Monday, December 31, 2007

CHESTERTON | Essay: A Piece of Chalk

In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, there was a minor character—Fiddler's Green, who was written as a caricature of Chesterton. It was Gaiman's tribute to this man of letters who wrote some of the best detective stories with his Father Brown mysteries—mysteries that went beyond the usual whodunnit into the murky realms of theology, philosophy and psychology. There were also moments of rousing Chestertonian lyricism that are just joy to re-read.

In life, Chesterton really was a jolly, rotund man with a romantic, chivalrous streak—and he really did walk the streets in a cape, with a sword-stick.

Chesterton wrote in a breezy, often whimisical and humorous manner that belies the philosophical thoughtfulness of his writings. He was fond of paradoxes, something personified by his unworldly priest, Father Brown—who reveals that his secrets to solving crimes is that in each case, he committed the crime himself. (Someone may have to help me out here—I'm relying on memory writing this and I can't recall the exact quote) Here, the priest does not literally mean he "did it." Rather, as he explained it, in each and every case, he truly placed himself in the position of the culprit, he thought as a murderer did, understood, and empathised—and that was how he arrived at the solutions to the mysteries—the greatest detective, is in fact, the greatest criminal.

Chesterton wrote poetry (whose I can't really claim to love), religious texts, including a biography of St Francis of Assisi. He also wrote essays—on anything that interested him—which means he wrote a lot of them.

One of my favourite essay is "A Piece of Chalk"—collected in Tremendous Trifles. The essay is thankfully available online —which allows me the pleasure of re-reading it for free, and sharing it with everyone.

What began rather unassumingly—Chesterton looking for some brown paper because he wanted to make his way to the countryside, where he intended to spend an afternoon drawing with brown paper and chalk. A chirpy but discursive narrative on the mundane soon emerged as a rumination on colours, especially white, and its associative symbolism of virtue—of theology and our assumptions of good and evil:

But as I sat scrawling these silly figures on the brown paper, it began to dawn on me, to my great disgust, that I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.

From the simplicity of chalk against brown paper he discerned a fundamental truth: it is not a dry, dull thing to be good and decent. A good man is not simply a man lacking in vices or weaknesses—he stands glorious as a monument, someone to aspire to, as proof of God's work. We just sometimes forget to see that—"In a word, God paints in many colours; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white."

Chesterton is a humanist, yes, and he is Catholic. Some might object to that. But for me at least, his writing upholds simple truths like goodness, beauty—and humour—because Chesterton too believed God created laughter.

Cross-posted at Orpheus Sings the Guitar Electric

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Balkan Trilogy - Olivia Manning

I have finished Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy. Manning writes insightfully about her characters and the story put me convincingly in the experience of an expat in Europe at the start of World War II. The Pringles marry and move to Bulgaria, as Guy Pringle teaches English there for the English Legation -they are forced to leave Bucharest as the Nazis encroach on Eastern Europe. They escape to Athens, where they are only steps ahead of the Germans and by the end of the third volume, they are again fleeing, this time for the Middle East where Manning's next trilogy is set - The Levant Trilogy. The story is held together not only by history and politics, although those are An important part of it, but by the growth of the relationship of the Pringles. Harriet Pringle is very different from Guy, and she thrown into a marriage with a man she has known only a few weeks and immediately moves to a new country where she doesn't speak the language or know anyone besides her new husband. The story is as much one of Harriet's growing insight about herself as it is our experience of the war through naive eyes.

Reading the trilogy has made me interested in getting to know more of Manning's books - she is a descriptive and un-showy writer with human and historical insight and I found the events of these three novels almost mesmerizing. Reading them for two or three hours at a stretch never seemed an effort. If you haven't read anything by her, and I hadn't before these - I recommend her heartily. You can find my other posts about the trilogy here.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Olivia Manning - The Spoilt City

Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy is such a vivid account of what it must have been like, I imagine, to be an ex-pat during the beginning of World War II. Manning is particularly insightful about her characters. I enjoy watching the young couple, the Pringles, getting to know each other better through their travails and the political events are very excitingly drawn. See my full thoughts here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

History Re-Lived (The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning)

What was most impressive in The Great Fortune, the first of the three books in The Balkan Trilogy, is how Olivia Manning creates a story of suspense out of historical events to which we already know the ending. Set at the start of World War II as a newly wed English couple comes to Roumania, the story is -necessarily - the war. What will the Axis do? Will the allegiance with Russia last? Will they be able to return to England? Will the English protect Roumania as they had promised? Will the Nazi's invade France? We actually know the answers to these questions, but I care about the outcome because this story is really about the lives of a broad cast of warmly observed people and how their existence is affected by the world's events. Read my full thoughts here.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Letty Fox: Her Luck by Christina Stead

I chose this book for the challenge because several years ago, I read and enjoyed another novel by Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children.

Letty Fox: Her Luck is the first-person life story of Letty Fox, who is growing up in a "broken home". Her father lives openly with his mistress. The women on her mother's side of the family (except her mother, who is tired and bitter) are mostly scheming to find husbands. Her uncle goes from woman to woman to woman and seems bewildered when they are furious at his playing around.

As Letty emerges into womanhood, she seems determined not to be part of this same cycle, to assert herself as an intellectual, but she gets involved with several worthless cads. Finally tired of the dating game, she reconnects with an old friend, Bill Van Week, who is also weary of all that. Soon married and pregnant shortly after that, Letty vows that she's "made a fresh start in life...and the journey has begun", but it seems like she and Bill Van Week (did you notice that last name?) are merely picking up the clownish chaos of the previous generation. When/If Bill strays, will Letty become like her father or her mother?

I was amused at the combination of Letty's sophistication, intellectualism and naivete. At sixteen or seventeen, she decides she's in love with the first of her wastrel boyfriends. In her fantasy, they'll travel Europe, and somehow, she'll also go to college and have a career and finish having a family, all by the age of 24. "I didn't want to be done out of anything," Letty tells the reader. Also, when it comes to the politics of sex, she's willfully blind and gets everything ass-backwards. For example, she thinks that once she lets someone like Luke or Amos sleep with her, they're in her power and she's conquered them. Repeatedly she's surprised when they don't call or come by for weeks and months after.

Also amusing and somewhat surprising was Stead's/Letty's frank talk about horniness. For some reason, Letty feels the 'fox tearing at her vitals' very strongly after she visits a rich artist, Lucy Headlong, for a long weekend on two separate occasions. Stead doesn't really do anything else with this.

On the negative side, Letty Fox: Her Luck is a book that could have used some extra editing. Letty's paternal grandmother, Jenny Fox, is going senile, and she runs on in a disjointed way for several pages at a time on several different occasions. It's a relief when her character finally dies so that the reader isn't subjected to her dialog any longer.

In addition, Letty has a sister, Jacky. Both are intellectuals in their own ways, and exchange letters often. The letters sound almost identical. Who is writing to whom? The letters go on for pages and pages. Also, Letty seems to talk at, rather than to people, and they to her. Stead is better when she's got Letty inside Letty's own head.

It was difficult to feel attached to any of the other characters in the novel, because they all feel so brittle or clownish. Letty's father's mistress, Persia seems interesting, but she's just barely on the sidelines. Briefly, Letty is roommates with a consummate gold-digger named Amy. Amy not only gold-digs, she helps her friends pursue rich husbands, and she's always ready to go the extra mile. For example, Amy pretends by mail to be another jealous lover until her friend is safely engaged. Letty makes a list of Amy's tricks, rules and aphorisms, which is really quite funny and a breath of fresh air in an often airless novel. Unfortunately, Letty and Amy have a falling-out, and Amy disappears.

Letty is often irritating and sometimes downright unlikable. (No one can do irritating and unlikable like Stead; it is truly her dubious gift as a novelist!) In a strange little episode, Jacky falls in love with a much older professor, as is her inclination throughout the novel. After the two sisters talk about this man, Letty casually seduces and sleeps with him out of curiosity.

I was relieved to be finished with this novel, but found myself for days afterward thinking about Letty and wondering and worrying about her future. In spite of what I perceive as the flaws and ungainliness of this book, it seems as if Stead has succeeded. Her power as a novelist is startling and immense. I'm interested in reading at least one more novel of hers, a later one called I'm Dying Laughing.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

(I guess it's the time of year for reading Chesterton)
The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged
as a cloud of sunset. It was built of a bright brick throughout, its
sky-line was fantastic, and even its ground plan was wild. It had been the
outburst of a builder, faintly tinged with art, who called its architecture
sometimes Elizabethan and sometimes Queen Anne. (Chesteron, G.K., The
Man Who Was Thursday
(1908; repr., New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1935)
How can one not immediately be drawn into a book that begins so deliciously? I’ve rarely encountered an author who can expertly plop me right down in the middle of his setting and make me so want to find out what’s going to happen in this interesting little spot. As a matter of fact, I’m not one who is typically all that conscious of setting, often annoyed if an author goes on and on trying to paint every little line of a place for me. The subtitle of this book is “A Nightmare,” and from the very first, Chesterton’s book enchants and surprises with its dream-like imagery. (I just love that “sunset side of London,” so much more dreamy than “the west side.”)

This is a difficult book to discuss without including any spoilers, but I’m going to attempt to do so. First, I’ll give you a string of adjectives that would have my twelfth-grade creative writing teacher cringing, red pen poised to write “be more specific.” Funny, delightful, nightmarish, philosophical, in other words, “un-put-downable” for someone like me. But, let’s be “more specific.”

I didn’t know what to expect from this book except that I’ve been told for some time by people who know me that I'd like it. It’s funny that it should be the first book for which I chose to do something I’ve never done, both downloading the audio version from and pulling the print version from the shelf. My thought had been to read the book in print form, and when I had other stuff to do (walking, cooking, unpacking, folding laundry…), I’d listen to it. Librivox recordings are especially good for this sort of plan, because they’re downloaded chapter-by-chapter.

Here’s the testament to this book’s “un-put-downable-ness.” I was out walking one evening with my iPod when I finished The Turn of the Screw. The Turn of the Screw is a favorite fall read of mine, and it’s difficult to find something good enough to follow that. However, I still had quite a way to go on my walk, and I wasn’t in the mood to listen to music, so I decided to start listening to this one. For three consecutive days, it became my walking companion. I loved the voice of the guy reading it (he can come over and read to me anytime), loved the walking companion (especially when I started my walk a bit late one evening and had to walk around the cemetery to stay off the roads where it was too dark. It’s a great book for cemetery listening), but ultimately had to pick up the book and finish it after that third evening, because the audiobook was too slow, and I could no longer wait to find out what was going to happen.

By funny, I don’t necessarily mean it’s laugh-out-loud-Nick-Hornby funny (although the scene with the chase and the elephant was). It’s more, “think-about-it-in-retrospect-and-smile-in-amusement-and-admiration funny. It’s funny, because in true parody fashion, the reader just doesn’t know what to expect. As Stefanie noted when she read it, nobody is what he seems to be, and the characters wind up in the oddest of places, doing the oddest of things, like dueling in France to keep someone from catching a train or being an imposter who is voted more realistic than the person he’s pretending to be.

It’s nightmarish and delightful for exactly the same reasons it’s funny and surprising. What’s funny in retrospect is certainly nightmarish for those who are experiencing it. Imagine no one you encounter being whom or what you think he is. Imagine people pretending to be anarchists who aren’t and how dangerous and scary that could be. Imagine pursuing someone and thinking you’ve been led into some wild jungle or something full of roaring, howling, and screeching beasts when you haven’t been.

The book is philosophical from the very beginning when the two “poets” are arguing over who is the real poet. It goes on to present characters who discuss such matters as “truth,” “belief,” “morality,” etc. One of the final chapters is called “The Six Philosophers.” I have to admit I was tempted to do a little research on this book before writing this post, so I could learn more about the philosophy behind the book, as well as Chesterton’s own philosophical leanings, but I didn’t. (It’s obvious by the end of the book that Chesterton was a religious man, something I already knew before I started it.) I was trying to identify each man with his particular philosophy but couldn’t really and came to think that was Chesterton’s whole philosophical point: that reason, ultimately, falls short. If so, it’s a philosophy to which I can very readily relate.

One last thing I will say about this book: it’s probably better in print rather than audiobook form. Some of the writing is so subtle, it really must be read in order to be appreciated. I noticed skimming through the parts I’d listened to that I’d managed to miss quite a lot. (Then again, that may just be due to the fact that I’m more a visual than an auditory learner.) Regardless of format, though, this one definitely gets two very enthusiastic thumbs-up from me. I’m now looking forward to Father Brown.

Cross-posted: Telecommuter Talk

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Man Who was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K.Chesterton

"The work of a philosophical policemen," replied the man in blue, "is at once bolder and more subtle than that of an ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime. We were only just in time to prevent the assassination at Hartlepool, and that was entirely due to the fact that our Mr Wilks (a smart young man) thoroughly understood a triolet."

Thus is Gabriel Syme introduced to the investigations of the Secret Police Service into the Central Council of Anarchists, an organisation he infiltrates to become The Man Who Was Thursday. Led by its vast and terrifying President, Sunday, the Council of Seven Days plans an atrocity, and despatches one of its members to Paris with a bomb. Syme must avoid exposure as a spy while in pursuit. But all is not as it seems and, amid contradiction and confusion Syme must learn to distinguish what is real. Are other members of the Council friend or foe? And, most urgent of all, who and what is Sunday?

Throughout this absorbing fantasy, Chesterton turns expectation on its head. One of the ways in which he achieves this is by a subtle reversal of normality: if I were to ask you what is a hornbill, you would probably answer "a bird with an enormous bill". Thus Chesterton: "he remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it." The reader's viewpoint is that of Syme, and such strange reversals confuse and obfuscate so that reality is impossible to pin down and safety looks a forlorn hope.

The book reminds me both of The Magic Flute, with its theme of trial by ordeal, and of the writings some twenty-five years later of Charles Williams, which share similar elements of a peculiarly English kind of mysticism. Yet Chesterton denied the revelatory interpretation, drawing attention to the book's subtitle "A Nightmare". In an article published the day before he died in 1936 he says,

It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.

Reading The Man Who Was Thursday 100 years on, in a world of equally characterised by wild doubt and despair I, for one, find the "gleam of hope" quite comforting and was happy to interpret the ending as revelatory and mystical. The book is also a classic, witty and elegant while remaining a fantastical adventure, and deserves prompt reinstatement as part of the canon.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A God and His Gifts by Ivy Compton-Burnett

Ivy Compton-Burnett was born in 1884 and her novels, even those written as late as A God and His Gifts, which was published in 1963, are Edwardian. She is the master of unconscious self revelation, one critic said, and has no parallel and no equal said another. Her novels are almost entirely in dialogue.

I mean it when I say that. There are not more than half a dozen paragraphs in this book that do not contain dialogue. The narrator says almost nothing except to move people into, out of, and across the drawing rooms in which all the "action" takes place. There is almost no physical action - it is all verbal. Her language is purposely stilted; reading her is like reading Restoration Comedy. Her work is as finely tuned and as scalpel sharp as the best of the 18th century.

The god of this book is Hereward Egerton (make what you will of his name), a man who is what we would now call a sociopath. The world's rules were not made for him. He himself and his work are the only things that matter to him. He is unconstrained by sexual mores, even the most basic - not just those in play during the Edwardian period but even those we respect today, few as they are.

Ivy Compton-Burnett is not outmoded. She is simply out of fashion at the moment. But I predict a Compton-Burnett Renaissance soon. I would rate this book about the cream of disfunctional families six on a scale of one to five. There is almost nothing better. Jane Austen's ascerbic wit is timid in comparison.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Journal of a Solitude - May Sarton

Journal of a Solitude is a deeply personal book. It chronicles a year in the life of the poet at age 58. Her solitary journaling takes place at her family home, Nelson, in New Hampshire. She hopes, with this journal to;
...break through into the rough, rocky depths, to the matrix itself. There is violence there and anger never resolved. My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there.
Sarton writes a level beyond simplistic themes of desire and choice, exploring her internal struggles from a plainly humanistic viewpoint.

I wonder when and why May Sarton was kicked out of the "in crowd"? She's been on my radar since the tender age of eighteen. She's even quoted in my Intermediate Algebra book! Page 1, no less!:

"I see a certain order in the universe[,] and math is one way of making it visible." - May Sarton, As We Are Now, 1973 ; )

In Wikipedia's page on the life and writings of May Sarton, it is stated that "many of her novels and poems are pellucid reflections of the lesbian experience."

1 : admitting maximum passage of light without diffusion or distortion pellucid stream
2 : reflecting light evenly from all surfaces
3 : easy to understand

Sarton strikes me as a lover of many things, flowers, friends, poetry, nature, light. She actively loves the ever changing and the intangible. Her loves truly do seem to diffuse without distortion...there is a purity in her self acceptance that results in stark honesty and a deeply ingrained integrity.

I recall reading, at age eighteen, her images of love; the expectations and concurrent frustrations, and taking them at face value. That hasn't changed, twenty years later. She does not appear to have much of a reservoir of hate. Her problematic anger (Sarton confesses to fits of rage) seems to be based upon her frustrations within the moment. She is forgiving, of others and of herself, with a loving perspective by nature. Sarton is grounded in the moment, completely.

I find myself hesitant to pigeonhole Sarton in any way. I read Journal of a Solitude for the first time at the afore mentioned tender age of eighteen and at that time (I am a little embarrassed to admit) I didn't overtly perceive that Sarton was gay. I realize that sounds strange. As I reread the book now, I see that Sarton addresses the issue quite obviously. I believe the lack of perception on my part came from being young, and being raised in a culture where homosexual rights have always been a hot topic.

She is an activist in the purest sense. In Journal of a Solitude her activism spreads in many directions; she addresses a range of issues from homosexuality to marriage to women's rights to the state of government during that time.

She opines about De Gaulle, upon his death; "Wholeness, so far as statesmen go, may have something to do with speaking in one's own words. De Gaulle did not call in "writers"; the very idea is grotesque. The leader who allows others to speak for him is abdicating. Who is speaking via Nixon? Who wrote this phrase or that? One is never quite sure. He and Agnew became puppets. Who is the ventriloquist who manipulates them?"

Once again; WHY was she kicked out of the in crowd?

Sarton isn't afraid to think or question. Ultimately she isn't afraid to take her thoughts to the highest level she is capable of, regardless of personal discomfort. She isn't afraid to speak her mind. I'm keeping this book next to the bedside for a long while.

Arriving in Bucharest on the Eve of War (The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning)

Oddly enough, I too am reading The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. Manning's ability to present the sweep of a scene in which many small dramas seem to be happening at once, and to people those dramas with detailed characters, is remarkable. In just twenty-five pages I am already swept up in the hysterical atmosphere of war. My full post is here.