Saturday, December 20, 2014
An unconventional Christmas Eve Story
Guy de Maupassant is considered one of the greatest short stories writers of all time, a scion of French literature. In reading the short stories of de Maupassant I have informally divided them into three categories. The first is the ten or so stories universally considered great works, then there is a vast body of stories in the middle range mostly still read because he wrote them then there is a goodly number of stories in a category something like "what in the world were you thinking Guy" category that seemed aimed mainly to titilate and shock. ( Frank O'Connor said in The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story that de Maupassant's best stories centered on prostitution.)
"Christmas Eve" opens on that day. We are with a writer who has gotten behind in his work so he decides to stay in that night and work. Soon he hears his neighbors having parties, hears revelers in the streets. He gets restless and decides to go out and find a hooker to spend Christmas Eve with. His taste ran to plus size women, with a special fondness for large breasts and big stomachs. To his delight he quickly finds a huge swollen specimen and brings her home. He orders in a Christmas meal and she devours it as if she was starving. Knowing why she is there, she gets into bed and removed her clothing. Then to his horror, she gives birth to a bady and all her wonderful bulk is gone. He goes for a doctor, midwife and wet nurse. Knowing his neighbors will all think the child is his, he provides for his schooling and maintenance. To make it worse, the now slender woman falls in love with him and stalks him but he wants nothing to do with her anymore. He only likes very big women.
I pondered is Maupassant just making sales with a shocking for 1882 story or is this some sort of commentary on the fate of unmarried women on the streets of Paris.
"Christmas Eve" was fun to read and I admit I laughed when the girl gave birth in the man's bed.
Friday, December 19, 2014
When Hitler became ruler of Germany on January 30, 1933 there were 160,000 Jews living in Berlin. By February 27, 1943 when Goebels declared that Berlin was nearly totally "Judenfrei" there were still about 4000 German Jews living in Berlin, some hiding in cellars, some in broad daylight trying to pass as "Aryan". The Last Jews in Berlin by Leonard Gross tells the story of the 1000 or so Jews still living in Berlin when the war ended.
Most German Jews, as did the American and British governments, thought Hitler would "calm down" or not last in power. Per Gross, in W W One German Jews were very loyal to Germany. Many Jews felt their WW One Iron Crosses would save them. Many did not first understand what happened to Jews rounded up and shipped out.
I was somehow very glad to learn that every Jew who survived did it with the help of nonJewish Germans. Many helped put of pure moral goodness, and many were paid. Perhaps the most disputable persons were Jews who acted as "Jew Catchers", turning in people often for petty rewards.
The story is told via the life history of about ten people, some alone, some in families. They could not in most cases just hide in a celler and wait it out. They had to have money and ration cards to live so most had to go above ground where they were in grave danger. There are numerous vivid encounters with the Gestapo and Jew Catchers in the book, near escapes and people brazen out Gestapo men, usually not very bright, by acting outraged when asked if they are Jews. We learn how the Jews lived, many ordinary Germans helped them.
As the war turned against the Germans, Berlin was subjected to nightly bomb attacks of ever increasing proportion. Even though it threatens them the Jews saw it as sign the war might soon end. Many had radios and listened to the BBC.
The Jews were able to come out of hiding when the Russians reached Berlin. Russians were feared, with good reason, as mass rapists, but many were happy to help the Jews.
The final section in which Gross tells us of the great lives the Berlin Jews, most of whom stayed in the country made for themselves and their families was extremely moving.
The Last Jews in Berlin is a very exciting, scrupulously researched and morally uplifting book anyone interested in the period and the Holocaust should read.
I was given a review copy of this book.
Author Auto Biography
Thursday, December 18, 2014
A New Translation by Joel Agee -- Commisioned by The J. Paul Getty Museum
I did not have any plans to read an Ancient Greek drama this month, I read a number of them in the long ago, but when I was offered a review copy of a new translation of Prometheus Bound done by Joel Agee published by The New York Review of Books and commissioned by The J. Paul Getty Museum I felt the pedigree was just to high to pass up.
Aeschylus (525 to 456 BC) was the first Greek Dramatist, proceeding Sophocles and Euripides. There is now, as detailed by Joel Agee in his very interesting and informative introduction, scholarly controversary existing over who really wrote Prometheus Bound, some put the first performance date as 430 BC but no one has been put forth as an alternative author. I guess this matters most to scholars.
What has come down through history as Prometheus Bound is 11 fragments of a full drama. The basic plot has passed into the common literary consciousness. Prometheus stole fire from the Gods so Zeus had him bound to the side of a mountain. The drama, as were all Greek Dramas, is simultaneously making religious and political statements. Prometheus represents the liberation to humanity that knowledge of nature, of science, can bring to humanity. Zeus wants humanity kept in total thrall to the capricious forces and whims of the Gods and this conflict drives the drama.
Reading the fragments was a deeply moving experience, like being at the very start of one of the great streams of western literature. There are many themes in Prometheus Bound that would make for interesting class room discussion.
I would love to see this preformed one day.
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
The Muse of the Department is set in the Loire Valley, France's premier wine producing area, in the town of Sancerre. A local beauty has just married a man thirty years her senior who most think will die soon, leaving her wealthy. The husband is normally very tight with money, mainly being interested in buying more land and expanding his income. His wife begins to acquire a few Platonic male friends and compressing a good bit, she decides to set up an intellectual salon on the model of the famous gatherings of Madame Staël.
There is a lot of intrigue, money matters, of course, but by far the most interesting aspect of The Muse of the Department lies in the intellectuals, writers and artists attracted to the salon. I did not develop much interest in the characters.
This is a work for those reading through the full Comedie Humaine.
I am now reading An Old Maid.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Over the last five years I have posted on several short stories and the major novels of Leo Tolstoy (1828 to 1910). This morning I was looking for a "change of pace" short story and I looked over a collection of recently translated Tolstoy short works, Ivan Ilyich and other Stories and decided to read one of the briefer works in the collection, "After the Ball". Like a lot of older short stories it is structured as one man telling a story about his life to another person or group. The story is at the heart about the dual nature of people.
The story begins with a man in his fifties telling a story about a day when his views of people and his life totally changed forever. It was thirty years ago, he was a handsome young army officer. He meets a beautiful young woman at a ball, very well described, falls in love with her and at once wants to marry her. He meets her father, a kindly old man who he likes at once and who takes to him. (Spoiler alert)
The next day he sees a Tarter "running the gauntlet" for having tried to escape military service. He is being dragged through a double sided line of members of his regiment each of whom beats him on his bare back with a whip as he passes. The young man is horrified to see the man who he thought would be his future father-in-law leading the punishment drill, actually hitting a soldier in the face with a whip for not striking the man hard enough. The older man, a colonel in the Russian army, sees in the shock on his possible son-in-law's face less of a man than he wants for his daughter and other man sees brutality and cruelty in a man he was ready to call his father. The marriage never happens.
"After the Ball" is very much worth reading. I guess it should not be surprising that the one world's greatest novelists could write wonderful short stories.
Monday, December 15, 2014
My Q and A Session with Áine Greaney
My post on "Snow" by Áine Greaney
Earlier this year I had the privilege of reading and posting on a wonderful short story by Áine Gearney, "Snow". Here is a bit of what I said about "Snow".
"Snow" is a deeply moving story centering on a middle aged woman, Delores, who moved from Donegal in the west of Ireland to New York State many years ago. She has been married to an American for a long time and has a decent job as a buyer for a construction company. She came back to Ireland when her cousin Bridgie, who began to run the family shop nineteen years ago when Delores' mother passed, called her and told her that her father had taken a terrible fall. The father is an irrascible old man, made bitter by the passing of his wife and siblings, a feeling compounded by what he sees as the desertion by Delores, his only daughter, when she moved to America. The shop is on the first floor, the dwellings above. People come in the shop for their daily needs. The big town event is the purchase of a nearby hotel by a man from Dublin.
Greaney in just a few pages does a masterful job of showing us, with great verisimilitude, what it feels like from both sides for an adult child, well into middle age, to be necessitated to move back into the parental home to take care of an aged parent. I know because I did this myself. The child cannot help but resent the loss of freedom and does not like being treated as a kid and the parent is equally resentful at what he sees as an ungrateful child without proper sympathy and respect.
"La Belle Femme", Gearney's new short story E Book is set in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. It centers on a long time married couple, prosperous through her husband's work as regional manager for a bank. They are at the annual Galway Osyter Festival, an event his bank sponsers. The wife is mad as he has left her stuck with two boring couples while he works the crowd. It suddenly dawns on her that her husband is having an affair with one of the bank's loan officers. She is somehow happy to learn his affair has only been going on for one year while her affair is in the fifth year.
I don't want to spoil the very interesting and insightful final two thirds of the story other than to say Gearney does a superb job showing us how the ending of the affairs and their marriage impacts their lives. Gearney brings all the major characters to vivid reality, nobody is really evil, nobody perfect. We sense life will go on, in some ways better, some worse.
"La Belle Femme" is a beautifully wriiten humanly perceptive story I greatly enjoyed reading.
Official Author Bio
An expat who now lives on Boston’s North Shore, Aine Greaney writes with an unmistakable Irish lilt and lyricism flavored with her own brand of style and humor. Her most recent recognitions include a Pushcart nomination and selection as a "notable" in Best American Essays 2013. Aine is the author of two novels, a short story chapbook collection and a book on writing. Her fifth book, "What Brought You Here?" (a memoir), is a work-in-progress. In addition, her personal essays and short stories have been published in popular and literary publications such as Salon.com, The Boston Globe Magazine, Forbes, The Daily Muse, Generation Emigration, The Irish Times, Writers Digest and Books by Women. She presents and teaches at various conferences, book clubs, arts organizations and schools. Her website and blog are at www.AineGreaney.com
This story is published by Pixel Hall, a dynamic company with a most interesting very literate range of titles.
I hope to be able to read much more by Áine Greaney.
Saturday, December 13, 2014
From Harvard to Holocaust - A Story of Escape, Forgiveness, and Freedom by John G. Stoessinger begins as an account of his escape, in the company of his mother and abussive stepfather, from Austria just before the Nazis take over in 1938. The author is ten and is heartbroken to leave his grandparents. He knows Jews are in danger in Vienna from the beatings he has received from Hitler youths but he is still terrified to leave his home. Stoessinger's stepfather gets a visa that will allow them to make it, by train, to Shanghai, where Jews are thought to be safe. We learn of his experiences in Shanghai, a European dominated city. He excels at school earning top honors. Through the help of a professor, he gets a scholarship to Grinwell College in Iowa. He excels there also and he begins one of the many romances that he will have. He gets a very Midwestern American girl from a wealthy family pregnant and enters into what he calls a "shotgun marriage". This is the beginning of a pattern where he seems to seduce a woman then abandons her when he either gets bored with her or she impedes his career. He gets a scholarship to Harvard and leaves his wife behind as she wants him to go into her father's business. His exwives seem to end up hating him. It was fun to see him work selling check writing machines to pay for his education and child support. By his own admission, he was a poor father.
When I began to read this book I did not know Stoessinger was a world famous political theorist, author of classic books, consultant to the head of the United Nations, advisor to leaders world wide. I think this might have been a good thing as I saw his career develop without knowing in advance his life course. We also learn a lot about academic politics at the highest levels, he relied on mentors to advance himself. In one almost surreal episode, he starts an affair, while married to one of his several spouses, with a mysterious seeming woman who claims to be an international financier, putting together huge loans for giant fees. Compressing a relationship in which we see long before Stoessinger does that the woman is a fraud, he writes letters of recommendation for her that gets him convicted of fraud. Through an understanding judge he escapes prison and is ordered to teach in a prison. Stoessinger's account of this is very interesting and it brought out the best in him. He was given a Federal Pardon by President Ronald Reagan for his efforts toward international peace. It was fun to go along on his international travels.
Stoessinger does come across as selfish, using countless women then moving on. He pretty much admits this. He also is kind, caring, emphatic and brilliant. He talks a good bit about how his early years impacted his character. His grandparents died in a concentration camp.
I received a review copy of this book.
The Kindle edition of this book is $14.95. This is way too much. I liked this book but cannot in good consciousness endorse the purchase at that price.