Sunday, February 26, 2017

Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus

King Eteocles must defend the seven gates of Thebes

The two sons of tragic Oedipus agree to share the kingdom of Thebes.  Eteocles takes power, but then refuses to give it up to his brother Polynices.  Polynices raises an army, featuring seven brave heros, including himself.  After analyzing each attacker’s shield, Eteocles assigns an appropriate Theben defender.  The final attacker is Polynices -- Eteocles goes to fight him himself and each brother kills the other.

This is a drama that is not so very dramatic, but I liked it.  It’s more like a philosophical logical musing, a story that, like Song of Roland, comes from a time before television and novels, when people were entertained by the lengthy descriptions of valiant warriors.  Eteocles describes each of the attackers and assigns a complementary defender.  It reminded me of a children’s card game, or of Tarot, in which the strengths and weaknesses of each card are analyzed.  The best one was the warrior with the blank shield.  He could be anything you wanted him to be.  You would have to do something really interesting for the staging, however, to keep the audience engaged.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Things That Are by Amy Leach

Glimpses of the natural world

This book is composed of miniature essays, typically only three or four pages long.  The book is also divided into two sections, Things of the Earth and Things of Heaven.  Written in a highly imaginative style, the writer takes great joy in categorizing different things on heaven and earth.  Unfortunately, I was not a fan of the writing style and had to bail after seventy pages or so.  The prose seemed highly precious and grated on me, though I admired the ambition and I admired the quirky determination.  I actually think these pieces may be more like poems, savored one at a time, rather than read like in a normal book.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

An old man desires peace and quiet

King Oedipus, an outcast tormented by fate, wanders Greece, impoverished, old, blind, accompanied only by his loyal young daughter Antigone.  He seeks shelter on holy ground in Colonus, soon learning that an oracle has informed Thebes that he must return so the city can avert a dreadful fate.  Creon, the new King of Thebes, arrives in Colonus, to force Oedipus home. Theseus, King of Athens, stops them, allowing Oedipus to be swallowed up by the ground and enter Hades in peace.

This is a retelling of a myth, but also a meditation on the indignities of old age.  Supposedly Sophocles was 90 when he wrote this and the play is full of lyrical outbursts on life, old age and family loyalty.  In the end, Oedipus finds redemption, after severe punishment.  He tried to run from his fate, but couldn’t.  At the end, all he can do is accept it.  I love the way these ancient plays grapple with life and death.

The reader cannot think too much about the relative ages of Antigone and Oedipus.  How can a 99 year old man have a 16 year old sister?  By the same mother?


Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien

A charismatic war criminal hides in a little Irish village, unmooring a local woman

One day silver-haired brooding Dr. Vlad arrives to the village of Cloonoila.  He is a healer who gives erotic massages, scandalizing the local farmers.  An infertile woman, Fidelma, who owns the failing dress shop, is fascinated and goes to him for treatment.  In a crazy wonderful scene at an old hotel, he realigns her chakras and impregnates her.  However, Dr. Vlad is soon arrested as a war criminal, a pitiless general who oversaw the massacre of civilians in Bosnia.  His associates take revenge on Fidelma, and disgraced and traumatized, she moves to London, to live in the lowest caste of society, with the refugees.  The conclusion of the book finds her attending Dr. Vlad’s trial at The Hague.

I really enjoyed this book.  The rhythms of the sentences were simply beautiful, very often ending on a comic twist. The novel depicts, as so many of O’Brien’s previous novels have depicted, the residents of the Irish countryside, and then, in a stroke of genius, the story moves from the from the parochial confines of the village where everyone who is pretty much the same, to the uncaring streets of cosmopolitan London.  The nitty gritty of being penniless.  The fear and the homelessness.  Fidelma must put herself back together among refugees from many different cultures, no longer the affluent wife, but an alien scrubbing toilets and feeding dogs.

The title refers to an artistic exhibit that commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo – 11,541 red chairs were set on the main street of Sarajevo to represent each citizen killed in the siege.  Six hundred and forty three red chairs were small and represented children.  The deaths of the children are never referred to or depicted in the book, apart from the sole paragraph on page one. 

The refugee women Fidelma encounters in London have some amazing narratives.  It shows how little you need of a plodding plot.  If only one third of the bridge is built, the reader can still get to the other side.  Edna O’Brien is a master writer.  It’s hard to believe she is 85 years old.  An amazing work.