segunda-feira, julho 11, 2016

At the Existentialist Café, by Sarah Bakewell

I read somewhere a review of this book, which made me interested, especially considering that I was fascinated by the existentialists in several times of my life. I didn't even notice that the author was the same of the excellent How to Live about Montaigne, which would have been an even stronger recommendation. And I was very glad I ordered it.

I first read La Nausée very young, I don't think I understood much, but the book left me a very lasting impression, I could never forget the sense of nausea, of a kind of detached feeling of disgust for the meaninglessness of things, of being; it wasn't an elaborate idea but it was an enduring feeling. Later, I read Mémoires d'une Jeune Fille Rangée, and I was bouleversé, Simone de Beauvoir spoke to my late adolescent self in such a meaningful way, it helped to bring sense to my growing pains and from then on I was hooked. Then L'Âge de Raison literally changed my life in a very personal way, with its concepts of freedom and commitment. From then on, I devoured many of Sartre's and Beauvoir's books, liking especially Les Chemins de la Liberté trilogy, her memoirs and Les Mandarins. And I yearned to live a life like that, talking, smoking and drinking at cafés with interesting people, living a truthful and uninhibited life.

I'm older now, and less romantic, namely about the smoking and drinking part of the café life, but I'm still an adept of the existentialist philosophy, that revived in a way the stoic and epicurean thinking, since it concerns life - how to live, how to feel meaningful and alive, how we are what we choose to be, and in that way we question ourselves, the eternal questions "what am I doing here?", the name I gave this blog. It's a philosophy of man and life. It's not by chance that Sarah Bakewell also wrote about Montaigne, that indefatigable questioner of life and how to live, and her book is extremely informative and insightful. She manages quite successfully to explain the origins of the existentialist thinking, and gives a very clear picture of Husserl's and Heidegger's ideas - at least for me, since I've never felt like reading them. Her affectionate and lucid portraits of Sartre, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty and others are engaging and interesting. I mostly agree with her about Sartre - a fascinating man that was so many times enormously wrong in his political choices - and Beauvoir - whose memoirs I also consider one of the most fascinating and insightful depictions of her times. The character of Merleau-Ponty was a surprise for me, I had only known him from Beauvoir's memoirs, and he comes out from this book as a real philosophical hero.

And yes, I also think people are so much more interesting than abstract ideas, and that the true philosophy is the on that makes us question how to live.

domingo, julho 03, 2016

Brittany in Spring

Like Proust - extensively - says so better than I could ever wish to, all places are for us first of all names. It's the name that we come across somehow - through a book, a movie, a television show, a tale from a friend or relative - and then we dream about the image it evokes in our mind, the idea we create of the place, intertwined with what we heard or read about it. Most of the times, the idea is quite different from the reality, but unlike Proust, that doesn't usually lets me down, much the opposite - the differences I find and the unexpected impressions I get are always a source of delight and one of the reasons why I always love to travel. I remember how surprised I was to be stunned by the Venus the Milo's beauty, I had seen it reproduced countless times and I thought it would be just a tick on a check list, but the real thing's beauty is unreproduceable, as so many other works of art and, much more, places and landscapes, are.

So, for me Brittany was at first the setting of the adventures of Astérix, then of Corentin and where the French corsairs came from; later I loved the stories of druids and megaliths and the Arthurian legends, then there were several exciting Arsène Lupin's cases, and the bande dessinée of Bourgeon. Of course, what I found was very different, but it was anyway mingled with the evocation of those memories - besides, all this preamble is mostly to try to convey how I choose my travel destinations.

We started our trip in Nantes, the historical capital of the Duchy of Brittany, even if today is not administratively part of Brittany. It's a very nice city; not stunning but very pleasant and it seems to be very liveable. Some nice historical buildings, lots of pleasant squares and lively cafés, terraces by the Loire, lots of young people. We visited the cathedral and the castle of the Dukes of Brittany, strolled along the streets and squares of the city centre, the beautiful Passage Pommeraye, the bank of the Loire with its terraces and the modern sculpture Les Anneaux. We also had our first taste of the Breton galettes de sarrasin, accompanied with cider in bowls, a dish we loved and ate everywhere during the trip. And to top the Nantes experience we met an internet friend from there who was an excellent and informative guide.

The girl at the car rental was called Tiphaine - another evocative name: Tiphaine Raguenel, Bertrand Du Guesclin! There are real girls called Tiphaine. We drove to Rennes, the capital of the Brittany region. It's smaller than Nantes, more beautiful - our first sight of lots of old timber framed houses. Again, an imposing cathedral, lively squares and café terraces - and of course tasty galettes! - the big Place du Parlement de Bretagne, and bilingual street signs, with the Germanic Breton language that unfortunately I didn't hear anyone speak (there are not many Breton speakers left).

Le Mont Saint-Michel - another magical name! It is an impressive sight, rising from the sea on the horizon of a green and golden plain with placid sheep grazing. It was getting late in the day, so we felt we didn't have enough time to visit it at leisure - and the busloads of tourist weren't exactly encouraging either - so we just contemplated it from the shore, in all its gothic fairytale splendour. I hope I will visit it properly some day, preferably in winter, it must be quite a sight in bad weather.

On the road to Saint-Malo we passed Cancale, a beautiful seaside village, a little reminiscent of our Sesimbra, with the bluest sea and shining like a colourful jewel under the late afternoon sun.

Saint-Malo - another magical name: the corsairs, Corentin, Chateaubriand! We stayed at a small hotel inside the walled city. Very touristic, but still evocative of its adventurous past, the walls are impressive and the small islands with its fortresses are beautiful - among them the Grand Bé with the tomb of Chateaubriand (I remembered his text detailing how he chose the place). We also sau the tomb of Jacques Cartier in Saint Vincent Cathedral - lots of Quebecois flags around the city, as well as the austere Breton flag with the ermine queues.

After Saint-Malo, Dinan, another beautiful walled city with a small castle, old timber framed houses and a beautiful romanesque church. There is a statue of Du Guesclin in a big square, and the city centre still reminds one of the Hundred Years War. And we had more tasty galettes in a nice and shady café terrace.

We took the coastal road and passed through Ploumanac'h, a nice beach resort in the pink granite coast - so named on account of the colour of the granite boulders. The weather was sunny and the sea shined blue. We then went inland, along the landes, rough flattish moors of shrubs. We stopped at Morlaix for a beer and a dinner of - guess what? galettes! - and went on to Quimper.

Quimper is another small Breton city, with timber framed houses, a canal, and a beautiful cathedral. One could think by this time we had had enough of these cities, but far from it; they're all different and each one has its peculiar charm.

From Quimper, we went to Carnac - menhir country. Hundreds, thousands of menhirs. One cannot but wonder why they should have assembled there so many big erect boulders, but then one remembers it was Obélix paying for a favour to the ancient owner of the field, and it becomes clear. Anyway, it makes for an eerie and somewhat nostalgic sight.

Concarneau is a small fishing town, with a little walled part, very touristic, full of shops selling Breton staples as kouign amann and kouignettes - a very buttery pastry.

We finished our trip in Vannes, yet another beautiful town with the usual timber framed houses, cathedral, cafés, galettes, and a nice marina.

I really enjoyed the short taste of Brittany I had - I would like to linger at that coast, take long walks along the cliffs and just laze in a long-chair with an ice cream under the mild Breton sun. And we didn't even have any rain! (Brittany is famous for its rainy weather all year long). I love France and its language so much, and the people are so much nicer outside Paris -
they were always kind and willing to help with directions and such. I look forward to go back.

quinta-feira, junho 30, 2016

La Prisonnière, de Marcel Proust

I absolutely love Proust, and it has been a major pleasure to finally read him in French. I don't think I ever found such a truthful depiction of feelings and human relationships, from love to jealousy and how one cares to be judged by others and judge others. And the writing is just SO beautiful I would like it to go on forever - yes, even longer than it already is.

Peste & Choléra, de Patrick Deville

I knew nothing about Yersin's life, just the name of the plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis. So this book was a discovery - what a life! The book is very well written, and the story of Yersin's life is fascinating, and the narrative very cleverly interweaves it with his times' history. This was one of 3 books I was recently given by a good friend, that brought them from France to acquaint me with some of the contemporary French fiction - the others were La Mort du Roi Tsongor and Parles-leur de natailles, de rois et d'éléphants. They are all good, and I just love to find new authors.

quinta-feira, junho 23, 2016

A likeable boy

There are some patients that awake paternal feelings, and we find ourselves caring for them in a somewhat tender way, even if rationally we sometimes feel annoyed by their mistakes or behaviour.

I first met this patient at the ER - a type 1 diabetic in his early twenties, blind from diabetic retinopathy, pale from a hemoglobin under 7 g/dl, swollen from accumulated fluid, vomiting from a urea level above 300 mg/dl, with a sky high blood pressure. A classic case of end-stage renal disease caused by diabetic nephropathy, that for lack of timely treatment had reached an advanced stage we fortunately seldom see today. My first reaction was to feel angry: "how on Earth someone reaches this state nowadays?". Then I talked to him. He came from a lower-class family; his mother had just died a few days before, his father had left them long ago, and he lived with a younger brother. His mother was his caretaker, not a very efficient one, struggling with the depression that drove her to suicide, and his care had been haphazard, he didn't even know he had renal disease. He was combative and argumentative, he didn't want to start dialysis at first - such is the bad reputation this treatment has, even if it's so undeserved and mostly based on ignorance - but of course he yielded, and we started to treat him. He was discharged from the hospital after a few days, slimmed down to his normal weight and mostly asymptomatic.

He has been my patient since then, and a difficult patient. Being blind and living most of the time by himself - his younger brother, though affectionate and caring towards him, is away most of the time, and he stubbornly refuses his father's help, who is not that interested in him anyway - his medication is totally haphazard, not to speak of his diet, and he often comes to dialysis with a 4 or 5 kg weight gain, a glycemia above 300, and a blood pressure in its 200s/100s. No matter how many medication charts we'd send home, we always knew he took his pills or his insulin in a completely aleatory way, and of course his diet was appalling.

But then, even as we nag him, we cannot stop ourselves from liking him. He's a young man from a tough neighbourhood, and he always tries to play the ruffian - he even managed to get himself arrested once, for stealing at a convenience store, which puzzled me, with him being blind and at the time in a wheelchair - he is always combative and argumentative, and sticks small rolls of toilet paper in his ears during dialysis, which make him look like a funny young Yoda. He's terribly resilient, the only diabetic I know to survive a Fournier's gangrene. But even when I joke with him about his getting an ear piercing to look prettier I'm always worried, I'm always waiting for the day he will have a brain bleeding because of his uncontrolled blood pressure, a ravaging sepsis or a fatal hypoglycemia.

So yesterday I was really happy because, after the nth medication change (I always try to make it as simple as I can), his blood pressure was perfect. I heartily congratulated him, and he smiled a proud grin, saying: "yeah, it looks like you got it right this time!", and I somehow felt moved, felt like stroking his head and giving him a fatherly kiss - which of course I didn't. Like so many of my patients, I feel responsible for him, and every therapeutic success, how small or short-lived it may be, feels like a victory. I know this will be short-lived, I know he will die soon, from one of the many complications he is vulnerable to, and I feel angry about my helplessness to help him, as to help so many other of my patients. This kid is old enough to be my son, I would like to protect him, to care for him,but there is so little I can do.

domingo, junho 19, 2016

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter

I had heard very flattering critics of Angela Carter's books, but had never read anything by her. I watched Neil Jordan's movie The Company of Wolves years ago, thought it was nice but didn't move me much. I was surprised and impressed by this book. The writing is absolutely stunning, like a colourful tapestry embroidered with jewels,and the tales are exquisitely rendered, reminding me of Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, a book I loved when I read it, many years ago. Angela Carter's writing is strong, beautiful and erotic, and a joy to read.

Den Goda Viljan, by Ingmar Bergman

This was the second book I read in Swedish. I watched the series by Bille August before, so I knew the story, which made it easier to read and also made me picture the characters as the actors looked like in the movie. Beautiful story, and beautiful writing; there were many words I didn't understand and had to look up, but I was happy to understand enough to be able to read it pleasantly. I think my next Swedish book will be Lanterna Magica, since I'm now acquainted with Bergman's writing.

quarta-feira, maio 25, 2016

A trip to Naples and Pompeii

I loved my recent trip to Naples and Pompeii. Arriving in Rome, at the Termini train station, when one presses the button "English" on the ticket vending machines, there pops up a message: "beware of pickpockets!", which reminds me how my wife was mugged as soon as we arrived in Rome, the first time I've been there, many ears ago. Familiar territory, then. The train to Naples takes only about an hour.

The city centre in Naples is very different from most European cities, usually gentrified and made up for tourists. Not here - the city centre is dirty, chaotic, lived in, and it feels like a refreshing place, no "boutique" hotels or "gourmet" places, but crowds of local people going about their business, cars and motorbikes driving everywhere, tourist shops amid local shops, food stalls where local people queue to eat, etc. And then there are lots of churches, among them the beautiful Duomo and San Domenico, and the small museum of the Capella Sansevero with the veiled Christ. The old Scapanapoli is a feast for the eyes, and it's always nice to eat an icecream or a babá au rum.

On the second day I walked along the corniche, from the Castelnuovo until the Donanna palace, along the beautiful bay. It looks like a different world from the sleazy city centre, with the stately buildings and the gorgeous views over the sea and the Vesuvius. The funicolare takes us to the Vomero neighbourhood, to castel Sant'Elmo, from where we can enjoy superb views over the city and the bay. The affluent neighbourhoods of Mergellina and Posillipo seemed miles away from the hectic centre, a sign of the city's diversity.

The Archeological Museum has a stunning collection, even if it's somewhat haphazardly shown. Great statues, amazing paintings and mosaics from Pompeii, not much information and a sad cafeteria with vending machines - couldn't they have set up a café?

Then a visit to Pompeii - I always wanted to go there, ever since reading about Winckelman's diggings when I was a child. The city is just amazing, one can really feel how this was a real city, extremely modern in many ways - the speed bumps, the night reflectors, the baths, the food stalls - and the decorated villas are just stunning. I could spend whole days there, exploring the streets, the villas and their beautiful frescoes, the theatres, shops, etc. The setting is beautiful, with the hills and the volcano in the background. The casts of the people killed and buried by the eruption are impressive and moving. One wonders how a big city would look like in the heyday of Roman times, from this small sample...How would have been Rome, Athens, Ephesus, Alexandria?

Back to Naples, we decided not to go to the Amalfi coast, beautiful as it must be, but rather enjoy a last day in the city. We visited the Capodimonte Museum - amazing collection of Renaissance painting, and very well displayed for a change - and then walked down from the museum to the city centre - popular narrow streets, with corny altars in every corner, lines of drying clothes, busy small shops. Toured the busy narrow streets of the centre and the Spagnioli quarter again, ate more ice creams and babas. It felt really good relaxing around this lively city, watching the scenic vistas over the bay and the Vesuvius, drinking strong espressos and eating tasting pizzas. Naples is a wonderful town, and it really made me look forward to know more of Southern Italy, and Sicily... Another time.

Pumpkinflowers - A Soldier's Story, by Matti Friedman

I knew about Matti Friedman, as about so many other people and stuff, on Facebook, through a good Israeli friend. She praised me his book The Aleppo Codex, which made me read it, and I liked it very much; I have since been reading his articles, always sensible, intelligent and articulate, so I was looking forward to reading his new book, that was published early this month. So, my expectations were high, and I was not in the least disappointed, actually it's even better than I expected. It's a very well written story, moving, engaging and thought provoking. Through its characters, ordinary - even if I dislike to use this word, because each one comes out as a unique and interesting individual - young men who find themselves right after high school in the middle of a dangerous, bloody and seemingly pointless low level war, one gets a clear and poignant picture of the violence and senselessness of war, and how meaningless and wasteful it all seems. Young boys die, huge human potential is lost, the status quo goes on; the similarities to other conflicts, other lives equally wasted is often evoked along the narrative's several allusions to the trenches of WWI and the sad and beautiful poetry of boys like Owen or Brooke. This doesn't mean these young men, the author included, were pacifists, they were all conscious of the need to protect a vulnerable country surrounded by enemies and willing to risk their lives to do it, even if they were probably not aware of what it really entailed, as young men usually aren't, with the youth's belief in its own invulnerability.

One of the things I liked most about the book is how it balances an articulate and sharp view of the historical and general context and a humane and insightful description of the individual people involved. He captures excellently the mood of the soldiers, the families, as of the country after the war, affectionately but never condescendingly. His analysis of the conflict and its consequences is lucid and realistic. Another thing I liked much was how he shows how our convictions, expectations and perspectives change with the events along the years, and how our appraisals are far from static, and what we believe to have been "always like this" actually changes a lot is as little a couple of decades - a good lesson lots of people should understand to think twice before embracing radical beliefs or making bombastic and too staunch statements.

The last part is particularly impressive, one really gets an eerie feeling of unreality and one turns the pages as in a thriller, almost as if one was there oneself, besides the narrator, driving on a simultaneously familiar and alien land, meeting these nice individuals that yet are the enemy. And again one is reminded that, in spite of all that divides us, we are all pretty much the same.

All in all, a great book, and I highly recommend it.

quinta-feira, março 24, 2016

História do Novo Nome, de Elena Ferrante

This is the second part of the story of two Neapolitan friends by Elena Ferrante. At first, I wasn't enjoying it very much, the first chapters seemed inferior to the first book, somewhat repetitive, but then the story caught strength and it became just as good. The characters are credible and real, the author really knows how to convey the different stages and feelings involved in a deep friendship, and the depiction of the narrator's struggle to come out of her poor and hopeless background is excellent. It's also a very good fresco of the life at the times the novel is set. So, looking forward for the third volume.