This Time “Lord Jim”

So, I made my way through “Lord Jim” a second time, as I promised myself that I would do after reading “Victory”.

It’s an interesting character study.  “Jim” (no last name, like he came from nowhere) is a crew member on the Patna, a ship buffeted by bad weather, springing a major leak, and making it clear it would sink with 800 Muslim pilgrims on board.  The captain and certain other crew members decide to abandon the ship and its passengers in a life boat.  Jim is not among them, but is tending to a fatally injured crew member who was one of the absconders.  The men in the lifeboat don’t know that their friend is dead and keep yelling “jump”.  Jim does not intend to jump, but rather to go down with the ship, as sailors are to do, but something happens (he is not sure what) and he jumps.  He is saved.

The boat does not sink and everyone is rescued.  Jim and others are arrested for abandoning the ship.  The others, again, abscond, but Jim refuses to.  He jumped one time; he is racked by guilt.  He will not do it again.

By chance, Jim meets Marlow, the narrator of “Heart of Darkness” and of most of this book.  After his trial, it is clear that no one will hire Jim to serve on a ship, and his only job possibilities that Marlow can help him with are undesirable shore jobs.  Jim is willing to take the jobs, but not willing to disclose his past, so whenever his past looks like it might come out, he disappears.  Finally, Marlow connects Jim with Stein, who runs a major trading company and needs a man to try to resurrect his post on the island of Patusan.

Patusan is a dangerous place, home to competing tribes, no friend of the white man or trader.  But Jim accepts with relish and again is determined to do everything right – trade, relations with all the natives, everything.  He even finds a beautiful young woman, the daughter of his crazed predecessor.  He vows not to leave Patusan (he has nowhere to go, anyway), and not to leave his beautiful girlfriend.

Things on Patusan tense up, especially after another white bounty hunter and his men show up on the island, and he knows that his life is in danger from many sides.  But perhaps things will work out, and if they don’t……..

So the book has some similarities to “Victory”.  The East Indies, white traders, ships, native tribes, a ‘lost’ hero fleeing to an island with no whites, a beautiful young girl friend.  You see the connections.  (Even one character shows up in both – Schomberg, the German innkeeper, here with only a cameo appearance, and 15 years later in “Victory” as a major protagonist.)

But the books are very different.  “Victory” reads like a normal 19th century novel.  It follows a story line with short paragraphs, a mixture of dialogue and narrative, and few diversions.  “Lord Jim” is completely different – lengthy sentences that can run lines and lines, lengthy paragraphs that can run pages and pages, the majority of the books in quotation marks, because we are listening to Marlow’s story as he tells it.  The chronology is non-linear.  You see Jim awaiting trial well before you know why, to give an example. Somewhat stream of consciousness, filled with diversions, long descriptions filled with adjectives, many words that neither you nor anyone else have seen before.  It’s considered one of the first “modern” novels, and clearly it would be a literary shocker in the early 19th century.

But I didn’t enjoy or appreciate it now any more than I did when I first read it, decades ago.  And although there are many rave reviews on Goodreads, I am not sure that I understand why it is considered such a classic.

The Quickest of Reviews – Joseph Conrad’s ‘Victory”

One day I would like to read a biography of Joseph Conrad.  Polish born, raised in French, an English speaker only as an adult, a member of the French merchant marine, a British citizen, and an author of unbelievable talent.  His words, his sentences, his paragraphs – all unique, and all in a way musical.  I had never read “Victory”, one of his later novels (written when he was in his late 50s), until last week.  Enjoyed it immensely and recommend it.  Takes place largely on various islands of Indonesia, the main character, the British raised Swede Axel Heyst, escaped from his intellectual father to the South Seas, where he gets involved in an ambitious coal mining operation, which proposed mining coal in the Indies to serve the scattered islands of the Indies.  The company goes bankrupt, but Heyst, its local manager, stays on, leading an isolated, independent, vagabond life.  Following the death of Heyst’s partner in the coal mining business, a certain Morrison, local hotel keeper, the disliked German Schomberg, spreads a false rumor that Heyst murdered Morrison and stole all of his money.  The hotel engages an all-girl band to play during the evenings.  The members of the orchestra are all tough cookies, with the exception of young English Lena, whom Heyst helps escape from her bondage and goes off with her to his isolated island home.  Unfortunately, Schomberg also had eyes on Lena (to escape from his wife) and sets three ruffians off to retrieve her and kill Heyst, assuring them that Heyst has, at his home, sufficient treasure to take care of them the rest of their lives.  And the rest, as they say, is history……or in this case fiction.  A good traveler’s description of the Indies during the 19th century, and a good psychological description of the people who populated it.

I have read a number of Conrad’s book, and have only been disappointed in one of them “Lord Jim”.  I am not sure this is the fault of the book, which I read for the first time in high school.  The problem is mine, I think.  Like some of the Faulkner books I have tried to read, it seems to have been written in a style that I just can’t comprehend.  I can’t follow the story line, I don’t know what I am reading – it’s like it was in another language.  But, OK, I am going to try again.

Four Saxophones at Epiphany Church – The Zzyzx Quartet

First, it’s pronounced Zeizix.  Second, there is actually a Zzyzx, California.  Who knew?  (You all knew?)

Second, they were terrific, and I have to admit I didn’t know what I was expecting.

There are four saxophones in the quartet – soprano, alto, tenor and baritone.  Their play together was seamless.

They started with a transcribed version of Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of  Sheba” from the oratorio, “Solomon”.  Now, Handel never heard of saxophones, which weren’t invented for another 150 years, and if he hadn’t, clearly neither Solomon or the Queen of Sheba (she must have had a name, although I don’t think anyone knows what it was – in fact, they don’t even know where Sheba was) had ever heard the sound of a saxophone.  But I can tell you this.  The queen would have been ecstatic to have been welcomed by Zzyzx and four trombones.

Next came Jean-Baptiste Singelee’s Premier Quatuor.  I had never heard of the composer or, obviously, the piece.  It turns out, though, that Singelee was a close friend of inventor Adolphe Sax, and that this was the first quarter ever written for saxophones and for their inventor.  And, if the Queen of Sheba would have been happy, I assume that Adolphe Sax was also happy.  A piece with contrasting movements – elegiac, and then quick.  And interesting historically.  (Sax, by the way, got his patent for the saxophone in the 1840s, and he apparently built a number of saxophones – perhaps as many as seven – at different pitches, so this quartet was possible at this early date.)

Three more pieces – John Mackey’s “Unquiet Spirits” II and III, which Zzyzx commissioned and which, although I can’t say that I particularly liked the piece, did sound like (very) unquiet spirits.  Then Jean Francaix’s “Petit Quartuor”, a brisk, light twentieth century piece which ends with a “serenade comique”.  And finally Marc-Andre Hamelin’s “Etude IV”, which has a history that I didn’t quite follow from the introductory explanation – it was adapted from another composer’s work, where two etudes were combined into one, and then it was transcribed for four saxophones.  This one, by the way, you can listen to on YouTube, played by Zzyzx.

Hope they come back soon.

“The Premier” by Georges Simenon

I had never read anything by Simenon, a man who wrote an extraordinary number of books (approaching 200), largely mysteries featuring Inspector Maigret.  I felt I should give him a try, and there was one of his short works (about 150 pages) on the 50 cent rack, so I picked it up.  And read it in two sittings yesterday.

But “The Premier”, written in 1957,  is not a mystery in the normal sense, and is not about Maigret.  It is about a former French prime minister, now in his 80s, in rural retirement, who leaves his favorite chair only for his meals, his bed and his short daily walk, and whose contact with the world is by and large limited to the 5 p.m. news.  But he has a secret – in his library, hidden in various books, are documents that contain embarrassing things about younger French politicians.  Including the 60 year old politician who has been asked by the President to form a government and who was the protege of his older mentor.  The younger man knows that The Premier can ruin his chances to form a government if he releases this document, which he knows he has in his possession.  Does this mean, as the former premier thinks, that the younger man will contact him to get his “advice” on his new government?

Well, it doesn’t turn out that way.  Because as it turns out the secrets were not secret.  And the old premier’s staff were working not only for him.

And interesting book to read (in translation), but not one I would particularly recommend.

The Interesting Approach of Bob Woodward

I just finished reading Bob Woodward’s fourth book on the Bush years, “The War Within: a Secret White House History 2006-2008”.  It’s the second of the four books that I have read.

The story is interesting. Everyone knew that the war in Iraq was being lost.  Some thought it never should have been waged.  Some thought it was worthwhile and well waged, but that the United States did not think hard enough about what would happen after military victory.  Some thought that the United States could have succeeded even after not enough post-war planning if we had assigned a more competent class of people to handle what was clearly at least a short term occupation.  Whichever is most accurate, no one in 2006 thought things were trending the right way.

But what to do?  Should we get out as soon as possible?  That was the Rumsfled/Cheney and the Condoleezza Rice jview – turn things over to the Iraqis as soon as possible.  Or should we settle in until the country is much more stable?  This was the view of others.  And there were many voices being heard – the State Departments (whose influence was minimal, perhaps), Defense Department, the Military and Joint Chiefs, the National Security Council, and of course Congress.

The President?  His goal seemed to be to avoid defeat.  How to do this, he wasn’t clear.  Cheney?  His voice was, according to Woodward, less influential than supposed.  The military leaders?  Members of all policy camps.  The Congressional inquiry committee?  Sided with those who wanted out.

But the decision is eventually made to have a “surge” – increase the number of troops, stretch out the terms of those already in the country.  Concentrate them in Baghdad to stabilize the city, realizing that the Iraqi government under Maliki could not be relied upon.  And this did help stem violence in the city.  For a while.

But what was going to happen later.  Would the surge have to continue indefinitely? What would happen with the draw down that everyone supported one way or another?  What was the future of the country?  What would define victory?  These were the unanswered questions.

Woodward’s approach interests me.  He ;is obviously prolific – putting out a book every two years or so.  He writes not like a historian, but like a journalist.  Nothing is deep, there is no strong historical analysis, it’s a day by day reportage of what goes on.  His footnotes are much less extensive than are most authors’.  He relies tremendously on personal interviews.

And he writes like a fly on the wall.  Sometimes, he is reporting what we was told in interviews:  I asked him, and he answered this…..  But most of the time, you are in rooms that he was never in – where he has interviewed one or more participant, or perhaps has seen notes that someone present has made.  And then you are in the meeting – you are reading a conversation – a tremendous amount of dialogue, all within quotations.  Quotes that you know, for the most part, cannot be actual or verbatim.  But very readable and, perhaps unfortunately, believable, so you think you are actually hearing the voices of the participants.  (And of course, sometimes, where there has been a recording for example, you are.).

An interesting style.

Tim Weiner’s new book “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon”

I had read a few reviews of Tim Weiner’s new book about Richard Nixon, “One Man Against the World: the Tragedy of Richard NIxon”, and concluded it wasn’t for me.  Weiner’s book, said the reviewers, was too harsh on Nixon, hard as that may be to imagine.  It lacked balance.  The reviewers compared Weiner’s book with another new book about Nixon, by Evan Thomas, “Being Nixon”, which was clearly more sympathetic to the former president.

But when I saw that Weiner was speaking at Politics and Prose, I decided to go and much to my surprise I was very intrigued.  Weiner, a former National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, read a chapter of his book, and answered a lot of questions.  Every time that someone asked a “shouldn’t Nixon get credit for doing this good thing?” question, Weiner seemed to have a “he did it, but not of his own accord” type of answer that sounded right to me.  In particular, he said that a number of Nixon’s progressive domestic accomplishments were really Congressional accomplishments that Nixon knew would survive a veto.

The book itself is fascinating.  It is not a full biography, but Weiner calls it a biography of the Nixon presidency.  In fact, it is not really even that – it is the story of Nixon and Vietnam, and the story of Nixon and Watergate.  And a tawdry story it is.

It starts with the dirtiest of tricks, when Nixon, during the 1968 presidential election, convinced the South Vietnamese that they should pull back from Johnson’s Paris peace conference, because they would get a better deal under a Nixon presidency.  Apparently, Johnson learned of this during the campaign, but was afraid to say anything public, because Nixon’s action would most likely have been viewed as criminal and perhaps treasonous, and that the country could not withstand this during a presidential campaign.

Weiner shows a new president, now determined to end the war and create his legacy.  But he couldn’t stop the war without ceding the South to the North, and this he wouldn’t do, so he had to increase and increase and increase the pressure on Hanoi.  But he didn’t want to be a war president, so he couldn’t really say what he was doing, so he turned to secrecy.  And not only secrecy, but spreading the war outside of Vietnam, to Laos and to Cambodia, something he kept denying until it was impossible to do so any longer.  And he did this with the aid of his loyal assistants, like Haldeman and Erlichman, as well as his experts, such as Henry Kissinger, who comes out of this book at least as bad as Nixon.

The leaking of the Pentagon Papers (the official, but secret, story of the Vietnam War written by the Defense Department) by Daniel Ellsberg to the New York Times, enraged Nixon and his team and, used to secrecy, Nixon authorized a group to perform dirty tricks, including authorizing them to burglarize Ellsberg’s office.  All of this increased Nixon’s paranoia and led to the creation of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (or CREEP), which was organized to do dirty tricks to help Nixon win a second term.  Included in these dirty tricks was the unauthorized entry into the Democrats’ office at the Watergate, an incident that it does not appear Nixon specifically authorized in advance.  But when he learned of it, Nixon participated in and directed the cover up, which included the payment of large sums of money for silence, and the promise of employment, telling everyone to lie on a regular basis.

And then there were the tapes that no one knew about until a direct question was asked by Congressional investigators to Alexander Butterfield.  They asked him whether there were any recording devices in the White House.  Butterfield did not lie, and even the investigators must have been surprised at the breadth of the answer.  And then another fight started – the investigators wanted the tapes.  Nixon claimed executive privilege.

There are many other things you might remember from the Nixon years.  The firing of the special prosecutor by Robert Bork.  The imminence of impeachment proceedings. The criminal case against Vice President Agnew. The resignation from the presidency.

At Politics and Prose, Weiner was asked if he could name 5 things that did Nixon did that were good.  He thought for a few minutes and said.  First, he raised two wonderful daughters (following that he said – can that count for 2?).  And another thing he did was resign the presidency, avoiding the impeachment trial. I don’t remember the fourth item, and there really wasn’t a fifth.

I finished this book a few days ago and recommend it highly.  I picked up yesterday a copy of Bob Woodward’s “The War Within”, his story of the final two years of the Bush administration (2006-2008) and the war in Iraq………..Nixon redux.  Nothing changes.

Michael Dirda and the Classics

Michael Dirda’s “Classics for Pleasure” is not a book that I would expect that I would read, but there it was, sitting before me, and so I read it.  And now I can recommend it to you.

Dirda, long time book reviewer and editor for the Washington Post, has written a number of books about other books.  This is one of them – where he discusses a number of “classics” (or books that he thinks are classics, or should be) and talks a little about each.  About 90 books are referenced, most of which I have not read, and some of which I have not even heard of.  Dirda, on the other hand, seems to have read everything, and seems to remember everything about everything that he has read.  And, as one reviewer puts it, Dirda has the ability to discuss any book and make you think that you have to put it next on your list.

Dirda’s chapter are dedicated to authors, not to single books, giving him a chance to have a broader reach.  He divides his authors between eleven categories – authors with “playful imaginations”  (Lucian, Diderot, Peacock, Beerbohm, Hasek, Compton-Burnett, Perelman, Calvino and Gorey), Heroes (Beowulf, Ferdowski, Icelandic Sagas, Marlowe, Zola, Junger and Agee), Love (Sappho, Arthurian Romances, de La Fayette, Kierkegaard, Meredith, Cavafy, Heyer, Akhmatova, du Maurier), Wisdom (Lao Tse, Heraclitus, Cicero, Erasmus, Spinoza, Samuel Johnson), and so forth.

You obviously don’t have to read this book cover to cover, you can dip and choose.  But I read it through, as well might you.  And then you’ll want to keep it on a shelf near your desk, so you can refer to it when it’s time to read a new book.

Dirda has just published a new book, called “Browsings”, more personal, and drawn from essays previously published.  One of the things he asks in this book is to wonder why he never seems to read what other people are reading at the time.  I resemble that remark.

The Goldberg Variations at Epiphany

Today wasn’t the first time I have heard Sam Post in concert.  He’s a young pianist, composer and teacher, with an impressive background.  As a Yale student, he suffered some sort of injury and couldn’t play, so instead he majored in physics, graduated summa cum laude, and won a student prize.  Then he went back to his music.

Today’s concert at the Church of the Epiphany ended with a standing ovation from a large crowd.  Before the standing ovation, Post played Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  This is no mean trick.  The Variations involve an opening segment, the Aria, followed by 30 separate variations, and then a repeat of the opening segment. It took Post about 50 minutes from start to finish.  And he was masterful.

Of course you have to pretty smart to earn a summa cum laude physics degree from Yale.  But perhaps you have to be smarter to memorize the Goldberg Variations.  For one thing, there are a lot of notes.  A lot of notes.  For another, it’s not like the variations are obviously based on the same theme.  These are technical pieces, variations based not on a melody line, but on harmonic and bass line similarities.  So, to a normal music listener, like myself, many of the separate segments seem to have no connection with each other, and even remembering the start of each seems a hopeless task to me.

Now, I am not a musician.  I always felt that, if I were, perhaps I would understand, and appreciate, the Goldberg Variations more.  They sound to me a bit formal and academic.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the skill involved in Post’s playing, or that I don’t find listening enjoyable.

Bach wrote the pieces for harpsichord.  They are now often played on the piano – perhaps they lose something in the translation.  And, in two weeks, in a reprise of today’s concert, Epiphany is presenting a transposition of the Goldberg Variations for organ.

The origin of the piece is a bit unclear.  We know that the piece became known as the Goldberg Variations for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who first performed the piece and for whom it might have been written.  Goldberg was a young harpsichord phenom – perhaps the Sam Post of the 17th century.  Why they were written is not certain – a possibly true, possibly apocryphal story is that they were written for Goldberg’s patron, a man who suffered from insomnia.  Even if the story is true, whether the purpose was to entertain the Count when he couldn’t sleep, or in fact to cure his insomnia and put him to sleep, seems to be a question.  I think they would keep me up.

Quick Post #3 – “Night Train to Lisbon”

Okay, “Night Train to Lisbon” (2013) may not be the best film ever, but it is far from the worst.  Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling and the rest of the cast do a fine job, and the scenes of Lisbon are very appealing (especially, as we are now considering a trip to Portugal next year).  The story line is a bit far fetched, and filled with too many coincidences, but intriguing.

The basis of the film is a novel by Swiss author Pascal Marcier, published in 2004 and translated into English in 2008.  I hadn’t heard of the book, but apparently it sold well internationally.

The story takes place both at the current time, and in 1973, the last year of the Portuguese dictatorship, when revolutionary movements were active but underground and very dangerous for sympathizers.  Jeremy Irons plays a divorced English teacher living in Switzerland.  He finds a short, and rare, book of writings from the 1970s by a young Portuguese doctor and member of the revolutionary underground in Lisbon.  He is intrigued (of course there is a woman involved and he seems to be intrigued about her too, but she never becomes a major character in the story) and decides to learn more about the man who wrote the book.  He catches, at short notice, a night train to Lisbon.

He discovers that the author had died in 1973 (apparently of natural causes), but that his sister and three of his co-revolutionaries (two men and one woman) who are important to the story are still alive, the men living in Lisbon and the woman in Spain, in Salamanca.

The film moves back and forth from scenes in which Jeremy Irons is searching out the past, to scenes taking place in the past.  As someone tells their story, their story comes alive in lengthy flashbacks.

It provides a good history lesson (through fiction of course, with no real historical characters and to my knowledge no description of actual events) of the atmosphere in Lisbon at a period of time that not many of know about, and even fewer think about.

Quick Post #2 – the Concert at Epiphany

There was supposed to be a four-hand piano concert today, but when I got to the Church of the Epiphany, I discovered that the performers had canceled (I did not hear why) and that there was to be a substitute program of music by Gabriel Faure.  Oh, well, four-hand, faur-e.  I see why this substitute program occurred to them.

It was a wonderful concert, with piano and organ by the church music director, Jeremy Filsell, and vocals by Rachel Evangeline Barham and Sarah Issaelkhoury.  I always enjoy Faure, and the “Melodies” and “Messe Basse” were beautifully sung.  Filsell played two “Pieces Breves” and the Barcarolle no. 5 (organ and piano, respectively) with his usual skill.  Apparently they had only a few days to put together this program. What a job they did.