Monday, April 6, 2020

Eye by Frank Herbert

The disappointing dabblings of a master artist
I’ve been a fan of Frank Herbert’s science fiction for decades, going back to when I first read Dune in high school. The Dune saga may be his crowning achievement, but it is certainly not the sum total of a literary career that includes fine novels such as The White Plague or those in the Destination: Void series. I had read very few of Herbert’s short stories, however, until I stumbled upon a copy of Eye. This collection of 13 short stories was published in 1985, shortly after the release of David Lynch’s motion picture adaptation of Dune. In fact, the book opens with an introduction by Herbert in which he basically apologizes for the Dune film and opines that it would have worked better as a five-hour miniseries. In order to capitalize on renewed interest generated by the film, Eye also includes a piece called “The Road to Dune,” which is like a brief illustrated tour of the planet Arrakis, featuring illustrations by artist Jim Burns and brief captions written by Herbert. Burns provides illustrations for all the stories in the book, but his drawings are so dark and detailed that they do not read well on the rough paper of a mass-market paperback.

Eleven of the remaining selections in Eye were previously published in science fiction magazines from 1955 to 1973. They are presented in chronological order, followed by a new piece, “Frogs and Scientists,” which is like a one-page joke without a punchline. The majority of the stories in Eye are mediocre at best and rather disappointing when compared to the quality of Herbert’s novels. For the most part, he retains the intellectually challenging tone one expects from the author of Dune, but in short-format fiction Herbert seems to bite off more than he can chew. In each story, he drops the reader into these incredibly complex worlds but fails to provide the reader with enough guidance to orient himself to the fictional surroundings. These stories call to mind the work of H. Beam Piper (active in the ‘50s and ‘60s) who could likewise create incredibly complex worlds in a few pages. Piper, however, gave the reader enough bread crumbs to find his way, and he never lost his sense of humor. Herbert’s short stories, on the other hand, get bogged down in technical details and imaginary jargon. Often he devotes so much effort to world construction that there is little space left for plot, and the endings are often vague, New Agey, and anticlimactic.

Herbert’s choice of subject matter is often puzzling as well, as he ventures into bizarre corners of science fiction that just aren’t all that interesting. If you’re curious about the legal system of a government that employs saboteurs to attack itself (“The Tactful Saboteur”) or the mechanical minutiae of futuristic nuclear submarines (“Dragon in the Sea”) or the importance of dance and gesture in human communication (“Try to Remember”) or the difficulties of harnessing spherical amoeboid livestock for plow work (“A Matter of Traces”), then Herbert’s your man. Such weird premises, however, are more mystifying than interesting, and on the few occasions when Herbert tries to be funny he is not successful.

There are maybe three good stories here. The best, by far, is “Seed Stock,” about a colony of interstellar emigrants who took a one-way trip to a new home, only to find themselves trapped in a difficult and precarious existence. “Murder Will In” is an intriguing story about two symbiotic incorporeal entities who possess living hosts to survive. “Passage for Piano,” another tale of an Earth mission to colonize a distant world, is a surprisingly warm and human story for Herbert, but to the point where it gets a little corny towards the end. Other than these few exceptions, reading Eye is more of a chore than a joy. “Seed Stock” is the only outstanding entry, and the bad stories clearly outweigh the good.

Stories in this collection

Rat Race
Dragon in the Sea
Cease Fire
A Matter of Traces
Try to Remember
The Tactful Saboteur
The Road to Dune
By the Book
Seed Stock
Murder Will In
Passage for Piano
Death of a City
Frogs and Scientists

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Monday, March 30, 2020

Klingsor’s Last Summer by Hermann Hesse

A trio of turning points
The book Klingsor’s Last Summer is a collection of short fiction by German author Hermann Hesse, winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature. The volume includes one short story, “A Child’s Heart,” and two novellas, “Klein and Wagner” and “Klingsor’s Last Summer.” All were written in 1919 and previously published in German literary journals before being published together as a collection in 1920. At about the same time, Hesse published his novel Demian, which was a real turning point in his career, and the short works included in Klingsor’s Last Summer likewise mark his transition from rather traditional romantic novels to the more avant garde psychological and spiritual literature for which he is better known today.

In the opening story, “A Child’s Heart,” a young boy experiences his first taste of transgression, guilt, and rebellion when he steals some forbidden figs from his father’s dresser drawer. Here Hesse crafts a brilliant piece of psychological realism in which he perfectly captures the emotional turmoil in the child’s mind. It calls to mind incidents from the reader’s own youth when seemingly insignificant events could escalate into causes for gut-wrenching despair and remorse. After so much boyhood sturm und drang, however, the father’s eventual response to his son’s sin feels anticlimactic and the ending seems unsatisfyingly inconclusive.

In the second entry, “Klein and Wagner,” a businessman named Klein embezzles money from his employer and abandons his wife and children, fleeing to Italy. He later admits that the reason he fled was because he had been having fantasies about murdering his family. He even has an obsessive fascination with a killer named Wagner about whom he once read a news item. The first chapter of this story is riveting, but it never lives up to its initial promise. Klein is a fine portrait of an outsider, from an author who specializes in outsiders, but as often happens in Hesse’s books this outsider is rescued by a benevolent lover who seems more fantasy than reality. The novella then morphs into a Jungian study of internal conflict, similar to Demian, with many references to sex and death. It would have been better had Hesse stuck to the less flighty and more realistic tone of the story’s initial scenes.

“Klingsor’s Last Summer” concerns an aging painter. Though only 42, Klingsor somehow knows that his death is imminent, so he sets out to live the remainder of his life to the fullest through wine, women, food, travel, and making art. Over the course of the story his values vacillate between spiritual enlightenment and pleasures of the flesh. The narrative consists primarily of interactions between the artist and his friends, in which they all relentlessly speak in metaphor. Frequent topics include whether one should fear death and whether the making of art is a pointless pursuit. Hesse throws in many references to Eastern philosophy, but there is so much competing imagery it often adds up to a confusing mess. At times, he seems to think the very mention of the word death yields instant profundity. The story contains so many odd nicknames and quirky references it often feels like a private joke that Hesse wrote for a circle of close friends. The result is that “Klingsor’s Last Summer” is the least successful entry in the collection that bears its name.

With the possible exception of “A Child’s Heart,” these three works are satisfactory but nothing remarkable by Hesse standards. Unless you are a diehard fan and Hesse completist, you’d be better off sticking with his novels.

Stories in this collection

A Child’s Heart
Klein and Wagner 
Klingsor’s Last Summer

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Friday, March 27, 2020

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon

Picturesque Québécois classic
Maria Chapdelaine is a regional realist novel set in the Lake St. John country of rural Quebec. It is a well-known book among Canadians, particularly the French-speaking Canadians of Quebec, where it is often assigned reading in schools. Author Louis Hémon, a French-born immigrant to Quebec, based the novel on his own experiences of living in the area. He completed the novel in 1913, but tragically, soon after submitting the manuscript for publication he was hit by a train and died. Maria Chapdelaine, his literary legacy, remains as a quintessential Canadian classic and a rallying cry for Québécois pride.

The title character is a young woman, likely in her upper teen years, who lives with her parents and siblings in a house deep in the forests of the Laurentian Highlands, a few miles from the nearest village. She has reached a marriageable age, and a few suitors have begun seeking her hand. Considering the novel is named after her, Maria plays a surprisingly small part in the story and barely says a word. Though Maria’s courtships make this ostensibly a romance novel, all members of the Chapdelaine family are equally important characters in the story. One could rightfully consider the real plot of the novel to be simply the passing of the seasons and their corresponding events in the lives of the region’s inhabitants, such as the cycles of planting and harvesting, of freeze and thaw, of gathering berries or cutting lumber, and of religious observances and holiday traditions. Hémon does a brilliant job of capturing the lifestyle of the families of the Lake St. John area as they work diligently to carve a living from the land. In fact, before they can work the land, they must first “make land” through the arduous process of clearing trees, stumps, and rocks from forest land to create fields for crops.

Somewhat like a Canadian Little House on the Prairie, this book was written for an intended audience of young readers, but tastes in literature have changed over the past century, and these days it will likely appeal more to adult readers of historical fiction. Though the vocabulary (of the English translation) is manageable for younger readers, Hémon doesn’t dumb down the content in any way or minimize the tragedies. In fact, the novel often strikes a sorrowful tone, but one that is authentic to the hardships faced by the characters. I was expecting an easy ending with a surprise reveal that would make everyone rejoice, but I didn’t get, and I respect Hémon all the more for not pandering to his audience. The novel ends with a veritable anthem to Québécois heritage and traditions, followed by a surprisingly abrupt but admirably realistic resolution.

Maria Chapdelaine is one of those rare books that are just as famous for their illustrations as for their text. Quebec-born artist Clarence Gagnon created 54 paintings for the 1933 edition published in Paris. These beautiful artworks hold an esteemed place in the history of Canadian art, and deservedly so. They not only illustrate scenes from Hémon’s narrative but also include some of the best landscape paintings ever produced of the Quebec countryside. All of Gagnon’s illustrations can be viewed online at the website of the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art. Actual copies of the novel with Gagnon’s illustrations are hard to come by, but the paintings have been reprinted in art books. The unillustrated text of the novel itself, in either French or English, is in the public domain and can be downloaded for free from sites like Amazon and Project Gutenberg. Readers of all ages, particularly those interested in Canadian history, will find Maria Chapdelaine an enjoyable and moving read.
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Illustrations by Clarence Gagnon from Maria Chapdelaine, 1933 edition

The Chapdelaine Farm

September Arrives

Picking Blueberries

Christmas Mass

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy

Elegant writing about unpleasant people
English novelist and playwright John Galsworthy won the 1932 Nobel Prize in Literature, largely due to his extensive series of novels and stories known as The Forsyte Chronicles. Within these Chronicles are three trilogies and a number of “interludes.” The Man of Property, published in 1906, is Galsworthy’s first published Forsyte novel and the beginning of the first trilogy, entitled The Forsyte Saga. Later, however, Galsworthy did publish some prequels to this book. One really needs a diagram (see Wikipedia) to sort out the confusing sequence of the series. I am certain, however, that The Man of Property was the first Forsyte novel, so that’s where I started.

The Forsytes are an upper-middle-class English family centered in London. Their ancestors were farmers rather than noblemen, but through generations of workaholic self-made men they have elevated themselves to financial aristocracy. According to one character, who presumably speaks for Galsworthy, what distinguishes the Forsytes is their extreme “sense of property.” Every decision they make is based on a practical assessment of the wealth, luxury, and status it will generate. The only passion indulged is the passion for making money. As third-person narrator, Galsworthy often uses the word Forsyte to refer not only to a member of the family in question but also to an entire class of people. This gets annoying fast, and even more so when the characters themselves use the word Forsyte in the same pretentiously broad and cavalier manner.

The story takes place in the 1880s. The novel opens upon a large Forsyte family gathering, one of several that occur throughout the book. The first chapter bombards the reader with Forsytes, a brood so prodigious it is difficult to tell who’s who and how they’re all related. For help, one can Google Forsyte family trees, but unfortunately many of them contain spoilers such as notations of deaths and divorces, so perhaps it’s better to map out your own.

The central plot of the story centers around a love quadrangle. The main “man of property” to which the title refers is Soames Forsyte. He is married to a very beautiful woman, Irene, who doesn’t love him. His cousin, June Forsyte, is engaged to be married to Philip Bosinney, a struggling young architect. Bosinney’s lack of means already marks him as the object of scorn by many of the Forsytes, and matters get worse when he starts to display an attraction towards Irene. Soames sees what’s coming and, perhaps with the unwise philosophy that one should keep his enemies close, he hires Bosinney to design him a lavish country house. The business dealings between the two soon turn sour, while the affair between Bosinney and Irene escalates. The pair openly cavort with one another at Forsyte family gatherings, while Soames does his best to act like he’s not bothered by it.

Galsworthy is clearly a talented writer with a mastery of the English language who can draw vivid scenery, create multidimensional characters, and deliver social commentary. The behavior of all parties involved in the scandal, however, was unrealistic, and I just didn’t care about any of these characters. I guess I was supposed to sympathize with Irene and Bosinney, but I found them just as despicable as the rest. The only likable character is Young Jolyon, the Forsyte family outcast. At times I felt pity for Irene, but pity and sympathy are two different things. The Forsyte Chronicles will likely appeal to Anglophiles who enjoy BBC television series of the family saga variety. Reading this first novel, however, did not make me want to follow the Forsytes any further.

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Monday, March 23, 2020

Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt by Helmut de Terra

Comprehensive biography for a popular audience
Alexander von Humboldt
During his lifetime, Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most famous people on Earth. After having undertaken a very scientifically productive expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804, the popular books he published on his travels and discoveries made Humboldt a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. By the twentieth century, however, his profile had significantly diminished in the United States, and his accomplishments had been largely forgotten. The biography Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt is an attempt to correct this undeserved fade into obscurity. Published in 1955, the book was written by German explorer, archaeologist, anthropologist, and geologist Helmut de Terra. Though de Terra was German, I believe he wrote and first published this book in English, as its primary purpose is to reintroduce Humboldt to an American audience.

This book is intended for a popular audience, so it bears minimal footnotes and no endnotes, though de Terra does provide a bibliography. As is common to popular biographies, the author sometimes enters into his subject’s head and indulges in brief scenes of novelization, but for the most part de Terra maintains a scholarly rigor throughout. He quotes extensively from letters and other firsthand accounts of Humboldt, and identifies each author in the text without providing detailed citations. His prose is effortlessly articulate but sufficiently detailed, providing a comfortable but informative read for any adult reader of reasonable scientific literacy. De Terra does an exceptional job of conveying the specifics and importance of Humboldt’s scientific discoveries in language free of arcane scientific jargon. In fact, the most difficult passages in the book are not scientific but historical, when de Terra provides context by summarizing the complicated history of Germany and its rulers.

Many books on Humboldt focus intently on his American expedition, but this truly is a cradle-to-grave biography of the man’s life. De Terra does provide sufficient coverage (five chapters worth) of the American journey, but he doesn’t give short shrift to the other periods of Humboldt’s life as so many other Humboldt scholars do. Regarding Humboldt’s 1829 scientific expedition across Russia to Siberia and the border of China, which most Humboldt scholars discuss very little, here de Terra devotes a chapter and a half to the subject. This book also includes useful, well-drawn maps of all of Humboldt’s celebrated travels with his routes clearly delineated.

Another positive aspect to de Terra’s approach is that he recognizes the importance of publishing to any scientific career. If you are looking for a summary of Humboldt’s writings and published research, this book provides a fine overview of his authorial output. Though primarily a professional biography, de Terra’s account also delves deeply into Humboldt’s personal life. In one passage de Terra confidently asserts that Humboldt was a homosexual (a matter of debate among Humboldt scholars), but he doesn’t oversell the idea or develop it into a full-blown thesis. De Terra also amply examines Humboldt’s elderly years, which bear a surprising correlation to the life of Voltaire. Both served as reluctant dignitaries under reigning monarchs and as hubs of global scholarly communication through their extensive networks of colleagues and correspondence.

Today’s readers looking for a one-volume synopsis of Humboldt’s life and impact would probably prefer a more contemporary take like Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, but de Terra’s life of Humboldt is an absorbing and rewarding read for those who wish to delve deeper into the life and science of this fascinating genius.
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Friday, March 20, 2020

Ring Around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak

Crisis of infinite Earths
First published in 1952 in the pages of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, Clifford D. Simak’s novel Ring Around the Sun has since been reprinted in over 50 editions in at least 15 languages, amounting to hundreds of thousands of copies. These days, however, it is not as well known as some of his other works, such as his novel City, which came out that same year. Nevertheless, Ring Around the Sun garnered positive critical praise upon its release, and it still holds up well as a quality work of visionary fiction.

Despite the title, the novel has nothing to do with space travel. The story takes place on Earth, perhaps a few decades in the future. Jay Vickers, an author, lives in a small town outside of New York City, close enough that he can make trips downtown to visit his literary agent. Like many of Simak’s heroes, he grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, so he gravitates toward a simpler, more rural lifestyle. He is haunted by memories of his bucolic childhood and by longings for a girl he loved as a teenager. He vaguely remembers an experience he shared with her, in which they both seemed to stroll into a pastoral “fairyland” not of this Earth.

Present life on Vickers’s Earth, however, is no fairyland. The Cold War is at its height, inspiring fears of nuclear Armageddon. Many citizens of this near-future America are so discontented that they seek refuge in the past by becoming “pretentionists” who take up historical re-enactment as a hobby. Many also find comfort in technological advances that make their lives easier. Recently, a surprising number of products have been appearing on the market that seem just too good to be true. These inexpensive goods of impeccable manufacture—cars, houses, light bulbs, razor blades—are guaranteed to last forever, thus eliminating planned obsolescence, and they are priced so low they couldn’t possibly turn a profit. While initially consumers are pleased by these new wonders, they soon become alarmed when these perfect products of unknown origin cause them to lose their jobs. Could this abundance of technological wonders be an attempt by some secret cabal to subvert our capitalist system and destroy our economy?

If that scenario doesn’t sound sci-fi enough for Simak, fear not. He takes it much further, but little can be revealed without spoiling the surprises. Simak creates a futuristic scenario of intricate complexity in which fantastic occurrences all logically build upon one another to construct a credible sci-fi thriller. Like a great mystery writer, he judiciously parcels out clues, gradually letting the reader in on the secrets of this fascinating world he has created. The plot of Ring Around the Sun is delightfully ingenious and chock-full of visionary ideas, several of which are familiar recurring themes in Simak’s work. At times, however, the story becomes more complicated than it needs to be. For example, Simak introduces mutants into the novel, then robots, and eventually he goes two steps beyond robots to introduce plot twists that just seem like unnecessary overkill. He undermines the elegance of his own creation by throwing too much into the kitchen sink.

Simak’s books are consistently excellent, and I enjoyed Ring Around the Sun very much, but it’s not quite as good as his novels City and Way Station or many of the stories in The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. By Simak standards, this novel is very good. Compared to the work of most other science fiction writers, it’s quite exceptional.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin

Labyrinthine family saga
Hong Lou Meng, or Dream of the Red Chamber, is widely regarded as the greatest novel in the history of Chinese literature. It was written during the Qing dynasty by Cao Xueqin, who completed 80 chapters before his death in 1764, although earlier copies of the work exist that date back to 1754. The book was only circulated through hand-copied manuscripts until the first printed edition appeared in 1791. This printed edition contained 120 chapters, but there is disagreement over whether the last 40 chapters were written by Cao Xueqin or by the editors of the 1791 edition, Gao E and Cheng Weiyuan. English translations of Hong Lou Meng differ widely and vary in number of chapters. Wang Chi-Chen, a professor at Columbia University, published an English translation in 1929 and a revised and expanded edition in 1958. I am reviewing this 1958 translation of Dream of the Red Chamber, in its Doubleday Anchor Book paperback form. I believe this version of Wang’s translation, consisting of 60 chapters, is an abridged version of the original narrative, but it was plenty enough novel for me.

The story revolves around an extended Chinese family of wealthy aristocrats, the Jia or Chia clan, depending on which English translation you’re reading. The family is divided into two branches, who reside in adjoining compounds. The first thing that strikes you upon delving into the novel is that you are caught in a very tangled family tree. The cast contains over 400 characters, about ten percent of whom are considered major characters. How they are all connected is incredibly difficult to follow. You can find family trees related to the novel online, but they certainly don’t include everyone, and the spellings of the names may differ from your edition. In his translation, Wang uses the outdated Wade-Giles method of romanization rather than the more current Hanyu Pinyin system. He also translates the names of many female characters into English, like Black Jade, Phoenix, Precious Virtue, and Purple Cuckoo. The male characters, however, do not get the same treatment. The Chinese often refer to people by titles of familial relationships (e.g. second sister, maternal grandmother), which makes distinguishing one character from another even more difficult. I have more than a beginning familiarity with the Chinese language, in traditional characters and pinyin, but I still found Wang’s English translation a difficult read.

Nevertheless, Cao’s art still shines through. There is no denying this is a great work of literature. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, entire professorial careers have been built on the interpretation of this one work. The most prominent plot line involves a moving love story between two young cousins, and the fortune of the family as a whole follows an epic trajectory worthy of a classical Greek tragedy. Cao’s impartial depiction of high and low social classes is admirable for the 18th century. Also, Chinese literature seems refreshingly immune from the prudishness of its Western counterpart, judging from the fair amount of frank sexual content present in this novel.

The narrative structure and form of a Chinese classical novel differs from what Western readers are accustomed to, and for that reason Dream of the Red Chamber makes for a challenging read. That difference, however, is also one of the enticements to read the novel, because in doing so, the reader discovers firsthand the beauty and power of a foreign and unfamiliar art form. Any reader with an avid interest in Chinese history and culture will find this book worth the effort. I wouldn’t enthusiastically recommend the Wang translation, but then again I haven’t experienced any other. Before investing a lot of time in the novel, I would suggest reading a few sample paragraphs from different editions to decide which version is the most comfortable.

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