Friday, April 21, 2017

Jean Barois by Roger Martin du Gard

Jean Barois by Roger Martin du Gard
Translated by Stuart Gilbert
Viking Press, 1949
(original publication in 1913)

I picked up The Thibaults a couple of years of years ago, but haven't been able to commit to the almost-two thousand page work. Jean Barois ended up being my introduction to Roger Martin du Gard instead. I was impressed enough by it to possibly tackle The Thibaults this summer.

Some side notes on the novel...Martin du Gard worked on the novel from 1910-13 and turned the manuscript over to his publisher, who had promised to publish his next work. After reading the manuscript, though, that publisher balked at publishing the book, calling it a total failure. Fortunately Martin du Gard met an old schoolmate who happened to be a publisher. The manuscript was shared with André Gide, whose enthusiasm for it not only insured its publication, but also led to Martin du Gard joining the Nouvelle Revue Française.

I'll provide an overiew of the story, but if you want more details on what unfolds I recommend checking out Bob Corbett's book review as it's very good.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I covers Jean's youth, starting in 1878 when he was twelve. Jean is on the verge of death, suffering from tuberculosis, a hereditary condition in his family. He overcomes the physical infirmities only to suffer a spiritual crisis, but his discussions with his small-town abbé doesn't satisfy his questions about the anomalies between Catholic dogma and science. Jean moves to Paris to study medicine and falls in love with the natural sciences, while discussions with a priest of a "symbolist compromise," where a deeper truth lies beneath symbolic dogma and figurative stories, fail to edify Jean. He returns home to his father's deathbed, appalled at the religious conversion of the dying man. The imminent fear of death causing a turn toward religion will be echoed again a couple of times later in the novel. Jean marries his childhood sweetheart, Cécile, not telling her about his religious doubts. She is a devout Catholic and his rejection of religion over the next few years horrifies her and causes their eventual split. His desire for absolute belief in science drives him to resign his post at a Catholic university (where he was upbraided for teaching evolution), leave his wife and daughter, and move to Paris alone. He revels in his freedoms, of thought and of belief, immune to the suffering he causes in his family.

Part II shows Jean and his young friends launching a periodical named The Sower (Le Semeur), which they see as championing a new morality backed by science and turning away from religion. Jean understands what they are up against in the inertia of the masses, who are not necessarily happy with their lot but resistant to change. The extended planning meeting scene includes trite comments at times, but the enthusiasm shown for their mission is palpable. They dedicate their first issue to Marc-Elie Luce, a member of the Senate and renowned philosopher. His independence appeals to the group, becoming something of a father figure to the young men (although he's only 15 years older than Jean). Luce, delighted at the dedication and attention, cautions the group to exhibit tolerance and empathy. Jean bristles at Luce's observation that The Sower is too aggressive:
"We're all of us enthusiastic, convinced of the truth of our ideas and ready to fight for them. I've no compunction about showing a certain—intolerance." As Luce makes no comment he continues after a moment's pause. "I believe any young, forceful theory of life is bound to be intolerant. A conviction that starts by admitting the possible legitimacy of convictions directly opposed to it is doomed to sterility. It has no driving force, no fixity of purpose." (136-7)

These words, or rather these ideas, will ironically come back to haunt Jean. The Sower takes off and a year after its launch (in 1896), the staff takes an interest in the Dreyfus Affair. I felt the novel really took off at this point, weaving facts and real publications into the narrative. While the focus of this section is on Jean and his reactions to the court cases surrounding the affair, knowing the outline and timeline of events will help the reader make sense of the magazine's staff comments and the stands they take. The events of 1898 and 1899 receive the most coverage, especially the trial of Emile Zola and the retrial in Rennes, with The Sower becoming a champion against Dreyfus' conviction. The high-water mark of the novel is also its ugliest moment: members of the staff happen to be together with Luce when they hear of the arrest of Colonel Henry, who confessed to forging documents instrumental in Dreyfus' conviction. The news of Henry's suicide is met with "a long, fierce cry of exultation, shrill with an almost intense glee." (210) The delight taken by the so-called humanitarians in someone's death reveals the cost of their narrow-minded focus and, to Luce's earlier point, their lack of tolerance and empathy. The strange verdict after the retrial in Rennes, upholding Dreyfus' conviction although noted with extenuating circumstances, provides a disillusioning close to the magazine's staff's efforts. Jean vows to continue fighting for justice, but the toll his coverage of the affair begins to show. The damage is compounded with a personal insult and loss—upon Jean's return to Paris from the trial, he finds his lover has run off with another magazine staff member. Jean carries on, but despite his high profile and the continuing popularity of The Sower (albeit with reduced circulation from the heady days of the affair), something seems to be lacking in Jean. Part II closes after Jean has been in a serious carriage accident. Worse than the physical pain, Jean is shaken by his reaction just before the crash: he prayed. During his convalescence he writes his will, renouncing the Church and restating his convictions in favor of scientific reason. While the document lays out his beliefs in strong declarations, there is also a feeling that it is an attempt to bolster his wavering belief (or unbelief, if you will).

After the heady coverage of the Dreyfus Affair, somehow Part III avoids being anticlimactic. We see Jean, several years later, still running The Sower but its popularity has decreased as Jean has begun arguing against extremism in several high-profile events. He admits to Luce that some of his beliefs are wavering, hinting that history is not always a straight-line towards progress. There is a fallout between magazine staff members, with disillusionment setting in for many of them. My favorite scenes in this part, though, are Jean's interaction with younger generations. He is shaken when his daughter, unseen for many years, decides to become a nun even after reading all of his writings. Young writers dismiss Jean's new-found tolerance and claim his work to be a failure. Even worse, he is shocked by their rigid nationalism and resurgent Catholicism. In conjunction with his emotional decline, his tuberculosis resurfaces. Jean agrees to move back to the country and live with his wife, where he embraces Christianity before he dies.

Jean Barois is usually noted as capturing societal impacts during the Dreyfus Affair, and those acclaims are rightly made. Take how Proust used the Dreyfus Affair in In Search of Lost Time to show the internal composition of his characters as well as society in general and turn it up a couple of notches...that will give you an idea of Martin du Gard's specific use of the crisis to illustrate the development of Jean. The novel is more than just a reflection on the affair, also capturing the religious and intellectual questions of the time.

A quick word about the writing style...the novel uses written documents (letters, articles, etc.) in addition to dialogue-heavy scenes. The latter read very much like scenes in a play, with a brief introduction that feels like staging directions, then quickly moving to the action/dialogue. I found it to be a very effective combination that moved the story along and allowed jumps in time to feel natural (or at least not feel unnatural).

There are many interesting characters in addition to Jean and his family, but Marc-Elie Luce figures as my favorite. Even though Jean's generation looks up to Luce, few of them follow his example of tolerance and none of them follow his personal route of marriage and a large family. Luce's family seems to give him a courage or resolve as he faces death with the same principles and in the same manner as he lived. Those of the younger group facing death betray their claimed tenets in their final moments.

The translation into English was done by Stuart Gilbert, who also translated all of The Thibaults. Gilbert has a solid reputation for his translations of French works to English, although there were a couple of things that bothered me, mostly minor details. For example, I cringed every time a French character said "old chap" (from grand ami and other phrases). more major, though, was calling the figurine that Jean has on his mantle Michelangelo's "Slave." Which slave? Granted, Martin du Gard's original 'title' isn't much better, but from the description of the piece I'd guess it to be the Rebellious Salve. I could be wrong, so I'll appreciate input from anyone with more knowledge on this. I harp on the figure because it proves to be an important symbol during key moments in the novel.

The combination of studying the crisis of faith during this modernist period with the various faultlines within society exposed by the Dreyfus Affair worked to the novel's advantage, highlighting the problems of both. A nice addition to literature covering fin de siècle Europe. Highly recommended.

Some of my writing on the background of the novel and a few of its themes benefited from David L. Schalk's excellent book Roger Martin du Gard: The Novelist and History, Cornell University Press, 1967. Parts of this post may have inadvertently paraphrased Schalk's chapter on Jean Barois, mainly because his summary and discussion lay out the subject matter so well that it's hard not to internalize it. Schalk mentions two themes/devices in which he didn't go into much detail, but I'll mention them in case you read the novel—they are helpful things worth looking for. There is a "love-death identification" or association, such as when Jean and Cécile "make the first gestures of love" while waiting for Jean's father to die. The second interesting point I wanted to highlight is Schalk's mention that Martin du Gard calls the main character "Jean" in Part I and the final chapter and "Barois" in between ("during his active life"). Schalk ascribes this return at the end to his first name as giving "a sign of his [Martin du Gard's] deep pity and sympathy." I don't disagree with that, but I think there is more going on, such as highlighting the state of mind to which Jean has returned. Schalk also goes into detail on how time flows in the novel—with precision in the first two parts, then with occasional vagueness in the last part. He also includes a perceptive quote from Dennis Boak about Jean's outcome: "Barois is never able to escape his environment and heredity, and thus his end in the Church he has fought is, paradoxically enough, itself an illustration of [scientific] determinism." For anyone wanting to read Martin du Gard's work, I highly recommend Schalk's book.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Streaming Films: Pedro Almodóvar, Grant Hart

Interesting news:
Hulu has set new multiyear agreements with Telemundo and Sony Pictures Television that will add several hundred episodes of popular telenovelas, as well as nine Pedro Almodóvar films and other Spanish-language programming from Telemundo to the subscription video-streaming service.

I currently see seven of Almodóvar's films available. I find I have to be in a particular mood to watch some of his films, but I always find them rewarding when I do. I've watched a few this weekend and I found myself focusing on the stories told within the movies and finding many of them as rich as the movie.

And now for a stroll down amnesia lane... Amazon Prime has Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times of Grant Hart available for viewing. I think this is at least the third time I've watched it and have enjoyed it every time. Hüsker Dü remains one of my favorite bands, but I've found Nova Mob's and Hart's solo work more interesting with each listen. I have yet to listen to The Argument, though. Yeah, I'm behind on listening just as much as I am on reading. The movie delves into Hart's personal life, stories behind some of his songs, and the losses he has accumulated and weathered over the years. Highly recommended if you were into that scene. And even if you weren't.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Reginald Foster: The Vatican's Latinist

I wanted to recommend this article on Reginald Foster, "The Vatican's Latinist," by John Byron Kuhner. Foster was "part of a small team of scribes who composed the pope’s correspondence, translated his encyclicals, and wrote copy for internal church documents" for over forty years.

He has done so much more, though. He also taught Latin at the Pontifical Georgian University and began an intense summer school program. "He He also tutored, kept up a vast correspondence, recorded a weekly radio program for Vatican Radio called “The Latin Lover,” did any interviews he could, and kept up his priestly duties, saying mass and hearing confessions. All this while serving as the pope’s Latin secretary." After retiring from these duties, multiple people had to be hired to carry on what he had started. The article is a fascinating look at an inspirational man and teacher.

It's remarkable to see what Foster accomplished, but even more so to see the ripple effect, what he has inspired. Other links associated with the article and Reginald Foster:
  • Ossa Latinitatis Sola: The Mere Bones of Latin According to the Thought and System of Reginald by Reginald Thomas Foster and Daniel Patricius McCarthy from The Catholic University of America Press. According to Kuhner, the book gives a sense of what taking Foster's Latin class was like. (Update: I just read elsewhere that this is the first of a projected five-part work. More on Foster's approach compared to other approaches can be found in this article.)

  • The Paideia Institute was originally started to keep Foster's summer school experience alive, and has quickly grown. Part of the Institute is the Eidolon publication, "an online journal for scholarly writing about Classics that isn’t formal scholarship."

  • Another organization inspired by Foster is SALVI: Septentrionale Americanum Latinitatis Vivae Institutum (North American Institute for Living Latin Studies). It's mission is "to propagate communicative approaches to Latin language acquisition, making the entire Classical tradition of Western culture more available to—and enjoyable for—students, teachers, and the general public."

  • In 1994, Alexander Stille wrote a lengthy article on Foster and his "quixotic but compelling" attempt to save Latin. The article was for "The American Scholar" and can be found on JSTOR (the title is "Latin Fanatic: A Profile of Father Reginald Foster" in the Autumn 1994 issue). Stille would expand the article and include it in his 2002 book The Future of the Past. (Hopefully more on that later.) Here's a sample from the article:
    “Why do you want to study Latin? The question is, Why don’t people want to study Latin?” he asks the class in a loud rhetorical shout, pacing back and forth in front of the blackboard. “If you don’t know Latin, you know nothing! I had my first experience of Latin forty years ago, and I have not been bored by Latin for ten minutes in these forty years. Latin is one of the greatest things that ever happened in human history.”

    When Foster begins to shift into high gear, he picks up in speed and volume, like a high-performance car moving into overdrive. “If you don’t know Latin, you’re sitting out there on the sidelines—don’t worry, most of the world is out there with you. But if you want to see what’s going on in this whole stream of two thousand years’ worth of gorgeous literature, then you need Latin."

  • Fr. Gary Coulter has a copy of the chapter in Stille's book online. Coulter's site on Learning Latin with Fr. Reggie Foster is a great resource by itself, with links to coursework, sermons, and Vatican Radio programs by Foster.

  • Last in this list, but certainly not least, is Foster's website, maintained by his collaborator Daniel P. McCarthy. It's great to see Foster still active and teaching. Hopefully there will be more projects coming to fruition.

Update (9 Apr 2017): A review of Ossa Latinitatis Sola by Patrick J. Burns can be found here.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Jorge Luis Borges on Firing Line (1977)

I recently saw that "Firing Line" now has a channel on YouTube. I've mentioned the episode on "The Southern Imagination" a few times, with Eudora Welty and Walker Percy, and it is available here.

A different episode I wanted to share was the conversation with Jorge Luis Borges, recorded on February 1, 1977. If you're interested in Borges' work, I highly recommend watching the show. It's a wide-ranging discussion and Borges mind is a nimble match for Buckley's questions and comments. It's interesting to see the writers he esteems, such as Melville and Kipling, how he happens to read (or at this point, have read to him) more books in English than in Spanish, and why he believes Spanish too cumbersome a language for writing poetry.

Around the 40-minute mark Buckley and Borges take the discussion into political and nationalistic territory, but things get back on track about 10 minutes later when Borges begins to discuss teaching literature. Overall, it's a wonderful, lively conversation. Borges' endearing personality shines through, full of humor and self-deprecation. Here's one such example, starting at 8:20:
Buckley, Jr.: "Do you mean you have officially abandoned any intention of receiving the Nobel Prize?"

Borges: "No. I think it is a kind of game that is played every year. You know, every year I am to be given the Nobel Prize and then it turns out to be the next year. It's kind of a habit I have, or a kind of habit the Scandinavians have. In fact, it might be called an old Norse tradition, you know, not to give me the Nobel Prize. That's a part of Norse mythology. I'm very fond of Norse, all things Scandinavian. I love all things Scandinavian."

Buckley, Jr.: "Is it your point that you would lose respect in the Nobel Committee if they awarded you the prize?"

Borges: "I would think it was a very generous mistake, but I will accept it greedily."

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Furious Sound

Last night my son was watching Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage while I was fixing dinner. At one point I asked him to repeat a scene: "Did I just see Geddy Lee reading Faulkner?" Yes. Yes I did.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Meister Eckhart and The Joshua Tree

There was a flurry of news last week celebrating the 30th anniversary of U2's The Joshua Tree, and it brought back a fond memory I've always associated with the album. I hope you'll indulge this onion-on-my-belt moment...

The weekend after the album was released, I caught a flight to spend a weekend with my brother. I had copied a few albums to cassette, one of which was The Joshua Tree, to play during my flights. I ended up being the last person to board a full Southwest flight, so the only place open was a center seat near the back. The aisle seat was occupied by a bearded man I would guess to have been in his mid-30s. As he stands up to let me in to my seat, I notice he's reading a book about Meister Eckhart. After I get settled but before he had a chance to resume reading, I took a guess and asked, "Are you taking a course on mysticism?"

The look of disbelief on his face was priceless. He turned the book over so I could see the cover and replied, "Yes I am. Are you familiar with Eckhart?" I had to admit that I had only tried to read some of his work when I was in high school and didn't get very far. It turned out he was working on his doctorate at Southern Methodist University (another coincidence...from my office I had a beautiful view of the campus) and was doing some research. He was very gracious and patiently answered some questions I had and we had a brief discussion on other books he had to read for the class. I could tell he wanted to get back to his book, so I thanked him and put my headphones back on to listen to U2. Later, as we're getting off the plane, he laughed and shook my hand. "The guys in my class aren't going to believe this," he said, gesturing with his book toward me.

While it was an inconsequential episode, it has obviously stuck with me for some reason along with the association.

Friday, March 03, 2017

I wish I could come up with a catchy post title

I hope to post soon on some of the books I've read over the past few months. I can't make any promises, but I really want to relay a few comments on some of the better ones. Much depends on...well, a lot of things, not the least on some follow-up surgeries to help relieve the intense pain I've had for the past six+ months. It's remarkable the change in mindset that can occur in such circumstances.

Sorry for going into personal detail, but I wanted to say the blog and I aren't dead. Yet. Hopefully we'll both feel like rejoining the world of the living soon.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Mark Twain's mullet

Well, not Twain himself, but the mullets he ascribed to nobility in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, that is...
About bedtime I took the king to my private quarters to cut his hair and help him get the hang of the lowly raiment he was to wear. The high classes wore their hair banged across the forehead but hanging to the shoulders the rest of the way around, whereas the lowest ranks of commoners were banged fore and aft both; the slaves were bangless, and allowed their hair free growth.
(the beginning of Chapter 27: The Yankee and the King Travel Incognito)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Silence and fixity are forms of deference

I'm going through some short stories with the boys and need to remind myself that we need to read Ambrose Bierce (among others) when we go through the U.S. Civil War again. They will add some depth to their studies.

We just went over Bierce's most famous short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," and of course they loved the ending twist. Having read it several times, I still find parts of it to marvel over each time. Except for the name. I don't remember too many Farquhars when I was growing up in Alabama, but then this is the northern part of the state he's describing.

My favorite part this time through the story was the description of the Union soldiers facing the bridge in anticipation of the hanging. These are veterans of carnage and death, where what they're about to behold is just an everyday occurrence. Bierce's war stories are at their most appealing for me in their quiet certainty and respect for the participants:
Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.

Glancing back through some of his stories, it wouldn't have been out of place to amend that by saying, "Especially those most familiar with him."

Monday, December 26, 2016

Stone Tablets by Wojciech Żukrowski

Stone Tablets by Wojciech Żukrowski
Translation from the Polish by Stephanie Kraft
Paul Dry Books, 2016
Paperback, 733 pages

One may shake the Ten Commandments in helpless anger, but no one is exempt from them. They are always with us, etched on our consciences; they weigh every action, affixing their sign of approval or condemnation so as to crush us in the last hour and accuse us for eternity. (page 587)

Many thanks to Will Schofield at Paul Dry Books for sending me a review copy of this book earlier this year. I hate that it took so long to post on it, but that's been the fate of many things this year. I hope this serves as a partial offset for the delay.

Wojciech Żukrowski (1916 - 2000) was a new name for me, but his biography made me want to explore some of his work. Stone Tablets, published in 1966, was banned by the Polish authorities because of its comments on Stalinism. Set in India in 1956, Stone Tablets tells of a love affair between the Hungarian cultural attaché stationed in New Delhi and an Australian ophthalmologist. The diplomat, Istvan Terey, proves to be an unusual diplomat. He's not a particularly dedicated Communist party member, preferring to write poetry instead. While married and with two sons, his family remains in Budapest instead of joining him in India. Margit Ward, the Australian, works with Unesco to stop the prevalent spread of trachoma in the country. From a rich family, Margit throws herself into her work from the grief of losing her fiancé during World War II and from the guilt of her privileged status. We are introduced to her as looking for another cause, and she seems to view Istvan as just that. She wants Istvan to return with her to Australia so he can work on his poetry in a free country. For his part, Istvan seems torn between his concern for his family's safety and his desire to be free of them.

The affair between Istvan and Margit is central to the novel, and sadly it's the weakest part. Fortunately, other areas are extremely robust and well done. 1956 turned out to be a tumultuous political year. Nikita Khrushchev's speech denouncing Stalin and his protégés caused many ripples in the Communist world that year. The promise of change led to demonstrations in Poland and Hungary, where initial concessions emboldened further revolts. Istvan, thousands of miles away from home, is at the mercy of infrequent and incomplete information about events in Hungary. The brutal crackdowns in Poland and Hungary are swept away from the world's focus as the Suez Crisis begins.

While all these events unfold, Istvan searches for news from Hungary. He finds occasional updates through other diplomatic channels, but the most insightful comments come in letters from Bela, a reporter and close friend from Hungary. Through Bela, Istvan learns of the "fresh evidence of cruelty" from the past coming to light, where party members are "forced to feel the cruelty of the machine in which he had been one of the cogs," the changes in fortune for those once powerful in the Communist hierarchy. Istvan's boss refuses to change, believing that de-Stalinization had to proceed with caution since "if unleashed without restraint, may lead to internal upheaval." The party line is that moving too fast would favor Communism's enemies.

The political promise in Hungary of shaking off its past resonates with Istvan, who's unsure which direction he wants to go in his personal life. Like the upheaval back home, he realizes that it isn't possible to be passive and stay on the sidelines. He lacks the fortitude to commit to a decision in his personal life, though, choosing to continue acting as he has—in a sense, behaving just like his boss. His actions, or rather his inability to come to terms with what is happening around him, also mirrors some of the British he sees in independent India. Even though India is no longer one of their colonies, they feel more comfortable there than they do back home, where changes not to their liking are taking place.

The Hungarian embassy turns out to be a political cauldron. Istavan acts as if he is above the political dynamics there (he's a poet, after all), but like Hungarians realizing their country's insignificance in relation to others when other global events explode, Istvan comprehends too late he's just a small cog in the political machine.

The political discussions and events exhibited in the novel aren't its only strong point. Żukrowski's portrait of India, still feeling its way on the stage as an independent country, contributes a lustrous travelogue component to the novel. And it's a powerful portrait he paints. There's a political angle in these descriptions, where there is much talk about the potential that has yet to be realized. As some of the native characters realize, it was "easier to get rid of the English than to control" what was set in motion with their independence.

Żukrowski served in Poland's diplomatic service in India and it shows in his descriptions of everyday scenes. One of the characters describes India as a Breughal painting, and Żukrowski's portrait of India details a love of and appreciation for the lower classes similar to that of the painter's depiction of peasants. One example: there's a striking scene where Istvan finds himself in the middle of a demonstration made up of prostitutes and blind men (who play music in the brothels). These groups are protesting new rules relocating brothels outside the city, meaning a loss of their steady income. It's something so outlandish but presented in such a sympathetic light I have to think Żukrowski saw or read about a similar event. There are many such wonderful details and events shown in the novel as Istvan travels around India. Some of it is glamorized, but Żukrowski's love of the country shines through.

Even though the love affair central to the novel is the weakest component, the strength of the other parts, the political component and depiction of India in particular, made for a gratifying read. Recommended.

Additional links:
Stephanie Kraft discusses translating famous Polish novel into English: a fun five minutes on some of the difficulties on translating the novel

Paul Dry Books' reading guide to Stone Tablets. Contains a chronology of important dates around Żukrowski's life and the book, a character list (I found this handy), and chapter summaries (with spoilers).

Michael Orthofer has a more detailed review, including the insight below. It's one of the many parallels running through the novel that makes it enjoyable to read:

The lack of privacy Terey experiences is nicely presented, as he finds himself unable to keep even the locals who work for him from closely monitoring all his affairs, an amusing twist on the surveillance state he has otherwise been able to leave more or less behind... .