Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus translated by Robert Fagles

You can run, but you can’t hide

Orestes, exiled from Mykonos since his mother slaughtered his father and took up with his father’s cousin, is tasked by Apollo to kill the unnatural woman who has attacked the very seat of family and social authority. However, as Orestes well understands, the murder of one's mother violates the most basic human instinct and is everywhere regarded as taboo. On his return to Mykonos, Orestes leaves a lock of his hair at his father’s grave, hiding at the sounds of his sister Electra's approach with a retinue of once noble slaves. They bear libations to sooth Agamemnon’s soul, as apparently, years after her crime, Clytaemnestra feels the pangs of guilt. Electra recognizes the lock of hair, reunites with her brother and they sing a song of vengeance over the grave. Orestes disguises himself, kills the usurper, then after some back and forth, leads his mother offstage to kill her. He then displays to the chorus the bodies as well as the net the murderers used to entrap and kill his father. However, immediately afterwards Orestes is hounded by invisible Furies, outraged at this killing of a blood relative, a mother no less, and he takes off, stage left.

Once again the imagery is amazing and fresh, the conflict crystal clear and never sidetracked. The blatant theatricality felt very modern to me, maybe even very Broadway. These plays feel elemental to me, the human soul stripped down to its essence. Humanity crushed by society. Orestes has an impossible task -- torn between his sacred duty of obtaining vengeance for his murdered father and protecting his murderous mother. Such is life with no organized system of justice. I’ve been watching the Peter Hall productions on You Tube and I am learning how much of acting is in the body, not the face; in the voice, and not the eyes.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Agamemnon by Aeschylus; translated by Robert Fagles

A seething queen lies in wait to kill the king

For ten years, Clytaemnestra has been anticipating her husband’s return from the Trojan War.  Outwardly rejoicing at his arrival, inwardly she murderously resents his decision to sacrifice their daughter Iphigenia at the war's outset, in order to propitiate the goddess Artemis and summon the winds to blow the Greek fleet to Troy.  To make things worse, Agamemnon has brought back a present for himself, one of the spoils of Troy, Priam’s daughter, Apollo’s priestess, Cassandra the prophet.  Clytaemnestra honors her husband by laying down precious crimson tapestries for him to tread upon as he enters the house.  At first the King demurs, then acquiesces to the presumptuous idea.  Cassandra, dressed as a priestess of Apollo, refuses to speak.  The Queen enters the house, then Cassandra has a prophetic vision of death, her death, Agamemnon’s death, and all the previous deaths that have occurred in the house of Atreus.  She rips off her priestly garments, curses Apollo and goes inside.  The door to the house opens, revealing a ghastly scene.  Meanwhile, a chorus of old men comment on the action.

This was amazingly good, so profound, so angry at the evil in the world, and studded with amazing imagery.  The play is about war and the legacy of war.  There is also a strong feminist streak.  Clytaemnestra has had enough – she is going to overthrow the patriarchy.  The Athenian audience would contrast her with Penelope – one gone half mad with vindictive hatred and the other with hopeful loyalty.  The truths this 2,500 year old play tells about war and human nature are the same truths today.  The joy of the warrior at returning home; the resentment of the women at being pawns.  Women bear the brunt of the brutality.

The poetry is excellent, written by a soldier writing about war. One of the first images is the truly terrifying one of a gagged Iphigenia hoisted up like a goat to be slaughtered.  The echoes in the plot and the imagery are found in the framing story of the House of Atreus – the child murders.  The play is riddled with net and yoke images, of people trapped by fate and their own choices.  The King walks on the tapestries, the Queen stabs him to death.  The violence at home echoes the violence at Troy.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson

A woman’s fortunate escape from a murderous ex-boyfriend colors the rest of her life

Lacy, a 19 year old college student, after a conservative childhood and a somewhat wild adolescence, begins a lengthy affair with her 38 year old Spanish instructor.  They move in together, he takes her to Europe, he educates her.  However, he is controlling and when he gets physical one too many times she leaves, returning with her father and a policeman to help reclaim her belongings.  That doesn’t sit well, and soon afterwards, the boyfriend meets her on the street, requesting a ride.  She agrees, but then he holds a stun gun to her neck, blindfolds her, brings her to a sound proof room, strips her, rapes her, then chains her naked to a chair.  Severely underestimating her persistence, however, he leaves the apartment (to get an alibi, he says), and she breaks her bonds and escapes to the police station.  Afterwards, he runs to Venezuela, where he cannot be extradited, although he does find time to send periodic emails asking her to drop the charges.  Most of the memoir concerns her attempt to create a normal life on “the other side.”

This memoir fell between two stools, I think, not really succeeding as a purely prurient thriller, (since there were too many momentum sapping chunks of “theory”) and then not really being a successful launch pad for deeper more philosophical musings on such subjects as power dynamics, family history and feminism. Although the book succeeded as a treatise on memory – for me that was almost the most interesting part of the book.  I learned a lot.  I disliked the labeling of each character: “The Older Sister”, “The Younger Sister”, “The Man I Used to Live With.”  Her description of her mother rang a little false to me – the reader infers Lacy had been a handful, but I didn’t really feel/understand that from the narrative.  Overall, the memoir reminded me of Room, which also had a prurient hook, but then played with concepts such as language and myth as well as displaying high technical writing skills.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

An ex-model reflects on her wild ride of a life and her relationship with an older woman who resists society’s conforming rules

Pretty Alison escapes her suburban New Jersey existence and becomes a top model in Paris, the mistress of a powerful man, enjoying all the decadent perquisites of the position.  Her hubris destroys that situation and she soon finds herself back in New Jersey, attending community college with her little sister.  At a temp job, she meets Veronica, the outspoken somewhat pitiful older woman who will not act the meek part she is expected to play.  Then Veronica gets AIDS. Alison pities her and tries to help though most of the time condescends.  Once again Alison leaves the family home for a shot at modeling, this time also successful, but also this time fraught with drug and sexual abuse. Finally, disabled, on the West Coast, her beautiful face ruined, she takes a charity job cleaning an office.

I really admired this novel.  For its ambitious structure, its top notch writing and its wrestling with messy subjects such as forgiveness and ambition. the work is ingeniously structured, opening and closing with a fairy tale, alternating between Alison’s current humble life, her memories of Paris, the story of her working class family, and her time with Veronica, how infuriating and fascinating Veronica could be.  The reality was that Veronica was a pitiful cat lady with AIDS, yet she acted like a queen.  The title of the book says Veronica, but the story is really about Alison’s journey from beautiful yet selfish young woman to her fall as a cleaning lady with a messed up face, hepatitis and yet a deep love for nature and appreciation for life. 

The writing, its technical virtuosity, is so beautiful, the book got painful at times to read.  The voice is beautiful when it uses plain words and beautiful when it’s using fancy words and fancy constructions.  This book needs to be savored, not blown through.  Although at times it dips into slightly precious overwriting, in which I became too conscious of the style and forgot the story.  And the story is Alison searching for some sort of meaning in the painful vicissitudes of life.  And how love seems to redeem the pain.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Solaris by Stanislaus Lem

A confrontation with the alien means a confrontation with oneself

Kris Kelvin, research scientist, is dispatched to Solaris, a distant planet, to work on an orbiting space station. The second he lands, he understands something is dreadfully wrong. Dr. Gilbarian, his contact, has committed suicide, and the two remaining scientists are tight lipped about the circumstances. In addition, the space station is wracked with strange noises and apparent apparitions although these apparitions also seem quite fleshy and insistent. Humans have been studying Solaris for decades – a planet with two suns, covered by a strange oily sea. This sea creates giant imitations of the scientific equipment – gigantic facsimiles rising from the sea like flakey icebergs.  After several months or years, these structures collapse back into the waves. But now the scientists have bombarded the intelligent ocean with x-rays, and the facsimiles, the encystments, Lem calls them, that are now produced are human forms with human memories, emerging from the deepest part of the scientists’ subconscious. These forms, however, lack calluses on their feet, must stay in sight of their “beloved” at all times, and cannot, no matter how hard they try, die.

What I liked about this novel is that it began like a total Buck Rogers adventure, highly technical and highly boring. I thought about giving up, then the story got suddenly deep and good. The novel went off in two directions - a tender exploration of domestic love and highly cerebral musings about the nature of intelligence, the nature of individuality. The novel starts riffing on scientific language, and on sensuously written descriptions of Solaris’s two suns, and the ever present rolling oily sea, whose mimicking waves are muscular and insistent. The humans cannot figure Solaris out and that fact drives them crazy. They study and study the liquid patterns. What they end up really needing to understand is not the alien planet, but themselves. This was an amazing creation of the imagination.