7.20.2017

Summer

A Commonplace Book of Summer
Summer has always been my favorite time of the year. And so I have always been intrigued by how do others view the summer months. To find out, I did a targeted search for the word “summer” in my commonplace book. Below are a few of the passages I found.

Shakespeare

Summer’s lease hath all to short a date.

Hemingway A Farewell to Arms

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees were too dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Henry James

Summer afternoon—summer afternoon: to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.

Christopher Wilkins The Measure of Love

I felt like someone feels who spends a bright summer’s afternoon in a dark, smoky cinema, engrossed in some tenebrous gothic drama, only to emerge blinking into a world where it is still broad daylight and where there are shops and children and safety and laughter and people getting on with their lives.

Ann Patchett Bel Canto

In Paris, Simon Thibault had loved his wife, though not always faithfully or with a great deal of attention. They had been married for twenty-five years. There had been two children, a summer month spent every year at the sea with friends, various jobs, various family dogs, large family Christmases that included many elderly relatives.

Colm Toibin The Master

…he could not stop asking himself what he wished for now, and answering that he wanted only more of this—calm days, a beautiful small house and this soft summer light.

J. M. Coetzee Life & Times of Michael K

But most of all, as summer slanted to an end, he was learning to love idleness.

Andre Aciman Out of Egypt

Summers were long in Venice, she said, and there was nothing she liked more some days than to take the vaporetto and ride around the city, or head directly for the Lido and spend a morning on the beach by herself. She loved the sea.

Carol Cassella Oxygen

…Seattle’s spectacularly brief summertime...

Ian McEwan The Child in Time

I don’t remember a hotter summer than this in seventy-four years. It’s hot. In fact, I’d say it was too hot. Stephen said that was better than too wet and his father agreed.

Elizabeth Hawes Camus, a Romance

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.”

Lily Tuck I Married You for Happiness

Anything can happen on a summer afternoon
On a lazy dazy golden hazy summer afternoon


Anita Brookner A Friend from England

One always expects the summer to last for much longer than it does: one forgets the very sensation of being cold.

Natalia Ginzburg The Little Virtues

There are only two seasons in the Abruzzi: summer and winter. The spring is snowy and windy like the winter, and the autumn is hot and clear like the summer.

Alastair Reid Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner

I do not own a watch and pass the summer without ever knowing the time.

Richard Goodwin The American Condition

Now in Florence, when the air is red with the summer sunset and the campaniles begin to sound vespers and the day’s work is done, everyone collects in the piazzas. The steps of Santa Maria del Fiore swarm with men of every rank and every class; artisans, merchants, teachers, artists, doctors technicians, poets, scholars.

Olah Olafsson Restoration

…summer arrived with the most glorious weather imaginable: hot, sunny days and warm nights.


7.17.2017

James Salter The Art of Fiction

At the age of 89, just a few months before he died, James Salter delivered the first Kapnick Writer-in-Residence Lectures at the University of Virginia. The Art of Fiction consists of the three lectures he presented then.

I’ve read most everything Salter has written and while I didn’t expect to learn how to write a novel, I wanted to know about his writing life and the writers who meant the most to him. They include works by Balzac, Flaubert, Babel, Dreiser, CĂ©line, Faulkner.

Salter raises the question: Why does one write? This is a question I have often pondered. To my surprise, Salter answers the question this way: …it would be truer to say that I’ve written to be admired by others, to be loved by them, to be praised, to be known. In the end that’s the only reason.”

I wonder how many writers would answer the same way?

Salter often spent time in France. He said he was always able to write there and that the French generally believe it is worthwhile to be a writer.

He spoke about the important elements in writing a novel. It’s never easy, you need to weigh each sentence, rewrite a great deal, observe closely and learn how to tell a story. “The narrative tells the story and story is the heart of things. It is the fundamental element.”

He spoke about some of the books he wrote, although he didn’t include his novel I like best, Solo Days. He described Light Years ”as being like the worn stones of conjugal life: everything ordinary, everything marvelous, everything that makes it full or makes it embittered—it goes on for years, decades, and in the end seems to have passed like things seen from a train, a meadow there, trees, houses, darkened towns, a station going by.”

The book represented the memory of those days, memories that are probably true for any marriage.

He wrote, A time comes when you are all alone, Celine wrote long before it actually happened to him, when you’ve come to the end of everything than can happen to you. It’s the end of the world, even grief, your own grief, doesn’t answer you anymore…”

And he concludes: “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”

In the final analysis, this is the only reason I publish whatever I’ve written.

7.12.2017

String Theory

I am reading David Foster Wallace’s String Theory, a collection of his essays on tennis. I am reading the book at the same time the Wimbledon tennis championships are being played. I’ve become a sort of tennis nut.

While Wallace was a very fine player, he never qualified for a major tournament. He wonders what makes a great tennis player? I think his answer is true for greatness of any sport and, perhaps, any form of superior performance.

It is not an accident that great athletes are often called “naturals,” because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one…They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two.

The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind…might well be: nothing at all.

I am reminded of how Woody Allen defined greatness during an interview at The New Yorker Festival in 2000. He said:

… you do what you do, you do what you do best, and if others like it or think it's great, then that's fine. And if they don't, that's fine too. But you always have to do what you like to do and what you do naturally. Talent is a gift, not something you can try to attain. You can work at perfecting it, but first it has to be there.

Malcolm Gladwell’s view of greatness (or success as he calls it) is a little more complicated. In Outliers: The Story of Success, he says there are five factors determining outstanding success: talent, hard work, opportunity, timing and luck..

Yes, you need to have a natural talent and practice, practice, practice. But you also need a fair amount of luck and be given the opportunity to express yourself, however you can do that.

Timing also plays a role, say in tennis, the opponents you play at that time, the stage of your development and something as simple as the time of the day, the light on the court, and how many hours you slept the night before.

Gladwell’s conception goes well beyond the simplicity of Woody’s and Wallace’s view. It recognizes the multiple factors that govern any behavior and the unpredictable way they combine in any individual. For this reason, it seems to me the most reasonable current account of “greatness” in any field.

7.10.2017

The Lost Letter

But sometimes the only way to fight the enemy is to become them…

Jillian Cantor’s The Lost Letter: A Novel is part mystery, part romance, part history and along the way an introduction to philately.

Katie Nelson is a writer in Los Angeles, currently going through a divorce. Her father, Ted, was a stamp collector but is now suffering from dementia and lives in a memory care facility. While cleaning out their family home, Katie comes across her father’s enormous stamp collection. She takes it to a stamp appraiser, Benjamin, who discovers a rare stamp on a letter that was never sent.

We shift to wartime Austria that has been annexed by Nazi Germany. Kristoff is a young apprentice to a master Jewish stamp engraver, Frederick Faber. He lives with Faber’s wife and two daughters, Elena and Mimi, in a small village on the outskirts of Vienna. Early in the novel, Elena is on her way to to the post office but is presumably captured by the Nazis, since she never returns home.

The chapters switch back between wartime Austria and late 80s and 90s Los Angeles. Cantor skillfully constructs this dual timeline. Fredrick Faber’s wife is captured, he disappears while walking to the nearby village and Kristoff is forced by to engrave stamps for the Nazis.

After Hitler took over Austria, they did a series of stamps to commemorate Austrian buildings and landmarks. This stamp is St. Stephen’s Cathedral, in Vienna. But it’s not supposed to have a flower in the steeple…I doubt it was a mistake…So then how did the flower get there?

Meanwhile, Katie and Benjamin go on a search for the origins of the rare stamp in her father’s collection. Together they travel to Wales to meet Mimi who lives in a retirement home, then to Berlin at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall where they eventually track down Elena who is living in East Berlin.

The story appears complex, but The Lost Letter reads quite clearly. Who is Kristoff and what happened to him after the war? Is Katie’s father really Ted? Why is Elena living in East Berlin? What is in the opened letter and is the stamp of any significant value?

Here I can only pose a few of the questions that make the novel such an exciting mystery. All of them are answered in the end, making The Lost Letter a moving tale of sacrifice, resistance and love.

The stamps were a connection to the past, his past, to this person he once was, this woman he once loved.

7.03.2017

A Long Saturday

There comes a time when it’s too late for many things. George Steiner

A Long Saturday is a provocative exchange between the the eminent scholar, George Steiner and the journalist Laure Adler. The book-length interview treats the many issues that have occupied Steiner throughout his life—languages, culture, Judaism, literature and the Holocaust.

I quote below some of the Steiner’s answers that struck me as most interesting:

First, we have a fundamental philosophical problem. A critical judgment on a piece of music, art, or literature cannot be put to the proof. If I declare that Mozart was incapable of writing a melody (there are people who believe that), you can tell me I’m a poor fool, but you can’t prove me wrong. When Tolstoy said that Lear is an overblown melodrama by someone who doesn’t understand tragedy at all, you can say, “Mr. Tolstoy, I regret to inform you that you are laughably wrong.” But you can’t prove him wrong. In the end it’s scary: opinions are not refutable.

And a good guest, a worthy guest, leaves the place where he has been staying a bit cleaner, a bit more beautiful, a bit more interesting than he found it.

L.A. Do you define yourself as a Jew, as a Jewish thinker?
G.S. No. A European Jew, if you like. A student, I like to consider myself a student. I have teachers.

But really, what fascinates me most is the mystery of Jewish intellectual excellence. I’m not being a hypocrite: in the sciences, the percentage of Jewish Nobel laureates is stunning. There are areas in which there is almost a Jewish monopoly. Take the creation of the modern American novel by Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, and so many others. The sciences, mathematics, the media, as well; Pravda was run by Jews.

For me, to be a Jew is to remain a student, to be someone who learns. It’s to reject superstition, the irrational. It’s to refuse to turn to astrologists to find out your destiny. It’s to have an intellectual, moral, spiritual vision; above all, it’s to refuse to humiliate or torture another human being; it’s to refuse to allow another to suffer from your existence.
There comes a time when it’s too late for many things.

L.A. I think I’ve read that you distinguish two types of people: those who read with a pencil, and those who don’t….
G.S. You have to make notes, you have to underline, you have to wrestle with the text by writing in the margin.

In the evening the officers played Schubert and sang Mozart; in the morning they tortured people in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Majdanek.

Leading historians believe that between August 1914 and May 1945, in Europe and the western Slavic world, more than a hundred million men, women, and children were massacred in wars, in concentration camps, and by famine, deportation, and major epidemics… It’s a miracle that anything managed to survive.

It is inconceivable that we keep people alive against their will, when their only wish is to leave this world. It seems grossly sadistic to me.