March 30, 2010

MOTHERS AND SONS by Colm Toibin (St. Patrick's Day Part 5)

My apologies for not continuing my St. Patrick’s week as intended; March has been a busy month. But we still have one day left of it, so here is my final bit of March Irishness: a book I finished (fittingly) on Saint Patrick’s Day itself, Mothers and Sons.

Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons is a collection of short stories centered around the infinite kinds of relationships that exist between mothers and sons. In his stories, these relationships range from an art thief trying to both provide for and escape his loose-lipped mother, to a widow trying to make a new life for her children, to a son seeking to escape his mother’s recent death through vice, to a son who seeks to understand his estranged mother through music (and beyond). All Toibin’s stories are delicately crafted, and in some way heartbreaking (and all, save for one, take place in Toibin’s Ireland). Even more so than many writers of short fiction that I have encountered, Toibin leaves his reader unsatisfied. So many of the stories finish at the cusp of something, whether it be action or decision or any kind of resolution. While I often find this frustrating (particularly because I get so quickly invested in Toibin’s characters), it largely makes the stories more powerful; what kind of concrete resolution could these characters find in their lives, anyway?

One of Toibin’s stories that struck me most was “A Priest in the Family,” the title of which is a reference to the old Irish phrase laying out what defined success. In it, a mother tries to cope with the shame of her son, a formerly well-respected priest and the holiest of her children, having been accused of and confessed to the child abuse that continues to plague the Catholic Church. The story doesn’t meditate on the actual horror of the event or its effect on the priest or the victim, but on the repercussions on the priest’s family and mother. It is his mother, his sisters, his nieces and nephews, who have to live with the shame of knowing what their neighbors think when they pass their homes, or how their picture of this formerly wholesome family has skewed. More and more this is a reality for many families; it is easy to forget that it is not only the victim whose life is changed.

So, though short, Toibin’s stories are some heavy and affecting stuff. He is a wonderful writer; I first appreciated him as the editor of my first Irish Literature anthology, then moved onto some of his fiction (I highly recommend The Blackwater Lightship – also, interestingly, about the relationship between a mother and son). He was recently awarded the Costa Award (formerly called the Whitbread Award) for his novel Brooklyn, which I hope to read soon. A great writer.

And so there goes March, and with it all St. Patrick’s celebrations. Worry not – there will still be plenty of Irishness in the future, irrespective of holiday or month.

(Cover via)

March 18, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Part 4: W.B. Yeats

It is very hard for me to choose one Yeats poem to include, so I'll probably put up a few more in the coming days (by my count, the end of St. Patrick's week is this Sunday when our town's parade happens). Of the many Yeats poems I often come back to, this is probably the foremost. Back for one of the many Irish Lit classes I took in college, I wrote a paper on Yeats and his interest in mysticism and the occult, and focused largely on this poem. For such a short poem, he packs much in. It was first published in 1921 (a turbulent time for Ireland), and is all at once a comment on the current state of society (both in Ireland and the larger world), a warning of things to come, a reference to an ancient past, and an invocation of mystical elements. Every word in it counts; the language of it builds and ebbs and creates a beautiful rhythm that reinforces these many levels of the poem. It is such an important poem, and so beautiful.

"The Second Coming"

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
-William Butler Yeats, 1921
(Image via)

March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Part 3: Thomas Cahill

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! Over at the New York Times, Thomas Cahill (writer of How the Irish Saved Civilization) has a great op-ed today titled "Turning Green with Literacy." He writes about why we should really be celebrating Ireland and St. Patrick, something that is easy to forget here today as people are flooding the streets of New York drunk on Guinness in green sweaters and 'Kiss Me, I'm Irish' hats. I am in no way against these forms of celebration, but I heartily agree with Cahill's closing advice: "So on this St. Patrick’s Day, remember [St. Patrick and his compatrioys] as they would wish to be remembered. Read a book."

Here is an excerpt from the article, in which Cahill is discussing the way the early Irish, by embracing the spread of Christianity, made the creation and saving of books an art form. As he states, some of these early copies serve as forerunners to the illuminated manuscripts that would come centuries later and be a major part of the literary tradition. And as the early doodles prove, even the Irish of the early centuries were still wholly Irish.
"But they did more than this: they managed to infuse the emerging medieval world with a playfulness previously unknown. In the margins of the books they copied, the Irish scribes drew little pictures, thickets of plants, flowers, birds and animals. Human faces occasionally peek through the tangle, faces of childlike delight and awe. If you were a scribe copying out some especially ponderous philosophical Greek, the margin in which you could reflect on your own world served as a source of “refreshment, light and peace,” to quote the ancient Latin liturgy. These scribal doodles eventually became elaborate design elements, leading the way to Irish masterpieces like the Book of Kells."

Now I'm going to go celebrate twofold: by drinking Guinness and reading a book. Slainte!

St. Patrick's Day Part 2: Brian Friel's TRANSLATIONS

Plays, like the poems and stories often told through song, are part of the communal performance tradition that has long been an important part of Irish literature. The past century especially brought a resurgence in Irish theatre, beginning with the establishment of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin by Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats. With this theatre, its founders sought to create a national space for Irish writers and playwrights to gather and perform their works, thus sparking the Irish Literary Revival of the early 1900s.

One of the leading contemporary Irish playwrights to carry on this torch is Brian Friel, who has had a long and prolific career in theatre. He and Stephen Rea (the Irish stage and film actor, perhaps most memorable in The Crying Game, that great movie that is somewhat overshadowed by its shocker of an ending) collaborated often and went on to found the Field Day Production Company in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. The company would put out a number of plays dealing with Irish politics and the Troubles – a very apt subject matter in 1980s Ireland. The first play that Field Day performed, and arguably Friel’s most well-known play, is Translations.

Translations is set in a small rural village of County Donegal in the 1830s. As the title suggests, the play is about language and the problems that arise – linguistically, culturally, and otherwise – when people try to overcome language barriers. The Ireland of the play is very much old Ireland; the many of the town inhabitants speak only Irish and know nothing outside of Donegal. British officers arrive as part of the Ordnance Survey, and begin the process of translating maps and town and county names from the original Irish to English. Confusion ensues – sometimes humorously, sometimes tragically – but always to highlight the cultural divide between the English and Irish. It is a wonderful play, especially in its historical context. The problems between the English and Irish have been around for a very long time, so to see them portrayed in the early stages of the modern troubles (the 1830s was only a generation or so after the Famine, and a few decades before things would get really crazy in Ireland over the question of Independence) is to see the later progression of the problems with a better understanding. As thus far I have only read it, Translations is a play that I would love to see done on stage.

Plays don’t lend themselves very well to being quoted at length, so with that brief introduction I’ll just include an excerpt from near the end of the play that I particularly like – I won’t give too much context so as to avoid giving the play away, so just try to appreciate it on its own.

"Hugh [the old Irish teacher]: To remember everything is a form of madness. The road to Sligo. A spring morning. 1798. Going into battle. Do you remember, James? Two young gallants with pikes across their shoulders and the Aeneid in their pockets. Everything seemed to find definition that spring – a congruence, a miraculous matching of hope and past and present and possibility. Striding across the fresh, green land. The rhythms of perception heightened. The whole enterprise of consciousness accelerated. We were gods that morning, James; and I had recently married my goddess, Caitlin Dubh Nic Reactainn, may she rest in peace. And to leave her and my infant son in his cradle – that was heroic, too. By God, sir, we were magnificent. We marched as far as – where was it? – Glenties! All of twenty-three miles in one day. And it was there, in Phelan’s pub, that we got homesick for Athens, just like Ulysses. The desiderium nostrorum – the need for our own. Our pietas, James, was for older, quieter things. And that was the longest twenty-three miles back I ever made. My friend, confusion is not an ignoble condition."

-Brian Friel, 1980

(Image via Julliard)

March 15, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Part 1: Patrick Kavanagh & Luke Kelly

In celebration of of St. Patrick's Day, I will use this opportunity to make it Irish week here on The Sequestered Nook, and do my best to bring you a bit of Irishness every day. It would be an understatement to say that I love Irish Literature. For those few of my readers who don't know me personally, I'll briefly share the progression of my love for Ireland and its writers. My sophomore year of college I had a wonderfully inspiring Irish Lit professor (specifically, the class was called 'Conflict & Identity in Irish Literature'). So inspiring, in fact, that I realized that it was Ireland (not Rome as I had previously thought) where I wanted to study abroad. So, I spent a wonderful semester taking amazing courses (including Irish Folk Tales, Irish Music, and a class just on Ulysses) at University College Dublin and traveling around Ireland. I miss it a lot, and still love no genre or origin of books more than those of Ireland. The Irish really know how to harness tragedy, humor, love, and loss to make them into great literature and poetry.

To kick off Irish week, here is Patrick Kavanagh's beautiful poem "On Raglan Road." I especially love this poem because of the song that it became. The story is that Patrick Kavanagh ran into Luke Kelly (of The Dubliners) in a pub, and told Kelly that he would like him to set his poem to music. Music is such an inherent part of Irish culture, and especially its poetry that is so often told primarily through song, that this pairing is so naturally perfect. The poem is gorgeous on its own, but Luke Kelly's musicalization of it brings it to another beautiful level. Here is the poem:

On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.

On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion's pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay -
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.

I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that's known
To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay -
When the angel woos the clay he'd lose his wings at the dawn of day.

-Patrick Kavanagh, 1946

Here is Luke Kelly's song "Raglan Road." Honesty, sometimes I just listen to it on loop. So beautiful.

And, for reference's sake, here is another version of "Raglan Road" that I enjoy. It is by Glen Hansard of the the bands The Frames and The Swell Season and, more importantly, of the wonderful Irish film Once. It doesn't quite contain the emotion or transcendence of Luke Kelly's version, but it is still beautiful.

Stay tuned for more Irish greatness tomorrow!

(Image via UCC)

CHURCHILL by Paul Johnson

Never give in – never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

There is no figure of the 20th century – of any century, really – that fascinates me as much as Winston Churchill. During Britain’s finest hour (also his finest hour), Churchill famously said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Indeed, the same should be said of him; I don’t think it is overstatement to say that he is largely responsible for saving Western civilization as we know it. So much about him – his energy, his endurance, his personality, his talent for so many things – make him a great man, and the perfect subject for biographies. It seems there are always new books coming out on the man to add to the shelves devoted to him at libraries and bookstores. I’ve read a number of the less intimidating ones (I have yet to muster the courage for Martin Gilbert’s definitive and massive biography, let alone Winston’s own many-volumed autobiographies). Of the ones I have read, this slight work by Paul Johnson, one of the most eminent (and amazingly prolific) modern historians, offers a nice overview of Churchill’s life while still managing to look deeper into what made him so powerful. In its brevity, Churchill brings to light aspects of Winston that may sometimes get bogged down in the density of the massive tomes. By looking at the big picture of Winston’s life, Churchill offers a nice introduction to the masses of information and biography available on the great man.

One thing about Churchill that has always struck me, and that Johnson touches on often, is his sheer energy for life. How did he accomplish so many things, in so many arenas, to such a great extent, and through so late in life? It wasn’t until he was 66 that he became wartime Prime Minister and reached his full potential, and by that time he had already accomplished an incredible amount. Politically, Winston had lived many lives: in the early 1900s he worked his way up to Home Secretary and then First Lord of the Admiralty, only to be shamed and cast out of government following the disaster of the Dardanelles. He rose again, however, in the 1920s to become Chancellor of the Exchequer and eventually First Lord of the Admiralty (again) before entering 10 Downing. That’s not to mention his second go at Prime minister in the 1950s, a role he took up when he was 77.

Politics aside, his life was filled with adventure and accomplishment. He learned to master the English language, and used it to make his living. Following his time at Sandhurst, he aligned this talent for writing with his position in the cavalry to act as both a soldier and war correspondent. He both fought in and wrote about Cuba, India, Egypt, and South Africa (where he was captured by the enemy and magnificently escaped on foot – an incredible story for another time). He continued to write throughout his life; indeed, it was his many articles and books that earned him the majority of his money throughout his life. For the wealth of important books he published, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. In between all this fighting, writing, and politicking, Churchill also became an accomplished and prolific painter.

So how did he have all the energy for this? In an attempt to answer this, Johnson points to an encounter he himself had with Churchill when he was young and was able to ask the man to what he owed all his success. Churchill replied, “Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” These are words I can happily live by. And, looking at what we know of Winston, they certainly fit. Throughout his life, even during the war when possible, Churchill started his days early but remained in bed until early afternoon, giving dictation and orders with his documents and maps spread around him. Also along these lines, he considered his comforts and personal pleasures important parts of his day, and vital to keeping him sane and successful. Thus why he was often seen in his comfortable (and amusing-looking) leisure suits, with his cigar in mouth and glass of scotch or champagne at the ready. This is also where his talent for painting comes in; he first took up the hobby as a distraction from his ‘Black Dog’ of depression, then found it so soothing that he could scarcely do without it. The same went for Chartwell, the country home he came to love so much. He took to bricklaying and gardening, and saw the home and his personal upkeep of it as his oasis from London and all that it accompanied. So then, Winston’s offhand remarks to Johnson carry much weight, and represent a philosophy that I can stand behind: the key to success in life is the art of relaxation.

As my Dad (who read the book before me and is a far bigger authority on Churchill than I am) pointed out to me, there is one major point in which I think Johnson has it wrong. In discussing Winston’s early life, Johnson brushes aside the effect of Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, on the development of Winston’s psyche. Lord Randolph was by no means a kind or encouraging father; reading his letters to his son while Winston was away at schools that he hated and did poorly at make your heart break for this young, boy who ardently sought the love of his parents. Winston was always a poor student – eager to please, and passionate about what interested him – but a poor student nonetheless. Lord Randolph thus had little hope for his future, and constantly made this known to Winston. He, of course, died before Winston could prove his worth to his father, but Winston spent the rest of his life proving himself and is known to have lamented (particularly during his Black Dog days) the fact that he never did get to show his father what he was capable of. Even when looking back at his father late in life, he sometimes chose to remember him in the best of lights – a reminiscence that is very much at odds with what we know of Lord Randolph’s role as a father. In short, I think that Lord Randolph’s disappointment of Winston as a child played a major part in his successes later in life – and that Johnson’s dismissal of this effect neglects a major part of the development of Winston’s life.

I, as I think many people do, feel some sort of strange personal connection to Winston. The tendency for many, myself included, to comfortably refer to him as Winston speaks to that. I don’t fully know what it is about him that causes that sense of closeness, especially considering that he probably wasn’t actually a very pleasant man to be around most of the time. It seems that people peripherally around him felt the same way, however. Accounts of servants or secretaries or those working in close proximity with him are often very similar: he was a gruff man who yelled often, didn’t tolerate much (especially whistling!), was supremely demanding, thought very highly of himself, forgot people’s names, and was often mean. And yet, these same people talk about how much they admired him and how proud they are to have worked with him. He inspires something, through his personality and perseverance and, of course, what he did for the world. I could go on much longer about Winston, but I’ve gone on far long enough, so I’ll leave you with some of his own words about himself that are pretty indisputable:

“We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow worm.”

March 12, 2010

Literary Drunks

Here is a fun photo gallery from Life magazine (who knew it was still around?) highlighting 'Famous Literary Drunks & Addicts.' Well, maybe fun is the wrong word - interesting. It's no seceret a vast amount of great writers and artists struggle with addiction. Among the writers featured in this gallery are some of the best (and my favorites): Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Brendan Behan, Ayn Rand, Kerouac, Edna St. Vincent Millais, Poe. The list goes on (there are 47 photos, after all!).

Here is a photo and the Life blurb to go with Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. It mentions his love for the West Village bar the White Horse Tavern, which, coincidentally, has been my own favorite bar of late. Part of the reason I love it so (aside from its proximity to my office, good pints, and cool crowd) is the wealth of paintings and photographs of Thomas and other poets that decorate the walls. Appropriate, then that he loved it also.

"The legend that Thomas once returned to the Chelsea Hotel in New York after a drinking bout at his favorite watering hole, The White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, and proclaimed, "I've had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that is a record," might be based in fact. That is, Thomas might well have made that claim. But whether Thomas actually downed anything like 18 whiskies on that November day in 1953 is another matter entirely. Some say he did; others say he didn't; others seem to wish it were true, but have no proof. Regardless, Thomas was an avid drinker, and one of the 20th century's most deservedly beloved poets. "Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

(Text via Life, Photo via)

March 03, 2010

The British Library

One of the many places I visited while in London was the British Library. It was one of those great fortuitous discoveries: I went out to take a short walk to recover from a 24 hour bug (long story) and happened upon the library. Of course, it wasn't really a discovery - it's on a main road next to King's Cross station - I just had no idea where it was and was surprised to come across it. Anyway, its an amazing library that has some great public (and free!) exhibits.

The library's permanent exhibit collection includes a number of illuminated manuscripts, original Shakespeare folios, original letters and manuscripts from the likes of Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson, gorgeous bound and jeweled books, and a Magna Carta. My spontaneous visit also happened to coincide with the final days of an exhibit on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Edward FitzGerald's translation of the 11th century Persian poem. It was a wonderful exhibit; I've never read the whole of the poem, so I learned much from what was there. What I loved most about the exhibit, and the poem itself, was the artwork it showed that the poem has inspired throughout the centuries. The poem lends itself beautifully to being depicted through visual arts, as each of the many publications of it have done. It's a gorgeous progression of artistic styles, from the early illustrations that accompanied it, to the hold the poem took on the art deco movement, to the succession of ornately bejeweled bindings and covers. It continues to be beautifully republished today (look at the Folio Society's gorgeous recent publication of it! Alas, it is super expensive, only 1,000 were made, and it is long sold out). Here is an illustration by an artist often associated with the Rubaiyat (and many other fairy tales and stories): Edmund Dulac. I love his artwork and I think it perfectly complements the beautiful language of FitzGerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Wake! For the Sun, who scatter'd into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav'n, and strikes
The Sultan's Turret with a Shaft of Light

(Artwork via Artpassions)