Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Anthony Powell: A Dance to the Music of Time: Vol 1, Spring

Anthony Powell
A Dance to the Music of Time
Vol. 1,  Spring
A Question of Upbringing
A Buyer's Market
The Acceptance World

One of the most common adjectives applied to this work is "monumental."   It's also been used to describe other works, but this is one of the few times when it is applicable and fitting.  A Dance to the Music of Time is now published as a set of four novels:  Vol. 1 or Spring, Vol. 2 or Summer, Vol. 3 or Autumn, and Vol. 4 or Winter. Each volume consists of three novels, for example the three listed make up Vol. 1.  In all there are twelve novels, one for each month of the year.

When I get around to rereading the set,  I shall begin on the first day of Spring of whatever year that happens to be and then cover one novel a month.  Perhaps then I shall do a more in-depth look at the work.  For now, the best I can do is a brief overview of each of the volumes.

Rather than stumble about trying to describe the overall theme of the work, I'll let Powell do it.  Jenkins musing is brought about when he gazes at Poussin's painting, A Dance to the Music of Time.
(click on the painting for a larger image)


     The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: on breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.

The first novel begins shortly after the end of WWI,  with four young boys:  Nick Jenkins, Kenneth Widmerpool, Charles Stringham, and Peter Templer.  They are finishing schooling, preparatory to entering the university.   At the university, Nick Jenkins, the POV character, meets other students and faculty members who will play a role in his future.  At the same time, his close association with the other three begins to weaken.

The second and third novels provide a picture of university life and the decade after leaving the university as they attempt to establish themselves in the larger world: to find their own places in the social world as well as developing their careers, in the world of the arts, business, and government.  The world they live in is the world of the English middle class. The third novel ends with the four characters in their early thirties and in the early 1930's as well.

Jenkins encounters at varying stages the other three young men as they struggle to establish themselves, as well as some of the faculty from the university.  The various encounters he has with those from his past also bring forward others who will play a role in his future.   He is frequently surprised to find that his earlier judgements of people prove wrong or incomplete as he sees them succeeding in their ventures or slowly disintegrating as the struggle for existence takes its toll on them.

This is a complex work and will require time to fully appreciate it.  It's not a work to be picked up now and then for 15 or 20 minutes at a time.  Perhaps one novel a month might be the wisest schedule.   

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ray Bradbury: The Kilimanjaro Device

Ray Bradbury's "The Kilimanjaro Device"
a short story found in the collection  I Sing the Body Electric

Did the title jog your memory a bit?  Perhaps remind you of another story by an American writer?  Who does the following quotation from the story suggest?

     "Oh, he had readers all right, all kinds of readers.  Even me.  I don't touch books from one autumn to the next.  But I touched his.  I think I liked the Michigan stories best.  About the fishing. I think the  stories about the fishing are good.  I don't think anybody ever wrote about fishing that way and maybe won't ever again.  Of course, the bullfight stuff is good, too.   But that's a little far off.  Some of the cowpokes like them;  they been around the animals all their life.  A  bull here or a bull there, I guess it's the same.  I know one cowpoke has read just the bull stuff in the Spanish stories of the old man's forty times.  He could go over there and fight, I swear."

One last clue:  The narrator refers to "the old man" as "Papa."  Of course, the style Bradbury adopts in this story is also a clue:  short declarative sentences, usually the straightforward subject-verb-object form.  Everything is concrete and definite.

But the point of the story is rather unusual, which isn't surprising since it's a tale by Ray Bradbury.  The narrator is on a mission, which is why he has come to this small town where the "old man" is buried.  He reveals his mission to a local hunter, the one who was quoted above.

     "'You  been up to the grave yet?'  asked; the hunter, as if he knew I would answer yes.
     'No,' I said.
     'Why not?'
     ' Because it's the wrong grave.,' I said.
     'All graves are wrong graves when you come down to it,' he said.
     'No,' I said. 'There are right graves and wrong ones, just as there are good times to die and bad times.'
     He nodded at this.  I had come back to something he knew, or at least smelled was right.
     'Sure, I knew men.' he said, 'died just perfect.  You always felt, yes, that was good.  One man I knew, sitting at the table waiting for supper, his wife in the kitchen, when she came in with a big bowl of soup, there he was sitting dead and neat at the table.  Bad for her, but, I mean, wasn't that a good way for him?  No sickness. No nothing but sitting there waiting for supper to come and never knowing if it came or not.'"

As you can see, the story is going in a strange direction.  What does this have to do with the grave on the hill that is the wrong grave?  The grave is that of Ernest Hemingway, although it is never stated.  However, the clues given above clearly suggest it is Papa Hemingway, who committed suicide in 1961 and was buried in Ketchum, Idaho.  There's also  a time machine involved, sort of a "psychic time machine" that is.

Time machine stories generally fall into two broad categories.  There's type in which the time travelers go solely as observers, fearing to do something, anything  which would change history and perhaps eliminate them.  Frequently though, they end up doing exactly what they feared.  Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of  Thunder" is a variation of that type of story.  The travelers go back, intending to hunt dinosaurs, but they kill only those dinosaurs that will die within a few minutes anyway, thereby reducing the risk of changing the future.  But.  .  .

The second type of time traveler is the one who goes back intending to change history.  There generally two types of these.  One type involves those who go back to kill someone who had a major and deleterious effect (in their minds anyway) on history--I have read several stories in which someone goes back in order to kill Adolf Hitler, thereby reducing the possibility of WWII and the holocaust.   A second type depicts the efforts of those who attempt to save someone from being killed--Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy, for example.

But, neither of these is exactly what the narrator has in mind.

SPOILER:  The following reveals the story and the narrator's mission.  

The focus in the story is on dying at the right time.  As I mentioned above,  Hemingway committed suicide after living several years in pain and ill health, the result of an hereditary disease that affected several members of his family, some of whom either died from the disease or committed suicide.  Another contributing factor was the injuries he suffered in two plane crashes.  He and his wife had flown to Africa, but the plane crashed on landing.   He and his wife survived, but with some broken bones and tissue damage.  They attempted to fly out to get medical treatment on the next day, but that plane's engine exploded at takeoff.  Again they survived.  Eventually they did get the needed medical help, but Hemingway suffered health problems after that.

The narrator has a time machine, but he doesn't intend to use it to stop Hemingway from killing himself, nor does he intend to prevent the two plane crashes.  Instead, he goes back in time and meets "the old man." 

The narrator explains that the truck can possibly go back to 1954 (the date of the two plane crashes) and possibly can turn into plane.   The old man then asks him if he could land the plane a little bit differently, a little bit harder and that he "be thrown out but the rest of you okay?"
The narrator answers, "I'll see what I can do."

The old man "gazed back down the road at the mountains and the sea that could not be seen beyond the mountains and a continent beyond the sea. 'That's a good day you're talking about.' 
      'The best.'
      ' And a good hour and a good second.'
      'Really, nothing better.'"

Death is inevitable, but there are good deaths and bad deaths.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Gregory Benford: Anomalies

Gregory Benford
a collection of short stories (1975-2012)

The following are three of the short stories found in Gregory Benford's latest short story collection, Anomalies.  The stories focus on a wide variety of topics, from wormholes to AIs to string theory.  I will post brief reviews of the other stories in the collection over the next few weeks.

"A Worm in the Well"

Claire, the pilot/owner of an independent freighter,  is deep in debt, so much so that she about to lose the freighter to her creditors.  She more or less controls the ship with the aid of Erma, a wisecracking AI.  Erma knows that she really runs the ship.

Claire takes on a high-paying but dangerous job--dropping down into the sun's corona to take photos of a wormhole that has suddenly appeared.  The scientific community is seriously bothered by the appearance of a wormhole so close to the sun and need the photos and other data gathered by her close encounter by the sun in order to determine what the dangers are.

Once there, however, she decides to do a career change from "nature photographer" to a "bring 'em back alive" hunter.  The photos and data still won't bring in enough money to pay off all of her debts, but capturing and bringing back a wormhole, something that has never been done before, will give the scientists an unparalleled opportunity to study and even experiment with a wormhole.  Claire figures that she can negotiate a much bigger fee.  Erma, of course, has her doubts.

The story naturally is heavy on the science, but the information is handled very nicely in the arguments (discussions) between Claire and Erma.

"The Worm Turns"
It's several years later and Claire and Erma are still broke and about to lose the ship again.   This time they are forced to take on a hazardous job: it's either that or lose the ship.  Since Claire transported the wormhole away from the sun, earth scientists have meddled with it and enlarged it.  It now is more likely to be dangerous to anything in the neighborhood, the solar system for example.

Claire's task is now to fly through the wormhole, check out the other side, and then report back.   However, life (or a wormhole)  is never that simple, so life gets exciting again.  And, what she finds at the other end is something neither she nor Erma nor the scientists expected. 

"The Semisent"
In literary criticism, a Bildungsroman,[a] novel of formation, novel of education, or coming-of-age story is a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood, and in which, therefore, character change is extremely important (from the Wikipedia entry on Bildungsroman).

What's unusual about this short story is that it's a bildungsrom or coming-of-age story, not about a human being but an AI.  The AI begins as a small box and by the end of the story it has evolved into a tall distinguished gentleman with sorrowful blue eyes.  And there's also a human involved.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain VIII, 2nd Edition

Some months ago I finished a series of posts on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as translated by Edward FitzGerald.  I went through all 75 quatrains from the First Edition and included matching quatrains from the Second and Fifth Editions.  However, while the First Edition has seventy-five quatrains, the Second Edition has one hundred and ten quatrains and the Fifth has one hundred and one.   Therefore there are at least twenty-five quatrains which I have so far ignored.

I am going to do something about those ignored quatrains now.  Over the next several months? years? I will quote and briefly discuss those missing quatrains.  Actually, it's just an excuse to once again open the pages of a favorite work.

So, what follows are the missing quatrains from the Second Edition and the equivalent quatrains from the Fifth Edition.  These did not appear, as far as I can tell, in the First Edition.

Second Edition: Quatrain VIII

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run, 
      The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain VIII

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run, 
      The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one. 

As you can see, the two versions are identical: he made no changes to this quatrain. 

Naishapur and Babylon were important cities in antiquity but now are of little importance.  For recent significance, if one is looking for that,  Naishapur can claim to be the birthplace of Omar Khayyam.

The theme is a common one in the Rubaiyat, that in the slow passage of time, the dissolution of all things moves onward relentlessly, regardless of whether life is sweet or bitter.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Maltese Falcon: Three film versions

A classic example of Hollywood's ongoing struggle to be creative, imaginative, and original is the remake. A great film comes out, or at least one that does very well at the box office, and in a frenzy of creative energy, remakes appear, or, if not remakes, then at least a host of films that strongly resemble their progenitor. In most cases, therefore, the remake is a pale copy of the original. Only rarely does the opposite occur: the remake is actually the superior version. I am aware of only two cases in which this has happened. However, I'm sure that this has happened more often; I'm just not aware of them, and I would appreciate hearing about other examples.

The two cases I'm familiar with and have viewed are the two versions of Gaslight (see my post of August 26, 2008) and the three versions of The Maltese Falcon. The Maltese Falcon has long been a favorite of mine, so I was surprised and intrigued when I recently discovered the two previous attempts at film versions of Dashiell Hammet's fine novel. The two earlier versions are The Maltese Falcon which came out in 1931 and Satan Met a Lady, which appeared in 1936. The classic or best known version with Humphrey Bogart appeared in 1941.

Satan Met a Lady is quite different from the other versions for it is a comedic adaptation of Hammett's novel. Most of the basic plot elements are present, although in a modified form. The black bird becomes a ram's horn, specifically the horn Roland the Brave finally sounded to bring back Charlemagne, although too late to save him and the rear guard from annihilation. (See Le Chanson de Roland, an epic poem of some 4000 words written probably around the early 12 century.) The horn is, of course, stuffed with jewels. Along with various plot element changes, the characters were renamed:

Actor Character Hammett's character

Warren William -- Ted Shane (Sam Spade)
Bette Davis -- Valerie Purvis (Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O'Shaughnessy
Alison Skipworth -- Madame Barabbas (Casper Gutman)
Marie Wilson -- Miss Murgatroyd (Effie)
Porter Hall -- Milton Ames (Miles Archer)
Arthur Treacher  -- Anthony Travers (Joel Cairo?)
Maynard Holmes -- Kenneth (Wilmer Cook--young gunman) gives the complete cast for those who are interested.

The film opens with Ted Shane being kicked out of a small town. He then returns to rejoin his former partner Milton Ames. The Woman appears, and the plot loosely follows the novel, more or less, mostly less. Although I watched the movie last week, I've forgotten most of it.

Warren William makes Shane a bit of a dunderhead, always tripping over his own feet, metaphorically speaking. Bette Davis clearly is the Class Act as Valerie Purvis. She is too strong for the rest of the cast. Alison Skipworth's Madame Barabbas was also quite good. I wonder if Greenstreet had watched her performance. Marie Wilson played Effie as a ditsy blond, much like her later roles as the ditsy blond in several Dean Martin--Jerry Lewis comedies. Maynard Holmes' Kenneth (the young gunsel) becomes a schoolyard bully who spends considerable time scowling and whining.

The title isn't as weird as it sounds, for Hammett in the first paragraph of the novel describes Spade:

"Sam Spade's jaw was long and bony; his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down--from high flat temples--in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan." So, the satan met a lady.

The 1931 version, the first version, plays it straight. As far as I could tell, the only significant plot difference between it and the 1941 version is the ending. The 1931 version kept Hammett's original ending in which Wilmer kills Gutman. Aside from that, there are only a few differences between it and the Classic 1941 version. The secondary characters seem to have less onscreen time in comparison to the Classic version. This perhaps may partially be the cause for what I see as the most significant difference between the two.

It's hard to describe the difference, but the closest I can come to it is to say that the characters in the first version were thin in comparison to those in 1941. They seemed to be surface characters only while the characters in the 1941 film had depth to them. Moreover, the choice of Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade is bewildering. Why it was decided to cast someone who appears to be the Latin lover--Ramon Navarro or Valentino--is beyond me. Perhaps that type of leading man was the rage at that time.

Cortez is not convincing as Spade. For example, when Ruth Wonderly is doing her helpless heroine bit, Cortez has this big wide grin on him--this is all fun and games. Bogart, on the other hand, has just the slightest grin, and it's not an all fun and games grin. It is a tired, cynical grin; he has been lied to by his clients in the past and it always made his job harder, and now he's hearing more lies again.

And again, when Cortez explains to Wonderly at the end why he's going to turn her in to the police, it seemed to be just someone reading lines. Bogart looks directly and her, and then turns away, looks down at the floor because he can't face her. He may be in love with her, but other considerations are more important--loyalty to a dead partner being one of them.

The same holds true for the rest of the cast: there really is no comparison between Greenstreet, Lorre, and Elisha Cook and their counterparts in the 1931 version. The dialogue and the encounters among them are similar, but the difference is between real people and one-dimensional cardboard cutouts.

There's always the debate as to whether it's the director or the cast that's most important. Would Roy Del Ruth, director of the 1931 film, have produced the same film if he had the 1941 cast? What would John Huston have done with the 1931 cast? Intriguing questions. I don't have an answer, except the perhaps too obvious suggestion that it is the combination of director and cast that creates a forgettable film in 1931 and a classic some ten years later.

Overall Rating: Have some fun and see all three. Read the novel too.