Paul Wittgenstein and Thomas Bernhard’s Troubled Friendship. Book review by Jorge Pinto

Paul Wittgenstein and Thomas Bernhard’s Troubled Friendship.

Thomas Bernhard’s autobiographical novel, “The Nephew of Wittgenstein” describes with some detail the complicated and at the same time troubled relationship with Paul Wittgenstein, the nephew of the author of the famous Tractatus Logico-philosophicus, and one of the greatest philosophers of our time.

The first part of book relates the experience of both friends hospitalized in Austria at the same time but in separate pavilions part of a large hospital compound. Bernhard was treated for a severe pulmonary disease and Paul Wittgenstein suffering what the author described as a so-called mental disease.

In the book, Bernhard presents several examples of thedark picture of his friend Paul’s health, who since his childhood had a predisposition to a disease, which even if was never been precisely classified, afflict him all his life, until the day he died, adding, “At every end and turn they would use the term manic or depressive, and they were always wrong.

The author describes his relationship with Paul, using relevant moments, conversations and traits, including, Paul’s problems with his enormously rich family.

On a positive note, the book describes Paul’s passion for music, especially opera and the orchestral works of Mozart and Schumann. Bernhard list the most important opera houses that Paul visited during his trips to Milano, London, New York, Berlin, which according to his friend; None of them was any good compared with Vienna.

The author recalls how at one time Paul was considered by music lovers to be one of Vienna‘s most passionate operagoer, noting that Paul was feared on opening nights since If he was enthusiastic he carried the whole house with him by beginning to applaud a few seconds before the rest. If, on the other hand, he led them in whistling, the biggest and most expensive productions would be flops.

Bernhard was also a music lover. His grandfather took him regularly to concerts including those conducted by Herbert Von Karajan whom him admired as child, adding that he observed and studied the famous Conductor for decades, regarding him as the most important conductor of the century, along with Schuricht. On the other hand, his friend Paul had a fervent hatred of Karajan, whom he habitually described as a mere charlatan.

If music was an area that brought the two friends together, Bernhard highlights the fact that besides music, Paul’s other passions was Formula One motor racing. Coming from a very wealthy family, been himself a racing car driver, counting among his friends a number of world champions in this field. In his second half of his life he had to give up racing since he did no longer had money and his relatives kept him on a tight budget.

The book is full of anecdotes of the peculiar life of his friend, including the most bizarre and eccentric actions like splurging money in luxury restaurants and bars. In this context, Bernhard tells the story of Paul’s whims including a sudden wish to go to Paris taking a taxi in the center of Vienna, whereupon the driver, who knew him, actually drove him to Paris, where an aunt of Paul’s who lived there had to pay the fare.

To avoid depriving the reader the enjoyment of Bernhard’s rich prose telling the fascinating stories of his unconventional friend and his interactions with Paul’s brilliant mind, I avoid getting into other descriptions regarding Paul’s relationship with money, women, his brothers and the Wittgenstein family, which he had always made him felt threatened and shunned, except his sister, who was the only one he spoke with affection.

Since the book is written using the first person point of view narrative, it give the reader a unique perspective of Thomas Bernard’s enormous talent and antagonistic personality that produced so many enemies and detractors, which for some analysts was one of the impediments to get a well deserved Literature Nobel Prize.

Among the many controversies Bernhard was connecting his reiterated negative opinions of Austrian society and the explicit disdain for award ceremonies. With some humor he describes, what he considers those events to be nothing more intolerable in the world. In his own words; they do nothing to enhance one’s standing, as I had believed before I received my first prize, but actually lower it, in the most embarrassing fashion. Only the thought of the money enabled me to endure these ceremonies.

Among the vivid anecdotes of his unpleasant experiences receiving public prizes, was the ceremony at the Academy of Science to get the prestigious Grillparzer Literary Award commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the death of the famous Austrian writer. He describes the feeling when arriving at the prestigious institution that morning to be surprised to find that there was no one there to receive me. I waited in the entrance hall for a good quarter of an hour with my friends, but no one recognized me, let alone received me, even though my friends and I spent the whole time looking around. It isworthquoting part of the description of what follows once inside the auditorium which Bernhard tells with full of amusing details: The minister had taken her place in the first row in front of the dais. The Vienna Philharmonic was nervously tuning up, and the president of the Academy of Sciences, a man by the name of Hunger, was running excitedly to and fro on the dais, while only I and my friends knew what was holding up the ceremony.

Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) was born in the Netherlands but lived most of his life in Austria where most of his works take place. He is the author of dozens plays, novels and poetry books. Most of his work is dark, full with situations and characters experiencing pain probably as a sequel of being abandoned as child by his parents. He grew up with his grandparents which provided him with an artistic education, particularly his grandfather who was a writer. In an interview, Bernhardt recall his grandmother used to take me to the morgue when I was young. She’d pick me up and say, ‘Look, there’s another one.’ Once she told me that the corpses had a cord to a bell tied to them, so the undertaker would be alerted if they came to./2 This playful example, with a difficult childhood growing up in Nazi Germany and his only sister, spending years moving from one mental hospital to the next and constantly threatening to kill herself, explain the darkness in his writing, which often revolves around themes of death, despair, and hopelessness, including characters ready to commit suicide or actually taking their lives.

No doubt Bernhardt is one of the most important Austrian writers of the second half of the Twenty Century. Reading The Nephew of Wittgenstein open the door to know a remarkable writer and the nephew of one of the greatest philosophers of our time.

1.Excerpts From Thomas Bernhard Wittgenstein’s Nephew

Print version published by Vintage (October 13, 2009)

2. A Conversation. Thomas Bernhard, André Müller and Adam Siegel. Conjunctions, No. 55, Urban Arias (2010), pp. 329-362 (34 pages)

The Secret World. John Le Carre Books & Films

I publish a new eBook with selection of reviews of John Le Carre books and Film adaptations.

Available in Mexico

“1492-2015 el Exilio y el Regreso a España”


1492-2015 el Exilio y el Regreso a España 


1492 es el año en el que se manifiestan de manera clara las serias contradicciones que caracterizaban la vida en España en la época y representa un verdadero parteaguas en su historia. Por una parte, el espíritu emprendedor y la búsqueda de nuevos horizontes conducen al descubrimiento de América y al encuentro con nuevas culturas. Por otro lado, la intolerancia y la cerrazón de la inquisición obliga al exilio o a la sumisión a una importante comunidad que formaba parte de su capital humano, capital que otros imperios, particularmente el Otomano, reciben haciendo suyo ese activo intelectual y económico. Muchos autores consideran que la decadencia de España se inicia con el fanatismo, la expulsión de los judíos y árabes y con ella, la perdida de una parte relevante de su elite empresarial y cultural. 

En este volumen se publican los textos íntegros del Decreto de la Alhambra o Edicto de Granada de expulsión de los judíos de España firmado por los Reyes Católicos Fernando e Isabel, el 31 de Marzo de 1492 así como la Respuesta al citado Edicto, del teólogo judío Isaac Abravanel, quien actuaba paradójicamente en ese momento como financiero y asesor del rey. 

Entre los argumentos y su rotunda negativa a abandonar su religión, en el discurso que contradice los supuestos que justifican la expulsión, Abravanel declara que “no es un gran honor cuando un judío es llamado a asistir por el bienestar y seguridad de su pueblo, pero es desgracia mayor que el Rey y la Reina de Castilla y Aragón y por supuesto de toda España tenga que buscar su gloria en gente inofensiva.” Como puede apreciarse en el texto, la argumentación de Abravanel reviste un carácter religioso, además de confrontar directamente a las mas altas autoridades de España a quienes considera serán “…la causa de su decadencia no mostrará a nadie más que a sus reverenciados soberanos Católicos, Fernando e Isabel, conquistadores de los moros, expulsores de los judíos, fundadores de la Inquisición y destructores de inquisitivas mentes de los españoles.” 

Las razones que dieron origen al citado Decreto aún se debaten. Se le atribuyen al inquisidor y consejero de la reina, fray Tomás de Torquemada la autoría y la idea de abandonar la pluralidad cultural que existía con relativa paz en España en favor de un estado totalitario donde no cabían las religiones que profesaban las minorías árabes y judías. El Decreto obliga a la comunidad Sefardí a optar por la conversión a la religión Católica o abandonar su país. 

Siguiendo el ejemplo de Isaac Abravanel y otros lideres, un gran número de sefardíes españoles cuyos ancestros habían llegado a España 1,500 años antes, tuvieron que salir de su país por negarse a cambiar su religión por otra con la que no comulgaban. El Decreto les permitió llevarse sus bienes muebles y vender sus propiedades, en muchos casos a muy bajo precio. Una gran mayoría opta por la conversión y en muchos casos, años después fueron víctimas del marianismo, calumnias, persecución y procesos de la inquisición. 

Mas allá del impacto económico que en muchas ciudades de España tuvo el exilio de las familias sefardíes, la pesadumbre de sus vecinos y conciudadanos es descrita por el cronista Andrés Bernáldez en su libro Historia de los Reyes Católicos D. Fernando y Doña Isabel. No obstante su explicita antipatía por los judíos por su situación privilegiada, Bernáldez describe la tristeza de quienes eran testigos de su partida “No havía christiano que no oviese dolor de ellos…” 

El ensayo de la Profesora de la Universidad de Granada, Celia Prados García La expulsión de los judíos y el retorno de los sefardíes como nacionales españoles. Un análisis histórico-jurídico/2, que se reproduce en este volumen junto con una completa bibliografía, hace referencia a la diáspora que se produce con la expulsión de los judíos de España en 1492 y posteriormente al exilio de los llamados conversos, acusados “constantemente de prácticas judaizantes” por la inquisición, ominosa institución cuyas acciones se extienden hasta el Nuevo Mundo. Cien años después del famoso Edicto, en 1596 Luis Rodríguez Carbajal es procesado por el Santo Oficio en México y muere en “auto de fe” junto con su madre y tres hermanas. Dicho proceso lo describe el destacado antropólogo e historiador mexicano, Pablo Martinez del Rio en su libro Alumbrado/2 que próximamente será reeditado como parte de esta colección. 

En el estudio referido, la Profesora Celia Prados García menciona las ciudades en las que se desarrollan las mas importantes comunidades sefardíes fuera de España que incluyen, además de las del Imperio Otomano y los países del Norte Africa, importantes metrópolis como Ámsterdam, Roma, Venecia, Turquía y Hamburgo. 

Para definir el concepto de diáspora, la Profesora Prados García cita un importante articulo de James Clifford, destacado historiador y antropólogo de la Universidad de California en Santa Fe; Las diásporas están constituidas por “Comunidades minoritarias expatriadas que se han dispersado, .. que conservan una memoria, una visión o un mito acerca de su tierra de origen; … que consideran el hogar ancestral como un lugar de regreso final,…”/3 

Como señala la citada autora, a partir del Siglo XIX se encuentran intentos por derogar el Decreto de 1492. En su ensayo señala que en 1860 se constituye una comunidad judía en Sevilla como resultado de los contactos de Gobierno español con las comunidades sefardíes en territorios del imperio Otomano y otros países. Recuerda que en esa época tienen lugar distintos eventos e iniciativas de ley las cuales describe con cierto detalle en su ensayo y son antecedentes directos de la Ley 12/2015, de 24 de junio, en materia de concesión de la nacionalidad española a los sefardíes originarios de España de la cual se reproducen los primeros tres Preámbulos. “Es evidente que la configuración de la identidad sefardí en las sucesivas diásporas sirvió de base al legislador español para derogar el Edicto de Expulsión de 1492 y articular el retorno de los mismos a través del Real Decreto de 1924 sobre concesión de nacionalidad española por carta de naturaleza a protegidos de origen español.” 

La ley vigente de 24 de junio de 2015, en materia de concesión de la nacionalidad española a los sefardíes originarios de España destaca el origen de la palabra “Sefarad”, “con la que se conoce a España en lengua hebrea, tanto clásica como contemporánea. En verdad, la presencia judía en tierras ibéricas era firme y milenaria”/4 

Haciendo explícito el propósito del legislador el texto señala que “…la presente Ley pretende ser el punto de encuentro entre los españoles de hoy y los descendientes de quienes fueron injustamente expulsados a partir de 1492, y se justifica en la común determinación de construir juntos, frente a la intolerancia de tiempos pasados, un nuevo espacio de convivencia y concordia, que reabra para siempre a las comunidades expulsadas de España las puertas de su antiguo país.” 

Como señala el Profesor de la Universidad de Salamanca Ramón García Gómez en su ensayo Sefardíes y Nacionalidad Española/5, la legislación vigente constituye, “sin duda, un paso de gigante en la definitiva extinción de una deuda histórica con los sefardíes al posibilitarles la adquisición de la nacionalidad española a los «originarios de España» descendientes de los expulsados en 1492, con el aliciente añadido de la exención de renuncia a su nacionalidad previa y sin exigencia de residencia en España.” 

La ley contiene dos elementos fundamentales que se destacan en el ensayo del Profesor García Gómez. Para obtener la nacionalidad por carta de naturaleza, no hace falta la residencia . Asimismo, se reforma el artículo 23 del Codicio Civil para permitir a los sefardíes originarios de España mantener su nacionalidad anterior sin tener que renunciar a la que tenían con anterioridad, con lo cual la doble nacionalidad deja de ser un obstáculo. El Profesor García Gómez señala que dicha reforma demuestra que “el legislador considera que la condición de sefardí es, en sí misma, una circunstancia de carácter excepcional que permite la concesión de la nacionalidad española, suprimiendo la necesidad de residencia y la obligatoriedad de renuncia a la nacionalidad anterior, como venía sucediendo hasta el 1 de octubre de 2015.”


Hay dos principios básicos para otorgar la nacionalidad por naturaleza. El primero, la acreditación de la condición de sefardí de origen, para lo cual la ley admite como documentos probatorios, el certificado expedido por el Presidente de la Comisión Permanente de la Federación de Comunidades Judías de España, o la mas alta autoridad de la comunidad judía del país de residencia o ciudad natal del interesado. 

El segundo principio que la ley establece como condición para obtener la nacionalidad, es la acreditación de una vinculación especial con España, lo que implica pasar dos exámenes. El primero de conocimientos de la Constitución, las leyes, historia, costumbres y la realidad actual del país y para aquellos que no sean residentes o nacionales de un país iberoamericano, una segunda prueba para demostrar su dominio del idioma español. Ambas pruebas son administradas por los Institutos Cervantes en los lugares de residencia del solicitante. 

La ley contiene además otra serie de criterios de carácter general para probar esa especial vinculación, particularmente, la “realización de actividades benéficas, culturales o económicas a favor de personas o instituciones españolas o en territorio español, así como aquellas que se desarrollen en apoyo de instituciones orientadas al estudio, conservación y difusión de la cultura sefardí.” Para no limitar esta condición, la ley deja abierta la posibilidad de utilizar otras circunstancias que demuestren fehacientemente su especial vinculación con España. 

Por tratarse de razones extraordinarias para otorgar la nacionalidad española por naturaleza, la ley establece un plazo de tres años para realizar los tramites el cual termina en 2018, los cuales detalla el Profesor García Gómez en su ensayo. Asimismo, el Gobierno de España se reserva el derecho de evaluar las solicitudes. Finalmente el otorgamiento lo hace el Consejo de Ministros a propuesta del Ministerio de Justicia. 

No hay duda de la importancia de esta ley en materia de derechos a comunidades expulsadas en un muy lejano pasado. Asimismo, la ley claramente se inscribe en el contexto jurídico de la Constitución española de 1978 que ha permitido los ciudadanos españoles a vivir en un estado democrático plural y tolerante que ha traído paz, prosperidad relativa y sobre todo libertad a todos sus habitantes, independientemente de su ideología o religión. 

En una época en la que la xenofobia y el nacionalismo extremo esta reviviendo en las mas sólidas democracias, incluida la de Estados Unidos, resulta un ejemplo loable el que España haya encontrado formas relativamente simple y bien reglamentadas para restablecer la nacionalidad a toda una comunidad que durante mas de 500 años de manera tangible conservo sus vínculos con la cultura española que siguió considerándola propia. 

Nuestro sincero agradecimiento a la Profesora, Dra. Celia Prados García y al Profesor Ramón García Gómez su generosa autorización para publicar sus textos que son particularmente relevantes para entender un evento político que aún conmueve pero sobre todo incita a una seria reflexión. 

1/ Pablo Martinez del Rio, Alumbrado, Porrua Hermanos, 1937 

2/ Celia Prados García. La expulsión de los judíos y el retorno de los sefardíes como nacionales españoles. Un análisis histórico- jurídico. En F. J. García Castaño y N. Kressova. (Coords.). Actas del I Congreso Internacional sobre Migraciones en Andalucía (pp. 2119-2126). Granada: Instituto de Migraciones. ISBN: 978-84-921390-3-3, 2011 

3/ James Clifford. Las diásporas en Itinerarios transculturales. Barcelona.1999 

4/ Ley 12/2015, de 24 de junio, en materia de concesión de la nacionalidad española a los sefardíes originarios de España. Boletín Oficial del Estado Núm 151, Jueves 25 de junio de 2015 Sec. I. Pág. 52557 

5/ Ramón García Gómez, Sefardíes y Nacionalidad Española. Crónica de Legislación Civil (Enero-Junio 2015) Ars Iuris Salmanticensis, vol. 3, diciembre 2015, 203-206 eISSN: 2340-5155 Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca 

Además de los estudios de los profesores Celia Prados García y Ramón García Gómez y, se incluye una introducción del escritor Jorge F. Hernández. iBookCover_Image_cmyk

Problemas Literarios by José Luis Martínez. Una colección extraordinaria de ensayos sobre el oficio de escritor y la literatura.

UnA colección extraordinaria de ensayos sobre el oficio de escritor y la literatura. Problemas Literarios by José Luis Martínez

Anna Karenina: Tolstoy’s obsessive eye on love, jealousy, adultery and the decline of Russian aristocracy.

screenshot-2016-12-22-14-48-30War and Peace and Anna Karenina are the two greatest works by Tolstoy, the former published in 1869, the latter published in installments from 1873 to 1877. They are regularly compared in terms of the difference in style. For some scholars, the inclusion of essays in a narrative that tends to be fictitious makes it difficult to categorize War and Peace as a novel. Tolstoy wrote an interpretative note entitled ‘A Few Words on War and Peace’ in which he explicitly confirmed that this work “is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.” This explanation by the author makes Anna Karenina his first novel. Another important difference is the time where the two works take place. War and Peace happens during the French invasion of Russia in 1812 whereas Anna Karenina in the years when it was written. As a serial, it took several years to be completed, allowing Tolstoy to witness and describe through his characters, how the society was changing, including his ideas about his country and his own class.

Considered as one of Tolstoy’s masterpieces, Anna Karenina is best known for its outstanding portraits of the compelling characters and extraordinary situations in the story. It has the typical Tolstoy’s signature style to allow the readers to explore the complex personalities of the characters, and to learn about their most intimate desires and emotions as well as ideas and tastes. The novel is full of interesting dialogues and conversations among various topics, ranging from the most frivolous gossips to highly sophisticated issues such as education, religion, morality, and politics, etc.

One of Tolstoy talents is to create distinct, believable characters that the readers quickly identify with, describing in detail their actions, ideas, and intimate thoughts. Tolstoy’s writing is an invitation for the readers to be the witnesses by sharing the atmosphere of different situations like attending events such as a ball, a concert, a dinner, a hunting trip or a horse race. His rich language helps us discover where his ideological affinities and antipathies lie in respectively. Many times his characters impersonate a part of himself or are inspired by close friends or family members which makes his novels somewhat autobiographical especially when he makes Konstantin Levin, one the story leading characters, a kindred soul.

The novel also highlights the situations of the arrogant declining aristocracy challenged by only a few progressive reformers as well as the rising ‘nouveau-riche’ that embraces the luxuries and a colorful lifestyle. Some from the old world aristocracy are struggling to keep up their expensive level of living with increased debt and a rapidly diminished inheritance or income from the land.

There is also another type of aristocrats that can be contented with a simple life. They are truly concerned about the problems confronting the peasants and think that land is a relatively important issue in Russia compared to the rest of Europe.

Tolstoy also shows the double-standard morality of the Moscow and Petersburg high society that ostracizes the heroine Anna, who chooses to sacrifice her honor and her family for the sake of love.

After finishing the last chapters of Anna Karenina Tolstoy renegaded his aristocratic background and concentrated on “morally improving tales”. He published dozens of pamphlets and essays promoting anti-establishment Christian values in an attempt to foment social change. Two years after Anna Karenina was released in 1889 Tolstoy finished The Kreutzer Sonata, initially banned, a novella that was considered to be one of the best books on jealousy and sexual obsession. Many critics think that it matches William Shakespeare’s Othello, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and many other great novels or plays dealing with these complex dark emotional attributes of destructive human relationships.

In Anna Karenina, unfaithfulness or adultery is one of the central topics entangled with jealousy that also troubles many other characters in the novel.

It is possible to find some similarities between Anna Karenina and other 19th Century romantic novels where certain heroines are married to an older man with high positions in society and break their marriages fatally falling in love with young officials. As an avid reader of French literature and politics, Tolstoy was familiar and probably read Adolph, the classic novella by Benjamin Constant. In both stories, the heroine fall in love with young and attractive official, Anna with Vronsky and Ellénore with Adolph. Both give up their stable and privileged status and abandon their husbands. They lose a comfortable life and are rejected by the society. However, the similarities end there since the stories unfold in a different way.

Anna is not abandoned by her suitor whereas Ellénore is. Even though proud of his conquest, Vronsky is captivated by Anna’s looks and personality and ardently pursues her, regardless of the consequences of getting involved with a married woman. He makes no excuses and wants to live together with Anna and even proposes marriage. Adolph, on the other hand, brags about his conquest and indulges himself thinking that “younger men.. were delighted with the skill with which I had supplanted the Count (i. e. Ellénore’s husband),“ They, congratulated me on my conquest and undertook to imitate me.” For Ellénore, it is a short, passionate love affair, that in the end, brings great pain.

Vronsky is madly in love with Anna and faces the challenges. He openly evaluates the available options. Reflecting their situation he quietly thinks; “If I told her to leave her husband, that must mean uniting her life with mine; am I prepared for that? How can I take her away now, when I have no money? Supposing I could arrange…. But how can I take her away while I’m in the service? If I say that—I ought to be prepared to do it, that is, I ought to have the money and to retire from the army.” Money should not necessarily be a problem, since his family is immensely wealthy to allow them a comfortable life abroad. He is even ready to sacrifice a promising military career for Anna in Russia.

Vronsky also knows that his decision has very minor social risks and could even enhance his image as a sophisticated, worldly man. “He was very well aware that he ran no risk of being ridiculous in the eyes of .. fashionable people. He was very well mindful of the fact that in their eyes .. the position of a man pursuing a married woman, and, regardless of everything, staking his life on drawing her into adultery, has something elegant and grand about it, and can never be ridiculous;..…”

However, the impact is somewhat different on Anna’s side. She needs to make the greatest sacrifice of leaving her loved child. And, opposite to the admiration that Anna’s suitor draws from certain social circles, she is made an outcast by most of her “friends,” who turn their back and harshly criticize her. Tolstoy’s description of the rough responses to Anna’s conduct shows one of the darkest sides of the Russian aristocracy. “The greater number of the young women, who envied Anna and had long been weary of hearing her called virtuous, rejoiced at the fulfillment of their predictions, and were only waiting for a decisive turn in public opinion to fall upon her with all the weight of their scorn. They were already making ready their handfuls of mud to fling at her when the right moment arrived. The greater number of the middle-aged people and certain great personages were displeased at the prospect of the impending scandal in society.”

Anna and Vronsky are not the only important characters in the novel. Anna’s brother Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky (Stiva) and his friend Konstantin Levin, who later becomes his brother-in-law, also have great significances. They embodies two very different personalities exhibiting the contrast between the two styles in the old aristocracy in Russia at the time.

Oblonsky is a well regarded government official but at the same time becomes very irresponsible with his financial situation continuing to borrow money to maintain a high living standard. While he indulges himself with fancy dinners, his family are struggling and have to endure the inconveniences with their summer country house which is in dire need of visible repairs. On top of this, he is also an unfaithful husband and caused social humiliation on his family.

As a contrast, Levin is a character that represents Tolstoy values and ideas. He enjoys a straightforward austere life in the country coexisting with the peasants. Being a member of the aristocracy that owns land, he decides to stay far from what he considers a frivolous city life. Levin is also intellectually engaged, writing a book on agriculture with the particular problems the peasants and land owners face in Russia. He is an idealist that dreams of a non-violent revolution among the following lines. “This is not a matter of myself individually; the question of the public welfare comes into it. The whole system of culture, the chief element in the condition of the people, must be completely transformed. Instead of poverty, general prosperity, and content; instead of hostility, harmony and unity of interests. In short, a bloodless revolution, but a revolution of the greatest magnitude, beginning in the little circle of our district, then the province, then Russia, the whole world.”

The clash of personalities between the two characters is described in different chapters of the novel, particularly when Arkadyevitch, facing bankruptcy, decided to sell a forest without consulting his friend Levin, who knows the buyer and the price of the land is baffled when Oblonsky mention the terms of the operation “’Then you’ve as good as given away your forest for nothing,’ said Levin gloomily.” Surprised Stepan Arkadyevitch reply, “How do you mean for nothing?” with a good-humored smile” and with distinct arrogant tone explicitly referring to Levin continue “Oh, these farmers!” said Stepan Arkadyevitch playfully. “Your tone of contempt for us poor townsfolk!… But when it comes to business, we do it better than anyone. I assure you I have reckoned it all out,” he said, “and the forest is fetching a very good price..”

Tolstoy also includes a minor character to mock the “nouveau-riche” aristocracy. The author introduces the pompous Vasenka Veslovsky who is invited by Arkadyevitch to visit Levin in the country, “a brilliant young gentleman in Petersburg and Moscow society. “A capital fellow, and a keen sportsman,” Stepan Arkadyevitch said, introducing him.” Levin has a different impression seeing his unexpected guest as “a quite uncongenial and superfluous person.”

Tolstoy makes a caricature of this “gentleman” when the three go hunting the next day. Pretending to be at home in the country, he uses a different outfit, appearing in a pair of expensive new boots and an exotic hat. “Vassenka Veslovsky had had no notion before that it was truly chic for a sportsman to be in tatters, but to have his shooting outfit of the best quality. He saw it now as he looked at Stepan Arkadyevitch, radiant in his rags, graceful, well-fed, and joyous, a typical Russian nobleman. And he made up his mind that next time he went shooting he would certainly adopt the same get-up.”

It is not the intention of this long note to go through the vivid descriptions of all the characters and situations encompassed in this novel. Many critical characters are not included here as are the cases of Anna’s husband whose anger and dilemmas facing his wife’s affair, and Kitty, Levin’s wife, who deals with his jealousy when newly wedded. I also did not include here Tolstoy’s brilliant accounts of an election, the discussion of the music played in a concert, the interesting conversations over some sumptuous dinners, and much more.

The idea of this review, like the others, is to encourage those readers that have not yet had the opportunity to try this masterpiece and those who, like me, read it a long time ago, to look for it in their library or to download a copy, even for free, with their iPad to enjoy it again.

Anna Karenina is a work of art that allow the readers to enjoy and learn from Tolstoy’s incisive psychological skills about the universal human conditions, independently of time and place. As a masterpiece classic, this title will be permanently available in print and eBook or any other up-to-date formats for the enjoyment of future generations.

“Living in a Time of Demagogues” a quote from 1899 novel “Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem.” Sutton Elbert Griggs (1872-1930) “If you heed my voice you shall become true patriots. If you disregard it, you will become time-serving demagogues, playing upon the passions of the people for the sake of short-lived notoriety. Such men would corral all the tigers in the forest and organize them into marauding regiments simply for the honor of being in the lead.”Sutton Elber

“…Use not the misfortunes of your people as stones of a monument erected to your name”

Excerpts From: Sutton Elbert Griggs. “Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem.” iBooks.
This material may be protected by copyright.

Check out this book on the iBooks Store:

“The Left Handed Woman” by Peter Handke. On Women’s Freedom from the Bondage of Undesirable Marriage

Screenshot 2015-01-05 18.49.21The Left-Handed Woman is probably one of Peter Handke’s best known novellas, translated into more than a dozen of languages. Two years after being published in 1978, it was made into a film that Handke adapted and directed. The film was nominated for the “Golden Palm Award” at the Cannes Film Festival and has won several prestigious prizes.

Handke was born in Carinthia, Austria in 1942. In his early years he endured painful experiences from the horrors of Nazism and World War II. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a poignant memoir was probably inspired by some ordeals from his childhood – a broken family with a drunken stepfather and a mother who committed suicide. His works tend to incorporate several aspects of the complex relationship between parents and children, a subject that is also present in The Left-Handed Woman. At the beginning of Handke’s co-written multi-award winning film Wings of Desire (co-authored with its director Wim Wenders), a homesick voice dealing with a child from Song of Childhood, his most famous poem, was used. Below I am quoting a few lines to offer you a taste of the nostalgic tone.

“When the child was a child
It walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.”

 As a multi-talented artist and one of the most recognized living German-language writers, Handke has produced dozens of books including poetry, novel, essay, memoir, translation and controversial theatre plays that he directed and acted. He was also quite active in films, writing many screenplays, particularly the adaptations of his own novels Absence and The Left-Handed Woman which he directed, as well as City of Angels directed by Bradley Siberling and Wings of Desire directed by Wim Wenders as mentioned earlier.

 Marianne, the main character in The Left-Handed Woman, is 30 years old and most of the time in the story she is only referred as “the Woman”. She is married to Bruno, who is constantly travelling as the “sales manager of the local branch of a porcelain concern well known throughout Europe”. They have one child, Stephan, a quiet and detached boy who is referred to sometimes in the novella as “the child”. They “lived in a terraced bungalow colony on the south slope of a low mountain range in western Germany, just above the fumes of a big city.

 Other relevant characters in the novella are Franziska, a close friend of the couple and the teacher of the child. Like the main character, some of the characters are also named by only a generic name to refer to their identity or profession. The Publisher is a former boss of the woman, who is “a heavyset but rather fidgety man of fifty” who dates younger women. The Father of the Woman, another character, brings into the story the Actor when he identifies him in the street and brazenly tells him that he was “not shameless enough for an actor. You want to be a personality, like the actors in those American movies, but you never risk yourself. As a result, you’re always posing.” Two additional characters with minor roles are the Chauffeur of the Publisher and the Salesgirl, a single mother with a baby.

 Handke uses a family as a microcosm to display the problems of many women in Europe, especially in Germany who suffer from dependency on domineering husbands. They live isolated in suburbs taking care of children that are often absent-minded or spoiled, and not quite close or loving.

 From the beginning of the novella one can easily spot Bruno as a selfish man that treats his wife as a docile object to fulfill his selfish needs. Handke manages to disclose this authoritarian nature when Marianne pick ups Bruno from the airport after he has been traveling for weeks. Bruno talks to her in a bossy tone and doesn’t seem to care for her opinions, “Let’s go to the hotel in town for a festive dinner. It’s too private here for my taste right now. Too—haunted. I would like you to wear your low-cut dress.” Without objecting to this command, Marianne asks him “What will you wear?” .… “Bruno: “I’ll go just as I am.” The same thing happens again at the end of the dinner, when Bruno tells her, “We’ll spend the night here. Stefan knows where we are. I left the telephone number on his bedside table.” The woman lowers her eyes while Bruno tells the waiter. “I need a room for the night,” he said. “You see, my wife and I want to sleep together right away.”

 In this sequence early in the story, Handke makes explicit the desire of Marianne’s to move away from an inconsiderate husband and to live alone with their son. Walking back home the morning after the night at the hotel, Marianne tells Bruno without warning: “I suddenly had an illumination…that you were going away, that you were leaving me. Yes, that’s it. Go away, Bruno. Leave me.”

From that moment, the story starts to focus on the Woman’s new life without a husband, including the struggle with loneliness and the need to adapt to a situation that she has created without regrets. The story unravels through descriptions of her daily routine, her relationship with the child and her encounters with the other characters.

 One day the Woman comes across her friend Franziska who asks her “Is there someone else?” She also shows concern for the well-being of her and the child’s, “What will the two of you live on? Have you thought of that?” But at the same time, Franziska is impressed by Marianne’s action and invites her to join her in a women’s group meeting. “They’ll all be so glad to have you. Right now they have a feeling that human thought is in pretty good shape but that life is elsewhere. We need someone who’s making a bit of a break with the normal way of life—in other words, who’s slightly nuts.”

One evening, the Publisher appears at Marianne’s door without previous notice to respond to her, as she has sent him a letter to let him know that she is now in a position to accept his offers to translate for him as in the past. He enters with “flowers in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other” and says, “I knew you were alone, Marianne.” With this scene, Handke seems to imply that the Publisher expects more than translation work and desires to have a “romantic” night with his new employee. Like many men, he thought divorced or separated women were in need of company, therefore, easy to seduce.

 The Actor also appears at Marianne’s door another day approaching her in a more subtle way with romantic “poetic” words, expressing his desire to have a relationship with her: “There are some galaxies so distant that their light is weaker than the mere background glow of the night sky. I would like to be somewhere else with you now.” Insistent on her decision to be alone and probably assuming that these sweet words at the end will turn out to be empty and worthless, the Woman answers, “Please don’t put me in any of your plans.”

With these two events involving Marianne’s intending lovers, Handke seems to show a certain disdain for men that try to grasp weaker women to fulfill their selfish needs either of sex or of ego. Handke further challenges all stereotypes involving this context in his modern attempt on the classic figure Don Juan: His Own Version (published in English in 2011). Handke’s Don Juan travels through different countries and gets in bed with many women, yet he is not a simple seducer. “His power over women is of a different order, and he does not revel in it; on the contrary, it makes him shy. His look … reveals to them the “outrage” of their solitude and sets free their desire, which he then feels duty-bound to fulfil”.

 However, in The Left-Handed Woman, male characters are different from Handke’s “Don Juan”. Marianne is not necessarily a feminist nor does she dislike men, but prefers to keep them at a distance. Clearly she chooses solitude rather than having another authoritarian boyfriend like her husband or a fling with an idealist romantic man who might flicker and fade. Marianne, “..looked into her eyes and said, ‘You haven’t given yourself away. And no one will ever humiliate you again.””

 The title The Left-handed Woman is taken from a song to which Marianne listens alone “over and over again”. The lyrics make reference to a woman like Marianne, who sits “with others in a Laudromat,”; comes “out of with others from the metro exit” or “from an office building”. The tune continues as if mirroring Marianne’s isolated daily life: “She sat with others on the edge of a playground, But once I saw her through a window Playing chess all alone”. The song ends telling the left-handed woman: “I want to see you in a foreign continent, For there at last I shall see you alone among others, And among a thousand others you will see me, And at last we shall go to meet each other.”



 1). iBook: Peter Handke. “Left Handed Women.” iBooks.

Originally published in German under the title Die linkshändige Frau, ©1976 by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main”. English translation “Published simultaneously in the USA and Canada in 1997 by McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., Toronto”

 2.) Joel Agee. Man of Constant Sorrow, New York Times, February 12, 2010. Link:

3) Peter Handke. Don Juan: His Own Version, Translated by Krishna Winston, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011.

“On Reading” by Marcel Proust: The Power of Books (Preface to John Ruskin’s “Sesame and Lilies”)


Proust_On_Reading  The taste for books seems to grow as intelligence grows. Marcel Proust

 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 playas 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.

 Excerpt From: Umberto Eco. “The Name of the Rose.iBooks. 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).

Walker Percy’s “Lancelot”: a Philosophical Novel

Screenshot 2014-07-04 11.01.59Lancelot 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 revelationconveys 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.  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

Rainer Maria Rilke: “Letters to a Young Poet”, an astonishing wealth of ideas on love

RilkeLetter_Poet Rilke Letters to CezaneLetters 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 “ 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:

= Excerpt From: Rainer Maria Rilke. “Letters on Cézanne.” North Point Edition: iBooks.