Thursday, June 30, 2016

Richard Brautigan, The Lowest Pair, and Thou

If anyone else in the San Francisco Bar area is interested in seeing The Lowest Pair at Doc's Lab on September 8th, drop me a note here or via email (see my Profile). I'd love to meet up with some of you and enjoy the evening together.

I know...bluegrass isn't for everyone, but this is the group I can't stop playing lately. Summer tends to pull me back to my redneck roots. Plus Kendl Winter was nice enough to answer some questions I had about lyrics and references to Richard Brautigan. Short answer: Yes, the references are there. Nice to know I haven't hit complete dotage yet. Although I'm pretty sure it won't be long...

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker

Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker
Knopf, 2016

I was intrigued enough by the premise and approach of this book to overcome my reluctance in reading current fiction. The novel tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes, a 25-year-old British army captain stationed in Afghanistan (the location is not specifically named but it's clear where it is), covering his deployment and then his fight to survive and adapt after stepping on an improvised explosive device. The structure of the novel, though, is told through the "eyes" of 45 objects that touch on his life at some point just before, during, or after the explosion. It's an intriguing approach for such a story and sometimes leads to surprisingly moving moments from inanimate objects. The narrative jumps around in time, adding to the feel of putting together the pieces of a puzzle as you read it. I can't find the quote now, but I remember reading that Parker had said he wanted to tell a story where the chapters could be told in any order, and at that he succeeds. The disorientation the reader can feel at times in this approach mirrors what Barnes feels.

There's usually a distance between the objects and Barnes. Despite many of objects becoming "close" to the protagonist, they usually speak for their own role in the story while at the same time intuiting the feelings of Barnes. This distance is reflected in the detachment or gap in understanding between so many groups and individuals in the book, regardless of ties or affiliation. Despite inhabiting proximate spaces, there are so many gaps, whether between soldiers and civilians (at home or in Afghanistan), officers and enlisted men, doctors/therapists and patients, or several other comparisons. Part of the book's power comes from highlighting this gap in understanding and/or empathy.

It's clear that, just like these objects, the captain is an interchangeable cog, one of many that have come before and others who will come after him. Oftentimes the objects treat him as an another object, calling him by his tag number instead of his name. And therein lies one of the bigger points, I think. A name, an ID number, or a label can help us identify something but it doesn't necessarily follow that we will understand it better. To the specifics here, what makes Barnes special is how he interacts with those around him, whether in his command or locals (Afghanistan or Britain). His experience...what he has seen, done, and gone through...highlights his uniqueness. And Barnes isn't immune from the difficulty in understanding. At times he feels lost in what he is supposed to do or say. One of the funny quirks of the novels is that many of the objects demonstrate an understanding of Barnes better than most human characters.

So back to the narration style. While I think it largely succeeds, there are also several moments where I thought it detracted from the story or didn't quite work. Several of the chapters begin with "I am a ..." or describes its attributes. Other chapters leave you guessing for a while, in a "What's My Line" manner, until it becomes clear what they are. I'm not sure which worked best or worst...I think I wearied of the approach long before the end of the book. The book is uneven at times, although not because of the objects chosen. Some of the least likely objects, describing things in almost flat, unemotional terms, can provide the most moving narrative.

While Barnes is the central focus, many items are associated with other characters. We see Afghan families helping and fighting Barnes and his men. Family members and friends at home grapple to deal with the changes the blast has caused, usually coming up short, while fellow soldiers provide the most support. Professionals work tirelessly to first save Barnes, then help him transition into a new life. The interactions with other people highlights the gap between military and civilian life, where the general population often falls back on cliches to mask their discomfort.

An interesting and engaging first novel. I look forward in seeing where Parker goes from here.


Friday, June 24, 2016

Not All Bastards Are From Vienna by Andrea Molesini

Not All Bastards Are From Vienna by Andrea Molesini
Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar and Patrick Creagh
Grove Press

I don't read much current fiction. The current releases I usually focus on are usually either nonfiction or recent translations of older books. I've been holding off posting on a few recent releases that I've read because I couldn't generate much enthusiasm in posting about them. To overcome that, I was going to post about all of them together, but as usual my comments and quotes made the post too long and unwieldy. Instead, I'll push on and start with this book...

First up is Not All Bastards are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini. Set in the autumn and winter of 1917, the aristocratic Spada household finds itself occupied by opposing armies. First the Germans, then the Austrians appropriate the villa and its grounds as they advance through northern Italy. Their villa in Renfrontolo, a small town north of Venice, becomes a way station for the Central Powers as they bog down in their offensive. Intrigues, mostly related to the war but also in romance, abound.

Molesini has created some engaging characters. At the center is Paolo, an orphaned 17-year old boy living with the extended family at the villa. Quiet and studious, Paolo is treated as a kid, both by his family and the (even more insultingly) by the invading armies. The women in the book are strong, forceful characters. Aunt Maria's steely demeanor is backed by her resolve to have things her way. “I don’t think I ever met anyone more conscious than she of her rank in society. She knew in her innermost being that privileges are paid for by responsibilities, and these were two things to be borne with grace.” Paolo's grandmother acts with a similar steadfastness, treating her husband dismissively most of the time. Compared to her husband's flights of fancy, she asserts, “Real life is my province.” The oddities of Giulia, a distant family member, are overlooked because of her beauty and social standing. “She wasn’t in a madhouse because she was a Candiani, and gentlefolk—at least in those days—did not end up inside. Indeed they were not even mad: simply eccentric.” The role of Renato, a "lame giant" from polio, ends up going well beyond his position as steward of the villa.

Paolo's grandfather steals the show. A wonderful character, he calls himself a Buddhist even though he knows next to nothing about Buddhism. He says he is writing a book (he named his typewriter Beelzebub), but no one believes him. A lover of Gibbon, he became exasperated if anyone contradicted the historian. His speech was full of sayings “from the dictionary of proverbs stored in his head.” His bravado, though, masks a humiliation at his deterioration due to age, especially when the family cook defends him from the Austrians. As usual with such characters, there is some substance behind the masks. A marvelous character.

The book has many of the themes you would expect from such a setting, to which I'll add a few fitting quotes.

  • Occupation, as it relates to the family and to the country: The occupiers make it clear they don't need permission to take what they want. Even so, they exhibit varying levels of courtesy and propriety to the (formerly) well-to-do family. Those further down the social ladder are ignored (at best) or, more likely, abused. 
    • “To be guests of the enemy in one’s own house is perhaps more embittering than the sorrows of exile.” 
    • “[W]e were guests in our own house, reduced to dependence on the goodwill of enemy officers.”
  • The change in social order and classes: the Spada family deals with the change in fortune that the war brings, but hints emerge that things were already changing and will never be the same. 
    • “The Hapsburgs know how to govern; or at least, they did. There are at least fifteen languages spoken within the empire, and it is only loyalty to the emperor that holds the lid on that stew pot. If the ruling house falls—and I tell you that it will—then the various nations grumbling in its belly today will all turn against one another and tear each other to pieces.” 
    • “No one really wanted this war, not the peoples concerned, nor the governments. It just emerged from the boiling pot of dynasties that are decrepit and worn out, but have no, alas, forgotten their old dreams of grandeur. And the spoon that stirred the pot was in the inept hands of diplomats who for generations had dealt only with ordinary matters: ships, railways, money.”  
    • “When this war is over, the world will belong to people him,” said my aunt. “Our earls, our dukes, our gentlemen, and all their vons…so many hulks drifting with the tide; they don’t have—they won’t have any strength left to throw into the battle.” 
    • The grandfather, who had earlier talked about the time of officers controlling things would be replaced with a time of sergeants (reminiscent of Hesiod's ages of man): “And after the time of the sergeants, you’ll see, then will come the time of the corporals of the day.” (Obviously it can be taken several ways, not least of which is a prediction of the rise of Hitler.)
  • The atrocities of war, such as looting, rape, indiscriminate destruction: despite the attempt to retain some sort of social and moral order, once the war starts all such standards get swept away on both sides. Related to the previous point, the insistence on military order by the officers finds its reflection in the Spadas' views on social order. I find it an interesting study on how characters react to these changes. 
    • “Hunger had triumphed over honour.” 
    • “Their gestures, their neatly pressed uniforms, were eloquent expressions of the desire to rescue at least a memory of the courteous old way of life from the hurricane of med and death that was sweeping away nations and families.” 
    • “War also is like a child. A child who every so often shows us what we’ve had before our eyes and never seen, because we’re too careless or cowardly.” 
    • “The fear of hunger was stronger in him than hunger itself.” 
    • “They [soldiers] were empty bodies, perfectly healthy but empty, the soul, incapable of maintaining its grip, long separated from the flesh.”
  • Paolo’s coming of age: maturing is never an easy task, and occurring during such tumultuous times makes it even harder. Writing about it can be even harder. Despite being seventeen, Paolo is still treated as a child by both his family and the enemy. Compounding the slights in being treated this way, he is miserable because of his desire for Giulia. The closest thing Paolo has to a father figure is the steward Renato, who he initially underestimates but comes to respect and envy. I find many approaches on the coming-of-age theme awkward and sometimes cringe inducing. Fortunately, Molesini avoids this for the most part, but I still found Paolo's development stilted...which may be the point.
There are some very good moments in the book, many of the characters intrigued me, and Molesini can deftly turn a phrase. Given all that, I'm not sure why my enthusiasm and recommendation for this book is lukewarm. I enjoyed reading it, but I wonder if all the praise showered on it set my expectations too high. So take my comments with a grain or two of salt (as you should on anything I comment on).
We weren’t at all comforted by the thought that the chickens were a gift. "Nothing comes free of charge, and a gift costs more than anything else": this was one of Grandpa’s axioms, and for years Grandma had insisted that there was a mathematical basis to that truth. I knew that if Grandpa and Grandma agreed on an axiom—something that happened only rarely—it became a law of the universe, neither more nor less certain than the law of gravity.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Gil Roth's podcast with Christopher Nelson, President of St. John's College (Annapolis)

I remember running across St. John's College's website in the late 1990s and being inspired by the reading list they provided. THIS was the liberal arts education I wished I had gotten. It inspired me to take my reading more seriously. This blog, for better or worse, was one eventual outcome.

Gil Roth at Virtual Memories has a podcast episode with Christopher Nelson, President of the Annapolis campus of St. John's College. I highly recommend it. The interview ranges far and wide, covering some of the special challenges Nelson faces at an institution like St. John's, both as its President and when he was a student there, and its goal of cultivating the whole human being.

I could identify a little too well with Roth's statement that he doesn't think he would have been ready for such an undergraduate program straight out of high school. Even though I said it was the education I wished I had worked on, I wasn't ready for such a program at 17, either. I'm impressed by the depth of required reading, and at least it is something I can work on my own toward acheiving. I also liked how Nelson talks about "growing into" certain books and how his view on some have changed over the years.

Anyway, please check out Roth's page for the episode and give it a listen!

Note: Roth makes it clear in the introduction that the current political issues within St. John's College are not addressed in the interview, but I wanted to make sure I highlight it here, too.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

More San Francisco goodness: Archive Live by The Collected Works (Updated)

While I'm posting on things happening in San Francisco this week, I don't want to forget to mention "Archive Live by The Collected Works." The Collected Works is one of my favorite theater groups (better described as collaborative artists) in the San Francisco Bay area, and I've mentioned them before after seeing "Princess Ivona" by Witold Gombrowicz and "The Balcony" by Jean Genet.

Here is the copy of their upcoming performance project this weekend (June 18 & 19):

The Collected Works has been collaborating with The Museum of Performance + Design to develop and perform a new site-responsive performance based on materials found in the Museum’s performing arts archive. The project brings together artists devoted to creating theatrical performances within non-traditional environments and a rare collection representing the rich history of the San Francisco performing arts. It aims to present an innovative response to bringing an archive to life while redefining the boundaries of theater-making and dramaturgy.
What to expect:
Four researcher-artists from The Collected Works will activate materials from our archive through performance. Guided by pre-determined rules, they will explore our stacks and pull materials from our diverse collections. These materials will be intermitently activated by the performing artists through speech, movement or play. Through this real time activation, impromptu narratives will form invoking people, places and histories of the past, and evoking new connections, situations and conditions of human and dramatic interest. Through the durational performance, journals, correspondences, rare books, programs, unpublished manuscripts as well as recordings and visuals from the archive will accumulate in the performance space leaving a visual incremental trace of the remnants of history and the passing of time.
Audience members will be immersed in an environment charged with history and have an extended, novel and three- dimensional experience of words, sounds and images from our archive as re-imagined and brought to life through the artists’ performance methodology, actions and use of space. The durational performance will accommodate a wide and diverse audience and allow for those in attendance to come and go and experience the transformation of the site and of the performers’s engagement on their own time and over time. Archive Life will take place on twice on June 17 and June 18, and will offer a different performance experience each night. Paid admission will give you access to both performance nights.
This project is funded in part by the Zellerbach Family Foundation and W & F Hewlett Foundation
Archive Live by The Collected Works
performed by Tonyanna Borkovi, Renu Cappelli, Michael Hunter, Derek Phillips, and Ryan Tacata.
June 18 and 19, 2016
4:30pm Doors open
5:00pm Performance (duration: 5hrs; audience can come and go for the length of the performance)

Museum of Performance + Design
893B Folsom StreetOpen to the public
General Admission $12 (One ticket gives you access to both performances)
MP+D members $9.50
Questions & info:

Update: Photos and a 28-minute video of some of the performances can be found here.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Heads up for SF Bay Readers: "A Celebration of Bloomsday: Joyce & Jazz"

A few years back I had posted on Melanie O'Reilly's song "I Lose Myself", inspired by James Joyce and the Irish myths that inspired him. I wanted to pass the following flyer along to those in the San Francisco Bay area who may be interested in what sounds like a fun Bloomsday event:

Bloomsday is coming ! and we hope you will join us in celebrating this special  commemoration and celebration of Irish writer James Joyce and his novel "Ulysses" at the wonderful Bird & Beckett  bookstore, a San Francisco cultural institution, which  also host jazz events! See below for info on our own unique upcoming celebration.:

Jazz & Literary Event

"A Celebration  of  Bloomsday: Joyce & Jazz"

Thursday June 16

7.30 - 9.30pm

Featuring celebrated Irish celtic-jazz vocalist
Melanie O'Reilly
Frank Martin on Piano.
with guests:  actors Esther Mulligan & John Ilyin

 Bird & Beckett
653 Chenery St  
San Francisco.CA 94131 
(in San Francisco's Glen Park)

$15 cover charge / $10 seniors and  students

Join us for a unique cultural evening featuring award-winning  jazz singer and songwriter Melanie O'Reilly from Ireland ,who teams with top Bay Area jazz pianist Frank Martin to perform their original music  inspired by the writings of  James Joyce , interwoven with readings from Joyce's works.  They will also include contemporary jazz arrangements of favorite songs that Joyce himself loved and mentions in Ulysses and his other writings.. Joining them  giving voice to Joyce’s language will be the renowned actors ESTHER MULLIGAN and JOHN ILYIN.

"...thoroughly modern take on the jazz tradition....utterly transformative". Ken Kubernik : Music Connection 

Melanie O'Reilly is one of Ireland's foremost jazz singers and her own
unique style of Celtic Jazz , which she has brought to international
audiences, has been described as "A gorgeous sound..Celtic Cadence with a jazz sensibility. " Contra Costa Times and "Breathtaking,... sheer virtuosity" Irish Times.  Her music has been featured in Frontline./PBS documentaries.  and she is
recognised in Downbeat magazine as Ireland's  international jazz
representative having represented Ireland in the European Jazz Festival at UCLA at Schoenburg Hall. She performs in many international festivals in  Ireland , the US, and Europe..  She is also host of Award winning radio show "Jazz on the Bay" for the Irish National Broadasting station, RTE.

Frank Martin:  As an arranger/conductor/keyboardist Frank Martin has
performed and/or recorded with a variety of jazz and popular stars
that include Herbie Hancock.. Sting, Stevie Wonder,  Bobbi McFerrin, James Taylor,Chaka Khan and Patti LaBelle.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Lost in La Mancha (2002)

While we're on the topic of Don Quixote, I wanted to mention Terry Gilliam's umpteenth try at filming a movie based on Cervantes' book. There are many articles available, but here are two I liked: Terry Gilliam on finally filming Don Quixote: 'Adam Driver is bankable! Thank God for Star Wars!' and Video: Watch Terry Gilliam talk Don Quixote at Cannes. I love most of Gilliam's films and find myself returning to them again and again. I realize it's not a style for everyone, and even sometimes I weary of the overwhelming parts.

But I do think he is one of the few directors working now that could do a version of Don Quixote justice, although it seems like the film we be more about the idea of Don Quixote than the book itself. I'm OK with that since people seem to many different ways to read the book. As I mentioned in my post on Mark Van Doren's Don Quixote's Profession, he notes
The sign of its simplicity is that it can be summarized in a few sentences. The sign of its mysteriousness is that it can be talked about forever. It has indeed been talked about as no other story ever was. For a strange thing happens to its readers. They do not read the same book. Or if they do, they have different theories about it.

(As an aside, I've updated my post on Don Quixote's Profession to note that the speeches comprising it can also be found, much cheaper, in Van Doren's The Happy Critic, published in 1961).

Gilliam's trouble in trying to make a Quixote-related film has been well documented (see here for a nice recap of his last attempt), and he's not the only one that encountered trouble on such a project. I decided to watch Lost in La Mancha, the documentary by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe on the ill-fated filming of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. This was Fulton and Pepe's second feature documenting a Gilliam Film: The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys was the first. There was no way they could have known when they started covering Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote that the project would fall apart when the film's star, Jean Rochefort, became too ill and injured to continue filming.

The problems with the project begin early: funding falls through, actors aren't under contract and don't show up for pre-production, and sets aren't as advertised. Assistant Director Phil Patterson stated it well, noting that working on a project with Gilliam was like riding a wild horse. You grab on to the mane and hold on for the ride of your life. The first scene was shot next to a NATO bombing range, so jets disrupt their attempts to film. Then massive rain and hail wash away that set. Rochefort leaves the set after day six of shooting, never to return. Despite initial claims of force majeure, the insurance company reimbursed investors but ended up owning the script. A few of the clips filmed are shown and they barely hint at what might have been. The difficulty in filming a movie, especially one with a strict budget and tight schedule, comes through in every scene. Similar to Cervantes' story, reality keeps intruding on the dream.

Gilliam handles everything thrown at him with aplomb. He has a few "blow up" moments, but they're surprisingly tame in relation to what he's facing. The stand-out moments for me was Patterson putting Jean Rochefort's health above making the film and Terry Gilliam sticking with Patterson even when he didn't agree with him. If watching someone under intense pressure reveals their true nature, these are two outstanding guys.

I found watching Lost in La Mancha frustrating at times, even though I knew exactly how things would turn out, because I wanted them to succeed. And I ardently hope that this go-round will be successful. If you go to rent Lost in La Mancha or check it out from a library, make sure there is a second disc including extras. On it is a 54 minute interview between Salman Rushdie and Terry Gilliam from 2002. It's an entertaining romp through their views on different types of books and movies. I found myself wishing it would go on for much longer.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Don Quixote's Profession by Mark Van Doren

Don Quixote’s Profession by Mark Van Doren
New York: Columbia University Press, 1958. Print.
Drawings by Joseph Low

Mark Van Doren in Quiz Show, answering a question about the meaning of Don Quixote:
"It means, if you want to be a knight, act like a knight."

My great friends do not know me.
Hamlet in the halls,
Achilles by the river
Feasting with the Duke see no one there
Like me, like Mark Van Doren, who grows daily
Older while they look not, change not,
Die not save the deaths their masters made.
- The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren (page 351)

My purpose in this case, and I did to keep it a secret from the class, was to examine the various ways in which the greatest storytellers had put divine things and human things together. The ultimate dimension, I suggested, was given to narrative by the presence in it of gods or their equivalent. In the case of Cervantes I promised that it would be difficult to say what the equivalent was, yet I supposed it was there, or else Don Quixote would not be the supreme novel it is. Reading it slowly in preparation for the course, listening to every word of it in Motteux's joyful translation, I had fallen hopelessly in love with it as I continue every year to do.
- The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren (pages 283-4)
In November 1956, Mark Van Doren gave a series of three lectures at Emory University about Don Quixote. In 1958, Columbia University Press put out this slim volume (just over 100 pages) containing those lectures. Van Doren talks about his reluctance to attempt a talk on Don Quixote since it wasn't just a subject, "It was a world." As he ends his introduction he notes, "This is not all I have to say about Don Quixote, but for me it is the central thing and I am willing to let it go at that." It is a pleasing and challenging little book that I highly recommend for anyone that has an interest in Cervantes.

Van Doren begins with a simplistic synopsis of the book (see the link below to Simon Leys article for that summary). He notes that the novel is "both simple and mysterious" and moves on to his central argument:
The sign of its simplicity is that it can be summarized in a few sentences. The sign of its mysteriousness is that it can be talked about forever. It has indeed been talked about as no other story ever was. For a strange thing happens to its readers. They do not read the same book. Or if they do, they have different theories about it. ...

He suffered from no delusion as to his identity. It was merely that he had been reading many books, and out of them he formed a conception of life as he would henceforth live it if he could. ...

It is well to observe that imitation was his aim. Not impersonation, and not deception. He knew very well who he was. The only question was whether he would be able to act the part he had chosen. (from pages 3, 4, & 5)

That is the focus of his lectures: Don Quixote was not mad—he knew exactly what he was doing when he was imitating a knight. I'm not sure I completely buy into his argument, but it is an extremely fun ride following his thoughts on the book and its central character. He begins by looking at why Don Quixote chose the role of knight. Since he was so well read, he could have imitated a scholar or a shepherd, or even a religious occupation. Van Doren believes Don Quixote chose knighthood as his role because of the learning involved in being one: "The discipline of knighthood was to him the sum of all the arts and sciences; was wisdom itself; was a liberal education." This might present a problem in looking at his role models, such as Amadis of Gaul, who was no scholar. But Amadis didn't have to talk about being a knight—he was one. Wisdom and learning play a part in imitating a knight. As Van Doren mentions later in the lectures, "To act as he [Don Quixote] acts is more than to ape; to imitate as he does is finally to understand."

Van Doren theorizes that Don Quixote "was first and last an actor, a skillful and conscious actor, who wrote his own play as he proceeded and of course kept the center of its stage." Here we run into one of the many similarities with Hamlet. Was he mad because he acted madly? Did he confuse the role he was playing with the role? Early on in the novel, after his first sally, a neighbor farmer finds and rescues Don Quixote. Upon hearing the old man calling himself the names of knightly characters, the farmer tells him that he is only the honorable gentleman Señor Quijana. "Don Quixote answers him with seven famous words. 'I know very well who I am.' This could mean, of course, that he knows he is Baldwin or Abindarez and therefore is mad. But it could also mean just what it says." Possible, but the knight then rambles on about who all he could be, too.

Van Doren mentions the troubling aspect of doing "violence to harmless creatures who get in his way," such as the poor sheep he assaults, mistaking them for armies. Or the funeral procession he disrupts, maiming one of the mourners. It's one thing to risk his own life when tilting at windmills, but something quite different "when he hurts people who in no sense deserve it. His acting now becomes extravagant with a vengeance; his role grows ruthless; he behaves more like a lunatic than like a knight; he is fanatical, as if he thought himself, like Providence, privileged to seem cruel." Van Doren points out there is a rivalry between the concept of behaving outside the law because he is just and the law itself. In order to maintain his role, Don Quixote has to behave in the former manner. And when he does make mistakes, he always blames the misinterpretation of appearances, whether through sorcerers or spells. If things had really been as he had interpreted them, his behavior and actions would have been justified. Van Doren uses this, though, to demonstrate Don Quixote wasn't mad. A madman would have continued these exploits whether or not he thought he could achieve his desires. Don Quixote continues because he believes everything is within his grasp. As he constantly puts it, his goal would have been successful in all of his failures if he had not been deceived. This delusion, then, supports his sanity.

One trait Van Doren points out that proves Don Quixote's sanity is his humor. He is able to laugh, not just at others, but at himself, too. After pointing out several examples, Van Doren states, "So much humor, so easily and so naturally expressed, is not the mark of a madman. It is not demonic humor; it is pleasantry, it is power and wisdom at play... ." Another point Van Doren highlights is that when Don Quixote is alone, which isn't often, "He is controlled and serene." Another is the understanding Don Quixote had of the part he played and his remarkable ability to play it well. If he was a poor actor, we wouldn't be talking about him. Although I have to wonder if he was a superb actor and never failed, would our take on his madness/acting change?

There's also the logic that Don Quixote uses, such as his paying penance in the mountains for Dulcinea. As he explains to Sancho, running mad without a cause shows the perfection of his undertaking. There's a certain logic in his madness, but whether it's of a sane man or a calculating madman I can't say. He understands that pretending isn't actors would say, he has to sell it. We see similar acts of madness in the novel. Carrasco fails to defeat Don Quixote when pretending to be the Knight of the Mirrors because we was a poor actor. He didn't believe what he was doing to the same extent as Don Quixote. The story of Basil winning the hand of Quiteria through his acting skills, though, demonstrates ingenuity in playing a part to earn what he wants, and Don Quixote admires him for it. As the novel progresses, the reader has to wonder which of the other characters are crazy. Characters humoring Don Quixote or trying to outwit him can seem crazier than their target.

As Van Doren concludes, it may be that Don Quixote was the "most perfect knight that ever lived; the only one, in fact, we can believe; but Cervantes never asks us to arrive at that conclusion." One of the most successful of Cervantes' achievements was to save the literature of chivalry and knight-errants by ridiculing it, a treatment that also deepens into a love for the characters he has created. In the move Quiz Show, Charles Van Doren goes to visit his father Mark Van Doren in his classroom. As Charles enters the classroom, his father is answering a question from a group of students (including Ethan Hawke, who recently wrote a book concerning knights) about what Don Quixote is about. "It means, if you want to be a knight, act like a knight," the elder Van Doren replies, and I can think of no better summary for this entertaining book. I enjoyed the confidence he has in his arguments, even when I don't fully agree with him.

I am hopeful someone is able to put these lectures back in print. (Hint hint NYRB Classics!) Very highly recommended.

Other works mentioned in this post:

  • The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren by Mark Van Doren. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958. Print.
  • "The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote" by Simon Leys. The New York Review of Books, June 11, 1998 issue
  • Quiz Show. Burbank, CA: Hollywood Pictures Home Video, 1994.

Update (23 May 2016): After looking high and low for a copy of Don Quixote's Profession I could afford, I gave up and requested a copy via interlibrary loan. My post is based on the original book. I have since found out that Van Doren's The Happy Critic contains the text of Don Quixote's Profession and can be found for much cheaper prices. It does not contain Van Doren's introduction or Joseph Low's illustrations, but for the difference in price (under $10 vs. greater than $50 for DQP), I wanted to post about this avenue of availability. I hope to post on some of the other essays in The Happy Critic soon.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare

Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare
Edited by Daniel Hahn and Margarita Valencia
Introduction by Salman Rushdie
Los Angeles: And Other Stories, 2016. Paperback.


For this anthology, publisher And Other Books commissioned six Spanish-speaking writers to write stories inspired by Shakespeare and six English-speaking writers to do the same for Cervantes. The impetus behind the project being, of course, the 400th anniversary of the death of each writer on the "same day" (or a day apart), although with England was using the Julian calendar and Spain the Gregorian system, which meant they died approximately ten days apart. Regardless, it's close enough to support such a project.

I've commented before that most fiction I read can easily tie back to Cervantes, and that's not just true of the Cervantes-based stories in this collection but the Shakespeare-based stories, too. And I guess you could say several of the Cervantes-based stories show touches of Shakespeare as well. All of which reflects the importance of the two on current authors. One thing that comes across in each story is the universal nature of Cervantes and Shakespeare. Stories are based from the modern day back to the early 17th century, in locations all around the world, and all of them seem fresh and current. It's a fine collection highlighting the pervasiveness of each author.

The opening story by Ben Okri, "Don Quixote and the Ambiguity of Reading," perfectly sets the tone for the collection. The knight shows up at a printing shop and reads about his adventures as written by a Ben Okri from oral histories as well as from "manuscripts originally written by Cervantes, who wrote his from papers he discovered by Cide Hamete Benegeli, who got it from an Arabic manuscript." The matryoshka doll-like nesting of narration calls up Part I of Don Quixote while visiting the printing shop borrows from Part II. But this Don Quixote tries to teach Ben Okri how to read, which is, in large part, what Don Quixote is all about. This crazed version of the knight notes," Reading is about understanding that which cannot be understood, which the words merely hint at." The fact that the pages he read contained nothing like what he said he read makes the narrator wonder, "There still remains some doubt as to whether his reading of this secret reality is a consequence of his madness, or whether our inability to read it is a consequence of our dimness." I feel his pain.

There are other Cervantes-based stories from Don Quixote and his Exemplary Novels. Rhidian Brook's "The Anthology Massacre" tells of the narrator's completion of a novel told from Rocinante's point of view, obliquely references the collection of stories we're reading, and has a bodycount that would make Shakespeare envious. Kamila Shamsie creates the storyteller Mir Aslam, who seems to share characteristics of both Don Quixote and Cide Hamete Benegeli. Nell Leyshon and Deborah Levy start with "The Glass Graduate" from the Exmplary Novels, but take the premise in different directions, each of which touch on the psychosis of the original.

There is a similar range in the stories based on Shakespeare. Marcos Giralt Torrente's "Opening Windows" borrows heavily from Hamlet, especially the play-within-a-play device. Vicente Molina Foix's "Egyptian Puppet," set in Shakespeare's London, tells of a couple going to the Globe Theater to watch Antony and Cleopatra. The next morning the husband, a jailer, leaves for work but is never seen again. His wife moves on with her life, yearning for the man who once was while suffused in melancholy (very A&C-like). In the link above to "The Dogs of War," Juan Gabriel Vásquez gives us real life characters stepping directly from Julius Caesar into 1984 Bogotá, Colombia, filling their roles a little too convincingly.

Valeria Luisella's "Shakespeare, New Mexico" took a while to grow on me, but it gradually became my favorite Shakespeare-based story. A ghost town off the beaten path has become a tourist attraction with actors re-enacting historical characters and events. The catch is that the actors are permanently in character, even when there are no tourists present. The narrator plots to commit adultery with Billy the Kid while one character opts for a Mickey Mouse costume instead of historical dress. That's when things turn weird. Each actor tends to strut and fret upon their own stage of life.

Lunatics, Lovers and Poets proves to be a fine collection that commemorates Cervantes and Shakespeare and their continuing influence, not just on these writers but on all of us. Recommended.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,
are of imagination all compact.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Friday, May 13, 2016

Simulation Games in the Classroom

A few years ago, Dr. James Lacey, professor of Strategic Studies at the Marine Corps War College, contacted me about my series of posts on Thucydides. It was and remains one of the high points in blogging for me. So I wanted to share a recent article of his that looks at the difficulty in teaching Thucydides. While his focus is specifically on the war colleges, I think it's an important lesson for both teaching and history in general. The article is "Wargaming in the Classroom: An Odyssey" at

Dr. Lacey recounts his early experience attempting to teach Thucydides and how the standard teaching approach didn't prepare students to answer questions like “Was the attack on Syracuse poor strategy, or good strategy marred by poor execution?” His recent approach freed up classroom time in order to play a wargame that included economic and diplomatic elements. Out of the five Athenian teams playing the game, four of them attacked Syracuse despite the real-life disaster 2,500 years ago. In explaining their rationale for choosing to invade, the students pointed out legitimate strategic reasons for doing so, something Dr. Lacey notes that the standard approach didn't adequately impart to students. He also shares some of the other games and simulations he chose for other conflicts. Despite students chuckling over the stupidity of European leaders getting drawn into World War I, every time he has run the simulation the armies have arched.

He mentions a few revelations the students had realized after playing these games and simulations, but I'll just share this one paragraph:
At the end of each wargame, students walked away with a new appreciation of the historical circumstances of the period and the events they had read about and discussed in class. And even though all wargames are an abstract of actual events, I am sure that no student exposed to historical gaming will ever again read about the Peloponnesian War without thinking about Sicily’s wheat, the crucial importance of holding the Isthmus of Corinth, or what could have been done with a bit more Persian silver in the coffers of one side or the other’s treasury. Similarly, the next time one of this year’s students reads about Lee and Grant in 1864, they will also be thinking about how the truly decisive actions took place out west. For, as it was during the actual conflict, in every game the students played, Grant’s role was to pin down the Army of Northern Virginia, while the western armies ripped out the economic heart of the Confederacy.

I recommend reading the whole article even though I doubt any of my readers will attend a war college. The lessons learned that Dr. Lacey presents can be used for any history course. For history this year my kids participated in a co-op class that several homeschool parents pulled together. One parent, a former teacher, had the children do an ancient civilization game that the kids loved. In trying to insure their civilization lasted, they had to deal with resource and money constraints and I think they realized the trade-offs rulers/governments have to face when making such decisions. I definitely plan on including such games in our future courses.

If you have experience with any of these types of games or simulations (as a teacher or student), I would love to hear from you in the comments!

Sidenote: Evidently Dr. Lacey stirred up a hornet's nest at other war colleges with some of the statements in his article. If you have time, you may want to check out an article by Professors James Holmes and John Maurer as well as Dr. Lacey's reply in the Comments.