Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mariano Azuela: THE UNDERDOGS

I stumbled across this book among the cheap paperbacks at my local used bookstore. The back of the book tells me that it was originally published in “small El Paso paper” so I had to read it. It was written in 1915 and tells of the recent chaos of a generally chaotic Mexican Revolution, as seen by one Demetrio Macías. Demetrio becomes a revolutionary out of anger at the cruel policies of the Federales. He puts together a small army that become renowned for its fantastic marksmanship, which leads to a few stunning victories over much larger groups of government troops. But the real story of the novel is the degeneration of Demetrio—who is far from an ideologue—from acting as an instrument of revolution to a war-loving tool of tyrants. As such the real purpose of the books is to describe Azuela’s own disillusionment with the country and the revolution that he fled, coming to the United States where he wrote his novel. He does this by peopling his book with small-minded peasants and crazies and drunkards, who barely, if at all, understand what they are fighting for or against, and by the end don’t even seem to care if they are being used.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Hermann Hesse -- STEPPENWOLF

Hermann Hesse's fame has lasted, though he is surely not quite as highly regarded as he once was.  My three dollar mass-market paperback copy of Steppenwolf, for instance, asks and answers a question about his once massive popularity: "Why has one European writer, Hermann Hesse, captured the imagination and loyalty of a whole generation of Americans? Because he is a vital spiritual force . . ." Of course, maybe the "whole generation" phrase hints that even the writer of the book's copy (I should note that my edition is from some forty years after the original German publication) knew that Hesse's fame would not stay quite so immense forever. Nowadays he is regarded as a J.D. Salinger for a deeper crowd, the discontented adolescent who sees phoniness everywhere but, instead of whining humorously, turns to the things of the spirit. 

Steppenwolf is maybe his best known novel, though at this point in time, it's hard to know if that's just well-known because so many people like the songs "Magic Carpet Ride" and "Born to be Wild," songs by the band Steppenwolf, both still mainstays of classic rock radio (and the latter, I just learned, the source of the phrase "heavy metal"). Those song titles, incidentally, seem perfectly in line with the Hesse's fascinations with man's complicated inner nature and with the wisdom of the East. What is fascinating is that Hesse's novel, growing out of his own history in early twentieth century Germany, should have so much resonance the mid-century American generation. Steppenwolf was, I read, Timothy Leary's favorite, and one guesses that Timothy Leary was popular among many who were reading Hesse in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Peter Handke--The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

Peter Handke is an Austrian modernist writer, primarily known as a playwright and the author of several novels. His name came to my knowledge after reading an interview with Don DeLillo (whose Libra I just finished). The book is actually mentioned by his anonymous questioner, who puts it in a short list of "slim but seminal European works of fiction" that also includes books by Albert Camus and Max Frisch. At about 130 pages, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) is indeed pretty slim, and I have to take my source at his word that it is a seminal text. The book is not an enjoyable read in any usual way. It is not full of poetic language or a gripping plot or beautiful description or inspirational themes. I read it rather as a case study in the style and the concerns of modernism.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Don DeLillo--LIBRA

Imagine for one second that there is a spectrum of writing that runs from poetry on one end to novels on the other. Poetry requires attention to individual words and even to the details smaller than words, while novels require the ability to manage and organize large sections of information and text. In that spectrum  you might put short stories right in the middle and perhaps you could even argue that they are the most artistic type of literature because they combine the strengths of both, or that they are the most difficult to write because they require overcoming the difficulties of both. On that spectrum I would put Don DeLillo way out on the novelist's end. His prose is notable for its flatness, its total drabness, while his books as a whole are notable for his skill in managing huge amounts of information.

I don't mean to say that DeLillo crams in a lot of facts are that his novels are extremely complex (though Underworld is a pretty complicated set of plots and subplots), but that his characters, motivated by mental quirks, tend to generate a lot of theories and assertions and pseudo-facts that pile up and need to be organized somehow. DeLillo's characters are not bundles of repressed emotions and desires. They are the embodiments of something that DeLillo calls "paranoia" but which has only a slight connection to what is normally meant by the word. For DeLillo it summarizes complex set of beliefs that his characters tend to exhibit. One is that everything in the world is connected. Two is that these connections are usually hidden, visible only to individuals with a special gift for sensing them. A third is that these connections become visible through "coincidence." For DeLillo, a paranoiac is one who tells stories that end with the classic line, "Coincidence?!?! I think NOT!" as though the mere idea that two things might have some secret connection is intrinsically fascinating, regardless of what the connection may be. It's not exactly delusional, but it's certainly different.

Dry prose and paranoids, then, are the stuff of a DeLillo novel, and take them as far from poetry as one could go. His writing has been described as "postmodern" for the way it captures a kind of anomie of modern society, especially in the conversations between people who don't have anything to say, full of questions and exclamations punctuated undramatically with periods, full of stock phrases and quotations from advertisements, conversations where people wonder what other people might say in a similar situation. This from Libra:
"I wonder," she said. "What do other people say to each other?"
"Now. I want to know what people say. Maybe there are things we haven't thought of." Laughing at herself. "Things we out to be saying."
"While having sex or afterward?"
"While having sex is not interesting. Moany-groany love talk. No, afterward, now."
"Do you think we've been saying the wrong things all these years?"
"Wouldn't you like to overhear? I don't want to watch other people. I want to listen."
"They talk about wanting a cigarette."
"Who was that on the phone?"
" 'Where are my cigarettes' That's what they say."
"He wouldn't tell me his name."
"Larry Parmenter. . ."

Friday, July 15, 2011


It would be easy to dislike this book. The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe opens with vivid descriptions of pilgrims who have come to Lourdes to healed juxtaposed with memories of Tóibin's Irish Catholic upbringing, hinting at mysteries and beauties that the rest of the book will, one hopes, elaborate on. This is not that book, though.The purpose of this book isn't to illuminate the Church or a part of Europe. Its stories of finding bars and beers and lunches and flights and hotels and interviews with whatever English speakers he happened to run into, it feels at times like a look behind-the-scenes of the making of that book.

But gradually it becomes clear that the book is actually about Tóibin's failed struggle to understand what he is seeing, whether a pilgrimage site, an abandoned church in the former Soviet Union, or the mass appeal of Pope John Paul II, who makes frequent appearances.

Friday, July 1, 2011


I had to get this since I enjoyed Harl's other Teaching Company course (Rome and the Barbarians) so much. This lecture series is a bit shorter (24 lectures) and not as complex, nor as hard to follow. Harl's true expertise is in the Roman Empire and so in this series he is not quite as passionate or opinionated, and these lectures are generally less dense than those on Rome. Of course, Harl's lectures can get overly dense and his opinions often carry him on long digressions, so these aren't necessarily negatives. And where his thinking about Rome represents a highly distinctive view of history, these lectures stay pretty close to the typical presentation of Greek history. It is a relatively straightforward trip through the long struggle between Sparta and Athens, though Harl's perspective is, I think, colored by his Roman expertise. His views on the of nature of classical empire and the nature of Mediterranean power come from the Romans, making him more comfortable with the hard facts of empire, and causing him to emphasize the Spartan and Athenian relationships with allies more than their internal histories and cultures. He sees the war as a struggle between two ideas of how to manage the Greek world, treating Athenian democracy and Spartan traditionalism as something like two political positions that were present in varying degrees in all city-states throughout Greece.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Kenneth Harl – ROME AND THE BARBARIANS (Lecture Series)

I am a guitar instructor and spend a great deal of time in my car driving from one student's house to another, and a lot of time getting from my home near Stanford to the homes scattered around the South Bay, all the way down to South San Jose. It's more time in a car than just about anyone, except of course delivery drivers. The teaching itself is all fun but the car time can be tiring. It has at least one benefit, though, which is that I have tons of time to listen to lectures from The Teaching Company, a truly wonderful company that records lecture courses by university professors around the country and sells them in convenient packages of 24 to 48 half-hour lectures (some course are up to 72 lectures, and some have 45 minute lectures). I can't say enough about how great these things are. The quality of the lectures is uniformly top-notch, and they are a cut above most audiobooks in intellectual level as well as ease of listening. They are intended for listening, and so unlike an audiobook professors will repeat important points and usually organize their lectures to be understood on first listen. For me, trapped in my car for hours a day, they've been something like life-savers for me. I think I've been through something like thirty, which I suspect may be as much as anyone else in the country, unless someone can refute that claim). So, thinking that this gives me some good perspective on them, I thought I might start writing about them as I go through them, starting with my favorite, Kenneth Harl's Rome and the Barbarians.