July 2017 books read

I was talking to Jonathan about my pattern with this blog since its inception: I really enjoy having written each post, but don’t get to it very often because it takes time and energy, and then the books pile up physically and psychically because I impractically think I’ll do each one. He suggested that I just do the ones I actually get to, which I’ve attempted before. But starting in 2016, while my blogs were down, I started just a running list and that was satisfying in its own way. So my compromise idea is to make a list and link in the posts if I actually write them.

  • The Sea-Gull – Anton Chekhov, 1895 – in preparation for seeing Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird at Silverthorne, which was great!
  • Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance, 2016
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter Miller Jr., 1960
  • How to Become a Straight-A Student – Cal Newport, 2006
  • The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes, 2016
  • The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light – Paul Bogard, 2013
  • Père Goriot– Honoré de Balzac, 1835
  • The Immaterial Murder Case – Julian Symons, 1945
  • Emily Dickinson Is Dead – Jane Langton, 1984
  • J’irai cracher sur vos tombes – Boris Vian (as Vernon Sullivan), 1946
  • And Five Were Foolish – Dornford Yates, 1924
  • As Other Men Are – Dornford Yates, 1925
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport, 2016

Père Goriot– Honoré de Balzac, 1835

This was the July selection for the Great Books group. I read the original French as an epub first and then the translation by A. J. Krailsheimer in paper, so the latter is what I flagged for quotes. My reading French is still very good (I was bilingual as a kid and went through the French school system all the way through high school, but my oral French is pretty lousy now), but I knew I would still miss some context and I always like being able to compare to the translation. This one is very good! The only strange thing I noticed was “plump as a presbytery cat” for “dodue comme un rat d’église” (literally “plump as a church rat”), which presumably was to avoid the confusing analogy with “poor as a church mouse.” It sounds like the connotation in Balzac is supposed to be more metaphorical: a civil employee of a parish, ie sort of feathering her own bed?

It was an interesting combination of social commentary—Rastignac experiencing the various levels of society—with a Lear-ish family drama of father spoiling ungrateful daughters, but to me overall too sentimental and exaggerated to feel real, without the saving humor and passion of a Dickens. A delightful, truly modern-feeling bit was the lodgers’ faddish appendage of “-rama” to various words, which made a strong contrast with the horrific 19th century medicine (Goriot on his death-bed being tortured with mustard plasters and moxibustion).

I guess this is going to be the norm for my book club entries: ending with the dump of quotes! (although it’s is only a subset of what I originally flagged)

…he finally lay down and slept like a log. For every ten nights that young men pledge themselves to work, they spend seven asleep. You need to be over 20 to stay awake.

Vautrin, the voice of the non-respectable outsider:

“Those who get spattered in their carriages are respectable people, those who do so on foot are rogues. Just have the bad luck to pinch something or other and you’ll be pointed out as a curiosity outside the Law Courts. Steal a million and you’ll be held up as an example of virtue in the salons.

No doubt ideas are projected in direct proportion to the force with which they are conceived, and strike where the brain directs them, by a mathematical law which may be compared to that governing the bombs shot out of a mortar. Their effects are varied. If there are sensitive characters in whom ideas lodge and wreak havoc, there are also armour-plated characters, skulls with bronze ramparts against which the will of others is flattened out and drops like bullets against a wall. Then again there are flabby, wooly characters on whom the ideas of others fall spent like cannon-balls harmlessly absorbed by the soft earth of the redoubt. Rastignac’s head was one of those that are filled with gunpowder and explode at the slightest shock. He had too much youthful intensity to be impervious to this projection of ideas…

Bianchon, the feet-on-the-ground medical student:

“For my part I am content with the modest living I shall make in the provinces… A man’s desires can just as easily be satisfied in the smallest of circles as within an immense circumference. Napoleon didn’t dine twice a day, and couldn’t take any more mistresses than a medical student doing his house training at the Capuchins. Our happiness, my friend, will always lie between the soles of our feet and the crown of our head. Whether it costs a million francs a year or a hundred louis our basic perception of it is just the same within us.”

The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes, 2016

The Second Monday book group at Forbes rotates volunteer discussion leaders, and I signed up for this one because I like Barnes (although I haven’t read that much by him). It’s a meditation on courage and power’s corrupting effect on art, told as the inner thoughts of Dmitri Shostakovich at three low points in his life when he was humiliated by the Soviet Union. In my own reading I had mixed feelings about the historical fiction aspect, but the discussion brought me around to unqualified admiration. It’s so well structured and patterned, and even though Barnes’ “Shostakovich” is a construct, the choice makes sense. And it’s a jewel of compression–under 200 pages but very rich and full, which led to a great discussion. I typically flag a bunch of passages and then weed them down; some keepers:

On his parents’ relationship: “The strong cannot help confronting; the less strong cannot help evading.”

There was nothing in his life for those weeks except love, music, and mosquito bites. The love in his heart, the music in his head, the bites on his skin. Not even paradise was free of insects. But he could hardly resent them. Their bites were ingeniously made in places inaccessible to him; the lotion was based on an extract of carnation flowers. If a mosquito was the cause of her fingers touching his skin and making him smell of carnations, how could he possibly hold anything against the insect?

In an ideal world, a young man should not be an ironical person. At that age, irony prevents growth, stunts the imagination. It is best to start life in a cheerful and open state of mind, believing in others, being optimistic, being frank with everyone about everything. And then, as one comes to understand things and people better, to develop a sense of irony. The natural progression of human life is from optimism to pessimism; and a sense of irony helps temper pessimism, helps produce balance, harmony.
But this was not an ideal world, and so irony grew in sudden and strange ways. Overnight, like a mushroom; disastrously, like a cancer.

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. … He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe to it a specific function.

He admired those who stood up and spoke truth to Power. He admired their bravery and their moral integrity. And sometimes he envied them; but it was complicated, because part of what he envied them was their death, their being put out of the agony of living. … He too had felt the vanity of transitory courage.
But these heroes, these martyrs, whose death often gave a double satisfaction–to the tyrant who ordered it, and to watching nations who wished to sympathise and yet feel superior–they did not die alone. Many around them would be destroyed as a result of their heroism. And therefore it was not simple, even when it was clear.

What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.

In New York, he had gone to a pharmacy for some aspirin. Ten minutes after he left, an assistant was seen fixing a sign in the window. It read: DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH SHOPS HERE.

Now that he had seen more of life, and been deafened by the noise of time, he thought it likely that Shakespeare had been right, had been truthful: but only for his own times. In the world’s younger days, when magic and religion held sway, it was plausible that monsters might have consciences. Not anymore. The world had moved on, become more scientific, more practical, less under the sway of the old superstitions. And tyrants had moved on as well. Perhaps conscience no longer had an evolutionary function, and so had been bred out. Penetrate beneath the modern tyrant’s skin, go down layer after layer, and you will find that the texture does not change, that granite encloses yet more granite; and there is no cave of conscience to be found.

… how much bad music is a good composer allowed? … He had written a lot of bad music for a lot of very bad films. Though you could say that his music’s badness made those films even worse, and thus rendered a service to truth and art.

What he hoped was that death would liberate his music: liberate it from his life. Time would pass, and though musicologists would continue their debates, his work would begin to stand for itself. History, as well as biography, would fade: perhaps one day Fascism and Communism would be merely words in textbooks. And then, if it still had value—if there were still ears to hear—his music would be … just music. That was all a composer could hope for. Whom does music belong to, he had asked that trembling student, and thought the reply was written in capital letters on a banner behind her interrogator’s head, the girl could not answer. Not being able to answer was the correct answer. Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say, or wish for.

And one strange editing oversight, I assume: a great line about “He swam in honours like a shrimp in shrimp-cocktail sauce,” but it appears twice! (in the Knopf hardcover, pages 126 and 146) Even Homer nods…