You might not know this, but first lines are really important, first lines in writing specially. I recently had an opportunity to expound on this at a Language Dept. workshop at school.
We started by talking about how skillful writing hacks your brain so that you might not know your brain has been hacked. We showed a few examples of great first sentences -of course, there are many, many more. (Try to figure out the author and book, answers below – don’t cheat!). (We played a similar game on this blog on my post about Russian Literature, check it out here.)
“Here is a small fact: You are going to die.”
“En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.”
“Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way.”
“Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.”
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
“Lees ese anuncio: una oferta de esa naturaleza no se hace todos los días.”
“Call me Ishmael.”
We had a good time going over those sentences and what made them good first sentences. Then we looked at how to write good sentences in general and especially for academic writing. The hands-on part of the workshop involved the students writing a sentence each until we had a first paragraph!
We had a good time and I hope the students left understanding the importance of first sentences!
“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
The hype is real, The Brothers Karamazov is one of the best books ever written. For me it goes straight up in my list! It has the perfect combination of human behavior, philosophy, love (and lust), Russia, and much more, all beautifully written and woven together.
No spoilers, the book is about the three Karamazov brothers: Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei -Alyosha- and their father. There is also a half-brother, two women, servants, and many other characters who give the novel phenomenal depth and texture.
Ah, but it is a really long book! You exclaim. Well, yes, my edition is 776 pages, but look at them as an investment, or look at it as 7 books of 100 pages each, whatever just start reading. It took me four months, and it was time well spent.
My reference, my bar, is set at Don Quixote which was written 300 years before The Brothers Karamazov and for me, is still a better representation of human nature. But back to Dostoevsky:
This novel deals with the human condition from a deep philosophical and theological perspective, in doing so, Dostoevsky presents both sides of arguments. For example, in discussing the existence of God, Dostoevsky presents a profound argument against God with a brilliant story called The Grand Inquisitor and asking the age-old question “If God exists why do children die horrible deaths?” in the chapter “Rebellion”. On the other hand, the author summons Voltaire’s quote “S’il n’existait pas Dieu, il faudrait l’inventer” (If God didn’t exist, we would have to invent him). Likewise for existentialism. Dostoevsky studies both sides of the argument at length: do we have free will and we exercise it? Or is everything destined to happen? Like Cervantes -and more importantly unlike Nietzsche- Dostoevsky proves that God exists, and that man decides his life. But you have to read all the way to the last word to get there!
“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
In his arguments, the author quotes Voltaire, the Book of Job, the Byronic hero, and hundreds of other references. The Devil also makes an appearance in what looks like a clear predecessor of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita almost a hundred years later.
As far as narrative techniques, Dostoevsky does not only imitate Cervantes, but he also leverages Cervantine techniques: His narrator’s intromissions are constant and hilarious: at one point saying, “I am not a doctor…”, or “It could all serve as the plot for another story, for a different novel, which I do not even know that I shall ever undertake”. During the critical courtroom scene, arguably the climax of the story he writes: “The whole courtroom rose in turmoil, but I did not stay and listen. I remember only a few exclamations from the porch on the way out.” Very, very Cervantine.
There are a number of interpolated stories, which add to the reader’s understanding of the overall narrative. Some are stand alone and some weave in and out of the narrative, becoming part of the story.
In conclusion The Brothers Karamazov is one of the best novels ever written and you should read it. It will make you a more understanding person.
“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
For many of us growing up in the eighties, Picasso’s art is something we just grew up with (the Impressionists, especially Monet, are also right up there, but this is a post about Picasso). By the time I saw my first real Picasso painting, I had seen so many prints, posters, photos, etc. that I do not think I was that impressed.
The first Picasso painting that I remember seeing was no less than the Guernica, at the NY MOMA, (before it was returned to Spain) in the late seventies. I was more impressed with the size than the horrors of war that it portrays -also, I was, like, twelve.
Along the way, I became a fan of Picasso, studying his art, his career, his life. The whole thing is fascinating! My first full time teaching job, back in 2005 I organized a trip from Boston to NY to see the Picassos -back at the Museum of Modern Art! I relish any and every chance I get to explore his work.
Fast forward to last week when I made it to the last day of a tiny Picasso exhibit at the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach. It was worth it even if it only had a handful of works, equally divided between paintings and ceramics.
Every single piece of art Picasso created is brilliant and genius, but I have a soft spot for his interpretations of Don Quixote. Here was a tiny ceramic jug with a simple image of the Knight. Picasso and Don Quixote were implacable individualists creating their own destinies.
With such a massive oeuvre, there are Picasso exhibits everywhere constantly, so keep your eyes open for an exhibit near you soon!
There are books that I re-read with certain regularity: The Old Man and the Sea, Voltaire’s Candide, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (you can read about that one here), Don Quixote only three times.
But I recently came across a book I had read as a teenager in the 80s and decided to revisit: Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote.
As you can see from the title -I will try not to spoil anything- in a fictional meta-reality, Monsignor Quixote deals with the adventures of a descendant of Don Quixote. There is a Rocinante and a Sancho. Greene converted to Catholicism at 22 in 1926 (you can read his bio here) and this novel deals precisely with -no spoilers- with religion, theology, and the Church in early ‘80s, post Franco Spanish society (It was published in 1982). The book is an easy, quick read, and, since I am always on the lookout for the far reaching effects of Don Quixote, I re-borrowed Monsignor Quixote (thanks Sue) and thoroughly enjoyed it.
My more faithful readers know that one of my research interests is the influence of Don Quixote on Existentialist philosophy. So my antennae are always poised to pick up on this theme. Monsignor Quixote does not disappoint! The references to the links between Don Quixote and Existentialism might have been written unknowingly by Greene, which I doubt, but they are there either way:
There is a heartfelt reference to Miguel de Unamuno who was a big fan of Don Quixote and a proto-Existentialist (read San Manuel Bueno, Mártir). This is an indication that Greene understands Cervantes.
There are explicit mentions of Monsignor Quixote acknowledging his existence, which is a big step in understanding who one is.
The novel deals with our doubts and beliefs, the Existential anguish that drove Kierkegaard (but not in those words), the father of Existentialism -which would make Cervantes the great-grandfather of Existentialism (read about that here).
Finally, as any alert reader would expect of a novel with the name Quixote in it, it talks of madness. Of course, folks -specially those who have not read the novel- often confuse Don Quixote’s drive and purpose with madness (which drives me mad). I will not elaborate but Don Quixote knows who he is, it is just that nobody understands what he is doing, so they call him mad. This leads me to my first and hopefully last political statement ever on this blog: Former President Trump was often called Quixotic, for whatever reason, and the people who labeled Trump like that have obviously never read, and/or never understood Cervantes’ novel!! A similar point is seen in the film Easy Rider when Jack Nicholson as George Hanson says:
Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.
I guess I could have written a more academic article about this book, and maybe I will, but for the time being, enjoy.
Just a quick note to thank you for your support this year and all ten years of this blog!! 2021 has been our best year as far as visitors and second best year in terms of views. Records that I hope to improve on next year!
As usual my most popular post was the one about Don Quixote and Existentialism, which you can check out here. Surprisingly and unexpectedly the second most viewed was the post on Jonathan Dickinson State Park, which you can see here.
I hope to continue bringing you interesting and solid content in 2022. Until then, thanks and Happy New Year!!
(Oh, here are a couple of the most popular photos from 2021)
Match the titles of the books with their corresponding first line.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.
On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.
Towards the end of November, during a thaw, at nine o’clock one morning, a train on the Warsaw and Petersburg railway was approaching the latter city at full speed.
Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste, I’ve been around for a long, long year, stole many a man’s soul and faith.
In the big building of the Law Courts, during a break in hearing the case of the Molinsky’s, the members and the prosecutor met in Ivan Yegorovich Shehek’s office, and the conversation turned on the celebrated Krasovski case.
It was a wonderful night, such a night as is only possible when we are young, dear reader.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Mikhail Bulgakov, Master and Margarita (trick question, this is the opening of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil, which is based on this book)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ylich
Answers: 1-B, 2-E, 3-F, 4-D, 5-C, 6-G, 7-A
How did you do? As you can see this is a thorough test of your knowledge of Russian literature. In reality, it is a test of my knowledge (or lack thereof) of Russian literature, since these are the only books by Russian authors that I have read.
“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.”
Having said this and confessed my weak literacy in this deep ocean of work, I love what little I have read of Russian literature. In fact, at one point, I naively fancied doing my PhD in Comparative Lit. studying Spanish and Russian. Granted, this thought only lasted until I realized there was no way I was going to learn Russian in any level required to pursue a PhD, so… about 15 seconds (yes, I am a bit slow).
“Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”
One of the many reasons I love Russian Literature are the many links to my beloved Don Quixote. While this is not unusual, think of Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, and authors like Unamuno, Graham Greene, Foucault, and now even Salman Rushdie! Dostoevsky is clearly and heavily influenced by The Knight of Sad Countenance. Oh by the way, if you this will not be a profound, critical literary analysis, just my chaotic ramblings, sorry.
“No one’s fate is of any interest to you except your own.”
My first dip into Russian literature was, predictably, War and Peace which blew my mind. The intricacy of the descriptions, the narrative arc, the character development, the whole package! Tolstoy puts you in 19th C. Russia, down to the smells, the samovar ritual, the clothes, the temperatures, etc.
“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.”
Then came The Death of Ivan Ylich and my mind was blown even further. Here was all the richness of War and Peace, but in a short story. Crime and Punishment came in 2007, and at this point there was little of my mind that had not been blown to smithereens! In my opinion this is a psychological thriller at its best! If Tolstoy puts you in Russia, Dostoevsky puts you inside Raskolnikov’s mind!
A couple of years later my dear friend Irina recommended Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, and I was just flabbergasted, bowled over, dumfounded. This is deep, funny, magical, wonderful reading.
Anna Karenina, I found more personal than War and Peace, it struck a chord in my heart, not only in my mind. Basically, a similar narrative arc, character development, etc. of War and Peace, but from a much more intimate, psychological perspective.
And now, I just started Dostoevsky’s The idiot. The start is promising, to begin with, there is a narrator interrupting the narrative. I love it and will keep you posted (if I have any brain left to write).
PS: I did not forget Chekhov. But as we say in Spain, that is flour from another sack…
Please leave any comments and recommendations below!!
If you at all follow this blog, one of the best in the inter-web, you know I have lately been catching up on my film viewing.
I recently watched Patriots Day starring Mark Wahlberg and Kevin Bacon, about the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. Without spoilers, one of the bombers is a student at UMass Dartmouth, and when they show a panorama shot of the university, it is not UMass Dartmouth at all, (According to Imdb, UMass Dartmouth did not allow filming on its campus) it is my beloved Simmons College (now University) where I got my Masters!! And I realized I had never written about that experience on my blog.
My teaching adventure started by being a substitute teacher at Newburyport School District in 2005. I got my first real job teaching at Milton High School in the Fall of 2006. The school was rough, I had a lot to learn in a tough environment. Fortunately, I had a great boss who supported me, she recommended that if I wanted to pursue a career in teaching I should get a master’s degree. So I did my research: Only a few universities had evening programs for Spanish: Boston College, Boston University and Simmons. Guess which one had the best value and was closest to home?
Going back to school -as a student- was a bit daunting, something I had not done in exactly 20 years, but I was committed and loved the idea of learning in an academic setting. I loved my teachers; they were outstanding, tough but caring. My learning curve was steep, but I enjoyed every minute! Surprisingly, I thrived, I loved it. I was lucky to study Don Quixote and Golden Age literature under Louise Cohen, Spanish film with Dolores Pelaez-Benitez, Latin American lit with Raquel Halty and Modern Latin American lit with Danisa Bonacic. I must confess it was the first time in my life I saw As, never mind straight As! I looked forward to class, I did my research and wrote my essays with enthusiasm.
My cohort was a blast: Paul, Corrinne, Andrea, Laura, John, even the undergrads were nice, I am still in touch with them thanks to social media!
Simmons campus is small, but it is a proper campus, right in the middle of Boston, next to The Museum of Fine Arts and next door to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where Simmons students have free access. I would often arrive early to have a walk around the museum! The library had been recently renovated and was a great place to work and study before class. Simmons Library Science program is considered one of the best in the country. They also have a full Olympic pool where I would sometimes swim.
Although I loved every class and every teacher, I was particularly fond of Louise Cohen and her amazing mastery of Don Quixote and Golden Age Literature. It was for her class that I wrote about Don Quixote being the grandfather of Existentialist philosophy, which you can read in this blog by clicking here.
You might ask, “wait a minute, isn’t Simmons a women only college?”. The answer is yes, but only for undergrad programs, my MA was co-ed.
Prof. Halty was the department chair would host our cohort for dinner in her beautiful Weston home during the Christmas holidays. After my graduation I stayed in touch with my professors. Prof. Halty became my mentor in helping me get into a PhD program, she was also incredibly supportive during my breakdown.
In conclusion, Simmons College was a fantastic experience for me. A small school in the heart of Boston, with top level professors, great colleagues, and amazing facilities.
Time flies when you are having fun, as the saying goes. This blog, that started as a travel log for my motorcycle trip visiting grad schools for my PhD is hitting some important milestones:
First, we have posted over 200 posts, so that is something. That coincides with our upcoming 10th anniversary (it will be on July 31, but still, I am ahead of my time on everything except the rent), which translates to 20 posts a year, so about one every couple of weeks on average. Sorry I am a bit of a nerd.
100 likes means that every other one of my posts gets a like. Hey, I will take it!
One good thing about the Covid-19 lock down is being able to catch up on things you were meaning to do. I will not come up with Differential Calculus like Newton did during the Black Death plague of 1665, but not because I am horrible at math, but because Newton already invented Differential Calculus!
At any rate, I had been wanting to write about a film I saw last year at the Círculo de Bellas Artes, the artsy film theater in Madrid, and I finally found the ticket stub to remind me. If you consider that the film took 29 years to make, a year to write about it is not so bad!
The film is The Man Who Killed Don Quixote by Terry Gilliam. If the name sounds familiar it is because he used to be in Monty Python, remember them? At any rate, the film started filming in 1999, but the lead had a herniated disk on his first day of filming, then the set flooded… So, Gilliam had to duke it out with the insurance, then try to find new financing, then casting, etc. It finally premiered in 2018.
The film is not an adaptation of Don Quixote, it takes the characters and the story and riffs on them to create a brilliant Byzantine, Postmodern, surreal, Baroque work, drenched in Chiaroscuro.
But the plot is not the only asset of the film, the shifting narratives and narrators are accompanied at all times by a great cast led by Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, and a numerous international cast and crew. The set and locations are straight out of the novel, there is no denying you are in La Mancha, and you can feel it, and smell it, and taste it.
I do recommend the film, with the caveat that it is not for everyone. If you are looking for a logical, linear story, this is not for you, otherwise: enjoy!
Locked up at home during the Coronavirus quarantine, I get to read a lot, which got me thinking of books This blog exists because of books. You see, I started this blog to report my Harley-Davidson trip visiting universities across the South for my PhD in Spanish Literature, that is: books. Yes, I am addicted to books. Having said that, I am a slow reader. So, while I enjoy books, I do not devour books like some folks do. Anyway let’s start at the beginning:
My first blurry memories of reading are of Enid Blyton, I guess like millions of children. Fortunately in high school, I had the privilege of being taught by Mrs. Soledad Sprackling. And my mind exploded with what she had me read: Borges, Neruda, Lorca, et al. That was it, I was hooked. In college my super cultured friend Silvia Velez introduced me to Gabriel García Márquez and my mind exploded again! It has been a series of explosions since.
Luckily I can read in Spanish, English and French and find it very frustrating when I cannot read every book in the original language it was written in. In fact, when I was twirling about with the idea of getting my PhD, I wanted to study comparative lit Spanish / Russian, but there was no way I was going to learn that level of Russian in a hurry, so that was the end of that thought. Miguel de Unamuno, one of my literary heroes actually learnt Danish so he could read Kierkegaard, bastard.
Here is a list of some of my favorite books with only number 1 in a clear position – all the rest vary according to the day you ask me:
Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote. I have only read it three times, once with the amazing Prof. Louise Cohen. She shared with me her passion for this book, which I have written about in previous posts.
Alexandre Dumas –The Count of Montecristo. Love, adventure, revenge, massive wealth, what’s not to like?
Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina / War and Peace / Death of Ivan Ilyich. Tough call on this one…
Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Old Man and the Sea. It takes a foreigner to describe Spain with such precision. High School is also where I got hooked on Hemingway.
Gabriel García Marquez – Cien Años de Soledad (But really any by him). Of course, nowadays, I keep thinking of Love in the Times of Cholera
Voltaire – Candide. Possibly the best satire ever written?
Miguel de Unamuno – San Manuel Bueno, mártir. Proto-existentialism at its best!
Mikhail Bulgakov – Master and Margarita. Or as the Rollings Stones interpreted it: Sympathy for the Devil…
Francisco de Isla – His early works. After all, I am the leading authority on the subject…
Of course, there are many, many more, but I don’t want to bore you, dear reader, any more.
Interestingly, my last read was. The Grace in Dying by Kathleen Dowling Singh which was recommended to me (like so many more) by my dear friend Patxi. It is about the spiritual journey of death, and how the best approach to death is meditation. I started reading it before the massive Covid outbreak and it has helped me digest the numbers in the news. I loved it. My next read, to celebrate the centenary of Benito Perez Galdos’ death will be Trafalgar, about the battle of the same name, not the square in London.
There you have it, some thoughts on reading and my some of my favorite books. Which are yours? What do you recommend? Tell me in the comments!!
That is not one of the editions of Quijote that I have read