Posted: July 29, 2014
Books are not only powerful instruments to disseminate knowledge, but also agents of change. They are sources for joy and personal development as well as inspiration for freedom and democracy, to the extend that they even drive dictators to ban or destroy them. In order to understand better what reading books implies in Marcel Proust’s preface to John Ruskin’s “Sesame and Lilies”, I would like to offer first, as a context, some examples of books in the history of libraries and publishing.
The library has been a popular topic in numerous fiction books. For example, in The Library of Babel (La biblioteca de Babel), the famous short story by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, there exists a geometrical space or labyrinth with walls filled with books, including one with a magic and cabalistic content. On the other hand, in Auto da Fé, the novel written by Elias Canetti, a Literature Nobel Prize laureate, the main character has an obsessive and eventually tragic relationship with his enormous library. Among the non-fiction books dealing with the same motif, The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, a renowned historian on books and reading, contains a serious study of famous libraries, from the biblical Babel and Alexandria to modern days, exploring the histories and anecdotes of book collections as well as their collectors, including a detailed description of his own library in France.
There are also many novels whose plots are based on either real or imaginary books. The famous novel The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco begins with the following sentence: “On August 16, 1968, I was handed a book written by a certain Abbé Vallet, Le Manuscrit de Dom Adson de Melk, traduit en français d’après l’édition de Dom J. Mabillon (Aux Presses de l’Abbaye de la Source, Paris, 1842).” Here we have a complete reference of a specific book, including the date of publication. The story continues to tell the quest of “Le Manuscrit” while disclosing its secret content.
In this genre we can include publications with lists of favorite books by various authors and their recommendations. Over a hundred years ago a Russian publisher asked two thousand scholars, artists, and men of letters to name the books which were important to them. Tolstoy responded with a list with even the remarks of degrees of influence by ranking each title as: “enormous,” “very great,” or merely “great” (check below the link with the list of Tolstoy). There are also books dealing with the history of the most famous publishing houses like The House of MacMillan by British author Charles Morgan or At Random by Bennett Cerf, a writer and editor closely linked with Random House. These days some want to portray publishers as “villains”, whereas these kind of books can help us to understand how the industry works and the important role it plays in promoting a culture.
However, the style of “On Reading” by Proust is so great and original, totally different from any conventions mentioned above, that I think it can be considered a “chef-d’œuvre”. Proust used it as a preface to his own French translation of the English art critic John Ruskin’s talk “Sesame and Lilies” published in the same book with five other of Ruskin’s lectures that Proust also translated and annotated, i.e. Sesames of King’s Treasures, Makeshift Memory, Ruskin in Venice, Servitude and Freedom and Resurrection.
Ruskin’s presentation “Sesame and Lilies” was delivered in Rusholme Town Hall, Manchester, in December 1864. There, he told the audience: “..reading is precisely a conversation with men much wiser and more interesting than those we can know in person…reading, unlike conversation, consists for each of us in receiving the communication of another thought while remaining alone,..”. It was published in 1865 and attracted wide attention at the time. It was considered a classic nineteenth-century controversial statement on the roles of men and women, but the main focus of the talk actually lies in the importance of books and the rewards of reading.
Proust never met Ruskin but Ruskin’s works inspired Proust to write. Proust was also motivated to admire art, including a visit to Venice following the critic’s steps. Proust took the task of making Ruskin’s lectures available in French so seriously that he devoted eight years of apprenticeship to master English and eventually translate Ruskin’s talks into French with his notes as well as an introduction to the lecture “Sesame and Lilies”. This translation in its entirety had been out of print since the early twentieth century until very recently.
Proust’s Preface uses the same introspective style as that of his monumental work A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past or Things Remembered from the Past). In On Writing Proust describes with great detail his experience as a young man on holidays in the countryside with his aunt and uncle, probably in Illiers-Combray. It is full of vivid illustrations of the mind such as the objects in his bedroom “these.. filled the room with a silent and multifarious life, with a mystery in which my own personality found itself at once lost and enchanted”. He recalls the sounds of the conversations with the cook and other daily events of little importance such as his uncle brewing coffee or his aunt commenting on food, music or manners. I am especially impressed by the way in which he describes his irresistible urge to finish dinner or end outdoor games that he “was forced to play” as he could not wait to go back to his room to continue reading.
Proust also talks about the sadness that he feels when a book is finished, giving details of his desire to continue reading: he, like other passionate readers, “.. wanted the book to keep going, and, if that were not possible, wanted more information about all of its characters, wanted to learn something further about their lives,..”. In another description of his feeling after reaching the end of a book, Proust notes “..when the last page had been read, the book was finished. With a deep sigh I had to halt the frantic racing of my eyes and of my voices, which had followed after my eyes without making a sound, stopping only to catch its breath.”
Proust also dedicates some space to talk about the relationship between authors and their books, describing how “…the greatest writers, in the hours when they are not in direct communication with their thoughts, enjoy the company of books.” then even adding “thinkers have a much greater capacity for productive reading (if one may put it this way) than creative writers”. Another thing that Proust and Ruskin both strongly suggest is that reading should be an intimate activity practiced in solitude.
Proust reveals his philosophical wisdom distinguishing what historians and scholars seek by consulting books from what a regular reader expects. The former are looking for references to prove a theory or a superficial fact that they consider to be “a truth”, in his own words: “…this truth that they seek at a distance, in a book, is properly speaking less the truth itself than a sign or a proof, something that therefore makes way for another truth that it suggests or verifies and this latter truth at least is an individual creation of his spirit.” The latter, especially what Proust considers the “literary man” “reads for the sake of reading, to store up what he has read.”
Proust here also shows his perception of issues related to psychological health as he writes about the healing quality that reading offers particularly to ease depression: “There are … pathological circumstances one might say, of spiritual depression, in which reading can become a sort of curative discipline…” then, becoming more explicit, he adds, “Books then play for the person in these circumstances a role analogous to that played by psychotherapists”.
In “On Reading” Proust lists names of many authors like Tacitus, Horace, Plato, Euripides, Ovid, Dante, Pascal, Montaigne, Diderot, Hugo, Molière, Descartes, Shakespeare and many more. But the only work that he describes with some details is Captain Fracasse by Théophile Gautier that he used to read in childhood, which shows the influence the book has on Proust.
We certainly live in a time very different from the early 20th Century when Proust translated Ruskin’s dissertations and wrote the brilliant preface that we have just reviewed. Reading today can be conducted other than through books printed on paper. Technology allows us to bring our entire electronic library in a small device like an iPhone or iPad wherever we go. The supply of books has also become almost unlimited with the advent of “self publishing” which facilitates the publishing of one’s writings. However, the challenge for us today might be how to dedicate time to reading and to getting quality reading material. It is very common today to find some people spend considerable time on emails and all forms of social media which many use obsessively. For those, we imagine, very little time could be left for real book reading.
In spite of the criticism and challenges that publishing houses face today, generally speaking, they are still the main source of quality books, with their professional text editing, type-setting and cover designs. Moreover, for centuries, some conscientious publishers have produced lots of “beautiful books”, therefore, in Proust’s expression, nourishing and promoting the most outstanding authors, including all the Literature Nobel Prize laureates among others. As Proust brilliantly describes one of his experiences finishing reading a book is like ending an intimate conversation with its author and its main characters: “… is one of the great and wondrous characteristics of beautiful books (and one which enables us to understand the simultaneously essential and limited role that reading can play in our spiritual life): that for the author they may be called Conclusions, but for the reader, Provocations. We can feel that our wisdom begins where the author’s ends”
Excerpts From: Proust, Marcel. “On Reading.” Published by Hesperus Press Limited, 2011. Available in iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/on-reading/id482141696?mt=11
Excerpt From: Umberto Eco. “The Name of the Rose.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/IpbFz. Originally published Published by Harcourt, 1984
Jorge Luis Borges. The Library of Babel. In Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, Published by Penguin Books Ltd, United Kingdom, 2000
Elias Canetti. Auto Da Fe, Published by Pan Books Ltd, 1978
Alberto Manguel. The Library at Night, Published by Yale University Press, 2008
Charles Morgan. The House of Macmillan (1843-1943), Published by Macmillan & Co. London, 1943
Bennett Cerf. At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf, Published by Random House, 1977
Leo Tolstoy. List of the 50+ Books That Influenced Him Most (1891).
Posted: July 6, 2014
Lancelot is probably the most controversial of the six novels written by Walker Percy, who is considered one of the greatest provocative “existentialist” voices in American literature. His first novel The Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award.
Percy followed the philosophical path of Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger and other relevant writers and philosophers. He was born in Alabama in 1916 and belongs to the extraordinary group of American Southern writers which includes William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, William Styron, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Tom Wolf, etc. Most of their works are marked by the “Southern Culture” which, for historical reasons, is different from the North and the West. New Orleans is one of the favorite places where some of the novels take place, as it is a multilingual city located in Louisiana, a State with a distinct culture breeding from a diverse ethnic population influenced by its background as a former French colony sold by Napoleon to the United States in 1812.
Walker Percy’s life was full of tragedies. When Percy was 13 years old, his father committed suicide. Three years later, his mother was killed driving her car, which plunged into a river – many think it was intentional. He and his two brothers were then adopted by their uncle, a wealthy owner of a large plantation, a poet and a writer who was a friend of many important Southern writers including William Faulkner. His uncle, a lawyer graduated from Harvard, offered great help to the local poor and black people to get mortgage loans, which is noted by Peter Augustine Lawler in his anthology book titled A Political Companion to Walker Percy, the Percy family “..were vigorous opponents of bigotry and narrow-mindedness, especially when it was directed against Catholics, Jews, and Negroes”. His uncle was also openly against the Ku Klux Klan, which was at that time very powerful in the South.
With the support of his uncle, young Percy attended the most prestigious schools. After graduating from Columbia Medical School, he worked as an intern at Bellevue Hospital in New York, where he contracted a rare kind of tuberculosis. He was then forced to be in isolation for three years at the Trudeau Sanatorium near Saranac Lake in up-state New York. Under the influence of his uncle’s literary background, during this timePercy became a voracious reader of St. Thomas, St. Agustin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus and, for obvious reasons, Thomas Mann, whose Magic Mountain portrays people in a secluded situation similar to his. Due to this unexpected experience, Percy decided to abandon medicine and dedicated his life to writing, thus turning into a “confessed philosophical novelist preoccupied with the nature of the world and man’s purpose..”, according to Susan Lardner (Miscreants, The New Yorker, 02 May ,1997)
Percy’s novels take place in New Orleans, where he lived most of his life, His main characters, like himself, are highly individualistic with a solitary nature and are inclined to explore their own existences, covering subjects such as social background, idiosyncratic traditions and religion, mainly Catholicism as Percy became a Roman Catholic since marrying his wife.
Taking into account the number of suicides in Percy’s family, the issue of “suicide” cannot but be present, implicitly or explicitly, in some of his novels. For example, in The Moviegoer one of the characters contemplates suicide and in The Last Gentleman a suicide actually takes place.
Percy’s experiences with the recurring hurricanes in New Orleans, some with deadly effects, also become a motif of his novels. Furthermore, Percy tends to include the notion of “accident” or “incident” that dramatically changes the lives of the main characters in his stories and therefore brings them into such a depressed state that they blame the situation on what they view as the corrupted “Zeitgeist” i.e. the spirit of their time.
Percy incorporates all these elements as the key parts in the plot of his fourth novel Lancelot, published in 1977. The protagonist Lancelot seems to be locked somewhere like a jail or a mental hospital. The novel is basically an elaborate and complex monologue that Lancelot has with Percival, who can be a friend, a psychotherapist or a priest that visits him and listens to his story and troubled past. “…whether prison or not, is not a bad place to spend a year” he tells his attentive listener. By using the names of two of the most famous Knights of the Round Table involved in the quest for the Holy Grail, Percy seems to have drawn some parallels between the two stories. Lancelot, like the Knight, is associated with tragedy and adultery, ending up disillusioned in solitary confinement, seeking redemption after a series of calamities, whereas Percival is the Knight that represents the values of Christianity. Another relevant reference is that in the novel Percy briefly mentions Queen Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife who commits adultery with Lancelot.
In the beginning of the novel Lancelot tells Percival that he decided to kill his wife after he “discovered purely by chance that my wife had been, and probably was still, unfaithful to me”. The “accidental revelation” conveys profound outrage and disappointment with life, a feeling that makes it impossible for him to have any form of trust in others, including romantic relationships. He blames the prevailing decadent culture of his time, sermonizing like a madman, “I can’t tolerate this age.. Make love not war? I’ll take war rather than what this age calls love. Which is a better world, this cocksucking cuntlapping assholelicking fornicating Happyland USA.” Lancelot also associates his anger and resentment with religion when he says “God’s secret design for man is that man’s happiness lies for men in men practicing violence upon women and that woman’s happiness lies in submitting to it.”
In addition to the moral and religious remarks to justify the brutal act of killing his wife, Lancelot also mentions the political context of his indignation, telling Percival that his country “is down the drain. Everyone knows it. The people have lost it to the politicians, bureaucrats, drunk Congressmen, lying Presidents, White House preachers, C.I.A., F.B.I., Mafia, Pentagon, pornographers, muggers, buggers, bribers, bribe takers, rich crooked cowboys, sclerotic Southerners, rich crooked Yankees, dirty books, dirty movies, dirty plays, dirty talk shows, dirty soap operas, fags, lesbians, abortionists, Jesus shouters, anti-Jesus shouters, dying cities, dying schools, courses in how to fuck for schoolchildren.” Clearly Percy does not share Lancelot’s extreme opinions which, however, some people do embrace in the US till today.
Although Percy portraits Lancelot as a sophisticated thinker at times, in the end he looks like a deranged man so full of contradictions that he murders his wife without remorse. To make his character more complex, Percy adds the notion of “redemption” like the Knight of the Round Table. Lancelot tells Percival that once he is released from jail or the madhouse, he wants to marry the woman from the next door cell, who was gangraped and is recovering from the traumatic experience. Women must be saved from the whoredom they’ve chosen.”, he explains.Lancelot wants to lead a revolution with his future wife to save the world from decadence, “we had both suffered the worst that could happen to us and come through, not merely survived but prevailed…we were qualified as the new Adam and Eve of the new world. If we couldn’t invent a new world and a new dignity between man and woman, surely nobody could.” he adds.
When the novel was released, it received some negative reviews, especially one from Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, a novelist, political activist and editor of The New York Times Book Review. With the title “Camelot Lost”, the reviewer considers that Lancelot’s ideas are “downright upsetting. His treatment of an educated Negro as his family slave, his ridicule of the pretensions of modern art, his snobbery toward the socially inferior longing for acceptance and, most of all, his abhorrence of the liberated woman and his insistence that after his revolution “the New Woman will have perfect freedom. She will be free to be a lady or a whore”, ideasthat Walker Percy clearly didn’t share. It seems that Mr. Lehmann-Haupt treats the book as a non-fiction, forgetting that the characters are fictional and also deranged. As a Southerner, Lancelot experiences with race might be different from a Northern liberal, but he is definitely not a racist as Mr. Lehmann-Haupt seems to have implied. The reviewer takes out the context of Lancelot’s rants about blacks and women, showing bad faith by failing to mention that Percy was a socially concerned person and publicly criticizes any form of bigotry.
Written as a monologue in the “first person” p.o.v. enriched withphilosophical content, Lancelot is probably Percy’s most difficult book to read. The main character and the only voice in the novel seems to be mentally ill. At times itinconsistently recounts the storyof his life in the context of a well-cultivated man who frequently quotes movies, classic existentialist writers and philosophers whomWalker Percy knew so well after years of studying their works. Percy is not only highly recognized as an extraordinary fiction writer but also asan existentialist philosopher who wrote several essays on Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel etc. Just a few months before Lancelot was released, Percy published “The Man on the Train” —- an essay in which he explores some of the issues that Lancelot faces, particularly “alienation”, a lonely existence lost in the crowd and psychological isolation in modern life, which he calls “everydayness”. Lancelot deals with all these existentialist concepts; therefore,it can also be treated as a philosophical fiction.
= Excerpts From: Walker Percy, Lancelot, iBooks.
https://itun.es/us/u3SHz.l Originally published by Farrar, Straus, 1977.
= Patrick H. Samway, Walker Percy: A Life, University Press of Kentucky 410.
= Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. Camelot Lost, Books of the Times,The New York Times, February 17, 1977
= Walker Percy. “The Man on the Train: Three Existential Modes.” Partisan Review, no. 23 (Fall 1956). Hobson, p. 64. Later published in 1975 with other essays in Walker Percy “The Message in a Bottle” ,New York, Picador, 19
Posted: May 27, 2014
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke is an outstanding collection of his correspondence with a 19-year-old cadet named Franz Xavier Kappus who aspires to be a poet but is struggling between a life path either as an artist or as an army officer. These beautifully written letters raise questions and apprehensions that Kappus and many other aspiring young poets shared in their correspondence with Rilke who was always modest to give advice and ideas how to deal with their emotional issues.
These letters are in some ways connected with Rilke’s own painful experiences as a young man in his early years in a military school where he was mistreated and unhappy – a condition that led him to solitude and poetry writing. Most importantly, in the Letters, Rilke, at that time already a mature solitary writer, projected his own feelings and struggles to understand the difficulties of real love as well as the fundamental characteristics of human relationships, which he had been pursuing with great efforts.
Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, together with The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, his brilliant autobiographical novel in the form of a diary during his stay in Paris, and the essays on August Rodin, to whom he became private secretary between 1902 and 1907, show his talent as an introspective prose writer. The content of these books blends naturally with his highly admired poetry books such as his beautiful Sonnets to Orpheus, the Book of Hours, the Book of Images, Duino Ellegies etc.
It was Kappus who published ten letters that he received from Rilke between 1902 and 1908 and gave the title to the book in June 1929, three years after the Poet’s death – we don’t know how many letters he received as he only published ten. Kappus did not include his own letters in this volume. The readers would need to guess what he wrote to Rilke. In his brief Introduction to this book, Kappus explained that he had been troubled by his future as a military officer:“I felt to be directly opposed to my inclinations”, therefore decided to send his “poetical efforts to Rainer Maria Rilke and ask for his opinion”. Rilke answered from Paris, the beginning of a devoted correspondence between the two until 1908, ”..then gradually trickled into nothing, since life drove me off into regions against which the poet’s warm, delicate and touching solicitude had really tried to guard me’, Kappus confessed in the introduction.
In his first letter Rilke talked about one of Kappus’ poems. He suggested that he not show his work to anyone or send it to publishers so as to avoid rejection, “You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do.” “Nobody can help you”, Rilke wrote, “Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine…its roots down to the deepest places of your heart”. Rilke showed in this paragraph a personal inclination for introspection, one of his own strengths as a solitary writer.
The correspondence shows that Rilke was often traveling since his letters were sent from Italy, Germany, Sweden and the last one from Paris. All his answers are full of wisdom related to the subjects that burdened Kappus in different moments and situations. He recommends him to read books starting with The Bible and J. P. Jacobsen’s novels especially The Six Tales.
Rilke’s letters reveal his generous personality by modestly sharing his knowledge about books, authors, virtue, sex, love, relationships, voicing his avant-garde opinions and ideas which even today can be considered controversial.
Like in most of his poetry, love and eroticism occupy a central place in the correspondence with Kappus who was at that time a young man experiencing romance and probably also physical contact with women. These letters allow Rilke to express his unconventional views on sex and love. He refers to the famous German poet Richard Dehmel, finding his poetry disappointing by turning “..what is charming into something unworthy”. He goes further in his criticism by accusing Dahmel of being “no entirely mature” when he writes about sexuality in a way “which is not human enough, merely masculine, which is heat, intoxication and restlessness, and loaded with the old prejudices and arrogances with which men have disfigured and burdened love.”
Continuing with the same topic in another reply, Rilke expresses his sympathy for Kappus’ struggle to understand sex: “a complicated topic”, he says, associated to many socially sanctioned ideas and misconceptions. “Our acceptance of it is not bad; what is bad is that almost all men misuse and squander this experience” Rilke wisely argues, probably recalling his own life.
The conversation on these topics is intensified in a letter sent from Rome in 1904 when Kappus seemed to have fallen in love. Trying to help the young cadet to deal with his natural romantic tribulations, Rilke expresses his views on what he considers to be real love, an emotional state that is very close to his poetry. With great candor and details Rilke writes: “..young people who are beginners in everything, cannot know love yet: they have to learn it”, adding, they..“love falsely, that is simply surrendering, letting solitude go…”
Rilke frankly suggests to Kappus that he must be patient and let maturity lead him to appreciate love as a distinct “difficult” human experience that is different from mere sex, which according to the poet, the “..social perception has contrived to create shelters of every description, for as it was disposed to take love-life as a pleasure, it had to mould it into something easy, cheap, innocuous and safe, as public pleasures are”. In the context of describing the difficulties of love, Rilke talks about what he considers to be a “good marriage”, whose aim is not a “hasty communion…” but “..rather one in which each appoints the other as guardian of his solitude and shows him this greatest trust that he has to confer. ”
The last published letter was sent from Paris in 1908, four years after the previous one in the book. In this particular letter, Rilke expresses the satisfaction of the fact that the young cadet chose the military profession of a “steady expressible existence” with title and uniform, “a duty, all this which is palpable and defined”. Kappus served for 15 years as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army and continued to write poetry and novels although without too much success. Later he became an editor for various newspapers, including his own “Kappus Deutsche Wacht” and eventually died in 1966.
Rilke wrote more than 1,000 letters to friends, lovers, colleagues and some artists that he admired. After his death in 1926 his publisher acquired some and published most of them as collections which have been translated into dozens of languages. Among them, the most widely read are perhaps The Letters to a Young Poet, as well as those addressed to Lou Andreas Salomė, a lover, a travelling companion and a long time friend. Letters on Cezanne published in English in 1985, is another important collection of Rilke’s correspondence addressed to various friends about his admiration as well as the mystical experiences and influence that the famous French artist’s paintings have on him and his poetry. “…after the master’s death, I followed his traces everywhere”, Rilke wrote in one of his letters to a friend.
We should be thankful to Franz Xavier Kappus for publishing Letters to a Young Poet, which offers an “astonishing wealth of ideas which the poet here raises”, as Reginald Snell mentions in the introduction of his English translation of the book.
= Excerpts From: Rainer Maria Rilke. “Letters to a Young Poet.” Dover Publications. Print 2002. IBook 2012: https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=504543167
= Excerpt From: Rainer Maria Rilke. “Letters on Cézanne.” North Point Edition: iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/letters-on-cezanne/id498300676?mt=11
Posted: May 13, 2014
“Yalom’s virtuosity has resided in a particular capacity to meld philosophy, literature and psychiatry into a corpus of work that illuminates life-as-lived for all” wrote his colleague and biographer Dr. Ruthellen Josselson. Yalom’s books on psychotherapy are widely read around the world and one of his most well know theoretical books on mental health practice, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy has been translated into seventeen languages and together with Existential Psychotherapy is considered a classic in its field, making Yalom a highly acclaimed scholar.
Yalom has also been internationally recognized as a fiction writer for his novels, particularly When Nietzsche Wept, a best seller translated into more than 20 languages. In this novel Yalom’s experience as a therapist is manifested together with his knowledge of philosophy, a field that he has cultivated since his early years as a student at the university.
Yalom’s novels could be considered historical fiction, a literary genre that has been popular since ancient times. The Iliad by Homer about the Trojan War and Shakespeare’s tragedies are some examples of old classic texts. In modern times, Joseph and his Brothers by Thomas Mann, based on the Book of Genesis, The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder about the last days of Julius Caesar and more recently The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, a well-acclaimed novel about a manuscript of a monk describing convent life in the Middle Ages and the struggle between different church orders, as well as The Medici Boy, a novel by John L’Heureux published a short time ago, about the life of Donatello, the famous Italian artist in the 15th century, provide other relevant examples.
In this type of novel, the characters are historic figures appearing with their real names and the plot is built around well documented historic facts, including descriptions of epoch, location, situation, background, physical appearance of the characters and, in some cases, complete texts from published books or letters. This genre is so demanding that its writers not only have to be good at fiction, but also need to equipped with research skills to create a sense of historical reality.
Regarding When Nietzsche Wept, its principal characters include Nietzsche, the famous philosopher, and Dr. Joseph Breuer, the prominent Viennese therapist who has been considered as one of the founders of modern psychoanalysis, together with Lou Andreas Salome, a controversial Russian writer with whom Nietzsche was obsessively in love. Sigmund Freud also appears in the novel as a close young disciple of Breuer’s at the time. The roles and conversations of the characters, although mostly based on actual events mentioned in their biographies, published letters and writings, mainly Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, are partly fictionalized.
The novel begins with a meeting in October 1882 at a cafe in Venice where Lou Andreas Salome, then a young good looking and sophisticated Intellectual woman, asked Dr. Breuer to help her friend Nietzsche as he was deeply depressed and would probably kill himself. “It would be a great loss for me, and a great personal tragedy because I would bear some responsibility,” she pleaded. Andreas explained that Nietzsche was madly in love with her and after living together in a “chaste” ménage à trois which also included Paul Rée, another philosopher and Nietzsche’s disciple many years before. The “intellectual honeymoon of our unholy Trinity was also brief. Fissures appeared”, Andreas explained that Nietzsche was deeply hurt when she refused his marriage proposal. This affair briefly mentioned in the novel happened in real life and is well documented, including a famous photograph taken in Lucerne showing Nietzsche and Rée pretending to pull a cart with Lou Andreas inside brandishing a small whip —- many attributed this moment, regarding the problem with Lou Andreas to a famous quote from Thus Spake Zarathustra, First part XVIII. Old and Young Women: “Thou goest to women? Do not forget thy whip!”
Dr. Breuer seemed reluctant to take the case but became interested in the story and offered to recommend other doctors. Salomé insisted. “Nietzsche has exhausted the medical resources of Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. No physician has been able to comprehend his malady or relieve his symptoms” and she added, “you are a doctor for despair”. Breuer replied, “Despair is not a medical symptom, Fraulein.” Already hinting to a future therapy for mental illness, Salome, undeterred by the answer, reminded Breuer that her brother had attended Breuer’s classes, in which he, as a practitioner described how “uncovering of the origin of each symptom somehow dissolved it. ”
To make the case more complicated and at the same time appealing to Breuer, Lou Salome told him that Nietzsche “doesn’t know that I’m speaking to you. He is an intensely private person and a proud man”, therefore Breuer had to conceal any previous knowledge of the situation of his future patient and his relationship with her.
At the end of a long intriguing conversation, Lou Andreas’ description of Nietzsche’s ideas and work together with exceptional circumstances made Breuer accept the challenge. “my dear lady…, I will see your friend. That goes without saying. After all, I am a physician”.
The framework of the story is now set and the plot centers around the meetings, conversations, notes and internal dialogues between the two brilliant minds of Nietzsche and Breuer, both suffering from the despair born from impossible obsessive love with younger attractive women.
The story shows how the roles of the therapist and patient blur when the fictional Nietzsche starts to take notes about Dr. Breuer’s obsessions and how he can best help him, turning the philosopher into a healer or a therapist. We can assume that the same kind of experience happened to Yalom in his own professional practice since he regularly refers to his passion for stories about old healers particularly to Hermann Hesse’s novel Magister Ludi, which tells a tale about two renowned healers and indirectly touches on the nature of the patient-therapist relationship. In his own words, “.. the echoes of these tales ring throughout the pages of the novel.”
By choosing a psychotherapist and a philosopher with historical relevance as the main characters of When Nietzsche Wept makes it possible to uncover other elements in Yalom’s biography. In her book Irvin D. Yalom: On Psychotherapy and the Human Condition, Ruthellen Josselson reveals how Yalom “was intrigued by the links between philosophical reflection and the healing that takes place in psychotherapy, implying that, like in the story “the philosophers were covert therapists.”
Making Nietzsche a therapist was one of the ideas that inspired Yalom to write the fiction novel, a possibility which, he thought, “could have happened”, quoting Andre Gide: ‘history is fiction that did happen. Whereas fiction is history that might have happened.”
When Nietzsche Wept clearly shows Yalom’s talent as a fiction writer, a philosopher and one of the most admired psychotherapists of our time, particularly displaying his knowledge and imagination to vividly portray Nietzsche’s broken relationship with Lou Andreas Salome, the torments that followed and the path to recovery.
At the end of the story, Yalom included a special section titled “On Writing a Teaching Novel”, where he describes in some detail the sources that inspired his book together with some of the ideas underlying the novel, written in a style that allows the readers to become acquainted with some important moments of the history of psychotherapy: the terminology and the healing process for despair and depression, ailments that afflicted Frederich Nietzsche. Clearly Yalom has achieved his goal by making up a story of a complex relationships, an exciting thriller full of interesting insights into philosophy, psychology, and the fragility of the human being.
Irvin D. Yalom. When Nietzsche Wept. Basic Books 1991 & HarperCollins Publishers 2011
Ruthellen Josselson. Irvin D. Yalom: On Psychotherapy and the Human Condition. Jorge Pinto Books, Inc. 2007 Available in iTunes iBook
Mario Vargas Llosa. “The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto” | The Use of Self-introspection, Diary, Reference and Conversation.Posted: April 20, 2014
One of the greatest attributes of Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction writings is the complex characters which so well represent the diversity of Latin America’s social and ethnic landscape. Using the voices of self-introspection, personal diaries and conversations, Vargas Llosa manages to create individuals with very different tastes, economic backgrounds and educational levels; women and men that are happy or sad; that love, hate or fear; that dream or despair.
With humor and satire, Vargas Llosa’s stories deal with love, power, history and ideology, exploring a vast range of situations and problems that human relationships confront. Vargas Llosa’s novels take the readers to Lima, Santo Domingo, Paris, Mexico, Buenos Aires and many other cities that he undoubtedly knows first hand.
His historic novels, The War of the End of the World (La guerra del fin del mundo) and The Feast of the Goat (La fiesta del chivo), demonstrate his talent as a storyteller as well as a serious scholar and journalist.
Most of his novels seem to be directly related to his own life. His second novel The Time of the Hero (La Ciudad de los Perros) tells about the life of certain young cadets who confront the severe hardships from the military hierarchy, which seems to be inspired by his own experience. His father sent him to the Leoncio Prado Military School in Lima Peru at age 16.
In a brief speech at the Nobel banquet in Sweden after receiving the 2010 Literature Prize,Vargas Llosa revealed his own background. He recalled the adventures of a 5-year-old boy – clearly himself – that read, discovering “a way to escape from the poor house, the poor country and the poor reality in which he lived, and to journey to wonderful, mesmerizing places peopled with the most beautiful beings and the most surprising things, where every day and every night brought a more intense, more thrilling more unusual form of bliss”. He ended the speech by telling the audience that the protagonist of the story, now an adult, had received a mysterious call announcing “that he had won a prize and that in order to receive it he would have to travel to a place called Stockholm, the capital of a land called Sweden.”
The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, published in Spanish in 1997 was soon translated in English into 1998 by Edith Grossman. It can be classified as ‘erotic picaresque”, a genre that Vargas Llosa uses in many other novels. This one in particular is full of erotic content in the form of notes, letters and conversations that illustrate internal conflicts and delicious evocations of love scenes between Don Rigoberto, a highly educated man that is also an insurance executive and Doña Lucrecia, his second wife.
When the translation was published, The New York Times’ critic Walter Kendrickpresented Vargas Llosa’s book as “a pornographic novel”,focusing on the erotic descriptions in Rigoberto’s mind and real scenes enacted by the couple in bed. Mr. Kendrick and other criticsmiss the complexity of Vargas Llosa multi-layered narrative, which explores moral, emotional, physical and psychological issues, using images of famous paintings by Gustave Klimt, Félix Vallotton, Balthus and Fernando Botero, as well as quotes of Casanova, Marquis de Sade and many other classic authors skillfully chosen to be part of the story.
In addition to Don Rigoberto and Doña Lucrecia, there are two other relevant characters in the novel. One is Fonchito (nickname for Alfonso), the teenage son from Rigoberto’s first marriage, who is so obsessed with Egon Schiele’s life and his erotic paintings that he spends“hours looking at them in my papá’s books”. Fonchito also uses specific portraits by Schiele in “games” to try to seduce his stepmother “innocently” by asking her to “pose like the lady in ’Reclining Nude in Green Stockings...”, while mischievously adding, “without undressing…” Lucrecia comments on Fonchito’s actions: “The damn kid had the diabolical habit of turning the conversation to salacious topics, playing the innocent all the while”
The other character is Justiniana, Doña Lucrecia’s trusted maid and confidant, who, despite of her limited education, has the sensibility to understand the complexity of her boss’s relationship with Don Rigoberto and his son Fonchito. “She’s more than an employee to me. I don’t know what I would have done without her.” Doña Lucrecia tells Fonchito, “I don’t have the stupid prejudices against servants that other people in Lima have”, referring to the thorny relationship that the upper classes have with their servants.
The story takes place in Lima and its three main characters belong to the educated upper middle class of the Peruvian society, which, as in most of Latin American countries, means that people with relative wealth can afford expensive homes, art collections, regular trips to Europe and New York as well as the luxury of having full time in-house staff like Justiniana. These people manage all the housework plus taking care of the children and, like in the novel, also of their boss.
.Don Rigoberto is a lonely individualistic executive full of mania and phobia kept in his notebooks, which are key part of the story. He reads and writes these notebooks late at night in his library revealing his sexually charged fantasiesand complicated relationships, many of which are inspired by books, paintings and music that he lists and describes with explicit details, which may be one of the reasons why some critics considered the novel to be borderline pornographic.
Don Rigoberto’s life is full of contradictions. On the one hand, he “had already spent a quarter of a century at the insurance company, surrounded by, submerged in, asphyxiated by stupidity” and, on the other hand, is an erudite reader, peculiarly attracted to erotic art. As a collector he designs his library dogmatically to be “in the small constructed space that I will call my world and that will be ruled by my whims”. He wants a library that holds “four thousand volumes and one hundred canvases and prints”and he adds,“to avoid excessive abundance and disorder, I will never own more”. To explain his eccentric idea, Rigoberto writes, “… for each book I add to my library, I eliminate another, and each image that enters my collection—lithograph, woodcut, xylograph, drawing, engraving, mixed media, oil painting, watercolor, etcetera—displaces the least favorite among all the others.”
Vargas Llosa offers an enjoyable multi-layered text, full of well-integrated references. The book is so rich that the readers are advised to make a list in their own notebooks of the books and artworks quoted by Vargas Llosa in this particular novel for the pleasure of further cross reading.
Excerpts From: Mario Vargas Llosa. “The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/notebooks-don-rigoberto/id424009317?mt=11
Posted: April 5, 2014
Under the Western Eyes, first published in 1911, is the other remarkable novel written by Conrad dealing with the dark human aspects linked to extreme ideologies. Unfortunately this destructive power continues to be very much alive today.
In The Secret Agent, Conrad describes the “dark heart” of a bureaucrat in great detail. The First Secretary at the French Embassy in London is ready to destroy a landmark building and, if necessary, to kill innocent people in order to force the British to adopt repressive measures against their political dissidents.
In Under the Western Eyes, Conrad chooses a terrorist as another example of the “dark heart”. Haldin, the main character of this extraordinary novel, is a young Russian student who proudly identifies himself as a “destructor”, after killing the hated repressive official Mr. P— and possibly bystanders by throwing a bomb.
Following the successful terrorist act, Haldin hides in the home of Razumov, a lonely student whose acquaintance he made in university. He immediately feels that his future is threatened by Haldin’s ominous presence in his quarters. Haldin says “It was I who removed P— this morning.” trying to make his situation clear, and goes on in a challenging tone: ”Men like me are necessary to make room for self-contained, thinking men like you”, demeaning his colleague, who now becomes an unintentional accomplice. “All I want you to do is to help me to vanish”. With these words Haldin starts to set the stage for a series of events which radically changed Razumov’s life as revealed in his diary “…I, who love my country—who have nothing but that to love and put my faith in—am I to have my future, perhaps my usefulness, ruined by this sanguinary fanatic?”
From here the story unfolds a full range of unexpected developments, showing Conrad’s unique talent as a storyteller with details of the ominous symptoms of the time in pre-revolution Russia. In the story, Conrad uses quotes from a journal that Razumov keeps after his encounter with the terrorist to demonstrate his internal conflicts, family background and the painful awakening path that connects him with extremists and revolutionaries as well as with rich powerful individuals in both Russia and the West.
The plot uses Razumov’s internal tribulations stated in his diary and the interesting conversations taking place in Geneva about the brewing Russian revolution and the incapability of the western world to comprehend it. As this emigre in Geneva explains to her English professor, “You think it is a class conflict, or a conflict of interests, as social contests are with you in Europe. But it is not that at all. It is something quite different”. The professor, who seems to be Conrad’s own mouthpiece, replies to his Russian interlocutor “A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first.” The professor goes further in his negative views on revolutions: “The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement—but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment—often of remorse.” Clearly here Conrad anticipates with great lucidity the future of the Soviet Revolution five years later. Actually his comments are still valid taking a look at the negative results of the Orange revolution in Ukraine and the Spring revolutions in the Middle East.
Among other characters living in Geneva, Under the Western Eyes also includes an influential Russian writer who advocates radical feminists ideas, and Madame de S—, a rich lady with an aristocratic family background, famous for hosting “soirees” in her chateau with Russians and political conspirators. The character of Madame de S seems to have been inspired by Mme de Staël, the 19th century French political writer, who also lived near Geneva in a chateau and was famous for her “salon” style gatherings, attended by refugees and political thinkers in the Napoleonic era
This year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the World War I in which millions lost their lives. That war was triggered by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, three years after Under the Western Eyes was published.
There are remarkable resemblances between the fictional events of this novella and the actual occurrences which bring about historic implications. In Conrad’s novel, Mr. P—, Haldin’s target, survives during the terrorist attack while driven in a two-horse uncovered sleigh with a coachman who gets killed instead whereas in real life Archduke Franz Ferdinand was riding in an open-topped car when a terrorist threw two grenades that missed the royal member but wounded the officers badly in the car behind. In both cases, the assassination plot is completed by a second terrorist: in the novel, Haldin throws a bomb that kills the standstill target whereas in history, after the first failed attempt, Princip, the assassin, fired two shots to an almost motionless car killing the Archduke in Sarajevo and resulting in World War I.
These similarities that could be considered premonitions were again repeated 90 years later with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, 1963. Moreover, terrorist acts that target buildings as in The Secret Agent (mentioned in Part I of this article) turned into tragic reality on September 11, 2001 with the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, igniting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Reading Under the Western Eyes and The Secret Agent certainly helps readers to better understand what Joseph Conrad meant by “Heart of Darkness” the title of one of his best well-known novels.
Excerpt From Joseph Conrad’s Under the Western Eyes, 1911.
Posted: March 25, 2014