Wednesday, December 31, 2008

GREETINGS



HAPPY NEW YEAR


ONE AND ALL!


MAY 2009 BRING YOU MORE PEACE AND CONTENTMENT THAN 2008.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sinclair Lewis--ARROWSMITH

I had read Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt and Main Street, so I fully expected him to sharpen up his pen and go after the medical profession in this novel. I wasn't disappointed. It is a pointed and painful depiction of the medical field, ranging from small town practitioners to large urban medical facilities to research organizations. The various characters that Martin Arrowsmith meets verge on the Dickensian at times.

Lewis was also prophetic in that the large research institution he depicted has become the norm for today. Most research now comes from large, well-funded institutions, such as universities and drug companies, because the costs of the necessary equipment and supplies have become too expensive in many cases for any but a very wealthy individual.

I had two problems with the novel, something I hadn't encountered in Lewis' other works that I read. One was Martin Arrowsmith, the protagonist, whom we follow over the course of several decades as he attempts to make his way through the world of Sinclair Lewis. There is a saying that goes something like this: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!"

Well, Arrowsmith doesn't get fooled just once or twice but at least four times and possibly five. He just doesn't learn. At the end, he ends up probably where he should have been all along, but it isn't because of some blinding insight on his part. It is the only course left for him, as he's tried and failed at everything else.

Part of his problem was the structure of the novel--which is the second problem I came across. It is highly repetitive. The pattern begins when Arrowsmith moves into a new situation. He is ecstatic; this is Edenic. He admires the people with whom he will be working and intends to model himself after them. After six months or so, he is disillusioned. He intensely dislikes those around him, many of whom he has no respect for any more, and they resent him as much, if not more. He alienates important people, and the only question is whether he will move on before he gets terminated.

He luckily finds a better position in which he is once again highly impressed by the quality of the people and the environment. Then, six months or a year later, he once more finds himself at odds with others around him, and eventually he moves on.

This pattern appears at least four times throughout the novel, and I lost interest in the novel because of this predictability. Ultimately, Arrowsmith comes across as a puppet who marches through various scenarios as his Master pulls the highly visible strings. This is not a novel about the trials and tribulations of Martin Arrowsmith, but an exposure of a particular environment, the medical field in this case.

I would recommend it for Lewis' perspective on the medical field of his day, for both the situations and the various characters. It is as sardonic as his view of the middle class and small town Americans.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain III

Quatrain III, from the First Version:

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted--"Open then the Door!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more."

FitzGerald was obviously satisfied with this quatrain, or at least he couldn't come up with a version he liked better, for this one remained unrevised throughout all five versions.

I think the most interesting point to be made is the shift of the speaker from inside the Tavern/Temple to outside. Whereas in Quatrain II, the speaker was inside exhorting those outside to come, here we see the speaker to be among those waiting outside and demanding to be let in. The speakers, however, in both quatrains, inside and outside, concentrate on the issue of time passing.

There appears to be a difference of opinion as to why the worshipers remain outside. Those inside wonder at the delay of those outside, but those outside argue that the door is closed. It's almost as if something appears to be blocking the entrance, but that the inside speaker does not see it. Perhaps a later quatrain will explain.


The speaker in QIII also added further reason for hurry:

"You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more."

Life is short and there's no second chance. This appears to be an expression of the philosophy of carpe diem, or "seize the day, sometimes expressed as "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die."

One of my favorite examples is found in Andrew Marvel's "To His Coy Mistress," when the speaker tells his coy mistress that she deserves a long courtship--

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song:
...

The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.


A bit of trivia: Peter Beagle wrote a fine short story about two ghosts who fall in love in a graveyard; the title is, of course, "A Fine and Private Place."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ford Madox Ford: December 17, 1873 – June 26, 1939

Born on this day in 1873 is one of my favorite novelists, Ford Madox Ford. His novel The Good Soldier is permanently installed in my top ten favorite novels list. His WWI tetralogy Parades End is one that I have read several times and will continue to reread regularly.

His importance or effect on English literature is not limited to the works he himself wrote. The following is a quote from the Wikipedia entry:

"In 1908, he founded The English Review, in which he published Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, John Galsworthy, and William Butler Yeats, and gave debuts to Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, and Norman Douglas. In the 1920s, he founded The Transatlantic Review, a journal with great influence on modern literature. Staying with the artistic community in the Latin Quarter of Paris, France, he made friends with James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Jean Rhys, all of whom he would publish (Ford is the model for the character Braddocks in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises). In a later sojourn in the United States, he was involved with Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Katherine Porter and Robert Lowell (who was then a student). Despite his deep Victorian roots, Ford was always a champion of new literature and literary experimentation."

His collaboration with Joseph Conrad produced two novels, Inheritance, a novel about aliens from another dimension who are gradually taking control of England, and Romance, a swashbuckling novel set mostly in the Caribbean and features pirates, buried treasure, damsels in distress, and last minute rescues. Apparently it was made into a film in 1927 under the title of The Road to Romance, starring Ramon Navarro. Ford and Conrad also collaborated on a shorter work, The Nature of a Crime, a work I believe neither could have written alone. In fact, Conrad later denied having even heard of the work and was convinced of his part in it only when Ford showed him drafts in Conrad's handwriting.

If you haven't read it yet, I would strongly recommend reading at least Ford's The Good Soldier. I would also recommend Parades End and various works by Conrad, including their collaborations.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Torchwood--CSI meets the X-Files

Torchwood is a British TV SF series that is described as a spin-off of Doctor Who, the modern series. I gather that's because of the presence of Captain Jack Harkness, the head of the Torchwood team. Not having seen any of the recent episodes of Doctor Who, I don't know exactly who he is. I guess I'll have to watch that series also, once I've finished going through the original episodes. The premise of the show is that aliens invade earth regularly, and the Torchwood team's mission is to protect earth from them.

I've viewed the first two episodes and must admit I don't see any thematic or atmospheric connection to the original series, although there is occasionally a bit of whimsy that sneaks through. Based on the first two episodes, I would say that Torchwood is a darker show with a grimmer atmosphere in which death occurs, frequently of the grisly variety. Sex also plays a much larger role in the show, as the second episode concerns a sex-starved alien who has traveled light years to earth in order to sample sex as earth people know it. I don't think I'm revealing anything significant here as this point is made clear in the first 5 minutes or so of the show.

As I mentioned earlier, the show doesn't have the feel of the original Doctor Who series. Probably the best I way I can describe it is to say that CSI meets The X-Files. Torchwood is a super-secret organization that investigates strange happenings. There are five members, each of whom, naturally, is an expert in something--electronics, medicine, the obligatory computer hacker. If they get to the scene first, they simply take control and wave off the authorities when they arrive. However, if the local authorities are in control, they show up in their van, wave ID cards, take over with their various suitcases of equipment, and send the locals off. Along with investigating incidents of possible alien invasions, their task is to destroy the invaders, if present, and clean up the mess, so that the ordinary citizenry remain unaware of their true danger.

They also confiscate all alien artifacts and store them in their secret underground lab. The members of the team have to promise that the alien devices will remain in the lab and not be taken outside for personal use. This promise is obviously broken by various members of the team in the first episode, sometimes with humorous results.

The setting for the show is Cardiff, Wales. The POV character is a Gwen Cooper, a Cardiff police officer, who is at the scene of a murder in the first episode, when the Torchwood squad arrives and takes over. She asks a fellow officer about them and is told this is Torchwood, a group about which nothing is known, except that they occasionally appear and take control of some incidents. She spies on them as they go about their work with some strange devices and does a little investigating of her own; you can guess what happens.

Fortunately, there are no men in black, but it's early days--I've only seen the first two episodes. I certainly hope the men in black don't appear, bringing with them the governmental conspiracy theme that eventually dominated The X-Files, to its detriment, as far as I was concerned. That's when I lost interest.

One last point--Gwen Cooper, the female lead in Torchwood, accepted the existence of aliens in the very first show. How many seasons of The X-Files did Mulder need to convince Scully that "they're out there"?

I'll be watching the next episodes of this show. I did enjoy it, and while I'm not initially ecstatic over it, it is possible that the show will grow on me. Much depends upon the interaction of the team's members: that could make the show, or break it, for me anyway.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Akutagawa's short story: In a Grove (cont.)

In October 2008, I posted an entry about Akutagawa's short story, "In A Grove." According to the translator, he based his story on a 12th century tale. The translator also added that Ambrose Bierce's short story, "The Moonlit Night", may also have had an influence on the story. At that time I hadn't found the original medieval Japanese tale so I was unable to determine nature of the various influences on Akutagawa's story. However, I have been able to get a copy of the medieval, 12th century tale and read it.

The 12th century medieval Japanese story:
Format--straightforward traditional narrative
Plot--husband and wife are traveling and meet a stranger on the road. The stranger tricks the husband and is able to overpower him. The stranger rapes the wife and leaves. The wife unties her husband and berates him for being a coward and a fool.

Ambrose Bierce's "The Moonlit Road"
Format--three separate depositions from the son, the father, and the mother. The mother's deposition comes from a medium or a spiritualist because the mother was murdered.
Plot--none of the three know the full story. Only the readers know who murdered the mother and why the father ran away because they have read all three depositions.

Akutagawa's "In a Grove'
Format--4 or 5 depositions from the characters involved.
Plot--husband and wife traveling, meet stranger, who uses the husband's greed to trick him. He ties up husband and rapes wife. All this is very similar to the original Japanese tale. However, what happens next is not. The husband is killed. The bandit claims he killed the husband in a duel for the wife; the wife claims she killed the husband because she couldn't take his look of hatred and contempt for her; and the husband claims he committed suicide for being unable to defend his wife. The husband's story, since he is dead, comes through a shaman who contacts him in the afterlife and gets his story.

The first part of the story appears to come from the Japanese tale, up to the point just after the rape. Nobody dies in that story. Bierce's influence seems to have resulted in the change of format of the story from a traditional narrative to the deposition format. Bierce's story also seems to have contributed at least the appearance of the shaman or medium in order to get the murdered victim's story--the husband in Akutagawa's story and the wife in Bierce's story. Akutagawa may also have gotten the idea of the death of one of the spouses from Bierce's story.

My next task is to locate a copy of the Hollywood version of Kurosawa's film, Rashomon, which is based on Akutagawa's story. So far, it's only out on VHS, and mine isn't working. The Hollywood version, The Outrage, stars Paul Newman as the bandit, with Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom in the roles of the husband and the wife. William Shattner (Captain Kirk) plays the role of the preacher, and Edward G. Robinson the role of the con man.

Until then, I shall be satisfied seeing Rashomon and reading "In a Grove."

Both highly recommended.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Robert Silverberg--Project Pendulum

Robert Silverberg's Project Pendulum, is, unfortunately, a relatively lightweight time travel tale published first in 1987. It's another one of those stories that has an interesting premise, but the author really goes nowhere with it.

The time traveling machine sends twin brothers, one a paleontologist and the other a physicist, on a trip through time that most resembles a pendulum, as the title suggests. Twins were selected because the two travelers had to have similar weights. One twin initially goes back in time while the other goes forward an equal length in time. Then the one going back in time goes forward, while the other goes back. Each "swing" from past to present to past, is longer than the previous stop. Eric first goes back 5 minutes and then moves forward 50 minutes from time zero--the time the experiment began. He then swings back 500 minutes from time zero. Sean, his brother, does the exact opposite--forward 5 minutes, then back 50 minutes, and the forward 500 minutes. Neither stops at the point the other brother stopped on the "outward" leg of the trip. However, they will on the return leg.

This process only allows for a brief period at any stop, though the length of the stop increases as they get further away from time zero. This is the weak point in the story. We really don't get a chance to see much of what each period is like, either going back or going forward. All the reader, and the time travelers get, is a brief glimpse of what that era is like.

I was also surprised that, although they were scheduled to travel millions of years into the past and future, no one seemed concerned about possible changes in the atmosphere. This actually posed a threat to one of the brothers, and presumably will to the other on the return leg, if he isn't killed prior to getting to that stop in time.

While reading the novel, I was almost immediately reminded of another novel, A. E. van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher, first published in the early 1950's, in which van Vogt posits a similar time pendulum. To keep it brief, thousands of years in the future, an energy weapon disguised as a large building is trained on one of the Weapon Shops. The Weapon Shop's energy screen causes the two of them to move through time in opposite directions. A man in 1951 enters the Shop and becomes the focus of the energy beam, and he now moves back and forth in time while the energy weapon building moves in the opposite direction, just as Sean and Eric move back and forth in Silverberg's novel.

Since there is no author's foreward or introduction, I can't say for certain that Silverberg was influenced by van Vogt's novel. In addition, I can't find any internal reference that might suggest Silverberg's familiarity with van Vogt's novel.

Overall, Project Pendulum is a lightweight work, a pleasant but forgettable read. A better introduction to Silverberg's work would be Lord Valentine's Castle, The World Inside, At Winter's End, and Shadrach in the Furnace.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sin City--UltraViolence?

Sin City is another entry in the apparently ever-increasing number of films that are based on either comics or graphic novels. I haven't seen many of them, so my comments should be taken as relating to my own limited experience and not to this film category in general. Perhaps others more knowledgeable can comment on the overall state. This film is based on several tales from Frank Miller's graphic novels.

Sex and violence in literature and film generate a discussion, usually when the amount or type exceeds some viewers' tolerance level. The point becomes then whether the amount is necessary or gratuitous. War films are about violence, so violence is expected, and I think a higher level of violence would be acceptable to most viewers or readers than in other genres. The issue of excess violence generally is raised when the violence seems to go beyond some acceptable level and then brings up the question of why. Is it poor taste on the part of the director or others involved in the film? Is it an attempt to distract the viewers from realizing the weakness of the story? Is it a cynical ploy to increase ticket sales?

Sin City, however, seems to have taken the issue of violence to a new level. In this film, violence is neither an integral part of the story or a ploy to increase sales; violence is the story. Remove the violence from the film and not much is left. Someone is killed early in the story and the rest of the film involves torturing and/or killing numerous others as the POV characters try to survive or seek revenge. In this world, killing or torturing others is normal, and many enjoy it, including one or more of the "good guys."

Sin City received an R rating, but I think it should have been NC-17.

That being said, I thought the film was innovative in its use of special effects--a blend of straight filming with animation, computer graphics, and freeze-frame, or so it appeared to me. The film opens with a scene from a balcony overlooking the city. It is mostly dark with, of course, city lights off in the distance. Then a woman walks out onto the balcony in a red dress--a bright red comic book red, that style of coloring that was featured in a "Dick Tracy" movie a decade or so ago. It is startling, and it does attract the viewer's eye. Throughout the film, the action, at times, appeared to be taking place in an animated comic strip. Sorry, about this, but not being an aficionado, I lack the vocabulary. Overall, I found that the technology used made it a very interesting film to watch.

One other point--I was reminded of another film, Pulp Fiction, while watching this. It's been awhile since I watched Pulp Fiction, but it seems to me that there were a number of plot lines in the film, which surprisingly, to me anyway, did not all come together at the end, or so I remember. The characters from the various plots would bump into each other at times, but the resolutions to the plots were independent of each other. This is also true of Sin City. Major characters from one plot line would have a walk-on in anther plot, but would not play a significant role. For example, I think some characters from all plots eventually visited the same bar at one time or another. One of the waitresses waited on the characters in two of the plots and was a major character in the other.

Perhaps I was reminded of Pulp Fiction because it was directed by Quentin Tarentino, and the credits for Sin City list Quentin Tarentino as "guest director."

This is an interesting and innovative film for its use of special effects and technology. However, forget it if you're looking for drama, complex plots, and character development. This universe is a brutal one, and killing is the only solution.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Mystery of Cloomber

I ran into a reference to this work, The Mystery of Cloomber, quite by accident, searching for something else. I know Doyle had written other types of works in addition to his Sherlock Holmes series, but this was one I hadn't heard about before.

This isn't a Holmes-Watson tale, but, frankly, it could have been. It's set in Scotland, off the coast of the Irish Sea. The countryside is described in part as being as unappealing and frightening as the Moor in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

John Fothergill West, his sister, and his father have moved here because of the kindness of his father's stepbrother. The stepbrother, advised by his physician to seek a warmer climate, was going to move to Italy, and he asked John's father if he would like to move into his place while he was gone and act as steward. Being in financial difficulties at the time, the offer was immediately accepted.

Shortly after moving there, John, the POV character, discovered that the long abandoned Cloomber Hall had been taken up once again, apparently by a wealthy family, for considerable money was spent on repairs.

But, this wasn't just an ordinary move into a neighborhood by ordinary people. The family consisted of Major-General J. B. Heatherstone, Ret., his wife and son and daughter. John West first met Heatherstone the night Heatherstone came to look over the place. It was dark, and when Heatherstone saw West in the light of the lantern, he jumped back, became very agitated and remarked that West's skin was very dark, that he wasn't an Englishman. The property agent with Heatherstone reassured him that West was an Englishman and that there was no need to be alarmed. Several days later, they met again in the daylight, and Heatherstone apologized, but again remarked that West was darker than the people in the area usually were. West said it was because he had Spanish blood.

Further curious episodes occurred. Heatherstone had a high fence built entirely surrounding the house and grounds. The maids were from London, thus depriving the villagers of the endless amount of information that could be counted on if some of the domestic staff had been local people. Furthermore, when the Wests' went to pay their first neighborly call on the new family, they found the following sign by the gate:
"General and Mrs. Heatherstone
have no wish to increase the circle
of their acquaintances."

In addition, the Heatherstones become quite popular with the local stores for they lay in a supply of food for months, much as if they expected to be enclosed in a siege.

However, Heatherstone's son and daughter, Mordaunt and Gabriel, respectively, feel quite differently about increasing their circle of acquaintances, and in time John and his sister Esther become well acquainted with Mordaunt and Gabriel. The Wests eventually learn that the Major-General isn't always like this; it is only as they approach Oct. 5 that he becomes so frightened and agitated. Once October 6 arrives, he becomes his old self again, only to fall into a depression as Oct. 5 comes around once again.

The Major-General asks the Wests to be on the lookout for strangers, vagabonds, gypsies, "that sort of people" who arrive in the neighborhood.

A brief search of the India Army list reveals that Major-General Heatherstone had been stationed in India for a number of years and had taken part in several significant and bloody battles.

Curious and curiouser: the man served in India, the mysterious East, the home of wisdom and powers unknown to Europeans; his fear that increased every year as they approached an anniversary? of something; his attempt to build an impregnable fortress and avoid contact with people; and his fear especially of darker skinned people.

I kept expecting Holmes and Watson to appear on the scene. But, I guess they were busy at the time, and I had to go it alone, relying solely upon my own poor powers of deduction.

The inside front cover blurb reads: "Master of detective fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle here presents an extraordinary tale..., revealing his deep fascination with spiritualism and the paranormal."

It's an interesting story, not as strong as Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, but still an interesting short novel.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited is one of the BBC's dramatic productions which appeared in the US on Masterpiece Theatre. I watched about half of it when it first appeared, but conflicts prevented me from viewing the entire 11 episodes. It become one of the "one of these days" projects, and those days finally arrived a week or so ago.

The public library recently acquired the newly remastered set, and I grabbed it as soon as I heard it was available. I had read the book, but it was so long ago that I can't comment on how closely the film version followed the book.

The casting was excellent:

Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder, the POV character, a first year student at Oxford, who is introduced to the less than studious set by

Sebastian Flyte, played by Anthony Andrews, whose beauty and charm make him loved by almost all, except for those faculty and students who believe university life is serious and filled with studying.

Diana Quick, as Julia, Sebastian's sister, much like her brother, a very unconventional young lady.

Claire Bloom, in the role of Lady Marchmain, Sebastian and Diana's mother, whose strong Catholic faith isn't always appreciated by her children and never by her estranged husband

Lord Marchmain, played by Laurence Olivier, who fled England for Venice because of his hatred of his wife.

Sir John Gielgud as Edward Ryder, Charles Ryder's eccentric? father. Gielgud does an outstanding job here playing a role that has to be seen to be appreciated. There's no way I can describe the character of Edward Ryder.

Nickolas Grace plays the flamboyant Anthony Blanche, another student at Oxford whom Ryder meets through Sebastian.


The setting matched the casting: beautiful outdoor scenery while the indoor locations were lavish and striking. The only disappointment was that there were so few scenes set in Venice.

I would rank this as BBC's best production, at least it's the best one I've seen, and I've seen a number of them. It is well worth the 12-13 hours of viewing.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat: Quatrain II

The Second Quatrain in FitzGerald's version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam also was revised when the second version was published. The revised quatrain then remained throughout the remainder of the five editions. I personally prefer the first version.


Quatrain II-- found in First Edition

Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
"Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry."



Quatrain II--Revised and found in Editions 2-5

Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,
"When all the Temple is prepared within,
Why lags the drowsy Worshipper outside?"


I think the overall distinction between the two is that the first version tends to be more poetic, whereas the second is perhaps more straightforward and more easily grasped. "Dawn's Left Hand" becomes the more familiar "False morning" which hints also of "False dawn." A false morning or dawn refers to the transient appearance of light on the eastern horizon shortly before true dawn begins, perhaps as much as an hour earlier. The True Day has not yet begun.

But, why would FitzGerald select "Left Hand" to suggest the False morning? Perhaps it's a reflection of a prevailing prejudice that exists in some languages against left-handers. I can still remember and I know people who were left-handed and were forced in school to write with their right hands. Perhaps they thought they were trying to help the left-hander adapt to a right-handed world.

But, there is another connotation lurking in the perception of the left-handed or left-sided, one that is considerably more prejudicial. For example, the English word "sinister" is defined as "suggesting an evil force or motive, a sinister smile" or "presaging trouble or ominous." A rare meaning is "on the left side." The word derives ultimately from Latin sinister: "left, on the left, hence evil, unlucky (in augury, the left side being regarded as inauspicious." The American Heritage Dictionary includes, in addition to those merely suggesting use of the left-hand, the following definitions for "left-handed" : "awkward, maladroit" and "obliquely derisive, dubious, insincere, left-handed flattery."

If one considers these meanings found in the dictionary, then to refer to the False morning or False dawn as "Dawn's Left Hand" makes more sense.



Original:
Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,

Revision:
Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,


"Dawn's Left Hand" now becomes "the phantom of False morning" which dies, which suggests the transient nature of the false morning. It appears briefly and then disappears into the darkness before the True morning appears.

Moreover, the narrator in the first is dreaming when he heard a voice within the Tavern while the narrator in the second appears to be awake and only thinks he heard a voice. Here we see a change from a dream voice to perhaps a delusion? In both versions though, the Voice comes from within a Tavern, but a phantom, an illusion, more strongly suggests that which doesn't exist. Dreams, on the other hand, in some cultures may be the voice of God or a spirit which takes this method of providing advice or a warning.


Original:
"Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry."

Revision:
"When all the Temple is prepared within,
Why lags the drowsy Worshipper outside?"


The first suggests a wise teacher who sees others as students and advises them to drink before it's too late. This punning on Cup and liquor and the body with its life forces or energies or juices is repeated in several quatrains, especially in those taking place in a pottery shop.

In the second, we see a startling transformation, especially for a society whose religion forbids the use of alcohol. The "Tavern" of the second line now becomes "the Temple" and those awaiting the opening of the Tavern now become "Worshippers." Who might the speaker in the revision be? A priest? God?

Both versions do convey a sense of urgency though: the first warns of the shortness of life, while the second cautions one against being a laggard when all is ready for one, a sense of being late for an appointment.

The frequent references to wine and liquor and taverns have brought about two interpretations of the meanings of those terms. One interpretation is that they mean exactly what they are, and this interpretation provides support for a philosophy that can be summed up as "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." The second is that such references are metaphors for God, the divinity, God's grace or love, and that we should avail ourselves of Divine aid before it's too late.

I think the only way to resolve this is to read FitzGerald's version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and make up your own mind.

Or, could both be true?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Under Western Eyes: Conrad's moral dilemma

Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes is one of his three political novels, the others being The Secret Agent and Nostromo. The Secret Agent is based on a real event, an attempt to blow up the observatory at Greenwich, England, while Nostromo takes place during one of many revolutions in a mythical South American country. The focal point for all three is an attempt to eventually overthrow a government.

However, the three are quite different in concept. Nostromo concerns itself with events during an armed insurrection against a government, which is in power as the result of an earlier insurrection which overthrew the previous government and so on.

The Secret Agent, on the other hand, is set in England. A foreign government, which appears to be Russia, attempts to influence the English government to rescind its policy of being a safe haven for those suspected of terrorist acts against other governments. One of the foreign government's tactics is the use of an agent provocateur to encourage the terrorists to become active in England and thereby eliminate England's tolerance of them.

The third novel, Under Western Eyes, is a two part work. Part One is set in Tsarist Russia, while the Second Part takes place in Geneva, Switzerland, less than a decade prior to the Russian Revolution. The first part centers on a common theme found in many works. I'm sure most readers have encountered a story or a film in which one or more characters have been captured by the enemy and are faced with torture or execution unless they provide what information they have about their comrades.

I suspect that most people would argue that the individual should not give the information even though it meant torture or death, or at least hold out as long as possible. And, I think most would agree that this would be the ideal way for the individual to act, while also recognizing how easy it is to hold to this position when one is not in that position. In any case, the preferred behavior would be to withhold any information that would be harmful to one's cause, even if faced with torture or death.

Conrad, however, varies this theme in a way that makes it difficult, for me at least, to decide which is the appropriate action in this situation. The story is set in St. Petersburg, less than a decade before the Russian revolution. Razumov, the main character, is a student at the university in St. Petersburg. Conrad describes him as follows:

"In discussion he was easily swayed by argument and authority. With his younger compatriots he took the attitude of an inscrutable listener, a listener of the kind that hears you out intelligently and then - just changes the subject.

This sort of trick, which may arise either from intellectual insufficiency or from a imperfect trust in one's own convictions, procured for Mr. Razumov a reputation of profundity...By his comrades...Razumov...was looked upon as a strong nature - an altogether trustworthy man. This, in a country where an opinion may be a legal crime visited by death...meant that he was worthy of being trusted with forbidden opinions. He was liked also for his amiability and for his quiet readiness to oblige his comrades even at the cost of personal inconvenience."

It is this misconception of Razumov that leads almost inevitably to the events that follow. Razumov is seen as one who sympathizes with those opposed to the Tsarist regime and can be trusted. In truth, Razumov has no sympathy for the rebels and is simply one who wants to be left alone so he can finish his studies, gain his degree, and obtain a decent position, probably as a civil servant in that same government.

Although not a close friend, Victor Haldin is acquainted with Razumov and considers him an ally in his struggle against the government. Consequently, when Haldin and another assassinate a high ranking government minister, Haldin goes to Razumov's apartment. He asks Razumov to do two things: first is to allow him to stay there for a few hours and secondly, to contact the man who will help Haldin escape and give him information about when and where to meet later that night.

Razumov is appalled. Here is a man who has just killed a high-ranking government official, two servants of that official, and several innocent bystanders who had come to help after the first bomb had exploded and were killed or injured by the second bomb.

He sees only two possible courses of action: help Haldin or turn him in to the authorities, which would most certainly result in Haldin's execution.

Should he help him? This would certainly make him an accomplice in the death of several individuals. But, on the other hand, could he turn in someone he had known and who had come to him expecting his help? It wasn't his cause, but isn't this a betrayal?

Should he turn him in to the authorities? He didn't believe in Haldin's cause, so he wasn't betraying his comrades or the cause. Haldin had appeared on his own and not because Razumov had promised to help him. Razumov hadn't even been aware of the plot.

Haldin had murdered several people, some of whom were not guilty of being part of an oppressive government. Suppose Haldin had killed several people in the course of a robbery. Would that now make it more acceptable to inform the authorities? In both cases, innocent people had died. Was it more acceptable to kill them for a cause than for money?

There is something else to be considered. If Razumov helps Haldin escape and the government finds out, then Razumov will be considered an accomplice in the plot and most likely will be executed for something he not only wasn't involved in but actually was opposed to. On the other hand, if he goes to the government, they might wonder why Haldin came to him in the first place. Even if this doesn't happen, the government now becomes aware of Razumov, something which one definitely would not want to happen, especially if it's an oppressive government.

Razumov certainly seems to be doomed, whatever he does.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Galapagos: The Enchanted Islands

BBC has another interesting documentary to add to its already superb list. This one is a three part film on the Galapagos Islands, once known as the Encantadas, or the Enchanted Islands. The Galapagos sit on the equator in the South Pacific about 600 miles west of South America. They were first discovered in the 16th century by a ship that was traveling down the west coast of South America and was carried out into the South Pacific by a strong current. More than a century passed before they were found again.

The first part focuses on the geological history of the islands and the various forms of plant and wild life that inhabit them. Part Two relates the story of Charles Darwin's visit to the islands in 1835 and the influence it had upon his thinking about the formation of new species. It, however, was 25 years later that he finally published his revolutionary work, The Origin of Species. The third part considers the various forces, geologic, climatic, and human, that have affected the islands in the past and those that are presently influencing the plant and wildlife on the island. One dismaying point brought up was that on some islands, non-native plants now out number native species.

Darwin wasn't the only one to write about the Galapagos. Some five or six years after Darwin's visit, during the early 1840s, the islands were visited by an American whaling ship, one of whose crew members was Herman Melville. While Darwin took nearly 25 years to publish his work on the Galapagos in 1860, Melville published his novella, The Encantadas, in 1854, approximately ten years after his visit.

I found the documentary to be excellent, and my only gripe is that it wasn't longer. The photography was superb, and the information was presented clearly and straightforwardly. The narrator occasionally came across as though she was bestowing the sacred mysteries upon us, but I didn't find this to be as intrusive as I have in other documentaries.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Hitchcock Classic: Rear Window

A short time ago, I watched one of Hitchcock's classic films, Rear Window, starring Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, and discovered that it was based on a short story written by Cornell Woolrich. I checked the Wikipedia entry for him and found that Rear Window was not the only film that had been made of a story of his but was only one of 26 films that had been based on his short stories and novels. Those who have read some of my previous postings here may have noticed that I enjoy reading stories and watching the films that have been based on those stories and then comparing the two. So, I found Woolrich's short story in The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, edited by Tony Hillerman and published by Houghton Mifflin. One of these days, I will read all of the stories in the book.

Hitchcock followed the main plot line fairly closely, but what he added to the film turned Woolrich's short story into a collection that contained one longer story, that of the murderous husband, and a number of vignettes, all set in that one apartment building. Some of the brief glimpses we get of the other residents actually are developed to the point to where there is a possible resolution--for example, the lonely woman and the composer do meet at the end.

The most significant differences between the short story and the film are Hitchcock's expansion of the brief references to the other residents and the introduction of the romance between Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly. This is something Hitchcock created for the film as there is no reference to any romance in the story. Their relationship provides another subplot in the film, for the Stewart and Kelly characters differ about the course of their relationship, and this raises a question as to the future of their relationship.

Woolrich mentions some of the other residents in the building and provides brief snapshots of them in the beginning of the story. However, they disappear after this and are never referred to again. Hitchcock, on the other hand, shows them to us again and again, even to the point of showing us some of the conflicts and problems that they encounter in their own lives.

Does this harm the story? It does widen the focus, which in the short story is solely on the murderous husband, to include the lives of others which the Stewart character observes as he watches from his rear window. It may reduce the intensity to some extent, but this wider focus adds a dimension not present in the story, that of the irony in which these other residents go through their daily routine, unaware of the drama, a murder, that takes place just an apartment or two away. Normally I am opposed to the practice of adding elements to a film which is based on a story, but in this case, I think it works.

One question arose while I watched the film. He is a voyeur, and I wonder how the other residents would react if they knew he was spying on them as they went about their lives.

I wonder how I would feel if I learned somebody was watching me this way.

Good story and great film--read the story and see the film. What do you think?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Post-Election Thoughts--cont.

I was once a registered Republican, but that was several decades ago. I'm registered as an Independent Voter now.

I've read several articles recently in which some Republicans see Gov. Palin as the one to revitalize the Republican Party because of her strong anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, and pro Christian religious values.

They weren't concerned about her ideas regarding

1. the resolution of the two wars now going on,
2. the economic crisis facing us,
3. the US's deteriorating relationships with what used to be friendly or at least neutral nations,
4. the need to reduce our dependence upon oil for energy,
5. the environmental crisis,
6. and a host of other problems.


I guess I won't be rejoining the Republican Party anytime soon.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Some Post-Election Thoughts

Just some random thoughts after watching the election returns last night.

It felt good to be able to vote for someone, rather than against someone, as I had been doing, unfortunately, for about the past two decades.

I watched both speeches and saw something interesting. When Sen. McCain said that he had called President-Elect Obama to congratulate him, many in the audience starting booing and shouting. Sen. McCain had to quiet the audience several times. When President-Elect Obama said that he had received a call from Sen. McCain, his audience cheered and applauded Sen. McCain.

I don't think Sen. McCain ever fully realized that his tactics, the usual strategy of character-assassination and charges that his opponent was unpatriotic and a terrorist, would actually provoke people's fears to the point of threatening Obama's life, as I saw during one speech that McCain made.

Of course, the "wise ones" all decided that the economy explained McCain's defeat. Well, at least this would help the Republicans justify their loss, although they would be far wiser to really look at what happened. Every expert last night seemed to have forgotten something. President-Elect Obama beat the unbeatable Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, and the economy was not a factor. I think she made the same mistake Sen. McCain made:

It was NOT business as usual yesterday.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

One of my favorite stories by Hemingway is The Old Man and the Sea. It is one of the leanest and sparest stories I know. Hemingway pared away everything except for Santiago and the sea. Santiago is a Cuban fisherman whose luck has turned bad. He hasn't caught a fish in 84 days. The young boy who had been helping him has been sent by his father to another fishing boat because he hasn't been able to bring anything home for almost three months. The story begins as Santiago goes out alone on Day 85, and it tells of his struggle with the sea and the great fish he hooks.

"Santiago" is a good name for the old man who is in his 70s now and has been a fisherman all his life. "Santiago" is Spanish for Saint James, who was one of the first Apostles chosen by Christ. When Christ called him, James was out fishing with his father and brother John, and Christ called James and his brother John to follow him and be "fishers of men" instead.

Santiago is not a 21st century sportsman who fishes to demonstrate his skill and who feels separate from the web of life. Santiago fishes for survival and understands that he is like the fish he preys on, for they too prey on other fish in order to survive. We see this as he talks to the great fish and to the sea and asks them for their help.

Two films have been made of this story. The first was made in 1958; it was directed by Jud Taylor and starred Spencer Tracy. The second was a "made for TV" film and appeared in 1990, directed by John Sturges. It starred Anthony Quinn.

Both have serious flaws. Ironically, a truly great version could have been made if Jud Taylor, the director of the 1958 version, had been able to cast Anthony Quinn in the role of Santiago. Taylor's version was the closest to the story as Hemingway wrote it. It gave us Santiago and his struggle with the sea just as Hemingway presented it to us. The weakest part, for me anyway, was the casting of Spencer Tracy. I have enjoyed watching Tracy in a number of films, but I just couldn't see him as a poor Cuban fisherman. Every few minutes some part of me would insist that he just wasn't Santiago, but someone playing a role.

The 1990 version, directed by John Sturges, was far more fortunate in the casting of Anthony Quinn as Santiago. I thought he was completely convincing as Santiago, a poor Cuban fisherman, getting old, and desperately trying to maintain his independence, in spite of his age.

Sturges, unfortunately, just had to "improve" this story, or perhaps he felt that the average American TV viewer just wouldn't be bothered watching the story as Hemingway wrote it. So, Sturges added a few things, one of which was a brief bio by the bartender at the local hotel, and which served no purpose whatsoever to the story.

A second "improvement" was the addition of Santiago's "daughter" who insisted that he was too old to be on his own anymore and wanted him to move in with her and her husband. He could just spend the rest of his life drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. She also feared what the neighbors would say if she left him out there on his own. They would blame her for not taking proper care of her father.

However, the most annoying insertion was that of an "author" and his wife who were staying at the hotel. The author probably was supposed to be Hemingway himself as the author became interested in the old man and his failure to catch fish. Could the author's suggested "writer's block" be analogous to Santiago's inability to catch fish?

The film switched back and forth from Santiago to the author and occasional flashbacks of interactions with his daughter. This seriously interrupted the intensity of the fight between Santiago and the great fish and the subsequent struggle to bring the fish back. We may have been with Santiago half of the time, but those scenes were so weakened by the interruptions that the intensity of Santiago's struggles was severely diminished.

Of course, there were no authors, with or without blocks, or daughters in Hemingway's version, nor was there a bartender who came to Cuba years ago.

I think directors such as John Sturges do a disservice to the author, to the story, and to the audience when they water down the original story as he has done. His additions have attenuated the intensity of the struggle between Santiago and the sea and probably leave many in the audience wondering what it was all about. They certainly didn't get the story as Hemingway envisioned it, and they are the losers.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Akutagawa's short story: In a Grove

One of Kurosawa's best known films is Rashomon, the story of a rape and death from three different points of view: the husband, the wife, and the bandit. Kurosawa adapted this film from two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, considered by some to be one of Japan's top writers in the 20th century.

The film was remade in 1964. The director is Martin Ritt, and the cast of characters includes Paul Newman as the bandit, Laurence Harvey as the husband, Claire Bloom, as the wife. In the frame, Edward G. Robinson plays the role of the con man/thief and William Shatner (Capt Kirk of Star Trek fame) is the preacher. Unfortunately, I've been unable so far to find a copy of this film on DVD. It would be fascinating to see what Hollywood did with this gem by Kurosawa.

The core of the film's story is based on Akutagawa's short story, "The Grove" (aka "The Cedar Grove," "The Willow Grove," "In a Grove," or "The Bamboo Grove").  The film's title comes from another short story by Akutagawa, "Rashomon," which provides the setting for the film's frame of the three men telling the story in an abandoned town gate. The gate does exist, according to all accounts that I've read.

In a collection of Akutagawa's short stories, Rashomon and 17 Other Stories, Jay Rubin, who translated the stories and provided notes for them, says that Akutagawa's inspiration for "The Grove" and for "Rashomon" came from tales from the 12th century. I'm presently searching for those now.

Rubin, however, goes on to say that another source for "The Grove" might be a short story by Ambrose Bierce, of whom Akutagawa was an enthusiastic supporter. This story, "The Moonlit Road," I was able to find on the internet.

Bierce's story is told in the form of separate statements by each of the three--the Son, the Father, and the Mother, whose tale had to be told through a medium since she had been murdered.

The commonalities between Bierce's tale and Akutagawa's are twofold. First, the format is the same as both tell the story in the form of separate statements by various individuals involved in the incident. There is no interplay among those making the statements.  Secondly, the last statement in both stories has to be told through a medium or shaman (in the Japanese version) because the individual is dead at the time of the telling of the story. It is this person's death that is the mystery that is to be resolved by the various statements.

I don't know, just now, the importance of Bierce's tale, "The Moonlit Road," for Akutagawa's story, but I'm curious enough to attempt to find the 12th century source for "The Grove." Perhaps that might provide some clues. Besides, it's always interesting to read the source for a particular work and see just what the later author did with the original material.

Rashomon is a great film, and I recommend it highly. The short stories are also quite good, both Akutagawa's and Bierce's.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Greater Good

Democracies work, more or less, on the utilitarian principle that the good of the majority outweighs that of the minority--the greater good. In other words, some suffering is acceptable if the good outweighs the evil that might result from a particular action or law or process. For example, some people may lose their homes or jobs if it is determined that such losses will result in a greater good for the majority.

The question that bothers me is to what extent this may be carried out. At least three works that I'm aware of have either mentioned this point or based the story completely on this issue.

One of the first works that I can find that has brought up this issue is Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, the skeptical brother, in a discussion with Alyosha, his younger brother who is a novice monk, brings up the issue in a discussion about justice--how could a just God have created a world so filled with evil in which good people suffer and evil people flourish?

At one point he poses the following hypothetical situation to Alyosha, "Tell me straight out, I call on you--answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at least, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears--would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth."

Peace and happiness for the human race--but at the cost of one child's suffering. Is that going too far with the philosophy of the greater good?


A second work one might read is a short story by Ursula Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." In this story, Le Guin posits such a perfect society and goes into considerable detail describing it. While some might not like this society, many would consider it an ideal world. However, there is a catch--as the old cliche goes, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." In the story, Le Guin describes the life of one small child that resembles horror stories that emerge in the news media about a dreadful example of child abuse--a child being locked in a dark room for years, with no sanitary facilities, physical and mental abuse alternating with complete isolation.

She continues: "They all come to know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvests and the kindly weathers of the skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery."

If that child were released, then "in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one..."

The title, of course, points out that there are some who cannot accept this situation and leave. But, most stay. Are they monsters?


A third version of this hypothetical situation is found in Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X. This tale differs in that it isn't one child who suffers for the good of the whole, but each member unknowingly, as an infant, undergoes a procedure that produces an idyllic society. In one sense they are now less than they could be, but their lives appear to be happier and more satisfying and creative than any contemporary society today. In fact, it is quite similar to Omelas. In this case, the issue is that the members of this society do not have the chance to make a decision, for it is made for them as infants and most do not know the true situation. The question is therefore whether the authorities in this society are justified in their decision to not allow each member to decide whether to undergo the procedure. Could they fear that most might not agree?

These are all hypothetical or fictional situations, but the principles behind them are not. I wonder what I might say if I were really in an actual situation similar to ones posited in the three stories--to exchange the complete happiness and joy of thousands or more people for the suffering of one person. I wonder which is the greater good.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat: Quatrain I

A favorite of mine is Edward FitzGerald's translation? or perhaps a paraphrase? of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat. The problem is, simply--which version? FitzGerald published five editions, with the number of stanzas or quatrains ranging from 75 in the first edition to as many as 110 in the second. I've glanced through translations by others, and while they may be, as some have claimed, closer to the original, I find them much less interesting. Perhaps the best way would be to say that Fitzgerald's versions are inspired by Khayyam's.


One example of a variance occurs in the first quatrain:

First Edition Version

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.


Second Edition Version

Wake! For the Sun behind yon Eastern height
Has chased the Session of the Stars from Night;
And, to the field of Heaven's ascending, strikes
The Sultan's Turret with a Shaft of Light.


Significant differences? The first seems more poetic while the second more prosaic, to me anyway. He's replaced "Morning in the Bowl of Night" with "the Sun behind yon Eastern height." In the first version, it is "Morning" that is active, having flung a stone, the Sun, which chases away the Stars while in the second, it is the appearance of the Sun, rising in the East, that chases the stars. The Sun changes from being employed by another in the first to being the actor in the drama.

In the first edition, we read of the "Hunter of the East," the Sun, which captures the Turret in a noose of light. The second also brings in the Sun, but this time it captures nothing, but simply strikes the Turret with a Shaft of light. But this does bring with it an echo of the "Hunter" of the first stanza with the reference to a Shaft, perhaps a spear used in hunting.

The first is a bit more complex, I think, for it begins with Morning who flings a stone (perhaps from sling carried by hunters and warriors?) that drives away the stars, and that stone then is revealed as the Sun, who becomes a hunter that uses a noose of light to capture the Sultan's Turret.

The second gives us the Sun that rises from Eastern heights, chases away the stars, and rising, strikes the Turret with a shaft of light. While to call the Sun's rays a shaft is probably more accurate, visually, the noose of light is more fanciful and suggests something that lasts longer than simply being struck by a shaft. The Sultan's Turret will be captured by the Sun all day, not just struck once in the morning.


While FitzGerald uses the second version for the remaining editions, I frankly prefer the first- a case of not fixing something that isn't broken.



Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Tana French: Two novels--Psychological or Police Procedurals?

Tana French's first two novels are strange ones. The two are linked in that they are supposedly police procedurals, involving Dublin's Murder Squad (which doesn't exist according to French) in action, but the focus is almost as strong, if not stronger, on the psychological aspects. The plots are relatively straightforward and uncomplicated. Those who have read a number of mysteries will be able to "solve" the crime long before the last page. However, saying that doesn't take away from the enjoyment of watching two of French's cops go about their jobs in a highly professional manner, most of the time, while hampered by certain unprofessional doubts and, to a greater extent, the past. In fact, it is their own past that provides the major hurdle for them, for the murders themselves in the two novels do not provide the focus of interest; it is the past of the officers involved in the investigation that makes these two novels absorbing.

For example, in her first novel, In the Woods, a young girl is murdered outside a small town, in the vicinity of an archaeological dig, which sets the tone. The association of her murder with delving into the past is felt most strongly by the officer in charge of the investigation--Robert (Rob) Ryan. Actually, that isn't his full name; it is Adam Robert Ryan. Ryan dropped his first name to conceal his identity. Years ago as a young boy, he was involved in the disappearance and possibly the murder of his two best friends. They had gone up the same hill that the body of the young girl was discovered. Hours later, a search party found Ryan in shock, wearing bloody tennis shoes. His two friends were never found. He had blanked out the events of that afternoon and wasn't able to say what happened. His two friends are missing to this day.

When the body of the murdered girl was discovered, Ryan had to struggle with memories, he thought had been buried and long forgotten. He had dropped his first name. Nobody knew of his association with the earlier disappearance. But, he should have informed his superiors of this involvement with the earlier crime and handed over the investigation to another officer. Instead, he decided to keep his connection with the earlier crime hidden.

However, others soon wondered if there was a link between this murder and the disappearance of the two young people a decade or more ago. Part of the pressure now on Ryan was the fear that he would eventually be identified.

The novel concentrates on the effects of the investigation on Ryan and of the conflict brought about by his surfacing memories from the past. The novel is more about Ryan and the psychological battles he fought during the investigation than it is about the murdered young girl, especially during the second part of the novel.

Those who prefer stories that conclude with all the loose ends neatly and nicely tied up will be disappointed/frustrated with this one. And, it is deliberate also, not just carelessness on the part of a young writer. This may be her first novel, but French knows what she's about.

Her second novel, The Likeness, picks up, sort of, about six months later. Rob Ryan's partner, with whom he had a close relationship, Cassie Maddox, has transferred to the Domestic Violence Squad, for she was one of the psychologically walking wounded, a victim of the investigation. She now has a boyfriend, Sam O'Neill, whom she met during the investigation. He is still with the Murder Squad, so when he calls her one morning, in shock, and pleads with her to come out to the scene of a murder, she agrees, more out of curiosity than any conscious desire to get involved. She is aware that Frank Mackey, head of the undercover division for the Dublin police, is also on the scene.

The victim is a young woman who turns out to be the exact double of Cassie Maddox, which is why O'Neill was in shock. At first he thought it was her. According to the identification she's carrying, her name is Alexandra (Lexie) Madison. When O'Neill had a police computer search done on her name, Frank Mackey turned up because he had had the name flagged. Any inquiries about Alexandra Madison would be brought to his attention.

And, just as in the first novel, the past of a police officer rears up to complicate her life. Prior to her assignment to the Murder Squad, Cassie Maddox had been with the undercover squad, and her boss was Frank Mackey. Together they created an identity for her. She was a student at the local college, attempting to get information about drug dealing on campus. Her false identity was Alexandra Madison.

The victim not only looked like her twin, but she had also taken on the false identity created for Cassie. Lexie Madison was a student at a different college this time, having "dropped" out of the college that Cassie had been working on. She was living with four others in a large house, and the five of them were known on campus as a closeknit and exclusive group.

Mackey got the "brilliant" idea of having Cassie substitute for the murdered woman. They would say that she was stabbed, but that she was found in time to save her life. Cassie would go undercover once again, pretending to be the woman who was murdered while pretending to be Cassie's undercover identity. One more point, Cassie left the undercover group when one of the drug dealers went psycho and stabbed her, not because he found her out but because she just happened to be there at the wrong time.

Again, the murder plot is not complex or complicated. The focus, again, is on Cassie's relationship to the victim, who had assumed her identity. Her acceptance by the victim's friends placed her in an extremely close and warm relationship with four interesting and intelligent people, and this, together with her increasing identification with the murder victim, resulted in a certain estrangement between Cassie and the police. She began to identify with the victim's friends and to defend them to Mackey and O'Neill, who were beginning to wonder about one of the victim's friends.

In both novels, then, the primary interest is not so much on the victim, but upon the investigating officers whose own history, along with a problem of identity, provided the most intriguing complication and complexity in the two.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Huxley and Orwell

According to A Book of Days for the Literary World, Aldous Huxley began his teaching career on September 18, 1917, when he was hired as schoolmaster at Eton. Among his pupils was Eric Arthur Blair, probably better known by his pen name, George Orwell.

Aldous Huxley is the author of one of the two best known dsytopias in the English language, Brave New World, published in 1932. It is set against the backdrop of a benevolent dictatorship, which keeps the population under control by early childhood conditioning, easy access to soma, a happy drug, and the promotion of sexual behavior with many partners. The second dystopia is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, which depicts a repressive regime that rules with terror and fear. It's image is that of a boot, perpetually grinding a face into the dirt.

The two works differ considerably, so there has been little discussion about possible influences the two may have had upon each other. Most discussions have been on the differences between the two tales and on the likelihood of either coming more or less true.

Both novels give the impression that the situation is permanent with little possibility of change. Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the more outwardly repressive of the two, seems to be closest to the repressive regimes in Hitler's Germany and the Soviet Union under the communists. Later events showed that both had flaws which brought about their downfall.

Huxley's Brave New World on the other hand relies not on repressive measures, on terror, and on outright elimination of possible opponents. Instead, the state provides a wide diversity of activities which keeps the populace under control. Secondly, the state also uses conditioning techniques, possibly based on research by American behaviorist, John B. Watson, beginning in early childhood to make the populace happy and satisfied with its lot, whatever that may be.

Another significant difference is that Nineteen Eighty-Four has no refuge for those who may wish to escape, for the entire planet is divided into three warring camps, with little difference among them. Opponents or dissidents, when captured, are tortured and brainwashed into publicly confessing their crimes and declaring their complete support for the State, which is reminiscent of the trials in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

However, in Brave New World, the State has set aside an island for those who are dissatisfied and are likely to be a disrupting influence, where the inhabitants are left on their own. Secondly, in North America, there is the reservation where the inhabitants are also allowed to live as they choose. However, the reservation is also a tourist attraction, and visits there are encouraged by the State so that its citizens can experience first hand the poverty and disease and misery that the State is protecting them from.

Of the two, I would judge Brave New World as the most likely to succeed. It's hard to argue against a regime that works so hard to keep its people happy, well-fed, and satisfied. The populace is safe and secure--so who needs freedom?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Robert Frost: a terrifying poet?

Robert Frost has always been one of my favorite poets; therefore when I heard that Lionel Trilling, in a speech at a dinner given in Frost's honor, called him "a terrifying poet," I had to take a close look at this. I found the article that contained his speech. I read the speech. I reread those poems that Trilling had cited, "Design" and "Neither Out Far nor In Deep." I also reread a number of his other poems, and I had to agree with Trilling that there was much in Frost's works that I had missed. At the end of his speech, Trilling turns to Frost and says:

"Like you, Sophocles was the poet his people loved the most. Surely they loved him in some part because he praised their common country. But I think that they loved him chiefly because he made plain to them the terrible things of human life: they felt, perhaps, that only a poet who could make plain the terrible things could possibly give them comfort."

One poem that Trilling didn't mention was "Out, Out--," and this one has struck me as being an excellent example of some of "the terrible things of human life" that Trilling mentions. I have placed the poem at the end of this post for those who wish to read or reread it.

The title comes from Macbeth's soliloquy after hearing that Lady Macbeth has committed suicide. The entire quote is:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

His soliloquy suggests that life is short, a "brief candle," and meaningless--"a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing." What has this to do with Frost's poem?

It is the story of a young boy who was distracted while cutting wood with a buzz saw. Frost begins the poem by describing the saw as an animal either about to attack or in search of prey--"The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard" and again, seven lines later, "And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled."

His sister calls him to supper, and as she does,

"As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap--"


The boy realized the significance of what had happened,

"He saw all spoiled. 'Don't let him cut my hand off--
The doctor when he comes. Don't let him sister.'
So. But the hand was gone already.
...
And then--the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little--less--nothing! and that ended it."


The boy knew how important that hand was for a farmer during the early days of the 20th century. He c0uld have lived for he was young and strong and healthy. The doctor was there. Why did he die? Perhaps this explains why, "He saw all spoiled."

This is a distressing poem about a young boy who died too soon, but this happens. It was just a momentary loss of concentration; he was distracted for a second, but the consequences far surpassed the events that brought it about.

But, this is not all there is to the story: there are those last lines of the poem to consider:

"Little--less--nothing!--and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs."

How does one read those last two lines? with shock? dismay? -- at the heartlessness of his family who, "since they/ Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs." It is one thing to say that life must go on, but does this go beyond even that commonplace encouragement?


Once again, Trilling ended his speech by saying: "But I think that they loved him chiefly because he made plain to them the terrible things of human life: they felt, perhaps, that only a poet who could make plain the terrible things could possibly give them comfort."

After reading Trilling's comments about Frost, it is now impossible for me to see Robert Frost as simply a rural, regional, bucolic poet who celebrates the beauties of nature and the simple rural life.



"Out, Out--"
The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside them in her apron
To tell them "Supper." At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy's first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man's work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. "Don't let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don't let him, sister!"
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
-- Robert Frost --

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Now that's a familiar face.

I enjoy watching old TV shows. Aside from the usual reasons--interesting characters,themes, plots, and setting--I also have fun recognizing those who were just starting their careers and later became stars of their own shows in the following years.

I just finished a DVD which contained a number of episodes of a favorite Western of mine--Have Gun Will Travel-- starring Richard Boone as Paladin. Boone was a great actor who definitely wasn't just another pretty face. Aside from the usual number of vaguely familiar faces of the supporting cast, I recognized four very young people, who would later go on with careers of their own, either on TV or on film, or both.

One was Charles Bronson, who played numerous roles as a villain or a good guy and was convincing in both, and also some roles that fit uneasily in between. Perhaps his most famous role was that of Paul Kersey, the revenge-seeking architect, whose wife and daughter were attacked by a group of thugs, in the memorable Death Wish. He went on to reprise that role four more times. While most people would probably condemn vigilantism, the same people no doubt would cheer Kersey on as he blows away another gang of bad guys.

Another familiar face on the DVD was Jack Lord, who later gained fame on our island state as Steve McGarrett, head of Hawaii 5-0. He also starred in a short lived series as Stoney Burke, a rodeo rider.

A third was Mike Conners, who had a long and busy career also, but probably is best remembered as Mannix, the PI in the long-running TV show of the same name. The show ran for 8 years, from 1967 to 1975, or 194 episodes.

The fourth face was familiar, but I just couldn't put a name to her until I saw the cast listing--Angie Dickinson. She has numerous film credits, including the two "Big Bad Mama" films and Dressed to Kill. The two I most remember her from are Rio Bravo with John Wayne, and Captain Newman, MD with Gregory Peck. A glance at her TV credits suggests that it would be impossible to watch TV for more than two or three days without seeing her at least once. Her most notable TV role was that of Sgt. Pepper Anderson on Police Woman, which ran for 91 episodes, from 1974 to 1978.

Have Gun Will Travel, I think anyway, holds up well. I remember, though, feeling the same frustration watching the episodes now as I did some fifty years ago: the shows were just too short.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Same Character? but a new face?

Television shows have a problem with long-running series that may cover 5 or more years. Things happen and the familiar faces sometimes must change. Sometimes the actor dies or perhaps is injured and can't continue. Sometimes a dispute arises, for a variety of reasons, and the actor leaves. This introduces a serious problem for the producers. What do they do now that an acter is no longer available? In some cases, they can write in an accident or illness and simply kill off the character. In other cases, it's not that simple--especially if character is THE lead.

I saw a film last night that exemplified this problem and also one way to solve it, or at least attempt to solve it. The show was a mystery series based on novels by P. D. James. Her lead character was Commander Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, who was played by Roy Marsden in the first eleven dramatizations of her novels.

To be precise, I hadn't read any of her mysteries before I first encountered them on PBS' Mystery Theatre. I found the dramatizations so interesting that I started reading her novels and got hooked. Of course, when I read the novels, I pictured Roy Marsden as Commander Dalgliesh. And, so it went, for eleven dramatizations. To me anyway, "Roy Marsden IS Commander Adam Dalgliesh."

Then, something happened; someone else took over the role of Dalgliesh--Martin Shaw. I had never heard of him, so I had no opinion about him prior to viewing the film. After viewing the program, I must admit I was disappointed. It isn't that Martin Shaw is a poor actor; he is a poor replacement for Roy Marsden.

Roy Marsden is quite tall; he is easily spotted in a crowded room. He is a dominating presence. Martin Shaw is considerably shorter. Several times during the film when the scene opened in a room in which there were a number of people, it took a while for me to find Dalgliesh, which never would have happened if Marsden had been in the role. Moreover, even in the one-on-one scenes, Marsden is clearly in control, while Shaw usually takes a back seat to the other character.

Marsden's facial features are a bit on the harsh or rugged side, with piercing eyes that seem to be looking deep into you. Shaw is almost round-faced with mild eyes, a rather bland individual actually. He clearly, to me anyway, is not the commanding Dalgliesh that Marsden was. Again, he is not a bad actor; he is the victim of bad casting.

As I watched, I was reminded of Alec Guinness in his superb portrayal of Le Carre's everyman spymaster--George Smiley. Guinness portrayed him as a quiet and unassuming, almost shy individual, a perfect spy since he is the sort of person that most people wouldn't notice and would soon forget, even if they did. Guinness, unfortunately, died eight years ago. However, there are still two Smiley novels that haven't been dramatized. I think Martin Shaw would make an excellent George Smiley. He doesn't really look like Guinness, but he's the quiet, retiring individual that Le Carre created in his novels.

I think that the producers of the James mysteries decided that they wouldn't try to replace Marsden physically but would substitute someone obviously the opposite, and someone who, moreover, doesn't fit James' description of Dalgliesh in her novels. Perhaps they thought that, by substituting somebody so different from Marsden, the viewers would soon forget Marsden and accept Shaw. It doesn't work for me. Fortunately James' novels have complex and interesting characters and plots, so I watch the dramatizations for those elements. I wonder what P. D. James thinks of the substitution.

Why the switch? Nobody knows for sure, but there are several rumors floating around. One rumor is that the change took place when the show went from ITV to BBC but nobody knows why that might have caused the change. Another rumor is that Marsden suddenly developed a severe case of stage fright and just couldn't perform anymore, which forced the producers to go with someone else. The third rumor is that Marsden just got tired of playing Dalgliesh.

I looked at Marsden's history on imdb.com and picked up two items. He was a very busy actor, with numerous credits to his record. However just before his last Dalgliesh role, the number of roles he played dropped considerably. Now that may simply be the effect of the Dalgliesh role, which usually lasted from 4 to six episodes per mystery, while most of his other roles only lasted one episode. So, one James' mystery meant four or more episodes, which also reduced his free time to some extent.

The second item of interest was that, again according to imdb.com, Marsden did not have a single role between 1998 and 2004, a six year gap. Is this a real gap or did he work, but whoever created the listing missed six years of work. Regardless, in 2004, he went back to work and has been busy ever since, unfortunately not as Commander Adam Dalgliesh though.

A second example of changing actors in the middle of a series is the switch from Ian Carmichael to Edward Petherbridge in the role of Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayers' mysteries. Ian Carmichael is a tall fellow and a bit of a stout fellow. Edward Petherbridge looks like someone whose name is Petherbridge should look like--a stereotype, to be sure. He's small, blond, wiry, fussy, possibly neurotic, and a bit frantic, a sort of Woody Allen, British style. I frankly prefer Ian Carmichael.

However, I did hear, and confirmed it for myself, that Petherbridge is actually closer to Sayers' description than Carmichael is. However, whenever I read a "Lord Peter" novel, it's Carmichael I see, not Petherbridge.

I have no idea and haven't even been able to come up with any rumors as to why the change was made.

So, here are two examples in which the main character in a continuing and popular series is changed to someone who is almost completely the opposite physically, and certainly different in the way he portrays the character. In the first case, the original actor, Marsden, was much closer to the description in the novel, and in the second, the replacement actor was closer to the character in the novel. However, I prefer the original actor.

I guess that says something.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit

_Martin Chuzzlewit_ may be one of Dickens' least known novels. Moreover, most references to the novel generally focus on one part of the novel, young Martin Chuzzlewit's trip to the United States and its unfavorable portrayal of the inhabitants. As it has been many years since I read the novel, my comments are based on the BBC adaptation of the novel (which I just viewed) that stars Paul Scofield as Martin Chuzzlewit, the grandfather.

The overall plot details the trials and tribulations of a number of people, but I guess the core plot would be the separation between Martin Chuzzlewit, a rich old man, and his grandson, also named Martin Chuzzlewit.

However, I think that there are strong arguments that the true name of the novel should be _Seth Pecksniff_. I think Pecksniff is one of Dickens' greatest creations. He is arrogant, deceptive, sanctimonious, brutal to those he has power over, sycophantic and obsequious to those more powerful than he. At the end, I realized that I had missed something significant about him; he is also truly self-deceptive. I almost felt sorry for him at his downfall at the end.

There is also an argument for considering Tom Pinch the major character, but while he is prominent throughout, he for the most part is passive, although he does grow in stature at the end. In addition, he seems to be the only "good" character who doesn't marry his true love at the end, for he has fallen in love with Mary, the orphan ward of the senior Martin Chuzzlewit, and she is true to her first love, the young Martin Chuzzlewit.

As can be expected, Dickens has filled the work with memorable secondary characters--two of whom are free-lance nurses, who unfortunately were nearly unintelligible to me.

Good film for those who like a story with a number of subplots and a wildly assorted cast of characters.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Star Trek

One of the many marvelous opportunities granted by retirement is that of reducing my OOTD list. OOTD stands for "One of these days." Those were things I wanted to do or read or view or visit, but never seemed to have the time. Well, now I've got some time.

One of my OOTDs was to see in its entirety the movie _Forbidden Planet_. I finally managed to do that some time ago. Another OOTD that I just eliminated was viewing the initial pilot for _Star Trek_, the one that never made it to the screen during the series' initial run 1966.

Forty years ago! Has it really been that long ago?

As all Trek fans know, the pilot was "The Cage" and the captain of the Enterprise was Christopher Pike, played by Jeffery Young. The pilot was rejected by the network, and Roddenberry had to submit another one, which finally was accepted.

I've seen parts of it over the years, mostly as part of a two-part episode, "The Menagerie," broadcast later, as an attempt to get some use out of it. At other times, I tuned in too late to see the whole episode when it was being rerun.

So, last night I loaded up my DVD player with a disc that contained three episodes: "Turnabout Intruder," "The Cage," and "The Cage" in color. It was interesting to view "The Cage," the pilot episode, back-to-back with "Turnabout Intruder," which was the last _Star Trek_ episode that was broadcast.

The first version of "The Cage" was a mix of color and black-and-white. The remastered version was completely in color. I watched both and the only major difference I could see was in the voice of the chief alien. His voice was deeper in the b&w version.

The crew of the pilot had vanished except for two characters: Mr. Spock, who actually smiled in the pilot, something he wouldn't do again, I think, for at least a year or more, and Majel Barrett, who played No. 1, second in command of the Enterprise, and later appeared as Nurse Chapel. It was rather daring in 1968 to have a female character a heartbeat away from the top spot. And, in fact, she took command of the Enterprise when Capt. Pike was captured and, moreover, was depicted as performing competently.

The bridge of the Enterprise was generally the same, although some changes had been made. It appeared much smaller and consequently much more crowded in the pilot. One element that disappeared in the series was the sight of crew members carrying clipboards and getting paper printouts from what I presume is the ship's computer. After the pilot, the clipboards disappeared, and the ship's computer gained a voice.

As with most of the episodes, "The Cage" made a point that is even more relevant today than it was some 40 years ago. The issue was whether Capt Pike would accept his imprisonment, regardless of how pleasant it was, and regardless of whatever illusions the aliens could provide (they could read his mind so they knew what his deepest desires were) or would choose die if he couldn't be free. And, it was No. 1 who set her weapon to explode and kill the humans rather than be enslaved.

Today, we seem to have traded in that desire for freedom for a false sense of security.

Now, on to episode 2.