Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thursday Verse

The Century's Decline
by Wislawa Szymborska

Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short.

Too many things have happened
that weren't supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
has not.

Happiness and spring, among other things,
were supposed to be getting closer.

Fear was expected to leave the mountains and the valleys.
Truth was supposed to hit home
before a lie.

A couple of problems weren't going
to come up anymore:
hunger, for example,
and war, and so forth.

There was going to be respect
for helpless people's helplessness,
trust, that kind of stuff.

Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task.

Stupidity isn't funny.
Wisdom isn't gay.
isn't that young girl anymore,
et cetera, alas.

God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong
but good and strong
are still two different men.

"How should we live?"  someone asked me in a letter.
I had meant to ask him
the same question.

Again, and as ever,
as may be seen above,
the most pressing questions
are naive ones.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Quick Looks

Strange Tales by Rudyard Kipling
Eerily atmospheric tales, set in British India and other places.  Told in graceful prose, with a strong sense of place.  Just what I like, although I did get a bit tired of the natives-as-cowardly-simpleminded-liars subtext.

We were alone in the house, but none the less it was much too fully occupied by a tenant with whom I did not wish to interfere.  I never saw him, but I could see the curtains between the rooms quivering where he had just passed through;  I could hear the chairs creaking as the bamboos sprung under a weight that had just quitted them;  and I could feel when I went to get a book from the dining-room that somebody was waiting in the shadows of the front veranda till I should have gone away.

 To Build A Fire by Jack London
My oldest is taking an American lit class, and I'm enjoying reading some of what she is assigned.  This story's theme is typical London--man's hubris contrasted with animals' instincts in the Arctic north.  Rather sober and chilling (!) account of a man whose fate hinges on his success or failure in building a fire.

His pace of four miles an hour had kept his heart pumping blood to the surface of his body and to all the extremities.  But the instant he stopped, the action of the pump eased down.  The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow.

 Alcestis by Euripedes
A short play about a man who allows his wife to sacrifice her life for him, and immediately regrets it.  Various types of loyalty are explored, sometimes with great eloquence.

Oh, my return to home is return to lament
Oh, the emptiness left in unwelcoming rooms!
Go where?  Be where?  What say?  What not?
I wish I were dead.
What doom-laden womb, what mother produced me?
I yearn for the shade.  I lust after phantoms.
Theirs are the homes I crave to indwell.
The joy in my eyes is a light gone dim.
The joy in the tread of my feet is gone.
Death has cleft from me half my life:
Traded to Hades.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Just Finished: In the First Circle

In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had a long road to publication.  An indictment of the totalitarian Soviet system set in 1949, the novel traces the chain of events set in motion by a junior Soviet diplomat's impulsive, dangerous phone call on Christmas eve to the American embassy.  Solzhenitsyn wrote the book between 1955 and 1958, but couldn't get it published in English until 1968, after cutting out nine chapters and many individual scenes to get it past the censors.  The version I read is the first uncensored edition, with all cut material restored, published in 2009. 

The "first circle" refers to Dante's circles of Hell, with the first being the best (or least terrible), in which the luckiest (or least unfortunate) find themselves.  The sharakshas, for example, were the best of the gulag prisons, in which prisoners with scientific or technical skills worked on technological projects for the Soviet government and lived in better conditions than those in the labor camps.  The novel isn't merely a description of the gulag system, though.  A larger "first circle" is that of the Soviet elite--diplomats,  high-ranking Party members, military officers.  Although they occupy the highest social levels, they're in the first circle of the hell that is Soviet society.  At its highest and lowest levels, it is a society that is built on lies and blind glorification of Stalin.  Everything works to crush individual achievement and independent thought. 

Two men's stories comprise the main threads of this complex (but never boring) book.  In the first circle of Soviet society is Innokenty Volodin, who makes the phone call that starts the action.  Volodin is a young diplomat who has become disenchanted with the Soviet system and yearns for truth and a life with meaning and integrity.  His phone call, from a public booth, is an attempt to warn the Americans that one of their number is a spy who is about to give the secret of the atom bomb to the Soviets.  The call is listened to and recorded, but his identity is not known.

The search for the man who made the phone call leads to the introduction of the other main character, Gleb Nerzhin.  Nerzhin is a zek, or political prisoner.  His crime:  having been a prisoner of the Germans during the war.  (Many Soviet prisoners of the Germans were put into gulags upon returning home after the war, on the assumption that they must have picked up some anti-Soviet attitudes after spending so much time with Germans.)  Nerzhin is a mathematician who works in an acoustics lab in a sharashka.  His group is assigned the task of using electronic voice analysis to identify the man who made the phone call to the American embassy. 

Many other characters and story lines give glimpses of what life is like for all kinds of people under a totalitarian system that seeks to control not only the movements and behavior but also the thoughts of its citizens, by force and intimidation.  This book's wide-angle, multi-storied picture of a society at a particular point in its history kept reminding me of A Suitable Boy.  But this is a much more chilling story.  It's not the smooth page-turner created by Vikram Seth;  rather, it's Solzhenitsyn's tribute to the people who struggle to maintain their integrity of mind in a crushing system.  Although there is some humor and many appealing characters, it's a much more harrowing read.  No one is free in In The First Circle;  they're just occupying different levels of Hell.

Classics Club