Kubla Khan, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Yes, that. Because I have absolutely no time on my hands these days (moving to an apartment with nothing in it requires a great deal of effort, dedication and hesitations on the Ikea website followed by long lines in the Ikea store) but because I miss my blog and the writing, even if it hasn’t been that long since my last post. I also missed the music of a Coleridge poem and so I decided to paste it here just to remind myself of it and to sing the praise of the wonderful iambic pentameter without which the world would be a dreadful place. So here goes, be hypnotized ye mortals:


  In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
  A stately pleasure-dome decree:
  Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
  Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea.                                             5
  So twice five miles of fertile ground
  With walls and towers were girdled round:
  And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
  Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
  And here were forests ancient as the hills,                         10
  Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

  But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
  Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
  A savage place! as holy and enchanted
  As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted                           15
  By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
  And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
  As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
  A mighty fountain momently was forced:
  Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst                             20
  Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
  Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
  And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
  It flung up momently the sacred river.
  Five miles meandering with a mazy motion                            25
  Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
  Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
  And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
  And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
  Ancestral voices prophesying war!                                   30

 The shadow of the dome of pleasure
      Floated midway on the waves;
    Where was heard the mingled measure
      From the fountain and the caves.
  It was a miracle of rare device,                                    35
  A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

      A damsel with a dulcimer
      In a vision once I saw:
      It was an Abyssinian maid,
      And on her dulcimer she played,                                 40
      Singing of Mount Abora.
      Could I revive within me.
      Her symphony and song,
      To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
  That with music loud and long,                                      45
  I would build that dome in air,
  That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
  And all who heard should see them there,
  And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
  His flashing eyes, his floating hair!                               50
  Weave a circle round him thrice,
  And close your eyes with holy dread,
  For he on honey-dew hath fed,
  And drunk the milk of Paradise.


Turn About, by William Faulkner

Great Modern Short Stories, Random House, 1942, Language: English

I have just finished reading this lesser known Faulkner short story and have fallen in love with the man all over again. My 1942 anthology of short stories keeps delivering gem after gem of awesomeness and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.

Faulkner was probably indirectly one of the main reasons I’ve started this blog. A long time ago, during a Theory of Literature class, a young professor at my University (the one all the girls in first year were infatuated with and who had earned my respect for the passion with which he had spoken about books during the first two classes we had already had – me not being the infatuated type, of course) asked us to read The Bear, by Faulkner, and then tell him what the Truth was. I re-read the Bear, trying to figure out the Truth but mostly being bewildered at the task and understanding it about just as much as anyone reading this is now. I had a few ideas but they seemed a bit unimpressive. We got to the following class, one of the most confusing ones of my life, with everyone shouting out different insane or less insane hypotheses all of which were of course not the right answer. To this day, I have no idea what the Truth was or if he actually revealed it to us. I have a feeling he did and it had nothing to do with the contents of the book and that I was deeply disappointed. I am not sure, however. Anyway, what this led to was a significant amount of insecurity on my part, which coupled with some remarks he went on to make about people reading things a certain way and others reading them another way and a certain use of terms I was not familiar with, managed to swiftly persuade me that I did not know how to read. I had spent a good part of my life up to then doing just that and all of a sudden it dawned on me that I had been doing it the wrong way and moreover that I was not aware of any other way. It took me a long time to recover from what was almost an identity crisis and draw up the courage to speak about books again since by the time the first year of university ended I was sure I was very stupid. That is why today, all mended up and my usual cockiness reacquired, I am so adamant about being honest about literature and reading for pleasure. Because I am sure now that he was wrong and I am right and I represent the people,  the 99%, whereas he,  as a member of the 1% is somewhat of an intellectual bully and one of those who do more harm than good to literature by intimidating all readers out of their wits and out of libraries. So, I say occupy Yoknapatawpha!

So, all this anecdote was just my way of saying that ever since I got past my shyness of Faulkner, I have taken my revenge by enjoying him immensely and letting myself go with the wonderful flow of his prose without asking questions that are not there and meditating upon those that did indeed come up upon reading his works. Out of everything I’ve read by him so far, this particular short story is one of the more conventional ones. However, it is deeply disturbingly beautiful and manages to capture the main character’s thoughts in a way that is strongly reminiscent of The Sound and the Fury, but without even a glimpse of stream of consciousness techniquness. (Not that I don’t like stream of consciousness, on the contrary I think I am its biggest fan alive.) I love love love works of fiction where the characters don’t explain themselves and are not explained and this is one of them and this is also why I love Mad Men, but that is the subject of a different conversation I think. The story is set during the First World War, in a European port where British and American troops are stationed together and  from where they launch daily or nightly attacks on Germany and territories belonging to the Central Powers. Fighting together does not however make them understand each other better and it isn’t until some personal contact is established that reciprocal spite is overcome.  Bogard, the American aviation captain and the kid, a British naval officer make a pair of complicated and fascinating figures and complement each other without ostentation.  Strangely, in spite of his logorrhea, the British 17 year old boy remains much more of a mystery than Bogard (in whose head we seem to be in spite of the absence of any stream of  consciousness) and I couldn’t help but wonder whether his childlike enthusiasm is a sign of innocence and misunderstanding of danger or of some kind of screwed up cynicism that makes him get his kick out of constantly being on the verge of death. Ronnie, his mate,  is like a silent backdrop against which he can unfold his verboseness – as if each one of them had assumed and stuck to a well defined role and a ritual in order to make their task bearable and to not go insane with fear.

Against what you might possibly think, even if it does speak of friendship and mutual respect, this is a rugged, non-didactical story. I will again mention the fact that it has been included in that 1942 anthology and it seems as if, once more, the editors were trying to prove to their public the strong bond that existed between the American and British people, a relationship worth fighting for. However, more than launching into a hymn to comradeship, Faulkner seems to engage into a meditation on spite and prejudice.  The Americans are persuaded of their valor, discipline and superiority over the English soldiers who they have come to the rescue of. Besides Captain Bogard, who is the most open-minded of them all, none of them will get to acknowledge the horrifying conditions in which the British divisions fight. The Americans, fresh to the war and physically remote from it (since they are fighting above land) also seem to still be able to hang on to principles and be stiff about rules and spit on misbehaviour, whereas the British soldiers are merry, drunk, sleeping in the gutters and impossible to tell apart because they are all so so young. And this is precisely why the atmosphere in the story becomes unbearable at some point; their desperation of having nothing more to lose becomes almost thick and tangible. The feeling of loneliness generated by the scene where they ride together in a tiny boat facing a gigantic enemy in the open sea seems to linger still, long after having shut the book and long after listening to some music to chase away the chills.  Stories like this always make me painfully acknowledge what my peaceful existence has been built on. This being said, I will leave you with PJ Harvey whose last album makes me feel precisely what this short story has made me feel. Besides, this video is perfect.

Casa somnului, de Jonathan Coe

Editura Polirom, 2001, Limba: romana, traducere din engleza de Radu Paraschivescu

A trebuit sa las sa treaca un pic de timp intre momentul in care am terminat cartea asta si redactarea unui post despre ea fiindca eram foarte interesata sa vad ce ramane. Nu pot spune ca s-a sedimentat cine stie ce in cateva zile, insa mi-a scazut resentimentul generat de faptul ca nu mi-a indeplinit asteptarile initiale si am reusit intre timp sa apreciez directia in care a mers pana la urma. Jonathan Coe este inca un autor pe care nu l-am mai citit niciodata, de unde si surpriza probabil.

Casa somnului este o lectura extrem de placuta, atat de placuta incat uneori ma intrebam daca placerea nu este vinovata. Cand firul narativ a inceput sa se complice iar actiunea sa devina, fara un avertisment prealabil, exuberanta si plina de surprize, am devenit convinsa ca este o placere vinovata. Apropiindu-ma de sfarsit, unde loviturile de teatru se succed cu o rapiditate naucitoare, am devenit de-a dreptul furioasa, ceea ce nu m-a impiedicat, evident, sa devorez in continuare fiecare pagina, facand pronosticuri debile despre rezolvarea finala. Ei, debile cum erau, aproape toate s-au adeverit, ceea ce m-a enervat si mai tare, sporindu-mi pe de alta parte placerea. Un adevarat cerc vicios din care am iesit doar amintindu-mi ca scopul meu de cititoare este sa intru in lumea unui roman fara idei preconcepute si daca nu mi se pare prea idiot ca sa il termin, la iesire sa fiu onesta in privinta a ceea ce am citit, incercand sa stau departe de pretentiile unei analize academice.  (Nu ca as putea, acum, sa fim seriosi, sa fac o analiza academica. Nu, ca sa nu creada cineva ca pot da nu vreau. Nu pot si nici nu vreau si daca uneori pare ca devin academica si ca stiu despre ce vorbesc, e absolut accidental fiindca dupa cum am dezvaluit intr-un post anterior; nu mai am de multa vreme uneltele necesare si nici nu stiu daca le-am avut cu adevarat vreodata. Asa, bun, ca sa fie clar.) Pot astazi spune, asadar, cu mana pe inima, ca romanul asta mi-a placut. Categoric. Nu mi-a dat frisoane intelectuale, nici nu m-a bulversat pentru totdeauna, insa l-am citit cu pofta, fiindca are o atmosfera, scriitura e fluida si m-a invatat o gramada de lucruri despre somn.

Cum emana ceva inefabil ce eu voi numi englezitate prin fiecare silaba, l-am vazut ca pe o combinatie intre recent cititul Sa nu ma parasesti al lui Kazuo Ishiguro si Durabila iubire al lui Ian McEwan: aluzia unei atmosfere academice care insa nu devine cadrul principal al actiunii, personajele tacute, povestile de dragoste obsesiva si chestiunile de etica (medicala?) il apropie de Sa nu ma parasesti, iar voluptatea cu care autorul plonjeaza in detalii asupra diferitelor patologii aminteste de Ian McEwan. Nu sunt extrem de entuziasmata de obicei de acele pasaje din carti din care deduc faptul ca scriitorul a petrecut cel putin un an in biblioteca in prealabil si acum face tot posibilul sa incerce sa redea complexitatea informatiilor obtinute incercand sa pastreze un simulacru de legatura cu actiunea, prin niste fire fictionale extrem de subtiri pe care incearca sa le impleteasca subtil dar de cele mai multe ori fara succes cu dizertatia academica in care s-a lansat. Howgh. Pe de alta parte, desi ingreuneaza lectura functionand de cele mai multe ori ca niste bolovani in derularea naratiunii, acestea sunt momentele in care un alt fel de interes decat cel literar este stimulat si care ofera satisfactia despre care toooot vorbesc mereu, satisfactia data de faptul ca iata, si astazi ai invatat ceva nou. Si pe deasupra nici nu a trebuit sa te obosesti sa mergi tu insuti/ati sa cauti, ci informatiile au venit la tine in timp ce tu te relaxai cu un roman simpatic, evitand sa te gandesti ca viata e grea si ca afara ploua.

Totul pare mohorat in roman, dar nu fara farmec. Tonurile de gri se suprapun creand o imagine foarte precisa despre Ashdown situat pe o faleza sinistra si batuta de vanturi, despre micul oras universitar nenumit si despre cafeneaua unde isi pierd vremea studentii. Totul este luminat de o singura scena la malul marii, care functioneaza ca o contrapondere la negurile, vantul si ploaia care strabat fara mila cam fiecare scena a romanului (sau poate doar in mintea mea, nu stiu sigur). Mi s-a parut extrem de inteligent cum acel moment, care devine cheia romanului si la care multe personaje se refera ca fiind unul din cele mai fericite ale vietii lor, are propria viata si caldura. Totul devine deodata ars de soare si imaginile un pic neclare, trasaturile personajelor se dizolva din cauza stralucirii emanate de scena. Apoi apele cenusii se reinchid peste fragmentul insorit, facandu-l sa para o amintire a unei vieti apartinand altcuiva si nu lui Sarah si Robert.

Nu as vrea sa dau insa impresia ca mohorala generala a cadrului se reflecta asupra scriiturii, fiindca numeroasele accente comice definesc romanul in aceeasi masura. Mi s-a intamplat sa rad in hohote citindu-l, ascunzandu-ma in baie, ca sa nu trezesc toata casa (jocul de cuvinte e neintentionat, nu ca l-ar fi detectat cineva inainte ca eu sa atrag atentia asupra lui, nu? ). Comicul vine din clasicele qui pro quo-uri care par sa nu isi piarda niciodata din prospetime, dar si din tendinta de a caricaturiza anumite personaje. Asta poate parea ceva negativ, insa dupa cum spuneam mai sus, satisfactia cititorului este nemasurata vazand ridicolul in care cade fara gres un personaj extrem de cretin precum Gregory. Nu e foarte profund, dar face apel la emotii umane de baza – uneori ma gandesc ca un studiu psihologic al persoanelor care citesc Casa somnului ar fi el insusi foarte interesant. Deci, dupa cum spuneam, personajele sunt schitate uneori un pic cam gros, insa asta le da farmec si forta. Poate din cauza similitudinilor cu Sa nu ma parasesti, Sarah nu poate fi in filmul din mintea mea decat Carey Mulligan, iar in Terry tanar il recunosc pe un fost coleg care imi provoca accese de exasperare. Astea sunt semne bune, in opinia mea, semne ca personajele traiesc. Mai mult, in cartea astea, personajele traiesc si respira si se comporta intr-un anumit fel numai si numai pentru placerea cititorului, iar asta este extrem de flatant.

Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie

Random House, November 16, 2010, Language: English

I am back and ready to write my thoughts, spin my own yarn for a change and take my time to ramble about this book which has kept me away from my keyboard for about four days. A children’s book! Four whole days to read with undivided attention, taking over my brain and my imagination to such a point that I was simply unable to pick up something else to read quickly and write about just as quickly. Salman Rushdie was the subject of my BA paper one hundred years ago, so it’s safe to say I know him fairly well and greet his every cover with a knowledgeable smile.  However, everything changes when Salman Rushdie moves from magic realism mode to fantasy mode, which he had already done before in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, another book I loved but which made my brain hurt. As I was saying before, I am really bad with fantasy and by bad I mean impatient. It’s not that I don’t like it, but generally it is impossibly rich and I get exhausted and don’t understand anything anymore by the middle of it. I do sometimes think that maybe I’m a bit retarded that way and like one of those characters who are too cynical to understand the world of magic and just crawl about in their grey lives and never look up at the blue sky. That’s me in reality, but that’s not me ideally. So, as if to just to prove that, a book will once in a while hypnotize me into its universe where one has no rules to rely on (this might actually be my problem with fantasy, the lack of rules) and will force me to stay there until I finish the damned thing even if it takes me a decade.

Luka and the Fire of Life is a quest, constantly alluding to computer game quests (another thing I really am behind on) but also to legendary quests, with the particularity that the hero is a boy, at the threshold of puberty. The mission he has is that of saving his father, the storyteller Rashid Khalifa (in which one easily recognizes Salman Rushdie himself -the fact that he has dedicated the book to his son, Milan, also helps) from his Big Sleep by feeding him the stolen Fire of Life. Yes, one very demanding father-son relationship. On the other hand, we also know that Luka, being Haroun’s little brother, is expected to have a fantastic adventure of his own, so this is like his coming of age voyage and his initiation within the clan of Blah, the Shah of which is Rashid himself. Because he talks so much. The whole thing eventually turns out to be, therefore, a trip inside his father’s fantasy and trust me, that’s a complicated place to travel through. Because, you see, magic realism is one thing: one has something to hold on to, reality is there, but just distorted from time to time in wonderful or scary ways in a sense that is always somehow predictable. Renouncing, like Luka did, actual reality to go into the World of Stories and try to make heads or tails of it requires a tremendous amount of confidence in the author’s willingness and ability of making you feel welcome.

There are things in this book that made me remember what I loved about fairy- tales as a kid and there are other things making me remember why I have developed such a passion for Salman Rushdie as an adult in the first place. I will start with the things that I loved thinking about as a child. First and foremost and always at the top of my wishlists: a flying carpet. In this case, King Solomon’s flying carpet (I had never known he owned one before reading this book). This particular miraculous vehicle has the unheard of ability of shrinking to the size of a handkerchief and extending immensely as well, so as to transport any number of people and/ or stuff. I imagined it emerald green with a fringe, even though I can’t remember if the color was mentioned in the book or not. Another thing-I-loved-to-think-about and wished to be: a beautiful flame-haired warrior princess with a name to match – Soraya. My favorite character today, but also someone I would have positively worshiped 20 years ago, an icy and rude girl with a heart of gold. Another personal favorite: a glistening river full of magical creatures, on which the hero glides in his boat. So, already two modes of transportation that I would most likely have killed for as a kid and might commit illegal deeds in order to obtain even today. Also: stars moving in the sky and shining very brightly, the difference between right and left (on the left there was the palace of the king, on the right there was a parking lot – this one is mine, not from Salman Rushdie), and flying at extremely high speeds.

What appealed most to my adult mind was, as always, the humor. I can’t even begin to explain what a tremendous difference in perception there is between a book that makes me laugh and one that doesn’t. And while I know that this is not the most mature of criteria, I find it immensely important for the author to not take himself too seriously: when coming across humor, it’s as if one gets a sense of the spontaneity of writing and the joy of the whole enterprise of creating a book. The author becomes just a partner for the ride and great company.  Even more so if the humor stems from irreverence. In Luka and the Fire of Life, the ancient gods from all extinct civilizations hang out together like retired people and get bored pretending they are still relevant. Prometheus goes under the nickname Old Boy and giggling references are made to his titanic nudity – since he’s a titan and the goddesses of beauty have fighting matches in the mud every day to conquer the title of loveliest of them all. There’s a coyote speaking like Machete and excessively polite rats who are the scum of the earth. When it’s raining hard, watr cats (cats made of water) fall from the sky. The dogs are not there, though, dogs are nice in this book. And also, when the heroes reach the giant whirlpool of time and try to fly over it, so high that they reach the Karman line, something like this happens something like this happens something like this happens something like this happens something like this happens until they manage to get past it and on to the next level in the game.

The imagery in the book is absolutely luxuriant, and it seems that as it also happened with Sjon’s novel before, I can only describe the highlights of the novel without actually making a very valid point or interpretation. I can only say that it has caused me to plunge headlong into these worlds upon worlds of miraculous creatures and kicked my imagination in the ass making me go back in time to when I could still calmly consider fairies and princesses and talking animals as part of a regular day in the life of any 5-year old. If only I had more patience for fantasy!

This is roughly how I imagined the Mountain of Knowledge when it turned into a grassy hill

Great Modern Short Stories, selected by Bennet A. Cerf

Yes, yet another post in English, against my very reasonable efforts to bring linguistic diversity into my reading and into my writing. This has two causes: the obvious one- I read in English a whole lotta lot, (especially since I got my Kindle, it is much easier to find e-books in English than in any other language) and the less obvious one of not actually being able to read that quickly. I have set a somewhat unreasonable goal to try and write at least once a day, during the week, just to make sure I don’t lose the habit. This poses a tiny logistical problem, which is that I normally cannot finish a book in one day so as to be able to fawn over it here immediately. Moreover, I said I’d only write about what I love, which means that even if I do have this rhythm, I have to love the book enough to write about it. Great dilemma. This takes me to why yet another post in English, since today I have decided to write about this collection of short stories I haven’t finished yet. The book is, of course, in English and it is here that I read Galsworthy’s Apple Tree that I was talking about earlier. So today I can get away with writing about the collection, and tomorrow, or whenever, with writing about the individual stories. Pretty ingenious, huh?

I am not, however, as lazy as it may seem, because this book is really something special. I must say, I did have a French alternative, but could not bring myself to not write about this great volume. I bought the book about a year ago in a small thrift English bookshop in Grenoble (The Bookworm Café) and I paid something like 3 euros for it. I never thought about it again and sort of forgot it on the shelf for all this time, until I had run out of books to read and I took it out on a whim. Now, I have recently been arguing that electronic books are not the devil and that we should not wallow in sadness and despair for the fate of the paperback, since the contents of the book is important and not its form. This, of course, is my new rhetoric, since before getting my Kindle, I was saying the exact opposite things, talking about the scent of books and being in libraries, etc. Today, all this seems very snobbish to me, so I have but contempt for nostalgia. This, however, before I was proved wrong again, by this particular volume, who has become one of my new favorite things. It is your normal, run-of-the-mill grey and sober paperback, but even as I did not pay a second thought to the object itself, I did notice that I loved how natural it felt to read. As if it had been a book all its life; it knows its job, you open it and stays open, you can hold it in one hand since it’s not too heavy, the pages are not too yellow, they don’t stick together and the cover is not falling apart. Really, it’s everything a normal book is supposed to be, including discreet. It does not attract attention to itself, but lets the contents do the talking and maybe this is why I forgot it on a shelf for so long.

So, I finally started reading it. I tried to re-read Heart of Darkness, which is the first short-story in the book (never managed to finish it, even though I do like it. I think I don’t enjoy it), then I read The Apple Tree, then The Prussian Officer, then Miss Brill, and went on merrily until I got to the American short stories (in the second half of the novel) and while on the train, I don’t know what prompted me to look at the book more carefully, and saw the name on the first page, written in ink : O. Lévy then instantly got this image of the well-educated Jewish intellectual who had owned it before me, then thought huh how strange, I wonder where he bought it and then saw that it had been published by Random House in1942, in New York. First, what struck me, was the realization that that perfectly functioning, discreet object, was 60 years old and I had never given it a day over 20. Then that it had been published during the war. And only then, the very clear (yet of course, completely unverifiable and imaginary) story of this book and of its French Jewish owner started to unfold in my head. So there, so much for “the object is just an object, it’s what’s inside that matters”.

So, what does an editor decide to publish in troubled times in a very affordable format? Stories that, as the foreword states, “will live forever”. Immortality, of course, it’s what they would be trying to bring to the table, and reason and intelligence. I read somewhere, I can’t remember where, that during the Second World War they established spontaneous libraries in shelters across Europe and at the end of the war, the records were kept and analyzed. They had all types of books there, and what had been borrowed mostly was not, as one would have expected in those times of extreme poverty, do-it-yourself manuals or cookbooks, but philosophy and classics. What would happen today in similar circumstances I would not venture to speculate, and hope I never find out, but these things do give you more faith in civilization and humans. It also made me feel that the choice of the editor to put English and American novels back to back in the same book must have been a political one, because this division is so accentuated and so strange! It is as if, in order to show the Americans what and who they were fighting for, they felt compelled to stress the fact that they spoke the same language and had the same values so they underlined English and American three times, to show there was no difference.

The best part was that this is how I found out Katherine Mansfield was British, I always thought she was American. And the other best part is that once more, I am shown that I had better bite my tongue before I blab sentential remarks because I will most likely change my mind sooner than I can say Kindle.

The Illustrated Theory of Everything, by Stephen Hawking

Publisher: New Millennium; October 2003, Language: English

I dare to approach this book and step out of the realm of fiction, because it was so powerful that it made me think of life, the universe (it takes quite a lot of might to get me thinking about these subjects) and changed my opinion of how important the color of my shoes is for ever, I suppose. Considering the grand scheme of things and having at least one inkling of an idea about what we think we know is extremely empowering to the scientifically handicapped person that I am. I will not attempt to explain the universe to anyone, anytime soon. This has not made me go about town lecturing my friends who are all ten times smarter than I am. I will not dare tell anyone that they are wrong in their support of string theory, or that they have misunderstood the theory of relativity. What I do know, however, is that the color of my shoes is really not that important, that the CERN cyclotron will probably not cause us to plunge headlong into a black hole, but if it does that we will have gone heroically and that all in all, trying to understand the Universe is the noblest of missions and the most spiritual experience of all.

Ok, ok and before we get too serious and gloomy, I will say that Stephen Hawking’s prose is extraordinarily engaging and that he has a sense of humor. I didn’t really expect that, so my mood while reading this book varied from pensiveness and orgasmic revelations to fits of laughter, augmented in their intensity by the sheer surprise of actually having them at all.  Thanks to my previously mentioned smart friends, I already  have some inside information on the world of scientific research and academic gossip, with anecdotes featuring old professors throwing acid at each other because of accusations of sabotage and misdirected funding, but it’s quite a different story to hear stories like that from Stephen Hawking. Researchers placing bets on the veracity of their hypotheses makes my day.

There is also a good deal of history of science in this book, a subject which is so wonderfully approached, with theories so limpidly explained, that this potentially boring section of the book is a true pleasure to read. One also learns (and remembers too) a great deal of things about the scientists of days past and I could not help but wonder at how creative they had to be and what exceptional visionary qualities they had to have about them. Someone like Newton for instance, getting so much absolutely right, that today one hardly needs anything more than his theories to fly to the moon. This is where you sort of realize that this type of intelligence goes way beyond being talented at maths or having a knack for numbers; someone like Stephen Hawing or the geniuses preceding him, making scientific history, are all-round exceptional creatures. I mean, they are good with words, with numbers, with theories, with thought, with jokes. What else could one hope for? And no, I won’t make the obvious Stephen Hawking bad joke, even though I am thinking about it. In these situations, even though I would normally disagree, the body really does seem unimportant.

Since I myself am no Renaissance man nor even a Renaissance woman, there is only so much I can understand from these books. And I say these, because I have read more works by Hawking, one by Etienne Klein and I am going to plunge soon into “Death by Black Hole”, by Neil de Grasse Tyson. Little by little, my understanding of these subjects is deepening and I expect that I will be fluent in mainstream astrophysics theories at some point. However, I cannot help but be more struck with the philosophical implications of what I am reading than with the scientific ones. I am no philosopher either, I am really not much of anything, but it just so happens that I understand thought put into words better than thought put into digits, and that I am not quite at home with abstractions, so I’ll take the practical -example-based philosophical theories over science any day. Reading “An Illustrated Theory of Everything” is, without being modest, for the literary minded, a string of philosophical discoveries and subjects of meditation to last for a lifetime.

Now, I have read on different websites that this book has become somewhat of a renegade because Stephen Hawking has said that he no longer agrees with what he has written in it and that he wishes for it to stop being published. On the Amazon website, some readers advise against reading it as if it were plagued with the monstrosity of not being current enough. I for one really don’t understand this attitude and couldn’t care less about Hawking’s change of heart and/or of scientific credo. It’s not as if my extensive knowledge will suffer and my reputation will be destroyed if I am not up to date with the very latest of Hawking’s thoughts or with all the cutting edge theories. Such an attitude is pointless and I think that any book kindling an interest in science for profane readers such as myself is worth the read and I will recommend it to anyone. I have started with “The Illustrated Theory of Everything”, because of it and ever since I have taken an interest in all the recent research that has been made available to the greater public (the speed of neutrinos, for example, I’m really waiting for the explanation of that one. See, I know stuff) I will read his recent books as well and I see no reason to stay away from this one and kill it with fire as if everything in it were absolutely false. This was just to say that I am aware with what is being said out there; don’t care, I still like it.

Caliap stargazing

The Apple Tree by John Galsworthy

Nonsuch Publishing, August 1, 2005, Language: English

Right, so anyone who knows me knows that I have a penchant for the classics and that I manage to appreciate novels that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with, well,  life now and today. One of the things I adore about books is that they manage to make me go back in time; I never want to go forward, just back. Science fiction is lost on me, but I sure like my Victorians (yes, I do know that Gaslworthy comes a bit later, I don’t mean just him). I am all for quaint, bucolic adventures on the moors, or at least what seems as such to other people, for to me they are mostly disturbing tales of great psychological insight and the best escapism there is. Fluid writing, intelligent observation and wit as well as a good dose of confidence preventing the author from falling into the trap of gimmicks make an enjoyable reading experience for me. I really appreciate my friends who love fantasy and science fiction and I hope to one day open myself more to these genres, since I really do feel that I am missing out. Maybe this blog will help, but until then, let’s talk about John Galsworthy’s Apple Tree.

Let’s be clear from the start: I am not going to pretend that this short story is mind blowing, that it made me rethink my views on the world or that it changed my life. However, not all books are supposed to do that : I love a relaxing read with a certain flowiness to it that transports me for one afternoon and never once makes me cringe. It is a simple story about spring, love and all those things that come with it. Also, a hint of darkness and cruelty,  a dramatic ending and a short meditation on memory and the passage of time. Nothing never heard of before. But (and here’s when I start to sound like that old lady we all know) the descriptions of nature, of spring nights, of the flowered trees and of innocent maidens wandering on the moors or around candlelight parlours lulled me to a place of harmony and serenity which is so perfect it’s tacky. We do need this, though, don’t we?

The main character, one of those too well educated, too well-off youths with nothing much to do, discovers his own power and the extent of his hypocrisy within the space of one month of April (which, as we all know, is the cruelest month). What is interesting to follow in the character’s development is the lowering of his self esteem from the first paragraph to the last, the loss of his innocence perceived by his own eyes. Righteous at first, comparing himself favourably to his coarser, less sensitive travel companion, he goes on to admitting he is a scoundrel within the space of a few weeks and finding excuses for it with the easiness of a Ibsen character.  The final blow to his barely salvaged self image comes years later, as he is experienced enough to be fully aware of his scoundrelness and likely not forget it to the end of his days. The other characters are, on the other hand, a bit flat. The two female characters perfectly complement each other, being complete opposites, with an obviousness that is not even awkward: it just goes without saying.

There is also a hint of a remnant of Romanticism about this short story. Often mocked and turned around by the main character, the tendency towards idealizing the past (ahem, I know) and getting lost in considerations on the savage beauty of the elements and the purity of the simple folk is nonetheless there. For some reason, though, this did not bother me: I saw it as proof of an exquisite optimism, of that beginning of the century belief in the better nature of man when left to his own devices and unspoiled by civilization and education.  The kind of belief that Isadora Duncan’s dancing stemmed from, or Nietzsche’s convoluted reasoning. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the story was written in 1916 and the Great War was just starting to give further proof that men were all beastly regardless of education and that savage was not such a fascinating thing to be after all.

Oh, and before you jump to any conclusions: no hint of the war in this short story. We feel it’s not there, not just yet. The Belle Epoque glides understatedly on, serving as a perfect background to this story about becoming an adult. It’s only too bad that it takes roughly one afternoon to read, one afternoon to write about it, and then one is left with the ruthless October rain which seems to characterize a month that is nonetheless crueler than April. It’s really cold and the wind is blowing and really, The Apple Tree bears no resemblance to real life whatsoever. Thankfully.

The countryside and apple trees made me think of this