Monday, March 19, 2018

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov (Sarah Ruhl edition)

“Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.”

So wrote Anton Chekhov, considered to be one of the founders of Modernism in theater. He practiced as a medical doctor for most of his life, but managed in his spare time to turn out some of the best regarded short stories and plays of his - or any - era.

My first Chekhov was his early play, Ivanov. Later, I saw The Cherry Orchard at CSUB. (Unfortunately, I didn’t blog about it at the time.) While Ivanov felt a bit like a first effort (which it was), the later four plays are masterpieces. (That group also includes The Seagull and Uncle Vanya.) The themes are clearer, and the drama seems more focused. Because Chekhov was an early Modernist, the language of his characters sound more like real vernacular (unlike, say, Shakespeare.) However, depending on the translation, this characteristic tends to get lost.

In this case, The Empty Space used a new translation/adaptation by Sarah Ruhl. It is considered an adaptation because Ruhl is (by her own admission) not fluent enough in Russian to do a real translation. However, she worked with several individuals who assisted in ascertaining the meaning of the original text and converting it to an English idiom. The intent was to render Chekhov’s words both fairly literally and yet also in a modern English vernacular. Oh, and also to restore some of the stuff taken out by Victorian Era censors.

Personally, I loved what Ruhl did with the story. It flowed well, even as there were so many lines that just screamed “Russian Literature!” in a familiar way. Although I haven’t read this one in another translation, I did run through some synopses of the plot, and it wasn’t a “retelling” in the way movies often are. It was true to the original in the letter and spirit.

I highly recommend reading Ruhl’s notes on how she approached the new version. She includes the first scene in that link, so you can get an idea of her language.

Three Sisters is a simple enough story, without much in the way of surprises. The drama is internal: what goes on in the minds of the characters. And, what is the meaning of life? That is a central concern of Chekhov’s, and his is a pretty pessimistic vision. (My middle daughter, who is pretty macabre, said, “well that was depressing” afterward.)

The three sisters are Olga, Masha, and Irina. Their father died a year before the play opens, leaving them and their brother Andrei living on the family property in a provincial Russian town. (Population, around 100,000, as it turns out.) This is in stark contrast to Moscow, where they were born and spent their formative years. The sisters all want to get back to Moscow, which they see as everything their current circumstances aren’t: sophisticated, adventuresome, and full of opportunity.

However, circumstances get in the way. Andrei falls in love with the lower-class Natalya (Natasha) and marries her, but the marriage goes sour. Natasha openly cheats on Andrei and abuses the servants. She manipulates and bullies the sisters. Andrei, for his part, escapes through gambling, which leads to him mortgaging the property and thus preventing the sisters from selling it and moving back to Moscow.

Olga works as a school teacher, but hates the job. However, the need to make a living means she has to stay on. She regrets not marrying when she had the chance.

Masha has married a teacher, but the bloom has come off that rose as well. He isn’t particularly smart or good looking, and she is bored. He is a good man, however, and one of the truly sympathetic characters in the play.

Irina starts the play with optimism, but this is eventually beaten out of her by life. She works first as a switchboard operator and later as a clerk for the city counsel.

The only bright side of their lives is the presence of a regiment of soldiers, who themselves represent the intellectual stimulation of outsiders from the great world beyond.

Masha is swept off her feet by the commander, Vershinin, who is married to a mentally ill woman. They have an affair which makes Masha happy for a time, but she is heartbroken when the soldiers are deployed elsewhere.

Irina becomes engaged to Baron Tuzenbach, who she does not love, in large part because he represents a ticket out of her boring life.

There are some fascinating themes in this play. The first is the idea of “Moscow.” As I noted above, Moscow isn’t so much a literal place as the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of the sisters. It is the glorious Utopia that awaits them, if they only can managed to find a way there. We all have our “Moscow” in some way, though. Sometimes it is more literal than others, but we all have some idea of a move, a change, a growth, that will make things better.

One thing that particularly hit home was a line (and I can’t give you direct quotes) to the effect that “there are 100,000 people here, but they are all alike.” This goes with Andrei’s lament that when he was in Moscow, he didn’t know anyone, but felt like he belonged; whereas in the (unnamed) town, he knows everyone but feels desperately alone. Irina feels that she is becoming stupider the longer she stays. She used to be fluent in multiple languages, but she is losing her skill with nobody to talk to.

I can kind of sympathize. It has been a rough couple of years to live in Bakersfield. We are, as many have pointed out, the “Texas of California,” with a low average education level, high poverty, and, well, a lot of people with Truck Nutz and Confederate Battle Flags as their aesthetic. But this is an oversimplification. We also have a vibrant arts, music, and theater community, and plenty who are not dragging their knuckles and panting after an orange sociopath. I guess it was a bit ironic to be reminded of the frustrations of living in Bakersfield...while attending an outstanding dramatical production along with several friends who are intelligent, well informed, and thoroughly decent people.

That is the problem with our “Moscows.” As Vershinin notes, Moscow mostly looks attractive when you are not there. Once you actually go there, the shine comes off that too, and you are left with your former problems. Wherever you go, there you still are. Chekhov plays these two ideas off each other throughout the entire play. When we place the source of our happiness outside ourselves, we are bound to be disappointed. When we live in the past and the “if-onlys,” we will be unable to make beauty and happiness in the present.

Related to this theme is that of the future. The future is its own “Moscow.” The characters talk at length at various points in the play about the future and its meaning for those alive now. What will life be like in 200 years? Some characters think it will be glorious, while others believe that all the technology and progress won’t change what life feels like - it will be largely the same. In 200 years, will anyone remember us? Probably not, at least for most of us. I know a little about my ancestors on one branch that far back. Which is cool, but I don’t know them in any real sense. They are history, not memory. On the other hand, what will history do with the collective “we”? Will we be remembered with contempt, or with admiration? Chekhov makes both arguments. Will we end up making life better for our descendants? Or worse? (It’s early, but there are good signs that the Baby Boomers are not going to be remembered fondly…)

And then, the ultimate question: what is the point of all this suffering and unhappiness? Will we ever know? In fact, the play ends with this question, with the sisters begging the fates, as it were, to reveal these secrets.

As usual, The Empty Space put on an outstanding production. I have commended them time and again for their commitment to their particular approach to the theater: intimate space, low budgets and correspondingly affordable tickets, high artistic values, and a broad range of repertoire.

The three sisters were excellently cast. Cody Ganger is the daughter of long-time (and now retired) BC professor Randy Messick (also in this play as the drunken doctor, Chebutykin), and has been a favorite actor of mine for a number of years. Of particular note was the chemistry she showed as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew with her husband Kevin, which made a rather sexist play seem more like a tongue-in-cheek inside joke between lovers. Ganger directed Three Sisters, and was thrust into the role of Olga after the original lead had to back out. I was not disappointed with Ganger, who brought a pathos and gravity to the role of the oldest sister - the one who has always held everything together. 

 Olga (Cody Ganger), Irina (Brittany Beaver), and Masha (Mariah Jordan)

I don’t remember seeing Mariah Jordan in anything before, but she has appeared in a few I haven’t seen locally. As the middle sister, Masha, she was outstanding. There was real electricity in her scenes, particularly her passionate romance with Vershinin - very uncomfortable chemistry, both because this is an adulterous relationship, and because Rikk Cheshire is significantly older than her. I will be adding Jordan to my list of local actors I wish to watch. I am also pleased to see she teaches locally. That so many local thespians are passing their craft on to a new generation does my heart good.

As the younger sister, Brittany Beaver was one of the younger cast members. She is just a college student at this point, but she is showing definite signs of growth as an actor. I last saw her in Of Mice and Men, and she was competent, but a bit green. This part gave her a wider emotional range to play, and I thought she did quite well. And, more than anything, the three sisters had outstanding chemistry - the sisterhood was thoroughly believable. 

 Dr. Chebutykin (Randy Messick)

There were a number of the “the usual suspects” in this play, from Ryan Lee as a brooding Solyony, Carlos Vera in yet another small part (and playing piano!), Randy Messick looking good at whatever he does, Carolyn Fox filling in with another small part, Nolan Long as the frustrated and weak Andrei, and Shelbe McClain as the insecure and vindictive Natasha. (Last seen in BC’s Hamlet, McClain is best suited to small venues - her voice isn’t big enough to fill the outdoors, but she is compelling up close.) 

 Natasha (Shelbe McClain) and Andrei (Nolan Long)

I had met Rikk Cheshire at an unrelated event several years ago, and found out later that friends had been in productions with him years ago. I hadn’t seen him before, but he was solid in his role, which was awkward on several levels. 

 Vershinin (Rikk Cheshire) and Masha (Mariah Jordan)

Two additional roles merit specific mention. Newcomer (to the Empty Space) Matthew Prewitt really shined as Baron Tuzenbach. Although he is pretty young, and the role probably was envisioned as older, he made the Baron into a sympathetic character. In addition, he played piano AND guitar at various times - and can play while carrying on a conversation (in the play) and acting with his body. Like his character, he isn’t much to look at (in the conventional sense) - he’s shortish and waifishly thin - but compelling as an actor. I hope he gets more parts in the future. 

Baron Tuzenbach (Matthew Prewett)

The one I really want to discuss, though, is Karl Wade in the role of Kulygin, Masha’s unfortunate husband. It cannot be easy to play the role of the cuckold in any case. But to play one who is a bit of a punchline, wearing a ludicrous mustache at first, then getting grief for shaving it, has to be a tough job indeed. And also to be the cuckold who goes from being oblivious to the affair to taking your wife back with “no questions asked” - and somehow not be laughable but genuinely sympathetic and noble - that is a feat indeed. Wade is physically perfect for the role. A bit overweight, and, like me, far from a heartthrob. A bit goofy, but sincere. It was so easy to see why Masha would go for the tall, handsome (if slightly creepy) Vershinin over the mundane Kulygin. And also to realize that Kulygin doesn’t deserve this in a moral sense, yet it seems inevitable that this would happen because of who he is. That is why when he takes the devastated Masha back, you just know she won’t be happy, and that this isn’t a good marriage. And yet, Kulygin is so good and sympathetic even while being ludicrous and boring and all, that you really wish that Masha could find it in herself to love him just a little. Karl Wade deserves an award for his work in this role. 

 Vershinin (Rikk Cheshire), Masha (Mariah Jordan), and Kulygin (Karl Wade)

There are a few “characters” which affect the action, despite never appearing on stage. Vershinin’s insane wife, for example, tries to kill herself, causing Vershinin to leave abruptly. And it is clear that Natasha is leaving for a tryst with her lover, but we never see him. Likewise, except for Andrei’s younger child (who probably isn’t his), who appears only as a sleeping infant, none of the children actually appear, despite their presence in the plot.

I wish I could remember all of the marvelous lines - it really is powerful when it comes to the philosophy, and the dialogue is quite witty. It might be worth buying Ruhl’s version just to re-read those moments. Chekhov is always witty and philosophical, but the translation can really enhance or detract from the experience. Ruhl’s version is definitely the former, and I highly recommend it.

Three Sisters also runs this upcoming weekend at the Empty Space. Locals will definitely want to check it out, and support local theater.


I couldn’t figure out where to put it in the post, but I do have to mention the line where the anti-social Solyony says:

“When a man talks philosophy you get sophistry but when a woman talks philosophy, or God forbid two, you might as well pull my finger.”

This is one of the lines that gets either cut or bowdlerized in many translations. Yes, fart jokes are pretty much the same in any language or time in history. Even if some (say, my wife) don’t get the appeal.


Just a note on the pictures: The Empty Space always has fantastic publicity photos on their Facebook site. One of my eldest daughter's classmates is one of their photographers, which is pretty cool. Anyway, while other theaters here in Bakersfield put on great productions, in most cases their publicity lags behind TES for publicity photography. Come on! This is the 21st Century! Put your photos online! 


One more thing: I love Clint Black - great songwriter, solid guitarist. And this is IMO his best album.

This is one of my favorites of his cuts, and it sure fits with Moscow and our inability to escape ourselves...

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Fauna of Point Reyes

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can. 

I previously posted about Point Reyes National Seashore from our visit there in 2015. That post contains a good bit about the geological history, as well as some pictures of the various views.

We returned there in November 2017, as my wife in particular loves the coastal forest. This time, I was able to capture some of the animals that call Point Reyes home. Sure, we saw banana slugs last time, but this year, there were elk and elephant seals out. And also bugs and snakes and squirrels. Here are my favorites of the pictures.

 Banded Garden Spider

Banana Slug

 Western Grey Squirrel

Gopher Snake

 Tule Elk

Elephant Seals

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd by Alan Bradley

Source of book: I own this.

This is the eighth book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia series. Here are the others:

As I noted in the very first review, Alan Bradley turned to writing fiction late in life. The first six books were part of his original contract, which has now been extended after the significant success of the first books. I strongly recommend reading both the books and my reviews in order, as the later ones assume the earlier ones.

Like all the books in the series, this one has its title taken from a line in an old book. This one continues in the Shakespearean vein with a well known quote from the Scottish play.

Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.
Harpier cries 'Tis time, 'tis time.
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver'd in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Anyway, this quote gives the book its title, and a few other details. (A cat, a woman who fosters rumors she is a witch.)

Since the last book, Flavia has returned from a rather awful sojourn in Canada, only to find her father deathly ill. Soon afterward, while running an errand for the vicar’s wife, she discovers yet another dead body. (Well, this is a murder mystery series…) In this case, the victim is an old wood carver with a mysterious past, who apparently has some sort of connection to the (fictitious) children’s author Oliver Inchbald.

I did a little poking around regarding this character, and while he is definitely fictitious, he is a bit of a tribute to real-life authors. I would list perhaps Edward Lear (for the nonsense verse) and A. A. Milne (for the Christopher Robin type son.) But Google moves in mysterious ways, and I think I discovered where the name “Oliver Inchbald” came from. I perhaps don’t need to introduce author Oliver Goldsmith, best known for The Vicar of Wakefield. But the other half of the name appears to come from actress and playwright Elizabeth Inchbald. It appears that back in the day, among her other projects, she provided the “critical and biographical notes” to a collection of plays, including Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and The Good Natured Man. I suspect Bradley saw this somewhere and decided it was a perfect name. And it is.

The previous book was really quite dark - the series has generally gotten darker as it has gone on. This one isn’t exactly light, but the emotional territory isn’t as unrelentingly negative. Flavia is, after all, back on her home turf, and thus surrounded by familiar people. Dogger, her sisters, the vicar and his wife, her frenemy the police inspector. So she doesn’t feel as forlorn and alone as she did in the prior books. That said, all of the bad things happening in her life are still there, with more added. I’m still not sure how I feel about all of this - there was something charming and more innocent about the earlier books that I miss. But it has also been fascinating to see Flavia struggle with growing up. While she was always independent, she has had to learn some self control and social niceties - and she is getting there.

Just a few quotes I liked. One is when Flavia visits the office of the publisher of Inchbald’s books:

“Not surprisingly, his office was like a cave carved into a cliff of books.”

I plead the fifth as to how much I resemble that remark.

Regarding growing up and gaining independence:

“Growing up is like that, I suppose: The strings fall away and you’re left standing on your own.”

Regarding a sudden burst of communication from her reticent middle sister:

It was a longer speech than I’d ever heard Daffy make in my entire life. Unless she was reading aloud to us from one of her favorite books, my sister was the kind of person who is sometimes described as “monosyllabic.”

Actually, my middle daughter is kind of like that right now.

I will also note with approval the mention of Gorgonians. Because those are cool.

There is one more book in the series that has been published, and the contract runs for one more after that. Given Bradley’s age - this was a second career after retirement - he may decide to hang it up. But who knows? He originally agreed to six, and then ten, so things could change.

As I noted above, best to read these in order. They are kind of quirky, bookish, and snarky. But they are fun as a light read.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Joshua Tree 2018

We are on a three year rotation for desert camping right now. Death Valley National Park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and Joshua Tree National Park. Each has its charms, and each represents a different face of the desert.

Death Valley is vast, with dunes, extremes of temperature and elevation, salt flats, slot canyons, and more. Anza-Borrego is part of the Colorado (Sonora) desert, and is filled with flowers after a wet winter.

Joshua Tree is mostly the high desert - the Mojave. (Although the south part of the park is in the Colorado.)

We returned to Joshua Tree this February, and brought some friends who had never been. This time, while we revisited a number of our favorite places, we also saw some new trails. I was able to take a lot more pictures this time too - last time, my camera died midway through the trip. I was also able to use the longer zoom to capture a number of birds this time.

My previous post (linked above) has more on the natural history of the park, if you want to read further.

Here are the best of the pictures from this trip:

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Me and the kids. 

Cactus Wren

The iconic Joshua Tree

Desert Cottontail

Looking from the high desert to the low desert.

Greater Roadrunner

 Why you should camp at Joshua Tree...

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Importance of Being Earnest (CSUB 2018)

I read and reviewed The Importance of Being Earnest about six years ago. It is definitely one of my favorite plays. However, I hand never had the chance to see it live. And then, I had two chances. I decided (because of a crazy music schedule) that I probably was not going to fit in a trip to San Diego to see it at The Old Globe (although I’m sure that production will be fabulous), but that there was no reason I couldn’t see it here in Bakersfield when CSUB did its production.

CSUB took an interesting approach to this play by switching the genders. I personally find this to be a rather useful device - it is amazing how silly many things sound when said by or about the opposite gender. (This is a pretty good way to see if something is actually true - or just cultural baggage…) In making this switch, all the names were preserved. Thus, Algernon and Jack are women - but retain their names. And likewise for every character. Pronouns were changed to reflect the gender swap, however, as were references such as “young man.” Costumes were period accurate, and were suited to the swapped genders - so big dresses for Jack and Algernon, dapper hats and suits for Gwendolyn and Cecily.

In this case, the idea of two young women acting as frivolous and rakish as Jack and Algernon is pretty revealing. If you combine it with the stereotype that young women must be pure and faithful, the whole edifice crumbles when reversed. Likewise, the lines about beauty are hilarious when applied to the pretty young men that Gwendolyn and Cecily become. Oscar Wilde was already pushing back against those gender assumptions with the play - so gender swapping both accentuates his point, and works against it in other ways.

Some lines in particular were hilarious coming from the other gender.

"Gwendolyn, it is a terrible thing for a [wo]man to find out suddenly that all his life [s]he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me? "

"I can. For I feel that you are sure to change."

Or the scenes in which Algernon keeps eating.

JACK: How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can't make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.
ALGERNON: Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.
JACK: I say it's perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances. ALGERNON: When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as any one who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins.

We took the kids to this one, and reviews were mostly positive. Certainly my teen daughters understood the wit and laughed throughout. My boys loved it as well. My littlest (age 7) was a bit confused by the plot, and we had to catch her up during the breaks between the acts. She got some of it, but it was a bit over her head. However, she did love the fact that there was no curtain, so she got to see all the set changes.

Several of the cast were familiar from recent CSUB productions. Susannah Vera (Jack) was in Pippin, while Taylor Clark (Algernon) and Garrett Willis (Gwendolyn) played the lead roles in The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Phoebe Pyne (Rev. Chausuble) also had a key role in Nightingale.  Vera and Clark had real chemistry - important in this play, as their relationship is the center of the fun. Willis and Trenton Benet (Cecily) played up the silliness of stereotypical femininity. Anthony Salvador Jauregui III followed up his turn as Charlemagne in Pippin with an imperious turn in the role of Lord Bracknell.

 Top: Phoebe Pyne (Rev. Chasuble), Jessica Sanchez (Lane), Bella Becerra (Merriman), Taylor Clark (Algernon)
Bottom: Anthony Salvador Jauregui III (Lord Bracknell), Trenton Benet (Cecily), Susannah Vera (Jack), Garrett Willis (Gwendolyn), Luis Velez (Mr. Prism) 
Photo: CSUB publicity photo

Overall, the cast did a fine job - CSUB has a good theaterdepartment. The British accents weren’t bad: one of the faculty is a dialect coach.

Earnest runs this weekend and next. This is a good opportunity for locals to support our fine university and enjoy a witty comedy in the bargain.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This was a random Black History Month selection - our library usually has a little display for whatever month it is, from the usual, recurring ones, to one-offs like Inventor’s Month. There were several books I could have chosen, but this one looked interesting and not too long. 

The title is a reference to James Baldwin’s pair of essays that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement - and that title was itself a reference to the traditional belief that the next time the earth is destroyed, it will be by fire. The book is a collection of essays (and two poems) on the same general topic as Baldwin’s: civil rights past, present, and future. Ward herself wrote one, and most of the others were written specifically for this book.

Because the book came out in 2016, several significant events dominate the collection: the murder of Trayvon Martin, the Ferguson killing and protests, Rachel Dolezal’s impersonation, and the backlash by whites against Black Lives Matter.

Because the styles and topics vary pretty wildly, I will just touch on a few things. The book is a good, quick read, in the tradition of essay collections. They have commonalities and differences, and thus function well as a diverse set of voices giving a window into a different set of experiences. (For us whites, at least.)

Some particular essays that stood out were these: “Homegoing, AD,” by Kima Jones, which was a lovely sketch of her family experiences. The essay by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers (with a long title) which reevaluated what we were taught about Phillis Wheatley and her husband (which turns out to have been told by someone who may well have made most of it up.) “White Rage” by Carol Anderson, the one essay I had read before, and which still explains so much about Trump’s election. “Cracking the Code,” Jesmyn Ward’s story of using DNA to explore her family tree. “Black and Blue,” by Jamaican-born Garnette Cadogan, which is an all too common story of police harassment and abuse in the United States. “Know Your Rights!” by Emily Raboteau, about the murals with the same name in New York City. “Lonely in America,” by Wendy S. Walters, in which she researches the African-american grave site in Portsmouth, Maine.

The beauty of the writing is evident. Most of these aren’t protest pieces, or political in the partisan sense. They are stories from the real lives of the writers. The experience of being black in America is story enough to be worth reading - and not just reading, but allowing ourselves to be changed by the process of empathy. More than anything else, my own journey away from right wing politics has been driven by actually listening. To quote Wendy S. Walters:

When a story is unpleasant, it is hard to focus on details that allow you to put yourself in the place of the subject, because the pain of distortion starts to feel familiar. Paying attention often requires some sort of empathy for the subject, or at the very least, for the speaker. But empathy, these days, is hard to come by. Maybe this is because everyone is having such a hard time being understood themselves. Or because empathy requires us to dig way down into the murk, deeper than our own feelings go, to a place where the boundaries between our experience and everyone else’s no longer exist.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the murder of Trayvon Martin. And yes, I use that word intentionally, because that is what it was. Ward, in the introduction, expresses her horror that the media failed - refused really - to say what this was. An adult man stalked and killed a minor child walking home from the store. At every possible juncture, the adult chose to escalate the situation, until the child was dead. I have teenagers. (And a 12 year old son, who isn’t always the most aware of what is going on around him. If he weren’t white, I would be constantly worried he would be gunned down by a fearful cop.) The Trayvon Martin murder is one reason I left the NRA. (It is one thing to defend against an armed burglar. It is something else to adopt “stand and fight” as a slogan. What the actual hell? This isn’t the wild west. Don’t start fights over whose sidewalk it is. Sheesh!)  It was also one significant step in my journey to a new way of thinking about race relations in America. A world where you can follow someone around, and shoot them dead as soon as you subjectively feel afraid isn’t a civilized one - it is a society that worships violence. That was how I came to realize that no, to all too many, black lives don’t matter - they are expendable. And that needs to change.

Anyway, this book is a quick read, and is a good one to hear some different perspectives. None of us can claim to have a god-like, purely objective view and experience of the world. There isn’t a “black perspective” as opposed to a “neutral” perspective, which is why the idea that any of us can arrogantly tell other people why their experience of the world is somehow invalid or doesn’t exist is ludicrous. Empathy and basic human decency require that we shut up - and listen.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Source of book: I own this.

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."

~John Donne (Meditation XVII)


It has been a while since I read any Hemingway. And when I did, I read short stories. Believe it or not, I have never read one of his full length novels. I suppose one reason for this is that, while I like his writing, his unrelenting pessimism is difficult in large doses for me. I’m not talking about the ending of a book - not all books have to end happily. I love tragedy well enough. But Hemingway reminds me of, say, King Lear or Othello in that the bleakness is pretty unrelenting. Or like Chekhov, but without the humor.

This is not to say in any way that Hemingway is a bad writer. To the contrary, his bleakness is very well written and convincing, which is why it is difficult for me. Hemingway has a modern, spare, realistic style of writing that paints clear and detailed pictures without wasting words. He lets you in on the psychology of his characters as well as anyone, and does it by showing, not telling. His streams of consciousness are astoundingly close to real life for an introvert like me, which is why (in this particular book), the most traumatic parts were the inner dialogue of Robert Jordan’s head. I would be doing the exact same thing, and it was spooky.

I also don’t want to create the impression that I disliked For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is an excellent book, with a compelling, carefully paced and plotted story, and characters you care about. I liked the book, but it took me a while, because after 30-40 pages, I had to walk away and read something else. (With a brutal concert schedule and a 500 page book, that means slow reading…)

So, about the book itself. For Whom the Bell Tolls is set during the Spanish Civil War, in the 1930s. Hemingway wrote the book in 1939-40, and based it in part on his own experiences as a correspondent during the war.

While I had a very vague sense of the history involved, my true introduction to the Spanish Civil War was six years ago, when I read The Cypresses Believe in God, Jose Maria Gironella’s outstanding novel set on the brink of the war. Back in 2012, the book was terrifying enough. After the election of a man who is for all intents and purposes Fascist, and whose rhetoric and manipulation of the dominant religion looks much like the Falange, it seems urgently relevant. Our own society, like that of Spain in the 1930s, distrusts each other, distrusts institutions, and the Right wing seems all too eager to start a slaughter of those outside their tribe.

So, it would be too much, perhaps, to expect a book about that bloody, senseless, fratricidal, and damaging war to be anything other than unrelentingly pessimistic.

Robert Jordan is a youngish American fighting with the International Brigades, on behalf of the Republic forces. Jordan is originally from Montana, but has been teaching Spanish before he was recruited as a dynamiter. The war itself is in some ways a preview of the alliances of World War Two. On the side of the Republic are the English and Americans. But also the Russians and the Communist parties in Spain. And the Anarchists. On the other side, led by Franco, are the various right wing and Fascist parties, the Catholic Church - and the Fascist parties of Italy and Germany.

[Something to keep in mind here is that Hitler and Nazism were outliers as far as Fascist regimes went. Franco and Il Duce were more typical.]

The book opens with Jordan being led by Anselmo, an old guerrilla, to a band of rebels fighting behind Fascist lines. They are led by Pablo, who is getting increasingly erratic and unreliable as the war grinds on. Or perhaps, in reality, they are led by Pilar, Pablo’s wife - and hands down the best character in the book. She is badass. As badass as they come. And psychologically interesting as well.

Jordan’s job is to blow up a bridge right before an attack launched by Republican forces. This being Hemingway, we know it will end badly in some way or another. I won’t spoil the plot from there.

Particularly interesting in the book was the interplay of Pablo and Pilar, each of which have back stories which are gradually revealed as the book progresses. Pablo has had a pretty good career in the war blowing up trains, and causing general havoc. Pilar had quite a wild youth before settling down with Pablo. Both of them hate Fascists both because of the longstanding oppression of the lower classes (to which they belong) by the powerful landowners, and because of the slaughter of civilians in their home village by Falangists. One of the most haunting scenes in the book is when Pilar tells of the revenge taken against the Falangists - the men are run off of a cliff one at a time. It is pretty brutal.

Of course, the Falangists are every bit as bad when they get the upper hand. Maria, a young woman who becomes Jordan’s lover, watched her parents get slaughtered, and is brutally gang raped, leading to her near death and near insanity before Pilar rescues her. Gironella too tells of the way that people in Spain brutally turned on each other in an orgy of violence and hate.

There were some interesting lines in the book. Hemingway explores the uncomfortable reality of bigotry - which is a problem for both sides in the conflict. But particularly for the Right, which despises both the common man the inteligenta. I found particularly interesting Jordan’s observation about how fundamentalist religion feeds bigotry and hate:

"To be bigoted you have to be absolutely sure that you are right and nothing makes that surety and righteousness like continence. Continence is the foe of heresy."

The first part is pretty obvious. An absolute sense of surety that one is right is indeed the calling card of both fundamentalism and bigotry of all kinds. But the second part is one that I believe is true as well. I do not think it is an accident that American Fundamentalists/Evangelicals (pretty indistinguishable these days, alas) are obsessed with sex. In my experience, believing oneself to be free of sexual impurity serves as a way to look down on everyone else. It feeds bigotry by making a person feel righteous, even as he or she does shocking evil to his or her fellow humans.

Hemingway also uses an interesting exchange between Jordan and Primitivo, a young guerrilla to make a rather apropos point about the United States - even more relevant in our present time. They are discussing the differences between society in Spain and the United States - and the relevant political questions. Why, for example, did the US maintain a republic without confiscating large estates?

Robert Jordan, wiping out the stew bowl with bread, explained how the income tax and inheritance tax worked. 'But the big estates remain. Also, there are taxes on the land,' he said.
'But surely the big proprietors and the rich will make a revolution against such taxes. Such taxes appear to me to be revolutionary. They will revolt against the government when they see that they are threatened, exactly as the fascists have done here,' Primitivo said.
'It is possible.'
'Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here.'
'Yes, we will have to fight.'
'But are there not many fascists in your country?'
'There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.'

Dang. Let’s see, we have had a long (and largely successful) campaign by the ultra rich in our country to largely eliminate the estate tax, and drastically lower income taxes on the wealthy. And we have had literal Nazis marching in our streets. Hmm. Maybe Hemingway was on to something there.

Also: “There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.” YES. And some of us have indeed discovered who the Fascist sympathizers in our life are too - the ones still rooting for Trump as he works to ethnically cleanse our country, dismantle our public institutions, and enrich himself and his cronies. We can see who many of you are, unfortunately.

Death is a major theme of For Whom the Bell Tolls - as the title might hint. Jordan knows his time is coming. Whether sooner, or later, death will get him. In a great scene where Jordan recalls some of the Russians he worked with, he tells of an event where Karkov ends up with some dead Russians on his hands. He can’t just leave them, because the Russians are not officially involved in the war, and he doesn’t need an international incident. So the bodies are carefully disfigured in away as to look like they were killed in a fire. That way, they are just bodies.

No one could tell from the bodies of these wounded men he would leave in beds at the Palace, that they were Russians. Nothing proved a naked dead man was a Russian. Your nationality and your politics did not show when you were dead.

That last line is outstanding. Ultimately, the nuances of our politics won’t really matter when we are corpses. (Although, if you take Christ literally, our destiny after that hinges on how we cared for others - or not.)

One more example of good writing is worth quoting.

Now that his rage was gone he was excited by this storm as he was always by all storms. In a blizzard, a gale, a sudden squall, a tropical storm, or a summer thunder shower in the mountains there was an excitement that came to him from no other thing. It was like the excitement of battle except that it was clean.

One final observation. Because of when the book was written, Hemingway had to steer clear of obscenity laws. This was thirty years before Miller v. California, which overruled prior precedent and established a new standard. As of 1940, the standard applied was essentially a Victorian one: material was obscene if it tended to “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” Even as late as 1957, the court was still using a “average person, applying contemporary community standards” test for obscenity. It wasn’t until Miller that our current standard was adopted. In order to ban material as obscene, the court must find (in addition to the other requirements) “Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” If written today, For Whom the Bell Tolls would undoubtedly look different.

The most obvious difference is that Hemingway scrupulously avoids actual swear words, while making it blindingly obvious that his characters are swearing. In most cases, he just substitutes “obscenity” for whatever word he means. This is particularly amusing in cases where he uses a standard Spanish swearing formula, as in the common, “I obscenity in the milk of your ancestors!” That cracks me up every time. But, Hemingway simultaneously wrote the story the way he wanted to while thumbing his nose at the censors, who would find nothing literally offensive in the book, while pretty much every reader ever could fill in the appropriate cuss word without difficulty.

The other interesting way the book carefully skirts the censors is in its sex scenes. Yes, you could write an actual sex scene in 1940. You could mention breasts, and buttocks. But not genitals. Not directly. And you couldn’t say that they had an orgasm. Just that “the earth moved,” which has become a cultural cliche. (It was original when Hemingway used it...not so much now.) In some cases, I find the lack of graphic language to enhance the sexiness of a scene. In this case, it was more amusing because of Hemingway’s dated assumptions about gender, and the way his language is now overused. But I certainly have read worse writing about sex.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a worthy read, both for its characters and its strong writing. It isn’t the most pleasant book, but it is a good reminder of the human cost of war - and the human cost of Tribalism, which is behind the vast majority of wars big and small.


You don’t think I could leave out Metallica’s take on the phrase, do you? It is definitely in harmony with the themes of Hemingway’s novel.