A Very Good Start: Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”

Tom Stoppard

Playwright Tom Stoppard. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the prompts for NaBloPoMo involves writing about the opening of your favorite book.

Now, this is a bit tricky. One of my favorite books, by one of my favorite authors, is Cloud Atlas (recently turned into a film by the folks who made “The Matrix” series and “Run Lola Run,” but that’s another story), written by David Mitchell. Great book, beautiful ending. But the beginning hardly hints at the greatness to come. And that’s true for a lot of my top choices.

The book of Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia” is way up there on my list of favorites, and its opening absolutely fits the bill.

The curtain rises on a room in a large country home in Derbyshire in 1809. The daughter of the house, 13-year-old Thomasina, is there with her tutor, Septimus Hodge, age 22.

THOMASINA: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?

SEPTIMUS: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.

THOMASINA: Is that all?

SEPTIMUS: No…a shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well hugged, an embrace of grouse…caro, carnis; feminine; flesh.

THOMASINA: Is it a sin?

SEPTIMUS: Not necessarily, my lady, but when carnal embrace is sinful it is a sin of the flesh, QED. We had caro in our Gallic Wars – ‘The Britons live on milk and meat’ – ‘lacte et carne vivunt’. I am sorry that the seed fell on stony ground.

THOMASINA: That was the sin of Onan, wasn’t it, Septimus?

SEPTIMUS: Yes. He was giving his brother’s wife a Latin lesson and she was hardly the wiser after it than before. I thought you were finding a proof for Fermat’s last theorem.

THOMASINA: It is very difficult, Septimus. You will have to show me how.

SEPTIMUS: If I knew how, there would be no need to ask you.

With a few opening lines, Stoppard establishes everything about the drama that unfolds: The precociousness of Thomasina, the respect Septimus has for her intellect, the confusion that occurs when sex enters the picture, the rhythm of the language.

Their exchange continues, and continues to set up the events to come, as Septimus tries to determine what on Earth could have instigated this inquiry from his young pupil.

When Septimus learns that Thomasina heard Jellaby the butler, “telling cook that Mrs. Chater was discovered in carnal embrace in the gazebo,” he grows nervous.

SEPTIMUS: (Pause) Really? With whom, did Jellaby happen to say?

(THOMASINA considers this with a puzzled frown.)

THOMASINA: What do you mean, with whom?

SEPTIMUS: With what? Exactly so. The idea is absurd. Where did this story come from?

THOMASINA: Mr. Noakes.

SEPTIMUS: Mr. Noakes!

THOMASINA: Papa’s landskip gardener. He was taking bearings in the garden when he saw – through his spyglass – Mrs. Chater in the gazebo in carnal embrace.

SEPTIMUS: And do you mean to tell me that Mr. Noakes told the butler?

THOMASINA: No. Mr. Noakes told Mr. Chater. Jellaby was told by the groom, who overheard Mr. Noakes telling Mr. Chater, in the stable yard.

SEPTIMUS: Mr. Chater being engaged in closing the stable door.

And so, in little more than a page, we have almost the entire cast of characters that populates the 1809 section of the play, which also travels forward in time to present day where a couple of academics have imposed themselves on the descendants of the same home, trying to solve riddles from the past. Such as whether Lord Byron, friend to Septimus, ever stayed at the house, penned a newly discovered poem there, fought a duel, killed a man, and escaped across the Channel without anyone discovering his crime.

Many critics consider “Arcadia” to be Stoppard’s best play – which is saying something, considering he also has to his credit “The Real Thing,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and “The Coast of Utopia,” along with the screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love.”

“Arcadia” is the stuff of the greatest British playwrights, Orton and Wilde and Shakespeare. It’s a discourse on physics and the natural world, discovery and knowledge lost. It’s tragedy embedded in comedy – and we care so much because Stoppard’s writing defines these characters so clearly from the start. Thomasina, with her wondrous intelligence, is fully realized the moment she utters the play’s first line.

“Arcadia” leaves me breathless with laughter, shattered and in tears, every time I read it. The danger is opening the book at all because, once started, you’re swept away by the beauty of language and the brilliance of the mind that wrote it.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.”
~ Tom Stoppard, “Arcadia”

A Long Reading List for a Short Month

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto, Rock 'n' Roll by Tom StoppardHere’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going plus reviews of February’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I own the Stoppard play; borrowed Yoshimoto, Shin and Eaves from my local library; received Power Questions from the author for review; and received The Social Media Strategist from the publisher for review. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

February
6 down, 42 to go!

REVIEWS

Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard
Rock ‘n’ roll music’s power to make you think and, contrarily, lose all self-control and follow the beat makes it an apt metaphor in Stoppard’s 2006 play.

Taking its characters from 1968 to 1990, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” is full of contrasts: head against heart, politics and poetry, Marxism or pragmatism, the bourgeois safety of Cambridge versus Prague after the Soviet tanks roll in.

These are ideas Stoppard has visited before, most effectively in “The Real Thing,” where the subject of love was set to a soundtrack of Herman’s Hermits and Big Head Todd. Here it’s the Plastic People of the Universe, ex-Pink Floyd guitarist Syd Barrett, John Lennon, and the Beach Boys, with the Rolling Stones closing out the set.

The play, which is dedicated to the late poet, playwright and Czech president Vaclav Havel, opens just before the iconic Summer of ’68 in Cambridge, England, where Max, the academic Marxist, rules the roost and, presumably, a classroom of eager acolytes. Strangely, it’s Max’s wife Eleanor and, later, his lover Lenka, who are the only ones actually seen teaching various students.

Jan is a Czech exchange student, the all-too-real (for Max) embodiment of what it means to live under Communism. Max and Jan have an antagonistic intellectual relationship after the Prague Spring is crushed.

Max’s intellectualizing of Communism (with a capital “C”) causes no end of sorrow for those around him, especially his wife, who is dying of cancer, and Jan, who is about to return home to face who knows what.

“I speak as one who’s kicked in the guts by nine-tenths of anything you can tell me about Soviet Russia,” Max justifies. When Jan asks why he’s remained in the Party, Max says, “Because of the tenth, because they made the revolution and no one else.”

JAN: Dubcek is a Communist.

MAX: No – I’m a Communist, I’d be a Communist with Russian tanks parked in King’s Parade, you mummy’s boy.

Of course, it’s the reality that Max never has to face tanks in King’s Parade that makes him so angry at the accommodations he feels others are making.

The characters move swiftly through the years, demarcated by musical interludes from the aforementioned bands. There is a chronology of events, both historical and musical, related to the themes in the play, but this is placed at the back of the book (one hopes it was clearly in view in the theater program), and I sorely wished I’d read this first, even though it gives short shrift to such a vast swath of history.

I’m a big fan of Stoppard, however, what doesn’t work here is Max’s puzzling position in relation to Czechoslovakia, from before the Prague Spring all the way up to the Velvet Revolution. There’s no sense of why an entire state hierarchy would be remotely interested in an academic Marxist living in England, so one of the major plot points adds up to nothing. Also, the sharp cuts between settings and years made it hard to settle on the characters, who they are, what they’re feeling, how they’re changing – or not, in Max’s case. This confusion is practically a given when reading the book rather than seeing the play performed, but the brevity given to each era doesn’t help.

The play closes in Prague after Havel has been elected; the Rolling Stones have jetted in to perform.

“These are new times,” says Jan as the lights go down and Keith Richards cranks out an old familiar chord.

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto
This novella (185 pages in hardback) benefits from Yoshimoto’s deft yet plain prose. You’re quickly caught up in the lives of Chihiro, who’s just lost her mother, and Nakajima, a med school student who leads a life of permanent mourning.

They are two young people living in vast Tokyo, far from home and family, who recognize each other as kindred spirits and begin a tenuous relationship. Tenuous because Nakajima is holding back a big secret about what happened to him as a child. These events – and how his family treated him in their aftermath – scarred him irrevocably, fraying his tether to the world of human relationships.

The book suffers from jacket copy, which reviewers have echoed, that links Nakajima’s mysterious past with the Aum Shinrikyo gas attack on Tokyo’s subways. I don’t feel this is an effective analogy, and it provides a bit more tension than perhaps the book deserves.

For a short book, there are passages in The Lake that feel like they drag on too long or are repeated, especially in the early section about the death of Chihiro’s mother. And, as close as the reader feels to these characters, there are odd moments where one is drawn up short by comments, like Chihiro’s, that “physical sensations like smells and exhaustion don’t figure into our memories.” This seems plain wrong, smell being one of the strongest creators and triggers of memories; and, in the novella, Chihiro by this point has already recounted several times how vividly she recalls the smells – and her exhaustion – in her mother’s hospital room.

It’s possible the trouble is in the translation, since the prose overall is so effective at pulling you into the story.

In less than 200 pages, Yoshimoto gets us through the difficult early phase of a relationship that has more obstacles than most and deals with the unusual nature of Nakajima’s past. It’s fascinating to compare this book with Haruki Murakami’s massive door-stopper 1Q84, which covers almost exactly the same territory in a frustrating and unnecessarily lengthy form. It’s no surprise that The Lake made the Man Asian Literary Prize short list when 1Q84 did not.

Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others by Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas
NOTE: A free review copy of this book was provided to me by the authors.

My favorite editor and generous colleague Ariel Thomas frequently sat quietly in meetings, listening intently, then if people were struggling, she’d ask the most attuned, insightful questions to help the agenda get back on track. She used this same technique in editing: she didn’t strike out my words, she underlined and asked questions. She approached everybody with a deep respect for their ability to figure things out for themselves, and she understood that the rewards were greater for everyone when that happened. That is the premise for this book, Power Questions, by two leaders in the worlds of business and philanthropy.

They share 35 experiences, from their work with leaders and in their personal lives, and show how asking insightful questions took these situations to a deeper, more effective level, changed working relationships and family dynamics in positive ways, and created greater opportunities for working together.

If you’re wondering, How can a question do all that?, well, that’s a great question. The book is organized into 35 short chapters featuring real-life examples of questions that redefined problems, challenged assumptions, reminded people of what’s really important – like mission and values, and motivated people to dig deeper and discover more.

Each chapter ends with a guide for using the question in the right situations so that people will be receptive to it. There are also alternate versions of each question and suggestions for follow-up questions.

The final section expands on this format with 293 additional questions and the contexts they are most appropriate for, such as understanding a person’s aspirations and goals, getting feedback about a professional relationship, understanding other people’s agendas, mentoring, resolving crises or complaints, and improving meetings, to name just a few.

Video of Andrew Sobel author of Power Questions

Andrew Sobel, co-author with Jerold Panas of “Power Questions.”

Sobel and Panas avoid clichés and don’t throw softballs. They’re working with presidents and CEOs and board chairs with millions of dollars on the line, after all. Yet this book offers relevant tools for anyone at any stage of their career or life. It’s perfect for managers hoping to motivate staff, parents who want to help children make life decisions, job-seekers who aim to turn standard interviews into wider-ranging discussions, salespeople and consultants who desire long-lasting relationships with their clients.

It’s especially helpful, in the field of business books, that Power Questions is well-written, quick to absorb, and presents practical advice for putting questions into action. This is one to keep by your desk, dog-ear your favorite sections, and return to often for perspective.

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin
By chance I happened to read two selections from the Man Asian Literary Prize short list this month, and the quiet, haunting power of this novel took me by surprise. Even more surprising is the fact that this is one of Kyung-sook Shin’s only books to be translated into English, when she’s won so many literary prizes in Asia and is apparently one of South Korea’s more famous authors.

After Please Look After Mom, I’d read anything I could find by this writer. Behind the book’s somewhat maudlin title is a semi-autobiographical story that unfolds as each character reacts to the shock of their mother’s disappearance in Seoul subway station and then, by turns, recall their life back in the countryside, where she farmed and fed and cared for them through frightening poverty and fought to give them better lives. Only in missing her do the characters recognize their mother as a person, how hard she worked to make them what they are, how they disappointed her, and how often they overlooked her sacrifices, even when it came to her own health.

“…Mom would cook and bring out the food and wash the dishes and clean and hang damp dishrags to dry. Mom took care of fixing the gate and the roof and the porch. Instead of helping her do the work that she did nonstop, even you thought of it as natural, and took it for granted that this was her job. Sometimes, as your brother pointed out, you thought of her life as disappointing – even though Mom, despite never having been well off, tried so hard to give you the best of everything, even though it was Mom who patted your back soothingly when you were lonely.”

There is despair in this book, certainly, and mystery, but such overwhelming beauty in the weaving together of the stories of the eldest son, eldest daughter, husband, and other voices to create a memorable portrait of a Mom who ironically only becomes fully present to her family after she’s vanished.

Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents by Elisabeth Eaves
Eaves’ travel memoir ignited that desire for new cultures and perspectives that’s always just below the surface. At the same time, I hope I never have a travel companion like her. As a memoirist, Eaves shirks her duty, cagily leaving out details that might make her look bad, while, on the travel-writing side, she’s simplistic and reductive when it comes to exploring the yearning for adventure and other cultures, relying heavily on the quotes of other, better writers to do the deep thinking.

Eaves’ desire to travel seems entirely borne of the interests of a high school boyfriend, one of many men she falls too quickly for and abandons for no reason that she’s capable of or willing to describe, leaving the reader baffled.

She’s very young at the start of these journeys – to Spain, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, England and France to name but a few locales – and still at that stage of life when one believes character is something that comes to you and not the other way around:

“Putting myself in new situations, I thought, would act as a purifying fire, charring away all the dross and leaving some essential self. Philosophers and travel writers down the ages have explored the question…I wanted that clarity. Without my own culture, would there still be something left? Or would I burn away to nothing?”

The book, with its exotic locations, could appeal to the adventurer in anyone, although there’s an awful lot of chapters spent angst-ing over “Who am I?” (when the answer is fairly obvious to the reader after all the author’s blunt talk about sex and needing to remove herself from just about every relationship she embarks upon). Once we were on the remote 60-mile-long Kokoda Trail in Papau New Guinea, and one of her fellow travelers, James, has a recurrence of malaria, and we spend the next few days and pages of the story following her trials and tribulations of getting out of the jungle and back to civilization, with descriptions of grassy air strips and dusty truck beds and how it feels to sit on her boyfriend’s lap, while losing sight entirely of James and what happens to him, I was out. This goes beyond self-centeredness, and it’s plain bad storytelling to boot.

As the customs stamps in Eaves’ passport pile up, along with the men she encounters, lo and behold, she discovers she’s jaded. Her comrades-in-khakis, with their Balinese silver bracelets and their Maori bone carvings, spend their nights drinking and engaging in one-upmanship – who’s gone to the remotest region? where was the scuzziest hostel? what dangers were they clever enough to escape? “We thought we were iconoclasts at the far edge of the world, but here we were in uniform, like members of any clique.”

At the end of the saga, she finds herself with a free ride in Paris – at the behest of a State Department boyfriend – and the chance to make a life as a writer there. But, traveling through Italy on holiday, she considers the ease of European travel a bore: “You go out into the world a sponge, and everything blows you away – the first palm tree, the first laundry line strung over desert-yellow dust. Now, though, I’ve absorbed too much. I know that Florence won’t have any impact. Zip.”

It’s a sad place to fetch up, especially for a writer, with no curiosity left for the world around you and what you might discover out there. This book has been billed as the anti-Eat Pray Love, but it’s very much of a piece with Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-involved memoir. If you’re looking for some thrilling, absorbing, intellectually stimulating travel writing, check out The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s Italian Days, the Durrell brothers, In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson, and just about anything by Mark Twain.

The Social Media Strategist: Build a Successful Program from the Inside Out by Christopher Barger
NOTE: A free review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.

My review, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit Gets Social,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.