Tag Archives: Europe

“Midnight in Europe” by Alan Furst

MidnightEurope

So this is not the type of book I normally read. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a spy novel, especially when it’s considered “historical fiction,” it’s just that it is not the type of book I would generally go out of my way to purchase. But, I was at a fundraising event not too long ago which had a silent auction; so of course, I had to bid on the package of books. I won the bid and this was one of the books in the cache. Anyway, I felt like reading something different, so I opted for this one.

Overall, I thought the book was pretty good. Not great, but I didn’t feel like I had wasted my time reading it. I suspect fans of the spy genre would probably find it more interesting than I did. Still, it held my interest enough for me to finish the book.

The story is about a lawyer in Paris just before the start of World War II. He gets recruited to assist an organization securing arms for the resistance against the Franco regime in Spain. And from there, the plot thickens, to use the old cliché.

Early in the book, Furst describes what it was like for a family to be displaced as a result of the political upheaval, something I have thought about but thankfully have never had to experience.

Two days later they left for Paris. Ferrar, twelve at the time, would never forget the journey: this rupture in the family life had frozen them into silence. Nobody said a word, their minds occupied by the refugees’ litany: Where will we live? How shall we survive? What will become of us? In time, these questions were answered as the family adapted as best they could.

(pp. 26 – 27)

Since I am a bit of a word geek, I liked coming across the etymology of the word Gestapo,

Ferrar and de Lyon were led through the busy waiting room—inspiring the occasional furtive glance—to an office with a sign on the door that said GEHEIME STAATSPOLIZEI, abbreviated in common usage to “Gestapo.”

(p. 79)

While in college, I took a class that explored totalitarian government, and how fascist regimes come into power is something I found fascinating, albeit somewhat frightening. In this book, it is asserted that the goal of fascism is to destroy the established order.

“There is a good possibility that his malice is political. Fascism is a revolutionary force, it wants to destroy the established order and take its place—take its money, its businesses, everything it has because, to these people, the governing class in Europe is hesitant, ineffective, effete. So, destroy it. That’s what they’ve done in Germany and Italy and what they will do in Spain, with the excuse that they’re fighting Bolshevism.”

(p. 152)

I would have to say, though, that the descriptions of the various cities and towns in pre-WWII Europe are this book’s strongest aspects. There were times when I was actually able to envision myself walking along dark, wet streets, taking in the sights and sounds.

As I said, I thought the book was pretty good. If you’re a fan of spy novels, you might want to check it out. If you do, I’d be interested to hear your impression of this book.

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“The Prospects for Europe” by Umberto Eco

Europe

This is an essay that Eco was asked to write some years back concerning how he viewed the current state of the European Union. Not surprising, it seemed kind of dated and irrelevant to me, for the most part. That said, there are still some interesting points that are worth considering.

Eco asserts that there is a noticeable movement toward a European identity as opposed to being identified by a particular nationality.

In the meantime, a European identity is growing more and more noticeable. Perhaps this identity is not evident when we Europeans visit another European country, because the visit triggers rather a perception of the differences—but differences are also perceived by a Milanese who goes to Palermo or by a Calabrian who visits Turin. The sense of identity prevails, however, when we come into contact with a non-European culture, American culture included: there are moments, during a conference, in an evening spent with friends from different countries, or even in the course of a tourist outing, in which we sense a common sentiment. The points of view, behavior, and tastes of a Frenchman, a Spaniard, or a German are more familiar to us than those of non-Europeans.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 38 – 39)

While I have not traveled extensively in Europe (so far I have visited England, Scotland, France, Italy, and Germany), I am inclined to agree with Eco. While I recognize the difference in cultures, the people all share a definite European-ness, for lack of a better word. In fact, I notice more differences between regional cultures in the United States. The differences between people in New York and Mississippi are stark, as are those between Mid-Westerners and residents of the Pacific Northwest. But that said, there is still a shared American identity, and this is similar to the shared European identity that Eco points out.

The other assertion that Eco makes which is interesting is his projection that American attention will shift from the Atlantic region to the Pacific as a result of the economic connection with Asian countries.

America’s attention will shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, just as for years now the great centers of production and research have been moved to, or have arisen on, the Californian coast. Eventually New York will become an American Florence, still a center of fashion and culture but less and less a place where decisions are made.

(ibid: p. 41)

As much as I don’t want to accept this, I have to concede there is a bit of truth here. It certainly seems like there are currently more business and employment opportunities on the West Coast of the US. And if Eco’s prophesy is fulfilled, then this shift may have an economic impact on Europe.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 15

CirceAndSwine

This episode corresponds with the section in Homer’s Odyssey concerning Odysseus’ encounter with Circe. According to Greek mythology, Circe is the goddess of magic and sorcery and is renowned for her knowledge of potions and herbs.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is described as living in a mansion that stands in the middle of a clearing in a dense wood. Around the house prowled strangely docile lions and wolves, the drugged victims of her magic; they were not dangerous, and fawned on all newcomers. Circe worked at a huge loom. She invited Odysseus’ crew to a feast of familiar food, a pottage of cheese and meal, sweetened with honey and laced with wine, but also laced with one of her magical potions, and drunk from an enchanted cup. Thus so she turned them all into swine with a wand after they gorged themselves on it. Only Eurylochus, suspecting treachery from the outset, escaped to warn Odysseus and the others who had stayed behind at the ships. Odysseus set out to rescue his men, but was intercepted by the messenger god, Hermes, who had been sent by Athena. Hermes told Odysseus to use the holy herb moly to protect himself from Circe’s potion and, having resisted it, to draw his sword and act as if he were to attack Circe. From there, Circe would ask him to bed, but Hermes advised caution, for even there the goddess would be treacherous. She would take his manhood unless he had her swear by the names of the gods that she would not.

(Wikipedia)

In Joyce’s novel, this episode takes place in the red light district, most of which is in a brothel. The entire episode, which is the longest in the book at around 180 pages, is written in the form of a play script. The majority of the “action” that takes place is in the form of hallucinations and mental visions induced by intoxication. This draws on the symbolism of Circe as a sexual temptress and one who can ensnare men using drugs and potions. I see the use of the play form as symbolic of the action playing out on the stage of the individuals’ minds and psyches.

In Homer’s epic, Circe turns Odysseus’ men into swine. Likewise, Joyce uses pig metaphors throughout the episode to reinforce the image of the men who are soliciting the prostitutes being nothing but swine.

Most of Bloom’s hallucinations are tied to feelings of guilt regarding his sexuality. At one point he imagines himself on trial where all his dark secrets are exposed. It is like he is being accused and confronted by his conscience which is no longer comfortable with the things he has done and imagined.

THE CRIER

(Loudly.) Whereas Leopold Bloom of no fixed abode is a well-known dynamitard, forger, bigamist, bawd and cuckold and a public nuisance to the citizens of Dublin and whereas at this commission of assizes the most honorable…

(p. 470)

In one of the hallucinations, Bloom has a cross-dressing fantasy. He imagines himself being forced to assume a female role and become a prostitute. This ties in with Hermes’ warning to Odysseus that Circe would take his manhood.

BELLO

(Points to his whores.) As they are now, so will you be, wigged, singed, perfumesprayed, ricepowdered, with smoothshaven armpits. Tape measurements will be taken next your skin. You will be laced with cruel force into vicelike corsets of soft dove coutille, with whalebone busk, to the diamond trimmed pelvis, the absolute outside edge, while your figure, plumper than when at large, will be restrained in nettight frocks, pretty two ounce petticoats and fringes and things stamped, of course, with my houseflag, creations of lovely lingerie for Alice and nice scent for Alice. Alice will feel the pullpull. Martha and Mary will be a little chilly at first in such delicate thighcasing but the frilly flimsiness of lace round your bare knees will remind you…

(pp. 535 – 536)

In another of Bloom’s hallucinations, he encounters the Goddess in the form of The Nymph. She accuses him of exploiting her, using her sacred image in advertising as a means to sell things. I found this to be a powerful critique on how women continue to be exploited by the media.

THE NYMPH

Mortal! You found me in evil company, highkickers, coster picnic makers, pugilists, popular generals, immoral panto boys in flesh tights and nifty shimmy dancers, La Aurora and Karini, musical act, the hit of the century. I was hidden in cheap pink paper that smelt of rock oil. I was surrounded by the stale smut of clubmen, stories to the callow youth, ads for transparencies, truedup dice and bustpads, proprietary articles and why wear a truss with testimonial from ruptured gentleman. Useful hints to the married.

BLOOM

(Lifts a turtle head towards her lap.) We have met before. On another star.

THE NYMPH

(Sadly.) Rubber goods. Neverrip. Brand as supplied to the aristocracy. Corsets for men. I cure fits or money refunded. Unsolicited testimonials for Professor Waldmann’s wonderful chest exuber. My bust developed four inches in three weeks, reports Mrs Gus Rublin with photo.

BLOOM

You mean Photo Bits?

THE NYMPH

I do. You bore me away, framed me in oak and tinsel, set me above your marriage couch. Unseen, one summer eve, you kissed me in four places. And with loving pencil you shaded my eyes, my bosom and my shame.

(pp. 545 – 546)

This is such a long episode and there is so much that can be analyzed and explored, way too much for a single blog post. As such, I will look at one last quote that struck me as interesting. Stephen (who was with Bloom in the brothel) gets into an argument with a soldier. He criticizes the soldier’s willingness to die for his country. It is a display of anti-nationalism. Considering that Joyce wrote this at a time when nationalism was on the rise in Europe, I found it a poignant critique on the socio-political climate of the time.

STEPHEN

(Nervous, friendly, pulls himself up.) I understand your point of view, though I have no king myself for the moment. This is the age of patent medicine. A discussion is difficult down here. But this is the point. You die for your country, suppose. (He places his arm on Private Carr’s sleeve.) Not that I wish it for you. But I say: Let my country die for me. Up to the present it has done so. I don’t want to die. Damn death. Long live life!

(p. 591)

My next post on Ulysses will cover Episode 16 which ends on page 665 in my copy with the phrase “… and looked after their lowbacked car.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12

Episode 13

Episode 14


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section15.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circe

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Traveling in England and France

So, I know what you’ve been thinking: “It’s been a long time since Jeff posted.” Well, that’s because I was traveling in England and France with my family. I have to say, I had an amazing time. Now, I could write about my travels, but this is Stuff Jeff Reads, not Places Jeff Visits. That said, I did poke around in some interesting bookstores and picked up a couple books.

The first bookstore I visited was The Tiny Book Store in Rye, which is in southern England. Rye is a beautiful old city and was home to Henry James. Going there is like stepping into a different century. Here is a picture I snapped in the cemetery.

RyeCemetery

Anyway, while perusing the Tiny Book Store, I came across an old, hardcover copy of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Since I had never read this before and I was in James’ hometown, I figured I would buy it. It has now taken its place in my stack of books waiting eagerly to be read.

My other book purchase was at the famous Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris.

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

This was one of the most amazing bookstores I have ever visited. This bookstore has a rich history and served as a central gathering point for writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound. In addition, James Joyce used the bookstore as an office. While I was weaving my way through the crooked aisles of books, I chanced upon Turning Back the Clock, a book by Umberto Eco which I had never heard of before. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. It’s now keeping Turn of the Screw company atop my dresser.

TurningBackTheClock

So, while I have your attention, I thought it would be a good time to give you a heads-up on what I am planning for the near future. I mentioned the connection between James Joyce and the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. Well, I’ve decided to reread Ulysses, beginning in a couple weeks. I plan on going slowly and posting my thoughts after each chapter. If you are interested in reading (or rereading) what is arguably the greatest modernist novel ever written, you are welcome to do so along with me. I’ll be posting when I begin the book, for those who wish to follow along.

Until then, happy reading!!

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