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24 December 2010

Books for 2011

Well, a new year is fast approaching, and for me this entails a new book list to pound through and enjoy.  My theme last year was simply “50 books or bust.”  I actually read 84, and except for a few notables, loved every one of them.  2011 is going to have a more structured theme: multiples and minis.  By this, I mean books in a series, multiple books by one author, or multiple books on a subject, always followed by slim volumes less than 150 pages, minis.  I have a long way to go to complete my list, and I always leave room for unexpected departures, but here is what the first couple of months should look like.


Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marías (3vol.)
  1. Fever and Spear
  2. Dance and Dream
  3. Poison, Shadow, and Farewell

Three history books on 18th and 19th century European history by Adam Zamoyski
  1. Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March
  2. Rites of peace: the fall of Napoleon and the congress of Vienna
  3. Holy Madness: romantics, patriots, and revolutionaries 1776-1871.

The Writing on the Wall by Count Miklos Banffy (3vol.)
  1. They were counted
  2. They were found wanting
  3. They were divided

Two travel books by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  1. A Time of Gifts: from the hook of Holland to the middle Danube
  2. Between the Woods and the Water: from the middle Danube to the Iron Gates


Bad Nature: or Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías
Journey into the Past  by  Stefan Zweig
The Museum of useless efforts  by  Cristina Peri Rossi
Old masters: a comedy  by  Thomas Bernhard
Running Away  by  Jean-Philippe Toussaint

I’m interested; tell me what books you plan to read in the new year.

29 October 2010

A picture for your thoughts

I will be posting on this picture and the artist who painted it in the month ahead (Along with info on Michel de Montaigne), but first a little preliminary work.  Here is the painting:

And now the question i will be attempting to answer, the one I'd like you to take a crack at, too.  What does this image say to you about life, about the nature of existence, about civilization, about solitude?  Tell me what you think

24 October 2010

Know Your Place!

On your limitations

I have been tempted on a few occasions to advise a slower student to “except your limitations,” though this is a phrase that has never escaped my lips.  And thankfully, too.  It is advice often given by those much more or much less talented than the person to whom it is given, or by professors, teachers, or parents who, in their haste, have forgotten the milk of human kindness and temperance in their words.

Limitations are sometimes about true inabilities, but are often about compromise, and compromise in and of itself can be a benefit to mankind.  There are at least two ways of dealing with any problem, and to bridge the gap between ideologues compromise is what is needed.  But in many endeavors, compromise is a travesty far worse than the grievance it seeks to address.  The Allies were right not to compromise with Hitler, though sadly we now compromise with regimes indistinguishable from Hitler, save in size of force.

In domestic relationships, compromise is inescapable.  Traditionally, women made disproportionate compromises in life, sacrificing intellectual possibilities to care for parents, children, and husbands.  In modern relationships, failure often happens because people change over time, and they never think to renegotiate their unspoken compromises to fit their new needs and expectations.

Then, there is the compromise one makes with one’s self.  If a thick-fingered and tin-eared cousin is spending two hours a day in vain attempting to learn the cello, should he not cease such time-wasting and accept his limitations?  Well, no.  If he has dreams of playing Carnegie Hall next year, those aspirations need gentle reigning in, not destruction.  And it is, in the end, his call on what his limitations are.

Even more often, ‘accepting your limitations’ is a reaction to the first failings on any difficult endeavor.  The phrase denotes weariness and retreat, not a true account of abilities, and certainly not an examination of the reasons to attempt the endeavor itself.  Your cousin may never reach the summit of the cello world, may never play Bach’s first concerto like a master.  But, as when climbing any difficult mountain, even if one never reaches the summit, or comes close, the views as one climbs are far more breathtaking than those at the base, if for no other reason than they had to be worked for in order to be enjoyed.

Perhaps the one compromise we should never make is with life.

16 October 2010

The Seven Ages of Gustave: an odd micro-biography of Flaubert

I thought this might be an interesting way to look at someone's life.

Good:  1821.  Gustave born as the second son in a prosperous middle class family.  His father Achille-Cleophas is head surgeon in Rouen and has an international reputation
Bad:  1817-22.  The death of three of the Flaubert children.  Gustave’s father thinks little of his newborn son’s health, and has a grave prepared for the eventuality that doesn’t come.
Flaubert: 1830.  “I love reading most”

Good:  1843-44.  A law student in Paris, he meets eminent writers such as Victor Hugo.
Bad:  1844.  Attacks of violent seizures, leading to his withdrawl from school and prompting his mother to protectively and stiflingly watch over him…for much of the rest of his life.
Flaubert:  1846.  “I showed them the bottom of the bag (himself), and the acrid dust that rose from it made them choke.”

Good:  1846.  Flaubert begins a passionate affair with Louise Colet, “the muse” as his friends refer to her.
Bad:  1846. Flaubert begins a passionate affair with Louise Colet.  His father dies.
Flaubert:  1846.  “Deep within me there is a radical, intimate, bitter and insistent boredom which prevents me from enjoying anything and smothers my soul.”

Good:  1849-51.  Flaubert travels to the orient.
Bad:  1848-49.  His best friend Alfred Le Poittevin suddenly dies.  He throws himself into the writing of The Temptation of Saint Anthony.  He reads it to his friends and they immediately advise him to burn it and never think on it again.
Flaubert:  “To me, friendship is like a camel: once started there is no way of stopping it.”

Good:  1851-57.  Flaubert writes Madame Bovary.
Bad:  1851-57.  Flaubert finds the writing to be one of the most painful and exacting experiences of his life.  He is often miserable as he writes, and he detests the subject matter.  The payment for his efforts is prosecution for indecency by the government.  Flaubert resents the success of the book all his life as it casts him as only a one book author to the public.
Flaubert:  “What an awful thing life is, isn’t it?  It is like a soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface.  You have to eat it nevertheless.”

Good: 1864.  Presented to the emperor.  The height of the social ladder.
Bad:  1872.  The death of his mother and his last good friend, Theophile Gautier.
Flaubert:  1875.  “I feel uprooted, like a mass of dead seaweed tossed about in the waves.”

Good:  1880.  Honored by all of the major writers, Flaubert continues to work on a new book, Bouvard and Pecuchet, which he considers to be his best.
Bad:  1880.  Flaubert dies before he completes the book, tired, lonely, and thanks to his ineptitude with money, at the edge of poverty. 
Flaubert:  1880.  “But when will the new book be done?  That is the question…there are moments when I am so tired that I feel like I’m liquefying like an old Camembert.”

15 October 2010

This October I read Flaubert

 I have been reading a lot of and on Flaubert and I have to confess, if a confession is what is needed, that I like some of his work, but very little about him.  He had enormous talent and vision, but suffered from that malady too common in artists: he took himself deadly serious.  I have felt a twinge of his distain for the bourgeois of his day in those of mine, but to have such a feeling guide one’s life is almost criminal.

What I do love is his embrace of the real, but in high style.  That is something to emulate.  What sort of reception would a book get today which portrayed the vapid consumerism of so many of our neighbors?  What if a work could look through the hollow bumper sticker patriotism of such silly things as ‘America…love it or leave it” and “freedom isn’t free?”  What juicy fun!

Regardless of his snootiness or his ability as an artist, it is for his letters that Flaubert should be remembered.  He had thousands of them destroyed, yet thousands remain as little flowers in the garden of literature.  Especially his letters to Louise Colet, his mistress from 1846-48 and again (because he didn’t learn the first time) from 1851-54, are full of power, wit, beauty, and charm.  They deserve to be read on their own terms.

As for books on the bear from Croisset, The work by Francis Steegmuller is unmatched.  His Flaubert and Madame Bovary is exceptional, as is his translation of the letters and of Madame Bovary.  

Finally, there are five quotations by Gustave Flaubert I find indispensable:
  1. A friend who dies, it's something of you who dies.
  2. Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
  3. Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.
  4. Life must be a constant education; one must learn everything, from speaking to dying.
  5. Madame bovary, C’est moi!