Sunday, 31 March 2013

March - A Tanka

Sun and muddy earth.
Primroses spreading yellow
carpets on the lawns.

Birds singing in bare tree-tops,
snow flakes drifting in the air.

© LaGraziana 2013

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Beyond the Average

It’s generally said that the line between genius and madness is narrow. Often it’s blurred as well like in the case of John Forbes Nash, Jr. who is a brilliant mathematician with a record of mental illness having suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. He would never have received the Nobel Prize in economy, if he didn’t have such A Beautiful Mind. Firstly, he began his life as a not very sociable prodigy tipping over into so-called madness only later for reasons unknown. And secondly, he managed to fight back the voices of non-existent people in his mind and returned to what we call a normal life. If his paranoid schizophrenia has disappeared completely or if it just isn’t showing anymore, I can’t tell. I’m no expert on the human brain. 

However, genius and madness are both deviations from what we call normality. And everything that doesn’t fit into our view of how the world, people and life are or should be disturbs us. At best we are amazed, at worst we are scared. In former times it could happen that genius was mistaken for madness, especially with the common people and women. Less than two hundred years ago a highly gifted Sofia Kovalevskaya had to fight to be allowed first to study and then to lecture mathematics at a European university. Today we are in awe of people like her who are highly intelligent and many of us would love to see their children belong to this elite, but extraordinary talent still has a touch of the mysterious, the unearthly, the paranormal. 

Average people don’t care about equations describing the mathematical patterns of the universe and human behaviour. Average people don’t care about making out a new prime number in the infinite row. Some might not even remember what a prime number is because it doesn’t help them to master their lives. Literature is less of a mystery to the public which easily leads us to believe that everybody can write. The truth is that everybody can pen or type a text, but only few can tell a story that is worthwhile reading. True literary genius is often difficult to discover among the crowds of writers because it has a habit of thriving in dark corners that can easily be overlooked. Magazines like Prime Number try to bring them out into the light. 

There are uncountable realms of imagination unknown even to avid readers, each one of them a white spot on the literary world map. To disclose the well hidden gems of contemporary literature it needs dedicated explorers of the calibre of Alexander von Humboldt, who sacrificed his entire fortune to his discoveries, or devoted surveyors like Carl Friedrich Gauß, whose mind was able to reveal the so far unnoticed. As Daniel Kehlmann expressed it, those two giants of the Age of Enlightenment were, each one in his way, Measuring the World. Numbers were their key to life and to the future. The literary quest must be for distinctive stories, words and style that don’t follow strict rules and that cannot be measured. What a task!

Friday, 29 March 2013

Book Review: Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
The lives of great explorers and famous scientists have always excited the curiosity of readers and writers. Thus it’s no surprise that impressing figures like Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauß, who have made so many great discoveries in the natural sciences in the Age of Enlightenment around 1800 and left so many traces, nurture imagination even two hundred years later. Daniel Kehlmann portrayed them both in Measuring the World (Die Vermessung der Welt), but to make things clear from the start: the author is no historian and the book is no double biography of those important Germans! It’s not even a biographical novel in the strict sense because only the rough outlines of the two lives are historically correct.

The writer Daniel Kehlmann is both German and Austrian. Born in Munich, Germany, in January 1975, he grew up in Vienna, Austria, where he studied philosophy and literature. Along with his studies at university he wrote essays and reviews for several German newspapers and magazines. In 1997 he published his first novel. Daniel Kehlmann’s first small international success was with the novel Me and Kaminski (Ich und Kaminiski) in 2003. In 2005 he produced the bestselling novel Measuring the World (Die Vermessung der Welt) that has been translated into many languages since. His latest novel is Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes from 2009.

In Measuring the World Daniel Kehlmann juxtaposes the lives of naturalist-geographer Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician-physicist Carl Friedrich Gauß. The first was born into a rich family of minor nobility in Berlin, Prussia, in September 1769 and wished to catch the essence of life measuring everything as a travelling explorer. The other, the son of a man who scarcely managed to make ends meet, was born in April 1777 in Braunschweig in the duchy of the same name and stayed in the region (more precisely in Göttingen) during most of his life to explore the mathematical patterns governing life. The story, however, begins in 1828 in Berlin when Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt meet face to face for the first time, two old men knowing that life escapes them in a double sense. The following chapters reveal alternately and chronologically childhoods, adult lives and discoveries of Humboldt and Gauss depicting as well as caricaturing them along the way as the odd Germans that they are in the book. Alexander von Humboldt is the under all circumstances self-disciplined and uncompromising ambassador of values like humanity, tolerance and open-mindedness. In contrast to those Weimar classic ideals he ever again shows a remarkable aloofness and lack of sensitivity for the culture of the countries that he is travelling. Aimé Bonpland is Humboldt’s French travel companion and – at least in the novel – his counterpart reminding of Don Quixote’s Sancho Pansa. The prodigy Carl Friedrich Gauss on the other hand, is the worldly one of the two great minds having a family and not paying any attention to politics. His manners are all but refined. He’s arrogant and constantly complains about his poor health. Wherever he looks he sees entropy that disturbs him. His son Eugen, a student and his father’s disappointment for being just a ‘common or garden-variety creature’, accompanies him to Berlin in 1828. There the revolution of 1848 is already casting its very first shadows before it. Eugen gets mixed up in a political meeting, is arrested by the Prussian police and can only be liberated through the help of Alexander von Humboldt. The young man has to leave the country.

Daniel Kehlmann’s German is simple, fluent and pleasing which made it easy for me to follow the plot of Measuring the World. When I first read the novel a few years ago, I wasn’t exceedingly impressed by it, though. I admit that it was a nice read because Daniel Kehlmann told the story of Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Friedrich Gauß and their time in a well-constructed and interesting way. Everything seemed plausible in the course of events no matter if real or invented which is something that I always appreciate in a book. I also liked the questions of genius, age and relations with our past as well as present that Daniel Kehlmann brought up. However, I had read Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise just a couple of months before and I couldn’t help comparing the two double biographies. Do I need to say that I enjoyed Mario Vargas Llosa’s more? Despite all, I think that Measuring the World is a good book that deserves being read.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Prime Number Magazine: Life in Words

A prime number can only be divided by 1 or by itself without giving decimals. Thus a literary journal called Prime Number necessarily aims high because the published prose and poetry must be similarly exceptional adding up to an undividable whole. At least, that’s the explanation for the strangely mathematical name of the online magazine that my mind could come up with. Also the literal meaning of prime number hints at high quality, and in fact, publisher and editors state that the magazine is dedicated to “distinctive work, regardless of theme, form or style”. 

The free online quarterly Prime Number was launched in July 2010 and includes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, book-reviews, interviews and essays of both established as well as emerging writers. It is thought to serve as a platform for presenting original work to online readers who are interested in contemporary short prose and poetry. Prime Decimals are in-between supplements to the quarterlies and dedicated to flash fiction, flash non-fiction as well as to short poems. Once a year also a print number is brought out that showcases selected works from the online magazines. 

I stumbled across Prime Number that is located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA, during my research on different relations between mathematics and literature. The online performance of the magazine is simple and clear. The latest issue is featured on the journal’s homepage with a cover picture, a letter from the editors and a hyperlinked table of contents. All previous issues appear in the archives, their numbers -- faithfully to the name -- following the row of prime numbers starting with 2. Also a list of contributors and a discussion forum are available on the site. 

My time has been too scarce to do much more than browse, but the contents of Prime Number look interesting enough to me to satisfy literature lovers as well as keen writers. I could read only a few of the texts from the eleven numbers that have been published so far and I wasn’t disappointed at all. For aspiring writers it may be a bit of a nuisance that contributions aren’t paid for, but unfortunately this is rather the rule than the exception in our materialistic world. The law of supply and demand is merciless and many gifted writers (or other artists) are discouraged by it.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Sofia Kovalevskaya
Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya
ca 1880
Most of you will never have heard of Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya (Сoфья Васильевна Ковалeвская) -- or Sophie/Sonya Kovalevski as she used to call herself in the Latin writing world. Those who have heard of her may wonder why I portray her on my literature blog since she was a nineteenth century mathematician. As a matter of fact, she also was a writer, not a very famous one, but she produced autobiographical works, a novel, and plays along with her much acclaimed mathematical papers. She said that she found it hard to decide which inclination was stronger in her, that for mathematics or that for literature. 

In January 1850 Sofia Kovalevskaya, née Korvin-Krukovskaya, was born in Moscow into a Russian family of minor nobility. Her interest in mathematics was sparked by her uncle Pyotr who not only told her fairy tales, but also talked about circles, asymptotes and other mysterious things that she couldn’t understand yet. Later a part of the walls of her room was patched up with pages from lecture notes on differential and integral analysis that attracted her attention and reminded her of her uncle’s stories. However, she was raised to be a lady and her father considered mathematical education unnecessary for a girl. 

The teenage Sofia Kovalevskaya continued her studies secretly and even rediscovered on her own the concept of sine. A neighbour of the family, a science teacher who had written the physics textbook that she had studied, was impressed by the girl’s mathematical talent and tried to persuade her father to allow Sofia to continue her studies. Eventually, he agreed and sent her to St. Petersburg for private lessons. In order to be able to further pursue her studies abroad (women weren’t admitted to Russian universities at the time, nor to travel without permission of their father or husband) she entered into a marriage of convenience with the palaeontologist Vladimir Kovalevski at the age of 18. 

In Heidelberg, Germany, Sofia Kovalevskaya was allowed to audit lectures at the university provided that all lecturers approved of it. For two years she studied with Hermann von Helmholtz, Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen. Then she moved on to Berlin to study with Karl Weierstrass, the most renowned mathematician of the time. Women not being admitted to the University of Berlin, she had to take private lessons. She wrote three papers (one of them containing the Cauchy-Kovalevski theorem) that in 1974 earned her, the first European woman ever, a doctorate in mathematics summa cum laude from the University of Göttingen without having attended classes there. 

Not being able to obtain a position at a university, she returned to Russia disappointed and joined her husband. For six years Sofia Kovalevskaya set aside mathematics and followed her literary ambitions. She reviewed plays, wrote articles about science and technology for a newspaper and worked on a novel. In 1878 she gave birth to her daughter Sofia called Foufie. The following year she resumed her mathematical research and left her husband. The Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler, whom Sofia Kovalevskaya knew from Berlin, tried to obtain a position at the University of Stockholm for her, but didn’t succeed until her husband’s suicide in 1883. 

In 1883 Sofia Kovalevskaya moved to Stockholm, Sweden, and worked as a privat docent for less than a year. Because of her big success with the students, she was appointed to a professorship without chair for five years in 1884 and was the first woman asked to be a member of the editorial board of a mathematical journal, the influential Acta Mathematica. Along with her research and teaching work she continued writing articles for newspapers and finished her memoir A Russian Childhood and the novel The Nihilist Girl. In addition she wrote the play The Struggle for Happiness in collaboration with Duchess Anne Charlotte Edgren-Leffler. 

In 1888 she won the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Science for a paper in which she worked out the ‘Kovalevsky top’. The following year the University of Stockholm offered her a lifetime chair as professor of mathematics which made her the third woman in European history to hold a chair at a university after the physicist Laura Bassi and mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi. She was also elected a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, but to her regret she was never offered a chair at a Russian university. 

In February 1891 Sofia Kovalevskaya died in Sweden from influenza complicated by pneumonia.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Numbers and Words

John Forbes Nash, Jr. is a mathematical genius. He dedicated his life to numbers and even though I can’t produce any evidence for it, I’m quite sure that they helped him to fight back the paranoid schizophrenia from which he suffered and that, unlike in the film A Beautiful Mind, he refused to treat with medication. There’s hardly anything more logic and reliable in life than numbers. Mathematicians use them to express and explain the world. The ‘Nash Equilibrium’ is nothing but the expert try to put a certain aspect of the world into numbers… and to understand how things work. 

Words are different from numbers. They always imply some uncertainty because their meaning uses to vary according to interpretation, but essentially they serve the same purpose as numbers. They help us to understand what is going on and to communicate it to others. The advantage of words is that they aren’t limited to reality. Numbers can only represent what really is even if we haven’t been aware of it yet. Words, on the other hand, can also depict lots of alternatives: worlds of the present or the future that could or could not be, worlds of the past that could or could not have been. 

The flexibility of words is what attracts writers like me. They allow us to create something completely new that doesn’t follow established rules, maybe not even the laws of nature. Authors of fantasy and science fiction novels revel in the infinite possibilities of imagination. My stories are invented, too, but my approach is more realistic despite all. There is no witchcraft in my stories. No fabulous creatures, no exotic worlds. Human nature gives me enough room to experiment with characters and moods, to explore behaviour and emotions. Numbers are of little importance in this universe. 

Words are my key to understanding the world and the people surrounding me. With every story that I put to paper I learn more about the great mysteries of life and social intercourse, about society and its intricate mechanisms that so often astonish, disturb or confuse me. Like a mathematician I’m searching for hidden connections and patterns, but I can only express them in words that add up to complex stories. However, numbers anchor me in reality just like they brought back to reality John Forbes Nash, Jr. They give my world a definite and unchangeable frame. 

We need both – numbers as well as words. We need both – mathematicians as well as writers.

Monday, 25 March 2013

A Beautiful Mind: Putting Chaos into Order

Journalist and economist Sylvia Nasar decided to write A Beautiful Mind: a biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, 1994 after an intriguing encounter with the professor at Princeton University in the early 1990s. The book came out in 1998. The same year it won the (US) National Book Critics Circle Award for biography and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Producer Brian Grazer thought that it was a good story to turn into a film and success proved him right. 

A Beautiful mind was released in the USA in December 2001 and was awarded the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Ron Howard), Best Adapted Screenplay (Akiva Goldsman) and Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Connelly). The film received much acclaim from critics worldwide although the script of Akiva Goldsman only loosely follows Sylvia Nasar’s (unauthorized) biography leaving out or even altering some important facts in the life of the real John Forbes Nash, Jr. in order to adjust them to taste and expectations of the audience. 

The story begins in 1947, when the young John Forbes Nash, Jr. (played by Russel Crowe) takes a scholarship for mathematics at Princeton University. He’s an arrogant and socially inept young man, but a genius with figures. His only friend is his roommate Charles Herman (played by Paul Bettany), a literature student and, as it turns out later, a hallucination. John Nash’s goal is to find a truly original idea that does his brilliancy justice and is worthwhile being published. For a long time he strives in vain for the right inspiration, but hanging out with fellow students the flash of genius hits him when a beautiful blonde comes into the bar with her friends and he realizes that if all of them went after the blonde none of them would leave with a girl that night. In the film this episode is how John Nash comes to work on the so-called ‘Nash Equilibrium’ in game theory that earns him a job at the MIT. 

In the 1950s John Nash meets the graduate student Alicia Larde (played by Jennifer Connelly) who fascinates him with her intellect and whom he marries in 1957. All the while John Nash continues working on game theory and makes great progress. Then he is approached by William Parcher (played by Ed Harris) from the CIA who brings him to the Pentagon to decipher Soviet codes hidden on the front pages of certain newspapers. This is when John Nash begins to feel pursued and to lose touch with reality. Eventually, he’s diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and it becomes clear that William Parcher, too, is only a hallucination. John Nash can no longer teach. Years of treatment and struggle for control over his mental state pass by with Alicia always standing by his side. 

Little by little John Nash learns to ignore his hallucinations, and when he feels ready, he approaches his old friend and rival Martin Hansen (played by Josh Lucas), who has meanwhile become head of the mathematics department at Princeton University, to be allowed to work in the library and to attend classes as a guest. He wanders about the campus, talks to nobody, pursues his studies and makes his calculations. At some point he has enough recovered to teach again. In the end, in 1994, John Forbes Nash, Jr. is awarded the Nobel Prize in economics together with Reinhard Selten and John C. Harsanyi. His colleagues at Princeton University honour him with a pen ceremony that has been invented, though. On the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize in Stockholm he never gave the represented speech thanking his wife -- who in reality had divorced him in 1963 and remarried him in 2001 --, either, because this isn’t the custom in the ceremony. 

All in all A Beautiful Mind is an interesting film about an interesting personality with a strong will who was accepted only thanks to his mathematical genius. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t show the life of John Forbes Nash, Jr. as it really was, with all its struggles and flaws, but at least it catches the man’s spirit. 

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Return of Winter

Violet crocus
Peeping through a snow cover.
No sun, no blue sky.

© LaGraziana 2013

Saturday, 23 March 2013


This week my focus has been on people who have already seen passing many years and who had to come to terms with quite some changes as well as challenges in their lives. Not so long ago the elders were looked up to for their wisdom and for the share that they had in progress. Today they are often pushed away and sometimes treated like imbeciles. In our minds we equal the visible decline of physical power with a loss of mental skills although this isn’t true. Not everybody advanced in years suffers from Alzheimer’s disease like Fiona Anderson in ‘Away from Her’.

There are people who remain very active and alert until the last moment like Daniel Defoe or Susanna Tamaro’s Olga in ‘Follow Your Heart’, but in our glaring and loud world such individuals are almost invisible and inaudible. They are always around us, but we prefer to ignore them because they don’t fit into our society of the young, the good looking and the strong. Success must be achieved early in life. Someone settled isn’t expected to still have the necessary verve and power to bloom and do great things. However, there are occasional late bloomers.

Society still hasn’t internalized that human life, too, is constant evolution. Everybody is always changing. Nobody ever stays the same. We are born, we grow up, we come of age, we grow old, and we die. It’s always the same cycle. Somewhere on the road we are relabelled as old, less productive or even useless although we may still feel young in body and mind. Our internal count of years rarely goes synchronous with the Earth turning around the Sun. Also the inevitable decline of body and brain is very personal with age being only one factor in the process.

In a nutshell: age is nothing but a number and doesn’t decide when or if ever we will be the knitting granny in a rocking chair or the dozing grandpa on the veranda that appears before our inner eyes. We might as well be approaching our real bloom. Isn’t this a nice outlook?

Friday, 22 March 2013

Book Review: Follow Your Heart by Susanna Tamaro
This week the question of old age has been a lot on my mind and it made me think of an Italian novel that I had read a couple of years ago:  Follow Your Heart (Va dove ti porta il cuore) by Susanna Tamaro. I liked it very much although doing research I found out that it's quite a controversial book among readers. Some love it, some hate it, but I reckon that this isn't really unusal. After all, there's no accounting for tastes and Follow Your Heart certainly isn't the kind of book that most people would expect judging from the title.

Susanna Tamaro, a niece of Italo Svevo, was born in Trieste, Italy, in December 1957. She graduated from a teachers’ training college and moved to Rome to attend a film directing course. After her studies she worked as an assistant to film director Salvatore Samperi and started her own film career making several TV documentaries. Her first novels and short stories were rejected until La testa fra le nuvole (The Head in the Clouds) was published in 1989 and awarded the Elsa Morante prize. Then followed the likewise prize-winning collection of short stories For Solo Voice (Per voce sola), a children’s book and eventually, in 1994, Follow Your Heart that soon advanced to the most successful Italian novel of the century. The writer’s later works including children’s books, memoirs and novels – among them Listen to My Voice, a sequel to Follow Your Heart – received less acclaim from critics and readers. Susanna Tamaro is living in the countryside near Ovieto, Italy. 

The novel Follow Your Heart tells the life story of Olga, a woman in her eighties who is living alone in her house in Trieste since her nameless granddaughter went to America. Olga suffers from the after-effects of a heart attack and feels that her end is near, but she still has so much to say and to explain to her granddaughter. So Olga decides to write the unhappy, angry and disturbed young woman a series of twelve letters. Those letters are a confession, a diary, a last will – or the balance of a long life scattered with mistakes. Olga talks about her childhood, her marriage, her big secret love for the father of her daughter Ilaria (who hasn’t been her husband), about the sudden death of her lover and her despair that followed, about her difficult relations with her daughter who never felt loved and who confused Olga, about the sudden death of Ilaria when her granddaughter wasn’t yet four years old, about the childhood of the granddaughter and the rejection she experienced from her side when she was older. All in all, Olga explains everything that made her the woman she is, that made her act the way she did. And in the end she rediscovers herself and gives her grand-daughter the advice not to repeat her mistakes, to always listen to her heart and to follow it. 

Writing Follow Your Heart as an epistolary novel Susanna Tamaro chose a literary form that may not be appreciated by all readers, in the new millennium even less than in 1994 when it was first published. I’m used to reading letters, but to someone who isn’t the novel may seem rather outdated. Also the letters often feel admonishing, something that most modern readers don’t particularly like. However, the warnings seem very appropriate considering that they come from a woman in her eighties who wishes to pass on some of her worldly wisdom to her granddaughter. The resigned and detached language of the letters too appears very authentic to me. Certainly many personal experiences of Susanna Tamaro, who has been raised by her grandmother, have slipped into this novel. 

As for me, I’ve always had a strong liking for practical philosophy and for letters. It’s also interesting to learn more about how other generations grew up and lived although in this case the author couldn’t know it from her own experience. At any rate, I enjoyed the read very much and am ready to recommend Follow Your Heart to everybody who has a certain inclination to ponder the ups and downs of life.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Past Expectations

When we are children, our minds use to flow over with hopes and dreams of a glorious future. People around us, too, set faith and expectations in us to achieve great things once we’ll have grown up. We practice our innate talents, improve our skills, and broaden our knowledge. Little by little we grow out of the restrictions of childhood and get ready to occupy the adult world. Then we stand on our own feet and we trust in our power to make come true everything that we wish for. We choose a career. We start a family. We get about building the life that best matches our wishes and abilities.

We pick the rut that promises us the freedom to fulfil the desires of our young selves. At first, we are full of enthusiasm, working on the great future that we imagine to be destined for us, but it doesn’t take long and we realize that we need to make compromises on our way. We can’t always have exactly what we want! We could change direction to steer for our initial goals, but it’s easier to continue on the rut and to put up with a slight variation of our plans. It doesn’t make our lives less enjoyable, only more comfortable and more predictable. The security of the rut lulls us.

So year after year we follow the same old rut and the goals of our early years recede into the background ever more. Then comes the day when we make a balance of what we have achieved. We are having good lives, satisfying lives, and fulfilled lives. We could be happy, and yet, there’s something in us that pushes us forward, that wants more. It doesn’t matter that we achieved much that we had aimed at. We have met many expectations that family and friends had set in us. We have even met the greater part of our own expectations in us, but they are past expectations. Now we're only supposed to continue as ever.

We have new hopes and dreams although life has taught us to be humble. It’s better to take things easy, to make a compromise. We use our free time to sit down and write. At last we pen the stories that have been buried in our souls all the while. We realize that we have been too busy and too settled to hear them call out to us. Now we want to share them with the world and do our best to have them published. However, we are no longer children who believe that the world is only waiting for us to come out. We’re realistic about the future and we’re past esaggerated expectations - our own and those of others.

Hope, however, never dies. The future is ours!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe 
(from 1881 Young Folks 
Cyclopedia of Persons and Places)
Until the eighteenth century plays and long poetry were the preferred media for telling stories as can be seen in the popular works of William Shakespeare and John Milton. Daniel Defoe was one of the first English writers to turn his attention to literary prose and therefore is considered one of the founders of the English novel as we know it today. His worldwide and lasting fame as a novelist, however, is based above all on his late work since he started his writing career rather as a pamphleteer, as an essayist and as a journalist of an almost modern kind and didn’t publish any novel before he was 59 or 60 years old.

It’s uncertain when exactly Daniel Defoe (originally Foe) was born and where, but it must have been in the area of London around the year 1660. His father was a butcher and a Protestant Presbyterian which made the family subject to discrimination and hostility from the governing Anglican majority. Daniel Defoe and his family survived the Great Plague of London in 1665 as well as the Great Fire of London in 1666. His mother died, when he was about ten years old. In the 1870s Daniel Defoe attended Reverend Charles Morton's academy near London to become a Presbyterian minister, but eventually decided to go into business.

Daniel Defoe wasn’t a particularly successful businessman. During most of his life he was in debt and in 1692 he actually went bankrupt. Besides he had a strong interest in politics that more than once got him into trouble because he wrote pamphlets against the king’s policies. Only between 1689 and 1702, during the reign of King William III whom Daniel Defoe admired, he supported the government writing pamphlets and his famous poem ‘The True-born Englishman’ that opposed the prevalent xenophobia against the King who had been born in the Netherlands. During this time Daniel Foe also prefixed his surname with the gentlemanly “de” and became Daniel Defoe.

When Queen Anne ascended the throne, Daniel Defoe was once again subject to persecution for not being a member of the Anglican Church and aggravated his situation writing a satirical pamphlet in favour of religious tolerance that wasn’t well received by the authorities. He had to stand in the public pillory and was imprisoned in Newgate. The experience didn’t break Daniel Defoe. He continued his fight, although less openly, and started a newspaper called Review in 1704 that existed until 1713. From 1704 on he also worked as a spy for the government and he wrote political essays for the party in power as well as secretly for the opposition along with works on business and social issues.

Only in 1719 Daniel Defoe became a novelist writing his great literary masterpiece ‘The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’ that was received by readers with immediate acclaim. Two – less famous – sequels to ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and the novels ‘Captain Singleton’, ‘Memoirs of a Cavalier’, ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’, ‘Colonel Jack’, ‘Moll Flanders’, and ‘Roxana’ followed until 1724. In his final years Daniel Defoe wrote essays and books about business, politics and morality again. Altogether more than 200 written works (poems, fiction and non-fiction) are ascribed to the prolific writer who is known to have used over one hundred pen names.

Daniel Defoe died in April 1731 in Bunhill Fields, London.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Bloom - "Late" according to whom?

When my attention was drawn to the website called Bloom for the first time, I had already long been annoyed by the fact that new authors beyond the mark of 35 or 40 years encounter many obstacles that younger writers don’t have to think about (like age limits for competitions, to give only the most obvious example). The editors of Bloom confirmed my impression that our modern society is so focused on or downright obsessed with youth that writers like me are widely ignored.

Often we aren’t even taken seriously. Someone who spends hours on end creating stories at a young age is working hard on a career, while someone who plunges into writing later in life just passes time with a nice hobby, no more. At least, that’s how I experience it every time I tell a stranger that I’m writing fiction. Even when I was unemployed for a longer while, writing was never perceived as a possible new career for someone over forty like me. They were glad that I had found a suitable pastime.

Everybody knows that there have been writers who had their breakthrough in their forties or later. We heard of them in school, but seldom remember who they were. Average readers usually don’t bother to research a writer’s biography. Publishers, critics, and competition juries are making a fuss about birth years. Thanks to Bloom there’s a website now that focuses on the so-called late bloomers of literature and shows to the entire world that there are many more of us than thought.

The list of authors featured since the launch of Bloom in November 2012 is already long. Writers like George Eliot, James Michener and Bram Stoker appear on it. On the occasion of the International Women’s Day on 8 March there was a feature dedicated to five Victorian authoresses who were late bloomers, too. Nobel Prize laureates for literature Toni Morrison and José Saramago still wait to be portrayed on the website although they are mentioned in the About Bloom section.

I’m already curious to see who else will be featured on Bloom and how many of those writers I would never have expected to find on this site. May we live to see that age is considered nothing but a number and we are just bloomers - no matter if early or late!

For further reading I redommend:
the series Post-40 Bloomers at The Millions and
Malcolm Gladwell's gorgeous article from The New Yorker about Late Bloomers - Why do we equate genius with precocity?

Monday, 18 March 2013

Away from Her: Love Slipping into Oblivion

When actress Sarah Polley passed her time on a plane reading Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain in The New Yorker, she couldn’t know that two years later she would still think of it and take steps to turn it into a feature. Being only in her late twenties at the time, the theme of Alzheimer’s disease and the love of a long-married couple were all but an obvious choice for her debut as director of a full-length film. Nonetheless, Away from Her was the film that Sarah Polley wanted to make and it became a big success with two Oscar nominations (Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay) and a Golden Globe for Julie Christie as Best Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama.

Away from Her was produced in 2006 and  is a quiet, even humble Canadian film that spares the audience the exaggerated emotions and spectacular turns so common in Hollywood. Sarah Polley wrote a tender screenplay that is close to the original story of Alice Munro and that is just as rich in undertones. The setting of the film breathes the unpretentious and settled life of a Canadian couple that has retired to an old house at a lake in Ontario some twenty years before the opening scene. The vast and usually snow-covered plains reflect the husband’s as well as the wife’s initial peace and clarity of mind.

The idyll, however, doesn’t last. When Fiona Anderson (played by Julie Christie) puts the frying pan into the refrigerator instead of into the cupboard, it becomes more than clear that something is wrong. Her husband Grant (played by Gordon Pinsent) is increasingly worried and Fiona herself is very aware of her failing memory. One night she can’t recall the word “wine” during a dinner with friends and she remarks, “I think I may be beginning to disappear”. Soon afterwards Fiona is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and her condition continues to deteriorate quickly.

When Fiona gets lost in the woods close to home during one of her solitary excursions on cross-country skis, the moment has come to take a difficult decision. Grant still hesitates, but Fiona knows that it’s time for her to move to Meadowlake, a nursery home. It’s the home’s questionable policy not to allow any visits during a period of thirty days after admission so the residents get a chance to settle. Grant is reluctant to give in because after forty-four years of marriage he still wants to be away from Fiona although she long started to drift away.

After the thirty days Grant visits Fiona in Meadowlake, but in the meantime she got very attached to her mute fellow-resident Aubrey (played by Michael Murphy) and forgot most things about her previous life. It’s unclear if she remembers that Grant is her husband or not. At any rate, she doesn’t pay attention to him and she calls him “persistent” because he returns every day to see her. When Aubrey’s wife Marian (played by Olympia Dukakis) takes her husband back home, Fiona is plunged into a deep depression and Grant resolves to try to restore at least her happiness.

How Sarah Polley tells the story of this couple resembles the way how patients affected by Alzheimer’s disease may see the world, ie in fractured chronology. The main plot is sometimes interrupted by flashbacks of the couple’s not always perfect past in faded colours and slightly blurred contours, but there’s also the future interfering when Grant is with Marian and tries to persuade her to take Aubrey back to Meadowlake for Fiona’s sake.

Away from Her is a sad film, but then there isn’t to be expected a happy end to a story that revolves around a woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and the influence the worsening condition of her memory has on the relationship to her husband. There’s no nice way to put it: Alzheimer’s disease destroys more than just one memory.

The original short story is included in the following collection:

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Saint Patrick's Day

My first limerick ever:

There was a young woman from Smerwick
Who cherished the day of Saint Patrick.
She grabbed her new hat
and went out for a chat
with fish in the harbour of Smerwick.

© LaGraziana 2013

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Importance of Being... Perseverant

While working on this week’s posts, I was ever again reminded of how important it is for an artist to persevere. Success rarely falls into our laps at once. On the contrary, it uses to be the fruit of much thought paired with hard work. The Commitments needed to find their niche – soul music. George Bernard Shaw needed to find his medium – stage plays. James Joyce needed to find his style – stream of consciousness. The editors and contributors of The Bohemyth are defining their writing selves on the internet. And I? I’m forging this blog into shape with every post that I share.

Every musician, writer, designer, painter, photographer, sculptor, director, actor, comedian can tell you one or two things about the struggles that their choice of career implies. Life is no bed of roses, even less for an artist! Rejection and polemics pave our ways every day. As long as the public ignores us, we’re nothing but would-be or hobby artists for the rest of the world. We’re expected to earn our livings with something useful like everybody else and to squeeze our vocation into our scarce free time. Some can deal with the situation, while others go to pieces under the pressure.

Our materialistic society appreciates creativity only in so far as it observes the rules of economy and supports the system. Market indicators decide about the future of young artists. Sex and crime sell? Writers take care to include sex and crime into your novels! This is not the way how you are writing? Sex and crime are not your themes? Too bad. Maybe you have a fantasy novel about witches or vampires on store? No? And how about some chick lit? This isn’t your genre either. Then you’re hopeless. It’s your own fault, if you remain an unpublished author.

Unfortunately, most publishers really shrink back from writers who dare swimming against the current. Their priority definitely is to sell books, not to discover literary genius. They are seldom willing to take more risk than is inevitable in the business and prefer to concentrate on mainstream. George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce were lucky. They met the right people who believed in their creative work. Who knows if either of them would ever have become so famous, if he hadn’t found a person farsighted enough to give him a chance and to support him?

Let’s hope that there are still some people of the kind of Jack Grein and Harriet Shaw Weaver on this planet to discover us.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Book Review: Dubliners by James Joyce
One of Ireland’s most famous and remarkable novelists and poets is James Joyce. He was an innovator of fiction writing and is known for his extensive as well as unprecedented use of stream of consciousness to tell his stories. Monumental works like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, that are considered unreadable by many (I haven’t tried yet, so I can’t tell from first-hand experience), have sprung from his mind, but James Joyce started his career as a fiction writer with a collection of fifteen short stories titled Dubliners that is much easier to understand and that anticipates the settings, characters and topics of his later novels without their complexity of style.

James Joyce was born in Rathgar (a suburb of Dublin), Ireland, in February 1882. He was an excellent student and studied English, French and Italian at the University College Dublin. The first novel that James Joyce attempted to publish in 1904 was ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ that would come out under the longer title Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man only years later, in 1916, after having been rewritten almost completely. Also in 1904 James Joyce eloped to the continent with Nora Barnacle. Over the coming decades the couple and their children lived in Trieste, then Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Italy, in Zurich, Switzerland, and in Paris, France. As early as in 1905 James Joyce first tried to bring out Dubliners, but had to face all kinds of disappointments from varying publishers until 1914, when the book was finally printed. Then the publisher Harriet Shaw Weaver discovered James Joyce and became his patron. From 1916 on the author was thus liberated from making his living as an English teacher and could fully concentrate on his writing. He finished his only play Exiles in 1918, wrote two volumes of poems, brought out Ulysses in 1922, and completed Finnegans Wake in 1939. James Joyce, who had been a heavy drinker like his father, died in Zurich, Switzerland, in January 1941 where he had retreated to escape another war. Several of his works have been published posthumously.

Dubliners comprises fifteen short stories that span all important stages of life making the bow from childhood over adolescence to adulthood and eventually death. At the same time the stories cover the course of a year starting in spring and ending in winter. This concept behind the stories serves as a narrative link between the otherwise unrelated episodes drawn from middle class life in Dublin around 1900. In Dubliners – like in most of his other works – James Joyce criticized the influence of the Roman Catholic Church on Irish society, especially its conservative force that in his opinion prevented the country from progress, and the role of England as the ruling power who, according to the writer, intentionally kept Ireland a provincial and backward place. The Dubliners as described by James Joyce are constantly worried about sin and guilt or they are in unhappy and unsolvable marriages. They live in fear of failure and of the future. Consequently, all his protagonists are more or less passive sufferers who don’t have the courage to break free and advance although or because they have epiphanies about their lives. Hopelessness and a feeling of worthlessness are the constant companions of the Irish in James Joyces' stories. Also death embraces as well as penetrates the entire cycle of stories that starts with the laying-out of recently deceased Father Flynn in 'The Sisters' and ends with a longer narrative titled 'The Dead'.

When I read Dubliners for the first time a couple of years ago, I was very impressed by the psychological depth of the characters that James Joyce portrayed and by the true-life description of the circumstances engrossing them. The truth about standing in our own ways out of fear or out of habit is universal and valid up to this day although times have changed a lot during the past one hundred years. Death has a bit slipped out of our focus meanwhile, but it's as inevitable as ever and at one time or another everyone of us has to deal with the big questions connected to it.

To cut a long story short: I enjoyed reading Dubliners very much. For all those who shrink back from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and even Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (that I find quite an interesting and not too difficult read, by the way) it may be just the right book to get started on James Joyce.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Bohemyth - Literary Journal

Doing research for this week's posts, I stumbled across an interesting Irish website dedicated to literature: 'The Bohemyth', a new literary journal. More precisely it's a wordpress blog made into an e-weekly that publishes short stories, flash fiction, personal essay, and photography. The Dublin based online literary journal was launched only in October 2012 by Alice Walsh, herself an emerging writer (born in 1984) with a growing list of publications. She is joined by another young Irish writer from Dublin, Michael Naghten Shanks (born in 1987), for the editing.

The idea behind 'The Bohemyth' is to give writers space to publish their work online, but not together with heaps of other texts, so readers will find it difficult to give them the attention that they deserve. Instead, each one of the weekly issues features only a small and selected number of contemporary texts "with a literary bent" and photography. The editors keep a sharp eye on the quality of their literary journal and expect much from contributors. In the submission guidelines they ask for "stories that seduce and savage souls" and for "images that linger in minds".

Of course, I haven't read the entire e-journal, but only a few bits and pieces of it here and there to get an impression. Quite obviously I liked what I found since otherwise I wouldn't bother to write about it on my blog, would I? Contents are a good mix of contemporary writing in short prose with some pats of experimental poetry in between and photos. As far as I could see, most contributors so far have been Irish or with close relations to Ireland although the editors are open for submissions from anywhere on this planet, provided that they are in English and previously unpublished.

The literary journal's homepage shows the latest issues with their date of publication that can be liked, shared, and commented as usual. It takes, however, quite some scrolling to read the whole issue  – something that I find a bit annoying, but maybe this is because I and my peers have still grown up with books and papers instead of tablet computers and e-readers. The archives and lists of recent posts as well as categories (issues) are only at the foot of the page and hamper browsing. If I'm not mistaken, a list of contributors is completely missing at the moment.

Overall 'The Bohemyth' is an interesting new journal for literature lovers as well as aspiring writers that will surely find its readers although I think that the editors should consider a few changes of design in order to make the different contents easier accessible for people like me who aren't passionate about having their finger on the mouse wheel, touch pad or screen all the time to scroll down for what feels like ages. At any rate, I wish Alice Walsh and Michael Naghten Shanks good luck for their enterprise in the constantly changing universe of the internet.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw 1936
An impressing and important figure of Irish as well as European literature is George Bernard Shaw. The prolific playwright and Nobel Prize laureate in literature of 1925 was born in Dublin, Ireland, in July 1856. His father being a grain merchant and occasional civil servant who had taken to drinking, the boy didn’t get a chance to receive a good education. Moreover he changed schools several times, before starting to work as an office clerk at the age of 15, shortly after his mother, a singer, had run away with her lover taking with her his two elder sisters. 

In 1876 George Bernard Shaw gave up the job in Dublin that he despised to join his mother, her voice teacher and companion George Vandeleur Lee, and his sisters in London. By this time the young man was determined to become a writer, but first he got about completing his education spending much time in public libraries and the reading room of the British Museum. While supported by his mother and sisters (in exchange for ghost-writing a music column for George Vandeleur Lee), he started writing music, literary and theatre criticism for different newspapers. During those seven years he also wrote five novels that failed at first, but were published later. 

As from 1882 George Bernard Shaw got involved with the Socialist cause joining the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the Fabian Society and the Socialist League. Eventually, George Bernard Shaw focused on his work for the Fabian Society that disapproved of revolutionary ideals and advocated a peaceful as well as gradual change to a socialist society. Throughout the years he wrote many pointed and articulate pamphlets and speeches for the Fabian Society in which he branded the exploitation of the working class, advocated equal rights for men and women (e.g. 'The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism' in 1912) and stood up for a healthy lifestyle (George Bernard Shaw was a vegetarian and teetotaller). 

George Bernard Shaw’s breakthrough as a writer didn’t come before 1892, when his first play ‘Widower’s Houses’ was brought to the stage and received some acclaim from the audience, but not from drama critics because it wasn’t the sentimental entertainment that they had become used to during the Victorian era. However, George Bernard Shaw continued to write socially critical, but also very witty and humorous plays for the rest of his life. In the end they were more than sixty, among them the “unpleasant” early plays, as he liked to call them, ‘Arms and the Man’ and ‘Candida’ (both produced in 1894). His following works were more entertaining, but not less principled, and his popularity kept rising. Plays like ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ (1898), ‘Man and Superman’ (1903), ‘Major Barbara’ (1905) and ‘Pygmalion’ (1912) made his fame. 

Along with his writing George Bernard Shaw kept up his political commitment. He was involved in the formation of the Labour Party and for a short while he was a local councillor to the London County Council. Together with other members of the Fabian Society George Bernard Shaw founded the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1895. The following year he got to know Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a wealthy Irish member of the Fabian Society, and was attracted by her at once. Despite all he refused to marry her when she first proposed to him in 1897. In the next spring, after an accident, he accepted and got married to her after all. The couple stayed together until her death in 1943. 

George Bernard Shaw strongly opposed the British Empire’s involvement in World War I (and later World War II as well) which earned him hostility in the patriotic public and among friends. His play written during the war, ‘Heartbreak House’, was put on stage only in 1920 and became a big success like the following plays ‘Back to Methuselah’ (1921), ‘Androcles and the Lion’, and ‘Saint Joan’ (1923) that are considered his best works up to the present day. In 1925 George Bernard Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature that he accepted only as a tribute to Ireland. He requested, however, that the Prize money was being used to finance the translation of August Strindberg’s plays into English. 

George Bernard Shaw continued writing many plays until a few months before his death early in November 1950.

For more information about George Bernard Shaw and his work see the website if the International Shaw Society at:

or read a biography:

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Spring is Coming

The winter cold had effaced most of the garden's usually vivid colours, when it spread its white blanket over the ground and everything else in the city for the first time in November. Months have gone by since that detrimental day. During the past days the last patches of snow melted under the strengthening sun and with the help of warm winds from the South, but the lawn in the front garden still kept its brownish green and messy look. Only the mellow yellow of the primroses scattered all over the lawn proved that spring was finally coming. At least, that was the sole sign of spring that jumped to the eyes at first sight. Having a closer look, tiny green tips appeared between the frost-burnt blades of old grass and the crumbly soil that felt soft under the feet. Soon the last reminders of the dead season would disappear and the colours of life would take over once more. What a pleasure!

Monday, 11 March 2013

'The Committments': Souls Reaching for a Future

Surely the British Hollywood director Alan Parker is better known for his other musical films ‘Fame’ (1980), ‘Pink Floyd - The Wall’ (1982) and ‘Evita’ (1996), but also ‘The Commitments’ left a lasting impression and turned out to be Ireland’s most successful film so far. The film is based on a novel by one of the most renowned among contemporary Irish authors, Roddy Doyle, that is now being published under the title ‘The Commitments although it first came out as ‘The Partitions’ in 1987. It’s the first novel of the writer’s ‘The Barrytown Trilogy’ telling the story of the Rabbitte family in Dublin, Ireland. 

The Commitments’ was entirely shot on locations in Dublin. The film was released in August 1991 starring mostly unknown young actors with predominant musical talent and little or no acting experience like Andrew Strong as Declan "Deco" Cuffe, Maria Doyle as Natalie Murphy, Bronagh Gallagher as Bernie McGloughlin, or Angeline Ball as Imelda Quirke. Robert Arkins plays Jimmy Rabbitte and Johnny Murphy gives the part of Joey "The Lips" Fagan, the only veteran in the band. Colm Meaney in the role of Jimmy Rabbitte’s father, Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr., also appeared in the other two, less famous film adaptations of Doyle’s books from ‘The Barrytown Trilogy’ (‘The Snapper’: 1993; ‘The Van’: 1996). 

The plot of ‘The Commitments’ is as simple as that of most films of this kind. Living in the working-class north side of Dublin, a group of unemployed youths decides to start a band to escape the desolate and desperate conditions of their surroundings. When they find that they don’t know enough about the music business to be successful outside their own quarters, they ask their former school mate Jimmy Rabbitte to be their manager and impresario. Although his father thinks little of it, Jimmy Rabbitte accepts the offer under the condition that he’s allowed to make fundamental changes. First of all he wants the band to play classical soul music because he loves it and because he’s convinced that this could be the right niche for a young Dublin-based band with their background. It fits perfectly into Jimmy Rabbitte view that “the Irish are the blacks of Europe and Dubliners the blacks of Ireland”. The next step is to give the band a new name. Jimmy Rabbitte proposes ‘The Commitments’ because it resounds the names of many famous soul bands of the 1950s and 1960s. Then they make an audition to fill up their rows with new musicians and backing singers. That way Joey "The Lips" Fagan, a 45-year-old trumpeter with an inclination to talking big about his past and going after the young backing singers, joins the band. From then on the band’s success is rising, but soon the members begin to quarrel (with the backing singers and their relationship to Joey offering more than once a good cause) and Jimmy Rabbitte has a hard time keeping the band together. In the end he can’t prevent the inevitable and the band falls apart. 

It’s certainly true that ‘The Commitments’ doesn’t show much of grand acting or stunningly good dialogues, but it’s entertaining and it probably gives a good picture of how life might have been like in the quarters of Dublin that were widely stricken by unemployment around 1990. Besides, the musical performance of the cast is excellent and in my opinion always makes it worth the while watching this film.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Pheasant

Between primroses
In the lawn in the gardens:
A strutting pheasant!

© La Graziana 2013