Friday, November 14, 2008

Companions on the Road (Book review)

Lee, Tanith Companions on the Road (1975)

This is a quest story. Havor has participated in the destruction of a city, in one of the endless wars of his time and place. He and two others find and steal a chalice of mysterious and very dark powers. It had been used in unspeakable rites by the defeated King and his brother and daughter. Lukon, one of Havor’s comrades dies in the fighting, but not before he gives Havor his savings and enjoins him to bring them to his family, many leagues distant. So Havor, Kachil the thief, and Feluce the corporal of dubious antecedents, set out to fulfill Havor’s vow, and with luck sell the chalice and divide the loot. But ghosts accompany them, and first Kachil and then Feluce die, somehow destroyed in a dream encounter with the daughter of the King who owned the evil vessel. Havor manages to survive, but only because he has fulfilled his vow to Lukon, and in his dream encounter with ghosts pities their spiritually wasted lives and their present condition. He will marry Silsi, Lukon’s sister, and have as contented a life as is possible.

Lee writes a spare but lyrical style, which moves the story forward briskly. She is very good at producing and maintaining an atmosphere of struggle against the weather (wintry), the people (taciturn and unwilling to help), conflict within the little group of three unwilling allies, and a dreamworld that lethally impinges on the waking reality. The characters of course represent the Jungian archetypes, Havor the ego, Kachil the alter ego, Feluce and the ghostly princess the animus and anima. They are well drawn, having about them enough individuality that we care about them as people, yet never forget their roles in a drama that we all know well.

As in all quests, the plot turns on inward growth and increasing knowledge: Havor must learn who he is by surviving tests not only of his physical prowess but more importantly of his moral worth. The intended audience is the middle school child, and I think the book would appeal as much to girls as to boys. At any rate, I will pass it on to Bria and Connor, and see what they think of it. A well done example of its kind. **-½

Book Review: Major Barbara (GBS)

Shaw, George Bernard Major Barbara (1906)

Shaw’s Preface is as outrageously wrongheaded as usual: he loved the sound of his own ideas. His comments on the way the world works are as acutely and cynically accurate as always, but his inferences about how we should deal with it simply miss the mark. He is very good at presenting us with real and lifelike characters, but when he thinks about people he goes awry. It’s as if his intellect and his imagination don’t know of each other’s existence. The play works well, and would be a pleasure to see. The plotting is perhaps a trifle too pat, but that’s GBS for you: he will make his plays demonstrate his ideas, and that’s when the machinery creaks. When he just goes with his imagination, as in the Salvation Army scenes, the results are brilliant, witty, emotionally true, and beautifully paced. ***

Book Review: John Bull's Other Island (GBS)

Shaw, George Bernard John Bull’s Other Island (1907)

I started to read the preface and gave up. GBS was not the best analyst of politics - his notions of how the Irish Question came about and how it should be resolved were shown to miss the point by events. About the only thing he seems to have gotten right was that it would be a protracted and bloody affair if it wasn’t settled quickly.

The one thing GBS never seems to have fully understood was the lure of power for its own sake. (This leads him to make Undershaft a seeker after profit, which is the only serious flaw in Major Barbara. Profit (money) is a means and instrument of power, not and end in itself.) Like many idealistic ideologues, he believed that sweet reason would prevail, if it was made clear enough what the benefits would be. He would not recognise the irony of the Canadian toast, “Peace, order, and good government.”

That sheer bloody-mindedness and paranoid delusions are more potent motives than the desire for peace, prosperity, and lawful order was something he could never see. That’s one reason he (like many other Socialists of the time) kept excusing the excesses of Soviet Russia, for example. He was of course right that the Protestants would have nothing to fear in a Catholic united Ireland, but he couldn’t see, because he couldn’t understand, that religious paranoia would prevent a settlement. He also couldn’t see that the IRA was dominated by psychopaths, who carried on their bloody vendettas, not because they expected politically acceptable results, but because they liked the murder and mayhem (as well as the loot).

So I didn’t read the play. I don’t think I missed anything.**

Book Review: Palm Sunday (Kurt Vonnegut)

Vonnegut, Kurt. Palm Sunday (1981) Subtitled "An Autobiographical Collage".

Vonnegut is billed a "America's greatest satirist", and he may well be. But I find him a gentle and melancholy clown rather than a savage Juvenalian or a mocking Horatian. That his books were attacked as obscene seems almost unimaginable in these days of internet porn, but obscenity and vulgarity were never the real reasons for the attacks. Vonnegut has the gift of telling unpalatable truths baldly, and that's what people disliked and loved him for. In this book he assembles bits and pieces from his occasional output, stitching them together with commentary and narrative, some of it quoted from his Uncle John Rauch's family history. Rauch means "smoke", one wonders how much of his story is just so much smoke and mirrors.

The theme that Vonnegut refines out of the dross and breccia of his and our messy lives is that we are lonely because we have lost our extended family, our tribe. We are highly social animals (some scientists argue that our mathematical ability is a side effect of the ability to remember large sets of people and their relationships - kinship is a pattern, a kinship chart is a graph, graphs are representations of sets, and there you are – arithmetic derives from geometry.) We need family, relatives, friends. Barrack Obama's recent success rested in large part on his ability to evoke the American nation as a family. The Republican emphasis on individual responsibility too easily becomes disdain for those who cannot make it on their own - and we all know that we all, especially the self-styled individual successes, depend on each other for whatever material comforts, security, and success falls to our lot. I think Ayn Rand was stupidly wrong: no one can achieve any kind of material success without the (almost entirely anonymous) co-operation of vast numbers of other people, who operate the systems that produce the goods and services that the individual needs to achieve his success.

Vonnegut goes on to say that we need commonly accepted myths, communal narratives that give meaning to our lives. Alone, we cannot have such myths. (It seems to me that the Horatio Alger story has devolved into one of brutal competition, but Alger's stories were founded on notions of mutual help and co-operation as much as on the doctrine of hard work and honesty.) The solitary individual who tries to find his meaning in power and wealth, in acquisition of goods as the signs of success, will find instead an unbearable loneliness. The nuclear family, with its assumption that two people can be all-in-all for each other, fails abysmally. "And they lived happily ever after" is a cruel fantasy. (Keep in mind that in the fairy tales, the marriage of the commoner and the princess occurs in a well-ordered mutually supportive society, the kingdom that the happy couple will inherit.) I think Vonnegut is right.

Well written in Vonnegut's laconic style, a pleasure to read, if not always a pleasure to contemplate. ***