Wednesday Nov. 26, 2014

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The Window

A storm blew in last night and knocked out
the electricity. When I looked
through the window, the trees were translucent.
Bent and covered with rime. A vast calm
lay over the countryside.
I knew better. But at that moment
I felt I’d never in my life made any
false promises, nor committed
so much as one indecent act. My thoughts
were virtuous. Later on that morning,
of course, electricity was restored.
The sun moved from behind the clouds,
melting the hoarfrost.
And things stood as they had before.

"The Window" by Raymond Carver from Ultramarine. © Vintage, 1986. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of Theater of the Absurd playwright Eugène Ionesco (books by this author), born in Slatina, Romania (1909) but raised in Paris until he was 13, when the family returned to Bucharest. He hated the city and its social mores, feeling especially confused and plagued by the rise of Nazism he saw happening there. Once, when watching a military parade, he stood horrified as a lieutenant rushed up to a peasant standing nearby, slapping and shouting at him for not removing his hat upon seeing the flag. "My thoughts were not yet organized or coherent at that age," he later told The Paris Review, "but I had feelings, a certain nascent humanism, and I found these things inadmissible. The worst thing of all, for an adolescent, was to be different from everyone else. Could I be right and the whole country wrong?"

This feeling was, perhaps, the origin of his lifelong struggle against authority. By the age of 20, Ionesco was writing poetry himself, as well as a satirical biography of the literary lion Victor Hugo. He began to write more criticism, publishing a scandalous collection of essays that attacked classics of Romanian literature.

But 16 years would pass before he staged his first play, the medium that finally stuck because, as he said, it more easily allowed him to contradict himself. That one-act play, or "anti-play" as he called it, The Bald Soprano, was an absurdist farce without plot, where the characters spoke in random non sequiturs, making fun of everything. It debuted in 1950, the same year as three of Arthur Adamov's early plays, and only two years before Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The three playwrights, although writing independently, became known as the founders of the Theater of the Absurd, the theatrical extension of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre's arguments that everything is essentially meaningless.

Ionesco agreed with this characterization, but preferred the phrase "theater of derision." As with his early writings, his later plays ridiculed expressions of authority. His most famous was Rhinoceros, where the protagonist watches his friends turn into rhinoceroses one by one until, much like Ionesco as a teenager in Romania, he wonders how he could be the only one left. When it was produced in Germany, it was seen as a commentary on Nazism; in Buenos Aires, an attack on Peronism. In Moscow, Ionesco was asked to rewrite it so that it couldn't be seen as a comment on Russia's brand of totalitarianism.

Ionesco was happily married for 58 years, and lived in a Paris apartment surrounded by the books and artwork of his many friends and colleagues, including Hemingway, Picasso, Sartre, Henry Miller, Miró, and Max Ernst.

He said, "My work has been essentially a dialogue with death, asking him, 'Why? Why?'"

It's the birthday of writer Marilynne Robinson (books by this author), born in Sandpoint, Idaho (1943). Although she is often known as the novelist who took a 23-year break between her award-winning, critically acclaimed novels, Housekeeping and Gilead — and then only four more before her third, Home, a companion to Gilead — she has published as many books of nonfiction as novels. Her essays are polemical, in sharp contrast to her fiction, upbraiding the British government for environmental degradation in her first nonfiction book, lamenting the "empty" state of contemporary discourse in her second, and, in 2010, waxing philosophical on the science versus religion debate in Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self.

She said: "I grew up with the confidence that the greatest privilege was to be alone and have all the time you wanted. That was the cream of existence. I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It's a good predisposition in a writer. And books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book."

It's the birthday of science writer Jonathan Weiner (books by this author), born in New York City in 1953. His parents grew up poor in Brooklyn, but by the time Weiner was in high school, his physicist father moved the family to Providence, Rhode Island, to accept a position at Brown. It was in Providence that Weiner's love of biology developed, and he went off to Harvard determined to become a scientist. But it was there that his love of literature developed, and he graduated not with a degree in biology as planned, but in English.

His two passions were easily combined; within three years of college graduation, he'd accepted a position at the now-defunct magazine The Sciences. He left it to write his first book, Planet Earth (1986), the companion volume to the Emmy-winning PBS television series, which he followed with another only slightly more narrow in scope: The Next One Hundred Years: Shaping the Fate of Our Living Earth (1990).

But it was when Weiner focused his topic from the global to the minute, dedicating an entire book to two scientists' study of Galapagos finches, that he found wide acclaim from both the scientific and literary communities. His Pulitzer Prize-winning The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time (1994) argued that Darwin's theory of evolution didn't go far enough; that the process doesn't just happen inexorably and imperceptibly, but can happen in a "jittery motion" on a daily basis, right before our eyes.

Weiner's latest book, Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality (2010), tackles the subject of aging and immortality. "I've kind of made a career of writing books that are somewhat out of the way," he said in a talk upon the book's publication, noting that after writing about finch beaks, he'd written about the genes and instincts of fruit flies. "I thought with this book I would write about something so close to home that it is just about inescapable: this question of mortality. Why are we mortal? Why did we evolve to be mortal? Could we have evolved to be immortal? Is there something that human beings, in our nearly infinite ingenuity, can do to make us immortal, or a little closer to immortal?"

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