Monday, September 28, 2020

The Story of Francesca, and Why Read Fiction?


Seen below is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's depiction of the story of Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo -- on the left as their transgressive relationship began while reading a book of fiction.  In the center and on the right, Virgil and  Dante-the-pilgrim observe the lovers swirling around in perpetuity in the winds of Hell. 

The scenes are from Dante-the-poet's "Commedia," or "The Divine Comedy" as it is generally known.  

Rossetti, the London-born son of an Italian who emigrated to England, was named Gabriel Charles Dante, but put Dante first in honor of the Italian poet, who lived much earlier.  Rossetti founded an artistic movement known as The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The watercolor painting is owned by the Tate Gallery in London and the image is borrowed from the museum's website for non-commercial purposes. 

         See the source image

 Why read fiction?

For entertainment is surely the most common answer. A good thriller, a compelling romance, a dystopian epic -- in short,  a "page turner" of one sort or another. 

Alternatively, people talk about reading stories because they identify with a character and perhaps better understand themselves as a result. Sometimes, they become so absorbed it is hard to return to "real life."

Reading fiction is also a way to travel without leaving one's armchair -- a series of detective stories set in Venice, or at British horse race tracks, or in ancient Rome. Less tedious perhaps than reading about the same places without a narrative and a compelling character or two.

Of course there are other reasons as well, perhaps many.

This topic came to mind as I was, rather late in life, reading Dante's "Commedia," the most well-known episode of which is undoubtedly the story of how Francesca and Paolo ended up in the Inferno, albeit in one of the outer regions where the form of torture is far, far less drastic than those which lie deeper within.

Francesca da Rimini (1255 -  c. 1285), daughter of the ruler of the Italian city of Ravenna, was married off at about age 20 for political reasons to the head of a rival family that ruled the near-by city of Rimini. There she apparently quickly fell in love with her husband's married younger brother, Paolo. They carried on an affair for about 10 years until they were discovered by Francesca's husband, who then killed them both. 

Dante appropriated the affair, placing Francesca and Paulo in the circle of Hell reserved for the lustful, using their story to illustrate what happens when love, a fundamental human attribute in his view, is misdirected. In the circle of lust, the poet's chief protagonist, a fictional pilgrim named Dante exploring the afterlife initially with the Roman poet Virgil as his guide, questions Francesca as to what happened.

What does this have to do with the question "why read fiction?"  Seems pretty obvious: adultery is wrong and in a Christian context, sinful.  While the religion allows for confession and proper repentance, the two lovers, caught in the act and immediately killed, clearly had no time or opportunity for that. So off to Hell they went, intertwined forever.

But that's not the whole story and arguably, not even the most important aspect of it in the mind of Dante-the-poet. Dante-the-pilgrim doesn't condemn Francesca. Rather, he faints in sympathy when he understands the consequences of her love for Paolo, who, it has been pointed out, she doesn't mention my name. Nor does Dante-the-pilgrim question him as to what happened. And, in real life, it seems we know little about him -- how he married and why he preferred Francesca to his wife, for instance. It's all about a desirable, but fallen young woman and presumably far more interesting that way.

Moreover, among the ruling classes at least, where it was common for marriages to be arranged to secure alliances or for other non-romantic purposes, adultery was not uncommon. In Francesca's case, she was married to an older man who, although described as brave, was lame. Probably not what a 20-year-old woman, ready for a passionate romance, had in mind. So it's not unreasonable to be sympathetic.

But back to the story.  According to Francesca, she and Paulo were reading the Arthurian story of Lancelot and Guinevere "for joy" or "for delight" (as the Italian can be translated) and couldn't resist kissing when encountering the scene in which Sir Lancelot first kisses Guinevere, King Arthur's wife. One thing led to another in both cases.

In Dante's time (1265 - 1321), fiction was not to be read for entertainment, for joy, or for delight, as Francesca put it, but rather for ethical instruction.

Francesca and Paolo should have somehow suppressed or ignored the feelings the scene engendered within them and learned a moral lesson from the tale instead, When they failed to use their God-given power to reason correctly, that transgression was as bad misdirecting love toward lust.  They should have learned the lesson that when Lancelot and Guinevere's affair was discovered, it caused a civil war that resulted in the end of Arthur's kingdom.

Which brings me back to the question, why read fiction?  Why are you reading it?

Before ending, I should note that Dante's rendering of Francesca and Paolo's affair spawned a host of paintings, plays and operas plus alternative versions of the story, one of which, by Boccaccio, I will hopefully address later.



Saturday, September 26, 2020

Blogging Is Akin To Broadcasting to Outer Space

 For some time now, humans have been broadcasting radio waves containing content of one sort or another into outer space, by means of signals strong enough to get through the ionosphere.  The idea is there might be civilizations out there somewhere that are sufficiently like ours that they can decipher the content and respond.

So far, to my knowledge, nothing particularly intelligible has come back. That's remarkably like this blog.

 I mention this because, for reasons totally unclear to me, visits to my blog, and the number of posts at least viewed, appear to be increasing in a rather notable fashion.  Not that anything has "gone viral."  Far, far, far from it and perhaps thankfully so. (That's probably not the best turn of phrase these days, anyway.)

 I say "apparently" because there is no way of knowing what to make of reported statistics on things like visits, views, clicks, impressions, etc.  For one thing, they seem to differ greatly depending upon where one goes to get measurements.  

Or maybe Google has decided to simply credit me with some favorable statistics to keep me going.  But since this blog has no ads, that doesn't make much sense. It's a mystery.

When I first started blogging -- not this one, but a blog called "The Wine Commentator" -- I received comments from readers from time to time.  And when I announced that I was closing it down, a surprising number of people who I had never heard from said they were sorry to see it go. Who knew?

But that was a while back, before Twitter (I'm not on Twitter or Facebook) became the way to go.

 Early on, when I briefly tried to promote my first novella, "Manhattan Morning," on Facebook because that was what self-publishers were supposed to do, and associated this blog with that effort, I did get a few comments from old friends. But I don't think I ever heard from anyone I didn't already know,

 A Facebook page did absolutely nothing for "Manhattan Morning," which is arguably now gaining some historical relevance, in obscurity, because of the way Manhattan and retail in general is changing as a result of the pandemic and a related accelerated shift to online shopping.  Who knows, perhaps "Manhattan Morning" will be "discovered" in that context -- before the culture from which it is in large part derived, literary Modernism, is totally "cancelled." 

"Manhattan was really like that???" 

If cancellation means I'm consigned to the same circle within some Dante-like inferno as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and especially Virginia Woolf (among many others), so be it. Unlike "Ulysses," "Manhattan Morning" is so slim and the number of copies in circulation so small that when it is burned, it's unlikely to contribute significantly to climate change so I won't be charged with an additional offense.

 Who is going to bring all this about?  It's probably best not to be too specific about that.  Those interested, however, can read publications such as the New York Times art sections to get a feel for where things are going.

 Meanwhile I will continue to episodically blog out into what amounts to the great unknown.  I've been rather inactive in recent months, but now have a couple of topics I feel like working up -- and plenty of time stuck at home in which to do it. Crank up the transmitter.


Monday, July 13, 2020

Goodreads Giveaway for "Manhattan Morning"

Back in 1989, a memorable film about baseball called "Field of Dreams" was released to critical acclaim.

The seminal moment arguably occurred early in the film when a man, walking through a corn field, heard a voice telling him "if you build it, he will come," the word "he" referring to a once greatly admired  then disgraced ball player named Shoeless Joe Jackson. So with his wife's reluctant permission the man turned part of a cornfield into a baseball stadium and the story goes from there.

Over time, the key expression has morphed into "if you build it, they will come" and can be applied to almost anything -- such a novella called "Manhattan Morning."  All one has to do is write it, put it up on sites such as Amazon or Goodreads (owned by Amazon) and readers will surely arrive.

Well, that's not exactly the way it works in real life and especially if the book is identified as "literary" fiction.

The book was initially released in 2015 after a number of friends read and critiqued it, but readers outside of that circle didn't arrive at all.

So, in the Age of Coronavirus when there seems to be fewer things upon which to spend money and when the public is arguably doing more reading while sheltering at home, I decided "why not?" and spent about $120 to launch a Goodreads giveaway of up to 100 copies of the novella in its Kindle format, where the short book, centered on a walk through midtown Manhattan, is illustrated.

The month-long giveaway,  which just ended and in which "Manhattan Morning" was identified as "An illustrated Kindle novella for readers who love stories set in New York," apparently attracted 363 entrants of which 100 were awarded copies of the book. According to Goodreads, 275 people shelved the title in a "want to read list."


How many people will actually read the book is another matter entirely and if they do, will anyone comment or give it a review -- good, bad or indifferent?

Stay tuned.

Perhaps there is a reason so many people in this country appear to be employed in "marketing" of one form or another.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Three Oregon Pinots Currently Available

Before I started "Thoughts About Fiction," I wrote a blog called "The Wine Commentator" for about six years, reviewing mainly Oregon and California Pinot Noir plus unoaked or lightly oaked Chardonnay.

The point was to discover what my wife and I liked about wine and what we didn't like, and to figure out whether it was worth buying more expensive wine, We learned a great deal.

In the Age of Coronavirus, we're cooking all our dinners at home and drinking wine along with them.  After getting through a certain amount of inventory in our cellar, I realized we needed some Pinot Noir that could be consumed without much aging and asked our local wine merchant what he had available from Oregon's Willamette Valley.

I bought three bottles and my wife and I subjected them to a blind tasting one evening, just like we did back in the old "Wine Commentator" days. That meant trying them all, without knowing which was which,  first before eating any food, and then during the course of dinner.  The bottles were then re-corked and opened again on a second night and sampled one more time.

The wines were:

1) Elk Cove 2017 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir  ($25)
2) Evensham Wood 2018 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir ($27), and
3) North Valley 2017 Soter Vineyard Pinot Noir ($25)

Now, you might say, wait a minute: two of those are of the 2017 vintage and one is of the 2018 vintage so it isn't an even playing field.  I would respond by saying I'm not trying to evaluate which winemaker did best with a particular year's grapes, I'm evaluating which wine a consumer should purchase and these are what were available.

Lets go straight to the bottom line.  We both independently, and on both days, picked the North Valley offering as the clear winner.  It had a nice body weight, noticeably more complexity of flavor, and good acidity. The acidity both enabled the wine to stand up to food better than the other two and it gave the North Valley pinot an attractively bright finish. And this wine was even better when re-opened on the second day (not unusual for young red wine) so don't think you have to consume an entire bottle with one dinner.

On the other end of the spectrum, we both liked the Evesham Wood the least, to the point where after the second round of tasting, I threw out the remaining more than half bottle.  This wine seemed balanced, if bland, upon first tasting, but then an aspect I would described as "dusty" appeared and the finish became less and less pleasant. In other words, the more oxygen it encountered, the less attractive it became. And once again, the two of us were on the same page with respect to this one.

Somewhere in the middle was the Elk Cove.  When we first sampled this wine, before starting to eat our food, I found it disappointingly thin and even a little watery.  My wife described it as bland.  But as time went by and the wine encountered more oxygen, it gained body weight. When the three bottles were reopened on the second day, the Elk Cove  was noticeably better. But it still lacked the complexity and the acidity of the North Valley and because of the latter, came across as a little sweet.

If you tend to drink wine on its on as opposed to with food, you might like the Elk Cove, but I would recommend swirling it around in a decanter to thoroughly oxygenate it before consumption,  This wine really needs to breathe a bit before you drink it.

So there you have it. If you want a satisfying pinot to drink with a meal and you don't plan to cellar it, go for the North Valley pinot if you can find it. This one, too, will benefit from decanting before consumption.

And in this instance, no, you don't have to pay more to get a better bottle of wine.

If you want to learn about wine, I recommend you open more than one bottle at a time, sample them blind without and with food, and on more than one day.  Wine changes.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Making Wine Coasters (2)

Belle Pente Vineyard &Winery is a Willamette Valley, Oregon, producer of wines made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay grapes.  Above you can see one of their bottles of wine, a coaster made from the foil tops of 16 bottles and a wine glass sitting on the coaster.

Monday, June 22, 2020

More About Gender and Gender Roles

Gender issues obviously loom large for writers.

What makes a male or female character convincing in terms of personality and behavior?  It's a question that appears to be increasingly interesting -- and perhaps more problematic --  in the age of gender and occupational fluidity.

A couple of very recent articles, one in the Washington Post, and the other in the New York Times, shed some interesting light on this issue. Both are authored by writers.

In the first, "I love being a stay-at-home dad. And I still struggle with what it says about me as a man," Jason Basa Nembec, with commendable candor, agonizes on Father's Day over his decision to put his wife's lucrative career first. Intellectually, he's fine with it, but in his gut, it feels all wrong. He wishes masculinity could be "redefined."

A complementary article, "One Year on Testosterone," suggests it may not be easy.  In it, the author, Linden Crawford, a person born as a woman who eventually discovers she is gay, begins taking testosterone because she wants to experience what it does for one even though she isn't interested in making a full transition. As a result, she begins to acquire some rather classic "alpha male" characteristics, perhaps of the sort Mr. Nembec above is trying to shed.

Nembec has a PhD in English with a focus on creative writing, but was unable to land a full-time teaching position at a university. "If I let myself think about it, I felt like a failure," he says. So he agreed to accommodate his wife's successful career in the retail industry by staying home and taking care of first one young daughter and then a second as well.

Although "an amazing privilege," the role has not squared well with Nembec's underlying makeup, which he appears to ascribe to cultural influences as opposed to human nature.

"Inside, I was starting to struggle big-time with my identity, measuring myself against some old-school societal notion of what makes a successful man"  -- most notably, in his view, that a man should provide for his family.  "It's a narrow notion of masculinity that I don't even believe in, yet can't fully break free from.  Who knows what cultural mash-up of school friends, TV, movies and whatever else even built it." 

Nembec tries to "reinvent himself" as a bartender but finds he can't work the necessary hours because of domestic needs and more than two-years into his unconventional stay-at-home role, "still sometimes feels deeply ashamed for not working to bring more income into our bank account."

"Unfortunately, shame doesn't hit me on a logical level. It's an internal voice that quickly gets visceral. It his me in the gut. It radiates out from my torso like a wound, sometimes twisting the tension in my neck into a migraine headache, sometimes bringing me to tears, sometimes both."

The bottom line: Nembec doesn't want to change. Rather, he wants the world to view masculinity, and, in particular, what it means to be strong, in a different light and then he'll be able to feel better about himself.

Turning to Crawford, who I have (with my apologies)  referred to as "she" or "her" (because Crawford's preferred "they" is too confusing for most readers), it all started with a desire to experience what having a mustache might be like. That, in turn, eventually led to curiosity about taking testosterone in order to be bigger and stronger.

"What I wanted was virility, and I was afraid to admit it," Crawford says, while at the same time conceding she didn't want to become ugly and "felt guilty for squandering my feminine beauty and grace" even though she says she never identified with such traits.

So, while Nembec feels shame about failing to live up to conventional notions of masculinity in order to accommodate other priorities, Crawford experiences guilt about throwing away conventional notions of feminine appeal in pursuit of goals that conflict with such traits.

Shrugging off warnings of adverse reactions, Crawford begins applying a gel containing a low dose of testosterone and finds her physical strength and stamina soar.  

Most significantly perhaps, in view of current criticisms of "toxic masculinity," Crawford says: "It's a bit disturbing to observe that the more masculine I feel, the freer I feel to do what I please, and not to do what merely pleases others."

The phrase "free to do what I please" brings  to mind Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Jeffrey Epstein among a host of other conventional males, both contemporary and over the course of history, and in fiction as well as in life.

As she continues taking testosterone, Crawford finds she smiles less, finds it harder to cry, experiences more prolonged periods of irritation and experiences a sense of justified anger that is both empowering in the sense of being a call to action, but at the same time disturbing in the sense that it is a trait women don't generally enjoy.

"I am grateful to be more in touch with my anger, but also outraged that my sense of entitlement to such a basic emotion correlates with the amount of testosterone in my bloodstream."

There's a lot to think about here -- for readers, for writers and even for the authors of the two referenced articles -- since a lot what these authors discuss appears to be unresolved,

In addition, there is what Crawford calls "gender panic" among the general public -- emotions that set in when someone can't clearly identify another person as a male or female.

"I face gender panic constantly in my daily life and my work as a bartender," Crawford says. "Since it threatens my sense of safety as well as my rapport with customers, I've learned to monitor its progression carefully."

That's an interesting statement because a trait that runs far stronger in women than in men is a sense of vulnerability. So despite her testosterone-induced added strength, stamina and virility, Crawford retains a key underlying attribute of femininity.


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Let's Hear It For New Criticism

New Criticism, a movement that dominated American intellectual analysis of literature in the middle part of the 20th century, emphasized a close reading of text independent of the historical, philosophical or sociopolitical circumstances in which it was written. And more important in the current context, advocates of this approach believed the biographical circumstances of authors should be ignored during the process of divining the meaning or aesthetic beauty of writing.

Major figures associated with this approach were John Crowe Ransom, Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks and, to a certain extent, T.S. Eliot.

I mention this because I read a piece in Literary Hub in which a couple of female authors were described as being upset that readers and/or critics seemed more interested in their personal lives than in what they had written, or, rather, in how their writing illuminated their personal lives.

In the piece, two women, Kendra Winchester and Autumn Privett, discuss Lucy, a recent novel by Jamaica Kincaid.

In it (the transcript of a Podcast), Ms Winchester says at one point: "I interviewed Meena Kandasamy earlier this year about The Portrait of the Writer As a Young Wife, and she talked about her experience with autofiction [fictionalized autobiography] and saying that she wanted to separate, you know, the art and the artist. And she didn’t want people looking into her own personal life to find out what was “real” and what wasn’t real. And I am reading up on the research for this episode. There a similar conversation with Jamaica Kincaid that, yes, a lot of her work is based on some of her experience, like loosely inspired by. But she didn’t want people to think that she was writing like word-for-word or experience-by-experience upon her own life. And she wanted that separation as well. And I find that interesting that so many women are just having to have this conversation like over and over. It’s like people are just so obsessed with women writers, like what is real from their life and what is fiction."

In other words, these women would that what they have written stand on its own terms.

This preference, it is fair to say, is then largely ignored by Ms Winchester and Ms Privett during their discussion of Lucy.

Early in the piece, for instance, Ms Winchester says: "So I thought we could talk a little bit about her and her background and where she comes from because a lot of her own personal life has informed her writing in a lot of ways."

And on it goes from there.

Well, people are fundamentally voyeurs and perhaps that's what the listeners to the "Reading Women" podcast really want to hear.