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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.

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

‘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.

He has an infallible moral sense, but very little intellectual curiosity

In his essay on Charles Dickens published in A Collection of Essays and written in 1939, George Orwell points to the lack of any serious references to work in Dickens’ novels.

And here one comes upon something which really is an enormous deficiency in Dickens, something that really does make the nineteenth century seem remote from us – that he has no ideal of work

Dickens’ characters aspire to settle into a sort of radiant idleness, according to Orwell. Earlier in the essay, Orwell describes Dickens criticism of society as almost exclusively moral. Dickens abhors violence of any kind, and his books call on individual kindliness with the view that if men were to behave decently, the world would be decent. Orwell saves his most biting criticism of Dickens for what he refers to as Dickens happy Victorian endings:

The ideal to be striven after, then, appears to be something like this: a hundred thousand pounds, a quaint old house with plenty of ivy on it, a sweetly womanly wife, a horde of children, and no work. Everything is safe, soft, peaceful and, above all, domestic…The servants are comic and feudal, children prattle round your feet, the old friends sit at your fireside, talking of past days, there is the endless succession of enormous meals, the cold punch and sherry negus, the feather beds and warming-pans, the Christmas parties with charades and blindman’s buff; but nothing ever happens, except the yearly childbirth. The curious thing is that it is a genuinely happy picture, or so Dickens is able to make it appear. The thought of that kind of existence is satisfying to him. This alone would be enough to tell one that more than a hundred years have passed since Dickens’s first book was written. No modern man could combine such purposelessness with so much vitality

Later, a comparison with Tolstoy

Why is it that Tolstoy’s grasp seems to be so much larger than Dickens’s – why is it that he seems able to tell you so much more about yourself? It is not that he is more gifted, or even, in the last analysis, more intelligent. It is because he is writing about people who are growing. His characters are struggling to make their souls, whereas Dickens’s are already finished and perfect

Orwell acknowledges that Dickens was always on the side of the underdog, on the side of the weak against the strong.

He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong

You can read the complete essay here

I am, by calling, a dealer in words; and words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. Not only do words infect, ergotise, narcotise, and paralyse, but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain, very much as madder mixed with a stag’s food at the Zoo colours the growth of the animal’s antlers. Moreover, in the case of the human animal, that acquired tint, or taint, is transmissible.

from Rudyard Kipling’s Book of Words, in the chapter titled Surgeons and the Soul. I came across a version of the quote in bold above, in a fascinating and insightful documentary about, not writing or literature, but healthy eating and living called Hungry for Change. The quote is used to highlight the power of words in influencing one’s behavior and state of mind.

“What is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there,” he writes. “This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.”

The Guardian on Julian Barnes’ new book, Levels of Life. The book, described as ‘part essay, part short story and part memoir’, is dedicated to his wife, Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008.

Cosmicomics is a collection of 12 fantastical short stories set around the evolution of the universe. Each story begins with a short scientific hypothesis followed by a narrative by the old Qfwfq, who takes on a unique form in each story. In one of the stories, Qfwfq is a dinosaur; in another he (for Qfwfq often takes on the male persona) is packed with others into the singular point where all matter was concentrated before the big bang.

The early universe, where matter is still nebulous, where the orderliness of orbits has yet to be imposed and gravity behaves in strange ways in strange places, is a fantasy world in and of itself. Calvino uses this as the canvas on which he lets the quirky, geeky, and mostly delightful stories of his narrator, Qfwfq, unfold. The story, A Sign in Space, begins with the following scientific hypothesis

Situated in the external zone of the Milky Way, the Sun takes about two hundred million years to make a complete revolution around the galaxy

Recent measurements peg the number at 226 million years. The Sun and its planets circle around the center of the Milky Way at about 135 miles per second; to put that in perspective, in the few minutes that it takes you to read this post, you would have moved a few thousand miles away from the point in space you occupied when you started reading this, without any conscious movement on your part. In the above story, Qfwfq leaves a sign in space, so that he can see it again after the 200 million odd years that it takes to circle the galaxy. Perhaps Calvino’s italicized nugget of scientific wisdom (as of 1965, when the book was published) at the beginning of every story is meant to help the reader discern the fantastically real from the purely fantastical, in addition to setting the backdrop for his narrative.

In The Form of Space, Qfwfq and two other characters, Ursula H’x and Lieutenant Fenimore are falling in space, ‘indefinitely, for an infinite length of time’. Qfwfq narrates:

I didn’t take my eyes off Ursula H’x: she was very beautiful to see, and in falling she had an easy, relaxed attitude. I hoped I would be able sometimes to catch her eye, but as she fell, Ursula H’x was always intent on filing and polishing her nails or running her comb through her long, smooth hair, and she never glanced toward me. Nor toward Lieutenant Fenimore, I must say, though he did everything he could to attract her attention.

One senses the makings of a love triangle, one that traces out an infinitely long prism through space as it falls. The characters go about their lives, longing, envying, speculating, passing constellations, polishing nails, falling through space along their parallel paths separated from each other. All hope is not lost, though.

Of course, if I chose to be an optimist, there is always the possibility that, if our two parallels continued to infinity, the moment would come when they would touch.

In a review of The Complete Cosmicomics (a book that includes Cosmicomics and three other books by Calvino) in the Guardian, the writer Ursula Le Guin finds fault with Calvino’s character names

If I can’t say or hear “Qfwfq” (kefoofek?), how can I hear the cadence of the sentence it occurs in? Here Calvino’s abstracting bent threatens language itself, reducing it to the literally unspeakable symbology of mathematics. That game gets chancy.

In contrast to the above view, I find Calvino’s palindromic and somewhat mathematical names endearing. For anyone that has done their share of equations, the lack of vowels is rarely the cause of intractability; one learns to call out the individual letters rather than fit an appropriate pronunciation. In the NPR series You Must Read This where writers recommend their favorite books, Salman Rushdie recommends Cosmicomics, calling it “possibly the most enjoyable story collection ever written, a book that will frequently make you laugh out loud at its mischievous mastery, capricious ingenuity and nerve”. Readers of Rushdie’s works, particularly his children’s books Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life, may find parallels with Cosmicomics in the choice of peculiar character names and a world not governed by the rules of reality as we knows it.

Cosmicomics has been translated from the Italian by William Weaver, also the translator for several of Calvino’s books, including Invisible Cities, reviewed earlier. Weaver’s translation of Cosmicomics, his first translation of Calvino, won the National Book Award in 1969. Weaver writes about his association with Calvino in this insightful piece.

In Invisible Cities, the Venetian merchant and traveler Marco Polo narrates to Kublai Khan, emperor of the Mongol Empire during the 13th century, accounts of the cities that he has visited on his travels. The cities that Polo describes are fantastical. There is Octavia, the spider-web city, built over a void between two steep mountains and bound to the two crests with ropes and chains; Baucius, a city built on slender stilts that rise into the clouds; Leonia, a city that refashions itself every day; Zemrude, where the mood of the beholder gives the city its form. The 50 odd cities that Calvino describes are unique in their own way, and yet one finds in them echoes of a modern city or town observed from varying viewpoints. These cities exist on the map of one’s mind, composed of thought and conveyed through Calvino’s poetic and evocative prose.

One of the cities that Polo describes is the city of Valdrada, built on the shores of a lake.

the traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, the other reflected, upside down. Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat.

In each of their actions, the inhabitants of Valdrada are mindful of how it will appear in the reflected city.

At times the mirror increases a thing’s value, at times denies it. Not everything that seems valuable above the mirror maintains its force when mirrored

The figurative aspect of Polo’s fantastical cities are hard to miss.

The two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them

Kublai Khan, at times, is skeptical of Marco Polo’s accounts, and at other times, adds to them by describing a city that he dreamed of and asks Polo if he had been to such a city. In one of their exchanges, the Khan asks Polo why, of all the cities that Polo has described, he has never described his hometown Venice? To this, Polo responds,”Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice”. He refuses to describe Venice.

“Memory’s descriptions, once they are fixed in words, are erased”, Polo said, “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little”

One distinctive feature of Calvino’s writing style in this book is his frequent use of alliterations – the spurls, the splashes, and the sponges’ suds; gestures, grimaces, glances; inarticulate informer; slender stilts; pistachio nuts and poppy seeds – that give his prose the likeness of poetry. It is easy to forget that this book is a translation by William Weaver from the Italian.

Whether Marco Polo visited China and met with the Kublai Khan is still a matter of debate. Calvino’s book makes no attempt to portray the narrative as a real encounter. There is no storyline in the book. Most of the book is a description of imagined cities, with interludes of conversations between Polo and Khan. Calvino manages to ignore almost all of Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 basics of creative writing and yet delivers a book that is captivating. It stands at the intersection of prose and poetry; Polo’s description of the cities are infused with poetic beauty rendered in beautiful prose. This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the book. Like poetry, Invisible Cities is enjoyed best when read at a leisurely pace.

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