An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris

Harris-Officer-Spy

There is no such thing as a secret–not really, not in the modern world, not with photography and telegraphy and railways and newspaper presses. The old days of an inner circle of like-minded souls communicating with parchment and quill pens are gone. Sooner or later most things will be revealed.

While Claude DeBussy was composing Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, and Emile Zola was writing highly anticipated novels, Georges Picquard began investigating the case of Alfred Dreyfus. Accused of being a traitor against the French, and already half-condemned because of being a Jew, Dreyfus had been sent to Devil’s Island where he was isolated and tortured for allegedly giving secret information to the Germans.

image

However, the deeper Major Picquard looks into the case, the more he is certain that the wrong man is being punished. When he comes to the generals above him with near irrefutable proof that they have convicted an innocent man, Picquard is the one who finds himself in a similar situation: being hounded and scorned by military powers who will not accept that they were wrong. On pride alone, they refuse to set the innocent free.

I was absolutely riveted to this novel. How it is that I have not read anything written by Robert Harris before I do not know, but he has quickly leapt to a “must read” author for me, one whose books I am eager to go through from the very beginning. He masterfully tells the tale, with details exquisitely recorded, in such a way that before I know it I have read fifty pages.

I highly recommend this book based on the true story of Alfred Dreyfus in Paris during the 1890′s.

German Lit Month: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

image

How stange that I should close a book of 731 pages, a book which was largely responsible for earning its 25 year old  author the Nobel prize, and wonder exactly what I ought to say about it. The scope of the novel is very large, and its themes are very big, such that it’s difficult to narrow down a review to fit into one post.

I was entranced with Antonie, eldest daughter of the Buddenbrooks family. I admired her spunk, her devotion to her father, even her tantrums which freely displayed emotion rather than tucking it away somewhere as a responsible adult would.

My sympathies lay deep with Thomas, eldest son of the Buddenbrooks family. I understood his devotion to the family business, his determination to make it all come out right, his frustration with those in the family whose primary skills were incompetence and foolishness.

My heart went out to little Johann, Hanno as he was called, because his gentle, artistic side showed a tremendous passion for music, but alienated him from his father and caused him to be tormented at school.

Of course there are countless other characters, including the rapscallion brother ironically named Christian, who exhibited behavior that was everything but that. There are countless themes including an exploration of the relationships between husband and wife, parent and child, sister and brother, homeowner and servant, to the examination of faith, education, and business.

As Buddenbrooks is the tale of the decline of a family, which is said to closely approximate that of the author’s own life, Mann has quite a bit to say about business. These are the types of quotes I found myself highlighting again and again, because they illuminate truths applicable to the 21st century as readily as they did to the setting in the late 1880s.

One quote in particular had me imagining Ayn Rand rising out of her seat in vehement protest. It comes from a discussion between the two Buddenbrooks brothers, where the eldest is chastising the youngest for something he said.

There you are surrounded by both business and professional men, where everyone can hear you, and you say, ‘Seen in the light of day, actually, every businessman is a swindler’–you, who are a businessman yourself, a part of a firm that strives with might and main for absolute integrity, for a spotless reputation.” p. 314

Why is it, then, that a firm so intent on integrity eventually flounders to the point where it is utterly dissolved? Perhaps  the company fails due to a change in economic times, or a change in leadership as the sons endeavor to maintain what their father left to them. But, I suspect it lies more in the fact that they do not adhere to the same moral principals that the consul Johann Buddenbrooks and his wife adhered to. Christianity is not something that Thomas, now responsible for the family grain company, can easily accept. He cannot rely on faith even when his own old age approaches.

Dogmatic faith in a fanatical biblical Christianity, which his father had been able to couple with a very practical eye for business and which his mother had then adopted later as well, had always been alien to him…But now, as he gazed into the piercing eye of approaching death, it was apparent that such a view fell away to nothing, was incapable off providing him even an hour of calm or anything like readiness for death.” p. 631

Whatever reason most attributes to the fall of the Buddenbrooks from the highest aristocracy to a significantly more  humble and lonely existence, I find this sentence to be the overarching theme of all the book:

Life has taught many people that riches do not always make for happiness.

It is as deceptively simple as Tolstoy’s famous first line in Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

(I read this book for German Lit Month, as well as one of my selections for the Classics Club.)

Farewell, Dear Henry

IMG_0204.JPG
It’s not a very good picture, this one above, but it does show the relationship between a boy and his dog. There is a certain tenderness that almost makes me weep when I look at it, as I wander through the house trying not to look for Henry.

He was a good dog, one we rescued from a shelter almost twelve years ago. His nose was a bit crooked as he’d been let out on the highway by someone, and he snored rather loudly.

Our mail woman looked at him through the screen when she came to the door once and said, “He’s kind of cute for an ugly dog.”

But ugly lies in the eyes of the beholder.

To us, he was perfect.

He was strange when I came home from teaching on Wednesday night. He stood with his eyes closed, and his head down, in the middle of the living room. He wouldn’t look at me, or anyone, and I knew something was dreadfully wrong.

On Thursday night we took him to the vet knowing that it would be his last ride in the car. It’s a sorrowful journey, that final one, even if it’s “only” for a dog.

I assume he’s playing with Winston, that the two of them are having a happy frolic somewhere in the tall grass.

I thank him for the joy he gave us, the unconditional love I try to emulate in my own life.

Farewell, Henry James. We loved you very much, little one.

Eat To Live

315714-fruitsandvegetables-fruits-and-vegetables

My husband and I have changed the way we eat. Where once my typical day’s meals included cereal, a sandwich and pasta, it now consists of fruit…

315712-fruitsandvegetables-fruits-and-vegetables

and vegetables. Which I don’t even like that much.

Except now, the way I physically feel is convincing me that this is how I should eat. Where once I felt lethargic to the point of wanting a nap every afternoon, I now have much more energy. I’m not hungry.  And, the carnivore which once raged inside me is slowly slinking away.

The precipitating cause for this radical change was the promise that Dr. Furhman makes for a healthy life in his book, Eat to Live. Cholesterol, which is my problem, and inflammatory disease, which is my husband’s problem, are two of the many diseases addressed by this way of eating.

The plan is simple, really. Each day, the goal is to eat:

  • four fresh fruits
  • unlimited green salads
  • cooked vegetables
  • beans
  • raw nuts (a handful)
  • ground flax seed (a tablespoon)

No where in the plan is fettucine and gelato. But, no where in the plan is heart disease, inflammation, diabetes, and a myriad of other illnesses.

I’m convinced this is the way to live.

As 1859 drew to a close, something dreadful happened. ~ Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

image

Part 6, Chapter 8, comes to a close with the sentence of this post’s title. What could possibly happen that is more dreadful than what has already occurred? As Tony tells us herself, in a letter home:

“Oh, Mother,” she wrote, “everything happens to me! First Grunlich and then bankruptcy and then Permaneder’s retirement and now this dead child. What have I done to deserve such misfortune?”

Poor Tony. My heart quite goes out to her, as her accumulated misfortunes are amounting to a rather large pile.

This Veteran’s Day, a day off from school, I am spending in my wingback chair, thoroughly immersed in the drama of the Buddenbrooks family. It is a novel I most heartily recommend, German Literature Month or not.

Sunday Salon

IMG_0430

A long week of seemingly endless parent-teacher conferences was forgotten with the joy of seeing my son before the Marine ball last night.

I’ve harbored many anxieties about him, yet here he is a Marine Reservist, as well as a barista for Starbucks, in training to be a supervisor. The fact that he didn’t go to college seems less important now as he finds his own way. Not my way. I guess we’re both growing up.

And reading Buddenbrooks is so much fun. I never dreamed I’d feel this much excitement for German Literature Month, now usurping the reading I had planned for my own Japanese Literature Challenge. (There’s always December to pick it up again.)

After the novels by Thomas Mann, I’ll read some Stefan Zweig, and this week Tom of Wuthering Expectations brought up the wonders of Essie Briest. Loved Anna Karenina, loved Madame Bovary, now I’m curious to see what the Germans have to say about a woman involved in an illicit love affair.

Meanwhile, I’m listening to Remembrance of Things Past, specifically The Guermantes Way, as a ‘read-along’ with Arti and Stephanie. They are probably farther along than I, but how lovely it is to hear Proust read aloud to me as I drive to work each morning. The time he takes to illuminate a single moment gives me pause to slow down and remember my own past, as I dwell in the recollections of his.

January brings us to Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote, a shared read with Richard and Amanda, taken at a leisurely, comfortable pace. As reading ought to be.

So there you have it, a recap of the week that was and a glimpse into the weeks to come. Oh, and I hear Christmas bells approaching with the arrival of Penguin’s Christmas Classics: image

Such beautiful books for reading and giving.

No, Tony, No! Don’t Marry Herr Grunlich!

But, it’s too late.

After his unannounced visit to the harbor pilot’s home, where Tony has fallen in love with the harbor pilot’s son, the adults have intervened. Both Tony’s father, and her young love’s father, have declared their romance foolishness, and tomfoolery, and Tony is brought home where she consoles herself by agreeing to marry Herr Grunlich.

I don’t trust Herr Grunlich. His speech is as gilded as his curled mutton chop whiskers. He reeks of falseness, and worse, deceit. He has tricked his way into the family, and his bride into obeying her father, and even the bride’s mother knows that future happiness is nebulous.

“Do you think she’ll be happy with him?” (she asks her husband as the nuptial carriage drives away.)

“Ah, Bethsy, she is at peace with herself, and that is the most solid kind of happiness we can achieve on earth.” (Part 3, Chapter 14)

Hmmm…sometimes, I think peace is overrated. I have sought it often in my life, and it has been a worthy goal. But, it is not without sacrifice. Peace brings with it a quiet blanket to wrap oneself in. Yet one is at the same time shrouded from excitement.

I fear Tony’s sacrifice will be worse than that. I fear her future is doomed.

(I am reading Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann for German Lit Month. It is a wonderful way to spend November nights.)

Waking of a Morning…Buddenbrooks’ Style

6675_MCL_VictorianNeutralBedroomDesign

Say what you like, there is something pleasant about waking of a morning in a large bedroom with lovely, cheerful wallpaper and finding that the first thing you touch is a heavy satin quilt; and it is exceptional to have an early breakfast in a room opening onto a terrace, with the fresh morning air drifting in from the front garden through an open glass door, and to be served neither coffee, nor tea, but a cup of chocolate–yes, every morning, a cup of birthday chocolate, with a thick moist piece of pound cake. Part 2, Chapter 2

I’m enjoying the beginning of Buddenbrooks immensely, although it’s not a picture of my typical morning…

German Lit Month: The Black Swan by Thomas Mann

IMG_0364.JPG

The Black Swan is the first book by Thomas Mann I have ever read. I picked it up because I was intrigued by the theme: an older woman unwilling to face aging. Only, the “older woman” in this book is younger than I am.

Rosalie was still capable of the old warm laughter that came bubbling from her heart-even at this period of her time in life, the spasmodic withering and disintegration of her womanhood, were troubling her physically and psychologically.

Rosalie Von Trummler is a widowed mother of two. Her daughter was born with a club foot, and has therefore rejected advances of love. Her son requires a tutor for adequate advance in his studies. A young American named Ken Keaton is hired to teach Eduard, and he soon becomes a regular addition to the family’s evenings. I was so intrigued by Ken’s point of view about America, one which I can see Europeans adopting. Yet, he does have valid points:

In general, despite being so unmistakably American in his entire manner and attitude, he displayed very little attachment to his great country. He ‘didn’t care for America’; indeed, with its pursuit of the dollar and insensate church-going, its worship of success and colossal mediocrity, but, above all, its lack of historical atmosphere, he found it really appalling. Of course it had a history, but that wasn’t ‘history,’ it was simply a short, boring ‘success story.’ Certainly, aside from its enormous deserts, it had beautiful and magnificent landscapes, but there was ‘nothing behind them,’ while in Europe there was so much behind everything, particularly behind the cities with their deep historical perspectives. American cities-he didn’t care for them. They were put up yesterday and might just as well be taken away tomorrow. The small ones were stupid holes, one looking exactly like another, and the big ones were horrible, inflated monstrosities, with museums full of bought-up European cultural treasures.

At any rate, Rosalie becomes entranced with Ken and fancies romantic involvement with him. Page after page describes her attraction to him, her imaginations of what could be between them. She embarrasses her daughter by giving Ken longing looks across the dinner table, then alternately ignoring him “demurely.”

What should you say, Anna, if your mother, in her old age, were seized by an ardent feeling such as rightfully belongs only to potent youth, to maturity, and not to withered womanhood?

But what becomes the turning point in the novel is the morning that Rosalie has discovered she has begun bleeding again. A strong believer in the force of Nature, Rosalie is ecstatic. She can hardly contain her joy, which she sees as permission to enter into a relationship with the younger man.

Nature has made her voice heard against it (a motherly dowager-hood). She has made my feeling her concern and has unmistakably shown me that it need not be ashamed before her nor before the blooming young manhood which is its object. And do you not really mean to say that it does not change things much?”

Things are changed dramatically, indeed, for the source of this bleeding is not a reemergence into youth as Rosalie expects, but an admittance into the horrors of cancer. It is an ironic twist to be sure, how the advent of bleeding into a woman’s life can signify two such diverse states as preparation for the possibility of birth, or alternatively, death. Thomas Mann has portrayed an enormously silly woman in the mother, especially in contrast to her practical, more mature daughter. But he has also given us a terrific psychological twist as we realize that of course, our bodies are not under our control. No matter how strong our desire for youth may be.

(I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy‘s German Literature Month this November. I hope to read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks as well…)

Happy Halloween! Ghost House by Robert Frost

golden abandoned house

Ghost House by Robert Frost

I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago,
   And left no trace but the cellar walls,
   And a cellar in which the daylight falls,
And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.

O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field;
   The orchard tree has grown one copse
   Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;
The footpath down to the well is healed.

I dwell with a strangely aching heart
In that vanished abode there far apart
   On that disused and forgotten road
   That has no dust-bath now for the toad.
Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;

The whippoorwill is coming to shout
And hush and cluck and flutter about:
   I hear him begin far enough away
   Full many a time to say his say
Before he arrives to say it out.

It is under the small, dim, summer star.
I know not who these mute folk are
   Who share the unlit place with me—
   Those stones out under the low-limbed tree
Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar.

They are tireless folk, but slow and sad,
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad,—
   With none among them that ever sings,
   And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.