Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Night and Day (1919) by Virginia Woolf

Book Review
Night and Day (1919)
by Virginia Woolf

  I've been reading Night and Day on my Microsoft Windows Phone Kindle App, and it has been a brutal slog.  Night and Day is 450 pages long in a paperback edition, which makes it 1,000 Kindle sized pages on my phone screen.  It has probably taken me more than two months to complete it this way, so long that I'm almost finishing up with the 1920s section of the 1001 Books Project, and Night and Day was published in 1919.

  Night and Day is early-ish Woolf, before he really integrated the influence of James Joyce and Marcel Proust in her work during the mid to late 1920s and beyond. Night and Day is still recognizable as a work by Virginia Woolf, but it isn't as formally innovative as Mrs. Dalloway or To The Lighthouse.  The story is a standard two couples set up, with a backing cast of ancillary family and friend.  Katharine Hilbery is the daughter of a literary family two generations  removed from greatness.  She is friends with Mary Datchet, a suffragette from  a less successful but still respectable family, who works on her own in a political action group focused on women's issues.  Hilbery is unhappily engaged to William Rodney and she falls for penniless academic Will Denham.  Of course, Rodney is wealthy and the approved match.

  What unfolds over 450 pages is a combination of something like the plot of a Shakespearean comedy combined with the cynicism of D.H. Lawrence.  It's not high modernism exactly but it is on that road. Woolf was insightful enough that the characters will resonate with a contemporary reader. Unlike her more experimental materials from later in her career, Night and Day is an essentially readable, if long, conventionally plotted and narrated early 20th century marriage plot.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Good Soldier Švejk (1923) by Jaroslav Hašek

Josef Lada's illustration of Svejk, used in an advertisement

Book Review
The Good Soldier Švejk  (1923)
by Jaroslav Hašek
Penguin Classics 2000
(original Penguin edition 1974)
Unabridged translation by Cecil Parrott
Original illustration by Josef Lada
w/  Guide to the Pronunciation of Czech names, Maps and a description of Austro-Hungarian Currency

     Central/Eastern Europe and Russia have produced some notable hits on this blog. The Russian film Cranes Are Flying(1957), directed by Mikhail Kalatoslov has 569 views.  Sweet Movie (1974), directed by  Dušan Makavejev is over 400 page views.  Knife in the Water by Roman Polanski has 262;  and of course I've already got an existing Czech Literature label (Closely Watched Trains (1966) d. Jiří Menzel and Marketa Lazarová (1967) d. František Vlácil, both films.)

  I would probably attribute the relative popularity of those titles to a paucity of material from the usual source (Wikipedia.)  Generally speaking, if you write about a subject that has little or no coverage on Wikipedia, that post will be better placed to garner interest from the free-floating Google searching universe of readers.  This edition of  The Good Soldier Švejk, published in the Penguin Classics series, is the novelistic equivalent of a Criterion Collection release:  An unappreciated classic, unfinished, with a vexed translation/publication history, brought in an uncensored/bowdlerized edition to a new generation of readers (the original Penguin publication of this translation was in 1974.)

  From my perspective, this version succeeds on all levels an is in all likelihood the readers' best choice for  obtaining a reasonably priced, accurate English language edition of this text.  The inclusion of the block-print-esque original illustrations by Josef Lada is a nice touch, and mitigates the fact that this is a 752 page UNFINISHED four volume read.   The introduction by the translator thoroughly explores the biography of the author, and gives decent explanation of the difficulties of translating a work in Czech where the characters speak Czech, German, Polish, Hungarian and Russian into English. 

   Švejk is a kind of Candide type figure, or holy fool, and his adventures as a low-level Czech soldier behind the lines of the Eastern Front during the First World War present an indelible portrait of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during this period, an Empire which collapsed soon after the completion of the war.  The Czechs were "second class" citizens in an Empire where first class were German speakers, and Hungarians inside Hungary, and third class were other Slavs in the Eastern Part of the Empire, and the enemies were Southern Slavs (Serbians) and the Russians (also Slavs.)  Thus, the Czech's were a potential "fifth column" and were treated both with trust and suspicion by the German speaking elite.

  The mode of storytelling is both picaresque and the "pay by the word" model of serial publication that is more familiar to the 18th and 19th century.  At the same time, the subject of World War I was very fresh in the early 1920s and Hasek writes with a savage satirical bent that is entirely missing from other books published after World War I about the war itself.  This satirical mode would become more widespread after World War II, Catch-22, for example, is an American example of the type of attitude that Hasek exemplifies.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Before the Rain (1994) d. Milcho Manchevski

Movie Review
Before the Rain (1994)
d. Milcho Manchevski
Criterion Collection #436

  It is hard not to associate Before the Rain with Kieslowski's Colors trilogy.  Kieslowski was Polish, and Manchesvski is Macedonian what there is something memorably "European" about the visual look and storytelling feel of both Artists binds the four films together on an emotional level.  Before the Rain was an American hit, and remains the only Macedonian sponsored film to be nominated for Best Foreign Film for the Academy Awards.

   Manchesvski came from a background of helming music videos in the United States, and it is clear from the opening scenes that Manchevski has a visual style that summons to mind Enya and 90s U2.  Although Before the Rain is about the violence that wracked the Balkans in the early 1990s, it's not a specifically Macedonian milleu- Macedonia having been the only Balkan nation to escape widespread violence. Manchevski also provides a story line centered in London, and his directorial touch is smooth whether he's in the outback of.... Bosnia? Albania? or shooting in downtown London.

  It's easy to see why Before the Rain struck a court with international audiences, it seems almost perfect for the 1990s American Arthouse circuit that I experienced in the Bay Area and Washington DC growing up and going to school.  It's very much a situation where if you liked the Colors trilogy by Kieslowski, you'll like Before the Rain.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Aaron's Rod (1922) by D.H. Lawrence

Aaron's Rod (1922)
by D.H. Lawrence

  Have you ever felt like your life was reading one D.H. Lawrence novel after a Virginia Woolf novel?  Perhaps if you majored in literature in undergraduate/college.  The introduction to the Cambridge University critical edition I read identifies Aaron's Rod as the third installment in the thematic trilogy of  The Rainbow (1915) and Women In Love (1920.)   Both The Rainbow and Women In Love are about the Brangwen sisters Gudrun and Ursula.  Aaron's Rod is about Aaron Sisson, who could be another character from either of the other two books in terms of him being a "collier" or coal miner, from the same area as the Brangwens (and Lawrence.)   Like the Brangwen sisters (and Lawrence)  Aaron Sisson rebels against conventional morals, leaving his young wife and three young daughters to pursue.... not much.  He plays the flute?  Goes to Italy?  Has an affair or two with other men's wives? Makes wry facial impressions in socially awkward situations?

   You can also compare Aaron's Rod to the cynical protagonist in The Fox, also published by Lawrence in 1922 in terms of its dark cynicism and character motivation.  You can't talk about these three books without mentioning the fact that all three were delayed or even suppressed for being "obscene."  It is so ludicrous when you think at how sexualized our culture has become in the last century... Lawrence is tamer than a network hour drama, let alone a cable hour drama!

  At the same time the emotional content of Lawrence's earlier novels is dark and disturbing, still packing an effective punch as the sexual content has lost its shock value.  Sissons dark quest into the spiritual void is a haunting journey. He traverses the picturesque Italian landscapes of the second half of Aaron's Rod like a vagabond ghost.  And the Rod of the title is both his flute that he plays and his manhood.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Tupac Amaru Rebellion by Charles F. Walker

Depiction of Tupac Amaru II from Peruvian currency

Book Review
The Tupac Amaru Rebellion
by Charles F. Walker
Oxford University Press
Published April 8th, 2014

  Tupac Amaru is known to most people today via his namesake, murdered rapper and counter-culture icon Tupac Shakur.  A fewer number of people know him as the namesake of the Shining Path splinter group/Marxist guerrilla's from the Peruvian troubles of the late 20th century.  The original Tupac Amaru was the last leader of the Inca Empire, murdered by the Spanish in the 16th century.
The area involved in the Tupac Amaru II rebellion of 1780-1781.

  The Tupac Amaru Rebellion involved none of these- but rather was instigated by José Gabriel Túpac Amaru, a mixed-race merchant from the area south of Cuzco.  Jose Gabriel claimed to be the last descendant of the first Tupac Amaru- a claim which was vigorously contested by a rival.  Jose Gabriel went so far as to litigate the matter, spending a year before the rebellion in Lima.  He lost his lawsuit, and retreated to his home province, where he and his wife,  Micaela Bastidas Puyucahua, plotted their remarkable rebellion against the Spanish.

  One of Walker's major themes is elevating the role that Bastidas played in organizing and implementing the revolution.  Another is continuing the story of the Tupac Amaru Rebellion beyond his execution in 1781 and including related rebellions in modern-day Bolivia and around Lake Titcaca.  Thus, the complete story of the Tupac Amaru Rebellion neither begins nor ends with Jose Gabriel Tupac Amaru II, but rather extends beyond him both in the start (with his wife as an important co conspirator) and end.

  Walker is a careful scholar, and he gives ample attention both to the varied Spanish response to the initial rebellion and the complexities in the attitude of Amaru II towards the Spanish Church and state.  A surprising theme that emerges is how very Catholic Amaru and his wife were- they refrained from harming priests, and continued to represent themselves as good Catholics.  Walker also does a good job of describing the complexity of 18th century Colonial culture, with fragmentations along both racial and class lines.

  The picture which emerges is contrary to his present-day status as a counter cultural, revolutionary figure.  Yes, he led an important rebellion against Spanish rule, but he was also a deeply conservative figure who represented himself as acting on behalf of the King (a common position of rebels in pre-democratic societies.)

To The Lighthouse (1928) by Virginia Woolf

To The Lighthouse "Mind Map": Reading a novel shouldn't be this complicated.

Book Review
To The Lighthouse (1928)
 by Virginia Woolf

  My personal feeling is that you shouldn't require a schematic drawing to "get" a novel.  The very need for such a diagram as is pictured above is evidence that the novel has, in a sense, failed.  I am clearly in the tiny minority in this opinion, since To The Lighthouse is a  lock for many "Best 100 Novels of All Time" list.  I understand the argument of the avant-garde that art need not be pleasurable (or even should not be pleasurable) to be good, but I don't really buy it.  

  It is possible to read To The Lighthouse for the first time, as I did, and only have a vague idea what was going on for the entire length of the book.  I'm sure I would have understood more if I had read in the context of an undergraduate or graduate literature class, but I have to integrate my reading into my daily schedule: sitting in court, waiting in jail,  on the train back and forth to Los Angeles, and reading after I've spent 10 hours working as a lawyer.  If I'd really wanted to "get" the brilliance of To The Lighthouse, I would have had to been reading it at a desk, with a lap top or notepad handy, taking notes and cross-referencing internet sources. 

  This will probably be the last Virginia Woolf novel I read on the go- after this I foresee needing to be sitting down in a quiet spot and focusing 100% of my attention on the book.  Is that any way to read a novel?  I would argue, no, it is not.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Threepenny Opera (1931) d.Georg Wilhelm Pabst

Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper in a recent revival of The Threepenny Opera/Beggars Opera

Movie Review
The Threepenny Opera (1931)
 d.Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Criterion Collection #405

  The addition of sound to film was actually a set back for the art of film, in that recording sound with a motion picture required using a huge, immobile apparatus that prevented the movie camera from moving around the set, making the resulting sound pictures very static and uninteresting in terms of the film art.  While The Threepenny Opera by Georg Wilhelm Pabst is an example of expressionist cinema, the film is based on Brecht's adaptation of a 1920s revival of the 18th century work "Beggars Opera."  Originally meant as an iteration of the "Penny Dreadful" genre in the late 18th century, a revival in London in the 1920s made it way to Germany via the English speaking mistress of Bertolt Brecht.

  Brecht used Kurt Weill to write the music for his version, and it would be these tunes that would end symbolizing the Weimar Republic for generations of Audiences.   The most famous song is of course, "Mack the Knife" a song which topped the US charts in the 1950s during the Rat Pack era.
So yeah, it's a German expressionist version of a Brecht version of a 1920s English revival of an 18th century English popular opera.  What else do you need to know?  Oh, and it is close to 2 hours long, and there is a fifty minute documentary that Hulu Plus has thoughtfully included.

  It is the musical numbers that stick with you, the impressive quality of the sound in 1931 and Pabsts' expressionist camera techniques- shadows and all that.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Veronika Voss(1982) d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

"Ich bin bereit für meine Nahaufnahme."  or "I'm ready for my close-up," Rosel Zech plays the Sunset Boulevard esque Veronica Voss in Fassbinder's excellent 1982 film of the same name.

Movie Review
Veronika Voss(1982)
 d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Criterion Collection #205

    The Criterion Collection description calls Veronica Voss "satire masquerading as melodrama," but it could equally be described as movie that looks like a take on Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard until the last 20 minutes.  Sunset Boulevard is of course the immortal 1950 film starring Gloria Swanson as faded star Norma Desmond. Sunset Boulevard is a noir that starts with a body floating in a swimming pool and works back to front in time.  Veronica Voss eschews any narrative trickery, saving its surprises for a more conventional plot twist which takes place near the end of the film.

   The story involves a brief affair between Voss, a famous Nazi era film star who is living in post war Germany, mired in obscurity, and as it turns out, madness, and Robert Krohn (acted by Hilmar Thate), a rough and tumble sportswriter (Fassbinder was a soccer fan as it turns out) who takes the place of the private eye character you typically associate with noirish plots.  He already has a live in girlfriend, who participates in his affair with a kind of world weary bemusement.

  Although there are some stylistic touches in the lighting and composition, the story is easy to follow and eminently watchable if you can get over reading the subtitles.  The performances are compelling, and the echo of Sunset Boulevard grounds the watcher in a releateable narrative.  Veronica Voss is worth checking out on Hulu Plus.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean 1620-1914

The Mosquito: Wrecker of armies in the Caribbean, 1620-1914

Book Review
Mosquito Empires:
Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean 1620-1914
by J.R. McNeill
Cambridge University Press
published 2010

   A recent trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico and an upcoming trip to the area of Merida in the Mexican south has had me thinking about the Spanish Colonial experience in the Caribbean.   If you go to old town San Juan, you will see an enormous fort, which is essentially guarding the sea, and you might well ask yourself, "Well what the fuck?"   Turns out these massive fortifications, and others in the area, were part of a conscious strategy by the Spanish forts in the new world that would hold out long enough for fever to kill the entire invading army.  The period marked off by the title: 1620-1914, represents the time prior to humans figuring out that mosquitos caused disease, so the Spanish strategy was based more on their simple observation that fever killed almost every European newcomer, whereas local residents (and local armies) had acquired resistance .

   Although it is no doubt horrible to laugh at the enormous human suffering caused by yellow fever and malaria in the Caribbean, it's hard not to chuckle at the ineptitude of various militaries and the medical establishment in their attempts to help people survive.  Quite the opposite, as it turned out.  European medical theories about "Miasmas" and "filth" causing disease somehow led them to treat yellow fever and malaria by draining the blood of their victims, I mean patients.  So risible was the behavior of European trained physicians through this period that McNeil actually apologizes for that being more polite.

    McNeil makes a careful, scholarly case to support this thesis:  That the over-susceptibility of newly arrived European soldiers led directly to the Spanish being able to maintain their colonial Empire for several centuries despite a lack of soldiers and defenses.  This happened time and time again, a fine example of history repeating itself.  McNeil is not exactly setting out to demolish the "Generals and strategy" history of colonial wars, but he is arguing that a) disease played a larger role and b) that the winners (and some of the losers) understood this, even though they didn't understand how mosquito born illness worked.

   This dynamic played an important role in the American Revolution, specifically in the decision of General Cornwallis deciding to surrender in York, essentially ending the War, after a year of chasing Nathanael Green around the rural south- which is part of McNeil's "Greater Caribbean" because of the frequency of mosquito born illness.

  The idea of incorporating the environment into ancient and recent history is several decades old at this point, but a title like Mosquito Empires is a good example of how profitable it can be to revisit historical subjects deemed largely "settled" or uncontroversial, and inserting environmental and ecological arguments into the mix.

None, One & One Hundred Thousand (1926) by Luigi Pirandello

Book Review
None, One & One Hundred Thousand (1926)
 by Luigi Pirandello
  None, One & One Hundred Thousand very much reads like a predecessor of later writers like Borges or Umberto Eco.  Pirandello is obsessed with the "relativity" of social existence, to the point where Vitangelo Moscarda, the protagonist, ends the novel in an insane time.  Pirandello wrote None, One & One Hundred Thousand over a period of 15 years, plus, and the language has the feel of something closer to poetry then conventional narrative fiction.   Pirandello is not much for action, most of the text consists of Moscarda agonizing over several "every day" encounters as he realizes that everyone sees the world differently.

  Put another way, None, One & One Hundred Thousand is "post-modernist" before such a thing existed, the fracture of narrative consistency being a hallmark of such books.  It is hard to quantify the impact of translation on the quality of the prose, considering the poetic figures of speech and the fact that I read an early translation from the 1930s, I'm inclined to think that someone else could do better, but I'm not going to hunt down a more recent translation to find out.

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