Monday, May 16, 2022

Jean-Christophe, Volume 3: Love and Friendship, The Burning Bush, The New Dawn by Romain Rolland

Lost among the supporting cast
French author Romain Rolland won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature shortly after publishing what is considered his magnum opus, a series of ten novels under the collective title of Jean-Christophe. This saga chronicles the life and career of fictional composer Jean-Christophe Krafft, who was born and raised in Germany but spends much of his life in France. When these ten novels were published in English translation, they were released in three volumes. The third of these volumes, sometimes appearing under the title of Jean-Christophe: Journey’s End, consists of novels eight, nine, and ten of Rolland’s series, respectively titled Love and Friendship, The Burning Bush, and The New Dawn.

The most surprising and disappointing aspect of this third volume of Jean-Christophe is just how small a part the title character actually plays in these last three volumes. Rolland seems to have become bored with his composer protagonist and feels the need to veer off into the life story of every supporting character in the series. Christophe barely appears in Love and Friendship. Instead, that novel focuses largely on his best friend and former roommate Olivier. The main plot concerns Olivier’s troubled marriage, but the reader is also treated to the back stories of Olivier’s friends and neighbors, his wife Jacqueline, and her family.

Olivier is still prominent in the first half of The Burning Bush, but the plot moves in a different direction when Christophe gets halfheartedly involved with the Socialist movement in Paris. In the second half of the ninth volume, a new woman enters Christophe’s life. One can clearly see the predictable direction where this is going and can only reluctantly ride out Christophe’s poor judgment and the impending certain disaster of that relationship. Much emotional angst ensues, and the reader’s eye rolls continue when the previously independent and freethinking Christophe finds God.

The final novel, The New Dawn, is a bit of an improvement over the previous two. At least it contains a trace of optimism in a new romance for Christophe, and he finally starts to show some maturity. Christophe moves around quite a bit over the course of these novels, from Germany to France to Switzerland and to Italy. This gives Rolland the opportunity to comment upon the national spirit of these different countries and cultures. In the early novels this felt more like stereotyping, but here at the end one can see Rolland sketching the mindset of Europe leading up to World War I. This historical commentary is probably the Jean-Christophe saga’s saving grace. Rolland also includes much commentary on the arts, but Christophe’s music career really gets lost in these last three novels. Christophe’s old age, however, allows Rolland to illustrate the cyclical process by which each generation of artists starts out as revolutionary youths and then matures and mellows with age.

Rolland was primarily known as a Romantic writer, but here in Jean-Christophe he ventures somewhat unsuccessfully into Naturalism, trying to illustrate how lives are molded by heredity and social forces. Unlike the naturalist masterworks of Emile Zola, however, there is no apparent master plan to Jean-Christophe. The narrative just seems to meander haphazardly, veering off into spontaneous digressions. The first few novels in Volume 1 of Jean-Christophe are quite captivating, but the series only loses steam as it moves forward and fails to live up to the promise of Christophe’s youth. This last and weakest of the three volumes is a struggle to get through.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2022

And on Piano . . . Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life of Rock’s Greatest Session Man by Julian Dawson

In-depth biography of rock’s preeminent keyboardist 
If you are an informed fan of ‘60s and ‘70s rock and roll music, then you have likely heard of Nicky Hopkins. If you are a human being on this Earth who has turned on a radio in the last half century, then you have certainly heard his work. One of the greatest piano players in rock music, Hopkins played on some of the best albums of the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Beatles (mostly their solo records), and a host of other artists from the stellar to the insignificant. Hopkins was an official member of a few bands, most notably Quicksilver Messenger Service, but for most of his life he was a much sought-after session man who worked as a hired gun on hundreds if not thousands of recordings. In the 2011 biography And on Piano . . . Nicky Hopkins, Julian Dawson chronicles the life and work of this talented and important musical artist.

Dawson, a British singer-songwriter, is a rock musician himself, though I had never heard of him before. The fact that Dawson is a working musician with firsthand knowledge of the industry—how music is written, published, recorded, promoted, and performed—enhances the backstage feeling of this behind-the-scenes look into Hopkins’s musical career. Dawson also met and worked with Hopkins, and his admiration and friendship for his subject is evident in the conscientious thoroughness with which he has crafted this biography.

Dawson is not a great writer by literary or journalistic standards, but he has produced a better book than most in the rock and roll genre. He could have used a good editor, though. To research this biography, Dawson interviewed over 150 people, most of them famous musicians, and collected many anecdotes and much praise of Hopkins. The downside of that thoroughness is that the book often reads as if Dawson felt obligated to include every one of those anecdotes, even the most tenuous and mundane. At its best, however, this book is a treasure trove of trivia for rock and roll fans. Heaping icing on the cake, Dawson provides comprehensive (if not impossibly complete) discographies of albums and singles on which Hopkins played.

Hopkins was not your typical rock star. He was a humble man, even insecure, and never seemed comfortable in the spotlight. Plagued with health problems since childhood, he had a frail and sickly constitution that prevented him from living life to excess. During his glory days touring with the Rolling Stones, Hopkins was a relative straight arrow compared to the rest of the substance-abusing group, but he later had his own addiction problems after moving to America, resulting in a lost decade of erratic behavior, career decline, and a dysfunctional marriage. His road to recovery, surprisingly, came through Scientology, which brings its own brand of dependency and cause for concern. Though Dawson has great affection for his subject, he doesn’t shy away from some of the less attractive aspects of Hopkins’s personality.

The career of this super session man was a roller coaster, and the reader experiences both the ups and the downs. Though always working, Hopkins wasn’t always financially secure or solvent. At the turn of the ‘80s he went from playing with a major league of rock superstars to a minor league of considerably more obscure musicians. Throughout his life, however, despite difficult circumstances, Hopkins managed to perform with professionalism and impeccable artistry. Dawson has given Hopkins the in-depth biography he deserves; now let’s get Nicky into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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Monday, May 9, 2022

The Complete Original Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Volume II

A few masterpieces in an otherwise middling collection
Guy de Maupassant
Like America’s Edgar Allan Poe or Russia’s Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant is considered France’s master of the short story, at least for the 19th century. The Complete Original Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, a 13-volume English-language collection of the French author’s short fiction, was published in 1911. It is not really “Complete,” but it does contain 182 stories, eleven of which are gathered into Volume II. The selections, originally published in the 1880s, are not arranged in any discernible order.

Volume I of The Complete Original Short Stories included a dozen stories all set during the Franco-Prussian War, and initially it seems like Volume II is going to maintain that setting, as the first four stories all take place during that conflict. “Mother Sauvage,” about a French woman quartering Prussian soldiers in her home, is the prize of the volume, a stunning story both shocking and moving. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “The Mustache” is an unfunny piece of fluff penned as a faux letter from a woman to her friend, in which the narrator gushes over her love of a man with a good mustache. “Epiphany” is another humorous tale set during wartime, while “The Colonel’s Ideas” is a more conventional and predictable tale of wartime heroism.

The remaining selections do not mention the Franco-Prussian War, which makes for a nice change of scenery. “A Question of Latin,” a rom-com in which a student plays matchmaker for his meek Latin teacher, is warm and funny. The real standout stories, however, are those that depict a darker side of life. “Madame Baptiste” is a remarkable story in which de Maupassant frankly depicts the disgraceful way that so-called “respectable” 19th century society treated victims of sexual assault. “The Blind Man” is a similarly brutal tale about the abuse suffered by a blind man at the hands of his family and neighbors. This one feels less meaningful and believable than “Madame Baptiste” because de Maupassant only seems interested in sketching a worst-case-scenario portrait of cruelty.

All the stories are quite brief and can be read in ten or fifteen minutes each, with the exception of “A Family Affair,” which is roughly five times the length of the typical entries. De Maupassant was a writer of the Naturalist school, and his work clearly shows the influence of mentor Emile Zola. Nowhere in this volume is that more apparent than in “A Family Affair,” a story in which de Maupassant lampoons the suburban middle class. A meek office worker and his shrewish wife are jolted out of their routine existence when his mother dies. As a staunch Naturalist, nothing is sacred with de Maupassant, and the sanctity of funeral proceedings are turned into a ridiculous farce showcasing the selfishness, vanity, and greed of the deceased’s loved ones. Unlike Zola, who always reserves a little affection for even his most contemptible characters, de Maupassant clearly despises his cast, which somewhat lessens the fun for the reader.

Though “Mother Sauvage,” “Madame Baptiste,” and “A Question of Latin,” clearly demonstrate de Maupassant’s mastery of his medium, the remainder of the book’s contents are comprised of surprisingly mediocre fare. If one were to base one’s opinion of de Maupassant’s literary career on Volume II alone, his reputation as the French Poe or Chekhov might seem undeserved. This selection of stories is a step down from Volume I, but overall it is still an above-average collection of short fiction.

Stories in this collection

The Colonel’s Ideas
Mother Sauvage
The Mustache 
Madame Baptiste
The Question of Latin
A Meeting
The Blind Man
A Family Affair 
Beside Schopenhauer’s Corpse

Thursday, May 5, 2022

The Fur Country by Jules Verne

Monotonous homage to the Hudson’s Bay Company
The French pioneer of science fiction Jules Verne strove to encompass a comprehensive breadth of scientific and geographic knowledge in his fictional works. This resulted in the 54 novels of exotic travel and adventure known as his Voyages Extraordinaires (Amazing Journeys), a series which includes such famed titles as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in Eighty Days. In the tenth novel in this series, The Fur Country, Verne takes the reader on an adventure into the Arctic. The novel was originally published in 1873 under the French title of Le Pays des fourrures.

The story begins in 1859. The Hudson’s Bay Company is losing money because it has overhunted its prey, so it decides to expand its operations further into Northwestern Canada and Alaska. A party of explorers is dispatched to establish a new fort on the Alaskan coast above the Arctic Circle. After having reached their destination, the group becomes trapped in the Arctic and must find a way to escape their predicament. Although Verne acknowledges the environmental damage done by the fur industry, he simultaneously glorifies the romance, efficiency, and profitability of the company’s hunting operations. One admirable aspect of the book is the inclusion of a woman explorer who is treated with just as much respect and deference as the male officers.

Part of the fun of wilderness adventure is that being in the wild allows for freedom from societal laws and conventions. Unlike later authors of Klondike Gold Rush fiction, however, you won’t find any roughhousing in Verne’s work. Everyone in this novel observes the rules of Victorian propriety, and all the characters have the same prim and proper personality, so there’s never any conflict between them. The dangers and hardships of the North are never adequately conveyed. Even when they are building a fort, boat, or raft, these men of the Hudson’s Bay Company never seem to break a sweat, and the cold hardly seems to bother anyone. With the exception of a couple of scenes involving polar bears, all the perils faced by the travelers are the result of meteorological and climatological causes, meaning the novel is often about as exciting as watching ice melt. Verne tries to liven things up by having icebergs bounce around like magic bullets and working in more failed rescue attempts than an entire season of Gilligan’s Island.

There is one major plot point that just doesn’t make any sense. An astronomer accompanies the expedition so that he can observe a total solar eclipse that must be viewed above the seventieth parallel. Without spoiling too much of the plot, an argument develops over the coordinates of the party’s location, whether they are above or below the seventieth parallel. They have measured their latitude twice, and there is a discrepancy between the two measurements. However, the coordinates given from the first measurement (70° 44’ 37”) and the second measurement (73° 7’ 20”) are both above the seventieth parallel, so what’s the problem? This should have had no effect on the viewing of the eclipse. If anything, the second set of coordinates should have been advantageous to the astronomer. The whole story hinges on this one plot element, yet it seems an obvious error. Hasn’t anyone else noticed this in the past 150 years?

Before science fiction was called “science fiction” it was called “scientific romance,” which is a more fitting description of this work by Verne. The Fur Country is romantic adventure fiction that deals with scientific phenomena, but all within the realm of physical possibility. With this book Verne applies his “Extraordinary Voyages” treatment to meteorology, oceanography, and glaciology. One must have a very avid interest in those fields to enjoy this book because the characters and plot are not sufficient to captivate the reader.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2022

C.A. Seward: Artist and Draughtsman by Carole Gardner, et al.

Middle America’s printmaker extraordinaire
Born on a ranch in sparsely populated central Kansas, Coy Avon Seward (1884-1939) grew up to become one of his home state’s most accomplished artists, achieving national and international acclaim. Printmaking was his medium of expertise, and he also worked professionally in the printing and graphic arts industries. Not only was Seward a founding member of the Prairie Print Makers, he was the guiding force behind the organization’s formation and its operations over the first decade of its existence. Seward exhibited his lithographs, etchings, and block prints in America and Europe and received many awards for his work. The book C.A. Seward: Artist and Draughtsman was published by the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas as the catalogue to their exhibition of Seward’s prints in 2010.

The book contains two biographical essays on Seward. The first is written by three of his grandchildren: Carole Gardner, Barbara Thompson, and David Thompson. Barbara Thompson, under the name of Barbara Thompson O’Neill, previously wrote the book The Prairie Print Makers, which although brief is probably the best available overview of that group’s history and a beautiful little book to boot. I don’t know if she is a professional art historian, but she writes like a good one. Seward’s three grandchildren have compiled a very comprehensive chronicle of the artist’s career that also shows revealing insights into his generous and enthusiastic character. Seward was not only a great artist but also very active in many arts organizations, staging print exhibitions, and teaching and promoting other artists. Reading about his career in the early 20th century makes one nostalgic for the days when representational landscapes were better appreciated and successful careers were built on talent, hard work, and goodwill among fellow artists.

The second essay is by Spencer Museum curator Kate Mayer. Unfortunately, much of her chapter repeats what was in the first essay. That’s not a criticism of her writing but rather the fault of whoever edited the book. More attention should have been paid to avoiding redundancy.

Among the appendices is a catalog raisonné of all of Seward’s prints, though it is brief and only states the most basic data like title, date, and size. Not all of his 171 prints are pictured in the book, but more than 150 of them are. The most (and perhaps only) disappointing aspect of Seward’s superb body of work is that he only made a dozen block prints. From those few examples (including the gorgeous book cover), it is evident that he was a master of the linocut, at least in regards to landscapes. One can only wish that he had made more of these beautiful relief prints, but he preferred lithography and etching, and excelled at both.

The Spencer Museum of Art consistently produces books of very fine quality, and this publication is no exception. Seward’s prints look fabulous in these pages, and any fan of his work should seek out this book, which can be viewed for free online at the Spencer Museum’s issuu site. The prevailing history of art in America tends to stress that all worthwhile accomplishments were made within the creative spheres of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. However, there is a whole other history of exceptional artists who excelled in every corner of America, particularly during the heyday of regional realism. Seward is one such lesser-known modern master, and this lovely and well-executed book is a testament to the fact that talented artists on the Great Plains could compete with their big-city brethren.
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Prints by C.A. Seward

Mountains and Desert, lithograph, 1929

Land of Mystery, linoleum cut1930

Washerwoman’s Alley, etching, 1932

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Narrative of the Voyages Round the World, Performed by Captain James Cook by Andrew Kippis

Comprehensive exploration chronicle with biographical interludes
British navigator Captain James Cook made three famed voyages of exploration (two of them around the world) between 1768 and 1779. A comprehensive account of Cook’s life and journeys was published in 1788, written by Andrew Kippis, entitled Narrative of the Voyages Round the World, Performed by Captain James Cook. Kippis, a clergyman and professional writer, was not present on Cook’s expeditions but compiled his Narrative of the Voyages from previously published and unpublished journals by Cook and his crewmates.

Kippis’s detailed review of the sailors’ journals calls to mind the similar after-the-fact History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Elliott Coues and published in 1893. In both cases, the text is loaded with details of daily activities, some of which could even qualify as mundane, that in totality add up to a vivid recreation of the experience of the explorers. Both books are intended for popular audiences and therefore leave out much of the scientific data published in volumes intended for specialists. The most important and frequently covered topic in Kippis’s account is the English expedition’s interactions with the Indigenous inhabitants of the lands visited. Of second priority are details of sailing and navigation, such as the location of good harbors, the availability of provisions, and the geographic coordinates of landmarks. Of less prominence in the narrative are the botanical and zoological wonders encountered on the journey, yet occasionally there appears an exciting discovery like the first European sighting of a kangaroo.

Kippis also covers Cook’s life before and in between his three voyages, but not to any great extent. Most of Cook’s explorations took place among islands in the South Pacific, but he did venture farther afield as well. Cook did not discover Australia or New Zealand, but he more thoroughly explored those lands than any previous European. His biggest contribution to geography was the European discovery of Hawaii, which he named the Sandwich Islands. Cook searched for a rumored “Southern continent” but did not find Antarctica because too much ice forced him to turn back before he saw any land. The same is true of his search for the Northwest Passage, approaching North America from the West. He ventured North of the Bering Strait, where ice blocked his way, but he did explore the coastlines of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Siberia.

Compared to the Spanish conquistadores, Cook was relatively respectful in his dealings with Indigenous peoples, but still inevitably imperialistic. His short-term goal was exploration and trade, not colonization. As the representative of Britain in foreign lands, however, he considered himself the law and dispensed justice as he saw fit, which in some cases included the killing of Natives when the Brits felt threatened or robbed. As part of his mission, Cook deliberately seeded the Pacific islands with European livestock and crops. We now recognize that these were invasive species that negatively impacted biodiversity, but at the time it was intended as a generous gift to the Natives and to prepare the islands for future settlers. The topic of sex between English sailors and Native women is brought up on several occasions in a surprisingly frank manner but discussed with a vocabulary of utmost gentility.

One unfortunate aspect of Cook’s travels that make them more interesting than most is that he died on his third voyage, killed by Native Hawaiians in a dispute over some stolen property. Kippis’s account of the series of escalating incidents that led to his death is harrowing and tragic. Kippis brings the book to a dull close, however, with excessive eulogizing of Cook, including the quoting of much mediocre poetry. As an exploration narrative, this is really a remarkable book, but Kippis gets rather carried away with the funereal epilogues.
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Monday, April 25, 2022

Shakespeare’s Planet by Clifford D. Simak

Interstellar castaway on a mysterious world
Clifford D. Simak was a prolific science fiction author whose writing career lasted from the early 1930s to the late 1980s. In addition to over a hundred short stories and novellas, Simak published 27 novels. Shakespeare’s Planet, his 19th novel, was published in 1976. Highly respected in his field, Simak is known for the consistent high quality of his works, and Shakespeare’s Planet is no exception.

Space traveler Carter Horton has just awoken from suspended animation. He left Earth in the 25th century as the planet was facing environmental and economic collapse. His journey was one of a number of scouting missions to look for habitable planets. He is now shocked to find that he has been asleep for over a thousand years, and his three human traveling companions died long ago. He is informed of the situation by his robot chaperone and by his sentient spaceship with whom he communicates telepathically. The good news is that after wandering over the galaxy for over a millennium they have now discovered a habitable planet. When Horton debarks on the planet’s surface, he encounters a being of an intelligent alien species, also a visitor to this world. This alien, a hunter and warrior nicknamed Carnivore, informs Horton that he is not the first human to visit this world. Carnivore had a previous acquaintance with an Earthling who facetiously referred to himself as Shakespeare. Though now deceased, Shakespeare left behind writings that can still teach Horton a thing or two about this world, which has its share of strange mysteries. The biggest puzzle facing Horton: Is there a way off this desolate world?

Shakespeare’s Planet is like an ingenious mystery story set in a far-flung star system. Simak expertly parcels out the clues to the mystery planet’s secrets while introducing innovative alien species and strange phenomena that question the very nature of time and space. Most outer space sci-fi stories revolve around conflict between different species or warring planetary factions. Simak’s fiction, however, more often than not hinges on friendship between humans and alien species. If we met intelligent life from elsewhere in the universe, how would we communicate with them? How could we help each other? What can we learn from one another? These are the questions that Simak explores again and again in his novels and stories. His works express a kind of interstellar environmental ethic: We should respect other worlds and their inhabitants just as we should respect the nature and peoples of Earth. Simak’s stories often exude a melancholy regret for mankind’s past rapaciousness but an optimistic faith in the future resilience of humanity. Shakespeare’s Planet is a perfect example of Simak’s passion for these recurring themes.

I have read at least three-fourths of Simak’s complete works, and I would count Shakespeare’s Planet among his best novels, though not quite on the same par with classics like Way Station or City. If you read enough of Simak’s works, you begin to notice certain elements and speculative ideas repeating themselves, so parts of this novel will feel vaguely familiar to diehard Simak fans, but rarely has he put such elements and ideas into an arrangement as compelling as this. Shakespeare’s Planet is a suspenseful interstellar adventure that keeps the reader guessing, reveals ingenious sci-fi visions, and provokes deep thoughts with its philosophical questioning of the future of mankind.
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