Friday, December 13, 2019

Lord Byron's Novel - The Evening Land - by John Crowley

John Crowley continues to amaze with the breadth of his creativity. His 2005 book, Lord Byron’s Novel, explores the life of that notorious poet and his near-unknown daughter Ada, later Ada Lovelace, a mathematician who, mentored by Charles Babbage, foresaw the capabilities of computers, even in the 1850s. The vehicle is a single page of a destroyed manuscript which refers to a full-length novel penned by Byron, burned at her mother’s request by Ada. But this single page contains a cipher – a number series which when decoded, applies to columns of numbers written on a stack of pages in Ada’s papers.

The researchers, in 2002, suspect that Ada burned the manuscript out of deference to her mother, but not before rendering it in a code only broken by their diligence. Crowley’s novel is the result, with footnotes by Ada commenting about the likely personages and encounters her father’s novel refers to. Meanwhile, a thread of communications between researchers introduces another story. In effect, this novel is three: Lord Byron’s itself, The Evening Land, is everything one might hope for from a poet, adventurer, ne’er-do-well, a rebel dubbed “Satan” by his detractors. Ada’s chapter-by-chapter observations offer a counterpoint to his words. The communications of his 21st century discoverers open yet another view onto a man who lived fully and died young.

What is it about Crowley? What muse has come to dwell with him, giving unique insight to his subjects, which themselves range from the fairy tale Little, Big; to his novel Four Freedoms, about Americans who during WWII moved from the margins to center stage while the young white male (dominant) group was overseas at war: women, racial minorities, cripples – their efforts were needed to supply military materiel, so they were allowed economic power and privilege previously closed to them. Crowley explores the mystic undercurrents of modern life in his Ægypt trilogy. Then, his novel The Translator is patterned on the life of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, expatriate due to official persecution. In this deceptively short work, we see the poet, teaching a seminar at an American university, cultivate an undergrad woman – not a Russian speaker/reader – to translate his poetry into English. Their simpatico relationship enables her to express his words, not literally but from the heart, in another language.

And here we have him reaching into the past, resurrecting a poet of faltering reputation, along with his daughter never given due recognition. Crowley seems engaged in a sort of literary healing, in which his clear insights rescue people from the niches into which society has confined them, setting them on a path of honor and respect. If curiosity drives what you read, Crowley should be on your list, on your bookshelf, and his voice in your mind.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

 This timely novel is a must-read, especially for those who love trees. Through characters of varying ages and dispositions, we learn about trees as members of larger organisms – an aspen grove, for example, is a single “tree” with multiple sprouts – the ways they communicate, share defenses against insects, fire, and other risks, and how vastly we have underestimated their capacities. Our studies of sentience have all been focused on behaviors and characteristics that mirror ways humans behave and comprehend. But trees are a whole different world.

In this novel we meet an anomalous chestnut – after American chestnuts by the millions were killed off by an imported fungus – and through a family’s obsessive photographing of the tree over many decades, a flip-book is created that compresses time, showing the growth and glory of this single specimen. Then we meet two-thousand-year-old redwoods near the northern California coast, through the eyes of the few humans who see their value beyond board-feet of lumber – one couple live on a platform 200 feet up one giant for over a year while the company that has purchased the lumber rights to its grove try various tactics to get them down. The treetops are an ecosystem apart – the tree-sitters find salamanders living in a pool well above their platform, and flying squirrels visit nightly, and other species sprout from this benevolent matriarch of a tree.

Though I have not done extensive research myself, what I have read corroborates what Powers writes, including an “eco-terrorist” group that torched ski area buildings, nonviolent actions in which peaceful protestors suffered what amount to torture techniques at the hands of the authorities: pepper spray applied by Q-tips to their pried-open eyes, tearing off the pants of a man who climbs a tree, then repeatedly spraying his genitals with Mace – and so on. How dire a threat are these protestors, that makes treatment of them so out of proportion to their acts?

This book teaches us enough about the symbiosis between plants and humans to make us tremble for the future we are creating, focused so narrowly on human needs and desires that we fail to sustain the ecosystems without which our very survival becomes questionable. As one of the tree-sitters says to another: “We don’t make reality. We just evade it. So far. By looting natural capital and hiding the costs. But the bill is coming, and we won’t be able to pay.” A biologist whose research into tree communication had her laughed out of academia, who continues on her own because she feels she must, is called as expert witness in the challenge of permits to log old-growth forest. She reflects, “These slow deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the microclimate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature.”

The author, through a character, observes: “To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs… No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments or pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places that must be cleared. We see branches about to crush our roof. We see a cash crop. But trees – trees are invisible.”

It’s time to start seeing trees, acknowledging their primacy as our partners in survival. They are the carbon sink we need right now. Instead of cutting them down in ever larger swathes, we need to nurture what remains, especially the ancients that harbor the greatest diversity, and we need to plant more, not for monocropping tree farms but for our future. READ THIS BOOK! Then go plant some trees, and start noticing how much your own blind consumption of wood derivatives feeds the cycle of destruction. Be a better resident of this planet, before it’s too late.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Truth, a film by Hirokazu Kore-eda

This first-rate film explores the relationship between mother Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), and daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) during a visit by Lumir’s family – herself, husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), and 9-year-old daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) – to Fabienne’s home in Paris. Fabienne is working on a film – a small part, but what she gets these days. One of her co-stars is Manon (Manon Clavel), a woman 40 years her junior who strongly resembles an actress, Sarah, whose career the jealous Fabienne derailed many decades before.

Coincident with this visit is the release of Fabienne’s memoir, which Lumir avidly scans for mentions of herself: memories she considers inaccurate, and the absence of events significant to her childhood. More than once characters say versions of “Memory is faulty” – certainly true, but that fog is no match for the self-serving inventions of mother and daughter. It is the mark of great acting and a careful director that our sympathies turn from one to another – as soon as we meet Lumir, we feel the slights she carries so vividly – but as the film goes on, we see her planting her own ideas, perhaps for no better reason than to deceive her mother into some of the falsity she recalls from childhood. Even in a rare moment of closeness, the two spar.

Deneuve is magnificent: regal, helpless, kvetching, but when the camera is on her, gathers her poise about her like a beautiful robe. Her daughter is knowing and somewhat cynical, but also spiteful – she wants to rub Fabienne’s nose in the experiences that scarred her. Fabienne’s not buying it. She is blithe and vain, but also protecting herself – she cannot have the great presence she exudes if she apologizes, bends, begs forgiveness. Charlotte, too young to fully understand what the two women are doing, becomes the messenger of their attempts to reconcile or hurt each other. Hawke, playing essentially himself, watches their performances, aware of what they are doing but standing clear – this is not his fight.

Late in the film, as Fabienne praises young Manon, we think perhaps reality has broken through her high-flown vanity: she even acknowledges the qualities of her long-dead rival Sarah. But she is too shielded from the uncomfortable truth, which she has spent most of her life avoiding, to open herself to such a revision of her self-image now. No, she will continue the act that has brought her this far, saying only what she thinks she should. If we were to read the memoir, we would likely find it as self-serving as the persona she presents to the world. Somewhere in the shadows is the real Fabienne, an enigma even to herself.

Having seen Kore-eda’s film Shoplifters, in which viewers go from thinking we understand this family, to witnessing complexities that amaze and vex us, I was gratified to see that, once again, he does not stop the transformation of his characters even at the finale. By the end of either film, we feel there is still more to know about these people. In times when it’s easy and comforting to think we have people pegged, Kore-eda reminds us there is more to their stories than even they can reveal.