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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries from January 1, 2016 - January 31, 2016

Wednesday
Jan272016

The Black Prince

It is the woman's privilege to save herself at the man's expense.

You may know little about this author apart from what was depicted in this film, which for more than one reason I cannot recommend. Despite Bayley's presumably good intentions, the portrait of his wife could not have been any less flattering (if Iris had its way, Murdoch's sexuality and dreadful descent into dementia would become the bookends on her memorial), although writers in film rarely come off as anything other than bores, neurotic bastards, or incorrigible dreamers. Pondering what Murdoch the woman was and wasn't does not befit the discriminating reader: any biography of hers may have anecdotal value, but her true life is her literary oeuvre, the history of her soul. An odd interest in Murdoch has persisted owing to a childhood recollection of two of her books gracing my parents' shelves. The first one has a most peculiar name, but everything thereafter came as a disappointment; the second, far greater work, is this fine novel.

Our time and place is early 1970s London, and our narrator is a high-strung, largely unsuccessful British writer by the name of Bradley Pearson. Readers who like symbols and crossword puzzles will immediately note that the book's title and protagonist share initials (readers such as these, I fear, will find little catnip among my pages). At fifty-eight, Pearson is well past life's middle path; he is childless and bitterly divorced, although his sexual affiliation will be questioned on more than one occasion; his friends and acquaintances are few; he is most certainly an alcoholic; and his family consists primarily of his sister Priscilla, who will turn out in her harmless Philistine way to be one of the most annoying characters in modern literature. Pearson has published a few books to critical and consumer indifference but insists, as good writers must, that his inner life replete with unwritten tomes more than compensates for this lack of recognition (his style is streaked with genius). His nemesis, therefore, must be a prolific and utterly worthless writer who hardly bothers to edit a single line of his trendy triteness. A profile apposite to Pearson's old chum, Arnold Baffin:

I 'discovered' Arnold, a considerably younger man, when I was already established as a writer, and he, recently out of college, was just finishing his first novel .... He was a schoolmaster, having lately graduated in English literature at the University of Reading. We met at a meeting. He coyly confessed his novel. I expressed polite interest. He sent me the almost completed typescript. (This was, of course, Tobias and the Fallen Angel. Still, I think, his best work.) I thought the piece had some merits and I helped him to find a publisher for it. I also reviewed it quite favorably when it came out. Thus began one of the most, commercially speaking, successful of recent literary careers. Arnold at once, contrary as it happens to my advice, gave up his job as a teacher and devoted himself to 'writing.' He wrote easily, producing every year a book which pleased the public taste. Wealth, fame followed.

Like all thriving second-raters, Baffin is worshipped by the average person impressed by his own ignorance and too scared to develop his own opinion (indeed, one minor character stares dimly as she labels Baffin "her favorite writer"). That Pearson has maintained his alleged friendship with Baffin, going so far as to have become a weekly dinner guest, might bespeak envy or simply the proximity that two people who love books require, even if what they get out of books is decidedly different. The fact that Pearson accords most praise to Arnold's first novel (likely started while still an undergraduate, when one knows absolutely nothing), and that the novel's title suggests a young readers' paperback about Biblical characters, should tell you all you need to know about Arnold Baffin.  

As we begin our tale, therefore, Arnold summons Pearson to his house after a domestic incident concludes in abject cruelty. Mrs. Rachel Baffin, a tall, spatially disruptive woman with freckles, is comforted by Pearson and we quickly learn about their insidious past together. Of course, since there is nothing easier to write about than betrayal, this past will bleed into the present, a point that cannot be overstated, and yet Pearson is only half-heartedly interested in Rachel the person. Rachel the fictional creation of the novel he is "destined" to write, however, fills him with action, literary action, that is, the unquenchable desire to reproduce emotions and thoughts in a tidy, ethical framework. I say "ethical" framework not only to betray my own sensibilities, but also those of Bradley Pearson, that self-anointed "puritan," and lifelong member of "some old unpassionate, rather ascetic cult." Pearson's wish is that we see him not necessarily as "ethical," but that we see him at all. That we notice him from amidst the throngs of published authors who write about themselves and their circles of family, friends, and lovers and hope to God that a somewhat less ordinary existence could interest an outsider. We meet the other persons in this circle and grow more suspicious of Pearson's motives: there is Priscilla, his only sibling, a hysterical, wretched disaster freshly dumped by her rat of a husband, even if, knowing how she is, no one could possibly blame him; Francis, Pearson's brother-in-law and, as opposed to Bradley, a non-functioning alcoholic; Christian, the erstwhile Mrs. Pearson, a rich widow fresh off a couple of decades in the New World; and finally Julian Baffin, twenty, female, named after the saint, the Baffins' only child and the third main character with an androgynous first name. Why is that significant? Well, it likely isn't; it is rather a tactic to remind us to consider another, far less interesting reading of The Black Prince of the kind so beloved by fashionable minds who construct their insipid labyrinths only to cloak their utter lack of talent. Pearson will learn something very interesting about Christian and something in a way just as shocking about Francis. But his aim throughout is self-discovery, the writer's "dream of a silence which [he] must enter, as some creatures return to the sea to spawn," and over the novel's longish arc we will discover quite a great deal about Bradley Pearson.  

Murdoch's prose has much to offer those who cannot do without impeccable style, a fact which, coupled with her strong moral compass, would be enough to guarantee her legacy. Nevertheless, she is often deemed a "philosopher," as if the added title does her or that nebulous word any justice whatsoever. Even if we were to consider The Black Prince the summit of her achievement, masticating too long on the asides and aphorisms would only direct the preprogrammed and dull to explore vacuous alleys. Samples of the style prove the point: "Julian suggested that we should collect some wood for the fire, but this proved difficult because every bit of wood we found was far too beautiful to burn"; "These were not words, but the highest coinage of human speech melted down, become pure song, something vilely, almost murderously gorgeous"; "The future had passed through the present like a sword"; "In waiting time devours itself .... yet at the same instant the terrified mind has flown ahead through centuries of unenlightened despair"; "The return of a passionate letter unread desolates far regions of the imagination"; "Death always seems to commit truth to some wider and larger court"; "The hand of death modelled him speedily, soon made his head a skull"; "Like spirits of the damned pricked by the devil's fork we bounded up." A casual sexist − a most unintendedly fabulous term − might comment that far too many humid, chatty conversations surface in The Black Prince, conversations that no male writer would ever deign to record. Given what Pearson consistently says about such techniques, the inclusion of these chats (some of them, admittedly, could stand to be diminished) should be understood as ironical, a brilliant method allowing characters to perjure themselves. And why would any one of these fine citizens perjure himself? Perhaps because no character, fictional or otherwise, may have "unassailable dignity." But whether they have any at all is another matter entirely.  

Friday
Jan222016

Akhmatova, "О тебе воспоминаю я редко"

A work ("You I recall but rarely") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.
 
You I recall but rarely,
Your fate I shan't pursue,
Yet my soul's slate's swept barely
Of phatic words with you.

Your red house, willfully passed,
Your red house dusks the river.
I know I have trespassed
Before your calm sun's shiver.

Though you as prostrate nurse
Did not avow love's reign;
Though you in flaxen verse
Did not extend my pain;

A future spell is cast.
Were evening fully blue,
I would foresee at last
Eventful words with you. 

Monday
Jan182016

A Nursery Tale

The original title of the above story found in this collection would be "a fairy tale," which suggests something not altogether fit for young ears. As it were, there is little to distinguish the prototypical fairy tale, replete with anthropomorphism, violence, and more than occasional wickedness, from our narrative. The protagonist is a lecherous bachelor still of marrying age by the name of Erwin; the place is a "fairy-tale German town." From our childhood on we learned that, by virtue of their beauty, serenity, and order, German towns tend to be perfect backdrops to the unusual and eerie. Erwin has a lot of free time on his clammy hands and spends it observing the nubile unattached maidens in his vicinage. There are many and he is but one, as alone as the toad upon the lily pad, so it takes him hardly any time to feel overwhelmed. After one unfortunate incident that ends in an upbraid and a hint of deterred sexual assault, Erwin alters his scheme:  

In compensation, separated from the street by a windowpane, clutching to his ribs a black briefcase, wearing scuffed trousers with a pinstripe, and stretching one leg under the opposite seat (if unoccupied), Erwin looked boldly and freely at passing girls, and then would suddenly bite his nether lip: this signified the capture of a new concubine; whereupon he would set her aside, as it were, and his swift gaze, jumping like a compass needle, was already seeking out the next one. Those beauties were far from him, and therefore the sweetness of free choice could not be affected by sullen timidity. 

I believe the waggish modern term for such a hobby is "eye candy"; it is undoubtedly one of the oldest and most forgivable hobbies in the world, as well as one of the hardest to relinquish. We would not be presumptuous in thinking that Erwin's fantasies are sketches for later portraits, hung ingloriously on the four bare walls of his humble studio. It is in this vein then, "on a frivolous evening in May" with the flower aria from this opera playing in the distance, that Erwin meets the one woman who can give him everything he wishes. And that woman is the Devil.

She introduces herself as such and also has another name, Frau Monde. Monde seems interested in pleasing Erwin and strikes up conversation in so casual a fashion as to be unconvincing in her claims. As Erwin reaches for his hat mumbling the niceties his mother taught him to mumble in such awkward situations, Monde directs his attention to an old man crossing before one of the ubiquitous trams loved by any lover of Germany and predicts disaster. The disaster occurs, although her phrasing allows the man to survive, and Erwin stops leaving, uncertain as to what turn their relationship is about to take. Monde fills him in concisely:

'Here is what I suggest. Tomorrow, from noon to midnight you can select by your usual method' (with heavy humor Frau Monde sucked in her lower lip with a succulent hiss) 'all the girls you fancy. Before my departure, I shall have them gathered and placed at your complete disposal. You will keep them until you have enjoyed them all. How does that strike you, amico?'

There is, as there ordinarily is with such pacts, an additional stipulation: his harem must be odd in number. Should midnight chime with an even collection, he will lose every single one of them – and perhaps a little more than that. So Monde stealthily exits, a mildly flabbergasted Erwin begins looking forward to tomorrow's eventful errands, and the dollhouse is built.

The informality of the encounter may remind students of Russian literature of this subsequent novel, both of which owe much more to the Faust legend than to each other (Nabokov's story antedated the palaver at the Patriarch's Pond by several years) – but close analysis yields no comparison of any value. What Erwin does or does not accomplish by midnight possesses much of the suspense wrought by the best of fairy or nursery tales, stories that do not so much as shock as fulfill expectations in an offbeat way. You and I and Frau Monde and any other experienced reader all know that Erwin and his harem are quickly parted; what we do not know are the circumstances of his occlusion. When he sets out that fateful afternoon, we are treated to a magnificent scene:

He went out just as the church clock had begun the laborious task of striking noon. Sunday bells joined in excitedly, and a bright breeze ruffled the Persian lilacs around the public lavatory in the small park near his house. Pigeons settled on an old stone Herzog or waddled along the sandbox where little children, their flannel behinds sticking up, were digging with toy scoops and playing with wooden trains. The lustrous leaves of the lindens moved in the wind; their ace-of-spades shadows quivered on the graveled path and climbed in an airy flock the trouser legs and skirts of the strollers, racing up and scattering over shoulders and faces, and once again the whole flock slipped back onto the ground, where, barely stirring, they lay in wait for the next foot passenger. In this variegated setting, Erwin noticed a girl in a white dress who had squatted down to tousle with two fingers a fat shaggy pup with warts on his belly. The inclination of her head bared the back of her neck, revealing the ripple of her vertebrae, the fair bloom, the tender hollow between her shoulder blades, and the sun through the leaves found fiery strands in her chestnut hair.

You would think this would be enough for most people, and indeed, our Erwin would have been better off stopping right there. German trees in the shape of playing cards will also call to mind another Russian work of art that again traces its spindly roots to Doctor Faustus and his endless thirst for what we boldly call knowledge. After all, Frau Monde's late third husband was a professor. And a worldly one at that. 

Wednesday
Jan132016

Seven Pounds

All people who are possessed by writing will begin, for better or worse, with critiques of their predecessors; they will grandly dismiss some easy targets, dissect the more subtle culprits and in general claim that there is practically nothing out there worth reading (sometimes, the more panic-stricken among us will announce a "crisis" in art). To be sure, these are the rantings of the young and unsung. The trick is moving past this negativity into a clear system of observation and criticism, shedding the alb of high-and-mighty wisdom, and stipulating some unshakeable criteria for evaluating what we read. Over time I have come to see that the works I admire share one commonality: they know right from wrong. They may indeed deal with religious themes in which moralizing comes with the territory; but, as it were, they more typically involve much more earthbound topoi, plain and daily situations that require decisions based on good and simple values. What is remarkable about our day and age is how many people most of them, sadly, believers in no force greater than a black hole cannot endure the application of such values. Kindness, benevolence, mercy, discipline, selflessness, sacrifice, righteousness, courage, patience, understanding, and, above all, sympathy all these have been deemed the hallmarks of some naive brand of altruism that was really popular, oh about two thousand years ago, and has since fallen out of fashion. More disturbing still is when someone tries to do good with no reward to himself, he is labeled as egotistical and motivated by messianic urges, as if the latter were some kind of disease. For your information, if everyone were possessed by a sliver, by a wispy fraction of the goodness that was inculcated into our consciousness so many centuries before, we would not have the destruction, terror, and hatred that continue to plague us. It remains a matter of debate, however, as to whether we would have something akin to this film.

That we are dealing with a burdensome choice of self-sacrifice is clear from the opening scene: a distraught man (Will Smith) in his thirties calls a Los Angeles emergency hotline to announce a suicide. "Who is the victim of the suicide?" asks the helpful, disembodied voice. After a few moments of painful reflection, he responds with only two words: "I am." The rest of the film will be a prelude to this horrific moment, and it is our task to evaluate whether such melodrama is worth almost two hours of our time. The man in question is subsequently revealed to be Ben Thomas, an IRS agent and inspector who is certainly not what he appears to be. Proof of this simple fact lies in his first inspection: he parks at a nursing home and throws a nasty look at the director's car, a brand-new German vehicle of considerable value. He enters and interviews the director, a revolting, money-grubbing lout ironically named Goodman who has cut spending in the home by seventeen percent, cannot pay his back taxes (he is currently asking for an extension), and yet has still managed to buy a sports car and give himself a raise all of which may sound eerily familiar to citizens of certain privileged countries. Nevertheless, his greed is surpassed by something far worse: he has been punishing a helpless old woman who refuses to take her medicine by not allowing her to be bathed. Once Ben discovers this fact, he rescinds any possibility for an extension and we feel modestly redeemed. Redeemed not only because every single person should be appalled at how we neglect and discard the elderly, but also because this has always been the calling card of a society predicating social Darwinism and the destruction of the weak. Shortly thereafter, Ben retreats to a beachside house that a tax inspector would be unlikely to be able to afford and has a couple of flashbacks (never mind that the whole film is, in essence, a flashback). In his hazy somnolence he is no longer a tax inspector, but an aeronautical engineer and, against every other indication we have had so far, he is not all alone: he has a young wife who no longer happens to exist. His phone rings, and we learn he also has a brother (Michael Ealy) who is worried about him; indeed, that short conversation with his brother is punctuated by one of Ben's few displays of anger. And, given the film's title, it is equally revealing that he then irately lists seven names, the first three all with the surname Anderson, and the last a female with his own. So I give nothing away by stating that, about twenty minutes in, the arc of the story has already been formed: a young man with a certain amount of clout will give his life to help those who cannot help themselves, a noble ambition stemming from the likelihood that he is responsible for the death of seven people, including, it appears, his wife.  

A few more important details: on his desk, near his phone in that lonely beachfront property, Ben has another list of names. Quick-eyed viewers can discern the word "match" on it, which is more than you need to know. Then there is a display of cruelty on the phone to Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson), a blind customer service agent to whom Ben imparts his name as well as a few bits of biographical guesswork that would bring lesser men to rage. But Ezra reacts with shame and dignity and politely hangs up the phone, unpossessed of indignation, which cannot be said of those scenes where Ben chides his worst enemy, his past self.  If Ben's heavyheartedness is devastating and all-encompassing, we might wonder why his brave and selfless acts will probably make so many viewers squirm. The same viewers, mind you, who weep at the most sentimental war movies, cheer on the charming gangsters in the modernized westerns that have become so prolific, and praise works for their "moral ambiguity" (when you see this phrase, you know you need to find something better to read). Could it be that most of humanity envies those few souls who actually uphold the good and moral values that might be our salvation? Could there be anything more ignominious than resenting the legitimate sacrifices of others by claiming that they just want to draw attention to themselves? Or perhaps we should concentrate on another locus of emotional manipulation, Ben's romance with Emily (Rosario Dawson), who could really, really use a new heart to replace her rather dysfunctional one? Those IRS fellows are quite a magnanimous bunch.           

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Smith
Friday
Jan082016

A Single Man

The changes that occur in the material world may seem overwhelmingly great, but they are nothing if our internal designs remain unaltered. Some souls enjoy being caught up in the hoopla – protesting the latest war, denouncing the latest villain, celebrating the latest triumph of the human spirit – and this is all quite commendable. And yet attentive monitoring of these movements suggests that it is not so much their laudable ends that matter, but the fact that they matter at all. People, in other words, want to feel like they have lived through something of importance. If your whole concept of right and wrong and interesting and banal is confined to the material world, you will have a lot of newspapers to read but may have precious little time for art. Art, of course, also has its faddists. And modern art's inherent flaw is that it must continuously attempt to be modern, which means that its values will be shaped around whatever the loathsome "spirit of the times" dictates (one recent novel featured a character who records background sounds at airports to sell to adulterous husbands, one of the most chilling examples of creative bankruptcy you will ever find). True art, however, is eternal, and it is eternal because apart from technological advancements in its appurtenances it could occur at any place and at any time. Amidst the hubbub of the latest putsch and politicizing, it remains alone like a fortified beacon caressing the salty waves. May all the tyrants of the world be destroyed – I wish them all thunderous doom – and may we still enjoy works of splendid vision like this fine film.  

We begin, as we should given what follows, in a dream, but it is a dream of death. George Falconer (an extraordinary Colin Firth) walks along a snowy road to where a car has flipped over and ejected a young man's bleeding body. That young man is the thirty-something Jim (Matthew Goode). And when George comes closer and realizes that he will have to wait for another life or world to see Jim again, he lies down beside him and kisses him with the tenderness that can only be love or what we have always imagined love to be. There will be many moments like this in A Single Man, which is as much about George's inability to move past this loss as it is about the significance of all our breaths in general. George escapes from this hideous nightmare, one that must assault him often in myriad anagrams, and we note that the time is roughly three in the morning. That notation is vital as, like in any good Greek tragedy, we will see twenty-four hours of our hero, a small span of time for a fate to be decided. When he starts his day a couple of hours later, gone is all the psychic disorder and pain; in its place are puritan steadfastness and ritual. "It takes me a while to become George," a disembodied narrator informs us. "I look in the mirror and see not so much a face as the expression of a predicament." Some reviewers may seize upon this lovely observation as the money quote, and yet the more deeply we proceed into George's day, the less applicable the comment becomes.

A resident of Los Angeles for the past twenty-four years, George has loved his Jim for two-thirds of that period, and nothing of his love has abated since Jim's death in March of 1962. When he sifts through his American memories (we get nothing of Britain as if it never existed), there should be two Jim recollections for every one in which the former serviceman does not appear. Yet all we see and hear is Jim. Nothing of George's work as a college professor of literature is conveyed; nothing of any family members he has; nothing, as it were, that took place before meeting Jim in a jubilant postwar California bar and knowing that here was someone who would remain in his heart forever. Even Charley, née Charlotte (Julianne Moore), his former lover and lone confidante, recurs in a single memory, a horrible, wordless dream from that rainy night when he was dutifully informed by Jim's cousin that a fatal car crash had taken his love away. As he swallows his tears and announces his attendance at the funeral, the cousin coolly replies, "the service is just for family." Only a crude mind would equate the couple with their two smooth fox terriers that accompany Jim on his fatal drive (one dog dies with him and the other, "a small female," is unaccounted for), but the symbolism is obvious and galling. Is the main reason we feel a pinprick of remorse for this metaphor the way in which homosexual couples in the early 1960s were obliged to be invisible? That may be; one well-done if blunt scene in George's classroom hammers that point home. George has loved Jim; Jim loved George; but when one of them vanishes it is very much as if their relationship never happened at all. "Wasn't Jim a substitute for something else?" asks a smashed and still-hopeful Charley (Charley spends most of her day trying to look presentable enough to get bombed in public), which brings about one of George's eruptions at an otherwise sedate and very boozy dinner party for two. No, Jim was the real thing. Nothing on God's green earth could ever return those sixteen happy years and Jim will remain forever young and beautiful.

Many years ago I leafed through an Isherwood omnibus that included the original novel and was not particularly impressed, but that cursory judgment has no bearing on the screen adaptation. The quality of a film about love and loss is based squarely upon whether you care about the love forlorn, regardless of whether it takes place in a time of cholera or war or famine, or whether it at all answers to your own fantasies. A thin, at times gratuitous layer of topicality coats A Single Man, primarily from the mutually assured destruction that Cuban missiles were supposed to harbinger, a conceit that makes George's quandary at once trivial and earth-shattering. "If there's going to be a world with no time for sentiment," George declaims with a tone more befitting this actor, "then it's not a world I want to live in." And of what then is George's world composed? The One Day in the Life of George Falconer premise works not only because a couple of months' worth might have become an exercise in morosity, it also works because the director's natural eye for beauty and color as well as his fetish for the male body conspire into a stunning tapestry of soft moments. The odd, shy stares that George exchanges with his handsome student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult); his frank abuse of Charley's good offices; the lecherous smoke break with a Spanish rent boy (Jon Kortajarena); and the numerous occasions in which George notices eye color, desire, tension, or fear in his fellow humans. And of course, two scenes with Jim. In the first, Jim claims that he has never once slept with a woman ("Doesn't everyone sleep with women when they're young?" is George's glib rebuttal), which if true makes Jim different and pure, not like the thousands of gay men who have not only slept with women, but married, impregnated, and spent a lifetime with them because the life they really wanted could not so easily be lived. The second scene reveals the couple's reading choices (George is deep into this masterpiece) and, after some throwaway bravado on Jim's part, George's passionate devotion to his partner.  And as we know, every swan only has so many summers.

Monday
Jan042016

The Dagger with Wings

If you know even a little about the English Romantic poets, you will understand their lineage to the antagonist of likely the greatest literary achievement of mankind. Being a Romantic meant being in love with ideals against all the conformities and customs of bourgeois society, that suffocating python, even with the knowledge that there would always be a bourgeois society; being an English poet also necessarily meant being inferior, because there would always be Milton. Shades of the most famous of fictional Satans still inhabit the gunslinging outlaw, the gangster, the drug lord, and the ruthless chief executive officer who from his underlings wishes to make grist for his golden mill, but they also animate the pious fraud. After all, it is the alleged prophet or clairvoyant who aims to seduce those too feeble of mind and experience to distinguish a sham from a Lamb. Which brings us to this odd and rather unsettling tale.

You may already know a little about our protagonist, if that is really the right word: a diminutive Catholic priest often consulted when an unusual crime stumps the usual investigators. And our investigator, Dr. Boyne, "the medical officer attached to the police force," has something very usual about his approach:

Dr Boyne was a big dark Irishman, one of those rather baffling Irishmen to be found all over the world, who will talk scientific scepticism, materialism, and cynicism at length and at large, but who never dream of referring anything touching the ritual of religion to anything except the traditional religion of their native land. It would be hard to say whether their creed is a very superficial varnish or a very fundamental substratum; but most probably it is both, with a mass of materialism in between.

Dr. Boyne will later claim to be "a practical man" who "do[es]n't bother much about religion and philosophy," and will be corrected as to what a practical man should really do with his time. But between these two sidelights on our Irish coroner, a fantastic situation presents itself: a rich old man by the name of Aylmer has died and his three sons have inherited. A standard bequest were it not for the fact the two eldest followed their father in death with unenviable rapidity. The reason? A fourth son, as it were, who equally qualifies to be the first, a "very brilliant and promising" boy legally adopted by Aylmer "in his bachelor days, when he thought he would have no heir" (the patriarch, like many people of lifelong wealth, married late). Boyne's description of this fellow, "who went by the name of John Strake," will imbue even the callow reader with a distinct impression:

His origin seems to be vague; they say he was a foundling; some say he was a gypsy. I think the last notion is mixed up with the fact that Aylmer in his old age dabbled in all sorts of dingy occultism, including palmistry and astrology, and his three sons say that Strake encouraged him in it. But they said a great many other things besides that. They said Strake was an amazing scoundrel, and especially an amazing liar; a genius in inventing lies on the spur of the moment, and telling them so as to deceive a detective .... Perhaps you can more or less imagine what happened. The old man left practically everything to the adopted son; and when he died the three real sons disputed the will. They said their father had been frightened into surrender and, not to put too fine a point on it, into gibbering idiocy. They said Strake had the strangest and most cunning ways of getting at him, in spite of the nurses and the family, and terrorizing him on his death-bed. Anyhow, they seemed to have proved something about the dead man’s mental condition, for the courts set aside the will and the sons inherited. Strake is said to have broken out in the most dreadful fashion, and sworn he would kill all three of them, one after another, and that nothing could hide them from his vengeance. It is the third or last of the brothers, Arnold Aylmer, who is asking for police protection. 

With all his materialist mores, Boyne certainly resembles a real person; but there is no way on earth or beyond that John Strake is real in person, name, or image, which shouldn't surprise us in the least. Like the Romantic poets (one in particular leaps to mind), he has constructed his own identity to be as lush, mysterious, and provocative as his verse. Someone like John Strake could not possibly have hailed from an average, bourgeois family or entertained the notion of enjoying such a family's quotidian comforts. So when Brown ventures to Arnold Aylmer's isolated residence, a cold and distant patch likened at one point to "the North Pole," he will obtain a private pow-wow since all of Aylmer's servants have already abandoned him – and here we must also abandon our cassocked friend.  

A minor imperfection or two can be in found in each of Chesterton's Father Brown tales (as a whole, however, they form an impregnable fortress of genius), and The Dagger with Wings omits more than one crucial detail, or at least appears to do so. Even the story's name does not quite get at the gist of the matter. Brown will make his way to the lonely house just before a convenient snowstorm literally covers his tracks; there, a lengthy conversation will ensue on an array of subjects: white (or "silver") magic, the sort of man who would sell himself to the Devil, Simon Magus (whom some may include in the last category), and some threatening letters "marked with a sign like a winged dagger." We could inject some levity into these dreadful debates by calling Magus a pioneer in human aviation, but Magus has always been revered by those of dark intent because he was one of the first and most determined apostates. Yet the most salient line of discourse comes after one character declares it the priest's "business to believe things," to which the alleged believer replies: "Well I do believe some things, of course ... and therefore, of course, I don't believe other things." A perfectly logical statement, if you happen to be a weekly subscriber to logic. It may also explain why when one character labels himself an "agnostic," he means it in the precise Greek sense of the word, that is, one who doesn't know. Perhaps I should say he knows some things and doesn't know others.

Friday
Jan012016

Mandelshtam, "Вечер нежный. Сумрак важный."

An early work ("Twilight thick and evening soft") by this Russian man of letters.  You can find the original here.
 
Twilight thick and evening soft,
Roars and swells move fast apace;
Humid wind, a veil aloft
Of the sun to mask our face.

All is hushed, all mixed and lost,
Waves rock drunk upon the shore;
And blind joy our mind accosts,
Our heart heavier than before.

Chaos darkens in mute cling,
Air wafts drunkenly and dumbs;
Massive is the choir that hums:
Flutes and lutes and timbrels sing.