Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Bread and Butter by Eugene O’Neill

A beginner’s take on familiar territory
Bread and Butter
is the earliest surviving full-length play written by Eugene O’Neill, winner of the 1936 Nobel Prize in Literature. O’Neill wrote this drama in 1914, when he was 26 years old. Prior to that, he had written a few one-act plays. Bread and Butter was neither published nor staged during O’Neill’s lifetime; its first public performance didn’t occur until 1998. O’Neill himself would have preferred that his earliest plays be forgotten, including Bread and Butter, but they now show up in collections of his complete works.

A young man named John Brown is the son of a wealthy hardware merchant in the provincial community of Bridgetown, Connecticut. Brown Sr. wants to give his son a position in the family business, but John refuses his father’s plans for his future. John wants to be an artist. After a heated family argument, Mr. Brown is talked into letting John study painting in New York, if only to work such fool notions out of his system. John enjoys the bohemian lifestyle of the artists’ studio and shows much promise as a painter. His creativity, however, is frustrated by the pressure put upon him by friends and family: the father who won’t lend financial support unless John picks a different career, the fiancée who doesn’t take John’s art seriously and just wants him to settle down to family life, the mother who only sees moral turpitude in John’s bohemian lifestyle, and the condescending elder brother who not so secretly covets John’s girlfriend. John is also partially responsible for his own artistic failures, since he lets himself be swayed from committing to his art, wallows in self-pity, and turns to alcohol.

Everybody’s gotta start somewhere, but this feature-length debut by O’Neill feels like a very pedestrian effort. The storyline about the artist who craves creative freedom is a premise that you’ve seen a thousand times. In fact, O’Neill covered very much the same ground himself in his one-act play of 1913 entitled “Recklessness.” The characters in Bread and Butter are more clichés than people. Perhaps the frank discussion of alcoholism might have been cutting-edge for 1914, but I doubt it. This drama took over 80 years to make it to the stage, after all, and then only on the strength of O’Neill’s name, so I think it’s safe to say the theatrical community of the era didn’t find this drama fascinating. In hindsight, however, one can see the baby steps of O’Neill’s stellar career, particularly his focus on alcohol and the dysfunctional family. Bread and Butter is not really terrible writing, it’s just rather boringly familiar. It is not the worst play that O’Neill ever wrote. (That would be Welded.) The ending of Bread and Butter, however, is particularly heavy-handed and hackneyed. Only readers with an avid interest in O’Neill’s career should read Bread and Butter, as a curiosity more than anything. No one else need bother with it.
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Thursday, May 16, 2024

Maigret Goes to School by Georges Simenon

Substandard Maigret murder mystery
First published in 1954, Maigret Goes to School is the 72nd work (if you count both novels and short stories) in Georges Simenon’s series of detective fiction featuring Inspector Jules Maigret. In the recent series of Penguin reprints, it is novel number 44. Though Simenon was born in Belgium and wrote his books in the French language, he penned this novel in Lakeville, Connecticut, where he lived for five years. Maigret Goes to School was adapted for television in 1992 as part of the British TV series starring Michael Gambon as Maigret.

A visitor shows up at Maigret’s police station to solicit his help. Joseph Gastin is a schoolmaster from the small town of Saint-André-sur-Mer on the western coast of France in the region of Charente. Gastin informs Maigret that a murder has been committed in his town, and that he, Gastin, is the prime suspect. An elderly woman, a retired postal employee, was shot in the eye as she looked out the window of her home. Gastin, an outsider in the town and unliked by everyone, knows that he will be charged with the crime and possibly attacked by the townsfolk. He wants Maigret to save his bacon by finding the real killer. Maigret, eager for a Spring outing, decides a trip to the sea might be nice.

When Maigret and Gastin arrive in Saint-André-sur-Mer, the schoolmaster is arrested and put in jail. Nobody really thinks he committed the crime, but they’d rather see this stranger in jail than one of their own. No one in town really liked the victim either, and everyone seems to be happy that the cranky old lady is dead. Nevertheless, a murder was committed, and it needs a resolution, so Maigret gets to know the citizens of this seaside town.

I’ve read two dozen of Simenon’s Maigret novels. Though not always mystery masterpieces, the books in this series are consistently very good and not infrequently great. Maigret Goes to School, however, has got to be the most boring Maigret novel I’ve come across so far. I usually like it when Maigret leaves Paris and solves small-town crimes because it often allows Simenon to show the reader a slice of French life not frequently seen in popular French fiction, which is so often set in Paris. The Night at the Crossroads, Maigret Afraid, and Maigret’s Rival are all fine examples of the Maigret-in-the-country category. Here, however, Saint-André-sur-Mer is really rather dull and filled with characters who are difficult to distinguish from one another. Just about anyone could have committed the murder, but no one really seems to care who did. There’s never any real sense of urgency to the story, nor is there much of the psychological insight that Simenon usually brings to his mysteries. Maigret seems to approach the case with ambivalence and apathy, and the reader can’t help but feel the same. After seven chapters of talking with these rather nondescript characters, Maigret reveals the mode and motive of the murder, bringing up a few clues out of the blue that weren’t mentioned earlier. When at last the killer is revealed, the reader feels no real sense of accomplishment, relief, or satisfaction.

Perhaps Simenon’s intention with Maigret Goes to School was to depict a provincial town as an insular enclave inhabited by shallow and surly persons. If so, he might have accomplished that, but it doesn’t make for a good novel. Simenon supposedly wrote over 400 published novels, 75 of them starring Maigret. Despite such a prolific output, it’s been my experience that he rarely delivers a dud, but Maigret Goes to School is one case where he missed the mark.
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Monday, May 13, 2024

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson

An amateur detective’s exposé of a disgusting hobby
In 2009, Edwin Rist, an American classical musician, broke into the Natural History Museum at Tring, a very prestigious institution located in a small town outside of London. Rist stole the preserved skins of 299 birds from the museum’s collection, some of which had been collected about 150 years earlier by the distinguished naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace. When writer Kirk Johnson heard about this strange crime, he decided to delve further into the case. His investigation resulted in the book The Feather Thief, published in 2018.

Why steal a bunch of dead birds? Because the particular species that Rist stole are prized for their rarity and the vivid colors of their feathers. Such feathers fetch a high price on the black market, with some birds selling for thousands of dollars. Most people are probably aware that the use of feathers in women’s fashion in the 19th and early 20th centuries drove many bird species towards the brink of extinction. The Feather Thief, however, brings our attention to a lesser-known threat to endangered bird species: fly fishermen. There is a subculture of hobbyists who tie salmon-fishing flies according to traditions established in the Victorian Era, when the “recipes” for such flies called for the feathers of rare, exotic, and now endangered birds. While Victorian fishermen may not have known better, these archaic techniques persist, and fly tiers continue to support a robust trade in questionably acquired feathers. They could use the dyed feathers of domestic fowl as a substitute, but many choose not to. Instead, they claim that they get their exotic feathers from “reputable sources,” but is their really any reputable source for dead Birds of Paradise? The CITES agreement on trade in endangered species should put a stop to this, but as Johnson points out, there are plenty of loopholes in the law, enforcement is underfunded, and the trade goes on. While Johnson’s exposé is eye-opening, it makes for a disgusting and depressing read.

There is certainly an interesting story here; I just wish someone else had written it. Johnson has no background as an investigative reporter, an ornithologist, or a law enforcement professional. He’s just a dilettante in this area, and an amateur sleuth, and it shows in his writing. At one point in his investigation he meets Dr. Richard Prum, an ornithologist at Yale who has amassed a great deal of research on the illegal trade in bird skins. Why couldn’t Prum have written this book? It would have made for a much more informative read. Instead, Johnson turns this story into a memoir in which he makes himself the main focus. It’s all about his search, his education, his feelings. He includes discussions of his former career and his wife’s pregnancy that have nothing to do with this case or this topic and don’t belong in this book. He tries way too hard to generate human interest by getting you to like these fly tiers before he exposes their crimes. Also, Johnson hides the existence of one of the major players in this case until about three quarters of the way into the book. This “character” should have been involved in the story from the beginning, but Johnson conceals him from the reader in order to make the mystery more suspenseful. It feels like a cheap cheat, and the book as a whole comes across rather amateurish. An article in National Geographic or Audubon magazine would impart more pertinent and useful information than what one gets from this book-length work.

Nevertheless, the fly-tying community and its black market for feathers are subjects that definitely should be brought to the attention of the wider public, so I respect Johnson’s efforts in that regard. I just think I could have learned more from a more capable investigative or science journalist.
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Thursday, May 9, 2024

The Collected Shorter Plays by Samuel Beckett

Experiments to test the human attention span
Samuel Beckett, winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature, was Irish by birth but lived much of his adult life in Paris. He wrote and published works in both English and French (and maybe a few in German?). Though Beckett wrote novels, poetry, and short stories, he is probably best remembered as a playwright and most often identified by his best-known play Waiting for Godot. In the United States, most if not all of Beckett’s works were published by Grove Press in New York. In 1984, Grove published The Collected Shorter Plays, a volume containing 29 of Beckett’s one-act dramas for the theater, radio, and television.

As evidenced by Waiting for Godot, Beckett is known for scorning convention and pushing the envelope of what theatrical drama could be. Beckett explores existential ideas through minimalist imagery and absurdist humor. In his works, he rethinks the art form of the theater, stripping sets and costumes down to the bare essentials and writing dialogue and actions with little or no coherent linear narrative. Several of the works in this volume are not so much plays but rather choreography for pantomime, calling to mind the kinds of “happenings” that John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg used to put together in the 1960s. Many of the works included here were written for radio and television rather than the stage, and even his stage productions sometimes include an evocation of radio in the use of recorded voices. Apparently Beckett was such a big name that anything he wrote, no matter how dark, stark, or bizarre, would be broadcast by the BBC or some TV or radio studio in France or Germany. Some of these pieces are so off-puttingly dull or nonsensical, however, that you’ve got to wonder who would actually sit by their radio and listen to this stuff.

Beckett’s works weren’t so much written to be enjoyed, however, but rather to be admired for their thought-provoking innovation. Reading through these works, one certainly does develop an admiration for his creativity and his audacity, even though many of these works feel like failed experiments. Although it is often difficult to read these texts because of the constant “. . .”s and “[Pause]”s, one can imagine the effect of sitting in a theater and experiencing these works in person. The visual aspects of Beckett’s staging, lighting, and costuming are often quite interesting (although of course that doesn’t apply to the radio works). There is a also a certain pleasure derived from the somewhat mathematical beauty of the movements described. What is hard to stand, however, is the human speech in Beckett’s plays (you can’t even call it dialogue) which is often one lone figure reciting a monologue of sentence fragments that don’t add up to much of anything. Another recurring element is a sort of godlike narrator, often unseen, who barks out instructions that the human figures act out, like an avant-garde session of Simon Says.

Beckett’s works are challenging. That’s the reason he is so admired. Only Beckett could get away with a play called “Play” and a film called “Film.” Of course, most people who pick up this volume are going to know that ahead of time and expect a certain level of discomfort and tedium to these proceedings. The Collected Shorter Plays is often not a pleasurable read, but it does give the reader a broad understanding of what Beckett was about and how he irrevocably transformed the art of the theater. These writings were quite groundbreaking for their time, and even now their modernist aesthetic comes across as more intelligent and fascinating than much of what’s considered groundbreaking nowadays.

Works in this collection
All That Fall
Act Without Words I 
Act Without Words II
Krapp’s Last Tape 
Rough for Theatre I 
Rough for Theatre II 
Rough for Radio I 
Rough for Radio II 
Words and Music 
The Old Tune 
Come and Go 
Eh Joe
Not I
That Time 
Ghost Trio 
. . . but the clouds . . . 
A Piece of Monologue 
Ohio Impromptu 
Nacht und Träume 
What Where

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Tuesday, May 7, 2024

The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings by Juan Rulfo

Rediscovered works from a Mexican master
In the Mexican literary scene, it is a general consensus that Juan Rulfo is that nation’s greatest author. In fact, Rulfo is widely respected throughout Latin America, and is often credited as being the precursor and inspiration to the Latin American Boom that took place in world literature in the 1960s and ‘70s, in which such writers as Gabriel García Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and Jorge Luis Borges rose to prominence. What Rulfo achieved in impact makes up for what he lacked in prolificacy. As far as most readers know, he only published one novel, Pedro Páramo, and one volume of stories, El Llano en Llamas (The Burning Plain). Editor and translator Douglas J. Weatherford, however, brings our attention to the fact that Rulfo did write another short novel, El Gallo de Oro (The Golden Cockerel), which was published in 1980 after having been adapted into film in 1964. The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings, published in 2017, presents Weatherford’s English translation of this “lost” novel by Rulfo, along with several short pieces by Rulfo that were published after his death in various Mexican publications.

The Golden Cockerel tells the tale of Dionisio Pinzón, a dirt-poor resident of the town of San Miguel del Milagro. Hampered by a lame arm, he can’t even perform manual labor, so as an act of charity he is granted the job of town crier. Among his duties is serving as announcer at the local cockfights. One evening, after a fight, the owner of the defeated bird is just about to put his wounded animal out of its misery, when Dionisio Pinzón steps in and asks him to reconsider. The man gives his unwanted bird to Dionisio Pinzón, who takes the golden rooster home and nurses it back to health. From that moment, Dionisio Pinzón’s life changes for the better, in luck and in love. He travels from town to town with his golden cockerel, raking in riches from the fighting prowess of his beloved bird. He also wins the heart of a beautiful cabaret singer. With his newfound riches, however, Dionisio Pinzón undergoes a change from simple, likable peasant to a man consumed by greed.

Unlike the more blatantly modernist style of Pedro Páramo and The Burning Plain, the writing of The Golden Cockerel is not overtly experimental or surrealist in its structure and storytelling. Rulfo relates the story in straightforward language, but with his own unique voice and humor. The plot has the quality of a folktale or fable, like a modern Mexican version of some semi-supernatural cautionary tale of Balzac’s, such as The Magic Skin. The most enjoyable quality of the novel is the blunt naturalism and gallows humor with which Rulfo depicts his native land. He doesn’t romanticize Mexican culture but certainly displays an affection for it that is contagious. Rulfo gets the reader to care about this time and place, these people, in a way similar to how García Marquez brings rural Colombia to vivid life in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The “Other Writings” in this volume are a mixed bag of short-shorts, including a poem (“The Secret Formula”), correspondence with a loved one (“A Letter to Clara”), an autobiographical piece (“My Father”), and a bit of travel writing (“The Castillo de Teayo”). A couple of the short stories bear a warmth and humor similar to The Golden Cockerel (“A Piece of the Night” and “The Discoverer”) while a few others have a dark, spaghetti-western atmosphere that would have been right at home in The Burning Plain (“He Was on the Run and Hurting” and “Ángel Pinzón Paused”). A few of the pieces are too brief to really amount to much. In all cases, however, Rulfo’s stellar literary talent shines. The Golden Cockerel isn’t quite as impressive as Rulfo’s two better-known books, but it’s still worthy of this highly esteemed Mexican master. Rulfo fans lamenting his paltry output will be delighted by the long lost writings in this volume.

Stories in this collection

The Golden Cockerel
The Secret Formula
Life Doesn’t Take Itself Very Seriously
A Piece of the Night
A Letter to Clara
Castillo de Teayo
After Death
My Aunt Cecilia
My Father
Same as Yesterday
Susana Foster
He Was on the Run and Hurting
Ángel Pinzón Paused
The Discoverer

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