Lucifer’s Hammer

LucifersHammer

In the late 1970s, Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, became a bestseller. The novel still generates controversy today.

The plot is something we are all familiar with by now: a comet (known in the story as “The Hammer”) strikes Earth, destroys civilization, and forces the few surviving souls to fight to rebuild it. But it is whom they must fight, how, and especially why, that makes Lucifer’s Hammer such a great—and controversial—story. The comet swiftly drags humanity back to a state of nature where life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” to quote philosopher Thomas Hobbes. People are both elevated to do great things and condemned to cruel and beastly behavior.

One is struck by how familiar all this is. Where much speculative fiction looks forward and anticipates how people are going to change in the future (often based often on the ideological, religious, or self-serving inclinations of the author), Lucifer’s Hammer takes us back. Imagine Charles Martell checking the barbarian horde at the Battle of Tours in 732. Imagine the Donner Party scrounging for survival in the Sierra Nevada in 1846. Imagine the Titanic passengers fighting over the last open seats on the lifeboats. People in Lucifer’s Hammer are desperate and barely hanging on, just like they were in all pre-industrial societies where food was scarce, enemies and wild animals aplenty, and cities out of reach. The moment the carrying capacity of the planet plummets by two orders of magnitude, the educated, civilized people in our story revert to a pre-industrial mindset with astonishing speed. There is no transition period.

That is one thing I love about Lucifer’s Hammer.

LucifersHammer In the late 1970s, Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, became a bestseller. The novel still generates controversy today. The plot is something we are all familiar with by now: a comet (known in the story as “The Hammer”) strikes Earth, destroys civilization, and forces the few surviving souls to fight to rebuild it. But it is whom they must fight, how, and especially why, that makes Lucifer’s Hammer such a great—and controversial—story. The comet swiftly drags humanity back to a state of nature where life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” to quote philosopher Thomas Hobbes. People are both elevated to do great things and condemned to cruel and beastly behavior. One is struck by how familiar all this is. Where much speculative fiction looks forward and anticipates how people are going to change in the future (often based often on the ideological, religious, or self-serving inclinations of the author), Lucifer’s Hammer takes us back. Imagine Charles Martell checking the barbarian horde at the Battle of Tours in 732. Imagine the Donner Party scrounging for survival in the Sierra Nevada in 1846. Imagine the passengers of the Titanic fighting over available lifeboat space. People in Lucifer’s Hammer are desperate and barely hanging on, just like they were in all pre-industrial societies where food was scarce, enemies and wild animals aplenty, and cities out of reach. The moment the carrying capacity of the planet plummets by two orders of magnitude, the educated, civilized people in our story revert to a pre-industrial mindset with astonishing speed. There is no transition period. That is one thing I love about Lucifer’s Hammer. The authors structure the novel into four parts: 1. Pre-Hammerfall (several months) 2. Hammerfall (several hours) 3. Post-Hammerfall (several days) 4. Post-Post-Hammerfall (several weeks) They spread the story across dozens of characters, but concentrate mostly on three: television producer Harvey Randall, amateur astronomer and comet discoverer Timothy Hamner, and Senator Arthur Jellison who is a big booster of the American Space Program. Important minor characters include genius astrophysicist Dan Forrester, militant whitey-hatin’ Black Muslim Alim Nassor, and the four astronauts sent into space to observe the comet. This is a joint American-Soviet effort, and the astronauts get a unique, satellite-eye perspective on the end of the world. It’s a breathtaking view. But before getting to that, let’s first dispense with the novel’s fairly prominent flaws. The language of Lucifer’s’ Hammer, to put it bluntly, resembles that of a screenplay. Its purpose is nearly 100% utilitarian: it gets us from plot point A to plot point B in the literary equivalent of a dusty old 4-wheel-drive pickup. At its best it is mercifully brief. It seems the authors took no joy in its creation. There is certainly no joy in its rendering. The authors also end chapters with italicized passages describing the comet from the perspective of God. Here they take more literary chances, but it amounts to window dressing more than anything else. Then there’s the authors’ annoying habit of beginning each chapter with some obscure quote about the end of the world.

Okay, okay. I get it.
Okay, okay. I get it.
Characters are equally stock and uninteresting. Anyone familiar with mid-century Hollywood war movies and film noir will pretty much not be taken by surprise by the characters in Lucifer’s Hammer. There are some more modern touches (Alim Nassor: see any Blaxploitation flick. Biker Mark Czescu: see Easy Rider). But one can get away with imagining Harvey Randall being a classic Humphrey Bogart performance. Jellison: an older Marlon Brando or perhaps Rod Steiger. Hamner: Tony Curtis all the way. Astronaut Jimmy Baker: Paul Newman or Steve McQueen in space, take your pick. And the women in many ways are worse. Often (or at least until the Hammer hits), they are little more than men with breasts. Of note are Maureen Jellison, the Senator’s beautiful daughter, and Eileen Hancock, an assistant manager at a plumbing supply store. These two are quite masculine in their feminine qualities, and the reader quickly ascertains that, despite the authors’ efforts to develop them, they exist primarily as love interests of the men the authors really care about. Exceptions include Forrester, who is overweight, diabetic, and has a sick, geeky sense of humor. Marie Vance also sparkles. She’s a housewife who demonstrates keen resolve when searching for her lost son while still looking classy in her fashionable slacks.
Yeah. I'm ready for the end of the world. How about you?
Yeah. I’m ready for the end of the world. How about you?
And then there’s Leonilla Malik, Soviet Kosmonaut and medical doctor. She’s the only woman among the astronauts. I never quite figured her out, but the authors presented just enough of her without spilling the beans to make me want to read more whenever she was on the page. Like most genre authors, Niven and Pournelle dispense with the mystery that goes into a great character. And that’s okay. I have always held that science fiction places boring characters in interesting situations. Lucifer’s Hammer—although perhaps not strictly science fiction….It’s more science fact that anything else—comes through like blazes on this count. And what’s more interesting in a historical sense than a comet striking Earth? In such a crisis, who would pay attention to Holden Caulfield’s duel with decadence? So what if Raskolnikov bumped off his landlady because of a Napoleon complex? People are too busy finding food and not becoming food themselves to pay attention to such things. They can’t afford very many moral scruples, you see. As Senator Jellison points out, “every civilization has the morality and ethics it can afford.” Post-Hammerfall, men behave like men, women behave like women, and kids grow up fast. Or else they die. Really, it’s John Wayne heaven but with more comets. you-john-wayne-pilgrim-punch-demotivational-poster-1244186068 Anyone with a scintilla of critical thought can tell from the title and cover art that the comet will hit. (It would be a hell of a maguffin if it didn’t!) We learn of Hamner’s discovery on page two of Chapter One, and soon have a pretty good idea which characters will survive the impact and which ones won’t based on the amount of time the authors dedicate to developing them. But the characters don’t know this, so the authors must develop them as if the comet were not going to hit.
There. See? Comet.
There. See? Comet.
And without that interesting situation in the first part of the novel, all we have are boring characters. Imagine Niven and Pournelle writing in the tradition of Trollope who derives interesting situations from the mundane lives of mundane people who are not about to be struck by non-mundane comets. No thanks. Still, the authors move the plot along well enough in the first part. Especially interesting is Dan Forrester’s likening the comet to a hot fudge sundae (afterwards, the authors keep reminding us that Hammerfall came on a Tuesdae. Cute, right?). Also, when it dawns on folks that the comet most likely will hit, how they scurry to prepare gives us some gripping reading. In many ways, Lucifer’s Hammer is a lot like the film Titanic. Uneven before the critical event but absolutely virtuosic after. With so much action, CGI, survival tech, and well-researched science, there is little time to fret over language and character once the Hammer hits. Basically, we are watching civilization disintegrate, and it’s horrifying. Niven and Pournelle do very well to stay out of the way rather than poetically pontificate like Vlad Nabokov. Just as critically, the authors serve up a seven course meal of science. Want to know what will happen when a comet strikes Earth? Well, you can attend boring classes on geo-physics and meteorology. Or you could read the decidedly less boring Lucifer’s Hammer. From the widespread flooding, to the incessant rain, to the blackened, Krakatoa skies, to the advancing glaciers of the incipient ice age, it’s all there. History too. Did you know that one of the waves triggered by Krakatoa washed a Dutch gunboat on shore at an elevation of 200 feet? I will bet that you did not. KrakatoaKomik After the impact, the main characters race to the Senator’s ranch in the highlands north of Los Angeles. Randall comes with Czescu and Marie Vance, Hamner with Eileen Hancock. The astronauts decide to land in Southern California for the same reason. Forrester comes on foot and alone, carrying enough insulin to keep him alive and a copy of The Way Things Work Volume 2 by C. Van Amerogen. Forrester has an extensive library, you see. He saved it from destruction before he left. One day he will use it to rebuild civilization.
Quick. Buy. While there is still time.
Quick! Buy. While there is still time.
Once they occupy what’s known as the Stronghold, the valley surrounding the Senator’s ranch, they must contend with the Christophers, a family of heavily armed farmers which holds real local power. Burly, intimidating, and ultraconservative, these guys think nothing of the shrewdest, most cynical tactics to keep everyone in the Stronghold alive and everyone else the f***k out. For example, within a day of the impact, they blow up every road and bridge leading to the Stronghold in order to stem the tide of refugees. Anyone who arrives who isn’t a physician, scientist, or engineer they simply aim rifles at and send on their way…whether to death by starvation, drowning, or the bottom of a cannibal’s cooking pot is not their concern. They may not have enough food for themselves to last the winter, let alone for strangers. And everyone outside the Stronghold is a stranger. The Christophers, Second Amendment survivalists that they are, were only semi-civilized to begin with. So, transitioning back to a state of nature is less of a stretch for them than it is for others. Oh, and they’re not very keen on black people. Sure, the few already in the Stronghold can stay, but city blacks, the ones who constantly whine about equality and the like, never. The same goes for hippies. The Christophers will kept that kind out personally if they had to. This is one reason why the Christophers are so popular in the Stronghold. Opposing the Stronghold is the even more racist Alim Nassor, renegade army sergeant-turned-cannibal named Hooker (who is also black), and a radical environmentalist preacher named Armitage who believes God sent the comet to blast humanity back to its pre-industrial state of idyllic innocence. And it is Man’s duty to wipe out any pockets of industry not eradicated by the Hammer. These men lead a well-organized army towards the Stronghold, a thousand-plus and bound together by the shame of their not-entirely-ritualistic cannibalism. Truly, a barbaric group. Sure, the Christophers are harsh and unforgiving, but they work within the confines of the government set up by Jellison and can be reasoned with and even overruled. The same cannot be said about Nassor and his group. These people aim only to destroy and conquer and oppress. Prejudice aside, there is no doubt in the reader’s mind whom to root for. Once swords are drawn, the presence of a still semi-functional nuclear power plant raises the stakes considerably. Hooker and Nassor want to take over the Stronghold, but without the charismatic Armitage they won’t have the manpower. Armitage, crackerjack kook that he is, wants to destroy the power plant, but without Hooker and Nassor, he won’t have the weapons and explosives. So they compromise and go after both. Now, this raises an ethical question among the citizens of the Stronghold (and please note that their barbaric enemies never address ethical questions). Do they save only the Stronghold which is necessary for survival? Or do they risk additional lives and resources by saving the power plant which is not necessary for survival? The Stronghold represents civilization as it is. But the power plant represents civilization as it could be. In an amazing speech towards the end of the novel, Rick Delanty, one of the astronauts and the first black man in space, exhorts the Stronghold citizens to save the power plant. Sure, they could survive in the Stronghold, he tells them. But without the power plant they would survive only as peasants. He reminds them that Mankind is capable of so much more. We’ve controlled the lighting before, he proclaims, and we can do it again. Let’s give our children the lightning! Anyone who loves civilization and all the great things it has accomplished will have to choke back tears when reading that scene. Of course, we don’t know what we have until it is gone. With civilization on the brink as it hasn’t been since before the industrial revolution, people in Lucifer’s Hammer begin to realize that the old systems—the political, military, agricultural, and familial systems which seem so cruel and unfair today—existed back then for a reason. And that reason was survival. For example, Gordon Vance, Randall’s middle-aged neighbor, leads a group of boy scouts into the mountains on the day of Hammerfall. Shortly after, they meet up with a troop of girl scouts. Shortly after that, one of these girl scouts becomes Vance’s new wife. It ain’t statutory rape if there ain’t no government to call it that. Plus, he’s keeping over twenty kids alive during the apocalypse. That counts for something, doesn’t it? Another thing people discover: feminism dies nanoseconds after impact, and no one seems to miss it. Without men to do the heavy lifting and to call upon all their farming, engineering, and military expertise, the women—and everyone else—would die, plain as that. Sure women do what they can. Eileen Hancock is a talented driver and administrator. Marie Vance is good shot with a rifle. And then there’s Leonilla Malik, MD. But along with the terrifying risk men take as soldiers and the backbreaking work they must perform (cracking boulders into pieces and transporting them long distances, for example), comes their aggression and need for dominance. No one denies that this need exists and no one challenges it. It’s as real as the rain. The decision makers in the story are all men, except for Maureen Jellison who attains influence through her beauty and the fact she’s the Senator’s daughter—that is, through her feminine qualities. Irony of Ironies. I’m reminded of the Wife of Bath story from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. What do women want? Sovereignty over the husbands. And when they can’t get it, they love their husbands all the more. But that sure doesn’t stop them from trying. Note, it is not political power women seek. Instead, it is the ancient familial power women wield as wives and mothers that is their Holy Grail. And in the story didn’t one of King Arthur’s knights rape a girl and then pretty much get off Scott free? In fact, he gets rewarded with the love of a beautiful maiden in the end. It seems people in King Arthur’s day (and Chaucer’s) valued able-bodied knights more than mouthy broads who marry primarily for the sex. Another sacred cow that goes down is that of slavery. In our modern, or postmodern, age, we are all taught that slavery is a great evil, a repugnant institution, and so on. And is it really all that? Sure. But what do you do when 41 cannibals surrender after trying to kill you in an unprovoked attack organized by a force hell bent on death, destruction, and, coincidentally, more slavery? It’s been four weeks since Hammerfall. That’s four straight weeks of rain and floods. It’s what? July? Early August? Crops are ruined. Food is scarce. Livestock is dying. Disease is rampant. And it’s getting awful cold. Winter might come in October this year. You can actually see the snow advancing down the mountains, snow that won’t

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melt for centuries thanks to the darkened skies. You can almost feel the glaciers creeping south to crush everything you’ve built. So what do you do? Setting them free is out of the question since they will only rejoin the cannibals. Killing them all is even more repugnant than slavery. What’s left? Imprisonment? Rehabilitation? Who has the resources for that? And what about the families of the men they’ve slain? Are they not allowed justice? So the Stronghold leaders take a real close look at the only other option available: slavery. The protagonist in Lucifer’s Hammer, more than any single person, is civilization. Western Civilization, to be precise. It is a good thing. What makes Niven’s and Pournelle’s story so special however is the way in which it identifies the enemies of western civilization. These enemies spring from very recognizable elements of modern society, namely religious kooks, radical environmentalists, and thuggish Afro-centrists who shake down whitey in the name of racial justice but who are really only lining their own pockets and consolidating their power. Doesn’t this all sound familiar? The authors even liken the rapid rise of the cannibals to that of 7th century Islam. Talk about controversy. Talk about balls. The final battle between pro-civilization and anti-civilization forces reminds me of the Romans after being defeated by the Carthaginians at Cannae as described by Victor Davis Hansen in his inestimable book Carnage and Culture. You’d think Rome was done after Cannae, right? They lost 50,000 to 70,000 legionnaires in a single afternoon; Hannibal, military genius that he was, was on a bloody rampage throughout the Italian peninsula; and his army consisted of a “who’s who of the old tribal enemies of Rome.” But instead of surrendering or joining their enemies, Roman citizens opted to fight on. Why? Because they had more to fight for. Carthage could only offer its soldiers money and the promise of plunder and revenge. Rome, on the other hand, offered citizenship in a republic of laws and the right to govern one’s own affairs. Most importantly, Rome offered the promise a great future that only a great civilization can provide. It is precisely this future that Niven and Pournelle have in mind when the citizens of the Stronghold opt to save the power plant and give their children the lightning again.

Forbidden Music

FM

From the title, you’d think that a book called Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis would begin just before the rise of Hitler, but author Michael Haas takes us back much further than that. He begins in 1814 as Europe was reorganizing after the Napoleonic Wars and really gets going after the emancipation of Jews in Austria and Germany in 1867 and 1871. By giving us what is essentially the history of anti-Semitism in German classical music, Haas shows us how closely intertwined musical and political history really are.

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From the title, you’d think that a book called Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis would begin just before the rise of Hitler, but author Michael Haas takes us back much further than that. He begins in 1814 as Europe was reorganizing after the Napoleonic Wars and really gets going after the emancipation of Jews in Austria and Germany in 1867 and 1871. By giving us what is essentially the history of anti-Semitism in German classical music, Haas shows us how closely intertwined musical and political history really are.

Of course, Richard Wagner plays the heavy early on. The opera giant’s anti-Semitism is well known, and Haas describes Wagner’s impact not only on Jewish composers of his day, like Giacomo Meyerbeer and Ignaz Moscheles, but also on those of the 20th century.

Offsetting this was Johannes Brahms, who embraced emancipation and did what he could for rising Jewish star Gustav Mahler. No composer epitomized the fully assimilated Jewish composer more than Gustav Mahler. It was from his shadow that many young Jewish composers spent their careers escaping. These were Erich Korngold, Alexander Zemlinksy, Hans Gal, Ernst Toch, and many, many others. Indeed, the extent to which Jews dominated German music in the early 20th century is astounding…not just with composers, conductors and musicians, but with publishers, impressarios, and librettists too. They dominated the music-savvy public as well.

Contrary to stereotypes, these men were no followers of Arnold Schoenberg. They were modern yet tonal, and were keen not to indulge in the heady excesses of Romanticism. At the same time they struggled to remain sufficiently “German” and contribute to a cultural heritage they felt was theirs as much as anyone’s. Some of them were also immensely popular.

Of course, the Nazis took a cudgel to all this. It was brutal and swift. We all know what happened. Only, we don’t. Haas walks us through the messy and untold aftermath of the Holocaust and the war from a musical perspective…the desperate escapes, the grinding refugee life, the depression and the sorrow. He tells of the Theresienstadt Ghetto, the “model” concentration camp which held geniuses like Viktor Ullman and Gideon Klein before they were killed. He tells of brilliant musical minds churning out schmaltzy Hollywood scores for steady pay. He tells of great careers ruined by indifference abroad or by a postwar Europe that had no interest in reliving the past.

Not all of it was tragic. Remarkably, the composer Walter Braunfels managed somehow to avoid all of this. In 1937 he moved to a town near Switzerland called Uberlingen and stayed there completely unharmed throughout the war. He made his living as a school teacher and composed several major works there. Haas relates a quote from Braunfels explaining why he never emigrated. It is particularly telling:

…I was a stone in the dam that was keeping evil from flooding everything; but also I realized that should I decide to leave my homeland, I would be ripping out the most important roots to my own creativity.
Walter Braunfels: Yeah, I was pretty lucky.
Walter Braunfels: Yeah, I was pretty lucky.

One of these composers I have found particularly moving is Ernst Toch. I’m not one for string quartets, usually. But I found a CD of his String Quartets 12 and 15 at the incomparable Encore Records in Ann Arbor, MI. They were stirring and heart wrenching and reminded me so much of the ending of Shostakovitch’s 5th Symphony, which I love. I wish any description I could give would do them justice.

Ernst Toch: Smoking cigarettes before they were cool.
Ernst Toch: Smoking cigarettes before they were cool.
(As an aside, I love how the sense of discovery of classical music never goes away. You can study and enjoy the music for years and always have something new to discover. It’s wonderful.)

But if these composers are so brilliant, why are they virtually forgotten today? Haas offers a blunt and chilling response: because most of their public had been murdered. This is a hideous wrong he tries to set right with the excellent book Forbidden Music.

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The Captive Outfielder

One of the things that kills me in literature is the joining of two antithetical ideals, usually embodied in characters sharing a strong bond such as friends, siblings or lovers. Think of the ending of the Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. After the intellectual Ivan’s apocalyptic and tragic story of the second coming of Christ, the spiritual Alyosha kisses him, just as Jesus had done to the Grand Inquisitor who intended to execute him. Two things that shouldn’t be close, but have to be.

Okay, so this pertains, not coincidentally, to one of my favorite short stories, a story that happens to involve classical music. The Captive Outfielder, written by Leonard Wibberly, was first published by the Saturday Evening Post on March 25th, 1961. You can read it here. One of Wibberly’s biggest claims to fame was his 1959 satirical Cold War novel, The Mouse That Roared, which was later made into a film comedy starring Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, and Peter Sellers.

So, in The Captive Outfielder, a boy is taking violin lessons when he’d rather be playing baseball–or, really, he’d rather be failing at baseball than at the violin, since he’s getting nowhere with either but is at least less awful at baseball. And his teacher being old and from Eastern Europe isn’t making things any easier. You see, the old man understands nothing about American culture, and therefore knows nothing about the boy.

One of the things that kills me in literature is the joining of two antithetical ideals, usually embodied in characters sharing a strong bond such as friends, siblings or lovers. Think of the ending of the Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. After the intellectual Ivan’s apocalyptic and tragic story of the second coming of Christ, the spiritual Alyosha kisses him, just as Jesus had done to the Grand Inquisitor who intended to execute him. Two things that shouldn’t be close, but have to be.

Okay, so this pertains, not coincidentally, to one of my favorite short stories, a story that happens to involve classical music. The Captive Outfielder, written by Leonard Wibberly, was first published by the Saturday Evening Post on March 25th, 1961. You can read it here. One of Wibberly’s biggest claims to fame was his 1959 satirical Cold War novel, The Mouse That Roared, which was later made into a film comedy starring Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, and Peter Sellers.

So, in The Captive Outfielder, a boy is taking violin lessons when he’d rather be playing baseball–or, really, he’d rather be failing at baseball than at the violin, since he’s getting nowhere with either but is at least less awful at baseball. And his teacher being old and from Eastern Europe isn’t making things any easier. You see, the old man understands nothing about American culture, and therefore knows nothing about the boy.

All this teacher has are these portraits of dead composers like Johann Sebastian Bach glowering at the boy like they’ll flog him if he keeps making mistakes. And the old man keeps talking about time. Time! What’s so important about the stupid time anyway? It’s not like time is going to help him hit the baseball in the big game this weekend. Let’s try this a different way. A violin teacher who witnessed countless tragedies as he escaped from Russia after the Revolution, an old man who’s impoverished family gave everything they had for him to study music as boy, a teacher who knows the meaning and beauty of music in the face of horrible privations is now stuck trying to figure out why this vapid American youth can’t tell the difference between a quarter note and five-sixteenths. He even transposed the boy’s homework from A major to C major to make it easier for him. He loves the boy.

The boy is a good boy with a good ear. The teacher is left asking dear Johann Sebastian hanging on the wall how he, an grizzled old foreigner, can get this fresh-faced American kid to experience the wonder of music. Two people who don’t belong together, yet have to. From this central conflict, the story produces one of the most wonderful resolutions I have ever read. Truly, it is magical. Just a few pages, and you experience the intersection of old and new, youth and adulthood, and music and (believe it or not) baseball. Through baseball, the boy finds his moment of clarity, the very moment after which his appreciation of music will never be the same. My appreciation of short fiction was never the same after reading this wonderful story.

An Equal Music

One of the most fascinating novels about classical music I have ever read is Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, published in 1999. It’s a love story featuring classical musicians (of course). It’s a case of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl and prefers to raise his love to the point of cruelty rather than lose her again despite the fact that she’s married and has a young son. Amid the story, there’s a lot of passion, a lot of sex, a lot of picturesque European scenery, lots of deep, dark secrets, and of course, lots and lots of music.

Could you imagine a love story between classical musicians being any other way?

One of the most fascinating novels about classical music I have ever read is Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, published in 1999. It’s a love story featuring classical musicians (of course). It’s a case of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl and prefers to raise his love to the point of cruelty rather than lose her again despite the fact that she’s married and has a young son. Amid the story, there’s a lot of passion, a lot of sex, a lot of picturesque European scenery, lots of deep, dark

secrets, and of course, lots and lots of music. Could you imagine a love story between classical musicians being any other way? And before you condemn the novel for a plot which seems rather generic, try boiling Shakespearean plays down to brass tacks and see how interesting they become. One truth is that other authors had attempted to dramatize The Merchant of Venice since the basic story had been floating around Europe for years before Shakespeare came around. The bigger truth is that no one did the story better than Shakespeare. There are two things that raise An Equal Music above similar novels. One can only be described as class. Whole courses can be dedicated to this idea and pretty much get nowhere. What is class? My opinion: two or more characters who: are believable because they are like us, are surprising because they are truly individuals and therefore NOT like us, undergo meaningful change, and live in the same world we live in. Note that these characters don’t always have to be likable. For example, who actually likes Humbert Humbert? Heck, Gollum was my favorite character in the Lord of the Rings, and I found him loathsome. Anyway, Seth finds his class when he puts his characters nicely in our comfort zone and then slowly breaks them out of it when we slowly realize what they are capable of. Passion, you see, can take us places we don’t always want to go. The second thing that makes An Equal Music such a prodigious novel is the music. Of course, getting it third hand from me wouldn’t be very useful. If writing about music is considered futile by many, then what about writing about writing about music? At some point, it gets a little, erm, self-referential, if you know what I mean. Suffice to say Seth’s descriptions of the music and the people playing it reach moments of breathtaking clarity. Indeed, I have not read anything approaching them. It is enough to make one fall in love with the music again. This alone is almost enough for me to forgive Seth for his total cop out of an ending. The story basically stops rather than concludes. It seems that the art of plotting was lost on Seth. Either that or his editor insisted he keep his tome within a certain word count and something had to go. Still. An Equal Music. Wow. And it’s even accompanied by a double CD of classical music from the story. Now there’s a marketing idea. The author selected the pieces himself, several of which were specially recorded for the occasion of this CD. One piece, Beethoven’s String Quartet in C minor opus 104, had never been recorded before. It has since been recorded a half dozen times. And like the novel, the music of An Equal Music is gorgeous.

Romance on Three Legs (More on Glenn Gould)

In my previous post, I criticized the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould for being (among other things) not the best starting point for people who would like to begin appreciating the music of Glenn Gould. A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, by Katie Hafner, on the other hand, definitely is.

What a thrillingly odd biography this was! Instead of having one principal, as in most biographies, A Romance on Three Legs has three: Glenn Gould, the quirky piano genius from Toronto, Verne Edquist, his meticulous near-blind piano tuner, and his beloved Steinway concert grand, CD 318.

In my previous post, order I criticized the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould for being (among other things) not the best starting point for people who would like to begin appreciating the music of Glenn Gould. A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano, sovaldi sale by Katie Hafner, on the other hand, definitely is.

What a thrillingly odd biography this was! Instead of having one principal, as in most biographies, A Romance on Three Legs has three: Glenn Gould, the quirky piano genius from Toronto, Verne Edquist, his meticulous near-blind piano tuner, and his beloved Steinway concert grand, CD 318.

To a classical concert pianist, pianos are much more than meets the ear. Apparently, this brand of genius can hear things, feel things, that are little more than dog whistles to the rest of us. Gould had a peculiarly light touch, which suited the baroque music he loved to play. He had unique demands for his pianos and gave Steinway technicians fits trying to meet them. He spent his entire career in search of the perfect piano.

As much a contemporary history as a biography, Romance on Three Legs, tells us much we already know about Glenn Gould, his brilliance and sweetness and sensitivity as well as his hypochondria, his phobias, and his strange strange habits. Author Katie Hafner dutifully describes his youth and early successes, including the splash he made with his mid-1950’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She covers his disdain for public performances and fascination with studio recording. She also includes his notoriously less-than-positive opinions of other classical composers and musicians (he once dismissed Vladimir Horowitz as a faker).

What is new however is the lengths to which Hefner goes to describe the inner workings of the piano and the arcane art of piano tuning. What's the best wood to use for a piano’s soundboard? What exactly is “bellying”? What does a piano “voicer” do? What are hammers, dampers, and jacks, and just how complex is a piano’s action, anyway? Indeed, this book teaches us almost as much about the piano as it does about Gould himself.

Hafner also treats us to a brief history of the Steinway company as well as to a lucid biography of Verne Edquist. She chronicles his riveting journey from sight-deprived lad on a desolate Saskatchewan farm, to door-to-door piano tuner in Toronto, to Canada’s top piano technician. His two decade-long collaboration with Gould resembled master mechanic to star auto racer. Behind the scenes, he was there for most of Gould’s recording sessions, making sure that old CD 318 never went out of tune. They were even competitive about it, seeing who can spot an out-of-tune-note first. Their conversations often revolved around how to tinker with CD 318 until its hammers traveled the right distance, until it achieved “an immediate bite” or sufficient “contrapuntal control”.

Gould was utterly reliant upon Edquist, who was finely attuned to Gould’s peculiar, and some would say mystical, needs. This relationship intensified after the fateful drop the piano suffered at the hands of negligent piano movers in the early 1970s. Like stubborn lovers in a doomed relationship, Gould would not give up on CD 318. He and Edquist toiled through endless tunings, tweaks, and desperate contrivances to salvage the damaged instrument and restore it to its former glory.

Hafner, of course, discusses Gould’s premature death at 50 in 1982, as well as the man’s legacy in music. She provides the obligatory where-are-they-nows of the major players in this odd little history, and gives due mention of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, a biopic as quirky as its subject matter.

And what of CD 318? It was sold to the National Library of Canada in Ottawa. And when other concert pianists play it, sometimes they swear they can feel, in that intuitive–some would say mystical–way that pianists have, the old instrument pining for its beloved master.

My Reasons for Listening

We all listen to music for different reasons. Better yet, we can never know for sure why someone else listens to music. So, since they are not you, it's safe to say that their reasons aren't your reasons. Or mine.

As a kid, music was a therapy for loneliness. For me. Bottom line. I needed it for that reason. The only kind of music that mattered was rock n' roll. Classical was so sterile, so clean. It brought me nowhere. But rock responded to those pressures which made me lonely: from my family, my peers, myself, and dragged me kicking and screaming to a place where I could feel whole again.

And it did this by doing everything it you weren't supposed to do. It was loud. You weren't supposed to be loud. It was vulgar. You weren't supposed to be vulgar. You see where I am going with this, right? Growing up, I had to do what I was supposed to do. And for some ineffable reason this felt wrong. I felt wrong. And rock, at least temporarily, fixed that.

We all listen to music for different reasons. Better yet, we can never know for sure why someone else listens to music. So, since they are not you, it's safe to say that their reasons aren't your reasons. Or mine. As a kid, music was a therapy for loneliness. For me. Bottom line. I needed it for that reason. The only kind of music that mattered was rock n' roll. Classical was so sterile, so clean. It brought me nowhere. But rock responded to those pressures which made me lonely: from my family, my peers, myself, and dragged me kicking and screaming to a place where I could feel whole again. And it did this by doing everything it you weren't supposed to do. It was loud. You weren't supposed to be loud. It was vulgar. You weren't supposed to be vulgar. You see where I am going with this, right? Growing up,

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I had to do what I was supposed to do. And for some ineffable reason this felt wrong. I felt wrong. And rock, at least temporarily, fixed that. I'm not talking about older rock or the architects of classic rock like the Beatles or the Beach Boys. I'm talking more about the loud, angsty, angry rockers who sucked me into their sonic sanctuaries where I could nurse my childish grudges against mankind and feel justified at the same time. AC/DC, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Guns n Roses. As I got older and supposedly more sophisticated, I exchanged these bands for the Velvets, the Stooges, The Sex Pistols, Superchunk, Bruce Springsteen in his darker moments. I dug other stuff too, of course, and by no means is all rock is like this. But when I felt most at odds with the world, when I was at my lowest, this is where I took cover. That's something classical music could never do for me. It seems that that was never its point. It's not there to make you whole. It's not there to fight your demons for you. It leaves that to you (as it should), and instead, assumes that you are already grown up enough to appreciate what it is about to give you. That is its starting point: the grown up. And from there it takes you to God, whatever or however you may perceive Him to be. I am not lonely anymore. So it make sense then that classical now makes sense to me. Rock is still there, but I don't need it like I used to. I can still sympathize with Springsteen's Magic Rat. I can still raise my fist with Bon Scott's Problem Child or hurl profanities at my slack co-workers as Superchunk would have me do. But I cannot become these people anymore. I have a family, a career. I have more important things to worry about. But classical music is another matter. It is important enough. I did not know what beauty was until I first listened. I mean, really listened. Like in my mid-thirties. It took some effort and time, and then all I could wonder was how I could have lived so long without it. When Tom Lehrer referred to rock and roll as “children's music”, it was funny, and somewhat true. Much of the time rock does speak to the maladjusted, underachieving teenager in all of us. This isn't necessarily bad, but it is something that classical music never does. Instead, classical music requires an adult perspective above all else. This is why I believe we should expose our children to classical music as much as possible. Sure, they can still be kids. But someone who has that adult perspective as a kid will turn into one heck of an adult. One who is already whole and spared the dirty job of having to become whole while in their prime. Instead they could be doing great things.

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On Lolita

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, in my opinion, is the most masterfully written English language novel I have read. What can I say about its prose? Jaw-dropping. Breathtaking. The control. The vocabulary. The pacing. The sharp sharp humor. And all from a non-native English speaking author. There's really little here that I can say that hasn't already been said before, so I won't. Except that Lolita is a wonderful novel, and you do yourself a disservice in not reading it.

So buy.

That said, I believe that Lolita, considered by New York Times as the 4th best novel of all time, has a fatal flaw. Two of 'em, actually. These flaws in my opinion will keep it from the Pantheon of Great Books when we're all done and all is over with. These flaws? Well, what is Lolita about, anyway?

Lolita, troche by Vladimir Nabokov, pilule in my opinion, buy cialis is the most masterfully written English language novel I have read. What can I say about its prose? Jaw-dropping. Breathtaking.

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The control. The vocabulary. The pacing. The sharp sharp humor. And all from a non-native English speaking author. There's really little here that I can say that hasn't already been said before, so I won't. Except that Lolita is a wonderful novel, and you do yourself a disservice in not reading it.

So .

That said, I believe that Lolita, considered by New York Times as the 4th best novel of all time, has a fatal flaw. Two of 'em, actually. These flaws in my opinion will keep it from the Pantheon of Great Books when we're all done and all is over with. These flaws? Well, what is Lolita about, anyway? I mean, what is its heart and soul? Where can it bring us where we haven't been before? What does it offer us?

In 25 words or less: a pedophile thinks with poignant clarity and learns how to love too late.

Okay, so let’s parse this: The first part is “a pedophile thinks”. Yes, that does sum up Humbert Humbert, doesn't it? The man is, in many ways, the crowning achievement of Western civilization. Brilliant, sophisticated, urbane, multilingual, and broadly educated from the classical to the psychological to the philosophical. Dropping keenly observant erudite references in a way a bodybuilder flexes muscles, he must have an IQ off the charts. And yet, well…he's obsessively addicted to sex, especially with preciously young girls. He has a demented single-mindedness about it, too. It's really too bad, if you think about it.

Okay, so here's the first flaw: what can a protagonist like this offer anybody? Anybody who isn't a pedophile, that is? Humbert knows he's a criminal. He knows what he is doing is grotesque. He has no desire (at least by the time the story starts) to contribute to society. He is willing to live the vagabond life in automobiles and hotels just to feed his perverse obsession. This is a man who marries a woman just so he can get closer to her nymphet daughter, and then drugs her into a near coma at night just so he can get even closer to her nymphet daughter. Nice. Does he feel any remorse as he does this? Not really.

And when Lolita finally escapes his clutches, what does he do? Well, he drops everything and goes after her with murder in his heart, of course. Of course, he does this! Wouldn’t you? Wouldn't anyone? Because underground criminal hedonistic lifestyles must be maintained at all costs, even if it means living a cheap, cramped life incognito. Even if it means risking jail time. I mean, everyone knows that. Right? Right?

At this point in the narrative, that is, when old Hum is tracking down his lost Lola with a heavy heart and a loaded semi-automatic handgun, we are 245 pages into a 281 page novel (at least according to my 1983 Berkeley Books paperback). Clearly, our man has not undergone any great Raskolnikovian transformation. There's no redemption he's on his way to earning, no heroic sacrifice for the greater good, no deep-seated childhood demon he must face, no great moral battle he must win. Naah. It's just the same old humdrum Humbert trying to get his funky groove back, by the barrel of a gun if need be.

So I ask again. What in the world can a repulsive protagonist like this offer us? What can we learn from him? How could our minds thrive by contemplating a world in which a lunatic like this runs loose? Unless you are a pedophile looking for a role model, I cannot think of any satisfactory answers to these questions.

One litmus test I use for serious literature is imagining how I would feel if I ever met the characters I read about. I think about this constantly, especially when stimulated by great literature. Thomas Buddenbrooks, Huck Finn, Ignatious Reilly, Jay Gatsby, Nikolai Stavrogin, yeah we've had some great conversations. But a craven pervert like Humbert Humbert? I'd be sorely tempted to punch him in the face if I ever met him, knowing what I know about him. And if it were my 12 year-old daughter he were repeatedly raping, I would do a lot more than throw punches, that's for sure.

Emotions aside, I think I am standing on pretty good ground here when I say that upon meeting Humbert Humbert and knowing what we know about him, the moral thing to do would be to call the cops so they can separate this child predator from society forever.

So this is flaw number one: By placing the novel in the perspective of Humbert Humbert, it sacrifices the story's soul. The story is about the crimes and agonies of a man so far removed from the mainstream of modern civilization as to lack relevance to those of us not inclined to deflower prepubescent girls.

Flaw number two goes back to the second part of the logline, the “poignant clarity” business. Put simply, the book is too well written. Let me re-phrase that. The language of Lolita is far and away too magnificent to realistically pass for a first-person narrative. Who else can write so well in English other than William Shakespeare and a few dozen other guys throughout history? Are we to believe such beautiful prose can burst forth fully formed from Humbert Humbert's sex-addled mind? And if so, the thoughtful reader will be forced to ask why our droll libertine isn't a professional writer instead of some obscure literature scholar? He clearly has a genius with words and ideas. He clearly has a mastery of a whole menagerie of erudite topics. So why doesn't he write great novels or plays or something so he can move to a part of the world where abusing twelve year-old girls is less frowned upon and collect royalties at the same time? Doing such a thing requires rare talent, it is true. However, the talent and brilliance that composes the language of Lolita is rarer still. It's not like he lacks the money to support such endeavors. Further, Humbert Humbert is not faking it. He really does love literature, history, philosophy, and other highbrow topics. Wasn't one of his reasons for hating Clare Quilty was that Quilty wrote bad plays? Humbert Humbert has no reason not to become a great writer…except that author Vladimir Nabokov didn't want him to for whatever reason. And that's never a good reason.

There are two counter-argument to this objection that I can think of:

1) Humbert Humbert is insane and therefore cannot be expected to lead a truly productive life. I don't buy this. Old Hum is crazy for nymphets and nymphets only. Other than that, he is quite sane and capable. See his trip to the Arctic in Chapter 9 of Part 1 to see what he can accomplish when there aren't any nymphets around.

2) Within the idiom of the first person narrative, it can be argued that what you see on the page is the protagonist's pure perspective, not necessarily what he is capable of actually writing or saying. In other words, a first person narrative does not have to be a diary, it can be literature of the mind and we can accept it as such. The language of Lolita can be Humbert's ideas and recollections crystallized in art before his waking mind and limited talents can make a botch of them. Thus we see Humbert Humbert as God sees him, as the flawed, tragic, beautiful creature he 'really' is, rather than the shabby wretch he comes across as to his fellow man.

Imagine encountering someone who speaks your language, but with an exotic accent. Then later you try to recreate that accent to someone else. In your mind, the accent is perfect, just like you remembered it. But your recreation of that accent? Somewhat less than perfect, isn't it? What you get with a first person-narrative is that perfect version of the accent, not what actually spills from the protagonist's mouth or pen.

Okay, fine. I accept that if you view Lolita from this perspective then the second flaw I point out carries less weight. But I choose not to. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because we're proposing that Humbert Humbert is the omniscient third person narrator of his first person mind. And that, to me, seems to resist the very point of a first person narrative. A first person narration is supposed to be flawed and limited. I have always believed that a first person narrator tells two stories: the story he is aware of telling and the story he is unaware of telling. But with Lolita, you get one story, the story Humbert Humbert tells from on high. There can be no interpretation of what goes on because there is no second story here. Within the expanse between thought and expression, Humbert Humbert knows it all, and that's that.

I can respect it if that's your cup of tea. But it isn't mine.

One aspect of Lolita that I cannot let go in any discussion of its merits is how wonderful this novel is, despite its flaws. Yes, there is the language and the sheer vision behind it. Buy the book and experience this singular prose for yourself. But there is something else.

Part three of my little logline describes a man who learns how to love too late. That to me is what would be the heart and soul of Lolita if indeed it had a heart and soul. There is one passage in the novel, without which, in my opinion, the novel would be half as good despite its brilliance. Part 2, Chapter 29. Humbert tracks down his beloved nymphet after a two-year search. He meets Lolita face to face outside her ramshackle home with her yeoman husband. She's a grown woman now, no longer a nymphet, and very pregnant. And…what? He still loves her. He realizes he still loves her. His love for her goes beyond mere sex and his perverse obsessions. And he didn't realize it until that very moment.

If you are going to find a truly human moment for Humbert Humbert, this would be it. Here is where you will find pathos for the man. This truly is a tragic moment. A man engulfed by the prodigious sins of his past realizing too late that he was made of better stuff all along.

This is sad, but even here Nabokov gets it wrong. It happens too late, and Humbert Humbert never acts on this realization. So as a plot point it's worthless. Humbert Humbert had set out to murder Lolita's abductor, and by golly, that's what he does. The fact that he is now filled with contemplative remorse matters little in my mind. The only thing this newly discovered love does is grant him a sense of superiority over Clare Quilty. Pedophiles both, but Hum truly loved Lolita, unlike Quilty. So he is not as bad as that. Or so he says.

Remember the talk show host Morton Downey, Jr? The chain-smoking “loudmouth” who'd sometimes blow smoke in his guest's faces? Once a member of the National Smokers Alliance, he waited until he himself was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996 (when he was 64) before speaking out against smoking. And while this is a nice gesture, it came a little late in the game to be taken very seriously.

This is exactly how I feel about Humbert Humbert. His reunion with Lolita is such a poignant scene it should have led him to change himself or make an effort to right his wrongs or…something. Something other than a few chapters of elegant remorse followed by a murder and more elegant remorse.

Of course, elegant remorse couldn't save the life he ruined. The poor girl he began to love when it mattered least. More importantly, however, it couldn't save a novel burdened by its own brilliance, desperately searching for its soul.

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TRIO

In the afterward of TRIO, his sprawling two-volume novel about the Schumanns and Brahms, author Boman Desai describes his work as a “dramatized biography.” He goes on to say that “TRIO is a biography for people who hate biographies…and a novel for people who hate novels.”

This is pithy and clever, but only half right. It's a work for people who love novels and biographies too. And it doesn't hurt if you love the Schumanns and Brahms as well.

The beauty of this however is that TRIO is a great way for people to grow to love the Schumanns and Brahms. Maybe even better than the music itself. It's got plot, music, politics, warfare. It's got great characters (including Liszt, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Chopin). Without knowing anything about classical music, there's enough here to draw you in. Or, if you already love the music and know a thing or two about the principals, TRIO is so well-researched, so all-encompassing, so daring, and so deftly written that you will be pleased to read about what you do know, and your curiosity will be stoked about what you don’t.

In the afterward of TRIO, generic his sprawling two-volume novel about the Schumanns and Brahms, pills author Boman Desai describes his work as a “dramatized biography.” He goes on to say that “TRIO is a biography for people who hate biographies…and a novel for people who hate novels.”

This is pithy and clever, but only half right. It's a work for people who love novels and biographies too. And it doesn't hurt if you love the Schumanns and Brahms as well.

The beauty of this however is that TRIO is a great way for people to grow to love the Schumanns and Brahms. Maybe even better than the music itself. It's got plot, music, politics, warfare. It's got great characters (including Liszt, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Chopin). Without knowing anything about classical music, there's enough here to draw you in. Or, if you already love the music and know a thing or two about the principals, TRIO is so well-researched, so all-encompassing, so daring, and so deftly written that you will be pleased to read about what you do know, and your curiosity will be stoked about what you don’t.

Starting with Clara Wieck as a 9 year-old traveling piano prodigy, Volume One takes us into the life of music at the dawn of the Romantic Period. It's 1828. Robert Schumann is young and passionate but undisciplined. Still unsure of his future (will he be a lawyer or a writer?) he finds himself falling for a maturing Clara and struggling with the notion that his child-bride might earn more money than he. Desai also shows exactly how ferocious Clara's father Friedrich was in opposing his daughter's marriage to Schumann. The couple's ultimate victory is sweet indeed.
As the plot progresses, Desai offers glimpses of the prevailing musical attitudes of the day. Here is a telling passage, taking place at a soiree:

An Italian sang next with the clearest tone accompanied by Kalkbrenner on the piano, but cluttered her songs with the trills and scales and cadenzas and ritardandos Italians found so salubrious and Germans so painful.

Another line that I have to repeat comes from Robert speaking his mind to Friedrich Wieck:

“If we do not make distinctions between the virtuous in music and mere virtuosity, we do not make strides, except backward. Might as well play the pianoforte with your feet. It is not easy, but neither will it make you an artist.”

This is very good. But did Schumann actually say it when he did in TIO? Probably not. But maybe he said something similar. Desai often feeds lines from letters and diaries into his character's mouths during dialog in order to convey the feeling of the character, the time, and the action. One cannot recreate history as it happened, of course, but Desai's technique is the next best thing. These were the thoughts that were running through Schumann's head during this time in his life, and Desai paraphrased them nicely in dialog.

Other composers appear either as part of the central plot or in interpolative chapters. Mendelssohn, brilliant and graceful, makes his benign presence felt, perhaps most poignantly when he meets a young Queen Victoria. Liszt, resplendent in his Mephistophelean glory, comes across equally as cunning schemer and genuine nice guy. Wagner, on the other hand, is well-nigh evil, the villain one loves to hate.

My favorite passage featuring Mendelssohn occurs when he is forced to listen to Clara play one of Robert's sonatas on the piano during a party. Despite both being in their early-to-mid-20s, Mendelssohn was already an established musician (having been a famous child prodigy). Robert on the other hand was still known mostly as a critic, and an impoverished one at that. He was still developing as a composer, and his most well known works were considered pretty and lightweight. Mendelssohn settled down for what he expected to be “a pleasant few minutes”. What he got however was this:

The sonata started as he might have expected, a motif of two notes, now rising, now falling, now maintaining the level of its pitch, played successively over a rumbling harmonic bass, but in a few moments it became evident that the motif in its various guises was only a prelude, and the first movement proper began with a muscular theme, a masculine theme, a gallop in concert, cavalry in triplets, far more satisfactory than anything he had heard yet by Robert, which developed generously and unpredictably. Found himself sitting up, listening intently.

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Mendelssohn asked to hear a movement from that piece a second time. I doubt Robert came down from the clouds in over a week.

Robert and Clara's story, of course, does not end well. Robert's mental health was never very stable, and after trying to end his life in the Rhine, he spent the last two years of his life in an insane asylum. But Desai does not focus simply on Robert's harrowing descent into madness, but also on Clara's difficulties raising a houseful of children without a husband. Despite this, Desai shows just how steadfast her love for Robert had always been, even in the worst of times. She was his wife and champion and a very strong lady in her own right. Included is the magnificent scene in which she marched alone through a war zone to return her children to safety.

Volume Two chronicles Clara's relationship with Johannes Brahms within the broader politics of music in the late 19th-Century. It was the New German School of Wagner and Liszt against the Conservative hold-outs Clara and Brahms. Things begin passionately for Clara and Brahms (Known affectionately as “Hannes”), but they soon realize they aren't right for each other. Their 40-year friendship is as bumpy as it is smooth, and Desai makes us feel every bit of it.

Bittersweet, too, is Brahms' bachelorhood. Why did he never marry? Why was he not right for Clara, the woman he could so easily enthrall and frustrate? Among the intellectual and political elite of Central Europe Brahms always remained one step from the shipyards and cheap apartments of his lower-middle class upbringing. Desai gives us some of that too, as well as Brahms' first experience with a prostitute. Apparently, this was an experience he never could overcome.

But he was Brahms. He didn't need to. He didn't kowtow to anyone, not the aristocracy, not academia, and not royalty, especially musical royalty. This reactionary attitude made him stand out among Europe's elite like a ragamuffin at a gala ball, only one expertly wielding a baton. His ratty clothes, his cruel japes, his straight-as-an-arrow honesty, he refusal to put on airs. Brahms once claimed that he had no friends, but if you were something like a friend to him, he could be loyal and generous. Violinist Joseph Joachim once complained that when he and Brahms toured together, Brahms' slow pace made it harder for him to make money (which he desperately needed with a family to support). So Brahms insisted that they keep the slow pace, but that Joseph take in two-thirds of the purses rather than half.

Brahms is a complex character, and Desai gives it to us with a side of boiled cabbage. Once when a friend wanted to learn more about Brahms and his life, Brahms took him to a seedy bar where he, Brahms, the toast of Vienna and the greatest composer of his day, played bawdy songs on a upright piano into the wee hours of the morning. Nobody there knew who he was.

Then there is the question of whether Brahms and Clara were ever indeed lovers. People love to speculate about their relationship, but no one knows for sure, largely because they burned so many of their letters. There is no direct evidence that they were lovers. On the other hand, if they were never lovers, then why burn so many letters?

(Unforgettable is the scene in which Brahms and Clara as old fogies return their letters to each other as part of some earlier agreement. The air is thick with mixed emotions as the pair haggles and stalls before the final barter. You see, they say they don't want to give up the other's letters because they know the other will destroy them. Yet really they just don't want to give them up…and they really really want to burn theirs.).

So what does Desai do to solve the mystery of Clara and Hannes? Were they lovers or were they not lovers? Desai's answer is yes. You'll have to read the book to learn more about that.

Desai also does a wonderful job of describing the music. Of course, any descriptions come up short when compared to the real thing, but the language of TRIO is so vivid it makes one want to explore a composer's repertoire. Schumann's Carnaval and Sonata in F sharp Minor and Brahms' German Requiem and Symphony #1 get some evocative descriptions. So do the performers themselves. Clara's meticulousness, Liszt's power and bravura, Brahms' perfection at the piano as a cocky young virtuoso, his sloppiness as a old man. Mendelssohn's spot on imitations of Liszt and Chopin are breathtaking as well.

In his Afterward, Desai makes it clear that despite thorough research, there are some apocryphal scenes. In these cases he draws reasonable conclusions according to the scant evidence we have. He makes his case, but really doesn't have to. TRIO is a novel about some of the greatest figures of classical music. Like the music, it is meant first and foremost to be enjoyed. And on this account, it certainly does not fail.

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On Modern Classical Part 2

This is part two of my essay on modern classical music. My basic position, taken up in On Modern Classical Part 1, is that modern classical, defined in this instance mostly as atonal and championed by famous composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and others, is for the most part awful music. And I make the audacious claim that I can prove it.

Of course, I can't; but my dislike for this kind of music goes so deep that I have to at least try. As with pretty much any voice in the wilderness, the emotions behind it resonate so powerfully with me that they have to contain more than just a scintilla of truth. They just have to. Either that, or the strong emotional responses to music I've been experiencing all my life become quite a bit cheaper as a result. And I cannot have that.

I love the music of Beethoven, as many of us do, but how would you rather have it when listening to him? My way:

Or the way the modernists would have it:

This is part two of my essay on modern classical music. My basic position, taken up in On Modern Classical Part 1, is that modern classical, defined in this instance mostly as atonal and championed by famous composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and others, is for the most part awful music. And I make the audacious claim that I can prove it.

Of course, I can’t; but my dislike for this kind of music goes so deep that I have to at least try. As with pretty much any voice in the wilderness, the emotions behind it resonate so powerfully with me that they have to contain more than just a scintilla of truth. They just have to. Either that, or the strong emotional responses to music I’ve been experiencing all my life become quite a bit cheaper as a result. And I cannot have that.

I love the music of Beethoven, as many of us do, but how would you rather have it when listening to him? My way:

Or the way the modernists would have it:

Now let’s back up a bit.

I am not saying that composers of Modern Classical music or those who enjoy it A) engage in atheism, B) downplay relationship between music, math, and physics, C) think that classical composers would have experimented more if they knew such music would sell, or D) believe I have a beer gut for a brain for the reasons listed in the fine print above. But if you believe pretty ardently in at least some of these things, then it is likely you’ll more easily relate to Arnold Schoenberg and his ilk than the composers who came before them. After all, classical music was born in the Church, stays true to a tonal system grounded in math and physics, and for the most part really really tries to hew something true and beautiful out of the air molecules fluctuating chaotically among us.

For modern classical, on the other hand, that would be strike one, two, and three. So let’s get the subjective and therefore flimsiest part of my argument out of the way. When I listen to the music I love, I really want to believe in the sequence outlined in the first spreadsheet. I really want to believe that something truly unique occurs. Albert Einstein once proclaimed that violin playing of Yehudi Menuhin gave proof that there was indeed a God in heaven. This is what I’m talking about: art providing evidence for the theory that Humanity is part divine and indeed unique throughout the universe. It would be as if God created the universe so incalculably vast for the sole purpose of beating the infinitesimal odds that a planet can be formed under the right circumstances and with the right materials from which intelligent life (i.e., human beings) could prosper.

In other words, Ptolemy was right. Humanity is the sole point of existence. We are its headlining act on center stage, its crowning achievement. After us there is nothing. And if you don’t believe me, then listen to Beethoven’s Fifth, read Moby Dick, gaze on this. As I have said. This argument. Is. Exceedingly. Weak. Weak because I can prove none of it. Also, it is, um, self-gratifying. I want to believe this because it feels good to believe it. Or, I should say, it feels right, which is more or less the same thing. But my opponents could then pounce on my position and say, “But you subvert your own position by claiming a conflict of interest. This is a classic example of wish replacing thought.” True, true.

On the other hand, if my opponents accuse me of self-gratification, I can accuse them right back. I mean, who wouldn’t want free the musician from the shackles of tonality? Who wouldn’t want to blaze a trail of revolutionary music and be the “Emancipator of Dissonance”? Who wouldn’t want to lead the ignorant and closed-minded masses into a realm of higher art, higher thinking, higher living, et cetera? Why, low ticket sales and apathy or contempt from the public are small prices to pay for such historical awesomeness. Furthermore, who wouldn’t want to be on the cutting edge of such a noble crusade? All you have to do is buy a few of the right CDs (Tony Conrad, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, take your pick), be seen going to the right concerts, pen a few incomprehensible reviews on your website or a local arts daily, claim you’ve read some Adorno, and shazam, you’re instantly better, yes, better than all the troglodytes out there who actually prefer paintings that resemble the real world, poems that rhyme, and music that doesn’t require an advanced degree (or the patience of Job) to understand. Bet that would feel pretty good too.

Like I said. Weak. But maybe a little less so since I know how to use someone’s own argument against them and never back down from a good fight.

Anyway, I’ve always found Brahms’ approach a little more honest than Wagner’s. Judge for yourself. It’s the genius who envisioned himself spearheading the Artwork of the Future and being the most important composer since…well, since ever, versus the genius who labored within the tonal system to produce works on par with its champions Bach and Beethoven…and succeeded some of the time.

But let’s return to the original reason we’re here: the justifications for modern classical. The first was that by the 1890s the tonal system was pretty much used up, and composers had to go beyond it if they wanted to stay vital. The first part of this polemic takes that on. The second justification goes as follows: We feel the emotional pull of harmonic sequences because we are brought up to do so, not because the emotional pull is objectively there. Thus, atonality was inevitable and necessary, and we didn’t lose much by abandoning the tonal system anyway.

There are two ways for me to attack this. One is to simply describe the rock-solid mathematical relationship between music and physics. But guess what? I won’t do that because others have done it so well before me. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that keeping a tonal center and abiding by the age-old rules of music provides its emotional pull because of its grounding in math and physics and not despite of it.

The second is to look at music made in non-Western cultures because evidence supporting the second justification above can be found there. Essentially, it’s the nurture over nature argument. We feel the emotional pull of the music we’re brought up with and not of the music we’re not brought up with unless we apply serious effort. It reminds me of a quip my brother once made in the late 1980s. I was watching the film Gandhi on television, and some Indian music was playing. My brother winced and said, “Sometimes I think they made that kind of music just to annoy the white man.” Funny, in part because it is demonstrably not true. But it reveals how music from foreign cultures won’t easily make sense for those not immersed in it or who can’t be bothered to learn it. We are “conditioned” to appreciate certain kinds of music.

Okay. Fair enough. But the argument goes further and deduces that if we are culturally conditioned to appreciate certain kinds of music then there is nothing inherent in the cultural nature of the music itself that draws people to it. It’s all about the accidents of conditioning. Where and when you were born, and to whom, etc. And if this is so, then we can be conditioned to appreciate all kinds of music, even the kinds without tonal centers, provided we have open minds and apply the discipline.

This is a false conclusion.

It is false because music from non-Western cultures also tends to be tonal. This is so despite different tuning systems, scales, vocal styles, melodies, harmonies, and so on. Therefore you can argue that the nurture argument applies only to tonal music and does not necessarily encompass the atonal. You can argue that people have a natural inclination towards tonal music first, and towards music of a certain culture second. This leaves atonal music out to dry, that is, if non-Western music truly tends to be tonal. This is where it gets tough. Most sources will begin talking about atonality with people like Debussy in the 1890s, or perhaps Franz Liszt’s Bagatelle sans tonalité from 1885, and then move on to Schoenberg. I don’t think atonality was even a concept in the music theory of non-Western cultures until well into the 20th century and only after solid contact with the West. I can’t be sure because I am not a musicologist, but my hunch is strong. It is also backed up by this passage from Brian Hyer’s essay “Tonality” found in The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory edited by Thomas Street Christiansen (2002), page 727. According to Hyer, tonality

is often used to describe the systematic organization of pitch phenomena in both Western and Non-Western music. Tonal music in this sense includes music based on, among other theoretical structures, the eight ecclesiastical modes of medieval and Renaissance liturgical music, the slendro and pelog collections of Indonesian gamelan music, the modal nuclei of Arabic maqam, the scalar peregrinations of Indian raga…

If this is true (and I welcome arguments to the contrary) then it’s game, set, and match for the nurture argument. I can beat it to the punch with nature by claiming that most humans struggle with atonal music because most human ears simply cannot cope with it, not because we weren’t brought up to appreciate it. It’s a problem of the brain rather than that of the mind.

What follows will be a scatter-shot approach providing even more evidence against modern classical.

1. My favorite is this, Audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope. I linked to this in part one of this essay. Its basic premise is stated nicely in the title. Here’s the best part, but please read the whole thing. It’s not long.

Professor David Huron, an expert on music cognition at Ohio State University, has studied some of the underlying reasons why listeners struggled with such modern classical pieces. He said: “Much of what the brain does is to anticipate the future. Predicting what happens next has obvious survival value, and brains are remarkably adept at anticipating events. We measured the predictability of tone sequences in music by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern and found the successive pitches were less predictable than random tone sequences.”

Heh. Less predictable than random. Think about this for a moment. What would be the point of any art if its fundamental elements are organized in a manner that is less predictable than normal? What if all painters just splashed their paint at random across their canvases? What if all writers just sprinkled words at random across the page? What if all sculptors put on blindfolds and hacked away at slabs of marble until their arms got tired? The end result would not be art. It would be an embarrassment.

2. Alexander Zemlinsky, perhaps the last in the line of great German-Austrian composers starting with Bach, was a great champion of atonal music despite not really composing much of it himself. He worked closely with Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (in fact, he was Schoenberg’s brother in-law). He organized concerts with them, bestowed professional favors on them, corresponded with them, and basically acted as a powerful ally. According to Marc Moskovitz’s splendid Zemlinsky biography, Zemlinksy admitted towards the end of his life (late-1930s, early-1940s) that he did not understand Schoenberg’s later works. Moskovitz describes this as a startling confession and states flatly that Zemlinsky “could no longer comprehend the music of the man whose cause he had once so ardently championed.”

3. From the same biography comes this amusing little anecdote. Sometime in early in World War I, Zemlinsky proposed to conduct some of Schoenberg’s more daring pieces in Prague. Schoenberg begged him not to. You see, his music gave people fits in peace time. Imagine what it would do during war time. Actually, Schoenberg didn’t want to do that (fearing for his own skin), and so pressed on his brother in-law to perform something of his that he can “count on being fairly well received by the public.” Zemlinsky did, and the concert was successful. But this underlies an important point: According to Schoenberg, apparently, when death is near or when you are fighting for survival, atonal music will necessarily have destructive consequences. It will inspire high levels of madness and violence. To take Schoenberg’s point to its logical conclusion then, atonal music should only be played during peace time and when people’s fortunes and futures are more secure. In other words, it is music for pampered, intellectual elites who never have to get their hands dirty fighting for their survival. I’m just extrapolating here, and I’m sure someone else could be more charitable in their conclusions from the same facts. Still, when the chips were down, Schoenberg lost faith in his own music. That says a lot.

4. In 1918 Schoenberg and his students founded the Society for Private Musical Performances. Note the word “private”. It was a members-only club, and according to Wikipedia:

Only those who had joined the organisation were admitted to the events: the intention was to exclude ‘sensation-seeking’ members of the Viennese public (who would often attend concerts with the express intention of whistling derisively at ‘modern’ works by blowing across their house-keys) as well as keep out hostile critics who would attack such music in their publications: a sign displayed on the door – in the manner of a police notice – would state that Kritikern ist der Eintritt verboten (‘Critics are forbidden entry’).

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I can understand keeping the ruffians out, but the critics too? Also, by limiting the amount of people who could listen to the music, it seems that Spinal Tap definitely had a predecessor.

5. One of main problems I have with most modern classical music (excepting John Adams and a few others) is that there is so little joy in it. It’s so often serious, strange, forbidding. It seems to have forgotten why people invented music to begin with: to provide comfort or delight or, at its most sublime, to exalt the greatness and mystery of God. I love Rachmaninoff, and I think I will end with this pithy quote from him in 1941: “The new kind of music seems to create not from the heart but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel. They have not the capacity to make their works exalt—they meditate, protest, analyze, reason, calculate and brood, but they do not exalt.”

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Marrying Mozart

One of the sweetest classical music-related stories you can find is Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell. Published in 2004, it chronicles Mozart's relationship with the sisters Weber in Mannheim and Vienna. If there is anything inside of you that can fall for a good love story, then reading this novel will make you fall, and then get up, and then fall again.

One of the sweetest classical music-related stories you can find is Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell. Published in 2004, ask it chronicles Mozart's relationship with the sisters Weber in Mannheim and Vienna. If there is anything inside of you that can fall for a good love story, physician then reading this novel will make you fall, and then get up, and then fall again.

Drawing carefully on historical figures, Cowell treats us with distinct, believable characters, and always treads that thin line of objectivity. Mozart is sweet, but impulsive and self-absorbed (of course). Guided by his financially careful mother, the 21 year old genius meets the Weber girls (Josefa, Aloysia, Constanze, and Sophie — all under 20) in Mannheim, and over time falls in love with more than one of them. And they all fall for him, in their own peculiar ways and for their own peculiar reasons. Of course, the nominal villain is their pathologically shrewd mother. She has big, if outlandish, marriage plans for all her daughters and can't bear that they waste their time on a penniless musician. And so it goes.

Some readers might get turned off by all the tears and melodrama. Hearts ache, hearts break (oh boy, do they). Such drama is treated with the utmost respect by Cowell. There is no irony. Nothing to laugh at. But we must remember that this story, which takes place over four or five years, is essentially about the Weber sisters in their teens, and what are teenage girls but susceptible to melodrama? (Mozart himself plays the crucial, if supporting role, and his marriage to one of the sisters is almost like a Maguffin — it takes place on the penultimate page of the book). Further it is a great love story, told once by history, and retold nicely by Cowell, with just enough detail in the candle wax and cobble stones and cold coffee served next to lemonade stands closed for the winter to bring us back to a young girl's 18th Century Europe. But not enough to overtake the story or to deprive us of those breathless moments when the characters she has asked us to invest our time in catch glimpses of true love. You see, their loves become ours. Like I said, sweet.

This however brings me to a confession. One reason for the wonderful sense of discovery I felt while reading this novel was my complete ignorance of Mozart's love life. I had no idea which sister he would marry. So Marrying Mozart became quite a pager turner for me. But I do wonder how I would have reacted to the novel had I known.

Probably the same. It's a sweet story. Such things occur often enough in life. And once in a while an author hunkers down and gets it right. And we're all the richer for it.

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Heart of Darkness: What a Cover Says

A friend once gave me an incredible find. It was a beat-to-heck paperback edition of Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad published by Signet Books in 1950.

The thing looked like it had survived a flood. Its bottom right-hand corner was barely even there, the split binding was holding on to pages for dear life, and the pages themselves felt like they could crumble like autumn leaves. Clearly such a decrepit specimen would not survive another reading. So why did he give it to me?
Because the cover looked like this:

This is an amazing book cover. I realized this right away, but didn't stumble upon why it was so amazing until days later. Why is this such an amazing cover? Wait. Let me ask more closely, because anyone familiar with Western lit should realize the answer just as I did. Why is it an amazing cover for a canonized work of classic English language literature?

A friend once gave me an incredible find. It was a beat-to-heck paperback edition of Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad published by Signet Books in 1950. The thing looked like it had survived a flood. Its bottom right-hand corner was barely even there, the split binding was holding on to pages for dear life, and the pages themselves felt like they could crumble like autumn leaves. Clearly such a decrepit specimen would not survive another reading. So why did he give it to me? Because the cover looked like this: This is an amazing book cover. I realized this right away, but didn’t stumble upon why it was so amazing until days later. Why is this such an amazing cover? Wait. Let me ask more closely, because anyone familiar with Western lit should realize the answer just as I did. Why is it an amazing cover for a canonized work of classic English language literature? Answer: because Signet Books selected that cover in an effort to sell the book on its merits. Note the splash words on top (dishonest ones at that, since nothing akin to “romance” exists in either story). Note the lurid, sexy painting full of danger and suspense. Notice the clenched fist, the sidelong leers, the surrounded protagonists. What does this tell us? That the unbelievable story within is just brimming with such excitement that you simply cannot wait to read it, can you? It also tells us that despite all the claims of Conrad’s greatness on the back cover and all the big words and deep analyses in Albert J. Guerard’s introduction, Signet in 1950 still considered Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer to be pulp fiction to be sold alongside (and to compete against) other works of pulp fiction on the rack in local drugstores, five-and-dimes, and other mundane places where young men in the 1950s went to satisfy their urges for romance, terror, and exotic adventure. Don’t believe me? Then compare the cover to these covers and notice the obvious similarities. Publishers typically want to make a book cover accomplish two things: A) reveal at a glance what genre a book belongs to by making it similar to all the other book covers of that genre, and B) make the cover different enough from the pack to pique a potential reader’s interest. Clearly Signet promised much for Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, and based these promises in most cases on what’s actually contained in the stories. This is a form of advertizing, and it’s done when the product you’re hawking needs whatever nudge it can get to attract the eye of potential customers. After all, the good people at Signet have bills to pay, just like all of us. So in this milieu, does Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer look all that much different from its competition? To the uninitiated, “Joseph Conrad” could be just another pseudonymous hack cranking out cheap paperback gratifications one month at a time in whatever genre his publisher tells him write in. This is all so interesting because no one packages canonical novels this way anymore. Nobody ever sells classic lit on its merits. Now here is the cover of the same volume with the same introduction published by the same company 33 years later. (Note how it’s “Signet Classics” in 1983 whereas it was “Signet Books” in 1950.) What does this cover tell us? Not much, in fact. Lotta trees, lotta mist, lotta darkness, and a barely discernable human figure on the bottom. That’s what I thought when I first saw it in the 1980s and that’s how I still feel today. While thematically faithful to the Heart of Darkness story, the cover is what I would call…meh. It is the product of a company that does not have to sell Heart of Darkness and the Secret Sharer anymore. The novels’ status of “classic literature” does that for them these days. The presence of this volume on course

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syllabi everywhere ensures that millions of high school and college kids are going to buy it whether they want to or not. And the cover reflects this. It does not beckon or entice or in any way compete for your attention. It does not make you want to reach out and buy the book and read the stories therein. Instead it informs you that you should do this. This is classic literature. Something important is being shared on these pages, so if you want to be privy to such a profound element of Western Civilization not to mention nab that slightly-harder-than-expected-but-still-pretty-easy A in your English class, then you better crack this puppy and get to work. Let’s look at a few other covers and see if they don’t give the same impression. What do these covers all share? Setting. Judging Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer by its cover, all we get is that at least one of these stories takes place in some wild jungle setting. Apparently this is enough for publishers not to lose money on Joseph Conrad these days. Apparently enough people are familiar with his reputation that paperback covers telling us we should read him rather than making us want to read him are actually preferred. This may be interesting in and of itself, but why should we care? Because, ironically, Signet Books got it right the first time. Heart of Darkness, being the primary story of the volume and the basis for what seems like all of its covers, is a disappointing and tedious read. Swaths of it are slow and ponderous, especially early on. While not a bad story by any means, it is thematically unfocused, repetitive, obvious. It is, in a word, overrated. It probably did need that extra nudge Signet was giving it in 1950. I will discuss why Heart of Darkness is overrated in an upcoming post.

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Bobby Fischer: Endgame

A couple months ago, I pretty much swallowed Endgame, the latest Bobby Fischer biography by Frank Brady. Brady's first biography of Fischer, called Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, was written in 1965 and later revised in 1973 at the height of Bobby's power as a chess player. It was a fairly positive portrayal of the chess champion and a pretty good read besides. When it was first published Fischer was the only possible American answer to Soviet chess dominance. Before him, the Soviets easily outdistanced the Americans, embarrassing them in match after match. But Bobby emphatically changed that. By the mid-1960s, there was much excitement surrounding the mercurial American genius who threatened to singlehandedly topple the mighty Soviet chess machine. This was better than any story, and back then the ending hadn't even happened yet. So of course much of Fischer's ugliness and cruelty was either omitted or minimized by Brady. Who would want to malign the hero of such a great story?

The subtitle to Brady's second biography, “Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness” (published in 2011 – almost 3 years after Fischer's death) promises to deliver the tragic ending to the story as it actually happened. Since the publication of Profile of a Prodigy, Bobby Fischer quit chess, went into seclusion, grew into a virulent anti-Semite, and more or less went mad.

Despite delivering on Fischer's madness and the ugliness, however, Brady still seems to pull his punches. He still seems to withhold a certain amount of charity for the man who praised the 9-11 attacks and called for the destruction of America and Israel. And you know what? I do too.

A couple months ago, I pretty much swallowed Endgame, the latest Bobby Fischer biography by Frank Brady. Brady’s first biography of Fischer, called Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, was written in 1965 and later revised in 1973 at the height of Bobby’s power as a chess player. It was a fairly positive portrayal of the chess champion and a pretty good read besides. When it was first published Fischer was the only possible American answer to Soviet chess dominance. Before him, the Soviets easily outdistanced the Americans, embarrassing them in match after match. But Bobby emphatically changed that. By the mid-1960s, there was much excitement surrounding the mercurial American genius who threatened to singlehandedly topple the mighty Soviet chess machine. This was better than any story, and back then the ending hadn’t even happened yet. So of course much of Fischer’s ugliness and cruelty was either omitted or minimized by Brady. Who would want to malign the hero of such a great story?

The subtitle to Brady’s second biography, “Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness” (published in 2011 – almost 3 years after Fischer’s death) promises to deliver the tragic ending to the story as it actually happened. Since the publication of Profile of a Prodigy, Bobby Fischer quit chess, went into seclusion, grew into a virulent anti-Semite, and more or less went mad.

Despite delivering on Fischer’s madness and the ugliness, however, Brady still seems to pull his punches. He still seems to withhold a certain amount of charity for the man who praised the 9-11 attacks and called for the destruction of America and Israel. And you know what? I do too. The book at times reads like an apologia for Fischer written by someone who knew and loved him. Now that Fischer is dead I cannot imagine a Fischer biography being written any other way. Despite being such a loathsome person (at least in public), Fischer had inspired so many people and given so many so much to to cheer for that all is forgiven.

All is forgiven…Like Beethoven.

A nice example of how Brady seemingly inadvertently glosses over some of Fischer’s nastier moments is how he describes the ride home Fischer shared as a boy with other chess players after Fischer won the US Junior Championships in 1957.

The car kept breaking down, and everyone chipped in to have it repaired so that they could keep going. Riding through the hot desert with no air conditioning led to petty arguments, and a fist fight broke out between Bobby and Gilbert Ramirez (who’d taken second place in the United States Junior). Bobby bit Ramirez on the arm, leaving scars that remain fifty years later. (Ramirez proudly displays them, as if to say, “This is the arm that was bitten by Bobby Fischer.”) Eventually, the car broke down entirely and had to be abandoned.

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See what Brady is doing here? It was the heat and the car that did it. Not Bobby. Under normal conditions, Bobby would never have bitten Ramirez. Notice also how Brady conveniently distances the reader from the action (“a fist fight broke out” – as if the fight caused itself). And anyway, it was Ramirez who came out smelling like a rose. I mean, who wouldn’t want a Bobby Fischer souvenir left on his body for the rest of his life? Granted, we don’t know if Bobby started the fight or not (and he reportedly did get a black eye courtesy of Ramirez). However a bite that long and powerful indicates something more than just belligerence or self-defense. If Bobby were my kid (he was 13 at the time) I would have spanked his backside raw, thrown away all of his chess sets, and grounded him for a month for such disgraceful behavior. Genius or no, you don’t act like that.

Only you do, and you can. If Brady’s biography tells us anything it’s that genius has its privileges. And if anything, Bobby took cruel advantage of that privilege almost his entire life.

One of Brady’s best passages describes how in 1960 Brady himself had asked Bobby how he would prepare for some top Soviet players in an upcoming tournament. They were at a pub in Greenwich Village seated in the same room as Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, and John Cage. Fischer got up and sat alongside Brady in his booth and delivered a tour de force of chess memory, insight, and strategy. He spoke at length about his opponents, their games, and dozens and dozens of other games dating from the 19th century to the present. All off the top of his head. Fischer forgot numerous times that Brady was even there as he expertly moved his pieces across his well-worn pocket set.

Brady was a chess player himself, but when Bobby had asked him if he had read a certain Soviet master’s book, Brady responded, “No. Isn’t it in Russian?” Fischer seemed annoyed and urged Brady to learn Russian just so he could read this book.

As Bobby then continued playing and replaying his opponents on his little set and describing every avenue of attack and defense in games both real and imaginary, Brady began to silently weep, because he knew he was in the presence of genius.

Bite me. Bobby, bite me in the arm. Please. And do it hard. Would you please do it hard, Bobby? And leave a mark. Don’t forget to leave a mark. I want something of you to stay with me for the rest of my life.

Of course, Brady does not omit any of Bobby’s post-retirement ugliness: His asinine rejections of million-dollar purses, his religious kookery, his obsessive anti-Semitism, his pig-headed slander of Karpov and Kasparov (the chess champions who followed him), his ingratitude towards his friends and hosts, his little-known philandering. Fischer was a jerk, plain and simple.

Brady relays a story about how Fischer visited the home of a friend during his seclusion in the late-70s. Fischer was moving around a lot at the time and was relying more than he should have on the charity of others. Shortly after arriving Fisher makes a long distance phone call and stays on the line for four hours. And when his host told him that he couldn’t afford such a call, Fischer was offended and stormed out, never to talk to him again.

So how to make such a person likeable? Well, Brady makes an admirable effort. He delves into Bobby’s religious doubts and various regrets. He mentions how Bobby might have been depressed at some point. He goes to great lengths to show that Bobby and his mother had a positive and loving relationship up until her death in the late 1990s. (Regina Fischer had often been described as overbearing and a negative influence on Bobby.) He faithfully describes Bobby’s haunts in places like California, Hungary, Japan, the Philippines, and Iceland, where he died in 2008. He tells of how Bobby doted on his Japanese wife Miyoko Watai. He gives us a harrowing account of Bobby’s arrest in Japan in 2004. He even describes the books Bobby was reading in Iceland leading up to his death, as if to prove that Bobby was more well-read than people gave him credit for.

This is all fine and good. If anything, Brady proves that Bobby Fischer could sometimes be a perfectly nice guy, as long as you weren’t Jewish and you left him alone. But there are two other things that make Brady’s job a lot easier. One is Bobby’s genius and nigh-invincibility on the chessboard. No more needs to be mentioned of that. And two is Bobby’s death.

Remember that scene in Disney’s Jungle Book in which Baloo the bear supposedly dies after helping vanquish Shere Kahn the tiger? Bagheera the panther delivers a touching eulogy to Baloo’s memory to the boy Mowgli, only to heap scorn back on Baloo once he realizes that the bear isn’t really dead after all.

Bobby’s death makes Brady’s job as a biographer that much easier. Fischer is no longer a threat to anyone and there can be no redemption, no heroic return. His story is finally over. There is only what was, and we take of it what we find useful. Fischer’s greatness is useful to many of us. It reminds us that we can stand alone…against the odds, against the societal bureaucracy that is mankind, against whatever it is that oppresses us or tells us that we cannot be what we want to be. Everything else can be forgotten or left to fade away like teeth marks on an arm.

So if Frank Brady tries a little too hard in his wonderful biography to make Bobby Fischer a sympathetic character, we should forgive him. Just like we do for Bobby.

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Modern Lit and Me

My typical mantra when it comes to modern literature is that it usually disappoints. And by “modern” I mean anything published during or after 1960. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't enjoy modern literature. I've posted about recently published novels I've enjoyed here and here. There are others as well, of course. It's just that with modern novels I tend to wrap my mind around them pretty easily and always find much to criticize. Upon reflection, the characters and situations seem to take a backseat to style of some sort, whether it’s structure, prose, or attitude. And to me, that’s cheap. Either that, or I have a blind spot where familiarity breeds contempt, and modern fiction just doesn't do it for me for that reason.

Keep in mind I'm talking only about literary fiction, as opposed to genre or historical fiction. My favorite novels fall this category: Moby Dick, The Possessed, Huck Finn, The Secret Agent, The Plague. Pretty much the A-list from your high school AP lit and college survey classes. So finding the next great literary novel is a real holy grail for me. The search and its inevitable disappointments evoke a loneliness as well, making me feel, as Brian Wilson once sang, “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.”

Why do I react more strongly to-and feel closer too-long-winded Russian, English, or French novels from the 19th century than I do to the supposedly great works of today? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with for fifteen years. I mean, I don’t want to be a curmudgeon. I don’t want to live in the past. And I certainly don't wear the burden of constant disappointment like a badge of honor. But when I meet someone who raves on and on about a fashionable literary novel that I know to be a piece of bombastic, pretentious hackwork, well, I can never take that person’s literary tastes seriously.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

My typical mantra when it comes to modern literature is that it usually disappoints. And by “modern” I mean anything published during or after 1960.

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Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy modern literature. I’ve posted about recently published novels I’ve enjoyed here and here. There are others as well, of course. It’s just that with modern novels I tend to wrap my mind around them pretty easily and always find much to criticize. Upon reflection, the characters and situations seem to take a backseat to style of some sort, whether it’s structure, prose, or attitude. And to me, that’s cheap. Either that, or I have a blind spot where familiarity breeds contempt, and modern fiction just doesn’t do it for me for that reason.

Keep in mind I’m talking only about literary fiction, as opposed to genre or historical fiction. My favorite novels fall this category: Moby Dick, The Possessed, Huck Finn, The Secret Agent, The Plague. Pretty much the A-list from your high school AP lit and college survey classes. So finding the next great literary novel is a real holy grail for me. The search and its inevitable disappointments evoke a loneliness as well, making me feel, as Brian Wilson once sang, “I just wasn’t made for these times.”

Why do I react more strongly to-and feel closer too-long-winded Russian, English, or French novels from the 19th century than I do to the supposedly great works of today? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with for fifteen years. I mean, I don’t want to be a curmudgeon. I don’t want to live in the past. And I certainly don’t wear the burden of constant disappointment like a badge of honor. But when I meet someone who raves on and on about a fashionable literary novel that I know to be a piece of bombastic, pretentious hackwork, well, I can never take that person’s literary tastes seriously.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

Would it exonerate me a little if I said I couldn’t help it? That I am simply being honest? I certainly wouldn’t say this about other art forms. We are currently in a golden age of serial television. It’s my opinion that the 1990s produced the best situation comedies ever on television. The 1990s can also rival the 1970s for rock music. The best comic art (i.e., graphic novels) has been unsurpassed since the 1980s.

So it’s only literature. Only literature.

The thought that scares me is that the best literary novels were written from 1800 to around 1950 because that was the time when people needed them the most. This was also the period in which they had the most time for literary fiction. This was the Age of the Novel, so to speak, implying that the literary novel today is an antiquated art form that has lost whatever it had that made it crucial to Western culture. Either that, or our society has degraded to the point we can’t appreciate literary fiction the way we used to.

Both options stink, to be honest. And I am not inclined to wholly believe either of them. But the fact remains that a Moby Dick or a Crime and Punishment, if being peddled by an unknown author, would never get published these days. They wouldn’t be worth the risk a publisher would have to face getting them on bookstore shelves. And this is a Bad Thing.

Fortunately, every once in a while I find an amazing modern novel that gives me hope. I have found several that almost make it, as brilliant as they are. Very rarely do I find a novel that seems to be fully-formed as if it had just sprung from the head of Zeus. Disgrace by South African writer J.M. Coetzee is one such novel.

This is an infuriating, maddening novel that will haunt you. After reading it, I replayed it in my mind for days. It won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, and I am surprised that something so raw and something so frankly racial could have garnered such a mainstream accolade. Further, something occurs in it that is so purely evil-and so devastating-that I dare not to give it away to those who haven’t read the book yet.

Suffice to say it’s in my top 5 novels (so far) published since 1960 (the others being A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, and Vienna Days by Kim du Toit).

In 1897, to commemorate the Queen’s silver jubilee, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called “Recessional” which more or less took account of the British Empire at the very zenith of its powers. You can read more about it here. The poem’s point was essentially…well, what is the point of poetry, anyway? Different people read into it different things. The Empire was God’s Will. The Empire is barely holding on. The Empire is too warlike. The Empire is about to fall apart.

This is the genius of Disgrace, only taking place in post-Apartheid South Africa. There’s a lot to talk about with regards to that, and will be the subject of an upcoming post.

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The Savior

In 2007, Eugene Drucker, violinist for the Emerson String Quartet, wrote a novel called The Savior. Tagline: a violinist plays classical music in a German concentration camp during World War 2 as part of a ghastly psychological experiment.

Of course, pathos and tragedy abound in subjects like this one, so it would be really hard to write a boring book on the subject. Even a lesser writer who does enough research could probably come up with some gripping stuff.

But Drucker goes way beyond that. With music being the link between the living and the (let's face it) dead, he delivers its transcendental power on page after page. There are unforgettable passages describing music and how the poor victims of the Nazi camps react to and interact with it. Heartbreaking stuff. Then there's the effect on the maybe-not-so innocent musician himself. You see, he loved a Jewish girl once. But that was in 1934, before things started to go from bad to worse, and before anyone knew how bad it was going to get.

In 2007, Eugene Drucker, violinist for the Emerson String Quartet, wrote a novel called The Savior. Tagline: a violinist plays classical music in a German concentration camp during World War 2 as part of a ghastly psychological experiment.

Of course, pathos and tragedy abound in subjects like this one, so it would be really hard to write a boring book on the subject. Even a lesser writer who does enough research could probably come up with some gripping stuff.

But Drucker goes way beyond that. With music being the link between the living and the (let’s face it) dead, he delivers its transcendental power on page after page. There are unforgettable passages describing music and how the poor victims of the Nazi camps react to and interact with it. Heartbreaking stuff. Then there’s the effect on the maybe-not-so innocent musician himself. You see, he loved a Jewish girl once. ip address websites . But that was in 1934, before things started to go from bad to worse, and before anyone knew how bad it was going to get.

What makes The Savior all the more special is that even its flaws are interesting. It seems that Drucker has yet to master the concept of the story arc, let alone plot. Instead of following the classic Beginning-Middle-End structure, we get Beginning-Middle and are robbed of an appropriate ending. He also stretches believability a smidgeon with the SS officer obsessed with critically analyzing Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, and with the evil commandante who explains his motivations to the protagonist at the very end like a typical comic book villain.

If The Savior has a spiritual cousin, it would probably be Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, just replace Commie bad guys with Nazi bad guys and Freudian psychology with music. Lots and lots of beautiful music in a place where you’d think music doesn’t matter. But it does.

Also, look carefully at the cover above. It’s one of the best book covers I have ever seen.

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The Land Breakers

This is a continuation of my Myth and Experience post from December 2010…

Film critic Andre Bazin once came up with an extremely useful analogy. If the purpose of the narrative arts is to get its audience across a stream, then the classical forms are bridges. Each stone, in its placement and dimensions, helps enable the bridge to hold as much as possible with as little as possible. This is elegance of vision and design. So in a good story, every action, every theme, every plot and subplot, and every detail should serve the higher purpose of unifying the experience for the audience.

Remember The Godfather Part II? Early on, old Frankie Pentangeli makes the trip to Vegas to ask Michael for help against the Rosato brothers who were encroaching on Corleone territory back in New York. While waiting for his audience with the young Don, Pentangeli searches the orchestra for one single Italian and, finding it bereft of his paisanos, attempts to lead it in some traditional Italian folk melody. The musicians have a hard time following until they come up with a very American equivalent: “Pop Goes the Weasel”. Pentangeli retreats from the stage in disgust.

So why is this important? Because on one hand you have an amusing scene, but on the other you have the introduction of a crucial theme: Michael Corleone’s separation from his roots and descent into evil. This theme is explored throughout the film, including the flashbacks to Michael’s father a generation ago in Little Italy and culminating with the murder of his brother Fredo. So the scene with the orchestra may not seem important right away, but in hindsight it is. It is a well-placed stone in the bridge that is the entire film.

Bazin’s point was that neorealist films like The Bicycle Thief were not like this at all. Instead of being bridges with some a priori purpose, they were more like rocks that just happen to lie in the stream. Their a posteriori purpose being to support your hands and feet as you amble across as best you can. The experience isn’t so much unified and schematic as real and apparently random just like life. Therein lies its power.

North Carolina writer John Ehle’s The Land Breakers is one such story.

This is a continuation of my Myth and Experience post from December 2010…

Film critic Andre Bazin once came up with an extremely useful analogy. If the purpose of the narrative arts is to get an audience across a stream, then the classical forms are bridges. Each stone, in its placement and dimensions, helps enable the bridge to hold as much as possible with as little as possible. This is elegance of vision and design. So in a good story, every action, every theme, every plot and subplot, and every detail should serve the higher purpose of unifying the experience for the audience.

Remember The Godfather Part II? Early on, old Frankie Pentangeli makes the trip to Vegas to ask Michael for help against the Rosato brothers who were encroaching on Corleone territory back in New York. While waiting for his audience with the young Don, Pentangeli searches the orchestra for one single Italian and, finding it bereft of his paisanos, attempts to lead it in some traditional Italian folk melody. The musicians have a hard time following until they come up with a very American equivalent: “Pop Goes the Weasel”. Pentangeli retreats from the stage in disgust.

So why is this important? Because on one hand you have an amusing scene, but on the other you have the introduction of a crucial theme: Michael Corleone’s separation from his roots and descent into evil. This theme is explored throughout the film, including the flashbacks to Michael’s father a generation ago in Little Italy and culminating with the murder of his brother Fredo. So the scene with the orchestra may not seem important right away, but in hindsight it is. It is a well-placed stone in the bridge that is the entire film.

Bazin’s point was that neorealist films like The Bicycle Thief were not like this at all. Instead of being bridges with some a priori purpose, they were more like rocks that just happen to lie in the stream. Their a posteriori purpose being to support your hands and feet as you amble across as best you can. The experience isn’t so much unified and schematic as real and apparently random just like life. Therein lies its power.

North Carolina writer John Ehle’s The Land Breakers is one such story.

Set in the late 1700’s, the story focuses on the first white settlers in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. There’s Mooney, the strong, silent, clear thinking farmer. His stubbornness keeps his family alive, but it could also kill him. His wife Lorry, pretty and tough, is haunted by a previous marriage and has a hard time not resenting her father who owns a plot of land nearby. Her father, Tinkler Harrison, owns a small number of slaves and much livestock and hence is a station above everyone else. Highly intelligent but pathologically shrewd, he married his teenage niece when he was in his 50s. His brother in-law Ernest is musical and lazy and reared a large brood of girls who suffer from the lack of a good father, or so Tinkler thinks. Their second-oldest Mina is truly beautiful, but restless and rebellious to a fault.

These and others are the people who have to break the land. The rocky, wild, mountainous land. Few today know what that means firsthand, including myself. But it is a gargantuan task that Ehle portrays with brutish clarity. It involves keeping wolves and foxes away from the livestock you’re raising in your backyard. It involves digging a proper privy so others can walk through the forest without incident. It involves knowing which roots and herbs can be used for medicine and which ones can kill you. It involves knowing how to keep your log cabin secure so snakes don’t enter in the dark of night and poison you. It involves keeping eggs and meat fresh for as long as possible in a wretched little kitchen that lacks even a window. It involves sitting on logs when sharing meals because you can’t spare the wood to build a table and chairs. It involves tracking down grizzly bears on their turf with knives and primitive rifles when they terrorize your community. It involves, to quote Rudyard Kipling, the ability to “watch the things you gave your life to broken/And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.”

So the novel strings together more or less unrelated vignettes like rocks in a stream as the land breakers build a town from literally nothing. The process is slow, and they could search for greener pastures in the lowlands. But they don’t. That land’s already been broken, you see. It wouldn’t belong to them.

The only semblance of myth and meaning in The Land Breakers can be found in a later chapter when the entire settlement, led by Mooney and Tinkler, resolves to deliver all their goods and livestock across tortuous and deadly terrain down to the nearest town. This is their very best, the dear dear product of years of bitter toil. It’s their only way of generating real wealth and showing the world, and themselves, that all their sacrifice wasn’t in vain. It’s also the only way to entice more settlers to come and break the land with them. So all the stories encountered thus far in the novel seem to ride on the line with this exodus. Ehle paints it as downright biblical – and it is. If it fails, the settlement is set back further into the wilderness with hearts and bodies, rather than the land, being broken.

The language is blunt and stripped-down but clever, the characters unforgettable, and the circumstances riveting and almost always dangerous. Anything florid or witty gets excised if it was ever there to begin with. By focusing on women as much as men, Ehle comes off as less macho than Hemingway who explored similar themes, but for whom the “Sacred Land” was mostly masculine territory. For The Land Breakers Ehle’s approach is appropriate. Part of the fascination of historical fiction is getting a sense of how people lived years ago, and women are of course no less fascinating than men.

Another important aspect of the novel is its (albeit innocent) political incorrectness. Published in the early 1960s, it portrays Mother Nature as an unforgiving monster who will swallow you whole and forget all about you if you let her. There is no nostalgia for nature in this novel. There is no concern for the rights of wild animals, the things that threaten to chip away at your prosperity or destroy it outright. And trees are there only to be chopped down for firewood, building material, or to make room for more settlers. When breaking the land you need all the help you can get, and sympathy for anything other than humans, pets, and livestock in such circumstances would be downright suicidal. The land breakers engage in an unremitting struggle with the beast that is Mother Nature, the only outcomes of which are either death or the privilege of waking up in the morning and continuing the struggle for another day. All for the vision and hope of what the settlement could one day be.

After you make the rocky journey across the stream that is The Land Breakers, you can look back and see the wet stones you clung to and cut your skin on. They are still just rocks, for the most part strewn across the water at random. Very few of them are well-placed. And that’s okay. For a brief time, thanks to the genius of John Ehle, you were a land breaker yourself. And you made it across the stream. You made it across the stream.

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The Indiana Bounce

Most kinds of humor depends upon the old switcheroo: You expect one thing and get another. Puns work this way by deliberately confusing two very different words that sound the same. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest might be one of the most sublime expression of puns in literature, with “earnest” alternating between name and adjective to serve the needs of the story's hilariously Byzantine plot. Slapstick goes a long way with switching things as well. People are supposed to stand, not fall down. They're supposed to eat pies in pieces coming at them two miles an hour, not all at once and at twenty. Subtext also works wonders in this regard. Remember the SNL Colonel Angus skit? Those aristocratic Southerners waiting for the good Colonel to come home from the war kept talking about one thing. But by the way they pronounce Colonel Angus's name in that highfalutin Southern drawl, you realize quickly that they're talking about something completely different. And the clever way in which this pretext is maintained snowballs the humor for a good five minutes.

The list goes on, of course. My purpose here however is to discuss another kind of comedy, a kind that rarely gets discussed but should. I call it the Indiana Bounce. It's inspired by Indiana Jones' reaction to a joke in an often overlooked scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Most kinds of humor depends upon the old switcheroo: You expect one thing and get another. Puns work this way by deliberately confusing two very different words that sound the same. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest might be one of the most sublime expression of puns in literature, order with “earnest” alternating between name and adjective to serve the needs of the story's hilariously Byzantine plot. Slapstick goes a long way with switching things as well. People are supposed to stand, viagra not fall down. They're supposed to eat pies in pieces coming at them two miles an hour, nurse not all at once and at twenty. Subtext also works wonders in this regard. Remember the SNL Colonel Angus skit? Those aristocratic Southerners waiting for the good Colonel to come home from the war kept talking about one thing. But by the way they pronounce Colonel Angus's name in that highfalutin Southern drawl, you realize quickly that they're talking about something completely different. And the clever way in which this pretext is maintained snowballs the humor for a good five minutes. The list goes on, of course. My purpose here however is to discuss another kind of comedy, a kind that rarely gets discussed but should. I call it the Indiana Bounce. It's inspired by Indiana Jones' reaction to a joke in an often overlooked scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. French Archaeologist Rene Belloq is about to bury Indiana Jones in a crypt filled with snakes and shouts down before sealing it: “Who knows, Doctor Jones? Some day even you might be worth something.” Jones' only response is a laugh which quickly dissolves into a curse: “Ha ha ha…son of a…” The switcheroo here is going from the Funny to the Not-Funny and back to the Funny again. Hence the term “bounce”. Belloq, that annoying French archaeologist who wants seal Indiana Jones to his doom, cracks wise about is his soon-to-be erstwhile colleague. And it's a funny crack. You see, the two were students together in archaeology school. They knew each other. And, as men are wont to do, they vie for the alpha position by seeing who can deliver the most devastatingly clever putdown of the other. Belloq does three things here. A) Asserts that Indiana Jones is a poor archaeologist (the point of the barb, so to speak). B) Suggests Jones' only hope of accomplishing anything in the field is to be buried in a crypt for a thousand years, and then get discovered like any other artifact. (Funny! Ha ha!) C) Wraps the entire delivery in the guise of a compliment. (Boy, those French are a sophisticated bunch, aren't they?) But if you think about it, Belloq actually delivers his putdown in reverse order, from C to B to A. And this is important for reasons we will discuss in a moment. But first, let's step back a bit. Typically, such insults are not meant to hurt. They are delivered so flippantly and pleasantly they can't possibly be genuine, and the recipient should realize this. For example, I once witnessed a conversation between an aspiring filmmaker and his poet roommate. The poet entered the apartment while the filmmaker was screening one of his early efforts to some friends, a low-budget, ultra-violent farce with lots of gore and unmotivated hysteria. Clearly, a piece of questionable quality, even as schlock. After watching for a few moments, the poet asked the filmmaker how it felt to have accomplished his greatest work at such a young age. The filmmaker laughed. Despite being told in front of his friends that he was a bad filmmaker, he still laughed. Why? Because the poet's jibe, like Belloq's, was a putdown artfully disguised as a compliment. This is why Indiana Jones laughs as well. Only he soon realizes that the joke is on him in the most permanent possible way and is therefore Not Funny. Plus, he's an ophidiophobe about to die in a snake pit. Hence the reduction to profanity. Remember when I mentioned the importance of delivering the putdown in reverse order? It's important because Jones has to wait until Belloq finishes his graceful insult before realizing that he is indeed the butt of two jokes: He is a bad archaeologist and soon to be a dead one. This is why Jones laughs and swears at the same time. Supposing Belloq had instead said the following before sealing the crypt: JONES: Belloq! BELLOQ: You know, Dr. Jones, you always were a bad archaeologist. In fact, the only way I can imagine your having an impact in our field is if you are buried here and then your remains are discovered in a thousand years with other artifacts of our age! You can thank me later! Ha! Ha! JONES: That's not even funny! Exactly. There's nothing for Jones to laugh at here and no descent into the Not-Funny because the scene never rises to the Funny to begin with. Belloq's revised parting shot says the same thing as what's onscreen, only it's inelegant and obvious. It's not funny, and so under these circumstances there is no switcheroo to make it funnier. Therein lies the humor of the Indiana Bounce. Taking something funny and making it funnier by making it not funny. Or, put more intuitively: a condition that plummets from the Funny to the Not-Funny, and then bounces back to the Funny as soon as the audience hears the splat. One instance I can remember of the Indiana Bounce being used to great effect in a sitcom was in an episode of Hogan's Heroes. The bette-noir of all the Nazi officers, the one thing they never liked to talk about, of course, was the dreaded Eastern Front. So when a visiting general threatens to send Colonel Klink there, someone informs him that “you don't go to Eastern Front. Eastern Front come to you!” The look of horror on the officers' faces as they contemplate the unfunny ramifications of this little witticism is preciously funny. Another that I remember is from the Johnny Carson Tonight Show when Carson was interviewing a very young Drew Barrymore, probably right after the release of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Carson asked her if her parents ever watched the Tonight Show and Drew responded naively that, yes, in fact, they did watch the Tonight Show. She knew this for a fact because they had it on one evening while she was up after bedtime throwing up. Carson's look of dread as he pretended to contemplate people throwing up while watching his show was perfect. He looked up above his guest and raised his eyes even higher, as if appealing to a greater power while knowing that no such appeal is even possible. This, I call the Carson Glare, and I use it in conjunction with the Indiana Bounce whenever I can. And if you can humor me for one more paragraph I shall provide an example. Once I was a soccer coach for a team of four- and five-year-olds. In one particular game, they were getting outplayed, but just barely. So it was a frustrating, painful loss with the score ending up

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to be something like 4-2. Then, with seconds left, our three best players allowed a completely unnecessary goal. Basically, one of the other kids kicked lame little grounder that wasn't even on its way to the goal. But in a series of Keystone Cop moments of utter incompetence, my kids guided the ball into their own net. They did this by tripping on the grass, falling on the ball, and crashing into each other all at the right moments. The ball stopped short the moment it eked its way into the goal. I couldn't believe it. It's funny thinking about it now. But then, well… The kids all looked to me to see how I would react to such a pathetic display. And so I looked up above them and raised my eyes even higher, as if appealing to a greater power while knowing that no such appeal is even possible. And the kids laughed. They laughed because of the Carson Glare and the Indiana Bounce.

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Most. Overrated. Novella. Ever.

So I’m gonna tell you a story. Really, it’s one of the most amazing stories ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that's really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here it is then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

So there I was on a boat with these other guys. And one of them, this guy Marlow, told the most amazing story ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that's really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here's what he said. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

Marlow here. I’m gonna tell you three guys a story. Really, it’s one of the most amazing stories ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here it is then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

So there I was, there I was, there I was…in the Congo. Boy, was it dark. I was a steamship captain going up river to work at a trading station that deals in ivory. Not a whole lot happened, other than the darkness. Did I say that it was dark? Got waylaid for about a month. Met a few dubious individuals. They all talked about my future boss, Kurtz. Saw a lot of suffering. Still pretty dark. Heard that Kurtz was going nuts. Heard he took charge of a tribe. They attacked us with arrows. We found him. He was nuts, all right. And sick, muttering, “The horror! The horror!” right before he died. It was too bad, and still pretty dark over there. Didn't have the heart to break his last words to his fiancé. So I told her he died calling her name.

So that's my story. It would have been too dark to tell her the truth. Too dark.

When Marlow finally shut up, I looked out towards the horizon, and it was pretty dark.

So that's my story. The end. Pretty dark, huh?

So I guess that if you're still with me by now you've probably guessed that the most overrated novella ever must be Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I have read this novella three times now. Or, I should say, I remember reading it three times. The story itself, not so much.

So I’m gonna tell you a story. Really, it’s one of the most amazing stories ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that’s really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here it is then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

So there I was on a boat with these other guys. And one of them, this guy Marlow, told the most amazing story ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that’s really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here’s what he said. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

Marlow here. I’m gonna tell you three guys a story. Really, it’s one of the most amazing stories ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here it is then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

So there I was, there I was, there I was…in the Congo. Boy, was it dark. I was a steamship captain going up river to work at a trading station that deals in ivory. Not a whole lot happened, other than the darkness. Did I say that it was dark? Got waylaid for about a month. Met a few dubious individuals. They all talked about my future boss, Kurtz. Saw a lot of suffering. Still pretty dark. Heard that Kurtz was going nuts. Heard he took charge of a tribe. They attacked us with arrows. We found him. He was nuts, all right. And sick, muttering, “The horror! The horror!” right before he died. It was too bad, and still pretty dark over there. Didn’t have the heart to break his last words to his fiancé. So I told her he died calling her name.

So that’s my story. It would have been too dark to tell her the truth. Too dark.

When Marlow finally shut up, I looked out towards the horizon, and it was pretty dark.

So that’s my story. The end. Pretty dark, huh?

So I guess that if you’re still with me by now you’ve probably guessed that the most overrated novella ever must be Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I have read this novella three times now. Or, I should say, I remember reading it three times. The story itself, not so much. If not for this blog post, which forces me to remember, I probably would have forgotten it once again. That’s because, frankly, it is a murky, forgettable story. While a lot happens from an ideological standpoint, very little happens from an objective standpoint, and that’s what I primarily care about.

Okay, so what does this mean? It means that if you are sympathetic with a certain ideology (in this case, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism), then Heart of Darkness leaves you with enough clues and themes to reinforce this ideology and make you feel vindicated after reading. But if you are completely ignorant or apathetic to this ideology, then the story will sink into tedium like quicksand.

More on this as we go along.

From a technical standpoint, my objections to the story are twofold: lack of action and unnecessary degrees of separation. Let’s get the latter one out of the way first, since it’s the more easily summarized.

Basically, you have three levels of separation (or complication) between the author and the story. It goes from author, to anonymous narrator, to Marlow, to the Congo, to the reader.

Now why do we need this? Couldn’t we just have made Marlow the narrator and have him tell the story as it happened? Couldn’t all of Conrad’s important plot points still be covered with this more direct approach? After all, it is Marlow’s story. All this anonymous narrator business and the fact that Marlow is recalling his African adventures of long ago before a curiously quiet group of colleagues only separates the reader further from the story.

I can think of one reason such a separation could increase the novella’s appeal: it reinforces the distance between Europe (where most of Conrad’s readers were located) and the locus of the story: Africa, the heart of darkness itself. Africa: haunted by the specter of colonialism and ravaged and raped by imperialism. Africa: where bad, greedy Europeans go to lose their souls and where good Europeans filled with good European good intentions supposedly go to lose their minds. In so doing Conrad increases the exotic nature of the story, enhances its sense of adventure and mystery, and makes a very clear point that despite taking place thousands of miles away, this heart of darkness really exists within all of us. You see? Far away become really really close. I believe literature professors refer to such an obvious literary device as irony.

Okay, so what?

This only matters if you are either a committed colonialist or a committed anti-colonialist (or imperialist, but whatever). This only matters if you subscribe to a certain ideology before reading the story. But what if you don’t? What if you’re neither pro- or anti- in this debate? What if you’re some 8th grade kid armed only with a tabula rasa and hopes that this story will have something interesting in it unlike the last dusty tome they just made you read? Better yet, what if you’re a literature lover in India or East Asia who’s looking for a universal story about the human condition and don’t have time to weigh yourself down beforehand with ideological English baggage from a hundred years ago?

In that case you would be out of luck. Wouldn’t you?

My second complaint is this: Nothing happens. Or, really, when things finally do start to happen towards the end of the story, the reader is too beaten down by boredom to care. Marlow gets a job in Africa. Goes there. Waits. Goes part of the way to Kurtz’s station. Waits some more. Goes a little further. Waits some more. Finds a book about shipping. Continues searching for Kurtz and waiting. Meets some raving Russian guy. Then the action begins: they get attacked by Kurtz’s tribe. One of the ship’s crew is killed. They find Kurtz. He escapes. They find him again and put him on the boat. He says, “The horror, the horror.” He dies. A year later, Marlow tells Kurtz’s still-grieving fiancé that his last words were her name.

Now, is it me? Or is this tea a little weak?

Of course, Conrad tries to liven it up by constantly reminding us of how dark it is along the Congo River, even in broad daylight, and converts his novella into a veritable thesaurus of darkness. He uses the words “dark”, “darkly”, or “darkness” 56 times both metaphorically and otherwise. “Black” he uses 33 times apart from a racial or skin-color context. Variations on “night” he uses 30 times. He uses “shadow” or “shadowy” 20 times and “gloom” or “gloomy” 14 times. Similar terms include “dusk”, “dim”, “murky”, “unlit”, “obscure”, and “pitch”.

I’m reminded of a Woody Guthrie album called Dustbowl Ballads wherein 8 out of the 15 songs all have “dust” in the title: “Dust Storm (Dust Storm Disaster)”, “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues”, “Dust Can’t Kill Me”. “Dust Pneumonia Blues”, “Dust Bowl Refugee”, “Dust Bowl Blues”, “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues (alternate take)”, and the ever-popular “Dusty Old Dust”. Something tells me that this is a concept album about dust.

The problem with this darkness motif in Heart of Darkness is not just that it is overdone and blatant, but that it is entirely manufactured by the author. It comes from Conrad, through the narrator, and finally through Marlow rather than stemming from the action itself. In other words, Conrad pulls it out of his bag of tricks in order to drum up tension and compensate for the chicken scratch plot line he’s making us follow. This happens in horror movies a lot, except in horror movies the payoff is never too far away. In Heart of Darkness there really is no payoff. With all the creepiness, with all the macabre language and depictions of foreboding landscapes, you’d expect some grand finale, some catastrophic yet thrilling event from which Marlow barely escapes a completely changed man. Instead, the story dissolves before your eyes like a dream upon waking. Instead, Marlow finds Kurtz and takes him away. An anticlimactic ending like this threatens to leave a reader wondering where the story went.

So if Heart of Darkness is so underwhelming, why is it canonized? Why is it force-fed to millions of high school students across the English-speaking world? Why is it considered great? Well, for one, it’s not a bad story by any means. It’s a serious work of historical importance. If you’re looking for a portrayal of colonialism in fiction, you could do a lot worse than Heart of Darkness. If you’re paying attention, you can also tease out a lot of meaning in the story’s recurring themes. You will have no trouble finding such exegeses on the internet. Also, I do kind of like how Conrad builds tension by having people incessantly talking, whispering, muttering, cursing the name of the mysterious Kurtz pages and pages before we meet him. H.P. Lovecraft uses a similar device pretty well in Call of Cthulhu and other stories, and may very well have taken a page or two out of the book of Joseph Conrad.

I think the main cause for the novella’s canonization however is ideological. Most people in the academy assign Heart of Darkness because they agree with its perceived ideological message: Colonialism is Bad, imperialism is Bad, and because Europeans engage in colonialism and imperialism they have become Bad. Their hearts have become full of darkness, you see.

Now, you may agree with this or not, but it does not refute the claim that Heart of Darkness is propped up by ideology for its chief appeal. This means it will not last as a work of fiction since the expanse of time exhausts all ideologies. At some point in the future, when readers will have less emotion invested in colonialism or imperialism, Heart of Darkness will have to stand on its merits. And when that happens it will be exposed for its manifest limitations, no matter how dark Joseph Conrad makes it out to be.

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Master and Commander

I always find it curious when a novel breaks literary rules it is supposed to follow, and yet is successful. I’m filled with admiration for the author and bafflement for the work. It’s great such things get published. But I can’t help thinking, “How? How did such a book get past agents and editors?”

I have just finished Master and Commander, published in 1969 and written by English author Patrick O’Brian. After about 20 pages, I realized that this one such novel. It violates what I would call three pretty big rules for successful stories, yet was so popular it spawned 20 sequels. The Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin stories are loved across the English-speaking world. They also famously inspired a Russell Crowe blockbuster movie in 2003. The series chronicles the nautical adventures and intrigues of a very clever English sea captain (Aubrey) and his surgeon/naturalist friend (Maturin) during the Napoleonic wars. Imagine Captain Kirk with Bones McCoy raised to the level of Spock but being more of an all-around Renaissance man and you would have a good feel for the camaraderie these two characters share.

This is one of those novels that I did not particularly enjoy, but refuse to condemn simply because I think it did what it sought out to do. That, and it does have noteworthy strong points. I’d like to go over these before I criticize the novel to prove that I don’t believe Master and Commander is a bad novel. Rather, it is just not right for me.

I always find it curious when a novel breaks literary rules it is supposed to follow, treatment and yet is successful. I'm filled with admiration for the author and bafflement for the work. It's great such things get published. But I can't help thinking, diagnosis “How? How did such a book get past agents and editors?”

I have just finished Master and Commander, buy published in 1969 and written by English author Patrick O'Brian. After about 20 pages, I realized that this one such novel. It violates what I would call three pretty big rules for successful stories, yet was so popular it spawned 20 sequels. The Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin stories are loved across the English-speaking world. They also famously inspired a Russell Crowe blockbuster movie in 2003. The series chronicles the nautical adventures and intrigues of a very clever English sea captain (Aubrey) and his surgeon/naturalist friend (Maturin) during the Napoleonic wars. Imagine Captain Kirk with Bones McCoy raised to the level of Spock but being more of an all-around Renaissance man and you would have a good feel for the camaraderie these two characters share.

This is one of those novels that I did not particularly enjoy, but refuse to condemn simply because I think it did what it sought out to do. That, and it does have noteworthy strong points. I'd like to go over these before I criticize the novel to prove that I don't believe Master and Commander is a bad novel. Rather, it is just not right for me.

O'Brian's big accomplishment here is the invention of two very likable characters who are nicely placed on a warship where they are bound to amicably butt heads. They probably occupy rungs 1 and 2 of the IQ totem pole of any ship they're on. Jack is brave and clever, but not headstrong. He's always trying to second-guess the enemy, and he's always trying to capture their ships for prize money. Maybe he's a little too loose with the wine. Maybe he's a little too loose with the ladies. He likes Stephen though, and not just as a surgeon. All the bugs and twigs the man collects. The incessant questions about naval goings-on, their shared interest in music. It's a strong yet interesting friendship, and I'm sure this resonates well with O'Brian's readership.

Another accomplishment, just as big if not bigger, is the truth of it all. There is no doubt that O'Brian knew exactly what he was writing about. The history, the culture, the technical details of sailors, ships and seamanship. Contemporary reviews focused on the exact verisimilitude of the story down to the tiniest details and raved about it. Indeed, Master and Commander is a time capsule. There is little that's modern about it other than some of the prose (and even that comes across as baroque at times). O'Brian abstains it seems from inserting any modern sentiment into his writing and focuses on telling the story as it would have happened in 1801 or whenever it takes place. Although this is not the sort of thing that necessarily jazzes me, I do recognize that it is a significant literary feat (and one that is difficult to accomplish).

The last great thing O'Brian brings to the table are the stratagems, gambits, and ploys Aubrey uses to trick the enemy. They are all ingenious, they are all based on deep research, and they almost always work. Hence the Captain Kirk reference. In Master and Commander, Aubrey captains the HMS Sophie, which is little more than a sloop. Often he faces off against ships that are bigger, newer, faster, and carry more firepower. Aubrey will need his wits if he doesn't want to take his crew on a tour of Davey Jones' Locker. And remember that IQ totem pole? It applies to practically the whole ocean it seems. No one is smarter than Jack Aubrey about things naval, and when he has a suspicion about the enemy or the weather or what his ship or crew can or cannot do under certain circumstances, it is almost certain to be right.

So if you like accurate history, atomic-level nautical details, likeable characters, ingenious stratagems, and a hero you can really root for (not to mention some thrilling battle scenes), then Master and Commander is for you.

But it is not quite for me.

For one, I found about a thrid the novel to be incomprehensible. This breaks a big rule for me: make your novel comprehensible. When I'm take on a story, I would like some detail, but not so much that it seems like it's written in another language. This is what it was for me. It seems that for the first several chapters, if you do not have an intimate understanding of all kinds jibs and sails and masts and decks then you will get lost. I honestly don't know how anyone who isn't a naval scholar or lacks experience on a 18th century warship would be able to follow what goes on. Yes, I know that many can; I just don't know how.

I think I gave up trying to closely follow the story when my dictionary failed me for the 5th or 6th time. This was maybe a third of the way through the novel. That's too much work for a reader, to have to constantly consult reference material to follow the action. I started to skim over some of the more baffling passages just to keep from putting the book down (which I was tempted to do several times). I found it amusing that somewhere towards the end a character had died and I hadn't even realize it. I didn't catch on until they were sewing him into his hammock for a watery grave. And I didn't care all that much, either. I was only skimming the baffling bits just so I could follow the main arc of the story. Then I realized there wasn't one. Master and Commander has a beginning and a middle, and that's it. The story is basically about Jack Aubrey's advancement through the ranks of the British Navy as he goes from adventure to adventure with his nerdy pal Stephen Maturin. The story isn't supposed to have an ending.

This leads to my second gripe. Being a serial novel, suspense never truly develops because no matter what happens you always know that Jack and Stephen will live to see another day. So the entertainment value comes not with wondering whether Jack and Stephen will get out of their current predicament, but marveling at how they get out of their current predicament. And there's always going to be a predicament.

Remember Gilligan's Island? You know they were never going to leave the island, right? No matter what an episode promises (or threatens), you can rest assured that in the end the castaways will be in the same place they were at the beginning. This is called the Law of the Expanding Middle. It works great for comedies and soap operas and mysteries and adventure stories, but it is rarely the format for serious literature. In serious literature you usually want main characters to be in a different place when it's all over. The story has to somehow change them (and us) significantly and perhaps even permanently. That is the mark of great literature. You don't get that with Sherlock Holmes stories. You don't get that with James Bond stories. And you certainly don't get that here.

This is not to say that Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Jack Aubrey novels are without merit. Of course, not. These are first-rate genre stories that have impacted millions. People have a need for this kind of thing, and these novels have been delivering for generations. And that's lovely. It's just that I don't have a need for this kind of fiction. I consider it to be intellectual but lightweight entertainment rather than something profound.

While I am willing to concede that my first two objections to Master and Commander are at least partially my problem rather than any legitimate knock on the novel itself, I will stand by my last objection till my dying day as an honest to goodness fault in the work. The novel's ending violates what I consider to be a sacrosanct law of storytelling:

Never take the climax of the story out of the hands of the protagonist.

Master and Commander contains two really big battle scenes towards the end: One in which Jack outwits the crew of a big Spanish vessel and takes it for a prize, and the other in which the Sophie is snuck up upon by 3 French warships, and, despite a brilliant and risky escape effort engineered by Jack, is captured. The remainder of the novel consists of Jack and Stephen sitting it out as prisoners and then getting court-martialed by the British navy. The big climax happens when the admirals let Jack off the hook for being such a capital fellow.

Does anyone else see exactly how lame this is?

Here we have our brilliant and gallant leader ending his story by getting captured and then sitting there at the mercy of others. Jack does nothing to achieve his state of grace. Yes, his crew testified that Jack did all he could to save the ship, but we already know this. All this ending proves is that the navy brass are not entirely unsympathetic to justice. This is more their shining moment than Jack Aubrey's. To slog through such a dense, baffling novel only to be sold a cheap bill of goods at the end was a letdown to say the least.

Yeah, I guess we're supposed to be elated since we share in Jack Aubrey's triumphs and disasters. But I'm not. If the author couldn't be bothered to contrive a climax that keeps Jack in charge of his own fate at the very least, why should I be bothered to care all that much when Jack lucks out in the end? He could have just as easily been hanged or struck by lightning.

This is simply lazy writing, and I am dismayed that so many people don't seem to care. If an author expects a reader to dedicate many hours to his book, he'd better have a worthwhile payoff in the end. That O'Brian doesn't give one is as baffling as some of his prose. And why readers gave him a pass for it is anyone's guess.

That said, I did come away from Master and Commander with a valuable lesson: if an author knows his audience (or if his audience knows him), he can get away with breaking any rule of writing he wants. I am willing to gamble Patrick O'Brian knew his audience well, and that audience (at least in 1969) consisted of a whole generation of English speaking men who were quite knowledgeable about British naval history. If this weren't the case, no publisher would have come near such an arcane yarn as Master and Commander. As long as Patrick O'Brian kept Jack and Stephen likeable, as long as he kept his stories teeming with accurate nautical details, as long as he kept supplying his readership with cracking battle scenes and clever stratagems, and as long as Jack Aubrey always came out on top in the end, then his readership will always love him.

There is something to be admired about that.