Thursday, August 25, 2016

Mozart: A Life by Paul Johnson

 Guess what has come to live in my "salon" as a birthday present from my One and Only?



He also got me these:


     And a cake but that didn't last long enough to photograph.

 The piano is a 1981 Baldwin 6 foot 2 grand.  I gave away my 1920 Knabe player piano to a good home and upgraded.  We searched far and wide for a piano that possessed all the qualities I want: even action, bell like tone in the upper register, deep resonant bass and we finally found it in a piano that had been in a recording studio for many years.  It is such a blessing to play on this, especially since I have two recitals coming up, including one this Friday!




Yes ladies and gentlemen I am dishing out yet another biography of Mozart and I'm not even through reading all the biographies I've read on the man (I'm saving Otto Jahn's three volume work for last).  

The author of this book, Paul Johnson, believes that Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A K622, is the most sublime of his works so I create a link here for your listening pleasure.  The clarinet doesn't come in immediately so, as they say, wait for it.


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Some of you may be thinking what else can anyone say about the guy.  We have a sentimental chronological time line dramatized with great license from Marcia Davenport.  We have a thorough and exhaustive description of the cultural surroundings and political climate in Robert Gutman's Mozart:  A Cultural Biography.  What is lacking?

How about a biography that focuses solely on the composer's music? 

Paul Johnson's book is short, a mere 164 pages long.  But each chapter goes into different parts of Mozart as a composer and how he mastered every part of music writing.

The first chapter discusses his ability to create music when he was still young.  Chapter two goes into great detail as to how Mozart mastered most of the instruments of the orchestra and consequently catered his writing to the unique attributes each instrument possessed. 

 He was quite flexible.  If a certain orchestra was lacking in, say, clarinets, then he quickly rewrote the work to accommodate what wind instruments were available.  Or not.  Sometimes he transcribed the parts to another section altogether.  Some orchestra works are the same piece with the emphasis on the brass and others on the reeds, each successful with the diverse timbre coloring that comes with each family of instruments.

Johnson does not avoid timelines completely.  In addition to meticulously recording what compositions were written when and where, he also includes, in Chapter Three, when Mozart lived in Salzberg, Paris, London or Vienna. He writes of his marriage to Constanze and how that affected his composing.

Chapter four is about Mozart's operas, when and how they were written.  It is interesting that even though some of Mozart's greatest compositions were instrumental, what carried his career were his operas.  He wrote twenty-three operas, four in the last few years of his life, two in his final year (and his first when he was only ten). 

The last chapter concerns Mozart's death.  Johnson attempts to dispel prevailing myths, such as Mozart died a pauper and alone.  According to Johnson, many people attended his funeral and he was buried as most people were then, in a public burial lot.

It is interesting that Johnson has a different take on Mozart's father Leopold than the previous biographers who cast him in an ill-favored light.  Johnson takes the opposite stance, that his father was not the over-bearing monster, trying to make himself through his son, but rather was mostly trying to bestow good sense on him.  Frankly, that is the conclusion I had gathered from only reading Mozart's letters.

He also insists that Mozart was not perpetually poor and that writing "begging letters" as he calls it were normal during a time when paper currency was rare.  Mozart and later his widow, paid their debts faithfully.  Unlike the conclusions of Davenport who asserts that Constanze learned good economy from her second husband, Johnson insists that she was financially sensible all along and that Mozart actually made very good money for the time period in which he lived.

He supports this with comparing the salary of Mozart to many other professions of the time as well as the life-style he kept.  Davenport and Gutman conclude that Mozart lived beyond his means.  Johnson argued otherwise and states that borrowing money was a common practice then.

Reading these three biographies, as well as Mozart's letters, made me realize that different people can access the same information yet arrive at varying conclusions.

The most charming aspect of this book is Johnson's analysis of Mozart's work.  He openly inserts his own opinion as to his favorite compositions and his descriptions made me want to  run immediately to my Spotify and download as many of Mozart's compositions as possible.

Mozart wrote hundreds of compositions and it is impossible to have all of them catalogued although Ludwig von Koeschel valiantly attempted in 1862.  That is why when you look at works by Mozart it will have a "K" followed by a number opus.  The "K" or "KV" stands for K√∂chelverzeichnis.


Even though this biography is brief, it contains a lot of indepth detail concerning the instrumentation of Mozart's work, which not everyone would find interesting.  However, I don't think it should deter even the lay person but encourage one to further appreciate the genius of Mozart and hopefully inspire them to listen to his music.




Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers


My post today is about a murder mystery in a church among the bells.  A little history:  Church bell ringing goes back centuries.  The church bell heralded danger, death, marriage and festivities.  In England, the tradition of bell ringing went even farther to where their steeples house whole teams of bells.  The art (or science) of rope pulling became a firm part of the Church service.

Whole sequences that lasted for upwards of an hour or hours developed and were played before or after church services, sometimes everyday at the same time.  When I visited Bradford on Avon I arrived at the time Christ Church's bells rang, which was for an hour every day.  You can visit their web site here.  This tradition was handed down to America in the form of hand bells.  The rope pulling can be loud and long so I've included here a short piece of a hand bell choir playing Capriccio by Kevin McChesney which I think will be a little more aesthetically pleasing.  You can click here for the link.

However, if you're interested in the real deal, you can click here.

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Dorothy Sayers did meticulous research on bell ringing and includes various types of bell ringing sequences. She also makes use of bell ringing terminology to provide clues to the mystery.  As much as I enjoyed the mystery, I will say I found the sections on bell ringing a little beyond my interest and skimmed over those paragraphs.

Other than that, however, Sayers makes a charming detective story, her ninth involving Lord Peter Wimsey.

Wimsey and his valet, Bunter, find themselves stranded in the town of Fenchurch of St. Paul after their car runs into a ditch.  It is New Year's Eve and the weather bodes ill.  For those of you who don't know (I didn't), the Fens are a marshy part of Eastern England, prone to flooding. 

Fenland is also known for its cathedrals and churches, hence the setting for Sayers' story.  Lord Wimsey meets the local Vicar, Theodore Venbales, a very friendly, if flighty Reverend who insists that Wimsey stay as his guest due to the bad weather and also because he needs a substitute bell ringer for the New Year service, one of his ringers having come down with the flu.  The Reverend has ambitiously planned a nine hour ring starting at midnight to usher in the new year.

A local Aristocrat, Lady Thorpe, dies the next day (requiring more pealing of the bells, ones that decode to the village that a lady of a certain age has died.  The bell sequence is different if a man or young person died.)  Lady Thorpe's death brings up the story about the robbery of the emeralds which were stolen, several years ago, at the Thorpe mansion, although they belonged to a relative who was visiting. The thief and the jewels were never apprehended.

So far so good.  But three months later, Sir Henry Thorpe, also dies.  Lady Thorpe's grave is dug up to admit the remains of her husband and to the shock of the grave diggers, they discover another body has been tossed in on top of the casket.  The hands have been cut off, presumably to avoid identification, and his face horribly disfigured for the same reason.

By this time, Lord Wimsey has gone, but he is called back by the local police to help discover whose body it is, how did he die and why.

If you want the solution you can read the book for yourself.  It is one of those fun, comfortable reads that should only take you an afternoon or two, ideally on a rainy day with a cup of tea.

I could not help compare Sayers' writing with Agatha Christie's.  A couple of observations:

One, Agatha Christie writes very good short stories.  Her stories are at their most effective if they provide a fast punch and a quick solution.  If she is required to develop the characters on a more than superficial basis as one would in a novel, she fails in my eyes.  Her forte is when she keeps the characters functional with minimal back story.

Conversely, I find Dorothy Sayers' novels to be far more enjoyable than her short stories.  I read her complete short detective stories and found only one or two that I considered worth reading.  The rest were "meh".

Her novels, however, allow her to fully develop her characters and she does so superbly.  I believe this is because, unlike Christie, Sayers created loveable characters.  Christie's characters are all equally selfish, which casts suspicion on all of them.  Sayers makes all her characters winsome and sympathetic (at least in this novel), making it impossible to  decide which one of these good people could have done it.

Now, just because her characters are likeable does not make them boring.  I find it interesting that the prevailing attitude seems to be that evil people are interesting and good people are boring.  Christie and Sayers together, whether intentionally or not, make a good case that bad people are boring and good people are fun to be around (and read about).

Dorothy Sayers was the only woman to belong to the Inklings, a writer's group that included J.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  I see common traits in her writing as theirs.  There is a coziness, a sense of comfort and contentment in the surroundings that I like.  The little details that they all add with the characters having tea, or brandy, sitting in front of fireplaces while torrential rains pour outside.  Yes, evil happens, but we can stand together and support and encourage each other.  In Christie's novels the characters are alienated from each other.

I suppose it has to do with the fact that I like British literature and lately I have been reading a lot of the stuff coming out of the first half of the twentieth century from both sides of the ocean.  I will be giving reviews of Graham Greene, another C.S. Lewis book of literature essays, and a biographies of Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright.

So, as they say in the U.K., Cheers, and have a jolly week!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture: In a Letter to a Friend by Isaac Newton





Since today's review will be about Isaac Newton, I thought it would be appropriate to play some music by a contemporary musician.  

Everyone knows, G. F. Handel, and J. S. Bach, but not everyone is familiar with  Jean-Philippe Rameau.  The composition, Nouvelles Suites (performed by Alexandre Tharaud) is a transcription  for the piano.  I love the harpsichord, but I have discovered that is not true for everyone and the piano has vastly superior expressive qualities.  You can listen here.


This was a hard book to review, but I want to review it since I read it, however I review it with reservations about my ability to accurately assess the words of someone who history proves to be one of our greatest mathematicians.

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I'm not sure I entirely understand everything that Newton is asserting because almost half of the letter is in Latin and Greek.  I presume this is because Newton is trying to prove his point by going back to the original languages of Scripture.  And what is his point?  That based on two scriptures that he claims have been corrupted, the Trinity does not exist.  Or, to be more precise, Jesus Christ is not divine.

Before I explain his reasoning let me first quote the two Scriptures he is referring to. 

The first  is from 1 John 5:7,8

 7.For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.

The above Verses are a direct quotation of the King James Version.   Newton's argument with this translation is that even though it is directly translated from the Greek and Latin, it is only from later manuscripts that the un-italicized portion is inserted.  The earliest manuscripts don't include them.

And indeed, my Bibles, which are English Standard Version, New American Standard, New International Version and Holman Christian Study Bible omit the un-italicized part altogether, although they include a foot note about later manuscripts including it.

To make it clearer to the reader, this is a direct quote from the English Standard Version of the same two verses:  

For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement


The other translations are no different than the above quotation.

Newton asserts that because in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.  And there are three that bear witness in earth were later additions, these two verses were corrupted to make a false claim, namely that  the Trinity (one God in three persons) is non-existent.  

I will here point out that the foot notes in my English Standard Version Bible explains the verses this way:

The Gospel is not based on merely human testimony.  John indicates that there are in fact "three that testify", namely the witness of the Spirit, the water baptism of Jesus (including the "Spirit descending on him like a dove") and the voice of the Father from heaven; Mark 1:10-11 and the blood (which "cleanses us from all unrighteousness"; 1 John 1:7).  These three agree thereby providing persuasive confirmation for believing in Jesus as the "Son of God". The Old Testament taught that every charge must be confirmed by two or three witnesses.

Personally, I have no quibble with what Newton  is expostulating concerning what might be extra-biblical ScriptureHowever, the question is, what is the original Scripture declaring?

For that we need to start with the beginning of the chapter.  I will provide a link here so I don't have to retype everything:  1 John 5.  

In a nutshell, John is stating that Christians' salvation is determined by their belief in Jesus as the Son of God because only He made the sacrifice by shedding His blood on the Cross and paying for the sins of all who believe in Him. 

I will mention that the point is not whether the readers of my blog believe that or not, but rather what the Scripture is actually saying.

It seems to me that Isaac Newton, in one of the most tragic of ironies, misses the entire point of this passage of Scripture based on a portion of -what he considers-spurious words.  I say what Newton considers to be spurious because the more I have been reading various sources concerning the scripture in question I am seeing good arguments for including as well as excluding those portions.  

But even if that part does not belong there, so what?  The context of the entire chapter is to clearly pronounce Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

Several passages of Scripture assert this.  The most obvious passages would be John 1:1-5 and 14 (italics mine).


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 

And Revelation 1:8 and 17,18:

I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

 17. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. 

The Pharisees knew what Jesus was proclaiming when he forgave the paralytic's sins.  John 10:33:

The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.”

Then there are Jesus' very own words, John 3:16:

16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.  

Now whether you are a Christian or not, no one can argue that Scripture in fact says this.  Pick up any Bible and you can read it for yourself.

It mystifies me that Newton would write an 85 page letter to a friend, declaring an Arian viewpoint.

The other Scripture is 1 Timothy 3:16.  Here it is in its entirety in the KJV that Newton claimed to be corrupted:

1And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.

 Newton's argument here is that the Scripture should not be translated "was manifest in the flesh" but should say "made manifest" in the flesh.  My other translations say "manifested in the flesh". I can't comment because the subtlety  is lost on me.

However, Newton's big argument is that theos rather than theon is used.  One is the singular Greek form of God and the second is the plural.  He says that it is clear that the singular form is the true form, therefore there is no Trinity.

Actually, that is wrong.  Because the Trinity doctrine clearly states One God, Three Persons.  So naturally, the singular for God would be used.

It is very possible that I am in way over my head with Newton's arguments.  I have looked up several sources to make sure that I got his argument correct, so I'm not relying entirely on my own reading.  But it completely eludes me how someone as brilliant as Isaac Newton could use such poor reasoning.

He ignores the entire Bible except for two scriptures and uses corrupted versions to base an entire thesis denying the Deity of Christ.  And he takes 85 pages to do it!  What he states, he states clearly enough on the first couple of pages then repeats himself for the next 83.  

It's as though he spent a life time spinning round and round staring at his toes.

If someone wants to deny the truth of Scripture that is one thing, but to insist that Bible is not saying what it is clearly saying throughout the Old and New Testament defies logic.  

But as I say, I may not be understanding Newton's argument.  If anyone else has read this letter I would love to hear their input. 


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Monday, August 1, 2016

An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis



Sonata for Piano and Flute by Francis Poulenc is playing.  You can listen here

I am going to have to go on a book fast again.  It's simply getting out of hand.  This has come to my attention when I visit bookstores with my husband and buy books, then return by myself while he's at work and buy more books.

Today I had lunch with a friend.  Next door to the restaurant was a bookstore that was going out of business and clearing out their inventory.  So after lunch we strolled over there to see what might be on sale.

As I walked down the aisle to the Classics section a sales clerk looked at me and asked, "Weren't you here before?"  Unlike St. Peter, I couldn't deny it and nodded in the affirmative.  It was in fact, my third time to visit this particular bookstore in as many days.  Friday I went by myself.  Saturday, Josh and I drove by the sign and he suggested we go in.  Without mentioning that I had already gone, I said, "That's a great idea!" And bought yet another book.  

But I am proud of myself. Today I almost bought a book (George Orwell's 1984, Everyman's Library Hardcover in mint condition) but the sales clerk stopped me.  No, she didn't act as my bartender, telling me I had had one too many.  Instead she informed us (my friend and me) that if we waited a week, the prices were going to sink even lower.

Being the cheapskate that I am, that information gave me enough self-control to hold off buying.  I put Mr. Orwell on a shelf in the teen section between two Zombie novels.  I figure he'd be safe there.  If not, well, it wasn't meant to be.

I also noticed a book by E.M. Forester. It had A Room With a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Now, I have both these books,  but not in the Everyman's Library Hardcover edition (mint condition!).

So we'll give it a week and see what happens.  And after that, the book fast!

On to the book I've just read.  C. S. Lewis was a
Christian apologist, science-fiction and fantasy writer, literary historian, poet, cultural critic, and historian of words.  Thanks to Cleopatra at Classical Carousal, I learned of a collection of his essays that he wrote about reading books.

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 An Experiment in Criticism is a series of essays that C.S. Lewis wrote about the habits of reading:  why does one read, to what purpose does one read and what kind of taste does one possess that motivates a person to read one sort of book instead of another.

What I like best about Lewis is his ability to perfectly express how I feel about something.  I tend to struggle to find the right words to fully communicate to myself and to others what it is I mean to say or feel about a subject.  If I read Lewis for no other reason it is to feel affirmed that I am not alone in my opinions and that someone has gone before me and already explained it.

No, I am not as smart as C.S. Lewis, but I do feel in good company.

One thing he adequately expressed was people's taste in certain kinds of books.  Once I was at a bookstore with my son and his friends.  One friend was pouring over a book written for Adolescents.  Now I'm not against books written for adolescents; well, actually most of them are tripe (feel free to correct me) but this one was especially tripe-y.  It was poorly written, dreary and just plain mediocre in thought and perspective.  I asked the boy, "Why do you want to read those books (it was a series)?"

He answered, "Because I find them interesting."

Yes. But that didn't really answer my question.  I wanted to know why he found them interesting.  Why did he enjoy reading a book that took you to a very small, unimaginative place.  I suppose if all you've ever eaten are pop tarts, you won't be dissatisfied until you've eaten at a 3 Michelin Star restaurant (if you ever do).  Same goes for our taste in literature.

Lewis tells us that bad taste is by definition, "a taste for bad books" (pg. 1).  He differentiates between "literary readers" and "unliterary readers".  He informs us that the "sure mark of an unliterary man" is he considers "'I read it already' as a conclusive argument against reading a work."  Literary people will read the same work countless times throughout their life.  

Another symptom between literary and unliterary readers is their discussion of the books they read.  Literary people think often to themselves about the books they read and discuss it with others.  Unliterary people "seldom think or talk of their reading." (pg. 3)

Lewis devotes a whole chapter to the unliterary.  Of course these kind of people come in degrees, but the lowest are those that won't read anything but the news.  They have no ear for rhythm and "vocalic melody".  They are unconscious of style.  Something must always be happening and happening at a rapid pace.  The unliterary reader reads only narrative because it is only there where he will find an "event".  He likes "strip narratives (today we would say graphic novels) and almost wordless films because in them nothing stands between him and the Event."

This reader is starting to sound a little like my son.  How have I failed?

Other interesting chapters describe myth and how they should be presented.  He tells us that most of them don't travel well in the abstract.  That there must a form to how the story unfolds or we could not stay interested.  He refers to Greek saga and epic.

One essay discusses fantasy and that the most fantastical tales are not Lord of the Rings or the Norse Edda or any other such story in which we clearly understand that the story would never take place in our own realities.  Lewis contends that the most insidious forms of fantasy are the stories that make the reader feel  as if they could.

Though they do not mistake their castle-building for reality, they want to feel that it might be.  The woman reader does not believe that all eyes follow her, as they follow the heroine of the book; but she wants to feel that, given more money, and therefore better dresses, jewels, cosmetics, (etc.) they might.  The man does not believe that he is rich and socially successful; but if only he won a sweepstakes, if only fortunes could be made without talent, he might become so. (pg. 55)

I believe that explains why certain deplorable novels (think mommy porn) are so popular.  According to this article, 40%of the highest selling independent self-publishing eBooks fall under the Romance genre.

And speaking of obscenity, Lewis has this to say:

We notice also that "truth to life" is held to have a claim on literature that overrides all other considerations.  Authors, retrained by our laws against obscenity-rather silly laws, it may be-from using half a dozen monosyllables, felt as if they were martyrs of science, like Galileo.  To the objection "this is obscene" or "This is depraved", or even to the more critically relevant objection "This is uninteresting", the reply "This occurs in real life" seems at times to be thought almost sufficient. (pg. 61)


And I could not agree with his final chapter more.  He bemoans the practice in most colleges (then and now) where students are not taught to read a book and derive their own personal experience from the novel or short story, but are told by the professor what to think concerning them.  Lewis contends that a criticism of a story does not teach you the truth of the story but rather the story tells one how to consider the criticism.

I see this as especially true today when it seems that certain novels, written by Victorian male writers I might add, are interpreted today as championing feminist causes.  Personally, I did not derive that from those stories.  Call me a prude (I know I am, I'm not ashamed of it) but I saw those heroines as unhappy selfish, adulterers, not empowered women, shrugging off the "shackles of matrimony and children."

Lewis suggests that "a ten or twenty years' abstinence both from  the reading and from the writing of evaluative criticism might do us all a great deal of good."

This is the first book in a series that C.S. Lewis wrote and I will be reviewing.  Has anyone else read these criticisms?  What is your opinion?

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Further links:

https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2016/08/04/a-canon-listcsl/ 

http://www.cslewisreview.org/preface-to-c-s-lewis-life-works-legacy/

Official C.S. Lewis website

http://www.biography.com/people/cs-lewis-9380969#early-life





Sunday, July 24, 2016

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky






Robert Schumann's beautiful Piano Sonata No.  21 in B-flat D. 960 with its delicately exquisite third movement (wait for it, as they say on facebook videos).  Alfred Brendel, one of my favorite performers, is the pianist (at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, the man recorded EVERY SINGLE composition for piano by Beethoven). You can listen along as you read by clicking on this link.

How does one review Crime and Punishment?  I've chickened out trying to review other Dostoyevsky novels, like The Possessed (also translated as "Demons") because it was too great in scope.  Therefore, I am not going to try to retell the story or attempt some in depth analysis- you can take a Russian literature class at your local college for that.

Instead, I am going to tell you what stood out to me and hopefully take only a couple of paragraphs in doing so.

Alert:  There are major spoilers in this review!

Last week I wrote a review that concerned a real life ax-murderer.  This week's review will center around a fictitious one.  Yet for all that, Dostoyevsky reveals eternal truths about the human psyche that cannot always be gleaned from actual events (unless one philosophizes about them, like Dostoyevsky).

Our protagonist (or antagonist?) is Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov.  Try saying that three times really fast.  Also, Dostoyevsky, like Tolstoy, delights in having the different characters address each other with different names.  So to some people he's Rodion, others he's Romanovitch and yet others Raskolnikov or some affectionate or formal variant of any of those names.  It's a little hard to keep track at times.

Rodion, as I shall call him hence , is a penniless student, or former student, who lives I don't know how.  I don't know how anyone in a Dostoyevsky novel doesn't starve to death and that is fiercely true for Rodion.  I'm not sure he eats an entire meal anywhere in the story.  He has a tormented mind.  He wrestles with greatness and morals.

It is rather the same problem Frank Lloyd Wright dealt with:  Is someone who is Great subject to the same morals as everyone else?  Was Napoleon a murderer, Rodion ponders, or did he have the right to take the lives of so many through war because he belonged to an elite class of Greatness? 

Unlike Rodion, Wright didn't wrestle with the problem or even toy with it.  He had no qualms about what his Greatness entitled him to. I wonder what Wright's views were on murder:  Was the man Carlton, who murdered Wright's lover guilty of murder because he was merely a servant, and would Wright be guilty if he (hypothetically) murdered Carlton?  

You'll need to read my last review and Wright's comments on morals to appreciate what I mean (Wright felt moral laws were for the common masses, not geniuses like himself.)

Rodion decides that a hateful, spiteful shrew such as the old woman, Alyona Ivanovna,who he pawned his possessions to was not worthy of life and if Napoleon could kill (in war) millions, why couldn't someone else, just as superior, kill just one worthless old woman who cheated people and physically abused her sister?

So Rodion goes about staging the murder.  He believes that he receives supernatural signs (he passes a couple mentioning that Alyona's sister, Lizaveta, will be out of the apartment on a certain evening). He acquires an ax from the gardener of his apartment, hides it up his sleeve, walks to Alyona's apartment, enters it and brutally bludgeons the old woman.

But things do not go as planned.  When he finishes his dastardly deed, he finds Lizaveta has come into the apartment, so he feels compelled to finish her off as well.  

Now arrives a philosophical problem.  Did Lizaveta deserve to die?  Was she just as worthless as her sister?  She was kind and well-loved, always helping others.  Rodion discovers that playing God with other people's lives does not make one a god-certainly not if gods are omniscient.  He obviously did not foresee everything.

Narrowly escaping being caught by some workers, Rodion manages to leave the apartment and building unseen, return the ax, and return to his own apartment.

Like his counterpart, Ivan, in the Brothers Karamazov, Rodion finds his "Intelligent Rationalizing" makes him seriously ill (plus, as I mentioned, he won't eat; but at least he's not harassed by a demon as poor Ivan was).  He is surrounded by people who love him.  His sister, Dounia (I'm sticking to first names with everyone else) and mother Pulcheria come to St. Petersburg to see him (and to meet with Dounia's fiancee).  His best friend, Dmitry, also stands by him.  None of them know why he is so ill, but rally around him.

Aside from this primary plot device, there are the usual assortment of desperate characters that populate every Dostoyevsky novel.  

A man, Marmeledov, once a successful public official, has drunk away all his money and himself out of a job.  His drunkeness eventually kills him when he walks in front of a horse.  He leaves a consumptive wife and four starving children who get beaten regularly by the wife who is beside herself in desperation.  The oldest child, Mermeledov's daughter from a previous marriage, is thrust into prostitution by her step mother and through this profession is able to keep the family barely afloat.

This oldest daughter, Sonya, is an interesting study.  Her circumstances are horrible, yet she is the one who has faith in humanity and in God.  Because of her steadfast belief in right and wrong, Rodion finally turns himself in.  She follows him to Siberia and lives near the prison as he serves his time.  She becomes a consolation to not only him but to all the prisoners who come to regard her with great affection.

There are no boring characters in this book (or any book written by Dostoyevsky) and I could write pages about each one.

As in The Possessed, Dostoyevsky brings into view characters that forshadow the Socialists that eventually take over Russia, turning it and the surrounding countries into the Soviet Union.  If the reader wonders how Communism rose up, read this novel and The Possessed.

Another character is a young idealist named Andrei who expounds on his ideas of nihilism and the equal sharing of property.  He believes utopian bliss can only be achieved if private property does not exist.  Andrei comes across as slightly ridiculous but possessing a basic sense of right and wrong which he shows when his room mate, a self-absorbed clod by the name of Luzhin, tries to humiliate Sonya to avenge himself against Rodion who persuades his sister, Dounia, not to marry him.  Andrei rescues Sonya because he is an eyewitness to Luzhin's scheme.

Luzhin is wealthy but stingy and arrogant.  He wants to marry Dounia because he perceives her as poor and helpless and therefore someone who would willingly marry and worship him out of gratitude for raising her up out of her dismal poverty.  He likes the idea of lording over a woman who can only be his slave because of her desperate plight.

The reason Luzhin attacks Sonya is because he perceives that she and Rodion have come to care for each other.

One of the reasons I wanted to read this story again (I read it once in my twenties) was because I had read that the detective who investigates the murder was one of the inspirations for the creator of Columbo, the detective on the 70s television show.

And the verbal exchanges between Rodion and Detective Porfiry Petrovich are worth reading by themselves.  The battle of the wits that ensues over several pages are quite suspenseful.  The set up is the same as in Columbo.  We already know Rodion did it and we breathlessly read as he darts and dodges every question Porfiry directs at him.  Like a fisherman reeling in a particularly elusive fish, Porfiy deftly hypnotizes Rodion with psychological gymnastics that slowly ensnare him.  Or almost snares him.  There's a few twists and turns before it's all over.

As with all of his novels, Dostoyevsky thrusts the human dilemma before the readers' eyes: all men are desperately wicked. Yet he never leaves us without hope.  There is no evil committed so great that is beyond redemption.
 

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky 1821-1881

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders by William R. Drennan

George Gershwin is on the radio playing a medley of all of his compositions.  If you like his jazzy/ classical compositions you can listen here.
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Last week I was in Denver visiting my sister, Debbie.  She is an Architect and also teaches at the College School of the Mines.  While driving through the mountains, she related a story about Frank Lloyd Wright that I did not know.  When I returned home to Texas, I checked a book about the incident from my local library.  

It was an e book.  Don't you love checking e books out of the library?  You just go online  to Amazon through your library account, download the book for free, read it, and in two weeks it disappears all by itself.  I don't even have to leave my house.

The book I downloaded was Death in a Prairie House:  Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders.

I'm sure most of us know who Frank Lloyd Wright is:  one of the greatest American Architects of the Twentieth Century.  This book does not touch upon Wright's professional accomplishments but is a biography of his life and particularly the gruesome events surrounding one of the most mysterious mass murder cases in U.S. history.

Drennan is an engaging writer and at 232 pages (or in my case, 1214 KB), I read the book in one day.  

The first half of the book is devoted to Wright's biography.  Wright's parents were a strange combination to say the least.  His father, William Carey Wright,  was an itinerant Baptist preacher who never stayed anywhere very long and kept money hardly at all.  His mother Anne, apparently hated her husband, hated his children by a previous marriage- especially his young daughter whom she physically abused- and, really the whole wide world, except little Frank.

I've read that people develop Narcissistic Personality disorders when someone, usually a parent, usually a mother, dotes on a child to the point that the child is persuaded he is above everyone else, including laws and social mores.  This appears to be what happened to Frank Lloyd Wright.

Frank's father ran off while he was young.  Or run off, as it was believed that his abandonment of the family was a calculated move on Anne's part.  What Frank thought of it, no one knows, but he didn't attend his father's funeral. But then again he didn't attend his mother's either.

While "greatness makes you above the law" is debated by some, it is true that Wright developed a genius for designing houses and buildings.  His Prairie School  and Arts and Crafts designs are well known to anyone with a penchant for American Architecture. He became an apprentice and then a partner with a famous Chicago Architect, Louis Sullivan, and helped him create skyscrapers gracing downtown Chicago, including my Alma Mater Roosevelt University which was once a hotel and still houses the Auditorium Theater.

The World's Fair and its ushering in of Grecian and Roman revival apparently crushed both Sullivan's career and his spirit.  He died a alcoholic, heartbroken man.

Not so, Wright, who easily discarded the man who helped him step up into the professional world of architecture, establishing his own firm.  Wright thrived and moved on, developing his unique Americana houses and homes.  His signature house is the Prairie Home which expressed his philosophy that homes should be organic and produce a "harmony between man and nature".  Made to conform to the local landscape, his homes only used local materials, were single stories, unstained and unpainted and built with low ceilings and long rows of windows.  

After twenty years of marriage, Wright abandoned his wife and six children and left for Europe with Mamah (pronounced "may muh") Cheney, the wife of one of his clients.  In Europe Mamah translated the works of the Swedish feminist, Ellen Key.  Both Wright and Cheney advocated Key's principals that "true love isn't illegal and a marriage that is not based on true love is illegal." 

I suppose it occurred to neither of them that true love is based on the will and not on feelings or selfish desire, but let me move on.

In 1911, this caused quite a stir in rural Wisconsin, but Wright nevertheless returned with Mamah and built Taliesin, a Praire design house on family property.  Wright refused to budge, writing a public letter to the local newspaper that rules and laws were made for "little" people and truly great people were above the laws.  Such a proclamation didn't endear him to his neighbors.

All of this is merely the prelude to the actual plot of the book.  Two years after Wright and Cheney (now Borthwick as she returned to her maiden name) moved into Taliesin, in 1914, the unthinkable happened.  

Wright was in Chicago on business and Mamah was at home with her two children who were visiting for the summer (her ex-husband had custody). While at the table for lunch, a servant, Julian Carlton, bludgeoned Mamah and her son, John, to death with an ax, chased her daughter Martha, killed her, then set all of them on fire.  He also set fire to where workmen were eating in another room when they realized gasoline was pouring in from under the door.  The men tried to escape but only one survived in the end.

It is largely speculation as to what motivated Carlton to murder his employers.  Carlton was found in a boiler room where he drank acid to kill himself before getting arrested.

Putting the fragments together, it seems Carlton was emotionally disturbed, perhaps a paranoid schizophrenic.  Due to erratic behavior, Mamah and Wright had given Carlton and his wife notice, but according to Carlton, he was getting even with Emil Brodelle, one of the workers for his racist and violent attitude toward him.

Carlton starved to death before he was brought to trial.

Wright built another Taliesin on the original site to "wipe away the scars", but it burnt down too.  He finally built Taliesin III and created the Taliesin Fellowship which was a congregation of artists, architects and other creative people to live and inspire each other.

According to some sources they did a lot more than that, but that doesn't come into this story.

Wright married again, a Miriam Noel, but her morphine addiction soon doomed the marriage.  However, they stayed together for 15 years and Noel held firm sway over the older architect, keeping him from attending his mother's funeral.  He finally divorced her and married Olga Hinzenburg, another bohemian that influenced Wright, bringing in a guru and adding to the overall colorful, if not entirely upright environment at Taliesin.  (There's a book about the Taliesin Fellowship, but I decided against reading it after one review wrote the book made him feel "unclean".)

Wright finally died in 1959.  He was born two years after the Civil War; his grandparents were contemporary with Jefferson and Washington; and he died as John F. Kennedy's star was rising.

The Taliesin tragedy was a turning point in Wright's career.  His buildings were no longer to be merely organic but endurable and, more importantly, fireproof.

Given, the subject, Drennan's book could have easily become salacious, but he keeps the narration filled with energy and professionalism.  He makes the story enthralling without resorting to cheap gossip.

One thing that stands out to me is Wright's belief that he was above moral law.  According to the Bible the wages of sin is death.  The fact that he died as all mortals do indicate that he was no more above any law than the "little people" he held in contempt.

Nevertheless, pushing Wright's personal life aside, I have now ordered two books that catalogue every edifice Wright built.  I eagerly await them. 



Monday, July 11, 2016

Short Breaks into Mordor: Dawns and Departures of a Scribblers Life by Peter Hitchens

Listening to Public Radio.  Liszt's Totentanz, a piano and orchestra theme and variations of the ancient Gregorian chant Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) is playing.  Here is a link for the interested. 

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Many people know who the late Christopher Hitchens is, but not many, at least in the U.S., know he had a brother who is also a writer.  Peter Hitchens is a writer for The Mail, a British newspaper that can be read online.

He complied a number of his essays, written both for The Mail as well as an American magazine and put them together to comprise a Kindle book called Short Breaks into Mordor:  Dawns and Departures of a Scribbler's Life.

Each essay is about a country he visited over the past ten or so years and the impressions he received there.  Most of the countries are under oppressive regimes, such as North Korea, Eastern Europe, different African countries and China.  He offers much thought-provoking insight to each country.

Even Japan, which, we don't consider to be repressive, is in its own way.  Once a manufacturing powerhouse in the late seventies and eighties, Japan has fallen under anxious times.  College students prolong graduation, taking class after class, sometimes doubling the college career life-span due to the lack of jobs in the work place.  For every job there are hundreds of new graduates applying.

Hitchens notes that racism and ethnic purity is a strong motivating force to the Japanese culture and as entrenched as cement.  Even Japanese who migrated back from South America (at the encouragement of the Japanese government in an attempt to increase their dwindling population) are treated differently and lead poor, unemployed lives, thus adding to the problem rather than helping it.

I have observed that this has become an unforeseen problem globally in first world countries and some third.  Remember all the panic-inducing stories by Paul R. Ehrlich, Kirk Vonnegut and other dystopian writers of the fifties and sixties?  Remember Solyent Green?  A world overpopulation explosion was going to cause mass starvation and chaos.  Now what do we find?  Countries with zero population growth, are suffering from an elderly-heavy population that is becoming increasingly hard to sustain by the ever-shrinking youth population.

This leads us to another essay by Hitchens:  China.  China is suffering not only from an growing elderly population but also an acute female shortage due to their one-child policy and their citizens' propensity to kill baby girl fetuses in order to try again.  China now has 130 boys to every 100 girls.  This has also led to unexpected consequences.

One of them is kidnapping of young girls and selling them as brides to rich families for their sons.  In some villages, according to Hitchens, this has become so dangerous that girls cannot leave the house unaccompanied and, even worse, are kept in bolted cages during the day when both parents have to work.

China, however, is the leading employer of Africa.  Do they exploit and pay slave wages?  Yes.  Are there not reparations for frequent injuries and Africans of all ages, including very young children who work in extremely dangerous mines and other hard labor?  No.  (Lewis Hine must be rolling in his grave). 

Why?  Beats starving.  I am old enough to remember when Mandela was supposed to change South Africa and allow all races equal opportunity.  Mandela is dead, but the government of South Africa, as well as every other African country is run by Tribal Africans, but poverty has not been much alleviated.  Where are all the sanctions- rights activists of the eighties and nineties now?  Have they lost interest because they no longer perceive the politics in Africa as a Civil Rights issue?

Let's move on to Eastern Europe, Hitchens describes the aftermath of the fallen Soviet Empire as leaving such a moral vacuum that the current corruption in former Soviet governments make the Old regime ever more appealing to its citizens. 

And finally, North Korea.  Surely the mother of all repressive regimes.  Look at a global map made by a satellite at night.  South Korea is lit up but North Korea is all darkness.  I think that is a fit description of the way of life conducted there.
You can see a photo here.



Peter Hitchens said it was hard to see anything authentic because their visit was so scripted, down to their hotel lights, which went off as soon as they left and came on when they returned.  Once he caught a glimpse of a man lying on the ground.  Was he drunk?  Was he dead?  He never got to find out because immediately a group of men and women circled around the prostrate man, cutting him off from view.

On a lighter note, he witnesses a daily ritual between India and Pakistan.  A highly elaborate border closing ceremony where soldiers of both sides take down their respective flags, shake hands at a gate that stands between the two countries before slamming said gate shut on each other, before opening it again the next morning.  Hitchens  wryly compares it to the navies of France and England meeting in the middle of the English channel and mooning each other.  You can watch this highly interesting- and not a little amusing- ritual here.

I do not agree one hundred percent with all of Hitchens' views.  He is, after all, British and is not necessarily  pro-American policies ( he was as adamantly against the Iraqi war as his brother Christopher was in favor of it).  But his writing is highly engaging, witty and extremely interesting.  

I'm rather jealous of someone who has been afforded the opportunity to travel as he has and get paid for it besides.

There are many other countries.  I haven't touched upon South America or North America.  I'm not sure which continent Hitchens hasn't visited, perhaps Antarctica.  But he has literally seen hundreds of countries and with an adept pen ( or computer) describes them all in vivid terms.

For those of you interested in further information here are a couple of links to Hitchens.  One is a debate with his brother and the other is an interview with Eric Metaxas, the author of Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

Peter Hitchens and Eric Metaxas 

Peter Hitchens vs Christopher Hitchens debate