flavors of his words are bland in my mouth. As a young man Lorca lived in the famous Residencia de Estudiantes, in Madrid, where he became close friends with Dalí. The two exerted a mutual influence on each other, both moving towards the surrealism that was becoming trendy in the art world.

Lorca wrote this book many years later, during and after his visit to New York City in 1929-30, during which he witnessed the Stock Market Crash. Economic depression or not, however, the inhuman vastness of the city, the crowds and concrete, the money-obsessed workers and the poor and the homeless, the racial discrimination and the absence of nature, seems to have made a deep impression on the rural Andalusian poet. These poems are his anguished response to this experience.

Lorca’s poetry is surreal in the textbook sense that he uses a succession of vivid, concrete images that, taken together, add up to something nebulous and unreal. Much like Dalí, Lorca has a talent for creating bizarre images that nevertheless manage to be emotionally compelling. Opening the collection more or less at random I find:

All is broken in the night,
its legs spread wide over the terraces.
All is broken in the warm pipes
of a terrible, silent fountain.

Admittedly it does take some time to find the odd beauty in the apparently random, unconnected pictures. My first instinct was to read them like metaphors; but if Lorca did indeed have something specific in mind that he was trying to allegorize, the allegories are much too complicated and disjointed to be deciphered. Rather, I think these poems must be read simply for the beauty of the language, the striking collisions of words, the flashes of light and the rumblings of sound. The poems seem to capture nothing more nor less than an emotional mood—different shades of desolation—that presents itself to the conscious mind in a kind of personal mythology, as in a dream. Dalí was deeply influenced by Freud during his stay in the student residence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lorca was too.

Even if it is difficult to articulate the structure and meaning of Lorca’s image-world, it is certainly not random. Certain words and images come up again and again, as in a dream sequence, being shuffled and re-shuffled throughout the collection. Some of these words are oil, ant, worm, thigh, moon, void, footprint, hollow, glass, night, wounded, agony, sky, cracked, death, coffin, iron… The ultimate effect of these words, recombined again and again, is cumulative; they create echoes of themselves in the reader’s mind, calling up half-remembered associations from other poems, creating an emotional coherence in the literally incoherent text.

Look at concrete shapes seeking their void.
Mistaken dogs and bitten apples.
Look at the longing, the anguish of a sad fossil world
that cannot find the accent of its first sob.

The emotional resonance of the words themselves is also important, something that is unfortunately lost in translation. For example, the word for “oil,” aceite, has an interesting blend of comforting familiarity and a tint of the exotic. I think this is because the word originally comes from Arabic, and maintains a certain foreign flavor, even as it denotes something absolutely integral to the Spanish culture: olive oil, which is used in everything. The word also brings up the rolling olive fields, stumpy trees on sandy soil, that fill Lorca’s Andalucía; and this again calls to mind the age-old farming tradition, the intimate connection with the land, totally absent in New York City. There is also the double association of oil as integral to cooking and as something potentially toxic and polluting. A native Spaniard will likely disagree with this chain of associations, but I think the word is undeniably resonant.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think I can articulate exactly why the text of these poems is gripping, in the same way that I cannot articulate exactly why I find some dancers compelling and others not. You cannot learn anything about New York City from these poems, and arguably you can’t learn very much about Lorca, either. I’m not even sure that the cliché is correct, that these poems can “teach you about yourself.” Maybe they don’t teach anything except how to feel as Lorca felt. I don’t think that’s a problem, though, since the point of reading is not always to learn about something, just as the point of moving isn’t always to get somewhere. Sometimes we read simply for the pleasure of the text.

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Review: The Stranger

Review: The Stranger

The StrangerThe Stranger by Albert Camus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


In Search of Lost Time

The Stranger is a perplexing book: on the surface, the story and writing are simple and straightforward; yet what exactly lies underneath this surface is difficult to decipher. We can all agree that it is a philosophical novel; yet many readers, I suspect, are left unsure what the philosophical lesson was. This isn’t one of Aesop’s fables. Yes, Camus hits you over the head with something; but the hard impact makes it difficult to remember quite what.

After a long and embarrassingly difficult reread (I’d decided to struggle through the original French this time), my original guess as to the deeper meaning of this book was confirmed: this is a book about time. It is, I think, an allegorical exploration of how our experience of time shapes who we are, what we think, and how we live.

Time is highlighted in the very first sentence: Meursault isn’t quite sure what day his mother passed. Then, he makes another blunder in requesting two days off for the funeral, instead of one—for he forgot that the weekend was coming. How old was his mother when she died? Meursault isn’t sure. Clearly, time is a problem for this fellow. What sort of a man is this, who doesn’t keep track of the days of the week or his mother’s age? What does he think about, then?

For the first half of the book, Meursault is entirely absorbed in the present moment: sensations, desires, fleeting thoughts. He thinks neither of the past nor of the future, but only of what’s right in front of him. This is the root of his apathy. When you are absolutely absorbed in the present, the only things that can occupy your attention are bodily desires and passing fancies. Genuine care or concern, real interest of any kind, is dependent on a past and a future: in our past, we undergo experiences, develop affections, and emotionally invest; and these investments, in turn, shape our actions—we tailor our behavior to bring us closer to the things we care about. Without ever thinking of the past or the future, therefore, our life is a passing dream, a causeless chaos that dances in front of our eyes.

This is reflected in the language Camus uses. As Sartre noted, “The sentences in The Stranger are islands. We tumble from sentence to sentence, from nothingness to nothingness.” By this, Sartre merely wishes to highlight one aspect of Meursault’s thought-process, as mirrored in Camus’s prose: it avoids all causal connection. One thing happens, another thing happens, and then a third thing. This is why Camus so often sounds like Hemingway in this book: the clipped sentences reflect the discontinuous instants of time that pass like disjointed photographs before the eyes of Meursault. There is no making sense of your environment when you are residing in the immediate, for making sense of anything requires abstraction, and abstraction requires memory (how can you abstract a quality from two separate instances if you cannot hold the two instances in your mind at once?).

Now, the really disturbing thing, for me, is how easily Meursault gets along in this condition. He makes friends, he has a job, he even gets a girlfriend; and for quite a long time, at least, he didn’t get into trouble. Yet the reader is aware that Meursault is, if not a sociopath, at least quite close to being one. So how is he getting along so well? This, I think, is the social critique hidden in this book.

Meursault lives a perfectly conventional life; for a Frenchman living in Algeria during this time, his life could hardly be more ordinary. This is no coincidence; because he’s not interested in or capable of making decisions, Meusault has simply fallen into the path provided for him by his society. In fact, Meursault’s society had pre-fabricated everything a person might need, pre-determining his options to such an extent that he could go through life without ever making a decision. Meursault got along so well without having to make decisions because he was never asked to make one. Every decision was made by convention, every option conscribed by custom. If Meursault had not been locked up, chances are he would have simply married Marie. Why? Because that’s what one does.

So Camus lays out a problem: custom prevents us from thinking by circumscribing our decisions. But Camus does not only offer a diagnoses; he prescribes a solution. For this, we must return to the subject of time. When Meursault gets imprisoned, he is at first unhappy because he is no longer able to satisfy his immediate desires. He has been removed from society and from its resources. This produces a fascinating change in him: instead of being totally absorbed in the present moment, Meursault begins to cultivate a sense of the past. He explores his memories. For the first time, he is able, by pure force of will, to redirect his attention from what is right in front of him to something that is distant and gone. He now has a present and a past; and his psychology develops a concomitant depth. The language gets less jerky towards the end, and more like a proper narrative.

This real breakthrough, however, doesn’t happen until Meursault is forced to contemplate the future; and this, of course, happens when he is sentenced to death. His thoughts are suddenly flung towards some future event—the vanishing of his existence. Thus, the circle opened at the beginning is closed at the end, with a perfect loop: the novel ends with a hope for what will come, just as it began with ignorance and apathy for what has passed. Meursault’s final breakthrough is a complete sense of time—past, present, and future—giving him a fascinating depth and profundity wholly lacking at the beginning of the book.

In order to regain this sense of time, Meursault had to do two things: first, remove himself from the tyranny of custom; second, contemplate his own death. And these two are, you see, related: for custom discourages us from thinking about our mortality. Here we have another opened and closed circle. In the beginning of the book, Meusault goes through the rituals associated with the death of a family member. These rituals are pre-determined and conventional; death is covered with a patina of familiarity—it is made into a routine matter, to be dealt with like paying taxes or organizing a trip to the beach. Meusault has to do nothing except show up. The ceremony he witnesses is more or less the same ceremony given to everyone. (Also note that the ceremony is so scripted that he is later chastised for not properly playing the part.)

At the end of the book, society attempts once again to cover up death—this time, in the form of the chaplain. The chaplain is doing just what the funeral ceremony did: conceal death, this time with a belief about God and repentance and the afterlife. You see, even on death row, society has its conventions for death; death is intentionally obscured with rituals and ceremonies and beliefs.

Meursault’s repentance comes by penetrating this illusion, by throwing off the veil of convention and staring directly at his own end. In this one act, he transcends the tyranny of custom and, for the first time in his life, becomes free. This is the closest I can come to an Aesopian moral: Without directly facing our own mortality, we have no impetus to break out of the hamster-wheel of conventional choices. Our lives are pre-arranged and organized, even before we are born; but when death is understood for what it is—a complete and irreversible end—then it spurs us to reject the idle-talk and comforting beliefs presented to us, and to live freely.

This is what Camus would have all of us do: project our thoughts towards our own inescapable end, free of all illusions, so as to regain our ability to make real choices, rather than to chose from a pre-determined menu. Only this way will we cease to be strangers to ourselves.

(At least, that is the Heideggerian fable I think he was going for.)

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Review: The Trial

Review: The Trial

The TrialThe Trial by Franz Kafka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Back in university, I had a part-time job at a research center. It was nothing glamorous: I conducted surveys over the phone. Some studies were nation-wide, others were only in Long Island. A few were directed towards small businesses. There I would sit in my little half-cubicle, with a headset on, navigating through the survey on a multiple-choice click screen.

During the small business studies, a definite pattern would emerge. I would call, spend a few minutes navigating the badly recorded voice menu, and then reach a secretary. Then the survey instructed me to ask for the president, vice-president, or manager. “Oh, sure,” the receptionist would say, “regarding?” I would explain that I was conducting a study. “Oh…” their voice would trail off, “let me check if he’s here.” Then would follow three to five minutes of being on hold, with the usual soul-sucking on-hold music. Finally, she would pick up: “Sorry, he’s out of the office.” “When will he be back?” would be my next question. “I’m not sure…” “Okay, I’ll call back tomorrow,” I would say, and the call would end.

Now imagine this process repeating again and again. As the study went on, I would be returning calls to dozens of small businesses where the owners were always mysteriously away. I had no choice what to say—it was all in the survey—and no choice who to call—the computer did that. By the end, I felt like I was getting to know some of these secretaries. They would recognize my voice, and their announcement of the boss’s absence would be given with a strain of annoyance, or exhaustion, or pity. I would grow adept at navigating particular voice menus, and remembered the particular sounds of being on hold at certain businesses. It was strait out of this novel.

When I picked up The Trial, I was expecting it to be great. I had read Kafka’s short stories—many times, actually—and he has long been one of my favorite writers. But by no means did I expect to be so disturbed. Maybe it was because I was groggy, because I hadn’t eaten yet, or because I was on a train surrounded by strangers. But by the time I reached my destination, I was completely unnerved. For a few moments, I even managed to convince myself that this actually was a nightmare. No book could do this.

What will follow in this already-too-long review will be some interpretation and analysis. But it should be remarked that, whatever conclusions you or I may draw, interpretation is a second-level activity. In Kafka’s own words: “You shouldn’t pay too much attention to people’s opinions. The text cannot be altered, and the various opinions are often no more than an expression of despair over it.” Attempts to understand Kafka should not entail a rationalizing away of his power. This is a constant danger in literary criticism, where the words sit mutely on the page, and passages can be pasted together at the analyst’s behest. This is mere illusion. If someone were to tell you that Picasso’s Guernica is about the Spanish Civil War, you may appreciate the information; but by no means should this information come between you and the visceral experience of standing in front of the painting. Just so with literature.

To repeat something that I once remarked of Dostoyevsky, Kafka is a great writer, but a bad novelist. His books do not have even remotely believable characters, character development, or a plot in any traditional sense. Placing The Trial alongside Jane Eyre or Lolita will make this abundantly clear. Rather, Kafka’s stories are somewhere in-between dream and allegory. Symbolism is heavy, and Kafka seems to be more intent on establishing a particular feeling than in telling a story. The characters are tools, not people

So the question naturally arises: what does the story represent? Like any good work of art, any strict, one-sided reading is insufficient. Great art is multivalent—it means different things to different people. The Trial may have meant only one thing to Kafka (I doubt it), but once a book (or symphony, or painting) is out in the world, all bets are off.

The broadest possible interpretation of The Trial is as an allegory of life. And isn’t this exactly what happens? You wake up one day, someone announces that you’re alive. But no one seems to be able to tell you why or how or what for. You don’t know when it will end or what you should do about it. You try to ignore the question, but the more you evade it, the more it comes back to haunt you. You ask your friends for advice. They tell you that they don’t really know, but you’d better hire a lawyer. Then you die like a dog.

Another interpretation is based on Freud. Extraordinary feelings of guilt is characteristic of Kafka’s work, and several of his short stories (“The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis”) portray Kafka’s own unhealthy relationship with his father. Moreover, the nightmarish, nonsensical quality of his books, and his fascination with symbols and allegories, cannot help but remind one of Freud’s work on dreams. If I was a proper Freudian, I would say that The Trial is an expression of Kafka’s extraordinary guilt at his patricidal fantasies.

A different take would group this book along with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as a satire of bureaucracy. And, in the right light, parts of this book are hilarious. Kafka’s humor is right on. He perfectly captures the inefficiency of organizations in helping you, but their horrifying efficiency when screwing you over. And as my experience in phone surveys goes to show, this is more relevant than ever.

If we dip into Kafka’s biography, we can read this book as a depiction of the anguish caused by his relationship with Felice Bauer. (For those who don’t know, Kafka was engaged with her twice, and twice broke it off. Imagine dating Kafka. Poor woman.) This would explain the odd current of sexuality that undergirds this novel.

Here is one idea that I’ve been playing with. I can’t help but see The Trial as a response to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. As their names suggest, they deal with similar themes: guilt, depression, alienation, the legal system, etc. But they couldn’t end more differently. Mulling this over, I was considering whether this had anything to do with the respective faiths of their authors. Dostoyevsky found Jesus during his imprisonment, and never turned back. His novels, however dark, always offer a glimmer of the hope of salvation. Kafka’s universe, on the other hand, is proverbially devoid of hope. Kafka was from a Jewish family, and was interested in Judaism throughout his life. Is this book Crime and Punishment without a Messiah?

I can go on and on, but I’ll leave it at that. There can be no one answer, and the book will mean something different to all who read it. And what does that say about Kafka?

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Review: Middlemarch

Review: Middlemarch

MiddlemarchMiddlemarch by George Eliot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some gentlemen have made an amazing figure in literature by general discontent with the universe as a trap of dullness into which their great souls have fallen by mistake; but the sense of a stupendous self and an insignificant world may have its consolations.

I did not think a book like this was possible. A work of fiction with a thesis statement, a narrator who analyzes more often than describes, a morality play and an existential drama, and all this in the context of a realistic, historical novel—such a combination seems unwieldy and pretentious, to say the least. Yet Middlemarch never struck me as over-reaching or overly ambitious. Eliot not only manages to make this piece of universal art seem plausible, but her mastery is so perfect that the result is as natural and inevitable as a lullaby.

Eliot begins her story with a question: What would happen if a woman with the spiritual ardor of St. Theresa were born in 19th century rural England? This woman is Dorothea; and this book, although it includes dozens of characters, is her story. But Dorothea, and the rest of the people who populate her Middlemarch, is not only a character; she is a test-subject in a massive thought experiment, an examination intended to answer several questions:

To what extent is an individual responsible for her success or failure? How exactly does the social environment act upon the individual—in daily words and deeds—to aid or impede her potential? And how, in turn, does the potent individual act to alter her environment? What does it mean to be a failure, and what does it mean to be successful? And in the absence of a coherent social faith, as Christianity receded, what does it mean to be good?

As in any social experiment, we must have an experimental group, in the form of Dorothea, as well as a control group, in the form of Lydgate. The two are alike in their ambition. Lydgate’s ambition is for knowledge. He is a country doctor, but he longs to do important medical research, to pioneer new methods of treatment, and to solve the mysteries of sickness, death, and the human frame. Dorothea’s ambitions are more vague and spiritual. She is full of passionate longing, a hunger for something which would give coherence and meaning to her life, an object to which she could dedicate herself body and soul.

Lydgate begins with many advantages. For one, his mission is not a vague hope, but a concrete goal, the path to which he can chart and see clearly. Even more important, he is a man from a respectable family. Yes, there is some prejudice against him in Middlemarch, for being an outsider, educated abroad and with strange notions; but this barrier can hardly be compared with the those which faced even the most privileged woman in Middlemarch. For her part, Dorothea is born into a respectable family with adequate means. But her sex closes so many paths to action that the only important decision she can make is whom she will marry.

Dorothea’s choice of a husband sets the tone for the rest of her story. Faced with two options—the young, handsome, and rich Sir James Chettam, and the dry, old scholar, Mr. Casaubon—she surprises and disappoints nearly everyone by choosing the latter. Dorothea does this because she knows herself and she trusts herself; she is not afraid of being judged, and she does not care about status or wealth.

The first important decision Lydgate makes is who to recommend as chaplain for the new hospital, and this, too, sets the tone for the rest of his story. His choice is between Mr. Tyke, a disagreeable, doctrinaire puritan, and Mr. Farebrother, his friend and an honest, humane, and intelligent man. Lydgate’s inclination is towards the latter, but under pressure from Bulstrode, the rich financier of the new hospital, Lydgate chooses Mr. Tyke. In other words, he distinctly does not trust himself, and he allows his intuition of right and wrong to be swayed by public opinion and self-interest.

Dorothea’s choice soon turns out to be disastrous, while Lydgate’s works in his favor, as Bulstrode puts him in charge of the new hospital. Yet Eliot shows us that Dorothea’s choice was ultimately right and Lydgate’s ultimately wrong. For we cannot know beforehand how our choices will turn out; the future is hidden, and we must dedicate ourselves to both people and projects in ignorance. The determining factor is not whether it turned out well for you, but whether the choices was motivated by brave resolve or cowardly capitulation. You might say that this is the existentialist theme of Eliot’s novel: the necessity to act boldly in the absence of knowledge.

Dorothea’s act was bold and courageous; and even though Mr. Casaubon is soon revealed to be a wearisome, passionless, and selfish academic, her choice was nonetheless right, because she did her best to act authentically, fully in accordance with her moral intuition. Lydgate’s choice, even though it benefited him, established a pattern that ends in his bitter disappointment. He allowed himself to yield to circumstances; he allowed his self-interest to overrule his moral intuition: and this dooms him.

(Eliot, I should mention, seems to prefer what philosophers call an intuitionist view of moral action: that is, we must obey our conscience. Time and again Eliot shows how immoral acts are made to appear justified through conscious reasoning, and how hypocrites use religious or social ideologies to quiet their uneasy inner voice: “when gratitude becomes a matter of reasoning there are many ways of escaping from its bonds.”)

Eliot’s view of success or failure stems from this exploration of choice: success means being true to one’s moral intuition, and failure means betraying it. Dorothea continues to trust herself and to choose boldly, without regard for her worldly well-being or for conventional opinion. Lydgate, meanwhile, keeps buckling under pressure. He marries almost by accident, breaking a strong resolution he made beforehand, and then goes on to betray, one after the other, every other strong resolution of his, until his life’s plan has been lost entirely, chipped away by a thousand small circumstances.

Dorothea ends up on a lower social level than she started, married to an eccentric man of questionable blood, gossiped about in town and widely seen as a social failure. Lydgate, meanwhile, becomes “successful”; his beautiful wife is universally admired, and his practice is profitable and popular. But this conventional judgment means nothing; for Dorothea can live in good conscience, while Lydgate cannot.

But is success, for Eliot, so entirely dependent on intention, and so entirely divorced from results? Not exactly. For the person who is true to her moral intuition—even if she fails in her plans, even if she falls far short of her potential, and even if she is disgraced in the eyes of society—still exerts a beneficent effect on her surroundings.

Anyone who selflessly and boldly follows her moral intuition encourages everyone she meets, however subtly, to follow this example: as Eliot says of Dorothea, “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive.” Eliot shows this most touchingly in the meeting between Dorothea and Rosamond. Although Rosamond is vain, selfish, and superficial, the presence of Dorothea prompts her to one of the only unselfish acts of her life.

From reading this review, you might get the idea that this book is merely a philosophical exercise. But Eliot’s most miraculous accomplishment is to combine this analysis with an immaculate novel. The portrait she gives of Middlemarch is so fully realized, without any hint of strain or artifice, that the reader feels that he has bought a cottage there himself.

Normally at this point in a review, I add some criticisms; but I cannot think of a single bad thing to say about this book. Eliot’s command of dialogue and characterization, of pacing and plot-development, cannot be faulted. She moves effortlessly from scene to scene, from storyline to storyline, showing how the private is interwoven with the public, the social with the psychological, the economical with the amorous—how our vices are implicated in our virtues, how our good intentions shot through with ulterior motives, how our hopes and fears are mixed up with our routine reality—never simplifying the ambiguities of perspective or collapsing the many layers of meaning—and yet she is always in perfect command of her mountains of material.

A host of minor characters marches through these pages, each one individualized, many of them charming, some hilarious, a few irritating, and all of them vividly real. I could see parts of myself in every one of them, from the petulant Fred Vincey, to the blunt Mary Garth, to the frigid Mr. Casaubon, to the muddle-headed Mr. Brooke—almost Dickensian in his comic exaggeration—to every gossip, loony, miser, dissolute, profilage, and tender heart—the list cannot be finished.

Perhaps Eliot’s most astounding feat is to combine the aesthetic, with the ethical, with the analytic, in such a way that you can no longer view them separately. Eliot’s masterpiece charms as it preaches; it is both beautiful and wise; it pulls on the heart while engaging the head; and it is, in the words of Virgina Woolf, “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

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Review: Romeo and Juliet

Review: Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and JulietRomeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

ROMEO: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talk’st of nothing.

MERCUTIO: True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind.

My memories from my high school literature classes are largely a blank. Books held no interest for me. I spent one year skipping my classes completely. And when I did drag myself to class, I almost never did the reading. A quick look through the Cliffnotes the night before was usually enough to pass the exam—which inevitably consisted of a bunch of multiple-choice questions about plot details, and short-answer questions of ‘analysis’ that could easily be fudged by some clever-sounding nonsense.

We occasionally ‘acted-out’ plays in class. This was normally a cue to space-out while my classmates labored through Shakespeare’s language, and hope the teacher didn’t call on me. I liked to day-dream about videogames and action movies. Shakespeare, I thought, was stuffy boring nonsense, hopelessly cliché and old-fashioned. But despite my apathy, one moment of Romeo and Juliet did manage to worm its way into my memory. This was Mercutio’s enormous, phantasmagoric monologue about Queen Mab:

She is the fairies midwife, and she comes / In shape no bigger than an agate stone / On the forefinger of an alderman, / Drawn with a team of little atomi / Over men’s noses as they lie asleep. / Her chariot is an empty hazelnut made by the joiner squirrel or old grub, / Time out o’ mind the faries’ coachmakers; / Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs; / The cover of the wings of grasshoppers, / Her traces of the smallest spider web, / Her collars of the moonshine’s watery beams, / Her whip of cricket’s bone, her lash of film, / Her waggoner, a small grey-coated gnat, / Not half so big as a round little worm / Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid; / And in this state she gallops night by night / Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love…

The speech goes on much further, describing how the Queen “gallops ov’e a courtiers’ noses” and “driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,” filling their dreams with vain fantasies. I am sure that I didn’t understand even half of it; what is an agate stone, an alderman, or an atomi? But the speech is so exuberant, and interrupted the play’s action so pointlessly (or so it seemed), that I couldn’t help being interested. Yes, I was actually interested in Shakespeare for a moment, and found myself wondering what this fairy queen, so decorously bedecked, had to do with this ridiculous story of love.

I admit that, even now, I find it hard to love this play. It has has become such a ubiquitous cultural reference-point that reading it is rather like seeing the Mona Lisa in person—seeing an icon that is already so relentlessly seen that it is almost impossible to unsee and see afresh. But this is hardly the play’s fault, or Shakespeare’s. Indeed, it is a mark of supreme merit that we can hardly speak of the passions of romantic love without these two lovers coming to mind; and, though we laugh at these outbursts of adolescent passion in our more cynical moments, there is hardly anything more simple and sublime in love poetry than Juliet’s declaration:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep: The more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

A few months ago, I was given a bilingual copy of this book, in English and Italian, from a thoughtful friend who traveled to Verona. I myself was lucky enough to have gone to Verona when I was back in high school, the very same year that I was skipping all my English classes.

I remember getting off the bus, still jetlagged and dazed, but feeling elated and happy in sunny winter’s day. I looked at the stony ruin of the Verona Arena and thought of gladiators wielding tridents and swords. Back then I even knew some Italian—long since forgotten, from lack of both interest and practice—which I was learning in school. So it seems a fitting testament to my misspent youth to quote from this most romantic of plays in that most romantic of languages:

Oh, Romeo, Romeo, perché sei tu Romeo?
Rinnega tuo padre e rifiuta il tuo nome,
o, se non vuoi, giurami solo amore,
e non saró piú una Capuleti.

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Review: Othello

Review: Othello

OthelloOthello by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had rather be a toad and live upon the vapor of a dungeon than keep a corner in the thing I love for others’ use.

This play recently reasserted itself into my life after I was taken to see it performed here in Madrid. Though I couldn’t understand very much, since it was in elaborate and quick Spanish, I still enjoyed it. (Among other things, the performance featured lots of semi-nudity, men wearing gas masks on dog leashes, and M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”) Inspired, I decided to watch the BBC Television Shakespeare version, with Anthony Hopkins (looking suspiciously dark) playing the titular role.

The first time I read this play, I remember being somewhat baffled. Othello was stiff and uncompelling, Desdemona sickly sweet, and Iago operated from no discernable motive to accomplish pointless ends. This time around, I think I have made a little progress.

Othello naturally associates itself in my mind with Julius Caesar. In these plays, the titular characters, both generals, are distant, cold, and simple, and come to be totally overshadowed by other characters. In Julius Caesar, Brutus takes the lead, struggling to live morally in an immoral world; in this play we have Iago, who turns heroes into villains and innocence into carnage.

Who can pay attention to Othello when Iago is on the stage? He is hypnotizing. Shakespeare seems to accomplish the impossible by making one of his own characters the author of the play. Iago directs everything: he sets the plot in motion, manipulates the player’s emotions, controls what happens when, where, how fast, to who, for what reason, and what it means. He is playwright and stage manager, an artist whose intelligence is so cunning that he can paint upon reality itself.

The really frightening thing about Iago is that he can make you believe him, too, even though you know better. He is so utterly convincing in his lies, so keen in his psychological interpretations, so plausible in his attributions of motive and cause, that I found myself questioning whether Desdemona actually did sleep with Cassio. Nobody in the play stands a chance against such a roving and beguiling genius. Even Othello, brave, noble, commanding, is helpless in the Iago’s grips.

The mysterious thing about Iago is what drives him. In the beginning of the play, he attributes his hatred for Othello to rumors about Othello sleeping with his wife. Later on, Iago says he is resentful because Cassio was made Othello’s lieutenant. And yet his plan is not just to besmirch Cassio’s reputation—the self-interested thing to do—but to corrupt and then destroy Othello’s soul—which does not benefit Iago at all, or at least not in worldly terms.

What actuates him seems not to be jealousy, nor envy, nor egotism, but pure spite: the desire for revenge irrespective of justice or self-interest. Revenge for its own sake. This is so terrifying, and yet so compelling, because spite is such an exquisitely human emotion. It is an emotion that seems to have no practical benefit nor rational justification; and yet who has not felt the twangs of spite, the evil joy in injuring somebody who has injured you? It is spite that prompts Milton’s Satan to fight against infinite power; and it is spite that spurs Iago onward to destroy Othello, at great personal risk, for no personal benefit other than the joy in seeing Othello suffer for promoting Cassio instead of Iago.

As Harold Bloom points out, this tragedy is notable for having not even one moment of comic relief. It is unrelenting in its horror. We see innocent character after innocent character fall prey to Iago; we see Othello, a flawed but a good man, descend into madness; and finally we see Desdemona, the paragon of faithless love, smothered in her bed. Desdemona’s death scene is particularly hard to watch. She does not scream for help. She does not even protest her innocence as strongly as we’d like. Instead, she begs for one day, one half-hour, one moment of life more, and is denied.

We don’t even get the satisfaction of seeing Iago pay for his crimes, or having him explain himself. “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never shall speak word.”

An interesting question is whether Othello and Desdemona’s marriage would have had a crisis even without Iago. They are a particularly ill-starred couple. Othello is a man of war, shaped by camp-life, accustomed to absolute power; he solves his problems with force; he destroys those who challenge or disobey him. Desdemona is love incarnate, faithful, kind, gentle, and totally without malice. She is attracted to Othello for his adventurous life; Othello is attracted to her admiration for him. The story of their courtship—Othello regaling her with his war-stories, and she giving him hints of her interest—makes it sound as though Othello is only attracted to his own reflection in her. This is in keeping with a man who refers to himself in the third person.

Othello’s obvious unsuitability to married life makes him an easy dupe to Iago. Desdemona’s guileless purity makes her the perfect victim. Iago’s only mistake is that he underestimated his own wife—an odd, but telling mistake to make. Is there a moral to this story? I’m not sure. But I’ll be staying away from people named Iago.
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Review: Bleak House

Review: Bleak House

Bleak HouseBleak House by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Call it by any name Your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally—inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only—Spontaneous Combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.

For better or for worse, I read this novel through the lens of two critics: Harold Bloom and George Orwell.

In The Western Canon, Bloom calls Bleak House Dickens’s finest achievements; and he considers the novel to be among the central novels in the titular canon. This opinion is based, in part, on Esther Summerson’s narrative (which comprises half of the book; the other half is told from an omniscient narrator).

Bloom agrees with the conventional opinion that Dickens’s modus operandi is to create static and cartoonish characters, far removed from the constantly changing and evolving characters of, say, Tolstoy or Shakespeare. But in Esther, Bloom thought Dickens had transcended his art: he had created a genuinely Shakespearean self, a narrator who could overhear her own narration, and who engaged in a constant dialogue with herself—a mercurial and growing consciousness.

This opinion is far from popular. I’m not sure I agree with it; certainly she doesn’t strike me as “Shakespearean,” and she would not be at home in any of Tolstoy’s works. Unlike a Shakespearean or a Tolstoyan character, it is difficult to see myself in her. This isn’t just me. Esther has irked critics from the beginning. She is too good for her own good. She is passive, forgiving, unconditionally loving, self-negating, dutiful, hardworking, dreadfully kind, painfully virtuous, devoid of malice, thankful to a fault—someone who lives exclusively for others. It’s hard to like her, because it’s so hard to identify with somebody like that, and such a selfless ideal of feminine behavior strikes us nowadays as both sexist and untenable.

And yet, for me, she is ultimately sympathetic, at least from a distance. I think this is due to her resilience. Her childhood as an orphan is harsh and loveless; she is so thirsty for affection that every slight kindness reduces her to tears. As she grows, she is formed by an ethos of feminine subservience and duty, modesty and virtue, an ethos which she embodies as perfectly as possible.

In Esther, however, this is not a sign of passivity and weakness, but of independence and strength. She does not let the world, so often cruel and unfair, make her spiteful; she does not become bitter and resentful from the blows of misfortune. She is determined to be happy; and she realizes that happiness cannot be achieved through selfishness, but requires generosity, forgiveness, and identifying oneself with others. She realizes, in short, that selflessness is the wisest and best form of selfishness, since it leads to the greatest fulfillment.

Nevertheless, I should immediately add that this ethical ideal is so tinged by Dickens’s patriarchal worldview and sickly sweet sentimentality that Esther becomes more of a fairytale heroine than a religious figure. It is hard to admire her, since she is so painfully self-effacing; it is hard to imagine being her friend, since she always puts others above herself, and friendship is based on equality. She is independent and strong, but only in the context of a world where women are expected to be passive to the point of invisibility.

On second thought, perhaps it is wrong to attribute this irksome self-sacrificing nature purely to sexism; for Dickens also gives us a masculine embodiment of this virtue in the form of Mr. Jarndyce. Jarndyce is almost equally self-sacrificing and self-effacing; his one selfish act is his marriage proposal to Esther, which he eventually retracts; everything else he does for the good of his kith and kin. Granted, he is far more active than Esther, being the masculine patriarch; but this activity is oriented exclusively to the good of others.

All this notwithstanding, I found Jarndyce far less sympathetic than Esther, because his personality is nothing but a benign vacuum. A person—at least for me—is partly defined by what he or she wants; and someone who only wants what other people want is not a person, but a kindly automaton. With Esther, selflessness is made to seem, if not desirable, at least viable; but with Jardynce it is neither. He is palpably a figure of the infantile imagination, a kind of idealized father, protective, caring, loving, and in the end such a fantasy that he vanishes altogether into a ray of sunlight.

Esther’s foil is Mrs. Jellyby. She is a picture of selfish selflessness. Mrs. Jellyby abuses her family, neglects her children, and ignores her husband, subordinating everything to her plans for a small tribe in Africa. On the surface, she is an immensely charitable person, living purely for the sake of this tribe. Her “charity,” however, is manifestly an implement of extreme egoism, reducing everyone else in her house to servants and assistants, directing all attention to herself and her own seeming goodness. She talks incessantly about helping others but never actually does.

In his essay on Dickens, Orwell divides up do-gooders into moralists and reformers. Moralists try to improve people’s behavior and values, and see society’s ills as flowing from personal failings. Reformers take the opposite view; they try to improve the structure of society, seeing individual moral failings as products rather than causes of social ills. Dickens is a classic moralist, and Mrs. Jellyby is his portrait of a misguided reformer.

For Dickens, all goodness is personal—flowing from one individual to another—while reformers, like Mrs. Jellyby, mistakenly believe that goodness is impersonal, which is why she concerns herself with the lives of people she has never met. She cannot make society better because she herself is full of vices; while Esther improves society without even trying, by her every virtuous action and her inspiring example.

Again, it must immediately be said that Dickens’s portrayal of Mrs. Jellyby is also tinged with sexism. Aside from a rash reformer, Mrs. Jellyby is a meddling woman—a woman who thinks she can be a man, a woman who doesn’t know her place, a woman who fails to be a wife and a mother. It is impossible to imagine Dickens using the same tone with a male character. This sexism is something to keep in mind, of course; but it does not, for me, negate his wider point about charity and goodness.

Perhaps Orwell’s best insight into Dickens is this: “The outstanding, unmistakable mark of Dickens’s writing is the unnecessary detail.” This novel is long; it is unnecessarily long. For the first four hundred or so pages, it seems to be still trying to get going; the plot clanks and clunks into motion like an old steam engine. A partial explanation for this is that the book was at first a serial, the 19th century equivalent of a sitcom, spinning out plots and subplots to fill episodes and seasons, entertaining its readers piecemeal. But it is also due to Dickens’s perspective. He sees life always in the concrete, never in the abstract, and with a vividness of vision and a relish for daily life that fill his novels with energy and color. The plot serves the detail rather than the reverse; the story is just a conveyance for brilliant particulars.

Many things irked me about this book. Dickens’s sentimentality is often nauseating and sometimes comes across a cheap trick, like the overwrought string music playing in the background of a bad soap opera. The transition from an omniscient narrator to Esther’s narration was a brilliant device, but also made the book a bit difficult for me to follow, and easy to put down. Dickens’s characters are always exciting, but his descriptive language can be soporific. He has a tendency to let himself get carried away into prose poetry, all written in the passive voice. Occasionally, these are masterful, such as the famous beginning paragraphs of this novel; but just as often they make me drowsy.

What is miraculous about Dickens is that his books are so apparently simple and straightforward, and yet they can be endlessly analyzed. Perhaps this is because he effortlessly combines so many contradictory elements: social realism with imaginative fancy, sentimental prettiness with grotesque horror, moral preaching with biting satire, advocacy with art, propaganda with poetry. Dickens’s flaws leap to the eye—his inability to create three-dimensional characters, his lack of intellectual curiosity, his superficial view of the world, his inability to appreciate the sublime, his clumsy plots, his mountains of petty details, his soporific prose style—and yet his appeal is nearly universal. That the same writer could entrance both Harold Bloom, the enemy of political art, and George Orwell, the champion of political art, is a sign of his genius. And in the end, when faced with somebody as universal and powerful as Dickens, all analysis can do is reveal the limitations of its method.

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Review: Faust

Review: Faust

FaustFaust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Student:
Hey Professor, I could use a hand,
I just read a play I didn’t understand.

Professor:
And what was this play, pray?

Student:
Faust, the one you assigned the other day.
I simply can’t wrap my mind around it;
I read it carefully, but I am left confounded.

Professor:
I have, alas, studied philosophy,
Literature, history, and poetry.
I have some time that I can set aside;
So I will do my best to be your guide.

Student:
Gosh, thanks! So where should I start?
I suppose at the most conspicuous part:
The language, it was strangely various;
Both in style and quality, it was multifarious.
One moment, it is regal and poetic;
Other moments it is hasty and frenetic.
Doggerel alternates with highfalutin;
At times colossal, at others Lilliputian.

Professor:
Perhaps the translation was abysmal?

Student:
Actually, I read the German original.

Professor:
Ah, I see; please go on.

Student:
I hope you won’t think I’m a moron,
But I also thought the drama lacking;
Even though Faust does all this yacking
About his tortured soul, his weary spirit,
I found his actions downright incoherent.
He alternately scorns the world and yearns—
For what? What does he wish to learn?
Although supposedly full of all these riddles,
I found him a bit superficial.
In short, it’s hard to care about his fate,
When all he does is whine and prate.

Professor:
What about Mephistopheles?

Student:
With him, I was somewhat more pleased.
He has at least a bit of spice;
His naughtiness is rather nice.

Professor:
And how did you like the plot?

Student:
That actually perplexed me a lot.
For one, it’s not a tragedy,
Since the play ends happily.
And what was with Walpurgis Night?
Yes it was fun, but it didn’t seem right
To interrupt the action so severely,
So pointlessly and cavalierly.
Some critics admire that scene, “it’s po-mo,”
They say, but I say “Oh, no!”
And what was with Valentine?
He sticks around for just one scene,
And if I am to be concise,
He struck me as a plot device.
To be honest, from what I gleaned,
I can’t tell why this is so esteemed.
It was nice and all, but I find it queer,
That Goethe is compared with Shakespeare.

Professor:
I can understand the plight you’re in,
It’s hard to know where to begin.
Goethe is a slippery fellow;
Reading him is like juggling jello.
He was a touch mercurial;
Often brilliant, occasionally dull.
He was a dabbler through and through
There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do,
Or at least try; which is partly why
The language goes from low to high.

Student:
Certainly he was heterogeneous;
But why do you think he was a genius?

Professor:
In some ways he was like Faust;
He studied all, and all renounced.
He was skeptical of all modes of thought;
And found faults in everything he sought.
His distrust of tidiness
Is why the play is such a mess.
If reality is in disarray,
So shouldn’t be his play?

Student:
This strikes me as just an excuse.

Professor:
Everyone is entitled to their views.
Yet consider Goethe’s sophistication;
In him there is no mystification.
In renouncing reason, he does not turn,
To superstition, but instead learns
To spread his mind in all directions;
At once seeking, through reflection,
To transcend all worldly views,
While remaining coarse and worldly, too.
His wisdom soars above, and crawls below;
It is both cheap and tawdry, and it glows
And grows, expanding ever and anon—
Here one moment, in another, gone.
He was, in short, a universal man;
Easy to admire, hard to understand.

Student:
So was he Faust or Mephisto?

Professor:
He was both, he was both.

(view spoiler)

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Review: The Magic Mountain

Review: The Magic Mountain

The Magic MountainThe Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ah yes, irony! Beware of the irony that flourishes here, my good engineer.

In my freshman year of college, I took a literature course to fulfill a core curriculum requirement: Sexuality in Literature. It was a great class; we read Plato’s Symposium, Sappho’s poetry, the Song of Solomon, Sade, and Sacher-Masoch. But of all the great books we made our way through that semester, the one that most stuck with me was Mann’s collection of short fiction, which included Death in Venice.

I was a negligent student of literature in high school. Only rarely did I do my assigned readings, and so I had a remarkably poor vocabulary. (In fact, a friend recently borrowed my copy of Death in Venice, wherein I underlined every word I didn’t know; “Man, your vocabulary sucked,” he said as he returned it.) So you can imagine what it was like for me to try and tackle the enormous erudition and sophistication of Thomas Mann. I was underprepared and overwhelmed. It was work enough to simply understand a sentence; unweaving his sophisticated themes and symbols was beyond my ken. Yet I still managed to enjoy the collection; more, I even savored it. The acute joys of reading fine literature, so alien before, were slowly opening themselves up to me.

The point of this autobiographical digression is that Thomas Mann has earned himself a special place in my reader’s heart. So it was with excitement and trepidation that I recently walked into a book store and bought a copy of his most iconic novel: The Magic Mountain.

Now, seven long weeks later, I have set myself the difficult task of reviewing this book. And, make no mistake, the task is difficult; for The Magic Mountain is perhaps the most ambiguous and elusive work of literature I’ve ever read. Even perhaps more so than Ulysses, the novel is a throwing down of the gauntlet, a tremendous, impudent challenge to any would-be critic. So I hope my reader will excuse me if this review it a bit disorganized, a bit slipshod, as I wrestle with this novel’s hydra heads in no particular order.

The premise is simple: Hans Castorp, a likable, if simpleminded, young man visits his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, in a sanatorium for a three-week stay, and ends up staying seven years. All of the action takes place on the titular mountain—a reference to a sentence in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, where Nietzsche is himself referring to Mount Olympus—as the young, impressionable Castorp gets sucked into the environment. He toys around with ideas, he listens to learned discussions, he befriends interesting personalities, he acquaints himself with death, he falls in love, he indulges in food and alcohol—in a word, he dabbles. He almost entirely forgets about his former life as an aspiring engineer “down there” in the “flatlands”—as the residents of the Berghof call the hustling, bustling world of the healthy below.

When characterizing the style of this novel, one falls naturally into paradoxes: the book is both carefully realistic and deeply allegorical, it is both poetic and prosaic, both lyrical and didactic, both ironic and earnest, both knowing and naïve. Mann accomplishes this feat of ambiguity by adopting a narrative voice of the most gentle and subtle irony. Mann’s own opinions of any of the ideas and characters presented in the book are difficult, if not impossible, to guess at. Simply put, Mann takes no sides; he never professes unguarded allegiance or admiration; everything, in short, is coated in an understated mocking humor. And this ambiguity is summed up perfectly well in the person of our protagonist Hans himself, who dabbles in all things and commits to none, and who is constantly vacillating in his dilettante fashion.

Perhaps as a result of this essential abstruseness, the novel seems to make reference to everything at once. Dostoyevsky often comes to mind, as Mann involves his characters in long philosophical debates, à la The Brothers Karamazov. And like Dostoyevsky’s fiction, Mann creates characters which are allegories for certain philosophies of life: we have Settembrini the rational humanist, Naphta the religious radical, Madame Chauchat the symbol of lust, and, my personal favorite, Mynheer Peeperkorn the hedonist. But then suddenly the novel will take a distinctly Proustian turn, as the narrator indulges in long, lyrical discussions of time, music, and the passing seasons. We sometimes get doses of Faust or even Don Quixote, as Hans, our would-be scholar, our wandering knight-errant, trundles about with Joachim in tow, often getting himself into farcical situations. And then suddenly Dante will appear, with Settembrini as Virgil, Madame Chauchat as Beatrice, and the sanatorium itself as the Mountain of Purgatory—where the patients come to be purged of their sickness, rather than their sins.

What is so arresting about all of these literary parallels is that Mann manages to evoke them in the context of story wherein—it must be admitted—almost nothing at all happens; at least, nothing out of the ordinary. There’s no plot to speak of, no major obstacle to overcome, no central struggle, and even no consistent theme. Rather, the story is episodic in nature (here we are reminded of Cervantes again), and is quite realistic to boot. In fact, on the surface, The Magic Mountain is a fairly conventional novel; at least, it isn’t nearly as difficult to read as either Proust or Joyce. Mann’s sentences, though sometimes long, are rarely rococo; and his dialogue and characterizations are, on the surface at least, rather orthodox. Again, here we see Mann as a master of subtlety, evoking the whole Western cannon in the course of a conversation between a patient and his doctor.

Now let me try to unravel some of the themes heard in Mann’s great symphony. One obvious theme is that of sickness and death. Hans encounters a wide variety of attitudes towards illness during his stay. First, we have the medical staff, represented by Dr. Behrens, who sees sickness and death as just matters of business and biology—a matter for science. Contrasted with Behrens, we have Dr. Krokowski, the aspiring psychologist, who sees sickness as unrequited love, as a product of mental tensions. Then, we see Settembrini’s proud disdain of sickness, for it the enemy of vital human life, of social progress. Castorp is inclined to see something poetic in sickness—a kind of ennobling suffering, which parallels the genius’s intellectual struggle. Naphta is wont to praise sickness, for it weakens man’s love of the flesh, and turns his attention to the ascetic Spirit. And we cannot forget the dutiful Joachim, who hates sickness, because it prevents the accomplishment of one’s duty.

Amid the great themes of the novel, we also encounter innumerable smaller motifs. One is that of music. Castorp becomes obsessed with a gramophone; the narrator speculates on the experience of time in music and literature; Settembrini famously calls music “politically suspect.” Another is politics, as the reader gets absorbed in the intellectual clashes between the humanist Settembrini, who champions liberalism and enlightement, and the caustic Naphta, who is a monomaniacal Christian-Marxist-Hegelian. Mann also displays his talents in evoking sexual tension, as Castorp eyes the alluring Chauchat for months and months, just as Aschenbach observed Tadzio.

But perhaps the major theme of this novel is time. In the Berghof, time is experienced differently. Down below, in the flatlands, time is measured in days, hours, minutes, seconds. Up here, in the sanatorium, time is measured in weeks, months, years. Time forms the whole basis of their stay; for their sickness is often likened to a prison sentence, a sentence which is constantly increased. Their day is carefully divided into segments—five meals, “rest cures” (which consist of just laying down for hours on end), and little strolls. They regularly measure their temperature—holding the thermometer in their mouths for seven painful minutes—and chart their fevers through the passing weeks, hoping to see it normalize. One is often even reminded of Einstein’s theory, for time seems to be supernaturally stretched out, dilated and distended, up in the mountain.

Connected with the leitmotif of time is that of acclimatization. When Castorp arrives, he is a stranger in a strange land. Everything is unfamiliar to him. His habits are all out of sync; he finds the patients’ behavior odd and uncanny. But slowly Hans gets used to things (or, as it’s put by Behrens, he gets used to not getting used to things). The reader, too, experiences a sort of acclimatization, as we acquaint ourselves with the Berghof and its many residents. The world of rest-cures and the half-lung club are, to us as well, strange at first, but gradually become intimately familiar. How much the reader himself has gotten used to things is made clear when Hans gets a visit from his uncle. Hans’s uncle goes through the same process as did Hans when he first arrived; but whereas we were outsiders for Hans’s arrival, we are locals for his uncle’s. We are inclined to laugh at the uncle’s incredulity and foreignness; we are now part of the knowing club, and can wink to each other when the flat-footed visiter from the flatlands commits a faux-pas.

Because so much of this novel has to do with getting used to things, it almost demands to be read slowly—a little bit at a time, over many weeks. Indeed, I was almost dismayed at how much time it took me to get through; for not only does the novel take a long time to read, but it feels long. This book simply revels in its own length. One can even go further and say that the experience of reading the novel—to a degree that is almost eerie—mirrors the experience of Castorp as he stays in the Berghof. I picked up the book from the bookstore in almost the same spirit as Castorp when he arrived to visit his cousin—a casual impulsiveness. And gradually, inevitably, I got absorbed in it, entranced by it. I too committed more time than I expected to toy with ideas, to acclimatize myself to a strange place, to put normal life on hold and indulge in an aesthetic experience.

When the reader gets to the 700th page, and reflects that he has been with Hans Castorp for seven whole years, and has gotten to know so many characters so well, he, too, may feel that he has gotten himself a little lost. The atmosphere of the novel, so rich in ambiguity and so full of ideas, may also awake some lingering sickness of soul, or maybe just make us a little dizzy. And now, as I take my leave of the book, I am, like my companion Hans, thrown back into the hustle and bustle of the buzzing flatlands, expelled from the rarefied air of The Magic Mountain—a little wiser, a little more experienced, and, with any luck, a little healthier.

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Review: Pride and Prejudice

Review: Pride and Prejudice

Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jane Austen’s tools are tweezers and a nail file. Tolstoy built cityscapes; Dostoyevsky dug sewer systems; Joyce made funhouses; Kafka put up prisons; Cervantes created carnivals. Austen crafts ivory figurines, incredibly lifelike portraits that fit in the palm of your hand.

When you read Pride and Prejudice you see the novel in its barest form. Her prose has no pyrotechnics, her descriptions have little poetry. Word-play, fantastic events, bizarre characters, cliff-hangers, and elaborate plots are similarly absent. When you read this book you realize that these tools are not only unnecessary, but can distract from the craft of the novel.

In all of the annals of social science—the ethnographies of anthropology, the studies of sociology—there has never been an observer of social life more keen than Ms. Austen. What we have here is one of the best accounts of marriage customs ever written. That information alone would make this book invaluable.

But of course, this is no academic treatise; it is a novel, and a brilliant one at that. Unlike other authors, who use the dialogue to present information about the plot, for Austen the dialogue is the plot. It is a story of information and misunderstanding. Who thinks what, who knows what, who tells what to whom—all form the intimate tapestry of events that propel this book forward to its merry conclusion.

Austen also excels at omitting unnecessary information. She never tells instead of shows. She does not beleaguer the reader with descriptions of personalities, or even of appearances. Descriptions of setting are similarly kept to the barest minimum; in fact, they are almost apologetic.

The scenes of our greatest struggles and triumphs aren’t always aboard a whaling ship or before the gates of Troy. Sometimes they are conversations held over the soft plunking of a piano-forte

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