Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels value the scenes where Jack and Stephen are playing music in the great cabin of a ship or having particular conversations, like this one which considers the feathers of a paradise bird:

Stephen said, ‘Have you every contemplated upon sex, my dear?’

‘Never,’ Jack said. ‘Sex has never entered my mind, at any time.’

‘The burden of sex, I mean. This bird, for example, is very heavily burdened; almost weighed down. He can scarcely fly or pursue his common daily round with any pleasure to himself, encumbered by a yard of tail and all this top-hamper. All these extravagant plumes have but one function – to induce the hen to yield to his importunities. How the poor cock must glow and burn, if these are, as they must be, an index of his ardour.’

‘That is a solemn thought.’

H.M.S Surprise, pg.259, Norton paperback edition, 1991

HMS Surprise by Patrick O'BrianIt seems strange, at first, that this should be so. The Aubrey-Maturin novels recount the adventures of Jack Aubrey, a British naval captain, and Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan naval surgeon, naturalist, and intelligence agent, during the Napoleonic wars.

The series is full of battles, storms, shipwrecks, spycraft, political intrigue, the scientific discovery of new species, social manners, and problematic relationships between men and women.

And yet, both O’Brian and his fans always return to the quiet scenes between Jack and Stephen playing music or talking, as they are in the passage above. Why?

The reason has to do, I think, with the consolations literature offers us.

Good books have many uses. They are a pleasure and a comfort. They offer a hedge against loneliness. For centuries, readers have found their own thoughts and feelings in literature, and in finding these have been reassured that they are not alone and unknowable in this world.

And good books console us by offering a permanence to characters we love that we cannot find in the lives of the people we love outside of books.

Not all literature offers this consolation. It is no relief to know that Lear is always at the British camp near Dover, howling with the lifeless Cordelia in his arms, or that Antigone is always hanging in the cell to which Creon condemned her, dead by her own hand. Tragic works of literature offer us many things, but consolation is not one of them.

For consolation, a book must offer us characters who are convincingly human, not simply credible or familiar, and who engage our sympathies through both their virtues and their faults.

The book must also give these characters moments if not of happiness, then of peace and ease, because this is what we wish for ourselves. Among all our troubles and suffering, I think we all want – and believe we deserve – moments of at least modest contentment.

But we cannot stay in these moments or keep the people we love with us in them. Time moves. Circumstance and age separate us, further and further, until death makes the separation final and our only hope becomes reunion in another world; which many of us picture as being much like this one, except that hunger and violence and suffering and disease and death are banished.

Which makes heaven or the Summerlands or the after-life (or even reincarnation in the Indian religions) very much like the passages in the books we love.

Elizabeth Bennet will always be sparkling after dinner in the drawing-room at Netherfield, getting the best of and bettering Mr. Darcy, as alive today as the first moment she was written. Timofrey Pnin will always be playing croquet on the lawn at Al and Susan Cook’s summer house or discovering that Victor’s beautiful glass bowl is not broken after all. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin will always be playing music while the wake of the Surprise stretches away behind them.

In this world, that is consolation indeed. Perhaps not enough. But I’ll take it.


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Henry V by William ShakespeareIn Henry V, Shakespeare finds his “muse of fire” and she blinds us with her dazzling light.

Henry V is a play of almost ridiculous dramatic richness in which the scrappy, underdog Harry wins the battle of Agincourt, seizes his rightful French throne, and gets the King’s daughter. Hooray!

Except the war is justified by dubious arguments and provoked by the English clergy, who are eager to distract Henry from confiscating their wealth. Henry captures the French town of Harfleur after threatening genocide. He orders the slaughter of prisoners and leaves 10,000 French knights and soldiers dead on the field. Every friend of his youth, except one, is gone. They die in the battle, by execution after Henry’s judgment, or in the case of Falstaff, cold in bed with a wandering mind and a heart broken by the king.

In the end, it all comes to naught. The last lines of the play tell us Henry dies young, leaving England to be misruled by his infant son and a group of nobles who lose all that Henry won and spill more blood. But it was still worth it and Henry is still a hero. Right?

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Bend Sinister Vladimir NabokovFor most of his life, Vladimir Nabokov declared himself indifferent to politics and expressed his satisfaction with never having joined any group or participated in any organized human activity.

Nabokov insisted that there were no “messages” in his work. He expressed contempt for literature that discussed general ideas, offered social commentary, dealt with everyday “reality” (a word Nabokov frequently put in quotes), or promised human interest.

Instead, Nabokov said he valued books that were grounded in the imagination and talent of the specific writer, and which offered aesthetic bliss which he recognized by a thrill in his spine.

Nabokov’s books seemingly confirm these principles. They are deeply idiosyncratic; full of dense word play, complex patterns, and recondite references; and deliver a great deal of what looks like misanthropy.

All of this argues you won’t find a trace of politics in Nabokov’s work just as he claimed. But here’s the thing. I don’t believe him. And neither should you.

The first reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is he knew from personal experience that indifference to politics does not stop politics from affecting you.

Nabokov and his family escaped the Russian Revolution in 1917. His liberal politician father was assassinated by Russian fascists in 1922. Nabokov fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and soon to be Nazi-conquered France in 1940 to protect his family and in particular his wife, Vera, who was Jewish. His brother Sergey died in a German concentration camp, where he was sent after speaking out against the Nazis.

The second reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is that while he may have bragged about never having joined any group, he also took great pride in his adopted country of the United States.

Strong Opinions Vladimir NabokovNabokov described himself as “American as April in Arizona” and said he felt a “suffusion of warm, light-hearted pride” when he showed his American passport at European borders (Strong Opinions, p. 98). He kept his US citizenship, and continued to pay American taxes, even after he and Vera moved to Switzerland.

By contrast, Nabokov was outspoken and unrelenting in his contempt for the leaders of the Soviet Union and the vast harm they had done to the Russian nation. Nabokov also had no problem arguing with the American liberals who continued to embraced Soviet propaganda long after they should have known better.

The third reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is that he consistently stated that the worst act a human being could commit was an act of cruelty. He believed that cruelty was the essence of all tyrants, and it is cruelty that he condemned in all his major novels.

This condemnation of cruelty can be hard to see because of Nabokov’s techniques as a writer, however.

Nabokov never wavered in his dislike of plainly written novels with obvious messages, and this dislike was reinforced by his observation that bad writers and bad leaders were much alike.

Nabokov saw bad writers and bad leaders as equally trite, vulgar, and stupid. They both thought and wrote and spoke in a debased language of general ideas, and both believed that human beings can be reduced to a few general “types” that are easily defined by commonplace characteristics.

Nabokov expresses this idea most succinctly in his short story, Tyrants Destroyed, when he wrote, “the real human being is a poet and [the tyrant] is the incarnate negation of a poet” (The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, p. 446).

Nabokov also seems to have understood that the bad writer, especially the bad writer with a good reputation, actually legitimized the propaganda of a dictatorship’s officially sanctioned authors. If Balzac or Lawrence or Camus were first-rate artists, rather than second-rate scribblers, then the novels of approved Soviet writers could also be great works of art rather than tools of manipulation and misinformation.

So Nabokov responded by creating a highly personal – sometimes, stubbornly personal – body of work that emphasized the uniqueness of his characters and the originality of his imagination.

This approach, in itself, was an attack on authoritarian states like the Soviet Union, which insisted that the group was more important than the individual and which were threatened by any work that didn’t enthusiastically celebrate the state’s manifold virtues in a manner easily understood by the average person.

Pnin Vladimir NabokovNabokov’s work was also a relentless assault on cruelty. Nabokov didn’t usually link cruelty directly to a dictator, although the tyrant Paduk in the novel Bend Sinister is an exception. Instead, Nabokov created brilliant, charismatic monsters who blinded readers to their viciousness, monsters such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Kinbote in Pale Fire, and to a lesser degree Van Veen in Ada.

Nabokov could also take the side of those who suffered cruelty, most obviously in the characters of Professor Timofrey Pnin (a refuge from Soviet Russia like Nabokov) and  the philosophy professor Adam Krug from Bend Sinister who is helpless to stop the bungling thugs of that book’s tyrant from murdering his only child. I also believe he is quietly on the side of Lolita and Lucette Veen in Ada, and not the dazzling beasts who abuse them.

As usual, Nabokov expressed it best. In October 1971, when Nabokov was 72 and had finished writing all his major works, he said this to the interviewer Kurt Hoffman (Strong Opinions, p. 193):

“I believe that one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and the cruel – and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride.”

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The Seven Lady Godivas by Dr. SeussWhile doing research for a future review of On Beyond ZebraI made this delightful discovery: Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as “Dr. Seuss”) wrote and Bennett Cerf of Random House published The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family — a nudie novelty book aimed at adults.

Jack St. Rebor at Seussblog has done a good job describing the book, so I recommend you click the link and read the post.

Maria Popova of The Atlantic posted a nice collection of illustrations. My favorite Lady Godiva is “Dorcas”. You may not want to know that.

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