I recently mentioned that I will soon be moving to England, York to be exact. My move will take place in about ten days.
For the past few months, as I’ve been preparing my move, I’ve read a number of books about England and the English, some that I’ve uncovered, and others that friends have recommended. I thought I’d post some brief comments about a few of them in case anyone is interested in learning more about the English. (And for my English readers, you might find some of them enlightening.)
Bill Bryson is an American writer who moved to England in his early twenties, and eventually settled in Yorkshire. His Notes from a Small Island is a travelogue that recounts his journeys through England, almost entirely on public transportation. (Amazon US, Amazon UK) At times, I was in tears reading this book, but at other times, it’s a bit forced. Nevertheless, it’s a delightful portrait of the English, though a bit out of date.
BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman’s The English: A Portrait of a People (Amazon US Amazon UK tries to answer the question, “What is it to be English?” It does so quite well, examining a number of habits, customs and unwritten rules that explained a great deal of English concepts to me. (I was aided by a friend, who helped me better understand some of the subtleties the book presented.) It’s an interesting read, but many of the points Paxman makes won’t be obvious to those who haven’t been in England much.
In a similar vein, but in much more detail, is Watching the English, by Kate Fox. (Amazon US Amazon UK) Fox, an anthropologist, set out to discover what the “rules” of Englishness are. Undaunted by the observer’s paradox, she gleefully presents her conclusions, and her experiences, as she held a magnifying glass to her own culture. One of my informants questioned many of Fox’s points, so I’m taking them with a grain of salt. Yet I’ve already seen that a lot of what she says does apply, though the book is getting on in years.
Who better than Christopher Hitchens to examine the “special relationship” between the English and the Americans. In Blood, Class and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship (Amazon US Amazon UK), Hitchens looks at the political ramifications of this long relationship, while also throwing in some more quotidian comments on American Anglophilia and the English attitude toward Americans. Hitchens, himself British, but who lived in the US for more than two decades, until his recent death, was a polymath, so much of the historical minutiae was over my head, but he’s such a fun writer to read that this book is a delight.
I’ve also read a handful of books on British history, but I won’t mention them here. And I have, of course, read all of Henry James, whose writings do help understand “old England.” If anyone has suggestions for other books to help me understand the English, feel free to post in the comments.
Posted: 3/28/2013 by kirk | Filed under: books, Miscellanea Tags: books, England | 9 Comments »
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This 4-part, 6-hour TV adaptation of Les Misérables has a lot going for it. First of all, the length; it’s the longest adaptation of the novel (arguably the greatest French novel of the 19th century, and one of the longest). It has a large cast, with some excellent actors. Unfortunately, it’s filmed in the typically bland style of French TV, and the direction is nothing more than workmanlike. When I first started watching this, I was almost tempted to give up after 15 minutes. But it got better over time. (I had similar thoughts when watching a recent mini-series based on Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu by the same director, also made for TV.)
Gérard Depardieu plays Jean Valjean, and, for me, he doesn’t quite fit the part. He’s too big, too brash to have the subtlety the character needs. On the other hand, John Malkovich is an excellent Javert, though his dispassionate portrayal of the character can be seen as a bit too distant. Christian Clavier is Thénardier, and seems a bit out of place. A comic actor, generally in simple comedies, his persona doesn’t quite fit. However, Virginie Ledoyen is nearly perfect as Cosette, with her innocence and fetching smiles.
But the main problem here is that everything is too clean, too heroic and idealized. Hugo did not write a novel where everyone is washed and shaved; he wrote about “les misérables,” the downtrodded, the poor. These are people who suffer, not people with clean shirts all the time. In this adaptation, everything is just a bit too perfect. (It’s totally different from the recent adaptation of the musical, which, for all its faults, does show the characters in squalor.)
The good points here are the length: at 6 hours, you do get much more of the story – and it is a complex story – than other versions. But the mediocre direction, so-so acting, and overall approach make it lose points. It’s worth watching if you’re a fan of the novel.
Posted: 2/7/2013 by kirk | Filed under: books, Films & TV Tags: books, DVDs | 5 Comments »
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The “great American novel” is something that is often spoken of but rarely seen. Critics use that sobriquet far too often for books that don’t merit more than a passing glance. But occasionally, a novel appears that is a good candidate for that phrase. And it has just been republished in a new edition!
Raintree County, “which had no boundaries in time and space, where lurked musical and strange names and mythical and lost peoples, and which was itself only a name musical and strange,” by Ross Lockridge Jr., was published in 1948 to critical and popular acclaim. This 1,066-page novel attempted to translate the American experience to paper through the eyes and experiences of a seemingly banal character, John Wickliff Shawnessy, “pagan and Pilgrim, poet and poem, idealist and idea” (Charles Lee, writing in the New York Times in January, 1948). Over a period of 24 hours, as Waycross, Indiana, celebrates the Fourth of July, 1892, Shawnessy looks back on his life since 1844, through a series of flashbacks, interspersed with narrative of the celebratory day. He sees his youth, his first experience of pure feminine beauty, his first loves, then the great American tragedy: the Civil War. As the book goes on, we follow this Leopold Bloom of the Midwest through his peregrinations, until the past rejoins the present and the day ends.
It’s hard to sum up such a book. It’s the story of a quest; a quest for the sacred tree of life, the raintree. A quest for origins; for the origins of life and of one man’s life. It’s a story of a man accepting the fate of death, “But if we could only resign ourselves to death, complete death, how much happier we’d be!” It’s a story of a man and his family, his loves, his losses, the war (the Civil War) and how it forms his character.
Anyone reading this book will find that their life has a new milestone: a before- and after-Raintree Country. More than just the characters and narrative, what remains in the reader’s memory is the juxtaposition of the simple, idyllic life in Waycross, Indiana, the proverbial “Anytown, USA” and the chaos of the Civil War or the pandemonium of New York City. Lockridge was seeking simplicity, and showed how it did exist, somewhere in the world, in a place not on any map. It’s both a modernist and traditional novel – modernist in the way the book is structured, with flashbacks melding into present-day narrative, which, in turn, melds back into the past. But traditional in the way it is deeply human, the way its main subject is the life of a man. It has much of the Victorian novel, and is also a very Joycean novel. It belays influences as broad as Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner and Charles Dickens. Yet it is uniquely itself.
Unfortunately, it’s the only novel that Lockridge published; he committed suicide shortly after its publication, perhaps because of the unexpected fame that the book’s success brought him.
See the Raintree County Home Page to learn more about this essential American novel.
Update: Raintree County is finally available in a Kindle edition, so you don’t have to lug around the 1,100 page tome. I have two copies of it; one in hardcover, from 1948 (not a first edition, but close enough), and the paperback that was finally reissued in 2008. I’ve just bought the Kindle edition for a trip I’m taking, because this is a great book for a road trip, and one that I re-read every few years.
Posted: 1/2/2013 by kirk | Filed under: books Tags: books | 1 Comment »
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Christopher Hitchens never shied away from telling the truth – at least the truth as he saw it – and when he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in June, 2010, he started “living dyingly,” writing about his experiences with the illness. The stoicism with which he wrote, and the lucidity in the face of immanent death (“there is no stage 5″), go very well with the way Hitchens faced the rest of his life. Having only recently completed a memoir, Hitch 22, and on his book tour when he had symptoms which led to his diagnosis, Hitchens realized that he needed to tell the story of this cancer as he had just told the story of his life.
If you’re familiar with Hitchens’ writings, you’ll certainly recognize the trenchant approach here to becoming a resident of “tumortown.” In this brief book, composed of essays he wrote for Vanity Fair, Hitchens explains what it feels like to be dying, yet doesn’t feel sorry for himself or for his lifestyle that may have contributed to his cancer. (His father died of the same cancer as well, so part may be genetic.)
You’ll read this book in an hour or two, but you’ll also want to come back to it from time to time. While the chapters are composed – these are articles, not journal entries – there is a spontaneity throughout them, as his condition worsens, and as hope seems to recede.
Hitchens again shows with his words that cut like scalpels that he was one of the finest voices of his generation, and we’re not likely to see another like him for a very long time.
Posted: 11/28/2012 by kirk | Filed under: books Tags: books | No Comments »
I like the idea of the Kindle, and the idea of the Kindle Paperwhite even more. Offering the ability to read both outdoors in sunlight, and indoors with a backlight, it seems like the best of both worlds.
Alas, having received a Kindle Paperwhite yesterday, I’m very disappointed. Not only is the backlight not very bright – not really bright enough to read indoors if there’s a lot of light – but it’s very uneven, with dark spots around the edges, especially at the bottom.
Here’s a photo I took of the Kindle Paperwhite next to the iPad mini, the latter showing a book in the Kindle app. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)
As you can see, even in this small photo, the lighting is uneven at the bottom of the Kindle, and there is a very large difference in brightness (both devices are set to maximal brightness in the photo above). While the iPad mini won’t work in bright light – such as outdoors – I have a Kindle Touch for that. So that Paperwhite is being returned. It’s a good idea, but it’s just a bit cheap and poorly designed. Amazon should really do better with a device like this.
Posted: 11/23/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Apple & Mac OS X, books, iPad Tags: books, iPad, Kindle | 5 Comments »
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Also Available in ebook formats from the No Starch Press web site
Matt Cone, who runs macinstruct.com, has released a great book for Mac users who want to do more with their Macs. Instead of walking the reader through OS X’s features, preference and apps, Cone presents 38 “projects,” each of which uses some of OS X’s built-in features along with free or paid third-party software. Some of the chapters cover basic features that are often underused: things like using keyboard shortcuts, finding files, customizing trackpad and mouse gestures. Others go much further, and teach readers how to create Safari extensions, access a Mac remotely, secure a Mac, and perform troubleshooting and maintenance.
Cone successfully translates the hands-on approach he presents on his MacInstruct website into this compendium of project-based tutorials. For many of the chapters, even if you don’t want to do all that he presents, you’ll learn more about how to get the most out of your Mac.
Posted: 11/8/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Apple & Mac OS X Tags: books, Mac OS X | No Comments »
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It’s hard in less than 200 pages to go into a great deal of detail, but in this book, Tim Blanning manages to sketch out the why and how of romanticism. Why this “movement” began, as a reaction against the Enlightenment, but also as an outgrowth of societal and political change. How romanticism spread, through the most important countries – Germany, France and England – and how new modes of production led to the diffusion of romantic ideas.
For the romantic movement is more than just an artistic movement, even though it covered the major forms of art: music, literature and painting. Many of the causes of its spread were due to new structures, institutions and technologies. Romantic music was spawned in part by the change from patronage to public support for musicians, both in performance and in publication, and to performances both in concert halls and in salons. Literature spread through the many changes in technology that made printing and books cheaper. And images circulated in the form of lithographs and other types of prints that were developed in the early 19th century.
Romanticism is, at heart, about the imagination, about feeling, about art for art’s sake, about the individual being the most important element in the world. Beethoven is the best example of the romantic artist, with Schubert a close second. But romanticism had many forms, from the near-transcendence of Beethoven’s late works, or of Schubert’s finest songs, to the development of characters in literature, such as in Hugo and Balzac. The rise of tourism – notably to the Alps and the Rhine – led to a new appreciation of nature, and a discovery of other lands and worlds. All in all, the romantic movement is probably the greatest cultural and artistic revolution of our time, and this book, in less than 200 pages, sketches the main figures and themes.
While this book is just an introduction, it gives plenty of suggestions of books to read, music to listen to, and art to see to better understand just how powerful this period was. This is a revolution that has not ended; our arts and culture are still influenced by the ideas of the romantics. And this book helps grasp just how important this period was.
Posted: 9/26/2012 by kirk | Filed under: books Tags: books, classical music | 1 Comment »
The Story of the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes, is one of the greatest literary works of all time. Written in the second half of the twelfth century, this poem tells the story of Perceval, a teenager raised in a forest by his mother, who encounters some knights, then sees, by chance, a grail in a castle. Not understanding the significance of this, he misses the chance to find out the true nature of the grail by not asking about it. He then wanders in the hopes of finding it again.
The story is both that of Perceval’s coming of age and his quest. The first part shows how this teenager, after being raised in a forest by his mother, discovers the ways of the world – he discovers knights, and kings, tastes the pleasures of love and the pain of combat. Naïve at first, he slowly adapts to his world, yet never really fits in. After he sees the grail in a castle that he came upon by chance, he then starts learning more about who he is and what the significance of this event might have been. He goes in search of the grail, yet, the text being unfinished, the reader can only speculate on the result of this quest.
My interest in the Grail legend has been going on for some time. In 1990, I was working in a French bookstore, and discovered the different texts of the grail legend. At that time, there was an increased interest in such legends in France, and many publishers have since released their own editions of either this text, or collections of Arthurian legends.
While there are many versions of the story, the one by Chrétien de Troyes, the first one written, is psychologically the most powerful and is one of the great myths of the western world. There are several translations available of the Conte du Graal, probably read mostly by college students studying medieval literature. Yet I believe that this story deserves its rightful place as one of the classics of literature, and one of the most powerful myths in the West.
My goal in this translation is not to make a philological translation (although it is based on the authoritative edition of the Old French text and is as faithful as possible). There are scholars who have done so, but their translations often read like scholarly translations: boring, heavy, and stylistically flawed. I am trying to make a translation that can be read with the same lightness that I experienced when I read a modern French translation. This is not a boring story; far from it. But the translations that exist are not made for the average reader looking for a spiritual classic. My translation will also be, in part, a Jungian reading of the text. The symbolism of the Grail legend is extraordinary, and, as Jung and von Franz have shown, this legend can be seen as a paradigm of the process of individuation. I would like that to come through, and I would hope that the readers would be reading this text in part for its symbolic richness.
Individuation can be seen as the realization of self. It is the coming to terms with our inner world, and its unification with our conscious self. And it is the realization that as individuals we are different from the world around us, and that we can become unique. The Grail quest is a search for that indescribable uniqueness that is within all of us. Whether one sees it as the inner Christ, the Buddha nature, or the Tao, it is all the same. Many people have an idea that something exists deep within them, but few can follow the path and seek it. Even fewer actually find it.
The Story of the Grail, or the Romance of Perceval, by Chrétien de Troyes
The following are links to PDFs of my translations, together with the original Old French.
1 – Prologue
2 – Such Bright and Magnificent Angels…
3 – The Maiden in the Tent
4 – The Red Knight
This is all I’ve translated for now. Other installments may follow.
Posted: 8/28/2012 by kirk | Filed under: books Tags: books, Grail, translation | 3 Comments »
Little is known about Chrétien de Troyes. He died in the 1180s, but it is not known when he was born. He was probably a cleric, and was in the service of at least two important figures of his time, Marie de Champagne, and Count Philippe of Flanders.
His works mark the beginning of a tradition of narrative fiction in Europe. It also marks the beginning of the Arthurian Legend, at least in what we know today. It is very likely that the sources of this legend come from older folk tales and legends, but the text by Chrétien is the oldest surviving example.
His other works also dealt with similar themes: chivalry, romance, and Arthurian legend. He is the author of four other known texts: Erec et Enide, Cligès, Le Chevalier de la charrette, and Le Chevalier au Lion.
This text is written in Old French, which was the vernacular language in France at the time of its writing, and the works of Chrétien mark the birth of vernacular literature in France. The text was composed in verse, and written to be read aloud. Texts such as this were not read on paper; few people knew how to read, and books were very expensive until well after the 15th century. The text was read in what we would call today a performance, and was probably read in installments, being too long to be read all at once.
Unfortunately, this text is unfinished. It is likely that the text was composed completely, and perhaps even "performed" in a full version. But Chrétien did not live long enough to put it all down on paper. The mystery of this text owes a great deal to its unfinished nature, in the same way that Bach’s Art of Fugue has a greater force because we do not know exactly how it was meant to be finished. This leaves the imagination of the reader in a powerful position; that of being able to create the end of the myth.
Of course, we would not be the only ones to do so. There were many attempts to finish this story in the centuries after it was composed. This shows the power that the myth had even at its beginning. None of what is known as the Continuations have the same depth of symbolism and imagery.
More important, perhaps, than a study of the text, is an understanding of the period in which it was composed. The 12th century in Europe was a period of renaissance, or, more correctly, awakening from the Dark Ages. A number of new structures and systems were established.
The Catholic Church had succeeded in achieving Papal authority over most of Western Europe, and all of the Barbarians had been either converted or driven back. A new legal system was developed; universities were created. Towns were starting to grow, because of an overall increase in wealth, and more efficient agriculture (caused, in part, by warmer temperatures, which increased yields).
Castles and cathedrals became more common, since the techniques of building with stone were now established. The middle of the 12th century saw the beginning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
There were social changes also. The royal court became a place of exchange of ideas; chivalry and courtly love were born, and with them, the romantic literature that recounted their episodes. This literature was in the vernacular language, not in Latin. And music came into its own importance, particularly with the polyphony of Pérotin and Léonin.
France, and especially the area surrounding Paris, was a cultural melting pot. Scholars came from far away to attend the universities, bringing with them the ideas and legends from their own countries.
Here are some books, CDs and DVDs that are related to the Conte du graal.
Emma Jung & Marie-Louise von Franz
The Key text to understanding the symbolism and psychology of this story is The Grail Legend, by Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz. The first half of the book is devoted to the Grail story of Chrétien, and the second half to the more Christian inspired story of Robert de Boron. The detailed discussion of the symbols in the story and their interrelationship makes this required reading for anyone who wishes to understand what lies behind this legend.
Robert Johnson’s book, He; Understanding Masculine Psychology is a short, concise attempt to present the Grail legend and its significance in understanding how male psychology manifest itself. The book has some drawbacks, however: while Johnson claims to be using the story by Chrétien, he refers to Perceval as Parsifal, and makes some mistakes in his presentation of the story itself. It is as if he never really read the story, but just its interpretation.
Chapter 14 of Norman F. Cantor’s book, The Civilization of the Middle Ages gives an enlightening account of the vast changes that took place in the twelfth century in Europe. The rest of the book will help situate what led to this period and what followed, and led to modern Europe.
Ken Follett, best known for his thrillers, wrote a book called The Pillars of the Earth. Described on the cover of the paperback edition I have as an "epic saga of love, passion, and revenge", this book tells the story of an Englishman who sets out to build cathedrals in the 12th century. While not being a "serious" book, it is interesting to read for its historical accuracy, and the images it gives of medieval life. It is also one heck of a good read. A recent TV mini-series based on this novel is a good way to see what the time looked like, though it’s certainly not entirely reliable.
Rohmer’s 1978 film, Perceval le Gallois, has the merits of following the original text perfectly, but suffers from an overall staleness, both in the acting, and in the images. It is all shot on stage, and the background are all made out of cardboard. Nevertheless, this film captures one aspect of the story, that of its narrative.
To understand what medieval life was like, Monty Python’s Holy Grail shows the true squalor and misery that was rampant during that period. The story itself has little to do with the Grail legend, and the character of Perceval is not even present. The film’s sets and costumes are more 14th century than 12th century.
Another film that shows medieval life in all of its tension and suffering is Bergman’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal. Set in the period of the Black Death, again, somewhat later than the Grail legend, this film gives a real understanding of the medieval conception of life and death.
Pérotin and Léonin
Hearing the first notes of Pérotin’s Viderunt Omnes one is transfixed by the hauntingly hypnotic feeling that comes through the music. If you close your eyes, you can almost go back in time. Yet this music also reminds us of minimalist music, by composers such as Steve Reich, or Arvo Pärt. Listen to the Hilliard Ensemble’s recording in the ECM New Series.
Another composer from the 12th century is Léonin. Two excellent discs of his music give an overview of his compositions, very similar in style to those of Pérotin. Magister Leoninus, Sacred Music from 12th-century ParisVolume 1 and Volume 2, performed by the Red Byrd ensemble on Hyperion Records.
How can one talk about the Grail and not mention Wagner’s Parsifal? Even if you do not like his music, listen to the overture from Parsifal, to discover the leitmotifs Wagner chose to interpret the different characters and events. This music has nothing to do with the middle ages, but many like this music. (It’s not my cup of tea.) An excellent version is a recording from Bayreuth in 1962, conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch, on Philips.