Herman Melville: Benito Cereno

Q♠  Q♠  Q♠  Q♠  Q♠  Q♠  Q♠  Q♠

By selecting the Queen of Spades for Week 35 of my Deal Me In 2014 project, I finished out my Melville summer with the fourth story by this great author. My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  Just for the record, 70 pages of Melville is NOT a short story.  It’s my own fault for not checking first.  His story “Benito Cereno” is included in my collection called Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories.  That’s “other stories” not “other short stories”.   No, it wasn’t an entire novel, but it took me a longer time to get through than the other stories on my Deal Me In 2014 list.  But I digress…

178629

“Benito Cereno” is just as masterful as the other Melville works, both long and short, that I’ve read.  An American ship, the Bachelor’s Delight (an interesting title), is anchored at an island off the coast of South America when a beleaguered Spanish Ship, the San Dominick,  feebly makes it’s way to the island’s coast.  The American Captain, Amasa Delano, boards the Spanish ship with peaceful greetings.  He meets the Spanish Captain, Benito Cereno, and understands that the ship is carrying African Slaves.

The scenes that take place are ones of mystery and confusion on the part of Delano.  Benito Cereno’s faithful servant, Babo, waits on the Spanish Captain hand and foot.  Delano, though, begins to sense that not all is as it appears.  To go further, would ruin the story for anyone who has not read it.

From online commentary on Wikipedia, this story has been considered both racist and anti-slavery.  Ambiguous enough to be fascinating.  A scene that has stayed in my mind and doesn’t give away any of the plot occurs during Delano’s initial visit to the San Dominick.  While there, he observes a female slave feeding her child.  Through Delano’s eyes, Melville, in his detailed prose, compares the woman and child to a doe and a fawn and ascribes goddess-like attributes to her.  I realized, though, that what Delano doesn’t see is an actual woman, an actual human being.  I think the uncertainty that may come into the critical interpretation of this story is a result of the reader not knowing who is doing the thinking and observing, Delano or Melville.  I would caution any reader to read the entire story before making any determinations.  What Delano thinks and observes makes for a powerfully uncomfortable story.

The Guns of August – Outbreak

Continuing on with my August reading of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, I’ve finished the  section of her book called “Outbreak”.  It starts with this fantastic paragraph:

“Some damned foolish thing in the  Balkans,” [Otto von] Bismarck had predicted, would ignite the next war.  The assassination of  the Austrian heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by Serbian nationalists on June 28, 1914, satisfied his condition.  Austria-Hungary, with the bellicose frivolity of senile empires, determined to use the occasion to absorb Serbia as she had absorbed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1909.  Russia on that occasion, weakened by the war with Japan, had been forced to acquiesce by a German ultimatum followed by the Kaiser’s appearance in “shining armor”, as he put it, at the side of his ally, Austria.  To avenge that humiliation and for the sake of her prestige as the major Slav power, Russia was now prepared to put on the shining armor herself.

Everything that Tuchman explains in the preceding sections of the book gives the impression that, while Germany knew Russia would be involved in the next war, they had not planned on the war starting with Russian involvement.  However, with Russia’s aggression, France became certain that Germany would use this as reason to invade.

613864

The “conversations” between the European nations at this point are fascinating.  England debates as to whether to get involved.  I couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like if England had remained neutral.  I didn’t wonder very long.  Speaking of neutrality, Tuchman especially paints an intriguing picture of Belgium located geographically between Germany and France and proverbially between a rock and a hard place.  Belgium’s desire to maintain their achieved neutrality and independence makes their King Albert one of the historical figures about which I’ve been the most curious.  Considered a great outdoorsman and a voracious reader, the author’s opinion is that Albert would have been on the same level as Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt if he had not been more introverted than the other two.

While Austria’s Archduke is traditionally considered the “trigger” that started The Great War, plans had been in place for a while.

Barbara Tuchman died in 1989.  It would be interesting to get her opinion about the effects of World War One on world events since then.   I’ll take suggestions on books out there on that topic.  I realize that the conflicts in the Balkans that occurred in the 1990’s have roots going back even farther than World War One.

Meanwhile, Tuchman’s “bellicose frivolity of senile empires” remains one of the more brilliant metaphors in the book.

Here is my previous post.   The final section of the book is about the battles that took place in August of 1914.  Look for a post about them soon.

Conrad Aiken: Silent Snow, Secret Snow

8♦  8♦  8♦  8♦  8♦  8♦  8♦  8♦

Until I happened to pick up a collection of short stories called The Secret Sharer and Other Great Stories,  I had never heard of Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow”.  A few quick looks on the internet gave me the impression that everyone has heard of this story and that it’s required reading for many high school students.  I must have been sick that day.  Or maybe I was daydreaming.

Picking the Eight of Diamonds for Week 34 of my Deal Me In 2014 project led me to this story that I’ve missed out on reading all these years.  After reading it, I can understand it’s popularity and the literary value it possesses.  Something about Paul Hasleman’s “condition” reminds me of J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.  The same alienation theme that runs through The Catcher in the Rye gets the short story treatment by Aiken.

The short introduction included with this story mentions the influence of Sigmund Freud.  I don’t know much about Freud, but a certain psychological influence appears to exist.  Paul enjoys the snow – it’s sound and it’s feel – the only problem is that it’s not really there.  This wintry daydream to which Paul retreats frustrates his parents and his teachers.  In Salinger-esque style, Aiken portrays the adults in the story, including a medical doctor, as unfeeling and completely lacking in understanding.  Of course, they don’t understand Paul because they can’t see the snow.

Conrad Aiken

(I’ve mentioned J. D. Salinger; however, just for clarification, this is a photograph of Conrad Aiken from goodreads.com)

The reader is inside Paul’s mind and can see and feel and hear the snow, but the reader also knows it’s not real.  This inside knowledge lets the reader ask some questions that are never completely answered.  Is Paul suffering from mental illness?  Is his mind splitting away from reality?  Or is he daydreaming?  Does he simply see the world through snow, when others don’t?  Is that necessarily bad?  All good questions.

Unlike Salinger’s flippant and straight forward prose, Aiken uses a more lyrical style as when a hissing voice speaks to Paul from the snow and wind:

“Ah, but just wait!  Wait till we are alone together!  Then I will begin to tell you something new!  Something white! something cold! something sleepy!  something of cease and peace, and the long bright curve of space.”

To anyone who, like me, has never read or heard of this story, I would say give it a try.  It’s short, thought-provoking, and well-written.  The poetry of Aiken’s writing sets it apart from simply a story of psychology.

My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

The Guns of August – The Funeral and Plans

In what could be considered a departure in my reading, I began Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Guns of August this month.  In part, because of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I and in part, because I’ve realized that I know very little about The Great War as opposed to World War II.   In picking a favorite time period for fiction, I would have to say early twentieth century; however, my knowledge of one of the major events of that time period is severely lacking.  In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s earlier short stories and The Great Gatsby, though the War doesn’t take center stage, it’s something everyone is “coming back from”.

1883822

Tuchman begins the book brilliantly by using the May 1910 funeral of England’s King Edward VII to give the reader a snapshot of Europe, in particular, and the world, in general, at that time.  Nine monarchs ride in the processional representing most of Europe – many of them are also related in some way to the King.  No longer President, Theodore Roosevelt attends to represent the United States.  By using documented incidents in flashback form, Tuchman gives the impression that the wheels are already turning in the German Kaiser’s head as to how more power could be obtained for his country (or for himself).  While maintaining a public demeanor of confidence, the other European monarchs have private fears of German hegemony (I had to look up the word “hegemony”.  Learning a new word is always a good thing).

Tuchman proceeds to the section she calls “Plans”.  I’m sure I am sounding a little naïve when I say that I was surprised at how the countries of Europe, especially Germany, had such detailed plans for war so far in advance.  Germany knew that any war would have two fronts for them – the east with Russia and the west with France.  France seemed to be Germany’s primary foe but if they invaded France, they knew Russia would become involved.  It had not been that long since Russia had been at war with Japan (another war I know little about) so Germany counted on Russia taking longer to mobilize.

Without turning the book into “historical fiction”, the author rounds out all of the players and keeps the reader involved wondering what might happen next – even if the reader might be more familiar with this part of history than I am.  At this point, Belgium and it’s King Albert have caught my interest and the “cause” of the War’s outbreak comes as somewhat of a surprise even if this is the one event that I am familiar with.

I am taking this book slow so The Guns of August will probably run into September for me.  Look for another post in a week or so.

 

James Thurber: University Days

6♦  6♦  6♦  6♦  6♦  6♦  6♦  6♦

I think James Thurber could be considered the bridge between Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut as the premier American humorist.  In reading Thurber’s short story, “University Days”, I found much to compare to the other two authors in style and wit.  I read this story when I chose the Six of Diamonds for Week 33 of my Deal Me In 2014.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

72999

As a student, both in high school and college, I realized that many of us did not think of teachers as actual human beings and; therefore, they were ripe for ridicule.  Thurber gets this as he spins a yarn about his days at Ohio State University immediately following World War I.  His professors don’t always know what to do with him.  His botany class ranks up there as my favorite episode.  Unfortunately, at least for the professor, Thurber finds it difficult to see a flower cell through a microscope.  Try after try, Thurber finally gets it and excitedly draws what he sees only for the professor to indicate that he has just drawn his own eyeball because he had flipped into “reflect” mode.  It could be easy to go literarily deep here and say that this story represents the ability of Thurber to see differently as an artist.  However, I think Thurber was just telling a funny story about his college days.  I am glad that he went on, though, just like Twain and Vonnegut, to see the world the way he did.  In fact, published in 1933, much of this story’s humor comes from Thurber’s ability to see that none of his educational stumbles kept him from being successful.  I have a feeling that he was one of those individuals who was blessed to understand this at the time of his education and not just when he looked back years later.

For the record, there was also a time in high school when the idea struck me that teachers made just as much fun of the students.

 

 

Family Happiness by Leo Tolstoy

For Father’s Day, I received several novellas by Leo Tolstoy and Henry James so I’ll probably be reading them here and there over the next few months.  Tolstoy’s Family Happiness is the first one I’ve read.  I admit that I didn’t like this story as well as some of Tolstoy’s other short works or his not-so-short War and Peace, but it does have a certain charm and appeal.

Leo Tolstoy

There is an idea that a marriage starts out with a romantic, warm fuzzy kind of love that ultimately goes deeper when the couple really gets to know each other.  This concept can just as easily be applied in a slight variation to any kind relationship such as friendship or family.  Tolstoy chooses to illustrate this concept with the marriage of Marya and Sergey.  At first, they live on Sergey’s family farm with the Russian countryside seeming to compliment there ideal love for each other.  However, after a while, Marya starts to dream of the city and they’re off to St. Petersburg.  While she becomes the “belle of the ball” in the high society of the city, Sergey fades into the background.  This is where the real “getting to know each other” starts.

Marya and Sergey are decent characters for the story; however, I would have to say that Tolstoy’s marriage “idea” takes center stage and is a more developed character to the story than the couple.  His description of the rolling hills of the Russian farm captured my attention more than the marriage.

Another interesting fact to note:  according to the “About the Author” foreword in my edition, in 1910, at the age of 82, Tolstoy abandoned his wife to live somewhere else.  He became sick and died at the train station.  A good biography of Tolstoy might be worth reading someday.

Truman Capote: Mojave

K♥  K♥  K♥  K♥  K♥  K♥  K♥  K♥

For Week 32 of my Deal Me In 2014 project, I drew the King of Hearts and read Truman Capote’s short story “Mojave”.  What could be considered SPOILERS may occur during this post.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

“Mojave” was written in 1975 and I would assume that the story itself is set in the 1970’s.  Sarah Whitelaw is having an affair with her psychiatrist and – what a shocker – it’s not working out.  She runs some errands around town (somewhere in California, I think) and then heads home to her husband George.  At home, she proceeds to massage George’s feet while he tells her a story.   At some point in the past, George Whitelaw was on a Mojave desert road and happened upon a white-haired old blind man by the side of the road.  The old man, whose name is George Schmidt (another George), tells George Whitelaw a story about his second wife, Ivory Hunter (that’s a “stage” name in case anyone is wondering), and how he ended up on the side of this desert road.

212886

A story within a story works maybe half the time.  In another story, I might have found a character named Ivory Hunter to have been humorous,  but this story within a story within a story just didn’t work.  Ultimately, Sarah reveals at the end of the story (at the end of all the stories) that she has made a habit of “hooking up” her husband with other women.  This “open marriage” concept perhaps would be considered a surprise ending – but it wasn’t a big surprise.

I’m still waiting for the Truman Capote story other than “A Christmas Memory” to really grab me.  So for now, I’ll continue to highly recommend “A Christmas Memory” which I posted about here.