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Archive for the tag “Tolstoy”

Two Novels by Chimamanda Adichie: Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun

Everyone knows that “race” is not a valid biological category, but merely a social construct based on particular historical and geographical facts, right? And we all know that America is a “post-racial” society with no lingering evidence of racism or prejudices ever since Obama was elected in 2008. So there must be very little to say or write about this historical artifact known as “race”. Despite these caveats, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has found a way to write an excellent 588-page novel about race and “blackness” (and other things!) in America called Americanah.

Likewise, if you feel you have read too many interesting books and already know too much about African society and post-colonial history, do not bother reading her earlier novel Half of a Yellow Sun. In this review, I will give my thoughts on both of these books.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah, published in 2013, is the third novel of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a writer from the university town of Nsukka, Nigeria. It follows the lives of two characters who start a strong relationship in high school in Nigeria, drift apart for many years, and meet again in Lagos as very different people. Ifemelu, the female protagonist, moves to America to attend a university in Philadelphia. She stays for 15 years doing various jobs around the Northeast and having a couple serious relationships with American men. Obinze, the male protagonist, goes to England and overstays his visa for many years until being deported back to Nigeria, where he becomes a wealthy businessman.

Ifemelu’s story is the main part of the narrative, and her observations about race and lifestyle in America from an outsider’s perspective are the most interesting part of the novel. Desperate for money for living expenses in America, she has an encounter with a sleazy sports coach that leads her to break off all contact with Obinze out of guilt and confusion for almost the rest of the novel. After a period of unemployment, she finds a job as a babysitter for a wealthy liberal family, who sees her as exotic. She starts a relationship with a relative of her employer, a white guy named Curt, who takes her to high society parties and trips around the globe. After leaving Curt for reasons unclear to both her and the readers, she gets a job at a new fashion magazine, and by chance starts a blog about race in America called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black”. The blog, written anonymously, takes off and she is eventually able to support herself solely from writing (is there anyone who writes a blog who hasn’t dreamed about earning enough money from it to pay the bills and so quitting their day job?).

She meets Blaine, a Black American professor at Yale whom she had sat next to on a train one time years earlier (she speculated that the seat next to his was the only one available on a busy train because he was Black), at a bloggers’ conference and she starts a serious relationship with him. He is a model of healthy living, virtuous behavior, and compassionate activism, and, like Curt, a good boyfriend to her. When she decides to break things off with Blaine as well, we begin to understand that she feels a pull to return to her homeland which probably involves the real love of her life, Obinze. The novel has a non-linear narrative that jumps backwards in time and between characters. It opens with Ifemelu in a hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey (where she lives in Princeton there is no African salon) preparing for her move back to Nigeria and undergoing a six-hour treatment for new hair braids done by a Senegalese immigrant.

americanahObinze’s plan was to follow Ifemelu to America and enter university as well, but he was denied a visa after September 11th for unclear (but obvious) reasons. The ironic thing is that he was a huge fan of American films and literature his whole life and always planned to move there one day. When he was rejected, he accepted a research position under his mother, a professor, and got a visa for the U.K. He stayed there doing odd jobs and going through even worse financial difficulties than Ifemelu in America. Eventually, he made a deal to marry a woman with dual Angolan-British citizenship in order to gain a permanent visa and work permit. He saved money for months but was caught by the immigration police on the day of the wedding ceremony and deported back to Nigeria. He was introduced to a wealthy businessman who made him into a confidante and set him up with his own property dealings, after which he became a typical Nigerian “big man”. He got married and had a child. This is the point in which the paths of the two characters cross again towards the end of the novel.

Many times a chapter ends with an excerpt from Ifemelu’s “Raceteenth” blog, usually related to an event that just happened in the story. Here is one interesting example from around the middle of the novel:

Understanding America for the Non-American Black: A Few Explanations of What Things Really Mean

  1. Of all their tribalisms, Americans are most uncomfortable with race. If you are having a conversation with an American, and you want to discuss something racial that you find interesting, and the American says, “Oh, it’s simplistic to say it’s race, racism is so complex,” it means they just want you to shut up already. Because of course racism is complex. Many abolitionists wanted to free the slaves but didn’t want black people living nearby. Lots of folks today don’t mind a black nanny or black limo driver. But they sure as hell mind a black boss. What is simplistic is saying, “It’s so complex.” But shut up anyway, especially if you need a job/favor from the American in question.
  2. Diversity means different things to different folks. If a white person is saying a neighborhood is diverse, they mean nine percent black people. (The minute it gets to ten percent black people, the white folks move out.). If a black person says diverse neighborhood, they are thinking forty percent black.
  3. Sometimes they say “culture” when they mean race. They say a film is “mainstream” when they mean “white folks like it or made it.” When they say “urban” it means black and poor and possibly dangerous and potentially exciting. “Racially charged” means we are uncomfortable saying “racist.”

More than a love story, this is an excellent novel with a wide range of interesting characters and real-life situations. The book is filled throughout with detailed observations and comments on race, immigration, education, women, and business. These observations are challenging, funny, empathetic, and wise, and show a huge talent and range of experience across three countries and cultures by the author.

Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s second novel published seven years earlier in 2006, is set in 1960s Nigeria. It jumps back and forth in time, between the first years of Nigerian independence in the early 60s and the Biafran War, or Nigerian Civil War, from 1967-1970. Its chapters also rotate between following the perspectives of three primary characters who are all interconnected. The book opens with the character of Ugwu, an uneducated village boy who becomes a “house boy” for a professor named Odenigbo. The second character is Olanna, the girlfriend of Odenigbo and a highly intelligent and beautiful woman whose father is a wealthy chief or “big man”. The third character is Richard Churchill, an English writer who moves to Nigeria to write a book inspired by Igbo art, and falls in love with Kainene, the non-identical twin sister of Olanna who is cynical, urbane, and focused on running her father’s businesses.

Flag of the short-lived nation of Biafra, which inspired the title of Half of a Yellow Sun

Flag of the short-lived nation of Biafra, which inspired the title of Half of a Yellow Sun

Both parts of the novel, before and during the war, are equally strong and captivating. This book, much more than Americanah, is reminiscent of the great books by Chinua Achebe (the “African trilogy”) and Wole Soyinka (Death and the King’s Horseman, for example) in its rich description of the life and culture of the Nigerian ethnicities and the social and political effects of British colonial rule even after independence. Important themes that are well-developed include the contrast between village and city life, traditional and modern culture, the conflict between different groups such as the Muslim Hausa and the Christian Igbo peoples, and the horrific effect that war always has on civilians. In the case of the Biafran War, the new country of Biafra, declared by the Igbo leaders after a counter-coup and massacre by the Hausa people, was gradually starved into submission with the almost unanimous support or non-intervention of the rest of the world (including a rare Cold War point of agreement between the USA and the Soviet Union). Adichie makes this story totally compelling from the points of view of characters that we get to know and sympathize with. There is a 2013 movie based on the novel. It is interesting to see the visual settings and details of this post-colonial era, and some of the war scenes were well done. Overall, as we are always compelled to say after reading a very good book, “the film version is not as good as the original” (with notable exceptions that include “The Last of the Mohicans” and everything by Stanley Kubrick).

I recently saw somewhere an article that called Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a new “African Tolstoy”, or some very similar phrase. This is about the highest praise a writer could receive, in my opinion, though it is hard to believe it is totally warranted at this point. Like Tolstoy, Adichie writes a complete story from many different perspectives, taking us inside the heads and psychologies of various characters. She also paints a large and rich narrative canvas that makes us forget we are reading fiction and more like we are following the story as it happens. However, she still lacks the philosophical and psychological depth of Tolstoy, as well as the ability to describe common things in terms of the sublimity and universality of human experience. To fall short of such lofty standards is nothing to be ashamed of, rather to be compared to the likes of Tolstoy is, as I already mentioned, great in itself (just as we need not look down upon the plays of Ibsen or Shaw for falling somewhat short of the divine Shakespeare).

I have not read Adichie’s other works yet, which include her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, and a short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, but they are on my future reading list. She is also an interesting speaker with several TED talks or other public speaking to her name. An especially relevant and poignant speech about Feminism was sampled in a Beyonce song. I will conclude by highly recommending these books to everyone, even or especially if you are a white American or European male like me who has had little personal experience with race and does not know nearly enough about the burgeoning country of Nigeria, which is on pace to be one of the biggest economies and most populated in the world in a couple decades. We can also say that it already has a strong literary culture to be explored.

What I Read in 2014

Despite those metaphysicians who hold that time is circular, the end of the year and the forward march of time is an opportune time for stepping outside of time, so to speak, and looking backward and forward in time to assess one’s life, what one has done well in the past, and what can be improved or attempted in the future. Like every other year, 2014 was a big year for me personally for various reasons. In this post, I will limit my discussion to books I have read, recapitulating and epitomizing each one, throwing in some digressions for good measure. The list is what it is–part of the past now, and part of my personal history and development. This year’s total of 30 or so books is not the most I have ever read in one year–I read over 40 solid books during my second deployment to Afghanistan which was 15 months, and I surely read much more during my Master’s study–but I don’t remember an overall assemblage of tomes from which I took so much enjoyment of reading itself, and not from research or other worldly duties and responsibilities. The books on this list were uniquely received and understood by me in a way that will be different for every other potential reader, owing to our mutual uniqueness of character and experience. If the list leads you to find a single good book you may not have otherwise read, I will consider myself happy (happier, rather, since my reading of these books was the original instantiation of my happiness). Unless otherwise stated, the list only includes books that I finished and not ones that I abandoned due to sudden change  of interest (Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, for example), dislike (one of the books of George Saunders, for example), or other various stories and volumes that I randomly perused or forgot I even started.

Postwar by Tony Judt

This was the only work of history I read this year, unusually for me, and was the longest of the year as well (835 pages). It covers the entirety of European history from the last years of World War Two until 2005. Considered the very best broad survey of this segment of world history. I learned many things about the nooks and crannies of Europe of which I know next to nothing (Romania and Yugoslavia, for example) and much more about the places where I supposedly know something (Italy and America, for example). The book also links together the pieces of the puzzle, including economy, culture, American foreign policy, and many other things, that led directly to the state of Europe as it currently stands.

Zorba the Greek and parts of Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis

I had seen the film twice and started the book a few years ago, but I finally got around to reading the whole tale of Alexis Zorba. As is obligatory to say in such contexts, it is better than the film. Kazantzakis’ epic sequel of Odysseus’ wanderings would have ranked as the longest book of the year, but I did not finish it, and do not plan to in any hurry. It is one to be savored intermittently and at a leisurely pace. If you want to find out more about this author, I have already written a longer article called Nikos Kazantzakis the Greek. He is truly one of the great writers of the 20th century.

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty

These are two accessible works (that is to say, not technical or jargony) of philosophy by the American pragmatist and political activist. They are quite engaging, though I have not actually made up my mind yet which parts of his thinking I disagree with. In the first book, there is a very interesting discussion and comparison between Orwell and Nabokov, not just as writers but as philosophical thinkers. Recommended for these final two chapters alone. The second book is basically Rorty explaining his same ideas in different ways, which is not necessarily a bad thing. As the most important American philosopher since Dewey, he deserves a longer explanation which I cannot give at this time. Here is one interesting quote from the latter book: “So, for pragmatists there is no sharp break between natural science and social science, nor between social science and politics, nor between politics, philosophy and literature. All areas of culture are parts of the same endeavor to make life better. There is no deep split between theory and practice, because on a pragmatist view all so-called ‘theory’ which is not wordplay is always already practice.” It is worth mentioning that these books are partly responsible for my decision (unconscious at first but very clear now) to change my reading habits largely back to fiction after a long time of focusing about exclusively on non-fiction (history, philosophy, and other theoretical pursuits).

Hadji Murad; assorted short stories by Lev Tolstoy

Tolstoy is in the literary pantheon, so it is never difficult to read or reread anything by the Count. Hadji Murad was his last completed novel (technically a novella), and was the inspiration for a short story of mine that is to be published in an anthology of veteran authors next year. One of only two pieces that I reread this year was the short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, which uses its 10 pages to their maximum story-telling potential. James Joyce considered it the best short story ever written (which obviously means the best that Joyce himself had ever read).

Anxiety of Influence and The Book of J by Harold Bloom

Bloom is the foremost American literary critic, and in the first work he describes how all literature is written with an “anxiety of influence” about drawing inspiration from and trying to surpass one’s literary forebears. Most of the book focuses on English poetry, but the ideas he puts forth are relevant to any field of study. The second book is more accessible but also more speculative. Bloom posits that the Hebrew Torah was originally the work of a single creative mind during the Enlightenment period of King Solomon, and further that this author was a woman. In his introduction to another book, The Western Canon, Bloom takes this idea a step further and claims the author was none other than Bathsheba. It is very well thought out and sound hypothesis, to the point that he includes the entire original version of the story of Yahweh supposedly created by Bathsheba in a long poem imagined by David Rosenberg. According to Bloom, Joseph would have been the heroic literary counterpart to the historical King David, whose reign would have been witnessed by the author and seen as a golden age compared to that of his incompetent grandson Rehoboam.

Very Little, Almost Nothing by Simon Critchley

The only real technical philosophy I read this year discusses the problematic idea of nihilism and how it can be overcome. A difficult read, punctuated by many interesting and inspiring quotes. One of the things that moved me was Critchley discussing the quote by Adorno about Auschwitz: “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” Critchley then notes, “After Auschwitz, the Kantian epistemological question ‘How is metaphysics possible?’ yields to a historical question ‘Is it still possible to have a metaphysical experience?’ For Adorno, this is because actual events–the Holocaust–have shattered the basis upon which metaphysical speculation might be reconciled with experience.” It has quite a bit of value from the point of view of contemporary metaphysics and for those interested in existentialism.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson; Beethoven: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris

These are two of a series of short and lively biographies for a popular audience called “Eminent Lives,” each of which I read in a couple sittings. Though I already knew quite a bit about the world’s greatest playwright and composer, respectively, the authors have a flair for story-telling, and I now have more perspective about the world these two literary and musical luminaries moved in. About Shakespeare, it was just as interesting to learn about the historical reception and scholarship of the Bard as about the few real facts that exist on the man. About Ludwig van, Morris probably captures the man, if not the music, in this quote: “His talent amazed me. However, unfortunately, he is an utterly untamed personality, not at all wrong if he finds the world detestable, but he thereby does not make it more enjoyable either for himself or others.”

Afghan Post by Adrian Bonenberger; Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War by Various Authors

The first book is a war memoirs about the author’s time before, during, and after entering the Army and spending two years in Afghanistan. It is written in epistolary form and delves into a series of interesting dialogues, of which we only read one side but can infer the rest (or imagine our own responses), with old friends and relatives as his life changes dramatically through his experiences in war. I happen to be friends with the author since we served together in the same battalion for one year in Afghanistan. This shared experience allowed me to relive and rethink some of my own ideas about the war from a different perspective, now several years removed from action, and in the end I found my own personal catharsis.

The second is a collection of short stories by veteran authors written about the war experience in Iraq or Afghanistan, or as a military person in general upon returning home. Coming from many different backgrounds and experiences, the authors obviously use a variety of styles, and the stories are a mixed bag. These two books are the only contemporary war literature I have read since finishing my own time in the army, though I have been learning about some other intriguing and well-received books on that theme, and have already mentioned an upcoming collection vaguely inspired by Fire and Forget that will consist of 20 veteran authors’ stories set in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Assorted Russian Short Stories

I find the Russians to be a great inspiration not only for writing but for living life with a wider understanding of the world and the people who populate it. I have already mentioned Tolstoy as the greatest of them. This year I read Gogol (The Inspector-General, The Overcoat, The Nose–which is second of two pieces this year that I reread), Pushkin (The Queen of Spades), Chekhov (many stories from a seemingly limitless short story writer), and Babel (The History of My Dovecote), and a few others I am forgetting.

The Words by Jean Paul Sartre

This is Sartre’s literary autobiography and one of his last works, I believe. It was somewhat interesting at the beginning while he leisurely lays out his family history and early years, but I struggled through most of it. It turns out that when I looked into it a bit later that Sartre was apparently attempting to disavow his literary career with this memoirs, and to discredit the act of writing itself, as opposed to direct action in the world. Whatever. Probably my least favorite book of the year.

Waiting for the Barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

These are considered the two best books from the South African Nobel laureate. I found them both to be quite excellent, with a very understated and seemingly simple story-telling style that nevertheless is totally compelling from start to finish. Both take place is generic nations (or empires) run by generic functionaries and military men (though I couldn’t help but imagine both the setting as apartheid-era South Africa). Both works have a deep moral force that keeps them afloat and invite the reader to think for himself.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

The author was a psychoanalyst who spent years in Nazi concentration camp, survived, and wrote this amazing book and many others. He founded his own school of existentialist psychoanalysis, called logotherapy, which states that finding meaning in one’s own life is the primary driving force in humans. The story he tells of his experience is probably the most intense story of human understanding that a person can ever tell, and I would recommend everyone to read it. Frankl was already a practicing psychiatrist and psychotherapist when he was taken to the concentration camps, and through a super-human act of human will, he was able not only to survive but to treat and inspire his fellow prisoners, and to keep keen observations of the extremes of human behavior he was witnessing everyday in order to write about it later. If Frankl could find meaning in life while in Auschwitz, how can we complain about our lesser quotidian cares and worries? Here is one representative quote: “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnesus by Patrick Leigh Fermor

These are the first among several literary travel books I read within a few months of each other and that all date from between the two world wars. The first two books are parts one and two of a trilogy, though the third installment was published unfinished in 2013 after the author’s death. They recount a walk across Europe, leaving England and debarking in the Netherlands with Istanbul as the final destination, by way of the Rhine, the Danube, and several other meanderings and tangents. This trip began in 1933 when the author was 19, and finished a couple years later. The background of the tale is itself quite significant–here was a young and idealistic Englishman (half-Irish, actually) embarking on a walking tour through old Europe–cosmopolitan, feudal, aristocratic, ethnically mixed up–before its last remains were blown away by the Second World War. His long first section walking across southern Germany took place just after the Nazis had come to power. Though he does not mention the political situation much, it is always present between the lines. This is because Fermor masterfully combines a sense of his youthful attitude with commentary from his much older authorial self–the book was written over 40 years after the trip, when Fermor was in his 60s and already long established as a war hero (he led the British-Greek resistance on Crete and abducted a German general and took him to Egypt) and travel writer (he had already published six full-length travel books, including Mani). The first book finishes with Fermor standing on a bridge on the border of Hungary and the second continues to the trip through Hungary and Romania to the border with Serbia at the so-called Iron Gates. The third presumably takes us across the last bit of the Balkans to Constantinople and thence to Greece, where Fermor would make his home later (here is a great article in The New Republic on the background behind  Fermor’s last unfinished installment). Along the way, we come to learn of the incredible amount of hospitality he received during the long sojourn, often and increasingly from old feudal lords and aristocrats of Germany and the Habsburg Empire. He sometimes stayed for weeks at a time in various castles of these learned and idle counts and barons. While the story itself stands on its own, what makes this a classic, and has led to Fermor being repeatedly named as the best English language travel writer, is his use of language. It is masterful and inimitable, and paints a wonderful picture in the reader’s mind.

The third book I read by Fermor this year was written after WWII and recounts in great detail a walking trip by the author and some friends through single long peninsula of the Peloponnesus called Mani. Fermor, who lived in Greece for decades and knew every part of Greece and its inhabitants, uses this singularly isolated and independent strip of land to describe the customs, culture, and history of its people and how they compare to other Greeks.

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

This is another travel book that tells of the author’s trip from Venice through Palestine and Syria to Persia and Afghanistan in 1933. His purpose was ostensibly to study the origins of Islamic art and architecture, and he spends a lot of time describing the mosques and other buildings he encounters. It is also exceedingly well-written, and contains countless little short comical theatrical set pieces of dialogue that show Byron’s strong personality, sense of humor, and gifts as a writer. After finishing the trip he spent three years crafting this work, which has been called his masterpiece, and then he died on board a British vessel sunk by German torpedo whilst on his way to work for British intelligence in Egypt (and possibly Greece, as the name Byron would still carry weight there).

Abroad: British Literary Travel Writing beween the Wars by Paul Fussell

Fussell here attempts to make travel writing into a more reputable and rigorous topic of study in literary and historical circles with this book, and if he did not succeed, it is through no fault of his but of his academic colleagues. The book generally describes how the British (and, to a lesser degree, American) travel writing boom came about directly as a result of World War One–both life in the cold, muddy trenches for soldiers and scarcity and belt-tightening at home led the society in search of warmer places. Those who could not travel were still highly ready to read almost any type of travel book that did not involve England. Each chapter is on a different writer (Greene, Lawrence, Waugh, Douglass, Durrell, Auden and Isherwood, with especial praise for Byron) or aspect of the new travel industry (the British invention of the passport, for example). It was very educational for me to learn about another side of a period of history and literature I thought I had a decent grasp on, but to see with a completely new perspective.

The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller

The American expat Miller forces his way into the travel writing craze against his will. This book is on the author’s 1938 trip from Paris, where he had made his home, to Greece, where he had never been. He came on the suggestion of Lawrence Durrell, who had made his new home in Corfu and maintained decades of correspondence with Miller. Miller makes a big show about his lack of classical or formal education in regards to ancient Greece, but it becomes clear throughout the book that he know a thing or two about life. It is written in his typical (and influential) colloquial and fearless style. There are long passages of internal monologue that are both poetic and inspired. Miller held this to be his best book, and many critics agree. One person said that Miller had raised solipsism to an art form. The colossus of the title is a certain prominent man of letters and outsized personality named Katsimbalis. In fact, the main character is Miller himself, and his enthusiastic reawakening to some type of life spirit in Greece (one critic said that Miller, in this book, had raised solipsism into an art form). While visiting Crete, Miller was greeted and looked after by someone named Tsoutsou whom Miller describes as being the biggest literary figure of Crete and a man who spoke 10 languages and knew everybody. I cannot find any other references to this theory, but I found myself imagining this as a fictionalized version of Kazantzakis. Another interesting fact is that Ghika, the famous Greek artist, was a member of the circle of friends of Katsimbalis that Miller frequented. Ghika illustrated Kazantzakis’ Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and his house on the isle of Hydra was also where Patrick Fermor wrote Mani. The Colossus of Maroussi, on the other hand, was written in America after Miller had to unwillingly return there to escape World War Two, and his panegyric on all things Greek is openly stated to also represent his distaste for all things American. It is a must-read for anyone who loves Greece, traveling, or great writing.

Justine and Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell

Justine is the first of a larger four-part work called The Alexandria Quartet. Each of the four books is written from a different character’s point of view, and the first three take place simultaneously while the last one is set six years later. Justine is a lushly stylistic novel whose every sentence is a work of literary art. The entire quartet was a bit long for me to finish this year but I will gradually finish it over time, as I am prone to bounce between many different books at the same time, sometimes putting one down for several years before finishing it. The variety is what is important for me, and the same book reread years later would be received differently–the words were the same but I had changed. I think my short digression here does something to represent the spirit of Durrell’s masterpiece. Alas, Durrell’s setting of the cosmopolitan, cultured, and romantic Alexandria which lasted for 23 centuries is now long gone, as this article in Foreign Policy magazine shows. The second book I read by him was his fictionalized travel story of his year spent in Corfu in 1938. I have visited that largest of the Ionian islands as well, and this book did more than make me want to return as soon as possible. It was rich and interesting and entertaining.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

This is the first book I read by Graves outside of the two Claudius books I had enjoyed several years back (after randomly finding the first one in a French hostel before starting the Camino de Santiago and finishing it within a few days). Goodbye to All That is a fictionalized (funny how many books of supposed non-fiction qualify for that adjective–that’s why it’s called literature and not documentary) memoirs of the author’s early life through trench life in World War One and his traumatic break with England and move to Majorca. It can be classified as another post-war travel book as I described earlier. I have written a much longer review of this book on my other blog in a post called Goodbye to Christmas Truces.

The World as I Found It by Bruce Duffy

This is more than a fictionalized version of history–it is a pure novel that happens to follow the real lives of eminent philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and, to a lesser extent, G.E. Moore. As a novel, it is wonderful and beautifully written. Since I happen to know quite a bit about these men and their work, I was not disappointed in any regard and found the book totally compelling. The author gave a lecture in 1991–three years after the book’s publication–in which he explains his rationale for changing and inventing facts about real people for the sake of a novel: “Was it moral, what I did? Was it moral of Max Brod not to burn Kafka’s manuscripts and papers as Kafka had instructed? I can’t really answer this question except to say there are different forms of homage. As I saw it thirty years after his death, Wittgenstein was nobody’s moral property. Like a man buried at sea , he was rightfully consigned to history.” And again here Duffy says: “In Shakespeare’s time to write plays about Julius Caesar or Prince Hamlet was not a bothersome thing, but today it is, I’m afraid. In an era of experts and unprecedented specialization–in a time when I should say we cripple ourselves by ceding far too much to the wisdom of experts–a book like mine is bothersome, for some to the point of being disorienting. For all our self-conscious poses, for all our irony and formal sophistication , not to mention our exposure to the strategies of modernism and postmodernism, many of us still like our categories straight. We are greatly bothered by confusions of fact and fiction. We are bothered by a novel that, say, in its prologue adopts the seemingly trustworthy voice of a biography only to monkey with the facts: This is unsportsmanlike, like impersonating a rightful officer of the law. Be more radical and experimental! says one camp. Be more conventional! says the other. When they rap my knuckles, critics seem to hold out these two shining alternatives, often seemingly at the same time. But again, their advice enshrines what too many naively expect nowadays. Straight categories. Fiction as some literary substitute for the old Classic Comics. Above all, the epic, churn-em-out complacency of that form I almost uniformly detest: ‘historical fiction.’ These by now are old tactics that do not trouble anyone.” In other words, long live the novel (and do not worry if its characters are real people–Shakespeare and Tolstoy didn’t). Whether you are interested in the lives of its characters or not, I can recommend this as an excellent and well-written novel that stands on its own merits.

The Collected Poems by Constantine P. Cavafy

This is the only work of poetry I read this year, which is something I would obviously like to rectify in future years. Cavafy was a Greek poet who lived and wrote about his home city of Alexandria, Egypt. He was a major inspiration for Durrell’s quartet above, and his poem “The City” was especially relevant to the latter work. His poems are a combination of historical, philosophical, and aesthetic, and are thus quite accessible and intriguing even for a poetry laggard like me. One of his poems, “The God Forsakes Antony”, was the inspiration for the Leonard Cohen song “Alexandra Leaving.” Another random (or not) connection is that Cohen also has a house on the island of Hydra and was heavily influenced by Henry Miller. Overall, Cavafy’s poems are evocative and inspirational for me, especially because I share a love of classical history and Mediterranean settings.

Runaway by Alice Munro

This collection of short stories is considered one of the best by the recent Nobel laureate. Most of her stories take place in rural Canada, where she is from. They are heavily focused on female characters and delve deep into their psyche and motivations. Munro has been called a modern, or a Canadian, Chekhov. I think this is great praise for her, and I see the resemblance but do not feel she is quite on the level of the Russian master of the short story. Time will tell, though. She does share with Chekhov a disregard for traditional plot devices and more focus on psychological aspects of the characters, especially involving sudden realizations that changes the characters’ lives in some way. Most of these stories have a deep underlying sense of humanity, and pathos. I was most moved by one called “Silence” (and not only because it contained the first cultural reference I have ever seen to ancient Greek romances by Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus). This is the most contemporary of the books I read this year, and the only one by a woman. It has helped me continue to try and expand my boundaries as a reader and explore new writers and different styles.

According to Borges, “reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.” Just as Borges considered himself, first and foremost, a professional reader rather than writer, I also hope to improve my reading skills and knowledge of the world each year. At a certain point, the issue becomes time and how to choose and prioritize what to read out of the infinite options–how to satisfy what Nabokov called the “Orphic thirst” of reading and rereading. I already have a long list of books to read next year and in coming years and which will lead to even more books that I have not even heard of yet. I hope to do better next year.

Hedgehogs and Foxes of Isaiah Berlin

If we go far enough backwards into the history of Western ‘culture’, we usually come to a stop somewhere around Iliad and Odyssey. Homer’s two epics formed the complete curriculum for at least 1000 years of Greek education (paideia), and obviously still speak to us today. For the Greeks, Achilles and Odysseus were the most excellent models of arete–virtue and courage in the face of adversity, being the best you can be. The poet Archilochus, writing perhaps only 100 years after Homer, is attributed with the saying, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows but one big thing.” It is possible to imagine Achilles as a ‘hedgehog’, a super-human who has mastered the art of killing (surpassing even the gods in his terrible skill). Odysseus, on the other hand, is the archetypal ‘fox’–king, warrior, mariner, farmer, builder, athlete, clever liar, and cunning cheater (once again, even getting the better of the gods in these last two aspects). The Greek phalanx formation, wielded most perfectly by the Spartans, Thebans, and finally Macedonians, was obviously a ‘hedgehog’ in reality as well as metaphor. I think it is fair to also classify the Roman legions into the ‘fox’ camp, constantly appropriating new tactics and weapons and evolving for every unique situation. The implication from Archilochus’ aphorism seems to be that the single powerful trick of the hedgehog will always prevail over the many clever tricks of the fox. There is no way to really make such a general conclusion, as the circumstances in each individual case usually tip the balance one way or the other.

Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin, in his 1953 essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, took this idea and expanded it to include thinkers and their worldviews. Hedgehogs (such as Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust) “relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel–a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.” Foxes, on the other hand (such as Herodotus, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, and Joyce), “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle.” Basically, ‘hedgehogs’ focus on a single, possibly unifying idea, while ‘foxes’ see complex variety in the world. Berlin himself admitted that the essay was not intended to be taken seriously, but as a sort of “enjoyable intellectual game.” He knew that such dichotomies tend to be somewhat reductive, becoming academic and ultimately absurd when analyzed more closely. He also explained, however, that “every classification throws light on something.”

Lev Tolstoy

The main idea of his essay followed with a literary discussion of Tolstoy’s theory of history in War and Peace. Berlin described Pushkin as an “arch-fox”, the greatest of the 19th century; Dostoevsky is “nothing if not a hedgehog”; all Russian writers could therefore be placed at one or the other end of this spectrum…except Tolstoy. The great novelist had, according to Berlin, the natural gifts and achievements of a fox, but believed himself personally to be a hedgehog. This can be seen in the sense of disconnect between the universality of Tolstoy’s works (what has ever surpassed War and Peace for comprehensive description of the human condition and experience?), and his own personal moral crises and later rejection of much of Anna Karenina. By the end of his life, his farm at Yasnaya Polyana had become a religious shrine for his  anarcho-Christian disciples. As you might imagine, the analogy is flexible and can be used to differentiate people or concepts within almost any field. In a book about America’s founding fathers, historian Joseph Ellis has noted that George Washington was an archetypal hedgehog: his one big idea was that America’s future rested on its independence from European affairs and focus on developing westward. Presumably, Thomas Jefferson could be categorized as a fox. Stephen Jay Gould, the late great paleontologist, wrote a book (published posthumously in 2003) entitled The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox. His purpose was to attempt to reconcile what he saw as a growing conflict in the academic realm between the sciences and the humanities. He traces four historical stages in which the ‘Science Wars’ have been falsely characterized by opposing sides. One such example is the late 19th century’s academic debate between rationalism and religion, a debate which continues today in America as some intractable school districts continue to fight against the teaching of evolution. Gould introduced the concept of ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria’ (NOMA) between science and religion, in which argues that the two do not overlap: science seeks to record and explain the factual nature of the natural world, while religion raises spiritual and ethical questions about the meaning and proper conduct of our lives. It is my opinion that this attempt at reconciliation is well-intended, but fallacious–religion thrusts itself into scientific debates, and rational philosophy can be used just as well to seek answers to spiritual and ethical questions. In conclusion, the hedgehog and the fox is more than a historical exercise or an academic diversion. We can use these conflicting perspectives to examine ourselves and our own place in the world. Do you feel that there is one great central idea that gives purpose to your life, and the universe? Or do you believe that there is endless variety, not only in human knowledge and experience, but in the physical workings of the planet and the cosmos? Even if no philosopher has ever found answers to these questions (or any found the right questions), there is a reason we are still asking them–we still need to find order and meaning in a disordered world. Things would be better if the hedgehogs learn more about the foxes, the foxes learn more about the hedgehogs, and maybe both learn one or two skills (or beliefs) from the other.

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