Monday, March 30, 2020

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (novel #146)

Evil is even, truth is an odd number, and death is full stop.


At Swim-Two-Birds is rather like Camelot…"‘tis a silly place".


It is the first-person narrative of an unnamed Irish student, who lives with his uncle. The uncle is a simple Irish working man, who is a bit hard on the lad, for fear the nephew is something of a wastrel. At numerous points throughout the
story the uncle asks…

Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all?


His concern seems fair enough, as the narrator spends most of his time in bed, or carousing with fellow students. Like so many college students, he has his first experience with alcohol.

On the other hand, young men of my acquaintance who were in the habit of voluntarily placing themselves under the influence of alcohol had often surprised me with a recital of their strange adventures. The mind may be impaired by alcohol, I mused, but withal it may be pleasantly impaired. Personal experience appeared to me to be the only satisfactory means to the resolution of my doubts.

…brown stout in a bottle, a drink which still remains the one that I prefer the most despite the painful and blinding fits of vomiting which a plurality of bottle has often induced in me.


But the novel is far more complicated than merely telling the narrator’s story. It is a novel, within a novel, within a novel – metafiction and frame story. The student sets out to write a novel emphasizing that…

One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.


He begins three different novels: one about the Pooka (devil class) Fergus MacPhellimey, and the fairy who lives in his pocket, a second about Furriskey, a character created by fictional writer Dermot Trellis, and the third about Irish legends Finn MacCool and Mad King Sweeney.


Intermittently, the main story, switches to any one of these stories, which eventually become intertwined – characters from one, crossing into one of the others. 


It was ridiculous and confusing. The dialogue was sometimes fun, but still ridiculous. Like the fairy introducing herself to the Pooka…

My correct name is Good Fairy, said the Good Fairy. I am a good fairy.


Or when a group of Irish lads are enjoying a pint, or five, discuss the merits of their race, and one of their proudest distinctions…

That was always one thing, said Shanahan wisely, that the Irish race was always noted for, one place where the world had to give us best. With all his faults and by God he has plenty, the Irishman can jump.  


It’s a thing, said Furriskey, that will always stand to us – jumping. 


When everything’s said, said Lamont, the Irishman has his points. He’s not the last man that was made now.


All the characters join forces against the fictional author Dermot Trellis, for his injudicious manipulation of their fates. They employ the Pooka to first torture Trellis, and then bring him to trial – a kangaroo court, where the plaintiffs are also judges, and conduct the trial while imbibing in yet more stout – they use their glasses as gavels, to overrule any objection or testimony offered by Trellis. He will be found guilty of course, but the novel returns to the student and uncle – where both come off a bit better than the reader has previously perceived.


The Uncle quotes from Hamlet, with some liberty…

There are more things in life and death than you ever dreamt of Horatio.


My rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars


This book satisfies square N-3 “Reader’s Choice” in the 2020 Classic BINGO Challenge


This was my first read of Flann O’Brien. I wasn’t crazy about it at first, but eventually I got into it. O’Brien has a quirky sense of humor and a fun turn of phrase. I will certainly give him another try. What do you think of At Swim-Two-Birds or Flann O’Brien?


Have you ever wondered about the odd title? Swim-Two-Birds, is simply a place name aka Snámh-dá-én, along the banks of the River Shannon. 




Thursday, March 26, 2020

Twenty-six Men and a Girl a short story by Maxim Gorky

Twenty-six Men and a Girl                        a short story by Maxim Gorky                      (translated by J. M. Shirazi)

**sigh** Such a sad, sweet story. 

It is the tale of 26 poor laborers, nearly slaves, working in deplorable conditions, long hours, little pay, making and baking kringels. The unnamed narrator speaks for the collective, though they seldom speak among themselves.
But silence is only terrible and fearful for those who have said everything and have nothing more to say to each other; for men, on the contrary, who have never begun to communicate with one another, it is easy and simple.

Though they do from time to time sing.
While in other men’s words we sing out our dumb grief, the weary burden of live men robbed of the sunlight, the burden of slaves.

But it does little to relieve the drudgery.
Painful and terrible it is when a man goes on living, while nothing changes around him; and when such as existence does not finally kill his soul, then the monotony becomes with time even more and more painful.

They have but one bright spot in their day, when sweet and innocent Tanya, from an adjoining seamstress shop stops by for kringels. Tanya is pleasant without being coquettish – indeed, she wouldn’t know how to be; she is a picture of innocent beauty.
Better than her we had none, and none but her took any notice of us…

But about our Tanya we never let fall an evil word; none of us ever ventured so much as to lay a hand on her, even too free a jest she never heard from us. Maybe this was so because she never remained for long with us; she flashed on our eyes like a star falling from the sky, and vanished; and maybe because she was little and very beautiful, and everything beautiful calls forth respect, even in coarse people.

We loved her – all is said in that.

But I've already hinted, it's The previous excerpt is the sweet.

The bitter – I haven’t the heart, and I’ll spare the spoiler.

Still, Gorky’s words are lovely. I’ve never read him before, and I will be sure to read more. He was a pioneer of social realism. I’ll expect more painfully sweet stories.

I don’t usually review a single short story. Sometime soon, I hope to get to a collection by Gorky. Have you read Maxim Gorky? What did you think?
This satisfies, N-4, Classic Short Story, from the 2020 Classic BINGO Challenge.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Paradiso by Dante Alighieri

Paradiso by Dante Alighieri     (translated by Robert and Jean Hollander)

More bountiful was God when He gave Himself,
enabling man to rise again, than if,
in His sole clemency, he had simply pardoned.

Paradiso, is the third and final part of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, following Inferno and Purgatario. It tells of the final stage of Dante’s journey, in which he is now guided by Beatrice through Paradise.

I expected this to be my favorite of the three; I suppose the reason is obvious, but to be honest, I was underwhelmed at first. Dante himself, I think, felt unequal, as he
…neared the end of all desire

He writes…
          The Beauty that I saw transcends
          all thought of beauty, and I must believe
          that only its maker may savor it all.

          I declare myself defeated at this point
          more than any poet, whether comic or tragic,
          was ever thwarted by a topic in his theme,

          O how scant is speech, too weak to frame my thoughts.
          Compared to what I still recall my words are faint
          to call them “little” is to praise them much.

So, I will allow…it is a subject which cannot be done justice. Notwithstanding, Dante does a superb job, and I was increasingly thrilled as he further unfolds the glories of Paradise.

In my reviews of Inferno and Purgatorio I opined that this work is literature, not Christian doctrine, and therefore I did not pick much at the points where my faith, and my understanding of the scriptures differs from Dante’s.

I’m of the opinion now however, that to call this merely literature is as much a disservice as to call The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo merely a painting, or to call Handel’s Messiah merely music.

This, I think, is something more. Something more than mere literature. I bow to Signore Alighieri for the slight - though, knowing him a bit better now, I believe he would likely beg – “please, praise be to God”

And he makes me forget all my minor complaints, with the following.

Dante, now guided by Beatrice questions why God, would choose to save humanity by Grace, via the atoning work of Christ. Beatrice’s response:

          Your nature, when it sinned in toto
          in its seed, was separated
          from these privileges and from its Eden.

          ‘Nor could they be recovered
          if you consider closely – by any other recourse
          except to ford one of these crossings:

          either that God, in His own clemency,
          had pardoned, or that man, of himself,
          had given satisfaction for his foolish pride.

          Now fix your eyes deep in the abyss
          of the everlasting will of God
          and give your strict attention to my words.

          With his limitations, man could never offer
          satisfaction, for he could not descend as deep
          into humility, by latter-day obedience,

          as, by disobeying, he had thought to rise.
          and this is the reason for which he was denied
          the power of giving satisfaction on his own.

          Thus it was necessary that God in His own ways
          restore man to the fullness of his life
          by the one way, that is, or by both of them.

          But since the deed more gratifies the doer
          the more it shows the goodness
          of the heart from which it springs,

          divine goodness, which puts it imprint
          on the world, was pleased to proceed
          in both its ways to raise you up again.

          Now Between the last night and the first day
          was, or will there be, a deed performed – in the first way
          or the second – so sublime or generous.

          More bountiful was God when He gave Himself,
          enabling man to rise again, than if,
          in His sole clemency, he had simply pardoned.

          All other means fell sort of justice
          save that the Son of God
          should humble Himself by becoming flesh.

My humble commentary on these verses: Man was unique and privileged above all other creation. But man rebelled against God and lost his privileged position, and can be restored by only two means: Man must do something worthy of restoration, or God must restore man by grace and mercy.

Man could do neither, so CHRIST – DID BOTH. Christ the man, lived a life worthy of restoring man, and Christ the Lord, the Son of God, restored humanity by divine will and act, a sacrificial death, providing grace and mercy.

Or as another poet put it, he became...
for sin the double cure


Finally, have you ever wondered how or why The Divine Comedy, is comedy? A comedy begins with difficulty or dilemma, and ends in satisfaction and justice. The Divine Comedy begins at the gates of Hell, and ends in the Highest Heaven. Obvious now isn’t it?

This satisfies I-4 in the 2020 Classic BINGO Challenge.


Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch (novel #145)

I have battered destructively and in vain upon the mystery of someone else’s life… ~ Charles Arrowby

Charles Arrowby is the recently retired first-person narrator. After a life of stage and screen (mostly stage), acting, directing, writing (mostly writing). He retires from the London jet-set, to a humble cottage, in a quiet village, on the sea to write his memoirs, probably late 1970s.

Very quaint. I was rather jealous of the setting, and Charles is quite content at first:
It has stopped raining and the sun is shining, but over most of the sea the sky is a thick leaden grey. The sunny golden rocks stand out against that dark background. What a paradise. I shall never tire of this sea and this sky.

Until he discovers an old flame, Hartley, living nearby – which sets him on a destructive obsession – even though Hartley is married, and rather dowdy by most standards.

The book is arranged in a pre-history chapter, six history chapters, and a postscript. I wouldn’t ordinarily discuss the arrangement, but to me at least, it was significant, and perhaps even brilliant. 

The pre-history, is a bit dull to be honest. Charles describes his many show business friends, colleagues, lovers and cousin James. Charles is a perfect hedonist, though he certainly didn’t see himself as such. Reading the pre-history, the reader has no idea, most of the characters will reemerge. Charles is merely setting the stage – apropos for a director and playwright – for his memoirs.  

But the memoirs are never written; the six history chapters are narrative about life in retirement, on the sea, and the pursuit of Hartley. These were the exciting parts, when I couldn’t put the book down, but in retrospect, it is the pre-history and the postscript that give the book its real poignancy.

It’s marvelous, though I didn’t realize it until the end. For most of my read, I just thought it was beautiful, soulful writing, such as the way Charles describes…
…the sea, image of an inaccessible freedom.

Or his starlet lovers…
Clement was the reality of my life, its bread and its wine. She made me, she invented me, she created me, she was my university, my partner, my teacher, my mother, later my child, my soul’s mate, my absolute mistress.

[Lizzie] She fell in love with me during Romeo and Juliet, she revealed her love to me during Twelfth Night, we got to know each other during a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then (but that was later) I began to love her during The Tempest, and (but that was later still) I left her during Measure for Measure.

Rosina’s kisses were those of a tigress. Rosina had the fierce charm of the rather nasty girl in the fairy-tale who fails to get the prince, but is more interesting than the girl who does, and has better lines too.

Or Hartley…
She was not an intellectual or bookish girl, she had the wisdom of the innocents and we conversed as angels. She was at home in time and space.
She became my Beatrice.

Or male colleague, Peregrine aka Perry…
It has taken me a long time to persuade Perry that it is stupid and immoral to go to expensive crowded restaurants to be served with bad food by contemptuous waiters and turned out before one is ready to go.
I went to Peregrine not only for a drinking bout and a chat with an old friend, but for male company, sheer complicit male company; the complicity of males which is like, indeed is, a kind of complicity in crime, in chauvinism, in getting away with things, in just gluttonously enjoying the present even if hell is all around.

Or Charles’ retort to Perry’s accusation that he despised women
I don’t despise women. I was in love with all Shakespeare’s heroines before I was twelve.

Charles is also a foody, often describing in detail the dishes he prepares. These always made me hungry.
Of course, I never touch foreign cheeses. Our cheeses are the best in the world.

Or this one, that I most emphatically identify with.
What is more delicious than fresh hot buttered toast…

Or his description of the audience...
Of course, actors regard audiences as enemies, to be deceived, drugged, incarcerated, stupefied. This is partly because the audience is also a court against which there is no appeal.

A lot of excerpts I know, but there were just so many quotable, marvelous passages. And I’m not done. 

But then there is also this horrific and magnificent story, complete with foreshadowing, subtle allusions, unexpected twists, and just enough doubt about what really happened in the end.

In the pre-history, Charles newly settled in his home is gazing out to sea, when he sees an enormous sea-serpent, rise and writhe, and disappear. Charles of course disbelieves his own vision, but professes that it was so real. Perhaps it was the green-eyed monster that was about to rise from Charles’ idyllic existence. (if you look closely at the cover, you can see the sea monster...I missed it, thanks to Brona for pointing it out)

In the middle history, Charles is nearly drowned. One of his show-biz friends pushes him in, but Charles is rescued by his cousin James. Charles does not  remember the rescue, and there are no witnesses. Much later, Charles remembers – but it is, like his sea monster, utterly impossible, and yet…

And then in the postscript he explains it away, he convinces himself of a physically possible explanation, but the reader – this reader at least – finds the utterly impossible more plausible.

Much earlier Charles had said of James…
James had always been the finder of lost things.

I believe Charles was lost for most of this story.
Time, like the sea, unties all knots.

In the very end, Charles is able to give up his obsession with Hartley.
I have battered destructively and in vain upon the mystery of someone else’s life and must cease at last.
Upon the demon-riddled pilgrimage of human life, what next I wonder?

4 out of 5 stars

This was my first read of The Sea, the Sea or Iris Murdoch. I loved it, though I didn’t really love it, until the end. I will definitely read more by Murdoch, including Under the Net which I hope to get to this year. What are your thoughts on The Sea, the Sea? On Iris Murdoch?

This book satisfies square N-2 “Winner of a Foreign Literary Prize” [the Booker Prize] in the 2020 Classic Bingo Challenge

Other excerpts, all the words of Charles Arrowby:

Is there any language in which there is a word for that tender runnel that joins the mouth and the nose? 

(Wanderer’s response: Yes! The language is English; the word is “philtrum”. I don’t remember how I know this.)

Well, this is getting a little too picturesque: dragon, poltergeists, faces at windows! And how restless this rain makes me feel. 

There are a great many references to classic literature throughout The Sea, the Sea. References to Shakespeare, Proust, Dante, and near the end, Charles tries to read The Wings of the Dove by Henry James, but confesses…

…its marvelous magisterial beginning failed to grab me.

I emphatically agree.


Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Dante's Purgatorio

Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri                                                                  (translated by Robert and Jean Hollander)

And he to me: “This mountain is so fashioned
that the climb is harder at the outset
and, as one ascends, becomes less toilsome. ~ Virgil to Dante regarding the climb of Mount Purgatory

Purgatorio is the second part of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy; it follows Inferno and is followed by Paradiso. I suspect Purgatorio will be my least favored of the three, as it is caught in Limbo – pardon the pun – between despair and glory. 

By the way, it isn’t really a very good pun. Limbo and Purgatory are not synonymous. According to Dante, Limbo is on the outskirts of Hell, inhabited by virtuous pagans and the unbaptized who are separated from God, but not condemned to the suffering of Hell. Purgatory is for souls who repented late in life, who must purge their souls for the years spent apart from the grace of God. They are considered “saved” as their eventual ascension to Paradise is assured.

Full disclosure: I am a Christian and believe in Heaven and Hell, but I don’t believe in Purgatory. This certainly tempered my reaction to Purgatorio as I was ambivalent to the souls in Purgatory. But, just as with Inferno, I remind myself that Purgatorio is literature, not Christian doctrine. 

Virgil continues to guide Dante’s journey, but he is replaced by the end of Purgatorio by Beatrice as Virgil, doomed to Limbo, will never be admitted to Paradise. Beatrice is probably based on an actual person Dante admired, perhaps even loved, but in the Comedy, she is the representation of Beatific Love.

The souls in Purgatory are guilty of the same sins as those in Hell, but differ in that they repented late in life and claimed God’s grace. 
          Sinners to the final hour,
          we were all at the point of violent death
          when a light from Heaven brought us understanding

          so that, repenting and forgiving,
          we parted from our lives at peace with God,
          who with desire to see Him wrings our hearts.

Their time in Purgatory is equal to their years of unbelief in mortal life, but can be shortened by the prayers of Christians in Heaven and Earth. Most fascinating though, was the concept that all sin is an aberration of love – that is: love perverted (pride, envy, wrath), love defective (sloth), or love excessive (avarice, gluttony, lasciviousness)

In Inferno, the nine levels of Hell descend into an abyss, whereas in Purgatory the levels rise as a mount. At the summit is the Earthly Paradise, not Heaven, but after purgation a place of innocence, very much like the Garden of Eden.

In the last several cantos of Purgatorio we learn how and why Dante was chosen for this journey. Beatrice, who has died and is Paradise, is distressed by Dante’s earthly life. During her life, Dante was apparently inspired to Godliness by Beatrice, but after her death, he quickly forsakes virtue and theology for pleasure and philosophy. Concerned for his immortal soul, Beatrice goes to Limbo and by her tears persuades Virgil, to guide Dante through the eternal realms, and thus affect his repentance.

Dante does indeed confess his sin, and is purged, just as the souls in purgatory. He is unique, in that he is yet mortal and at the conclusion of the Comedy must return to live out the remainder of his mortal, and presumably now, more faithful life.

One excerpt that I found quite poignant. Early in the climb, at a particular gate…

          At that we moved ahead, The first step
          was of clear white marble, so polished
          that my image was reflected in true likeness

          The second was darker than the deepest purple,
          of unhewn stone, looking as if it had been burned,
          cracked through its length and breadth

          The third, resting its heavy mass above,
          seemed to me porphyry, as flaming red
          as blood that spurts out from a vein

The first step, forces Dante to see himself as he is – so critical to confession and repentance. The second step is dark and broken, revealing the sinful and broken state of Dante (mankind). The third step red, the color of spurting blood, like the blood of Christ.