Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Robert Louis Stevenson and Langston Hughes: Two points of view


Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
   And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
     And the hunter home from the hill.

-- Robert Louis Stevenson --

Death of an Old Seaman

We buried him high on a windy hill,
But his soul went out to sea.
I know, for I heard, when all was still,
His sea-soul say to me:

Put no tombstone at my head,
For here I do not make my bed.
Strew no flowers on my grave,
I've gone back to the wind and wave.
Do not, do not weep for me,
For I am happy with my sea.

-- Langston Hughes --
from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
Arnold Rampersad, Editor

It almost seems as though Hughes' poem is a response to Stevenson's.  Some days I'm with Stevenson, but on other days, well, Hughes seems right for me.  Actually I'm of two minds here: both seem right and fitting when I read them. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Joseph Conrad: A SET OF SIX

short stories

"Gaspar Ruiz"
This story takes place in South America during the period when the colonies were struggling with Spain to gain their independence.  While many of the combatants had strong views for maintaining Spanish rule or for gaining their independence, numerous others were drafted or conscripted by either the Royal or by the republican forces.  It was pure chance in many cases which side one ended up with.

Gaspar Ruiz is the son of a poor farmer and had no political views.   A rebel contingent appeared one day, killed the guard dogs, stole some cattle, and persuaded Gasper to join them.  Shortly after he left, a royalist force appeared and finished the destruction of the farm.  In a subsequent battle, Ruiz was captured by the royalists.   He was given a musket and forced to the front of the attacking forces and was given the choice of firing his weapon or of being shot by a royalist officer.

Again he was captured--this time by the rebels.  Declared a traitor, he was sentenced to be shot with a number of others, but covered with the blood of others he manages to play dead.   Wounded, he finds a refuge with local royalists.   Because he feels the rebels treated him unfairly, he becomes an ardent royalist.  

"Gaspar Ruiz" is probably set before the time of Conrad's South American novel, Nostromo, in this story the colonies are fighting for independence while in the novel, countries have their own government but are regularly overthrown by various factions, some little better than bandit gangs.

"The Informer"  is set in the world of Conrad's novels of political espionage The Secret Agent  and Under Western Eyes , the world of anarchists, who are hiding out in England.  In fact, one of the group refers to the Professor who "was engaged in perfecting some new detonators." This could be the same professor in The Secret Agent who supplies Verloc with the bomb that had such tragic consequences for Verloc and his wife Winnie.  That Professor was also known to be obsessed with finding the perfect detonator.

A group of anarchists are located in a house in London on Hermione Street.  The European leadership has come to the conclusion that the Hermione St. group has been infiltrated by an informer.  They decide to gather together some comrades unknown to the Hermione St. group and pretend to be police conducting a raid.  In this way, they hope the informer would reveal himself. 

"The Brute"
This is the only sea tale in the collection.  The Brute of the title is a ship, a monster according to the tales told of it.  The setting is a classic for sea yarns: a small local pub,  on a rain-swept street, with three friends and a stranger in the parlour.  It's the stranger, of course, who provides the tale of the murderous ship, The Apse Family.  It was owned by the firm of Apse & Sons, shipowners.  All of their ships were named after family members. This one, representing the entire family, was to be the biggest and safest ship of the fleet.  Unfortunately, they went overboard and ended up with the biggest, heaviest, and clumsiest ship in their fleet, and murderous too.  During every journey, at least one sailor was killed.  While reading the story, one could almost believe that ship was fully conscious of what it was doing.

"An Anarchist"
This story is a classic example of how a chance encounter can determine the course of one's life.  "An Anarchist" is a story within a story.  The narrator meets the manager of a plantation on an island in a South American river and rents a room in order to conduct his research.  While there the narrator meets Paul, the engineer of the plantation's steam boat.  The manager insists Paul is an anarchist from Spain and has spread the word in the vicinity, thus ensuring Paul can't get work anywhere else.

The narrator's kindly treatment of Paul eventually leads Paul to tell his story.  He is French, not Spanish.  Shortly after serving his term in the French army, he gets a well-paying job as a mechanic.  At a dinner with friends one night, he invites several strangers at a nearby table to join them.  Paul becomes inflamed by their talk of the plight of the working man and drunk, he jumps up shouting "Vive l'anarchie" and "Death to the capitalists."  A riot breaks out and he is arrested, convicted, and sent to prison as an anarchist, a threat to France.  His life has changed irrevocably.

Two interesting characters are developed in this tale:  that of Paul "the anarchist"  and that of the manager of the plantation who is the type of a manager who will turn anyone into an anarchist or anti-capitalist.  Conrad has captured this employee of a large corporation perfectly:  he can justify any cruel act as being for the good of the company profit-and-loss statement, just as government operatives  justify their actions in the name of  "national security."

"The Duel"
"The Duel" is the longest story in the collection--perhaps closer to being a novella in length.  The story covers the events of over twenty years as an officer in the French army challenges another officer to a duel.  It began because of a misunderstanding and continued through the years as various attempts at holding the duel were either prevented by other events or ended unsatisfactorily.  Both officers were generals at the time the issue was finally resolved.  

"Il Conde"
Il conde  (the count), an aged nobleman,  suffering from rheumatism, finds that the climate at Naples is most salubrious for him, but, because of a chance encounter, he finds he must leave.  If he stays, he will be killed, and if he leaves, he will die, probably within a year.  The plot is minimal, barely a story, but the meticulous depiction of the count makes it well worth reading--actually more a portraiture than a story.

   "-- having conversed already in the morning I did not think I was intruding when in the evening, finding the dining-room very full, I proposed to share his little table.  Judging by the quiet urbanity of his consent he did not think so either.  His smile was very attractive.
   He dined in an evening waistcoat and a "smoking" (he called it so) with a black tie.  All this of very good cut, not new--just as these things should be.  He was, morning or evening, very correct in his dress.  I have no doubt that his whole existence had been correct, well ordered and conventional, undisturbed by startling events.  His white hair  brushed upwards off a lofty forehead gave him the air of an idealist, of an imaginative man.  His white moustache, heavy but carefully trimmed and arranged, was not unpleasantly tinted a golden yellow in the middle.  The faint scent of some very good perfume, and of good cigars (that last an odour quite remarkable to come upon in Italy) reached me across the table.  It was in his eyes that his age showed most.  They were a little weary with creased eyelids.  He must have been sixty or a couple of years more.  And he was communicative.  I would not go so far as to call it garrulous--but distinctly communicative."

I can picture him now, and his reactions to later events seem perfectly understandable when considering Conrad's outer and inner portrayal of him.

Overall comment:  Joseph Conrad is probably best known for his novels, but his short stories are just as good.  Highly recommended.

Monday, July 21, 2014

David Brin: EXISTENCE, an SF novel of the near future

David Brin

This is, as far as I can tell, Brin's latest novel, and it's a hefty one at some five hundred and fifty+ pages.  As he did with an earlier work, Earth, Brin set it on Earth in the near future, the mid 2050's probably and used the multiple narrative structure following a number of people.  This does distance the reader from identifying closely with any one character, but it does allow for a better overall impression of the world at that time.
Existence needs to be a large book for it explores a number of themes, disparate on the surface, yet Brin manages to interweave a fascinating tale with them.  Existence, first of all, is a first contact novel, but not with just one alien, but with a wide variety of species.  It is also a very dangerous crowd that comes visiting, for if nothing is done,  civilization will be destroyed and humanity itself will bring it about.  It's an insidious attack, well-meaning in its intent, yet humanity will be doomed unless it resists the invasion. 

The Information Age is another theme.  Here is a theme that I recognize as being a frequent topic on Brin's blog  Contrary Brin   --specifically the right to privacy and access to information.  In essence, it appears to me that Brin believes that the issue of privacy is dead.  There is too much information out there and generally speaking, today, only the privileged few have access to it, as well as governments, large corporations and powerful special interest groups.

Alvin Toffler wrote Power Shift in 1970 and posited that land, labor, and capital would no longer be the major sources of power in the 21st century: it would be information. In this novel, Toffler's prediction comes true.   Brin argues that the solution to the problem of information control is to make access to information available to everybody.  In Existence we see several people who are "outsiders" become important because they take advantage of the free flow of information.  It isn't perfect yet, but they have better access than we do today, and they know how to use it.

Project Uplift appears at a very early stage.  In fact, the process of "uplifting" dolphins and chimps has halted for lack of funding.  As usual, governments are playing their usual game of getting enthusiastic about a project because a particular party is in power.  When the opposition gains control, the funding stops, regardless of its value.  Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

This is a big, sprawling novel with a variety of major characters ranging from a reporter so badly damaged that she must live in a mobile metal cylinder; a Chinese man who makes his living scavenging homes flooded out by the rising sea level; a rich, young man who rents small shuttle craft to go into near Earth space; and an astronaut who gets into space because he is hired to clean out all the debris and garbage in orbit around earth.  And, of course, there are the aliens who didn't come to destroy or even conquer Earth.  They have come to spread the Good News.

This is not a book that can be read in short ten to fifteen minute segments.  You have to turn off the TV and all the other distractions and settle down with this one.  It's worth it.

Lawrence Durrell: "Mneiae

I think I had mentioned before that Lawrence Durrell is one of my favorite novelists. His "Alexandria Quartet" and "The Avignon Quintet" are favorites of mine which I have read and reread several times.  It's been some time since I last read them, and I can hear them calling out from the bookcase as I pass by.  Perhaps. . . soon.

Durrell is also a poet, probably one of the most perplexing poets I've ever read.  His poetry is far more cerebral or intellectual than my favorite poets; in fact, his poetry strikes me as being even more intellectual than that of T. S. Eliot.  I can make some sense of parts of a Durrell poem, but I have trouble coming up with more than a few broken ideas or phrases when I try for an overall view.  Here is one of the simplest of his poems, or so I think.


Soft as puffs of smoke combining,
Mneiae--remembrance of past lives:

The shallow pigmentation of eternity
Upon the pouch of time and place existing,

I, the watcher, smoking at a table,
And I, my selves, observed by human choice,

A disinherited portion of the whole:
With you the sibling of my self-desire,

The carnal and the temporal voice,
The singing bird upon the spire:

And love, the grammar of that war
Which time's the only ointment for,

Which time's the only ointment for.

-- Lawrence Durrell --
from The Poetry of Lawrence Durrell
selected by  Lawrence Durrell
E. P. Dutton and Company

A touch of irony here, from a source that's unexpected--at least by me--the spell checker.  My spell checker coughed at Mneiae and, really, truly, suggested a better spelling would be amnesia.  The irony here is that Mneiae is a common name for the Muses, and means remembrance,  according to the Greek Mythology Index (  The Greek muses were the nine goddess of inspiration for poets and writers who called upon them for help to present their work with beauty and gracefulness.

 While the narrator begins with what appears to be a merging of past lives,
"Soft as puffs of smoke combining,
Mneiae--remembrance of past lives:"

 the theme of separation soon appears--

"I, the watcher, smoking at a table,
And I, my selves, observed by human choice,

A disinherited portion of the whole:"

or does it? 

Are "I, my selves" that which make up "I, the watcher"?   


"And love, the grammar of that war
Which time's the only ointment for,"

 What war is he speaking of--the war between the sexes?  Grammar is defined as a set of rules relating to language.  Is love then, as "the grammar of that war" a set of rules for that war?   Of course, the second line brings up that old cliche--time heals all wounds, perhaps those wounds suffered because of love, "the grammar of war." 

Favorite line: "Soft as puffs of smoke combining"

Any observations--good, bad, or indifferent?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Kenko: longing for the past


"When I sit down in quiet meditation, the one emotion hardest to fight against is a longing in all things for the past.  After the others have gone to bed, I pass the  time on a long autumn's night by putting in order whatever belongings are at hand.  As I tear up scraps of old correspondence I should prefer not to leave behind, I sometimes find among them samples of the calligraphy of a friend who has died, or pictures he drew for his own amusement, and I feel exactly as I did at the time   Even with letters written by friends who are still alive I try, when it has been long since we met, to remember the circumstances, the year.  What a moving experience that is!  It is sad to think that a man's familiar possessions, indifferent to his death, should remain unaltered long after he is gone."

-- Kenko --
from Essays in Idleness

This is a common theme in Kenko's collection of essays.  In one essay, he writes that in all things those of the past are superior to the present.    I guess as one gets older one only remembers the good things.  Someone, I forget who, once wrote that perfect happiness was good health and a bad memory. 

I wonder if those "familiar possessions" are really unaltered.  I wonder if they may be changed in some way by the person who uses them or even just contemplates them.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Emily Dickinson, a poem


Through lane it lay -- through bramble --
Through clearing and through wood --
Banditti often passed us
Upon the lonely road.

The wolf came peering curious --
The owl looked puzzled down --
The serpent's satin figure
Glid stealthily along --

The tempests touched our garments --
The lightning's poinards gleamed --
Fierce from the Crag above us
The hungry Vulture screamed --

That satyr's fingers beckoned --
The valley murmured "Come" --
These were the mates --
This was the road
These children fluttered home. 

-- Emily Dickinson --
from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
edited by Thomas H. Jackson

Lucky children .  .  . or so I think, and perhaps Emily Dickinson thinks the same. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Loren Eiseley: Meaningless Voices

Loren Eiseley (1907-1977), as you may have noticed, is one of my favorite essayists and prose writers, possibly my favorite, if I ever took the time to think about it.  He writes clearly and succinctly--his essays are a joy to read.  His poetry, though, is quite different--enigmatic, and puzzling at times, many times actually.  Something there, however, resonates with me, even if I don't understand just what it is.  Here is one of those poems.

Meaningless Voices

Water that comes endlessly from the blue mountain lakes unvisited save by deer

and the deer themselves,
bugling faint calls through the aspen thickets in high autumn.
all talk in meaningless voices.

The valley is filled with cricket chirps and leaf whispers
and whatever it is comes crying
on the rain squalls from the northeast.

Even the grasshoppers have been here a long time and click songs
without the bright, sinister meanings of
the mountain rattlers, whose voice, like death, is purposeful.

All of these have been here for ages, but later
horns rasp in the valley and the voice of dynamite
splits boulders and the roads come, all purposeful, all strident with meaning,
while red-winged blackbirds
fly away to new pools.

Nevertheless the meaningless voices are also significant
in what is past and to come.

-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley

Are the only meaningful voices those that signify death or destruction?  Yet, those "meaningless voices are also significant/in what is past and to come."  In what way were they significant in the past and, again, will be significant in what is "to come"?