Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Between The Acts (1941) by Virginia Woolf

Is it possible there has never been a Virginia Woolf biopic?

Book Review
Between The Acts (1941)
by Virginia Woolf

    This is the last Virginia Woolf novel on the 1001 Books list. It was finished just before she committed suicide and published just after, under the supervision of her husband.  There is nothing much to recommend Between The Acts above any of the other Woolf titles in the 1001 Books project, but it is her last completed work of fiction, and Woolf is so central to any kind of canon of modern literature that her last book is worth a moment of reflection.

  Between The Acts comes after Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Orlando (1928), To The Lighthouse (1928), Night and Day (1919), Jacobs Room (1922)  and The Years (1937).  Of those seven novels, I have no trouble recommending Orlando.  The other books are basically variations on the theme of upper-class English elliptically dealing with their personal issues.  I think if you took Orlando out of the mix, you could combine the rest og the titles into one big book, and no one would be the wiser.

  Suffice it to say that if you are reading a Virginia Woolf novel there is some kind of romantic misunderstanding or contempts that spans decades.  There is no ominiscent narrator to tell you what's going on, and most of her material is written from inside the head of several of the characters, without giving signposts to the reader about who is talking or when- that is for you, the reader, to figure out, hopefully with an assist from the internet if you are reading Woolf today.

 Woolf is not really a story teller, she is an explorer of interior emotions.  This comes partially as a result of her dedication to modernist literary technique, and partially as a result of her interest in the then new area of psychology. Her premature, self inflicted death no doubt reflected a struggle with depression.  Even a cursory glance at one of her books reveals an obsession with head space and mental state, and sadness, and regret.  She is an apostle of thoughtful sadness.

  Woolf is an author worthy of in depth study, if only because each of her books requires timely unraveling and contemplation of what, exactly, is happening and, what, exactly it all means, if it means anything at all.  In that sense she is ill suited for the 1001 Books list and perhaps ultimately the question is whether she should put seven titles on the list.  I mean I understand why, it's because she is one of the holy trinity of modernism (Gertrude Stein, James Joyce.)  But presumably the 1001 Books list is not for actual graduate students and professors of literature, and I think those are probably the only people who need to read seven or more Woolf novels.  The lesser among us can surely be content with Orlando and one other, perhaps Mrs. Dalloway or To The Lighthouse.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) by Flann O'Brien

Image result for flann o brien
Irish author Flann O"Brien aka Brian O'Nolan.  Prescient post modernist.
Book Review
At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
 by Flann O'Brien

   Flann O'Brien was the pseudonym of Irish author Brian O'Nolan. Decades before "Metafiction" or "Post-Modernism,"  At Swim-Two-Birds was both, and how.  The 1001 Books descriptive essay says, "This is a novel about a novelist writing a novel about the writing of [a] novel."  At Swim-Two-Birds was plainly ahead of its time, and it didn't help that it was published on the eve of World War II.  It was essentially out of print before Pantheon Books republished it in New York in 1950. Although many important English literati were hip, it's very easy to see the potential for At Swim-Two-Birds to find an audience among English departments in the mid to late 20th century, and beyond.

    In addition to the stridently recursive plot within a plot within a plot, O'Brien/O'Nolan layers At Swim-Two-Birds with multiple references and allusions to Irish folklore. Of course James Joyces' shadow looms large over O'Brien, but the influence doesn't overwhelm the proceedings.  It is possible to read At Swim-Two-Birds casually because of the peppering of folklore, found language and esoteric knowledge inside the novel within a novel within a novel.   Personally, I was able to understand that it was a "novel about a novelist writing a novel" but the part about the novel itself being about the writing of a novel was lost on me.

   When I read a book like At Swim-Two-Birds, an experimental classic that waited something like 25 years before finding a substantial audience, I think about what it must have been like to be Flann O'Brien.  Did he even think what he had written was great, or did he accept the lack of wider audience attention as an indication that he failed or that his work was not good.  Importantly, At Swim-Two-Birds did impress his peer group- Graham Greene, working as a reader for his publisher, was instrumental in securing the initial publication, and Joyce read it and was impressed (and died immediately after reading it as it turned out.)

   I'm fascinated by that aspect of the experience of being an Artist- when someone creates an epic, enduring work of art and it fails to reach a general Audience. This experience was really only fully possible after the development of both a general audience for art AND the development of an avant garde sub culture. By 1939 that avant-garde sub culture fully existed, but hadn't broken out into the consciousness of a general audience.   Events like the Ulysses/Joyce obscenity trial contributed towards this break through, but it wasn't until the 1960s that avant garde art reached anything approaching a general audience.

  The larger question is in what sense is it even worth it for an Author to create a work that is brilliant but only recognized as such long after it can no longer play any role in adjusting his or her material circumstances?  "Art for Art's sake" is a romantic notion, and many artists are romantic no doubt, but I would hardly call experimental modernist novelists romantic.  The idea of an experimental modernist novelist dying unknown in a garret is itself perhaps romantic, but I doubt the novelist would consider it so.

  There are parallels to what musicians are experiencing these days- what is the point of art that doesn't benefit the artist?  Why would one even create at all if there is no possible benefit?  Perhaps O'Brien/O'Nolan did consider such things in the 1930s, but certainly a contemporary reader contemplating the delay between publication and the generation of a significant audience for a work might well ask that question.

Monday, April 06, 2015

The Congress of Vienna: Power & Politics after Napoleon by Brian E. Vick

This is a map of Europe after the Congress of Vienna.  You can see much of Poland belonging to Russia

The Congress of Vienna: Power & Politics after Napoleon
 by Brian E. Vick
Published October 13th, 2014
Harvard University Press

  I spent most of December and January listening to the very lengthy free audiobook version of War & Peace.  A plausible sub-title for War & Peace would be "The Invasion of Russia in 1812 by Napoleon, told from the Russian point of view."  The Congress of Vienna is what happened after the end of War & Peace, which ends with Napoleon's disastrous and eventually career ending loss to the "Winter of Russia."   Napoleon left a number of lingering issues in his conquered territories.  He had rearranged borderlines in Germany and Eastern Europe.  Significantly, the issues resolved in the Congress of Vienna would be revisited as part of the World Wars of the twentieth century.  I'm talking about "How to divide up Poland" and "What to do about German principalities that had a Protestant population and a Catholic monarch."

   The major players were the Russian and Austrian Emperors, with the Russians in the stronger position.  Also important were the Prussians.  Less so were the English, the Danes/Swedes/Norwegians and the post-Napoleon French.  The classic historical take on the Congress of Vienna is through the prism of early 19th century international European diplomacy.  You can take the machinations more or less at face value and use it to explain subsequent developments in 19th century European history, or you can critique the events using any number of critical appartati developed by 20th century academics.

  The significance of The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics after Napoleon is that he moves beyond the "power politics" mode of analysis to include interesting discussions of the salon scene of Vienna and the role of "small world" Networks in the formulation of consensus within the Congress. Vick persuasively argues that the salon world, largely run by and for women, was a crucial ingredient of the international negotiations.  He argues that the salon world represents an early or intermediary step on the role the crucial "Public Sphere" of discussion, a term coined by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, and that the salons provided an "off stage" where participants could converse more or less freely.

   Vick also devotes sections to a discussion of international human rights issues like the treatment of Jews and the international slave trade.  This emphasis helps dissipate the received idea that the Congress of Vienna was populated by a bunch of self obsessed European autocrats.  Vick's introduction of recent trends in history to a staid subject like the Congress of Vienna is a welcome one, the kind of once in twenty years type of event that is suited to this event.

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