Sunday, July 20, 2014

Lawrence of Arabia: man & myth

Anyone wanting to explore how the Middle East got where it is today would be well served by reading Scott Anderson's prizewinning Lawrence in Arabia (subtitled “War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East”). Most people have a passing acquaintance with T.E. Lawrence through David Lean's spectacular film, but Anderson drills down to portray the man and his mission in myriad engrossing ways. “Anderson does not filter the tricky history of a crucially important era through any individual’s perspective” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times. “Nor does he see Lawrence as the only schemer trying to manipulate Arab destiny; this book has an assortment of principal players, only one of whom managed to become so famous. As to why such acclaim elevated one renegade Briton and his feat of creating a guerrilla Bedouin army, Mr. Anderson writes that the short answer may seem anticlimactic. His reason: 'This was a time when the seed was planted for the Arab world 'to define itself less by what it aspires to become than what it is opposed to: colonialism, Zionism, Western imperialism in its many forms.'
Clarity was hard to find, and so, after such wanton loss of life, were victors. But heroes were needed, and here was a shoo-in. According to the book, 'Lawrence was able to become ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ because no one was paying much attention.'
That does not make Mr. Anderson’s account a debunking. For those already fascinated by Lawrence’s exploits and familiar with his written accounts of them, Mr. Anderson’s thoughtful, big-picture version only enriches the story it tells. 'Lawrence in Arabia' emphasizes the Gordian difficulties facing any strategist from any of the numerous contingents involved either in fighting for Arab freedom from the Ottoman Empire or looking to carve up Arab land once the fighting was over.”
Oxford-educated archaeologist-turned-British-army-officer T.E. Lawrence immersed himself in the culture of Bedouin tribes in the Arabian Peninsula, eventually playing a crucial role in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I.
A  key spur to Lawrence's enduring fame were the images of him promulgated by filmmaker Lowell Thomas. With the permission of General Sir Edmund Allenby, Thomas spent several weeks filming Lawrence and capturing local color (e.g., veiled women, Arabs in picturesque robes, camels, and Bedouin cavalry). He first ran the footage at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and it proved so successful that the King asked him to bring it to England. The program opened to huge acclaim at Covent Garden on 14 August 1919, with hundreds of subsequent showings/lectures being attended by a Who's Who of society.

As a youth, Lawrence used to starve himself and undergo other privations to test his mettle. (That iron self-control undoubtedly came in handy later in life.) Other interesting facts about him are that he was relatively short (5' 5"), that he lost two brothers in World War I, that he refused a knighthood from King George V (believing the English had betrayed the Arabs by denying them independence), and that despite having attained the rank of Colonel, he later enlisted as a private in the Royal Tank Corps under an assumed name.
Read an excerpt from Lawrence in Arabia below.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Saki: A peerless writer mown down by the scythe of war

One of my favorite book critics, Michael Dirda, recently marked an anniversary re British writer Hector Hugh Munro (1870–1916), known more widely by his pen name Saki. "As it happens," Dirda wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "this is the centennial of Saki's finest single collection, Beasts and Super-Beasts."
It was the last book that this wittiest of Edwardian writers saw into print, since he soon after enlisted as an infantry soldier in World War I, even though he was already in his early 40s. Saki was eventually killed in action at Beaumont-Hamel, France, in 1916, shot in the head. His last words were reportedly "Put out that bloody cigarette!" ….
Along with Ronald Firbank, Saki set the tone—outrageous and epigrammatic—for the English school of comic fiction (and drama) that runs from Evelyn Waugh and Noël Coward to Ivy Compton-Burnett and Roald Dahl. Saki's own light-hearted contes cruels elegantly depict practical jokes gone wrong, childhood savagery, the inanities of country-house life or kindly, beneficent nature unexpectedly turning deadly, and yet they remain as fizzily delicious as a Pimm's cup on a summer's day. Now, of course, these tales of languid aesthetes named Reginald, Clovis or Egbert also seem more or less camp, suitable for illustration by Edward Gorey and suffused with ever-fresh cynicism: "The Government of the day, which from its tendency to be a few hours behind the course of events had been nicknamed the Government of the afternoon.…"
It is just this airy suavity, tinged with maliciousness and melancholy, that makes "Beasts and Super-Beasts" so endlessly rereadable. In "The Schartz-Metterklume Method" the wickedly mischievous Lady Carlotta is mistaken for the new governess expected by Mr. and Mrs. Quabarl. For a lark, she quickly pretends to be Miss Hope and, when queried how she will interest her young charges in the past, replies loftily, "I teach history on the Schartz-Metterklume method." She begins her instruction, deplorably, hilariously, with a most inappropriate episode from the annals of early Rome.
In "The Lumber Room" Saki takes up a favorite theme—poetic justice—by relating how young Nicholas revenges himself on an aunt of quite exceptional heartlessness. "It was her habit, whenever one of the children fell from grace, to improvise something of a festival nature from which the offender would be rigorously debarred; if all the children sinned collectively they were suddenly informed of a circus in a neighboring town, a circus of unrivaled merit and uncounted elephants, to which, but for their depravity, they would have been taken that very day." Isn't that a marvelous sentence? Still, Nicholas's vengeance isn't quite so bloodthirsty as that of Conradin in Saki's famously horrific "Sredni Vashtar," found in "The Chronicles of Clovis" (1911).
Sadly, we're sold out of the Edward Gorey–illustrated Saki stories from the New York Review of Books. BUT there's a Saki story in Mystery & Suspense: Short Stories by Great Writers, one of the "Worth Pocket Companion" series that also includes crime, romance, and travel volumes. And I ran "Reginald at the Claremont" in a previous blog.
The drawing of Munro in uniform by David Levine originally appeared in the October 8, 1981 issue of the New York Review of Books with the article "A Genius for Revenge." The Gorey illustration for "Sredni Vashtar" appears in the NYRB classics edition of Saki's stories.
Explore myriad facets of The Great War in our special commemorative Forum. ~Test your knowledge in one of our quizzes and get discounts on an array of award-winning titles!~

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Breathtaking illustrations for Lord of the Rings; Game of Thrones goes to school; Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast'

The illustrations by Ukrainian artist Sergei Iukhimov for The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien are astounding.
"Lo! lords and knights and men of valour unashamed, kings and princes, and fair people of Gondor, and Riders of Rohan, and ye sons of Elrond, and Dunedain of the North, and Elf and Dwarf, and greathearts of the Shire, and all free folk of the West, now listen to my lay. For I will sing to you of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom."
Gandalf and the hosts of the West meet the Mouth of Sauron; who displays Sam's sword and the mithril shirt before the northern gates of Mordor.
Boromir, pierced by many arrows.
Gandalf, arriving in Hobbiton with a load of fireworks.
I don't know what's happening in this picture ... can anyone help? Below, Tolkien reads from The Two Towers, the second book of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Students at the University of Virginia can assuage their Game of Thrones withdrawal at having to wait until 2015 for the resumption of HBO's hit series by taking a cross-disciplinary summer course called "Winter Is Coming." Taught by Lisa Woolfork, it's a seminar that encompasses both the first three books of the blockbuster fantasy series and the first three seasons of the show:
“One of the goals behind this class was to teach students how the skills that we use to study literature are very useful skills for reading literature and TV in conjunction,” Woolfork, an associate professor of English, said. “‘Game of Thrones’ is popular, it’s interesting, but it’s also very serious. There are a lot of things in the series that are very weighty, and very meaningful, and can be illuminated through the skills of literary analysis.”
I've read Book 1 of GOT and would call it exceedingly imaginative and gripping, but not particularly literary. I much prefer seeing it come to life with the astounding cast and production values of the HBO series. What do you think? The class does sound like fun, however.
While we're on the topic of fantasy titles, I'd like to put in a plug for Titus Awakes: The Lost Book of Gormenghast, which most assuredly IS literary. I read Mervyn Peake's original trilogy in a course in college and have never forgotten how enthralled I was by it. Below, Alfred and Irma Prunesquallor from Peake's novel Gormenghast, illustrated by the author (right).

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Soldier Poets of World War I: Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy

What would cause decorated British officer Siegfried Sassoon (left) to throw his Military Cross for valor into the English Channel and to pen a scathing declaration condemning the leaders who perpetuated the "Great War"? These are some of the questions pioneering psychiatrist William Rivers grapples with as he treats various  soldiers—including poets Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (left/right)—for shell shock at the Craiglockhart war hospital near Edinburgh. All of the above (as well as poet Robert Graves) are real-life characters in Pat Barker’s award-winning Regeneration Trilogy.
Barker was led to the subject of shell shock/"neurasthenia" (a.k.a. post-traumatic stress disorder) by her husband, a neurologist familiar with Rivers.
The doctor encourages Sassoon and Owen to express their roiling emotions—including despair and bitterness—in verse, and the results form much of their poetic legacy. Rivers' approach was surprisingly ahead of its time. He believed that lingering reactions to war experiences were due not to the experience itself but to the attempt to suppress distressing memories from the mind. He encouraged his patients to remember what they had been through, instead of trying to forget.
Wilfred Owen's best-known poems, “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est,” were written at Craiglockhart. Owen returned to the front in September 1918 and was awarded the Military Cross a month later. Sadly, he was killed by a German machine-gunner seven days before the Armistice. He was just 25 years old.
Dulce et decorum est
“Sweet and fitting it is, to die for one's country”
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!~An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. ~
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, ~
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
"Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen, with suggested revisions by Siegfried Sassoon.
Sassoon was not suffering from shell shock per se but was being quarantined for publishing "A Soldier's Declaration." Written June 15, 1917 and read before the House of Commons on July 30, it was printed in The London Times on July 31  (the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele). Here is the text:
I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe this War, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible for them to be changed without our knowledge, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.
I am not protesting against the military conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them. Also I believe that it may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those as home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.
[Portrait of Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge]
Owen, Sassoon, and fellow poet Robert Graves (above left) were members of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front, and what they experienced revealed the utter futility and horror of war. All three writers are commemorated, along with 13 other “war poets,” at Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.
The New York Times observed how well Pat Barker was able to make the personas of these men come alive in her trilogy:
Ms. Barker makes the conversations between her poets and the doctors at the hospital sound absolutely authentic. We are aware that she is inventing dialogue for her characters, but it is informed invention. If this isn't how they actually spoke, then it's surely how they might have: with wit, irony and understated seriousness…. In the course of the novel, it is Dr. Rivers who becomes disillusioned. As a doctor in uniform whose job is to rehabilitate the scarred officers and return them to battle, he too is conflicted by a sense of duty. Can there be compromise between medical conscience and military responsibility? That is one of the underlying ideas in "Regeneration." Ms. Barker takes a bold risk by shifting the point of view to the doctor rather than to the heroic young poets, but it's what makes her novel so unusual. "Regeneration" includes cameo appearances or references to other historical personalities, including H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell and Ottoline Morrell. Seamlessly, the author works in several poems by Owen and Sassoon as part of the story of their rehabilitation. 
"The General" by Siegfried Sassoon
Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said 
When we met him last week on our way to the line. 
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead, 
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine. 
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Robert Graves gave this copy of his wartime poem "When I’m Killed" to Sassoon.
When I’m killed, don’t think of me
Buried there in Cambrin Wood,
Nor as in Zion think of me
With the Intolerable Good.
And there’s one thing that I know well,
I’m damned if I’ll be damned to Hell!

So when I’m killed, don’t wait for me,
Walking the dim corridor;
In Heaven or Hell, don’t wait for me,
Or you must wait for evermore.
You’ll find me buried, living-dead
In these verses that you’ve read.

So when I’m killed, don’t mourn for me,
Shot, poor lad, so bold and young,
Killed and gone — don’t mourn for me.
On your lips my life is hung:
O friends and lovers, you can save
Your playfellow from the grave.
(The Berg Collection, New York Public Library / The Robert Graves Copyright Trust)

Friday, July 11, 2014

The joy of vintage LP covers!

As an incorrigible lover of both vintage illustration and vinyl, I thought I was in the midst of a heavenly dream when I came across the site lpcoverlover.com.
Their myriad categories run the gamut, from beatniks, blaxploitation, and bachelor pad to cheesecake, Christmas, and classical to girl groups, Latin loco, and monsters, to psychedelia, soul, robots, "incredibly strange," and more. Two fascinating tangents are the seemingly endless photographic categories "chicks with guitars" and "chicks dig records." And the "nude" lp cover collection indicates the well-known fact that using naked women helps sell your stuff—especially if it's trash to begin with!
Here are a few samples to whet your interest, beginning with two-fisted drinker Lester Young. And happy browsing!
Both of the wonderful covers below drew on the talents of one Andy Warhol.
Who can forget the cover R. Crumb did for Janis Joplin's first LP?
Here are a few candidates for the bad taste award:
Really?? I know that "Golliwog's Cakewalk" was based on a doll, but this hideous apparition is nothing like an actual golliwog doll. Let's clear our palate with alternative childhood imagery.

And now let's turn to those aforementioned women with their record players, beginning with the great Billie Holiday spinning some platters. The film industry is well represented also, with the ensuing shots of Lauren Bacall, Brigitte Bardot, Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe.
Here are a few pulpy illustrations I just love and a sample from the "chicks with guitars" genre:
You know what would really be cool right now? A bit of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On"!
A hint of "rebel without a cause" always goes down well, n'est-ce pas?
That's all for now — gotta go frame a few more LP covers (and listen to Twenty Feet From Stardom and The Secret Sisters)!