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The eloquence that diverts us to itself is unfair to the content
– Montaigne

The essays of Montaigne were first published in 1580, over 400 years old at this point. What I find remarkable is the relevance of his writings even today, and perhaps as a consequence, the many times I have encountered references to Montaigne and his quotes in books not about him. It is as if every aspect of human nature one might contemplate on has already been contemplated in fine detail by Montaigne, annotated with quotes from the ancients. Here are a select few of his quotes from an old edition of his selected essays, with my superfluous commentary

The absurdity of our education is that its goal has been to make us not good or wise, but learned

Montaigne might very well have been tweeting this yesterday. As a thought experiment, if Montaigne was taken seriously, if education really strove to make us wise and good, could humanity have averted the two World Wars and 60+ million deaths? Or put another way, what is the risk of not adopting this bit of important and timeless advise for the future of the world?

It is always a gain to change a bad state for an uncertain one

What Montaigne is saying is that if you are stuck in a rut, and you have a choice where there is a  50% chance of being stuck in a rut vs not, then go with that choice. Except, he says it better

Example is a hazy mirror, reflecting all things in all ways.

If you have wondered how the same incident or story could be interpreted by two people in different ways, here you have it. We observe not just with our eyes, but with our minds.

He who fears he will suffer, already suffers from his fears

Or to quote his fellow Frenchman born 200 years later, Balzac – ‘Our greatest fears lie in anticipation’. I can tell you that just being aware of this maxim works an antidote.

The true mirror of our discourse is the course of our lives

A more familiar version of the above is ‘practice what you preach’, though the Montaigne version sounds so much more profound

Let him be made to understand that to confess the flaw he discovers in his own argument, though it is still unnoticed except by himself, is an act of judgement and sincerity, which are the principal qualities he seeks; that obstinacy and contention are vulgar qualities, most often seen in the meanest souls; that to change his mind and correct himself, to give up the bad side at the height of his ardor, are rare, strong and philosophical qualities

Montaigne is getting borderline judgmental here (meanest?), though he might very well be channeling Nostradamus, divining the collective aspiration of a nation.

The world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great scarcity

Noted.

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The Paris Review interviews offer a wonderful insight into how writers and poets go about their art. Amidst the plethora of interviews, I had missed the one of Italo Calvino until now. Calvino is asked about how he writes (‘by hand, making many, many corrections’), when he writes (‘afternoon’), his influences (Kipling, Stevenson, Stendhal) , among others. Near the end of his interview, when asked whether he has ever been bored, he brings up this keen difference between the ways children and adults experience boredom:

Yes, in my childhood. But it must be pointed out that childhood boredom is a special kind of boredom. It is a boredom full of dreams, a sort of projection into another place, into another reality. In adulthood boredom is made of repetition, it is the continuation of something from which we are no longer expecting any surprise.

One of Calvino’s talents evident in his works is his ability to draw you into a lucid insight on a topic or observation one might disregard as mundane. There appears to be little that has crossed his mind that he has not given enough thought, distilled its essence, and stowed away for future reference. Like being asked about being bored.

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I have always had a bit of a struggle describing structures. For e.g. consider the Tempietto San Peitro in Italy above, one of the most harmonious structure of the Renaissance that has influenced the dome of St.Peter’s in the Vatican and the US Capitol. I would have described it as a set of circular stairs leading to a building  surrounded by tall columns atop which is a balcony that surrounds a dome.  And then there is Jonathan Glancey’s description of the same structure in his pictorially and literally beautiful and insightful book – The Story of Architecture:

The design of the Tempietto is of a stepped circular plinth leading up through a Doric colonnade and up through a balustrade to a delightful drum and dome.

A part of me wants to run around the city and point to every drum and dome structure and shout aloud – drum and dome, drum and dome! There are not many places I can think of here in SF, but there is one that I pass on my bicycle ride to work and it never gets old – the beautiful City Hall. A perfect drum and, wait for it…, dome!

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I am partway way through Glancey’s book and one of its fascinating insights is into the language used to describe structures – ogee domes, barrel vaults, voussoirs, architraves, flying buttresses, among others. The buildings that it covers are there for a reason – they are representative of the times and style described and carry a bit of the history of those times. Yet, not all descriptions are effusive.

Consider the St.Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, that I have seen and found to be awe-inspiring. Glancey feels differently:

..The result is an overblown confection that is too big, too rich, and ultimately indigestible. Many visitors find it all too much to take in and remember only the café on the roof – cappuccinos served by nuns – and the gift shop alongside with its kitsch souvenirs

I was unaware of this nun-run café; wish I had read this book earlier.

Here is Henry VII’s Private Chapel in Westminster, England, a late Gothic structure built 1503-19

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Henry VII’s Chapel. Photo courtesy, Henry Lawford via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/herry/5334767433

described thusly:

An exotic stone and glass casket, it was highly decorated outside as it was inside, rare for an English building of almost any period. The effect really is that of a jewel box, and it is hard to escape the feeling that no matter how a fine a building this is from a technical and craft point of view, it is a case of a style and a tradition being stretched to a point where it is in danger of tipping over into the realm of kitsch

In concluding his description of the Tempietto, with which we began this post, Glancey writes

Here at last – after many hundreds of years – one can enjoy the play of warm Italian sunlight through classical columns; here at last is a building that speaks of reason and civility rather than fear and religious domination

There is perhaps in the simplicity of things something that can be easily grasped and appreciated, compared to the most extensive, elaborate and intricate ones.

Glancey’s book is fun to read not only for the buildings it describes or as an introduction to the language of architecture, but also for his insightful and piquant commentary.

 

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Toru Okada is boiling pasta when the phone rings. The woman at the other end knows him, but he does not know her. The conversation is vague. Toru is anxious the pasta might be overcooked. His wife, Kumiko, calls later to ask him about their cat that has gone missing, named Noburu Wataya after her brother that both Toru and her despise. This seemingly mundane beginning transgresses into a fantastical tale involving psychics, war stories, a mysterious brother-in-law (the fore-mentioned Noburu Wataya), an unraveling marriage, and a labyrinth of twists, turns and parallel narratives. Murakami is a master storyteller, and there is no telling where the story will lead you which is part of the charm of reading this book.

The narrator, Toru Okada, has lost his job as a junior clerk in a law office and is presently unemployed. In describing his daily routine, Murakami gives us a sense of the mundane that accentuates the fantasy that follows once things begin to, well, unravel:

One morning after Kumiko rushed through breakfast and left for work, I threw the laundry into the washing machine, made the bed, washed the dishes, and vacuumed. Then, with the cat beside me, I sat on the veranda, checking the want ads and the sales. At noon I had lunch and went to the supermarket. Then I bought food for dinner and, from a sale table, bought detergent, tissues, and toilet paper. At home again, I made preparations for dinner and lay down on the sofa with a book, waiting for Kumiko to come home.

Toru is best described by another character that he deals with later on in the book

This may sound odd but you’re basically a really ordinary guy. Or to put it even more bluntly, there is absolutely nothing special about you.

Toru is an ordinary guy that walks into an extraordinary situation that changes who he is. You root for him, as the underdog, the victim. Yet this novel is not just about Toru. It is also about the people he encounters, some of who help Toru find answers in the maelstrom in which he is caught. The teenage neighbor, the psychic sisters, the retired lieutenant all have their own interesting stories. One is grateful for Toru’s curiosity in wanting to know more about the people he meets.

 


 

My first book by Murakami was Wind/Pinball that I finished just before I began reading the one above. One of his early works, Wind/Pinball comprises of 2 short novellas – Hear the Wind Sing  and Pinball both published in 1973. There is no clear storyline in these books – merely a narrative that floats on the surface, with copious amounts of beer consumed, and cigarettes smoked. After I finished it, I felt somewhat shortchanged, though not in the usual sense of the word for I had borrowed the book from the library.

Murakami is one of those authors that I had been meaning to read for sometime now. I had carried the burden of not having read his book far too long. When I borrowed the books from the local public library, the librarian seemed enthusiastic. ‘People think he has won the Nobel Prize, but he hasn’t, and I think he should’, he said. He told me of a documentary that tries to seek out the reclusive writer. He told me that one of his books, Norwegian Wood, had been made into a film. It was with much anticipation that I had read Wind/Pinball. 

One interesting bit in Wind/Pinball was an introduction by the author about how he came to writing. A translator of books, Murakami owned a jazz bar/cafe. Then one day in April 1978, while he is watching a baseball game at Jingu Stadium between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp, he has an epiphany. Murakami was a Swallows fan. The Swallows’ first batter was Dave Hilton (‘a skinny newcomer from the States’).

In the bottom of the first inning, Hilton slammed Sotokoba’s first pitch into the left field for a clean double. The satisfying crack when then bat met the ball resounded throughout Jingu stadium. Scattered applause rose around me. In that instant, for no reason and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.

Wind/Pinball left me with the collective hangover of its characters boozing. The sentences were short to a fault. There was very little character development. True, the book was an early work. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was published more than 20 years later in 1994-95.  It deserved a chance, and I am glad I decided to read it. One finds a far more mature, versatile and imaginative writer here. The storyline is way more engrossing, and the characters much more comprehensible. The sentences are the right level of descriptive. It was after a long time that I was reading a book that I found hard to put down.

Since the time I got started on this blog, I have kept a list of books I have read so I remember what I was reading and when, and reference the ones I have reviewed. Despite my long lapses in posting here, I have kept this books list updated for fear that if I don’t, I will forget having ever read the book. And so it was that when I made my most recent entry, I decided, perhaps out of a mix of vanity and wanting to know how many books on average I read per year, to count the books read so far over the last 10 years. A hundred. I had to count again.

This is the kind of milestone that makes one take a pause and reflect back on all those hours, afternoons, late nights, long flights and entire weekends spent reading where one might have alternately gone for a run, tinkered, planted trees, bungee-jumped, pranced, cavorted, or simply enjoyed the honey-heavy dew of slumber as Shakespeare puts it. Was it worth it? That is a question for another day, but yes, it has given me much pleasure and maybe a little agony.

Since it is also the time of the year for best-of lists, I will use this milestone to extract some more juice for the rest of this post, posed as a series of questions which I am sure you are frantically  waiting for me to answer.

Best book? 

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. I have reviewed it here. The prose is poetic. The imagination is out of this world. It has made me want to learn Italian so I could read it in the original.

Best non-fiction?

A much harder genre since it covers so many areas, and I can’t claim to have read enough books on each. Since I am on a history reading spree, I will call out Rubicon by Tom Holland, for introducing me to Roman history and explaining what the big fuss around Julius Caesar was about.

Most read author?

Italo Calvino – 8 of his books, thanks to Invisible Cities, though imo, none match up to it

I wish I had not read..

Descartes Secret Notebook by Amir D. Aczel. That I managed to finish it suggests it wasn’t terrible, or maybe I was stubborn, or hopeful it would get better. But this was bad; like clickbait-masquerading-as-a-book bad. I would have got more in less time by reading about Descartes on Wikipedia.

Best book about India

The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple. I felt like a kid in a candy store visiting the Red Fort recently, having reading this book. The 1857 revolt is portrayed in all its macabre glory, and Dalrymple manages to narrate it without taking sides.

That’s it for now, or until the next 100 books. Wish me luck! Or sunshine.

In Thomas Mann’s short story, The Path to the Cemetery , the central character, Piepsam Lobgott, is walking on the road to the cemetery. He ‘walked slowly, with lowered head, and supported himself on a black stick’. We are given a description of his face (‘smooth- shaven and pale’), nose (‘the dark rubicundity of which contrasted sharply with the dull pallor of the rest of the face’). We are told of his melancholy life, and that he drank. Mann goes on to explain how his addiction came about.

For you must know that ill fortune slays the dignity of a man – it is just as well to have a little insight into these things.

What follows is a remarkable insight into the human condition.

But self contempt and vice have a strange and horrible interrelationship: they feed each other, they play into each other’s hands, in a way to make one’s blood run cold. And that is the way it was with Piepsam. He drank because he did not respect himself, and he respected himself less and less because the continual shameful defeats of all his good resolutions devoured all his self-confidence.

This is just the part before the action begins. I can’t seem to find a link to the story online, but if you must read it, find it in The World’s Greatest Short Stories

Parsing through old book notes, I found this wonderful passage from The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell:

Schopenhauer in his splendid essay called “On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual”, points out that when you reach an advanced age and look back over your lifetime, it can seem to have the consistent order and plan, as though composed by some novelist. Events that when they occurred had seemed accidental and of little moment turn out to have been indispensable factors in the composition of a consistent plot. So who composed that plot? Schopenhauer suggests that just as your dreams are composed by an aspect of yourself which your consciousness is unaware, so too your life is composed by the will within you. And just as people whom you will have met apparently by mere chance become the leading agents in the structuring of your life, so too will you have served unknowingly as an agent, giving meaning to the lives of others. The whole thing gears together like one big symphony, with everything unconsciously structuring everything else. And Schopenhauer concludes that it is as though our lives were the features of one great dream of a single dreamer in which all the dream characters dream, too; so that everything links to everything else, moved by the one will to life which is the universal will in nature.

The book is based on a series of 6 one-hour conversations between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell in 1988.

‘When some men suffer unjustly’, I said to myself, ‘it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it’

On the fringes of the Empire lies a frontier town administered by the magistrate, the narrator of the book, who hopes to live out the rest of his days in peace indulging in his hobby of uncovering ancient barbarian relics. The barbarians are the original inhabitants of the land – the natives who have been pushed further up north into arid lands by the Empire. While the magistrate knows they mean no harm, the Empire sends Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau, an intelligence wing of the Empire, to stave off any possible attack by the barbarians by sending a contingent of soldiers beyond the frontier to barbarian lands. The soldiers bring back prisoners and torture them to get information on the plans of the barbarians. Despite the magistrate’s protests, the Third Bureau have free reign to go about with their torture tactics, as described by Colonel Joll to the magistrate:

‘First I get lies, you see – this is what happens – first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth’

The magistrate tries at first to ignore the torture, but after the Third Bureau leave, he is left to handle the damage, both physical and psychological, to the victims and comes to recognize the brutality and injustice of it. One of them is a barbarian girl who has been partially blinded by the torturers. He takes it on himself to tend to her, setting him on a path of justice rather than blind adherence to the Empire’s unfounded excesses.

Published in 1980, Waiting for the Barbarians seems as relevant today as in any period of recent or distant history replete with empires and the brutal suppression of one group of people, often native, ‘barbarian’, by another – stronger, civilized. The laws that protect the citizens of the empire do not apply to the barbarians, whose only fault is that they are the other – the source of imagined fears, uncivilized, and hardly worthy of being treated as humans. The magistrate stands up agains it, and yet he is not without his follies. His relationship with the barbarian girl who he tries to help is not entirely unselfish. His narrative is largely personal, most of it obsessed with the girl, and her torture is the tipping point that puts him in opposition with the Empire’s Third Bureau.

Some of the best passages in the book are those of the adverse landscape that lies beyond the frontier leading to the barbarians. In the magistrate one finds echoes of characters in Coetzee’s later books – the disgraced aging professor, David Lurie from the book Disgrace, in the attraction that aging men feel to young women and the fall from grace, and Michael K from Life and Times of Michael K in the ability to withstand personal affronts and survive in unforgiving landscapes. Coetzee’s writing style is one of simple elegance, with a restrained voice that conveys a visual imagery of the world that the magistrate and torturers live in without any hint of over-dramatization in its most telling sections.

I am quickly coming to the conclusion that there is nothing so boring as having a career.

Stafford Nye, Staffy to his aunt Mathilda, a British foreign office diplomat is on his way to London from Malaya when his flight is diverted to Frankfurt, where a woman makes him an offer he cannot refuse. She asks for his passport that would let her travel to London as she may risk her life getting to Geneva, her original destination. Staffy, ever on the lookout for a break from monotony, agrees. What follows is an international conspiracy complete with mysterious cars trying to run you over at intersections, coded messages posted in the classified section of newspapers, an international covert group, mad scientists, angry generals, thick-headed politicians, and a spy with multiple identities. At this point, you are probably thinking – what about high speed car chases and empty cartridges bursting out out of semiautomatics? Ms. Christie prefers her characters expend their little grey cells than shells.

Passenger to Frankfurt, written in 1970, is one of 66 detective novels that Agatha Christie has written in addition to 153 short stories, making her the most published author in history. This is the first and only of her written works that I have read, and if I can shore up my credibility at this point, I have enjoyed the Poirot television series and David Suchet’s fine portrayal of the Belgian detective. Passenger to Frankfurt in comparison, if one can compare the written with the visual, falls short of the high standard set by Poirot. True, this is not a detective story or a murder mystery, somewhat of a spy novel but not quite that either. Passenger to Frankfurt begins with a lot of promise, but half-way through the book, it slows down, gets repetitive, and by the end one feels like being taken for a ride in a rickshaw in a town that you have never visited before, which is to say that one is held captive by a curiosity for how all this is going to end.

One of the Radiolab podcasts on NPR talks of an analysis of the works of Agatha Christie by Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University of Toronto, with regards to the frequency and number of different words used in each of her works.

When Lancashire looked at the results for Christie’s 73rd novel, written when she was 81 years old, he saw something strange. Her use of words like “thing,” “anything,” “something,” “nothing” – terms that Lancashire classifies as “indefinite words” – spiked. At the same time, number of different words she used dropped by 20 percent. “That is astounding,” says Lancashire, “that is one-fifth of her vocabulary lost.”.. “I did not want to say what was said in the end,” says Lancashire, “that yes, the data supported a view that she had developed Alzheimer’s.”

The 73rd novel referred to above is Elephants Can Remember, written in 1972, 2 years after Passenger to Frankfurt.

Christie was never formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. But she often complained of an inability to concentrate in her later years, and friends reported that she would have fits of anger and wouldn’t make sense in conversations.

I haven’t read Christie enough to even speculate on her condition. Christie has sold the most books after Shakespeare and the Bible, according to her estate, and that is no easy feat. Passenger to Frankfurt remains an engrossing read, and one can weather the rough patches in the book knowing that this comes near the end of a splendid career.

Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved; perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death.

From Rushdie’s collection of essays and criticism from 1981-91 titled Imaginary Homelands.

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