Archive for September, 2016

Casanova’s Return to Venice

17 September 2016

Casanova's Return to Venice. Arthur SchnitzlerCasanova’s Return to Venice by Arthur Schnitzler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ageing, weary, his money gone, Casanova is travelling to Venice, to ask its overlords to forgive his past misadventures there, so that he can live out the rest of his days in “the city of his youth… enshrined in all the charms of memory”.

He is no longer handsome. “His power over his fellows, over women no less than over men, had vanished. Only where he evoked memories could his words, his voice, his glance, still conjure… His day was done!” But such self-admissions surge up against his narcissism, creating great turmoil in his heart. Intellectually he fancies himself the equal or superior to Voltaire, against whom he is preparing a polemic. But he remains addicted to sexual conquest and can’t settle calmly into the life of the mind.

A chance meeting on the road leads him into the lives of a group of local people, creating a forum in which the tensions of his inner life play out. There is his amiable and generous host Olivo; his hostess Amalia, hot to resume an old liaison with Casanova; their 13 year old daughter. There is a playful aristocratic Marchesa and her husband the Marchese, who is enraged at being openly cuckolded by the coolly insolent young soldier Lorenzi. There is the calm and lovely young Marcolina, focused on intellectual pursuits. This group spend two days and nights together, in gardens, bedrooms, at dinners and at the gambling table.

Spoiler alert

The charms of Amalia are stale to Casanova, who tries to put her off by emphasising his own physical decay. It is Marcolina who he must have: Marcolina, who holds the youth and beauty that he has lost. She offers him a dignified friendship across the generational and gender divide, with gentle intellectual sparring between equals, but she recoils at every glimpse of his lust. In fact she is sending him into a confused frenzy of despair, self-deceiving hope, and desperate calculation.

At their introduction, Casanova and Lorenzi “exchanged glances of cold aloofness that seemed to offer assurances of mutual dislike”; but moments later Casanova was staggered by the sense that his own youthful persona stood before him. He is temporarily soothed when he learns that Marcolina has rejected Lorenzi’s offer of marriage, but when he discovers they have a secret relationship the blood rushes to his head.

In the end, it is only by literally taking over Lorenzi’s identity – impersonating him in the dark – that Casanova beds Marcolina. But this “return to youth” is pitiful: when she realises what has happened she feels loathing and disgust, then deep sorrow. His second return to youth, in the form of Venice, is also pathetic: he is only allowed back as a police spy, reporting on hot headed young men of the kind that he once was.

Casanova also manages to rape Amalia’s 13 year old daughter. The girl does not show any distress during or after the event, rather she is excited and conspiratorial. Casanova cynically reflects that he managed to have grandmother, mother and daughter. The incident seems designed to throw further light on his character, but it may overshadow the rest of the story for many modern readers.

Most of the text is a close observation of Casanova’s state of mind. During the climatic events in Olivo’s house it shifts style, and feels more like one of Schnitzler’s plays recast into novelistic form.

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Restless Flags

9 September 2016

Restless Flags: a German Girl's StoryRestless Flags: a German Girl’s Story by Lilo Linke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A jewel of a book. A great shame it has become so utterly obscure.

Writing in 1935, the author describes how it was for her growing up in Berlin. Her childhood was upended by the outbreak of World War One. After wartime privations came revolution, the breakdown of the middle class during the hyperinflation of 1923, the decay of the Weimar Republic, and the first year of Nazi rule.

Her goal, as she humbly put it, was “to show happenings as they reflected themselves in my immature mind”. So she does not attempt to provide factual background to the events and places she describes. This hardly matters since she is covering one of the most well-studied parts of modern history. The richness of the book comes from the charm and depth of her subjective insights into herself and her personal development and the nature and evolution of world around her.

The book is dedicated to Storm Jameson.

The book was also published under the alternative title Restless Days. See Kirkus Review description.

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The Man in the High Castle

9 September 2016

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A Penguin Modern Classic, this book won a sci fi award in 1962, the year of its release, and has now been serialised for television.

The scenario is an alternative 1962, after Nazi Germany and Japan won WW2. The former USA is sliced into an east and centre under Nazi rule, a west coast run by Japan, and a neutral zone around the Rocky Mountains. Most of the action is in San Francisco, where several lives intersect. Nobusuke Tagomi is head of Japan’s Imperial Trade Mission. But he also is intellectually restless, an earnest seeker of Truth. He is learned in eastern and western philosophy and religion, a follower of the Tao, and regularly consults the I Ching. Robert Childan sells antiques to rich Japanese collectors, fawning on his Japanese masters, but yearning toward the east, where white men rule. Frank Frink sells jewellery and metal-work art to the same layer of Japanese collectors; born Frank Fink, he is a Jew – something to conceal at all costs lest he be sent off to the Nazis. Frink’s estranged wife Juliana lives in the Rockies, teaching judo.

The Japanese have established rigid racial hierarchies and an authoritarian but law-bound regime which will execute rebels, but also price-gouging landlords. A place for everyone and everyone in their place. It is liveable, and liberalism is sprouting in the younger generation of Japanese professionals. But over the mountains a nightmare looms, revealed through the characters’ stray thoughts and comments. The Nazis have seemingly irresistible military superiority: a menace distant but looming ever closer.

The unity of opposites pervades the story: Axis and Allies, Germany and Japan, good and evil, past and present, illusion and reality, the spiritual and material, Yin and Yang, the external world and the world within our heads. And then there is the story-world and our world: a mysterious writer called Hawthorne Absenden, aka the Man in the High Castle, has written a popular novel describing a world in which the Allies had won the war.

It is a philosophical novel rather than science fiction in the classic tradition. The sci fi touches, such as human being landing on Mars, are irrelevant to the story line and could easily have been deleted.

Spoiler alert

After passing a critical moral test, Tagomi meditates on a silver ornament, perceiving it as a unity of the dark mineral earth and the sparkling fire of the heavens; he senses a chance to enter Nirvana, to escape illusion and the cycle of death and rebirth. Instead he finds himself transported to the San Francisco of our world. Without deciding anything about its existential status (though speculating that it might be one of the terrifying transitional places between death and rebirth depicted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead), he finds it dingy, coarse and ugly and a place where whites, offensively, do not defer to Japanese. He realises he is “Out of my world, my space and time” but quickly decides he has “broken from my moorings and hence stand on nothing… One seeks to contravene one’s perceptions – why? So that one can wander utterly lost, without signpost or guide?” The strange new world is no longer awesome to him, but merely a place of half-wakeful confusion, where the conscious and unconscious are all mixed up.

Perhaps he has been vouchsafed a glimpse of another world as a reward for his goodness. Or perhaps we humans are irrevocably anchored to the world we know, so our longings for the Beyond can never be assuaged.

Meanwhile Juliana meets Absenden and seeks wisdom from him. She also receives from the I Ching the message Inner Truth, which she interprets as meaning that Absenden’s book is somehow true: the Axis had lost the war. Juliana urges the novelist to “believe” but he shakes his head, and says he is not sure of anything.

Yet since we are dealing with Yin and Yang, the unity of opposites, Dick seems to suggest that his own book is also “true” – the Allies did lose the war, in some sense. Or perhaps both evil and good won and lost in both the alternative world and our world. Dick is not morally indifferent: he depicts the consequences of Nazi conquest unsparingly. But also he warns us not to absolutise the goodness of the Allies’ victory, and even though the alternate world seems on a path to ever greater horror, he offers a reminder that the actions of individuals can change the course of events. The light of the Yang reappears in the darkest Yin.

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Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times

7 September 2016

Cesare Borgia: His Life and TimesCesare Borgia: His Life and Times by Sarah Bradford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Italy in the 1490s-1500s, where the Renaissance is in full swing. This is the Italy of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo (who are all mentioned). It is also swarming with prostitutes, a great many of them looking after the clergy. One lord “received ambassadors while lying in bed with his sister”. Another had both his wives murdered, raped his daughter and attempted to sodomise his son, but it was for heresy that the Pope excommunicated him. It is a world of warring cities and statelets, of intrigues and vendettas, poisonings, factional street fights and hired assassins.

To flourish in such circumstances required not just luck but extreme cunning, drive, courage, brilliance, and coolness under pressure. Enter Cesare Borgia, a man who became a byword for immorality: a man who “deliberately created his own myth by calculated acts of terror, veiling his life in a secrecy which gave his sudden brutalities and lightning moves added impact”.

In many ways Cesare fits the profile of a psychopath: abundant charm and charisma; the ability to read the feelings of others, without true empathy; the skills to act out deep emotions, without feeling them; the restless and reckless pursuit of new thrills, sometimes even against his overall interests. That said, his love for his sister Lucrezia appears to have been genuine (and not, as often supposed, incestuous). He was not a sadist. His treatment of the common people was no worse than that of his peers, and often better, since he took care to build support for his rule. Cesare Borgia was periodically interviewed by Machiavelli, and helped to inspire The Prince.

The book is a probing, thoughtful, weighty biography of this remarkable man. It is necessarily dense with names and the detail of events, which may be hard to keep track of. But it is well worth it for the fascinating accounts of the antihero’s subtle machinations as he draws on the power of his father, Pope Alexander VI, to navigate between the rival, predatory powers of France and Spain; to fend off Venice, then a strong independent power; and to try to establish his own united realm, under Papal authority, in mid-Italy.

His story reminded me of the Game of Thrones, and aficionados of that series take note: Cesare’s younger brother is Jofre, wedded to Sancia; the period has its own Red Wedding; and Cercei has interesting parallels to the blonde haired, “proud and cruel” Caterina Sforza, “noted not only for her beauty but for her courage and ruthlessness”.

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