Tag Archives: non-fiction

A Lover’s Discourse—Fragments by Roland Barthes

I had a couple of very intense discussions recently with two people closest to me about the complicated, enigmatic, confusing concept of love—both filial and passionate.

There were two comments, each from a different person, that didn’t sit well with me and that I keep returning to over and over in my mind:

“You can dislike someone but still love that person.”


“You can love someone but feel no affection for that person.”

I did what I always do when I am struggling with something:  I read a book.  Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse is what jumped out at me from my shelves.  Divided into fragments, each chapter of sorts deals with different terms related to love—absence, affirmation, body, languor, tenderness, etc.  The author’s thoughts come from reading Goethe, Plato and Nietzsche, from conversations with friends and from his own life experiences.  Wayne Kostenbaum in the introduction to the translation describes Barthes writing: “Barthes never dissertates.  Barthes never stops to explain.  He is happy to make the lightest of allusions—a lodestone such as “Nietzsche” or “Descartes” in the margins—but to leave the reference unplumbed.”

I will share a few passages that were especially striking to me:

From the fragment entitled “Atopos”:

The atopia of Socrates is linked to Eros (Socrates is courted by Alcibiades) and to the numbfish (Socrates electrifies and benumbs Meno).  The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos.  I cannot classify the other, for the other is, precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire.  The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype (which is the truth of others).

Yet I have loved or will love several times in my life.  Does this mean, then, that my desire, quite special as it may be, is linked to a type?  Does this mean that my desire is classifiable?  Is there, among all the beings that I have loved, a common characteristic, just one, however tenuous (a nose, a skin, a look), which allows me to say: that’s my type!

From the fragment entitled “At Fault”—fautes/faults

Any fissure within Devotion is a fault: that is the rule of Cortezia.  This fault occurs whenever I make any gesture of independence with regard to the loved object; each time I attempt, in order to break my servitude, to “think for myself” (the world’s unanimous advice), I feel guilty.  What am I guilty of, then, is paradoxically lightening the burdern, reducing the exorbitant load of my devotion—in short, “managing” (according to the world); in fact, it is being strong which frightens me, it is control (or its gesticulation) which makes me guilty.

From the fragment entitled “The Ghost Ship”—errance/errantry:

How does a love end?—Then it does end?  To tell the truth, no one—except for the others—ever knows anything about it; a kind of innocence conceals the end of this thing conceived, asserted, lived, according to eternity.  Whatever the loved being becomes, whether he vanishes or moves into the realm of Friendship, in any case I never see him disappear: the love which is over and done with passes into another world like a ship into space, lights no longer winking: the loved being once echoed loudly, now that being is entirely without resonance (the other never disappears when and how we expect).  This phenomenon results from a constraint in the lover’s discourse: I myself cannot (as an enamored subject) construct my love story to the end: I am its poet (its bard) only for the beginning; the end, like my own death, belongs to others; it is up to them to write the fiction, the external, mythic narrative.

From the fragment entitled “Special Days”—fete/festivity:

The Festivity is what is waited for, what is expected.  What I expect of the promised presence is an unheard-of totality of pleasures, a banquet; I rejoice like the child laughing at the sight of the mother whose mere presence heralds and signifies a plenitude of satisfactions: I am about to have before me, and for myself, the “source of all good things.”

For the Lover, the Man-in-the-Moon, the Festivity is a jubilation, not an explosion: I delight in the dinner, the conversation, the tenderness, the secure promise of pleasure: “an ars vivendi over the abyss.”

Barthes’ book of fragments is one that I will dip into over and over again and find something new, fresh, and thought-provoking each time.

Finally, Books, Yo has written a fabulous personal reflection about love in his review of Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc.  Please do take a look at his blog and his fantastic writing.



Filed under French Literature, Nonfiction, Philosophy

Review: Montaigne by Stefan Zweig

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Pushkin Press through Edelweiss.  Montaigne was originally written in German in 1941 and this English translation is done by Will Stone. This is my second contribution to German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.  Please visit their blogs for more great German Literature in translation and to see the full list of blogs that are participating.

My Review:
MontaigneStefan Zweig was forced to flee his home in Austria as the Nazis were taking control of his motherland.  For years he wandered around Europe as a nomad with no real place to call home.  As Europe is ravaged by war, he finds his way to the German community of Petropolis in Brazil and in 1941 he decides to write this brief biography of Michel de Montaigne with whose life he identifies on many levels.

Montaigne comes from a long line of hardworking ancestors.   His father’s family were fishermen and made their fortune by eventually owning their own fleet of ships.  His mother’s family were Jewish bankers from Spain who fled that county to avoid the Inquisition.  Montaigne’s grandfather buys a chateau and a vast estate in Bordeaux and intends to further the family’s aristocratic status through his purchase of land and a title.

Montaigne is brought up in the lap of luxury and it was very important to his father that his eldest son receive the best education possible.  As a result it was mandatory that Montaigne be fluent in Latin, for which purpose his father hired a German tutor when Montaigne was only four years old.  Montaigne was only allowed to speak in Latin and even the rest of the family and the household servants were required to learn some basic Latin phrases in order to communicate with the young boy.  As a result of this immersion in the language Montaigne is said to have been more comfortable speaking and writing in Latin than in his native French.  As a classicist I couldn’t help but simile at and appreciate this part of Montaigne’s story.  If only it were possible to educate all of my students in this way!

When Montaigne’s father dies he takes over as the head of household..  This foists a large responsibility on a man who sees his familial and civic responsibilities as mundane and tiresome occupations.  Zweig highlights Montaigne’s detachment from his family whom he even seems to view at times as a burden.  He never has fond words for his wife or the institution of marriage and at one point Zweig says that Montaigne is not even really sure how many children he has that are still alive.  Montaigne’s isolation from his family is further deepended when, at the age of thirty-eight, he decides that he wants to retire from his life, lock himself in the study in his tower, and read the precious books with which he has surrounded himself.

Montaigne’s view of books and reading is also noteworthy in Zweig’s account of his life.  Montaigne wants to absorb as much information and knowledge as possible and he scribbles notes in his books as various thoughts occur to him.  Montaigne states about his collection: “Books are my kingdom.  And here I seek to reign as absolute lord.”  It is during this time of self-imposed retreat and isolation that Montaigne tries to attain individual freedom and seeks to know himself as a man and as a human being on a deeper level.  His intentions, like other philosophers, is not to give his readers a specific ideology to follow.  Instead his thoughts and writings are introspective and intensely personal.

Ten years later, at the age of forty-eight, Zweig decides that he has had enough of his retirement and so decides to travel across Europe.  This journey becomes very painful for him since he suffers debilitating pain from kidney stones.  While he is away on his journey, the citizens of Bordeaux elect him in absentia as their mayor so at this point he decides to go back and serve his people.  Zweig reminds us, though, that Montaigne is no hero and his selfish habits come to the forefront once again when the plague breaks out in Bordeaux and he abandons his people to find for themselves.

Whether or not one is familiar with Montaigne, Zweig’s account of him is definitely worth a read.  Zweig was at a critical point in his life where he saw the world erupt in violence because of fascism and communism.  He commiserated with Montaigne who also saw his world torn apart by religious wars and fanaticism.  Zweig commits suicide in 1942 and this was one of the last things that he wrote.  Many believe that Zweig took Montaigne’s advice as far as death is concerned and decided to die on his own terms instead of living through a miserable exile imposed on him by outside forces.

About The Author:
Stefan Zweig was one of the world’s most famous writers during the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the U.S., South America and Europe. He produced novels, plays, biographies and journalist pieces. Among his most famous works are Beware of Pity, Letter from and Unknown Woman and Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. He and his second wife committed suicide in 1942.

Zweig studied in Austria, France, and Germany before settling in Salzburg in 1913. In 1934, driven into exile by the Nazis, he emigrated to England and then, in 1940, to Brazil by way of New York. Finding only growing loneliness and disillusionment in their new surroundings, he and his second wife committed suicide.

Zweig’s interest in psychology and the teachings of Sigmund Freud led to his most characteristic work, the subtle portrayal of character. Zweig’s essays include studies of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Drei Meister, 1920; Three Masters) and of Friedrich Hlderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, and Friedrich Nietzsche (Der Kampf mit dem Dmon, 1925; Master Builders). He achieved popularity with Sternstunden der Menschheit (1928; The Tide of Fortune), five historical portraits in miniature. He wrote full-scale, intuitive rather than objective, biographies of the French statesman Joseph Fouché (1929), Mary Stuart (1935), and others. His stories include those in Verwirrung der Gefhle (1925; Conflicts). He also wrote a psychological novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (1938; Beware of Pity), and translated works of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and mile Verhaeren.

Most recently, his works provided inspiration for the 2014 film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’.

German Lit Month


Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction

Review: Boswell’s Enlightenment by Robert Zaretsky

My Review:

Boswell's EnlightenmentThe 10th Laird of Auchinleck is best known for his comprehensive biography of Samuel Johnson; but James Boswell was an important and interesting figure in his own right.  This book is essentially an account of how Boswell becomes The Boswell we are more familiar with–the writer, the biographer, the lawyer.  This book reveals to us a Boswell who thought deeply about religion, the afterlife and the immortality of the soul and who sought out the greatest thinkers of his days and questioned them relentlessly about these topics.  Zaretsky’s brief biography is an account of Boswell’s Grand Tour of Europe from 1763-1765 as he interviews great men in an attempt to probe the depths of his own soul.

Zaretsky first describes Boswell’s Calvinist roots which laid the foundation for his struggle with religion, worship and the immortality of the soul.  Boswell was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland where his parents were very traditional followers of this Christian sect which believed in a harsh and vengeful God.  The long Sundays spent in devotion to such an ever-watchful deity had a lasting influence on Boswell’s psyche.  When he graduates from university and his father expects him to study law, Boswell wants first to travel around Europe and have conversations with the world’s leading Enlightenment thinkers.  Boswell actively pursues and interrogates the likes of Johnson, Rosseau, Voltaire, Wilke and Paoli.

There are some interesting themes that Zaretsky notes about Boswell’s life during this period, the most important of which is his constant battle with melancholy.  When Boswell meets Johnson in London, the two men bond over their respective bouts of depression.  Boswell is constantly plagued by a type of pensive sadness concerning his life and the course which it ought to take.  During these low periods he indulges in two forms of “medication”: drinking and sex.  The self-medication and depression become a cyclical pattern because the more depressed he feels the more he drinks and has sex; after a night of extreme debauchery Boswell has feelings of dread and guilt which further launch him into a depression.  Zaretsky points out that even much later in life, when he is settled down with a wonderful wife and five children he continues to wrestle with these demons.

The most entertaining encounters that Boswell has during his travels are with Rosseau and Voltaire.  At this point, both writers are carrying out reclusive lives as feeble, crusty old men when Boswell overtakes them.  And overtakes them he does as he shows up on both men’s doorsteps and insinuates himself into their homes.  He questions both men about religion, life, and most importantly the immortality of the soul.  Zaretsky provides us with a general overview of Rosseau’s and Voltaire’s important ideas and how these ideas have an impact on young Boswell.  Rosseau is a bit more affable with Boswell and is entertained by Boswell’s gregarious and affable personality.  But neither philosopher is able to give Boswell satisfactory answers about the role of God in this life or what will happen to his soul in the next.

Boswell then moves on to Italy and eventually Corsica where he meets two very different types of men. John Wilkes, the libertine politician, is a free-spirited thinker who embraces life for all it is worth; he, too, loves to drink and whore around but he is unapologetic about his behavior.  Wilkes dismisses Boswell’s questions about religion and mortality and tells Boswell to stop being so serious and to embrace life.  While Boswell is with Wilkes he lets loose with wild abandon as his days and nights are taken up with talking to his friend, drinking and sexual promiscuity.

Sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always well-written, Boswell’s Enlightenment has given me a much greater appreciation for Johnson’s biographer. Boswell is plagued with self-doubt and depression yet through all of his low points he continues to contemplate the importance of this life and his possible annihilation in the next.  This book covers only a brief span in Boswell’s life, but I enjoyed it so much that I purchased a copy of Boswell’s diaries so I can learn more about this fascinating, Scottish laird.

About The Author:

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French History at the University of Houston.



Filed under History, Nonfiction

Review: More Than Words- Illustrated Letters From The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art by Liza Kirwin

I received an advanced review copy of this book from Princeton Architectural Press. The letters in this collection have been selected by Liza Kirwin and are drawn from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

My Review:
More Than Words“Letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue.” -John Graham to his third wife Elinor ca. 1958.

This book is a gorgeous collection of letters written by famous American artists, but, as one would expect, artists are not content to capture their thoughts and experiences with mere words.  More Than Words proves that artists think in visual terms even when they are doing everyday, mundane tasks like writing letters.

The book is divided into six chapters which include travel letters, love letters, letters that are a play on words, letters with illustrated instructions and thank you letters.  Kirwin states in the introduction, “The letters, culled from the collections of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, provide an intimate view of the artists’ world–their family lives and friendships, passions and heartbreaks, business relations, travels and artistic training.”

When one is a famous painter and illustrator like Allen Tupper True (1881-1955), no ordinary postcard will do when describing the experience of the skyscrapers while on a trip to New York.  True writes to his daughter: “Dear Jane, Many thanks for your letter and a lot of kisses for you.  Dad.”  True embellishes the hotel stationary by adding his own artistic touch in order to fully capture the New York skyline for his daughter.  He also includes in his illustration a very diminished picture of himself so that she can understand the grandiose nature of these buildings.

Allen Tupper True to Jane True (1927). Photo courtesy of Archives of American Art

Allen Tupper True to Jane True (1927). Photo courtesy of Archives of American Art

When writing to his finacee, caricaturist Alfred Frueh (1880-1968) depicted his elation at receiving letters from her. He called her letters “Pinkies” because of the pink stationary on which she penned her letters. He actually cuts up the “Pinkies” and incorporates them into his drawings which show him doing various tasks throughout his week while perusing her letters.

Alfred Joseph Frueh to Giuliette Fanciulli (1913). Photo courtesy of Archives of American Art.

Alfred Joseph Frueh to Giuliette Fanciulli (1913). Photo courtesy of Archives of American Art.

My favorite letter in the collection serves not only as a letter but also as an interactive sculpture. This unique letter is written by Alfred Fruech for his finacee Giuliette. He sends her a letter that, when put together correctly, forms her own art gallery replete with original works of art, so that she can prepare herself for all of the art galleries she is about to see when she arrives in Paris.

Alfred Joseph Frueh to Giuliette Fanciulli (1913). Photo courtesy of The Archives of American Art.

Alfred Joseph Frueh to Giuliette Fanciulli (1913). Photo courtesy of The Archives of American Art.

Illustrated letters from some of the most prominent and celebrated American artists are featured in the book, among which include Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Dorthea Tanning, Andy Warhol and Frida Kahlo. If you are a lover of letters, American Art, and history then this beautiful book is a must have for your collection.

All photos were obtained from the Archives of American Art at this link: www.aaa.si.edu/exhibitions/illustrated-letters
For more information on this book as well as other titles visit Princeton Architectural Press.

About The Author:
Liza Kirwin is the curator of manuscripts at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Nonfiction

Review- Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey by Adam Henig

I received an advanced review copy of this book from the author.

My Review:
RootsThe title of this book is so apt, because an author really does go through an “Odyssey” of sorts after he or she publishes a book.  In Alex Haley’s case his journey included fame, scrutiny, exposure and alienation.  After Haley published his book Roots: The Saga of An American Family it was made into a miniseries.  With millions of viewers tuning in to watch this family saga, Haley was launched into a world of fame where he was in high demand for book signings and speaking engagements.  He makes an incredible amount of money from his book, the miniseries and his lectures.

I was shocked to learn that Haley was sued by a couple of different parties for plagiarism.  Henig provides details of these cases that plagued Haley for years.  With fame comes additional scrutiny and when a reporter begins looking into the authenticity of the accounts of Haley’s family as they are described in Roots, great discrepancies are found between what he wrote and events as they actually occurred.  It was surprising to see that a publisher would have put this book out there without having first checked on the accuracy of Haley’s stories.

What impressed me most about this book is the amount of research that Adam Henig put into this very compact work.  Henig pours through letters, newspaper articles, interviews and even legal documents to provide us with a complete picture of Alex Haley and his controversial book.  If you are looking for something to read in order to commemorate Black History month then I highly recommend this brief but eye-opening book.

About The Author:
Adam HenigBorn and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Adam Henig attended California State University, Chico, majoring in political science with an emphasis in cultural and international studies. After graduation, he pursued his interest in African American history and literature.

Although Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey is his first publication, the condensed eBook has already received notable praise. Terry P. Wilson, UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus of Ethnic Studies, called the eBook a “must read,” while former Reader’s Digest editor and Alex Haley’s colleague, Edward T. Thompson, deemed it “a highly readable story.”

A book reviewer, Adam’s writings have appeared in the San Francisco Book Review, Tulsa Book Review, The Indie Writer Network Daily, and Blogcritics.

To learn more about Adam and read his book reviews visit his website: www.adamhenig.com.


1 Comment

Filed under Nonfiction