Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Charwoman's Daughter (1912) by James Stephens

Book Review
The Charwoman's Daughter (1912)
by James Stephens
Gill & MacMillan Press, 1972 edition
w/ Introduction  by Augustine Martin

    The Charwoman's Daughter is one of the few "to-read" books between 1900-1920 I have left on the 1001 Books list.  I ended up purchasing a copy on Amazon, but the book I got is a half century old paperback edition.  the introduction, by Augustine Martin, is a strong plus to reading this edition, but I had no idea that it was included based on the purchase link.

 James Stephens was a legitimately working class Irish writer.  He habitually claimed a kind of spiritual kinship with James Joyce (he claimed to have the same birthday) and that's not a fair comparison, but The Charwoman's Daughter is worthy of its status as a minor classic.  As the introduction points out, the tale of Mary Makebelieve is, properly speaking, a fairy tale, replete with a "story-book" fairy tale ending where Mary and her poor Mother receive an enormous bequest from a never-appearing American relative.

 Up to that point, The Charwoman's Daughter is notable for the working class world it sympathetically, and realistically depicts. The deeper question of whether The Charwoman's Daughter is supposed to mock the idea of such an elevataion, or whether it simply reflects "what the Audience wants" (which they did, in 1912) or whether it's some combination of the two,  is less important than Stephens "outsider" status as an Author.  The Novel, as an art-form has ALWAYS been about outsider looking in.

  The best example of this is the role of Scottish writers in the development of the novel as an Art Form- particularly the roll of Sir Walter Scott and his "Waverely Novels."  Specifically, you've got Rob Roy, published in 1817, and Ivanhoe, published in 1820.  I think you can argue that Sir Walter Scott is the writer who made the novel "fashionable" as an art form, with prior exponents being deeply unfashionable types like Daniel Defoe.

  Even before Scott, Jonathan Swift played a huge role in the pre-history of the Novel, A Modest Proposal was published in 1729, Gulliver's Travels in 1726.  And Maria Edgworth, publishing in 1800.  Henry MacKenzie- still in the 18th century, then the addition of Anglo-Irish writers in the 19th century: Charles Maturin, Somervile and Ross, all culminating in Joyce.  You can also include American literature in this discussion, though I won't.

  The point is that the outsider looking inward is an excellent place for works of art which purport to demonstrate the workings of society and a good place to make formal innovations in the art form itself. The fact that Stephens does none of these things, places him and The Charwoman's Daughter more with a hithero non-existent genre called "working class literature"- cutting across national boundaries and almost wholly absent prior to the 20th century.

  It's all in that fairy-tale ending- no "serious" Novelist of the 1910-1920 period would slap an ending like that onto a frank depiction of working class life from the narrative perspective of another working class individual.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque

Gas Mask: Iconic look of World War I

Book Review
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
by Erich Maria Remarque

  I found All Quiet on the Western Front, the classic depiction of World War I from the perspective of a German front-line soldier, deeply compelling.  I'm not alone- the Wikipedia page for this book is more detailed than any other I've seen for books written between 1900-1930.  World War I really was the seminal event for many of the artistic attitudes that came to define 20th (and 21st century) art.  Particularly the cynicism and disillusionment with larger ideals was an attitude that existed before World War I, but had nowhere near the same level of influence.

  All Quiet on the Western Front is moving because it's written from the point of view of "the enemy" but totally destroys the idea that there was any difference between the soldiers on opposite sides of the first World War I.  Reading both in translation, there is hardly any way to differentiate the French Under Fire from the German All Quiet on the Western Front

  Ninety years after the fact, reading a first-person depiction of a World War I trench battle featuring mortar shells and machine gun fire still brings chills down the spine of any reader.  I defy anyone to read All Quiet on the Western Front and remain unmoved.  Highly recommended

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Distinguishing Ancient Mesopotamian Civilizations: Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes & Persians

Distinguishing Ancient Mesopotamian Civilizations:
  Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes & Persians

  If you are like me, you are constantly confusing Ancient Mesopotamian Civilizations.  It starts with the term "Mesopotamia" which is simply a geographic description of what we today call Iraq, but also describes peoples from present day locations like Syria, Iran and Turkey.  So first, there is no "Mesopotamian" Empire or people. Rather there are Empires that started in Mesopotamia and expanded.  The easiest way to keep them in order is chronologically, since they essentially succeed one another in dominating most of the surface area of the Middle East up until Alexander the Great conquered all of it in the 4th century BCE
Sumerians are typically called the "first" civilization because they left behind writing (which we can't read.)  Little is known about the ethnicity of Sumerians.  Many internet wackos speculate that the Sumerians were inspired by alien visitors, and wacky symbols left behind don't do much to squash those ideas.

Ethnicity:  ???
Language: Sumerian
Still Around: No.
Came From: Far southern Iraq
Time Period:  ??? BCE to 1700 BCE.

The Assyrian man headed flying lion is the most well known symbol.  The Assyrians were conquerors and held sway over the entire Middle East.  They are the reason that the Bible was written in Aramaic, because Aramaic was their language of Empire.  Assyrians still exist today as a minority and are spread over the world.

Ethnicity: Semitic
Language: Aramaic (Semitic)
Still Around: Yes, but scattered around the globe.
Came From: Northern Iraq
Time Period: 2500 BCE to 605 BCE
Babylonians came after the Assyrians but before the Persians.  They are best known for contributing Ishtar- the Goddess of the night to the larger Near East world- she would be called Aphrodite in  Greece.

Ethncitiy: Semitic
Language: Akkadian (Semitic)
Came From: Central Iraq
Time Period: 1900 BCE to 539 BCE

Ethnicity: Iranian (Indo-European)
Lanuage:  Persian (Indo European)
Came From: mountains of Iran
Time Period: 550 BC- 313 BC

Hebdomeros (1929) by Giorgio de Chirico

An example of Giorgio de Chirco's pre-World War I painting, which was an important influence on later surrealist painters.

Book Review
Hebdomeros (1929)
 by Giorgio de Chirico

  Surrealism, lol.  I must confess that I find surrealist literature rather tedious.  At least with the paintings you look at the work and you are done.  With the literature, it means wading through pages of nonsensical gobbledgook, with a lack of plot being a defining characteristic.  Surrealism has always been an acquired taste and its practitioners have a tendency to drift in out of the movement.

  Painter/writer Giorgo de Chirico, an Italian raised in Greece, who wrote in French after living in Germany, is an excellent example of the tenuous nature of surrealism itself.  He started as a painter prior to World War I, where he was the founder and primary exponent of the scuola metafisica, a style of painting that largely prefigures the later surrealist style.  After World War I he abandoned the scuola metafisica for neoclassicism, and was of course denounced by the surrealist. Then, in 1929, he produced Hebdomeros, an acknowledged classic of surrealist literature, while still painting in the neoclassic/neo baroque style, leading him to be once again accepted by the surrealist movement.

To the extent that Hebdomeros is about anything, it tells of the wanderings of the eponymous character.  He goes through a series of landscapes, speculating about life, the universe and everything.  Fans of the more insane end of the surrealist spectrum will perhaps be disappointed by the lack of outre violent or sexual content, but those who appreciate the dream state/psychological aspect more interesting will find an important work.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Red Room (1879) by August Strindberg

Berns Salonger, a venue in Stockholm Sweden, is the titular Red Room of the Strindberg novel.

Book Review
The Red Room (1879)
by August Strindberg
Translation by Peter Graves (2009)
published by Norvik Press

  This satire of Bohemian Swedish society is often called "the first modern Swedish novel."  It differs from many of the other classic early Scandanavian novels: Gosta Berling's Saga, The Growth of the Soil, in that it eschews a depiction of the slow, rural life in favor of a scene that wouldn't be out of place in London or Paris of the same time.  "The Red Room" of the title is a cafe/salon where Arvid Falk, an ex-civil servant and main character of the book, and his group of semi-successful bohemian artists, gather and mostly talk about ways to make money.

 Despite the bohemian milieu, much of the plot has to do with various schemes to raise money and here Strindberg is acerbic in a manner very reminiscent of other critiques of mid 19th century capitalist practices (See The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope.)

  Although amusing and sarcastic, the lack of a sympathetic central character and/or any female characters of note make The Red Room a bit of a false start in terms of the central themes in Scandinavian literature.  The overwhelming theme of the rural Scandinavian life, absent here, dominates Swedish literature well into the 20th century, making The Red Room an early outlier.

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