Archive for January 2011

Born Fighting, by James Webb

January 30, 2011

DR. STOCKMANN: The minority is always in the right.
–Ibsen, An Enemy of the People

This book is a tribute to cussedness. The Scots-Irish, in Webb’s telling, are the hardest-working, hardest-drinking, hardest-fighting, who don’t have any great ambitions, are overlooked, and resent it all. At least, he resents it all.

This is a tribute to low art. Country music is the creation of the Scots-Irish and quoted copiously. Webb has no time for the Scottish Enlightenment, or even Robert Burns, and never takes the time to tell why they don’t fit into his story. Clearly, they don’t, because they’re not the highlanders; but he could have spent some time on Scots vs. Scots-Irish. Who is his audience in this book? The Scots-Irish, as he describes them, would probably not have the patience or the time to read a 300-page half-history/half-memoir.

Relying on a few history texts, from which he liberally quotes, Webb describes how the Scots developed from ancient Celtic tribes in Britain. Some of them bounced back and forth between Scotland and Ulster before heading west in the eighteenth century as the Scots-Irish. They adopted Appalachia as a home-away-from-highlands, but even then, some kept moving, all the way to California.

Webb honors Andrew Jackson as the first Scots-Irish President. In an effort to show how the glass is half-full, Webb dismisses the Indian relocations in half a sentence and moves on to other things. Let someone else show the other hand. There is little room for women in the book, except for a few anecdotes about the women in his family with biceps like a man.

By the end of book, after telling of World War II, history disappears and we move into the territory of autobiography or memoir. No one can dispute Webb’s experiences as a Marine in Vietnam, but his later life has been a series of desk jobs–Congressional staffer, Navy Secretary, novelist. He tries to give it all meaning by connecting to his bloody roots. Whether the reader finds him sympathetic is another story.

Tales of Hoffmann

January 2, 2011

You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream . . . .
–Poe, “A Dream Within A Dream”

My Penguin collection contains eight of the tales, including two that Offenbach incorporated into his opera: “The Sandman” and “Counselor Krespel.” Those who enjoy Poe and Lovecraft should know these tales. Hoffmann’s world includes all of Europe–Paris (“Mademoiselle de Scudery”), Berlin (“The Choosing of the Bride?), Venice (“Doge and Dogaressa”), Sweden (“The Mines at Falun”), Danzig (“The Artushof”), and an Italian university town only called “G.” (“The Sandman”).

In “The Sandman,” little Nathaniel wanted to know who this mysterious figure really was. He asked his mother, who replied, “There is no sandman, my dear child. . . . When I say the sandman is coming, all that means is that you are sleepy and cannot keep your eyes open, as though someone had sprinkled sand into them.” Not content with this answer, he asked a governess, who said:

“Oh Nat, don’t you know that yet? It is a wicked man who comes after children when they won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes, so that they jump out of their heads all bloody, and then he throws them into his sack and carries them to the crescent moon as food for his little children, who have their nest up there and have crooked beaks like owls and peck up the eyes of the naughty children.”

This makes an impression on the boy, whose father dies from his dealings with the loathsome Coppelius, a sorcerer who collects eyes–or at least, that is what the boy thinks he hears. At the university, he admires the beautiful Olympia, daughter of Professor Spalanzani; Olympia never says anything more than a monosyllable, but Nathaniel is convinced that she loves him. A strange man named Coppola appears and threatens Spalanzani as Coppelius had threatened and dominated Nathaniel’s father. Olympia has a coming-out, and Nathaniel believes that she only has eyes for him. Nathaniel has been fooled the whole time–Olympia is a mechanical doll, or a robot.

These tales are vague and do not attempt verismo. The logic of dreams applies.

“The Choosing of the Bride” is the best of these, though not known as well as “The Sandman.” There is again a mysterious sorcerer figure–here, a goldsmith named Leonhard. Three suitors compete in a game of chance for the hand of Albertine Vosswinkel. The most sympathetic of them, Edmund the painter, wins the contest, but finds that he would rather inspect the treasures of Rome first. This may be the result of a curse from another mysterious figure, a wandering Jew, Manassa.

A rather literal attempt to show the eye-catching allure of Olympia in “The Sandman” can be seen in this clip from Les Contes d’Hoffmann from Orange with the nimble Natalie Dessay.