Monday, January 27, 2020

Bric-à-brac for January 2020

1. The World's Oldest Olive Tree
... as far as we know, is located in the village of Ano Vouves in Crete (Greece), and is about 3000 years old (or more). Durable and enduring as all olive trees are (which is why they have been cultivated for thousands of years throughout the Mediterranean), this tree continues to produce fruit - and to live. (You can learn more about the Vouvos tree on this blog and in this article.)

In the video below you can see some drone-filmed images of the tree, with its ancient, contorted, and now mostly hollowed-out trunk. Looking at it, and thinking about it - and learning that is used to be surrounded, millennia ago, by a cemetery - brings to mind the sun-scorched ages of man in the Mediterranean, the lives and the societies that surrounded - and used - this tree, the length of time that preceded us - days that were not shorter nor longer than ours; a "present," then, that was equally a "present time," as is our own "present;" in short, duration, or, in fact, human duration (always the same, and always equally oblivious of its own past).

In any case, enjoy:

And, since you asked about the process of making olive oil out of the fruits of the tree, here is a primer that presents both the traditional and the modern methods of production.

2. The Aftermath of Le Corbusier
Le Corbusier is, of course, the father figure of a school of architecture and urban planning that represents, in many ways, the quintessentially Modern vision - namely, the idea of designing and implementing ("on" human beings) a masterplan for their lives that is guided by (purportedly) the most "enlightened" and "humanist" ideals, but which is also far removed from, and even disdainful of, the lived messiness of human existence, of its floral diversity, gregarious needs - and of its actual history.

It does have a certain charm, or so I find, this "brave" vision of a new future, which combines hopefulness (i.e. naive idealism) and hubris, reflecting that typically Modern combination of half-digested Enlightenment ideas with the promise and enticing power of the empirical sciences (that we will "measure" the world and take complete control of it - Die Vermessung der Welt, the French encyclopedists). Of course, from similar hubristic-yet-well-intended metanarratives resulted also the catastrophic ideologies of the twentieth century...

Part of Le Corbusier's philosophy was the creation of "machines for living" that were designed (in total disregard for architectural traditions, heritage, and context, but) following rationalist and utilitarian principles - pure and angular geometric forms, made mostly using exposed concrete, and following rational rules about what the human beings want and need. In other words, a top-down vision about designing human habitation that rejects all things "organic" and messy, and aims for pure rationality (rationalism, in fact) and utility (utilitarianism, in fact). If this does not sound all too friendly or appealing, well, perhaps you have to be taught how to live (by these buildings). (At the other end of the pendulum swing, but perhaps with quite a few similarities, would be Gaudi, whose "organicist" architecture isn't terribly "human," either; just as the jungle is the not the friend of man.)

I would note here that I do find Brutalism, as an architectural style, to have its own charm, in isolated exemplars and reduced quantities. In other words, I would not say the same thing about the aforementioned principles of urban planning, nor of habitations made entirely of Brutalist buildings, streets and squares. (Of course, this idea of teaching people how to live, and of forcibly re-making the world, still holds appeal - the remains of the days of Modernity.)

But, as much as we want to re-make existence based on pure, rational, measurable principles (all for the "higher good"), life takes over, life flows beyond the human-set bounds; it turns out that we will not measure, categorize and put in neat boxes the entire world, all of existence; it seems, then, that time and life win, and win, over and over again. It does not help either that concrete is an ugly construction material, especially when affected by said passing of time and by the elements.

One of the major projects in which Le Corbusier was involved, which gave him relatively free reign both in urban and in architectural design, was the planned city of Chandigarh, the capital of the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana (a planned city like Brasilia, the capital of Brazil). (See more info on Chandigarh here - but do watch the video, as it is more instructive than the text itself - and one has to see it.)

Given what was said above, I find the video below quite poetic; it is of a building in Chandigarh, and, if modernist architecture is inherently futuristic, this video seems to express a post-apocalyptic version  - and also the organic denouement - of said vision. Quite ironic and quite poetic, I find.

3. Sport & the Arts
At the commemoration of 70 years since the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, the local football team, V-Varen Nagasaki (playing in J-League's second division) launched a dedicated “Pray for Peace” kit that featured an origami crane (a symbol of peace) and an image of Seibo Kitamura’s Peace Statue (statue located in Nagasaki's Peace Park, and which is meant to symbolize both the atomic threat and the mercy and peace of God).

Here are the jerseys:

UK Soccer Shop

On the brighter side of the same topic of sport & the arts (and, in fact, of football and the arts), some creative minds decided to start awarding the Fallon d'Floor award (the name is a spoof on the prestigious Ballon d'Or award), for the best "dive" (faking a foul, and following that with a spectacular fall) of the year. Although such dives can indeed be artistic, that is not the aspect that brought this issue under this sport & the arts heading, but the fact that in 2014 the same creative minds spiced up the awards by creating mock film posters for each dive (also spoofing in the process the titles of major movies).

Here are a couple of examples, and you can find more at this link. Regarding the first poster, a bit of context: it makes reference to the incident at the World Cup when Argentinian player Luis Suárez (whose most recognizable physical characteristic is a significant overbite) bit (!) Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder (!!), and then pretended that it was the Italian player who actually hit him in the teeth (!!!) with the shoulder (and I ran out of exclamation signs).

4. Morricone on the Streets, courtesy of Italo Vegliante
... and featuring a variety of instruments (or instrument sounds). The esteemed street artist featured in the video, signor Italo Vegliante, besides being a minor (Internet) celebrity today, was an Italian B-movies star (in the 80s), and is, most obviously, a talented musician / guitarist / entertainer.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Theban Plays, by Sophocles

Antigone; Oedipus Tyrannos; Oedipus at Colonus

It is interesting to note that, while the chronological order of the events (if we take these three plays as part of one overarching story, of the Theban royal family - of Oedipus and of his daughter Antigone) would be Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus at Colonus, and then Antigone, the order in which these different moments or themes were treated by Sophocles during his lifetime was, in fact, Antigone first, then sometime later Oedipus Tyrannos, and (I think toward the end of his life) Oedipus at Colonus.

Amazon  - I like this translation
And now to the plays. Why is one still surprised to “discover” how “contemporary” any true artist (of any age or period) is and “sounds" to our "modern" experience? It is indeed somewhat frustrating to still catch oneself being (if ever so slightly) “surprised” by such a "discovery." As if the human experience would not be the same, both in its highest and in its lowest aspects, throughout human time! And as if those who came before us would have been in any ways more “naive” or "innocently ignorant" (now these are some infuriating prejudices)! 

At such moments of apparent “discovery" and "surprise” about the "modernity" of an author I like to remind my students - for example - of the sheer, bone-on-bone brutality of the hand-to-hand combat that was typical of most wars, throughout history, before modernity; and also how in the “ancient times” the outcome of a conquest was usually the general massacre of all adult males, and the enslavement of all women and children – and the complete burning down of the given city. I remind them of these when we discuss Socrates, for example, informing them also that Socrates was a recognized and honored veteran of such wars, and thus that “philosopher” did not mean (and does not mean, or should not mean) some ivory-tower, impractical, aloof, removed from reality fuddy-duddy; if anyone knew brute reality, and human nature at its worse, then it was Socrates. 

Well, all this is to say that one should not be surprised to find hints and indications about some of the most perverse aspects of human nature, in Sophocles - aspects that we might feel are only transparent to a specifically modern awareness; and one should not be "surprised" to find in Sophocles expressions of emotions and dilemmas that are all too familiar to us “moderns." But perhaps one of the explanations for such modern biases (notice also that the adjective “modern” is implicitly understood as having a positive connotation... oh, my!) is that in terms of style art was indeed more bound to certain restraints (regarding expression) and to stricter coordinates of form, before contemporaneity. This formality of style, then, and this restraint of vocabulary, for example, did not mean however - in the case of the true artists - that their vision was dimmer, that they did not see, know, and express (through their specific means) the worse, most monstrous, and best, of the human condition. Furthermore, now that we have loosened or got rid of most or all formal bounds and expressive restraints, does that mean that we have "better" (or even more truthful) art? Well, it is enough to look around, to realize that that is not the case.

The Theban plays, then, deal (among others things) with some eternal conundrums which, being unchanging, i.e. belonging to the human condition qua human condition, are also "modern" ones. One such persistent dilemma of the human condition also determines the main conflict in Antigone, and it is the clash between one's duty to the “invisible” (or, let’s say, transcendent) norms or truth, and the interests and norms of the visible (surrounding) society. In a satisfactory fashion, Antigone ends with the transcendent (eternal) truth being justified – not before and not without wreaking havoc on all those involved - on all sides.

Wreaking havoc - indeed, another thing that stands out from these plays is the intensity of the passions, of the action, of the conflicts described. We need to remind ourselves that these are indeed “plays,” that they were written to be performed, and not as literary works designed for private, silent reading. Writing for public performance, the dramatist needs to know how to grab the attention, and how to stir the emotions, of the audience – and Sophocles knows indeed how to do all this, and does it very, very effectively; no wonder that he won so many theatrical competitions. The other aspect to be noted is how fast and intense is the action in these plays: it keeps moving, it keeps going; well, as said, the playwright does need to take and to keep hold of the audience’s attention and involvement. Oedipus at Colonus might be slightly “slower,” in this sense – but it is by no means "slow," and the action really picks up once Creon makes his appearance. (At the same time, I found the same play, Oedipus at Colonus, to be among the most rewarding  of the three, due to the richness of its dialogue.)

However, due to its powerful theme (the aforementioned clash between the order of Truth, and the “civic” or political order) and also to its strong central character, Antigone might be my overall favorite, among the three plays. Also in Antigone one can find a wonderful little dialogue between Creon and his son, Haemon - which moves from a somewhat formal exchange, exhibiting all the necessary codes of filial respect, to a conversation laced with irony, a biting and furious exchange that, again, sounds so truthful and (that dreaded word!) “modern” in the way it depicts the frustration of the young with what appear to be the slow, old (and, in this case, wrong) ways of the parent. An exchange that could be part, in its gist, of Death of a Salesman.

Oedipus Tyrannos is for me the play that seems “most remote,” specifically because of the “fated mechanisms” at play: the way in which the wheels of the gods, impersonal, it seems, shape the overall action. On the other hand, this play is maybe the most action-packed of all; the conflict starts right away, and it really helps that Oedipus is such a strong and violent (in his passions) character – he does drive the conflict.

In fact, each of these plays has a central protagonist whose character is defined by violence (of emotions, passions), rashness (of decisions, impulses), and arrogance (haughtiness). In this sense it is interesting that, if Creon comes across as the voice of balanced reason in Oedipus Tyrannos (as opposed to the rash and haughty Oedipus), in Oedipus at Colonus the relationship will be reversed (at least to a degree), Creon being the violent one, while Oedipus less so; meanwhile, in Antigone Creon is simply the "bad guy," with all the corresponding negative traits. Yet one could not say that Oedipus is entirely changed, even in Oedipus at Colonus; his volcanic temperament subsists, underneath, and it manifests itself at occasions, in small fits and starts, but it is much tempered and slowed down by Oedipus's blindness, old age, and (presumably) the sufferings and humiliations he'd endured.

As a general note, perhaps the main reason why these plays leave one with the impression of having encountered outstanding, memorable works of art is their inner unity and balance. This has to do, among others, with the author’s economy of means – by which I am referring to how the length and pacing of the action fits the story to be told (don’t say more, and don’t say less, than what the story absolutely needs!). This briskness, which does not fall into heedless rushing along because it fits the inner logic of the action of the story – and, in fact and overall, the harmony between the form and the content  - is indeed why you leave the texts knowing that these are full, well-rounded, complete works of art. (Compare this with Aristophanes’ “all over the place” style, at least in The Clouds - which reminds me of what happens in some of Adam Sandler’s movies.)        

Speaking of briskness, amusingly enough there are several instances in which characters either announce that “I will have to be short in my speech, for once,” or ask their interlocutor “to be short in what they have to say, this time;” for me, it is as if Sophocles is giving himself leeway, allowing himself the “foreshortening” of the speeches; because, indeed, some of the speeches do have a tendency to be a bit too baroque, too rich and lengthy (mostly, perhaps, in Oedipus at Colonus).

But the intensity of the passions driving the protagonists; the strong characters; the fierceness of the conflicts; the implicit (but also explicit) violence (although most of the physical violence happens off-stage); Sophocles’ undoubtable technical skills as a playwright; and, overall and foremostly, the aforementioned harmony of form and content - all these contribute to making these plays memorable and thoroughly engaging - and to making us desire to see them staged as well. 

Indeed, reading these plays one itches to go to an amphitheater and to see them being brought to life – but in their original form and intent. Or, one would also be interested in seeing them in a contemporary staging – but hopefully not in a needlessly “modernized” one.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Happy Mondays: The Greatest Hits (3)

Very few people know about the “French period” of the UK band Happy Mondays, which was the avantgarde phase of their work. Indeed, very few people know about it, because there is no such thing.

The absurdist stylings of Rémi Gaillard

One of the things that I admire about Rémi Gaillard is the courage with which he takes his craft “to the brink.” I am referring to the courage with which he takes what lies at the heart of the comical (namely, the paradox or the clash between what seems to be and what actually is) to its utmost. This is why the absurd is comical (e.g. the absurd theatre of Eugène Ionesco) - because it exposes and it narrates this paradox, or at least one of its dimensions.

I also like how committed, faithful and earnest Rémi Gaillard is in following the central idea of the gag. “What if?”, he asks - and then he does it, with hilarious results. There is an anarchic and riotous quality to his act, that is also very engaging.

But does not the act veer sometime almost into cruelty? Perhaps, and those are not his best moments.

But when it works, when all the right elements line up, the paradox made visible creates laughter. When it all works, then what he does becomes an artistic act – artistic by virtue of this inner consistency with the idea.

Monday, January 13, 2020

"Persepolis," by Marjane Satrapi

I am not familiar with the world (or the genre) of graphic novels. Furthermore, I might have a slight bias against them, due to their (but is there a “their”? is there an all-encompassing group sharing the same "nature"?) association, in my mind, with the “comic books” genre (which, for me, is somewhat synonymous with superficiality and childishness – surely enjoyable during one's childhood, but unsatisfactory for the adult).

So I discovered this “graphic novel” almost accidentally; one day I was at the library and, to fill my time with some lighter reading, and because I have heard of it previously (and of the movie made by its author, based on it), I picked up this graphic novel, Persepolis – and it ”caught”. I returned later, during the following days, to continue the reading, and to finish it - which proved to be a very rewarding experience.

The (drawing) style employed in this graphic novel is very simple, simplistic even – but it is not artless, by any means. In fact, it has a specific artistry by virtue of this approach. It is in black and white, which I think fits its content – it somehow fits the early 70s period it describes, it certainly fits the period of the Islamic Republic, and it fits, why not, the disheartening adventures of Marjane in the West (in Austria), during her teen years.

But what is this book about? As the name might imply, it is about Iran, more precisely about a young woman in the Iran (Persia, by its ancient name) of the Shah (before the Islamic Revolution), then during the Revolution and the ensuing Shi’a Islamist regime (in 1979 and in the 80s), and then about her time in the West (more specifically, Austria - in the 80s).

Why did I like this novel? Why did it resonate? And how did it resonate? Well, the sections of the book dealing with her life in Iran (which do form most of the book) are the most appealing and the most relatable, for me. This has to do with the historical and cultural period that they describe (the 70s and the 80s), to which I can certainly relate – and also with her and her extended family’s (and her friends’) life of muted dissidence versus both regimes - the authoritarian one of the Shah, and the totalitarian one of the Islamic Republic. I can relate to that, as well, because there are similarities between that and my own experience under a totalitarian regime, in Central Europe - also during the 80s. So I find that her experience of 80s rebellious teenage culture – manifested, for example, through the adoption of elements of Western pop culture, like music and dress items (e.g. jeans) – against (and in a minor key undermining) the existing authoritarian or totalitarian regime, is indeed similar in many ways with my experiences of the 80s anti-regime teenage culture. And not just the “teenage culture” – her middle, or middle-upper class family, of secular intellectuals, resonates with many similar families I have known, who faced and opposed, in their own small and imperfect ways, an oppressive regime.  

But this is not to say that this novel is about “regimes,” or about politics. To the contrary: its charm and attractiveness lie in the fact that this is a personal story, and that it is her voice, talking about her life, that we hear throughout.

I mentioned the fact that the part of the book dealing with her years in a Western European society, in the 80s, were, how to put it, disheartening; and that is true, and how strange that it is so! But let's try to explain what this means. To start with - as mentioned, her family was Iranian middle-upper class, belonging to what we could call the "technical intelligentsia” (her father was – what? – an architect, if I recall correctly; and I think that her mother was a teacher; so they might also be classified as part of the Bildungsbürgertum, the "educated bourgeoisie"). I know this type of family very well.

And here a parenthesis is due, to explain the Iranian cultural context. Contrary to uninformed clichés, which might come from associating the Iranian society with its current regime, and from assuming that if a regime (the ruling institutions and leadership) is of a certain kind, then the people are of the same kind – the society and culture of Iran is not the same as the regime currently in power there; instead, the society and its culture is very much modern, developed, and secularized (especially its middle classes). To express it more synthetically, the society of Iran during the Shah’s regime (i.e. before the Islamic Revolution), and especially the middle and upper classes thereof, was the same or very similar as most Western societies (e.g. France in the 50s and 60s). Furthermore, the Iranian (Persian) culture is, in itself, very, very old. First of all, it is not an Islamic culture. Persia, as we know, was an ancient empire, and one of the most ancient cultures, which left us some of mankind’s major cultural artefacts, products of a rich and developed civilization. In fact, when Islam arrived there, in the 7th century AD (or thereabouts), it actually had to contend with and to solve significant tensions arising from its inadequacy with the existing, and already millennia-old, Persian culture (poetry, art etc.). Of course, the Persians are not Arabs, either, which also added cultural and linguistic obstacles.

Anyway - and to return to our topic – uninformed Western eyes often tend to confuse a political regime (which might have been instated through violence) with the actual reality of the underlying society. And this is another reason why I found the portions of the book dealing with the clash between this established middle class culture, and the authoritarian / totalitarian regime (of the Shah or of the Ayatollah), relatable and partially familiar – as Central and Eastern Europe experienced a similar (albeit not identical) thing, in which an (in this case) culturally alien regime was imposed by force, and in which the bourgeois culture, which had its own norms of civilized life, clashed with this “primitive” political regime. And this is also where the issue of the emptiness of the time Marjane spent in the West, compared with her time in her Iranian middle class environment, comes up. Because it is strange, isn’t it, that the ”emptiest time" (in terms of human and civilizational values), among the periods covered in the novel, was the one spent in early 80s Austria? Wouldn’t it be expected, and couldn’t we expect, that the time spent in the West would be the most flourishing among the ones described in the book? And yet it is in fact the opposite. Mind you, she does not express this, as such, directly; and I am not sure that she fully acknowledged it to herself, in the end; but for us readers it is apparent - and somewhere underneath she must, she surely knows this; after all, she “escaped” the Austrian existential disarray by returning to Iran – yes, the Iran of the totalitarian regime of the Ayatollah. And yet, this does not mean that that regime was better than the liberal democracy and the capitalism of Austria – to the contrary, obviously. But what she returned to was not the “regime,” but the slightly and slyly dissident, oppositional culture of her middle class family and of her environment – who head to sneak around to avoid the all-powerful and all-controlling tentacles of the regime, just to have a dance party, or to have some drinks. And this is where it’s at – that what gives that time meaning, the time she spent in the Iranian environment, is perhaps exactly the fact that one of the effects of oppressive regimes, especially on those who oppose them (perhaps simply by keeping to their own cultural and social “marching orders”) is to “purify” their lifestyle and norms, to force them to cling to (and to redefine and reassume, over and over again) a set of norms and guidelines about how one should live “normally," "in the right way," comme il faut – so as not to be swallowed by said regime. Thus there is a lot of talk in Marjane's family about what one should or should not do, what one does and what one can not do; by contrast, the period she spends in Austria is defined, if by anything, then by a dissolution of norms and guidelines – and, in fact, by a dissolution of all meaning, by a drifting around and a sliding downwards, all of which she does not take well, eventually (although I think that she will keep a part of what she has “learned” there, with her) - and from which she will seek refuge, as said, by going back to her family in Iran (even if she hated, as they all did, the regime there). But, as said, it is not to the regime to which she goes back, but to a life of bounds and direction (and purpose, inherent) – compared with the meaninglessness and the adriftness of her life in Austria. (Certainly the fact that she was a teenager, while she was in Austria - i.e. at a time when one is at a loss, anyhow, to a degree - might have contributed also to the scatteredness and purposelessness of her life there.)

In any case, talking about these issues is not in fact the main purpose of the book - it is not her purpose, when narrating the story. No; as said, this is her story; that is, it is a personal narrative, or the story of a person – and that is what makes it so charming and engaging, The things discussed above are the impressions of the reader - of a reader who enjoyed this book, especially in those sections and aspects where he found familiar or similar experiences, and which gave insight into a specific society, a social class, and the culture of (modern) Iran.

(For similar experiences, for similar encounters with all the facets of Iran - of this modern Iran, and in order not to confuse Iran proper with the idiotic regime ruling it - I heartily recommend Iranian cinema, which is one of the great cinema traditions of the world. And, as said, Marjane Satrapi also made a movie out of this graphic novel – an animated movie, with similar aesthetics as the graphic novel; an award-winning movie, by the way, but which I have not had the chance to see as yet.)

Speaking of aesthetics, and as it was mentioned in the beginning, the black-and-white palette seems very suited to her narrative style and to the periods that she covers. Also as said, this style has a simplicity, well almost a childish simplicity to it – the way the people are drawn, and even in its choice of a black-and-white palette. All this gives her narrative a kind of directness - just like a story told by a child might be simpler and more straightforward; and yet what she talks about are at times grave and weighty matters. Nevertheless, this simplicity of style should not be mistaken for artlessness; no, it is a style, a style developed into a specific language. This is most evident if and when one pays attention to the framing, to the mis en scène used in various panels; or to the ways in which she uses this very basic color scheme to create symbolic communication (expressing a lot with a scarcity of means; yes, symbols are more expressive, and expressive of a richer content, than a straightforward description; also, sometimes the complexity and impact of reality, and one’s experiences and feelings about it, can be best described through symbolic means.)

All in all, then, this was a delightful find. One also got to know, through this, a very likable person – likable not because of certain traits, or not just because of those (her overall sensitivity and her artistic bent, for example) - but lovable simply by being a human being; namely, as any or most human beings would be, if one would get to know their story directly, in all its genuineness. Because this is what strikes us most, or remains with us most, I think, from this novel – its genuine, simple, direct storytelling; its personal tone and narrative; it being, in a way, “the story of a soul.” Needless to say, a person and a story with lights and with shades, with good and with bad, with things that we agree with and with things that we disagree with – with all that, this is an occasion to encounter a person directly, and to make a friend, as it were; and that is (perhaps) what draws us into and to this novel, and what remains with us thereafter: a genuine encounter with a real human being. (And so we leave off the novel worrying and thinking about what happened to her next – after she went to Paris etc.)

Monday, January 6, 2020

“Maltaverne,” by François Mauriac

I was surprised to discover, upon reading this book, how much it affected me, or how much it spoke to me; I mean, in comparison with previous books I’ve read from Mauriac. It also was not what I expected it to be – it was not a dark and brooding, as if "framed" portrait of a mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth century bourgeois household. I am making reference here to the vague memories I have of Thérèse Desqueyroux or The Knot of Vipers. Then again, each book might have a corresponding “age” or state, when we connect the best, or the most, with it, and when it makes most sense to us. Which does not exclude perennial “matches” between book and reader – in terms of subject, theme, tone etc. In any case, this book came seemingly at a good time, and it also exhibited an overall tone that - as said - was a bit unexpected.

Perhaps the part of the novel that spoke to me the most was the beginning, with its description of the hopeful and clear-eyed adolescent, Alain (who is the main character of the novel, and in whose voice we hear the narration, retrospectively) - namely, of a certain character and age which I can identify all too well, and which also hearkens to other favorite readings of mine. Alain is the young intellectual and person of faith, who thinks and who sees the world perhaps more wisely than the adults (and, partially, that is true; and, partially, life will teach him later how much he does not know, in fact). And this is also the young man who sees the whole world, and his future, through those intellectual-spiritual prisms, with much hope, and with many plans (which will also change, partially - but not essentially, as he himself  - and we ourselves - can not change, essentially). 

After this initial stage, the novel moves on to a darker territory, more familiar to readers of Mauriac. Let’s not forget, Mauriac’s vocation as a writer was (as he seemingly acknowledged) to examine and to reveal the truth of the darker recesses of the human heart, and of the human existence. The world of sin – but not the glittery, commercially-sold sin, the glamorized one – but of everyday sin, of our daily failings - and also of the much, much darker undergrounds of what at the surface is common existence – in brief, of the human being’s capacity for evil. In many ways, what he talks about in his works is the “bourgeois sin" – which is no less dark, no less terrible, than the most glamorous and public ones, as no economic or social class is excepted and excluded from carrying both the darkest and the brightest dimensions of the spiritual condition of man. Envy, lack of love, misunderstanding – these are the true dark elements of our daily lives, these are the areas of shade in our everyday existence - and not the strident and glittery “bad things,” “bad words” and “bad thoughts” bandied about in the public discourse, or in the noise of the media, social or otherwise.

Because the initial part of the novel reached me on a personal level, I was already invested personally in the main character, Alain, by the time we moved on to the next stage of the story. This is why I found it somewhat irritating and unpleasant to have to bear the weight of the Mother figure throughout most of the book – as I could not relate to it (unlike with the initial part of the book), and as I found it suffocating.

The final turn(s) of events of the novel, however, changed yet again the tone and meaning of the events and of the book, and changed the impact and meaning of the Mother figure as well – for the better. It also clarified and, perhaps, humanized the figures populating the book, and the dynamic between her and Alain. The events affecting Jeanette Séris (the “Louse”) added yet another layer of meaning that, yes, further humanized the characters (including that of the Louse) - while also fleshing out the interstices of human existence in a very realistic and truthful way.

And this, this truthfulness, the accuracy with which life is reflected and described, might be one of the strengths of the novel, and why it stayed with me – because Mauriac is a real writer, a writer pur sang, who can but write, and whose writing is in the service of presenting the truth of life, in all its ugliness, and also with its shining edges. This everydayness of existence that actually constitutes our existence, but which – surprisingly – is scarcely talked about, at least in the public discourse, or in the cultural products consumed and distributed en masse - or, why not, in what passes for our everyday conversations.

The writer as a worker in the service of the real, of existence as it presents itself, morning, noon, and later toward the end of the day.

But it is hard to write this way, because we are so quick (and keen) to slide into commonplaces, clichés, into superficial exaggerations and haughty shortcuts, into “ideas” and “principles” - instead of “life as it is.” Because it is easier that way.

Since the writer, while writing, is churning out in fact his own existence and being, real writing, Mauriac’s sort of writing, is a painful process - of facing one’s own mortality and frailty and cowardice and dark shades, and all that one and one's existence actually is. 

(Yet this, this is the reality that is, or is not redeemed. More often than not, and perhaps even most of the time, we try to redeem reality by covering it with a sheen or veil of interpretations, phantasms, omissions, forgetting, or wishful thinking. But it is the everyday that is redeemed, and it is there that we need to seek and to find the redemption, and the Redemptor – there, or nowhere.)

Because there is redemption in this novel, and at the end of the story – and there is also hope, and there are also plans for a future. Which might be another reason why it appealed to me.