Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Giono, Morris, and O’Neill (and Something More Inspiring)

Hello and happy Tuesday. We’re almost at the end of 2020, thankfully. I hope we have a better 2021. In the meantime, here are the last 3 books I’ve read this year. I wouldn’t recommend them as a hopeful way to cap off 2020, though, unless your idea of hopefully capping off a year somehow consists of reading a bunch of very sad books.

A King Alone, by Jean Giono

via GIPHY | Dark forest, Fantasy forest, Forest

“We stayed like that for a short time, face-to-face across fifty meters. Then Langlois moved toward the man, step by step, until he was three steps away. Then, once again, they seemed to come to an unspoken agreement. And then, truly, at the moment we could no longer bear to be there, when we were about to shout, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ there was a loud detonation. The man fell. Langlois had shot him, twice, in the stomach; a gun in each hand, at the same time. ‘It was an accident,’ he said. When Langlois got back to our town, he’d found the resignation letter he’d begun to write; he added: ‘Regrettable lack of sangfroid on the job…worn down pistol triggers, which should have been detected by a careful examination of the weapons, occasioned this terrible accident for which I have no excuse.'”

I don’t even know what A King Alone was about. It was set in the French countryside and seemed to be about a murderer on the loose, but then it got to telling about a wolf-hunt, and then about how one character wanted to get married. The ending was really good, though, and it reminded me a bit of Thomas Bernhard.

Let me talk a bit about what this book had to offer. It was well-written in terms of its sober but subtly-moving style, and its characters were interesting and sometimes funny. There are parts of the book where you don’t know what’s going on (why is Character X suddenly trying to get married when the book is supposed to be about a murderer?) but for some reason it all worked in the end. I don’t really know what else to say about this book. Sometimes it felt a bit drawn-out because of all the description of things. I’m not sure why it was called “A King Alone,” either. Somehow it feels like there was a big meaning to this book I never figured out.

Maybe read it yourself and figure out that meaning for yourself.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris

i care for you still and i will, forever — masterlist angst [a] smut [s]  fluff [f] one-shots ...

“Lale thinks about the date, April 4, 1944. When he’d seen it on his work sheets that week, ‘April’ had jarred with him. April, what was it about April? Then he realized. In three weeks’ time, he will have been here for two years. Two years. How has he done it? How is he still breathing, when so many aren’t? He thinks back to the vow he made at the beginning. To survive and see those responsible pay. Maybe, just maybe, those in the plane had understood what was going on, and rescue was on the way. It would be too late for those who died today, but maybe their deaths would not be entirely in vain. Hold that thought. Use it to get out of bed tomorrow morning, and the next morning, and the next.

This book is about a tattooist in Auschwitz, named Lale, who falls in love with a fellow prisoner, named Gita. He promises her he will marry her after they leave Auschwitz, but first they have to survive Auschwitz.

What’s most interesting about this book is that it’s based on a true story. A man named Lale who’d survived the Holocaust went to the author Heather Morris and told her his story for it to be remembered, and she went on to write a book about it.

This background is interesting because it seems to have informed how the story was told. Some parts of it felt like Morris was reporting/paraphrasing things Lale had probably told her– “Lale was born in X town on Y date, and he worked at job Z before the Nazi invasion,” or “Lale tried to deal with his troubles by thinking ABC, because he knew that QRS would happen which would mean LMNOP.” Then there were other parts where it felt like Morris was trying to guess what it was like to be in Lale’s situation, but for some reason that guessing mostly involved peoples’ hearts beating in their throats, peoples’ knees going weak, and other such clichés. They made me feel less like I was reading something based on a true story and more like I was reading someone’s idea of what it might have been like to be in a situation like Lale’s.

I don’t mean to sound harsh. There were several very good and surprising parts of the book. These parts felt like the author was able to get at something real and meaningful rather than trying to paraphrase thoughts or go for uninteresting descriptions. This happened more in the middle to end of the book instead of at the beginning. This variation gave the book an uneven quality. One minute I felt like I was reading an engrossing story. The next I felt like I was reading a soap opera, and the minute after that I felt like I was reading a piece of journalism.

I would say that if you’re interested in history and the Holocaust that this is a good book to read. Another book that I would recommend more strongly is Livia-Bitton Jackson’s I Have Lived a Thousand Years. That book stayed with me, and continues to haunt me to this day.

In the end though, everyone is different. You might enjoy the Tattooist of Auschwitz more than I did, and it does tell an important story.

Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill,
Edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer

wehadfacesthen | Comedians, Marx brothers, Funny people

“There’s nothing like having a real good ailment. It’s one thing that never bores you, or leaves you at a loss for a word. I’m sure if one of the Knitting Women had called to Louis XVI as he ascended the guillotine, ‘Well, Capet, how’re the old kidneys lately?’, he would have waved the headsman aside and begun a serious conversation as follows: ‘Well, not so good, Sister [….] I never get a wink of sleep any more. I don’t know how I stand it.’ At this point the headsman would have interrupted with a little anecdote about his arthritis, and all the veins, flatulence, flat feet and what not. Danton would have muscled in with a long harangue on the horrible hangover he had yesterday morning. Robespierre would have addressed the mob for two hours on the new pills he was taking to get rid of his pimples. The Revolution would have been forgotten. Louis would have become the Well Beloved again–a Royal Pal. The Bourbon dynasty would have been saved.”

This book contains a bunch of letters written by Eugene O’Neill from his youth to his old age. It’s interesting to see how he develops over time, and what he thinks about his plays and other people. In the end, the letters are very sad because O’Neill spent his whole life seemingly searching for the meaning of life without having found it. In the end, he does seem to have found something, though–friendship, writing, and love, but it’s never clear if he ever found solace from that. Also, by the time he realized the value of these things to him, his friends were dying, Parkinson’s had robbed him of the ability to write, and his beloved wife was going insane. That’s a horrible way to go, and so the end of the letter collection had me crying some.

Still, there was lots of wisdom in the letters. The wisdom came in two flavors: writerly wisdom and life wisdom. Writerly wisdom consisted of things along the lines of “set your manuscript aside for a few months if you’re not sure yet what you’re trying to say with it” and “experimental works usually fail because they’re done just for the sake of experimentation instead of for the sake of having something to say,” and the life wisdom had things like “stop relying on others to figure out your life, figure it out yourself.” I was surprised by how wise O’Neill turned out to be (though he also seemed to be somewhat racist and sexist, which is absolutely not wise).

Basically, if you’re interested in O’Neill’s plays, these letters are insightful, but they are also likely to be sadder than his super-sad and super-tragic play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Read at your own risk.

Now, because I don’t want to end the year with such a pessimistic note, I want to end by recommending a more inspirational poem, and that is William Ernest Henley’s Invictus:

Invictus by William Ernest Henley - I just want to share my favorite poem -  Imgur

Wishing you all a terrific 2021.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Welty, O’Neill, and O’Neill Possessed by Wagner’s Ghost

Hello everyone! I hope you’re surviving quarantine okay. Since reading is amazing for passing the time, here are three books/plays that I have reviewed.

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One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty

Welty

“My mother always sang to her children. Her voice came out just a little bit in the minor key. ‘Wee Willie Winkie’s’ song was wonderfully sad when she sang the lullabies. ‘Oh, but now there’s a record. She could have her own record to listen to,’ my father would have said. For there came a Victrola record of ‘Bobby Shafftoe’ and ‘Rock-a-Bye Baby’, all of Mother’s lullabies, which could be played to take her place. Soon I was able to play her my own lullabies all day long.”

This is a thin memoir about Welty’s writing life. It’s not that interesting. The best part of this book is the insight it gives into the inspiration behind some of her stories, and the glimpse it gives into old rural Mississippi. The rest of the time, she tells about various events that happened to her without really reflecting much on her thoughts and feelings. This creates a sense of distance between her and the reader. For me, this meant that I couldn’t relate to her experiences.

If you’re looking for a good memoir written by a writer, don’t look to Welty. Look to Saint-Exupéry or Gorky. For memoirs on non-writers, Douglass and Shayakhmetov are good. Only read Welty if, near the end of the quarantine, you find that no other books remain but hers.

Even in that case, there are plenty of e-books that you could read first.

 

“A Touch of the Poet,” Eugene O’Neill

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“DEBORAH: Why, that the Hartfords never part with their dreams even when they deny them. They cannot. That is the family curse. For example, this book Simon plans to write to denounce the evil of greed and possessive ambition, and uphold the virtue of freeing oneself from the lust for power and saving our souls by being content with little. I cannot imagine you taking that seriously.”

Eugene O’Neill intended to write an 11-play cycle about the experiences of two families over the course of American history. These plays were supposed to examine materialism and dreams and greed. They were supposed to be his greatest accomplishment. However, for all of the tragedies he created, this turned out to be the worst of them all—he left us with an eternal cliff-hanger, because he only managed to draft two of the plays before he died.

“A Touch of the Poet” is the first play. It takes place in the late 1820s, and is about the two families—the Melody family and the Hartford family. The plot itself seems very simple on the surface. Sara Melody is in love with Simon Hartford, a boy who is recovering from sickness in the upstairs room of her father’s tavern. However, while Sara’s parents are okay with nursing Simon back to health, they’re not okay with her marrying him. The two families are apparently rivals.

Sara also has a father named Cornelius. Cornelius is in love with the past—he dresses in his old regiment uniform and reminisces about when he fought in the British army against the French in the Battle of Talavera and was commended by the Duke of Wellington. Cornelius also mistreats his wife. Sara despises him for that. She despises him even more because he doesn’t want her to marry Simon. The majority of the play is Sara fighting him for the right to marry Simon, and Sara fighting Simon’s mom, Deborah, for the same reason.

Somehow, even in draft-form, O’Neill manages to make this play more than a cheesy “star-crossed lovers” story. The interest comes from the ideas that O’Neill examines throughout the play—dreams vs. reality, past vs. present. Cornelius represents dreams and the past, and Sara represents reality and the present. These ideas mean that the conflict between them takes on greater importance than one in a typical “star-crossed lovers” story. In a way, this play reminded me a lot of Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” cycle, because similar themes are explored (greed, family, etc.).

NOTE: “A Touch of the Poet” sets up events that happen in the next play, so scrolling down and reading that will expose you to minor spoilers.

 

“More Stately Mansions,” Eugene O’Neill (collaborating with Wagner’s Ghost)

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“SIMON […] It is a long time since I have thought of the soul. Out there in the gutters called streets beyond the wall it appears to be a weak sentimental supposition, a superstitious superfluity—but here in this garden—He checks himself as he meets [Deborah’s] eyes staring at him with a tender gloating fixity. He reads again. ‘And, but once kindled, quenchless evermore.’ He pauses, giving the pause a tense significance—thoughtfully. ‘Evermore.’ Yes, it is, I think, the most cowardly and convenient of all man’s evasions, that he forgets the present is merely the last moment of the past, and the delusion of his hope he calls the future is but the past returning to demand payment of its debt.”

This play is even more like Wagner’s Ring cycle. In addition to its high-falutin monologuery, “More Stately Mansions” takes place over 10 years, a time scale of Wagnerian proportions. Fortunately for us, while the performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle is 17 hours long, O’Neill’s play only lasts for 400 pages. Even so, it made me wonder if Wagner’s ghost perhaps possessed O’Neill while he was writing this play…

Simon and Sara have started a family. In the past, Simon used to want to write poetry, but with Sara’s urging, he took charge of a textile mill, then bought out his partner. In this play, he ditches his dreams, succumbs to greed, and goes on to buy out even more companies. Meanwhile, Sara puts aside her differences with Simon’s mother, Deborah. The two women become best friends for all of two acts, then spend the remaining 255 pages battling for dominance over Simon’s attention.

As in the previous play, O’Neill is able to make this play much more than a mere “rivalry” story. He does this by further developing the conflict between dreams and reality—Sara represents reality, and Deborah represents dreams. Both of them give long, clumsily-worded asides about these ideas. Simon also gives long, clumsily-worded asides, where he laments about how he’s caught between these two forces. In the end, the main conflict is resolved, but the ideological one is not. This makes for a massive cliff-hanger.

Unfortunately, O’Neill’s death means that this cliffhanger will be eternal. However, there’s an interesting book that some scholar wrote about the play cycle as a whole. I haven’t yet read it, but it’s supposed to give an overview of the cycle’s entire plot and thematic development. It’s scant consolation, but at least it’s not a cliff-hanger, and at least it’s not Eudora Welty’s memoir.

my cat busy for book reading - GIF on Imgur

I would love to hear your thoughts about these books, or about any other books you’ve been reading so far. In the meantime, I wish you the best.

Comedy in Tragedy and Yellows in Blues

Happy almost New Year! I hope you’re all enjoying the last few days of 2019!

I recently read this essay online (the Lehigh University link) about comedy in Eugene O’Neill’s tragic play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”

The paper’s writer says that a lot of people focus on the pathos of the play–which I won’t spoil because you should read it for yourself–but don’t consider the role of comedy.

In “Long Day’s Journey”, the paper’s writer asserts that comedy serves to humanize the characters. This makes them, and their reactions to their tragic situation, more convincing and compelling.

This idea reminded me of how painters, in painting a picture, use a lot of colors. That sounds obvious. But they use them in such a way as to promote contrast. For instance, there’s a yellowish layer in Winslow Homer’s 1880 painting, “Boys in a Dory.”

It seems counterintuitive to use yellow in painting a nautical scene. However, when combined with the painting’s blue hues, the yellow serves as a contrast that gives the painting a new dimension and makes it more convincing and compelling.

Similarly, comedy serves to contrast with the tragedy in O’Neill’s play. This contrast gives the characters more nuance and makes them more realistic, which increases the compelling nature of their tragic situation.

In writing, comedy doesn’t just have to be comic relief–it can also play a key role in giving extra dimension to a work and deepening its power.

I hope I gave some insight into this technique. It sounds fascinating, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

I Read, and Revel in the Fridayness of Friday

It’s Friday, and I thought I’d celebrate by giving you my review of all nine works in “Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill.” Brace yourselves!

“Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill” by… You guessed it (Eugene O’Neill)

Favorite Quote: (From “Strange Interlude”): All the twenty odd books I’ve written have been long-winded fairy tales for grown-ups–about dear old ladies and witty, cynical bachelors and quaint characters with dialects, and married folk who always admire and respect each other, and lovers who avoid love in hushed whispers! That’s what I’ve been, Nina–a hush-hush whisperer of lies! Now I’m going to give an honest healthy yell–turn on the sun into the shadows of lies.”

In September, I vowed to read everything O’Neill had ever written. This book was a great resource. O’Neill himself chose the plays that would feature in this book, so we get to see what works he considered his best. Also, they’re arranged in chronological order, so we get to see O’Neill mature as a playwright.

At first, he writes shorter and simpler works like “The Emperor Jones,” but by the end of this anthology, he’s progressed to complex trilogies (in the form of “Mourning Becomes Electra”). By the end of this collection, he’s experimented with using drums to increase tension, employing masks as props, and having his costume-clad characters exit the play alongside the audience and get into limousines that are waiting outside the theater (!!!).

Were the 800 pages of play worth it? Yes.

The only complaint I have about this marvelous writer is that his female characters all chase men. Evidently, there are more things to want in the world than men. Maybe his future plays will be able to do women justice.

Short Takes on Each Play:

“The Emperor Jones”: This reads like a fable–the islander challenges a Brit, and the islander loses his mind. The protagonist’s dense accent helps to obfuscate meaning rather than to clarify it, but the use of gradually-quickening drum-beats in the background effectively accentuates the protagonist’s increasingly-wild thoughts.

“The Hairy Ape”: It reads like another fable, this time about man’s descent into bestiality. It’s slightly better at its readable accents, and its ending is more impactful than that of “The Emperor Jones.”

“All God’s Chillun Got Wings”: This play is about race-relations. It has a good beginning and a good middle. However, the ending seems to lack the impact possessed by “The Hairy Ape”. You do begin to see O’Neill trying his hand at somewhat longer works of drama though (by a few acts). He also begins to write with more nuance and realism.

“Desire Under the Elms”: Cardboard female characters run rampant in this play. Although it’s more nuanced than O’Neill’s previous plays, it still seems somewhat contrived.

“Marco Millions”: This is the play that has an epilogue where Marco Polo (yes, that Marco Polo) exits the theater alongside the audience and takes a limousine that awaits him on the street outside. I don’t see how this adds to the play, other than to perhaps suggest that European colonialism was the source of American wealth. This play is much longer than any of the previous plays in the book. It’s better than “The Hairy Ape”, although the female characters remain cardboard.

“The Great God Brown”: This play incorporates masks to show the difference between a character’s public self and private self. Interestingly, characters are usually afraid of each others’ private selves. Some characters steal others’ masks, which leads to even more identity-based chaos. The play is good, but the women are still obsessed with the men.

“Lazarus Laughed”: This play has a good idea but I feel like its execution is flawed. O’Neill tells of the time after Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus. Lazarus constantly laughs, and his laugh inspires joy in others, so they form a cult around him. This cult constantly chants, “Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!” This cult chants this throughout the whole play. Because there is so much chanting, it slows the pacing, and is rather distracting.

“Strange Interlude”: This play is pretty long. It involves a woman who wants to have a child. Her husband’s family has mental health issues that may be inheritable. The woman wants a child, so she has one with another man and tries to pass it off as her husband’s. For the first time in O’Neill’s drama, each and every scene has momentum. Each scene changes the dynamic between characters and increases tension. The play is great. Just beware of contrived female characters.

“Mourning Becomes Electra”: This play parallels “The Oresteia” by Aeschylus, only it takes place during the Civil War. The best part of this play is a character named Sid who sings “Shenandoah” at various intervals throughout the trilogy, which really accentuates the changing mood of the play. O’Neill’s play cycle is better than Aeschylus’s in some parts (characters are more-fully realized, for instance). At this point, O’Neill’s writing has matured. It shows through his treatment of his content. “Mourning” combines some fable-istic aspects from “The Hairy Ape” with the more naturalistic elements of “Desire Under the Elms.”

Those are the nine plays. I hope you enjoyed my reviews, and check out the book here.