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Archive for the ‘The New Yorker’ Category

Munro does it again

Alice Munro has to be the best short story writer on the planet! (Well, William Trevor is also amazing and so, in a totally different way, is George Saunders).  Still, I’ve been reading Munro’s stories in The New Yorker for years and have also read some of her collected works, and she never ceases to startle, even shock, as well as amuse, amaze and entertain.  Her latest, “Free Radicals,” (The New Yorker, Feb. 11 & 18, 2008) draws you in in an understated way as you learn about the heroine, Nita, in her seventies, who is dealing with the sudden death of her husband, whose friends are worried about her, who is dealing with the liver cancer that was supposed to kill her first, thus doubling the surprise of her husband’s death.    We learn about her past, we sense that her future time will be short; we think, well, she’s old, her husband was older.  There was some drama between her and the first wife, but that is all ancient history.  There are many stories like this, some well-written, that take a slice of life and show it to us and then end, often inexplicably.  Sometimes a phrase or a character can stay with you, but the story as a whole doesn’t make much of an impact.  Munro’s story of Nita takes a turn that makes art out of what was simply a nice narrative.  Suddenly, there is drama, suspense and a profound truth  that takes your breath away — being old and sick, knowing you’re going to die soon doesn’t lessen the fear of death, the unwillingness to die now.  The end of the story leaves you with a tiny question, a wondering about the truth of what had happened between Nita and the first wife, and the story ends with the words:  “Never know.” 

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I am really struggling to understand The Iliad, or piece together the bits I have gleaned into something comprehensive.  What I got out of it was that Homer was trying to point the way to wisdom, to help mortals understand a tiny bit of the ways of the gods—or at least to realize how subjective and narrow is the mortal viewpoint.  Each one operates from his or her own frame of reference, subject to the vagaries of emotion or circumstance (often created by the gods who infuse weary warriors with new energy and passion for war or incite others to foolish actions).  Homer seems to be trying to help mortals achieve some detachment from these forces, a way to rise above the moment.  But it would be a mere parable if not for the sweeping language, the actual viewpoint from Olympus that we are privileged to share, and conversely, the close-up view of the action on the ground, and, most important,  the agonizing, incremental gains in wisdom made by Achilles – it is a painful process and one of necessary suffering. 

To help with my struggle for comprehension,  I dug out the old New Yorker article by David Denby (9/6/93), which recounts his experience of returning to Columbia 30 years after attending the University to take a required course in Literature in which they read The Iliad (the Lattimore translation).  Denby focuses on Achilles, who “dominates the poem, even as he withdraws;” whose “moody self-preoccupation” fascinates.  Denby, a film critic, draws a parallel with “Marlon Brando’s glamorously sullen performances in his youth.”  He also points out that while Achilles may seem like a spoiled baby to us, Homer provides “a noble, rather than an ethical, concept of life.  You are not good or bad.  You are strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, conquering or vanquished, favored by the gods, or cursed.” All the battles, descriptions and seemingly minor characters serve to illustrate the heroic code, that, according to Denby’s professor, is violated by Achilles (by sulking in his tent, I guess).  

Denby finds the crux of the poem in Book IX, when emissaries come to Achilles’ tents to beg that he return to the fight.  His honor should be satisfied, given the fact that he is offered many rewards, including the girl that was taken from him in the beginning, all of which should end the matter; however, Achilles refuses the offer, refuses to be satisfied. According to Denby, his answer (lines 312-27, 405-09) is that of a man struggling to say what has never been said, or even imagined, within the confines of the warrior’s code.  In Denby’s words: 

The hero turns out to be a hero after all.  Achilles’ rage, which had seemed almost infantile….has had the remarkable effect of stunning this haughty young man into a new conception of war.  Suddenly he is groping toward a an idea of honor that doesn’t depend on the bartering of women and goods or on the opinion that men have of one another’s prowess (Fears stated that honor is not only what you think of yourself, but also what others think of you – your reputation). “We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings.  A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much.”  For the greatest warrior in the world (one who has already turned down the promise of a long, peaceful life in exchange for honor and glory), that is a devastating admission…Achilles has jumped forward to a private, or even spiritual sense of worth.”   

This takes the mere learning of moderation, as pointed out by Prof. Fears, a step forward, or else it is simply fleshing out what Fears was saying, for if Achilles is violating the heroic code, even speaking against it, as above, and thinking that all life, not just that of his friend (this is before the death of Patroclos), is precious, “that nothing is won for me…in forever setting my life on the hazard of battle” ….”not worth the value of my life are all the possesions they fable were won for Ilion….Of possessions cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting, and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses, but a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier.”  (The teeth’s barrier! Think of it, the last breath being gasped out….that is how the immediate and precise the language is, like a punch in the stomach).  So, Achilles has learned that there are things more precious than honor, which opens up a whole line of thinking that could have been dangerous and self-destructive; in fact, he decides to go back on his bargain with his mother and return home and live a long life!  But his anger at the death of Patroclus pulls him away from this tentative path and back to that of the avenging warrior, and so his death and glory are assured.  

Denby states that Achilles has made an attempt toward a modern consciousness, which for the modern reader had been missing from the poem, but while his revolt fails, the “questions he raised, about war and death, remain unanswered, because they cannot be answered.  The Iliad, for all its vaunting glory, remains in tension with itself, questioning, and even subverting, its own ethos..” 

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I’ve embarked on a new learning adventure – listening to courses on CD.  The first one I am trying is called “Books that have Made History; Books that Can Change your Life,” taught by Professor J. Rufus Fears. So far, I really like it.  The first lecture was about a German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed by Hitler near the end of the war. His book, Letters and Papers from Prison, demonstrates the way his classical education had given him the tools to contemplate his fate, to achieve wisdom, to maintain his humanity in the face of inhumanity.  Professor Fears makes the point that “Bonhoeffer had read the same books as those who tormented him.”  The judge who carried out his sentence had also received a classical German education, had read the Bible, Plato and Plutarch, yet they came to different conclusions about the current situation.  This reminds me of a poignant passage in the 5/22/06 New Yorker.  Anthony Lane was profiling an Englishman named Patrick Leigh Fermor (“An Englishman Abroad”) and relayed the following anecdote:

Fermor recounts a time in 1944, when he and his men are in flight from German patrols towing a German general. As they are climbing Mt. Ida (in Crete?) the General watches the dawn break and murmers from Horace, “Vides ut alte stet nive candidum.” Leigh Fermor also knew Horace and continued the quotation, “nec jam sustineant onus, Silvae laborantes, gulque, Flumina constiterint acuto”, and so on to the end. Fermor adds, “for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Anthony Lane adds that “it feels like the end of something: the last, companionable gasp of a civilization– grounded in the knowledge of earlier civilizations, Roman and Greek– that had not just held sway in Europe for over a thousand years but had done more than any political truce or chicanery to bind Europe together. Both Leigh Fermor and the general had been raised to recognize Horace odes 1.9, to get it by heart, and to realize that the poem itself is a crystallization of our common feelings.” (p. 64).

Fears makes the same point as Lane, but takes it further. He condemns the German judge for not using his education to make a moral stand as Bonhoeffer did.  The judge “believed that his duty was to carry out trials that he knew were wrong.”  This helped clarify something that has troubled me for some time.  I read a lot, and have read great books in my life, yet I have often been guilty of poor judgment, of weakness, cowardice, of not acting honorably.  In fact, there was a scene in a recent Jane Austen movie (The Jane Austen Book Club), where a character is faced with a choice, a moral dilemma, and as she is about to cross the street, the light blinking “walk” starts to read “what would Jane do?” and then it switches to “don’t walk.”  And she makes the right choice and turns back.    I have read all of Austen’s books mulitple times, yet have I gained wisdom from them, the wisdom that is there for the taking?  And Fears answers that the Great Books are not enough.  He points out all the information that is available to us on the internet, and he says that knowledge and information in themselves do not equal wisdom.  Wisdom takes contemplation and reflection on what we read and experience.  Otherwise, all the reading, book after book, without thought, is nothing more than appetite. 

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February 19 & 26, 2007 

The article on the TV show “24” about how popular the show is with the military was enlightening. I’ve never watched it, but it seems to feature a lot of torture, and not just by the ‘bad guys.’ What I found most interesting is that a delegation of Army officers and WEst Point instructors actually sat down with the creators of the show to urge them to not portray torture as a positive and necessary part of defending America. In fact, many experts say that torture is not really that efficient as a way of getting information. Of course, the show is wildly popular, so why should they change anything?

I also enjoyed the story (by Peter J. Boyer) of the Physicist turned Origami artist, the Poetry magazine article and the one about Hewlett Packerd’s board of directors.

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The Style Issue

March 19, 2007 

How I hate the Style Issue of The New Yorker!  It used to just be a fall event, but now it is showing up in the spring as well. What a bore! As I’ve said before, I dislike the trend toward specialty issues, whether it be fashion, fiction or whatever. I read the magazine to get a broad overview of different topics, so these specialty issues irritate me, especially when the topic is fashion! That said, Patricia Marx is as amusing as always in her column “Dressin’ Texan.” Otherwise, nothing else of interest.

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I finally finished the 6/12 Summer Fiction issue, featuring soldier stories. I liked Roger Angell’s tale of protesting the Vietnam War with his daughter, but I loved Italo Calvino’s fictional “Waiting for Death in a Hotel.” It was a simple enough story, but it captured something elemental about death. When one of the protagonists realizes that he will be executed the next day, there were in his words “the simplicity of something long feared and now inevitable.” This man starts pacing, when others address them, he stares back, bewildered, ‘as though having to return from a great distance to focus on what they were saying. Maybe he was thinking of the void, in order to prepare himself for not existing.”

When all the men are spared after all, they understand that ‘whatever their destiny, whatever violence, cries and exhaustion awaited them, they would nevertheless savor the bloody taste of being alive, of sharing pain like bread.’

I liked the profile of ‘the dog whisperer’ in the 5/22 (camel cover) and the profile of Patrick Leigh Fermor in “An Englishman Abroad.” Fermor recounts a time in 1944, when he and his men are in flight from German patrols towing a German general. As they are climbing Mt. Ida (in Crete?) the General watches the dawn break and murmers from Horace, “Vides ut alte stet nive candidum.” Leigh Fermor also knew Horace and continued the quotation, “nec jam sustineant onus, Silvae laborantes, gulque, Flumina constiterint acuto”, and so on to the end. Fermor adds, “for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Anthony Lane adds that “it feels like the end of something: the last, companionable gasp of a civilization– grounded in the knowledge of earlier civilizations, Roman and Greek– that had not just held sway in Europe for over a thousand years but had done more than any political truce or chicanery to bind Europe together. Both Leigh Fermor and the general had been raised to recognize Horzce odes 1.9, to get it by heart, and to realize that the poem itself is a crystallization of our common feelings.” (p. 64). We are so far from this now.

At the end of the article, Lane asks Leigh Fermor how he will get from Crete to the mainland. He decides to take the overnight ferry instead of a flight. Lane offers to book him a cabin, but Leigh Fermor replied that he would prefer a deck chair, adding, “My dear boy, I have a bottle of red wine and a copy of ‘Persuasion’, what more could I possibly need?” Lane adds that Leigh Fermor was at 83, “taking ship in the company of Jane Austen, one of his few peers in the art of the imperturbable. I could well imagine the pair of them at close of day: side by side, exchanging compliments, taking a little wine, and watching the old world slip away.”

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Jhumpa Lahiri

I just read the Jhumpa Lahiri story (“Once in a Lifetime”) in the May 8th New Yorker. It was a bit like her novel, “The Namesake” in that it portrayed an Indian family transplanted to Cambridge, Massachusetts and the society of fellow-expatriots that they join. As in the novel, the family moves out to a generic Boston suburb and the children experience a very Americanized upbringing, except for being dragged off to visit India every now and then. I was trying to decide why I dislike her writing, and maybe, I’m sorry to say, it is because what she writes about isn’t exotic enough and what she describes in such numbing detail is my own childhood – the orange and brown decorating scheme, the Christmas cards taped up around the door, the inane TV shows, like ‘Gilligan’s Island’, the homogeneous school system where everyone strives to conform. Anyway, this story at least had a center, the very well realized young girl narrator, which was lacking in “The Namesake” and that makes a huge difference.

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