Monday, August 31, 2009


My summer has been going pretty much the way every other season has been going for the last year, which is to say that, for the most part, if it can go wrong it will go wrong. That applies to things both petty (all the shoes I wear to work are falling apart) and more serious (my apartment is a disaster story and my cat is broken), but to top it all off, I'm in a total reading rut. To be fair, I've actually been having decent luck on the nonfiction front. It's just that my feelings about the fiction I've been reading lately have ranged from indifference, to irritation, to irrational loathing. I have to admit, I was even more than a little relieved to read that other people are also experiencing the reading doldrums this summer. But unfortunately, as is usually the case with the whole misery-loves-company thing, that hasn't made my own problem (or my desire to whine about it) go away. I thought I'd write then, about the last novel I completely enjoyed.

There's nothing particularly original about what John Williams does in Augustus. That's not a complaint. I'm just saying that the epistolary novel has been around for about as long as the novel itself, at least in Western literature, and to write about Augustus Caesar is to go down a well-travelled path. But that doesn't matter here.

Augustus covers, roughly speaking, three separate subjects in the life of Augustus Caesar: his rise to power, the exile of his daughter, and his death. John Williams tells the story through letters, diaries, and memoirs. In the first two sections of the novel, these are the works of Augustus' contemporaries. Only in the final section does Williams give voice to the emperor himself.

In his author's note Williams wrote,"if there are truths in this work, they are the truths of fiction rather than of history." Augustus isn't meant to be a biography, fictional or otherwise, and Williams isn't interested in presenting facts. He understands the limits of fiction and nonfiction and chooses not to tell us what happened or why but instead concerns himself with an exploration of power and duty and the sacrifices those twin gods demand. He illuminates the interior worlds that history cannot show us with a broad-minded empathy and in doing so tells us something about who we are--our loves, our needs, our friendships, the way we govern ourselves and the way we are governed--without asking the novel to carry a greater burden than it can bear.

There's something restorative about an author for whom writing is a means of communicating and not a chance to show off their talent for linguistic acrobatics. Williams style is modest and draws no attention to itself. His writing is clean and clear, neither spare nor overwrought but perfectly balanced. This quality seems most refined, appropriately enough, toward the end of the novel, when Williams gives us Caesar through his own eyes.

Letter: Octavius Caesar to Nicolaus of Damascus (A.D. 14)
August 9
Though it was nearly sixty years ago, I remember that afternoon on the training field when I got the news of my Uncle Julius's death. Maecenas was there, and Agrippa, and Salvidienus. One of my mother's servants brought me the message, and I remember that I cried out as if in pain after I read it.

But at that first moment, Nicolaus, I felt nothing; it was as if the cry of pain issued from another throat. Then a coldness came over me, and I walked away from my friends so that they could not see what I felt, and what I did not feel. And as I walked on that field alone, trying to rouse in myself the appropriate sense of grief and loss, I was suddenly elated, as one might be when riding a horse he feels the horse tense and bolt beneath him, knowing he has the skill to control the poor spirited beast who in an excess of energy wishes to test his master. When I returned to my friends, I knew that I had changed, that I was someone other than I had been; I knew my destiny, and I could not speak to them of it. And yet they were my friends.

At this point in the book, we have witnessed the scene where Augustus learns of Julius Caesar's death before. Williams has unfurled the story of the emperor's life already. Early on this particular moment was described by Salvidienus Rufus. He describes a cry, "grating and loud and filled with uncomprehending pain, like the bellow of a bullock whose throat has been cut at a sacrifice," and Octavius alone, "a slight, boyish figure walking on the deserted field, moving slowly, this way and that, as if trying to discover a way to go." But now, with Augustus at the end of his life, we reflect back with all the clarity of hindsight. It's an elegant conceit, and effective because it feels utterly natural. This moment, horrible and marvelous and world-changing, deserves to be revisited and enriched. In his old age, Williams's Augustus can see so clearly, he has become a kind of oracle who knows what will come of all he has built, the limit of his power, and accepts it. It's a beautiful thing in its way.

It's surprisingly hard for me to write about Augustus. Here I have this beautiful object in my hands, this work that is complete and whole, and I find that I don't want to pick at it too much. I've been working on this post for much longer than I'd like to admit (because something with this much time devoted to it ought to be less half-assed). So it goes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How I Spent My Weekend . . .

Unfortunately, my camera is broken so this picture was taken with my phone. The tall mountain in the center is, I believe, Marcy (as viewed from Basin). I don't think I've ever been so happy to get out of the city.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Martha Wainwright and Morphoses

I always forget how much I dislike Central Park SummerStage in between visits. The view is bad enough to begin with but once you factor in the number of reserved seats shows like this one have, well, the hoi polloi just isn't going to be able to see that well. And the only time bleachers are remotely comfortable is when you have lots of space around you. Definitely not the case Friday night. Still, it seems churlish to complain about the seating you get at a free show and I am glad I went.

When I first heard about this particular performance I thought it was a fairly odd combination that wouldn't show either party at their finest. Part of the appeal of Wainwright's shows is their slightly ramshackle, undisciplined feel. They tend to be warm and down to earth. And the way she changes up her songs live is another of the delights. For the most part though I think those concerns were misplaced as the show was something of a mash-up of concert and dance performance, with each getting their moment in the sun.

The first half felt mostly like filler on the dance front. There was a nice little solo to "Far Away" and "Whither Must I Wander" was one of those pieces that features the woman being partnered all over the stage and not dancing much on her own to feet, while "Bleeding All Over You" brought us a dance with Teresa Reichlen and four men that showed off her long legs but wasn't particularly interesting choreographically. "Love is a Stranger" was upbeat and fun at least. Wainwright also, to my surprise, played a number of songs without dance accompaniment. I was glad that she replaced "Tower Song" (not one of my favorites of hers) with the more upbeat "When the Day is Short" with her mother Kate McGarrigle playing piano. It's always a family affair one way or another with the Wainwrights.

The second half of the program was more rewarding. It opened with Wheeldon's "Fool's Paradise," which despite its at times excessive partnering is more interesting and innovative than any of the too-brief dances of the first half. It really sort of felt like the dance portion of the program began there. Afterward Wainwright sang a few songs without dancers, including her delightfully over-the top rendition of "Stormy Weather."

And then we got the piece of the evening, the world premiere of "Tears of St. Lawrence," choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and Edward Liang. Here I thought the musical collaboration worked much better than in the first half of the evening--where it wasn't so much a collaboration as the choreographers setting movement to songs Wainwright has been singing for some time--as the greater length gave Wheeldon and Liang time to develop ideas in their choreography and create an arc. At the same time though, I'm left with the same impression I get from so much of the Wheeldon choreography I've seen: It's perfectly pleasant to watch, I'm interested, and then 48 hours later it has evaporated from my memory. Or at least everything but the ending tableau has (both "Fool's Paradise" and "Tears of St. Lawrence" close with scenes that stick in the mind, though in different ways). While I'd be happy to see the ballet again, I'm more interested in hearing the music again. I couldn't focus on it or get an impression of it as a whole to the extent I might have liked and it seemed on first listen to be lovely and moving.

As a side note, Alistair Macaulay complains about the program notes in his review. He actually lets them off easy; the bios on the back were shoddily written as well. Even if the program creators are operating from the assumption that well-written program copy doesn't matter, you'd think they could bother with a spot of copyediting.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Lazy Sunday

Not so much for me (I've been cleaning the apartment) but certainly for him.

Friday, August 14, 2009

I managed to come down with a nasty cold at the beginning of August and as soon as I started feeling fully functional my cat managed to hurt the feline equivalent of his wrist. Which sucks for numerous reasons, including the fact that I had to cancel a trip to the Adirondacks with my father to take care of his pathetic, barely-upright self. And as if that weren't enough to deal with, my mother has been in town. Which is fantastic, actually, because I love seeing my mother, but has also contributed to my feeling like I have a lot on my plate. On the bright side though, I'm more caught up at work than I've been in at least a year. Our summer interns? They are fabulous.

So while I haven't been doing much that's interesting to blog about here in the dog days of summer, I have been reading.

The -Ookies are counting down to hockey with fabulous pictures that make me wish that my camera wasn't broken. And that it was better. And that I could take such nice pictures. And that I had jars of chocolate chips.

The Millions tackled Malcolm Gladwell's (shabby) stab at literary criticism. The main problem, as I see it, is that Gladwell doesn't really seem to appreciate the difference between the kind of fun cultural criticism he normally does and writing about literature. He tackles the two things the same way and treats the characters as if they're real historical people, the novel as if it's artless. And his conclusion is particularly egregious: "A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama." Even if we accept the idea that To Kill a Mockingbird "instruct[s] us about the world" in a way that's different than the way that all great literature and art does so--a conclusion I'm not particularly inclined to agree with--we're still left with the fact that telling us about the limits of Jim Crow liberalism in a particular place in time is instructing us about the world. Not the way we're instructed by a history class though--the way we're instructed by a novel: through thoughtful reading and fierce attention.

I'm not fussed about Gia Kourlas saying bad things about the program Tulsa Ballet performed at the Joyce. I didn't see it so I'm not in the position to agree or disagree with her, but if she didn't like it she didn't like it and should say so. But I do wish she hadn't started her review with a somewhat condescending paragraph that begins by saying, "State government doesn’t normally shut down for ballet, but you wouldn’t have believed it judging by the dignitaries who spilled into the Joyce Theater on Monday night," and finishes up by claiming, "It was surreal—the whoops that erupted as the curtain was raised were a bit much—but it was also sweet to see such hometown pride." It just feels to me like she's looking down her nose at the Oklahomans. Of course small cities are proud of their cultural institutions. Of course they're going to come and support said institutions when they perform in a cultural capital like New York. It's a big fucking deal when it's something they only do once every few decades instead of all the time. I can't say I'm at all surprised that Oklahoma bigwigs came. And as for the whooping at the curtain raising . . . yeah, that doesn't surprise me either. People tend to be a bit more vocally enthusiastic outside New York. It doesn't mean they need to be portrayed like they just might be overexcited yokels.

I just read most of Love Begins in Winter. Then it became the first book in quite some time that I actively chose not to finish. Van Booy's writing is full of lovely lines and scenes, moments of genuine beauty, but they seem to come without real regard for the stories themselves. This one for example: "In the far distance, Sunday parked over the village like an old mute who hid his face in the hanging thick of clouds." I don't even know what that means. That it was quiet and foggy? That the author is trying rather too hard on the evocative imagery front? That he thought up that line and had to get it in there no matter what? Some combination?

My big issue though, is that there's so much that just doesn't feel true to me. The story that really killed me though is one that contains a scene wherein the protagonist and her boyfriend go on a trip to the Adirondacks. They hike nine miles “up into the white breath of the mountain” go off trail to a river with a large and flat enough rock for them to make love on, which isn’t soaked although it’s just been raining because “it’s amazing how quickly the sun dries the earth after it has been washed.” Now having spent some time in the Adirondacks I find it hard to believe that if it's just been raining you're going to be amazed at how quickly the sun dries things. Or that you'll feel like said rain has cleaned anything. Because you'll be hiking in mud. And if you've been hiking up for nine miles you are a) on a hell of a long day hike and b) probably not near any rivers large enough to contain a rock that sizable and flat. It doesn't seem real; it feels like Van Booy just wanted the scene. Particularly because while they've been busy having sex and taking a nap, their champagne glasses have rolled off into a rock pool where they stand upright. There, we are told, “Each glass held the weight of an entire river without knowing where it came from and how much was left.” Say what? That sounds nice and serious and all but it doesn't mean much of anything, which is pretty much how I felt about so much in this story collection.