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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children"

Now that I am back from China, and despite the fact that I have tons of papers to grade, I am indeed very much into Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children." I read "The Last Life" several years ago (an autograph first edition I found at Cornell University Bookstore), and while I enjoyed the descriptions and the amazing, elaborate way she made the setting of the story so real, I also felt at the end that the story was over-written/over-done. Now I can say that I made that determination based on ignorance--it was the first work by Messud that I had ever read. Messud is certainly a master, a talent of such invigorating capacity that the plot energy carries from page to page--her voice clear and distinct. I can see how this book got the positive reviews it did, and its nomination to one of the best books of 2007 is not without its warrants.

The story revolves around a group of friends/family members in New York City. The group is a grabasstic crew of thirty-somethings trying to make it, having made it and being washed out, or simply surviving. Marina Thwaite, the daughter of Murray Thwaite (an intellectual of some caliber) is washed out just starting her 30s. Her friend Danielle happens to be a borderline success, and a pretty good tension (sexual and platonic) takes place between her and Murray Thwaite. Then there's their gay friend, Jules. All kinds of social and private situations arise that keep the reader interested and turning pages. I am only on Chapter 24 and so far I've had a pretty good blast with some really deep characters and an intense plot line. Like I said, I really think it is Messud's fabulous use of language that keeps the reader glued... I didn't think writing like this was possible (and that's not hyperbole).

I am so behind on my reading list for this year. The summer is starting to look rather packed and stressful, so thinking of catching up with my reading then is pretty much out of the question. I have to other books, "The Religion of the Samurai," and "Bushido: The Soul of Japan" that I am adding to my list, or replacing some of the other titles with. The trip to China really did me in when it comes to my reading list. Four more weeks before we go out on summer break.... writing and reading will be the course of day then.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

To China...

Ready or not, here I go... Here's a list of books I am taking:

1-"Play it As It Lays" -- Joan Didion
2-"On Duty" -- Cicero
3-"The Emperor's Children" -- Claire Messud
4-"Great Expectations"--Charles Dickens
5-"An Assortment of Moleskine Cahiers"

I will be back on the 27th with new stories to tell and a (hopefully) ton of pictures to share.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

"Oracle Night" and Socrate's Dialogue with Ion....

Now, don't mind me for being such a geek--if I am indeed willing to admit to such a title. And if it seems I am making some wild connections here between classical and contemporary literature, I confess I am not doing with ill intentions. Now, a word about Paul Auster: He is indeed my favorite contemporary author, along with Haruki Murakami. I don't think Auster can write a bad sentence even if he tried (although while re-reading "Oracle Night" I found some things that sounded awkward indeed--more on this later). What I suppose has happened since October 2001 (when I discovered Auster--a recommendation from Takami Nieda) is that in reading him I have found a certain rhythm, pace and literaria that I can't find anywhere else. While I don't consider myself an Auster scholar, I have introduced many people to this "seemingly" unknown author. I speak of his work as if I were speaking of Biblical apocryphas, and in a way I have become an interpreter of Auster's work to the "outside" world. And this is why I made the connection to Socrate's dialogue with Ion.

I was in a mad rush the other day to photocopy as much material as possible to prepare my absence from the classroom during my trip to China. Rather than wait for the copy machine to do its work and daydream while inhaling the delicious fumes of toner, I always bring a book to read--something random, not what I am reading at the time. So, the day in question (Wednesday), I picked the W.H.D. Rouse translation of "The Great Dialogues of Plato." I began with the dialogue with Ion because it is the first entry after the introduction. The jest of the dialogue is that Ion believes himself the acme and epitome of all the Homer interpreters. He claims himself to be the best performer of epic poetry and says he can "read" more into Homer than anyone else alive, dead or yet to be born. You can follow how Ion's humility shines through, eh? At any rate, here are some back and forth things that made me think of myself as an interpreter of Auster's work:

"Socrates: I have often envied you reciters that art of yours, Ion. You have always to wear fine clothes, and to look as beautiful as you can is a part of your art. Then, again, you are obliged to be continually in the company of many good poets; and especially of Homer, who is the best and most divine of them; and to understand him, and not merely learn his words by rote, is a thing greatly to be envied. And no man can be a reciter who does not understand the meaning of the poet. For the reciter ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers, but how can he interpret him well unless he knows what he means? All this is greatly to be envied.

Ion: Very true, Socrates; interpretation has certainly been the most laborious part of my art; and I believe myself able to speak about Homer better than any man; and that neither Metrodorus of Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor any one else who ever was, had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many."

Ion explains that this is because Homer speaks to him better than any other poet. Which brings me around to claim the same for Paul Auster. It was "The Invention of Solitude" that first broke through to me--my father was in the throngs of death at the time and my friend Takami Nieda recommended the essay "Invisible Man" by Auster. So many of the passages I read were so universally perfect--a prose like none I had ever read from any contemporary. Thus began my relentless marathon to read EVERYTHING by Paul Auster.

I suppose that from time to time we vary what we read. There was a time when reading Hemingway spoke to me, as well as reading Fitzgerald's work. I am certain that when it is time to go back to them, I will and they will appear to me as fresh as if it was the first time. It's part of being human. There are genres I am not quite sure I feel deeply about--mystery genre or sci fi. There are people who swear by these--they've found life's great significance in genres that are mainly associated with mere entertainment. Of course, that's a bad characterization. But I have tried to get into those books and I haven't been able to. I started my education quite late, and at times I still feel I have to catch up in some of my classics; hence no time for Harry Potter, among others. But it is what speaks to us--the author's particular voice as opposed to the topic they write about. Socrates oversimplifies this point:

"Socrates: Then, my dear friend, can I be mistaken in saying that Ion is equally skilled in Homer and in other poets, since he himself acknowledges that the same person will be a good judge of all those who speak of the same things; and that almost all poets do speak of the same things?

"Ion: Why then, Socrates, do I lose attention and go to sleep and have absolutely no ideas of the least value, when any one speaks of any other poet; but when Homer is mentioned, I wake up at once and am all attention and have plenty to say?

"Socrates: The reason, my friend, is obvious. No one can fail to see that you speak of Homer without any art or knowledge. If you were able to speak of him by rules of art, you would have been able to speak of all other poets; for poetry is a whole."

I think I love Auster for its amazing ability to explore the randomness of fate and destiny. True, many other authors have written about those, but there's something to that unique voice of Auster that hypnotizes me. And just like Ion, I do lose interest if the author doesn't reach out and drag me into the plot, or if he is lacking in philosophy (not so much technique). Someday I hope Paul Auster wins the Nobel Prize for Literature (although chances are he never will, since the prize is now a geo-political farce). It would validate much of what I am unable to explain here.

So, Wednesday, the 16th I depart for China. I'll be gone for ten days and there will not be another entry until then. I might even post some pictures when I get back.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Closing on "The Aeneid" & Taking a Little Literary Detour...

Aeneas fights the Harpies. Thinking about it makes me squirm, reasoning as well that I hadn't ever heard of the Harpies until I read the poem "Old Ironsides," by Oliver Wendell Holmes. At any rate, Aeneas and his crew are cursed by the Harpies and their journey continues to more exciting and pressing adventures: let's link "The Odyssey" to this maelstrom of stories. I suppose Virgil does a great job with this, but it leaves one a little confused at the end of Book III.

Dido falls for Aeneas, or did she? Many people overlook the fact that Dido's affection also has a connection that by uniting with Aeneas, Carthage will become more powerful. I think this is so because Dido is portrayed as the victim of a bad love when Aeneas plans his escape in secret and abandons her in despair. To complicate matters even more, both Dido and Aeneas have "councils" to decide their own separate futures. The storm, the cave, the insinuation that Dido and Aeneas have given themselves over to lust sounds like a common television soap opera. It isn't until Mercury--acting as council--reminds Aeneas of his rightful destiny to found and people Rome that Dido and Aeneas' passion goes sour. Her attempted suicide aside, I don't think it would have been a good match to begin with. Imagine, you and your love interest trying to forge a future for yourselves and a massive amount of gods overlooking and deciding in turn what eventually is "best" for you both. I know I am taking a modern view of the plot, but it's so complicated one spends half of the time trying to see which path the protagonists are to follow.

The Christian overtones of the voyage to the "underworld" renders this text a "masterpiece" in the Europe of the 1400s and 1500s, but it does nothing to entertain. Later, Dante will draw much of his vision of the "Inferno" from Book VI of "The Aeneid." Virgil's persistence to show the underworld as a challenge the protagonist needs (or is forced) to overcome is what seals the deal with later classic theology about the soul having to overcome sin in order to avoid the underworld. It's amazing to think how much of this is precursor to Christian belief, but how much of it remains the seminal foundation for what we believe today.

Turnus and Aeneas "duking it out" serves as the closing of the story. Again, the gods play "chess" with the characters. The battle is not described in as much detail as the sacking of Troy was at the very beginning, but Virgil does provide the reader with the one-on-one, blow-by-blow final meeting between Turnus and Aeneas. Aeneas is saved by Venus' balm when he is wounded on his leg by an arrow that cannot be dislodged. Once the balm does its thing, Aeneas returns to beat Turnus. In a moment of twisting hesitation, Aeneas pities the defeated foe whom he had decided to allow to escape with his life. But, as a master stroke, Virgil makes Aeneas realize what Turnus wears Pallas' belt around his shoulder... violence and death are the real legacies of Aeneas. He kills Turnus.

I took a little literary detour this week when I surrendered to re-reading "Oracle Night," by Paul Auster. I am reading differently now, however, seeing technique and way of introducing things into a story--not giving it all away at the beginning; how to make a character real; developing sub-plots, etc. Auster is the master of the "alternative driven" fiction. That is to say, characters are forced to make decisions that impact their entire lives and the plot of the story really is fueled by these decisions. First person narratives are the best for doing this. Friday alone I read over 200 pages in little under 3 hours. I simply adore Auster's prose, and I am learning a great deal in terms of what to do in my own writing.

The China trip is still on the works despite the little spurs of dissent about the Olympics and the violence in Tibet. I am to leave here on Wednesday, April 16th (I leave at 3 PM, have a lay over of 10 hours in Chicago, fly 13 hours to Korea spending 4 hours there, and finally arrive in Beijing at 10 AM of the following day). I suppose I could show some excitement for going, but after traveling most of Southeast Asia (while avoiding the communist countries), China sounds like a "burden" rather than an "exciting or exotic" trip. I am not quite sure where it is that I am teaching, other than the school at Changchun that is. I'll be counting the 10 days to return... and reading my way across most of the countryside (I have a six hour train ride from Changchun to Shanghai). I'll be taking more books than actual luggage with me.

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