Recently Reviewed Books…

The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is dubbed Murdoch’s first “English novel,” given that it is set in the heart of the English countryside and within a large estate that houses the self-supporting lay community of Imber Court that in turn encircles an Anglican nunnery (the Abbey). The Court and Abbey have an additional separation by an artificial lake in between them. The transition from outside world to the Court and then to the Abbey is symbolic of a progressive journey deeper into the spiritual life, and only the beautiful and neurotic Catherine is expected to make the complete journey through all three zones. The conceit of a group of people voluntarily cut away from the world and wrestling with their human frailties and moral dilemmas is ripe with conflicts that normal lay people may never encounter.

Conflict from the outside world comes to Imber Court in the way of Dora, a transgressive housewife, who has no intention for, or concept of, the moral life, who has left her academic, bullying, and control-freak husband, Paul, only to return to him because she knows that she may just end up in another affair by being on the loose. Paul is living at the Court and working at the Abbey on some 14th century manuscripts. A host of other characters populate the Court, and Murdoch displays some amateurish novel writing when she introduces them like a reception line-up:
‘This is Peter Topglass,’ said Mrs Mark. A tall baldish man with spectacles swayed in a bow to Dora. ‘And this is Michael Meade, our leader.’ A long-nosed man with pale floppy brown hair and blue eyes set too close together smiled a rather tired and anxious smile. ‘And this is Mark Strafford (Mrs. Marks’ husband), with the beaver.’ A large man with bushy hair and a ginger beard and a slightly sarcastic expression came forward to nod to Dora. He smelt strongly of disinfectant. ‘And this is Patchway, who is a tower of strength to us in the market-garden.’ A dirty-looking man with a decrepit hat on, who looked as if he did not belong and was indifferent to not belonging, gazed morosely at Dora. ‘And this is Father Bob Joyce, our Father Confessor.’ The cassocked priest who had just come into the room bustled up to shake Dora’s hand.

Rounding the cast of characters are deputy head James Tayper Pace, who shares a different philosophy than Michael, and budding Oxford student Toby Gashe who has come to Imber to get a dose of the spiritual life. The villain of the piece is Nick, Catherine’s twin brother, mercurial and alcoholic, who had a homosexual affair with Michael fourteen years ago and railroaded the leader’s plan to become a priest by ratting on him. And yet, many of these characters come across as caricatures, casting only their positional markers on the page. It is with the three POV characters, Dora, Michael and Toby, that we get to plumb at a deeper level of motivation and moral conjecturing.

There is an element of magic and superstition in the novel, which seems to dog Murdoch’s works, not forgetting the obvious moral philosophizing that goes on ad nauseum. The superstition is bound up with the curse of the old bell that is supposed to have toppled off its tower in the Abbey and sunk into the lake when a nun transgressed and took a lover. Disturbing the old bell from its watery grave is supposed to cause a death in the community. The old bell is therefore to be replaced with new one in a consecration ceremony conducted by the Bishop, after which the replacement would be rolled over the causeway from Court to Abbey, just like a new nun would enter the cloister, just like Catherine is due to do shortly. But Dora, who has spent most of her life in small flats and rooms, is getting bored with the ordered life at Imber Court, and having discovered the location of the submerged bell, conspires with her willing acolyte and love-struck Toby to switch bells and perform a miracle just to spice up the dull old place. The bell serves as both a metaphor for buried secrets that are best left alone and as a catalyst for a series of farcical incidents that trigger the simmering tensions within the residents of Imber Court and bring them to the boil, spelling the end for this fragile community. In fact, metaphors abound; the reader is left to puzzle over the butterfly in the train carriage, the lost luggage, the lost shoes, and the causeway among others. The tensions are mainly of a sexual nature, or more pointedly, occur where sex conflicts with morality. Even though the sex amounts to nothing more than hand-holding, cuddling and kissing, the implications of those actions to this community that seems to have renounced the world and bound itself by conventional roles, is staggering.

The philosophy is worth mentioning. James Tayper Pace is a traditionalist and believes in innocence over experience: “obey the rules.” Michael, battling with his homosexuality, believes in knowing one’s capabilities (and fallibilities) and in not over-reaching them. Nick believes that a good man should recognize sin in himself and in others and be prepared to confess. It is the Abbess who has the most profound insight: ‘We can only learn to love by loving. Remember that all our failures are ultimately failures in love. Imperfect love must not be condemned and rejected, but made perfect. The way is always forward, never back.’ I suspect that Murdoch was expressing her viewpoint through the Abbess.

This a very “told” novel in the firm hands of Murdoch. I had difficulty trying to figure out how “a narrow stare of anxious suspicion” could be shown. Words like “rebarbative” occur frequently. And we are left with a lot of loose ends, as the community dissolves and disperses. We never know who sabotaged the causeway, we never know whether Dora will ever get back with Paul, or whether, as she suspects, Michael will marry Catherine and have lots of kids. I believe that Murdoch was more interested in creating situations where moral dilemmas could be brought into focus and examined rather than in writing a novel where every loose thread is knotted in a bow, and where everyone lives happily ever after—in fact, except for the nuns in the cloister who come across as the most balanced, no one does. They all seem to disperse from Imber Court with a heavy bell of secrets tied around their necks.

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Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi KusamaInfinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama by Yayoi Kusama
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A concise and engrossing narrative of the life of one of today’s greatest living artists who transformed a psychosomatic illness into art.

I was drawn to the work of Yayoi Kusama when I visited one of her Infinity Rooms at the Art Gallery of Ontario recently. I picked up her autobiography the same day at the art gallery’s gift shop. Repetition and Multiplication is her approach, whether it be the mirror balls in the Infinity Room or the multitude of polka dots of her first exhibition in New York in 1959, or the profusion of penises that followed and send her down the road into the sexual revolution of the 60’s and ‘70’s.

Kusama served her time as a starving artist in New York in her early years, living in a garret and eating potatoes, and all the while creating, creating, creating. From a young age she could see auras of individuals and heard the voices of animals and plants; she saw hallucinations of lights. Painting was born out of a fever of desperation to find a cure for her mental state. She had a morbid distaste for sex, given that her father was a prolific womanizer, and her mother forced her to follow him and find out what he was up to. “Create and Obliterate” became her mantra: create the very thing that revolted her, and create lots of it (hence the legion of penises), and thereby cut through the revulsion.

Even though the book starts with her arrival and rough beginning in New York, Kusama reveals to us gradually that she was already an upcoming artist in Japan during her early twenties, and through a persistent correspondence with American artists and other financial benefactors, such as Georgia O’Keefe, she wound her way to New York in 1957, the place she had always wanted to be. Her first exhibition in the Big Apple two years later placed her on the road to success, from which she never deviated. Soon, she was exhibiting all over America and Europe, and later evolved into the Happening, a performance art piece performed in the open, where the actors would end up stripping naked and having sex while a fully clothed Kusama would paint polka dots on their bodies. This led to brushes with the law, for Kusama’s performance art skirted the borders of legal propriety even in the permissive west. Given the Vietnam war occurring at the time, flag and bible burnings were introduced into the act, and I wondered how she managed to keep her US visa from being cancelled. Unfazed, she ventured into other forms of art: publishing, theatre, fashion, clothing, and organized them along business lines. She is also liberal in sprinkling the narrative with the many kudos she received from prominent arts figures, that sometimes turns this book into a glory parade.

Her ambivalence towards sex is interesting. She claims that inasmuch as she arranged orgies for both heterosexuals and homosexuals, she never participated in the act, her childhood fear and loathing of sex being so strong. Yet she had a lover in Joseph Cornell, the artist, who himself was a sexual cripple. Sex for them was getting naked and sketching each other; in their ten-year relationship they never had sex. Salvador Dali was another close friend.

The last half of the book covers her return to Japan in 1973. Now famous and artistically developed, she sees how much Japan’s spirituality has been lost in its quest to become an economic superpower. Money was chasing culture, there was no investment in developing art, and Japanese artists disparaged each other, whereas elsewhere artists helped each other. Her Happenings got busted by the police in Japan. She dismisses her home country as a corrupt fourth-rate state where the patriarchy is firmly entrenched. And yet, when her mental illness began to overcome her, she permanently hospitalized herself in Japan in 1975, and has never left the hospital to this day. She built a studio in the hospital to continue her work and launched another phase of her career with single minded focus; she became a novelist, short story writer and poet (in Japanese) in addition to being an artist, and has won many Japanese awards.

Today, she is a recluse from the art world, furiously creating at the age of 90, with the clock racing against her. Her new subject: death.

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Rape: A Love StoryRape: A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joyce Carol Oates seems to have a phobia about the Fourth of July. I just finished reading Black Water, another Independence Day disaster novella, only to be confronted with Rape – a love story, that covers a gang rape in Niagara Falls, NY to round off the fireworks and alcohol consumption on the special day that celebrates American independence.

Unlike Black Water, I didn’t skip pages here, for Rape – a love story, is a tight thriller, not only focussed on the victim’s plight but also on the outcome for her attackers when vigilante justice surfaces, a form of justice that seems more effective than the traditional courts, for offences such as rape are hard to prove without damaging the victims all over again.

Teena Maguire, a 35-year old single mother and her 12-year old daughter, Berthie, are taking a short cut home after a Fourth of July party, when they are accosted by a local gang of no-gooders high on crack. Teena is dragged away to a neighboring boathouse, gang-raped, and left for dead, while her daughter hides in the vicinity. The damage to Teena is horrible—physical, mental and societal. She struggles to emerge from life support, is left with permanently damaged vision and other private body parts, breaks up with her boyfriend as she can’t stand being touched anymore, and self-medicates with alcohol, dreading having to appear as a witness at the upcoming court trial.

The subsequent rape trial turns out to be a fiasco, where the defence attorney is able to wield the full force of American Justice and turn the tables around with a countercharge that Teena solicited the no-gooders for sex in exchange for money and then went crazy on them, leading to the violence by the men in self-defence. Public opinion sways from support for the attacked to the attackers. Berthie is ostracized at school as “the daughter of that tramp.”

We are also introduced to Dromoor, an ex-soldier turned cop on the Niagara Falls Police Department, a family man with two small daughters, who is attracted to Teena, but knows he can never go beyond sharing a drink with her. Dromoor served in the Gulf-War where he killed many enemy fighters, before becoming a cop; he also killed a bad guy while he was a rookie on the NFPD, saving the life of a colleague—he is no stranger to death, and to killing. When he answers the rape call at the boathouse, he finds the damaged woman and her daughter, and decides he has to protect them. And so, one by one, the rapists start dying or disappearing.

Oates skillfully delivers the narration in third and second person and simulates the voices of the many characters—victims and perpetrators alike—according to their educational and social levels. She focuses on the ugliness of rumour, the vindictiveness and meanness of small town society, and the perversions of justice that a democratic society provides for. She also takes the long view, by transporting us many years into the future to show us how the lives of the affected are transformed by this seminal incident, for the effects of rape are indeed life-long.

The subject of rape is a difficult one to handle, and having it as the book’s title, and then subtitling it “a love story” leaves many questions in the reader’s mind. Is this irony, a joke, or deathly intentional? What I took from the novella was that while rape is not an expression of love in its act, it does bring out the expression of love from others, love that the victim never knew existed. A gripping read indeed!

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The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of StorytellingThe Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles R. Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book chock full of writing wisdom from a master of the craft who claims that a prerequisite to the creative life is a focus on the art 24/7 x 365 until one’s last day on earth.

There are a lot of tips here on the art and craft of writing. Having taught creative writing for 30 plus years, Johnson is able to dissect creative writing into its myriad forms (realism, naturalism, romanticism, modernism, post-modernism), and break it down into its elements (plot, character, voice, paragraph, sentence and word), and compare it to various branches of philosophy (existentialism, Buddhism). He posits that a well educated literature student’s arsenal should include a firm understanding of New Criticism, structuralism, feminism, deconstruction and race theory, but advises that in the process of creation, which is discovery, all theories and explanatory models should be set aside—I found the last part of this statement refreshing.

He owes his success to mentor John Gardner who helped get his early work published and sponsored his employment as a university professor. Although he claims that childhood trauma creates good novelists, Johnson himself was an only child with a relatively stable childhood. He wrote six novels and turned down an early publication offer for one of them, as the seventh he was working on appeared to be of the calibre of a debut novel he could live with. A debut defines a writer’s career, Garner advised him. “If climbing past your debut is going to be difficult, don’t publish it.”

The many pearls of wisdom spewed out were the most interesting for me to ponder, and I quote a few here:
a) You extend the form only after you understand the form
b) Hand-copying an established writer’s work will give you a sense of meter and rhythm.
c) Publishing is an aristocracy. With digital publishing it has become a democracy.
d) Education without imagination is empty, and imagination without education is blind.
e) What makes a great writer is a great vision.
f) Art is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of the mind, the corruption of consciousness.
g) Event reveals character and character leads to event.
h) Voice gives way to Viewpoint and ultimately to Character.

There are many more third party quotes from Aristotle to Virginia Woolf that dot the book. Johnson is clear that even though he started out his literary life as a journalist and cartoonist, the writing of utilitarian prose (literary pork) is to be eschewed in favour of “words that are the flesh of thought,” i.e. well constructed and thoroughly revised literary language. “A literary work is a performance of language.” And yet, plot is important to him as well. He also devotes an entire chapter to opening lines, which are crucial to the success of a novel. Having only one literary hit over a body of work is okay to advance literary culture, he posits; doing it twice reveals a major literary talent; doing it three times vaults you into the ranks of Twain and Shakespeare.

Much has been said about the self-adulation that goes on in this book, and although I found it only mildly distracting, I put it down to the earnestness of this consummate devotee of the art of writing who needs to establish his credentials with his reader and who also needs to show some of the benefits that have accrued to him over a life dedicated to this perilous profession, where one is only as good as one’s last book. Besides who the heck writes if they don’t have a big ego?

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Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a GenerationOrwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation by Jeffrey Meyers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

George Orwell was one heck of a miserable fellow. And yet he became the dissenting voice in a fading colonial empire beset by Fascism and Communism brewing on its doorstep, a voice that has presciently endured to this day.

Empire was against young George from the outset. His father, a colonial officer in the Opium Department in British India, was focussed on selling the drug to China, resulting in two wars; his mother was the descendent of teak merchants in Burma where the locals were exploited; another relative was a slave owner in Jamaica. Orwell, chronically plagued by weak lungs, went to the right public schools: St. Cyprians “where snobbery, philistinism, homosexuality, racism and sadism were engendered” and Eton which was “a lukewarm bath in snobbery, although it helped shape character and individualism.” He followed his father into the colonial service by becoming an undistinguished policeman in Burma for five years on a good salary, only to give it up and end as a tramp in England and France, because he needed experience to fuel his art of writing political literature. Guilt was the reward for his colonial middle-class origins. His novel coming out of Burma, Burmese Days, has no redeeming characters in it, neither natives nor colonials.

Orwell was a masochist and found contentment amidst squalor. Whether that was in bumming around London and Paris to prove the desirability and dignity of work, or descending into abandoned coal mines in Wigan to expose the evils of capitalism, or living in a dilapidated farm in Wallington “with infrequent bus service, water flooding the kitchen, backed up sewers, mice toppling the china, no electricity and irregular heating,” or living in bombed-out flats in London during the blitz to work for the Home Guard, or writing his masterpieces in Joura on the Hebrides in the most uninhabitable house on the British Isles that finally put him in hospital from whence he never returned, he relished discomfort and privation. “The progress of the artist is the continual extinction of personality.” He didn’t care for the wellbeing of his long suffering wife, Eileen, as long as he had the squalid space to do his work. When Eileen succumbed to a neglected cancer, Orwell was away reporting on the Continent.

He was a vocal supporter of Socialism and a denouncer of its evil cousins, Communism, Fascism and Imperialism. He joined the Republicans in Spain to fight against Franco, but with the collapse of his side due to infighting with Stalin’s Communists, he was soon on the run for his life along with Eileen and a bullet wound in his neck as a “thank you” for participating. He took on prominent figures like H.G. Wells, Salvador Dali and Wyndham Lewis for their counter political views. His writing was criticised for not having the creativity of the true novelist and for being better suited for essays and reportage. His earlier books, dubbed novels, were political morality tales, and his best book (in his estimation) Homage to Catalonia sold only 600 copies; he voluntarily suppressed the reprinting of his second and third novels A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, as they were not up to snuff. But his last two novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four, launched him into superstar status, where he has been for over 75 years. In his later years, he also found steadier employment with the BBC, the Observer, and the Manchester Evening News, giving him conduits for his political writing. And yet he quit the BBC and modeled its puritanical culture at the time in Nineteen Eighty Four.

A lanky, tall, man with a frail constitution, he had a poor self image, and often did not succeed with the women he pursued. Many refused to marry him or sleep with him. His deathbed, second marriage to Sonia Brownell, 18 years his junior, was a bit of a joke; she did not love him, was scared of sex although she had a myriad of affairs, was cold to his adopted son, Richard, and looked upon Orwell as a cause rather than a husband. The marriage was never consummated. Sonya went onto marry a homosexual (another unconsummated marriage), squander the Orwell estate over half-baked artistic projects, and end her days drunk and broke.

This is a hard book to get through, not because it is poorly written (in fact, it is very well written, and Meyers covers a lot of material that seems to be well researched and cross referenced) but rather due to its wretched principal character, Orwell himself.

He was the most enigmatic of writers, a saint to some, who lived and modeled his work. He sensed the cruel, the macabre and the disgusting, and loathed what was fake. He despised humanity and fought for ideas. He had a gentle temperament towards some and was cold to others (especially women); he displayed violence by kicking his servants in Burma, using his fists on his classmates, and caning his students, the last punishment being one meted out to Orwell himself as a child, especially when he wet his bed at St. Cyprians. Some of his terminology such as “Big Brother is watching,” “Some animals are more equal than others,” and words from a whole new language called “Newspeak” used in Nineteen Eighty Four have entered the vernacular. The word “Orwellian” alone spells dystopian disaster. His dire warnings and predictions have endured, most recently re-surfacing with the advent of Donald Trump and other tough-man leaders around the world, making Orwell a writer for the ages.

Given Orwell’s stature, I guess reading at least one of his many biographies (there seems to be more written about him than by him) is a must for any ardent scholar of Literature. This book will keep you engaged, if you can put up with the squalor and the misery. “Orwell? He’s a gloomy bird,” says a wartime broadcasting buddy, and I second it.

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Claude & Camille: A Novel of MonetClaude & Camille: A Novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A true-to-the- real-story fictionalization of the life of Claude Monet from age 17 – 39, the years when he met, fell in love with, and was married to Camille Doncieux, until her death of cancer. It is also an unflattering portrait of the artist as a young man, long before he reached immortal fame with his water lilies, when he struggled to feed a young family, and struggled to get the world to recognize his form of painting that went against the grain of the establishment at the time.

The chapters are broken out in annual or biennial chunks, chronicling the significant events that took place in those time periods, and hence the novel has an episodic feel rather than a dramatic arc. Interspersed between the chapters at critical points are the reflections of an older Monet (circa 1909, at the age of 69) reflecting on his life with Camille and trying to come to terms with the loose ends left there. The writing is gentle, like the colours of Monet’s palette, even though the lives of artists of the nineteenth century were anything but gentle, despite many of them, Monet included, coming from middle class families and having the means of running back home to live with parents or of asking for family loans to tide them over the rougher patches.

After an aborted military service in North Africa, due to illness, Monet, declines his father’s offer to take over the family’s ship chandler business in Le Havre and pursues his education in art in Paris. In the City of Light, he meets other budding artists—Manet, Cezanne, Pissaro, Renoir, Degas and Bazile—to form a breakout art form from the traditional, soon to be known as Impressionism, consisting of visible brushstrokes, changing colours, and focused on scenes of modern life in the countryside. The young painters rent a studio and live to paint, often running out of rent money and being evicted, only to return after some paintings sell or a relative offers a handout. Camille and her sister, Annette, meet the young painters when they pose as models, but Claude claims he has had his eye on Camille ever since he saw her at a railway station many years earlier, and that she had become his invisible muse. In fact, he paints her over and over again throughout their life together, and his painting, “Woman in the Green Dress,” which Camille modeled, gets him into the official Paris Salon and on the path to eventual fame.

Claude and Camille’s life together is constantly plagued with the lack of money. While he paints incessantly in all weather, she tries hard to keep the home fires burning. Her attempts at becoming an artist herself, first an actress, then a novelist, all end up half-baked as the family constantly has to move residence, either due to the lack of money or to supports Claude’s career. Claude is the consummate artist, willing to destroy his work that does not match his expectations, emotional to the point of suicide when things start falling apart. And yet, the passion between the couple is palpable and triumphs over illness, hunger, third-party affairs, and artistic disappointments. The Franco-Prussian war interrupts the lives of the young artists, and many are recruited to fight. Monet flees with his family to England to sit out the war, and to paint another series of outdoor scenes that will eventually add to his oeuvre. The war ends with some of the Impressionists losing their lives and seeing their promising careers cut short. Monet is left bereft when his close friend Frederic Bazile falls victim, leaving a schism in their friendship that involves Camille, one that is never to be repaired.

In the last years of Camille’s life, the wealthy textile family Hoechede enter the scene, after Claude is commissioned to paint wall panels in that family’s country mansion. A cruel set of events lead to the bankruptcy and impoverishment of that family and in them taking up residence with the Monets who have finally started making some money. The tensions and the happiness that this combined living arrangement create leads to some interesting developments for both families. One has only to look up Wikipedia to see how it ended, so I will not leave any spoilers here.

I found this book informative on the lives of artists of the nineteenth century, and also re-assuring in that it confirms my view that every new art form has had to struggle against fierce opposition to gain recognition from a hidebound establishment.

As for Monet, I believe he withstood the pressure of the Paris Salon to become the founder of Impressionism against stunning odds, but wouldn’t have made it if not for the love of Camille, who retreated unsung into a footnote of history. I’m glad this book was written to restore her due place in the Monet legend.

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Gauguin's Intimate JournalsGauguin’s Intimate Journals by Paul Gauguin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“This is not a book,” says Paul Gauguin as he opens his intimate journals, and I agree. But I have to say I was held enthralled by the complex and talented man who emerges from these pages of reflection, observation, personal philosophy, confession and instruction.

The preface, written by his son, quickly dispels the myth that Gauguin woke up one day, abandoned his family in France, and took off for the South Seas where he cavorted with the natives, while painting until he dropped dead at his easel of a morphine overdose, taken to lessen the pain of a profligate life. On the contrary, he left with the full agreement of his wife, the marriage having broken down. After two sojourns in Tahiti, he settled in the remoter Marquesas Islands, defined a post-Impressionist art form that captured the essence of the Pacific islands, was active in local politics, more often as a dissenter against the Church and the corrupt colonial administration, and quietly contributed to a reputation-in-absentia back home in Europe.

This journal appears to have been written during his final years in the Marquesas, when he was trying to assemble the pieces of learning from his nomadic life, for the recollections of his early life in Europe (and childhood in Peru) are sketchier than those recorded on the islands. Yet, he spends some time detailing his relationship with Van Gogh and the last days that he spent in the company of this other tortured genius who committed suicide while they were sharing rooms in France. He also spends a few pages on his relationship with Degas who was a mentor.

Experts and academics had difficulty boxing Gauguin into a particular school of art—was he an Impressionist like his colleagues, a post-Impressionist, or a Primitivist—for he lived at a time when art was bursting out of traditional boundaries into something yet undefined. Gauguin resisted categorization: “The difference between a painter and a mason is that the mason builds to a plan, a frame, a model. The painter paints from memory, sensation, and intelligence, and his soul will triumph over the eye of the amateur.”

His quotes of personal philosophy characterize the man best, and I’d like to quote a few gems from this book :
1) Precision often destroys a dream.
2) Take care not to step on the foot of a learned idiot. His bile is incurable.
3) No one is good, no one is evil. Everyone is both.
4) Toil endlessly. Otherwise what would life be worth?
5) The tenderness of intelligent hearts are not easily seen.
6) The lower genius sinks, the higher talent rises.

Yet, despite these incisive observations, he claims that the subterfuges of language and the artifice of style are not suited for his barbaric heart, although he does not disdain such. “There are savages who like to cloth themselves now and then.”

He rambles on in this book, just like he did in life: taking a walk through an art gallery and critiquing the paintings therein, discussing their respective styles; reliving the storm that flooded his house upon arrival in the Marquesas; talking about the process of making Japanese Cloisonné, discussing the finer points of fencing and boxing; he talks at length of his dislike of Denmark, from the habits and customs of the Danes to their localization of art: “Venuses turned Protestant, modestly draped in damp linen”; he recounts his youthful voyage as a seaman to Rio De Janeiro where he had a series of sexual escapades with older women; he laments for the Marquesan islanders ravaged by western diseases, corrupted by colonial officials, lacking efficient services, burdened by crushing taxes, and helpless against the proliferation of prostitution.

And although he was unconsciously building this aura and reputation that was to follow him to this day, his last days were spent in debt, in pain, and forgotten at the far reaches of the French colonial empire.

“This is not a book,” he maintains after this circulatory journey through his intimate journal. And then stubbornly defends what he has written by concluding, “It is my right to write, and the critics cannot prevent it.”

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Shane actively reads and reviews books by other authors. Below are his most recent reviews.