The Ambassadors by Henry James

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I often found myself calling out to my junior year high school English teacher while reading The Ambassadors. I can only describe this undertaking as a literary journey in its purest form and frankly it was not one I was prepared to make on my own. Ms Tramontine would have certainly provided the explanations needed to fully appreciate some of the finest uses of the English language I have ever come across.

The journey was the same as one would experience in its more traditional definition with moments of frustration and confusion later disregarded after witnessing glimpses of sheer beauty - in this case a result of a series of sentences written with such fluidity that left me smiling and then rereading the prose out loud.

I have since read a handful of literary reviews on this work that James claimed to be his best. One theme emerging more than once is how it is a difficult book to break into initially. I concur, succeeding only to do so in the last one hundred pages.

The story in itself, is simple in nature especially when comparing it to modern fiction which is constantly being required to push the creative envelope. A young American in the early 20th century is having too much fun in Paris. His concerned mother sends her fiancée to convince the son to return to the States to take over their successful business. However, upon arrival the fiancée is overcome with the beauty and splendor of Paris and its gens. He meets the son and his friends who he finds to be fabulous in all senses. Several different women play vital roles throughout the story yet the book is free of sex and expressions of hedonism. Yet, James' greatest ability is how he enhances the tensions in these relationships using the subtle aspects of human nature often not written about - the longer than usual glance, the words not spoken in that moment.

I do want to read this book again as there is bound to be so much more to be gotten from it. If anyone in my vast blog audience would like to join me on this journey please let me know. I cannot offer to be the guide, per se, but perhaps the role of the scout could be a more realistic and suiting one.


Se Questo è un Uomo (If This is a Man) by Primo Levi

Friday, May 1, 2009

Primo Levi was an Italian Jew who fought against the fascists during the second the World War. He was captured at the age of twenty five and sent to Auschwitz for one year from 1944-1945. Educated as a chemist, he went on to write what is probably the most highly regarded account by an Italian of life in the concentration camps. He went on to become a successful journalist until his suicide in 1987, 42 years after having survived Auschwitz. After having read his simple and honest recount it becomes more understandable how such an experience cannot be forgotten in one lifetime. The memories still haunted him four decades later.

My own childhood education gave a fair amount of attention to World War II and in particular to the stories of Holocaust survivors. However, it had been fifteen years since I had read a personal account of this nature. It is important for all of us to do for the simple reason that it reminds us how fortunate we are.

It is my impression that pop culture with its happy endings, perfectly manufactured characters, and material excess often has the reverse effect than that which is intended. I often hear the justification to be how people need something light, easy, and happy that allows them to relax after a stressful day. Therefore, watching your standard formula Hollywood film or flipping through Maxim are accepted means for overcoming the difficulties of the day-to-day grind. But what often is happens is that society is instead presented with a reality that does not exist and worse yet, leaves them desiring something unattainable. You cannot have rock hard abs in just six weeks.

A book of this nature, instead, pulls at such a vast range of emotions. One cannot read it without feeling a reoccurring sadness and anger. Yet, for me, the positive aspects were greater. I understood the true strength of the human spirit - capable of overcoming the unimaginable. I was able to see how true individualism without the help of others does not exist. It was impossible to survive a lager without the partnership of at least one other person.

On a more superficial level, the winter at its coldest is something I will no longer be able to complain about when I have a warm down coat and a heated house. Winter for those in a concentration camp meant working 12 hour days in wooden shoes, a cotton shirt and a canvas jacket with temperatures at -20 degree.

Stories such as this allow us to better content ourselves with what we have instead of subliminally pointing out our physical imperfections or small bank account. Finding this self-contentment is a truly relaxing experience which is more likely to be found in a difficult book than in season four of Desperate Housewives.


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